William Hardie on building a play area at Battle Abbey

PUBLISHED: 12:06 29 July 2016

Designer William Hardie in the new play area at Battle Abbey (Photo by Jim Holden)

Designer William Hardie in the new play area at Battle Abbey (Photo by Jim Holden)

Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk jim@jimholden.co.uk

William Hardie is known for his ambitious builds on George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces. But a play area at Battle Abbey proved a challenge, he tells Duncan Hall

For designer William Hardie, coming to Battle Abbey to create a new playground completes a circle.

Not only was it a playground in Kuwait which provided his Lewes-based studio of designers and craftsmen with their first international job, but it was Battle Abbey where the former historical carpenter did his first work for English Heritage, designing benches 17 years ago.

Today the resident expert on Channel Four primetime favourite George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces is looking relaxed as he walks around his revolutionary medieval market-inspired playground. Studio Hardie created the play area from original design to execution in less than six months. William’s media savvy and confidence shows itself as he poses with ease for pictures among the playground equipment with trademark hat, long hair and carefully tended beard very much in evidence. But speaking to him the enthusiastic craftsman is very much to the fore. This is a man who genuinely loves his work, and gets excited by the projects he is involved in. And he enjoys working with people who feel the same.

“It’s always incredible to work with English Heritage,” he says towards the end of our chat. “The people on the ground and the ones who work in the property care so much. They are passionate – they treat the sites like they have an ownership of them. It is humbling.”

Dropping into the café he is pleased to see some of his first work on display. He created the café cakestands which are still being used to display the day’s wares, and laughs when it is suggested they should have a plaque on them.

For with George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces 38-year-old William has entered a whole other realm. On paper the programme seemed to be Grand Designs-lite. Rather than architectural marvels backed with pots of money, Amazing Spaces is about small-scale garden projects – homebuilt sheds, treehouses, refitted caravans and even on one occasion a holiday chalet built out of a storage container. But it has become a hit – in part due to architect presenter George and expert maker William’s genuine and unbridled enthusiasm for imaginative projects, converting small unused square footage into beautiful spaces to live and play in.

Battle Abbey playground (Photo by Jim Holden)Battle Abbey playground (Photo by Jim Holden)

Amazing Spaces started as a revolution – which has always been going on – really began to raise its profile,” says William. “It’s about imaginative, creative builds. Whatever your background there is always something you can make for yourself or your family and better your life. It also pinpoints the incredible eccentricity of British people, the fact we all do these slightly bizarre things in our houses and gardens. I get endlessly inspired by the people I meet – their ingenuity, commitment and passion.”

His own hero from the series is a jobbing carpenter in his 70s from Binegar in Somerset called Alban Bunting.

“He’s built 12 incredible sheds in his garden – a Norman castle shed, a Victorian post office shed. They are beautifully done, not scraped together. There’s a real consideration and craftsmanship, and it was all done for his grandkids. Somebody like that is a real hero – it shows what you can do yourself.”

It is those sort of people that William wants to attract to his team at Lewes’ Studio Hardie. He recently re-christened the currently four-strong company from William Hardie Design to underline the teamwork which goes into their projects. “The makers are involved in the designing, and the designers in the making,” he says. “It enables us to break down discipline boundaries, which is quite a medieval practice. Back then you didn’t have separate architects and engineers – the architect would have been the designer and engineer. Some of those early principles are really important.”

And this has been the case with the playground project at Battle Abbey. Rather than William making an over-arching design and dropping it on his associates, everyone involved in the project has designed their own elements.

The overriding theme of the playground is the land’s origin as a medieval market and in creating it the team looked to historical documents and historians’ advice. Rather than standard slides and climbing frames, the playground incorporates the medieval market elements in each structure. So an upturned cart becomes the backbone of a slide. Rather than a see-saw there is a medieval weighing machine. And the low-level climbing frame is made up of barrels and crates, which can be climbed up, over and through in a multitude of different ways.

