A visit to Chester Zoo

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:18 am

Elephants at Chester ZooIt seemed like a good idea.  Extreme youngsters were visiting; they like animals don’t they – so what better than a trip to the zoo? Eschewing a more local option in favour of the much bigger and allegedly more betterer Chester Zoo, a 4-5 hour round trip, we set off with a song on our lips and all that stuff.  Nobody recognised my tuneless rendition of “Daddy’s taking us to the zoo.”  Maybe because it was tuneless.

Lion, Chester ZooChester Zoo has quite a reputation and, with more than 2 million pre-pandemic visitors each year, is Britain’s most visited zoo.  It is also, some say, the best.  Chester Zoo covers 128 acres, has in excess of 20,000 animals (does that include ants?) and employs more than 1,000 people.  Other zoos are available – see below.  I confess to generally enjoying an occasional zoo visit, provided the animals don’t appear cramped or distressed.  You may claim that detaining and caging any creature is cruel and morally wrong; the counter-argument is that many zoos nowadays do much to preserve species that man’s greed and thoughtlessness has endangered and that many animals are bred in captivity.  Both positions are valid.  The fact is that zoos exist and, personally, I reckon their work now does far more good than harm.  In any event, the kids were not the only ones looking forward to the visit.

Lizard, Chester ZooTo anyone fortunate enough to enjoy much of Britain’s countryside and heritage for free, or to have unlimited visits to larger historic sites included in an annual membership subscription (see which is the best heritage organisation to join) paying more than a few quid to get into anything is a hard concept to grasp.  So when I learned that the entry to Chester Zoo would cost our party of four adults and three small children about £160, I was tearfully grateful that someone else was paying.  For comparison, based on current data (£ per pint, pints per session and No thereof), it would take me about ten weeks to drink the equivalent in value of Special Belly Grower ale down at the Old Rupturede Ducke. Therefore, supporting your local pub is cheaper than going to the zoo.  Chester is not the most expensive wildlife encounter in Britain, but it is clearly far from a cheap family day out.  Pile on the cost of food, snacks, buggy hire and anything you feel compelled to buy from the giftshop (cuddly snakes, rhinos and so on) and it becomes even more of an exceptional event.  Many people will not be able to afford it, which means that children who would probably most benefit from the experience, let alone adore it, must be missing out.

Meercats, Chester ZooThe objective of visiting a zoo is to see animals.  Obviously.  But it takes particularly careful planning to see the greatest possible number of them while you are there.  Timing is everything.  So, we went in January, in the middle of winter, when it is cold and daylight hours are short.  In addition, Chester, for the benefit of the overseas reader, is in north-west England, a notoriously soggy and chilly part of the country at the best of times.  Unlike, say, sub-Saharan Africa.  Whilst the day of our visit was far from the storm-lashed arctic experience it might have been, no one should have been surprised that most sensible animals appeared to be snuggled under their duvets, or maybe indoors playing on the Xbox.  The viewing rate was further reduced by a rumour of avian flu that forced the closure of walk-through bird enclosures.  In addition, some precautions against Covid-19 were in place, so parts of the complex were shut.  I would not complain about those precautions and, frankly, was pleased that most animals were practising social distancing – especially the Big Cats.  Even so, the value of our visit, expressed as the ratio of animals seen to cost, could have been considerably better.  That said, zoos, like all attractions, have suffered financial losses during the pandemic, must be hideously expensive to maintain, and it was good to see as many people there as we did. Some, sporting curiously orange complexions, were almost as interesting as the captive creatures.  Glancing at them furtively, I wondered whether Trump supporters were being secretly bred in the Wirral – hopefully for export. Or perhaps sun bed establishments in the region have being enjoying good trade at the expense of resorts in Spain or Turkey.

Rhino at Chester Zoo‘Apps’ are everywhere these days. “Download our app, take up memory on your mobile phone, freely hand over your personal details and save us wasting good money on adequate customer service.”  Last year, we were rudely refused service in the Worcester branch of Wetherspoons because we simply wanted to order food in person; I suppose it serves us right for going there (never again) in the first place. Apps are the thing; I shouldn’t be surprised if undertakers had them.  Chester Zoo certainly has and it seems this is the way to find your way round, because we couldn’t see anywhere to buy a map. A decent map of a large attraction is, I suggest, an essential tool in making the most of your visit.  If you don’t want to use an attraction’s app, but still quaintly insist on knowing where you are and finding your way around, you have to take a photo of a map at the entrance (assuming that option is available) – which is what we did at Chester. Given the limitation of screen size, however, it was less than ideal.

