If you go down into the woods…


Flimwell Park was designed to connect people with its woodland surroundings and show how sympathetic architectural development can co-exist with nature. Here its visionary architect Steven Johnson tells more to Eileen Leahy about this pioneering project

“The potential for Flimwell Park is huge,” says Steven Johnson, lead architect of the new sustainable, mixed-use development located in an Area of ​​Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), just off the A21.

I made the short drive on this same road from Tunbridge Wells to meet Steven to find out the story behind this groundbreaking development which is set in 46 acres of ancient woodland and was officially launched last year.

The main idea behind it, he tells me, is to offer locals and those from further afield a multi-benefit space in a beautiful setting that includes coworking, accommodation and hospitality spaces. , thanks to the stunning range of custom-built wooden buildings on site. .

The land was originally occupied by Flimwell Bird Park, but in 2001 it was purchased by developers Chris and Rene O’Callaghan who had a vision not only to protect the ancient forest but also to create a place that also could be used for education and hobbies.

After years of negotiation, planning permission was finally granted at the end of 2015, and then construction began.

“Where we’re standing right now was a total mud bath with Japanese knotweed everywhere,” says Steven who runs The Architecture Ensemble. “Then things slowed down further when a very rare flower called Heath Lobelia was discovered. Our botanist discovered it and Kew Gardens immediately sent a team to investigate.

The discovery also sparked the interest of BBC1’s Countryfile team who visited Flimwell Park earlier this month to film – but more on that later…

Like Chris and Rene O’Callaghan, Steven’s entrepreneurial spirit is strongly rooted in capitalizing on the benefits of working with nature – he and his team specialize in using wood only for construction where possible. , and a strong belief in any work they do should also be for the good of the greater community as well.

So it makes perfect sense to understand why Steven and his team got involved in the pioneering Flimwell Park project.

“Flimwell hasn’t received any funding since about World War II,” he explains. “There will never be a main street to bring people together because the development of the A21 has ended that. So having something here where villagers can come together and get involved in something is hugely important. What is amazing about this project is that no one opposed it, it is extraordinary and it shows that the people of Flimwell really wanted investment.

All of this, along with its aforementioned obvious green credentials and location, are the very reasons Countryfile paid it a visit earlier this year. The episode, which aired on March 6, also focused on the committed use of wood, iron and clay development.

Countryfile presenter Matt Baker saw the use of clay at Zankhana Patel’s pottery business The Potters Studio (pictured below), which is based in one of the impressive eight units of site wood business.

The BBC team was also present for the firing of a prototype anagama oven which was built in the woods by students from The Design for Manufacture program at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture ( UCL). The university has strong ties to the site, as Steven is also a part-time lecturer there.

In addition to the eight wooden commercial premises, there is a huge barn-style building, which stands on the site of the original Flimwell Bird Park visitor site and currently still under construction. As well as this there is the beautiful Birchwood cafe and restaurant which is run by Will Devlin of The Small Holding which has a green Michelin star. Then there are a handful of homes – some already occupied and others still under construction – that provide the ideal accommodation for anyone looking for an eco-friendly but upscale home – and not your ordinary new build.

What was the inspiration for the designs I ask Steven? “It’s 20 years of traveling across the countryside here and spying on the most valuable buildings. The fact that it is an AONB is also important, but what inspired most of the construction comes from the period houses in the area which have all risen from the ground. There is a lot of clay, a lot of tiles, a lot of wood and a lot of bricks.

Steven goes on to say that the development of Flimwell Park is about “creating something that will be environmentally friendly, but also give people the opportunity to live and work in a community that wants to preserve and celebrate the nature in which we live. work”.

Companies that trade here already do so. They include the Wild Iris spa, The Hive, a coworking center, Quench Cycle rental, and the aforementioned pottery. There is also a special workshop for UCL students and teachers.

Then there is a supply of small apartments which can be rented for the night or a weekend – these have proven very popular on Booking.Com and with visitors wanting to explore the castles near Bewl Water, Bedgebury Pinetum, Bodiam and Scotney.

Despite years of red tape, when planning permission was granted the powers that be were so impressed with what Chris, Rene and Steven had in mind that they said if Flimwell Park was a success they could come back to them with more ideas for similar projects.

“The planners said it was unprecedented because there was no master plan to work from. So yes, they were nervous, but they also said if it was a successful development, come back to us. and let’s talk further Already the whole place is full and we haven’t even finished building it so that bodes well for the future Flimwell had no investment and all of a sudden people come here now – it’s an amazing turnaround.

On top of all that Flimwell has to offer, there are 60 car parking spaces, plenty of Tesla and generic electric vehicle charging points and the ability to even farm produce if chef Will Devlin wishes.

“In the large main barn there are three floors and we hope to incorporate a greenhouse upstairs to grow food for the Birchwood Restaurant.”

The wish for the barn is that it will also double as a UCL workshop and event space.

Steven adds that they are even working on setting up an electric bus so it can transport UCL students to and from nearby train and bus stations so they don’t have to come by car.

For those planning to visit Flimwell Park for the day, there is also plenty to do. Whether it’s a peaceful Wild Iris spa treatment, a delicious lunch or smoothie in Birchwood or simply a walk in the surrounding copse woods. There is even a forestry school now open for preschoolers.

“We’re also hoping to create a nature trail for the kids, and pretty much now the bluebells should be showing up,” smiles Steven. “Our team has created something very special here.”



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