Days Out: In the wild at Woburn

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The Independent Online
The opening of Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida may put Britain's safari parks in the shade. But, for Sarah Jewell and young friends, Bedfordshire still has some bite

Woburn Safari Park, set in the lush, green parkland of Woburn Abbey, was created by the Duke of Bedford in 1970 and has an impressive collection of dangerous and exotic animals. Lions, tigers, bears, wolves, rhinos and elephants roam around the grounds, originally landscaped by Humphrey Repton in the early 19th century.

There have been animals at Woburn (pronounced "Wooburn" by his nibs and "Wohburn" by the rest of us) since 1811 when the sixth Duke established a menagerie of birds, antelopes and llamas. Giant woolly llamas still live in the park but the animals that cause the most excitement are undoubtedly the big cats that prowl alongside the cars. The only place where it is safe to walk about without fear of being gobbled up is the leisure area. Here children can let off steam in the adventure playgrounds or brush up their animal knowledge in the wild watch computer room, and there are lots more animals to see, including the squirrel monkeys in their newly- opened walk-through enclosure.

The visitors: Sarah Jewell took Tim Swan, a barrister, and his seven- year-old twin sons, Nat and Joe.

Sarah: Having lived in Africa as a child and visited game reserves with my father, a zoologist specialising in African wildlife, I was intrigued to find out what a British safari park would be like. I was delighted to see that although there is not the thrill of tracking the animals down (they are all on full view in the open countryside), it is still exciting to watch these beautiful animals wandering about uncaged. The sense of freedom is illusory but the huge, prehistoric-shaped rhinos grazing quietly on the green grass seemed bovinely contented and the pride of lions nestling against the hillside, with the wind blowing through their manes, looked proud and sleepy.

The African big game were untroubled by the huge, Jurassic Park-style security gates that keep them fenced in, but the Bengali tigers didn't seem so happy. Naturally solitary animals, there are eight of them pacing about - the result of an overly successful breeding programme during the time when the park was managed by the Chipperfields (of circus fame); and the plan is to reduce their numbers, in the course of time, to a single pair. The wizened-faced Rhesus monkeys, by contrast, are emboldened by living in a big social group and they delight in playing gang warfare over the cars, jumping up on to the windscreens and pounding the roofs to howls of excitement from the human apes inside.

Chris Webster, chief executive of Woburn, says he wants to create as many "wow" moments as possible, and as we drove through the park the car was echoing to the word. For me, the real "wow" moment was seeing a huge black bear hug its rotund body around the base of a sheer pine tree and then haul its way up with extraordinary agility. I was amazed that such a heavy animal could be so graceful and it was thrilling to see this native of the forests of North America looking so relaxed in a rainy English safari park.

We couldn't resist driving around the safari circuit once more. On this trip a huge, perfect rainbow suddenly appeared in the sky over the aptly named Rainbow Landing aviary. It was the concluding "wow" moment to a delightful day.

Tim: We were at Woburn for six hours and there was not a single complaint from anyone. I liked the safari best, but it was good that there were the adventure bits as well so that the kids had somewhere to run around. I was impressed by the knowledge of the staff.

The safari was absolutely splendid. It was wonderful to see the animals from a glass box rather than in a glass box. We drove around the park twice, in the morning and in the afternoon, and I liked seeing how the animals were behaving differently the second time around. The lions looked fabulous, like cool Rastas with their long manes. It was also very nice to see the animals looking so happy; it truly made a welcome change from other zoos where all too often the animals look miserable, caged in their pens.

Nat: Driving around was wicked. Best of all I liked the rhinos, monkeys, lions, bears, penguins and bison. I liked playing in the adventure park because it had a huge slide and I liked seeing the baby elephant pulling a log along the ground and lying down to be brushed by his keeper. It was good seeing the squirrel monkeys and it was wicked that we were the first children ever to go into their enclosure. I enjoyed feeding the parrots with nectar from a little pot. I would recommend visiting Woburn to absolutely anyone.

Joe: I liked driving around the safari circuits, and the way all the monkeys jumped on the car. And I liked seeing the bears up the trees, and the lions and tigers. The wolves looked like Alsatians but they don't run like Alsatians, they trot. The rhinos were so big and strong but best of all I liked the hippo; it looked liked a water pig but it was much bigger than a pig. The safari beats London Zoo because at the zoo you can't see the animals properly, as you have to look through bars. I would recommend it for anyone over three.

The deal: Woburn Safari Park, Woburn Park, Woburn (01525 290407) open daily 10am-5pm, adults pounds 10.50, children pounds 7 (family ticket concessions available).

How to get there: exit at Junction 13 of the M1. The park is clearly signposted from there.

Facilities: daily programme of animal talks and demonstrations; adventure playgrounds; Treetop action trail; Badger Valley play area for under fives; Junglies gift shop; Safari restaurant.

Other safari parks: West Midland Safari and Leisure Park, Spring Grove, Bewdley (01299 402114); Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, Dunstable (0990 200123); Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, Port Lympne, Lympne, (01303 264647); Knowsley Safari Park, Prescot, Merseyside (0151 4309009); Longleat Estate, Warminster (01985 844400).