Help chart the Chilterns sound

IT MIGHT be a barn owl, steam train or buzzing insect.

But whatever the sound, young people across the Chilterns are being encouraged to “listen to their landscape” in a unique project designed to promote mental health and wellbeing.

The ‘Echoed Locations’ project encourages 16- to 20-year-olds to get out into nature and urban spaces which are significant to them and contribute to the first sonic map of the Chilterns. 

As part of the five-year Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and spearheaded by the Chilterns Conservation Board, the project will provide free sound recording workshops and online resources to empower youth groups and schools to map the sounds of the Chilterns.

Echoed Locations wants audio recordings from across the Chilterns, from the hoot of an owl to the first songs of the dawn chorus or the morning rush hour.

As the world becomes noisier and yet increasingly focused on the visual, Echoed Locations aims to reconnect people with their local wildlife and cultural heritage through the medium of sound.

Sometimes we can forget to listen to the world around us in an active way, and the project encourages residents to record the sounds around them and help create a sonic legacy of the Chilterns today.

Sound recording workshops help to hone people’s ability to disconnect from the hubbub and distractions of day-to-day life and enjoy the natural sounds all around them.

Anyone can participate by adding audio recordings via the Echoed Locations website page and schools, local community groups and youth groups are encouraged to reach out to book a free sound recording workshop in 2020, although spaces are limited.

Volunteers willing to act as ‘Sonic Champions’ in High Wycombe, Amersham, Aylesbury and Princes Risborough (or the surrounding areas) will help promote the project and be given full training.

Contact Elizabeth Buckley on lbuckley@chilternsaonb.org to sign up for a sound recording workshop or as a volunteer, or with any other questions about the project.

Escape from the rat race

THERE’S something immensely restful and soothing about Gregorian chant – and the same can be said of the tranquil surroundings of Douai Abbey in Berkshire.

Here, buried in the depths of the English countryside, is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery founded in Paris in 1615.

Vespers is sung prayer – in Latin. Traditionally this evening sacrifice of praise to God takes place as dusk begins to fall, giving thanks for the day just past, and although guests are welcome and some services and concerts are well attended, it’s not uncommon to find the monks alone at this time.

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Uprooted by the French Revolution, the monks moved initially to Douai in Flanders and settled in England in 1903, when they moved to their current base at Woolhampton.

The Order of Saint Benedict, also known as the ‘Black Monks’ because of the colour of their habits, is a religious order of independent monastic communities like Ampleforth, Downside, Worth and Buckfast.

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They observe the Rule of St Benedict, a sixth-century Italian saint who studied in Rome and then turned his back on the world and lived in solitude before founding a monastery at Monte Cassino.

Here at Douai, under the patronage of the Edmund the Martyr (the East Anglian king who died in 869), the monks live a simple life of worship, study and work, centred around six daily services, from matins and lauds at 6.20am to compline at 8pm.

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Despite their crow-like appearance when their black hoods are raised – an indication that they are in silent communion with the Lord – they are individually friendly and welcoming to guests who seek them out.

But “listening” is central to the Benedictine doctrine, so silence is an important part of their daily life – and for guests, a welcome reminder of how important it is for us all to escape the incessant hubbub of the modern world.

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And so it is in preparation for the weekday service that we attend. Beforehand, individual monks sit in contemplation, both inside the abbey church and on benches around the grounds.

They then file silently to their places in the pews for a half-hour of praise and peace,  the two dozen male voices echoing round the impressive arches of the abbey where we are the only other members of the congregation.

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The abbey church was opened in the 1930s but not completed until 1993, and is a Grade II* listed building on the National Heritage List for England with marvellous acoustics.

Our simple evening service is without ceremony or accompanying music but is no less moving for that. The individual Latin words  may be indistinct or unfamiliar, but the message of praise is clear – and the underlying sense of self-sacrifice and humility which underpins the monks’ way of life shines through.

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Douai monks still serve in parishes throughout England and welcome guests on retreats and courses,  as well as those seeking space for quiet or study. There are facilities for  conferences and for youth and chaplaincy groups and throughout the year they host a number of  concerts in the abbey church.

