Skelf Island is a children’s playground with a difference. It opened at Yorkshire’s iconic Castle Howard last summer.
Skelf Island is a collaboration between Castle Howard and CAP.Co, leaders in bespoke adventure play. It uses compelling storytelling to link the stately home’s present with its medieval past. Rope bridges, nets, slides and climbing equipment connect treetop ‘nests’ in a secret world. According to the story, this is where the ‘Skelves’ have been living for centuries, across the water from Castle Howard.
Castle Howard’s website says: “There’s no age restriction, just a brave restriction!”
Blooloop spoke with Abbigail Ollive, head of marketing at Castle Howard, and CAP.Co’s Simon Egan, about the creation of the Skelf Island adventure play area.
The Castle Howard story
Castle Howard’s story began in 1699. The third Earl of Carlisle, who was friends with the playwright Sir John Vanbrugh, wanted to build a family home in Yorkshire. Vanbrugh was a dramatist who had never designed a building. However, he decided to give it a go. He also had help from Nicholas Hawksmoor, a leading figure of the English Baroque style of architecture.
The stately home takes inspiration from buildings like St. Paul’s Cathedral. Castle Howard was the first private home with a dome on the roof. It took over a hundred years to complete.
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Firstly, Vanburgh and Hawksmoor worked on the centre of the building and the east wing. Then, they moved on to design the landscape, and its unique buildings. This includes the Hawksmoor mausoleum and Vanburgh’s Temple of the Four Winds. It also includes follies such as the Gatehouse castellated wall and pyramid.
‘Castle’ Howard is actually a house rather than a castle. The name refers to its location on the site of Henderskelfe Castle, and the medieval village of Henderskelfe.
A family home
“Skelf Island takes its name from the medieval village of Henderskelfe,” says Ollive. “And the Skelves are fictional characters we’ve come up with. The concept is that they’ve been living there across the waters of the Great Lake since those medieval times.”
Castle Howard has always remained a family home.
“Since the Third Earl of Carlisle lived there, it has passed through the generations from earl to earl. Each would go on a Grand Tour, bringing back antiques and art. During the Second World War, Scarborough Girls’ School moved in. Then it became a school for a while.
“At this point, a devastating fire began in a chimney. You can still see the scars across the floor where the dome itself came crashing into the Great Hall. It destroyed a lot of the East wing. We have a burnt-out wing that’s gradually being restored still to this day.”
Bringing Castle Howard back from the brink
Nicholas Howard and his wife Victoria Howard are the current inhabitants. “His father, George Howard, never expected to inherit the house,” says Ollive. “He had two older brothers, but they both were killed in the war.
“He came back after the war to find the house almost destroyed by fire. All of the possessions were on the lawn outside. The girls’ school had done much of that salvage themselves.”
The trustees at the house at that time were preparing to sign the house over.
“It would have changed hands and fallen from family ownership at that point. They hadn’t consulted George Howard on any of this. But he decided, out of sheer determination, that he was going to take up residence. He would live in Castle Howard and bring it back to life.”
Single-handedly he planned the restoration. He opened the house to the public as an attraction in the 1950s to generate income. It remains independent and a family home today.
“We have the Board, the Howard family, mostly. And then we have a CEO, a senior management team, and a team of up to about 180 people.
“We run very much as a visitor attraction. But it’s a diverse business, in terms of the farming, forestry, holiday park, holiday cottages and how we work within our local community. We have everything from a membership scheme to a big events programme.
“Business strategy is a matter of generating income. And then we decide on a five, ten-year plan, in terms of how we invest that income generation into projects. The playground is one of those.”
A quality family offer
The family market is very important, as is the local community that uses Castle Howard as its local park.
“We’ve always had a good playground,” says Ollive. “But I wanted to stay ahead of the curve. Other visitor attractions are developing their family offer. So it is an area where we want to remain as leaders.
“Biodiversity and how we create a natural habitat for birds and other wildlife is key to Castle Howard. This was part of the type of conversations we were having with CAP.Co in order to inspire how we were going to design any playgrounds.”
