Harbouring History and Nurturing Nature

Under a big sky Simpson & Brown's new Rye Harbour Discovery Centre employs local timber to bring shelter and panoramic views over Rye Harbour Nature Reserve's wetland marshes

This and all photos unless otherwise stated by Theo Lowenstein

The windows are expansive, curtain glass wall framing the panoramic marsh-scape, a dash of flashiness for its front face. Circle the building and different physical and visual qualities come into play. On the building's far, eastern side, a punctuated series of window booths sets up a different and distinct rhythm. Step away, take in Rye Harbour Nature Reserve's new visitor centre at a distance, and the different physical faces and forms begin to dissolve; the building settling as a uniform mass low into the landscape, a wood-worn glass encased presence near the horizon's edge. Side on, sitting raised on a concrete slab plinth, approached via the entrance walkway protected by an overhanging timber canopy, there's more cohesion; the mix of café and viewing windows and the timber faces lending complexity to the building's sculptural qualities. To say that the Rye Harbour Discovery Centre is a shape shifter isn't exactly accurate, but it is a building of myriad faces. In places you move a few feet and what you're experiencing turns into something completely different.

When we meet on a brisk December day, Stuart Allan, the building’s project architect, doesn’t address the physical presence and qualities of the building directly, but it’s there in the background of his words. “It was important that it wasn’t an urban building,” he notes before acknowledging, “some slightly flashy elements”. But equally, the colours and textures blend with the landscape, Allan says, before invoking Genius Loci, or the Spirit of Place and noting how “the palette of materials, they’re not super slick, they’re layered.” 

Inside looking out

The contextual restraint isn’t surprising, the Rye Harbour Discovery Centre is a nature centre after all – albeit a hybrid nature centre, (we’ll get to that) – hardly the glitziest commissions in an architect’s repertoire. Still, nature centres have been moving up professional pecking orders. In Britain, Adam Khan’s still remarkable floating Brockholes Visitor Centre, close to Preston, was noticeable for the excitement it generated in young architects. On the continent striking projects appear with regularity. One which hit an imaginative chord for many was Dorte Mandrup’s Wadden Visitor Centre on Denmark’s western Jutland coast. The centre’s architects, Edinburgh’s Simpson & Brown, claim a long line of nature centre related projects to their name. It is easy to imagine that they wanted to make a splash as far from their northern home as they could get in the form of the Discovery Centre, a few hundred metres from the south coast’s English Channel.


The Centre stands beside a long-tarmacked path that runs across the marsh land out towards the sea, maybe a quarter of the way to the water’s edge proper on a narrow piece of land, leaning out over the wetland, supporting legs dig into additional groundworks. The dominant visible material is timber, along with the large, glazed picture windows, and the concrete slab foundation. Externally, gabion walls make up the landscaping immediately south of the building. Though out of view, just a stone’s throw away to its east and over brackish intertidal seaweed, is the river Rother, here a navigable channel on which working fishing boats regularly chug up and down to and from Rye Harbour and the town proper.

Having finally opened in May, the building has been in the works since 2017. Run by the Nature Reserve’s custodian, the Sussex Wildlife Trust the centre is actually both the Trust and Sussex’s first nature centre, although a few miles east is neighbouring Kent Wildlife Trust’s Romney Marsh Visitor Centre, designed by the erstwhile regional sustainable oriented practice BakerBrownMcKay Sustainable Design (these days BakerBrown and Deeper Green respectively.) Completed twenty years ago, the ultra-deep green building, complete with straw bale and lime walls, feels as if it is from a different era.

Rye Harbour Nature Reserve from above – Photo Stuart Conway/SWT

An avocet wader – Photo Barry Yates/SWT

Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is a very particular piece of wetland, though, known across the birding community as one of the most significant stretches of land in Britain for observing a wetland and birds. Both a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSI) and Specially Protected Area (SPA), the reserve includes many natural, geological and biodiverse features, even if the birds have the highest profile. These include both local ground nesting birds (various terns have prospered, along with ringed plovers, avocets, oystercatchers, redshanks, lapwings, and wheatears) and also long-distance visitors, a stream of migrating waders and wildfowl using the relatively sheltered landing strip for stop-offs on longer journeys.

Seaweed and shingles stretch across the coastal end of the nature reserve, watery clogged mud-banks once inland.  The reserve opened in 1970 and covers 1100 acres (432 ha) consisting of two sides of a triangular wedge of land running down to a shingle-duned shoreline. The considerable diversity of wildlife, flora and fauna includes around 500 plants and 2000 insects, as well as 280 species of birds. The intertidal low-lying marshy land consists of a mixture of habitats, including shingle ridges – created and renewed by storm surges - saltmarshes, scrub, saline inlets and sandy land. Streams and water tributaries turn from salty - close to the shore - to fresh water, a few hundred yards inland.