Guests may take a peaceful walk in the nearby meadow or sit in a small wooded glade at the foot of a statue of Christ. This is a place of peace and contemplation – and a welcome escape from the unrelenting noise and activity of our everyday lives.

For more information about the work of the monks at Douai, see their website.

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Damon dreams of a brighter future

IF YOU see one film in 2020, make sure you track down a screening of 2040, an inspiring 2019 Australian drama-documentary directed by and starring film-maker dad Damon Gameau.

Alarming and disarming in equal measure, the film takes the form of a poignant letter to Gameau’s four-year-old daughter Velvet re-imagining how the effects of climate change could be reversed over the next two decades through the creative use of technologies that already exist.

From community-based solar power grids to progressive farming ideas and underwater seaweed beds, the environmentalist offers an upbeat explanation of ways in which workable “regenerative” community projects could help rescue us from the unthinkable alternative.

Set against a backdrop of predictably cutesy soundbites from children around the world talking about the sort of future they want, the film harnesses sophisticated visual effects and clever dramatisation to intersperse interviews with key experts in the climate change discourse in a way that successfully manages to avoid it becoming a montage of talking heads, even if some critics found the offbeat dad jokes and quirky CGI a little too much to handle.

Amid the children’s more outlandish visions of rocket boots and a round-the-clock National Hot Dog Day are some trenchant reminders of the wisdom that comes out of the mouths of the young, and their high hopes for a kinder, cleaner and greener planet are enough to reduce some of the audience to tears.

Yes, there’s scope to criticse the documentary for its “easygoing can-do approach in which there is no great emphasis on sacrifice and not even any obvious sense of emergency”, but although The Guardian’s reviewer only awarded three stars when the film was launched here in November, there was also a recognition of Gameau’s intrinsic likability and the underlying practicality of his approach.

Perhaps more significant is the success with which he moves the rhetoric away from righteous anger and confrontation. Basically he recognises there’s enough eco-anxiety around already and more pessimistic premonitions of doom simply leave us wringing our hands and hiding our heads under the covers.

Yes, the elephant in the room is the backdrop of melting ice sheets and increasing weather abnormalities, but rather than wallowing in fear and despair, Gameau focuses on how local communities in Bangladesh are already harnessing solar power to create micro-grids of electricity, how new farming models can sequester carbon and how new approaches to the cultivation of seaweed could help to promote marine biodiversity.

On his travels he also begins to realise how the education of a new generation of women and an accompanying reduction in population growth could be the single biggest key to success.

The visual letter cleverly juxtaposes visions of how Velvet’s life might have changed in two decades’ time if we make some inspired choices now with subtly understated reminders of the bleak and downright terrifying alternative.

This makes the film an ideal starting point for classroom and community discussions, because we’d all frankly prefer to live in Gameau’s world of green cities, driverless cars and better public transport than consider the prospect of how barren soils and oceans, coupled with rising sea levels and extreme weather, could create a hell on earth and force millions of migrants on the move.

Peopling his film with fellow optimists also allows us to recognise what we too can do to help a new generation of Velvets cope with the realities of modern life. Just as Gameau’s four-year-old must leave her safe bubble of childhood innocence, we also need to reject the blissful ignorance of climate inaction and embrace the opportunity to do our bit for the planet.

As he says, it is time to leave the bubble. And he wants to do that in a way which sounds the fire alarm but shows people where the exits are.

The film doesn’t resort to snide attacks or scapegoating, but there’s no shrinking from harsh realities either, of how our current paralysis may be stoked by a negative press which does not discuss solutions to climate change and a fossil fuel industry hell-bent on protecting its commercial interests at any price.

But while the film touches on the immense wealth and power wielded by vested interests to quell political action, it’s significant that some of the solutions are coming from the poorest people in the world whose lives and livelihoods are most immediately affected by intense weather events and rising sea levels.

It also means that our hopes for an optimistic future do not just rest of the innocent naivety of the young, but a groundswell of ordinary people: academics, campaigners, farmers and engineers who are already starting to create a new vision, pushing against the political tide.

Gameau urges us to join the regeneration revolution, and in the first six months after the film’s launch a surprising amount has been achieved.

