Once upon a time, in a clearing deep in the woods, stood a rustic wooden cabin. It was home to a family of seven brown bears and had been their abode for as long as any of the bear cubs could remember. Papa Bear had designed the enchanting timber residence himself and built it with the help of his woodland friends and neighbours - plus, it goes without saying, a selection of handy power tools.
The picturesque homestead stood on Forestry Commission land, cocooned by ancient trees at whose feet grew fragrant ferns and flowering sedges. It was a wonderful place to live. In the summer it was shady and cool and in the winter it was protected from the cold, harsh winds which blew across the open fields beyond the woodland. There was a rich source of timber for Papa Bear's projects (as long as Forestry Commission regulations regarding felling licenses, tree preservation orders and environmental impact were adhered to). And there was no shortage of berries and acorns and fungi and other tempting plant life from which Mama Bear would conjure up delicious meals for the family.
Mama Bear had given birth to their three litters of cubs here, all of whom still lived with them in the roomy but cosy dwelling. Baby Bear was the firstborn. These days he objected to being referred to as 'Baby Bear' but the moniker had stuck. Two sets of twins followed, a boy and a girl each time. Bella and Baloo were born three years after Baby Bear. Buttercup and Bugsy came along two years later . Although the cubs really were quite grown-up now, none were showing any signs of wanting to move out. The bears' house was warm and comfortable, and Mama Bear had made it exceedingly homely.
From time to time walkers from outside the woods would find themselves on the leafy path which meandered its way past the bears' idyllic property. Some would take fright at seeing the pack of lumbering brown creatures. But Mama Bear had made it her mission to let these occasional hikers know that as a family, although omnivorous, they were not active predators.
'We actually obtain ninety percent of our dietary needs from vegetable matter and the other ten percent from insects, larvae and grubs,' she would explain with the most affable smile she could muster.
There had been only one unpleasant incident in the whole of the family's time in the woods, when Baby Bear was still an 'only cub' and Bella, Baloo, Buttercup and Bugsy just twinkles in Papa Bear's eye. The hirsute trio had been out looking for honey, Papa Bear having found a bees' nest on his timber-gathering walk the previous day. When they returned to their house they found the front door ajar, and on entering discovered that someone or something had been eating their breakfast. The culprit, a little blonde girl, was eventually located snoozing on Baby Bear's bed. Startled by the noise of Papa Bear's angry growl she leapt to her tiny feet, ran past the bears and escaped into the woods. Papa Bear was all for reporting the break-in, but Mama Bear said the girl was probably just lost and hungry and had done no harm. And that was the end of the matter.
* * *
One sunny spring morning, Buttercup and Bugsy were out gathering nettles and wild garlic for Mama's special soup. As they strolled along the woodland path, keeping clear of the scratchy thicket which always got caught in their fur, they spied Little Red Riding Hood coming towards them.
'Hello Red.' beamed Buttercup.
'Hello.' muttered Bugsy, staring at his paws and blushing under his thick brown coat. He was rather fond of Red Riding Hood.
'Hello you two,' mumbled the small crimson-caped one.
Buttercup thought she sounded a little downhearted.
'Is something wrong?'
'I've just been to see Granny,' Red sighed. 'She's been a bit strange recently. To be honest I don't really like going to visit her anymore.'
'Oh dear!' said Bugsy. 'Has she suddenly grown great big eyes, and great big ears and a great big mouth?'
'What?' replied Red. 'Don't be ridiculous. I'm not saying she's turned into a wolf or anything. She's been watching WDL videos on YouTube and...'
'What's WDL?' asked Bugsy.
'The Woodland Defence League,' Red answered. 'They aren't awfully kind about non-woodlanders. Anyway now she's started expressing some pretty uncomfortable views. Dad says she's been radicalised in her old age.'
'Ooh,' cringed Bugsy. 'That doesn't sound too good.'
'Well, nice to see you anyway Red,' chirped Buttercup, not sure what else to add. 'Keep to the path won't you!'
