It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts, two days before our planned trip to Marwell Zoo, the forecast was so bad that the friends we were going with nearly pulled out, then on the day itself, we misjudged the time needed to get the children out of the house and left our friends waiting at the gate for half an hour, but even so from the start there was something about Marwell that made me think it was going to be a special day.
“Spacious” and “Beautifully landscaped” are generally not words you associate with zoos or anywhere that the public descend with children on mass, but Marwell seems to specialise in surprises, even for returners. It may have been our first trip, but our friends who had been several times before found new buildings, exhibits or cafes at every turn and we got the distinct feeling that this was a place that was being invested in and cared for.
Marwell, near Winchester in Hampshire, was set up in 1972 and has from the start been strongly focused on conservation and education. To this day they continue their conservation work with projects across the globe and use the money and the publicity that the park provides to support the cause. This conservation side to Marwell is something that I think tends to go over the heads of many of the zoo visitors as they rush from one attraction to another and was one of the reasons that Marwell rebranded to become Marwell Wildlife 10 years ago, a name they still use for the parent organisation.
The zoo itself has all the diverse range of animals you’d expect, alongside the giraffes, there are meerkats, snow leopards, cheetahs, hippos, rhinos, antelopes, buffalo and a large collection of birds, reptiles and fishes.
It feels very much more like a park than a zoo, a place we were happy to linger and somewhere that offered more for everyone than we could have possibly completed in a day. In the unexpectedly warm temperatures of the May bank holiday weekend, it felt much more like attractions we have visited in France, than the usual rushed and busy zoos I have experienced in the UK.
As well as hundreds of animals, there are a surprising number of other attractions, including two trains that take you round the site, a road train pulled by a tractor and a miniature locomotive which runs along a track weaving round the site. You have to pay extra to travel on the rail train, but the road one is a free hop on hop off experience, which really helps to navigate the 140 acres.
There are also five children’s adventure playgrounds that seem to spring out of nowhere at just the point when small children are looking for a break, and adults need some refreshments. There are climbing frames, slides and a giant sandpit with winches to lift the sand up and down in funnels, cafes, picnic spots and copious ice cream stands. Perhaps the only thing missing were spots outside to fill reusable water bottles, but it’s possible I just missed them.
New to the park this year is their Tropical House, part of a £17 million investment program creating improved habitats for animals and more immersive experiences for visitors. The building is quite a striking piece of architecture with a wide pathway that leads you down and through the habitat. It reminded us of the Universeum, the innovative public Science centre in Gothenburg where monkeys mingle with full size trees.
Marwell has its own star mammal attractions in the Tropical House, a two-towed sloth and pygmy marmosets and alongside them are yellow-throated frogs and free flying tropical birds. We would have liked to have stayed longer to appreciate them, but with temperatures in the high 20s outside, it was (appropriately) tropically warm inside the glass dome.
Another addition is the Lemur Loop, a walk through enclosure with 4 species of lemurs and a peafowl (that’s a Peacock to you and me) roaming freely. When we visited they were as confused as us by the weather, halfway through shedding their winter coat and growing their summer one and bunched in a corner hiding from the visitors, such is the way with real life exhibits! Alice recognising a fellow cheeky primate did attempt to bound across the woodchip to join them, only to be quickly called back by us and an attentive Marwell staff member. I suspect the zookeepers might be spending quite a bit of time reigning in free roaming toddlers in this exhibit, in fact I rather suspect we might see the addition of a knee height rope barrier next time we go back!
After an icecream stop (an attempt to cool down…it was practically medicinal) the obligatory gift shop finished off our day at the zoo. Alice chose a 4 foot inflatable Lemur to take home (!) while Theo picked some plastic animals, which made me pause to ponder how difficult it often is to walk the line between education, engagement and sustainability. I know it’s something I struggle with (as evidenced by the purchases!) but Marwell themselves must also be painfully aware of the irony of trying to help the environment whilst at the same time purchasing and selling plastic to fund it. It’s a tricky subject with no right answers.
We finished the day with a very positive and warm feeling about Marwell. It was a real pleasure to visit and a place that clearly so much care and attention has been put into, we’ll be recommending it to our friends and look forward to returning.
Hampshire SO21 1JH
Open year round from 10am, closing time varies depending on season, check website for details.
• Marwell runs photographic experience days with a maximum of 7 guests, the park wide days are already booked up for 2018, but there are spaces available on their tropical house photographic days. A great gift for an enthusiastic photographer.
• There’s a Flickr pool for images of Marwell Wildlife here
• Planning a photographic trip to Marwell? This blog post details all the best places and times to visit to get the best photos.
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