Not all audiences may feel the documentary manages to occupy the “sweet spot between overexcited hopefulness and grounded realism”, but it does succeed in making a difficult subject eminently digestible for a universal audience.

UK screenings have been organised by environmental protest groups and other campaigners. Keep an eye out for a chance to see Gameau’s eccentric, engaging and essential contribution to the climate change debate at a local venue.

Kids just love to go wild

WHEREVER you live in the Chilterns, kids love to get outside and let off steam whatever the weather.

That’s why we will be including more free events in our What’s On pages, starting with a monthly reminder about the plethora of woodland walks on the doorstep.

LETTING OFF STEAM: take the family on a woodland walk PICTURE: National Trust / Chris Lacey

Or between now and July, why not make a really early start, pack a picnic and go out to discover the beauty of the dawn chorus?

In the winter months it’s only too easy to stay glued to the TV, computer or smartphone on dull days where the threat of rain is heavy in the air.

But it’s surprising how quickly the clouds lift when you get outdoors and get the wind in your hair. Youngsters love to get their wellies and bobble hats on for a good old stamp around in the puddles.

BUG HUNT: hunting for insects PICTURE: National Trust / Chris Lacey

There’s always plenty to see and do, but in case you are short of inspiration, the local BBOWT wildlife trusts have produced a great downloadable Go Wild Guide for the kids to add an element of adventure to the outing.

The free guide includes a scavenger hunt, puzzles, advice on how to make your own bird feeder or insect hotel and an I-Spy Challenge with two dozen birds and insects to look out for in a local park or on the way to school.

National Trust members are spoilt for choice with a wide array of historic estates on the doorstep, including Cliveden, Hughenden and Waddesdon.

SPOILT FOR CHOICE: a spring walk at Cliveden PICTURE: National Trust / Chris Lacey

But the country parks are all worth a visit too, from the tree-lined pathways of Black Park to the sprawling deer park at Langley – and free to enter apart from the cost of parking.

Why not plan a walk in the Colne Valley Regional Park or a longer trail to explore the River Colne and the Grand Union Canal towpath, stopping off for a coffee or bite to eat, enjoying a mix of wildlife, industrial buildings and narrowboats, depending on your route.

Across the Chilterns from Dunstable Downs and Ivinghoe Beacon to Wendover Woods, Winter Hill and the Thames, there’s no shortage of places for that perfect ramble, come wind, rain or shine.

And a number of organisations offer special events and trails to coincide with half-term and other school holidays, including local councils, the National Trust, widllife trusts and museums – check out our What’s On pages month by month for the latest organised events for young people.

Feast of light in the darkness

WRITING in The Independent a few years ago, then environment editor Michael McCarthy pondered on how many people today know what Candlemas is all about.

One in a hundred, perhaps? Maybe even fewer than that. But as well as explaining the background to the Christian holy day he also painted a marvellously evocative picture of what this day would have looked and felt like in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the parish brought their candles to church to be blessed by the priest.

On that gloomy February day the dark interior of a medieval church would become a sea of light when the candles were lit and set before the statue of the Virgin Mary – making it literally the brightest day of the year and a welcome reprieve after the gloom of January.

February 2 is also the day of snowdrops, with windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches decorated with the pure white flowers, or Candlemas bells as they were once called.

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SYMBOL OF PURITY: snowdrops in bloom [PICTURE: Presian Nedyalkov, Unsplash]

As flawless symbols of purity, they were the perfect flowers for the feast, and even today many of the country’s best snowdrop displays are clustered around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined abbeys and priories, where they were planted with Candlemas in mind.

This year’s warm January has meant plenty of snowdrops have flowered early, along with primroses, winter jasmine, gorse and other splashes of January colour, despite the old rhyme which says: “The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas day.”

And there are numerous locations where sheets of the small white blooms provide dramatic displays for visitors braving the chill January air, including great houses like the National Trust gardens at Cliveden.

EARLY ARRIVALS: snowdrops at Cliveden PICTURE: National Trust/Hugh Mothersole

A powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, Galanthus nivalis means “milk flower” in Latin and the “drop” is not a drop of snow but a “drop” as in eardrop, the old word for earring – although legend has it that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Eve was despairing that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared and transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers to prove that even the harshest of winters eventually give way to spring.

