The Derbyshire craftsman creating bird houses with a difference
PUBLISHED: 00:00 22 June 2015
Self-taught carpenter Mike Durcan handcrafts his birdhouse follies from the sanctity of an award-winning shed in New Mills
After Mike took early retirement from his job as an estate manager at a sixth form college he moved into his shed for five weeks. This just seemed the natural thing to do. He kept getting into trouble for leaving things lying around the house to gather dust, so instead of hiding them away in cupboards, as partner Joanne had asked him to do, he would put them in the shed. Soon, he found that his shed was full of his favourite things, and it wasn’t long before he followed them.
‘I just thought, I’ll stick those things in the shed, the things that I like, that are pleasing to me,’ Mike tells me as we sit in one of his two large workshop sheds. This one is in the front garden of his New Mills home and he is telling me about when he moved in, surrounded by all his favourite ‘toys’. ‘It was a bit of a sanctuary for me at the time,’ says Mike. ‘It is like stuff that you’ve lost – not articles you’ve lost, I mean me – it was about me coming back to life again.’
Sheds have a habit of doing that to people – and those people are usually men, it has to be said. Sheds have magical, rejuvenating qualities, one might almost say redemptive powers. Women have spa weekends and Woman’s Hour on Radio 4, men have their sheds.
‘I felt that sort of goodness in the shed, that sort of exhilaration, looking out of the window in the morning and watching all the birds and they don’t know I’m there,’ Mike remembers. ‘And the sparrows would come across, and you’d hear blackbirds scratching on the roof. It’s amazing.’
The sheds are a passion for Mike, and it was while he was in the shed that his other great passion took hold – perhaps inspired by those blackbirds pecking at the moss on the roof – making his birdhouse follies. These twin passions found Mike, along with his other-worldly creations and his workshop, as one of the top three contestants in Channel 4’s Amazing Spaces television programme.
Mike Durcan’s birdhouses are beautiful things in their own right, fantastical imaginings springing from the simple idea of making a wooden box to provide shelter for a bird to raise its young. Mike, a self-taught carpenter, has developed into a craftsman who has the knack of making something new look as if it has been around for ever.
Most of the materials he uses are reclaimed, and if you came across one of his houses in an ancient silver birch wood, say, tucked in the grasses around the roots of a tree, first, you would not be surprised to do so, and second, neither would you be surprised to see one of Tolkien’s creatures scurrying in there for safety.
Mike’s birdhouses were not always so elaborate though. His first were modest affairs, the two-up two-down humble terrace, in estate agents’ talk. But then as his carpentry skills grew, so too did the ambition of his designs. Mike looked at his early boxes and thought – ‘Hmm!’ He began to experiment.
‘So then the next one had a window. Then the next one had a window that opened. Then the next one had a window that opened with curtains in it,’ Mike explains.
And that’s how it started.
Soon, Mike’s birdhouses didn’t just have windows with curtains but doors, too, and chimneys, and gardens of their own with white picket fences, and signs with warm welcoming messages written on them, and anything else his wakening imagination could conjure up.
It was as though Mike had, Alice-like, slipped through the portal of one of his own creations and entered ‘bird world’, starting at the cheap end of the estate agent’s window and working his way along to the glossy brochures: intended market – high flying executives, no doubt.
‘It was an evolution,’ says Mike, standing to demonstrate it to me by lifting the roof off one of his creations. ‘You do one, and the lid comes off so you can get inside, to clean it. I couldn’t do that with the first ones because I couldn’t sort the hinges out. Then I put another hinge on...’ He lifts again, and the whole thing opens out like a concertina. Evolution.
‘To me, a birdhouse is not something you just stick up a tree and forget about,’ says Mike, sitting down again. ‘I’d put one on a post in the garden, on the lawn, so that when you get up in the morning and have your breakfast you can see it. It is a visual thing, like a stone ornament or a statue, and it functions as a birdhouse as well.’
‘It is a piece of functional art,’ I volunteer.
Mike looks at me. ‘Yeah,’ he agrees.
His partner Joanne, a finance officer, provides the business brains. Between her and the enterprise people at Derbyshire, some deep sighs of resignation must have been breathed.
‘Derbyshire business people say: “People love hearts, so make hearts,”’ says Mike. ‘And I say: “But I don’t want to make hearts. I’d go mental sitting there making hearts all day.” It’s not what I want to do, I won’t want to get up in the morning and do that.’ He turns again to the concertina house he’s just shown me. ‘I can go to bed and dream of doing this. I can ponder on how to get the tongue and groove door to work or how to get a good finish on it. I’ve made about a hundred doors like that, all different colours.’
Mike shows me a drawer in a cabinet that is full of doors. I pick some out to take a closer look. Mike is a perfectionist. Some of his birdhouses have been three years in the making, as he makes a tweak here, a tweak there, until to his eye they are just right. But Joanne has said that he needs to sell some before he can make any more.
‘Joanne would say that we needed more space, so I put up some shelves in the garage and moved them in there,’ says Mike.
He tells me about a television programme he watched about a woman who made vases and sold them for £300 to £400 each. A chain of shops had been interested in stocking them and had told her they believed they could sell them for about £120 each and that she would get around £60.
‘So her whole art had come down to a production line,’ says Mike. ‘I thought to myself, fine, that’s your choice, but you’re not doing what you started out doing. You have sold your soul, as it were.’
Mike tells me that the motivation for making his birdhouses has never primarily been financial. ‘I’ve never been a money person, ever since I was an apprentice. As long as I can survive until the next week and as long as I’ve got a roof over my head. I spent time in children’s homes growing up, so perhaps I value a home more than a lot of people.’
I sit up – ‘children’s homes’ had caught my ear. ‘Do you think that’s what you’re doing?’ I ask. ‘Building your sheds and birdhouses? Because of your experience in children’s homes?’
Mike looks blankly at me. I am clearly on the wrong track. ‘You mentioned that your shed was a bit of a sanctuary,” I add, sitting back again.
‘But that’s how I look at it for the birds,’ Mike says after a pause. ‘You are giving a home to perhaps three or four families every year, and I am thinking; “home, birds”...’
Mike leans towards me, ‘And you can do that for nothing, in your own garden, with four bits of wood and a brick on top or something. It is such an easy thing to do, just do it and if it works it works, and if it doesn’t it hasn’t cost you anything really.’
‘Thats right,’ I say. ‘It doesn’t have to be elaborate, does it?’
‘No,’ says Mike. ‘It doesn’t.’
Mike Durcan’s birdhouses can be ordered through his website: www.birdhousefollies.com