Follow the trail

To borrow a line from the famous song, ‘if you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…’

A truly magical and memorable experience awaits visitors to Northwood Trail, a new family-friendly attraction located in an ancient 100-acre wood near Buttercrambe in North Yorkshire.

Billed as a ‘fairy sanctuary’, the Northwood Trail draws on the wood’s fascinating history and links with Professor Harvey John Howland, an eminent Victorian ‘fairy collector, researcher and fellow of the New Society of Arcane Natural History’, who made Northwood his home. The society based there was a little-known organisation with high-profile connections to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood group of English painters and poets, and well as the New England Transcendentalists, an influential group of  writers, critics, philosophers, theologians and social reformers.

In 2008, many of Professor Howland’s writings, journals and sketches were found locked away in an abandoned woodshed, alongside his important collection of fairy antiquities. Professor Howland is known to have corresponded with both the illustrator Arthur Rackham and the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, both of whom are believed to have visited Northwood.

In 1847 Professor Howland wrote: “The woodlands of Yorkshire are brimming with a hundred different sorts of faerie races, both noble and otherwise; and while some of them could be said to be as mad as their southern cousins; none would call them frivolous”. 

Many of the fairy tree houses and homes in the wood had fallen into disrepair but – with the blessing of the fairies, of course – they have been restored, and it’s old fairy pathways have been reopened. The trail begins on Professor Howland’s Ride, where visitors will spot many of the original fairy doors on the trees. You can buy a copy of an exquisite hand-drawn map to guide you along the winding woodland paths, which have whimsical names that are sure to set imaginations running wild, such as Giant’s Road, Plato’s Shadows and The Slumbering. The trail leads you through a maze called The Trapping, via bridges and archways, and on towards The Chamber of Truth and Justice, where the King and Queen of the Wood Elves are said to hold their court, and Titania’s Garden, a simple outdoor play area that encourages children to build dens, climb and explore.

Along the way, you’ll spot the fairy hamlet at Spider Tree Snicket, where the tree houses are connected by bridges and walkways, and a mushroom fairy ring that has been completely repaired based on sketches of the original, which was built on the same spot in 1852. Throughout the whole experience, you’re in the heart of beautiful woodland made up of oaks, pines, firs and birch, and the air is full of birdsong from the 200 different species that live in the wood. Yet more magic awaits in the charming little Fairy Museum at the end of the trail, although I won’t spoil the lovely surprise tucked away behind what look like cupboard doors. The homemade cakes in the cosy Northwood Kitchen are delicious too.

If it sounds twee, it really isn’t! It’s well thought out and beautifully-styled, with care taken to ensure that every inch of the attraction is in harmony with its picturesque setting. If you’re expecting an all-singing, all-dancing Disney-style experience, Northwood Trail is not the place for you. It’s good, old-fashioned outdoor adventure that encourages children to use their imagination and spend time in nature.

We were accompanied on our visit by two seven-year-old girls, one of whom announced as we pulled up in the car park that she didn’t ‘believe in fairies’ and didn’t ‘want to walk’. Just a few minutes later, she was whooping with delight at the sight of fairy doors in the trees and running ahead of us up the path desperate to see more. Both girls were completely engrossed in the wonderful story told by the map, which features little anecdotes that help to explain the relevance of the places along the trail, and also full of excitement wondering what they’d find next. If we’re honest, we loved it just as much as the children and are looking forward to visiting again later in the year, either to see the wood in its autumn glory or to sit by the woodburning stove in Northwood Kitchen with a hot chocolate on a crisp winter day.

Meet the family behind The Northwood Trail

The Northwood Trail is the latest attraction from Christian and Carolyn Van Outersterp, the couple who are widely credited with getting us all hooked on the concept of glamping after they launched Jollydays, the luxury campsite located next to Northwood Trail, back in 2008. In 2017, the family established a second site near Sancton; North Star Club offers ultra-stylish, log cabin accommodation set in the largest wood in East Yorkshire.

Like both Jollydays and North Star Club, Northwood Trail bears all the hallmarks of the couple’s immense skill and expertise in design and project management. Christian originally trained as a landscape architect and Carolyn worked in fashion but, together, they previously ran an award-winning fireplace business, which won them a coveted design medal from HRH Prince Charles and led to their iconic fire bowl being exhibited at London’s Victoria And Albert Museum. After Carolyn gave birth to the couple’s four children – Alto, Galatea, Midori and Angel – the demands of their London-based design business became too much and they began thinking about business ideas that would be better suited to family life.

Carolyn said: “We’re both passionate about Yorkshire as we each have many happy childhood memories of time spent here and it’s our adopted home. We decided it was the place that we wanted to bring up our family. Our businesses have enhanced family life; they’ve been fantastic places for the children to hang out at weekends and they all get jobs to do. They have a strong work ethic; it’s good for them to have time in nature and to encourage their independence.”

As well as underpinning the way the Van Outersterps have brought up their own children, this same ethos applies to the visitor experience at their attractions. 

Carolyn added: “Northwood’s hundred-acre wood is very close to this family’s heart: they have always loved this magical woodland and, appalled by the quality of children’s attractions, wanted to create a natural experience that appealed to adults and children equally. 

“We’ve always disliked the patronising of children, from the youngest ages our kids always hated anything overtly ‘childish’; who says all kids love bright colours and naff cartoon characters? In our experience, children have a huge capacity to appreciate nature, beauty and intricacy.”

The couple’s eldest daughter Galatea, a writer and illustrator, has a formidable knowledge of the history and culture of Northwood. She has acquired a substantial library of writings on fairy folklore and uncovered the forgotten history of what really is a remarkable place. 

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