Snowdrops are popular among gardeners and galanthophiles are avid collectors of different snowdrop varieties. But it’s not just the simple beauty of the snowdrop which appeals.

CANDLEMAS BELLS: snowdrops at Cliveden PICTURE: National Trust/Hugh Mothersole

As McCarthy argues in his Independent article it’s the timing of the flowers’ appearance that is symbolic too: “They’re the very first sign of something else, the Candlemas bells, an undeniable signal that the warm days will come again; and I’m sure they fill me with elation because what I am looking at, against the dead tones of the winter earth, is Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest in white.”

Get up early to catch the choir

JANUARY brings the first signs of spring – and along with the early snowdrops and primroses, that also means the first echoes of the dawn chorus.

You have to be up early to catch it, but from now until July, the volume is steadily growing, from those first wintry warbles early in the New Year to the most spectacular natural orchestra on earth.

As the first snowdrops start to peek through the frosty January soil and the birds swarm to the birdtable to squabble over scraps of food, the slow increase in daylight means that love will soon be in the air, which means staking out your territory and trying to attract a mate.

During the dark days of winter, life has been all about survival, trying to find enough food during those bleak chilly days to survive the night to come.

But as the days start to slowly lengthen, songbirds start to switch into breeding mode, timed to coincide with the warmest part of the year when food is plentiful and days are long.

The first songsters of the season are residents such as robins and great tits, joined later on by migrants like chiffchaffs and blackcaps to make May and June the peak time to enjoy the chorus.

But listen out early in January and you can already hear them, with the noise growing day by day and more than an hour of daylight being added between New Year and the end of the month.

The collective chirps and tweetings start to grow in volume as the year progresses, starting about an hour before dawn with a few songs from the robins, blackbirds and thrushes before the rest of the gang join in and the chorus gets into full swing.

As with an orchestra, there’s a set sequence. Skylarks, song thrushes, robins and blackbirds are among the earliest risers and their songs are complex and detailed, full of meaning and uttered from high perches.

Then the pre-dawn singers are joined by woodpigeons, wrens and warblers, while great tits, blue tits, sparrows and finches only add their voices when it’s light enough for them to see.

The most formidable defenders of territory, the robin and wren, are well into their flow by the turn of the year, soon to be joined by the blue, great and coal tits, dunnocks and chattering starlings.

Stars of the show are the loquacious song thrushes and glorious blackbirds, their music a clear signal that winter is giving way to spring.

If you’re prepared to get up early and head into the woods with a picnic, the singing last right through until July, but reaches its peak during May and June.

Early mornings are too dark to search for food, and too dark to be spotted by predators. That makes it the perfect time to sing, and because there’s less background noise and the air is still, sound carries around 20 times further than it would later in the day – an important consideration when you are looking for a mate.

Singing is hard work on an empty stomach and after a chilly night, so it will be the strongest, best-fed males who will produce the loudest songs. As the light strengthens food becomes easier to find, so hungry birds begin to move off and the chorus gradually diminishes.

There is another chorus at dusk, which is considered quieter, though some birds – like tree sparrows and blue tits – seem to prefer to sing at this time of day.

The best days to listen are fine, clear mornings with little wind. Dawn chorus peaks half-an-hour before to half-an-hour after sunrise, but the variety of song can be confusing by then so why not get into position early to savour the arrival of the performers as each takes their turn on stage…

Sunday 7 May is International Dawn Chorus Day. All pictures for this article are reproduced with the kind permission of Roy Battell, whose Moorhens website chronicles an extraordinary rewilding story.

Going nuts about squirrels

IT’S Squirrel Appreciation Day, apparently, so a suitable occasion to be celebrating the agility of our furry grey visitors here in the Chilterns.

Sadly my camera can’t really do justice to the incredible acrobatics of the pair doing their best to steal the peanuts and seeds from the blue tits and robins outside our kitchen window.

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Nonetheless although the grey squirrel has plenty of detractors, it doesn’t seem a bad idea to have a day dedicated to the little rascals, bearing in mind the extraordinary variety of squirrels, with more than 200 species around the world, many of them capable of some quite extraordinary feats.

