Children often have dreams of making a magical space of their own, but it’s not often that they are able to make their dreams come true. Elsie Swanborough has been able to do just that, making the story of the Mushroom House one that has not only won hearts – but also the coveted ‘Shed of the Year’ competition, as sponsored by Cuprinol and announced on George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces programme on Channel 4.

Despite being “away with the fairies – in the nicest possible way,” as her father says, Elsie, now aged 13, is definitely not a dreamer. Instead of just fantasising about a mushroom shaped house, she commissioned it to be made. Luckily for Elsie, her father Ben, a garden designer, is hands-on and able to manage everything from design to the build. “When Elsie first asked me, ‘Dad, will you build me a mushroom house in the garden?’ I said – yes, and we talked about it, and I kept meaning to start on it, but various things got in the way. Then one day she said, ‘When are you going to build the Mushroom House? I have saved up £500. Will you make it?’”

They set to work. “We cleared the patch of dead space at the bottom of the garden and I did a sketch on paper,” says Ben. “The space dictated the shape and how big it could be.” Initially it was just going to be a round building, but Elsie insisted that in order to be a mushroom house, it had to have a stalk. “I had some four metre lengths of oak ready to use,” Ben explains. “I used four big oak sleepers to make the frame and keep it steady and strong, then I constructed an oak frame for the top floor with treated softwood and cedar too. The roof and walls are clad in cedar tiles.”

The Mushroom House couldn’t be built all in one go, so had to be completed in stages, when time and resources allowed. Ben remembers: “Elsie would come home from school each time with a smile on her face asking to help.”

The Mushroom House couldn’t be built all in one go, so had to be completed in stages, when time and resources allowed. Ben remembers: “Elsie would come home from school each time with a smile on her face asking to help.” They got a bit carried away with some of the ideas, so the original £500 didn’t go very far. The building extends out over a small river and so Ben has installed a window in the floor, so that you can look down into the water.

It is Elsie’s continued inspiration and interest that not only got the project off the ground, but launched into the stratosphere. “We were watching George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces one day,” says Ben. “Elsie said; ‘Dad, do you think we could get the Mushroom House on? We had to send designs and plans – not that I had any!” He laughs, “So we sent pictures. They said, ‘we love it! It’s perfect for Shed of the Year’. And then the pressure was really on.”

“In the end they gave us some more time,” Ben says, “and we were the last to be photographed, which helped.” Last, but patently not the least. Since winning, the mushroom shed has had lots of media attention. “It’s been all over the place, national newspapers, BBC Radio 2, even on the ITV news. Who knows where it will lead… Last year’s winner now makes sheds for other people and has brought out a book. You just don’t know what will happen from this.” Ben is hoping that winning the title will help to launch a business making bespoke garden buildings. “It would be great,” he says, “I’ve really enjoyed making the Mushroom House and I’d love to do some other projects.”

Although not trained in design, Ben’s creative flair must have something to do with the fact his great uncle was Thomas Cooper Gotch, an English Pre-Raphaelite painter and book illustrator. Elsie and her older brother Sebastian are also good at art. “I’ve definitely inherited the ‘quirky junk shop finds’ side of things from my mother. I love going round junk yards, looking on Ebay, finding things.” The vintage inspired, quirky look is not just confined to Ben’s award-winning shed, however. It turns out that the interior of their house in the pretty village of Chiddingfold is just as unique.

The family have lived in the house for over 10 years, but as Ben explains: “When we first saw it I wasn’t that keen. I didn’t like the windows for a start and decided that maybe this wasn’t the house for us. However, I once drove through Chiddingfold when I was younger and said to myself that I wanted to live in the village. What I didn’t realise when we came to see the house, because we entered the village from a different direction, was that it was in the village of my dreams.” So they bought it. But what about the windows? “They would have cost thousands to replace,” he says, adding, “I’ve learned to live with them.”

