Northumberland National Park Authority has confirmed its £14.8m state-of-the-art visitor centre and youth hostel on Hadrian’s Wall is thriving when it comes to encouraging more people to enjoy the countryside.
Since opening its doors to the public on 29 July, The Sill, which is the UK’s first National Landscape Discovery Centre, welcomed over 51,000 visitors during August and September.
Its performance has far exceeded the National Park Authority’s ambitious projections by achieving almost half the expected visitor numbers for an average year in its first two months.
Over 98% 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 Sill: National Landscape Discovery 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 (HLF) through a £7.8m 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 whilst our 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.”
The Sill’s main exhibition champions all of the benefits the landscape brings, from producing food to improving health. Its close proximity to the Hadrian’s Wall corridor and other landmarks including Steel Rigg, Sycamore Gap and Crag Lough make it a great hub for exploring the National Park.
Glen Sanderson, chairman of Northumberland National Park Authority, adds: “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% more visitors than in a normal operating year. So far our numbers have exceeded this.
“Our café partners Fresh Element, who are committed to sourcing and serving local food, now employ over 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.