Wandering the White Cliffs of Dover

Richard Taylor Jones, a wildlife cameraman, who filmed a wild winter walk for Winterwatch, reflects on one of his favourite places from the White Cliffs of Dover to Pegwell Bay.

It’s very easy to want to simply stay indoors during the winter months, to keep the cold as far as away as possible. But if you do, I think you’re missing out. When it comes to the wild there is plenty to enjoy even in the depths of winter. The stretch of coast running from the White Cliffs of Dover to Pegwell Bay is certainly one of my favourite places to spend some time.

A walk starting above the White Cliffs National Trust visitor centre will see some very friendly characters greeting you, Exmoor Ponies, the resident on-site conservation workers. This semi-wild herd does the important job of grazing the chalk grassland and keeping it in good nick for the flowering plants that burst out in spring and summer.

They’re not scared to come and give you a good sniff, in the hope of a treat or two. They’ll be close enough to snap some pictures with your mobile phone, but you’re best off not feeding them and letting them get on the with the job of chewing the grass. A hungry pony who thinks you have food may just decide to chew you, in a friendly manner of course, but you won’t appreciate it.


Further along the cliffs in Fan Bay, dark green bushes with bright lemon yellow clumps can be seen spread across the landscape. This is gorse. Its dazzling flower makes even the greyest of days seem bright. It’s one of those rare plants that flowers in every month of the year, hoping for a rare warm winter day when an insect might emerge to pollinate it. It’s a risky strategy to put energy into flowering in the winter, but one that must pay off for this showy plant, one of nature’s chancers.

There will be many crows and jackdaws soaring along cliffs as you might expect, but as you’re walking along towards South Foreland keep your eyes and ears out for a much bigger black bird, the Raven. They start their mating display as early as December and you can see them barrel rolling in spectacular style along the cliff edges, their “cronking” call echoing as they go.

It’s a simple equation, the longer you walk, the more you will see. And if you make it all the way to Pegwell Bay you’ll have a list as long as your arm, as well as sore feet! But even if all you get is a short stroll out in the cold, I’ll bet the wild windswept coastline will have invigorated you, made you feel that little bit vulnerable and in doing so re-connected you with nature. So don’t stay in, get out!

Happy Birthday Project Wild Thing!

It’s a year since Project Wild Thing premiered in cinemas nationwide.

Since then the film has screened in 120 cinemas in the UK, at more than 600 schools, community spaces, National Trust places, on a ship and even from the top of mountains!

Audiences in the UK, Australia, Europe, Japan, the US and Canada have been treated to this heart-warming, though provoking film which follows film-maker David Bond in his efforts to encourage his children to spend more time outdoors in nature.

The film has been picking up plaudits around the globe and just this week Project Wild Thing won one of the most prestigious awards in educational film-making; the Grand Prix Japan Prize.

Lorraine O'Donovan of Green Lions collects the Japan Prize. (c) Green Lions

Lorraine O’Donovan of Green Lions collects the Japan Prize. (c) Green Lions

The prize is awarded for the most outstanding piece of media work that excels in its ability to educate, in its relevance to the times and its contribution to educational media.

We’re a proud supporter of Project Wild Thing and the Wild Network, the movement of thousands that has grown up around the film. Project Wild Thing has been shown at dozens of National Trust places – including the summit of Scafell Pike, the highest point in England.

A group of intrepid explorers battle the elements to climb to the peak of Scafell Pike to enjoy Project Wild Thing.  (c) Stewart Smith

A group of intrepid explorers battle the elements to climb to the peak of Scafell Pike to enjoy Project Wild Thing. (c) Stewart Smith

Joanne Rawson, Volunteering and Community Involvement Manager at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, has organised screenings of Project Wild Thing for families of the Hardwick Wildlife Watch group, to staff and volunteers and partner organisations.

“What I love about Project Wild Thing is that it’s brought people together and been a catalyst for change”, Joanne says. “It doesn’t matter who you work for, where you live, or how much you earn; ultimately, we’re working towards the same goal: to connect kids with nature.

“On watching the film, the young members of our Wildlife Watch group were shocked that some children don’t have the same opportunities to connect with the outdoors as they do. It helped them see how having those outdoors experiences had benefited them in their lives.

“Staff here have said watching Project Wild Thing made them think about what they do with their own kids and grandchildren, which in itself is a great result.”

To get involved visit http://projectwildthing.com/. Tweet your birthday wishes to @wearewildthing or tag them #wildtime.

Playing in the woods – not just for kids

It’s not just children who need play, argues Fiona Harrower, Visitor Experience Manager at Hatfield Forest.

