It’s fair to say that the town of Dudley in the West Midlands has seen better days.
Twenty or so years ago the town centre was thriving, and the town had a dynamic night-time economy which featured a night club, wine bar and a renowned live music venue, JBs. Then came the slow decline of the local industrial base, which also happened to coincide with the opening and subsequent growth of the Merryhill Centre ‘mega mall’ a scant mile or so away, which ironically was built on the grave of one of the area’s last large employers, the Round Oak Steelworks. Today, the town centre has one of the highest (if not the highest) percentage of vacant shops in the country, its once busy office blocks now sport faded ‘TO LET’ signs, its lone Department Store departed two years ago, and even the last remnant of the town’s nightlife, the JBs live music venue, hung up its microphones in early 2011. Even Mary Portas turned her nose up at the town, choosing instead to smile upon neighbouring Wolverhampton (which has also suffered terribly in recent years) which will now get some of the Portas Pilot money to help reinvigorate the high street.
Despite its troubles, Dudley does have its charms. In fact, it has two secret weapons in a formidable arsenal not available to more ordinary towns – a fine zoo which surrounds the ruins of its large medieval castle, while further down the hill from the town the Black Country Living Museum continues to provide a living history of the area. Earlier this week I paid my first visit to Dudley Zoo and to the castle for the first time in about 30 years…
The Zoo’s entrance is still a dramatic sight, although you now enter next to the optimistically-numbered ticket booths (eight in all) which sit under the sinuous structure that is the first of Berthold Lubetkin’s many art deco masterpieces that you’ll find within the grounds. Entering the complex now involves going through the shop, which is actually within the structure of the aforementioned wine bar, now absorbed into the zoo’s fabric…
The zoo itself has the usual compliment of animals, including impressive tigers, lions and giraffes although these days elephants, rhinos, hippos and polar bears are absent. They’ve also introduced some pretty ground-breaking features to bring the animals closer to visitors – for example the ‘monkey tails’, ‘lemur wood’, ‘penguin bay’ and ‘wallaby walkthrough’ attractions allow you to get up close without any grills or glass screens to get in the way. Walk through the lemur area and you will witness the animals leaping across the path and bounding through the trees – in fact on my visit, as I leaned up against one of the ballustrades to photograph a ring-tailed lemur clinging to a post opposite, I felt a persistent tap on my arm – a curious red ruffed lemur was sitting right next to me, keen to get my attention. Signs warn visitors not to touch the animals in these open areas of the zoo – clearly the animals themselves ignore these signs! The zoo also runs a series of daily talks set around the grounds where keepers introduce visitors to various animals, including opportunities to get involved in the feeding routine.
Of course the architecture of Dudley Zoo is in itself one of attractions – many of the 1930s art deco enclosures are still in use, although both the free-standing kiosks and the bear ravine have seen better days. Lottery funding secured in late 2011 will see them refurbished and brought back into use in the near future. The cable car which connects the entrance to the castle at the top of the hill is also reopening soon. The castle itself, which has been a ruin since the mid 1700s after a catastrophic fire, is typical of the motte and bailey design. A visitor centre opened by the Queen in the 1990s allows visitors an insight into life within the castle walls and, despite the level of decay, you can still climb to the top of the keep where there are commanding views over the surrounding town.
I suppose the lesson here is that if you happen to find yourself in Dudley, don’t write it off – visit the zoo and castle for a different perspective on this troubled town. If nothing else, the playful antics of the zoo’s large compliment of chinese otters will put a smile on your face, particularly the one who enjoys juggling stones to amuse onlookers… More photos of the visit can be found online here.