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Squirrel Appreciation Day is observed annually on January 21, it seems, thanks to Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in North Carolina who launched the day in 2001.

But the true extent of squirrels’ talents was revealed in a 2018 BBC Natural World documentary The Super Squirrels, which introduced us to such exotic variants as the Malabar giant squirrel in India and put some home-grown varieties to a gruelling hazelnut-laden assault course to help demonstrate just how clever, ingenious and adaptable they are.

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Of the various species, Christy confirms these fall into three types – ground squirrels, tree squirrels and flying squirrels.

The former include the rock squirrel, California ground squirrel and many others which blanket the prairies and deserts of North America.

Tree squirrels like our own red and grey squirrels make their homes in the trees and can be found all over the globe. The third type of squirrel leaps farther than the others with flaps of skin between the legs.

Flying squirrels glide greater distances giving the impression they can fly. When they leap from tree to tree or building to building, they spread their legs wide and float on the breeze to escape predators.

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Thankfully there are plenty of better photographers around to do justice to the cheeky visitors, including the wonderful Roy and Marie Battell (or the Moorhens), whose weekly newsletter contains a host of high-quality images like the one above, taken in their own miniature nature reserve near Milton Keynes.

Their most recent round-up of visitors to their back garden includes not only squirrels, but deer, a tawny owl, sparrowhawks, chaffinches, woodpeckers and fieldmice.

To sign up for the Moorhens’ newsletter, visit their website. And check out the BBC to catch the Super Squirrels while you can. You can also look up the programme on Facebook to find out more about the tiny orphaned red squirrel featured in the programme and named after Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.



Four go wild in the Highlands

BBC’s Winterwatch team return to the Cairngorms next week for another four nights of chilly wildlife watching.

Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan, Gillian Burke and Iolo Williams host the eighth series of the live show from the Scottish Highlands, starting on Tuesday January 28 at 8pm.

Winterwatch 2020 comes from the programme’s new, year-round home in the Cairngorms National Park, which covers more than 1700 square miles and was established in 2003 by the Scottish parliament.

Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan join forces again to renew a partnership forged more than 25 years ago on the Really Wild Show.

The children’s wildlife programme ran for 20 years from 1986, although the pair were only co-presenters for a couple of years in the 1990s before Chris moved on to other work.

They were reunited on Winterwatch and its sister programmes in 2009 and joined by Gillian Burke in 2017.

Gillian has long been involved with nature TV programming after studying biology at Bristol University. Welsh nature observer and TV presenter Iolo Williams became a regular member of the team in 2019.

Winterwatch runs from Tuesday to Friday next week.

Wolf Moon puts on a show

STARGAZERS and nature photographers have been comparing their images of Friday’s Wolf Moon over the weekend – and it’s fair to say they managed to capture some startling and memorable pictures.

The first full moon of the decade lit up the night sky and coincided with a lunar eclipse, which happens when the sun, moon and Earth are perfectly aligned.

Clear skies across much of England provided perfect conditions for those staking out some of the country’s most iconic backdrops, like Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor.

And around the world, from the beaches of Malaga to the mountains of Macedonia, photographers on the American astronomy website space.com have been showing off their efforts to capture the moon – and the penumbral eclipse which took place between 5pm and 9pm UK time when the earth’s outer shadow falls on the moon, making it look darker than normal.

The term ‘wolf moon’ is thought to have been coined by Native Americans because of how wolves would howl outside villages during the winter. Space.com is one of a number of sites with dates of all the full moons of the year, including the occasional blue moon where the moon is full twice in a month (this year on October 1 and 31).

On Chesham Wildlife facebook group page, Graeme Kennedy, a voluntary duty warden with the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, managed to capture the moon early in the evening, so reflecting the sun’s orange glow (above).

Photographers across the UK managed to capture the moon throughout the night, but some of the most dramatic images were captured by Wiltshire landscape photographer and commercial drone pilot Nick Bull.

His YouTube Channel is dedicated to drone photography and his commercial licence allows him to capture crop circles and historical landmarks like Stonehenge (below).

