Tom Blofeld last spoke to blooloop about BeWILDerwood’s beginnings, evolution and its plans for expansion in 2019. Now, in an update, he talks about the new BeWILDerwood park in Cheshire, which has opened to universal acclaim, as well as the stresses of the last year.
BeWILDerwood is a rustic world of zip wires, boat rides, treehouses, slides, forest bridges, marsh walks, and imaginative outdoor play. It first opened in May 2007 on the outskirts of the Broadland village of Hoveton, in Norfolk.
Predicated on the adventures of a half-hidden world of fantastical marsh-dwelling creatures such as Crocklebogs, Boggles and Twiggles, and rooted in Blofeld’s books, the park is a real-play experience that makes extensive use of natural materials.
BeWILDerwood’s second iteration is now open in Cheshire.
BeWILDerwood Cheshire and COVID-19
“We last spoke before the whole COVID nightmare,” Blofeld says. “It’s been quite an interesting ride. When the whole malarkey broke, I stared down the barrel of a gun. I didn’t realize the government was prepared to go and borrow 60 trillion squillion pounds. In the first three weeks, there were two sorts of related panic.”
By that point, he was planning to open BeWILDerwood Cheshire on 23 May 2020:
“That project, therefore, had borrowed its full capacity of loot, but it had no income. We are now open again, but for that period, that debt meant that without the Government help, we would never have survived.
“Rishi [Sunak] piped up with the furlough business, enabling me to tread water for a while. But it was not until midsummer that my sense of total panic slipped away, and it began to dawn on me that this might not be quite as bad as I first thought.
“It was a rollercoaster ride.”
A successful summer
Outlying Norfolk remained relatively unscathed by the pandemic, he says:
“And, touch wood, we’ve got off lightly to this day. We were able to open, socially distancing, for much of the summer.”
“Oddly enough, there was one advantage to all of that. The customers now had to pre-book. There was no other way to get in. That culture, for my trade, is a brilliant thing because you can predict, therefore, how many sausages to buy, for example. Or how many staff to lay on. All of that became predictable.”
TOR Systems, a leading ticketing and booking specialist, supports both BeWILDerwood sites with all their ticketing and booking requirements, ensuring that there is one single view of all bookings throughout the site. This makes for a smooth operation and a user experience journey that matches the customer’s onsite experience. It also supports an effective marketing strategy.
The benefits of timed tickets
‘We are extremely proud to have supported BeWILDerwood Cheshire throughout this difficult time, after having to delay their opening,” says Daniel Jordan, Managing Director at TOR.
“Hannah Monteverde, Park Manager and the team have had a huge challenge opening a new attraction in the middle of this pandemic and we have ensured our flexibility, agility, and attention to service has been at the forefront of supporting the team throughout this time.
“The way in which we approach our development remains true to our origins (as an operator), with a focus on the user. This is evident in the user experience, and one of the many reasons why BeWILDerwood chose to continue our relationship beyond the first site in Norfolk.”
“We wish the team all the best for a really successful summer, and beyond. After having experienced the attraction first-hand, I’m confident it will be a welcome addition to the Cheshire area.”
Blofeld adds: “The other thing that happened was that because the tickets were limited in number – about half of what we would normally be able to put through the park, in order to keep social distancing – we therefore said, you’ve pretty much got to come because somebody else might’ve had your tickets. And so they came.
“It was a gorgeous and glorious summer, I must say. But they came even on the rare days it rained and discovered that if they did, they had a really good time anyway.”
Pre-COVID, visitorship had been uneven, with crowds flooding to visit in sunny weather, and staying away when it rained.
“The public didn’t behave like that last summer, so, oddly enough, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought,” he says. “And then the pandemic hit again in the autumn.”
“Meanwhile, the government decided they didn’t want to help anybody in the hospitality sector who didn’t have a robust trading record. Regardless of the fact that the bits of the hospitality sector that were doing quite well were outdoor adventure parks, zoos and so on
“The BeWILDerwood Cheshire site didn’t have a trading record of any nature, robust or otherwise. So that led to further nervous breakdowns. Well, not quite, but it felt like it at the time. We got there in the end, and it was a real grind.”
Meeting demand for quality time together
When the gates were finally opened at BeWILDerwood Cheshire, Blofeld experienced a sense of unreality:
“It almost seemed that it could never have happened. And I sort of slightly had to sort of wonder if something had gone wrong with time itself, that we had finally opened.
