Mysteries and mayhem out in the garden
I always enjoy joining creative forces with Ruth Haycock, who until recently was interpretation manager in the North East for English Heritage. I previously worked with her on audio stories for Whitby Abbey, along with museum text and eventually the voiceover for the audioguide. So it was great to collaborate with her and the team she had assembled for the Belsay Awakes project at Belsay Hall, Northumberland.
We all visited the site last year and I learned about the Wild Man who appears in the family crest of the Middletons of Belsay. Ruth’s idea was to offer families a Wild Man Trail that would lead them around the formal gardens and the famous quarry garden. There would be a series of markers with whimsical text and activities linked to seven key moments in the landscape – the picturesque gardens, a pet cemetery, a mysterious face carved into the rock, a tree that looks like it has tentacles, and more.
When you are interpreting the outdoors, you have to make it work in all seaons, and you can’t ask visitors to do anything dangerous to themselves or to the botanical specimens. So the ideas focused on incorporating variety – from physical to mental and on a range of sensory and cognitive topics. The activities needed to be done without equipment, which might include: counting, spotting, naming, comparing, imagining, moving, musing, feeling a texture, telling a story, singing a song, making a shape, recalling a memory, clapping, dancing, following, mimicking… so quite a lot of scope.
After the briefing visit, I put together a response with initial ideas and reflections. What the Wildman knows is special and secret, I realised, and he will reveal hidden places and knowledge that you won’t want to miss. On the trail you might catch sight of the Wildman of Belsay – but will you catch up with him? Or will he catch you out with his gleeful clues and riddles? He is clever and wise, and appears atop the carved family coat of arms on the castle frontage, carrying a tree he’s torn up from somewhere. He can’t quite be contained.
Part treasure hunt and part story-telling opportunity, the trail is now in place. I was able to visit on a recent chilly December day to see how it leads family groups through Belsay’s beautiful grounds. Halfway round there is a fantastic new Wild Man play area, and also the opportunity to explore the castle, a medieval ruin now brought to life with a clever and witty Wild Man animation by Belle Mellor and Myles Mcleod that tells the site’s history.
In the video below you can see the final trail markers, and hear glimpses of the trail content, along with footage of my visit on a crisp, sunny day. Click the ‘full screen’ button in the bottom right corner for the best view.