Mrs Ray and the boys — Ferdy, six, and Ludo, four — were desperate to go camping in Cornwall. I was equally desperate not to. Camping ain’t my thing (I can’t really speak for Cornwall, never having been there). I get cold and grumpy, and as well as imagining snakes and spiders behind every tent peg, I really can’t cope without all the basic essentials such as fluffy white towels, hot running water, cold white wine and internet access.
I told Marina and the boys that I was far too old for such nonsense. The weather will be vile, I said, and we’ll all hate it. Trust me. Let’s play safe and go to France for a long weekend, stay somewhere comfy and eat and drink like kings.
I admit to a slight twinge of paternal guilt on seeing the little chaps’ crestfallen faces, but once a father has spoken he has to remain firm.
‘Don’t worry, Ludo,’ Ferdy muttered as the boys shuffled miserably out of the room. ‘We all know who wears the trousers in this house. Mummy will sort it out.’
Marina accepted my decision gracefully and agreed to cancel the campsite and book something more appropriate. ‘Leave it to me, it’ll be a surprise,’ she said.
A couple of weeks later and it was off to France on the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry. The four-hour crossing passed in a flash. Ferdy and Ludo raced round the deck with hordes of other children, watched cartoons and exhausted themselves on some vital secret agent mission. Marina and I booked a cabin and took it in turns to snooze. She wouldn’t tell us where we were off to, simply tapping her nose and winking.
We had moules et frites in Dieppe and were in high good humour by the time we arrived in Chartres and checked into the local Novotel (for one night only, Marina assured me). It wasn’t half bad, since you ask. The food was good, the family room comfortable and the boys thrilled with their complimentary cuddly toys.
The next morning we wandered the cobbled streets of Chartres, visiting its striking gothic cathedral (the boys much taken by its marble labyrinth) and stuffing our faces in a wonderful family-owned créperie (Marina much taken by the local cider). We then made for our secret destination, picking up supplies at a supermarket en route (don’t you just love French supermarkets?), Marina having advised us that we would be self-catering.
A couple of hours later and we pulled up outside a charming wisteria-clad farmhouse in the middle of a flower-strewn meadow. I knew in an instant that we would be happy as larks within its rustic stone walls.
We were greeted warmly by Clare, the English owner, but instead of beckoning us in, she grabbed one of our bags and walked us down a freshly mown path through the fields. The boys suddenly whooped for joy.
‘Daddy, daddy, come quickly!’ yelled Ludo. ‘A house has crash-landed!’
There in front of us, on the edge of the forest, stood a vast sweet chestnut tree within whose branches rested an intricately structured wooden house. A flipping tree house. I should have read the small print; surely this counted as camping.
But it was a revelation: a steep wooden stair led to a terrace and a front door. Within, there was a kitchenette, a shower room, loo, dining area, a double bedroom and a shelf of board games. Downstairs was a further room (complete with leafy bough curling in one window and out another) with bunk-bed and desk.
‘We’re going to sleep in the clouds,’ sighed Ferdy. ‘With the blue tits.’
The rain started almost as soon as we arrived, but blow me, we had an absolute hoot for the whole three days. From our eyrie we were kings of all we surveyed. We shared our terrace with squirrels and birds, and our meadow with deer and the occasional snuffling wild boar. We taught the boys Cluedo and Scrabble and they taught us Pokémon. We laughed as the boys threw their dirty socks into the branches and they laughed as I banged my head every five minutes. We cooked enormous garlic-laden feasts and drank cider and supermarket plonk. We watched the sun sink behind the forest and were rocked gently to sleep in the swaying branches.
Not only that, we had all the basic essentials such as fluffy white towels, hot running water, cold white wine and internet access. I mean, who the hell wants to go camping in Cornwall?
Treehouse of the week: La Renardière, 61130 Bellou-le-Trichard-Orne, tel: 00 33 2 33 25 57 96; www.perchedansleperche.com