I grew up among the birds and bulrushes of Pensthorpe Natural Park. It was one of those places that we went as a family when we weren’t sure what to do at the weekend or in the school holidays. My childhood memories are scattered with images of feeding ducks from its bridges; pond-dipping in its Millennium Garden; marvelling at the cranes, storks, and flamingos that seemed so exotic for their Norfolk wetland surroundings. Most magical of all was simply trying to stay as quiet and still as possible in its bird hides. I was lucky: it was here that I saw my first kingfisher.
Pensthorpe’s combination of nature, wildlife, education, and play earned it the accolade of Norfolk’s Best Large Attraction in both 2014 and 2015. If you happen to be in Norfolk and it’s not raining, it’s well worth the visit; here’s why.
Pensthorpe Natural Park has Bill Makins to thank for its inception, after he designed a process for sustainable gravel extraction which led to the creation of an incredibly biodiverse 200-acre nature reserve in the 1980s. It was then purchased in 2003 by Bill and Deb Jordan, who you might know as the owners of Jordans Cereals. The Jordans re-launched the Park and founded the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust to support habitat management and restoration, as well as conservation of endangered species. Between 2008 and 2010, it played host to the ever-popular BBC show, Springwatch.
Today, Pensthorpe is home to hundreds of birds and mammals; some of these stay all year round, while others just come for a season. Its ‘Actively Saving Species’ programmes support the conservation of turtle doves, cranes, corncrakes, and even red squirrels – and visitors are encouraged to get involved by learning about the different animals, and even feeding the resident ducks and geese.
Getting to Pensthorpe & Prices
Pensthorpe is best reached by car. It sits about a mile out of the town of Fakenham in North Norfolk, with the postcode NR21 OLN. There is a free car park with designated disabled parking.
It is also reachable by bus; the X29 Norfolk Yellow bus stops in both directions (to and from Norwich) about a five-minute walk away from the Natural Park. This line runs approximately every hour. From Norwich this journey will cost £4 for a single adult ticket, with different fares available for young people and families (more info on the above link), or from other stops. The nearest train stations are Norwich and Kings Lynn, both about 25 miles away, so additional travel would be necessary from either of these locations.
Entry prices to Pensthorpe vary depending on the time of year. Generally Park entrance is £12.95 for adults and £11.95 for children (3-16) and over-60s, but throughout January tickets are £3 cheaper. Tickets also cost slightly less when booked online, which must be done at least one day in advance of your visit. Free entrance is also available to one essential carer when accompanying a full paying person who is physically or mentally impaired.
The Park also offers an annual membership pass, which includes unlimited entry and further discounts in the gift shop and catering outlets for one year; if you’re local and want to visit more than five times in the year, this is worth the £60 price tag. Further ticket information is available here.
What to See & Do
Pensthorpe was originally established as a nature reserve, and so no visit is complete without exploring the Park and its varied habitats including woodland, farmland, and wildflower meadows. The main path from the gift shop and visitor centre takes you over a bridge and one of the park’s main lakes; it’s always lined by some of the Park’s inquisitive resident ducks and geese. Bird feed is available from the shops and the Park’s staff are happy for visitors to feed the waterfowl straight from your hand, if you wish. Hand sanitising facilities are available for when you’re done.
Pensthorpe is a birdwatcher’s dream, featuring seven bird hides which look over a variety of different habitats. Not only can you spot garden and woodland favourites such as woodpeckers, bullfinches, wrens, and robins; at the Park’s Wader Scrape hide you can see avocets, oystercatchers, kingfishers, and more. Birds of prey including marsh harriers, red kites, buzzards, and sparrowhawks also frequent the area. The Park’s more unusual birds are also well worth a visit; the cranes with their watchful grace have always been a real favourite of mine, and you can’t not love the flamingos. Binoculars are advised if you own a pair; if not, they are available to buy or loan from the shop (loaning costs £5 for the day plus a returnable deposit of £10).
Fans of flora and fauna can enjoy the Park’s four gardens, all designed by award-winning designers and giving plenty for kids to explore. Also for children is Pensthorpe’s Sculpture Trail, which features eight different sculptures dotted around the Park for you to tick off on the guide. They help keep kids engaged while exploring the Park’s trails.
Pensthorpe’s approach to children is nature-centric. Entrance to their two purpose-built adventure play areas, WildRootz and HootzHouse, are included in the admission fee for the whole Park, to encourage families to make the most of what the whole Reserve has to offer rather than just using the play areas. That being said, the two play areas are highly commendable: WildRootz is a 7000m2 adventure play area set outdoors within natural surroundings, created to help ‘reconnect children with the natural world’, while Hootz House is a large indoor play area designed to provide ‘wildlife orientated play activity’. The latter has also won two local awards for the sustainability and inclusivity of its design and features.
During the spring and summer, visitors can board the Pensthorpe Explorer, an educational trailer tour around the wider estate, much of which is not accessible on foot. There is an additional cost to this at £4 per adult and £3 per child. Finally, every day at 4pm the Park hosts a 30-minute bird feed and talk, which introduces attendees to the resident birds from the warmth of the viewing gallery.
Pensthorpe hosts events throughout the year, including summer and Christmas markets and an annual Bird and Wildlife Fair every May, while also offering volunteer opportunities to members of the public who live locally and want to support the Park more actively.
Access & Amenities
Pensthorpe has a very comprehensive Accessibility Statement, which is really useful if you or someone in your party has any additional needs. Assistance dogs are permitted in the Reserve, but all other dogs can only enter the courtyard and the Cafe so as not to risk the welfare of the Park’s birds.
Food is available in a number of places around the site, but the primary catering outlet is the Courtyard Cafe. All catering outlets have step-free access, and all diets can be catered for. There are seven wheelchair accessible toilets around the site, and five sets of standard loos.
Wheelchairs themselves are available to loan for free, but only on a first-come, first-served basis. The site’s paths are a mixture of gravel, tarmac, grass, and boardwalks; wheelchair- and pushchair-friendly routes are marked out on the Park map. Some areas can get muddy, so if you’re walking it’s well worth wearing shoes that can cope with this!
All in all…
I absolutely can’t recommend Pensthorpe enough to anyone who’s in the area. It’s rare to find somewhere that truly does have something for everyone, but there are very few for whom Pensthorpe does not cater. It’s a truly magical place for children and adults alike, and its lakes, hides and birds never fail to return me to my childhood joy. If you’re looking for a tranquil place to help you (re)connect with nature, this really is it. Norfolk is incredibly lucky to have it.