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Wild Imagination – Designing for a nature & heritage location

When Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s Whistlestop Cafe brief crossed my desk I was one happy designer. I’ve been a self-confessed ‘nature nerd’ my entire life and spent most of my childhood up to my armpits in mud while on the hunt for snails, acorns, and other natural curiosities. I would lap up animal facts like there was no tomorrow and I was able to identify all sorts of creatures from a young age. I was even a card-carrying member of the RSPB’s YOC (that’s the Young Ornithologist Club to the uninitiated!)

I lived and breathed nature as a kid, and I couldn’t wait to help The Whistlestop give those experiences to a whole new generation.

From the instance we connected with Derbyshire Wildlife Trust team I knew we were on to a winner. I immediately understood their vision for the site. Plus their passion for the building and its surrounding landscape was infectious!

Now that The Whistlestop cafe is open, welcoming people through its doors, I’ve had time to reflect on what knowledge I’ve gained from being the creative lead on the project and the learnings that I’ll take forward in future.

Expect the unexpected – Old buildings are a character all of their own with their own idiosyncrasies and quirks. One size fits all solutions simply won’t do in spaces such as these. The Whistlestop has taught me to think creatively and look at potential obstacles as opportunities to try something completely different. That awkward shaped, boarded up window? Create a whimsical focal point out of it! That listed woodworking you can’t drill into? Think modular and freestanding instead! Embrace the challenge at every turn.

The power of the community – It was wonderful to see dozens of wonderful volunteers pull together to help create something new and exciting. Seamstresses, carpenters, historians, landscapers – the DWT volunteer force had them all. Seeing this great collaboration has inspired me to look outside of my normal circles when creating future concepts and always keep community at the heart of my designs.

Think locally and sustainably – In a project such as this, you have to dive deep into the subject in order to do it justice. Whether that’s pulling from the collective knowledge of local historians and wildlife experts or surrounding yourself with the local habitat, you need that baseline knowledge in order to create a truly authentic experience. We proudly used locally sourced materials, local producers and photography of the local area throughout the project. This resulted in an experience that feels grounded in the Derbyshire landscape.

Tech isn’t always the answer– Often we can fall into the trap of thinking that ‘interactive’ means ‘digital’ when this couldn’t be further from the case. Touchscreen solutions can sometimes feel like the default for engaging children these days; despite the fact that an experience can actually be hindered by the use of tech the wrong places. Adding screens to an experience so grounded in the natural world felt inauthentic. Instead, The Whistlestop taught me to embrace low tech, tactile, multisensory experiences.

Be inspired – On a personal note, working with the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust has inspired me to take better care of the landscape I inhabit. The Whistlestop’s commitment to providing locally sourced food, using recycled materials where possible and avoiding single-use plastics has undoubtedly had an impact on my day to day life and changed many of my habits for the better. I look at the world a little differently now, and I’ll always be grateful to The Whistlestop for that.

So if you’re ever in Derbyshire, why not take a scenic train ride to The Whistlestop cafe?

You might just learn a thing or two.

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