Islands, Chester ZooThe apparent absence of animals from many enclosures did not prevent us enjoying those that decided to say hello.  And, as you can see from the photographs, Chester Zoo keeps many traditional favourites.  It has also invested heavily in some innovative artificial environments, including an island area that aims to replicate tropical South East Asia, and which features a river boat trip.  Even with invisible animals, it is impressive; but the boat trip was closed.

Tiger, Chester ZooI enjoyed watching the animals we met.  Staring into the terrifying, beautiful, green eyes of a tiger jealously guarding the remains of a rabbit was quite an experience.  I was also impressed that the rhino, powerful and prehistoric, politely refrained from mentioning the truly awful smell that someone had made in his home. A highlight, though, had to be the butterfly house, in which delicate, highly coloured, creatures gently fluttered about your head in the humid atmosphere and my camera lens steamed up.  Kids loved it; it held their attention in a way that other enclosures – particularly the empty ones, failed to do.  Sometimes, of course, patience is required.  I leaned on a barrier, gazing at a sleek cheetah pacing moodily up and down a worn path; after a short while, I noticed that the rest of our group were somewhere in the distance.  This sort of thing kept happening; it is a curious irony, I thought, that children often don’t stand still long enough to observe the creatures they have come to see.  Perhaps zoos aren’t for youngsters after all; perhaps it is a feature of our instant gratification, short attention span, society.

Cheetah, Chester ZooIt not being ideal weather for a picnic, we had planned to eat at one of Chester Zoo’s catering outlets.  Since several of these were closed, choice was limited.  Inside, they were heaving with a variety of fellow Homo Sapiens, plus a smattering of other primates (some of them orange). We ended up at June’s Food Court, which served healthy options like batter with a touch of fish, chips, burgers, pizzas and fizzy drinks.  Despite the long queues, it was highly efficient – and I didn’t need to use an app.  The fish and chips was surprisingly horrible, however, and a lack of table space meant we had to eat outside anyway, doing battle with aggressive, greedy, seagulls.  We won, but it was a close thing.

June's Food HallJune’s is named for June Mottershead, daughter of the zoo’s founder, George Mottershead (1894-1978).  George had a childhood dream of creating a zoo without bars and opened Chester Zoo in 1931.

Butterffly House, Chester Zoo

For more information about Chester Zoo, here a link to its website.

We mentioned other zoos are available and here is a selection. Click or tap a name to reach the website.  I wouldn’t over-rely on the accuracy of the stats if I were you, but the first three charge more than Chester for entry.  Some places have a bewildering number of price options, some of which (like rail tickets) seem designed to confuse, whilst others, like different prices at different times of the year, make sense. Message to railway and zoo operators: always make it easy for people to buy from you.

What Where Size (Acres) No of animals
Longleat Safari Park Wiltshire 9,000 500
ZSL London Zoo Regent’s Park 36 14,900
ZSL Whipsnade Bedfordshire 600 3,600
Twycross Warwickshire 80 500
Edinburgh Edinburgh 82 2,500
Colchester Essex 60 Dunno
South Lakes Cumbria 51 1,000
Cotswold Wildlife Park Oxfordshire 160 1,500
Marwell Hampshire 140 1,200
Bristol Bristol 12 7,000

Snakes, Chester Zoo

68 thoughts on “A visit to Chester Zoo”

  1. Hahaha! Mike, some of your writing in this reminds me so much of Bill Bryson and his dry wit. “Batter with a touch of fish”, animals playing Xbox and orange people fitting in particularly made me laugh. 😀

    I am REALLY surprised, btw, that London Zoo has 20,000 animals?!? I have visited, many years ago, but can’t remember seeing a particularly large amount of animals compared to other zoos, especially given its size (I would guess many of them are insects and reptiles, but still). I’m yet to visit Chester Zoo and have always heard it’s excellent, but it’s a shame so many areas were closed off – and also that so many animals were hiding from the lovely UK winter!

