zoo tomorrow

The context

Zoo Corner is found at Home Park, Plymouth. It was described by Argyle’s Head of Operations, Jon Back, in a June 2018 blog on the ground’s redevelopment, as “towards the east end of the Lyndhurst stand.”

This part of the ground is talismanic among Argyle fans as a place where a good atmosphere can be generated. There has been controversy from time to time when its four blocks of seats were shut as a segregation measure (it’s the closest point to the away fans), or for cost-cutting reasons. So Back’s revelation that the Corner was to be the future home of “directors, VIPs, sponsors and corporate guests” wasn’t met with much enthusiasm by die-hards.

view from the zoo (pafc.co.uk)

It would be easy to suppose the name “zoo” arises from the wild behaviour and fierceness of the Swilly buhys who favour it – like for instance the Jungle at Celtic, or the Snakepit at Norwich. The truth is rather more exotic….

The history

The top end of Central Park was a busy place in the early Sixties. Argyle had been promoted from the Third Division (South) as champions in 1959, triggering a programme of ground improvements to cope with bigger crowds wanting to watch them in the higher league.

Terracing was built on the Lyndhurst side, the work – completed in time for Home Park to stage an under-23 international against Belgium in 1962 – entirely funded by the Supporters’ Club, who similarly paid for its vast roof a few years later.

Barn Park -“10 steps” sign top left (Steve Daniels)

Also around this time, volunteers from the same Supporters’ Club built concrete terracing at the Barn Park End. This part of the ground perches above the adjacent park, which falls away towards the city centre and the Sound (the naval docks are a mile or two beyond the Devonport End opposite, in the Tamar estuary). Until redevelopment in the 1990s, access to the Barn Park was via a path at the rear of the Lyndhurst and then a substantial slope up to an opening at the rear. This was notable for a series of safety signs reading “10 steps start here”, described by Simon Inglis as “like end-of-the-line tube stations on the outskirts of London.”

Home Park and zoo, bottom right

Behind this end, in 1962, Plymouth City Council built….. a zoo. A partnership with famous circus family the Chipperfields, this remains arguably the most singular thing ever to co-exist with a Football League ground. The animal enclosures were literally beneath the Barn Park End path. At the height of its 16-year existence, Plymouth Zoo attracted 50,000 visitors a year. It had lions, tigers, leopards, pumas, elephants, zebras, rhinos, hippos, wallabies, penguins and a pelican called Percy. (It also had rabbits, which periodically escaped and dug holes in the Home Park pitch.)

(Plymouth Herald)

Zoos are a sensitive subject nowadays, but this one was a rare touch of colour and beauty for Plymouth children growing up in a blitz-damaged and run-down city. It was a quarantine zoo, which meant that animals were rested and rehabilitated there as a staging post on their journey from Millbay Docks to other zoos and safari parks around the country. The transient nature of its population encouraged a culture where the animals were regarded more as pets than as a serious money-making venture.

health and safety (Plymouth Herald)

There was also a somewhat relaxed approach to health and safety. Percy, for example, scared a generation of Janners by chasing them around the zoo. Visitors were actively encouraged to stroke tigers, while lion cubs were put into pushchairs with toddlers. The enclosures, although small, were Heath Robinson affairs of chicken wire and scaffolding rather than cages in the traditional, restricted sense.

Percy (Plymouth Herald)

None of this could last, of course. And it didn’t. After a steady decline the zoo closed in 1978 and was replaced by a skateboard park. The site now is landscaped.

The last word

Jon Back: “I can still remember as a boy standing on the floodlight of the old Spion Kop, hearing the occasional roar of the lions and trumpet of the elephant on balmy, sun-drenched days when the on-field play was languid.”