Branching out in Solihull

Trees, arbours and pergolas are great ways of adding a bit of shade to play areas. They're even more exciting for children if they're made out of living wood, reports Trish Walters

According to at least one health expert, allowing young children to play in strong sunshine can put their delicate skin at risk. Dr Mike Deakin, consultant in public health medicine for Solihull Health Authority, says: "There is good evidence that malignant melanomas, the really dangerous skin cancers, are influenced by the occasional exposure to intense sun in childhood."

In the light of these findings, Solihull Health Education Service is asking schools to provide shade in their grounds. While this may take the form of trees and pergolas, one local infants school has opted for a novel, more natural solution.

Last December, with the help of funds from Solihull Council's Green Scheme, Helen Chapman, head of Valley Infants School, enlisted the services of "willow artist" Steve Pickup to create one of his specialised structures in the school grounds.

At his base in mid-Wales, Steve grows more than 100 different types of willow, for which he has found a number of innovative applications. In addition to basketry, he has used this versatile material for soil stabilisation, wind breaks and shelter belts, but his most coveted creations are his living willow structures.

He plants live willow rods and weaves them together to create arbours, tunnels and arches, which are green in the summer and lose their leaves in the winter. Steve makes them to commission, and while some are for private individuals and community gardens, many are for schools.

The structure he has created at Valley Infants School is probably one of his most ambitious. It takes the form of a central "stardome" - a large "igloo" with pentagons, triangles and five pointed stars woven in - which is reached by a series of elaborate tunnels. One of these is shaped like a serpent, with a serpent's-head entrance; another is a tiny labyrinth; and a third is made up of a series of spirals, to create a maze-like effect.

It took three days to construct, and Steve had no shortage of helpers. "Willow is an ideal material for children," he says, "because it is safe to work with and requires plenty of imagination. The children got very excited by it all, and came out in small groups all through the day to help me weave the willow. " Indeed, they became so involved that at the end of each school day they would scamper across the field to check up on how the work was progressing.

One of the many attractions of a living willow structure is that it requires minimal maintenance. Because all the shoots grow vertically, the structure will keep its shape, and the new growth just needs to be trimmed or woven back every autumn. "Some people might look upon the maintenance as a chore," Steve remarks, "but I prefer to see it as the harvesting of a new crop of willow which can then be put to a variety of uses."

His structures have become springboards for a number of cross-curricular activities, incorporating art, craft, design, ecology, science, and even industrial processes. Steve cites one inventive school that used the trimmings to weave baskets, make paper, and to burn in a kiln to make artist's charcoal. It even got a local blacksmith in to show how the charcoal could be used to smelt iron, which was then used to make spades.

The children of Valley Infants School are looking forward to a long, hot summer, and the staff are planning how to make the best use of their stardome. "Not only do we now have a safe, shady, outside play area," says Helen Chapman, "but it will make a wonderful outdoor classroom. And just think of all the poetry and music that will be inspired by such a lovely, leafy environment. "


* It can cost anything from Pounds 300 to Pounds 400 for a small tunnel, and up to Pounds 1,000 for a substantial structure that makes an impact on the landscape and which can be used by schools as an outdoor classroom in summer * All Steve Pickup's structures are designed in consultation with the clients, and tailored to their needs * Willow will grow almost anywhere, though the better the soil, the more vigorous the growth, and heavily shaded areas should be avoided * It can be planted any time between November and March * At the end of the growing season, new growth can either be harvested or woven back into the structure * Steve Pickup can be contacted at The Willow Bank, Y Fron, Lawr-y-Glyn, Caersws, Powys, SY17 5RJ. Tel: 01686 430510 * Examples of Steve's structures can be seen at The Green Wood Trust, Station Road, Coalbrookdale, Telford, Shropshire TF8 7DR, telfax 01952 432769, and also at The Henry Doubleday Research Association, Ryton Organic Gardens, Coventry CV8 3LG. Tel: 01203 303517. Fax: 01203 639229. E-mail:

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