Our journey begins at Vauxhall, south London and just about south of the Thames. I have never been to Vauxhall before. It’s one of those random Zone 1 Tube stations which exists only as a mildly exotic name, with your Pimlicos and your Queensways.
There are lots of bikes and ‘youthful’, ‘edgy’ fonts to spell out ‘Vauxhall’. I suspect Vauxhall wants to be south London’s answer to Shoreditch. (Isn’t Peckham is meant to have got there first? Or maybe Dulwich. Who knows. I’m not from the London and don’t claim to understand its regional one-upsmanships.)
One way leads to the river; one way leads to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. I go to the latter. A green open space is refreshing on first glance, but a second reveals it’s really just a small-ish park, with lots of trampled daisies, a few benches and some picnickers. The head of the Shard peeks over the trees from afar. On the right: an enclosure with some horses. Behind it, Vauxhall City Farm.
A free petting zoo-cum-farm in central London. What’s not to like? It’s small, but clearly run with a lot of love. Of course, being free and during a weekday, it’s currently hosting a school trip, and a herd of schoolchildren clot most of the walkways.
Signs everywhere remind you to wash your hands. To the right: some smaller animals – birds, mostly – and an ecology section. Straight ahead: donkeys! (And horses.) To the left: ‘farmyard’ animals, a small animals room, a cafe, a community garden. I go right.
The goose starts honking at me, so I quietly reply with “Honk, honk, honk” in reply. It honks back when I finish honking. I honk back. It honks back again. I feel like the goose and I have an understanding.
I coo out loud at the rabbits (the only broodiness I’ve ever experienced is for rabbits. I want a pet rabbit, damn it), and wonder how well they get on with the birds they share a cage with. I send hilarious Snapchats to friends, pictures of cockerels with the caption ‘Surrounded by cock’. I get a selfie with an inexplicable plastic model of a cow. Even more inexplicably, my face looks OK in it. Ego level up. I mosey around the ecology section. Plants and stuff. Cool. Good stuff.
It’s donkey time! I love donkeys. Animal charities don’t normally interest me (sorry 😦 ), but as soon as the adverts roll during a break in America’s Next Top Model on Real Lives, my heartstrings are brutally plucked at by the donkey sanctuary charity. They’re just so cute. Horses are too big, too powerful and up themselves, too adored by primary school aged girls who bully those who don’t share their interest. Definitely not projecting my primary school years onto horses. No sirree. In any case, donkeys are way cuter.
I’m a bit wary of most animals and won’t pet them, but the donkey is so tame and gentle-looking that I feel confident enough to pet it. It looks a bit depressed, but doesn’t move away. Its fur is dry and dusty, and I hope it’s only been rolling around in dust and straw, and not its own poop. (Not going to take a chance, though; handwash time.)
I really came for the alpacas, but am blindsided by goats; mainly the tiny kid who ends up with a bucket on its head. The schoolchildren are really in the way now, although they’re feeding the goats, meaning some amusing shots of all the goats craning their necks over to get some chow. There’s a black sheep baaing at two girls about my age, who laugh hysterically and video its plaintive cries before trying to get pictures with the alpacas.
Sadly, the alpacas are incredibly antisocial towards me when I try to get selfies with them, so I turn to the goats for some animal selfie help. They oblige, but not before the cheeky bastard in the photo starts trying to chew my coat. At this point I want to move into the small animals room, especially as I spy both a gerbil fact card by one of the tanks, and a tiny hedgehog being shown to the schoolkids – but guess what: they’re in my sodding way. Again. And the alpacas still won’t pose with me.
The school trip clearly aren’t going to be letting me get near the gerbils and hedgehogs any time soon, so I continue onwards past the cafe and the duck enclosure to the community garden. There are adorable hedgehog flowerpots and, as you might expect from a garden, lots of plants. No idea what any of them were, obviously. Being able to name hundreds of plant names because of Countdown doesn’t mean I know what they actually are (or even that a word I know is actually a plant, because we don’t learn the definitions).
Hunger has set in from all the walking, (not to mention earlier appointments and market research and a detour to the David Bowie mural in Brixton:
The café is reasonably priced given London prices, and is apparently quite new. It does look new. I plump for the vegan option of a carrot, cannellini bean and coconut soup with rye bread (£4: the soup is quite nice; I’m not a fan of the bread) and a pleasant hot chocolate (£2.20 – I forgo the cream and marshmallows), which comes with a duck-shaped biscuit. I don’t like biscuits, but I can deal with a small one shaped like a duck.
Back to the small animals hut, then. The gerbil fact sheet informs me that their Latin name translates as ‘clawed warrior’, which pleases me. I don’t actually see any gerbils, but I’ve got 3 beautiful boys at home (RIP Button 😦 ), so it’s not the end of the world. A couple walk in and start looking at the guinea pigs. “Look at the gerbils,” the man says to his wife, as a chinchilla eyes him beadily. “Oh, no, they’re not gerbils,” I pipe up, because I am basically a walking gerbilpedia at this point. “Guinea pigs?” he asks. I nod and, satisfied that I’ve done my educational duty for the day, walk off into the sunset (i.e. back to Vauxhall station and off to get a train home).
Quite honestly, I’d be pretty happy with this whole experience even if I’d paid for it. As a freebie though, it was an utter joy. I might’ve moaned about the school children, but it’s probably a good thing for kids to see animals and not be scared of them. And it was definitely a good thing for me to be able to pet a donkey and have a highbrow conversation with a goose. (But not have my clothes eaten by a goat. I have enough animal-chewed clothes thanks to the gerbils) It’s definitely one to add to your ‘cheap day out in London’ bucket list.