Animal magic

Robin Searle and his family enjoy the natural and historic attractions of Longleat in Wiltshire.

As an animal-mad youngster growing up in the 1970s and 80s, there was something about the Lions of Longleat that held great allure.

Perhaps it was the alliteration which implied the attraction was more than just a modern-day millionaire’s menagerie, but there was an undoubted romance associated with the idea of the kings of the jungle roaming around this Wiltshire estate.

Now, with two young children inheriting their father’s fascination with the natural world, we took the chance to see how Longleat has moved on in the 50-plus years since ‘the first safari park outside Africa’ opened its doors.

Up close and personal

The simple answer is ‘beyond compare’. Significant investment has been made in the past decade in particular, and the stunning house and grounds now offer an array of options and special events for visitors arriving in cars or coaches.

Longleat’s signature attraction remains its wildlife, and it’s clear that research and conservation are reassuringly to the fore with a focus on protecting endangered species running throughout the collection.

Animals have come and gone over the years, but there remains a wealth to see, from the Safari Drive Through with its big cats, vandalous monkeys and mighty white rhinos, to the Jungle Cruise on Half-Mile Lake, where you can feed the California sea lions swimming alongside your boat, and hippos wallow on the water’s edge.

For our family, the real highlights came with the chance to get up close and personal – whether it was feeding red deer on the safari, holding scorpions and pythons in the Animal Adventure or feeling fruit bats fly past our heads in the Bat Cave.

And when it came to repeat requests, there was a hands-down winner in the lorikeet enclosure, where £1 buys you a pot of nectar and the very close attention of these beautiful birds until your sweet bounty is exhausted (warning: expect to spend more than £1…).

House party

Of course, long before animals roamed around Capability Brown’s beautiful estate, Longleat’s House and Gardens were a thing of wonder in themselves, and no visit is complete without a trip back in time through the stunning Elizabethan mansion.

We took advantage of Longleat’s two-day pass to enjoy the house on our second day, and there are special group tickets available just for the house and gardens, if history rather than nature is your group’s thing.

While the house offers a fascinating insight into the past four centuries, there are still plenty of nods to the fact that it remains a family home, and the enthusiastic guides are always on hand with knowledgeable insights into its past, present and future.

And when we’d had our fill of actual treasures inside the house, there was still time for one last whizz round the natural ones outside.

Group options

Longleat has groups well and truly covered, with a discounted two-day pass for groups of 12 or more introduced for 2018. Other options include flexi-tickets for just the safari or house, and there are discounts and free places for group organisers and drivers.