I sometimes wonder where the last 18 months has gone. This welcome summer interlude seems like a time to put Covid behind us and focus on getting the best out of the all important climate and biodiversity conferences scheduled for the autumn. But it’s hard not to caste our glance backwards at times and survey the havoc that has been left in the wake of the pandemic.
One of the biggest casualties, from my perspective at least, is Seaton Jurassic. Following a torrid 15 months, during which the Centre has only managed to open for a few weeks, and in fits and starts, Devon Wildlife Trust’s (DWT) board of trustees took the decision to withdraw as operator. DWT will formally close the doors on 5th September, handing over responsibilities to our landlord, East Devon District Council (EDDC). It’s been one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever had to make.
Other than our work with the beavers, Seaton Jurassic is almost certainly the bravest, toughest and most unusual venture that DWT has embarked on in the decade since I joined the Trust. So it’s only fitting that I explain why we went down this uncharted route, and how we’ve come to this difficult place.
Seaton Jurassic – or the Jurassic Coast Visitor Centre as it was originally referred to – first came onto our radar early in 2012, when we successfully pitched to be the operator of a proposed new attraction that was no more than a draft set of plans. Four years of hard slog followed, during which we worked closely with EDDC, the local community and a range of other partners to raise well over £4 million for the project. One single funding application to the National Lottery involved more than 30 documents! Some of the best brains and designers in the business were brought in to help us create the highly distinctive exhibition, which told the story of life on the Jurassic Coast, from the unimaginably distant past to the present day.
The construction project was a roller coaster on its own – leaking roofs, escalating costs, 11th hour discoveries of asbestos in the garden – but built it was, transforming the middle of Seaton as it materialised. A high point was the official opening, marking the first ever royal visit to Seaton, swiftly followed by glowing reviews in the Guardian and other media. I still remember that feeling of enormous pride as I walked through those sparkling corridors, freshly painted, quirky, packed with humour and imagination, and knowing that it was our huge collective effort that had made this happen.
Seaton Jurassic is highly unusual in many ways. Breaking the mould of established Wildlife Trust visitor centres overlooking lakes stuffed with wild fowl, it focused on what the visitor can’t experience directly – what is hidden under the sea or in the mists of deep time. It is the only visitor centre that tells the story of life on the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site and in such an engaging, humorous way; and it is (or was at the time) the only Wildlife Trust visitor centre with a paid for exhibition space. Seaton Jurassic was also a brave experiment. It was part of East Devon County Council’s regeneration plan for Seaton and our aim was to create an attraction that would draw in people from other parts of the country, not simply to capitalise on footfall that already existed.
As we quickly discovered, building a visitor centre is one thing, running it quite another. It didn’t take us long to learn just how many things can go wrong in a café. Or how little we should have trusted highly automated energy saving gizmos, whose frequent malfunctioning led to astronomical running costs. Or how visitor numbers would fall off a cliff when the sun shone. Or, most serious of all, what happens when a much loved and critically important member of the team falls ill. The first few years of operation were tough, and cost DWT a considerable amount of money. The Centre was kept afloat by a staunchly loyal group of volunteers, to whom I will be forever grateful.
There were times when we put our heads in our hands and wondered what on earth we were doing wrong. But there were times of great jubilation too, and plenty of hilarity.
Not everyone was convinced by Seaton Jurassic, and some people reading this may ask why we persevered for so long. For those of us close to the project it was never that simple of course. For starters, there’s the huge emotional capital we invested in a project that had taken so much blood, sweat and tears to create. There’s the volunteers, partners, funders and loyal customers who believed in the Centre like us and who we desperately didn’t want to disappoint. And then there’s the very human desire not to give up. We trip up, we learn lessons, we try again and hope that it will work better next time. This sense of determination and optimism is central to our culture at DWT, and I’m immensely proud of it.
We have run Seaton Jurassic for six seasons now. We’ve learned some hard lessons along the way, and we’ve been hampered by the fact that some crucial elements of the original vision – like the link to the Seaton Wetlands – never materialised for reasons beyond our control. It has not been plain sailing by any standard, and the last year has been as tricky as any due to the Covid pandemic. But we now have an operation that is immeasurably better than when we first opened. The café is running smoothly, the learning experience for school children is excellent and the finances are far healthier. Since we reopened to the public at the end of May, we’ve had some of the highest numbers of visitors and by far the best customer feedback since we first opened in March 2016. And that’s mainly thanks to the incredible efforts of Richard Drysdale and his dedicated team at the Centre.
This feels like the end of a chapter though. Ground-breaking as they were when installed, the exhibits need a thorough overhaul if they are to wow new visitors and be relevant to the climate and ecological emergencies we now face. The cost of this – a cool £1.6 million if we’re being conservative – would hit us at a time when funding is harder than ever to secure and when DWT really needs to focus on its core mission. It’s very tough calling time on such a huge endeavour, but on balance, and with a heavy heart, I believe it’s the right decision.
That is not to say we are walking away from East Devon. We will continue working closely with EDDC and local partners, exploring new ways of engaging local communities in protecting our wildlife. Our work with the river Otter beavers goes from strength to strength, and we have new projects in the pipeline. There are exciting times ahead!
Before closing the book on Seaton Jurassic though, I want to pay tribute to all the people who put so much effort into the project, who never lost their belief and stuck with us through thick and thin. Unfortunately, the list is just too long to mention individuals. Suffice to say it was an incredible team effort, and it’s a team I have felt hugely privileged to be part of. And while I would much rather be writing a blog waxing lyrical about the next phase of the project than about DWT’s withdrawal from it, I don’t regret our involvement in Seaton Jurassic for one moment. Quite the opposite.
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