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Maidstone Zoo history, Sandling

By KentOnline reporter

Wild animals from across the globe once called our County Town their home. Angela Cole reports on a new exhibition celebrating the 80th anniversary of Maidstone Zoo.

Lions at Maidstone Zoo.
Lions at Maidstone Zoo.

You would be extremely surprised to find elephants and lions at family attraction Kent Life but 80 years ago it was home to dozens of exotic animals when Maidstone Zoo was based there.

Owned and run by Maidstone’s eccentric father Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, the zoo’s launch in 1934 saw it become a much-loved attraction, with stars of the day flocking to make public appearances.

Now to mark the occasion, Kent Life is holding an exhibition of pictures and memorabilia, including images from the KM Group’s archives, from the zoo’s 25-year history.

Emily Hirons, general manager of Kent Life
Emily Hirons, general manager of Kent Life

Kent Life’s Emily Hirons, pictured, said: “We were recently researching the history of the site and the surrounding area and were fascinated to uncover details of Maidstone Zoo and just how important it was to the County Town.

“Although it closed to the public in 1959, people tell us they can remember visiting the zoo and what a fantastic day out it was. It was one of Kent’s biggest tourist attractions in its day so we thought it would be great to celebrate it.”

The zoo, which was opened by circus owner of the day Bertram Mills, was a popular fixture, and the animals were a huge draw.

Locals reportedly could hear the lions roaring from their homes, and there were a number of occasions when animals escaped. The elephants, Gert and Daisy, had celebrity status. Their elephant house can still be seen at Cobtree Park, which is also part of the estate, across the road from Kent Life.

The exhibition, which opened this week, will run throughout the year. It gives an insight into Sir Garrard, who was 12 times Mayor of Maidstone and left the estate to the people of Maidstone when he died.

Emily said: “It will be a trip down memory lane for those who visited the zoo as children, while those too young can get a glimpse of a time when Maidstone was home to polar bears, lions, elephants and many other wild animals.

“Sir Garrard was truly a legend in his lifetime,” she said. “For many years he rode a horse at the head of Maidstone’s annual carnival and he was often seen driving in his yellow Rolls-Royce.”

Exploring the farmyard at Kent Life
Exploring the farmyard at Kent Life

Kent Life, is just off Junction 6 of the M20 at Sandling, near Maidstone.

The attraction is set in 28 acres and offers hands-on activities for kids to age-old farming traditions that bring back memories from way back when. There are also animals to cuddle, tractors to ride, play areas to go wild in, fascinating historic buildings to explore and cafés to relax in.

Kent Life is open daily from 10am to 6pm. Admission is £9.25 for adults, £8.25 for concessions and £7.25 for children aged three to 15. Under-threes go free. Entry to the exhibition is free. For more details, visit www.kentlife.org.uk or call 01622 763936.

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