Once opened, the nature reserve quickly began to fill up and teem not only with birds, but people. Through the reserve’s first decades, a patchwork of marshland pathways, often ending in well-used bird hides were built, primarily by volunteers, and overseen by the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. In the 80s and 90s annual visitors numbering a quarter of a million become the norm, and the absence of facilities, apart from a small workman’s hut converted into an information room, became apparent.

Sussex Wildlife Trust (SWT) took over day to day responsibility for the reserve in 2010. With visitor numbers continuing to grow. By then the Nature Reserve was one segment in a shoreline extending from Winchelsea beach and foreshore, through Rye Harbour, and on across Camber sands to Dungeness point, which together fell under multiple, and overlapping, legal environmental protection. A joint project co-run by the Sussex Wildlife Trust and the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve began to take shape.

Facing South

“There was also absolutely nowhere to shelter, no toilets, nowhere for school groups, or educational facilities”, says Alistair Fairley, who as part of the initial funding appeal board, was instrumental in generating interest and energy in the creation of the centre. Working with the SWT, fundraising began, including a very significant bequest, along with the search for experienced architects. The project raised the phase 1 funding and a build schedule was set in place, with the centre to be ready to open in early 2020, just in time for the Nature Reserve’s 50th anniversary over the summer months. It didn’t of course quite work out like that. After slowing considerably as Covid first struck, work continued through the pandemic’s first year and the centre opened relatively quietly in late spring 2021, without the kind of razzmatazz expected of a fiftieth anniversary launch.

Simpson & Brown were introduced to the Rye marshes through a RIBA competition. Despite being a Scottish practice from Edinburgh they were awarded the project. Originally making their name in conservation projects, the practice has shifted sideways into both broader heritage, visitor, and nature centres. Their design work has also become decidedly more modern, contemporary architecture; these days an equal to the historic restoration work. A key project was the 2001 Scottish Seabird Centre. Set in the coastal town harbour of North Berwick, a short distance from Edinburgh, the Seabird Centre, complete with webcams for watching seabird life, was well-received, becoming a successful tourist attraction and opening up a string of further related work for the architects. These include Waterson House for the Scottish Ornithologists Club (2005), Dawyk Visitor Centre, a gateway building for the Royal Botanic Gardens in the Scottish Borders (2008), ‘Taigh Coille’, at the David Marshall Lodge Visitor Centre, Aberfoyle (2011), and Rievaulx Abbey Visitor Centre (2016), in North Yorkshire through the interim twenty years.

North Berwick Seabird Centre, Simpson & Brown’s entry point in nature centres
– Photo Simpson & Brown Architects

Facing North

A group visit from the Sussex organising bodies to the North Berwick centre helped considerably, according to Allan, sealing the deal for the Edinburgh practice. It was, however, only after winning the RIBA competition that Allan visited Rye Harbour for the first time in 2017. The original plan called for a two-storey building dug into the flat marshy land, with a lower under-croft, and a raised first floor observation platform. Once the design started, and various cost cutting exercises kicked in, it became clear that a two-storey building was too ambitious. Two years of design work were followed by work physically beginning on site in March 2019.

The current single level building began to emerge, the design reflecting the edge of the Trusts’ legal boundary line. What had always been a core element of the early designs, embedding the building into the story of the site, became even more pronounced. The patterns of the salt marsh, including the winding, small rivulets running to the larger river were echoed on the building’s east side. Raised 1.25 metres above the ground level of the salt marsh, a height considered secure to withstand once in a century storms (though one can imagine a few people in positions of responsibility may well be wondering if this was the wisest longer-term decision), high tides still swell monthly to gently ripple at the centres edge. 51m long by 20m wide, from ground to roof line, the centre 4.95m high. Just as the building sits within the contained space defined by the marshes’ form, so the interior has been shaped to convey how the daily tidal ebb and flow has formed the marshes, eroding parts and remaking others where salt and fresh water meet.

The raised concrete plinth, comprised partially of recycled coal fly aggregate, supports the underflooring of the main open space atrium. Above the walkway is the sliver of a canopy, pushing out and making good use of the prepared curving glulam beams, as part of the overall timber roof system. Inside, the main foyer-circulation space includes the Nature Reserve’s information display, a small shop area, the café, and the main viewing windows onto the sights across the Reserve. Past the information boards and interactive tech is the administration office, plus the educational and viewing rooms, each flanking the central circulation space. Rockwool in timber panel walls mainly at the building’s north and eastern ends provides the insulation. Allan says the floor plan, designed around circulation, is intended to draw visitors round the entire space, with the cafeteria facing the glazed windows providing views out to the east, south, and west to inform this story telling process. The glass panels are solar-controlled, double-glazed units, 3.4m tall by 1.9m across, 23.5mm thick, structurally bonded by silicone seals and were positioned in place using a 'vacuum lift'.

