British Park - Scenic trails in Israel's Heartland

British Park extends over some 10,000 acres of the Judean Plain, where you can see planted forests, natural woodland, archeological sites, breathtaking landscapes and a variety of flora and fauna of Israel.



Geographic location: Jerusalem, Judean highlands and surroundings

Identity Card



British Park. Photo: Avi Hayun.


• British Park extends over some 40,000 dunam (approx 10,000 acres) of the Judean Plain, including planted forest, natural woodland, archeological sites, landscapes and a variety of flora, and it is in the forefront of the ecological struggle to conserve open spaces in central Israel. With the help of its Friends in Britain, KKL-JNF has landscaped the park with footpaths, scenic routes, hiking trails, scenic lookouts and areas for recreational activities. Its archeological sites have been made accessible and have been incorporated into the other routes and amenities.


• Special sites in the park: Tel Azeka, Hurvat Shikalon, Mitzpe Masua, Tel Goded, the Luzit Caves, `Iyye Kidon (“Kidon Ruins”).

Facilities: Lookout, Marked path, Archeological or Historic site.

• Additional sites in the area: The Adullam Caves Park, Hurvat Atari (“The Atari Ruins”), the President’s Forest / Tzora Forest, Beit Guvrin National Park, Beit Jamal Monastery.

How to get there: British Park has a number of entrances:

1. The north gate is about a kilometer to the west of the Azeka Junction (Route no. 383).
2. Via Mitzpe Masua (Route no. 38, adjacent to kilometer marker no. 7).
3. From the park’s Scenic Route, which crosses the Srigim-Agur road (Route no. 353), adjacent to kilometer marker no. 23.
4. From opposite the entrance to Moshav Nehusha (Route no. 38) a dirt track ascends to Hurvat Tzura.
5. From west of Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, near the sheikh’s tomb – the road that links Route no. 35 to Route no. 353. 

Projects and Partners Worldwide
British Park was restored and developed thanks to
contributions from Friends of KKL-JNF in the United Kingdom.
 

About the Park


Photo: Avi Hayun.

The Judean Plain is an intermediate region situated between the Coastal Plain to the west and the Judean Hills to the east. The altitude of its hills varies from 150 to 450 meters above sea level, and geologically speaking, the plain is a syncline, i.e., a basin in which the layers of rock have folded downwards and sunk. Around 60 million years ago, in the Cenozoic era, this basin began to fill up with soft white chalk rock, which today is covered in many places with the hardened form of chalk rock known as caliche or calcrete. This upper layer, which in most places is no more than two meters deep, was dug into and tunneled by residents of the region in various different periods, and many of the caves and cisterns created in this way can still be seen today.

The plain consists of two distinct landscape units: the lower plain, to the west, where the hills are lower and separated by broad riverbeds; and the upper plain, where the valleys are deeper and the hills rise to a height of between 250 and 450 meters above sea level. British Park sits astride both these areas, as its confines include the geological fault at the foot of the range of hills from Azeka to the south of Ramat Avishur that constitutes the meeting point between the two plains. Around 25 million years ago, in the Miocene epoch, the sea began to flood this region, flattening the tops of the hills in the lower plain and creating an ancient shoreline along the boundary of the upper plain.
 
The park is situated in a climate area defined as semi-humid, where the weather is warmer than in the Judean Hills. Winter temperatures are pleasant, and only rarely fall below freezing point. The summers are hot. Average annual precipitation in the region is around 490 mm.

In antiquity, settlement in the plain was well developed. The population’s main sources of water were the wells and cisterns hewn into the soft chalk rock that are among the characteristic features of the area. British Park is situated in an ecological corridor of contiguous land that links different flora and fauna habitats and allows animals and seeds to pass from one region to another. Apart from nature reserves and parks, this area includes unprotected stretches of open ground and it is this varied combination that allows the local ecological system to continue to function.

Plants


Carob trees. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik.

Although little natural woodland remains in most of the Judean Plain, British Park has managed to conserve reasonably extensive areas of natural vegetation. The lower plain areas in the west of the park are covered with open woodland consisting mainly of large carob trees interspersed with mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) and buckthorn (Rhamnus palaestinus). An excellent example of this type of woodland can be seen near `Iyye Kidon, where cattle graze on the grassy vegetation that flourishes on this open ground.
 
