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Larks in the park

A Surrey landscape with a chequered past has found new fortunes. Bernard Adams reports

Last summer, some 2,000 primary pupils came to Painshill park, near Cobham in Surrey, for the week-long Midsummer Fantasy. This summer, there will probably be even more. But no matter - there will be plenty of room for them in its 160 magnificent acres.

The park's designer, Charles Hamilton, was a decade older than Lancelot Brown and created his "picturesque" landscapes in the late 1730s, even before the great "Capability".

In 2003, 100,000 adults and children followed Hamilton's trail, winding through woods, by a lake, over bridges, and into ruins and grottoes. But the park is a living example of how narrow the margin can be between the survival and the destruction of an historic landscape. After the great designer was forced to sell his house and estate in the 1770s, a succession of private owners cared for it until the late 1940s. The estate was then divided and the mansion separated from the park. The lake silted up, the gothic temple crumbled, the Chinese bridge rotted. Thirty years of neglect almost saw the end of Hamilton's legacy.

But to the rescue in 1981 came the Painshill Park Trust, set up by Elmbridge Council, which had shown great foresight in buying 158 acres of the estate the previous year. Restoration of the park has continued ever since.

There is a huge variety of scenery - almost Alpine at one end, rolling meadows at the other. There is also a blend of lake, bridges, paths and trees that is absolutely breathtaking. A full tour would take three hours, but even mini-tours can be rewarding. School parties are fascinated by the grotto, built on two islands in the lake, with its strange, pitted stone and its artificial stalactites. The vineyard is also popular.

But the Midsummer Fantasy is the biggest education event of the year. It is most popular with Key Stage 1 pupils. They can do pond-dipping or go on a mini-beast safari. They can make kites, play environmental games or create willow-pattern plates. Lunch, in good weather, is taken at picnic tables set among the trees.

When I was there, pupils watched one of the Cat's Grin Theatre Company's several performances of fairytales.

Jane Dyer, head of Ewhurst CE Infants School, in Surrey, brought the whole school: 70 pupils in all.

"We don't like to make the coach journey too long, and this was only 40 minutes for us," she says. "What enriched the day was the drama. Normally, we can't afford shows with professional actors, but the fairytales were very appropriate for KS1.

"The day wasn't cheap, but the mixture of the drama, the trail and the activities made it very good value, and the event was well planned. The children's artwork afterwards showed how much they'd enjoyed the trail - it's a very creative place to go."

Painshill's education manager Ian Hartwright wants to boost participation by older primary pupils in the midsummer event. In 2004, he included a special drama, Those Tudor Days and Tudor Knights, for KS2. The show offers a funny and thought-provoking approach to events during the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI and Queens Mary and Elizabeth.

There is plenty on offer over the rest of the year, too, including activities in KS3-4 map-skills to post-16 studies in travel and tourism.

Ian Hartwright also wants teachers to have more say in the content of visits.

"To do this, we've organised open days, held on Sundays at regular intervals," he says. "Teachers can come, free, to look at what the park has to offer and to discuss various educational opportunities - and, of course, a tasting of Painshill's award-winning wines is included."

For more details, contact Harriet Smith or Ian Hartwright: telephone 01932 868113;

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