“To be in a reasonably normal situation, with the vaccination programme rolling out and the real possibility of a genuinely ordinary, not mucking around summer, which does look like a thing that could happen, seems almost unthinkable.
“But it turns out when the public does come, that what they want is us. They haven’t had a chance to play robustly together.
“I have kids – a 13 and a 14-year-old,” he continues. “There was a point, some time in early May last year, when the words ‘Shall we all go for a walk?’ moved from being a bad idea to one that was so horrible it involved violence. And it was all we could do. We could only go for walks. The kids couldn’t play with other children. We couldn’t go anywhere. What families want to do is play together.
“And so, by pure coincidence, we are actually coming up pretty smiley on the other side of all this. Of course, I’ve got an enormous debt that Rishi has arranged me to have, which I didn’t have before, but I’m capable of going forward and looking for a big future.”
Finding the BeWILDerwood spirit in Cheshire
The Norfolk BeWILDerwood and its stories are set around marshland. How did he set about finding a marsh in Cheshire?
“I wondered that,” he says. “But it turns out Cheshire has things called mosses and meres. Cheshire isn’t much known about, really. It’s got the Cheshire Cat, and it always feels, to me, quintessentially English countryside.”
“Mosses and meres are glacial rubbings; indentations. Into these holes, you get water, if they’re sufficiently deep, in which case they’re meres, or they’re not deep enough for water, in which case all of the peaty stuff has led to these rather beautiful marshes being formed, with nothing else around them, except, obviously, an aquifer to keep them wet. And we found one of those. We found a marsh.”
Creating the infrastructure
It was, he explains, a Eureka moment:
“I remember going to the site, and thinking, ‘gosh, these are quite nice trees, I wonder if there’s anything else in here.’
“I bumped into the marsh and knew the Boggles had found a home. ‘This is it, we’re in, we’re doing it.’ I told them, in fact, that we were doing it well before I had any idea whether the site was suitable or not, which was probably foolish, but it was.”
The next step was the infrastructure:
“The critical bit is a decent road and a car park that doesn’t offend the local citizens. Local citizens are quite easy to offend on the subject of car parks. We got that. It was an A road, so it was a very expensive thing. To get a junction off an A road is quite different from getting one off a B road; to the tune of half a million pounds different.
“It rather challenged the investors, but everybody got together and we all did it, and it was all marvellous. I have to say, as a result, it’s a really dramatic entrance to BeWILDerwood Cheshire.”
Responding to the landscape
Manchester and Liverpool are the target catchments for BeWILDerwood Cheshire:
“We’re tracking – because we can – where people are coming from. They are very much from Manchester and Liverpool, unless from Birmingham, which is that critical 25, 30 minutes further away than the other two. I’m surprised at that.”
Blofeld’s plan is to write another book, focusing this time on the Boggles, Twiggles and sundry creatures of the Cheshire park.
“I have delayed the book, although bits of it exist. The first thing was that I wanted to make sure that this park was sufficiently like the first park that you didn’t feel that you had to go to Norfolk. But I also want it to feel absolutely part of its own landscape. I think responding to the landscape is key.
“Most of these things are a team effort. But I genuinely think I have a bit of a talent for landscape gardening, if you like; for understanding how a landscape works. I think of woods in terms of rooms; if a section of wood is all pine trees, it’s a very different feel when you clear it out and look after it, from another section in the same wood that is all silver birch, or beech.
“This particular wood has a really wide variety of different woodland ‘rooms’; quite big ones, so each and every structure that we build feels quite different from all the others.”
BeWILDerwood Cheshire and the next chapeter of the adventure
“One, BeWILDerville, is buried in rhododendrons, and only when you get into the houses can you peer out of the shrubbery. Whereas the sky maze is in a very gentle and soft plantation of very tall silver birches. So it feels quite airy and, when the sun comes through it, dappled.
“One is in a pine plantation, which feels rugged and intense. They are varied, and that is a total blessing. It means that the sites look quite similar because Norfolk has that same quality.
I haven’t finished a book, because I haven’t finished the park.”
BeWILDerwood Cheshire features treehouses, slides, giant swings and extra-long zip wires, treetop rope bridges, mazes, as well as storytelling, den building, crafts and activities. There are also the Boggles, Twiggles, and Curious Creatures, such as Mildred the Crocklebog, Thornyclod the spider, Snagglefang and the BeWILDerbats, to name a few.
