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. 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 wintry day, so what possible logic is there for picking this as the perfect time to visit 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.
This cheeky female greater one-horned rhino was born to mum Behan and dad Hugo in December last year, weighing in at 70kg, more than twenty times the average human at birth.
Every New Year the zookeepers tot up the latest arrivals at Whipsnade, taking 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.
The last time we visited there was 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.
It might seem ironic that the surprise arrival – a black-throated thrush – 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 (though Owl Wood is overdue a makeover…).
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.