Tim Hughes has a close encounter as he tries out the canteen menu at one of the county’s top attractions
The Arabian Rock Hyrax is a curious beast.
It looks like a rodent, all pointed teeth, cute twitchy nose and long whiskers, but is in fact related to the elephant.
Native to the mountains of the Arabian Peninsula, it is perfectly at home, among both rock and hard place, on the cliffs and ledges of the Empty Quarter.
It is also pretty comfortable, I discover, in the restaurant at the Cotswold Wildlife Park.
The Burford zoological garden holds many surprises, but few so great as looking up from one’s lunch to be greeted by the curious gaze of a rare critter from the Middle East, pictured bottom right.
But, like much else in this park, design is everything, and the inclusion of a viewing area in the cafe is genius. Fortunately for the sake of my fingers – and chips – the fluffy, friendly-looking creatures are safely behind glass.
Among the county’s most popular tourist attractions, the Cotswold Wildlife Park attracts thousands of visitors a day. And many of those day-trippers find themselves in its restaurant. But does it deliver an experience as impressive as the rest of the park?
The construction of a new treetop adventure playground, revelling in the name Skymaze (which perhaps makes it sound more like a Bond movie) was all the excuse I needed to grab the kids, head west down the A40 and go on mini-safari.
So much fun did the Skymaze prove, however, that we barely left the play area. When we did, I insisted that we refuel with some proper tucker.
Occupying a creeper-clad stone building at the side of the original manor house, the restaurant operates a canteen-style system, with diners grabbing a tray and queueing up to choose between a range of salads, sandwiches or hot meals. As you’d expect from a busy family attraction, these are designed to appeal to all, and to withstand a fair amount of time under the hot lamps – though, I was delighted to see, they are replenished regularly.
Favourites included sausage or chicken and chips, toad in the hole with mash and gravy, sweet and sour chicken, cheeseburgers, chilli con carne, a vegetarian dish of the day, and – our favourite – fish and chips.
Plates cost £6.95 to £7.95 and prove great value, being generously loaded, with an option to switch chips for rice or even go half-and-half. Jacket potatoes are also available (with coleslaw or beans for £5.50 or chilli, Cheddar and tuna for £6.50).
The fish and chips proved a delight, with light crunchy batter and lots of proper chunky British chips. It was served with peas (beans or a side salad) and as much sauce as you can handle. We also tried the chilli, which was mighty fine – tasty, meaty and with a gentle kick. It was all better than I expected and far superior to food served at other busy family attractions.
What was best though, was that we could finish off with a fabulous chocolate truffle cake and – for me – a bottle of Windrush Ale, a lovely nutty beer from the nearby North Cotswold Brewery.
Okay, it may prove more expensive than a picnic, but just think of the time you’ll save – either for burning off energy in the treetop-playground (them) or, if you’d rather, engaging in a staring match with a beady-eyed Jordanian rodent. And there aren’t many restaurants, east of Suez, where you can do that!
Cotswold Wildlife Park, Bradwell Grove, Burford
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