Close to a waterhole in the wilderness of Kenya’s Aberdare National Park, perched on stilts surrounding an old chestnut tree, there’s a quaint four-storey wooden wildlife-viewing lodge. Treetops, as the hotel is called, is something of a household name, a long-standing favourite safari destination for the discerning traveller. If you look beyond the waterhole, past the daily throng of elephant, giraffe, rhino and leopard, you’ll also see the remains of an old machan or hunting platform that was once built into the branches of a giant ficus. In other words: a treehouse. This is all that’s left of the original Treetops hotel that was to play such a part in Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. According to an entry in the hotel’s guestbook by Elizabeth’s bodyguard, British Indian Army colonel Jim Corbett, while on honeymoon in Kenya a young woman ‘climbed into a tree one day a Princess and… climbed down from the tree next day a Queen’.
It’s tempting to say that it was this historical event that put the treehouse front and centre in the British imagination. But the truth is, by the mid- 20th century, when Elizabeth came to the crown, we were already enthralled. This was largely due to the success of Johann Wyss’s 19th-century novel of moral instruction, better known as The Swiss Family Robinson, in which he recounts the adventures of the eponymous family after being shipwrecked in the East Indies en route to Australia. To survive on their desert island, the castaways build a giant treehouse sanctuary and create a subsistence lifestyle, rearing goats, pigs and chickens.
While today we might find the book indigestible, the subsequent film adaptations and TV serials, with their easy-going triumphs over adversity, became popular to the point that, following the 1960 Disney adaptation, a replica of the famous treehouse became a major attraction at several of its theme parks. Since then, we’ve hardly looked back. From Star Wars to The Simpsons and from The Lord of the Rings to Tarzan, the treehouse is essential architecture for fiction and fantasy.
Scientists think we’ve have always been open to living in trees and that the treehouse phenomenon started with early ‘archaic’ humans taking to the trees at night to get away from predators. There are still tribal peoples in Western New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean that live in trees and store their food in them high above terrestrial scavenging animals.
Today, treehouses are more about leisure than survival. When it comes to doing something a little out of the ordinary, the treehouse experience has got to be one of the most exciting of all options. From the glamping getaway to ultra-chic treetop boutique hotels, from arboreal walkways to camouflaged wildlife watching, it seems that the treehouse is everywhere. You’ll also find them in school playgrounds, education centres, adventure theme parks and, increasingly, in people’s private gardens (sometimes even as work-from-home offices), as their inhabitants look for an environmentally friendly way to escape modern life.
‘I think treehouses remind people of their childhood,’ says Pete Nelson, American master treehouse builder and host of the Animal Planet TV show Treehouse Masters. For Nelson, treehouses represent a creative space, where fun often reigns over function, and where visitors dream, explore and reconnect with nature. He says that their elevation allows us to maintain distance from ‘the monotony of everyday life. This brief separation allows folks to be more mindful of the present and gain perspective on their lives.’ Which is why people view treehouses as ‘peaceful, happy retreats.’
Whether you are looking for something futuristic, such as the Mirrorcube Treehotel in Sweden, or something more whimsical, like the fairy-tale inspired creations exhibited by British treehouse architects Blue Forest at the annual Chelsea Flower Show, it seems that the idea of getting back into the trees is here to stay. Bu beware. There isn’t always a fairy-tale ending. The Swiss Family Robinson (in the book at least) eventually abandons its leafy retreat in favour of a much more down-to-earth cave dwelling after the daughter – another Elizabeth – injures herself climbing down from it.