“The potential for Flimwell Park is huge,” declares Steven Johnson, chief architect of the new, sustainable and mixed use development located in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), just off the A21.
I’ve made the short journey down that very road from Tunbridge Wells to meet Steven in order 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 principle idea behind it he tells me is to offer both locals and those from further afield a multi-beneficial space in beautiful surroundings which comprises co-working spaces, accommodation and hospitality, courtesy of the stunning range of custom-built timber buildings on site.
The land was originally occupied by Flimwell Bird Park, but in 2001 it was purchased by developers Chris and René O’Callaghan who had a vision of not just protecting the ancient woodland but also creating somewhere that could be used for education and leisure too.
After years of negotiating, planning consent was finally given at the end of 2015 and then construction began.
“Where we’re standing right now was a total mud bath with Japanese knot weed everywhere,” explains Steven who runs The Architecture Ensemble. “Then things slowed down even further upon the discovery of a very rare flower called Heath Lobelia. Our botanist discovered it and Kew Gardens immediately sent down a team to investigate.”
This discovery also piqued the interest of the BBC1’s Countryfile team who paid Flimwell Park a visit earlier this month to film – but more on that later…
Like Chris and René O’Callaghan Steven’s business ethos has strong roots in capitalising on the benefits of working with nature – he and his team specialises in only using wood for construction where possible, and a strong belief in any work they carry out should also be for the good of the greater community too.
So it makes perfect sense as to why Steven and his team got involved with the pioneering Flimwell Park project.
“Flimwell hasn’t had any funding since pretty much the Second World War,” he explains. “It will never have a high street to bring people together because the development of the A21 put paid to that. So, to have something here where villagers can get together and involved in something is hugely important. What’s amazing about this project is there was no one objecting to it. That’s extraordinary and shows that the people of Flimwell really wanted investment.”
All this, along with its obvious aforementioned eco 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 development’s committed use of timber, iron and clay.
Countryfile presenter Matt Baker saw the use of clay in Zankhana Patel’s pottery business, The Potters Studio (pictured below), which is based in one of the site’s eight impressive timber business pods.
The BBC crew was also present for the firing up of a prototype anagama kiln which was built in the woods by students of The Design for Manufacture programme at The Bartlett School of Architecture, at University College London (UCL). The university has strong connections with the site as Steven is also a part-time lecturer there.
In addition to the eight timber business premises there is a huge barn style building, which is on the site of the original Flimwell Bird Park visitor’s site and currently still under construction. In addition to this there is the beautiful Birchwood café and restaurant which is run by The Small Holding’s Will Devlin who has a green Michelin star. Then there’s a handful of houses – some already occupied and others still being built – which make the perfect pad for anyone looking for a home that is eco-friendly but high end – and not your run of the mill new build.
What was the inspiration for the designs I ask Steven? “It’s 20 years of travelling through the countryside here and spying the most gem-like buildings. The fact that it’s an AONB is also important but what inspired most of the buildings stems from the area’s period houses which all came from the earth. There’s a lot of clay, a lot of tiling, 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’s going to be eco-friendly but also give people an opportunity to live and work in a community that wants to preserve and celebrate the nature we are working within’.
Businesses trading here are already doing so. They include the Wild Iris spa, The Hive a co-working hub, Quench Cycle hire and the aforementioned pottery. There is also a special workshop for UCL students and lecturers.
Then there is an offering of small apartments which can be rented out for the night or a weekend – these have proved very popular on Booking.Com and with visitors who want to explore nearby Bewl Water, Bedgebury Pinetum, Bodiam and Scotney castles.
Despite years of red tape, when planning permission was granted the powers that be were so impressed with what Chris, René and Steven had in mind that they said if Flimwell Park was a success they could go back to them with more ideas for similar projects.
“The planners said this was unprecedented as there was no blue print to work from. So yes they were nervous but they also said if it’s a successful development then come back to us and let’s talk further. Already the whole place is full and we’re not even finished building it so it bodes well for the future. Flimwell had no investment whatsoever and all of a sudden people are coming here now – it’s an incredible turnaround.”
In addition to all Flimwell has to offer there are 60 car park spaces, numerous Tesla and generic electric vehicle charging points and the opportunity to even grown produce if chef Will Devlin wants to.
“In the main big barn there are three floors and we are hoping to incorporate a green house up top to grow food for the Birchwood restaurant.”
The wish for the barn is that it will also double up as a UCL workshop and events space too.
Steven adds that they are even working on getting an electric bus set up so it can ferry UCL students to and from the train and bus stations nearby so they aren’t forced to come in cars.
For those planning on visiting Flimwell Park for the day then there’s plenty to do too. From having a treatment at the tranquil Wild Iris spa, to a delicious lunch or smoothie at Birchwood or simply walking around the surrounding coppiced woodland. There’s even a forest school now up and running for pre-schoolers.
“We’re also hoping to create a children’s nature trail and around about now the bluebells should be coming into their own,” smiles Steven. “Our team has created something very special here.”