Particularly dramatic footage this year includes his time-lapse footage of the Wolf Moon over Glastonbury Tor.

The full moon happens about once every 27 days when the moon and the sun are on exactly opposite sides of Earth. The moon looks illuminated because we see the sun’s light reflected from it.

Different tribes may have had other names for it around the world – spirit moon, goose moon or even bear-hunting moon, for example.

There are another three penumbral eclipses to look forward to this year – and the next full moon will occur on February 9, normally known as the “snow moon”, so get those cameras ready!

Zoo for all seasons

YOU don’t expect to find good food at a zoo. You certainly don’t expect to be tucking into a venison ragu or fish stew sporting the sort of seasonal organic credentials you’d expect from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage.

But then ZSL’s Whipsnade Zoo is full of pleasant surprises, it seems, even on a wet and windy day in January. And if seems odd to start talking about catering facilities before mentioning the 2,500 animals on site, it’s just that food can make or break a family day out, as any parent can testify.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. It’s a wild January day, so what possible logic is there for picking this as the perfect time to visit’s the UK’s largest zoo, which boasts 600 acres of land to explore, including areas where some animals can roam free, safari-park style?

One of the biggest surprises, perhaps, is the open outlook of the zoo’s location, which provides visitors with some stunning views over the surrounding Bedfordshire countryside.

If it feels odd to find penguins flourishing in this environment, it seems even stranger to see rural England laid out as a backdrop.

But this is “Europe” on the zoo map, a corner where lolloping wolverines rub shoulders with bears, wild boars and lynx – not to mention the penguins, who are clustered around looking a little disconsolate that the keepers are sweeping their rocks and giving their pool area a bit of a tidy up.

You don’t bump into too many wolverines in the Bedfordshire countryside these days. As with so many mammals, they were hounded out of England centuries ago by hunting and habitat loss, and now you would normally need to go to the Nordic countries or Russia to see the sturdy bear-like animal in the flesh.

At Whipsnade they appear quite happy frolicking in their paddock, but the largest member of the weasel family is a pretty tough customer with the capacity to travel 40 miles in a day and jaws that can crunch through bone – reindeer bone. Ouch.

A stone’s throw away are the zoo’s brown bears, but they are lying low at the back of their enclosure and not easy to spot. One of the great dilemmas for any zoo wanting to put their animals’ welfare first is that this may frequently mean guests can be a little disappointed when their most sought-after inhabitants don’t turn up on cue.

It’s clear from some of the more critical TripAdvisor guests that such problems can leave a sour taste, especially if the family has left the car outside the zoo in the free car park and is trekking around on foot only to find apparently empty cages.

But you have to take your chances when you visit Whipsnade and for us, the distant glimpse of those wonderful brown bears is strangely moving. We are also taking advantage of the fact that the fee to take your car into the zoo – normally an eye-watering £25 – is £12 until mid-February and worth every penny, even if it does mean worried parents keeping a wary eye out for the slow-moving traffic.

But we’ve made a day of it, arriving at opening time (10am), allowing plenty of time to meander around those rolling acres. In “Africa”, the lions may be asleep and the hunting dogs curled up in a family ball, but the white rhinos are getting a little frisky and the meerkets are obligingly cheeky.

We are also suitably refreshed with mid-morning sausage baps from Base Camp. Not all visitors have sung the praises of the new cafe set-up where you order by tablet, but we found the service cheerful, efficient and friendly, and the snacks freshly made and affordable.

While we are talking about moans, some guests seem to find the zoo layout confusing, but the colourful map gives you a clear overview of where everything is, and you can always retrace your steps if you feel you have missed a highlight.

To be fair, the complaints are clearly in the minority, with most guests happy to sing the zoo’s praises. It’s just tough to keep everyone satisfied…

Breakfast behind us, it’s a little easier to join the giraffes as they take their time savouring their food, delighted younger guests watching each ball of leaves travelling back up that long neck for some more grinding.

The wind may be blowing hard on top of the escarpment and there’s plenty of mud to wade through but the younger guests are all well prepared with their hats and wellies, and everyone seems happily reconciled to the cutting wind and occasional shower.

