23 October 2015

The Black Hut

Walking the border near Derry/Londonderry I passed the site of the Black Hut, a tiny shop which is now gone but plays a big role in this area’s memory. The hut was just over the border in the south. It is the focus point of many tales archived in community history projects and found in newspaper’s folksy columns. Nostalgic retellings have transformed and expanded the Black Hut until one would think it was as deep as a cave and full of magical treasures. In reality it was a one-room general shop selling vegetables, cigarettes, tins of treacle, flour, sweets and lemonade. Its golden age was the Second World War. There was rationing in the north but many basics could still be purchased in the south — “They had tons of butter in there,” recalls one interviewee.

There were a few different Black Huts over the years but, as far as I know, they were all on the Altaghaderry Road, under Holy Well Hill.

Many boys and girls had their first cigarette at the Black Hut, along with cross-border romances and, at the customs post on the way back, adventures in criminality. All the Black Hut recollections I have read are from childhood, which might explain how a shack has taken on a sheen of wondrousness. It makes sense, of course, to have lived into our era, the era of the oral history project, a person must have been very young during the Second World War. But I think there is another reason: most of the Black Hut’s customers were children. The Black Hut was a long hike from the terraced streets Derry/Londonederry. It was time-rich children who made the trip most. It was true of my own childhood, faced with the empty expanse of a sunny Saturday afternoon, we needed only slight excuses to take a hour’s walk, a dozen lemon drops might be enough. The Black Hut was the destination of a thousand childhood rambles. There was adventure to be had too, risks that were primed for kids. Customs officers, nicknamed Water Rats, patrolled the roads. Parents sent their children to buy things at the Black Hut because they would not be stopped and searched by officers the way an adult might. Children could also stay off the roads, skipping across the fields with a naturalistic ease that adults couldn’t quite muster.

A few years ago a group called GOAL, Gaining Opportunities to Address Legacies, organised a reminiscence walk from Derry to the site of the Black Hut and have published a pamphlet about it.