Author: David Atkinson

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Travel has been off the agenda for the last few months.

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Behind the scenes as Chester Zoo prepares to re-open to visitors

Preparations for post-Covid visits to Chester Zoo.

The moment the gates swing open on Monday morning is one staff feared they would never see.

“We were three weeks away from closing down,” says Jamie Christon, Chief Operating Officer, pulling up the collar of his Chester Zoo fleece against a sudden downpour.

“I went through the four stages of grief in 48 hours. Then,” he smiles, “we decided to fight.”

Chester Zoo found itself threatened with extinction on June 1 when the government ordered it to remain closed indefinitely — despite having put measures in place to make visits Covid secure.

The subsequent fundraising campaign secured over £3m in a week to ensure the zoo, founded in 1931 and home to 135,000 animals, could be saved.

The public support contributed to the announcement by Boris Johnson this week that English zoos could re-open within a partial easing of lockdown measures.

“We had been haemorrhaging money since closing on March 21,” says Jamie. “It costs £0.5m per month to feed the animals alone.”

Fresh start

Mandatory online tickets (including those for members) are now on sale, although visitor numbers will be limited to 3,000 per day — compared to an average of 10,000.

But, while all three wildlife areas, plus the nature reserve, will be open, visitors will notice changes to comply with social distancing.

So, what to expect? I’ve come to Chester Zoo for a preview.

Beyond the gates, I find a series of 2m markers leading to self-scanning ticket booths and the first of 30 hand-sanitisation units on site.

A pressure-value system will operate at the entrance to manage numbers, Jamie explains, so ticket holders are advised to avoid the 10am opening queue.

Walking around the 128-acre site, we inspect some of the pinch-point measures installed at the more popular attractions, such as the elephant and giraffe enclosures.

New protective screens, regularly deep cleaned, stand between visitors and animals and stand-off markings on the floor indicate the line to stand behind.

Footsteps illustrate the viewing points behind the line to maintain social distance between visitors.

The new rules will take some getting used for both the visitors and animals. When we approach the Humboldt Penguins, splashing playfully in their giant tank, a couple swim over curiously.

“Some species, such as the penguins and giraffes, are very social animals,” explains Jamie.

“The eerie quiet of the zoo during lockdown has been disconcerting for us all.”

Day trip

If you’re making a day of it, then 12 kiosks are opening for take-away snacks and all the toilets will be open, albeit with queueing outside likely until a traffic lights system is installed.

The picnic benches have been strategically placed at 2m intervals.

All inside habitats and the gift shop will, however, remain closed for now. Some sections of the play areas for children are still roped off and the ATM is closed.

We finish our tour outside The Oakfield pub, the restored former family home of zoo founder George Mottershead.

It’s also closed, although the beer garden may open in coming weeks as Government regulations evolve.

It may be a while, however, before visitors are allowed back into the cosy library room to admire the archive of Mottershead family photographs over a pint of Deuchars IPA.

Despite the clear markings, the main challenge, I find, will be enforcing social distancing.

This task falls to some 100 furloughed staff who have returned to work, many retraining as welcome staff with a “friendly but firm” brief to ensure visits remain safe.

Looking ahead, there are plans to extend the opening hours to include two weekday evenings until 8pm, plus cheaper afternoon-only tickets as visitor numbers are slowly increased.

The zoo will also run more of the virtual-tour days that proved so popular online during lockdown.

Picnic time

Jamie will be there to open the gates on Monday morning and is hoping for blue skies, the re-opening ensuring the zoo’s conservation work in 40 countries worldwide can now continue.

“My advice is to bring a picnic and make use of the new outdoor spaces. We’re delighted to welcome people back,” says Jamie, who is planning a much-needed UK staycation for the autumn.

“After all, people power saved our zoo.”

Read more at Telegraph Travel.

Lockdown loafing: the truth about Chester’s favourite ghost story

It’s one of the Chester’s favourite ghost stories.

The tale of a mystery figure, dressed as a monk and spotted on a winter evening, walking along the spooky passage by St John’s Church — the one with the coffin in the east walls [pictured above].

The figure has been seen many times over the years, patrolling the passageway beyond the westerner facade, which leads towards The Groves, the riverside walkway.

His presence is linked not with the church, however.

The Hermitage, the hidden building on a sandstone outcrop between the city walls and the river, is alleged to be his home.

The mysterious building, now privately owned and a reputed hotbed of poltergeist activity over the years, is also known by the name on its tucked-away entrance gate, The Anchorite Cell.

