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Sheer delight as doors open at attractions

By Jordan Reynolds | Dudley | Attractions | Published:

Shopping centres, charity shops, zoos and other attractions across the Black Country and Staffordshire are welcoming visitors through their doors for the first time in almost three months.

Camels take it easy

It is the latest phase of the easing of lockdown restrictions which the Government brought into force on March 23 to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The news has been welcomed by businesses, charities and attractions alike which were forced to close and have spoken out about financial struggles since lockdown began.

Now after weeks of planning the shops and attractions will reopen with measures to keep workers and visitors safe such as social distancing queue lines, one-way systems and hand sanitising stations.

But pubs, bars, restaurants and hairdressers will still not be able to reopen until July 4 "at the earliest", according to Business Secretary Alok Sharma.

Dudley Zoo and Castle had issued a rally cry for funding support – after the park revealed it was losing £100,000 a week while they were closed.

There will be 300 person limit to the Castle Hill attraction for the first few days, about two percent of their capacity – which will then gradually increase.

Other safety measures at Dudley Zoo and Castle will include social distancing queue lines, a one-way system around the site marked by painted floor arrows, hand sanitiser stations around the 40-acre site and guests will be encouraged to bring their own picnics.

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Director Derek Groves said: "We've been putting procedures in place over the last couple of months. The big thing is ensuring everyone pre-books and follows the route."

The leader of Dudley Council has pledged to support the borough’s top tourist attractions and help them fight back following the coronavirus crisis.

Councillor Patrick Harley, leader of the council, said: "Our tourist attractions are the envy of the region and must be looked after and supported. They are real jewels in the crown for Dudley borough.

"It’s been well publicised that it has been a tough time for the likes of the zoo and the museum, both of which were forced to close as a result of the pandemic and have lost a lot of money as a result.

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Head keeper Lisa Watkins checks in on one of the younger giraffe ahead of the park reopening to cars

"I am delighted to see the zoo is re-opening and I look forward to the museum and other attractions following suit as soon as it is safe to do so.

"Nevertheless it will remain a tough journey for them, and as a council we will do all we can to support and help them get back on their feet again."

Over in Bobbington Wild Zoological Park in Bobbington has been working with South Staffordshire Council to create a safe environment.

West Midland Safari Park, based in Bewdley, has also welcomed the news, but said walk-through exhibits and park rides will remain closed until they have further clarification from the Government.

A spokesman said: "We have implemented a number of new measures following advice from Government and industry associations.

"Aside from limiting the amount of visitors each day, and allocated arrival time slots, protective screening has been installed at contact points, while floor markings and signs to manage walkways and queues have been introduced.

"We’ve had unprecedented demand for tickets and we are over the moon that people want to spend their first family trip out to us."

Laura Willis with Rap the Asian Rhino

But Gentleshaw Wildlife Centre near Stafford is still in talks of how it can reopen safely as it is a small site, and is earmarking a date of July to welcome visitors again.

Jenny Morgan, director, said: "When we are able to reopen, it will be pre-booked time slots for visitors and severely limited numbers so you will not be able to just turn up to visit.

"We are hopeful we can accommodate the restrictions to keep everyone safe. So for now, we remain closed, remain in need of your support, but are feeling much more hopeful of seeing the light at the end of a very long tunnel."

Weston Park, on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border, opened on June 12 welcoming visitors holding annual memberships for the first four days only.

A spokesman said: “Our members have been so supportive and patient during this crisis and it is our way of saying thank you to welcome them back first.

“It is wonderful to be able to start opening up the estate gradually and see visitors for the first time in three months. If the restrictions keep easing along the lines set out by the government we hope to open the Granary Brasserie from July 4 and to look to welcome couples looking for a wedding venue for show rounds.

“The team are really looking forward to the start of our full opening from Tuesday.”

Meanwhile shoppers are able to browse clothes in stores for the first time in months today, but they will have to “exercise restraint” by not trying on clothing and testing goods, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has previously said.

Zebras at the park

Bosses at shopping centres across the region have drawn up a number of social distancing measures to support businesses reopening.

Dudley's Merry Hill shopping centre measures include placing limits on the number of people and cars allowed into the centre at a time, with some parking bays closed, and other measures including one-way systems, floor stickers and staff training to ensure visitors stay socially distanced.

And two of the larger Katharine House Hospice stores, the Norton Bridge Big Shop and the Stafford Big Shop, will reopen today, and others will follow in the weeks after.

Acorns Children's Hospice has revealed some of their charity shops will open on Thursday including Bilston, Blackheath, Bloxwich, Dudley and Halesowen.

Gary Pettit, head of retail at Acorns, said: “We rely on people generously donating their time to help staff our shops and with many of our volunteers being among the vulnerable isolating at home, we are appealing for more people to join Team Acorns. So, please get in touch.”

Indoor markets are also allowed to open once again, and Stafford Market traders will be flocking back to their stalls tomorrow.

Councillor Frances Beatty, cabinet member for economic development and planning, said: "To so many of the stallholders this is not only a businesses but a vocation – it is a major part of their life and they have put their heart into it - and, like many other sole and small traders, it has been a very tough time for them since lockdown.

"The team have been making sure that all government guidance is complied with to keep people safe. Signage will be around the market and changes have been made – for example the market café will be offering a takeaway service."

People enjoying the reopening of Weston Park, after lockdown

Tracey Lake of Davies & Lake Slippers & Footwear, added: “After having a stall in the market for over 30 years I can't wait to start back selling slippers on June 16, I've even got a card machine and Facebook page looking forward to seeing everyone.”