* * *
At approximately the same time as their siblings' encounter with Red, Bella and Baloo were on their way to the stream to fetch water. They were playing around and twirling their empty pails with foolhardy abandon. As they rounded a large oak tree Baloo swung his bucket upwards and almost hit an oddly dressed man coming the other way. The stranger was wearing a pied coat, with alternate blocks of yellow and red. In his right hand he carried a pipe.
'Oh, I'm so sorry,' apologised Baloo.
'No harm done,' beamed the man with a clipped Germanic accent. 'May I introduce myself? My name is Peter and I am a piper.'
'Where are you from?' inquired Bella.
'Hamelin,' said the man. 'In Lower Saxony.'
'Why have you come here?' asked Baloo.
'I have come looking for work as a musician,' answered the man with the pied coat.
'Why couldn't you work in Hamelin?' wondered Baloo out loud.
'Don't be rude,' scolded Bella.
'It's alright,' replied the Teutonic stranger. 'I suffered some harassment from the townsfolk. It's a long story.'
'Oh,' said Baloo.
'Well, nice to meet you young bears,' smiled the man. 'I am off to the inn to see if I can persuade the landlord to give me some sessions there.'
* * *
That evening Papa Bear met his friend Pinocchio for a drink. They had been chums since they were very young - from before Pinocchio was even a real boy in fact. Now of course he was a real man. Mama got on well with Mrs Pinocchio and their children were great friends of the cubs. Pinocchio played the guitar and made a good living gigging at local hostelries.
Normally Pinocchio was highly entertaining company, regaling anyone who would listen with tall tales and amusing anecdotes. But on this particular occasion he was rather quiet and Papa Bear sensed that something was up. After the three rounds of mead, Pinocchio finally revealed he had something to tell him.
'We're moving,' he announced. 'Out of the woods.'
Papa Bear felt sick. He and Pinocchio had been friends for such a long time. The children had grown up together. He couldn't imagine their not being a part of each others' lives.
'But why?' he asked.
'Lots of reasons,' said Pinocchio. 'It's getting harder to find work for one thing. Why just today the inn by the stream took on some German piper for the Tuesday night slots.'
'Oh.' gulped Papa Bear.
'And the Forestry Commission regulations are becoming suffocating. You must have noticed. I want to cut down a few trees so I can build a recording studio, but they won't let me. It's ridiculous! We want to go somewhere we can have control again.'
The conversation that night made Papa Bear sad.
* * *
For the whole of the following week Papa Bear kept mulling over his talk with Pinocchio. He started to wonder if his friend was doing the right thing. Hadn't Papa Bear himself been refused planning permission last year for an extension which would have housed his new hibernation den? Pondering this one afternoon he set off to see Red Riding Hood's father, for whom he had promised to drop off some freshly (but legally) cut green oak . It wasn't long before the two got into a discussion about Granny Hood's political views. Mr Hood was obviously embarrassed by his mother's sudden radicalisation, but little seeds of doubt about the way things were in the woods now were starting to germinate in Papa Bear's mind.
'You know Pinocchio can't get enough work since that German piper turned up?' said Papa Bear to Mr Hood.
'The piper was only given one night a week at the inn,' laughed Mr Hood. 'And it's good to have some variety!'
'Well, I don't expect I'll like his music,' grumped Papa Bear, more out of loyalty to his friend than for any strongly held aesthetic reason.
That evening, back at the bears' house, the talk over supper was of incomers and Forestry Commission rules and the Pinocchio family's surprise decision to leave.
Mama Bear was sad, she didn't like the way this was going. When Papa Bear started to moan afresh about his thwarted den plans, Mama sighed and pointed out that the extension would have meant diverting the woodland path so it wasn't really a surprise that it was rejected. But Papa Bear just harrumphed. Mama Bear made a mental note get hold of a copy the latest Forestry Commission regulations to see if they really were becoming draconian.
Papa Bear got himself into a bit of a state and couldn't sleep that night. Lying in the dark, wide awake, overtired and agitated he decided he would start to investigate some "lifestyle alternatives" for the family the very next day.