Dave Lucas, chainsaw sculptor, at his West Hoathly workshop. Seen here working on sculptures for English Heritage Battle Abbey (Photo by Jim Holden)Dave Lucas, chainsaw sculptor, at his West Hoathly workshop. Seen here working on sculptures for English Heritage Battle Abbey (Photo by Jim Holden)

There are also unusual elements, such as the revolving barrel based on the design of a medieval crane, or the grindstone made out of high density foam. “We initially made the millstone out of wood but it was so heavy we realised there was no way a kid could move it,” laughs William. “Now it looks like you’re using a real millstone, but using a modern material.”

As well as keeping the medieval authenticity of the site, William was also keen to avoid creating proscriptive play. “I have a real passion for doing playgrounds,” he says.

“Generally they are not very imaginative, so it’s a really lovely way to think out of the box and make things you wouldn’t normally make in an architectural project. We are trying to maximise play values and go back to more traditional play. When you’re a child the best things in the world to play with are a fallen-over tree, a bank to roll down and an empty cardboard box.” So with the crates and barrels of the climbing section for example, there is the option for children to create complicated climbing games with no limit to their imagination.

One feature of the playground is a series of wooden figures, including a merchant and a Barbary ape. The ape was inspired by Abbey accounts from 1190 which included the purchase of “a chain for the monkey”. Studio Hardie will be creating a further 15 historically accurate wooden characters which will be scattered around the battlefield and Battle Abbey grounds over the summer. They employed chainsaw sculptors including West Hoathly-based David Lucas to create the figures in the market. David’s crowning piece, which is already proving popular with young playground-goers, is a lifesize ox carved out of a single two-ton tree trunk. It’s an example of how the individual craftsmen have had an influence on each piece. “Originally we were going to have the ox standing up,” says William. “But David suggested it was more fun to play on if it was lying down – and he only needed one tree trunk to make it. Although we are talking about a tree trunk which weighed tons. There’s a real expertise in his work, and with the other craftsmen. They know how the wood will move and warp and where the cracks will appear. It’s how they would have worked 1,000 years ago – their way of planning hasn’t changed. It’s very much returning to my roots. I was essentially an historical carpenter working on buildings that were 800 years old. I always had a fascination with the why and how, delving deeper to understand how to repair a building. You needed to get inside the head of the carpenter who built something 800 years ago.”

It seems strange to call a playground revolutionary, but working on the site of probably the most famous battle in English history created a unique design problem. Because of the history of the site the builders weren’t allowed to dig further than 75mm into the soil. “Normally every playground has to be anchored into massive great concrete pits,” says William. “Quite often a third of the budget goes into the concrete – which has no value for anybody. This all had to be freestanding, which was a mega challenge of structural engineering – but it meant we could put the budget into the play value of the equipment and make things that were fun to go on.”

The location of the playground means William’s own boys – aged four and six – can now enjoy their father’s work. “They never normally play on my playgrounds except in the workshop,” says William. “We test different things out on them. It’s a really special thing to give our local community something like this – quite a few of our carpenters have brought their kids here since it opened.”

Detail of the new Battle Abbey playground (Photo by Jim Holden)Detail of the new Battle Abbey playground (Photo by Jim Holden)

With Studio Hardie he is happy to carry on a long Lewes tradition. “We have a great tradition of woodwork in this area,” he says. “It’s one of the most forested parts of the country. Lewes is a well-preserved town, with an understanding and value of tradition. It’s also well-connected culturally – there is a huge amount of expertise in whatever field you can imagine. As it’s a small community they all rub shoulders with each other.”

He says Lewes has been instrumental in keeping his body and soul together, especially following the massive change Amazing Spaces has brought to his life. “I have a very strict rule that I try to take my kids to school every day, and be back by 6pm to help with supper and wrestle them into bed,” he says. “My whole life is in Lewes – it takes 10 minutes to drop the boys at school, 10 minutes to walk to the studio and 10 minutes to get back.

Over the last three days I’ve been in Laugharne in west Wales, across to Berkshire, Grantham and Skegness – it’s almost humanly impossible to do that volume of travelling. But Lewes keeps me sane.”


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