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What’s on offer at Lepe Country Park

PUBLISHED: 11:16 12 June 2018

Lepe is the sort of place that is good for the soul (Photo by Paul Finn)

Lepe is the sort of place that is good for the soul (Photo by Paul Finn)

Archant

As summer approaches, the £2.7million project to transform this coastal country park into a year-round destination that embraces climate change is nearing completion. Viv Micklefield went along to soak-up its charms

Lepe is one of those places you can’t help thinking must be good for the soul. Against a backdrop of wildflower meadows and soaring cliff-top pine trees, the salty air delivers tantalizing views across the Solent towards the Isle of Wight, together with some of the most spectacular sunsets found along this stretch of shoreline.

That’s not all. Although among the smallest of the county’s country parks – it’s a mere six-and-a-half-acres some of which is leased from private landowners, Lepe’s mile of beachfront between Stanswood Bay and the mouth of the Beaulieu estuary, provides rare public access to the area’s abundant natural habitats, rich with bird and plant life. Revealed too is an archaeological and maritime heritage spanning from the Ice Age to the military manoeuvres of the Second World War. And, judging by the families, dog walkers and windsurfers out and about, there’s plenty to enjoy; although, it’s of little surprise that most of the 300,000-plus visitors who currently come here, do so between April and September. Because, as the constant coastal erosion shows, Lepe’s very location leaves it at the mercy of high winds and rising sea levels, brought into sharp focus by recent winter storms.

Cue major investment to future-proof the park against the ever-increasing impact of climate change and find a solution that works with nature, not against it. This has seen Hampshire county council, who manage Lepe, put up £1.85million and the M3 Local Economic Partnership providing an extra £850,000, which, says Councillor Andrew Gibson, executive member for culture, recreation and countryside, has enabled work to get underway on significant enhancements throughout the site. “The new additions include a raised, panoramic, glass fronted visitor centre offering fantastic views of the Solent, a family friendly sensory garden, a revamped play area and a bigger café.

“These improvements will not only help boost Lepe’s natural and historical features, but also make it a real ‘destination’ venue for visitors of all ages.”

Already proving a big hit with younger visitors is the clifftop play equipment, over half of which has been replaced, in harmony with the setting.

However, the most striking construction is the elevated visitor centre. Supported by pillars, this appears to ‘float’ above the beach as if by magic; its timber clad walls snuggling the building against the cliff-top, from where the solar panelled roof is just visible. With sustainability high on the list of features, the park is also part of the Refill New Forest campaign which aims to reduce single-use plastics such as drinking bottles.

Such educational opportunities at Lepe, are considered by many of those working here to be one of its biggest assets. So while the four full-time rangers spend the winter months mending fences, scrub bashing and planting more native trees, once the weather warms-up their guided walks and workshops help spread the word about protecting precious environments.

Also keeping busy throughout the year are the Friends of Lepe, who’ve been instrumental in completely transforming Lepe Point, the park’s conservation area. Although many years have passed since cattle found their way down to the beach, the New Forest ponies quietly grazing just minutes inland, are a reminder of how close the National Park is. And with the Dark Water Estuary and woodland paths both within easy reach, there’s a chance to get up close to nature on a journey of self-discovery.

But perhaps the most surprising addition to Lepe Point is the new sensory cottage garden. A secret haven, which is both wheelchair and pushchair friendly, once inside the sound of the crashing waves beyond are barely audible. Instead, the eye is caught by mesmerizing bubble lights, the scent of fragrant herbs and flowers fill the nose, and water features turn the ear. Little wonder that adults and children alike have responded to this garden’s delights.

And the updates haven’t finished yet with a wild play area, complete with magnifying glasses, bird hides and bug hotels due to be completed by July. Elsewhere, watersports enthusiasts will find new rigging areas and outdoor showers.

As Councillor Gibson says: “Lepe’s transformation project is a fantastic example of how we’re committed to investing in Hampshire’s country parks; providing high quality facilities for visitors to enjoy all year round.”

In fact, when the weather does take a turn for the worst there’s even a woodburner promised inside the café. So soon, not only the sunsets can be savoured: word has it the thunderstorms out here are incredible too.

How to get there

• Where: Lepe Country Park, Exbury, Southampton, SO45 1AD

• When: Open every day, 7.30am to 8pm or dusk, whichever is earliest.

• How: From the east leave the M27 at junction 3 taking the M271/A326 following brown signs to the country park. From the west leave the M27 at junction 1 taking the A336 and A326. Car parking charges apply at the park. Alternatively, during high summer the New Forest Beach Bus stops at Lepe; thebeachbus.info has the timetables.


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