A breath of fresh air in Brentwood: Exploring Thorndon Country Park
PUBLISHED: 15:50 11 January 2019
Petra Hornsby extols the virtues of exercising in the Essex countryside and blowing away the winter cobwebs by getting out and exploring Brentwood
Things can feel a bit flat in January after all the festivities and fun of Christmas. Winter really does seem like winter and there’s a long road ahead before the lighter days and the return of green leaves and blossom. It is a time also for feeling a little under-exercised and fuller figured, and for some a time to struggle with low mood.
But it doesn’t have to be this way and there is in fact a common sense solution. Why not don your warmest winter coat, hat and gloves and hit the great outdoors, but this time avoid the high streets and shopping malls?
It is understood that walking in the cold weather can help burn extra calories due to the body working harder to maintain heat. Exercise releases endorphins which give a sense of euphoria, vital for those suffering from depression triggered by the darker days. And nobody needs a piece of scientific research to know that getting the blood pumping helps us to feel better and look better.
Of course, the great thing about walking is that all ages can take part and it is a great family activity. For those who are physically unable to exercise, just being outdoors for a spell of time, especially in the winter sunshine, can be a real boost, particularly in terms of getting the vitamin D our bodies need. Just remember, with any new exercise regime, it is important to have advice from your GP.
Walking in a country park is a very user-friendly way for people who live in towns and cities to access the outdoors and to get moving. People local to Brentwood are extremely fortunate to have Thorndon County Park on their doorstep.
The park, managed by Essex County Council, has 500 glorious acres which include walking trails, bridleways and places for cyclists too. The area is rich in diverse habitats and a perfect place to see wildlife.
The park is divided into north and south. The north part, which surrounds the Childerditch pond, is at its finest perhaps in spring when the woodland floor is carpeted in bluebells and anemones. Many migrant and over-wintering birds, such as bramblings, siskins and redpolls, can be spotted here.
This part of the park also features one of its best-loved attractions, The Gruffalo Trail. Inspired by the popular children’s book by Julia Donaldson, the self-led trail is a perfect way to get the whole family outside, spotting the hand-crafted characters from the book.
Push-chair friendly, it takes about 45 minutes and maps can be purchased from the visitor centre next to the Thorndon North car park, proceeds from which help to maintain the trail.
The south part of the park is a great place for picnics in the summer, but why not risk a winter picnic and the chance to take in views made all the clearer by winter-bare trees? Dog walkers can also make their way to the free to use dog agility equipment and put their dog’s ability and obedience to the test.
Trails throughout the whole park are clearly marked and there are many surfaced pathways for pushchairs and wheelchair use. A good winter stretch is the Wildside Walk, which is approximately five miles long and takes in the varied landscapes and aspects of the park including ponds, deer pasture, woodland and grasslands.
All the county’s parklands must be carefully managed and maintained. Neil Bruce, one of the Thorndon Park rangers, explains the approach behind the work.
“We are customer focused in what we do,” says Neil. “The park needs to suit the needs of the people who use it. This includes the upkeep of the trails and pathways and making sure things are marked and signed clearly. There is forestry work that goes on throughout the year, but it is done gradually and doesn’t interfere with the daily use of the park.”
What does Neil feel is the attraction of visiting the park in winter?
“The long circular walks are on mostly surfaced paths, so they can be enjoyed all year round and provide the long views across to Kent, Sussex and London. We are open 365 days of the year and have many visitors here, even on Christmas Day.”
The park really is family friendly and parents can sign up their under fives to take part in the Forest School, where building dens, nature activities, crafts and imaginative play are on offer. The school is an exciting way for youngsters to learn about the outdoors, wildlife and teamwork by having fun and possibly getting a little muddy in the process, but what child doesn’t like that?
Grown-ups needn’t miss out either as Essex County Parks are always grateful for volunteers to help assist them and the rangers in maintaining the parklands. They provide all the tools and there are jobs for people of all ages and abilities.
The Countryside Centre, situated in the North Park, is jointly owned and managed by Essex Wildlife Trust. The shop sells gifts, cards and books and there is a café serving light refreshments.
Aisla Roberts has managed The Countryside Centre for three years and is passionate about what the park and the centre provide for visitors.
“The park here is an amazing way to get kids out of the house and exploring the world outside in a safe environment. It is a general introduction where young people can start to connect to nature. The park is not just great for families, it is a multi-use space for dog walkers and running groups.
“Cyclists and horse riders, me included, can find using the roads, especially in winter, quite hazardous. Thorndon Country Park offers a safe, off-road alternative. Overall it is a lovely place to escape the hustle and bustle of life, boosting our health, including our mental health and well-being.
“Our centre here is a welcoming place for those wanting to reward their physical exertions with a warming drink, hot bowl of soup or jacket potato, scone or delicious homemade cake. Children can have a Gruffalo biscuit and we even have organic, handmade biscuits for your dog, made by local business the Bow Wow Pantry.”
Open all year, except for Christmas Day, the centre also runs some excellent events that are both informative and fun.
For example, on January 18 they are holding a Birds of Prey and Reptile evening and in February half term there are two workshops for children, Bird Box Building and Bug Box Building.
What better excuse to now add in a resolution for 2019 to exercise, explore nature, volunteer or simply just get outdoors and feel better for it? Our county’s parks are waiting for you!
Find Out More
For more information on Forest School and events organised by the Essex Wildlife Trust at Thorndon and other locations, visit essexwt.org.uk or call The Countryside Centre on 01277 232944.
For information on events organised by Essex County Parks, visit visitparks.co.uk