The multi-million pound project to restore Hampshire’s green spaces

PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 March 2020 | UPDATED: 12:33 23 March 2020

Staunton Country Park

Staunton Country Park

Archant

Hampshire’s country parks are receiving millions in funding to ensure their continuing survival.

River Hamble Country ParkRiver Hamble Country Park

Please note: to contain the spread of coronavirus Hampshire residents are being encouraged to stay home and avoid non-essential contact. As of Monday 23 March Public Health England (PHE) said: “You can go for a walk or exercise outside if you stay more than 2m from others.”

“A once in a lifetime investment” is how Jo Heath, head of countryside at Hampshire County Council, describes the ongoing transformation of our largest country parks.

The benefits of the £19.5m investment are already being felt across the county, as visitor numbers leap up. And there is still more work going on well into 2021.

The renovated chapel at Royal Victoria Country ParkThe renovated chapel at Royal Victoria Country Park

At the heart of the project is a desire not only to keep these spaces open to the public, but also to make them self-sustainable. Money has been spent on improving car parks, replacing honesty boxes with automatic number plate recognition and security barriers. As a result parking ticket compliance soared from 64 per cent in Lepe Country Park to 98 per cent. And at the other end of the scale a £3.5m project – jointly funded with the National Heritage Lottery – has restored the Grade II listed former Netley Hospital Chapel at the heart of the Royal Victoria Country Park into a museum and visitor’s centre with its own café facilities.

“Our country parks are incredibly important,” says Councillor Seán Woodward, executive member for recreation and heritage for Hampshire County Council. “Hampshire is mainly a green county, full of beautiful countryside, but it’s not the case everywhere. In Havant, near Staunton Country Park, is some of the most deprived housing in England. The countryside and access to it is very important for the county council. The country parks are jewels in that crown of preservation of country space. The county council had a policy for many years of acquisition of land not necessarily for housing but to keep it for future generations to enjoy.”

“We have 80 countryside sites and 3,000 miles of rights of way all providing mainly free access to the parks,” adds Jo, who has been working on the project to transform the parks since before 2014 when the first public consultations went out. “That connect with nature is really important for people’s health and well-being. We have 30,000 school visits a year across the parks and lots of activities such as Park Runs, which are community-driven. There’s also the history and stories we can tell at all these places.”

Indeed each of the country parks at the heart of this renewal has a different story behind it. “Members were very clear that they didn’t want to turn each park into a theme park,” says Jo. “Each park needed to respond to its unique nature.”

Perhaps the most visible example of this approach can be seen in Royal Victoria Country Park, where rather than the council cutting down and digging out an old dead tree near the car park, the remaining tree stump was turned into a piece of carved sculpture and is now the centrepiece of a lovely clearing where children can explore and play.

Work is still going on at Staunton Country Park, which was formerly the home of Sir George Thomas Staunton, whose father Sir George Leonard Staunton introduced Earl Grey tea into England. This summer a £3.8m project, which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Big Lottery Fund, will see the restoration of the 200-year-old Regency landscape and the creation of a new visitor centre in a renovated coach house. There are also plans to build two new activity rooms, a new car park, a café, new trails and activities and to plant a community orchard whose produce can then be sold.

And there are on-going changes at the River Hamble Country Park in Botley too, which is set to have a new £800,000 visitor hub to replace its existing catering kiosk, a new community hire space, new play area and a flagship glamping site which will be run by independent company Canvas and Stars. Next door is the historic Manor Farm, which will see its attractions expand following £550,000 of extra funding – which will pay for a new indoor play barn, interactive chicken run and a cattle round house. “We are trying to increase the amount of wet weather activity,” says Jo. “When it starts raining at the moment visitors tend to go home.”

The exhbition space at the renovated chapel at Royal Victoria Country ParkThe exhbition space at the renovated chapel at Royal Victoria Country Park

If some of the improvements prove to be popular in one park they may be rolled out to other areas – such as Royal Victoria Country Park’s new dog wash station, a boon for any dog owner facing a muddy and wet mutt following a winter walk. “It is a journey,” says Jo. “We won’t sit back and say we are done – we are getting a lot of interest from people who want to be a part of what we are doing and want to help us become financially sustainable.”

Parks manager Phil Halliwell has already seen the benefits of the work. “We are almost victims of our own success,” he says. “At the Royal Victoria Country Park we receive about 450,000 visitors a year, and most of them are repeat visitors. The feedback has been amazing.”

Some of the changes, such as improving wifi coverage in visitor centres, have come directly from customer feedback. Other technology based solutions will have much longer-lasting impact – from the VR headsets that the country parks team have used to show people how improvements at Manor Farm will look, to the interactive digital screens present at many of the parks. Unlike static information boards they can be updated daily at no extra cost. “You can have live Twitter feeds, or visitors can see what else is going on elsewhere in the park,” says Jo. In the Royal Victoria Country Park one interactive digital terminal in the main chapel visitor centre has access to more than 3,000 postcards sent by former patients at Netley Hospital – something which could never be put on physical display.

“With a site like the Royal Victoria Country Park there are still people in Netley who used to work at the hospital,” says Seán. “There is a feeling of ownership – they are very supportive and protective of what they see as what is theirs.”

To find out more about Hampshire Country Parks visit: hants.gov.uk/thingstodo/countryparks

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