The late John Aspinall allegedly started his career in animal conservation in 1956, by adapting his lavish Belgravia back garden into a habitat fit for a capuchin monkey, a baby tiger and two bears. He quickly relocated to a large country estate and set up Howletts Zoo, with the aim of protecting and breeding rare and endangered species.
The Aspinall Foundation now manages the ninety acres of Kent countryside that are home to big cats, little cats, the largest herd of African elephants in the UK, rhinos, wild hogs, wild dogs and masses of monkeys, apes and gorillas. One of the most appealing things about this zoo is that the animals are afforded a great amount of freedom – you won’t come across any crammed cages here. Thick reinforced glass windows in the tiger enclosure allow remarkable closeness with the majestic mammals, while you can wander freely with the furry lemurs in their walk-through enclosure. The antics of the long-armed gibbons and leaf-eating langurs will make children giggle, while the eccentric behaviour and pecking-order squabbles of the gorillas can fascinate for hours. If the acrobatics of the primates and apes inspire you, Howletts also has a Treetop Challenge for adults and children aged over 5 – if you’re an active type, you can enjoy life as a monkey on the ropeladders, aerial walkways and zipwires.
It is not immediately obvious where the disabled parking is at Howletts – but rest assured, whilst there aren’t any clearly marked bays, there is a large area at the far end of the car park (by the reception), reserved for Blue Badge holders. On the whole the animal park is easy to navigate. It is level and has tarmac paths throughout, with only a handful of exceptions, most notably an unavoidable, short but steep path leading from the Elephant Yards to the upper section of the park. This is a short schlep for anyone pushing and may cause difficulties for manual wheelchair users, but staff can provide assistance if required. You’ll find disabled toilets at the entrance, near the tiger enclosure and in the restaurant. There are a limited number of wheelchairs available to borrow (refundable deposits required); book in advance on 01227 721286.
Food & drink: The Pavilion Restaurant is family-friendly and serves tasty staples including lasagne and casseroles, plus chips, sandwiches and vegetarian options. Wheelchair users will find the covered veranda the easiest entry route. Dotted around the park is an assortment of other cafes and refreshment stands, though some of them are only open in peak season.