Building a playhouse in the garden will both captivate children's imaginations and get them outdoors. Arabella Youens finds out what's on the market.
When we celebrated The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, the BBC produced a documentary of Princess Beatrice showing journalist Andrew Marr around Y Bwthyn Bach—or The Little House— the miniature cottage in the grounds of Windsor’s Royal Lodge that was presented to Princess Elizabeth for her sixth birthday on behalf of the people of Wales. At the time, Princess Beatrice had been charged with redecorating the house so it was ready for the next generation—The Queen’s ever-increasing number of great- grandchildren—to enjoy.
Judging by business at three leading playhouse companies, the appetite for building wendy or treehouse structures in gardens is voracious—particularly, according to the directors of The Playhouse Company, from grandparents seeking to entertain (or establish a strong enough draw for) visiting grandchildren.
The Herefordshire-based outfit was commissioned by one couple last year to create a playhouse with a difference for their three grandchildren, with the proviso that it had to fit around a 200- year-old oak tree. The result is a series of platforms, covered stages, a tunnelled walkway and a rope bridge that runs along the existing border of the garden.
‘It’s about enticing children away from their televisions and computer consoles and getting them into the great outdoors, using their imaginations and creativity,’ explains director Richard Frost.
The concept of the playhouse has evolved from the miniature cottage via more extravagant princess castles to even an entire ‘pirate island’ built on a lake in Cambridgeshire, complete with a ‘raider’s raft’ or pirate boat featuring a Yamaha outboard motor. According to Sege Rosella of The Master Wishmakers, the only limit to what his company will build is science (and, of course, funds).
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‘Our service is completely bespoke— if you want a miniature version of your 300-year-old Georgian mansion, complete with a replica of Great-Aunt Joyce’s table in the dining room, we can do it,’ says Mr Rosella. The company, which makes everything by hand in its Northamptonshire workshop, will take care of every element, starting with architectural drawings through to gaining planning permission where required and installing the finished product.
‘Generally, a customer will come to us and we’ll think together about what their children or grandchildren are interested in and then we’ll have fun creating some ideas,’ explains Mr Rosella. So far, these have included an American-style drive-through diner and an aircraft-hanger bedroom. ‘We have to imagine ourselves as children again, which isn’t tricky as we’re all quite playful in the office,’ he adds.
Sally Stone and Alex Watkins operate Stone & Watkins Playhouses in mid Devon. The company’s replica Queen Anne manor house drew the crowds (as well as commentary in Country Life) when it was first unveiled at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1999. There is a range of playhouse and treehouse designs to choose from, but, as every- thing is made to order, they can be adapted to accommodate awkward spaces or existing trees.
Mr Watkins recommends people have an eye on the future. ‘Younger children will love a simple playhouse, but, by the time a child is four, they might want something more adventurous, with a slide or a swing.’ Later still, it’s worth thinking about installing a platform or raising the playhouse. ‘I think it’s a fundamental part of being a child to want a place that’s yours higher up. When you’re a kid, everywhere belongs to grown-ups, but a treehouse or platform can be a sanctuary solely for children.’
Prices for playhouses, not unlike the grown-up version, range widely. You can buy something on a smaller scale off the shelf from John Lewis for about £250 and the sky is seemingly limitless for something conjured up by The Master Wishmakers. Stone & Watkins Playhouses quotes £3,765 as a starting price for one of its cottages, but the Queen Anne replica will set you back £24,495.
Last weekend, at Badminton Horse Trials, The Playhouse Company launched the latest model in its col- lection, which is more modest in both structure and price. The Gypsy Caravan has a stable door to the front, two single windows on one side plus another window at the back and costs £1,750 (including delivery).
Where to buy:
- The Playhouse Company (01544 387100; www.theplayhousecompany.co.uk)
- The Master Wishmakers (01536 525552; www.masterwishmakers.com)
- Stone & Watkins Playhouses (01363 772879; www.play-houses.com)