The interior of the house was not ideal either. “It was not to our taste when we moved in, but it was very clean and tidy. We put in a new bathroom and kitchen, took up the carpets and sanded the floorboards,” says Ben, adding, “now we need to do them again!”

Elsie’s bedroom is pure white and is calm and tidy, save for a single rustic oak shelf packed full of teddies and toys. This shelf may well have sparked the idea for the shed. “She wanted a woodland creature theme for her bedroom,” says Ben, “and I guess the Mushroom House is an extension of that.”

The walls throughout the house are painted in pale grey shades – Farrow and Ball’s ‘Hardwick White’ and ‘Mouse’s Back’ predominate. Elsie’s bedroom is pure white and is calm and tidy, save for a single rustic oak shelf packed full of teddies and toys. This shelf may well have sparked the idea for the shed. “She wanted a woodland creature theme for her bedroom,” says Ben, “and I guess the Mushroom House is an extension of that.”

“When it was time to redo the front room, my wife Sammy was a bit fed up with all my clutter in the dining room, so we went for a calmer look in here.” The furniture is mid-century modern. “I still wanted the industrial theme, so the streamlined look of the fifties and sixties worked well, as it has a vintage edge too,” says Ben, who clearly has an artist’s, as well as a collector’s eye. “What’s so great is that they’ve always been moaning at me and wanting normal rooms, but when the film crews came in, they loved it, so no one complains about my stuff anymore, it’s all come good.” He laughs.

There’s an old French chateau shutter on the living room wall, displayed like a piece of art and hanging above an illuminated coiffeur unit from a French hairdresser’s, picked up in Lille at the Braderie France, a massive flea market. “It’s great. They hold it each year and it takes up the whole of the town. They close all the roads. It’s a big thing.”

“I love quirky bits and bobs; I go for colours, I like old toys, as much for the colours as for the objects in themselves.”

There are more vintage finds in the kitchen. An enormous chandelier twinkles above the dining table, which has been cleverly made from scaffolding poles and boards. “The light was Sammy’s idea. I wanted three pendant lights, but she put her foot down.” The green industrial looking cupboard is from Hastings, it came from a factory and smelled horribly of oil for a while. Ingeniously, Ben has used reclaimed floorboards on the wall: “It was almost like putting a decking frame against the wall, into which I cut shelves and alcoves, hiding speakers and an industrial lamp in the wall,” he says, adding, “I love quirky bits and bobs; I go for colours, I like old toys, as much for the colours as for the objects in themselves.” On one wall is a vintage chocolate dispensing machine. “We bought that – together with a soap and towel machine – at a pop up antique shop in a Turkish night club. It was great, we went a few times, and then one day it had all vanished.” This all sounds rather Harry Potter.

In the dining room Ben has used reclaimed floorboards on the wall: “It was almost like putting a decking frame against the wall, into which I cut shelves and alcoves, hiding speakers and an industrial lamp in the wall.”

The Mushroom House itself sits in a corner at the bottom of the garden, slightly overhanging a little stream. “Initially there was just a little door downstairs, but we realised that no adult would want to come in this way, so I put in another entrance straight into the upstairs section,” says Ben. “I’ve had the little gothic door for ages that came from an Arthur Swallows fair at Loseley Park and I guess it’s inspired part of the Mushroom House. It fits the theme well.”

In the ‘stalk’ of the mushroom there’s an ingenious storage bench and table and a small staircase leading up into the ‘cap’. “The steps have drawers in but the deadline for finishing was so tight that I decided to make a climbing wall instead and so there’s just one step at the bottom with a drawer containing a special treat store.” The big wooden pole in the centre of the house was put in as an afterthought. “I put it in when I started building the roof,” says Ben. “It gives support to the roof, but also gives it the treehouse feel, as if the trunk of a tree is growing up through the middle of the house.”

