Days out: My wigwam has its own computer room

At Berkshire's Look Out Discovery Park the Burgess family regularly go mountain biking, look at science exhibits and build wigwams. Nicola Swanborough reports.
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The Independent Online
Some 2,500 years ago, iron age man built a hillfort at Caesar's Camp, a densely forested area of Berkshire, now sandwiched between the M3 and M4. Constructed entirely by hand, the hillfort enclosed a network of iron age houses made from timber posts, placed one to two metres apart in a circle.

Today, just a short distance from the eroded remains of the archaeological site, is the Look Out Discovery Outpost, a "mega" hands-on science exhibition where technologically tuned-in tots to teens grapple with the laws of science, learning through play some of the basic principles behind the sophisticated advancements of the modern world.

It's light years away from the remarkable simplicity of the nearby hillfort, or so it seems. But watch young visitors leave the Outpost, pick their way across the extensive adventure play area to clamber over its perimeter fence, and the iron age instinct, hitherto buried under a web of computer software, surfaces from nowhere.

In a clearing in the wood, all part of the Look Out Discovery Park, children scavenge freshly cut lengths of timber, dragging them across the cone- covered floor with the tenacity of worker ants. The result is an ever changing landscape of wigwam-like structures: houses of ingenuity and imagination, built without supervision or instruction, nine times out of 10 based on a series of posts placed at regular intervals in a circle. Now that's mega. The craze for wigwams has evolved entirely under its own steam. Planned activities at the 26,000 acre woodland park include the science exhibition, endless nature trails, mountain bike riding, and the adventure playground. But the thirst for tepees is the product of youthful initiative combined with a ready supply of timber cut-offs from the forest, left there by coincidence rather than by design.

But beware! With the iron age instinct for domesticity comes a warrior- like territorial streak. This is tribal business and most wigwams come with pretty mean lookout guards, none of whom seem averse to pinching the roof from another tribe's wigwam, should the opportunity arise.

The visitors

Jackie Burgess from Crowthorne, Berkshire, regularly takes her three children, Rebecca, 11, Ben, eight and Jennifer, five to the Look Out Discovery Park, Bracknell, Berkshire.

Jackie: We are really lucky living so close to the Look Out. It's one of the few places where children can have some good old fashioned fun without it costing a fortune. They love building wigwams and getting grubby: there always seems to be a great team spirit involved in constructing them although there is quite a lot of rivalry between groups. The best thing about it is the children can go and play safely by themselves while the adults have a natter and a cup of coffee. They're only ever a stone's throw away but they get freedom and a sense of independence.

We don't go to the science exhibition every time although it's very good value, great fun and educational without the children realising it. We cycle and walk in the woods as much as we can. Whatever the time of year, it's always beautiful.

Rebecca: It's really nice to be able to play in the woods. We wouldn't be allowed to play in the woods near us by ourselves because it wouldn't be safe, but here there are always lots of people around. We don't really know how to build wigwams - it's just guesswork, we try all sorts of ways. Sometimes they work. I really like the Discovery Outpost too - there's lots of different challenges to try. I also like cycling in the woods.

Ben: You have to be very careful when you're building wigwams, especially of the girls. they're the ones who come and pinch your sticks when you're not looking. We've built some really good shelters although sometimes they collapse and you have to start again. It's a shame when you have to go home because someone else always comes along and knocks them down. There are tons of deer in the woods. I came here on a school trip and saw one really close up. There's a good look out tower too which you can climb, and there's a great view from the top.

Jennifer: I like cooking the food in the wigwams - chicken and beef. Sometimes I put a vase of flowers in and I make a computer room where I can do my work. A lot of the sticks for making the wigwams are very heavy so I have to drag them along. It's good when it rains because then you can shelter in your house. I hate the look out tower. I'm scared of heights.

The deal

Location: The Look Out Discovery Park is on the Nine Mile Ride, Bracknell, just off the A322, opposite the Coral Reef leisure pool. From the M3 take junction 3 and from the M4 take junction 10. Further details 01344 868222.

Opening times: the Park is open daily all year round. The Outpost opens daily from 10am - 5pm, except during Christmas week.

Cost: the woodland park and adventure play area are free. For the Outpost prices are adults pounds 3, children pounds 2, concessionary rates pounds l.75, under fives free, family ticket pounds 8. After 4pm admission is half price during term time.

Facilities: coffee shop, gift shop and toilets. Reasonably priced children's meals available, plus plenty of pocket money toys. Good range of quality, environmental gifts as opposed to tacky rubbish. Free parking.

Mountain bike hire: selection of bikes for all the family. Trailers and child seats available. Telephone 01344 772797.