The slopes around Ramat Avishur are covered in a dense well-developed woodland of Israeli common oak (Quercus calliprinos), mastic trees, terebinths (Pistacia palaestina), broad-leaved Phillyrea (Phillyrea latifolia), Styrax trees (Styrax officinalis) and buckthorn. The woodland is especially dense on the northern slope, where Greek strawberry trees (Arbutus andrachne) can be found as an addition to the mix. In the more open areas hairy rockrose (Cistus creticus) and sage-leaved rockrose (Cistus salviifolius) grow in profusion and in winter and spring, a host of brightly-colored flowers comes into bloom, including anemones, cyclamen and tulips.

The abandoned groves and orchards that still flourish among the agricultural terraces constitute a separate unit of remarkably vigorous and important vegetation. Significant areas, especially those to the west of the park’s Scenic Route, are covered with orchard trees such as almond, fig, olive and pomegranate, with prickly-pear cacti also much in evidence as boundary hedges. Large carob and tamarisk trees flourish in the near vicinity.

In the 1950s, KKL-JNF planted the northern section of the park with conifers (primarily Jerusalem pine) and carob trees – the latter being designed to provide fodder for the cattle raised by local residents. In the 1960s, eucalyptus groves were planted in the valleys sloping down from Masua towards Luzit. 

Animals

The broad expanses of the park provide a variety of habitats that allow a number of different animal species to find food and shelter. Among the large mammals that make their home here are mountain gazelles, caracals and jackals, while the smaller mammals include porcupines, rabbits, mice and rats.
 
Dozens of bird species nest in the park. Caves and holes in the ground are often inhabited by barn owls, jackdaws (Corvus monedula), rock doves and kestrels (Falco tinnunculus). The farmers’ fields are full of crested larks, while in the treetops the reptile-eating short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus) makes its nest. Sharp-eared visitors may also hear the voice of the cuckoo, which, in British Park, tends to lay its eggs in the nests of jays, which obligingly raise the cuckoo’s young. 
 
Magnificent brightly colored bee-eaters make their nests by burrowing into the bare soft chalk of the cliffs, and KKL-JNF has hung nesting boxes in the trees to attract a variety of woodland species such as the tit and the Syrian woodpecker, which often nest in tree trunks.

Sites within the Park


View from Tel Goded. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik.

Tel Azeka
An important city in Biblical times, which dominated the route from the Coastal Plain to the hilly areas further east. At the foot of the hill, between Sokho and Azeka, is the site of the battle between David and Goliath. The summit of the tel offers a magnificent view. Beneath the eastern slope is an underground network of caves and passages that would appear to date back to Bar Kochba’s time and to have been used as a place of concealment. At the Azeka Recreational Area there is a reconstruction of the system that channeled water into a cistern, and at the foot of the tel KKL-JNF has provided a picnic area.

Hurvat Shikalon
On the summit of this hill, cisterns, wine presses, capitals and the remains of an olive press can be seen.

Mitzpe Masua
The KKL-JNF observation tower provides a magnificent view of the expanses of the park, the Coastal Plain and the Judean Hills. Mitzpe Masua, which lies between Lachish and Azeka, was named after the inscription found at Tel Lachish, which reads “…We are watching over the beacon of Lachish according to the signals which my lord gave, for Azeka is not seen.” The restaurant at the site is closed on Shabbat.

Hurvat Tzura
The ruins on this wide flattened hilltop that provides a stunning view may be those of a farm.

Tel Goded
The ruins of this ancient settlement have been identified with the Biblical city of Moreshet-Gat, the home of the prophet Micah. Large numbers of caves, together with an extensive underground concealment system, have been hewn into the tel and its slopes. At the foot of the tel, not far from the road, the remains of the aqueduct that brought water from the Hebron Hills springs to Beit Guvrin are still visible. There is a magnificent view from the top of Tel Goded, which, at 398 meters, is the highest point in British Park.


Luzit caves. Photo: Avi Hayun.

Luzit Caves
This is an impressive collection of bell caves including some of the largest found in the plain; columbarium caves and other types of cavern can also be seen.

