I spent some time this summer making a den in the garden of a friend who lives in the south of France. I was sawing up some some dead wood which had fallen from the trees after a storm, and while most of it could be turned into firewood, there were two huge trunks that needed the attention of a chainsaw. Contemplating them, I realised that they could form the basis of a den, along with some pallets I found elsewhere in the garden. And so it began.
The final form was more of a sort of fairy house made for my friend's daughter, for her fourth birthday, and all the final decoration (interior and exterior, with sunflowers and so on), after I'd sunk some branches into the ground to form kind of tent poles and improvised a frame with string, was done by some artists who were also staying there. It was a deeply fulfilling thing to do and reignited my enthusiasm for den-building (it's been about 20 years since I last built one).
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about dens for Shelter's "Here" magazine, which is edited by Emma Warren. The topic caught my imagination after reading the book "Edgelands" by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, which has a chapter on that subject which begins with the line, "Is den-building a lost art?"
I wouldn't call this particular den artistic, but I certainly felt a bit more creative while building it.
Here are a few pictures of the den (apparently it's still in daily use) and the piece for Shelter is below them.
"In their outstanding 2011 book “Edgelands” – a lyrical survey of those liminal zones of contemporary geography that are neither rural nor urban – the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts posed an apposite question: “is den-building a lost art?”
They went on to describe what constitutes these mythic and furtive dwellings, usually constructed in childhood and adolescence, imagining how, “a teepee-like vertical frame has been attempted using pliant elder branches… the floor has been carpeted with an offcut of ratty Axminster… a red plastic milk crate, partially melted in one corner from the heat of a fire… where a boy is studying a punished copy of Mayfair, pulled from a hedge full of empty vodka bottles in a layby.”
Imagining, because dens don’t seem too common these days: have they declined because children spend less time outside and in the wild, from fear of creeps, cranks and the fun police of the health and safety estate, than inside the home and, increasingly, within the virtual? That’s an unanswerable question, but the magic of the dens evoked by the poets remains powerful. It’s in the nature of children to hide, to run away and create interior spaces; it’s a joy to create refuges, and there’s a delight in feeling hunted even when one isn’t being hunted, apart from by irascible parents.
When you’re small it’s enough to be inside a sheet suspended over a clothes horse, to purposes some boxes into a maze, or behind a sheet of corrugated iron against a garage wall. When you’re older, a domelike space in a hedge or a thicket becomes home. At the age of Scouts and Girl guides, den-building becomes more instrumental than improvised, with blueprints for snow and forest dens provided by Brian Hildreth’s “How to Survive” (Puffin books, 1976). By the time you reach Glastonbury seniority, the tendency becomes baroque, expressed in complex palaces of tarp, canvas and ripstop nylon (by the way, tents are capitalism’s commoditised roll-out of the instinct). But it always remains about escape and shutting-out: my friend Greg and I once sank a coffin-like cask into a drained pond in my parents’ garden, planning to dig all the way Greg’s garden, a couple of doors up the road, like Charles Bronson’s Tunnel King. We never made it. Still, it was a grand brilliant plan and pointed to the other side of the den-building impulse: tunneling, which is another metaphor for getting away from something.
One of the paradoxes of dens is that the urge to build them outlasts youth, the nominal den-building age: the folky vogue for competitive shed furnishing, for designer treehouses with lacquered MDF struts and walls, and for rooftop hideaways and so on bespeak an affluent, middle-aged demographic’s need to escape from it all without going too far away, or denying themselves creature comforts like kettles, mugs and iPad-compatible chargers.
There’s another. All constructions are protective in some form, but temporary in the long span of history. Dens are the most temporary – some only may only last the hour or two between teatime and a book at bedtime– and yet also, in one sense, the most psychologically protective. And certainly, if only for a short time, the comfiest."