My jaw dropped a little last night with the news that Seaview Wildlife Encounter had closed.
The news wasn't that it was due to close in a few months' time after several farewell events, but that it had closed. Where was the buildup to allow me to get used to the idea that one of the Isle of Wight's most popular attractions was to close? I nearly choked on my Sunday night Earl Grey.
The news, appeared on their Facebook page:
Dear FB friends.... It is with great sadness and regret that the family have decided after 44 years of being open to the public that an extremely difficult decision has been made to close the park. This is due to many internal and external factors - the seasonal nature of the business combined with intense legislation and regulation that we believe will only increase in the future. We hope that you will understand that it is time now for the family to bow out gently and to thank all of our wonderful visitors for their support over the years.
Since then, the owners gave a bit more detail about some of the challenges of running an attraction which have persuaded them to call it day.
The Facebook comment kicked off an outpouring of grief and kind comments which you'd normally associate with the passing of a monarch. Well over a thousand comments appeared within hours. I half expected to see news coverage of flowers being left outside the park with lingering closeups of moving messages for Dippy the Penguin.
"By far the best attraction on the Island" said one mourner. "Nothing compares with it" said another, who was presumably listening to Sinead O'Connor at the time.
"It was the most amazing place for our wedding last year" said another, conjuring up images of a bride walking down the aisle in front of a parade of geese.
Such strong feelings are not all that surprising. Seaview Wildlife Encounter has consistently ranked towards the top of Trip Advisor's list of Isle of Wight attractions, currently at number "3 out of 158 attractions" (behind Osborne House and Monkey Haven). The park's most famous penguin has more than 5000 likes - well over 10 times as many as this site has...
We certainly enjoyed our visit there, and I'm not exactly the world's biggest animal fan. It was not hugely expensive (about £10), it was clean and the staff seemed to know what they were talking about. I was a particular fan of the penguin feeding.
The Isle of Wight can certainly cope with one attraction closing (or two if you also include Coleman's Farm which closed recently). There are three other good sized animal attractions in Isle of Wight Zoo, Amazon World and Monkey Haven, plus there are about ten other places where you can see animals. And there have been some attractions opening in recent years (such as Tapnell Farm) or improving (such as Robin Hill or Blackgang Chine)
But it's still a sad day when something that is so popular closes down. Don't worry Dippy, we won't forget you.
I'm not sure if my wife or my two year old was more excited upon arrival at the Blackgang Chine car park. Like most mainlanders my wife visited the Isle of Wight on a residential school trip and has retained fond if somewhat inaccurate memories (she is still convinced there was a disco on the Isle of Wight ferry for example).
The fake parking booth attendant has gone at Blackgang Chine but the charm is still there. There are still bits for young children such as Nurseryland and Fairyland as well as bits for slightly older children, such as the cowboys (always my favourite) and the dinosaurs which have recently been upgraded so that they now move and roar. The rides are fairly tame by mainland standards, but will appeal to pre-teenagers.
The maze looks lower every year and the cost of a burger goes in the opposite direction, but I did spend the entire day grinning like a maniac simply because the park still has all the character and quirkiness that I'd remembered.
There are also bits which are just a bit weird, which are clearly designed to encourage parents to look at each other with bemusement. The Weather Wizard and the dinosaurs in dinner jackets are particularly creepy.
I usually recommend Blackgang for 3-10 year olds and I think I'd still stick to that, although perhaps 3 1/2 might be better. Our daughter got in free (under 4s are free at the time of writing) but she spent much of the day explaining which bits of the park she didn't want to see. For the record, Humpty Dumpty was too much for her (he does have a bit of a creepy expression) and she certainly didn't want to see any dinosaurs.
Thankfully the situation was saved when she thought Snow White was a character from Frozen. My wife stood strategically to block her view of the witch and she soon cheered up.