Virtually all of my favourite childhood memories involve playing outdoors.  Even now, when I’m meant to be grown-up, I still can’t resist a puddle or balancing along a fallen tree.

Den building at Hatfield. © Fiona Harrower

Den building at Hatfield. © Fiona Harrower

For the last couple of years we have celebrated the national Play Day at Hatfield Forest with one goal: to encourage play with no play equipment.  With a thousand acres of woodland and grassy plains to explore this should have been a realistic challenge.

Or at least you would have thought so.

But I’ve noticed that many of our visiting parents are desperate for a trail to follow, a map to highlight where to play, actual trees and logs signposted as okay to play on.  Whereas their children, when allowed to just play freely, are quite happy to find their own spots, make their own games and use their imagination.

So our role is to teach the parents how to play in the outdoors, as the kids are experts at it already.  With a large number of veteran trees, we have an added challenge of balancing the promotion of natural play with the conservation of Hatfield Forest.

The 50 things to do before you’re 11 3/4 campaign has helped us to promote our no need for play equipment message, by giving us a tool to spark families’ imagination.  The scrapbooks, and even more so the stickers, are a big hit.  Our top play activities at Hatfield Forest are tree climbing, den building, making grass trumpets, exploring inside a tree and making mud pies.  We hold Wild Wednesdays throughout the summer holidays and have over 150 children participating each week.

Pie making during Mud Week! © Fiona Harrower

Pie making during Mud Week! © Fiona Harrower

But play isn’t limited to Wednesdays only; it’s something we promote every day.

Play is one of the simplest ways to get kids outdoors.  The health benefits are clear.  Ask a child if they want to go on a five mile hike and you may get a moan, but spend hours running through long grass, climbing trees and building dens and they won’t notice they’re ‘exercising’.

Play is a universal way of connecting people to the outdoors.  It’s something children intrinsically know what to do.  We just need to give adults the permission to play too.

Urban oasis opens at Sutton House

For the past three years a team of designers, artists, volunteers, and National Trust staff have been working to convert a former car breaker’s yard beside Sutton House in Hackney, London, into a green space for local people. The Breakers’ Yard opens this week. We spoke to Chris Cleeve,  Project Manager of the new garden , about mobile homes, growing stuff and how you create spaces people want to use. 

What is the Breaker’s Yard?

In the shadow of the Tudor Sutton House, the Breaker’s Yard is a former industrial wasteland in Hackney, made over into a secret urban oasis by garden designer Daniel Lobb and artists’ collective The House of Fairy Tales. Over half a century of use as a car breaker’s yard left the space heavily polluted and rarely used. We’re turning it into a community space for playful discovery, learning and growing. We opened the Breaker’s Yard to the public earlier this week.

The Breakers’ Yard at Sutton House © Sam Roberts

Why is it important that this is a community space?

There’s always been something democratic about Sutton House. It was built by Sir Ralph Sadlier, who became one of the most powerful commoners in Tudor England. At different times in its history the site has been home to leather tanners, car breakers and Sutton House a trade union headquarters and a squat. The house has a very different flavour to others in the National Trust’s care. The needs of the local community are central to how we manage Sutton House – not least because, being in the centre of Hackney, people live a lot closer to us than at other Trust places.

So in remodelling the Breaker’s Yard we’ve been led by what local people want in the space – and how the past lives of the site inform its present. We’ve got a community garden that will be used by the children at the school over the road that doesn’t have any green space of its own. There’s a circular path that was recommended by the Alzheimer’s Society as being good for the brain. People told us about the parties they used to have in the yard and the nostalgia they felt for the since-disappeared cars, so we’re working toy cars into various design elements in the sites (including the gates).

Where does play come in?

We wanted to take a playful approach to the space, giving people something that they might not normally come across. We’ve worked with House of Fairy Tales, an artists’ collective led by husband and wife Gavin Turk and Deborah Curtis who create magical worlds for children to learn and play. In the centre of the garden is ‘The Grange’, an art installation by Daniel Lobb, who is also responsible for the yard’s re-design. From the outside ‘The Grange’ looks like two dirty caravans piled on top of one another. Inside, though, it’s like a stately home boasting rococo plasterwork, wooden panelling and a chandelier.

There aren’t very many green spaces in our corner of Hackney. We wanted the yard to give children plenty of opportunities for natural play. As well as the gardens we’re installing a Renaissance-inspired water feature rill, a sand pit and hope to plant a palm trees. Many people don’t know that in the Georgian era Hackney was home to the largest hot house in the world, responsible for introducing rare orchids, palms and rhododendron to the UK.

