Escaping the hustle and bustle at Itchen Valley Country Park
PUBLISHED: 10:37 12 August 2016 | UPDATED: 10:37 12 August 2016
On a warm summer's day the enchanting surroundings of Itchen Valley Country Park, near Eastleigh provide the perfect spot to escape the hustle and bustle. Viv Micklefield falls under its spell
“We want to create somewhere that people can enjoy being outdoors in the natural environment,” says countryside officer Kevin Young, walking downhill towards the footbridge that spans the sparkling River Itchen. It’s the obvious starting point for any tour of Itchen Valley Country Park (IVCP) because on its journey south, Hampshire’s most iconic waterway divides this 440 acre site into two distinct parts.
“I like it out here on a crisp November morning,” Kevin continues as we reach a gate overlooking the wide expanse of water meadows, adding: “You’re on the edge of Southampton but could be in the middle of nowhere.” The mercury is, fortunately, considerably higher during August, but as he reflects on the landscape’s national significance, its pull is soon evident.
“Historically this was one of the most fertile agricultural areas in the whole country because of a series of floated meadows.” (A rather nifty irrigation system introduced during the 17th century that enabled running water to be diverted when needed from the river, across the surface of the fields). “So the grass here grew six weeks earlier than elsewhere which was great for the cattle. We still have grazing here and plenty of archaeological features from this time lie dotted around too.”
Just visible are the remains of four locks from when the Itchen Navigation was used by barges. And elsewhere, it’s not unusual to come across partially buried bricks, as a pair of rare 19th century Scotch Kilns and horse-drawn Pugmill once operated to supply the vast Fleming estate. With the 440 acres IVCP now occupies having passed through the hands of both Lower Itchen Fisheries and the Forestry Commission, since 1987 it’s been wholly owned and managed by Eastleigh Borough Council.
As warblers sing out, Kevin, who’s worked at the Park for almost 20 years, points to the chalk stream being the perfect habitat for otters, water voles and the southern damselfly. “If you’re lucky you might see a kingfisher, we actually had a birdwatcher down who counted the different species of birds, and discovered no less than 98!”
Heading back towards the attractive wooden visitor centre, which is modelled on a traditional Hampshire Aisle Barn and was built using timber brought down on the Beaulieu estate following the 1987 storm, the surrounding trees become alive with the sound of laughter.
It’s soon apparent that Tom Goodwin, one of IVCP’s Forest School leaders and volunteer Dave Lewis are entertaining a group from Glenfield Infant School, beneath the branches. “For schools it’s all about personal development,” says Tom. “Today, with this group, we’re making obstacle courses.” And judging by the children’s enthusiasm for this task, being out in the fresh air is working wonders.
“This environment really brings them out of themselves,” observes Dave. “I love working with the kids, you see them laughing and smiling, and really feel like you’re doing something positive.
“I saw an advert for volunteers after retiring six years ago and have been helping out at the Park ever since. At other times, I bring my own grandchildren up to High Hill Field or to go den building. It really is a great facility here.”
Having extra hands to support the running and maintenance of IVCP is, Kevin admits, invaluable, especially with the increasing pressure to become self-financing: “On the third Sunday of each month, we have volunteers in who, during the summer months, might help with path laying or perhaps do wildlife surveys. It’s quite a social thing and was in fact how I came to be involved in this line of work, having initially joined the Hampshire Conservation Volunteers.”
Kim Peters, who set-up the Forest School programme here in 2010, is someone else that’s seen first-hand what an enriching experience using the Park can be for visitors of all ages. “Basingstoke College bring adult learners along and we also have a carers group,” says Kim. “Of course, Brownies and Beaver Scouts are often here too - and we usually have two family sessions each month, including bushcraft skills for the older ones.”
With the aptly name Twiglets mother and toddler group also braving the elements all year round, should further proof be needed of the benefits of the great outdoors, then it’s the Little Owls Woodland Preschool. Established for less than two years and already graded Outstanding by OFSTED, Kim reports a surge in popularity for this style of education.
“Everything here is initiated by the children,” explains Little Owls supervisor Caroline Fox. “By giving them the opportunity to explore their physical space, they learn to be a lot more resilient, which helps to make them to feel more confident as they move on in life.”
Having four and five-year-olds make bread which they then cook on a campfire sounds like it’s come straight out of an Enid Blyton book, and it’s often a revelation for parents to see their little ones having so much fun as they learn.
Not surprisingly, throwing open the gates to such a special countryside site creates its challenges. “Maintaining a balance between conserving the wildlife and welcoming people to the Park is tricky,” agrees Kevin. “But there are a lot of themed trails, plus an orienteering course that can be followed, and we have permits available for horse riders.”
With dedicated BBQ sites to hire, keeping such activity within a contained area, the permanent countryside team of six, can concentrate on their mission to restore some of the ancient woodland.
So far, conifers planted during the 1960s are being felled to enable native broadleaf species to flourish, whilst coppicing within the northern woods is designed to increase the butterfly population. “We don’t do much planting, preferring instead to let nature take its course,” Kevin says. “But this is a slow process - you have to think of the next generation when managing woodland.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that within this small corner of Eastleigh, as if by magic, time almost stands still.
Fun in the park
• Woodland adventure weeks
Children aged 6-11 years can get stuck-in to games, woodland crafts, den building and campfire cooking during the first three weeks of August. Sessions run between 9.30am and 4.00pm and cost £22 per day. Booking is essential on 02380 683790 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Take flight
As well as its high wire action, Go Ape’s treetop junior course is now open. Featuring crossings, tunnels and high ropes for mini Tarzans over 1m tall, it costs £18 per child. goape.co.uk/days-out/itchen-valley-country-park.
For more about what to see and do visit, www.eastleigh.gov.uk/ivcp
• Where: Itchen Valley Country Park, Allington Lane, West End, Southampton, SO30 3HQ
• When: Park gates open at 8.30am daily and close at 9.30pm during summer months.
• Admission to the Park and Visitor Centre is free; car parking charges apply.
• How: By car: M27 travelling from the west, Junction 5 or from the east Junction 7 take A27 West End direction and follow the brown tourist signs to Itchen Valley Country Park. By public transport: The nearest station is Southampton Parkway; a bus service drops visitors off within 10 minutes’ walk from the Park.