The magical, quirky windows are from salvage fairs and the stained glass panel came from a car boot sale. Ben remembers: “The windows were cheap, but in order to comply with health and safety, we had to put toughened glass panels over them, so they ended up being very expensive.” The toughened glass window on the floor is an inspired idea: it’s two inches thick, so you can stand on it, or lie on the floor and look down to the river below. There’s a matching roof window too, for staring up at the stars above.

Ben has made a little wooden kitchen area from larch cladding, the perfect place for preparing toast and hot chocolate. “The larch keeps its bark on and looks more magical like that. I just sanded and oiled it,” he says. It is these little things – the attention to detail, the finishing touches and themed accessories that helped the Mushroom House win the title ‘Shed of the Year’.

Just as we’re finishing our chat, Elsie comes in and talks enthusiastically about the wonderful house. “Me and my friends designed the Mushroom House in year five,” she says, “but I didn’t think it would come this far. When we went on the stage and they announced it and then we won, I was so happy.” She continues, “My friends love it, my brother loves it. It’s calm and cosy to sleep in but you can only have 2 or 3 people inside. It is sometimes too hot or too cold and there are a few bugs and spiders,” she says, adding, “but, you can get a spray made out of conkers which sends them away, so we’re trying that.”

Spiders aside (or even inside), it is clear that the award-winning shed is a big hit with everyone. It is also testament to the vision, faith and attention to detail of this inspirational father and daughter team. Let us hope that interest in the Mushroom House continues to, well… mushroom.

The master bedroom is a peaceful haven of white

The master bedroom is a peaceful haven of white

The vintage inspired, quirky look is not just confined to Ben’s award-winning shed, however. It turns out that the interior of their house in the pretty village of Chiddingfold is just as unique

The vintage inspired, quirky look is not just confined to Ben’s award-winning shed, however. It turns out that the interior of their house in the pretty village of Chiddingfold is just as unique

When Ben and Sammy moved in, they removed the carpets and sanded the floorboards

When Ben and Sammy moved in, they removed the carpets and sanded the floorboards

The walls throughout the house are painted in pale grey shades – Farrow and Ball’s ‘Hardwick White’ and ‘Mouse’s Back’ predominate

The walls throughout the house are painted in pale grey shades – Farrow and Ball’s ‘Hardwick White’ and ‘Mouse’s Back’ predominate

I once drove through Chiddingfold when I was younger and said to myself that I wanted to live in the village. What I didn’t realise when we came to see the house, because we entered the village from a different direction, was that it was in the village of my dreams.”

"I once drove through Chiddingfold when I was younger and said to myself that I wanted to live in the village. What I didn’t realise when we came to see the house, because we entered the village from a different direction, was that it was in the village of my dreams.”

Elsie’s bedroom is pure white and is calm and tidy, save for a single rustic oak shelf packed full of teddies and toys

Elsie’s bedroom is pure white and is calm and tidy, save for a single rustic oak shelf packed full of teddies and toys

An old French chateau shutter on the living room wall is displayed like a piece of art above an illuminated coiffeur unit from a French hairdresser’s, picked up in Lille at the Braderie France, a massive flea market

An old French chateau shutter on the living room wall is displayed like a piece of art above an illuminated coiffeur unit from a French hairdresser’s, picked up in Lille at the Braderie France, a massive flea market

“When it was time to redo the front room, my wife Sammy was a bit fed up with all my clutter in the dining room, so we went for a calmer look in here.”

“When it was time to redo the front room, my wife Sammy was a bit fed up with all my clutter in the dining room, so we went for a calmer look in here.”

There are more vintage finds in the kitchen

There are more vintage finds in the kitchen

The dining table has been cleverly made from scaffolding poles and boards

The dining table has been cleverly made from scaffolding poles and boards

On one wall is a vintage chocolate dispensing machine. “We bought that – together with a soap and towel machine – at a pop up antique shop in a Turkish night club. It was great, we went a few times, and then one day it had all vanished.”

On one wall is a vintage chocolate dispensing machine. “We bought that – together with a soap and towel machine – at a pop up antique shop in a Turkish night club. It was great, we went a few times, and then one day it had all vanished.”

