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
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