Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ultimate nest-building

My father has been discussing recently the once-in-a-lifetime experience of fixing up the last house he will ever live in. He is enjoying riding rough-shod over the usual set of considerations that go into house-shaping – when you know that at some point you’ll have to sell it to another human being. With no plans ever to move again, he has filled the hall wall cavities with contingency stair lift wiring, and implemented a pressurised air-circulation and heating system that nobody else will ever be able to figure out, let alone make work.

Computer modelling has played a part in the process, as it sometimes does with his sculptures. However, when he made me my very first house for my fourth birthday, the starting point was a plastic swing-bin and a lot of carbon fibre. I remember watching him stirring that pot of thick yellow goo like fibrous custard, with no notion of what it would become.

What was unveiled later (literally – it was too big to wrap) appeared to be a three foot section of a real tree. He had hunted the woods for a fallen elm, carefully peeled strips of bark from the dead trunk, and reconfigured them to perfectly cover this new, irregular cylinder.  This tree, though, had tiny windows, and light glowed from behind their diminutive curtains.

Opening the front of the tree trunk section revealed a slightly less labyrinthine version of this:

Indulging my mouse obsession, and its outlet at the time via Brambly Hedge books, my parents had laboured for months to create three storeys of rustic mousey lifestyle. This was partly to distract me from the impending arrival of a sibling, but that doesn’t diminish their dedication. Kitchen table and chairs, the dresser, even the kitchen sink had been made by hand, after bed-time in clandestine fashion in the basement.

There were walnut and hazel shells for bowls, Quality Street wrappers for glowing coals in the fireplace, a piece of patterned corduroy edged with lace for a rug. Best of all were the mice: fully jointed by my father and dressed in loyal Brambly Hedge style by my mother.

Over the years, as with any house, the furnishings changed. Miniature mouse portraits, painted by my aunt and mounted in delicate frames, appeared on the walls. Later a friend who clearly had never read Brambly Hedge donated a grand piano and matching grandfather clock, which somewhat took over the sitting room. Meanwhile I blithely promised my friends that my dad would make another one for their birthdays, as if it had materialised at the click of a finger.

I never, ever tired of playing with my mouse house. Still, soon after, my father had re-created the harvest mouse’s nest from the same book series. After that, driven by my new fascination with moles, he permanently stained the bath tub while soaking and clamping open cork bark, to create mole tunnels I could populate with anthropomorphised diggers.

The mouse house still exists, as does the harvest mouse’s nest. When we unpacked the mouse house recently so that my father could do some much-needed restoration work, we remembered the terrifying moment when our new cats had found it and poked their paws through the windows to swipe at whatever was inside. How did they know there were mice inside, we wondered?

Twenty years later my cousin, who is young enough to call me Auntie by mistake, benefited from a revival in my father's nest-building. Nest II was born and is pictured here.

Those creations (I can't really bring myself to call them toys, they seem too special) embodied for the small me everything that was wonderful about a home.They were cosy, natural, full of strange joys such as ladders to rooms and secret back doors that still give me a thrill today. I hope that my father is applying the same principles to his own ultimate nest-building and making it into something that appeals to him and gives him joy, regardless of what any future inhabitants might think.


  1. It is easy to see where your creative flair comes from, Zoe. Lovely creations and I wish your dad the best in his own house.

  2. Stunning and special. Every child would want one of those.

    I love the rope ladder that hangs over the front and the red flecks in the straw.

    Can I have one please?

  3. I'm going to get the 'real' mouse house out at Christmas and photograph it. You'll want one of those too.

  4. Wow how lovely, can't wait to see the 'real' one.
    We made a mousehole in a shoebox in a hole made in the skirting board for our daughter when she was small. With Sylvanian Family mice. We loved doing it and she loved it but nothing on this scale. A.....may.......zing.

  5. These are gorgeous! What clever and lovely parents you have :o)