Northumberland’s new £14.8m attraction making its mark

The Sills living grassland roof is ideal for taking in a magnificent 360-degree view of the landscape.
The Sills living grassland roof is ideal for taking in a magnificent 360-degree view of the landscape.
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Northumberland National Park Authority has confirmed its £14.8million state-of-the-art visitor centre is attracting plenty of visitors.

Since opening its doors to the public on July 29, The Sill, which is the UK’s first National Landscape Discovery Centre, welcomed more than 51,000 visitors during August and September.

Its performance has far exceeded the Authority’s ambitious projections by achieving almost half the expected visitor numbers for an average year in its first two months.

More than 98 per cent of visitors providing written feedback at the centre said they’d had a positive experience and more than 2,000 guests have stayed at its world-class, 86-bed youth hostel.

Named after the nearby Great Whin Sill, the centre is one of the biggest projects ever undertaken by an English National Park and the result of an innovative partnership between Northumberland National Park, YHA (England & Wales) and the Heritage Lottery Fund via a £7.8million grant made possible by National Lottery players.

The building is a celebration of landscape, culture and heritage with fixed and temporary exhibitions, learning and event spaces, a 90-seater café showcasing local produce, YHA accommodation and a gift shop packed with local produce, arts and crafts.

It also boasts a fully-accessible Whin Sill grassland roof, the only one of its kind in the world, which offers inspirational views across the National Park and Hadrian’s Wall UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tony Gates, chief executive of the Northumberland National Park Authority, said: "The centre has been transformational for us. It has been a very successful start with extremely positive visitor feedback.

"When we opened at the height of the holidays, we welcomed lots of families and since the new school year started, the profile of our visitors has changed, but we have remained busy. Now we are starting to see different patterns of visitors using the building including university students, school children and a large proportion of international visitors which is very pleasing.

"As this is our opening period we fully expected to be busy and whileour performance is ahead of target, it will be interesting to see how visitor patterns work out across the year. We have received a lot of visitor feedback, most of which is extremely positive, but also includes some aspects that they feel we could improve upon.

"Our plan is to carry on listening as we keep moving forward. We already have plans to further develop the centre to keep the visitor experience fresh and inclusive. This includes weekly activities such as Sill Sundays, meet-the-maker events in partnership with local beer, gin and cheese producers and seasonal events like Dark Sky evenings and a Christmas Craft Fair.

"It has been an exciting start, but we know there are ways to keep improving. We want the centre to be the best it can be and see it evolve."

Glen Sanderson, chairman of Northumberland National Park Authority, added: "We want the centre to inspire a new generation of landscape enthusiasts. A key target for us is to have every child from a school in Northumberland spend a day in the National Park. We want young people to enjoy going to the countryside and understand it. The centre is a big step to being able to achieve that.

"The Sill is already making a significant contribution to the local economy just weeks after opening. In this, our first year, we are expecting 50 per cenbt more visitors than in a normal operating year. So far our numbers have exceeded this.

"Our café partners Fresh Element, which is committed to sourcing and serving local food, now employ more than 15 staff and have recorded daily sales which far outweigh the projections set out before the opening.

"Local suppliers stocking produce in our shop have also reported an upturn in sales from being featured at The Sill and some have gone on to gain other local contracts. There are many early positive signs for the long-term economic impact of The Sill."

When construction began in November 2015, Northumberland National Park Authority also launched The Sill Activity programme to engage people of all ages throughout the region in the project. To date, there have been over 400 Sill-related events providing a range of educational and volunteering opportunities connected to the landscape and heritage of the Park.