Finding Nature on Your Doorstep: A Non-Exotic Travel Story

It was a Tuesday. The weather was nice. I had a day off work and no plans. I was in need, as my mum would say, of a different horizon. What to do? I got on the bus to work – it was late, as usual – but stayed in my seat when it stopped outside my office. For I was going to a place down the road: Pensthorpe Natural Park.

I haven’t encountered a single tourist guide that features this natural beauty spot. Instead the consistent praise of friends and colleagues, combined with their assurance that I would like it, got me there. My first impression was not promising. The bus stopped on a busy road squeezed between messy hedges. I walked past a gravel track that led to a parking lot. In the distance a play area caught my eye. It didn’t look like a place to spend a great day out.

Once I walked through the enormous gift shop – empty of people at that time of day – and past the ticket desk my grumpiness disappeared. I was looking at a pretty pond filled with waterfowl. The map in my hand promised that there was more nature waiting for me, if only I would keep walking.

I’m struggling to define what Pensthorpe is. It has a play area – and if you have children in tow this is probably where you’ll end up spending most of your day – but it’s not an amusement park. It has animal exhibits – cranes, flamingos, red squirrels – but it’s not a zoo.

As an aside, I wonder whether the conversation between the park’s founders went something like this:

“Let’s create a nature park.”

“Great idea. How about we start with a waterfowl pond?”

“Sounds nice. And I want flamingos.”

Pause.

“But flamingos are not native to the UK…”

“I said I want flamingos.”

“But…”

“FLAMINGOS.”

“Okay, okay, please put that chair down. There’s a good boy.”

Anyway, beyond the flamingos and the gardens – which later in the year will probably be gorgeous, and worth coming back for – I discovered why people had been recommending this place to me. Most of the park is nature and nothing but nature: small lakes, woodland, wetland, with a collection of hides as the only visible human intervention in the landscape. Walking around was a delight. The park is popular with birds, but I also spotted a muntjac deer and several serious-looking people with binoculars.

I read reviews online that complain about the entry fees. There’s no denying that there are cheaper options for your day out. And if you’re looking for a zoo, an amusement park, or other destinations that come with entertainment, you may find Pensthorpe rather boring. Its main attraction is nature itself. And, at a stretch, the sculpture trail.

But, having just read Benjamin Mee’s We Bought a Zoo, I’ve come to realize how expensive these types of park are to run. Apart from a few weather-beaten signs Pensthorpe is impeccably maintained. The park’s owners take an active approach to conservation, as the non-weather-beaten signs explain, and this takes equipment and trained staff to use it. I’ve spent more than five hours in the park and could have stayed even longer so I consider my money well-spent.

My favourite moment of the day was as mundane as they come. I was sitting on a bench in the Wave & Wave Line Garden, surrounded by snowdrops and pretty little sculptures, facing a small lake. Geese, mallards and moorhens were wandering around me, not expecting food, but simply going about their daily business. I was reading Jean-Christophe Rufin’s account of his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela with the sun shining on my face and all was right in the world.

This morning I’m back at my desk with major and minor tasks to get out of the way, but as this is likely to be the last day of sunshine for some time to come I’ve planned a small trip to supplement yesterday’s. I’m going to Wensum Park, as the name suggests a city park that borders on the river Wensum, just like Pensthorpe. If I’ve learned anything yesterday, it is that travel doesn’t need to be exotic. Beauty and nature can be found on your own doorstep, if only you bother to actively look for it.

Image my own. More info on Pensthorpe Natural Park (including directions) here

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