The additions to Cowboyland are OK - we were expecting the new indoor play to be bigger than a small train and a sandpit - but generally the park was looking a lot smarter than I was expecting. There wasn't much sign of the peeling paint and overflowing bins that you start to notice when the innocence of youth wears off. It was clean and tidy, everything was nicely trimmed back and it all looked pretty well maintained.
The staff still seemed to be smiling despite this being late in the season. I worked in a similar park once and by September my fake grin was starting to droop a little.
The big question I now find myself asking is whether Blackgang Chine is worth the money. A few years ago Blackgang and the sister park at Robin Hill leapt up in price by about £3 per person for peak visits, which generally means school holidays. An on-peak visit to Blackgang Chine cost £18.50 in 2015 for a 4-60 year old and there are rarely discounts beyond the usual family ticket (£69 for 4 on peak) or a combined ticket with Robin Hill.
For comparison, Chessington World of Adventures is about £36 to £47 (2015, standard tickets) but they frequently offer 2 for 1 deals when you buy a pack of cereal from Tesco or a ream of paper in WH Smiths. So, if you are organised enough you can get in for about the same price as Blackgang Chine (which doesn't tend to do 2 for 1 type offers).
We also visited a park called Twinlakes in the East Midlands recently which was about £17 each and was a fair bit bigger than Blackgang.
However, what most parks lack is a stunning setting. Rather than just filling up a big field in Melton Mowbray, Blackgang Chine hangs on a cliff edge with beautiful views to gawp at. Its paths are ridiculously steep in places (just about OK for pushchairs, too steep for wheelchairs in places) and it all feels like it is crammed on top of each other which only adds to the charm.
I don't think it is just me getting old and becoming the sort of person who expects a Mars Bar to cost 25p but personally I think it is about £3 too expensive on peak.
But I do still love Blackgang Chine and I'm sure my daughter will once she has decided she isn't scared of Humpty Dumpty.
New attractions don't come along all that often on the Isle of Wight, so we were intrigued to see Tapnell Farm which has recently opened near Freshwater in the sleepy West Wight. The site has been used for accommodation for some time (the eco lodges are in our 20 quirky places to stay whilst Tapnell Manor is in our guide to accommodation for groups) but the site is being developed with a cafe, play barn and jumping pillow and more new stuff to come.
Considering it was opened in a bit of a hurry for the summer season, the whole thing seems remarkably well organised. There are clear signposts so you don't end up driving down a dirt track or into a milking shed and the branding and café look utterly (udderly?) professional and slick.
Out the front there are some funky lifesize cows which have been decorated by local businesses (Isle of Wight Garlic, Isle of Wight Festival, Bestival etc). Alas, you can’t clamber all over them as we used to at Blackgang Chine, but you can be fairly sure that they have already been photographed and uploaded to Twitfacegram a zillion times in the last few weeks.
If you can manage the stairs, head for the mezzanine at the cafe for stonking views covering about 270 degrees, including the site of the 1970 Pop Festival (the one where Hendrix played which gets bigger and louder with every retelling). We didn’t eat, but my latte was top notch.
By the time we visited towards the end of the season, the majority of the farm’s cows had been ‘sent to Northamptonshire’.
I was reassured to hear that this isn’t a euphemism to avoid difficult conversations with children, but was an actual relocation of the herd. As a result, there weren’t all that many animals to see, but I would guess that might change in future as my experience is that younger children are easily impressed by animals. It doesn’t need to be a herd of wildebeest or a family of giraffes. A dog licking itself or a goat eating some grass in a field seems to be enough entertainment for my daughter to consider it a good day out.
We also killed a fair amount of time in the playbarn and the jumping pillow, both of which are good for younger children. There are also plans afoot for outdoorsy things at the site, such as zorbing which involves rolling down a hill in a giant hamster wheel and trying not to be sick.
