Sitting on the edge of the Leigh Park housing estate, Staunton Country Park is an oasis of countryside tranquillity, set in very urban surroundings.
‘I don’t know anywhere else like Staunton. It’s so uniquely situated,’ says Gemma Summerfield, education and communications manager for the park.
‘It’s strange to find somewhere like this by an estate, but it means that we develop a really close connection to the local community.’
The country park is a 1,000 -acre stretch of land that also includes Leigh Park Gardens and used to be part of an estate whose history dates back almost 200 years.
‘The official title of the park is Sir George Staunton Country Park,’ says Gemma.
‘Sir George Staunton II bought the estate because he had come out of working for the East Indian Trading Company and he wanted to go into politics.
‘To do that he needed to have some status, so he bought this estate in 1819 to prove that he was wealthy.
‘The estate used to be a lot bigger than it is today and it used to include parts of what is now Leigh Park. Sir George even relocated Petersfield Road because it split part of his parkland, which showed his influence at the time.’
As an avid botanist, Sir George set about developing the estate, bringing his passion to life in the country home’s grounds.
Gemma says: ‘Sir George transformed the park. He dug the lake in Leigh Park Gardens, which took 10 years to finish, and because he was a botanist he built the gardens.
‘He did a lot of planting with the head gardener and had good connections with Kew Gardens.
‘He was big news in the horticultural world, but his real claim to fame was bringing the giant Amazon water lily here.’
Sir George was one of the first people to successfully cultivate the giant Amazon water lily in the UK. The rare plant still flowers today during the summer months in Staunton’s green house, one of several listed buildings and follies constructed by Sir George on the site.
Alongside his horticultural hobbies, Sir George also created an ornamental farm on the estate and animals remain a large part of the country park’s appeal today.
‘The animals are a huge draw,’ says Gemma.
‘We have more than 150 animals here and people love the experience of being able to get up close to them. They can touch the animals and feed them which you can’t normally do at the zoo.
‘Originally this was an ornamental farm, which was a way of showing off the animals. There would have been all the traditional animals, horses, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.
‘Today we have some selected heritage breeds too. We have Tamworth pigs, Middle Whites and Sandy Oxford and Blacks, which are all rare breeds, and we also have Bagot goats named after Lord Bagot.
‘Even things like the shire horse we have here, its numbers are in decline because people use more tractors now.’
‘We’ve got soft and fluffy animals – guinea pigs and rabbits – and quirky animals too like llamas, alpacas and peacocks.
‘The peacocks have never been my favourite though, they always seem to upstage me when I’m teaching.’
With its wealth of history and plant and animal life Staunton offers a wide variety of learning so it’s no wonder that education is at the heart of the park’s ethos.
‘The park is a great resource for teaching,’ Gemma says.
‘We get about 12,000 children visit each year for education and in the past three years it’s been slowly increasing.
‘We work with local schools to teach them about where their food comes from, how to look after the animals, and we cover history and science too. There hasn’t been a topic yet that we’ve turned away a school for!
‘Staunton offers a range of programmes; guided tours when schools come up for a visit and learn about a particular topic, such as history, where food has come from or team building.
‘We also have self-run days and even offer passes where the whole school can come up as many times as they want throughout the year.’
Education at Staunton often takes a very hands-on approach and students have even found their work becoming part of the very fabric of the estate.
‘We did a local project called Windows Into The Past last year,’ says Gemma.
‘It was Heritage Lottery funded and we worked with a local artist and local schools; Thomas Moores, Barncroft School, Emsworth Primary and Front Lawn Juniors.
‘The children did drawings relating to George Staunton and they were made into stained glass windows in the Gothic Library.’
As well as the wide and varied learning opportunities at Staunton, Gemma thinks there is still an intrinsic value to just being outside in the fresh air.
‘There are so many things you can learn by being outside and it’s something children are missing now,’ she says.
‘In the technology age of iPhones and iPads there’s a risk of children losing touch with the outdoors.
‘I think that connection is something very important for schools to keep in their programme and it feels nice to be part of making those opportunities available.’
At a glance
WHERE: Staunton Country Park, Middle Park Way, Havant, PO9 5HB.
WHEN: Daily from 10am to 5pm (until 4pm in the winter). Closed for Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
CALL: (023) 9245 3405
ADMISSION: Adults £7.50, concessions £6.50, children (3-16) £3.50, family ticket £21.
Various membership offers also available including unlimited visit for one year for two adults and up to four children for £52.50.