Category: Journalism

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.

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

Image: Nicolas Nova via Flickr []
* 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.

How I Found My Voice At The Singing B&B

An early-spring trip to Mid Wales came with a purpose.

Voices are joined in unison to mark St Davids Day in the ‘Land of Song’ each March — but I have always been out of key.

That is, until I spent a few days at Cwm Moel, the singing B&B near Builth Wells, in the company of retired music teacher Eleanor Madoc Davies [pictured above].

I was there for some individual singing tuition on assignment for Telegraph Travel.

Here’s a preview of my article:

It felt pretty daunting at first, hearing my own voice naked against a piano accompaniment, but we tried the songs in different keys to establish I was better suited to a baritone or top bass range.

By the end of the first session, I was struggling. I don’t read music and staying in key was proving challenging.

“Don’t give up,” said Eleanor. “It’s the sound I’m chasing. A rich, round tone.”

Whilst in the area, I took some vocal inspiration from the Builth Wells Male Voice Choir, who let me sit in on their rehearsal in the upstairs room of a local pub.

Here’s a sample of the choir in perfect harmony.


Read the full feature, coming soon to Telegraph Travel.

Why the first place I’ll head to after lockdown is Portmeirion, North Wales

Image via

This weekend would have been the 43rd Prisoner Convention at Portmeirion. But, instead we’re under lockdown. Here’s a feature I wrote for The Sun about my favourite place to return to in North Wales.

Portmeirion looks like it has stepped out of a fairytale — yet it’s right on our doorstep.

The Italian-styled village in North Wales is a major draw with its quirky buildings, woodland walks plus numerous places to sample some Welsh hospitality.

It was the backdrop to the cult sixties TV series, The Prisoner, has served as a location for film and TV shows such as Cold Feet, and has been a haven for artists and musicians from the Jazz Age to the Sixties.

It has even launched its own take on Glastonbury with Festival Number Six, named in tribute to The Prisoner, pending a relaunch in 2021.

But it’s now the star of a new ITV series, The Village, which starts this week (Tuesday 28). The programme profiles the rural idyll through the four seasons, introducing us to nine local people who work there.

“It’s surreal here under lockdown,” says Location Manager Meurig Jones, who we meet in the first episode, leading a tour of the grounds.

“When I now stand in the normally bustling piazza, I feel like I’m in the episode of The Prisoner when its star wakes up to find a ghost town,” he adds.

“There’s just birdsong — no human sound.”

All you need is love

Portmeirion is the design folly of its founder, the architect Clough Williams-Ellis [pictured above, left, with Patrick McGoohan].

Clough bought a plot of land on the Snowdonia coast in 1925 and devoted his life to building the village, determined to prove you can work with nature to create something magical.

His vision was inspired by the colourful buildings of Italy’s Portofino and, by the time he died in 1978, his magpie-like approach to recycling architectural features had taken form in eccentric buildings such as the Gothic Pavilion, Bristol Colonnade and Hercules Hall.

The free daily walking tour offers a short introduction to some of the sites, while longer tours delve deeper, exploring some of the less-visited features.

These include a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the 17th-century Town Hall ceiling. Clough bought the ceiling, which depicts the 12 Labours of Hercules, for £13 at auction and reassembled it in North Wales.

A walk through the 70-acre woodland, meanwhile, leads to the Dog Cemetery, established by Mrs Adelaide Haig, the eccentric former owner of the original manor house on site who used to read The Bible to her beloved pets.

Book ahead for one of the specialist themed-tour options, including filming locations from The Prisoner, or places associated with The Beatles, who were frequent visitors and Prisoner fans.

The family of Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager, had the self-catering cottage Gate House on a short-term lease and brought the band to Portmeirion to savour the tranquillity away from the screaming fans.

George Harrison, in particular, loved the spiritual feel of the place and later returned to celebrate his 50th birthday in the village in 1993.

Let’s spend the night together

Portmeirion is normally busy by day with tour groups but, for me, the village really comes into its own at night with its brightly coloured buildings, hidden-gem statues and quirky architectural flourishes shrouded in moonlight.

You can stay overnight at the fine-dining Hotel Portmeirion, or the more relaxed Castell Deudraeth, for exclusive after-hours access to the village.

For me, however, the best way to soak up the atmosphere is by staying in one of the 13 cwtchy (that’s Welsh for cosy) self-catering cottages within the grounds of the village. All staying guests have use of the heated outdoor swimming pool and have access to The Mermaid Spa.

Amongst the cottages, Fountain is where the author Noel Coward wrote the comic play Blithe Spirit over five days in 1941.

White Horses, located along the headland from Hotel Portmeirion by the camera obscura, is where the actor Patrick McGoohan, who stared in and directed The Prisoner, stayed while filming the TV series.

“I’ve worked here since 2011 but I’m still learning about the place,” laughs Meurig. “There are so many interesting nooks and crannies to discover.”

“But, most of all, I like to sit and absorb the spirit of the place. Clough always wanted Portmeirion to be a living, breathing space, not a museum, to inspire other people.”

I’ll be back to visit Portmeirion as soon as it’s safe to do so and am already looking forward to joining the celebrations for its centenary in 2026.

But, meanwhile, I’ll be staying home and tuning in to savour my favourite little bit of Italy in North Wales on TV.

After all, everyone loves a fairytale ending.

More: Portmeirion: The Prisoner.

Read the story at The Sun Travel.