Mia, keep Wednesday free. We’re den building.” My 11-year-old daughter’s enthusiastic reply almost made me feel guilty – apart from the odd sheet placed over the dining room table and chairs, I’d never shown her the joys of building a den.
The guilt was further compounded by my youthful recollections of summer days creating hideouts to escape from the world of adults. Branches, twigs, grass – everything became a building material. But the real coup was corrugated iron. How I wished for a sheet of iron come the end of that hot summer afternoon…
The Forestry Commission organises den-building sessions throughout the UK. Ours took place at the beautiful Beechenhurst Lodge in the Forest of Dean, but wherever the location, it’s wallet-friendly: £4 for children, adults go free.
INTO THE FOREST
About 35 of us were in the capable hands of ranger Rebecca O’Dowd, ably supported by her dog Rufus. (What Rufus lacked in bite, he certainly made up for in bark!) The aim of the two-hour session was for six groups to each build a waterproof den, the winner being the one that defied the water test.
Pre-main event, two families and Mia and I were charged with constructing a mini den for furry teddies and animals. After 10 minutes of stumbling around, we’d lined up a dozen twigs against a tree trunk, under which sat a stuffed fox. It wasn’t the best den, and Rebecca’s appraisal of “luckily you’ll have longer with the main event” was hardly a glowing assessment of our disparate efforts. Next, Rebecca’s call signalled for the den building proper to begin. The kids screamed for joy; I bemoaned my lack of spare clothes.
First step, start with the framework. Dipping into my den-building past, I recalled my friend’s advice of “letting nature do the work”. So, a stable but fallen tree nestling over a 60cm (2ft) trench that carved its way through the forest seemed the perfect beam on which to create our masterpiece.
Design and location sorted, the dynamic quickly took shape. Six of us would provide the manpower, and one (Mia) would combine dual roles of den manager and interior designer. This mix of brawn and brain power resulted in an impressively fluid group. I’d had reservations at the teddy bear phase about our disjointed teamwork, but our den was evolving through collaboration, sweat and Mia’s bracken bed. “We might get wet but we’ll do it in comfort,” Mia pronounced.
Ninety minutes flew by, lost in a sea of log carrying, twig shaping and fern finding. I knew Mia would have a great time but I hadn’t quite accounted for my joy. That freedom I felt as an eight-year-old in the field opposite our house flooded back, office stress disappeared into the forest and I felt euphoric. “What a great way to spend an afternoon,” I pondered. But, unlike my childhood years, it’d also tired me out. All this air and building had drained me.
With great timing, Rebecca cried “Twigs down.” It was time for the water test. The concept was simple: each group would sit in their newly built dwelling and Rebecca would throw two buckets of water over its roof. The winner was the one that stayed driest inside.
All the dens were unique. One seemed to adopt Wembley Stadium’s famous arc, another looked anaemic, while the fifth den could have won awards at Kew… but to a soundtrack of screams (adults) and laughter (kids), all failed the wet test.
The sixth and final den to be judged was ours. Mia strode toward it, proclaiming “We’re going to win.” Publicly I suggested we retain a degree of humility; internally, I echoed Mia’s sentiments. Our fern-lined, structurally sound den would defy water. This was in the bag. We entered through our doorway, sat down confidently… and, yes, I was right: Mia’s resplendent interior remained dry.
Mournfully, it was down to the blocking effects of my 1.8m (6ft) frame rather than the bracken. I’d obviously upset Rebecca along the way, as she generously threw an extra bucket, just for luck.
Soaked through to my pale skin, we headed to the café for coffee and cake. Despite failing the test, we’d had a memorable afternoon. We’d seen the benefits of teamwork, responsibility, planning and independence. But more importantly, this was pure, unadulterated fun. We will be back to defy the water!
HOW TO GET THERE
Take the B4226 from Coleford, pass the junction with the B4234 and drive up Speech House Road for 500m before turning left to Beechenhurst.
FIND OUT MORE
Check the Forestry Commission website for a den building day near you.
Forest of dean Gloucs
amsterley Forest Durham
Salcey Forest Northamptonshire
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