Beale Park feels the chill

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WINTER’S TALE: an unseasonal icy blast casts a chill over Beale Park

There could hardly have been a worse time to visit Beale Park. It’s only a few days after unseasonal March snowstorms have been swept across the UK by the “Beast from the East” – there’s ice in the lake water, the wind is bitter and the few animals who are out and about look as if they would much prefer to be somewhere a whole lot warmer.

Despite that it’s still possible to see just what a lovely location this riverside spot would be on a summer’s day. The landscaped gardens between Pangbourne and Lower Basildon in Berkshire have the Thames as a backdrop – and on virtually any other day of the year that in itself would be a major attraction.

Back in 1956 when Gilbert Beale set about transforming 350 acres of private Thames-side farmland into a charitable trust, it was little more than a track and a couple of ponds.

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PEACOCKS ON PARADE: the park’s eccentric founder had a soft spot for the birds

Today the distinctive cry of a peacock is a reminder of just how much the eccentric Gilbert loved the birds – by the time of his death in 1967 at the age of 99 there were over 300 on site. Legend has it that his favourite, a peahen called Laura, followed him everywhere and even rode around the estate in his Rolls-Royce.

Flash forward half a century and nowadays the park boasts three main attractions: the collections of small exotic animals, farm animals and birds; the landscaped gardens and woodlands; and the children’s play areas.

For our chilly March visit it would be easy to be hypercritical. Many of the more appealing creatures are hunkering down out of the chill wind, some of the park is still being renovated ahead of the main season and sections of it feel more like a building site than landscaped gardens.

Icy ripples spread out over the closed paddling pool and everything looks distinctly grey – we are too early for even the bravest flora to be flowering and there’s virtually no colour in the gardens yet.

But that’s more to do with the timing of our visit than any lack of effort on the part of the management and it’s clear that over the years a lot of effort has gone into sympathetically landscaping the surroundings and expanding the range of attractions.

It’s still a family affair – thanks to the involvement of Gilbert’s great-nephew, Richard Howard, and his family, along with a dedicated team of staff, some of whom have been associated with the park from its earliest beginnings.

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ANIMAL MAGIC: the story for Beale Park’s transformation

The main appeal is definitely for parents with younger children – even aside from the animals, the big play area is an obvious attraction and the sand pits and paddling pool must be great fun in summer.

It’s worth checking out the park’s website ahead of your visit if you want to find out a little more about their conservation and education work. It’s possible that display boards were in the process of being refreshed for the main season, but we found relatively little information  explaining what was actually happening on the conservation front. In fact the website doesn’t tell you too much detail either, although there’s a rundown on all the animals you can meet on a visit, with a note about their natural habitat and behaviour.

The “park guide” leaflet contains virtually no information about the attractions, but you do get a handy map at the gate – as well as a free trip on the mile-long narrow-gauge railway which dawdles through the grounds, pulling four open carriages and up to 64 passengers.

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PARK LIFE: Beale Park’s attractions are clearly signposted

Since the trust was formed the bird collection has advanced from a few peacocks to a collection of rare and endangered birds, but again there’s too little information about conservation programmes and what you are actually able to see.

We were captivated by the African grey-crowned cranes, for example, but couldn’t find any information about them on the cage or the website. Luckily a couple of staff were able to help identify them – and the 8,000 followers of the park’s Facebook page may get more regular updates and videos than are available on the website.

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CROWNING GLORY: one of the African grey-crowned cranes

The zoological collection has expanded too in recent years to encompass prairie dogs, coatis and unbearably cute slender-tailed meerkats. The larger paddocks are home to large flightless rheas, alpacas and wallabies, as well as fallow deer, pigs and sheep.

There are bugs, spiders and owls too, although again on the day of our visit everyone seemed to be lying low – and outside it was just too cold to fully enjoy the deer park or spend too long shivering at the lakeside.

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CUTE CUSTOMER: a slender-tailed meerkat

On this, the greyest of wintry days, the younger customers braving the weather still seemed to be having plenty of fun – and a surprisingly wholesome sausage and mash lunch for two in the cafe was the perfect antidote to combat the temperatures outside.

But Beale Park will be a whole lot more appealing when spring has properly sprung, and we pledged to return once the sun starts shining again and  everyone comes out to play.

Full details of attractions, admission prices and other details can be found on the park’s website.

Happy hunting ground

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Across The Water, by Kevin Day

THERE was a deer park  at Langley Marish as long ago as 1202, continuing in use throughout the Middle Ages.

Today, Langley Park is part of the Colne Valley Regional Park, managed by Buckinghamshire County Council and offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.