* * *
In the morning Papa Bear, feeling slightly guilty, left the woods set off for the local town to visit an estate agent. He took with him a charming painting of the house which Bella had done last year. He wasn't sure what to expect, having never been to an estate agency before, but the lady who ran it seemed very nice. Her name was May and she was, she explained, a former fairy godmother who had decided to change career paths after she had helped a girl being held in conditions of virtual slavery by her step family. Apparently the step family had sued May for the cost of a replacement skivvy when she found the girl a wealthy prince to marry and thus facilitated her living happily ever after beyond the bonds of step-familial servitude.
Papa Bear was decidedly encouraged to see how excited May was at the prospect of having a house in the woods to sell and he thought that someone with fairy godmother training would be just the right person to help them find their dream home.
'I'm sure we'll have absolutely no problem selling your property!' May gushed. 'Could I come out and measure up tomorrow?'
Mama Bear was taking the cubs to visit their three diminutive porcine friends for tea the following day so Papa Bear arranged for May to come over at 3pm. There was no need to concern Mrs Bear with all of this just yet. It was only an idea wasn't it?
* * *
The following evening Papa Bear revealed that he had exciting news for the family.
'I've been thinking a great deal about our situation,' he explained, 'with regards to the increasingly oppressive Forestry Commission rules, and the influx of outsiders, and their effect on the job market and...'
Before he could finish Mama Bear interjected.
'One German musician is hardly an influx,' she said crossly. 'And I went through the Forestry Commission regulations yesterday and cannot see anything in them that isn't there to make the lives of the woodland citizens better. Of course they prevent individuals from doing whatever they would like, but how would it be if folk had no care for the wonderful environment we live in?'
Papa Bear wasn't convinced.
'I just want to live somewhere we can have a bit more control over what we do,' he insisted. 'Now just hear me out.'
'I went to see an estate agent yesterday and she told me we could make a lot of money selling this house and be able to afford something marvellous if we were to leave the woods. Or we could buy a plot of empty land and start from scratch. We could construct a veritable palace! And no one would be allowed to tell us what we could or couldn't build. What do you all think? Shall we at least consider it?'
Mama looked sad. Baloo looked sad. Buttercup looked sad.
But the other three cubs looked interested. Papa showed them pictures of the sort of places May told him they could afford if they sold up.
'I want to live in a house by a magical lake,' said Bugsy.
'I want to live in a gingerbread cottage,' said Bella.
'I'm sure we could tick both those boxes,' enthused Papa Bear. 'Let's have a family vote. Who wants to stay here forever?'
Mama Bear, Baloo and Buttercup put up their paws.
'And who wants to get out of the woods?' asked Papa Bear, raising his own paw.
His was followed by Bugsy's and Bella's.
Everyone looked at Baby Bear. In truth he had never quite got over coming home to find a stranger in his bed all those years ago. He might be safer somewhere else he thought. Perhaps a castle with its own fortifications?
Baby Bear tentatively raised his paw.
'Then it's carried, four to three,' grinned Papa Bear. 'I will instruct May to set things in motion tomorrow!'
* * *
The bears' house was on the market for eight weeks before they had a single viewing. It was extremely frustrating for the family who felt as though they were living in limbo. Every room had to be kept in a state of tiptop tidiness, which was not easy with five boisterous cubs in residence. The first viewers to appear were less than complimentary about the woodland home. They found the windows too draughty and the decor too dark and the garden too wild.
A few more sporadic viewings followed, the feedback being of a similar nature and eventually May told Papa Bear that they would need to spend some money modernising and redecorating if they were serious about moving.
'I like our home the way it is,' objected Mama Bear. ' It feels like a waste of money.'
'It has to be done if we want to sell,' grumped Papa Bear.
And so it was. Modern double glazing was installed, walls were repainted and the garden tamed. New vendor details were drawn up and a second spate of viewings followed. This time there were some offers, but all at a considerably lower figure than the asking price which May had assured them they would have no difficulty achieving.
'If you want to move you will have to take a reduced sum,' she advised them eventually.
'Mama Bear was not at all happy.
'We've spent most of our savings on "improvements"', she chided, 'And now we have to sell for less!'
