Talk me through your design brief?
It was unusual in the fact that I am local resident of Tunbridge Wells. I was approached by Friends of Calverley Grounds, who had conducted a residents’ survey to find the top five things people wanted to see change in the local open space, and a children’s playground was the number one choice.
The group had spent two years trying to work out how to get a playground design built on site, and they hadn’t really made any headway with the council. They approached a number of play manufacturers to come up with designs, but none of them really offered what they wanted to achieve in terms of the project.
A friend of mine said she knew that I designed playgrounds and asked the group to approach me. Initially as a local resident and not as the director of LUC, I offered to do a quick sketch plan pro bono just to get the idea off the ground, so they could then start to consult with the public, fundraise and start to persuade the local authority.
Through that process I then became a fully on-board member of that working team to develop the whole scheme and take it through to fruition. It terms of my professional involvement, once the public consultation was completed, LUC was appointed to produce the contract drawings and oversee the tender and construction on site. It’s a very unusual example, because you don’t often do things for pro bono, but it was because I was a local resident and I was keen to see something happen on site.
Tell me a bit about your career?
I studied landscape architecture at Greenwich University, some 20-odd years back. I joined LUC in the early 1990s and at that point the heritage lottery was just starting to fund historic public parks. So I wrote one of the first applications for funding of a public park and I went on to work on over 40 plus HSL-funded park schemes.
I have always been incredibly interested in children and how they interact with landscape – when I was at college I wrote my dissertation on it. Early on my career, LUC won the commission to design the Diana, Princess of Wales playground in Kensington Gardens, which I designed and oversaw. That led to a lot of involvement in high-profile design projects, such as the adventure playground called Tumbling Bay in the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London.
How big was the team working on the project?
For the fundraising and sketching part it was just me as a volunteer, but then when we were doing the contract drawings we went up to three people for a while, and then it went back down to just me to oversee it. We also had a wider design team in including cost consultants, such as Huntley Cartwright . Ian Jup, who we work with regularly, also happens to live in Tunbridge Wells, and he produced an initial sketch scheme and cost plan for free.
Ian and I both then worked together on paid fees. Our wider client was the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, which allowed us to build on its land. We had a committee process and met monthly to update them in terms of our progress.
What was your favourite aspect of the project?
It was bringing the community together. So many people have been involved in so many different ways. Everyone thought we were completely crazy – literally a group of five mums were going to raise £225,000 to build this scheme – but we did it, and I think it just shows that if you really pull together you really can make things happen.
I have never really worked on a project which has really brought the town together, and it was such a good news story rather than the opposite, which is ‘council says no to playground’. It’s such a delight to walk past the old bowling green and hear the squeals of delight, you can’t see it straight away when you enter the park but you can hear the kids having fun. So I feel that the project has does its job, since the park was crying out for a proper play area.
In terms of the actual design where did you draw your inspiration from?
We were really keen for the playground to speak of the local area – that was absolutely fundamental. It is a historic park so we knew we had to be very sensitive to its setting and its location, so the first thing I did was visit the local archive centre in the town and look at some of the historic plans for the park and the local area.
Running through the park used to be a stream that led to a formal lake, and that has all since been cultivated and lost. There has always been a strong voice from the community that water should be brought back to the town, as it was originally a spa town. The central element of the project is this serpentine stream – it’s not a real stream, it’s a sand pit that snakes its way through the centre. We added water play features within the sandpit, and there are a series of water tables that adds to the theme of water. That sandpit is backed by sensory herbaceous planting, which is all in blues and purples and grasses which give off the feeling of being near water.
The area above that is designed for younger children, and it was about the early beginnings of the town that grew up around the spa. On top of that there are agricultural themes as well, since we are based in the garden of Kent and are surrounded by ancient orchards in Tunbridge Wells. There is a grid of eating apples within the playground, plus a tractor and trailer to give it some more context. We also have some beautifully carved oak sheet made for us by a sculptor I work with regularly.
Within the area below the sandpit are outcrops of sandstone. We went to a local sandstone quarry, which is our local rock, to create scuttled mounds to give that feeling of the geology of the area. We have some interpretation boards on how the design relates to the history, and some illustrations and historic plans so that people understand what inspired us to come up the scheme.
I wanted it to be a unique site, since I don’t design ubiquitous playgrounds. The worst playgrounds are a collection of catalogue items stuck in a square, that is not a play area in my mind. The landscape is far more important than the playground equipment, and if you can afford to add equipment, that’s the luxury. What you first need to develop is a really exciting landscape structure that children actually want to explore and be playful, which is really important for a child’s development.
I have done a lot of research work with child psychologists to really understand what play means to children and its about not approaching it from an adult’s perspective. I start with a brief where I ask ‘what do I want the child feel’ and not ‘what do I want it to look like’.
What were the challenges?
