If you have young children, the chances are you’ve spent countless hours stuck inside soft play centres on vast industrial units with no natural light. One couple from North Cave in East Yorkshire were similarly disillusioned and thought they could probably do better. During the last five years, Christian and Tor Carver have travelled the world carrying out research for their £3.5m project, which was inspired by their eight-year-old son, William.
The couple, who farm 1,350 acres of arable land and own three holiday cottages, have transformed disused farm buildings on a 15-acre site just outside the village into the UK’s largest bespoke indoor timber play experience.
As well as the play barn there’s an extensive outdoor play area with a 50-metre zip wire, a den-making area and a network of grassy mounds and tunnels for children to explore.
Both Christian and Tor grew up on farms nearby and they wanted to give children a taste of the carefree childhood that they both enjoyed. If it all sounds a little like something from Arthur Ransome’s classic children’s novel Swallows and Amazons, then that was very much the intention.
“When Tor and I were children, we both spent a lot of time outdoors, playing in streams and the woods,” says Christian. “We realised how little opportunity some children have to spend time outdoors and the idea was to try to replicate that experience, bringing a taste of the outdoors indoors. It’s like Enid Blyton meets Bear Grylls.”
Disturbingly, there’s evidence to suggest that three-quarters of children in the UK spend less time outdoors than prison inmates and only ten per cent of children have access to outdoor learning.
It’s something that Joe Cooper, managing director of Touchwood Play, the Bristol-based company that designed the indoor timber play equipment, had in mind when he created it. It’s made from tactile, natural elements, including wood, sand, stone and water. A huge hollow treehouse constructed from three giant oak trees conjures images of Blyton’s The Faraway Tree.
There are sand pits, bridges, nets, walkways, meeting points where children can gather and a huge, suspended platform that gently rocks as they play on it. Water in various forms flows through the structure – from still pools to a bubbling brook and even a rainmaker cascading down from above. The sound of trickling water and music echoes through the space, and some of the seating in the den features tongue drums for the children to play.
“The idea was to bring the play experiences that you would have in nature to children, including streams, beaches, woodland and waterfalls,” says Joe. “The way children play outdoors is very fluid and here children and adults can take risks and set themselves challenges.”
Although the planning and research phase of the project took the Carver family all over the UK and abroad, where they picked up ideas about elements that they did and didn’t want to incorporate in their new venture, the emphasis is very much on using local – or at the very least British – suppliers wherever possible.
“We picked up ideas about great customer service from Disneyland and visited attractions in Germany, the Netherlands and all over the UK to see what the offering was,” says Christian. “One of the ideas we brought back was about having family toilets, rather than male and female ones. They’ve been very well received.
“We’ve provided a hoist in the disabled toilets so that parents don’t have to change older children on the floor – they are compliant with the standards set by the organisation Changing Places. The indoor and outdoor play space is wheelchair accessible and designed to be as inclusive as possible.
“Outdoor play is about natural light and air, so we didn’t want the building to have an industrial feel. We wanted it to be a pleasant environment for adults, as well as children.”
Christian is justifiably proud of William’s Den’s eco credentials. Recycled materials have been used throughout, from the wood fibre boards lining the walls and ceilings to the hemp blocks insulating the walls and recycled glass product used as an alternative to hardcore beneath the floors. Energy is generated by a biomass boiler and solar panels, and there’s also a rainwater harvesting system. Newly planted trees and wildlife-friendly meadow areas line the driveway.
Tor oversaw every aspect of the interior design and sourcing of fixtures and fittings, a process that she enjoyed but found daunting because of the sheer number of decisions to be made about everything from cutlery to lighting. She even travelled to Dorset to be trained how to use the huge, wood-fired pizza oven in the dining area.
“We had a really clear vision of what outcome we wanted, I love being creative,” says Tor. “From the very beginning, I was banging on about the need for huge windows that let lots of light in but also frame the great views – the site looks towards the Wolds in one direction, the Humber in another and the Vale of York the other way.
“So much of this has been based on my own experiences as a visitor. I wanted everything to look and feel authentic; the dining experience is based on the traditional idea of families gathering together around a farmhouse kitchen table for a meal. I wanted it to feel as if you were coming over to a friend’s house for lunch on a Saturday.”
Perhaps the ultimate test for Tor and Christian’s efforts was the verdict of William, who, after cutting the ribbon to declare the venue open, gave it a resounding thumbs-up, adding: “It couldn’t be better.”
For admission prices and more information about the adventure playground, visit www.williamsden.co.uk.