Raby Castle, with its centuries of history, majestic rooms and famous deer, has long been a major tourist hot spot in the North East, but now it’s branched out with its first major children’s attraction.
Opening to the public on April 15, 2022 – and already sold out for the Easter holidays – the Plotters’ Forest is a new adventure playground built among the Christmas tree plantation on the site, inspired by the County Durham castle’s role in 16th Century Rising of the North.
Little visitors – and big kids at heart – are invited to unleash their inner rebel and explore the wooden walkways through the forest, slip down the slides, plot with each other in the talking tubes and enjoy the ground-level games as they go.
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Smelling like Christmas all year round, the playground has been carefully weaved around the hundreds of spruces and fir trees in the forest and is the first opening in the Rising, a major new development at the historic site which takes it into the future with the addition of a new visitor information centre, a new and improved walled garden, restoration of the coach house and stables, the Dutch Barn events space, as well as new residential developments in nearby Staindrop and Gainford and the complete restoration of Gainford Hall - with a view to completing the whole project by the end of 2023.
Claire Jones, project director and head of leisure and tourism at Raby Estates, said it was hugely exciting to see the first phase of the Rising come to fruition with Plotters’ Forest.
"The castle has always typically been a historical house, but the Rising is really adding something different for visitors. It’s the biggest development here in a generation,” she explained. “It’s a huge opportunity to engage with the local community as much more than a historic house.”
She added: "Although we had a small play area before, Plotters’ Forest is the first major attraction for children and it really encourages them to cook up some mischief. We want kids to be able to be noisy and enjoy themselves away from the main house. It’s a place to really capture imaginations.
"The children will be our biggest critics, but we’ve already had a couple of special visitors and they said it was amazing.”
The new structures built among the trees are inspired by the castle’s distinctive features and are designed to blend in with the natural environment, using some materials, such as Larch, from the 200-acre estate.
“At the design stage we had all sorts of ideas flying around,” said Claire. “But architecturally we went down the route of the site’s history, so one of the playground turrets is reminiscent of Nevill Gateway in the castle, but it’s not an exact replica.”
Speaking of the motivation behind the project, Raby Estate’s owners, Lord and Lady Barnard, said: “Creating the Plotters’ Forest has been a dream of ours for years and is inspired by our own experiences as a family, when our own children were young.
“We’ve taken special care to ensure the playground blends into the forested area where it’s located, by using complementary textures, colours and sustainable materials. We believe that building a relationship with the outdoors inspires children to be resilient, curious and courageous – all qualities found in Raby Castle’s plotters of the past.”
Prices for the Park & Plotters’ Forest: £8 for adults; £7.50 for children and £29 for a family ticket. A concession ticket is also available at £7.
Prices for Raby Castle, Park & Plotters’ Forest: £13 for adults; £10 for children and £45 for a family ticket. A concession ticket is also available at £12.
The wooden boardwalk through the playground is accessible by wheelchair and pushchair, creating a fun and inclusive space for all of Raby’s visitors.
Tickets on sale from www.raby.co.uk
Raby Castle History
King Cnut (also known as Canute II the Great) owned the Estate, then known as ‘Rabi’ (derived from ‘Ra’, Danish for a boundary, and ‘Bi’, a settlement or dwelling) in the early 11th Century.
The Viking King and self appointed ‘Emperor of the North’ may well have built a manor house in Staindrop, County Durham, but it was the Nevills who built the 14th century castle which still stands today.
Home to Cecily Nevill, mother of two kings of England, it was also the scene of the plotting of the Rising of the North and a Parliamentary stronghold during the Civil War.
The builders of Raby Castle in the 14th century and one of the most powerful families in the North, the Nevill ownership of Raby lasted for nearly four hundred years and ended after their unsuccessful ‘Rising of the North’ in 1569. The castle was held by the Crown until 1626 when it was purchased by Sir Henry Vane the Elder.
Sir Henry Vane the Elder, Member of Parliament and an important member of Charles I household, at first his Governor, later his Treasurer, purchased Raby Castle, Barnard Castle and Estate for £18,000. He chose to make Raby his principal home and de-roofed and removed stone from Barnard Castle to repair and maintain Raby.
The Vanes began a political dynasty which culminated in the beheading of Sir Henry Vane the Younger. The Castle was defended in the Civil War but remained relatively unaltered until three stages of rebuilding occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today, Raby is the seat of Lord and Lady Barnard and the Vane family. It is also home to an impressive range of art, textiles and furniture from England and Europe dating from the 17th to the 20th Century.