  2. I think you made some great memories there for your grandchildren.
    I cannot remember the last time I went to a zoo, it seems so long ago.

  3. I appreciate your wit, Mike and we share your feelings about the leaning towards orange. We have not visited Cheshire Zoo, even though it is on our doorstep and that is purely down to the entry price. Little ones do not stand still for long, as you have witnessed. Entertaining post. Hugs to you both.

  4. Hi Mike – I’m glad it was ‘successful’ and I expect the kids (little ones!) will remember their particular specialities … a scientist who is now an entomologist, George McGavin has a wonderful story … as how when an enthusiastic youngster was very happy when out with his school to sit on the ground and ponder what was around him – going off into ‘the bush’ did not interest him (much) – way too many distractions. So you never know said grandchildren will astound you as they spread their wings – a Chester Zoo is a good initiative. Fun visit – and yes I bet you were glad you weren’t paying! Cheers Hilary

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed your amusing visit to a zoo. If you visit the Washington DC, US area, we have a wonderful zoo in Baltimore MD. I like it better than the National Zoo in DC. One thing though, please keep your own orange people – we have enough here already. Love your posts!

  6. Seems like an awful lot of money when the whole site is not available. The last zoo I viited was at Doue La Fontaine in the Maine et Loire….open enclosures and well organised, right down to the escapologist monkey who raided rucksacks. A friend and I were ordered to sit down on a bench to have our photographs taken by her gentleman friend who later showed us the result….behind us was a large vulture and he entitled his oevre ‘three old birds’.

  7. Well, when I read this line at the top: Eschewing a more local option in favour of the much bigger and allegedly more betterer Chester Zoo, a 4-5 hour round trip, we set off with a song on our lips and all that stuff.” I thought — “I’ve seen this movie before!” The trip to the zoo where distance and exhaustion turns a glorious day into one you are more than relieved has come to an end!

    I’m delighted that apart from the admission (Yikes! Ten weeks of beer at the pub?) it was a fun day and your observations made me smile and the “surprisigly horrible” “batter with a touch of fish” brought downright laughter! Covid has changed a lot of things in public venues (at least it is an open one) but it shouldn’t change the food prep! And I’m with you on apps. And maps. Your observation about zoos perhaps not being so much for kids after all is an apt one. For Christmas we gave the kids a family membership to the Detroit Zoo because the kids can’t handle a long day of it so now they can go back often, which they love to do. (Maybe it’s the parents who can’t stand a full day of the kids at the zoo…) Anyway, this one is a gem! A perfect review and wonderful insight!

  8. A trip to Chester Zoo was always a highlight in my childhood. It has always been well-respected for not having animals in small cages, even before other zoos saw the light.
    Like one of your previous commentators, I have mixed feelings about zoos. They do a great deal towards helping re-establish endangered creatures, but keeping a creature that, in the wild, ranges for many square kilometers in a relatively smallish space does seem wrong.
    Your photos are wonderful, though. But the food doesn’t sound like what I remember from taking my own children there in the 70s. Perhaps we took a picnic!

  9. A great account of your visit. My last zoo trip was to Chester. In pre Covid times and the summer but not school holidays it was an enjoyable experience. I think I would have been a lot more disgruntled than you with regards value for money.

  10. I can’t remember the last time I visited a zoo …
    The grandchildren went to Marwell Zoo a couple of years ago which they enjoyed.
    Perhaps we will get the opportunity to visit one later in the year …

    All the best Jan

  11. Nice shots! I visited my son and grandson down south in October last year and took them to Whipsnade, wasn’t too impressed it was a pain trying to find our way to anywhere we wanted to be. We have a couple of small zoos up here which are brilliant, one even has a pair of snow leopards, and I like going to those with my grandkids and a camera.

  12. artandarchitecturemainly

    In the two years of Covid, we haven’t been anywhere much except the local supermarkets, pharmacies, parks and outside coffee shops. Thus tv programmes that I would never have looked at before Covid!

    I discovered The Secret Life of the Zoo has been a terrific programme, filmed at Chester Zoo and other sites. The most interesting aspects have been the sex lives of animals, birthing and raising babies, and the relationships with keepers. Even my grandchildren have loved The Secret Life of the Zoo, and they normally think my taste in tv programmes is horrible,

  13. …. It’s never been the same, since the last Matamata terrapin (the ugliest creature on the planet) moved on.