Over the summer we’re testing the space, seeing how children respond to it. Come Autumn we’ll be exploring the educational possibilities of the Yard with House of Fairy Tales, developing material to take children on a journey round the Yard that takes in the history of the place, its music, geography and natural history.

The Breaker’s Yard opens on 12 August at 1pm and will be open throughout the summer holidays. Head to the website to find out how to get to Sutton House.

Following your nose in Leigh Woods

Nicole Daw, 50 things to do before you’re 11¾ Engagement Ranger for Bristol, speaks about Playday plans at Leigh Woods, Bristol, following your nose and why grown-ups need play too.

What are you up to for Playday this year?

We’re working with London-based artists’ collective Assemble on a day of ‘follow your nose’ play, where children will be supported and supervised but left to their own devices to explore the woods under their own steam, following their own curiosity and imaginations.

The session is one of a number this year that try to uncover what Leigh Woods mean to people and how we can encourage people to use the site more playfully.

The woods are well-loved local space, perched above the River Avon on Bristol’s western edge. People have built dens in Leigh Woods forever.

But what we often find is that when they come to the woods, people either go to our natural play area, the mountain bike trails or stick to the paths around the woods.

We want children to venture off the beaten track. To find their own special place and secret trails in the woods. To leave children inspired with a sense of wonder and a deeper connection with nature.

Cycle Trails at Leigh Woods © National Trust Images/Mark Bolton

Cycle Trails at Leigh Woods © National Trust Images/Mark Bolton

What does play mean to you?

Play is about experiences. The more I’ve looked into it, the harder I’ve found it to define what play is. But I know we could be doing it a lot better in the UK.

A couple of months ago I spent four days in Copenhagen on a National Trust travel scholarship learning how the Danish approach children’s play.  The frequency and sheer amount of children’s play was impressive. It’s engrained. Parks were packed with children. Streets were designed for bicycles. Everywhere it felt like there was a much greater importance placed on play.

Building dens at Leigh Woods © National Trust

Building dens at Leigh Woods © National Trust

What did you learn in Copenhagen?

The time away gave me the chance to really think about play. I began to look at places in a different, more playful way. As an adult, you’re not often encouraged to play; to explore with a fresh wonder.

But why not? Why shouldn’t an adult go on stepping stones?  Adults get the same benefits from play as children. It’s good for our health, it makes us happier, it brings us closer to people.

There are a lot of things for children to do outdoors that are completely child-led. We get children to lead as much as possible, but we’re adamant that our events aren’t a crèche. They’re about bringing families together, strengthening children’s and parents’ love for the outdoors.


Celebrate Playday in the woods! Follow your nose play with Assemble and the National Trust on 6th & 7th August is free. There’s no need to book.

Done that? Read about Nicole’s experiences in Copenhagen and discover more about Leigh Woods.

Why outdoor learning?

Jo Rawson, Volunteering and Community Involvement Manager at the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall, tells us about working with schools, decorating Christmas trees and why outdoor learning is about more than school visits…

What made you do what you do?

As a child I remember going to visit Clumber Park, a National Trust place in Nottinghamshire near to where I grew up, with my primary school class. I was already a bit of a wild child; we always went camping on family holidays and I spent much of my childhood outdoors. At Clumber, the ranger took us bird watching and I got to teach my classmates about the birds we were seeing. We also got to watch the Rangers (or Wardens as they were then) fell a tree, and all shouted ‘timber’ as it fell.

After that I was hooked. I knew I wanted to do something to do with the outdoors and help inspire others to love nature as much as I did.

Finding adventure in the woods. © Jo Rawson

Finding adventure in the woods. © Jo Rawson

Is outdoor learning important?

Massively so. When they come to Hardwick, children learn about life processes and living things, environmental change and sustainable development. We take them pond dipping in the fish ponds, bug hunting in the park and have a go at bush craft activities; things they probably couldn’t do in their own school playing field.

The biggest opportunity we have to connect children with nature is by giving them the nature bug when they’re here to learn.

This is us thinking about the future. If we don’t connect children with nature now, we’ll have one hell of a job convincing them as adults to care about the places we protect or interest them in becoming members, volunteers and staff.

Looking for creatures in the pond. © Richard Williams

Looking for creatures bythe pond. © Richard Williams

What are you doing at Hardwick?

