There are proposals to develop a number of visitor centres around the Mersey which will be best practice, state-of-the-art centres that will be connected physically and virtually and ‘point to each other’. Mersey Waterfront has been funded by North West Development Agency (although they themselves act as a funding body) and they are reaching the end of funding for the first phase of the project. For Phase 2 there is again funding from NWDA but also from Government under ERDF and they are seeking lottery funding and private monies as well. There are funds of £20 million to spend for Phase 2.
A series of investments have been made around the coastline in both urban and rural settings. Under the Investments Programme there are two visitor centres being developed – there is a brand new one which is under construction at Wigg Island which is also funded by Local Authority money. A masterplan has been developed for Wirral Country Park for the west part of the park which includes a visitor centre and bridleways: a feasibility study for a visitor centre there has recently been undertaken by W.S.Atkins. Special development plans have also been undertaken for the whole of Merseyside area which will identify gaps and provisions for the whole coastline building on some INTERREG work which was undertaken on ‘Quality of Coastal Places’.
Wigg Island is in the Holton Borough Council area and its development as a country park has been a long term objective of the borough council. They applied for Heritage Lottery Funding and presented a detailed proposal and also demonstrated financial sustainability.
An interviewee from Mersey Waterfront said that she could not imagine putting further resources into new visitor centres but the main aim was to create a sense of place around the coastal area so that interpretation would point to other locally-distinct areas. This was described as cross-promotion to encourage people to think conceptually about the bigger picture, for example, by use of a signage protocol that has been rolled out across the area to cross promote the different areas along the waterfront.
Visitor centres that are owned and operated outside the private sector were said to struggle because they were not conceived of in a ‘business-wise’ sense. Most private operators were thought by one interviewee, to not necessarily invest in a visitor centre within the same vicinity of another one, to there was a rationale for rationalisation identified to result in larger, better centres rather than fewer, poorer quality ones. It was emphasised that visitor centres are not always required and can in fact be in conflict with a sense of place in rural coastal areas. An example is Formby Point which is a National-Trust owned area that is extremely popular but the partners do not feel that it is appropriate to develop a centre there because people visit for the countryside, not for an interactive experience: ‘they go there for the beach, the dunes, and to feed the squirrels’.
Because there is such a large expanse of coastline, finding the best location for a visitor centre is an issue. There are many gateways to the coast as opposed to one major one. 100 km of the 135 km of coastline is openly accessible.
Much useful work being undertaken on a borough by borough basis is being combined to help to develop the view at a more strategic level.
Mersey Waterfront has also been considering theme-based facilities, for example new disabled access at a waterports facility (Sefton Water Centre), and architectural designs for this have been developed which include aspects that visitor centres could include such as a cafeteria development.
Southport eco-centre is another important information centre which Mersey Partnership has helped to fund. This is a good example of a case where a visitor centre on its own could not be justified but it is linked to a park and ride bus centre and the information centre there captures people for ten minutes or so. This is contained within a ‘beautiful building’ that has won awards and provides information on the Southport area (similar to the role of a TIC), but it also explains principles behind sustainability and sustainable construction such as energy saving measures.
Further detail on current developments for visitor facilities within Sefton Borough Council area
There is a gateway project for the Sefton area managed by the Sefton Coast Partnership. There are three sites in close proximity that attract visitors and the Council has tried to develop a feasibility study that considers all of these together, so that the sites do not clash or duplicate each other. Each site is managed by a different landowner and consequently they have their own agendas and priorities which can be hard to manage. The sites have not been built as yet but there is a general point to note regarding the fact that there are issues regarding the differing expectations as to what different local interest groups want to see. Some, for example, want to see sites protected in their natural state. There has been a lot of controversy in the consultation phase and a spokesperson from the planning department stated that there is also controversy about how much effort is put into resolving such conflicts of interest at the outset and whether different groups’ priorities should be thought about from the outset or come back to at a later stage. He also stressed that funding of the works must be thought about at an early stage – funding dictates the quality of buildings that can be developed and just because a feasibility study is undertaken that does not necessarily mean that there is a grant at the end of the process. Many funders look for outputs and these have to be demonstrated – it was seen as difficult to demonstrate hard economic outputs for a visitor centre – there were found to be lots of technical issues. Two sites are local authority owned – Formby Point at Lifeboat Road and Ainsdale on Sea - whereas Victoria Road is National Trust-owned. There are plans for visitor centre development at Formby Point and Ainsdale on Sea.
