We used to go to Escot quite a lot when the children were smaller, as they loved the freedom to roam around the woods, climb the giant trees and explore the fantastic woodland playground, but to be honest I assumed they’d outgrown it, so when the opportunity arose to go and see the recent developments there, I jumped at the chance.
Since being taken over by Wildwood, as well as the wetlands, adventure play, beech maze, indoor soft play and falconry displays of the last few years, they are adding a new emphasis on once-native British wildlife; this may sound a bit bland until you realise this means such charismatic predators as wolves, lynxes, and British wildcats. The wolves are arriving soon, and will be on show from early summer, and the pine martens are yet to arrive, but the lynxes and wildcats are already there, and there is an impressive herd (or ‘sounder’, apparently) of wild boar.
One of the first things you encounter on arriving, after a very nicely stocked gift shop, is the Asian Short-clawed Otters. These are really active, playful and, with feeding time coming, vocal – they made some lovely hungry squeaks whilst waiting for the keeper, who gave a short talk at feeding time as they performed beautifully frolicking in the water and chasing each other over logs and rocks. The lynx and wildcat, however, were not so obliging: unfortunately the weather today was what can best be described as ‘bracing’ – freezing cold, on & off snow, and low light levels, (so I apologise for any murky photographs). Both types of cats were warmly tucked up somewhere cosy, and we carried on past the primitive and quite feisty wild boar to the drop slide.
This is a fantastic structure, all built from timber off the estate, and it nestles in the woodland looking quite enchanting – that is, until you get close and see just how high it is! We have spent many an hour here in the past with the children at the top and me waiting at the bottom, only for them to chicken out and come back down the steps! Today – well, same again, actually. There are a few of these beautiful timber creations in the woods, including the spiders web climbing frame, a pirate ship and a quirky little tree-house that the Swiss Family Robinson would be proud of. You can see throughout the whole park that someone has been allowed to have a lot of fun with wood – creating, building, carving & embellishing.
Although well-kept and tidy, Escot is not a perfectly primped and preened landscape, and that is what I think makes it so attractive to both children and wildlife (the birds flitting around the woodlands and borders are noticeably abundant); there are some fantastic fallen trees for clambering on and twisted, gnarled rhododendrons for exploring. I can imagine that especially for children who don’t have daily access to wilder outdoor spaces this must be a chance to let their legs and their imaginations run riot.
Unfortunately, due to bird flu regulations, the birds of prey were confined to their cages today, and won’t be flying at half term, but they can still be seen, and are well worth a visit, ranging from the delicate, dainty little kestrel to the giant and majestic Eagle Owls.
To get up close and personal, there are feeding sessions with the otters and squirrels, but in the walk-through squirrel enclosure, they were so busy going about their business that they completely ignored us and we got to watch them really close up for as long as we wanted to: they just run around, and if you happen to be in the way, they run right by you! They are enchanting; much daintier than greys, and always busy, up trees, on the ground, running around the feeding stations or posing for photos!
To raise awareness of their conservation work and support their breeding programme half term (11-19th Feb) is ‘Adopt an Animal’ week, when you can adopt a squirrel, and younger children can take part in a welly walk, hunting for mini beasts & pond-dipping. All year round, you can book birthday parties, and schools can do anything from a day visit with forest school activities in the Greenwood Centre in the Saxon Village, to a residential in the yurt village, taking in night hikes, bat detecting, campfire cooking and astronomy.
As my husband & I met doing medieval history at uni, we were keen to visit the Saxon village. There are several buildings of different designs, including a hall-sized one which I guess is used as the outdoor classroom, a cob-walled forge and a sunken hut, with eaves that reach the ground and living quarters cut below ground level. As I said, it was bitterly cold today, but in the buildings with fires going, it was quite a pleasant respite from the cold. The huts are really interesting close up, with timber pegged roofs thatched with straw, heather, sod or rushes, and there are lots of skins, antlers, carvings etc which give it a really lived-in feel. I think we both felt it could use a bit of explanation somehow – it would have been good to know what each building was an example of, where & when from, etc. I don’t like a day out that seems like a school trip, but if you’re going to go to all the trouble of building such authentic structures, you may as well help people appreciate what’s involved and why!
One place my two used to LOVE, but are now just too big for, is the indoor play barn; this is a typical soft play area, with ball pit, multi-level play equipment and a space for adults to sit back and have a coffee and let the children go mad.
They were not too old for the maze, however. This is an impressive size, with pretty substantial beech hedges which make it impossible to see where you’re going, and the bridges over the top only really serve to either frustrate you more or let you laugh at lost friends! They loved it, but I have a word of advice from years gone by; make sure young children go to the loo BEFORE you get lost in the maze – trust me, it’s worth it!
We finished with a hot chocolate & some excellent cakes in the Courtyard Cafe, which serves nice-looking lunches and has an emphasis on local, seasonal produce.
It’s a shame the weather was really not conducive to lounging around today, but we still had a great day, and on a warm sunny day when you could make the most of the picnic benches, play in the woods all day and explore the extensive paths and boardwalks in the wetlands at your leisure, you could spend all day there quite happily. If you really love it you can get an annual membership, which allows you to go back as often as you like, which would be a great option for easy entertainment and family fresh air. Looking back, my photos are all a bit brown, as today was a dark & snowy day, but there were azaleas and rhododendrons just coming into flower, and carpets of snowdrops, daffodils and crocuses just a sunny day or two away from a riot of colour.
As I said, the beauty of Escot is the balance between the organised, man-made fun of the playground and the maze, the animals, and also the bits in between – the open grassy spaces for lounging and the woods for exploring and free play. I think children love it because of the freedom, and parents love it because children love it!