All in all, it’s a pretty slick operation that is well worth popping into if you are in the West Wight, although it is clearly still at the growing stage. There is no entry fee as such, you just pay for the play barn and bouncing pillow (£3 - £5 when we visited) and then they hope you’ll buying a jar of posh chutney for grandma in the shop or a burger in the café.
The hedges in the car park are only twigs at the moment, but I’ll be intrigued to see what else they’ve put on the site next year once the hedges are up to my knees.
As is traditional on an English seaside holiday in August – our first morning was a complete washout. On the Isle of Wight your options for a rainy day are pretty good. There are 20+ things to do in our guide, several of which were a reasonable choice for our toddler.
We opted for swimming and discovered a little gem on Ryde’s esplanade at Appley. The Waterside Pool was once owned by the Isle of Wight Council but was palmed off as a community project a few years ago when the greedy bankers ruined the economy.
Political debates aside, the people who took it on deserve a pat on the back for keeping it going, because it is a lovely little spot for a swim.
The setup is pretty basic – just one pool and not a lot else (there is a small sauna but I think you have to be a member for that), but the water is warm and it feels like a holiday spot because you are right by the sea and Ryde’s Canoe Lake. The changing rooms are nice enough and they were clean. The staff were all cheery as well.
A display on the wall explained that re-grouting the pool was costing them £100,000 which did make me feel that I should have offered a little more than my £4.80 (including my toddler). I did also notice that they do offer a bargain £1.50 swim a couple of times a week for residents.
On a return visit at the end of the holiday the roof was open and the sun was pouring in. As a result, it offered outdoor swimming which was genuinely warm and pleasant.
Normally I’ve got some smug remark to end this blog about how the coffee was awful or the entrance price required me to sell a body part on the black market. For once, I’ll leave it there.
Sandown Zoo used to have a bit of a dodgy reputation. The times called it 'the slum zoo of Britain' in the 1970s, but more significantly my mother's friend once said that her friend's daughter in law used to work with someone who thought it was 'a bit iffy'.
That may be the reason why we never went to the zoo as children. Our only encounter was with a lion cub which licked my young brother's face whilst he was being taken for a seaside walk.
We decided it was time to break the habit of a lifetime and take the next generation to what is now known as Isle of Wight Zoo.
The Zoo is housed in the rains of a former fort which like most of the Isle of Wight was (presumably) built out of a paranoia of the French. It looks a bit ugly to the uninitiated but with the context of history it is a bit more interesting and it looks a lot better from the inside. It is also next to a grim looking hotel (or HTL as it currently says thanks to the deteriorating letters) which really drags down the Yaverland end of the Esplanade, although apparently something is happening at the site.
Anyway, the Zoo itself went down very well. I can never tell if a marmoset is smiling or frowning (they are great at poker apparently) but the habitats look to be clean and spacious.
Like all modern zoos they focus very much on the conservation message rather than the old fashioned approach of charging extra to prod a tiger with a stick.
The signs are clear and give just enough information and the staff seemed to know what they were talking about. There is also a great little game for smaller children which involves collecting ink stamps on a card when you've seen certain animals. My daughter became more interested in collecting the stamps than seeing the animals and it also gave us permission to go home once we had collected everything.
There was also some small prize for getting all the stamps (a lolly I think). By that point our daughter had eaten her way through more than the lions' daily diet so we kept quiet about that.
For someone like me with only a moderate interest in animals there were enough really impressive lions and tigers, so it wasn't all just pretending to look interested in owls and ducks. The lions and tigers are housed in Jurassic Park style cages with huge walls which helps add to their reputation.
They did seem to spend most of their time sleeping but I imagine that is a good sign, and it is probably a bit much to expect them to be playing football or darts or something just to entertain me. They are certainly the stars of the show, unless you particularly like meerkats. There are also goats near a lion enclosure. I like to imagine the lion licks his lips and taunts the goat when the park has closed.
There were also several talks throughout the day, which we missed as our toddler is a bit too little to keep still and hear about the diet of a raccoon. There was a lion feeding time which I would have liked to see but we were playing catch on the sandy beach by that time.
