YORK’S ENCHANTING NEW FAIRY SANCTUARYReview by Rosie Goodwin, Family Arts Correspondent
Sometimes a walk in the woods is not just a walk in the woods. Sometimes, with a little imagination, you can feel like you're entering a different realm - a fictional, enchanting ‘other’ world.
Banishing any hint of plastic, gaudy colours or garish lighting, the woodland trail I visited this weekend is the newest visitor attraction in North Yorkshire and the creation of the Van Outersterp family. Together, they set about transforming a hundred-acre woodland near Stamford Bridge, York, into a haven for fae folk.
The resulting Northwood Fairy Sanctuary involves a relaxing 1.5km meander, twisting through a natural space enhanced by the accoutrements of the magical inhabitants who share it with us. You can't see them, of course. No self-respecting fairy, I suspect, would come into the open for the likes of ordinary mortals like you or me. But evidence of their existence is everywhere – in their tiny wooden doors, hanging bridges that suspend above, and giant mushroom meeting places that invite you into their circle.
The Van Outersterps originally trained in landscape architecture and fashion, and their appreciation of nature's merits is clear. The Northwood Fairy Sanctuary is deliberately a place of minimal human intervention, where natural features of the woodland form an integral part of the experience - where a tree sprouts boldly through the middle of a path in the maze so that the visitor is left to squeeze sideways past.
“What did you like best?”, I ask my two-year old.
“I like the little houses, up, up, up,” he tells me. “I like rope ladders, bridges.”
A lover of the outdoors, my toddler-son spent a happy 90 minutes clambering over wooden stumps, knocking on miniature doors and delighting in a tiny, secret fairy world. Watching him, I felt sure the Van Outersterps are right when they insist that 'children have a huge capacity to appreciate nature, beauty and intricacy'.
Northwood is the answer to their frustration over what they deem the 'patronising of children': 'who says all kids love bright colours and naff cartoon characters?' they question.
My family generally like to 'scramble' and get ourselves into scrapes, so it is little surprise that they boys’ favourite spot was a natural play area, Titania's Garden, where wicker dragonflies dangle atmospherically above and creeping ant sculptures scale the trees around.
Unusually for a visitor attraction, Northwood is 'off-grid' - generating its own electricity. It is part of the family's commitment to sustainability. Their romantic eye on the past is clear everywhere too: in the sumptuous Pre-Raphaelite-style bar and cafe area, the rich forest-green and gold branding – designed by the Van Outersterp’s eldest daughter, illustrator Galatea - and the many signposts across the site, bearing labels like 'the Slumbering', 'Troll's Bank' and 'Plato's Shadows'.
At the end of the walk, a small museum showcases items from the collection of Professor Harvey John Howland - an eminent fairy collector and fellow of the New Society of Arcane and Natural History - including delicate and elaborate fairy and elven costumes, as well as a hidden surprise which I won’t spoil here.
For any new attraction, it's always difficult meeting what are often very high expectations. But the Northwood trail never pretends to be something it's not. It's not a pink palace. It doesn't dazzle or flash - no need for warnings about triggering epilepsy here. If you believe fairies should bear an uncanny resemblance to Disney princesses, it's not the place for you. This ‘sanctuary’, when we visited, was a space of serenity and calm.