 

Iyye Kidon
These “Kidon Ruins” are picturesque remains covering a prominent hilltop in the area. Numerous orchard trees, tamarisks and prickly pear cacti grow among the remnants of the structures, and the hilltop and its surroundings are dotted with large numbers of cisterns and various types of cave.

 

Ramat Avishur
At around 350 meters above sea level, this is the highest ridge in British Park, and it reveals splendid views to both east and west. The slopes of the ridge are covered in well-developed Mediterranean woodland and scrubland. A hikers’ footpath along the top of the ridge links Mitzpe Masua in the north to Tel Goded in the south.

 

Hurvat Aqaba
Ancient ruined buildings, cisterns, caves and agricultural sites. One of the bell caves contains the remains of an olive press.

On the Way to a Sustainable Park

British Park is an excellent example of a park that was planned with an eye to the future: ecological and social aspects have been taken into consideration, and the planners have tried to anticipate what might happen over the next hundred years. The idea was to equip one part of the park with roads and facilities for visitors, conserve the original agricultural landscape in another part, and fence off a third section for extensive conservation, with minimal development.

Planning work on the park began in 1990 in the wake of a landscape survey of the Judean Plain by Israel’s Society for the Protection of Nature. The survey’s findings revealed the area to be richly endowed with natural resources, scenery and cultural significance. Until then this region had been fairly safe from environmental depredation as it had been regarded as a “backwater,” and so ignored.
 
KKL-JNF decided to extend its protection to the area before building projects could encroach upon it.
The park is divided into four areas, each characterized by a different type of landscape: 
 


Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik.

1.
Woodland: This section of the park attracts the largest number of visitors who want to spend time in the open air; KKL-JNF has equipped it with recreation areas and sports facilities.
2. The park’s heartland: This is the area around the Ruins of Kidon. Slated for conservation, it is characterized by natural scrubland and orchards.
3. The orchards: A series of groves and orchards in the area of the Segafim and Luzit caves that preserve the ancient farming culture typical of the Judean Plain. This area is earmarked for conservation, study and non-intensive development.
4. Ramat Avishur: Ramat Avishur, the highest ridge in the park, is covered with well-developed natural scrubland and slated for preservation. The plan for the park was approved by the planning authorities and has been accorded statutory recognition. According to the articles of association that govern the park, the site’s prime objective is to conserve its flora, fauna and cultural resources for future generations.
 
The foundation stone of the park was laid in 1995. Since then KKL-JNF has been establishing recreational sites, picnic areas, playgrounds, footpaths and small sports facilities at the site, together with a Biblical route at Tel Azeka. Entrance gates have been added at various points and at each gate is a map on which selected routes are marked in order to guide visitors to the most attractive and interesting spots within the park. The main park road leads from the northern entrance (from Route no. 383) to the southernmost edge of the site, near Kibbutz Beit Guvrin.

The survey and economic and managerial research

This new model of park entails an understanding of the site and the influences that affect it. To this end KKL-JNF, with the help of green organizations and academic institutions, has conducted research whose findings will be used to guide management of the park. Some of this research focuses on the “flagship species” of animal that provide a yardstick for understanding the ecological system and its current status.

The flagship species selected in this instance are gazelles and bats. One of the main pieces of research deals with the dwindling numbers of gazelles in the area, and the conclusion reached so far is that the gazelles have been adversely affected by the uncontrolled growth of the jackal population. The assumption is that the presence of two illegal rubbish dumps where local poultry farmers are in the habit of discarding dead birds rather than destroying them has encouraged an increase in the number of jackals. Another initiative underway is the attempt to find support for the park among the local population, following the example of members of Kibbutz Beit Nir who graze their flocks on park land.

Threats to the park
Even though the park is comparatively remote from built-up areas, it faces a number of threats nonetheless.
It is surrounded by a number of garbage dumps that provide food for the ever-growing jackal population that is preying upon the gazelles.
The human presence at the northern end of the park has caused an in increase the number of dogs and cats, which hunt some of the wild animals.
 
Farmers and herdsmen make use of the park in ways that damage its natural vegetation, and recently camels have made an unexpected and unwelcome appearance at the site.
All-terrain vehicles tear up the ground, causing serious damage.
The greatest threat to the park, however, is the plan for Route no. 39, a fast-lane highway that will link Jerusalem to the Ashkelon region, and whose western section will split the park in two.

