24/05/2013 08:54 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Whipsnade Zoo - A Great Family Day Out

With yet another school half term on the horizon, I want to make sure that my children have some memories to, y'know, remember when they look back on their childhoods instead of being stuck indoors looking at the back of their dad's head as he types stuff like this column.

When I was knee-high to a grasshopper's knee-cap, I remember my dad taking me and my three younger brothers on treat-trips to Belle Vue Zoo in Gorton, Manchester (now sadly, long gone. The zoo, not Manchester).

I remember the awe of seeing lions, tigers and bears. The wonder of having my ice cream licked by the snake-like tongue of a curious giraffe. The gobsmacking surprise of the size of an elephant's digested offerings.

Back then, zoos were all the rage, combining a trip to gawp at animals with a ride on a magic roundabout.

Even as I approach my 50th year, I remember every detail as if it were yesterday. And deep down I feel guilty about it, because despite the awe and wonder back then, the animals just looked, well, a bit sad.

Which was probably one of the reasons why, in the 80s, zoos fell out of favour. They were seen as cruel and tormenting, and was no doubt part of the reason why Belle Vue closed and whose site is now occupied by a cinema and a pizza parlour.

Then came the 90s, and the age of enlightened conservation. Zoos didn't see its captive animals as brief entertainment for the masses, but as a way of preserving species for both their own benefit (to protect them from the evil of poachers and environmental obliteration) and for our education (to teach us that there is a world beyond TOWIE and Posh 'n Becks).

Which brings me back to memories. I want my three children - aged 11, eight and five - to have some that go beyond Minecraft and Spongebob Square Pants. I want them to feel the jaw-dropping sense of wonderment that I felt when I was their age. But without the guilt.

So last weekend, as a teaser for a half term of fun and frolics, the five of us set off to Whipsnade Zoo, a few miles off the M1, near Dunstable.

It is owned by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the international scientific, conservation and educational charity whose mission is to promote and achieve the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats.


The place is huge – much, much bigger than I expected. Every species has its own vast (by normal zoo standards) enclosure which almost makes you believe you're seeing the animals in their own habitat (give or take a few spots of British summertime rain).


Rhinos have space to roam; a brown bear has space to forage; giraffes have space to stretch their necks; deer have a whole prairie to gallop around; cheetahs have room to stretch their legs; and tigers and lions have space to sleep and look superior.

And there are animals that aren't enclosed at all: dozens of free-wandering wallabies and cute little muntjac deer.

The most spectacular part of the experience was a ride on the train, like an open safari, through fields of camels and elephants.

We even saw a caribou (I think) with a pair of hooves hanging out of the back of her as she prepared to give birth. Not very private, no, but awesome nonetheless.

As a day out, I doubt it can be bettered, especially if you like a nice long walk. But if you don't, you can even take your car into the zoo and drive around (for a fee) or catch the free (though quite infrequent) safari double decker bus.

And once you've exhausted all the opportunities – and especially yourself – there's now a new adventure playground, called Hullabazoo, complete with climbing nets, towers and zip wires for energetic youngsters – plus some benches and tables where zapped-out parents can enjoy a coffee and a rest.

OK, it's not cheap (with entrance fees, parking charges, a trip on the zoo train, plus lunch and ice creams, it came to an eye-watering £100-plus for the five of us) but as a once-a-term trip, it was great value for money. Memories, see: you can't put a price on them.

If you're stuck for ideas for what to do with the kids this Bank Holiday and half term, see above for inspiration and go raid the piggy bank!

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