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VIDEO: Garden centre boss turns customers into “human Christmas trees” by netting them like festive firs in exchange for charity donations

·6-min read

A family business owner has made his garden centre a seasonal sensation by offering customers a chance to turn their loved ones into “human Christmas trees.”

Paul Oxborrow, 58, who runs Thorpe Plant Centre near Norwich, Norfolk, with his son Elliott, 30, started putting the netting machine used for festive firs to an alternative use in Christmas 2018, but has become a Yuletide attraction since word of his wacky idea was spread by social media.

Now Paul has built an enclosed grotto complete with fairy lights in which he ‘nets’ customers like trees. He even places a mattress inside a paddling pool to cushion their fall, after their bodies are cocooned in special oxo-biodegradable mesh – which is more eco-friendly than standard plastic – by the device usually used for Christmas trees.

Divorcee Paul, who lives with his son, says anyone who fancies the “human Christmas tree” experience simply makes a donation to his chosen charity, adding: “We had a gentleman go through the netting machine who was probably in his mid-80s. He didn’t stop laughing from start to finish.

“We’ve had kids as young as 18 months. Some kids go home like Christmas trees, they hop to their parents’ car.

“We’ve had parents come back saying, ‘When you netted our son last weekend, he stayed like that all Saturday afternoon in the living room.'”

The punters donate to charity to have a go on the ‘machine’ (PA Real Life)
The punters donate to charity to have a go on the ‘machine’ (PA Real Life)

With donations varying from £1 to £10 and up to 50 volunteers a day since he started bagging people up on December 1, so far £250 has been raised. The family are using the funds to make festive food parcels for Thorpe Helping Hands, a local community group offering company, food and warmth to the vulnerable in their local area.

And while most punters plump for the experience on the spur of the moment after buying a tree and live nearby, some families have travelled more than 50 miles just to be netted for Noel.

“Three years ago, when we first started doing this, but it wasn’t that well-publicised, one family of four turned up in Christmas jumpers and they all went through the netting machine,” said Paul.

He continued: “Then the lady proceeded to take out Christmas tree ornaments, baubles and tinsel and decorate everyone, before taking some photos.

“We were a bit surprised by that, but we don’t stop it.

“If people are having fun, then we let them carry on.”

Paul’s garden centre prepares for Christmas with a visit from Santa (PA Real Life)
Paul’s garden centre prepares for Christmas with a visit from Santa (PA Real Life)

But his festive frolics have been threatened by accusations on Facebook that he is damaging the environment – which he strongly disputes, as he uses eco-friendly mesh that breaks down in the open air.

Also, while the area where people land after being netted is filled with pellets that look like polystyrene packaging, they are actually biodegradable.

Paul said: “They look like polystyrene peanuts, but they’re made from vegetable oils.”

The ‘machine’ is a festive hit with customers (PA Real Life)
The ‘machine’ is a festive hit with customers (PA Real Life)

“We actually left a handful out in the wet weather and within three days they disappeared, ” he added.

“We’re not polluting anything or hurting the environment.”

Paul started his business 30 years ago while working as an auditor and claims investigator for the local council, first renting a small patch of land in front of his home in the village of Thorpe.

Over the years, boosted by the sale of countless Christmas trees, the business grew, although it kept its family feel – with his son Elliott working with him and his daughter Kayleigh Garry, 33, managing her own separate houseplant business on site.

The human Christmas tree idea came about as, growing up, Kayleigh and Elliott enjoyed jumping into the netting used to bag up firs to make them easier for customers to take home – so it developed from there.

Paul continued: “This year we’re asking people to make their donations, then we use the money to put together boxes of non-perishable food.”

Paul’s business decided to spruce up their festive offering with a go on the machine to raise money for charity (PA Real Life)
Paul’s business decided to spruce up their festive offering with a go on the machine to raise money for charity (PA Real Life)

“Helping Hands have agreed to take these parcels off our hands and distribute them just before Christmas to families and individuals who need support,” he said.

“So, hopefully, it’s spreading a little goodwill and joy to vulnerable people.

“It’s not a massive thing, but we’re in a world where if everyone did a little bit it would be much better.”

All proceeds go towards helping vulnerable people (PA Real Life)
All proceeds go towards helping vulnerable people (PA Real Life)

Despite the success of the netting machine with his customers, Paul is yet to be tempted to try the experience himself.

Paul said: “I’m sure my family would find it hilarious.”

“But I’m a bit on the large size – or at least that’s my excuse!”

Paul has run Thorpe Plant Centre for 30 years (PA Real Life)
Paul has run Thorpe Plant Centre for 30 years (PA Real Life)

He continued: “I could probably squeeze through, but I’ve never particularly felt the urge to do it.”

The ‘machine’ is a simple plastic cylinder raised on legs about two feet off the ground. The netting mesh used to keep the branches of the Christmas tree at bay while it is transported, is wrapped around the drum like a sock covering the exit of the cylinder.

When someone crawls through, which takes about 10 seconds, they enter unnetted but emerge wrapped up like a festive fir.

His son and daughter also work on site (PA Real Life)
His son and daughter also work on site (PA Real Life)

But, while the vast majority of customers enjoy being dragged through the tunnel, the experience is not without its challenges.

“We’ve been conscious of the fact that something could go wrong,” said Paul.

“Someone could have a panic attack halfway through, but we’ve never had any significant problems like that and, touch wood, we won’t.”

“Myself and my daughter have first aid training and we’re about all the time,” he added.

“I also did a risk assessment of my own and made sure we take the right precautions.”

From the point where the netting machine normally spews out the finished trees to the floor is also quite a drop.

The unorthodox ‘netting’ attraction is a hit with families (PA Real Life)
The unorthodox ‘netting’ attraction is a hit with families (PA Real Life)

Paul said: “If we didn’t have a mattress to catch people, then there would be a drop of two feet or so, meaning people could land with a bump.

“To avoid any difficulties, we try and explain exactly what they need to do before they start the process.

“Luckily, nothing has gone wrong yet and everyone seems to have enjoyed it.”

He explained: “First we ask them to hold their arms out in front of them,

“They then need to shuffle along to the front of the machine, that’s when they can take photographs through the netting of their faces.

“Then we explain that we have to physically hold their wrists and pull them through.”

Paul makes sure the mesh he uses for the Christmas tree ‘machine’ is biodegradable (PA Real Life)
Paul makes sure the mesh he uses for the Christmas tree ‘machine’ is biodegradable (PA Real Life)

“And for that moment they really are a human Christmas tree!” he said.

A spokesperson for Broadland District Council was in full support of Paul’s wacky festive idea.

He said: “Christmas is a time for having fun and enjoying time with those you love.”

“It’s also a time for thinking of others and thousands of pounds will be raised across Broadland this Christmas to help and support people in need,” he continued.

“However you plan to enjoy the holidays, please stay safe and follow the relevant safety regulations and COVID-19 restrictions.”

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