We take school groups around the hall and estate. The Elizabethan hall was home to one of the most powerful women in the Tudor era, which offers plenty of opportunities to dress up and dance like Elizabethans. The park and surrounding countryside is teeming with wildlife and a great place to see first-hand the impact of people on the landscape and how we are still living from the land today.  

There are also more informal opportunities for schools to come to the estate and run their own activities. Two local schools organise weekly forest schools sessions in the parkland. Recently, teachers from another school got the whole school doing a sponsored walk from school to Hardwick Hall, ticking off 50 things activities as they walked.

Within a seven mile radius of Hardwick Hall live over 380,000 people. We try to do as much work with schools in the local community as possible, but work particularly closely with two local primary schools. The children can visit Hardwick for free, which is great as many of the pupils live within walking distance. The pupils at these two schools helped us design our play trail here and they come every year to decorate their own Christmas tree as part of our community Christmas tree decorating. 

One of the barriers to schools coming to Hardwick is the cost of transport. Hiring a coach to take a school class down the road is expensive. So we head into schools sometimes to talk to teachers and pupils about what we do and get them involved in projects and activities to help us or their school. We often go out to school galas with our brightly coloured National Trust branded gazebo and big box of 50 things to do before you’re 11¾ activities.

Is it just about schools?

Schools, obviously, offer an opportunity to talk to lots of children about nature, history, or whatever it might be, all at once. But learning’s about more than schools.

Our Wildlife Watch and Youth Ranger groups provide something more for children living within our local community, who want to learn a bit more about the wildlife and play an active role in managing the landscape we care for. Working with a local scout group, we’ve also just launched a new guide for beaver, cubs, and scout groups on how they might use the estate to get their badges.

Really, though, anyone can learn at Hardwick. There’s so much to discover. I’ve been here for eight years and I’m still learning new things every day.

Discover more on Hardwick Hall’s website.  

Celebrating play at Castle Drogo

Playday is a national celebration of play, with play events up at down the country. We spoke to Paula Clarke, Community Engagement Officer at Devon’s Castle Drogo, about what she’s doing at the castle for Playday. 

What are you up to on Playday?

Set against the fabulous backdrop of Dartmoor, Play is going to take over Piddledown Common (yes – Piddledown) on Wednesday 6 August from 2pm until 4pm. This will be the third year running that Playday comes to Castle Drogo. We’ll be joined by local play enthusiasts for a day of fun, free activities including arts and crafts, bushcraft, drama and games.

What else are you doing to get people playing?

I’ve been at Castle Drogo for eight years. Connecting the place with local people is a huge part of what we do. We don’t want to be that big posh house on the hill, so we’re exploring different ways to make the Castle relevant and attractive for people.

All through summer we have games out on the lawn: hula hoops, tennis, and free croquet lessons. It’s not just children who play. We’re exploring playful ways of encouraging people of all ages to explore the history of the castle. Drogo is home to a considerable collection of old postcards. Rather than lay them out in display cases, we’ve blown them up in size, stuck them on card and created a giant postcard theatre. People can dress up in Edwardian clothes and play their way through the landscape!

Admiring the view over the countryside from the roof at Castle Drogo, Devon. ©National Trust Images/John Millar

Admiring the view over the countryside from the roof at Castle Drogo, Devon. ©National Trust Images/John Millar

Why is Castle Drogo so special?

We’re surrounded by the wild; the castle is overlooks the woods, heath and moor of Dartmoor. We can do most of the 50 things here. Almost all of them, in fact – except the ones that require sand, sea and rock pools.

We take advantage of the wildness: Castle Drogo is one of the homes for Wild Tribe, a bushcraft club run by our rangers that gives kids the chance to try things like fire-making. It builds kids’ confidence and competence in the outdoors, helping them feel braver in the wild.

Children are at the heart of what we do. The castle was built by retail magnate Julius Drewe not to impress the local gentry, but to be a home for his family. I like to think that Mr Drewe would have wanted his family to be running around, exploring the house and the grounds.

Which is what we’ve been trying to encourage. Kids love to explore the castle, forever asking if they can lock their younger brother or sister in the dungeons. I haven’t the heart to tell them that we haven’t got any.

The castle is currently in the middle of a major restoration project to protect it from the Dartmoor weather. This building work means that the whole castle has been turned inside out and it has given us the opportunity to tell new stories, open bits of the castle never seen by the public before, have ‘Meet the Builders’ days and give people the chance to climb the viewing tower and see how the conservation work is going. Building work can be fun!


Join the Castle Drogo team from 2pm on Wednesday 6th August for Playday. Everyone is welcome for this FREE event. Just follow the bunting from the main car park to discover the Playday base.