The magic of treehouses

The great British treehouse is under threat – from the planners. But looking at the world through leaves is a rite of passage no child should miss, says Brian Viner
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Enid Blyton, who gave the Famous Five and the Secret Seven to the world, and Matt Groening, who blessed us with The Simpsons, rarely pop up in the same sentence, but both understood the significance of the treehouse, even the fictional treehouse, in the lives of children.

In "Treehouse of Horror", a classic episode of The Simpsons first transmitted in 1990, Homer eavesdrops on Bart and Lisa up in their treehouse telling scary stories about aliens. There were no extra-terrestrials in the works of Enid Blyton, of course, but Peter, Janet, Jack, Barbara, Pam, Colin and George got their kicks in a treehouse no less than the bug-eyed Simpson offspring. In Well Done, Secret Seven, the gang forsake their regular headquarters, a shed, because it is too hot in the summer, and build a really super den high up in a tree in Windy Woods, stocking it with orangeade and biscuits and feeling jolly indignant when they arrive one day to find that someone has been raiding their provisions.

The miscreant turns out to be a strange boy called Jeff, with a disturbing story about a sinister man named Mr Tizer. From the treehouse, the gang work out how to thwart Mr Tizer's dastardly plans to hijack mail vans, and later get to watch him being apprehended by the police, at the express invitation of the grateful inspector. Yet if Well Done, Secret Seven were to be updated from 1951 to 2009, and duly re-titled Give Me Five, Secret Seven, the story wouldn't end with a "kind-faced" police inspector but a "grim-faced" planning inspector, and, far from being grateful, he'd be informing the seven that their treehouse had been erected without full planning permission, was in flagrant contravention of the guidelines, and would have to be demolished.

"I'm sorry," said the inspector firmly, "but rules are rules."

"But it's so frightfully unfair," said Peter.

"Yes it is," agreed Janet.

"Isn't there anything we can do?" asked Colin.

The inspector stroked his thin moustache, thoughtfully. "You will have to tell your parents that they need to apply for planning permission at a cost of at least £150," he said. "They will also need to provide us with detailed drawings and Ordnance Survey maps showing the exact location of the proposed structure. Then, and only then, you might be able to re-build it."

If there were such a book, then that, with apologies to Enid Blyton, could plausibly be an extract. A recent amendment to the 1995 Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order decreed that all treehouses and play houses now require full planning permission, part of a comprehensive set of changes to the planning regime which were actually intended to make it easier for homeowners to convert lofts or extend kitchens. At the same time, however, bureaucrats decided to remove some of the ambiguities concerning home extensions, insisting that all plans for "verandas, balconies or raised platforms" – with "raised" defined as anything higher than 30cm off the ground – be submitted to local councils for approval. This amounts to an inconsistency that even the former president of the Planning Officers Society, Phil Kirby, admits is a bit daft. "It is a perverse consequence of the rule changes that major projects, costing tens of thousands of pounds, no longer need planning permission, but treehouses do," he says.

It would be a touch melodramatic to suggest that the treehouse has thereby been killed off, but these new regulations plainly represent another nail in the coffin of wholesome and healthy childhood activities already under assault from computer games, multi-channel TV and the internet – a nail that would be far better deployed fixing a platform to a gnarled old oak tree. And while I'm wielding my tools, I have an axe to grind with the regulators, because treehouses figure prominently both in my own life and those of my children, starting with an admittedly rather rudimentary effort constructed with my childhood friends Jem, Chris and John in the pine trees at the end of our road. Unable to bear the weight of more than one person, it wasn't much of a treehouse, but it was our treehouse. We built it by wedging some planks into the accommodating branches of a tree and took turns to lie in there. So when I had children of my own, I was determined that they, too, should have a treehouse.

When we lived in London, with a small square garden not much bigger than a boxing ring, this ambition was not easily realised. A further obstacle to building a treehouse was the absence of a tree. But we weren't easily discouraged, and hired an unemployed actor good with his hands to build a treeless treehouse about 10ft off the ground, where the children spent many happy hours when they were little. Somewhat less happy was the neighbour whose garden backed on to ours, a misery at the best of times, who complained (not wholly unjustifiably) that our treehouse brought our kids closer to him. Correspondingly, it took them further away from us, which in all honesty could sometimes be a blessing. Treehouses bring many benefits, and protecting the sanity of parents is not the least of them.

As for our little darlings, a survey commissioned by the National Trust earlier this year found that 38 per cent of British children now spend less than an hour a day outdoors, while almost a quarter spend more than 14 hours a week sitting in front of a television or computer screen. Conversely, 87 per cent of parents would like their children to spend more time outside, but one in four will not allow them to because of safety concerns. The child psychologist Tanya Byron has pointed out the dangers of this mindset. "Everyone knows about the health benefits of exercise," she says, "and the problems of obesity that we as a nation are facing. What's perhaps more important, however, is the fact that, the less children play outdoors, the less they learn to cope with the risks and challenges that they will go on to face as adults in everyday life."

Meanwhile, there is even a newly-coined term for the deprivation suffered by a generation of children being raised indoors: "nature deficit disorder". One in three British children is unable to identify a magpie, apparently. And it was partly to expose our children to more of the great outdoors, that in 2002 we moved to a rambling old house in rural Herefordshire.

Its five acres included an area of fairly dense woodland, so encroaching on the neighbours was no longer a problem. Again, we hired someone to build a treehouse, this time comfortably incorporating a huge, venerable tree. I'd have attempted to knock it together myself, but I know my limitations, as do Mr Black and Mr Decker. Moreover, our trusty joiner, Alan Gwilliam, had never been asked to build a treehouse before and threw himself into the project with boyish enthusiasm. The result was a marvellous structure 20ft high, with a rope swing and even a fireman's pole for shinning down. We have never read Swallows and Amazons to our three kids, partly because we knew that if they didn't snigger at a character called Titty, we would. But the treehouse has helped to foster a kind of Swallows and Amazons or indeed a Secret Seven approach to the summer holidays, and it even comes in handy for my 16-year-old daughter's friends. She had a party the other week, after which, visiting the treehouse prior to the photo-shoot for this feature, I found two empty cans of Strongbow.

Speaking of Strongbow, it's worth reminding ourselves that we English have a long and noble tradition of hanging around in trees, from Robin Hood to King Charles II, who hid from Oliver Cromwell's soldiers in the branches of a mighty oak at Boscobel House in Shropshire, following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Years later, the King described his day in the tree – the derivation of the pub name The Royal Oak – to Samuel Pepys. "We went and carried up with us some victuals for the whole day, viz, bread, cheese, small beer," he said. He'd been in fear of his life but made it sound like fun, because eating bread and cheese up a tree just is, no matter who's looking for you. So maybe, in his memory, the future King Charles III, who likes a good planning battle, should now declare himself the champion of the poor beleaguered treehouse.