Just an hour’s drive west of Manchester you will find Britain’s best zoo (as named by TripAdvisor 2017), Chester Zoo. Home to over 21,000 animals spread across 125 acres of award-winning zoological gardens there really is something for everyone.
The Zoo, which first opened in 1931 by George Mottershead and his family in the grounds of Oakfield Manor now sees an annual footfall of 1.9million people making it Britain’s most visited wildlife attraction.
Before the zoo, the Mottershead family owned a market garden business in Shavington near Crewe. George Mottershead collected animals such as lizards and insects that often arrived with the exotic plants imported for the business. His fascination with animals stemmed back to a trip to Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester as a child (a zoo which incidentally no longer exists).
Despite being temporarily wheelchair bound following becoming wounded in the First World War George’s collection of animals continued to grow. Soon the family ran out of room to house their collection and so the search to find a new home or risk giving them up began.
The family settled on Oakfield Manor in Upton by Chester.
They wanted to build a zoo without the traditional Victorian iron bars to cage the animals.
They took Carl Hagenbeck (they guy who invented the modern concept of the zoo)’s idea for moats and ditches.
For example Chester Zoo’s first chimpanzees were released into their new enclosure in 1956 which was made up of a group of grassy islands. Visitors were only separated from the chimps by a 3.7 metre (12 foot) strip of water. No-body yet know if Chimpanzees could swim so it was seen as a little risky. It turned out that they can’t.
The Chimp islands are still a centrepiece of Chester Zoo today.
At the time this was a country village but now it has become another suburb of Chester. As most new and unusual things, Chester Zoo was subject to staunch opposition to begin with. Hard to believe considering its popularity now.
Following the Second World War and despite rationing still being in full force the Mottersheads began rapidly expanding the Zoo and digging deep into their creativity to overcome problems.
For instance, the Polar bear enclosure was built using recycled wartime road blocks and pillboxes.
They adopted the slogan “always building”. A slogan which is still very apt today as it pushes the boundaries of conservation and is always looking to improve the animal enclosures and wellbeing.
Planning Your Visit
Planning your visit to Chester Zoo is super easy.
You can find all you need to know about the zoo including ticket prices, maps of the park, advice on where to stay and news about zoo which may affect your trip (such as planned enclosure closures) on their website here.
Prices do change seasonally but I would advise you to pre-book your tickets as you get a nice little discount for doing so. Plus you can just rock up at the gates and miss any queues at the ticket office.
For those of you with mobility issues fear not! Chester Zoo is really accessible. There really aren’t any stairs with ramps (that are not overly steep) used around enclosures where being up high is essential – think the Realm of the Red Apes.
There is even the opportunity to hire mobility scooters or buggies (for children) to help you get around if walking the 125 acres of the zoo seems a little overwhelming. At my last visit I easily racked up over 12,000 steps!
Plus for those who may be strapped for time or find themselves a little tired halfway round you can always catch the monorail to your next destination.
The park opens at 10am and I would definitely recommend getting there within the first hour of opening.
Not only do you give yourself ample time to see all the amazing creatures at your own pace but you also give yourself a good chance of parking reasonably close to the park gates. We all know that feeling at the end of the day when you have a trek back to the car and you can’t remember where you left it luckily the car park is split into zones.
When you arrive
Once you have parked up (or been dropped off if you’re using public transport) rock up at the gates with your printed off ticket or alternatively just show them them the QR code found on the confirmation email for the staff at the gate to scan and BOOM your adventure begins!
First up, unless you are a regular, I would recommend picking up one of Chester Zoo’s handy free maps. It can come in really handy if you need to quickly find a toilet or plan the best route to get to the next animals that you really want to see.
If you really want to capture your day there are opportunities throughout the park to have your photo taken by the staff often in front of a green wall. The staff will then superimpose a background into the picture appropriate to that of the animals enclosure you are at. You can then check out and purchase any or all of these from the stand towards the entrance/exit of the park.
Now you are all set you just have to decide where you want to go first?
Let me help you with that…
My Top 5 Things to see
Chester Zoo is chock full of animals.
There’s over 21,000 of them and everywhere you turn you will find a new, and sometimes quite random enclosure with animals you may never have known existed before.
I had one such experience when leaving the Elephant house we came across the Prevost squirrels which are basically colourful squirrels that are native to Southeast Asia.
To help you make the most of your visit, here are my top 5 things that you have to go see.
The butterfly house
Located behind the elephants and across from the giraffes step through the doors and into the world of flutterbys.
One of my favourite little enclosures especially good for warming up on a cold day as the house is kept warm and humid. Just like the butterflies like it.
They are surprisingly friendly and some a pretty big too.
On our last trip, my brother had a bright red hoody on which some of the butterflies really seemed to like. When he stood still for a few moments one even landed on him! Unfortunately my camera was still fogging over as it hadn’t yet acclimatised and so i didn’t manage to capture it.
The Bat cave
No I’m not talking about Batman’s cave. You won’t find the batmobile in this cave.