It was very straightforward since it was a nice sized site which was sunken into the area. So in a sense it was its own contained space, which was good from a safety perspective to stop little kids wandering out. The real challenge of the project was the funding. We managed to obtain a couple of grants, and those really set the parameters of the timeframe to then complete the rest of the fundraising and deliver the scheme within the funding timetable. That really applied pressure, because we received two key grants and you only have 12 months to deliver the scheme otherwise you lose it.
It was brilliant to get those initial grants through, the rest had to be raised through local businesses sponsoring. The other really exciting part of the project was that we collaborated with Gordon Young, a very famous public artist who did the Comedy Carpet in Blackpool and other very well known schemes.
As a favour he came on board and designed the Calverley community wall. This was a set of corten panels on one side of the playground, inscribed with the names of the people who donated money towards the scheme. It ranges from people like Timberplay, who donated a number of pieces of play equipment, the local council who gave us money and then lots of local businesses.
Did the local community offer up an ideas for the design?
The honest answer is no. In terms of the original four people of the group who wanted to get this playground built they had a very strong vision from the start. They wanted it to be local and they wanted it to be the talk of the town. They knew they did not want just a selection of play equipment bits stuck into the square.
What was the overall budget?
The group raised £225,000 and the total was up to £260,000, because the council added some extra things to the contract. So we did redid the paths around the playground, but that wasn’t originally part of the contract.
How long did take to complete the project and when was it completed?
The actual build part of the project took four months on site, and that was by Ground Control landscape contractors. It was opened in September last year, but before that there had been a year and a half of fundraising activities to make the project possible.
What was the overall goal you were trying to achieve?
To design a well balanced scheme that sits sentively within its historic context, that provides a very rich, playful landscape that children of all ages can enjoy.
Learning Curve – Jennette Emery-Wallis, LUC
At first glance the Calverley Adventure Grounds project was not particularly out of the ordinary in terms of design brief or implementation. What was unusual was that it was a project initiated and largely funded by a local group, The Friends of Calverley Grounds, who were working in collaboration with the land owner Tunbridge Wells Borough Council to enable the scheme.
Indeed it is an extraordinary example of how a project can galvanise a community to come together and jointly fundraise, successfully delivering a much loved, highly valued play space which now sits firmly at the heart of the local community. Looking back, the thing that strikes me most was the sheer determination of the small yet hugely dedicated team of volunteers who took on the extraordinary challenge to raise £225,000 over a 12-month period.
The project was made possible because the group was well led and structured, with key roles and responsibilities established from the outset. Some of the most inventive aspects of the project were linked to the fundraising and social media campaigns which were often wide and far ranging in their scope, these included:
- More standard grant application submissions (with two significant landfill grants successes totalling £75k and a number of smaller grants ranging from £5-4,000).
- A local business launch held and sponsored by Royal Victoria Place, the town’s local shopping venue, with many invited companies coming forward in the coming months to support the project via direct sponsorship of a piece of play equipment or providing a much needed service, volunteers, raffle or auction prize.
- Timberplay, the play manufacturer who were supplying the main elements of the scheme generously donated several pieces of equipment which gave the project a big boost at the start of the campaign.
- An ‘Eggstravaganza Easter’ community fun day held onsite re-establishing a long lost egg-rolling tradition in the grounds, along with egg-and-spoon races which helped to engage local children and families in the project and gain much useful feedback to influence the design.
- A Jam Jar Campaign which reached out to local schools and community groups to raise funds through sponsored walks, cake sales, raffles etc. with the local branch of Metro bank collecting the jars of coins (raising £6000) and handing out money boxes.
- A very smart ‘Black Tie Ball’ event with live auction (raising an impressive £24,000)
- A highly cherished children’s variety show of local talent, held and supported by the assembly halls (£20,000) which acted as the final grand finale of the fundraising campaign.
One campaign which I had direct involvement with was the ‘Calverley Community Wall’ an initiative to encourage local businesses, families and individuals to donate funds towards the scheme and have their name acknowledged within a piece of public art designed by acclaimed artist, Gordon Young, famed for his Blackpool ‘Comedy Carpet’, who the team had remarkably persuaded to become involved.
Consisting of 10 corten panels attached along the face of an existing retaining wall, the art piece acts as a lasting legacy to the collaboration of so many people; and keeping true to staying local, a nearby engineering company stepped forward to help sponsor and manufacture the laser cut piece; with the wall contributing over £40,000 towards the project’s fundraising target.
All of these initiatives were reinforced by a hugely effective social media campaign using Facebook and Twitter, supported by a website and promotional film (played before each film screening at the local Trinity Theatre cinema), each helping to reach a wide audience.
More traditional publicity routes were not overlooked with regular features and updates appearing in local magazines and council publications, whilst The Times of Tunbridge Wells free newspaper published a number of articles.
Testament to the strength and power of community, the £225,000 target was raised within 24 hours of the 12-month deadline, marking a major milestone in the project’s journey to fruition.