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Monkey Forest (Trentham)
Member Name: zoe_page_1
Monkey Forest (Trentham)
Date: 28/08/09, updated on 09/08/11 (334 review reads)
Disadvantages: Only one species, not the cheapest for a family morning out
It has been decided that I need to behave more like a Brit in Mexico or Colombia when I am a Brit in Manchester. And by that, I don't mean eating ice cream every day (though I may) or filling any pauses with a 'Que más?', I mean actually getting out there and seeing places I always forget to bother with when I'm home. Touristy places. I live just off the A34 in Manchester. Monkey Forest is located on the A34 near Stoke, about 35 miles away. I don't even need driving directions (though we take them anyway, and they get us lost, tsk), so off we go. The park is signed but not as early as I thought it would be, hence a small panic over whether we have gone wrong. Coming from the north you pass the Trentham estate and gardens before you come to the Monkey Forest entrance and car park, though they're only another mile down the road.
We can't all go swanning off to Borneo every time we feel like it, spinning the 'ooh, it's my honeymoon' line as a handy excuse. But might the Barbary macaques just an hour up the road be a good alternative to the Orangutans located half a day and a lot more airmiles away? We are set to find out.
Monkey Forest is, to quote their website, "60 acres of beautiful woodland and meadows where 140 monkeys live in total freedom". Looking at the pictures it looks very unlike a zoo (no cages, for a start) which is good as we're not zoo people, but I'm skeptical that the reality will be a bit different. After all, unless they're all seriously drugged up, you wonder what on earth the draw is that keeps the critters here, in the depths of exotic Staffordshire, rather than trying to find their way back home to the mountains of Algeria or Morocco.
We arrive just before 11am on a Saturday. It opened at 10am, and the car park is busy but there are still spaces. Not drive-through spaces, mind, unless you park in the over flow bit a long way from the entrance. We decide that to risk scratching a car or two as I reverse out later is a better choice than a long walk, and leave the car near the entrance. There is a queue to get in, but as we approach, another window opens so we move through quickly. For a family day out, it's not cheap, but then nothing is these days. Adult entrance costs £6, a 3 - 14 year old child's £4.50 but armed with a Tesco Deals voucher, the two of us get in for £2 of proper money, and a shiny piece of paper.
We surreptitiously walk through carrying a big bag of food, because I read somewhere that you cannot take it into the monkey enclosure. I am a little confused, therefore, to see a picnic area directly to our left. Reading the signs it appears that by 'enclosure' they mean a certain bit of the park, that you enter through air-lock style gates, like the doors on my local branch of Nationwide, though I assume they're here to stop the monkeys disappearing, not the money.
And, you can take food through here, but it should be covered, with no eating or drinking while actually inside. As we enter, a friendly guide gives us said rules regarding food and others about keeping our distance and not touching the monkeys, and we also discover that one of their hourly feeding talks is coming up in 15 minutes. As we walk through, I'm reminded of a slightly less humid version of Costa Rica's rain forests, where I spent last Christmas. By this I mean that although there are hoards of people (it's a Saturday in August, and the weather is disturbingly and unusually amazing) all following a set track, you do still get a real, forest-like feel. The trees are beautiful but, like in Costa Rica, I'm fearing I may be stuck squinting at random blobs along the branches we pass, trying to make out which ones are the wildlife I'm supposed to be spotting. My fears quickly prove unfounded as we round a corner and a dozen or so furry little creatures come into view, quite literally crossing the path in front of us.
It's clear where the feeding talk will take place, so we hand around here in the sunshine as a crowd begins to gather, taking photos of the monkeys sitting on either side of the path. The talk takes maybe 10 minutes, though the feeding, where a bucket of produce is scattered over the grass, accounts for maybe 10 seconds of that. We learn a few facts about these particular monkeys, are told what to look out for as we tour (there are some little babies in the park at the moment, since it's the right time of year) and have a fun 'quiz' and then we're free to continue on.
The track is about ¾ of a mile, some of which (a shorter lap that cuts off quite soon) is wheelchair / pushchair accessible. The rest is at times hilly and not smooth underfoot, adding a certain challenging dimension to my walk as I'm sporting my MBTs. Even if they weren't rather big and obvious, you wouldn't be able to miss the monkeys as you walk round, since every few seconds you hear parents calling to their children, pointing out monkeys up trees, monkeys lovingly picking dandruff off each other, monkeys carrying babies on their fronts and backs, monkeys scratching their bottoms. They do that last one a lot. What you see depends on when you go, because the monkeys are literally free to do whatever they like, be that hide away shyly, chase each other around on the ground, snooze high up in the trees or play at being Tarzan, swinging on the vines they've turned into their very own adventure playground. It is nice to see them having fun, and you do feel rather lucky to be able to see them in this sort of quasi-natural environment, rather than locked up in cages.
