“ Address: Gravel Hill, Horndean PO8 0QE. „
On an unusually mild Saturday afternoon in January, when there was even a little sunshine, we decided to visit Queen Elizabeth Country Park, not far south of the Hampshire town of Petersfield. The park covers around 1,400 acres of downland and woodland within the South Downs National Park. It opened in 1976, although I can well remember going for walks on Butser Hill and through the forests of Holt Down and War Down as a child, and they now make up the main areas of the park. Situated right beside the A3 Portsmouth to London road and clearly sign-posted, the country park is not difficult to find. At about 2pm it was easy to find a space in the car park, but bear in mind that this was January. In warmer weather it might be advisable to arrive earlier to find a space.
We were intending to follow one of the woodland trails but decided to stop at the cafe and have a hot drink first. They serve Fair Trade tea, hot chocolate and a variety of coffees, and we were also tempted by their chunky slices of homemade flapjack at £1.50 a piece. They do lunches too and use locally sourced ingredients. We chose to sit indoors, but there are plenty of picnic tables outside as well, and even on that January afternoon quite a few people were enjoying the fresh air there.
We didn't linger too long in the cafe as there were only about two hours of full daylight left. Consulting the map near the visitor centre, we decided to follow the shorter of two woodland trails, a distance of 1.9 miles. The map shows how the trails are marked along the routes; the one we chose was indicated every so often by a wooden post with a green footprint painted on it. There are other signposts too, some of them quite a bit older, as the some of the paths form part of the South Downs Way and other longer walks. One or two of the routes are suitable for cars, but most of the trails are footpaths. On the whole they are broad and make for easy walking; there were, however, one or two muddy patches even though the weather had been dry for several days, so you do need to have suitable footwear. Our trail was a little uphill, but stretches of it were on the level. There were no stiles to negotiate or gates to open and shut. Even though we didn't climb to any height and were following a forest trail, there were beautiful views of the surrounding hills of the South Downs, including Windmill Hill. I just had to keep stopping to take photographs. I enjoyed it more than my last visit to the New Forest as I felt there was more variety with the combination of forest and downland. Most of the forest consists of pines, but there are also beech and hazel trees brightened up in winter by areas of yellow gorse. We saw a few other walkers on the way, including one or two with dogs - one extremely large but friendly one (dog, that is)! Again, I have to stress that this was January, and I'm not sure how busy the trails are on warm summer days.
When we left the car park we decided to follow Forest Drive, thinking it would be a more scenic way to find our way back to the main road. As it turned out, it wasn't a way out at all but a road up to the top of either Holt Down or War Down, I'm not sure which. I noticed that it was possible to park up there, so anyone who is unable or unwilling to walk can get to the top of one of the downs and enjoy the view. With heights of 801 feet for War Down and 655 feet for Holt Down, these are of course gentle rolling hills, but the countryside is delightful if not spectacular.
For those who prefer open downland to woodland trails, a walk up Butser Hill would be the answer. At 889 feet, Butser is the highest point in the South Downs. The hill is a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Specific Scientific Interest. More than thirty species of butterflies have been observed on Butser Hill, as well as over two hundred species of liverwort, lichen and moss. There is a kiosk at the top selling drinks and snacks, and baby-changing facilities and a disabled toilet are also situated there.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park is located 4 miles south of Petersfield on the A3 road, and it is open all year round. The cafe opens at 9am and the visitor centre at 10am. Closing time is 4.30pm in winter and 5.30pm in summer. The park has disabled access and three disabled toilets in different locations. Baby-changing facilities are also available. There is pay and display parking for cars and coaches; the fee for cars is £1 for an hour or £2 for a day.
The park is situated on a hill, and walks of either 1.9 and 5 miles may be made through woodland. In addition, there is a downland trail 1.7 miles long. It is possible to take part in a guided walk, starting at the visitor centre. Longer walks include Staunton Way to Staunton Country Park, 8.5 miles away, and Hangers Way to Alton, a distance of 21.1 miles. The South Downs Way, a hundred mile walk from Winchester to Eastbourne, passes through the park. There are also two trails suitable for mountain bikes; the trail for novices is 3.7 miles long, while the advanced trail is just over 3 miles. In addition, two ten-mile cycling trails begin in the park but go beyond it. There is a six-mile forest trail for horse riding. On Butser Hill, paragliding, hang-gliding and model gliding can be arranged.
There is an outdoor Tots Play Area for children under eight, as well as the Juniper Play Area for older children. Lazer games are available for parties and corporate events. There are meadows where it is possible to hire a hearth with a table for either a picnic or barbecue. Rooms as well as two fields are available for private hire, and one of the rooms has a projector, screen and seating. Inside the visitor centre is a gift shop selling maps, outdoor clothing and sweets among other things.
If you rely on public transport, the nearest railway station is Petersfield. From there, the number 37 Stagecoach bus travels past the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Coming from the south, the 37 bus departs from Havant and travels via Waterlooville, but the bus journey from Havant would be quite a lengthy one.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park is well worth a visit, especially as you can choose your level of activity. You might just want to walk the dog or give the children a chance to let off steam in the fresh air. On the other hand, you could set off on an ambitious walk or cycle ride, or perhaps go horse riding. If the heavens open, you can take cover in the cafe with a hot drink or have a browse around the gift shop. As an outdoor attraction, it is among the best that central southern England has to offer.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park
Tel. 23 9259 5040