It’s something the zoo is keenly aware of because they do like to advise visitors of the range of indoor options available – not just cafes and an indoor play area, but other refuges dotted around the park, like the hippo enclosure – hot and smelly, it’s true, but a fascinating place to escape a shower if the residents are enjoying a satisfying wallow.

Other hot spots include a tropical butterfly house where 30 species of colourful and exotic butterflies flutter around and a new aquarium which discovers some of the secrets of freshwater fish, explores unusual habitats from flooded forests to mysterious caves, and tells the story of conserving some of the world’s most critically endangered species.

Back in the open air, it’s time to soak up the view again – and consider whether lunch River Cottage style is a sensible investment at this point. It has to be said that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed the best of reviews since it opened, but if previous guests have found the food disappointing or the restaurant closed, we found the reverse.

Yes, £25 for two main courses is on the dear side, but our dishes were good – and on a sunny day, the setting would have been breathtaking.

You don’t have to eat in the restaurant to enjoy the view, either – there are seats and picnic tables all around the grounds for picnickers on a tighter budget, and other cafes on site to choose from, including the cheaper adjoining deli section.

But for our visit the welcome was warm, the meals inviting and the overall experience enjoyable. And families with young children seemed to be coping well too, despite some of the reservations about the menu expressed online.

From this hilltop outlook it’s easier to get a feel for quite what an inspired investment this was when Hall Farm, a derelict farm on the Dunstable Downs north of London, was bought by the Zoological Society of London in 1926 for a little under £500.

The site was fenced, roads built and trees planted, with the first animals arriving in 1928 and the zoo welcoming its first guests on Sunday May 23, 1931.

The Zoological Society of London had been founded in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles with the aim of promoting the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats, at to that end London Zoo was established in Regents Park. Almost a century later, Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, then the long-term secretary of the ZSL, was inspired by a visit to the Bronx Zoo in New York to create a park in Britain as a conservation centre.

The rest, as they say, is history, except that today the conservation message is stronger than ever and central to everything the zoo does, as the website explains. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the zoo’s breeding programme, so it seems like a good time to head off to “Asia” and meet one of the newest arrivals.

This cheeky female greater one-horned rhino was born to mum Behan and dad Hugo in December, weighing in at 70kg, more than twenty times the average human at birth.

Along with other babies, including a couple of wolverine kits and a reticulated giraffe, these are the newest arrivals at Whipsnade, ready to be added to the annual census when the zookeepers welcome the New Year by dusting off their clipboards and calculators to take stock of every creature, great and small, from lemurs and lions to fast-moving vampire crabs and Madagascan hissing cockroaches.

With the total now topping more than 2,500, things have come a long way since author and conservationist Gerald Durrell worked as a junior keeper here after the war, with Beasts In My Belfry recalling events from the period.

Nowadays there are cheetahs and zebra, herds of camels, yak and deer romping across open paddocks and even a farmyard where visitors of all ages can get a little closer to rabbits and hens, miniature donkeys and baby goats – not to mention a shaggy Poitou donkey, with a larger-than-life character and distinctive coat.

Outside the farm there’s even another unexpected visitor pulling in the crowds, with birdwatchers from all over the UK dusting off their telephoto lenses to pay tribute to an Asian avian visitor blown off course by winter gales during its migration.

The black-throated thrush innocently gobbling berries by the farmyard gate has attracted up to 40 ‘twitchers’ a day since it turned up in December, and seems to have been enjoying all the attention.

It might seem ironic that the surprise arrival could fly off at any time it wants, unlike most of the inhabitants at Whipsnade, but this is not a zoo that leaves you feeling sorry for its animals.

The pioneering conservation work, glorious location and acres of rolling paddocks make it pretty clear here what the top priorities are – and just how much affection and respect the staff have for their furry, feathered and scaly charges.

From the tiger’s enclosure a hungry growl echoes around the park, a sound to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. But the Bedfordshire neighbours must be used to some strange sounds echoing down from the hills…

With the light fading, it’s time to head off, and allow Whipsnade’s motley assortment of wonderful animals to get a good night’s sleep away from prying human eyes.

For more details about tickets and opening times, membership packages, keeper experiences and overnight stays, see the zoo’s website.