We go round slowly, taking lots of photos, and then decided it is lunch time. To be honest, I could have eaten lunch before we even went in, but after an hour's walk we certainly have an appetite. The site has two options, a picnic area and a self-service cafe. We have sandwiches with us, so opt for the former, though we end up sitting on the grass since the few picnic benches are occupied. The cafe, on the other hand, has lots of free tables, but we get the impression they're only for people buying the food there. We have a peek in and it looks like standard service station fare, with a heavy focus on jacket potatoes. The cakes look good, but the slices are tiny and expensive, so we stick to the Hotel Chocolat goodies I'm still, rather restrainedly, eating up from my birthday. We also look in the shop (everything you'd expect from a tourist site, from pens to beakers, all naturally monkey themed) and pick up some postcards. At the till they are selling guides to the park. These are £3 which would seem more reasonable if entrance were a little cheaper. We have a quick look then and there, but decide not to invest. We did, after all, pick up leaflets (and a quiz!) at the ticket desk, and unlike the norm with locals in Mexico City, we're not here to turn a fun day out into a long-winded study project. If you want to leave and re-enter the park (to collect food from the car, or have a sneaky ciggie) you have to get a free re-entry wrist band from the shop, otherwise your ticket alone will not suffice.
The site also has two play areas, one for older kids near the picnic tables (so they can go and play while you eat, I guess) and one for younger ones near the toilets. This is probably deliberate. The loos have a long queue, which moves slowly, though I quickly realise that it's because they're all occupied by parents with their children. I am the only person, it seems, who will be forced to pee with no company. We have a look at the film playing in the room next door, but decline to stay for the full 19 minutes of it. It is all a bit too proper and scientific for us, though no doubt any visiting Mexicans would approve. Instead we look at the display boards whose photos tell the history of the park and of the species. Then we go back in for another lap.
As you walk through the forest, there are lots of staff members floating around to answer questions (and make sure people are following the rules) and various information signs, and multiple choice quizzes to test your monkey knowledge. Some of the more interesting ones show the different facial expressions the monkeys might be treating you to, and the different positions you might find them in. And yes, one of them is a rather graphically illustrated doggie-style. There is only one thing missing for me: on the website and in the brochures there are tantalising pictures of visitors sitting on benches with monkeys right next to them. I have been dreaming about getting one of those for my Facebook profile pic ever since we decided to come here, but alas, it is not to be. The monkeys come close, but not that close, and are generally moving any time they are near humans. I begin to wonder how long it took them to get that photo for their publicity, and also assume it was probably on a day when the park was a lot quieter than it is today. Shrieking toddlers do not a serene, monkey-human bonding atmosphere make. Instead, I make do with a picture of me pulling my best monkey face next to the poster of facial expressions, though with my scrunched up brow I look more like a Romulan than anything else.
There is only one type of monkey here, so you don't have to worry about looking out for different distinguishing features, though it also makes it a tiny bit samey as they all look, well, the same. For fun, and to stay awake, you can try to spot the difference between adults and babies, and boy monkeys and girl monkeys, the latter by looking at the size of the bottoms. Someone once lovingly told me I had' a black girl ass on a white girl body', but I suppose that's better than 'a colourful monkey ass on a pale, human body'. Just.
We leave the park two and a bit hours after arriving, which works out at a very reasonable 50p per hour each, thanks to Tesco. We could have stayed longer, because there are lots of places to sit and read, or chat, both within the forest and outside the enclosure, but it's time to move on. It has been a fun day out, and it's not yet over as we head to the dubious shopping 'village' a mile up the road, whose key selling point is the fancy Welsh ice cream. Alternatively you could explore the Trentham estate, or have a go at being a monkey yourself at Ariel Extreme (like Go Ape) though both of these will add significantly more to the cost of your day.
The monkey forest is a lovely place and reasonably peaceful (shrieking toddlers and squawking monkeys aside). The landscape certainly makes a change from your standard Good Healthy Walk in the Lakes or Peak District. I am not entirely convinced it is worth paying full price for if travelling en masse, but it's another one for the list if you're a fan of the ol' Tesco Deals. Either way, I would recommend it for school age kids because I don't think the younger ones would necessarily appreciate how amazing (and unusual) it is to have monkeys freely swinging around over your heads and playing beside you as you walk around. It's one for good weather as the walk is entirely in the open, and you might be better going off peak, i.e. not at a weekend in mid-summer, but it does come with an enthusiastic thumbs up from me, even if I'm not yet giving up hope on that trip to Borneo.
Summary: See monkeys scratch and sniff and chase each other
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