Forestry England has submitted a planning application to revamp visitor facilities at Haldon Forest Park, earmarking one of Devon’s most loved countryside destinations for a major update.

The park, nestling in the expansive forest across the Haldon Hills, sees around half a million visitors every year. However, the current facilities created from redundant forestry buildings were only designed to accommodate some 10,000 annual visits.

As people’s passion for spending time outdoors continues to grow along with Devon’s resident and tourist populations, Forestry England (FE) has submitted plans to create a new ‘gateway to the forest’ comprising purpose-built visitor centre and operational support buildings.

A FE spokesman said: ‘The sympathetically designed buildings will provide updated, expanded, and energy efficient facilities. For visitors, these will include an improved ranger welcome point, larger cafe, more toilets, a Changing Places facility, and extended hire space for cycles and Segways.

‘Operational buildings will house Forest Park staff as well as the local forestry team, which oversees the sustainable management of the wider forest and Forestry England land around Exeter and mid-Devon.’

The buildings are intended to be carbon neutral in operation, supporting FE’s ambition to be carbon net zero by 2033. Ecological features, such as bat and bird boxes and a new pond, will help to support biodiversity around the visitor centre. Landscaping and planting around the new facilities will carefully reflect Haldon’s niche heathland habitats.

The whole scheme will take place within the footprint of existing facilities, safeguarding the sensitive Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) that surrounds the Forest Park.

Existing visitor facilities will remain open to the public while the new visitor centre is constructed. When the new centre launches, the old buildings will be demolished. The vacant space will be incorporated into the car park to provide more vehicle spaces and accessible parking, electric vehicle charging, dedicated bays for long vehicles, and coach parking.

Haldon Forest Park manager, Katy Harrison, said: ‘It’s incredibly exciting to be submitting this planning application to create a new gateway to the forest. Our goal is to deliver memorable experiences for people of all ages and abilities, and initial visitor feedback on our proposal has been overwhelmingly positive.

‘Haldon Forest Park is loved by so many people that our old facilities are simply bursting at the seams. With a better car park, more toilets, larger cafe, and improved accessibility, Haldon will be in the best possible shape to connect people with nature and the physical and mental health benefits of time spent outdoors - now and for future generations.’

Multi-award-winning contracting group, Willmott Dixon, is Forestry England’s lead partner in bringing the vision for Haldon Forest Park to life. Rob Woolcock, director, said: ‘The vision is to provide highly sustainable buildings which improve the visitor experience through forming a new gateway to the forest.

‘Reducing the carbon produced through both operation energy required to power the buildings and the embodied carbon within the chosen building materials is at the core of the design brief.

‘The Glulam frame to the Hub Building will be constructed with trees that have been felled at Haldon Forest. The Development is part of a wider scheme to de-carbonise Forestry England’s existing building stock to achieve a Carbon Neutral Future.’

If the planning application is successful, construction is due to start in early 2023, with the scheme completing in summer 2024.

► The full planning application, reference 22/01560/MAJ,  can be viewed at the Teignbridge Council planning portal