I went to London Zoo a couple of days ago. My local zoo is about 30 minutes from where I live and we used to take the sons on a regular basis – that zoo put on a really good, atmospheric Christmas event where you queued for miles through a stunning grotto to meet Santa, patting a couple of real reindeer on the way. Our zoo is in open, fairly isolated countryside, where the animals roam about in fields hemmed in by nothing more than a wooden fence, but then there are no lions, tigers and bears, Oh My!
London Zoo has a gorilla family and a small pride of lions, a fact I didn’t know until we were right in the zoological thick of it.
We took a 2 hour train ride to London Waterloo and were going to meet Son No.2 and the gf at the zoo. No matter how many times I travel to London I never get used to the culture shock. I go only because Son No. 2 lives there, otherwise I’d stay well away, being that major cities induce mini panic attacks, if you’re me that is. I know London is the capital city of the small island I call home but it’s so other worldly and frenetic that as soon as I step off the train, at Waterloo, I feel I’m on another planet. One where a mass of people remains in perpetual motion rushing here and there, with a determined look on its collective faces. We joined the throng and were sort of swept along to steps leading down to the tube and then onto a very long and very steep escalator displaying notices imploring us to keep to the right. Londoners in the know, who have places to go (in a rapid fashion) ignored these signs and went running past us to our left. It’s all busy, busy and very fast.
Stepping off the escalator, which is a feat in itself, due to the fact that there are so many people in front of you it’s difficult to see where the escalator actually ends, we were then hit by a rush of very warm air. Where’s that preternatural wind coming from, I found myself thinking, being that we’re now underground. The underground was incredibly hot, like we’d gone on a day trip to Hell (which is how I tend to think of the underground) and it also sent the husband into his Leader of the London Zoo Expedition Party mode (the expedition comprising the husband, son No.3 and myself.)
He made a bee line for the underground map. This simple layout of colourful criss crossing lines was designed by Harry Beck, an underground electrical draughtsman, in 1933. Dispensing with geographical accuracy and distance, Beck based his design on the electrical circuit diagrams he used at work every day, coming up with a classic and iconic winner. The husband sought out Regent’s Park tube station, announcing that we needed to follow the southern line before deciding that no, we’d be better off following the northern line.
The husband’s indecision immediately put the strange underground wind up me and there was a heated but brief altercation as to the husband’s map reading abilities. We then rushed around the subterranean network, followed by occasional blasts of hot air, the banshee-like screams of unseen trains speeding through unseen tunnels and the husband shouting, ‘come on! It’s this way,’ and me shouting, ‘will you slow down, I can’t keep up, this is supposed to be a nice weekend outing!’ When we found our platform, we stood alongside completely silent and slightly desperate looking travellers, all of us looking down the tracks into a black hole, one that very much resembled those black holes up in space that devour anything that gets too close.
Suddenly our tube train came speeding out of the black hole and we all made a mad dash for the doors. This mad dash actually was mad on my part, being that I didn’t want to get on the monstrous thing at all – ‘am I mad?’ I kept saying to myself. We sat down on absolutely filthy seats, alongside what I assumed were native Londoners, all blithely plugged into various electronic devices, with a been here, done that look on their zoned out faces. I, on the other hand, proceeded to yelp and jump at every deafening screech and every alarmingly bumpy movement. This caused acute embarrassment to the husband and son No. 3 and then the husband (to my complete ignorance) sneakily snapped a photo of his unknowing wife, which strongly resembles that poor bloke in The Scream by Edvard Munch.
About 15 minutes later we arrived at Regent’s Park to find that the only way out of Hades, The Underworld, was a gigantic lift. This was a frighteningly new one to me, being that we’d always exited other stations via the stairs. Therefore further yelping and jumping ensued as about a thousand of us squeezed into the lift and a woman had to come and physically hold the doors shut to get the thing to move! This deserves an exclamation mark, being that the doors had initially closed and nothing had happened, apart from two underground workers chatting away to themselves whilst occasionally throwing amused glances our way; looks which clearly said: ‘look at that bunch of gullible idiots, getting in a lift and expecting it to work.’ Fearing we were trapped in the lift from hell, I began whinging to the husband, when the woman, previously mentioned, suddenly ran over and pushed hard on both doors to fit them closer together, which made a row of red lights come on and up we went as she slowly disappeared from view. But surely that glitch should be fixed, thought I, what if the doors drift apart again while the lift is moving?
I tried not to dwell on said scary thought and we emerged out into daylight whereupon I got hold of my written instructions on how to walk to London Zoo from Regent’s Park. The husband nabbed them from me (being that he was Zoo Expedition Leader) gave them a cursory glance and decided that pulling up the sat nav on his phone was much the better answer. ‘Ah Ha! There it is,’ he pointed to a tiny red dot on a green screen. So, holding his phone up high and barely taking his eyes from the red dot, the husband led the way across Marylebone Road (difficult manoeuvre due to incessant traffic and my inability to trust the little green man and actually leave the safety of the kerb) then on to Park Square East. Strolling through Park Square East Road we passed a row of monumentally impressive flats and houses – the kind you only see in London. Gigantic, ancient and impressive abodes with humongous windows and little bay trees out the front. The kind of places which make you feel like those street urchins in Oliver! – all tiny and pathetic and very, very hard up (average price of a Park Square East house is £8 million.) And then we reached the gates to the entrance of Regent’s Park.
