Wessex Watchtower: Longleat

In this latest edition of Wessex Watchtower (and I still hate that name, so if you can think of anything better, please let me know!), I’m off to Longleat.

Back when it opened in 1966, it cost £1 per car in order for the Lord Bath of the time to pay some of the costs of keeping a huge mansion running. In the intervening fifty years, they’ve realised that they get more money by charging per person and the current price for an adult is £33.95 ($44) on the gate. I have an annual pass so I can pop in whenever I like. Longleat is of course at its best in summer but it also has an annual festival of lanterns in the winter which is the worth the price of admission alone.

In 2016, Longleat celebrated its fiftieth anniversary and it also themed its lanterns for Beatrix Potter’s 150th birthday.

The big draw of Longleat is of course the safari park and the centrepiece is Lion Territory. If you don’t want to drive your own vehicle around (there’s a bypass lane in case you’re afraid of the monkeys tearing your car to pieces – which they absolutely will do) you can pay £5 to go on the safari bus. You don’t get as long at the African Village (zebras, giraffes, wallabies, warthogs, pygmy goats, giant tortoises and lemurs) as I would like but on the other hand, it really does save a lot of strain on your clutch foot and an hour and a half/two hours of fuel. These days, the safari park winds its way around seven miles of road (give or take the monkey enclosure).

After the African Village come the tapirs, flamingos and vultures, then the Monkey Drive-Thru and then you’re into the Big Game Park – camels, ostriches, oryx, Ankole cattle, a herd of white rhinos and Anne’s Haven, a big custom-built home for a rescue elephant who is under no obligation to come outside and smile for the tourists if she doesn’t want to.

After that is the Deer Park, home to red deer, fallow deer and Pere David’s deer. You can buy a pot of deer food here and feed them from the windows of your car and even if you don’t buy food, they’ll come and investigate and because they’ve been taught not to be afraid of the cars, they’ll stand in the middle of the road and stare at you until a ranger comes and moves them along.

Now it’s time for the long queues to get into the big cat areas. These are separate by sets of double gates so the traffic builds up here, especially if the cats are sitting around in easy visibility. The tigers, two sisters, tend to be a bit elusive at times but there are twenty-something lions in two prides and you can always see the twelve accidents from 2014 in their special area – they had a contraceptive failure on an epic scale and now have to keep the teenage lions separated from the fully-grown adult lions for everyone’s own good. The adult enclosure is a lot more wooded and the juvenile enclosure features a lot more sunbathing space. There is a cheetah or two and finally, there’s a pack of timber wolves. It’s quite the experience to glance in your rear view mirror and see a lion prowling between the cars.

Back at the house, there’s still plenty to do. First and foremost, go and visit Longleat’s most dangerous residents: Spot and Sonia, the hippos. They live in Half Mile Lake, mostly submerged and all but invisible. You can see them from the safari boat, which takes you past Nico’s island, up to the young male gorillas and back via the feeding of the half a dozen sea lions. Like the lions, they don’t breed them but contraceptive failure means they occasionally have another baby and the current youngest is Harper, who’s about two.

Don’t go thinking the sea lions have an easy life, by the way. They may get fed every ten minutes but they do a lot of swimming and get a lot of exercise out of it, chasing the boat. They’re also very cunning – they have been known to hold the fish up, wait until a seagull swoops down to steal it and then grab the gull.

As for Nico – well, Nico is the oldest gorilla in Europe and the second oldest in the world. He’s at least fifty-five and he lives on a private island. He shared it for decades with his mate Samba until she died in 2007. There’s a colony of three young gorillas on the other side of the water but Nico is just too old and grumpy to live with three teenage thugs. When he first arrived at Longleat, he had to go into quarantine for several weeks and a keeper had the bright idea of giving him an old black-and-white TV to watch. These days it’s been upgraded to a big plasma TV hooked up to a satellite dish. He enjoys cartoons (especially Spongebob) and animal shows but he doesn’t like football, soaps or reality TV. He’s free to wander in and out of his house as he wishes and although it’s a solitary life, I think he’s pretty contented.

Back on solid land, there’s still Animal Kingdom and all the play stuff. My favourite by far is the Bat Cave – home to forty-odd elderly male Egyptian Fruit Bats. Longleat is something of a retirement home for them and they live free range in a dim building where they’re fed on fruit kebabs every half hour.

They’re pretty big, they have huge black beady eyes and they’re fluffy. I love them. I think they’re gorgeous. I also think my camera really isn’t up to the task of getting good photos of them.

First thing in the morning the parrots are out on their perches, preening and shrieking at passers-by. After that, they go into the shed to do a show every hour, pushing trolleys, riding rollerskates, counting and otherwise occupying their fantastic brains.

In the Jungle Kingdom are the smaller animals. There are meerkats running around, crossing paths where visitors are walking (sandals and bright toenails are not a good idea – meerkats love that sort of thing). There’s an aardvark and her baby. There are mara – odd little animals that are half deer half rabbit. I’m particularly fond of the binturong.

There’s a penguin enclosure, which used to have a walk-through although I don’t think that’s been open recently. The penguins can swim in their huge pool, climb on the rocks, paddle in the stream or they can come through special penguin-holes in the fence to waddle around among our feet.

There’s a butterfly house – usually with no butterflies visible but that’s probably because I generally go in winter to see the lanterns. There’s a special mirror by the exit for the express purpose of checking that there are no butterflies sitting on you.

There are various rides, a children’s play castle, at least four shops (selling everything from plush snakes to notebooks to jewellery). There are cafes, food vans and stands selling slushies and doughnuts – all far more expensive than bringing your own picnic and eating it on the grass somewhere. There are gardens. There’s a maze. I generally go in the maze but I know that I’m terrible at it and I spend the entire time going round in circles in the south-west corner.

So that’s Longleat. It’s great for kids, it’s great for wannabe-wildlife photographers and it’s great for people who want an action-packed day out doing nothing in particular.