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Did you know that two of England’s biggest and best zoos are just 12 miles apart, as the toucan flies?
Woburn Safari Park and Whipsnade Zoo are both easily reached from the M1 north of London. They’re only two junctions apart. Both are now open again following coronavirus shutdowns. But which one’s right for your family?
Where is it? Located south-west of Luton, Whipsnade is the larger, sister attraction to London Zoo. It’s so spacious that it holds the title of Britain’s largest zoo. Find it off Junction 9, 10 or 11 of the M1 (depending where you’re coming from).
What will I see? The greater acreage means you can see some of the true giants of the animal kingdom. Elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions… all present and correct. Among its 3,600 creatures are many that are endangered in the wild.
What’s it like? Whipsnade can be explored on foot, just like London Zoo. It’s much greater size means that small children might tire easily, so consider bringing the scooter (bikes are not allowed). The site can also be explored by car, with safari sections that are not open to pedestrians (the train, which takes other visitors into these areas, is not currently running). The hilltop location also offers incredible views -- so consider taking a picnic if the weather is fine.
What’s changed since Covid-19? Tickets must now be purchased online in advance -- you can’t just turn up and pay. This includes Members, Fellows and Patrons. Keeper talks and hands-on experiences are not running, to keep down crowds. The indoor play area is also closed for the time being. Usual rules about facemasks and social distancing apply.
Woburn Safari Park
Where is it? A little farther north than Whipsnade, east of Milton Keynes. It’s very close to Junction 13. The estate is owned by the Duke of Bedford, along with nearby Woburn Abbey.
What will I see? The park contains many impressive big beasts, including white rhino, elephants, black bears, zebras, wolves and tigers. Look out, too, for the Vietnamese sika deer. This species is extinct in the wild, and Woburn is the only place in the UK where you can see the animal.
What’s it like? As the name implies, Woburn Safari Park is geared up for exploration by car. Most of the larger animals can be seen from the comfort of your vehicle. You can do as many circuits as you like. Following the drive-through section, visitors reach the “Foot Safari”. This contains most of the park’s smaller animals. It can be explored on foot at leisure.
What’s changed since Covid-19? All tickets must now be purchased online in advance. Be sure to arrive at the time specified on your booking slot. To keep people moving, the car park and toilets before the entrance are currently closed -- you’ll have to cross your legs until you’ve got through the road safari. All cars will receive a small bottle of hand sanitiser for use inside the park. Restaurants and kiosks are open for food, with the usual social distancing measures in place. Remember to bring face masks for shop areas.
On a happier note, one of the park’s lionesses gave birth to five cubs over the spring, dubbed the “lockdown lions”.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.