The story suggests the mystery man could be King Harold Godwinson, the vanquished Saxon king who got something in his eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

It’s a story we all know from school history classes and one made famous by the Bayeux Tapestry.

Waltham Abbey in Essex claims the last resting place of King Harold. There’s even a stone marked with the words:

“This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried in 1066.”

But Chester offers a different version of the story.

Local historians suggest that Harold’s mistress, Edith Swan Neck, rescued her lover from the battlefield and brought him to Chester to live out days in The Hermitage.

Disguised as a monk, he blended into the local community of holy men, who made their home at St John’s since the 7th century.

Edith cared for him during his final days, bringing supplies to his secret Chester hideaway.

It’s easy to dismiss the story as ghost-tale tosh but the sightings over the year offer first-hand accounts.

And excavations of the collapsed western facade years later unearthed two human skeletons entwined together in an eternal repose.

It’s a story I look forward to retelling when Chester Ghost Tours return after lockdown, especially if I’m leading a tour around King Harold’s Day, the nearest Saturday each year to October 14th.

Could the mystery monk behind Chester’s favourite ghost story be a long-lost King?

That would be one in the eye for Essex.

Daily Mail Travel Trends under lockdown: Not a handshake but a namsate

Image: Nicolas Nova via Flickr [https://www.flickr.com/photos/nnova/]
* This story was first published in the Daily Mail.

Prince Charles, arriving at the Prince’s Trust Awards in March, was about to go for the handshake.

But, mindful of the new social distancing rules, he quickly improvised an off-the-cuff alternative.

He was then seen offering Ant and Dec, amongst others, a royal namaste, the traditional Hindu greeting putting palms together and fingers pointing up.

“I do it all the time,” he joked.

But the Prince may have a point. With social distancing here to stay, our familiar greetings are suddenly off limits.

All change

Handshakes and hugs were amongst the first victims of the global pandemic.

Air kisses on a quarantine-free trip to France could be met with a gallic shrug, and the traditional Maori hongi, noses pressed together in greeting, consigned to the pages of history.

While both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump happily pressed the flesh pre-lockdown, some have called time on the handshake.

Anthony Fauci, a leading American public health official, told the Washington Post:

“I don’t think we should ever shake hands again, to be honest with you.”

It’s a hard habit to break, however.

The humble handshake featured in ancient Greek and Roman art as a symbol of peace.

Human contact

Greeting gestures remain important to express genuine emotion with some 55 per cent of human communication attributed to body language by the psychology professor Albert Mehrabian.

Perhaps our travel experiences could offer a contact-free solution to the dilemma?

Looking to other countries, we find a ready supply of everyday greetings far more acceptable than the ham-fisted knuckle bump and the comical, so-called Wuhan shake foot-tap, which both appeared during the early days of lockdown.

Alternative gestures

The Asian countries are the natural choice to find new non-contact greetings.

For example, the Thai wai, whereby you bow the head and put palms together, is a traditional gesture of openness.

It’s popular throughout Southeast Asia and used in both prayer and dance as well as greetings.

Dr Sylvie Briand, Director of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases at the World Health Organisation recently tweeted her approval.

“We need to adapt to this new disease,” she wrote.

The formal bow, meanwhile, was introduced to Japan in the seventh century and remains de rigueur in a country that prides itself on adhering to social etiquette.

We could adopt this greeting for more formal settings with the degree of bow reflecting the respect and reverence you attribute to the other person.

Otherwise we should look to the Middle East for a more spiritual symbol.

Simply place the right hand on the heart, which is sacred in Islam as the seat of the soul, and say as-salaam alaikum, meaning “peace be upon you”.

Maybe, instead, it’s time for a radical rethink as part of the new world order.

The Hawaiian shaka sign, curling the middle three fingers while extending thumb and little finger, could be adopted beyond the surfing community, who know it as the ‘hang loose’ symbol.

More radical still is the Zambian ‘cup and clap’, whereby you cup your hands together and clap a couple of times while offering the greeting muli bwanji.

Sign of respect 

Most viable of all, however, seems to be the traditional Hindu namaste, which is rapidly moving beyond the yoga mat to take centre stage.

The Sanskrit term, meaning ‘the highest in me salutes the highest in you’, is the natural successor to the handshake.

Besides, it’s good enough for the Dalai Lama.

And it’s far preferable to watching Health Secretary Matt Hancock close a Government press briefing with a Dr Spock-style Vulcan hand salute, staring down the camera with the words, “Live long and prosper.”

It seems Prince Charles may have inadvertently set a trend for us all to follow.

Namaste to that.

Read the edited version in Mail Travel.