Naturally ventilated, the building includes intake ventilators on the façade, two elevation ventilators, one automated and the other manual vertical flush, both work with the high level windcatcher.

The Gabion walls – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

The education and school's room

The initial design featured an even larger panoramic viewing window looking out over the eastern horizon. This needed to be reworked, so that now the still sizeable if smaller window provides a viewing point - the first of three which punctuates the centre’s eastern façade, separated by barrier-like timber façades, though with an external access walkway running ribbon like along the building. Looking back at the centre from the picnicking area, the windows feel a mite like blocky wood boxes, but walk a few degrees over the seaweed and the rhythm comes into its own. 

The gabion stone seating in the picnic area, though simple, is also almost sculptural. The Trust included a wildlife garden in their initial fund-raising efforts, but it disappeared from the list as the budget became firmer. Allan notes how the immediate surroundings, including planted native plants, are growing into their landscaping and will soon merge with the soil. Set against the surrounding seaweed wetland, the colouring of the concrete and the timber façade will gradually weather.

When I returned on an overcast June morning earlier this summer, the centre was already busy. Inside, the information boards told the story of the Nature Reserve and how the land is layered in generations of human history. The stories on the walls range over the centuries, including the Napoleonic wars, generations of fishermen, tragic lifeboat accidents, alongside the long habitation of Rye Harbour itself. Deep time, geology, the tidal pull of the moon, and indirectly the migratory paths of long-distance avian travellers, were there on an interactive display as well. The rather magnificent Rye Harbour Quilt hangs on one wall, the result of a group in Rye Harbour’s community banding together and making the quilt, and in the process raising over £5000 towards the fund raising.

If the displays and poster boards look relatively modest and the space is limited compared to some of the nature centres I’ve visited in the rich Scandinavian countries, it was difficult not to admire the community effort that had gone into realising the centre. It will be an educational hub for many, from school children, to twitchers, to the general visiting public, for years to come.

What was absent was any acknowledgement, let alone anything which spoke to the fact that the nature centre buildings are sites where the overlapping environmental crises of our time, mounting carbon emissions, and biodiversity extinction converge and meet. The larger issue of what could happen to the nature reserve, and indeed the low-lying sea level marshes, as the impact of climate change intensifies also feels marked entirely out of bounds. To make a generic point about nature centres; as built environmental fabric, they could lead the way in demonstrating the connection between raw construction materials as major sources of carbon emissions and those raw materials in relation to the decline and disappearance of biodiversity as well as melting sea ice. When the birding enthusiast wonders why a certain greylag wader hasn’t touched down for a few winters, do they see any connection to the clearing of land where the birds pass other parts of their year? Likewise, when the architect is pushed to meet the BREEAM carbon performance certification ‘outstanding’ on a nature centre brief, do they join the dots to that source of material extraction and its possible impact on local wildlife and biodiversity?  It oughtn’t be too much, surely, to bring these sorts of disconnects to the sustainability table, but in my experience so far there are no projects highlighting such connections.

Rather the furthest architects, clients and others go, when thinking about nature centres is to embed the symbolic connection with natural materials, and invariably timber, into the design. The Rye Harbour Discovery Centre is no exception, though Simpson & Brown do take things a step further as they became involved in specially sourcing local timber.

Maplehurst Wood, north of Hastings – Photo SWT news piece on the wood

“It seemed bad manners to be shipping in stuff from far away, places like Scandinavia or Austria,” recalls Allan of the early steps. The initial discussion of local materials began at interview stage. “It came out of us presenting designs,” he adds. Fairlie, a design writer and Hastings resident, it turned out, was brother-in-law to Craig Sams, the American organics and health business guru, who founded Green & Blacks chocolate. Sams also lives close to Hastings these days, owning and looking after Maplehurst Wood, a native woodland with considerable sweet chestnut on the town’s northern perimeter, only twelve miles from the nature reserve. Fairley and Sams were confident the wood could provide the project with its main source of timber. In parallel, the architects were also introduced to InWood Developments, the regional timber manufacturer in Whitesmith, who pioneered using low-quality sweet chestnut through finger jointing gluing processes, and who have been key to the return of local timber use across the South East. Both architect and client were open to tenders from specialist contractors. As it is Simpson & Brown have form regarding timber, with buildings – mainly in Scotland - and working with various well-known carpentry companies, including Cowley’s Timberworks and Carpenter Oak & Woodland’s Scottish outpost. The material is absolutely not new territory and it was little surprise the practice showed both receptivity and sensitivity to what could potentially be achieved with timber.

