Pensthorpe Wildlife & Gardens is the glorious conservation park in Norfolk, UK, where WildRootz, a custom-made ‘nature theme park’ for children, offers a glorious family day out with rivers in which to build dams, wild dens for playing in, stunningly designed forts for hiding in, as well as super slippery slides and spidery climbing ropes.
The two-acre outdoor activity area sits at the edge of Pensthorpe’s gorgeous woodland and park, and has over 30 different play spaces that have been designed to encourage children to play and explore natural habitats. The outstanding landscape and designs include hills, tunnels and burrows, trees to climb, shallow streams to wade through, a sandpit area for younger visitors, as well as the adrenaline pumping Worm – a giant 11-metre-tall winding slide tower – and a Flyway zip wire. There are muddy puddles for messing about in, as well as a Spider Play rope climbing area, an Arty Party Barn for cooler weather activities, a Little Beetles zone with bugs for toddlers to drive and clamber over that have been carved from huge slabs of timber, as well as a giant See Saw.
On a sunny day, the immaculately manicured grassy knolls are the perfect place to sit and enjoy an idyllic picnic while children romp about building dams, dens and nests, stomping through muddy puddles, slipping down enormous twirly slides or clambering through tunnels and over ropes
Almost-three-year-old Oliver’s favourite activity was most definitely the building of dams in the shallow stream that meanders in the shadow of The Rookery – the dramatic architectural ‘fort’ that sits at the heart of the play space. He happily carted logs twice his size, hoisted rocks into place in the structure, and generally learnt the art of cooperative activities with half a dozen children of ages ranging from toddler to tween while knee deep in the gentle stream. It reminded me of my own childhood, picnicking by and playing in New Zealand’s rivers. Considering we live in the heart of London, that was no small feat! Of course, the experience is a much safer version of ‘playing in rivers’ than my own childhood, but with that came the reassurance that I could simply sit back and enjoy our picnic without worrying that Oliver might find his way into deep water and require me to plunge in after him.
Beyond WildRootz’ fabulous offerings, Pensthorpe Park & Garden also offers range of experiences for all the family with discovery trails and ‘stamping stations’ where children can ‘collect’ bugs, beetles and birds they discover as they explore the grounds. There are gardens, wetlands, Conservation Trust areas, wildflower meadows, farmland and woodland, as well as the Millennium Garden by one of Europe’s leading garden designers – Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf. So whether you choose to try your hand at pond-dipping, wander around the lakes and trails, investigate the numerous endangered and vulnerable species rescue projects, or simply have a picnic in one of the beautiful hidden spaces around the gardens, you will have a perfectly glorious family day in nature – weather permitting!
If you’re visiting with a baby, there are also designated paths for pushchairs. Picnic benches are dotted around the site so that you can unpack your picnic in style, even if you forgot the rug. At 4 o’clock each day, the rangers feed the birds that have made Pensthorpe their home. And, as this reserve is a breeding site for many rare or threatened species, this gives children the opportunity to meet breeds they may never get to see anywhere else in the world.
Established by Bill Makins, the park is now owned by Bill and Deborah Jordan of Jordans cereals; you might even get to meet Deborah, as she is very involved with all the day-to-day running of the Park.
Why go: For a wonderful day of nature and play in a space that has been custom-made for kids, but set inside a truly ‘wild’ garden park that offers all ages an opportunity to enjoy the UK’s native flowers, meadows, birdlife and wildlife that you may struggle to encounter elsewhere. It’s also one of the gardens included in the bucket list book 1001 Gardens To See Before You Die…
Who is it best for: Toddlers through tweens (and indeed grandparents) – there is something here for all ages, although the younger set, up to about 8, will probably find they can happily spend an entire morning or afternoon playing in WildRootz, while older children might be happy with an hour or two of play. Grandparents will probably prefer wandering the vast garden of Pensthorpe, experiencing the beauty of the meadows and the fabulous and surprising sculptures that are peppered throughout the gardens. You can then all meet up for a picnic in the middle of the day.
Top tip: This isn’t something to do as a day trip from London. Instead, make it a long weekend holiday in Norfolk. Also, it is best to plan this for a relatively warm day or your kids will be frozen from the feet up after a few minutes of play in the somewhat chilly waters!
Facilities: A cafe, toilets, change tables in the women’s toilet and a shop with everything from buckets and spades (for nearby Holkham Beach) to wildlife identity charts and binoculars.
Highlights for kids: Depends on the age group, but simply being able to mess about in the beautifully designed ‘rivers’ with sticks and logs, slide down massive curly slippery slides and explore dens and cubby houses is enough; add to that the self-guided adventures awaiting in Pensthorpe itself and you certainly have something for everyone.
While in the area: Head over to Holkham Beach for more outdoor play on the famously wide strip of sandy beach before stopping in for a bite at The Victoria.