It could either be the dream environmental home or realising a childhood fantasy – the chance to live the high life among the treetops.

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And that’s exactly what was on offer for the excited group who spent the weekend living with nature and taking part in a professional tree-house building course in Norfolk.

The majority of those who went down to the woods at West Lexham Education Centre – just off the main Fakenham-Swaffham Road – certainly gave themselves a big surprise as they helped create a remarkable construction.

It was no ramshackle “Famous Five” hideaway and they learned the skills to build a durable, octagonal timber building, suspended two metres off the ground around three ash trees.

The house was built with sustainable resourced and reclaimed materials and as long as planning permission is obtained, will be used as accommodation at the centre.

The course was led by professional tree-house builder Henry Durham, who got his first taste of construction the woodland way in an old beech tree as a child when he lived in the neighbouring village of Litcham.

Mr Durham – who now runs London-based High Life Treehouses – still has relatives nearby and was delighted to be back in the county and thrilled with the enthusiasm of the students, many of whom had never done practical work before.

“They have been fantastic and I wish my employees were this keen!” joked Mr Durham. “I just love tree houses and they always put a smile on people’s faces and they are instantly intrigued by them. They are about getting kids to forget about their Playstations and stimulate their imagination.

“We are all living in a world where we are glued to computers and it is wonderful to have that outdoor experience and remember what it was like when we were children.”

Looking at the tree house they had built, one of the students on the course, Sarah Steventon from Oxfordshire, said: “I cannot believe we did it! It is like being kids again.”

She is a live-in carer and had never used power tools before.

The weekend course also featured a world first for would-be canopy dwellers – a prototype tree-tent, hung from branches 8ft above the ground, and due for its national launch today.

The Tentsile is the brainchild of Alex Shirley-Smith, from north London. It collapses into a large case and he hopes it can eventually be able to be used in disaster relief zones.

Mr Shirley-Smith has come up with five eight-man, three four-man and one two-man designs and originally thought of the idea six years ago when he was doing an architectural diploma.

“For me it is the feeling of being completely detached from the solid ground and still feeling safe. You are between the sky and the earth and you get the best views” he added.

The sustainable construction course was part of the rural renaissance project taking shape at the former farming estate surrounding West Lexham Manor, near Swaffham.

The West Lexham project is a not-for-profit social enterprise planned by Edmund Colville, whose family moved into the manor house in 1997.

He hopes to recreate a thriving community, initially by bringing redundant farm buildings back into use to provide accommodation and teaching areas.

Mr Colville said: “People love tree houses and they are a return to childhood and making dens. They are about sleeping outside and helping re-connect with nature.”

The West Lexham scheme received a setback earlier this year with the refusal of a £146,000 grant application by the RDPE (Rural Development Programme for England).

Nevertheless, Mr Colville said his overall goal – to create a mutually-supportive “enterprise cluster” of sustainable businesses – had not changed.

Weblinks: www.westlexham.org and www.highifetreehouses.co.uk

ian.clarke@archant.co.uk

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