In 1993 Andrea and Stephen Bristow bought a 17-acre plot of ex-forestry land in Snowdonia with a vague plan to use it to educate children about trees, in a fun way. Today, that plot is 10 acres bigger and has become one of the UK’s top family attractions.
Having worked for many years on environmental projects in Africa, Andrea and Stephen Bristow decided in 1991 that they’d like to relocate to Snowdonia, where their children had been born and where Stephen had been a student at Bangor University in the 1980s. Both extremely passionate about forestry and ecology, they had the idea that they could use their knowledge and experience to educate children in a fun way about how important trees are.
Initially, they thought that this might take the form of an ‘Africa Centre’. They spent two and a half years living in North Wales and working on ideas, but in the end it was a friend of theirs, who at that time owned Anglesey Sea Zoo, that changed their minds.
“The response was ‘hmmm…’” Andrea laughs when she tells me about the lukewarm reaction. “So we thought, ‘what do we know about? Trees! Trees and the environment – trees are static so we need to find a way to make them fun!’”
Eventually, with the help of a consultant, a bank loan and a grant from the Wales Tourist Board, the idea of making trees fun was developed, and in 1993 The GreenWood Centre was launched on a 17-acre plot of land which consisted of little more than “trees, rushes, a bog and some rocks”.
Today, GreenWood Forest Park spans some 27 acres and has over 20 rides and activities, with kindness to the environment at the heart of it all. Every ride and activity at GreenWood is environmentally friendly: the Green Dragon Rollercoaster, for example, is ‘people-powered’, using 200-year old funicular technology that was developed in the slate quarrying industry. The Park’s latest big attraction, the Solar Splash, is the UK’s first solar-powered ride. And the mission remains unchanged: make trees and the environment fun, so that children become engaged with the message.
In the years since it opened, GreenWood has won several awards and regularly features in ‘top 10’ lists of the UK’s best family attractions. Stephen and Andrea have both received MBEs for services to the Welsh tourism industry – one of their proudest moments according to Andrea. “It’s very difficult to choose [a proudest moment] as there have been so many,” she says. “Getting our MBEs was one, but it’s the everyday stuff too – just realising what we’ve achieved. If you walk through the park and I’m gardening… people sometimes think I’m the gardener, and I realise I started all this from scratch and look how it’s grown. I’m always very proud about that, and we’re always proud of the great team we’ve built.’”
Andrea is passionate about employing local people to work at GreenWood. “We try to employ local people as much as possible,” she says, before explaining that there are 17 local people employed at GreenWood on a permanent and full-time basis, as well as ten seasonal workers during the winter months and a hundred during the summer season.
Staffing is just one part of GreenWood’s ‘buying locally’ policy.
“Our policy is basically to buy locally as much as possible throughout the business, including staff and local services,” Andrea explains. “Entertainers at the park tend to be local people, as do the craftspeople we hire to do the craft sessions with kids.”
“One of the craftsmen makes wooden mushrooms [from GreenWood’s forest] during the winter,” Andrea continues. “Then these are used at GreenWood for kids to paint during craft workshops. So that’s a product that is extremely local! Also we save jam jars throughout the year and these are used in craft workshops too – during Hallowe’en week they’re made into lanterns and then there’s a lantern parade.”
GreenWood’s ethos is mostly about the environment, but of course buying locally is part of that. Although stocking a few imported items in the shop is ‘unavoidable’, they prefer low-footfall products. For example, they saw logs to improve the forest and then have the log slices engraved on-site for sale in the shop, and they use wood from the park during the Hallowe’en besom-making workshops for young visitors. “And you can’t get much more local than that!” Andrea laughs.
Even GreenWood’s eateries don’t escape the ‘buy local’ ethos. A lot of the food and drink products at the park are sourced locally, including beef burgers and sausage rolls from Llechwedd Butchery in Llangefni, sausages from Edwards of Conwy and frozen foods from Harlech Food Service.
With so much already happening at GreenWood, are there any big developments visitors can look forward to next year?
“We don’t reveal future developments until the spring,” Andrea teases. “That’s our policy. But as this year we had a major development with the launch of Solar Splash, 2017 will be more about exciting small developments rather than a huge one.” Whatever is announced in spring 2017 won’t be anything on the scale of Solar Splash, Andrea says, but “we are always reinventing ourselves, because the product has to be fresh.”
With so much important ecological work already being done at GreenWood, and so much effort being made to support the local community through buying goods and services and employing staff locally, Andrea’s final statement comes as a surprise – albeit a very inspirational one: “You can always improve when it comes to the environment and buying locally… yes, we can improve on being local.”
I’m not sure how such a locally-focused business as GreenWood could possibly get even better at ‘being local’, but having visited the Park and witnessed first-hand the amazing work they’ve done in this area to date, I’m sure that whatever these improvements are, they’ll be an inspiration to us all.