The house that Wendy built

From plas­tic play­houses to minia­ture cas­tles, Wendy houses come in all shapes and sizes. Christo­pher Sykes con­sid­ers this trib­ute to child­hood and the boy who wouldn’t grow up

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Christo­pher Sykes ex­plores ev­ery girl’s first des res

‘A play­house should ex­clude par­ents, iphones, tablets and the out­side world

The Wendy house is a truly english in­ven­tion, which first came to promi­nence in J. M. Bar­rie’s play Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. When Wendy Dar­ling dies in Nev­er­land, hav­ing been shot by Too­tles, Peter Pan and the Lost Boys build a small house around her body where she fell. Out of this sad story grew our na­tional tra­di­tion of a Wendy house—or gar­den play­house—for small chil­dren. The struc­ture was de­signed to cre­ate a pri­vate world in which they could be alone, play freely and let their imag­i­na­tions run wild. To­day, that should mean ex­clud­ing par­ents, iphones, tablets, tele­vi­sion and the out­side world.

Size and so­lid­ity can vary from a plas­tic kit through to a well-built tim­ber shed or even some­thing re­sem­bling a real house in minia­ture—a sort of ar­chi­tec­tural folly. Cer­tainly, the most fa­mous ex­am­ple of the lat­ter was the one erected in 1932 in the grounds of the Royal Lodge at Wind­sor and en­joyed by the Princesses el­iz­a­beth and Mar­garet. De­signed by ed­mund Willmott, it was a gift from the Welsh peo­ple, who sup­plied the labour, and was pre­sented to form a link be­tween the strug­gling min­ing com­mu­ni­ties and the two girls.

The lux­u­ri­ous thatched cot­tage, 15ft high and 22ft wide, was a labour of love, show­cas­ing the best of tra­di­tional Welsh crafts­man­ship and ver­nac­u­lar ar­chi­tec­ture and in­clud­ing real, work­ing mod cons. An­other well-known, but much cruder one, was built years later by ama­teur brick­layer Win­ston Churchill for his fam­ily at Chartwell in Kent.

It might not be fa­mous, but An­nie An­der­son hasn’t for­got­ten her child­hood Wendy house or the in­flu­ence it had on her for­ma­tive years. ‘It was a de­light­ful hide­away in which my sis­ters and I could while away the hours,’ she rem­i­nisces. Now, An­nie is hav­ing a big­ger ver­sion built in her gar­den—its tim­ber frame has been roofed with shin­gles and fit­ted out with as many re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als as pos­si­ble, in­clud­ing an old sta­ble door and tim­ber windows to­gether with re­claimed bricks, York stone and shin­gles.

‘Ob­vi­ously, it’s for our grand­chil­dren,’ she in­sists, ‘but when they’re not here, my hus­band will al­ways know where to find me—per­haps with a sin­gle malt.’

By con­trast, Va­lerie ed­wards’s Wendy house was al­ready there when she moved into her home. A typ­i­cal 1960s con­struc­tion, it has hor­i­zon­tal wooden planks, a felt-tiled roof, cur­tains and win­dow­boxes and is en­tered, if you can stoop low enough, by a small porch and the tini­est of red doors. ‘It hadn’t been used for years, but I loved it at first sight, tucked as it was a lit­tle out of sight in a sea of blue­bells.’

After it was moved to a more prom­i­nent po­si­tion, Va­lerie’s young grand­chil­dren loved it, too, with five-year-old Daisy play­ing house­keeper and cook while twin brother Char­lie acted as wine ste­ward and slave. Now, they’re 13 and the lit­tle hide­away has again been aban­doned, in spite of their grand­mother’s best ef­forts to keep its mem­o­ries alive and its struc­ture painted.

If you can find it, Colin Pack­ing­ton’s play­house is a mas­ter­piece. If you can’t, it’s un­sur­pris­ing as it’s ac­tu­ally a tree house, sky-high, tan­gled, hid­den and suf­fer­ing from sim­i­lar ne­glect. It’s ev­ery child’s dream, as much a quiet bower for read­ing as a pi­rate’s look­out across the skies, a fly­ing fortress that’s hard to scale and a se­cret party place for young tear­aways.

Re­cy­cling long logs and wood through­out, Colin de­signed and built it him­self for

‘Build a house?’ ex­claimed John. ‘For the Wendy,’ said Curly. ‘For Wendy?’ John said, aghast. ‘Why, she is only a girl!’ ‘That,’ ex­plained Curly, ‘is why we are her ser­vants’ Peter Pan (below), J. M. Bar­rie

his chil­dren. Sit­u­ated 10ft above the ground, the ac­tiv­ity floor is ap­proached through a door and up a nar­row stair­case, then through an­other door is a wooden ve­ran­dah to en­joy what was once an amaz­ing view across the val­ley, but has since been foiled by Na­ture. The trou­ble with chil­dren is that they grow up and move on, but this is a tree­house that al­most de­serves to be he­li­coptered out and put on pub­lic dis­play.

These are just some ex­am­ples of the many vari­a­tions of play­house that can be pur­chased, but they all fol­low the same ba­sic theme, foot­print and sim­plic­ity of struc­ture. Most have a pitched roof, a win­dow or two and a small door, some­times with a porch. A lad­der might lead to an up­per storey or the whole struc­ture could be raised off the ground with a small ex­ter­nal es­cape slide at­tached. The bare in­te­rior al­lows a child to fur­nish it as they please, con­struct­ing their own lit­tle world.

‘Play­houses and Wendy houses have be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in re­cent years as they en­cour­age chil­dren to play out­side. It’s not only a great way to keep them ac­tive, but also pro­vides a safe place where they can run wild with their imag­i­na­tions,’ ex­plains Sarah Cot­ting­ham of Wal­tons Gar­den Build­ings.

With their rel­a­tively short life­span as a play area, de­sign and aes­thet­ics be­come in­creas­ingly im­por­tant, for, in the end, you’ll be left with lit­tle more than a piece of gar­den fur­ni­ture or sculp­ture—a trib­ute to child­hood and the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Queen of the cas­tle: the Wendy house is a won­der­ful place where a child’s imag­i­na­tion can run free

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