Sefton Coast Borough Council is working with Mersey Waterfront to promote tourism – and the Sefton Coast Partnership Development Plan is looking at branding and promoting the coast. Formby Point and Victoria Road (which is important for red squirrels) both need physical improvements for access purposes, and visitor pressure at Victoria Road will be offset by improving the Formby Point facilities. At Victoria Road there is a logistical problem in that the car park cannot be expanded in its current location because of coastal erosion. Also, at Ainsdale on Sea there is poor parking and a feasibility study has been undertaken for a new building to provide information and for a cafeteria. Ainsdale visitors were described as ‘not just people out for a walk but using the area, for example, for kiting on the beach’. Essentially the requirements are for basic facility provision such as improved parking; a ranger base; better toilet facilities; and information point/centre and information provision about other sites. There also suggestions of improving core facilities – café’s, a shop for extreme sports and possibly club facilities. There is also a question over whether to provide a heritage centre.
The feasibility work is comprising plans, elevations, and perspectives supported by a business case that will consider the options and costs of running a centre, including staffing it. This work is being undertaken by Gillespie’s and will be available at the end of June 2006.
Introducing Cameos E and F: National Parks and Outdoor Recreation: Some Commentary
The next two cameos presented of case studies are of centres in National Parks in England. Regarding outdoor activities other than rambling or hill walking, a study commissioned by the Countryside Agency (2002 Defra Review of English National Park Authorities) concluded that outdoor recreation is extremely significant in National Parks but that NPAs have not been as proactive as they might have been in terms of promoting opportunities for outdoor recreation and have been overly defensive in their approaches to encouraging outdoor recreation, they have been ambivalent at best, and at worst quite negative about their second purpose’, i.e. ‘to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities (of the Parks) by the public’. They have concentrated more on ‘understanding’ rather than the pure recreational element of ‘enjoyment’ which is reflected in the usual content of their management plans. Public information has tended to emphasise potential conflicts and management of visitor behaviour, rather than positive welcoming messages. The study found that few NPAs have a strongly positive relationship with Sport England in their regions. However, attitudes are changing especially in the wake of the sustainable tourism agenda and foot and mouth disease.
Overall demand for outdoor recreation is high and national surveys suggest that walking remains the most popular of all recreation activities, while cycling also remains at high levels relative to other sports. The level of outdoor activity participation has remained fairly constant over the past ten years although participation in recreation activities generally has declined, but information is piecemeal and the last All Parks Visitor Survey was conducted in 1994. The Countryside Agency states (2005), ‘if existing demand is difficult to quantify, then latent demand is virtually impossible’ and that ‘recreation demand can also often be supply-led’. It appears that the current recreational demand in National Parks is being comfortably met at present, e.g. for climbing, horse-riding, orienteering. Most non-motorised motorsports; all airsports, field sports and others.
Interestingly, there are examples of unmet demand which may be related to specific natural features, for instance, access to good white water is lacking for the more serious canoeists; discouragement of motorised recreation by NPAs (displaced demand); and, there is some evidence that participation in cycling and horse-riding would increase if the infrastructure and support facilities were improved. So there are opportunities to capitalise on specific outdoor recreation activities through enhancement of natural features and through freeing up land use and associated infrastructure. There is also some evidence that use of National Parks for organised events is growing and an ‘excellent code of practice’ has been produced by the ANPA recently. The Countryside Agency recommends that greater use should be made of the internet in relation to promoting outdoor activities and that greater links should be made with the education sector to address the possible decline in children’s use of the countryside.