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Cows Explore Misty Field, by Jerry Lake

Once Crown Property, the park and manor were granted to Sir John Kederminster in 1626 and sold in 1738 to Charles Spencer, third Duke of Marlborough, who used it as a hunting lodge.

In 1756, he commissioned Stiff Leadbetter to build the present house, finished in 1760. His son George, the fourth Duke, succeeded in 1758 and commissioned Lancelot Brown (1716-83) to landscape Langley Park during his time working at Blenheim.  In 1788 Robert Bateson-Harvey bought the estate which remained in the family until 1945 when it was sold to Buckinghamshire County Council.

It’s only a stone’s through from Slough – 3km from the town centre, in fact – but you wouldn’t know it from the rural setting, with the heath and woodland of Black Park to the north and agricultural land to the south and east.

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Love Swans, by Kevin Day

Between March and June the masses of rhododendrons in Temple Gardens burst into bloom and in summer many species of butterfly chase around the heather and gorse on the open land leading down to Langley Lake, where a variety of wildfowl congregate.

Sir Robert Grenville Harvey planted the gardens in the early 20th century, apparently transporting 1600 tonnes of peat from Scotland by train to Langley Station for mulching the plants and employing local men to move the mulch by horse and cart to the garden.

The lake was originally rectangular, thought to have been created by the extraction of brick clay from the ground to build  Sir John Kederminster’s ‘Chief Lodge’ in 1710. One of the main landscape features influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s was the creation of a longer, serpentine-shaped lake.

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Pincer Tree, by Jerry Lake

The Arboretum is a fine collection of specimen trees and gardens running around the outside of the walled garden, which originally was a kitchen garden for the residents of Langley Mansion where they grew their own fruit and vegetables.

The western stretch of the arboretum is known as ‘Queen’s Walk’ because Queen Victoria used to pass through the arboretum when visiting Sir Robert Bateson-Harvey.

Nowadays the former royal hunting ground provides the perfect base for family days out, with trail guides, an orienteering course and conservation volunteer days, as well as a varied events programme.

Parkland trees range from English oaks to Wellingtonia and Cedar of Lebanon – and there’s a history trail produced by the Heritage Lottery Funded Friends of Langley Park, an organisation which also boasts a wonderful gallery of pictures, some of which are featured here.

The Park Pictures photostream on Flickr includes around 50 superb pictures taken by local photographers Kevin Day and Jerry Lake in 2009 and the Friends website includes details of how to contact these photographers.

The park is open daily from 8.15am. Accessible toilets and baby changing facilities are located in the cafe. More information from the website or call 01753 511060.

 

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Winter Sunshine, by Andrew Knight

 

 

Park for all seasons

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With 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space, Black Park Country Park near Slough really does have something to suit everyone.

It’s the perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.

The surfacing is subtle and non-intrusive, so it still feels as if you are at one with nature, but it does make the park a little less muddy in winter than most footpaths.

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And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.

Although the 14-acre lake and popular San Remo cafe tend to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

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As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.

While the lake is a haven for waterfowl – ranging from grebes, coots and moorhens to the pretty mandarin ducks – under the water bream, pike, roach and perch swim. The other habitats provide a home for an intriguing cross-section of wildlife, from grass snakes to lizards, although you may have to be sharp-eyed to spot them.

A number of information boards provide a “habitat trail” with information about some of the less familiar flora and fauna which visitors can look out for.

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A year-round attraction with accessible toilets and baby-changing facilities, the park hosts a range of special events and activities from night walks to Easter Egg hunts.

There’s seasonal fishing on the lake, off-road cycling and Go Ape adventures for more ambitious souls wanting to take to the treetops.

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One-off events are publicised on the park’s website and Facebook page, with April highlights including a den-building day and outdoor activities for toddlers. Picnics are encouraged but fires and barbecues are not permitted.

The park is open daily from 8am and closing times are seasonal and displayed in the car parks and on the main website.

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For more information use the links above or call 01753 511060.

Miniature mariners

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It’s great to see tiny sailing boats out on the Black Park lake – and other marvellous scale models like this little rowing boat.

The figures look so lifelike it’s sometimes hard to believe you are looking at models, unless there are a couple of ducks around to help put everything in perspective…

The park is home to the Black Park Model Boat Club, a friendly, non-competitive club which is open to new members at any time and covers all aspects of model boating from yachts to scale models.

The club uses the lake at Black Park on Thursday afternoons from 12pm and Sunday mornings. The park itself is signposted from the A412 between Slough and Iver Heath and  has toilets and cafés.

Once a year there is a whole-day regatta at the lake where other clubs are invited and money raised for a local charity.

For more information turn up at the lakeside on sailing days and ask for Frank or Alan, or e-mail the secretary at: secretary@blackparkmodelboatclub.org.uk.

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