NT Calke Abbey

National Trust Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Innovative Orientation Signage Scheme gaining plaudits from across the Trust

“Calke Abbey is a local, much beloved, National Trust property. When we received the Invitation to Tender through our membership of the AHI we just knew this was one commission we had to win”

Steve Capsey
(Partner – The Maltings Heritage Interpretation)

The brief was to create an orientation signage scheme for Calke Abbey, culminating in an install of pedestrian and vehicular signage and a Stylebook which set down the rules that would be applied to placement, design and construction. The existing signage had grown in a rather haphazard way over time as is typical for many large visitor attractions – new signs being added when a requirement was identified with little consideration for either cohesion or ease of use. Understandably our task was met with mixed feelings amongst the client team. National Trust favour staff and volunteer consultation over major projects such as this so opinions were broad, ranging from absolute conviction that a new scheme was essential, to a strong determination that signs formed a barrier between the public and the site and so should be removed altogether. Polarised opinions are typical amongst groups of stakeholders, and part of our role is to quickly establish trust and confidence in our ability to deliver something that is a significant improvement on the current situation. Orientation signs are a necessity, but a sympathetic, considered, well designed scheme should not jar with or dominate the site. Views must be listened to and reassurance given that where we end up will be a huge improvement on where we are at the outset. We made it clear that there would be less signs not more following our intervention, and that we wholeheartedly believed that no beautiful view was ever enhanced with the introduction of a sign – so our approach would be quiet and unobtrusive.

The key issue is balance: an orientation sign needs to be easy to spot but also feel appropriate to the landscape it sits within. In short, it needs to be visible if required and invisible if not! Calke Abbey is famously preserved in a state of partial dilapidation – frozen in the time it was acquired by the National Trust. We were struck by the wide range of interesting materials – ancient brick, peeling paint, silvered timber – and so wanted to somehow put materials at the heart of our solution. We specified untreated oak frames for all signs as these are the most durable hardwood and would quickly silver and thus blend in with the surroundings. Working through the design development process, we opted to propose that pedestrian signage was manufactured out of smoked acrylic, with text and symbols routed and then flooded with white paint. This meant that whatever materials were behind the signs showed through, and the critical information appeared almost suspended within the frame. Vehicular signs were, where possible, simply white text on black field so they remained as neutral as possible in the landscape. The overall scheme greatly reduced the number of signs, and some were supplied on portable ‘A’ frames allowing them to be removed when not required.

Now fully installed over two phases, the orientation signage scheme at Calke Abbey has been a huge success, receiving praise from staff, volunteers, visitors and the National Trust executive. Even the early detractors feel that it is the best solution they could have hoped for, and we are proud to have developed and delivered a simple, elegant yet innovative solution to the problems presented by the need for orientation signage on a large heritage site.

National Trust Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
National Trust Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
National Trust Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
National Trust Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
National Trust Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
National Trust Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
National Trust Calke Abbey, Derbyshire