Yesterday, in Holland Park, I saw a boy in a tree. He was sitting contentedly at the top of a decent-sized ornamental maple, while a young woman – too young to be his mother – waited below with no sign of anxiety or concern. In due course the boy clambered expertly down through the branches and swung to the ground. He was about 12, and I realised from his smart appearance and long shorts (and from what I caught of his conversation with the young woman – an elder sister perhaps?) that he must be French. Perhaps tree climbing is more common in France; here, as I realised when I spotted him, the sight of a boy in a tree is really quite unusual. The tree-climbing habit – once an essential element of every boyhood (and many a girlhood) – is dying out in our increasingly risk-averse society, where children are so much less free to roam than they once were – and it’s a shame.
When I arrived (from elsewhere) as a third-former at my primary school, I was inducted on the first day into the informal tree climbing club that roamed the local park after school, climbing a few trees on the way home. It was – and is – a park rich in fine old trees, especially sweet chestnuts that have become wonderfully contorted over the centuries. I was introduced to individual trees, each of which had a name and a character and a place in the tree-climbing hierarchy, from easy-peasy to near-impossible, and I grew to know those trees – the easier ones anyway – more intimately than they could ever be known from ground level. The texture (and smell) of their bark, the strange burrs and outgrowths and holes, the forks and hidden places where bird’s nests might be found (a boyhood pursuit even deader now than tree climbing – illegal even), the strength or weakness of each branch, the footholds and handholds by which to clamber up and (often trickier) down again, the places to hide unseen and spy on the world below. I’ve loved and been fascinated by trees ever since – though I’ve never known one as intimately as those I climbed – and I’m sure that love and fascination were born in me in those days, when I too was a boy in a tree.