Lee Durrell: ‘Before I came here, I thought the whole of Jersey was Gerry’s zoo’ | Travel

Gerry invited me to Jersey: he said he wanted to set up a sound-recording laboratory … but of course he had other things in mind, as we now know. I’d read his books, he was my great hero, and I knew he had this fantastic zoo, dedicated to conservation. But for some reason I thought the whole of Jersey was Gerry’s zoo, so I was rather surprised when I discovered it was a normal place, with villages and a town, and people who live here.

Lee Durrell. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

My arrival at the zoo was pretty impressive: I came through the iron gates that have a dodo symbol on them, and swept down this beautiful avenue of lime trees to the gravel forecourt of the 18th-century granite manor house. I only discovered afterwards that those gates are only opened for Princess Anne.

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, which is very green, but that’s where the resemblance ends. I loved Jersey from the beginning: out here in Trinity, in the north-east of the island, it is pastoral and idyllic … just what I like.

To live right in the middle of the zoo is an extraordinary privilege. I have a living room with windows that look out on this lush green valley with bright pink flamingos wandering around. What can be better than that? So many of our animals are either free-ranging or as close to it as possible, and they all look so contented.

Gorey is a beautiful little fishing village with a pier, on the south-east coast of the island, with the fabulous Mont Orgueil castle at the top. Gerry loved it: we liked going down there to eat at a restaurant called The Moorings.

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Jersey

‘I have a living room that looks out on this lush green valley with bright pink flamingos wandering around’ … the Durrell Wildlife Park

We didn’t go out that much: Gerry was often recognised, and was quite shy, and didn’t relish all the adoration. Even in the confines of the zoo, he didn’t go out unless he had to. Instead, he hosted parties at home. He was a great cook. We get fabulous fresh produce … I buy my fish from the Fresh Fish Company by the harbour.

I love going out west, it is so different from Trinity. You’ve got the long beach at St Ouen, and there is Big Vern’s at the end, which is a great place to eat. And there is now a Wetlands Centre, an important place for migrant stopovers.

Gerald Durrell at the Wildlife Conservation Trust

Gerald Durrell at the Wildlife Conservation Trust

I always recommend visitors go to the war tunnels, because that really gives you an idea of what it was like in Jersey during the Nazi occupation.

The decline in tourism in the 1990s and the 2000s was disastrous for us, because we were reliant on gate money to run our overseas conservation programme and our training academy. So we built a luxury camp, and it’s been tremendous. You’re right next to the park, so you wake up to animal sounds. We also run the wildlife hostel, a basic and affordable alternative; and a cafe called Firefly – the go-to place on this side of Jersey.

I love the boutique hotel Château La Chaire, in the Rozel valley: it has this fantastic wooded garden that not many people know about; it has a little microclimate and botanic plants.

The Jersey National Trust Wetland Centre

The Jersey National Trust Wetland Centre

People think of Jersey as full of rich people, but it’s not it’s got a few of them, but it’s also quite normal.

Gerry loved going to the old Victorian market. He knew all the greengrocers by name because they’d give him all their discarded fruit and vegetables for the animals.

There are some lovely characters on the island, like the artist Ian Rolls, who painted Les Augrès Manor for us, and Mike Stentiford, Jersey’s local naturalist. Mike did some talks for Gerald Durrell Week in Jersey last year – modelled on the one we do in Corfu, where we visit places the Durrell family lived and visited. In Jersey, we had a lepidopterist and went bat watching. There’s a really good natural history scene here.

Gerald Durrell Week Jersey runs at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust from 15-21 July (durrell.org)

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