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This is what it's like to visit Wildwood near Canterbury after lockdown

Tourist attractions across the country have been reopening their doors after lockdown - but for many, things are not quite the same as they were before.

KentOnline is visiting some of the county’s most popular venues to see how they are operating in the new normal, starting with Wildwood nature reserve in Canterbury.

Great efforts have been made to replicate animals' natural habitats
Great efforts have been made to replicate animals' natural habitats

A beautifully sunny July morning heralded the first proper family day out for more than four months.

Arriving at Wildwood - a ten minute drive from the centre of Canterbury - spirits were already high.

And mine soared just that little higher as a lady overseeing the queues outside the ticket office described one of the early casualties of the ‘new normal.’

The gift shop, she sadly explained, was not able to open yet.

Resisting the urge to fist-pump the air, I listened solemnly as she explained there was no way of preventing their little guests from fondling the goodies.

There are many things I missed during lockdown; pubs and football chief among them. The restrictions on my kids’ almost supernatural ability to empty my wallet was a rare upside.

Aside from the missing gift shop, Wildwood has done a remarkable job of carrying on pretty much as before, with a light-touch approach to ensuring guests are in a safe environment.

The treetop walkway over the bear enclosure (38652381)
The treetop walkway over the bear enclosure (38652381)

They’d had a few weeks to get it right before we visited.

Like any other wildlife park, it had faced enormous financial challenges during lockdown - you can’t furlough an Arctic fox and the cost of caring for the animals with its regular income stream turned off was a daunting one.

Wildwood estimated it was losing £200,000 a month and unsurprisingly reopened its gates as soon as it was allowed.

The biggest compliment you can pay the park is that if you were a first time visitor, nothing would seem out of the ordinary.

There's loads for the kids at Wildwood (38652384)
There's loads for the kids at Wildwood (38652384)

A one-way system is in operation, but that simply feels like a user-friendly way to navigate the 42-acre woodland site.

A couple of indoor areas remained closed, including the badger building and cafe - although takeaway food and drink is still available.

Animal talks have also been suspended to avoid crowds gathering in one place, and have been replaced by videos which people can watch on their phones.

The restrictions are minor and there is no danger of any visitor feeling short-changed.

The emphasis at Wildwood is very much on conservation, and great efforts have been made to recreate animals’ natural habitats.

That does mean you aren’t guaranteed to see all the inhabitants - our hunt for red squirrels proved fruitless.

The highlight was the bear enclosure, which can be either viewed from ground level or from above via a tree-top walkway.

It’s much easier to spot a European brown bear than a squirrel, and we had a great view of the two who live at Wildwood.

They were rescued six years ago from a bear breeding centre in Bulgaria thanks to a £50,000 fundraising campaign by Wildwood supporters.

Elsewhere in the park you will find everything from bison to barn owls, and if you have kids in tow you can round off the trip with an energy-burning session in the adventure playground.

The gift shop may be closed but that won't save you (38652391)
The gift shop may be closed but that won't save you (38652391)

Although life is close to normal at Wildwood, there are some practical issues to bear in mind. Tickets need to be booked in advance online - you will get a timed entry when you book. This is so the park can manage the number of people at the gate; there is no restriction on how long you can spend in the park.

Opening hours have also changed, with the addition of evening visiting slots on Friday and Saturday from 6pm to 9pm for over-16s. Daytime hours remain 10am to 5pm seven days a week.

And as for that missing gift shop? Exiting the park, it turned out they hadn't missed a trick after all and were offering pre-packed lucky dip bags.

I left £14 lighter and the proud owner of two stuffed horses - but when you see the work that goes into caring for the Wildwood animals you can't begrudge a penny.


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