Family Fun Days: Thrigby Hall
STEPHEN PULLINGER Nothing beats a walk on the wild side. Stephen Pullinger took his family on a day out to Thrigby Wildlife Gardens in the countryside near Yarmouth.
Animal magic is every bit as alluring today as during the era when millions of children used to tune in to the television programme of that name.
But my recent family visit to Thrigby Wildlife Gardens, near Yarmouth, made me reflect on just how much zoos and attitudes to wildlife have changed over the years - for the better.
My enduring childhood memory of half-term trips to London's Regent's Park Zoo was a big cat pacing up and down grim, cell-like cages in metronomic fashion.
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And as for the musty smell, why we always chose the lion house to eat our picnic I will never know.
In those days the emphasis was very much on laughing at the animals, which were there for our amusement.
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Today's youngsters, schooled on conservation, fortunately know better and Thrigby Wildlife Gardens very much reflects those modern attitudes.
There are no cramped cages and you feel privileged to be sharing what is indisputably the animals' domain. It is gratifying to see wildlife in such tip-top shape with sleek looking coats and bright plumage.
The elegant Thrigby Hall mansion and gardens will surprise those who believe a noisy seafront is the only attraction the Greater Yarmouth area has to offer.
A short drive into the country on the outskirts of the bloom-filled village of Filby leaves you a million miles away from the discordant cacophony of amusement arcades.
It was apparent on our visit that Thrigby's natural beauty and peaceful atmosphere make it the perfect place for couples to escape to as well as for family outings.
It is owner Ken Sims's proud boast that the wildlife gardens are open every day, but summer is surely the best time to go when you can enjoy a relaxed family picnic, your peace only occasionally shattered by the cries of monkeys and birds.
Picnic tables are thoughtfully provided on the vast lawn in front of Thrigby Hall, an intriguing feature of which is the precarious, seemingly omnipresent heron's nest on one of the chimney pots.
Indigestion notwithstanding, our children loved running around the grass and clambering on the nearby wooden play equipment.
The only unwelcome wildlife you are likely to encounter - seemingly a hazard of all zoos in summertime - are wasps.
The hall, which houses a gift shop, was built in 1736 by Joshua Smith Esq, and it is probable that Thomas Ivory, who designed Norwich Assembly House, was its architect. The mansion was remodelled in 1876 by its then owner, Squire Daniels.
Mr Sims, who opened the wildlife gardens in 1979, has transformed them into a conservation project for Asian species, transported to the Norfolk countryside from habitats as far ranging as the high plateaux of Tibet to tropical rainforests and mangrove swamps.
His passion for conservation is reflected in the Thrigby Conservation Fund and Adoption Scheme, which gives the public a chance to "adopt" any of the animals in the gardens.
The fund has helped such wide- ranging endangered species as the amur leopard from Russia and the pygmy hog in Nepal.
Primates are always a hit with children, and our three-year-old Fay loved the gibbons and macaques, observing their clinging babies and pantomime antics, sometimes ending in apparent squabbles and resonating calls.
Part of the appeal of Thrigby is that because you are seeing the animals on their terms, sometimes you have to search for them. Youngsters find it an enthralling game to play hunt the red pandas in their leafy, tree-covered enclosure.
To catch a glimpse of them, far cuter than their big cousin the giant panda in my opinion, is quite a thrill.
Alien-looking reptiles are always zoo favourites, and Thrigby has an impressive collection, including alligators and estuarine crocodiles, in an attractively presented swamp house. Snakes on show include the awesomely large reticulated python.
But one of the highlights of your visit to the wildlife gardens is sure to be a close-up encounter with the big cats.
An exciting way to see the bright- coloured Sumatran tigers - although not for the youngest children - is to squeeze your way along the tiger tree walk.
If that is too adventurous, an alternative walkway, even accessible for pushchairs, takes you right up to the platform where the somnolent sea-lions are often sprawled.
Back at ground level the views through a dark blue section of the window in the tiger tunnel is designed to give you an impression of how a pig or deer might glimpse a tiger when they are being hunted at night.
Other big cats to see include the exquisitely marked snow and clouded leopards and the amur leopard - one of the world's rarest species, with only about 40 left in the wild in Russia.
Thrigby's amur leopards, like its red pandas, are part of an international breeding programme to save endangered animals.
An imaginative walk through the aviary gives you a close-up view of some of the zoo's varied and often colourful bird species.
Feeding time is always a family favourite so a good tip is to be around at 3pm when species including monkeys and otters are fed. A sign will tell you if the normally motionless crocodiles are to be fed.
Informative panels throughout the enclosures give plenty of information about the animals and make you realise the importance of conservation work.
Although part of the charm of the gardens is the feeling that the animals come first, Mr Sims has consistently striven over the years to enhance their visitor appeal, investing in tasteful new landscape features.
The Jubilee Tree Walk and Willow Pattern Gardens, the path of which takes you across a lake full of wildfowl, both excite young imaginations, and it is noticeable here that a new area is under development.
Remembering my aching feet from those childhood trips to Regent's Park, one observation worth making is that Thrigby is a leisurely experience.
Half a day would be sufficient to complete a tour of the gardens along its pushchair-friendly walkways, but my advice would be to take your time, breaking for a picnic or café stop on the way.
There will no doubt be time to revisit your family favourites, whether they are the colourful cats or fierce reptiles.
t Thrigby Wildlife Gardens opens every day from 10am with free parking close to the entrance. Admission costs £7.50 for adults, £5.50 for children four-14 and £6.50 for pensioners. The attraction is on the edge of Filby and signposted when you reach the village on the A1064 Caister to Acle road.
t 01493 369477