Making waves

Making waves

James Barbour and his team have taken a simple loch on a farm and turned it into Foxlake, Scotland’s first wakeboarding park and Europe’s only overwater ropes course.

Imagine what would happen if you took the most exciting elements from snowboarding, surfing and water-skiing and mixed them all together in one big pot. Welcome to the world of wakeboarding.

If you’d asked him five years ago, James Barbour would only have had a vague inkling of what wakeboarding was. Although he’d been a keen water-skier for 30 years, he’d yet to try the new sport. Now, as managing director at Foxlake near Dunbar in East Lothian, Barbour is part of the team responsible for building Scotland’s first wakeboarding park and Europe’s only overwater ropes course.

As managing director of Barbour Homes, he had been running a well-established building business in East Lothian. But then a conversation one day with his brother, Duncan, and their friend, Alex Dale, would send his life in a whole new direction. “We were sitting around talking about different ideas for businesses,” Barbour remembers. “Alex, who I’d done business with before, owns a farm and he wanted to show us a lake that he’d built about four years previously. We went down and took a look and kicked around some ideas for what he could do with it, like building lodges around the edge or putting up yurts.

“We talked about all sorts of crazy ideas. Then one of my brother’s contacts threw the idea of building a cable wakeboarding park into the mix – we liked the idea, did some investigation, still liked it, and that’s how it all got started.”

Cable-tow wakeboarding involves riders standing on a board – around 140cm long by 45cm wide – and being pulled along at around 20mph by a tow line connected to a system of cables. Using a board instead of water-skis allows the rider to demonstrate more flair and freestyle creativity over jumps placed on the lake, mirroring the comparison between snowboarding and skiing.

Following their initial conversations in 2010, the trio spent a further two years developing the idea, engaging with PMR Leisure to work with them and involving Industry Wake Parks, a company that helps people to build their own facilities, in the design of tows and obstacles, with Foxlake Adventures opening in July 2012.

“Within its first few weeks we were already operating at capacity, so we knew we were doing something right,” laughs Barbour. “At the end of the first season, we decided to apply for funding to get a second cable-tow going, which we did and at the start of the second season we looked to add a second attraction, FoxFall, which is our ropes course.”

FoxFall looks like a cross between BBC One television series Total Wipeout, hosted by Richard Hammond and Amanda Byram, and a Go Ape-style ropes course. With no safety harnesses, visitors are left to plunge into the water if they lose their balance on the ropes course. During its first season, Foxlake employed five members of staff, but that total has since grown to 25, with around ten on duty at any one time during its busiest peaks.

The adventure activities site is already welcoming more than 40,000 visitors each year and Barbour thinks the total could double. He expects the business to turn over close to £500,000 this year.

Landlord Dale is no stranger to diversification on his farm. He has been leasing land since 2001 to Grant Bell, the managing director of East Links Family Park, a small farm and narrow-gauge railway that has attracted more than one million visitors and welcomes in excess of 3,500 school pupils each week during its peak months.

Rather than incorporating Foxlake as a traditional limited company, Barbour and his fellow
directors instead opted to create a social enterprise, with Foxlake being registered as a ‘community interest company’ so that it can bring benefits to the wider community in East Lothian.

“Being a community interest company also gives us the ability, if the company is in a financial position to do so, to pay people for their time involved in the company,” explains Barbour. “This enables extra effort to be put in or demanded to grow the company – and with it the community outcomes and benefit – than might otherwise be the case with 100% voluntary input. Any profits are reinvested in the business or used for the benefit of the community.”

Foxlake’s community impact report for 2014-15 lists the 28 schools with which the business worked during the year, along with a whole range of community groups that have used the site, from Dunbar Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and North Berwick Coastal Rowers through to Borders Scouts and East Linton Girl Guides.

A ‘Vixens’ programme offers young women aged between 12 and 16 the chance to try wakeboarding for free, while the ‘Foxy Ladies’ sessions allow women to carry-on developing their interest in the sport. The ‘Wake Academy’ is a structured British Water Ski & Wake Board (BWSW) youth development programme that gives young riders the chance to develop their skills, while the ‘Junior Series’ competition allows them to test their talent against fellow boarders.

All of the efforts put into working with young people are already producing some high-profile results. Blair Fraser, a 17-year-old boarder from Edinburgh who learned how to ply his trade at Foxlake, won a gold medal in the ‘Open Men’s Features’ competition at the World Wakeboarding Association (WWA) Wakepark World Championships in Abu Dhabi in November. Fraser trained at Foxlake for four years and the park continues to sponsor him. “When we opened Foxlake, each of the three of us were doing it part-time and we employed Callum Mark as the manager to run the show,” Barbour explains.

“But we knew that to build the business one of us would have to go full-time with it to work with Callum. “I pulled the short-straw,” Barbour laughs. “So I wrapped up my own building business in the middle of 2013 and the rest is history.

