We spent a few hours at our local free zoo, and had a surprisingly good time

A number of friends and colleagues have told me about a free zoo in Southend-On-Sea, and so I decided to take the kids along to have a look around and see what all the fuss was about.

First of all, I noticed that there was absolutely no charge to get in, which is a massive bonus – some of these attractions can run to £60 or more for a family. Visitors are encouraged to purchase items from their large gift shop, and it is impossible to leave the venue without passing some checkouts, but I guess that they have to make their money somehow.

I also immediately realised that everything was undercover, and so this location is ideal for rainy days.

First of all, we went to see the gerbil encounter, and my two-year-old loved getting up close and personal with this small animal. There was an exercise demonstration and she loved getting a real taste of what it is like for a gerbil in its daily life – it even took a little drink at one point.

They also have a number of rabbits and chinchillas of varying colours, and if you would like a closer look at any of them, all you need to do is ask.

There is a small aquarium on site, and although they do not have the room for sharks, penguins and sea lions, there is still plenty to keep them occupied. The Finding Nemo Experience was a fantastic opportunity to see a blue fish who looked identical to the one in the movie.

I would thoroughly recommend the insect handling activity – there is no need to book in advance. My four-year-old got to hold some grasshoppers and their keeper was on hand to answer any questions. I was slightly concerned to hear that they had been packaged up in order to be fed to other larger animals, but again for the admission price to remain this low I guess they have to cut corners somewhere.

There wasn’t much in the way of on-site catering, and so I would definitely advise you to pack a lunch before you visit. The Pick ‘N’ Mix was very reasonably priced in comparison to our local Odeon, but my kids didn’t really see anything that they fancied.

Once you have seen all of the animals, there is also an activity play area with plenty to do, and many of the toys also make a noise which provides a fantastic sensory experience. However, my only concern in this area is that they had a squeaky pig, and this may cause offence to Jewish and Muslim families – it is well worth bearing this in mind.

Also, I felt that the climbing ropes were a bit on the small side.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this venue for a bargain-priced family day out. I believe that they are located all over the United Kingdom, and for the ultimate in parental convenience they can usually be found next to a number of major retailers such as Argos and Sports Direct, meaning that it should be relatively easy to combine a trip with your regular shopping.

My only criticism is that it would have been nice to see a slightly wider variety of animals – most animal parks have a selection of big cats and the only feline creature that we got to see was being carried up the stairs in a small cage. By the time he came back down, he had a bit of a limp and looked very cross.