Yorkshire Times
Voice of the North
Rosie Goodwin
Family Arts Correspondent
9:34 AM 22nd October 2019

Enchantment Afoot At Castle Howard’s Skelf Island

If you haven’t already ventured to Castle Howard’s exciting new treetop playground, this Hallowe’en half term offers the perfect opportunity. ‘Skelf Island’ is a land inspired by magic, the play-place of the cheeky, troublesome ‘skelves’ – and the perfect setting to unleash childhood imagination at any time of year within a natural and creative space.

Nestled tightly between the trees, winding rope bridges, slides, nets and climbing walls stretch and coil, elaborate and dizzying. On any typical weekend, you can expect to see smiling children clambering, clamouring, chasing and racing. Paths twist, turn and meander, as fearless youngsters (and perhaps the odd vaguely-terrified parent) navigate paths that feel labyrinthine and, crucially, very exciting.

The island - accessed via an exhilaratingly wobbly rope bridge (or a sedate pathway for the fainter hearted) - officially opened in time for the summer holidays, but is set to come into its own, I suspect, next week, when it will form the base for Castle Howard’s family holiday activities.

This half term the island will be truly enchanted: visitors will be joined by live Skelves, be able to take part in a special outdoor trail, enjoy face-painting activities and a visit from the mischievous Corvus the Crow, all combining with atmospheric lighting and effects to ensure a trip to Skelf Island is both memorable and special this Hallowe’en.

So, why Skelf? Close to the site of Castle Howard was once a medieval settlement called Henderskelf. But the dialect word ‘skelf’ may also be familiar to some readers as a ‘splinter’, sometimes called a ‘spell’. It also has the additional meaning, though virtually lost now, of an annoying or troublesome person and, when imbued with a magical quality as it is at Castle Howard’s playground, calls to mind all manner of naughty imps, sprites or elves.

As such, the concept borrows heavily from the genre of folk and fairy tales. And that’s what I found most interesting. Children love to tell stories, to create energetic narratives in which they heroically conquer the land. Woods are always great places to start, with myriad plotlines ripe for the taking, even for the very smallest children, from We’re Going on a Bear Hunt to Little Red Riding Hood.

Yes, Skelf Island is an exciting and creative space to run off energy but also, I am sure, to generate new narratives and adventures. Storytelling and imaginative play have an important role in children’s development.

Scientists have found that children who are read to regularly and who are able to tell their own stories also find it easier to empathise and to relate to their peers. Creating stories helps to make memories too, with kinaesthetic learning more likely and an array of natural props at hand. (If you have boys like mine, most of these props will probably prove to be sticks.)

The team at Castle Howard have succeeded in creating something truly special, which will continue to evolve and grow in children’s imaginations for many years to come.

I attended with boisterous boys aged between 2 and 10, although the playground appeals to a much higher age range too – there are no age restrictions placed on the area, with it sensibly left for parents to assess their own children’s ability. However, this Hallowe’en, there is a ‘brave restriction’ and visitors will come face to face with a gang of live Skelves, in residence from 26th October - 3rd November.

To find out more, visit

Rosie Goodwin delivers a range of arts projects through her Yorkshire-based arts-engagement firm MakeMore Arts, working with heritage organisations, schools, community groups and libraries.