Heartwood Visitor centre hub with interpretation
Jan 17 2018

What’s going down at our ‘key visitor sites’

If you are a volunteer at Skipton Castle Woods, Heartwood Forest or Tring Park you may have heard a member of staff talk about it as a Destination Site. The term Destination Site is a phrase that can cause some confusion. A better way of understanding what’s happening at these woods, is if we refer to them as our key visitor sites.

Across all of our woodland estate (which is about 1,000 woods) several sites have been specifically chosen to receive investment over the next 10 years. We will continue to invest and improve facilities and develop our engaging programme of events and experiences to reach a wider and increasingly diverse group of visitors. Ultimately we want to inspire more people to connect with trees and join our move to protect, restore and plant woods across the UK.

We have chosen woods which give us the best opportunity to engage with large numbers of visitors and provide inspiring experiences. Each of the sites chosen  are close to large populations or tourist centres, offer plenty of space for activities and most importantly offer inspiring landscapes,  stories and opportunities to showcase our work. At present we have identified six sites but eventually hope to have one key visitor site in each region and country within the UK.

It is really important to us that throughout this period of investment our woods remain the stars of the show! And that is why we will be endeavouring to offer our visitors something truly unique which will always relate back to woods and trees. It is also very important to us that we retain the unique character of each of these woods – that we preserve its stories, special species, heritage and locally loved features.

All the improvements and changes will be made sensitively, and they will be relatively small in scale compared to other visitor attractions. However, we will be venturing into areas that we haven’t done before; this is to make sure we can draw people out into nature, and get them to embrace and fall in love with all it has to offer. At certain sites we will be investing in visitor infrastructure, but this will be undertaken on a site-by-site basis we want our woods to be the star of the show. Our signage and infrastructure will be kept natural and low-impact. This means using natural materials that echo their surrounding environment and opting of non-permanent infrastructure wherever possible. 

Our investment in visitor facilities will be assessed on a site by site basis. At some of these sites such facilities are not required or appropriate and the need is very much tailored to each site. Decisions will be based on visitor needs, local community consultation and sensitivities of the surrounding landscape and wildlife.  Each site will have a dedicated Visitor Experience Officer committed to delivering quality access, a great welcome, a network of waymarked paths and a programme of engaging events and activities.  On top of this some sites will benefit from investments such as Woodland visitor hubs, natural playscapes and approaches that allow visitors to experience trees in a whole new way. 

We are aware that there may be concern from local people about the impact of increased visitor numbers. At each site we have carried out research to understand the likely number of additional annual visits it may attract.  While we expect to see some visitor growth we are confident that the numbers we are looking at are quite manageable and will not compromise our care of the woodland.  An important aspect of our planning is considering how we will manage footfall across the site achieving the best results for both wildlife and people.    

Some of the things you may see at our key visitor sites include: increased community engagement, more events, way-marked trails, interpretation and seasonal installations. You may also see more visitors (we hope!)

The types of things you won’t see at these sites: zip lining, quad biking, high adrenaline or high-intensity activities, big concerts and activity that detracts away from our real stars of the show.

Our Visitor Development Manager Fiona has said that:

“Our sites offer a fantastic experience and connect many people with the wonders of nature. However, we want to instil a love of woods in a wider variety of people – including families, young adults and people living in urban environments.

That’s why we’ve decided to make special investment in a handful of our most accessible and well-loved sites across the UK, between now and 2025. This will involve simple changes like better paths and signage, but may also extend to bigger additions such as visitor facilities, special events, guided walks, natural play areas and car parks.

Of course we are very mindful of the impact certain changes can make. The interests of local residents and needs of nearby wildlife will always be a priority. The rest of our 1,200 sites will be managed as usual.”

The Woodland trust welcome enquiries and feedback about all their sites at: enquiries@woodlandtrust.org.uk

There will be plenty of new and exciting opportunities for volunteers at and around these sites to get involved so keep a eye on our website. We hope that you like the sound of this exciting move forward for the Trust and look out for more exciting news to be shared in upcoming Whittle posts.

Words by Jo Watkinson, Woodland Trust Visitor Experience Executive

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