  14. Those empty enclosures are a challenge for those of use with less than great eyesight- I always find myself staring for far too long, wondering if there’s something there that I’m just not seeing…
    It sounds like a fun day, apps, price tags, and fishless batter notwithstanding! Thanks for the tour with great pictures, and some great laughs.
    Those price tags are painful- my dad gifted us a zoo trip, but I’m saving it up for a little bit warmer weather. While I’d rather see animals in the wild, I do enjoy seeing them the zoos that take treating their animals well seriously (at least until I manage that world tour to see them all in person in nature… :)) Our nearest one breeds Sumatran tigers, clouded leopards and red wolves- so beautiful! One zookeeper talked about how part of his job was to take baby tigers home at night to take care of feedings etc. What a job!

  15. Thank goodness zoos today have animals in natural habitats. I enjoyed how you thought about children with their short attention span. They have to start somewhere, and these zoo trips will have a lasting memory. January at a zoo would be pretty calm, although that tiger was eyeballing you. Wonderful post, Mike.

  16. You have brought back memories of my most recent visit to this Zoo that I visited often as a child. I enjoyed seeing how the Zoo had developed and created distinct zones and climate areas for the animals.

    When visiting as a child we always took picnics rather than using the in-house facilities. That cut down on the cost of the visit.

    I hate apps and always check out options before visiting places. Is a map or guidebook available?

    With regards to a map, there is one on the Zoo website which can be downloaded and printed before a visit.


    We were considering visiting Chester Zoo in a few days time but we decided to leave it until the longer opening hours to make the most of our visit.

  17. Thank you for this zoo visit AND your typically eloquent description of apps (“Apps are everywhere these days. ‘Download our app, take up memory on your mobile phone, freely hand over your personal details and save us wasting good money on adequate customer service.'”) This is one of many reasons i happily live without a cell phone. I can’t remember the last time I went to a zoo. i DID go to the aquarium in Boston a few years ago and was startled to discover how much money it cost. But, like the Chester Zoo, they do a lot of ecologically important work; so I paid the fee and savored the amazing breadth of sea creatures on display… BTW, they were wise enough not to serve fish & chips in their onsite restaurant.

      1. I am fascinated, at the moment, by four jackdaws frequenting our garden. One is particularly adept at using a cup shape in a tree to balance a half coconut filled with fat. He lifts the coconut off its hook and transfers it into the same spot each time. Marvellous free entertainment!

  18. seems like you and your visitors made the best out of a less than ideal situation. You also got some great photos, and I love the humor that you sprinkled throughout the post…

  19. seems like you and your visitors made the best of less than ideal situation. YOu got some great photos, and I love the sense of humor you wrote this one with…

  20. So when all is said and done, seems most likely that we would not find you again at a zoo, but at the Ruptured Duck. I’m definitely not a fan of zoos, but I sure enjoyed reading this post from the intrepid ABAB team

  21. Like you, I am not a fan of those ghastly “animal jails” but some zoos today do a lot of good in the research/breeding programmes.
    A long time ago I went to Chessington Zoo. It was hellish, especially for the sad animals.
    As for the insistance on apps…$#@^%$@@@!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  22. So very wittily written, chuckled all the way through this post. Don’t get me on the “app” thing, this comments box isn’t big enough. What I can say though is that I lived in Bedford around the time that Woburn opened – you know, that place where you paid good money to have your aerial bent by a monkey and then drove through successive empty pastures. My ex father-in-law (“ex” for both reasons, I am no longer married to his daughter and he’s gone to whichever corner of the afterlife is occupied by miserable gits) refused to go to Woburn, on the basis that it reversed the role of humans viewing animals in cages, something he wanted no part of. I don’t suppose the animals were overly perturbed by his absence.

  23. I believe this is the Zoo featured on a TV Show on Channel 4 called Life at the Zoo. We enjoy watching it and I am impressed with the attention paid to endangered species. A day out at the zoo with children is always special, although they don´t like to stand still for long, as you noticed.

  24. Sad – it used to be such a lovely zoo. We had family living in Cheshire so it was a favourite treat.However Cumbria’s Dalton Zoo has always been a favourite with our grandchildren – and us. There are great special offers on entry too. Half price if you book on line currently. Nor as far to drive either.

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