You will, however, find a lot of free flying bats.
It’s dark (because, you know, it’s a cave) and flash photography isn’t allowed so as not to distress the bats.
There is also a little tunnel which you have to walk through about halfway through the cave. And yes, there are bats in there too that will fly super closer to you. However, because of their super awesome sonar they won’t bump into to so don’t be scared.
This place kind of feels more like a ride akin i guess to a haunted house perhaps? It’s definitely an experience not to be missed
Slight word of warning though, it does kind of stink in there. I mean it’s a cave full of bats where they live, and eat their food and do their business (if you catch my drift), some of them are also pretty huge, so that kind of makes sense but I thought I’d give you the heads up.
The Jaguar House
I love enclosures that give you lots to see not just a single animal. The Jaguar house is one such enclosure.
Which is pretty handy really because the Jaguars can be quite elusive animals. On my last visit I was only lucky enough to get a fleeting glimpse of these beautiful creatures.
I was however, lucky enough to get a good look (and a few decent photos) of one of my favourite animals, the sloth.
They were even up and about moving which is always a bonus with these guys! I just love how they move so gracefully. It’s like they are gliding and it’s no effort at all but it’s in slow motion.
There is also an Amazonian aquarium, a colony of ants and the last time we went there was also a bear (although this may have been a temporary arrangement).
The Chinese Rock Garden
Found towards the back of Chester Zoo, behind Oakfield house and close to the Red Panda enclosure you will find the Chinese Rock garden.
Described as a place to “take a breather after a hectic couple of hours exploring the zoo” this quiet and peaceful area exemplifies Chester zoo’s ethos about not being just about the animals.
Here, as well as, throughout the park you will find an abundance of plants both native and exotic, both abundant and endangered.
It makes sense really, as without the plants that make up the habitats, there would be no habitat for the many creatures to live in.
The chinese rock garden has an extra special element to it however. That of reflection and memories. It is here that remembrance stones are laid in memory of the deceased members of Mottershead family.
There are also a handful of other gardens spread throughout the park and you an find out more about them here.
Chester Zoo’s latest development and major overhaul of an area is called the Islands. Here you can go Island hopping across six South-East Asian Islands and get a real flavour of the sights, sounds and creatures that call these places home.
You can go exploring in Panay, Paua, Bali, Sumatra, Sumba and Sulawesi all in an afternoon! Plus if you don’t fancy the walk you can always jump aboard the Lazy River Boat Trip which departs from the jetty on Sumba Island.
This is by far my favourite area of the zoo. The amount of time and effort that has gone into creating this unique area is phenomenal and you leave with not only a better knowledge of the types of animals and plants that call these islands home but of the trials and tribulations that face the people that inhabit them too.
Don’t forget to check out the Monsoon Forest – the largest indoor zoo exhibit in UK history. You get to journey from the tops of the rainforest canopy right down to it’s watery bottom experiencing all manor of different creatures.
From beautiful, colourful birds, cheeky monkeys, to huge crocodiles, around each corner lies a new treat. Be warned though don’t get too comfy watching those animals that inhabit the floor of the rainforest or you may just find yourself victim to bodily functions of those that live in the canopy like I did. Yes that is right I (well my camera) was pooped on by a bird.
Yes I know I’ve missed off the elephants and the lions and the meerkats and the chimps. However, the elephants are kind of the first thing that you see when you get to Chester Zoo so it’s kind of a given that you’re going to see them and I wanted to let you know about some stuff you might not have thought about or dismissed at first glance. Hence not talking about the likes of the lions and meerkats and chimps.
Surprisingly I’m not talking about the animals.
While yes, you could be lucky enough to catch the keepers feeding the animals there is no advertised time for this (there is however, advertised talks where you can learn more about individual animals which you can find out about here).
I talking about you guys.
All that wandering round must be making you hungry right?
Well don’t worry there are a lots of different options for you. From the many kiosks for a quick snack or drink, to June’s food court or Manado street kitchen for something more substantial there are food outlets scattered through the park. There is even an ice cream parlour to cool you down during that hot english summer week.
But those things are always so expensive!
Well fear not, Chester Zoo loves a good picnic as much as the next person. There are lots of benches and tables throughout the park where you can enjoy your favourite sandwiches (or equivalent picnic food) brought from home.
Next time you are up in teh North West of England, or if you’re in need of something different to do. Think Chester Zoo and go.
Even on a colder or rainy day its still an awesome day out.
Even if you’re not a child or don’t have children it’s still an awesome day out.
Even if you have been before it’s still an awesome day out (and you should probably already know this).
Yes I know that keeping animals all caged up isn’t how they are supposed to live their life but Chester Zoo provides them with ample space equipped to their needs and provides them with enrichment to help make their lives as enjoyable as possible. They are also leaders in conservation and to be honest without zoos a whole host of endangered species would probably already be extinct.
Until Next time
For more ideas about what to get up to in and around Manchester check out other posts in my Manchester like a Local series including,