A while ago, we made the decision to bring our children up in the city. I had a glorious traditionally English childhood - house backing onto open countryside, short walk through the village centre to the local primary school (home for lunch and then back again in the afternoon), a view from my bedroom window of a medieval castle and moat, and carol-singing round the Buttercross on Christmas Eve every year.
So there's no reason really why I'm resolutely an urban girl, but from the moment I stepped out of the train at Newcastle Central Station nearly half my life ago (what?!) on a day trip to visit my prospective university, and caught the smell of the Tyne and heard the sound of the taxis idling and saw the palimpsest of Victorian and modern architecture against the skyline and the leftover remains of someone's last-night pizza on the floor, I've wanted to live in the city and that's exactly what I've done. Four years in Newcastle followed by thirteen in Manchester, which I moved to after completing my post-graduate degree because one of my friends described in as "a big, dirty exciting city".
Well, Manchester is exactly that. As much as the next person, I love going on holiday and enjoying a serene view of the lakes, the mountains, the Greek seashore, the rolling Tuscan hills and whatnot, but I'm happy to get back to my little part of M20 with a view of the neighbour's house opposite and the sound of cars and lawn mowers coming through the window. We used to live in the Northern Quarter, and I still enjoy wandering round there during the daytime, seeing all the old buildings, the art, the grafitti, the cars, the smell of exhausts and curries and cigarette smoke and just the general throb of humanity.
When we bought this house, there was no real question for either of us of selling up in a few years and moving out to Sale, or Altrincham, or Wilmslow, or Marple, or Disley - all lovely I'm sure, but here we're four miles or fifteen minutes out of the city centre and I never want to give that up. (Our neighbours insist that this makes us urban rather than suburban and I agree.) So this is our forever house and in ten years or so the girls will be sneaking out to try and get served in the Met, I'm sure.
Still, there has to be a balance. I couldn't do the New York family baby-in-a-closet thing - the kids need a bedroom each, we need plenty of space to leave all our crap lying around, the dogs need a decent flight of stairs and hallway to charge down every time the doorbell rings so they can build up sufficient speed to properly hurl themselves at the front door, and we need a nice big garden with enough space to install giant trampolines and climbing frames.
Which is exactly what we did this weekend, with the help of six children (including next door's kids, who climbed over the fence with a toolbox and a homemade pavlova) and three adults (who contributed beer and burgers to the cause). The instructions said it would take two adults ten hours - "it won't take that long!" said Andre. On yes it did, longer in fact, but the instructions were as unintelligible as these kind of instructions usually are, I insisted on labelling each lag screw and hex bolt so we didn't lose any of them, and we stopped for plenty of espresso breaks, trampoline bouncing sessions and Jack Russell ball throwing interludes.
We did have a think about building one ourselves from scratch, but by the time you've bought the wood, fixings, stain, slide and swings the cost is basically the same as buying one and assembling it, so that's what we did. Eva thinks it's a tree house because we've deliberately built it around the existing buddleia and acers and when you're up in the crow's nest you feel completely surrounded by leaves and greenery. We'll also be installing a raised platform around the main acer with a walkway or monkey bars to connect back to the climbing frame, so the whole thing will hopefully feel very organically at one with the garden.
Here's how wild the garden was when we first moved in:
After a weekend of ivy-taming last summer:
Clearing and levelling the ground (which involved digging up five enormous decorative tree stumps):
A team of willing under-age workers and an idiot posing:
And a view of the whole garden from the steps.
The neighbour's kids say it's better than theirs and we haven't even pimped it up with the matching periscope, telephone, telescope and chalk board yet so I'm calling it a WIN.
Next outdoor project - chuck down a load of forest park with a tree stump border to enclose the play area, and add a stone circle patio where the pond used to be.