I’d never walked through Regent’s Park before. My written instructions told us to follow the Broadwalk (a completely straight path) north, right up to the outer circle, turn left and we’d be at the zoo entrance. So off we set, in what was an incredibly empty park, except for loads of kids and adults playing football to the right of us some distance away. An occasional jogger would drift past and I recognised a couple of people who’d been on the tube. To the left of us was a never ending line of stunning and massive stone urns which had been filled with plants, interspersed with equally stunning and massive fountains and up ahead a man was chipping away at a stone statue, kneeling on a platform and surrounded by netting. There was, in fact, an absolute abundance of ancient history everywhere you looked. I told the husband we needed to get to that statue and then turn left and we’d be right by the zoo entrance. But the husband’s sat nav was telling him otherwise and so we turned left, before the statue, and ended up going the very, very long way round, which was actually a bonus, because the path we followed went directly alongside the zoo and you could see almost every exhibit. The weirdest one being a couple of gigantic giraffes loitering about in an enclosure at the side of a main road, and opposite the entrance to the zoo.
This is the strangest thing about London Zoo. That all those semi-wild animals are living in a major city just a stone’s throw away from millions of people.
We met up with son No.2 and the gf by the otters. We then wandered off, passing a large, brightly painted carousel. This zoo has a bit of a gaudy funfair feel to it, I thought; that’s not quite in keeping with the whole 19th century Zoological Society of London historical background.
The Zoological Society of London was founded in 1826 as a place of scientific study. In 1847 it opened to the public. In 1850 it introduced the first ever aquatic vivarium (or ‘aquarium’ as they are now known, a word London Zoo invented.) In 1914 Winnie the Canadian black bear was deposited at London Zoo (the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh.) At this point in time visitors were allowed to feed the animals (Winnie the bear was fed honey which consequently rotted her teeth) but this practice was stopped in 1968. Nowadays the zoo is clearly run along the lines of a theme park, segmented off into stunning recreations of the animals’ natural habitats
Every part of the park is nicely blended in with its surroundings. A subway dividing the park’s sections is covered in cave paintings – a really nice touch.
We saw lions in the Indian area (brilliantly fake temples and a market place) padding down to a fake river to take a drink; looking just like your average domestic cat lapping from a bowl of water, as Son No.2 pointed out. The husband mentioned that a lion like that could feed him for a week (to the vegetarian gf’s alarmed disgust) whereupon the son mentioned that the lion would more likely make a meal of the husband.
We walked around the lion area on a kind of rope bridge which took us high enough to be able to look down on the lion-based activity, which seemed to be restricted to lying about in a deep sleep. A sign informed us that lions sleep for 20 hours a day, the husband remarked that Son No.3 must have lion blood in him.
We then went rushing about here and there, taking in penguins, insects, tropical birds, cute little yellow monkeys (which were free to roam but would bite your finger off if you got too close), snakes (the place where Harry Potter spoke in parseltongue, and there was a sign there to make sure that no one ever forgets.) We saw llamas, camels, anteaters (the anteater was the only animal who looked to be in distress as he walked round and round in a circle knocking his head against a wall.)
But the highlight of the zoo experience was the gorilla enclosure. We walked into a building with a huge glass barrier to our right and beyond it a large grassy, hilly terrain. There was an enormous kids’ climbing frame in the middle, with tyres and swing ropes and ladders and dead trees. ‘Ooh look, that must be a gorilla,’ I squealed, as we just made out what looked like a very big, hairy monkey sitting near the top of the gorilla play area. I squashed the urge to say it didn’t look as impressive as I’d been expecting because, after all, these animals hadn’t been put on earth for us humans to gawp at through protective barriers, when something suddenly appeared to the left of my vision. Clearly the ape on the climbing frame was female because the gorilla that strolled out from behind a wall bore more than a passing resemblance to King Kong – even Son. No.3’s face lit up with wonder.
We were about 30 feet away and it’s difficult to convey what an awe inspiring vision this ape Goliath was. There was no fur on his back, just a mass of fur on his gigantic head and his arms and legs were like tree trunks. He paused with his back to us for ages and then suddenly spied a branch of leaves, grabbed it with a kind of excitable jump, as though another gorilla might get there before him, and loped off swiftly behind a tree, where he stayed put, entirely out of view.
We managed to walk around the zoo for three hours before beginning to flag. You probably need to spend an entire day there, as Son No.2 and the gf did. London Zoo is a marvel and is definitely worth another visit now we’ve got our bearings. We got to see a lot of animals but there were also plenty of what the husband calls ‘Jurassic Park’ moments. The enclosures where no matter how hard you looked you couldn’t see anything except maybe the occasional rustle of leaves.
At a £21 entrance fee the zoo is stunningly good value, and there’s a massive restaurant, well-kept loos and an equally massive gift shop. The weather was overcast but September is probably a good time to go as low visitor numbers made everything very manageable.
Zoos get a bad press but London Zoo looks to be about as good as a zoo can get.