Express & Star

Flashback to 1990: Dudley Zoo steps 400 million years back in time

Visitors to Dudley's famous castle and zoo were able to step 400 million years back in time with the opening of a new £1million attraction.

Zookeeper Carl Stevens in the Geochrom

The Geochrom was a two-part experience taking in Dudley's distant past in one section and a magnificent recreation of a tropical rainforest in the other.

Exotic butterflies flitted freely through air in the tropical side of the building, while rain forest plants flourished by growing as much as six inches a day while they established themselves.

Education was said to be the key to the Geochrom, and parties of youngsters were shown what the area was like eons ago.

Geochrom manager Ian Hughes told the Express & Star back in March 1990: "We will take people through a carboniferous forest of the time, and then into its modern equivalent, which will be maintained at about 80 degrees temperature and 80 per cent humidity.''

The complex which had been dubbed Tomorrow's Zoo Today was financed by Dudley Borough Council's economic development unit.

Reptile keeper, Graham Chilton, surrounded by donated Swiss cheese plants

The "forest'' was housed in a giant glass building. Although light and airy to begin with, staff said the trees and vegetation woukd eventually grow over the paths, giving a dense jungle atmosphere.

This, combined with a steamy constant 80F temperature, promised to give visitors an authentic Amazonian experience.

The eventual aim was for the entire complex to be self-sustaining, with the inhabitants of the rain forest, such as exotic butterflies, reproducing at a sufficient rate to keep up stocks.

Mr Hughes said 150 butterflies a week were being purchased to start with and the eventual aim was to have a small population of them actually living and breeding there.

The plants in the forest had been specially selected as those off which the fauna would naturally feed. Food was being brought in but ultimately this should not be necessary.

Another aim was to demonstrate the economic importance of the world's rain forests. Foods growing in the complex include coffee, lychee, avocado and citrus plants.

Mr Hughes explained: "We are trying to show the amount of food and economic use that the rain forests have. This is illustrated by charts and drawings, all of which have been made by staff at the centre.''

Other inhabitants of the forest included three Nile crocodiles and a selection of exotic fish that were kept, not surprisingly, in separate pools.

Heating, filtering and pumping mechanisms were controlled by computers and there was a fail safe twin boiler system to prevent the temperature from falling if one should break down.

Elsewhere in the Geochrom complex visitors were taken back 400 million years with the exhibition recreating conditions in the West Midlands when the region was covered by a shallow tropical sea.

Then visitors were able to travel through to the present time where they faced a choice: to continue living as we were, destroying the world at the same time, or to change our habits and preserve the world.

The Geochrom also used "talking'' fossils to explain the geological history of Castle Hill, where the zoo stands.

This environmentally friendly side of the exhibition was reflected in the Geochrom's gift shop, where all the goods were made without damaging the environment.

The merchandise was selected for its educational or environmental message.The shop also stocked a selection of plastic dinosaurs. For,as Ian admits: "It was things like toy dinosaurs that originally got me interested in nature.''

Twelves months later and the exotic plants, insects and animals were thriving in the tropical atmosphere - and were turning up more than a few surprises.

Ten new species of butterfly were breeding there - double the number of previous year - and an exotic waterfall and pools had been added with species from Africa, South EastAsia and South America.

But Mr Hughes said the humid, tropical rainforest atmosphere has encouraged exotic plants to grow at a phenomenal rate, and some of them were not even planned.

"We planted some paw-paw seeds a few months ago and they have already shot up to over 10ft high. We have been amazed at the sheer speed of the growth.

"And we now have two banana plants, but we don't know where they came from. They are a non-commercial type and have some little red fruits on already,'' said Mr Hughes.

"We believe the seeds may have been stuck in the sole of a boot and were brought in by a visitor who works at an exotic gardens elsewhere. It seems we have created an incredibly fertile environment here.''

The attraction also came in useful for Dudley Zoo and Castle part-time worker Karin Jenkins, who was using it as part of her training as she prepared to cycle 200 miles across Cuba to help the Guide Dog for the Blind Association.

Karin Jenkins prepares for her cycle ride across Cuba

The 38-year-old was hoping to raise £2,000 for the charity by averaging around 40 miles a day.

Karin, a secretary for the College of Opthalmic Surgeons, based at Birmingham University, worked in the bar at the Queen Mary Ballroom at the Black Country tourist attraction.

She described the charity ride as “the adventure of a lifetime”.