It’s Childs Play at The National Trust Visitor Experience

1 May 2018

Gothic characters Billy the Ear, the old bell ringer and Stan the Shovel the fearsome man who was filled the coal burner at the Tyntesfield Estate, are just some of the amazing carved gothic characters that Bristol’s play specialist design and build company TouchWood has created for The National Trust which are helping to improve the quality of summer holiday family days out at Tyntesfield and Leigh Woods.

Touchwood, based in Bristol, has been designing and constructing innovative, highly engineered playgrounds and adventure play areas for schools, councils and national visitor attractions throughout the South West and the UK for almost 15 years. They create the bespoke play schemes using only locally sourced wood and breathing life into fallen trees in the region.

Touchwood’s specialist team were selected by the National Trust at Tyntesfield and Leigh Woods to design bespoke woodland play areas to complement and evoke the unique environment and history of each location.

At Tyntesfield, Touchwood’s brief was to create a play area, high in the woods on the estate which would appeal to children of all ages and link with the history of the Victorian Gothic l house, gardens and parkland.

To ensure the design for the play trail would integrate seamlessly into the overall personality of Tyntesfield, Touchwood began the project with it’s unique “Designing for Real” process. Members of the National Trust team and children from the local community were invited for a day of exploration and adventure workshop in the woods, to help develop the themes for the story and characters for the play trail. The finished play area, which is crafted from locally sourced wood from either the estate or from the Forest of Avon, includes brass rubbing posts and challenging play equipment such as an enchanted tree house, a rope swing and a giant guano bird and its nest, celebrating the fertiliser industry which gave the Gibbs family, who lived at Tyntesfield, the money to develop the house and estate.

Touchwood’s team also created a strong narrative link between the house and the woodland, with fictional carved woodland characters based on people who might once have worked at the house. These include Billy the Ear, the old bell ringer and Stan the Shovel the fearsome man who was responsible for filling the coal burner that heated the house. There are also fantasy fictional sculptures like the playful Hunky Punks who are inspired by the Gothic gargoyles which decorate the exterior of the house and who in the play trail story, descend from the house at night and gather in the woodland.

The new play area has been welcomed by family visitors with many favourable comments since the scheme opened and Tyntesfield is now in the National Trust’s top 10 play areas in the UK.

The second project recently completed by Touchwood for the National Trust in the South West is at Leigh Woods. The woodland is a National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) . It’s the largest block of woodland in the Bristol area and is the home to over 500 veteran and ancient trees.

Leigh Woods had previously had a play area that had been decommissioned, which had disappointed visitors and the local community.  The aim of the project was to provide a more organic play trail which would attract visitors with a wider age-range and draw them further into the woods, encouraging them to explore more of the historic woodland.

In the preparation of the new play area, Touchwood had to consider the sensitivities of the natural environment and the local community. To ensure minimum disruption to the site during construction, fallen larch wood was gently pulled out of the woods by horses.

Touchwood hand built a series of woodland installations to create a trail which would encourage greater exploration and understanding of the natural environment and its history. The features were designed to look as though they had grown organically from the landscape. There are hollowed out logs to clamber through, a woodland fort and balancing bridge to climb up and a large web style basket swing, which hangs from two of the wood’s old beech trees.

Since it was opened the Leigh Wood’s trail has joined the National Trust’s list of “places to do 50 things before you're 11 ¾.”

Touchwood’s Founder Joe Cooper said, “We have developed a strong partnership with the National Trust and through our inclusive approach to play design, we have been able to capture what makes Tyntesfield and Leigh Woods unique.  In both these sites, we have created exciting and challenging natural play environments, which have attracted many more children and parents to visit, explore and learn more about the locations.  Each project had their own complexities but we are extremely pleased with the highly positive responses the play areas, from both the National Trust and from the many visitors who engage with them.”