In June alone, the park lists 20 separate events — almost all of them free. "The park has always been special. But we’ve tried to make sure that it gets the most possible use," says Paul Vickers countryside sites manager for Colchester Borough Council.
The council reckons that each year anything up to 200,000 people use the park, which covers 150 hectares. The Green Flag Award recognises the park’s efforts to maximise community involvement. "We have hundreds of people on Halloween walks and New Year’s walks. But we have dawn-chorus walks and bat-spotting events that attract groups of 50," says Vickers. He adds that one of the attractions of the early-morning events is that the price of admission — usually £5 — includes a cooked English breakfast.
In addition to activities run by the park, the park management has welcomed a variety of outside groups that host events. These include charitable walks, dogathons and some local history re-enactments.
The park has built up a group of 60 or 70 volunteers, with the grand title of the Colchester Countryside Volunteer Rangers, who wear distinctive sweatshirts and who lead walks or help out in the visitor centre.
Park management has worked hard to create an interesting habitat that reflects the history of the area. The woodlands, for example, were commercially coppiced until the late 1950s. The park now uses a commercial arboriculture company, alongside volunteers, to coppice the woods. The wood obtained is used for firewood, chipping, carving and wood-turning.
Community gardens were set up in 2007 with a Heritage Lottery grant, which helped pay for a gardener and equipment. The gardens are used for growing fruit and vegetables, which helpers are allowed to take home. The gardens are used for school visits and by the local Primary Care Trust for horticultural therapy — primarily for people with learning difficulties or mental illness.
The Green Flag Award Scheme insists that holders of the award should show constant improvement. Over the past year, High Woods Country Park has added a pond and a decking platform to its community gardens. These features were intended primarily to make the park more useful as a teaching resource for local schools.
For the next few years there are plans to resurface the car park, revamp the signs and public information boards and extend the visitor centre. "It is a very well-valued local park," says Vickers. "We’ve had a great deal of public support and we’ve won the political support of the local council. What we’ve achieved is a result of consistent management and gradual improvement."