Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Things To Do in Berkshire: The Living Rainforest

Rainforests are hard to get to. They're all inconveniently placed somewhere in Foreign, which means that for this midlander at least, it takes a bit of effort and a bit of cash to get anywhere near one. Having been talked into dog-sitting for my mum at her and her partner's place near Reading, Emma and I were looking for things to do nearby*, and we came across The Living Rainforest, which is in Hampstead Norreys, Berkshire, not far from the M4's junction 13.

Intriguingly, the main attraction of this place is that they bring the rainforest to you. It's essentially a great big hot, wet greenhouse in the middle of the Berkshire Nowhere that's full of trees, plants and animals that you just wouldn't usually come across on a normal wander through any British county. At least, in some cases, you hope you wouldn't.
Here are some fish (I can't remember what type... sorry!) There were also stingrays and turtles swimming around.
Before even purchasing our ticket we were pounced on by a man trying to sell us Wildlife Trust membership, which is about the only thing about the visit that I didnt like: let us get through the door first! It cost us just under £10 each to get in, and the ticket's valid for another 12 months so we can come back again next time we visit my mum. The mission of the charity that runs the Living Rainforest is to promote sustainable living, but this wasn't explicit, and I'd like to have seen more information available on this front.

You grab a map, wrestle your way through some flappy plastic hanging door things, and you're in the first hot and humid enclosure. There's lots of Rainforest foliage all around, but it's the animals that interest me the most: tanks of cockroaches, millipedes and other invertebrates; a chameleon and poison-dart frogs in another enclosure. And then we turned around to find a lizard looking at us, standing in the path that we just walked down! In fact, throughout the Living Rainforest there are a number of creatures that wander (or fly) about amongst the human visitors and seem very happy to have them there.

According to @Morphosaurus this is a Chinese water dragon, Latin name Physignathus cocincinus.
Through a second flappy-plastic airlock, and you're in the even hotter, even wetter 'Amazonica House', which contains more flora and an even more impressive array of fauna including tortoises, terrapins and turtles; monkeys and marmosets, a carpet python and a dwarf crocodile named Courtney (these are all safely contained, though there are a number of birds flying around like they own the place**). One of the employees gave a really interesting talk about Courtney, and I was only disappointed that such talks weren't publicised more effectively- we only found out about it because we happened to turn up as it started. There's also an aquarium containing a variety of fish, ducks, turtles and even stingrays all coexisting in a habitat that seems as natural as possible given that it's not in the Amazon and is surrounded by gawping hom-saps.

It's entirely likely that you'll want to take a break from the oppressively hot atmosphere inside the Living Rainforest (the 22 degree English summer that's too hot for my taste seemed relatively cool once we left). Thankfully there's a cafe and the obligatory gift shop. The cafe sells a limited but appropriate range of lunch-foods at a reasonable price (my baguette was tasty and rammed full of filling, easly justifying the ~£3.50 price tag). The gift shop was the usual affair - largely generic tat that pre-teen minds are always desperate to spend their pocket money on - which is a shame because I thought here were a few possibilities for more Living Rainforest specific items that would be both easy and cheap to produce and potentially very popular***.

This rotter stubbornly refused to look in my direction when I was trying to take a photo of it. I wish I hadn't left my DSLR at home- there were some amazing photo opportunities.
Other things that I feel I should mention include the possibility of taking part in feeding certain animals. This has to be booked in advance, and had a price tag of about £80 for most creatures, with profits going to the upkeep and development of the enclosures. There are also outdoor picnic and play areas. Photography is allowed as long as you don't use a flash: I wish I'd remembered to take my DSLR because there were some cracking photo opportunities, and some of the subjects may have deemed me worth looking at if I was using some equipment more decent than my phone.

Altogether, it's a great experience that I can see appealing to children and adults alike, though it's probably not going to fill up an entire day for you - we were out for about 2 1/2 hours.

Here's where to find more info:

* Emma was looking for things to do. I was probably watching a DVD, or reading, or blogging or something.
** Which, of course, they do.
*** If anyone from the Living Rainforest wants to get in touch I'm more than happy to detail some ideas and collaborate in their production if they think they'd work!