My daughter Rosie has gone missing, and when she returns it is not with the twigs I requested but an expression of excited awe.
Hidden behind our hedge, she reports, is a thistle even taller than she is. Her brother Felix, alas, is so busy hacking a crevice into a stick with a knife to complete his bow and arrow that he barely registers her news.
Both are as absorbed in their activities as ever, but with one difference — there is not a smartphone, television or computer in sight.
We are trying to replicate the Duchess of Cambridge’s Back to Nature Garden, and all devices have been discarded.
Antonia Hoyle and her children tried to replicate the Duchess of Cambridge’s Back to Nature Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, and all devices have been discarded
The Duchess designed the garden with landscape architects Andree Davies and Adam White
Unveiling her work at the Chelsea Flower Show this week, Kate, 37, said: ‘I really feel that nature and being interactive outdoors has huge benefits on our physical and mental well-being, particularly for young children.’
The Duchess designed the garden with landscape architects Andree Davies and Adam White.
Certainly, mounting research suggests time outdoors can improve mood.
Exposure to daylight helps regulate levels of the hormone melatonin, and outdoor activity boosts the production of neurotransmitter serotonin. Being surrounded by nature can improve concentration, lower blood pressure, and even reduce the symptoms of ADHD.
Yet we’re less likely than ever to leave our children to explore al fresco. Children now play outside on average for just over four hours a week — half that of their parents’ generation — and when they do it’s often under adult supervision.
So when I saw the Duchess’s children playing this week, I wondered if I could provide similar activities.
I’m not blessed with a royal budget, or a team of experts — and I have just three days — but, with two small helpers, I set out to recreate the Duchess’s garden . . . and grade my efforts.
HAVING A BALL ON A ROPE SWING
Stylish, and sat on by the entire Cambridge family, I spend hours trying to source Kate’s rope-ball swing before discovering it is custom-made by a family business in Upnor, Kent.
A rigger for the Cheap Rope Company created it by wrapping 20mm wide synthetic hemp rope around a solid plastic ball.
‘It looks and feels like natural fibre rope but is plastic based so won’t shrink, swell or rot,’ explains director Andy Parr.
Antonia Hoyle’s eight-year-old daughter Rosie swings on rope in a £325 garden inspired by Kate
Earlier in the week, Princess Charlotte also enjoyed playing on the rope swing which was custom-made by a family business in Upnor, Kent, at the Chelsea Flower Show
His firm was commissioned by play equipment company Rubicon Play. Owner Neil Philips believes a swing is vital for a child’s imagination: ‘On a swing you can be in a plane, on the back of a bird, in a rocket.’
I persuade the Cheap Rope Company to sell me a replica, which it now plans to retail for a princely £325.
I hang it from a three metre-high branch in my garden and await a verdict. ‘It felt like I was bobbing on a speed boat,’ says Rosie, eight, while Felix, six, is too busy ricocheting into the trunk to tell me how much he’s enjoying it.
Of course, cheaper swings are available — Amazon sells a monkey seat tree swing for £17.50 — but we have a ball.
GARDEN GRADE: FIVE BLUEBELLS
DEN THAT NATURE HELPED TO BUILD
Kate’s tepee-style hideout is apparently inspired by a similar model the Cambridges have at Anmer Hall, their Norfolk home, where the royal offspring reportedly collected hazel sticks, twigs, and moss for mum’s Chelsea garden.
But when I endeavour to source something similar online the only sizeable wooden version I can find costs an alarming £599.99.
I call a local gardener, and ask him where I might buy suitable branches to make the tepee.
Antonia and her six-year-old son Felix sit beside a camp they had created for £60. It took two hours to establish a triangular structure from the branches with a 4ft high entrance
Kate’s tepee-style hideout is apparently inspired by a similar model the Cambridges have at Anmer Hall, their Norfolk home, where the royal offspring reportedly collected hazel sticks, twigs, and moss for mum’s Chelsea garden
He points out that the three-inch wide offshoot branches sprouting from our Hawthorn tree would do the job and, perhaps sensing the panic in my voice, agrees to saw them off and make the frame for me.
It takes him two hours to establish a triangular structure from the branches with a 4ft high entrance.
