The Tree House

Two years on from the day I walked into Eden, I’m reminiscing about the house I built there…

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©Keo Films

For me, a large part of the appeal of Eden was having the opportunity to build a home and live in it. This has long been a dream of mine, probably partly inspired by my parents’ story. My mum went on holidays to Cornwall as a child and always said that one day she would move to there, live in the countryside and keep some goats. And that is exactly what she did! My parents moved from London to rural West Cornwall in the 1980s, bought a derelict farmhouse and lived in a caravan for almost a year whilst they made the old building into a family home where they still live today.

 


Researching communal living way back in 2011, when writing Is this the Future, exposed me to people living with a minimal environmental impact and experimenting with alternative building techniques. In 2012, I had a fantastic time helping a family in France with building their straw-bale home. As time passed, living as part of an intentional community continued to interest me and I found myself regularly daydreaming about building my own home out of natural materials. So when the advert for Eden came along, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Strangers to each other, 23 of us arrived in Eden on March 23rd, 2016. There was so much to do and get used to in those first few months that most days I didn’t believe I would ever have the physical energy and practical skills necessary to build a home. It was also a difficult time of establishing ourselves as a group and deciding how we wanted to live – would we be building one big structure, several small ones, or both? Time stretched endlessly ahead of us, a year feeling like a lifetime, yet still it often seemed impossible that we would ever get everything done. Decisions would take months to make and in the meanwhile we would all need to live in very close quarters in a very temporary shelter.

People began to form friendships and groups, and eventually people started to build. I became good friends with Ali and we decided we would build a house big enough to sleep ourselves and 2-3 others. We went plot-browsing one sunny Spring afternoon, not sure at all what we were doing but trying to be practical and logical in our choices. We knew we wanted somewhere high up so the ground wouldn’t get damp, but still close to water source so we didn’t have to walk too far on a rainy night. We wanted to be sheltered from the wind but also not too covered by trees that we didn’t get any light. There was a lot to think about.

On the top of a little hill, at the edge of the forest, we found the perfect spot between four trees, almost in a square on top of a little hill. We decided we would build around the trees, so we would have tree trunks inside each corner of the house and roots on the “floor” – a tree house, but grounded.

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Ali & I, at our chosen spot

In the first few weeks we did very little except clear some roots from the ground, chat over the few survival books we had available to us that had some mention of natural building techniques, question others over dinner and chop down the odd tree or two. There was still a lot of communal tasks to do each day – improving our temporary shelter, cooking, gardening, looking after animals etc. – and we were hungry, tired and lacking in confidence. Ali and I were also becoming firm friends and many days when we went to the woods to “work on the house” we actually ended up ditching our mic packs, wandering through the trees, gossiping about our Eden life and reminiscing about the lives we’d left in “The Real World”.

We were ambitious at first, thinking we would have a double wall for extra warmth, and even a porch area and double-doorway! We really had no idea what we were doing, as you’ll see from this very vague plan I jotted down in my diary on June 1st:


After some tough weather in the first couple of months, the sun came out to play in June and some of us celebrated by being barefoot as much as possible. I’m smiling wide as I think back to one day in particular when Ali and I decided to do our shift of gardening chores barefoot and then to continue on to work on our house, still barefoot. It was that day when we suddenly started to enjoy chopping down trees and our house dream started to seem possible. On 8th of June, I wrote in my diary:

“Today I realised that we can actually do this, we can build our own house and we will – just one tree at a time.”

As the month went on, we got more confident and quicker at cutting down trees and by the end of the month we had enough logs for one wall. There were, of course, many other things going on in camp and amongst the group, including people leaving. In July, Ali also made the difficult decision to leave Eden.

The first time I went to work on the house on my own after Ali left, I stood in front of what was basically some trees and a few logs and wondered what on earth I was doing. I was standing at the bottom of a mountain and I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the top. Time and time again I would feel overwhelmed and incapabable, scared and insecure until some small victory would pull me out of uncertainty and I’d get a glimmer of self-belief – I can do this. That glimmer would get me through the next meltdown when I realised I had no idea how to make a window/door/roof-frame/bed.

My house got me through many tough times in Eden. On 8th September, I wrote in my diary:

“I was in danger of falling into a hole of anxiety, but my house saved me. I headed up the hill and started tackling my window. I was hesitant to begin with, but it all started coming together much easier than expected. It’s funny how I can build these things up in my mind.”