“On the wakeboard side of things, we have people who regularly come down from Inverness, across from Glasgow and up from Northern England. People travel quite a long way to wakeboard. Up until last year, we were the only cable-tow wakeboard park in Scotland and the nearest one to us was probably in Blackpool.

“But wakeboarding is growing so fast as a sport that there are now around 30 cable-tow wakeboarding parks in the UK – when we opened it was more like ten, so there’s been huge growth in the past four years.”

While the water sports are closed during the colder months, Foxlake hosts the Foxtrail winter running series, five races stretching from 13 kilometres through to 20 kilometres. Over this winter, more than 800 runners registered for the races, which kicked off with a run timed to coincide with the site’s John Muir ‘Winter Carnival’ of activities.

Muir was born in Dunbar and left Scotland at the age of 11 to travel with his family to the US. He went on to become the father of America’s national parks and his life is celebrated by John Muir’s Birthplace, a museum and visitors’ centre in his home town, and the John Muir Trust, which owns and protects large tracts of wild land in Scotland, including the summit of Ben Nevis, parts of the Cuillin hills on Skye and East Schiehallion in Perthshire.

To mark the centenary of Muir’s birth in 2014, the John Muir Way – a long-distance walking route that originally ran along the coast of East Lothian – was extended across the Central Belt, covering 134 miles or 215 kilometres from Dunbar to Helensburgh, where Muir’s family boarded their ship to travel to America. Foxlake will be organising East Lothian’s first ultra-marathon along East Lothian’s section of the John Muir Way in April.

As well as the wakeboarding park and the FoxFall ropes course, the site has also become home to a number of other businesses. CrossFit East Rocks is a shipping container in the woods that offers year-round outdoor fitness training, while ReBoot is a disc golf course, in which players throw discs rather than hitting balls with clubs, and Go Wild offers children’s birthday parties and corporate team-building activities in the forest.

“We also have the Boardside Café,” adds Barbour. “From one social enterprise being setup, we’ve enabled other businesses to piggy-back on us.

“One of the highlights has been seeing all of the youngsters coming into the business and developing their skills. We train all staff to have a nationally-recognised BWSW coaching and instructor licence and a European Ropes Course Association (ERCA) qualification. It helps them in their development, is a transferable qualification, and ensures a high-quality of service to our customers. Another highlight has been the vast number of visitors that we’ve had and the fact that Foxlake is helping to develop this new sport of wakeboarding.”

Foxlake’s board includes chairman Malcolm Gillies, who created Inch Park community sports club and co-founded rugby charity Hearts & Balls. Its other board members are Penny Lochhead, director of community sports and leisure consultancy PMR Leisure, and Tim Woodhead, managing director of Industry Wake Parks and a director of parks in Cheshire and Liverpool.

The work that Barbour and his team have put into the project has already been recognised, with Foxlake scooping the ‘Best Outdoor or Adventure Experience’ prize at the Central
South East regional heat of the Scottish Thistle Awards. Winning the regional trophy means
that the company will now go through to the national finals, which are due to be held at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) in mid-March.

Picking up the regional Thistle Award added to Foxlake’s growing trophy cabinet, with the company having been named as the ‘Social Enterprise of the Year’ in 2013 by East Lothian and Midlothian Chamber of Commerce.

The activity centre has also earned a four-star quality assurance rating from VisitScotland, the national tourism agency. Foxlake gained five
stars for the attraction itself and then four stars in the other four categories to give it a four-star rating overall.

“Being awarded four stars was a really proud moment for the team,” says Barbour. “What we’d like to do next is take a step forward and gain five stars. Making sure that we offer excellent customer service has always been my focus, whether that was with my building company or with Foxlake. It’s all about paying attention to the small details.”

Along with attracting attention from the assessors at VisitScotland, Foxlake has also received visits from people looking to emulate its success in other parts of the country.

“We’ve had people coming to find out about the wakeboarding and the other activities we have built round it, which give a complete offering for a day out, with our new children’s play park being the latest addition,” Barbour points out. “Our other activities complement our wakeboarding, and so we do get lots of people coming to find out what we are up to, and how we’ve done it.”

Barbour and the team are currently in talks with Dundee City Council over proposals to open a site as part of the £1 billion redevelopment of the waterfront along the Firth of Tay. The city has realigned its roads and reconnected the city centre with the Firth in preparation for the opening of a branch of the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum, which was originally due to open in 2014 but is now expected to welcome its first visitors in 2018.

“Going from being a builder to being an outdoors activities provider has been a steep learning curve for me,” admits Barbour. “I’ve learned a whole new set of skills.

“During those first two years, there were times when I was asking myself ‘What have I done?’ giving up one business to join another business that wasn’t turning over a lot of money at that point. There were times when I questioned what I was doing, but we have a really good team at Foxlake – from the board of the directors through to the staff – and so it’s been a real team effort.”