The full list of businesses that can open from today includes food retailers, fashion shops, charity shops, betting shops and arcades, tailors, dress fitters and fashion designers, car dealerships, auction houses and antique stores. Retail art galleries will be able to open, along with photography studios, gift shops and retail spaces in theatres, museums, libraries, heritage sites and tourism sites.

Mobile phone stores, indoor and outdoor markets and craft fairs are also on the list. The guidance also applies to those currently open, including banks, post offices and other money businesses, it added.

National Trust is ready to welcome visitors

Visitors to National Trust properties have been warned if they arrive without a ticket, or late for their slot, they will be turned away.

The parkland and gardens at Shugborough Estate near Stafford, Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton and Dudmaston Hall near Bridgnorth all opened for pre-booked visits on June 8.

But the properties, shops and cafes at each attraction are still closed.

Andy Beer, regional director for National Trust in the Midlands, said: “Over the past few weeks we have been gradually reopening some of our gardens and parkland where it is safe to do so, but through advance bookings only.

“We’ve made careful decisions about which properties can open, and have limited capacity so we’re able to manage numbers and ensure everyone can adhere to social distancing to maintain the safety of our visitors, staff and volunteers, which remains our top priority. Sadly, we will have to turn visitors who haven’t booked away.

“Tickets for the following week become available on Fridays and there is high demand for our places which have reopened, so people may be disappointed.

“With 5.8million members and limited tickets, we expect our places to book up quickly as demand outstrips ticket availability. Local managers are monitoring visitor numbers and social distancing, and increasing ticket availability where it is safe to do so and we’re also opening more gardens and parks every week.

Visitors return to Shugborough Estate, Milford, Great Haywood, Stafford. Pictured on a family walk are Jennie and Kean Shearwood from Penkridge with their daughter Elsie

“In terms of what visitors can expect, they book in half hour arrival slots, arrive, show their ticket on their phone and park up. Then they will be able to enjoy a visit around the grounds, they may be given a route or a one-way system but there will be signs to help them.

“Our parks and gardens have been maintained during lock down but on reduced staffing levels so things may look a little different. However, our gardeners and rangers have been doing a great job and people will be able to enjoy our beautiful places. The formal play areas are currently closed as are the houses and shops but there may be some outdoor trails and there will be a limited takeaway café offer at some places. There will be toilets will be open.

“The financial impact on the trust being closed has been very significant. We expect losses of around £200 million this year. We have paused all but essential projects and had furloughed 80 per cent of our staff.

“It is wonderful to be welcoming visitors back and we’re very grateful that our members and supporters have continued to stand by us as we work through these unprecedented times, and we ask for their continued support as we make this gradual transition a success so we can get back to offering nature, beauty and history for everyone.”

New routes will also be created at certain properties to keep visitors safe.

Entry and parking is free for members, but non-members will need to pay in advance.

Visitors have been asked to book one ticket per person. Under fives go for free and do not need a ticket.

A 30-minute time slot to arrive must be selected when purchasing tickets. The timeslot is for arrival time only and the length of time you can stay will depend on the opening times of the place being visited.

Shugborough will be open from 9am to 5pm every day and Wightwick from 10am to 5pm every day. Dudmaston’s park will open at 11am and its garden from 11.30am with both to close at 5pm. It will be closed on Fridays and Saturdays.

Severn Valley Railway to reopen in August

The Severn Valley Railway is gearing up to reopen to the public during August, after months of closure due to the coronavirus lockdown.

The popular attraction, whose leading heritage line runs from from Kidderminster in Worcestershire to Bridgnorth in Shropshire, closed its doors in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic escalated and lockdown began across the UK.

The SR 34027 Taw Valley is being exclusively used as an Adopt-an Engine option on the SVR shop. Photo: Colin Binch

Over the next few weeks, the railway will gradually bring back its 1,800 volunteers, along with paid staff - 95 per cent of whom are currently on furlough.

It faces a huge challenge to prepare for reopening as general manager Helen Smith explained: "Effectively we had to mothball the railway three months ago, and our heritage rolling stock has been standing around getting rusty and dusty since then. We’ve got to get our locomotives and carriages back into top condition by overhauling and checking everything.

"Our stations and garden areas need some TLC too, and we’ll be checking every single inch of the track and lineside to make sure we’re ready to roll when the time comes."

Helen said there is still a great deal of uncertainty around how passenger services will be managed once the railway has reopened.

She added: "We’re working closely with the Heritage Railway Association to make sure we get it right when it comes to safety for both visitors and our volunteers and staff. We have to wait and see whether the Government will reduce its social distancing advice to one metre from the current two metres. Such a change would make it easier to run services and allow us to make a profit rather than a loss.

"Although it’s going to be compulsory to wear face coverings on public transport, we don’t believe this will apply to us as a heritage attraction, provided we can maintain the recommended social distancing guidelines."

It is likely that services will run on a reduced timetable when the railway reopens, and it will be encouraging visitors to pre-book their tickets. Although booking for specific dates is not yet available, there will be updates on social media and at svr.co.uk.

Before the line itself is back in action, the SVR will reopen its pubs next month. The King and Castle at Kidderminster station, and the Railwayman’s Arms at Bridgnorth will be serving customers once again from July 4.

The SVR could lose up to £6 million income this year, as a result of months of closure and lower passenger numbers because of social distancing requirements. An emergency appeal has received more than £745,000. The SVR has also applied for a bank loan under the CBILS scheme, and to the National Lottery for emergency grant aid.

To support the SVR’s Fight Back Fund, visit www.svrtrust.org.uk.

Jordan Reynolds

By Jordan Reynolds
Reporter - @jreynolds_star

Senior reporter at the Express & Star.

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