The children scream in delight, and search for sticks and leaves to fill the gaps. Knowing our den is made entirely from our own garden makes it more special.
COST: £60 LABOUR
GARDEN GRADE: FIVE BLUEBELLS
THE TRICKY TREEHOUSE TEST
Without a forklift truck, I can’t replicate the Duchess’s nine-tonne tree house. Its base was created from a chestnut trunk and it has a wooden ladder leading to a platform made from staghorn oak, hazel and larch.
Determined to find a more modest version, I buy the Honeypot Poppy Tower Wooden Playhouse — a shed-sized room on stilts with stairs, balcony, window and weather-proof felt roof — for £459.99 from garden building company Waltons.
The Hoyle family with their Honeypot Poppy Tower Wooden Playhouse — a shed-sized room on stilts with stairs, balcony, window and weather-proof felt roof — for £459.99 from garden building company Waltons
Two staff assemble the flat-pack components for me and Rosie says she’s ‘sizzling with excitement’ before sprinting inside with crisps, books and cuddly toys (she asks to take the iPad too, to which I answer with an exasperated ‘No!’)
After half an hour of silence they’re both engrossed in their books, relishing the independence. ‘It feels like a real house, it’s so grown up, Mummy,’ says Rosie. ‘Will you knit me a carpet for it?’
GARDEN GRADE: THREE BLUEBELLS
FUN AROUND THE CAMPFIRE FLAMES
Nervous about letting my children close to naked flames, I’m nonetheless keen to replicate Kate’s campfire, not least because the concept evokes childhood memories of toasting marshmallows in my own parents’ garden.
I place stones from the drive in a circle, before putting twigs and sticks over crumpled newspaper and setting a match to my efforts.
‘The fire of London is here!’ shrieks Felix excitedly and I enjoy the warmth as he shows me his bow and arrow he can ‘shoot to the sea’ — something he’d never have bothered to make had he been allowed access to his Nintendo Switch.
Sarah Ivens, author of Forest Therapy: Seasonal Ways To Embrace Nature For A Happier You, believes playing outdoors is better for youngsters’ brains.’
She explains: ‘Social skills are boosted as this style of unstructured imaginative play turns them into diplomats and team players.’
GARDEN GRADE: THREE BLUEBELLS
POND DECKING THAT’S FIT FOR A PRINCESS
Studies have shown proximity to water can improve physical and mental wellbeing, so it’s easy to see why the Duchess designed a waterfall that drops into a stream in her garden. I don’t have the wherewithal to build a waterfall, but I do have an altogether less impressive pond which I can surround with decking.
The Duchess’s wooden boards were provided by Ashwells, an Essex timber company. They came from Southend pier.
Antonia bought eight boards of timber decking at £3.19 a metre from a builders’ merchant, splashing out on nine £3.59 breezeblocks to raise the decking
The Duchess’s wooden boards (Prince George and Princess Charlotte seated) were provided by Ashwells, an Essex timber company
‘It wasn’t treated — it needed to look like it had been there a while,’ says Janine Davies-Tutt, Ashwells’ production manager, who sells the 200mm wide boards at £8 a metre.
I buy eight boards of timber decking at £3.19 a metre from a builders’ merchant, splashing out on nine £3.59 breezeblocks to raise the decking. ‘I understand what you’re trying to do here,’ a sales assistant tells me, ‘but I’m not sure it’s going to work.’
Pah! Not only does the decking withstand several eight-year-old somersaults, but Rosie declares the sensation of dangling her feet in the water ‘heavenly’ as I collapse in a heap from the exertion of its construction.
COST (INCL VAT & DELIVERY): £124.23
GARDEN GRADE: FOUR BLUEBELLS
After three days of constant construction, my hair smells of smoke, an exhausted Felix is covered in splinters and Rosie has virtually moved out now she’s got her ‘garden hangout’.
I’ve spent under £1,000 — a snip compared to the cost of electronic gadgets that have hitherto held the children’s attention hostage, and a sum that could be slashed with a cheaper swing and homemade tree house.
And if the effort and expense persuades my children to play outdoors more this summer, I’ll consider my royal project priceless.