A recent addition is the arrival of Isle of Wight Adventures Activities. At the time of our visit you could do archery, rock climbing or bushcraft for £3 each or do all three for £6. There was also a circus skills bit which I think was tight rope walking (you don't get a lot of time to take things in when you are trying to control an excited toddler).
Those options seemed very reasonable to me compared to what you might normally pay for those sort of things. It didn't seem to be running when we walked past (it was out of peak season) and I didn't bother asking for our toddler but it would be a good way of making the trip last a bit longer.
We always race round attractions due to my poor attention span but I would guess we were at the zoo for nearly two hours by the time my daughter had played on the (only) swing and we had drunk the (not great) Nescafe coffee. Entrance was about £10, with the rock climbing etc as an extra.
Isle of Wight Zoo is pretty much all outdoors so save it for a decent day. It is also right by the sandy beach at Sandown, Dinosaur Isle, Browns Family Golf Course and the excellent free playground at Sandham Gardens so you can certainly spend a whole day in the area.
I've informed my mother it is now safe to visit Isle of Wight Zoo...
It is surely a sign that I've matured into a proper grown up that I now like the idea of spending a Sunday afternoon sitting in a park listening to a brass band with a deckchair and an ice cream.
Had my mother suggested such a thing during my teenage years I'd have declared her an embarrassment and moved in with the neighbours.
Anyway, I recently found the time to explore two public parks which are tucked away somewhat, on the clifftops of Shanklin and Ventnor. Both feature in our guide to free days out on the Isle of Wight.
Both Rylstone Gardens and Ventnor Park are council maintained and have a smattering of things to do with children. Not enough for a day really but enough for a passing visit.
My trip to Rylstone Gardens in Shanklin was an hour too early for the Sunday afternoon concert which is given by groups with names like Vectis Brass Ensemble, or something like that. The whole thing looked pretty pleasant with deck chairs being laid out. As far as I could see it was free, with plenty of opportunities to buy drinks from under a gazebo.
The park also has a cafe which looked suitably twee and a crazy golf course which was not exactly Disneyland-esque but would happily entertain children long enough for parents to have a coffee and a slab of lemon drizzle cake.
Rylstone Gardens also links up nicely with the seafront down some steps so you could park for free and walk down, although I personally wouldn't attempt that with three children, two dogs, six bags and a windbreak.
Ventnor park meanwhile has similarly well kept gardens but instead of crazy golf has a putting green, which to those who aren't sporting experts may look much like a lawn with several red flags and holes.
The bandstand from Ventnor's old pier sits proudly in the park and also hosts performances by the local parpers and tooters.
There's also a refreshments hut which reminded me of a summer job I had at an Island attraction where I set myself the target of selling more ice cream than I ate (it was a close run thing on some rainy days).
Up towards the top of Ventnor Park there is an impressive outdoor gym. I'm not convinced that there is an army of beefy men and toned women in Ventnor who use it every morning but I may be wrong. We were half expecting a swing and slide in the park but thankfully we managed to convince our little one that a rowing machine would make a good see saw and the cross trainer could double up as a swing for a small bottom.
The top of the park links up with a clifftop path which we didn't explore but which presumably leads to Steephill Cove eventually.
There's also a bizarre bus stop type building at the cliff top with half of the seats looking in the wrong direction.
Both parks are well kept with lots of pretty plants and flowery things. Give it another decade and I might just be able to identify a few of them.
This website includes the Isle of Wight Donkey Sanctuary on our guides to free days out, days out for toddlers and animal attractions, but the last time I had visited I was wearing short trousers and holding my mum's hand.
On our return visit nearly a quarter of a century later I was still wearing the shorts, but this time I was holding my daughter's hand, until she rather predictably got bored of walking and raised her arms up towards me.
