The Art of Den

Posted on April 7, 2010


Building Dens is one of my fondest and most integral childhood memories. The vision that most prominently springs to mind is one of a roof constructed from harvested sweetcorn stalks beneath the late summer cover of a Crab Apple tree. The fruit of which is a fantastic source of ammunition to repel any way-fairing little sisters. I was never one for free standing dens in exposed locations, I always favoured building off of something more permanent, a shed or a fence. The previously mentioned den was in my favourite spot, against the back of a shed on the edge of the garden with the opposing side open to the wheat field, a source of both cover and an escape route. This location aided in one of the key requirements of even the most basic den, to act as a wind-break. There is nothing like moving into protection from a chilly wind, except possibly the feeling created by separating oneself from the rain by the smallest margin. Dens do this to varying degrees, a sheet of tin or plastic may provide complete resistance with minimum thickness whilst capturing that wonderful sound of rain abruptly reaching its destination. A more organic solution, no matter how well built up, will almost always drip, which in its way also adds to the joy in that tiny degree of separation between shelter and the elements.

Dens are fantastic indicators of location and season. They are constructed out of what ever is at hand, and kids don’t have any pre-programmed preferences towards materials, a scrap of plastic bag, the current height of unsightlyness for the eco-driven fashion conscious, is happily incorporated into the waterproofing. Whether in a wood, field, scrap yard or urban wasteland, all materials are considered. In the winter the rural den becomes much more exposed and materials can be scarce. I often found the big lumps of earth churned up by the ploughs excellent in the construction of a dry stone wall style bunker.

A peculiar phenomenon among the tenants of dens (or ‘dennents’) is the quality to be found in objects that are left in the den, they go through a change, take on new traits. Like ancient explorers they forever step aside from the society they once belonged to. Often they never return, if they do they are weathered and aged, never the same again.

In some walks of life of course dens are a more serious business. Roaming shepherds are notable dennents. From the simple A-frame with roofing shingles of a French shepherd to more solid structures and everything in between, an eclectic mix of shelters can be found in rural areas all over the world charting the passage of shepherds seeking refuge. Some are left in place for the next time, some are taken along and re-erected tent-fashion while others are purely constructed for the current situation and abandoned.

A fine barrier between life and death, the fruits of a child’s imagination or a place of belonging in a faceless urban backdrop, the den is international and highly local, basic and sophisticated. Oh to be a child again and den once more.

Shepherd’s A-frame shelter, France

Shepherd’s Shelter, Rwanda

Shepherd’s Shelter, Peru

Posted in: Den, England, Shelter