Nick and Victoria Howard had been to Bewilderwood in Norfolk, co-created by Simon Egan of CAP.Co. Additionally, Ollive says:
“CAP.Co is a leader in this field. They have done lots of playgrounds at historic houses and visitor attractions, like Castle Howard. So they seemed like a really good company to approach. Then we started brainstorming.”
Castle Howard and CAP.Co
“The CAP.Co team have been absolutely fantastic to work with in terms of creativity,” says Ollive. “We liked what they brought to the table and their ideas as well as how they’ve executed it and actually turned it around very quickly.
“Firstly, we went through the process of all the ecology and conservation checks and surveys. We imagined it would take longer for those that information to come back through planning. And then we suddenly got the go-ahead and decided to go for it.
“It happened quite quickly. And CAP.Co was fantastic. They worked through the night at times to meet our launch date, which was before the school holidays. I can’t sing their praises highly enough. They’ve been fab.”
Skelf Island goes far beyond a children’s playground. The local history informs it. It links the swans of the present through its unique ‘nest’ play structures to the medieval village of the past.
Describing how they convey the story to children, she says:
“We’ve created a suite of marketing materials, working with illustrator Steve Pearce, who again came to us via CAP.Co. He was somebody they’d worked with before on Bewilderwood.
“I head up a small marketing team. We went on a little away day for an afternoon to another playground in Yorkshire, and we played some games. I think they thought I was mad, asking them to take this trip. But we then came up with the different character profiles of the Skelves.”
“I had one team member sitting in a treehouse, and one at the top of a slide. They were coming up with the different character traits of each of the Skelves. We created six characters. Each relates to some of the natural wildlife found at Castle Howard.”
Meet the Skelves at Castle Howard
“We attached each member of the team to a character,” says Ollive. “They came up with its individual characteristics, as well as their backstories, and how they interact.
“‘Rowan, for instance,’ is the Skelf who’s attached to an owl, and she is a wise, ethereal healer.” ‘Corvus’ the Crow Skelf is a slightly darker, scarier character who debuted at Halloween.”
“I then created a briefing document and handed that all over to Steve Pearce. He illustrated the most beautiful characters for us to use through our marketing and publicity.
“We’ve had a lot of fun, and it has been an incredibly creative process. When families arrive, there is an activity pack, with games, activities and stickers. There is also a fun, educational trail based around the wildlife.
“We created the ‘Discover Nature’ section of the website, and have Explorer Packs, little rucksacks that families can take away into the woodland for the day. They contain bug-hunting kits, spotting sheets and tree-rubbing. There is also an owl mask to make. There are all sorts of different activities for families to spend the day in nature.
“We also worked with a local professional theatre company, who brought some of the Skelves to life. We have live Skelves that pop up occasionally during school holidays now and then. It’s all non-digital. l am very interested in the digital space as well. But actually it’s nice to work on a project that’s purely non-digital.”
“The most significant part of the project for Castle Howard is the fact I created a Skelf Council. We decided on a guerrilla marketing campaign. Rather than just say, ‘Castle Howard is opening a new playground’, we led with a campaign, ‘The Skelves are Coming.’
“Nobody knew what the Skelves were or who they were. But we did lots of print advertising, local press, and so on. It intrigued people.
“The next step was to write to all the local primary schools. We said, ‘We’re going to hold a secret meeting about something happening at Castle Howard on this day at this time. And we need a young army of enthusiastic people who care about their community and the environment to come and get involved.’
“At that initial launch meeting, about 40 children and their families turned up. So, we revealed the playground designs and CAP.Co’s visuals to a room of 150 or so people. This was before the staff had even seen it. It was so important to me to see the reaction of the people who would be using it.”
Putting young people at the heart of the campaign
“It’s all very well five adults sitting in a playground brainstorming ideas,” she says. “But it was very clear to me right from the start that if we’re designing a new product for young people, then we absolutely have to have young people at the heart of the campaign.”
After revealing the designs, Ollive explained that they were, essentially, creating an after-school club. This would look at every aspect of the playground’s creation. From a budgeting session and creative development to marketing.
“We even held a catering session where the children could design canapes for the launch at the boathouse café by the island.
“They did some digital stuff too. They ran the social media channels and created a Tik Tok channel, which was new to Castle Howard. In addition to this, they did a drama workshop with the theatre company, helping to develop the Skelves’ characters.”