The Donkey Sanctuary is on the main route from Newport to Ventnor (PO38 3AA) and it is certainly worth a stop en route.
For those that aren't donkey experts, you can expect to meet: big ones, small ones, young ones and old ones (I didn't note down the exact breeds...), most of whom have cutesy names to encourage you to take up adoption - Chip and Pin were my favourites.
There were no hard selling charity muggers though, just a sign up advertising the option of adoption. There also wasn't the usual trick of selling you animal food that they would have bought anyway, so it felt more like a working Sanctuary that just happened to welcome onlookers.
Round the back we found a couple of horses and sheep, who were presumably meant to be part of the Sanctuary rather than just random animals in an adjoining field.
For those wanting to extend their visit and support the little plodders there is a decent looking cafe selling donkey related stuff and a little charity shop selling the usual selection of ten year old celebrity biographies and - bizarrely - a Queen jigsaw puzzle with two pieces missing.
As a free attraction you wouldn't really expect a full day's entertainment but we spent a happy hour plodding around looking at grey animals on a grey day.
I'm not sure if the school parties or the geese make the biggest racket at Seaview Wildlife Encounter which we visited for the first time recently. The park gets very good reviews on Trip Advisor so I thought I should give it a go, as it is featured in our guides to days out for children and our guide to animal attractions.
Entrance is about £10 for adults or free for two and under although there are offers to get in a bit cheaper on our guide to discounts to Isle of Wight days out.
Our two year old was about old enough to point her little finger at the decent selection of animals, of which about 50% are feathery and winged. There are pigs, meerkat, a couple of sheep, goats, wallabies and a few other animals but you get the feeling that the birds consider it their home and the others are merely gatecrashers (our perhaps goatcrashers).
Many years ago the park was Flamingo Land, which was presumably re branded as the owners realised that there are more children's cartoons about penguins and pigs than there are about big pink birds which stand on one leg.
The park feels clean (besides the vast amounts of bird poo) the animals seem content and the staff seem like proper trained zoo keepers rather than sulky teenagers who are there for the summer before they head back to their degree in Postmodernity and Surf Management at the University of East Rutland.
One section, which is a nicely designed artificial stream is like walking through a flapping gauntlet with dozens of ducks, geese and other squawkers screeching at you if they suspect you might be carrying the gift shop bird food. I can't say I enjoyed this bit too much, half expecting one of the ducks to ask for 50p so he could get a bus or offering me a pair of fake Raybans.
I rather suspect that the park was nicely laid out for the more unusual birdy things and then the ducks heard about all the tourists handing out food all day long and just turned up one day. Ducks are renowned for outstaying their welcome.
At one point a duck flew past my daughter and clobbered her with a wing, although she didn't seem too bothered thankfully.
Throughout the day there were talks and feeding times. My in-laws informed me that they were thoughtfully laid out so that you could walk round in a route and hear them all but we somehow ended up taking our own route.
One of the talks that we did catch was the penguin feeding, which was probably the highlight, unless you particularly like car insurance adverts or hopping wallabies. The little penguins swim around in their pool excitedly before us onlookers chucked in loads of fish for them, only slightly put off by the warning that they will also tuck in to your finger if they get half a chance.
We also discovered a decent size kids play area for the under fives which had a couple of playhouses, baby toys, colouring things and so on.
We finished off at the cafe which was nice enough, combined with a gift shop selling the usual holiday tat. Slight warning - if you've got kids with allergies, the Seaview Wildlife Encounter cafe is not good. They were very friendly and I'm sure would happily advise but there is a lazy sign up saying something along the lines of "all food may contain nuts, dairy, fish, wheat, eggs, soy..." etc. For anyone with a serious allergy that's the equivalent of writing "all food may contain rat poison - good luck guys!"
Apart from that, it was very good. You could make it last for a few hours if you went to all the talks and had more interest in birds than me. We went round pretty quickly and it still lasted about two hours.
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