In the middle of September 1966, The Daily Telegraph reported that in the woods around Downham Market at least three separate witnesses had spotted a bizarre wild animal. The police were reported to have said “at first we did not believe it. But from the description there is no doubt it is a wallaby.”
History appears to have forgotten what became of those rumours – at the very least, the mysterious animal never again gets a mention in the papers. However, less than nine years later, an eerily similar situation emerged, not more than a few miles away in Fersfield.
Banham Zoo is an oddity in the landscape of South Norfolk. Where one expects to find little more than quaint English villages set amongst sandy Breckland farms and woody lowland forest, instead right there in the centre of Banham there is a little oasis of wildlife. It was founded in 1968 by a local couple, the young and wealthy Martin and Caroline Goymour. The family set it up, along with other regional tourist hubs like the Dinosaur Park and Africa Alive, with a view to reinventing Norfolk tourism.
Adventures of a Banham Zoo wallaby
Today, Banham Zoo houses over 2,000 animals. It goes without saying that through its fifty plus years of history, the zoo has had its share of old stories. One such story I stumbled across quite recently, whilst browsing local interest stories in archived newspapers: the escaped wallaby of 1975.
History has forgotten it. So far as I have been able to find, not a single paper mentioned it after the event, and therefore the events in question remain sketchy and pieced together from two newspaper fragments of a clearly much larger story. However, the chronology seems simple enough. In April, 1975, a male wallaby leapt over a six foot fence, escaping the zoo. The wallaby was worth some £300 – nearly £3,000 in today’s money – and was itself only four foot tall. Immediately, a search team was put together and the press was alerted. However, no doubt proving our wallaby’s leaping athleticism, they were unable to find him.
Our marsupial protagonist most likely fled southwards, either down through Kenninghall Woods or south-west along the roadside. Uncaught, he found himself in the vicinity of Fersfield. For those who don’t know Fersfield, it is barely a village, just a sparse array of farms and houses just north of the A1066.
Fersfield is most famous for its airfield. Still guarded by drones and dogs, it was, like many airfields across East Anglia, a USAAF army base in the Second World War. It has gained notoriety since the war for being the place of the last sighting of Joseph Kennedy Jr., older brother to John F. Kennedy, before his fateful airplane explosion over Suffolk in 1944 – the first example of the Kennedy Curse. It was also, in 1975, home to our wild wallaby.
The wallaby stayed at his new home on the airfield for a whole three months. Of course, he did not go unnoticed. The zoo, once notified, and other locals made several attempts to capture him. However, ultimately these all led to failure. Given how small and open of the airfield was, one wonders just how fast this wallaby must have been – there are not many places to hide. Embracing his newfound liberation, he managed to subsist, presumably on local vegetation and the boundless local farmland in and around Fersfield. This would, of course, have been the summer and the most natural living conditions a wallaby could hope for in Britain.
Unfortunately, not all stories have a happy ending. Come June, and the wallaby began to get overconfident in his freedom. Daringly, he began to venture beyond the airfield and travelled westwards, to Garboldisham. One imagines that he must have taken the route through the fields north of the A1066 and arrived somewhere around Garboldisham Ling. There, he met an abrupt and unfortunate end: he was hit by a car. Where remains a mystery, and an eccentric tale of an unnatural journey to freedom ends without fanfare.
Not only wallabies
This is just one of many such East Anglian tales of zoological escapees. More recently, a Rüppel’s vulture named Foster gained national attention when he escaped. He fled Banham and settled in an 80ft tree at Reydon, near Southwold, in the summer of 2001. There were several unsuccessful attempts at capturing him, until his 21-year-old handler Jo Lobb was brought in, and with relative ease called him back to her hand. The Telegraph quoted the local rector as saying that “he was relieved that Foster was caught before the church’s annual strawberry fair”.
Elsewhere, in 1986 a wolf escaped for a night from Colchester Zoo in Essex, only to return home the next day, hungry and tired. Not two years before, three chimps had escaped from their pen. Two were found in a kitchen eating bananas – the third, perhaps more of a joiner than a leader, had merely wandered around nearby and found its way back to the cage.
It is often said that the reason we tell stories about the past is because it speaks to the present. This fragment of history is neither relevant to today nor all that meaningful; it is simply a good story that has never been told. Just maybe, its telling may mean that one person in South Norfolk passes through Fersfield, and thinks quietly, “Some near fifty years ago a wild wallaby may have been right where I am standing.” And though that may be something very small, is it not reason enough to tell it?