The Skelf Council
“Then they launched it. There was a preview evening for our local stakeholders, and they invited the local press. They hosted the public launch, where they did speeches and the press launch. We had members of the national press who came along.”
The children involved had stipulated they wanted Skelf Council T-shirts and badges. These signalled their official status right from the start.
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“Journalists would have stood there and said how nice it all looked,” says Ollive. “But I very much doubt, without the input of the Skelf Council, that they would have climbed through it. Working with the children and their families over that period of time has had a huge impact. We are looking at working with that group of people going forward. Because they’ve become huge ambassadors for us.
“Castle Howard doesn’t actually have an education department at the moment. However, I think it’s something we’ll develop.”
Castle Howard and the local community
“The young people feel like Skelf Island is their playground. They went on site when it was just mud in a hardhat situation. They had a tour from the rest of our team who were working on it. So, they understood the designs and saw it go up week by week.
“It’s been a hugely successful and unexpected part of the project. I’m really pleased we pursued the idea. And what they brought to the table definitely shaped and changed the final result.”
Working with CAP.Co
Simon Egan originally trained as a Fine Art Sculptor. He was the co-creator of Norfolk’s Bewilderwood and is the leader of the CAP.Co team. Originally, Castle Howard asked him to replace the existing children’s playground. This was near the Great Lake, as he explains:
“It was a large bark-chipped area adjacent to the boathouse. It was fine, but it wasn’t very inspirational for us. We need an environment to work with, ideally.”
“I was standing in that playground and looking across the end of the lake at a bit of land that looks like an island. I went back very excitedly to Vicki Howard to say, ‘You must do your new play area on your Island.’ And she said, ‘Don’t be so silly. We haven’t got an island.’
“It turns out it isn’t an island, but it looks like one. Its a dyke at the end of the Great Lake. So we agreed to do something over there in the wooded area, and it grew from there.”
Finding a story
Having settled on the perfect location for Skelf Island, the next step was to find a story.
“We had a tour of the whole wider estate. For example, the family mausoleums and extraordinary follies that each generation had added. And we identified two possible routes. One was to go down the architectural route, echoing all those amazing follies.”
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“The second was to go for a more natural look and feel. That is what this Island was throwing up. It looked right, and Nick Howard was very keen to go down the more natural path.”
The Great Lake at Castle Howard is home to a large number of breeding swans. Perhaps the greatest number in Europe.
“I wondered whether we could make the theme around that somehow. And that is what we ended up doing. The nest structures we created mimic those of the birds that might live there.”
Describing the process by which the characters evolved, he says:
“They asked us to have a meeting on interpretation, exploring how we could tell the story of nature on the Island.”
Coming up with the name: Skelf Island
Egan suggested a slightly more fantastical concept than the initial vision. One with characters living in an environment that could engage with children.
“When it came to choosing a name and an inspiration for these characters, Nick Howard, who normally sits in the meetings very quietly, explained that Castle Howard is on the site of a medieval village called Henderskelfe.”
“So that is the background for the name Skelf Island. It’s real, which is great. And very quickly after that came the idea for the Skelves of Henderskelfe. So it’s a fantasy based in reality.”
Skelf Island references the medieval village on which Castle Howard that previously stood on the site. It links it through a fantastical, ecologically educational story to the swans and birdlife of today’s Great Lake in a fusion of magic, history and environmental awareness.
The power of a story
“We really understand the power of the story,” says Egan. “And everywhere that CAP.Co goes, we build something completely bespoke, and relevant to that place. This means digging around to find what the story is. Whether it be through architecture, or through some kind of historical link to the place.
“I think Skelf Island will really differentiate Castle Howard’s play. We could have just plonked a few things on the existing playground. But in fact, what we’ve done instead is really exciting.”
“Abbi genuinely engaged with the local kids by setting up the Skelf Council. We had monthly project meetings. Abbi would come, and what the Skelf Council had decided would guide the whole meeting. The fact they listened to these kids and implemented what they thought should happen was just fantastic.
“They were very much part of the opening of Skelf Island, so there was complete ownership from the local community.”
Images kind courtesy of Castle Howard, credit Charlotte Graham