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Come Up and See Me Sometime

Ali Watkinson meets the designer who firmly believes that follies, dens and summerhouses are not just for children No detail is too small for Richard Craven, the amiable designer of "treehouses and follies or any imaginative structure''. If his whimsical buildings require a rainspout, door latch, spy hole or lantern, he will do as any artisan worth his salt has always done: he'll make one, using traditional materials and skills.

But this Shropshire-based craftsman is no lost-in-time dreamer creating fanciful monuments to landowners' egos (though doubtless that comes into it). Rather, he conjures up handsome and eminently practical structures: "I don't like maintenance and I don't expect others to," he says.

Craven discovered his calling in a roundabout way. "I always enjoyed woodwork and making shelters - most children delight in creating dens and so on - so I suppose I have never grown up. After school, in the late 1950s, I worked as a forester in Sussex and was lucky enough to be part of a pre-chainsaw countryside, working with hand tools and with men who had used them all their lives. From there I went on to study forest management, but those early years lit a flame that has not gone out yet." Craven's skills are largely self-taught, gained from extending the cottage where he used to live and building a tower-like den for his three sons. He also looked at examples of traditional buildings and read around the subject. For large jobs, or those requiring skills such as metalwork, gilding and glazing, he calls in the experts. Living near Ludlow is an advantage. "Being a centre of the antiques trade, it attracts traditional craftsmen," he says.

17 July 2004[Property]: Home trial: summerhouses 17 April 2004[Property]: Property clinic: Summerhouse project 29 June 2002[Property]: Simply mad for their follies - Folly one: Summerhouse 15 June 2002[Property]: Treehouse that's a cut above the rest 16 February 2002: A cabin in the canopy Having spent more than 40 years managing English woodlands and forests, Craven is biased towards British materials. "I use naturally durable, home-grown timbers, mostly oak, but also chestnut and larch. I suppose I have planted many thousands of trees for every one I have used.

"I employ lead and copper, too, and use stone and brick that are local to wherever I am working. If outside colour is needed, I use earth dyes, which fade beautifully." Craven's aesthetic, which draws on centuries of garden-building history, developed over time. "Sooner or later it dawns on you that, although some buildings may look fine on paper, they look wrong in their surroundings. I try to approach a commission with an open mind. I avoid photos and sketches as the first impression is invaluable. I like to find out from the client what the building is to do and how they want it to make them feel. Then I look at the site to get the feel of the place. I find that after a few days mulling all this over, materials and shapes start to recommend themselves.

"I was invited to do a job in the north-east of Scotland many years ago. Looking at the flat landscape and the birches and juniper, I thought, gosh, this is just like the Russian Steppes. A design inspired by Russian wooden architecture, with a steeply pitched roof and a verandah, suggested itself. As soon as the clients saw the drawing, they said yes, this would work well here." Over 20 years, Craven's commissions have included summerhouses, dog kennels, tree platforms, and even a henhouse. "The Prince of Wales generously gave his ornamental fowls a henhouse on his 50th birthday. I designed and built it, mostly in green oak, with blacksmith-made hinges and door latches.

"It also had an aggressive four-foot-tall steel cockerel finial made by a sculptor friend, David Howorth. Cockerels always seem quite mad with power because they've got all these females under their control and he interpreted that idea very cleverly." Other noted clients include Mirabel Osler, the garden designer and writer. "My first commission was a little tree seat for Mirabel and her husband, Michael, for their garden in Shropshire. Mirabel often says that people spend a lot of time gardening and not enough time sitting and looking. Although she already had 14 seats in her garden, none gave her a bird's-eye view, so I built her a platform with room for three or four people to sit and have a glass of wine." One detail is best agreed beforehand. "It saves much time and misunderstanding to know what the client's budget is at an early stage," Craven cautions. "There is absolutely no commitment until the design has been approved." Prices depend on a myriad variables. "It is detail, and all its delight, which costs the money as much as size. I have done small commissions for £7,000 up to £60,000. There is no general rule and no average." While the Oxford English Dictionary defines a folly as "a name given to any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder," Craven describes his occupation as an amusing hobby and suggests that it is a bonus that it makes him money. "Sometimes my clients are kind enough to call to say that they still enjoy their buildings several years on and that is the best triumph," he says.

Langhale Gardens, Taylors Garden Buildings, Ashwellthorpe Industrial Estate, Norwich, Norfolk NR16 1ER (01508 489260; ). Eight brands, in styles traditional and modern. From £634.

Scotts of Thrapston, Bridge Street, Thrapston, Northants NN14 4LR (01832 732366; ). A choice of gazebo designs finished to the client's specification: choose the roof style and paint colour, and accessorise with interior upholstery. From £2,350.

Edopo, Prospect Hill Ventures, The Old Manor, 11-14 Sparrow Hill, Loughborough, Leics LE11 1BT (01509 211228; ). The No Tree House is a pavilion on stilts with stairs up to it and a balustrade. There are several versions, and a range of accessories. The idea is that you plant willow under and around the legs to create a feeling of being up in the treetops. From £7,450.

Come Up and See Me Sometime 1

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