Culture in ruins: How they’re building Toad Hall at Bolton Abbey

Bolton Abbey wants to be known for more than just its famous stepping stones.
Bolton Abbey wants to be known for more than just its famous stepping stones.
  • As Bolton Abbey opens up parts of the estate that were previously off-limits to the public, Sarah Freeman reports on an ambitious new chapter for the historic tourist attraction.
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Down by the river, Ratty’s boat is already moored. A short walk away Badger’s sett is being prepared and the garden of Toad Hall is already perfectly manicured. “The director said that Wind in the Willows could have been written about Bolton Abbey and he’s right,” says the estate’s new events manager, Jo Willis, who has been working closely with Gobbledigook Theatre Company. Its new promenade production of the Kenneth Grahame classic is ambitious and it’s also a sign of the estate’s ambitions for the future.

With its impressive ruins, stepping stones over the River Wharfe and miles of walkways through leafy idylls, Bolton Abbey is already one of the county’s favourite spots. But it’s now on a mission not only to attract more visitors, but also to make better use of its 30,000 acres of moorland and woodland.

It’s why the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who spend much of the year living at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, have agreed to open up the private gardens of their Yorkshire home for the production.

“Because this is normally private, I still feel a little bit guilty walking through,” says Jo, who previously worked at Castle Howard. “But as a location for Toad Hall I think it is hard to beat. All the events we are looking at putting on are about making a different part of the estate come alive and taking people to corners they might not have visited before.”

Wind in the Willows, which runs all next week, is just the start of an eclectic programme of events. Up next will be Katherine Jenkins performing an open air concert to around 5,000 people. After that a floral event will transform the windows of the famous priory and then a 24-hour run will be followed by Robin Hood and an appearance by Father Christmas. It’s all been made possible after the tenant farmers who used to graze livestock on part of the estate were moved on.

“Staging more events was something which was first talked about 25 years ago,” says Jo, who is at pains to insist that this was no unceremonious eviction. “We didn’t do anything until we knew there was other land that they can use and they have been really supportive. In fact, one of them was down here this morning helping the production crew hang lights and when we do have events they are always on standby in case any cars get stuck. Thankfully, that has only happened once so far.”

Bolton Abbey attracts 400,000 visitors a year and the new emphasis on staging events is partly about giving people a reason to return and partly about attracting a different type of visitor.

“Our core demographic will always be families from Yorkshire, but we know that if you get the events right you can have a much wider appeal,” says Jo. “That’s part of the reason for doing something like the Katherine Jenkins concert. When we first started thinking about a classical event we drew up a wish list and on it was Michael Ball, Alfie Boe and Katherine.

“Before we could even check their availability, Alfie and Michael announced they would be doing a joint tour with a performance at the First Direct Arena in Leeds, so we were really pleased that we managed to secure Katherine.

“We are looking to sell around 5,000 tickets. Given the space we have, we could do more, but we want to make sure that it’s a quality event. If people spend hours in traffic getting on and off the site, that’s what they remember.”

For all of the events programmed so far, the abbey will be the main backdrop and after last year’s sodden winter, the team have already learned a few valuable lessons.

“We do want Christmas at Bolton Abbey to become a really magical affair,” adds Jo. “We will start small this winter, but the following year it should be a real winter wonderland. Last year it didn’t seem to stop raining from October through to March and after that experience we know that we have to provide more undercover areas, so Father Christmas, who is normally in a gypsy caravan will get to move to a proper indoor grotto. We’re going to make it a little more waterproof.”

One of the most unusual events in the abbey’s calendar is the 24-hour run organised by Grim Up North Running, which is set to attract a field of 500 competitors next June.

“Basically they will run round a loop through the estate and the winner will be the one who clocks up the most miles,” adds Jo. “Obviously they don’t have to run for the full 24 hours and the estate will be open for friends and family to camp and it will become a bit of a festival of running. Running is huge and people are always on the lookout for a new style of event and if you are going to spend a day running then this is a pretty special place in which to do it.”

• For the full programme of Bolton Abbey events go to boltonabbey.com