“The way it works in our trade, of course, is that you need a big thing coming soon every three or four years. I over-designed the park so that I didn’t need further planning to put a lot more than we did in year one.”
There have been all sorts of challenges with BeWILDerwood Cheshire, says Blofeld:
“The biggest challenge on the new site is the water table. It is only about a foot and a half beneath the surface. This means, although I got planning permission for lakes, they can’t be built, because you’re digging into water. Bizarrely, that’s the one thing you can’t do if you’re trying to make a lake.
“You either want dry land or for the water table to be right up to the top of the earth. Halfway house is a disaster because you can’t put a lining down properly, you can’t do anything, really. So I’ve redesigned that.”
“I’m making what I call a thousand lakes, but I think eight will do the trick. They are really enlarged ponds. You can travel between them and amongst them. With quite a lot of sleight of hand and theatrical devices, I’m going to make it look like one piece of water, which should be very exciting and will take a couple of years.
“I feel if I do get that together, it’s such an essential and major thing that it wants two or three chapters to itself. But I still need to see that I can achieve that. The problems we had with the original lake were so great that we abandoned it. It was just not possible to do it, even if I’d had a squillion pounds. Throwing money at it didn’t work. It just wasn’t a thing.
“Those are the sorts of thing that will lead to the books being written.”
There are one or two designs that will only be comprehensible when the new park’s book is written. For example:
“There are dirigibles – sort of zeppelins – that can be seen if you look up. They are, in fact, for owls to sleep in. These are owls that have forgotten how to fly, but nobody currently going round the park has any idea of that, because there is no story anywhere that says this. It’s only in my head.”
“But they will discover this in the fullness of time. It’s a little shot at my children, the tablet generation; the owls have been playing tic-tac-toe to such an extent that they’d become too lazy to fly.
“I mustn’t treat my audience with too much contempt, but I do think it’s a message I would like to communicate.”
Booking online is essential
Booking online, he envisages, is here to stay:
“It’s now cultural; everyone has worked out how to do it on their phone. What we will probably do is say to roll-ups, ‘Get on your phone, book it online, and then come in one minute later,’ very much as you can do with a railway ticket.”
“The thing that we’re worried about up there at BeWILDerwood Cheshire is that on busy days the demographic is so huge. We don’t want vast numbers of people turning up and having to be turned away. Booking online makes it all so much more predictable. It would be nice if people see that we’re sold out before they embark on a journey.
“I think the culture now is that you do look on your phone. It has moved the whole industry forward, top to bottom. We’re not going back from that when this is all over.”
For the moment, there is only one BeWILDerwood evening event, which is separately ticketed::
“We do this beautiful lantern parade. It’s the nicest thing we do; really stunning. You make your own lanterns out of rice paper, and light them with glow sticks.
“Then you do a huge parade to the woods. We keep some areas quite dark so your lantern actually does something. But other bits are fantastically lit up with huge exhibits of pumpkins, bats or some rather abstract and weird stuff; there are gamelan puppet silhouettes moving behind white sheets.”
“It’s awesome. It’s gorgeous. It was all inspired by going to Tesco’s one Halloween with my three-year-old autistic son and seeing severed limbs on the counter. He took exception, with some justification, to this. We had to take him out of Tescos and spend quite a lot of time in the car park, explaining to him that it was all right, and it wasn’t real.
“I don’t watch horror films for a reason, which is that I don’t like being frightened. So I wasn’t going to make it frightening. I wanted to make it mildly spooky, and nicely creepy and strange. I wanted people to feel it was odd, ethereal, and rather lovely. It has become a real cult thing in Norfolk. It’ll take them awhile in Chester to learn about it, but we’re doing exactly the same things.”
Positive reaction to BeWILDerwood Cheshire
Blofeld is also contemplating a summer event for the future:
“I have also written a number of first passes for something that will be called A Midsummer Night’s Boggle. It will be, I think, part theatre and part interactive play. It would be rather fun – frankly – nick the out-of-copyright Shakespeare, and have the occasional donkey in there and so forth.”
The public reaction to BeWILDerwood Cheshire has been overwhelmingly positive:
“I’ve never seen reviews like the one’s we’re getting now. The review in the Daily Mirror contained the line ‘This is the best day of my life.’ I’ve never seen a reaction quite like it. It’s been one of those things that really has worked.”