Although not trained in design, Ben’s creative flair must have something to do with the fact his great uncle was Thomas Cooper Gotch, an English Pre-Raphaelite painter and book illustrator. Elsie and her older brother Sebastian are also good at art.“I’ve definitely inherited the ‘quirky junk shop finds’ side of things from my mother. I love going round junk yards, looking on Ebay, finding things,” he says

Although not trained in design, Ben’s creative flair must have something to do with the fact his great uncle was Thomas Cooper Gotch, an English Pre-Raphaelite painter and book illustrator. Elsie and her older brother Sebastian are also good at art

Although not trained in design, Ben’s creative flair must have something to do with the fact his great uncle was Thomas Cooper Gotch, an English Pre-Raphaelite painter and book illustrator. Elsie and her older brother Sebastian are also good at art.“I’ve definitely inherited the ‘quirky junk shop finds’ side of things from my mother. I love going round junk yards, looking on Ebay, finding things,” he says

“I’ve definitely inherited the ‘quirky junk shop finds’ side of things from my mother. I love going round junk yards, looking on Ebay, finding things,” he says

“I love quirky bits and bobs; I go for colours, I like old toys, as much for the colours as for the objects in themselves.”

“I love quirky bits and bobs; I go for colours, I like old toys, as much for the colours as for the objects in themselves.”

Ingeniously, Ben has used reclaimed floorboards on the wall: “It was almost like putting a decking frame against the wall, into which I cut shelves and alcoves, hiding speakers and an industrial lamp in the wall,”

Ingeniously, Ben has used reclaimed floorboards on the wall: “It was almost like putting a decking frame against the wall, into which I cut shelves and alcoves, hiding speakers and an industrial lamp in the wall,”

The award-winning Mushroom House at the bottom of Ben Swanborough’s garden is built to the design of his daughter, Elsie

The award-winning Mushroom House at the bottom of Ben Swanborough’s garden is built to the design of his daughter, Elsie

Instead of just fantasising about a mushroom shaped house, she commissioned it to be made

Instead of just fantasising about a mushroom shaped house, Elsie commissioned it to be made

When the family moved in, they added a new kitchen and bathroom to the main house

When the family moved in, they added a new kitchen and bathroom to the main house

“I’ve really enjoyed making the Mushroom House and I’d love to do some other projects.”

“I’ve really enjoyed making the Mushroom House and I’d love to do some other projects.”

Ben is hoping that winning the title will help to launch a business making bespoke garden buildings

Ben is hoping that winning the title will help to launch a business making bespoke garden buildings

The toughened glass window in the floor of the Mushroom House is two inches thick, so you can stand on it, or lie on the floor and look down to the river below

The toughened glass window in the floor of the Mushroom House is two inches thick, so you can stand on it, or lie on the floor and look down to the river below

Ben sourced the Mushroom House’s quirky windows from salvage fairs. He found the stained glass window at a car boot sale

Ben sourced the Mushroom House’s quirky windows from salvage fairs. He found the stained glass window at a car boot sale

The toughened glass window in the floor of the Mushroom House is two inches thick, so you can stand on it, or lie on the floor and look down to the river below

Spiders aside (or even inside), it is clear that the award-winning shed is a big hit with everyone

In the ‘stalk’ of the mushroom there’s an ingenious storage bench and table and a small staircase leading up into the ‘cap’

In the ‘stalk’ of the mushroom there’s an ingenious storage bench and table and a small staircase leading up into the ‘cap’

It is also testament to the vision, faith and attention to detail of this inspirational father and daughter team

It is also testament to the vision, faith and attention to detail of this inspirational father and daughter team

The award-winning Mushroom House at the bottom of Ben Swanborough’s garden is built to the design of his daughter, Elsie

The award-winning Mushroom House at the bottom of Ben Swanborough’s garden is built to the design of his daughter, Elsie

  • words:
  • pictures: David Merewether
  • styling: Helen Barton

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