Two centres in the Lake District
Not far from Windermere are two different visitor centres: Brockhole (National Park Centre) and Grizedale Visitor Centre which is run by the Forestry Commission. Brockhole is situated near the lake and offers displays of information about the Park and how it is run. The displays contain information about the local environment and landscape and how it is managed and there are some which are interactive and aimed at children. In the grounds are a picnic area and open space for playing. There is also a restaurant within the centre. Many events are organised there such as bird and bat watching and talks.
It is possible to take a ferry across the lake which links to a bus which goes via Beatrix Potters House (a very popular place for Japanese tourists and with signage in Japanese), and then goes to the Grizedale Valley where there is a different style centre. Grizedale Centre is situated in a large area of Forestry Commission owned land and provides perhaps a more hands-on and earthy experience. Again there are information displays but these are more inventive in terms of being interactive and include information about uses of wood and the history of the area. There is a ‘go ape’ facility in the trees (where people are on a safety wire in order to be able to test their skills on an assault course that is high above ground). There is also a restaurant and shop. The ‘go ape’ facility and restaurant are run by different companies as they are contracted out. The centre is a starting point for many walks or trails that can be followed through the forest with different levels of difficulty – they are labelled different colours and signage is then followed. There are also a number of sculptures in the forest and large rudimentary wooden instruments that can be played along part of a walk. Thus even the walks are designed to allow interaction with wood products and the nature that is found within the forest.
The two centres are a few miles apart but also physically separated by a lake and some hills and seem to cater for slightly different tastes. They co-exist with each offering a particularly distinct experience.
E Northumberland National Park Within the National Park there recently has been an aim within visitor centres, not only to interpret National Park objectives but also to enhance the visitors’ experience through provision of refreshments and so on in centres. The NPA has been keen to see how centres can stimulate local enterprise such as bicycle hire, café facilities etc through selling local produce and taking an ethical stance. They are therefore using centres as a shop window for local produce (food, crafts and local books). There haven’t been feasibility studies undertaken as such, however, there has been research undertaken into building constraints and planning permission options for café’s attached to visitor centres. The NPA has experimented by using visitor centres as local venues for local craft and trade fairs where vendors have been able to sell direct to the public. This enabled an idea to be gained of potential benefits for visitor centres and local producers in terms of income generation. At present there is a cut in the visitor centre budget of £20,000 and restructuring is occurring so at present visitor centres are taking the soft option only of generating local trading within their premises.
There are a number of visitor centres within the National Park that operate around the theme of ‘The Romans’, Housesteads near Hadrian’s Wall being a key attraction.
1 Characteristics of the area
Northumberland National Park is on the border between England and Scotland in the middle of the north of England. It is well-known for it’s ancient prehistory and the rare red squirrel. Landscape characteristics include moors and grasslands of the Cheviot Hills with ancient hillforts and rivers: these hills run along the Scottish border. There is a National Trail along Hadrian’s Wall which is seated on the Whin Sill ridge. The best preserved sections of Hadrian’s Wall can be found within the National Park between Gilsland and Chollerford. There are a number of visitor centres (National Park-run) along the wall; some are quite close together, but it could be assumed that along a linear feature such as a trail all visitor centres are likely to receive custom as ‘stopping-off places’ along a direct route.
Northumberland National Park is the least visited and least populated of Parks in England.
Key attractions within the catchment area
There are a number of visitor centres spread along Hadrian’s Wall:
Housesteads: A dramatically-sited Roman fort on the crags of the Whin Sill. It is extensively excavated and consolidated and there are visible remains of barracks, granaries, a hospital, latrines and the remains of a large civilian settlement outside the fort. Other facilities include tea room, car parks, bus stop, toilets and small museum.
Once Brewed: National Park Centre about 5 kms west of Housesteads on the B6318. Tourist Information Centre, CCTV monitored car and coach park, cycle storage, toilets and simple refreshments.
Walltown: Reclaimed quarry now a National Park recreation site with lake, easy-access paths, pond and waymarked trials. CCTV monitored car park, cycle storage and seasonal visitor centre.
Cawfields: Another landscaped quarry site with picnic tables, CCTV monitored car parking, toilets, cycle storage and good access up on to the Wall, especially to Milecastle 42.