The Sill: transforming how people engage with the countryside

Tony Gates is the chief executive of the Northumberland National Park Authority. He writes about The Sill, a new flagship discovery centre, opening to visitors later this year.

The Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre, in Northumberland National Park will open to the public in summer 2017.

The concept for this bold project can be traced back to the post-war legislation that declared the country’s natural landscapes should be protected while remaining accessible to all.

In more recent years, the challenge for our National Parks has been to find new ways of achieving these founding objectives. People have greater demands on their time with a wider range of leisure options open to them including new virtual worlds.

A concept image of what The Sill will look like once it is open to visitors - NNPA

At Northumberland National Park, we prefer the real world and we knew we had to do something to reinvigorate interest in discovering and exploring the countryside and places that stimulate all of our human senses. The Sill represents a once in a generation opportunity to do something radically different, ambitious and on a different scale than ever before.

From our earliest vision of what The Sill might become we wanted to transform how people engage with the countryside.

The location for the building itself was obvious. The Sill is adjacent to Hadrian’s Wall, the most visited area of our National Park with 1.5m visitors per year, equidistant between Newcastle and Carlisle.

We and our partners at YHA (England and Wales) were both running ageing facilities on what is now The Sill site so this was our opportunity to step up and establish a world-class facility in a National Park and at a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Sill will transform how people explore, understand, value and conserve landscape and in doing so it will breathe new life into the rural economy while improving the lives of people who engage with it.

Northumberland has a history of leading from the front from experimental farming to piloting rural development initiatives and The Sill will throw a fresh spotlight on that energy and expertise.

The Sill is so much more than bricks and mortar. The Sill will act as a hub, providing people with the information and confidence they need to get out and explore landscapes for themselves .The building itself is the vehicle for the delivery of landscape discovery and we’re confident it will welcome more than 100,000 visitors over 364 days of the year whatever the weather. However it’s the events programme and the 30,000 activity days that the National Park will host annually that underpin our aspirations.

Hadrian's wall in Northumberland National Park - Simon Fraser/NNPA

Each and every one of these events and activities will be dedicated to opening up the landscape for discovery, learning, conservation or health and well-being. Only a fraction of these will actually be staged within the walls of The Sill, the vast majority taking place right across the National Park and beyond the Park.

Along with YHA (England and Wales) and our funding partners, we have commissioned more than 60 independent studies to advise us on everything from demand levels and economic impact to the overall validity of our business case. We’ve also visited and have learned from other successful destinations and attractions so we have great confidence in every aspect of this project.

Perhaps the single greatest measure of our success over the next five years will be if we have given every school child across Northumberland the chance to visit the National Park. If we can do that, all of the effort and all of the investment will have been worth it.

We look forward to welcoming you to The Sill very soon.