'May says that even at the lower amount we will have more than enough to afford our dream home outside the woods,' retorted Papa Bear.
He eventually persuaded Mama Bear to accept an offer and four weeks later contracts were exchanged.
'Now that we've sold, for all intents and purposes anyway, May says we are in a very strong position,' said Papa Bear to the gathered family. 'I will instruct her to go ahead find us our amazing new home!'
There was cheering from three fifths of the cubs.
May began to send through details of properties for sale in the bears' new (rather disappointing) price range. There was a charming candy cane cottage in a village not too far away, but it didn't have enough bedrooms for them. There was a deceptively large tree house with far-reaching views over a pretty valley, but there were some health and safety issues which needed addressing to meet current building regulations. There was a highly unusual property several leagues away, currently owned by a family of ogres. But the land around it was rather swampy and didn't smell too good in hot weather.
The more property details that were sent, the more despondent the bears became.
'This is ridiculous,' grumbled Papa Bear one evening. 'May is a truly hopeless estate agent. It's been weeks and she seems incapable of getting us what we want. We need to complete on our sale or we're going to lose our buyer.'
'I'd rather not complete until we are sure we have definitely found somewhere suitable,' retaliated Mama Bear. 'Somewhere we all agree we want to live.'
So Papa Bear found another agency - a successful sibling partnership called "Hansel & Gretel". Although from a long line of woodcutters, the pair had been selling houses for decades, having got an initial break with the sale of woodland cottage constructed entirely from architectural-grade sweets. They acquired the dwelling at a knockdown price following the suspicious death of the old lady who owned it, and were able to resell it almost immediately to a Russian oligarch who was after a unique holiday home.
The agency specialised in locating exceptional properties for discerning clients, which Papa Bear thought sounded perfect. The managing director, Hansel himself, agreed to take on the bears' search. An eminently sensible man, the first thing he did was request a meeting with the whole family so that he could get a consensus regarding the types of properties to consider.
'We want somewhere nice and big,' said Papa Bear. 'Detached, with at least four bedrooms, and within walking distance of the wood - but not in it.'
'I want a house by a magical lake that's always warm,' said Bugsy. 'Where we can swim every day and catch trout.'
'I want a gingerbread cottage,' said Bella, 'with a lollipop garden.'
'I want a castle,' said Baby Bear, 'with a moat and a drawbridge.'
'I want to stay in the woods,' said Mama Bear sadly.
'So do we,' pleaded Buttercup and Baloo.
'So if I understand you correctly,' lamented Hansel, 'you all want completely different things. I really don't see how anyone can come up with a solution that will suit every one of you. Especially since your budget is not particularly generous. If I found you a big enough house on the edge of the forest, would that work?' he asked finally.
Only Papa Bear concurred.
'It would suit me if it was near a magical lake too,' interjected Bugsy.
'There are no lakes near the woods,' Hansel pointed out, 'magical or otherwise.'
'I do have a country cottage that's just come on 'though. It is gingerbread-coloured, and very pretty - but the rooms are small and it's a long way from any woodland.'
'Near a lake?' queried Bugsy hopefully.
Hansel shook his head.
'No!' chimed everyone except Bella.
'There is a family selling a crenelated folly on the other side of the woods,' suggested Hansel. 'It actually does have a drawbridge, but it's only three bedrooms.'
'Too small!' cried everyone except Baby Bear, who decided both sets of twins could share one bedroom.
Hansel sighed. 'I will do my best to find a house, but it is fairly obvious that whatever I find will not appeal to all of you. I hope you understand that.'
'Papa,' said Baloo hesitantly, 'if the man does find somewhere, please can we have another vote before we definitely decide to move?'
'Yes, please,' implored Buttercup, 'because if only a few of us really like the new place, we might be better off remaining in our own dear home.'
Mama Bear smiled at them.
'Another vote?' Papa Bear harrumphed. 'Good grief. That would be totally...'
Mama Bear shot Papa Bear a stern look.
'Don't!' she fumed.
'Don't what?' asked Papa Bear, looking sheepish.
'Don't you dare say "unbearable".'