Country Parks, Commons and Nature Reserves

Are local country parks, commons and nature reserves the unsung heroes of the outdoor world?

Often run by local authorities or town councils these stunning spaces are relatively small. Many nestle happily beside built up areas and provide a brief sense of wilderness and connections to nature. They are open for the public to enjoy and may be open access land or have a network of paths. Including woodland, meadows, lakes and ponds these spaces are great for walking. They are community assets and essential points of access to nature and the outdoors –

Land designations vary, including National Nature Reserves, Open Spaces, Green Spaces, privately owned, part of a National Park or state owned. Many have been noted as areas of special importance to the local community and this provides some protection from development. Often bounded by roads, trainlines, housing, industry or natural features, and sometimes criss-crossed by public footpaths, these spaces can be hard to spot. Not all paths are marked on the 1:25k or 1:50k maps, but the giveaways are the little blue ‘nature reserve’ bird – or maybe just a random bit of green in amongst an urban sprawl. Zooming in on the OS Maps app will usually reveal more paths (though not all paths shown on the map are public.)

So, are these local spaces well kept secrets or little gems waiting to be discovered. I have stumbled across few of these spaces whilst driving, pulling into a random car park only to find a well laid out woodland trail. I found one in Surrey after a Sat Nav diversion away from the snarled up M25. Very unassuming, and only visible through a green height restriction barrier leading to an unpaved carpark. It was a great surprise and the kids were excited to explore the woods.

Many of these spaces have basic carparks, and a path or two leading into woods or across a meadow. Many have no facilities, although some have toilets and somewhere to get refreshments. Usually the paths are maintained, muddy in places, but cared for. Some have considered the needs of people using wheelchairs and pushchairs, though width restrictions exist in places, presumably to reduce access for trail bikes. Being so close to residential areas these spots are a favourite for dog walkers and many have well placed dog poo bins. Often the parking is free (please keep it that way!)

Ok, so you won’t necessarily get the huge vistas of mountains and coastlines (although some you will) and the walks are unlikely to become classics – but the spaces are just brilliant. Bird song, a huge variety of woodland flora, occasional rabbits, squirrels and maybe even a fox or deer if you are lucky. People with more skills for recognising natural stuff will obviously see so much more! But even for the absolute nature amateur, there is enough to point out interesting things to the kids or to make you smile. ‘Hello Squirrel!’ – I know I’m not the only one who does this!

But to walk through these spaces, to smell the trees, to feel the wind, and probably the rain, creates a connection to the outdoors, whether consciously and deliberately or not.

Bedelands Farm Nature Reserve, Burgess Hill

This article was prompted by finding one of these gems last week. Having travelled to a town I do not usually visit I looked online to see what I could do for an hour or so with the kids. I found Bedelands Farm Local Nature Reserve, on the edge of Burgess Hill, West Sussex. A lovely place adjacent to a housing estate and with dedicated free parking next to the local football team’s ground. Cross a playing field to a pair of tall wooden carvings and enter the woods through a narrowed gate. The paths are a mixture of packed muddy gravel, clean gravel, boardwalks and walked grassy ways across meadows. There is also an entrance for wheelchairs – opened by a RADAR key.

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The wood was lush, dense and felt fresh. We crossed wild flower meadows and came to a pretty mill pond and weir. Taking a circular route to the furthest point of the woods we clocked up two miles. The walking route is outlined here with a link to the OS maps website. I recommend it if you are in the area. It is also worth the journey if you are further afield – especially if you time your visit to coincide with the blooming of your favourite wildflower! There are seats, dog poo bins, boardwalks covering the wetter areas and regular information boards which describe the flora and fauna and helpfully show ‘you are here’ – so you can orientate yourself without a map.

Bedlands Farm Local Nature Reserve is one of the largest open spaces in the area, and it is part of the Burgess Hill Green Circle Network, a ring of green spaces around the town which are connected and protected from development. The Town Council’s website states “Linked green spaces such as the Green Circle provide a continuous habitat for wildlife, ‘a wildlife corridor’, allowing species to travel through the area looking for suitable living conditions, despite the disturbance of a busy town. The Network also provides residents with easy access to these open spaces, connected by a series of traffic-free routes.” This is great on so many levels – for both wildlife and walkers. There is even a children spotters guide highlighting what to look out for.

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Other places to visit

There are thousands of spaces like this valuable local community asset, providing straightforward walks and connections to the outdoors and nature.

As well as Bedelands Farm, here are four more spaces worth a visit:

  1. Tilgate Park, Crawley. Run by the Borough Council Tilgate Park has stunning lakes, lawns and gardens and miles of woodland and bridleways providing long leisurely walks. It is well serviced with cafes and refreshments, play parks and even has a Nature Centre with over 100 species of animals. Tilgate is bigger than many other open spaces and with the added attractions it is easy to spend the day there.
  2. Cwellyn, Gwynedd. Tucked away in Snowdonia National Park this space is a small board-walked area with stunning views over Llyn Cwellyn and the hills beyond. Fully accessible and the shortest walk in the YHA Walks collection, it provides benches and picnic tables to sit and take in the surroundings.
  3. Roskilly’s pond orchard and woodland, near to St Keverne, Cornwall this is a stunning trail through woodland, orchards and around ponds owned by the Roskilly’s Dairy Farm. Combine a walk with a visit to the farm and ice-cream shop, there are many trails and public footpaths connecting the farm to the coast if you wish to extend the walk.
  4. Tan y Coed, managed by Natural Resources Wales this stunning forest near Cader Idris provides excellent trails through woodland, alongside a river with waterfalls and around rock structures. Fully waymarked and with sculptures and things for kids to spot, this is a lovely exploration of the natural environment. Picnic tables and toilets in the carpark.

Enjoy your local open and green spaces

There are so many small outdoor spaces, little pockets nature, across the UK. And with Natural England developing guidance for creating nature-rich towns and cities with the aim of helping millions of people to benefit from accessing nature, more of these spaces should become accessible. In the meantime here’s three things you can do to enjoy these spaces:

  1. Search online for ‘Open and Green spaces’ in your local area, this should take you to the town or borough council’s page for parks and open spaces, or similar.
  2. Join or support the ‘friends of’ group. Many outdoor spaces have a group of friends who promote, maintain and fundraise for the local spaces. Many will have volunteer working parties who keep the area clean and tidy.
  3. Keep an eye on new developments. Whilst Open and Green spaces have some protection from development, this can be undone if the processes are followed. If your local spaces are under threat then consult Open Spaces Society.

These spaces are such important assets and provide easy access to walking in the outdoors for so many.

Which is your favourite community space and why? Comment below:

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