Lasting landscape

30th January 2004 at 00:00
SUTTON PARK VISITORS CENTRE. Park Road, Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham B74 2YT. Tel: 0121 355 6370. Friends of Sutton Park: Tel: 0117 925 4980

A park near Birmingham is both nature reserve and national monument, offering countless opportunities for enhancing lessons. Gillian Thomas reports

Sutton Park, on the north-east edge of Birmingham, gets more than two million visitors a year, who use it for walking, cycling, jogging, birdwatching, fishing, riding, boating, flying kites and orienteering.

Traffic-free and designated as a National Nature Reserve, it has 2,400 acres of open heathland, marshes and woods, as well as seven lakes.

But the park is not just a green oasis providing refuge from Britain's second-largest city. Because of its archaeological remains, most of it is also classed as an ancient monument, making it an ideal location for schools wanting to enhance history and geography .

Jane Devitt teaches at Town Junior School in Sutton Coldfield, and has discovered the park's teaching potential. This is why her Year 3 class are marching down the gravelly remains of a Roman road known as Icknield Street. They are led by one of the park rangers, Steve Hinton, down the 2.5km stretch of straight military road which originally linked two forts.

To their delight, he gets them to jump down into the muddy ditch running alongside the road. Standing waist-high, they are clearly very impressed when he explains that Roman soldiers had dug it about 1,950 years ago to build up the road and help drain it.

"What do you think the park looked like in those days?" asks Steve. (Much the same, which surprised everyone.) "And what animals lived in it?" (Deer and hares, but not rabbits.) Jane Devitt was prompted to organise the visit by a new education pack, Walking in their Footsteps, which aims to help schools make the most of the park's long history. The pack has been designed particularly for work on key stage 2 projects relating to changes in land use of a local area. It has been produced by the Friends of Sutton Park Association and the Sutton Coldfield Civic Society in co-operation with Dr Mike Hodder, Birmingham's planning archaeologist, and the park rangers. Archaeological remains from five distinct periods are covered in the pack's main sections - Bronze Age burnt mounds, Roman roads, medieval banks and ditches, the industrial use of pools in the 18th century, and military use of the Park circa 1880-1918.

The earliest remains are six 3,000-year-old burnt mounds - low piles of heat-shattered stones that were used to create "sweat lodges", an early version of the sauna.

The park's landscape was mostly fashioned in the early 12th century when the Earl of Warwick wanted to create a deer park for hunting. The banks and ditches that still exist around much of its boundary were constructed to contain the animals.

In the 15th century, the first pools were dug out for fishing, and these were later used to serve watermills that were built for grinding corn, forging iron, sawing timber and even polishing buttons. During both world wars, the park was used for military training, as remains of old trenches and rifle ranges still bear witness.

"I'm definitely going to bring my mum and dad here on Saturday," enthused seven-year-old Hannah. "We often come to the park but usually we just go to the playground and buy candy floss at the cafe."

Walking in their Footsteps contains teachers' resources and pupils'

information pages for each of the five main periods covered, sheets for use in a timeline frieze, plus photographs and diagrams. All 150 pages are photocopiable. Also included in the pack is The Story of Sutton Coldfield by Roger Lea, and 30 copies of the walking trail leaflet. The pack iis available free to schools from Friends of Sutton Park Association, 40 Straits Road, Gornal Wood, Dudley DY3 2UN

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