Routes through the Park


Mitzpe Masua. Photo: KKL-JNF Archive.

From Mitzpe Masua to Tel Azeka
This scenic route is dotted along its length with fascinating archeological sites, scenic views, wild landscapes and “hides” from which a variety of wild animals can be observed. Short footpaths lead to attractive little beauty spots hidden among the orchards and the agricultural terraces.

The wells and cisterns trail
This sign-posted circular route starts at the park’s Cistern Recreation Area, climbs to Hurvat Shikalon and descends to the Agur orchards before returning to its starting point.

The terebinth path (Shvil HaElot)
This sign-posted circular route starts at the Srigim Recreation Area, near the Srigim-Agur Highway. The route passes through woodland and forests populated by three types of tree from the ela (Pistacia) species that grow in Israel: the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), the Mount Atlas mastic tree, also known as the Persian turpentine tree (Pistacia atlantica) and the terebinth (Pistacia palaestina).

Taking the Scenic Trail
This scenic route crosses the park lengthwise from the northern gate (on Route no. 383, about a kilometer to the west of Azeka Junction) to the park’s southernmost extremity near Kibbutz Beit Guvrin. The road, which is marked in green, is suitable for all types of vehicle. The paved road ascends from the gate and passes by the Shaked (“Almond”) Recreational Area and other leisure spots.

Farther on, a dirt road branches off, turning left towards the foot of Tel Azeka. Keen walkers can hike from the adjacent parking lot to the foot of the tel, then walk up to its summit. The Scenic Trail continues on to Tel Azeka, meets up with the paved road and crosses it, continues on to the Parpar (“Butterfly”) Recreational Area (which crosses the Srigim-Agur Highway (Route no. 353)), goes on to the Srigim Recreational Area and passes by Hurvat Aqaba. If we climb to the top of the hill we shall find a recreational area and playground equipment.

The path continues and meets up with the road that ascends to Mitzpe Masua. Here, we turn right and follow the road up to Mitzpe Masua, where several footpaths branch off in different directions: eastwards, to Hurvat Midras (marked in red); westwards, to the Luzit Caves (marked in blue); southwards, to Tel Goded (marked in green); and northwards, to Tel Azeka (marked in black). The Israel Trail, which is marked in orange, blue and white, crosses the park from Tel Azeka, via Mitzpe Masua and Tel Goded, on its way to Beit Guvrin.

Pedaling Through the Park

Britannia Park is a favorite spot for cyclists. The following are a number of suggestions for cycle routes through the park, which are not, however, indicated by any special markings:


View from Shvil HaElot. Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik.

1. Our first route starts at Route no. 383, heading westwards from the Azeka Junction. After the junction, a dirt road can be seen climbing up towards Tel Azeka. Some sections of it are very challenging for cyclists!

2. An eight-kilometer circular route of intermediate difficulty. Start at Mitzpe Masua, descend to the level of the lower parking lot and turn southwards until you meet up with the red-marked trail, where you turn to the west (i.e., to the right) and follow the signs towards Mitzpe Masua. Another turn on to a green-marked trail will complete the circle to Mitzpe Masua. KKL-JNF signposts will help you find your way (Note: the colors on the signposts are internal KKL-JNF markings, not route indicators). The colors you need to follow appear both on the signs along the route and on the forest maps that can be found in special boxes at the entrances to the park.

3. A three-kilometer route, easy to intermediate on the difficulty scale. Start from Parpar (“Butterfly”) Junction on Route no. 353, where Britannia Park is divided in two. The road has signposts from the Public Works Department. Along the route from Moshav Givat Yeshayahu in the direction of Moshav Agur, turn left, then cycle along the main park road past the Zeitim (“Olive”) Recreation Area and Mistor HeHaruv (“Carob Hideaway” – a “hide” from which wild animals can be observed as they come to drink at the pool provided for the purpose). From here, you can continue to the Srigim Recreational Area. If you have the strength and energy left, you can continue for another two kilometers along the main park road via the Aqav Bell Caves. Your finishing point is Mitzpe Masua.