diamond geezer

 Sunday, July 15, 2007

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 18: London Zoo

Location: Regent's Park, NW1 4RY [map]
Open: 10am - 5:30pm (closes earlier in winter)
Admission: £14.50 (plus optional £1.50 donation)
5-word summary: historic (but expensive) beast-packed menagerie
Website: http://www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo
Time to set aside: a day

giraffes at London ZooLondon Zoo is the oldest scientific zoo in the world, opened in 1828, and occupies a triangle of land in the top right corner of Regent's Park. The zoo is rammed full of grunting squawking beasties, 651 species in total, and every day a 652nd species queues at the entrance gate to come inside and take a look around. It costs a fortune to buy tickets, not helped by an additional £1.50 "optional" donation slapped onto the admission price, and a family of 4 shouldn't expect to see change from £50. But where else in London are you going to see lions, tigers and giraffes? And penguins and zebras? And ickle cutesy-wutesy meerkats? Just remember that all the "big" animals such as elephants, rhinos and cheetahs are housed up the M1 at Whipsnade instead, so don't be disappointed when you don't see any. And don't visit if the Victorian concept of caged animals makes you feel uneasy.

To get the most out of a visit to London Zoo you need to arrive early and keep moving. There are a very large number of enclosures, cages and exhibits crammed into 36 acres, and it's a bit galling to get home, look at the map and notice that you missed something. Follow the green line painted on the paths and you should stumble across most of the creatures housed within. But don't expect to see every animal along your journey. Many spend much of the day asleep, or lurking in their indoor quarters, and it can be quite a challenge to spot them stalking out and about.

Gorilla KingdomThe zoo's newest attraction, opened in March, is Gorilla Kingdom. Essentially it's just a very big enclosure housing three gorillas, but laid out like an African forest clearing with a wiggly pedestrian walkway around the perimeter. Nobody stops to peer into the monkey cages alongside, they're all too busy peering across the moat or through the glass wall to see if the large female is waving her hairy backside at the crowds again. Other new geographical-based habitats include a Rainforest Lookout (packed with "small animals") and an African Bird Safari (a posh name for a mini-aviary). Elsewhere you can now walk through an enclosure swarming with squirrel monkeys, and stroll through a heated tunnel full of giant flapping butterflies. Integration is the zoo's latest watchword, and each new development is moving gradually away from "one cage, one animal".

Several old-style enclosures remain. The giraffes still live in Decimus Burton's 1836 Giraffe House whose simple functional design is very much fit for purpose even in the 21st century. The flamingo pond is even older, not that you'd ever guess. The gloomy Reptile House looks every bit of 80 years old, however, with its slimy inhabitants slithering around inside compact glass-fronted prisons. The owls roost forgotten inside a row of dreary cages to the north of the canal. The bears have been rather luckier. They have a fake terraced mountainside to lumber across, unexpectedly expansive, complete with four concrete peaks and a nice view of the cafe.

giraffes at London ZooFinest of all the zoo's architecture is surely the Lubetkin Penguin Pool - a perfect 1930s example of emerging Modernist design. An elliptical concrete curve, painted shining white, surrounds an azure blue central pond. Two elegant intertwined spiral ramps cross the centre of the pool. Imagine a parade of penguins waddling up the staircase behind, then gently descending the central ramp before splashing into the pool for a swim and going round for another circuit. This is spectator heaven. Unfortunately it wasn't penguin heaven, lacking sufficient environmental variety, and the penguins have now been shipped off to a new enclosure on the opposite side of the park. This has burrows for nesting, and a deeper pool for swimming, and none of that nasty concrete which used to hurt the poor fellows' feet. It's a popular spot, and the daily fish-feeding frenzy still attracts impenetrable crowds, but this mass migration has left the original Grade 1 listed pool unused and overlooked. Zoo authorities have tried filling it with alligators, and later with porcupines, but none of them really settled either. Until further notice this magnificent Art Deco animal hotel remains vacant. [photos]

Despite the exorbitant admission price London Zoo still makes for a winning day out, as a very tired nephew and niece of mine will testify. They were particularly taken by the lions, even though the lions didn't do much apart from snooze on a waterside platform in the afternoon sun. They loved the pack of show-off otters, even more adorable than the grinning meerkats in the enclosure nextdoor. They adored the tiny baby monkey they spotted deep in camouflaged foliage, and pointing her out excitedly to fellow visitors. They enjoyed standing right next to a naughty zebra while it did a poo by the fence. They even liked the Snowdon Aviary, tucked away in the overlooked northwestern corner of the site, where the birds flew free beneath a spiky cabled roof. I just didn't have the heart to tell them afterwards that they probably missed seeing a third of the animals in the zoo because we didn't walk along the right paths. Never mind, that'll give us something to look out for the next time we go.
by bus: 274  by canal: London Waterbus

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