Wartime Zoo Keeper’s Garden survives frost, Santa’s offerings … and Happy New Year to you all.

More items for a wartime or evacuee Christmas. Boys' comics, a beautifully simple handmade wooden plane (probably a Spitfire), handmade wooden slider puzzle, a selection of toy catalogues and evacuee memoirs (including Alf Townsend's Newquay evacuee experiences) from the Newquay Zoo wartime life collection. Wartime garden launch weekend display, August 2009.

What Santa might have bought a lucky wartime child! (Wearing Santa’s tin hat in wartime, naturally). Chocolate, comics, colouring books, tiddlywinks, a bear …

Ice and frost kept many people including zoo staff at home in the run up to Christmas. I hope you spent some quality family time and resorted to the blackout family favourites of “making your own entertainment” helped by card games, books, puzzles, battered board games and listening to the Queen’s speech on the radio.  

Gardeners would have had a few days grounded, as there’s  not much to do in ice or  frosty conditions once you’ve put up what protection you can. Time to get out the gardening books, new or old. Mr C.H. Middleton, the wartime radio gardener, in his excellent books (recently reprinted)  suggest that the ice and frosts will kill off garden pests and break down the recently dug soil on new garden plots. Maybe Santa left you some of these excellent and still very useful reprinted wartime gardening guides!

Winter garden work - in the library or armchair, planning your coming year's crop plans and trying new plants using handy wartime advice even in cartoon / strip form from the papers. Items from part of the Newquay Zoo wartime life collection, garden launch weekend, August 2009

To my surprise,  because of where it is placed in a sheltered spot near the Lion House, which receives the first and almost last winter sunshine of the day, the wartime zoo keeper’s garden at Newquay Zoo survived the recent ice and frost pretty much intact. Only the Nasturtiums have frosted and died. Carrots, leeks, leaf salad, lettuce, rocket and cabbage are all still in good shape although frosts of 10 below zero are predicted for some parts of the West Country over the next few days. The first year of the wartime zoo garden is seeing what survives and what can be grown here as animal food.  A similar approach to climate change adaptation will be needed by farmers and gardeners in the future.

Keeping frost at bay was  particular problem for wartime gardeners, wrestling with cloches or  unheated greenhouses (in days of fuel rationing). Old tricks of lighting fires in orchards etc at night to drive off frost were impossible during the blackout.   The same ‘orchard’ trick was used at nearby wartime airfield of RAF St. Mawgan (created at the start of the war and recently mothballed, being  turned into mostly  a civilian airport at Newquay. Large fires of oil pipes were lit along the clifftop airfield to drive off the mist and fog, requiring massive fuel tanks and a rail depot near the zoo at Quintrell Downs (where there is still a railway halt and fuel depot today).

Look around the Newquay area and Cornwall, like much of the country, and the scars or relics of wartime are still very visible – from pillboxes above beaches to wartime airfields, flattening whole lost hamlets and villages. There are plenty more stories like this in the highly readable book Cornwall At War.

Stephen McKeown at Chester Zoo told me that you can still see the traces of wartime life at Chester Zoo (built in the 1920s) in the form of pillboxes and concrete tank traps. They form part of a former early 1950s Polar Baer enclosure (now Europe on the Edge exhibit and aviary),  bought after the war  by the resourceful Mr. Mottershead, Chester Zoo owner being useful concretewhen building materials were in short supply.

Happy New Year!

The World war Zoo project team.


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