The Tree Climber’s Guide to North London

Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber's Guide

Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber's Guide - Credit: Archant

Zoe Paskett talks to Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber’s Guide, about the benefits of free climbing and why it’s ok to get a few bumps and bruises

Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber's Guide

Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber's Guide - Credit: Archant

There’s an oak tree on Hampstead Heath that has fallen at such an odd angle its two branches continued to grow into the ground. At the new summit, a branch has looped and grown into itself to create a handle, and it is here that Jack Cooke talks about his love for climbing.

“It’s back to basics; that’s what I love about it,” says Jack, author of The Tree Climber’s Guide. “I think the value of climbing trees in the city is particularly special. Even if it’s just five minutes out of your day, it’s so memorable.

“By climbing trees, I’ve found it creates little landmarks in my life.”

For many of us, the last time we climbed a tree for any reason other than spying on neighbours or escaping the paparazzi would have been as a child. That’s the case for me, anyway.

Having left our shoes at the base of the tree, hoping they wouldn’t get stolen, the ascent begins. Jack scales the diagonal trunk in a matter of seconds but, cautious, I assess my route before taking the plunge and use all four limbs to waddle my way up.

Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber's Guide

Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber's Guide - Credit: Archant

Jack chose the Fallen Oak for us to climb as it is one of the trees featured in his best-selling book. It looks like a beginner’s tree, with an obvious route up and place to perch. Even so, the fear of falling sets in.

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“If you haven’t done it for a long time, I think every adult has a deep-set vertigo and fear of heights, so it takes a while to get back into it,” he says, once we have settled into a comfortable nook.

“70 or 80 ft sounds like a lot for people who don’t climb regularly and they think you must be a head case or have no fear, but I have a very healthy fear of heights. That’s part of the attraction and part of what keeps you holding on!”

Jack is a great advocate for returning to our roots. He rediscovered the lost art of tree climbing fairly recently, while working for a company that promoted Japanese culture.

“I hadn’t done it since I was about ten,” he says. “I had a wonderful job, but it was very computer based. I was working right next to the park, but you get so stuck into the routine that I never really went out there.

Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath - Credit: Archant

“One day I did and it started to rain so I took shelter under this amazing pine that I’d never really paid any attention to.

“I looked up and there was a perfect spiral like a tower staircase, so I stepped up and five minutes later I was 40 ft above Regent’s Park.”

Everything changed after that and he struggled with going back to the nine to five. On securing his book deal with Harper Collins, the office life became a distant memory.

The book itself is a just as much a guide for armchair arborists as climbers. Instead of a step-by-step guide of how best to climb, he writes about what he encounters in the canopy and gives evocative descriptions of his city views. He is proud of what he has learned since starting to research the book.

“Before I wrote it I wasn’t a bit of a naturalist. I didn’t know my species of trees at all. But when you’re up there, you’re so focused on not falling out that you take in all the details.

Jennifer Cooke illustrated The Tree Climber's Guide

Jennifer Cooke illustrated The Tree Climber's Guide - Credit: Archant

“Even in London you can sit in a tree for more than 10 minutes and almost become invisible to squirrels and birds. They’ll start to ignore you.”

Very conscious of the impact he makes on his surroundings, this climb is a shoes off affair.

“It’s quite tactile and immersive. Also, it does less damage than climbing in boots or trainers. I feel quite proud when I stub a toe or get a cut.”

Having recently become a father, will he be encouraging his son to follow in his footsteps?

“It’ll be an interesting litmus test for me when he grows up a bit to see how I respond to it. Being a parent I can appreciate it more, but today there’s such a risk-averse culture and parents are so anxious about letting kids play outside.

“My parents were very good at not putting restrictions on that so I did fall out of trees, I did take the skin off my knees but, conversely, it’s a good way of learning about risk.”

We get a variation of looks from passers-by, ranging from intrigue to bewilderment and Jack notes that it has lead to “embarrassing confrontations when coming back down.

“You go up a tree and half an hour later you start to descend and there’s a baby shower or a picnic or a couple necking at the bottom. How long do I wait? Do I jump down or just hover over them? I’ve got some evil eyes!”

On this occasion, we climb down without encountering any trouble. A couple of intermediate level trees later, I’m bruised and scratched and have burns on the underside of my arms and have lost much of my dignity.

But, according to Jack, the best climbers leave their dignity at the bottom of the tree with their trainers. You’ll just have to hope neither gets stolen.