“There was a feeling within Simpson & Brown”, says Allan, that “we didn’t want to be dictating the design from the other end of the country,” even if by now Allan was in effect commuting from Edinburgh every few weeks. “InWood were brought in early,” and made it clear that the local sourcing was entirely doable. But,” he adds, “it was all down to timing.”

On site – cassettes – Photo Stuart Allan

There followed a protracted development and design period, including thinking through what was now a single floor project, though this simplification helped lessen what had started off with a total £2.5 million budget allocated for the centre’s construction. Although there had been major funding awards, including a sizeable bequeathment (the majority of the £1.5 million donated by the Friends of Rye Harbour) as well as EU funding and close to £600,000 from the National Lottery Fund, cost cutting began to play a familiar role. Allan notes how the Design & Access, and Planning Statements, which included a commitment to local supply chains, was soon being interpreted as an aspiration. For Allan protecting the original brief of locally sourced timber was important: “There’s a role for advice-giving to clients, who don’t necessarily understand that aspects of the contract need to be clearly ringfenced so that contractors don’t take advantage, or immediately propose the cheapest options. So introducing specialists into the design team helps. Project managers generally don’t think this way and will work out easy routes.”

As the build progressed, value engineering whittled £1 million out from the original tenders, by the main contractor, Baxall Construction, from Paddock Wood, Kent.

Douglas fir glulam for the roof canopy, with detail and rendering
– Photo's Stuart Allan

There were other challenges as well. Through 2018, as the build start date approached, it became clear that the full complement of Maplehurst Wood’s timber wouldn’t be ready in time; the seasoning wasn’t completed in the period between the final tendering for procuring the contract in October 2018, and the timber was needed on site by March 2019. Using the client’s forest for the procuring of the timber turned into an impossibly short lead in time to deliver the project and was pulled as an option.

Still, a significant amount of Maplehurst Wood’s sweet chestnut has made it into the building in the cladding, in various parts of the interior joinery including the window frames, and in vent frames and panels. Once harvested, the sweet chestnut was processed by In-Wood. The all-timber roof is made from the shaped chestnut glulam cassettes. In addition, UK sourced Douglas fir has been used on structural posts and prepared curved beams – for the canopy structure roof extension - the cladding, and in the cassettes. Spruce has gone into the shaped roof joists and general studwork, and ply in the sheathings. In all In-Wood delivered 53 internal panels, 30 external panels, and 32 roof panels. The resulting lightweight timber building includes a considerable amount of locally sourced timber, a feature which will hopefully influence subsequent larger public projects.

On site – cassettes – Photo Stuart Allan

With annual visitor numbers to the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in recent years tipping over 350, 000, it is not difficult not to see the tourist infrastructure logic to the Discovery Centre’s siting. By the time grants were being written, the centre slotted into Rother, the local council’s tourism’ strategies, a built fabric facility aimed at enhancing the overlapping coastal natural attractions. This marshy flatland is, after all, just beyond where the eastern edge of the South Downs finally slips and slide away, the hillside collapsing down to sea level, presenting completely new landscapes and ecologies. The aim is clear; to bring yet more visitors to this geographic borderland and its basketful of tourist honeypots, Rye itself, the golden sands of Camber’s long arcing beaches, as well as the dream landscape of Dungeness, which by cult association - after the late film-maker Derek Jarman made his Garden Prospect Cottage home in the shadow of the nuclear power plant - the spit of land which has become a minor enclave of architectural homes and houses.

Now Rye Harbour can lay claim to something similar: a slice of contemporary architecture under wide-open skied horizons. There isn’t anything like it anywhere nearby. North by an hour or so, what looks an ambitious project run by neighbouring Kent Wildlife Trust, the Sevenoaks Nature and Well-Being Centre will be realised a few years hence. For the Sussex Wildlife Trust, responsible for twelve nature reserve sites, the project is also a first – though their Woods Mill reserve and HQ is home to a sustainable building. At present they have the ground to themselves. It may be too much to imagine the Trust and related organisations will take radical steps, for instance, linking up these and related centres into a larger climate, environmental and nature educational infrastructure network. But with the Rye Harbour Discovery Centre now at its far eastern edges, and with so many other of Sussex Wildlife Trust’s sites in its portfolio, it seems unlikely that this first shall also be the last.

Photo – Oliver Lowenstein