Every year for the past 10 years we have gone on holiday to a little kingdom in Somerset: a long row of beach huts with grass on one side and the great expanse of the beach and sea on the other.
There’s nothing outwardly amazing about this place. I can almost see Bristol from it. It’s hardly an exciting holiday to many people. Yet here my children have played happily with others of all ages, from dawn til dusk, with no screen in sight, practically since they could walk. Here they have invented endless games, built museums, constructed dens, developed sand villages and castles and even re-routed the sea.
And every year, they’ve moved away from our beach hut in ever widening circles: the space in front of our hut, the path to friends’ and neighbours’ huts, the ice cream shop, the beach (further and further along the beach), the small wood, the stream, the golf course that leads to Minehead, and finally – getting older – to Minehead itself, to buy chips and put 2ps in the machines.
It is, quite simply, for them, bliss.
And at the centre of that blissful kingdom is the Climbing Tree: a huge pine with many branches jutting out at every level from very low, to high high up in the sky. There may be many things to do at the beach huts, but the Climbing Tree is central. The Climbing Tree is where you meet all the other children, that come and go each week. The Climbing Tree is where you discuss things, make plans. The Climbing Tree is where you find out what’s going on. And every year, you can go a little higher: from sitting underneath it when you’re too small, watching the bigger children; to reaching the lowest branch (age 4 perhaps), to climbing the lower rungs and swinging off the medium ones, to going up and up and up to where your parents cannot bear to watch. Yes, the Climbing Tree is very special. It’s the photo that goes with my story on this website. It’s even in my story, that idea of climbing up and up…
And then, this news from Mary who visited at Easter: “They’ve cut down the branches of the Climbing Tree!!.”
Why?? Because, the office told her family, it wasn’t safe; it was risky for children. It encouraged children to gather in one place. And (this is the real challenge!) some parents don’t like it. They don’t want their too little children going there.
Could those parents not keep their children away then? Make their own decisions about what they do?
Could the Beach Hut office not see the essential joy and challenge and opportunity for growth and development and happiness that the tree is giving, has given, to so many children over so many years? And see that no one has ever seriously hurt themselves?
Could none of these people remember the joy of doing this themselves, when they were children?
No, they couldn’t. Or maybe they could, but they were afraid. Afraid of the complaints, afraid of the thought of accidents, afraid no doubt of the the thought of legal action. So they cut off all the lower branches.
And the great irony? Mary still wanted to climb it (of course! It’s the Climbing Tree!) and she managed to get a lift up to the first un-hacked branch, way above her head. And – for the first time on the Climbing Tree – she really hurt herself getting down. She had to jump and the drop was just too big.
This Summer, it will be sad to see the amputated tree. And it will be interesting to see how children get round this. They will: they’ll find a way, or another tree, or a different way to meet and gather… But something is definitely lost.
I am just so glad my children had all of those years in the Climbing Tree.