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A window was always a must-have for me. ©Keo Films

Once my walls, window and doors frames were finished, the next big hurdle was the roof frame. Although I knew it would be difficult, I decided I wanted an A-frame roof. I talked through some plans with my Eden partner-in-crime Rob, but was reluctant and nervous to get started. I was slightly working to a timescale as we’d all decided we would move out of the temporary summer shelter on 9th October so that the polytunnel plastic being used to waterproof the place could be reclaimed to be used on our winter buildings. My procrastination was starting to get out of control and eventually Rob made a bet with me – he gave me one week to finish my roof frame and whoever lost the bet would have to give over their dessert, the next time we had one. A dessert was very high stakes indeed in Eden.

By Sunday 18th September, the end of the week, I still had barely made a start on my roof frame. That day was also Glenn’s birthday so there was going to be a really good evening meal and there would definitely be a dessert – I could not lose this bet! I made it to my house by 8am that morning (very unusual) and got to work quickly, feeling determined and full of that last-minute adrenaline buzz you only get on the day of a deadline.

I worked hard all day long, barely stopping at all. I clambered up makeshift ladders and hung awkwardly off trees, stretching to nail in logs in hard to reach places. By 4pm, I was done. I was ecstatic! I rushed to the nearest houses to find someone to tell and found Vet Rob fast asleep. I promptly shook him awake and dragged him up the hill to show off my roof frame. He pointed out some sawing I still needed to do, gave me a hand and when it was finally done we celebrated with a cup of tea and headed back to summer camp for the birthday celebrations.

 

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So pleased to be making progress. ©Keo Films

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Over the next month, Rob helped me get the poly plastic on the roof frame and make a fire out of a barrel. I collected the biggest, flattest stones I could find – sometimes only able to carry one at a time, ten minutes through the forest or up the hill from the estuary – to make a base for my fireplace. I struggled a lot with doing this and was beginning to lose patience entirely when lovely Katie stepped up and came round to help me slot the stones together. We came up with the idea of having a gap under the fire, for drying boots and rising dough, and Katie did an incredible job with making it neat and level. On October 10th, I had the first fire in my house and celebrated with a cup of tea with my Eden sisters, Katie and Jane.

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I spent a lot of time in front of the fireplace. ©Keo Films

A week later, October 17th, I finally moved in. The first night alone in my house was such a surreal and wonderful experience. For the last seven months, I had slept surrounded by several other people. I was used to falling asleep to the sound of other people’s breathing, grunts and sleep-talking, used to calling out goodnight and good morning. I had had moments of solitude during the days of course, but nighttimes and mornings usually involved other people being around. And sleeping in the house that I built?! It was so exciting that I could barely sleep at all! I burnt a lot of wood, and drank a lot of tea that night, as I lay in my hammock (I hadn’t yet built a bed) and wrote giddy letters in my diary to friends and family in “The Real World”.

It took another month or so for me to build a bed, a seat/spare bed, a desk, a wardrobe area…

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Looking in, from by the door… ©Keo Films


I was still putting shelves up in December and I didn’t even make a door until January! For a long time, people came in and out through the window.


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Matt arriving at the window ©Keo Films

I loved spending time in my house, and others seemed to as well. It was incredibly warm when I had the fire on, at times I would be inside cooking in a strap top when it was -5͒° outside! Building at the top of the hill had paid off, my floor dried out quickly and I had no trouble with damp. On very windy nights, the trees in the corners – and therefore the entire house – would sway gently and sometimes creak and wail loudly, giving the feeling of being inside a boat on a rough sea.

Eden would have been a very different experience without the abundance of different types of moss that our beautiful landscape had to offer. As well as for many non-building related uses (loo roll, sponge, padding for carrying eggs…), it was invaluable for insulating the walls and roof. I didn’t moss my entire roof, as I wanted it as light as possible, so I just mossed the edges. I had to replace the moss between logs on the walls fairly often, as after a windy night there would be a lot missing from the corners.

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Up a ladder, checking on the roof moss. ©Keo Films


As so many people left, out of the final 10, 4 of us had our own house! We did of course spend time at each other’s houses and those of us who lived on our own would often have sleepovers.

 

(all photos: ©Keo Films)

 When it came time to leave Eden in March 2017, a year after we had entered, there were many many mixed feelings. I was of course eager to get out, to see my friends and family, to eat whatever food I liked and to hear what had been happening in the world for the last year. But there was also sadness at leaving the beautiful place we had come to call home, and to leave my house that I loved living in so very much.

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©Keo Films

But I also left with a newfound sense of confidence and resilience, and a peaceful certainty that one day I will build my own home again – and this time, I will live in it for much longer than six months.

I’m excited!

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©Keo Films
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