Isolation diary: Living near a theme park

Last week I wrote about the joys of living near a zoo. Over 30 years ago it was transformed in a theme park, Chessington World of Adventures, and became part of The Tussauds Group of tourist attractions (now Merlin Entertainments). The name of the area where I live is now synonymous with thrill rides, an animal park and above all, with clogged roads in the summer. In 2018 it attracted 1.67 million visitors.

Although the park is only a mile or so from the M25, the access roads, whichever route is taken, pass through residential areas. In the summer months local people like us know exactly how to avoid the traffic, but it often involves long detours. And those who live in Malden Rushett (which still lies within Greater London) have a real problem as the cars build up along the only road through their village. After a quiet few months, that disruption will start again this Thursday when the park opens for Zoo Days, and get worse on 4th July when the whole park re-opens.

Right at the beginning, the Council laid down some ground rules, which still apply today.

First, the site is set in the Outer London Green Belt, so the Council identified the build envelope, and no buildings were allowed outside that boundary. The park has got round that a bit by grazing giraffes and oryx on the Green Belt, somewhat to the surprise of the neighbouring horses, and then applying to install buildings to support animal husbandry (and by pure co-incidence, of course, a safari ride).  They have also squeezed in two resort hotels within the envelope, which offer some resources for the local community, such as a gym, indoor pool and function rooms.

Second, substantial planting on site became a requirement, and today visitors are surprised at how green it is.

Third, no construction was allowed to appear above the tree line. As a result, the park is almost invisible from the road and nearby houses, and the trees form a noise barrier as well. I do remember one planning application for a rollercoaster that we turned down. The ride would have risen well above the surrounding trees, and the park tried to justify it on noise grounds – apparently, people only start screaming when they are one third of the way down and behind the trees.

Some years later, when my husband was a councillor for one of the Chessington wards, he managed to negotiate some compensation for local residents for the nuisance caused to them. People living in specific postcodes were offered one family ticket to the park each year. At first these were limited to off peak times, which made it difficult to use with school age children. Today local residents can still take advantage of the concession, which is worth nearly £120, on any day when the park is open.

When the Liberal Democrats gained overall control of the Kingston Council in 1994 their very first action was to devolve as much power as possible to what we call Neighbourhood Committees. This meant that all planning applications for the theme park went through my local Committee, which I chaired for 3 years. The larger applications had to be decided at the strategic Planning Committee, but the Neighbourhood Committee was also consulted about those; we determined smaller applications ourselves. That’s how I learnt about screaming points, and also how reptile houses are heated and the feeding habits of white rhino.

Chessington World of Adventures and its hotels offer quite a bit of local employment, though most of it is seasonal and more suitable for students. My son spent several summers working there, but did his best to avoid dressing as an animal character. It wasn’t much fun wearing a furry padded costume on a hot summer’s day, and being led by a helper (because of limited vision), all for the pleasure of children who then kicked you to find out if you were real.




Please note

We have been in full self-isolation since 16th March to protect my husband whose immune system is compromised.

If you are in self-isolation then join the Lib Dems in self-isolation Facebook group.

You can find my previous Isolation diaries here.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Michael Berridge 16th Jun '20 - 8:45pm

    The first time I went to Chessington Zoo was in 1958. They had a London tram outside the entrance in those days.

  • What is now the branch line to Chessington South should have been a loop reaching right round to Leatherhead, but war stopped construction, and with the post-war green belt legislation the line lost its point. Today all there is of the extension is a rail-less embankment south of the terminus built by Royal Engineers as a wartime exercise. But Alan A Jackson (London’s Local Railways, 1978) suggested that, green belt notwithstanding, the line might be worth extending as far as Malden Rushett because ‘generations of parents’ had found the 3/4 mile walk from Chessington South to the zoo/theme park a very weary one. Would this ease the traffic too?

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