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Belle Vue rendezvous
It's hard to believe now, but at one time Manchester was home to the third biggest zoo in the UK. And if that weren’t enough, the unforgettable Belle Vue Zoo came housed in what was known as 'The Showground Of The World'.
A poster for Belle Vue Circus
Brian Selby was a big fan of the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, to give them their full name, so much so that he's built a huge collection of memorabilia that celebrates the much-loved attraction. He says his collection started by chance when he spotted something special in a shop window just down the road from where the zoo once stood.
"I was walking past an antiques shop in Levenshulme many years ago and noticed a billboard from the old Belle Vue Zoo, the kind they would hang them on the old lampposts down Hyde Road.
"The following day, I drove around the site of the old Zoo and couldn't believe how much space it occupied – it was 96 acres inside. But it had to be big, as over 2,000,000 people visited the zoo a year in its heyday and crowds of up to 180,000 on a Bank Holiday Monday!
"I wanted to build up a collection, always hoping that it would go one day on permanent display somewhere to commemorate a big part of Manchester’s past social history. Nothing remains of the old zoo, not even a plaque to say what once stood there - from 1836 until 1977 - and it unbelievably disappeared over night."
A zoo on the doorstep
Brian’s interest in the zoo didn't start after it had disappeared. He was a regular visitor to Belle Vue while it was still open, though he admits he wasn't as regular as he wishes he'd been.
An elephant ride at Belle Vue
"I probably visited the zoo for the first time some time around 1970, mainly for the Circus, and I remember a very long walk back along the tree-lined avenue known as the Longsight entrance.
"I visited the zoo periodically from about 1974 and remember thinking how run down it all looked - but I was still fascinated by the fact that this was on my doorstep and unbelievably that I had rarely ever come to the place."
Once he started going to Belle Vue, Brian couldn't stop – but like many Mancunians, there were more attractive things to do there than just see the animals.
"I often went to the Kings Hall on a Saturday night to watch the wrestling and then into the amusement park afterwards.
"Like a lot of people, even though it was on my doorstep, I wouldn't really think of going for a day out to the zoo - it would usually be for dancing; maybe Jimmy Saville's Top Ten Club in the late 1960s or the Zoo B Doo disco in the 1970s, both at the New Elizabethan Ballroom.
"Obviously, there was also the Saturday night speedway or stock cars and most people were like me, rounding off the evening off with a visit to the amusement park."
A memorable skyline
Like anyone who enjoyed the attractions Belle Vue had to offer, Brian has many memories of the place, but his best ones aren't of the animals or the dancing; they are of the glorious amusement park.
Belle Vue wrestling
"My favourite memories of the place were the skyline from Hyde Road entrance with the imposing Bob’s A Mile A Minute rollercoaster ride, named after the price of the ride in the 1930s.
"And there was the Scenic Railway; how it would appear to give the feeling of a mountain ride over the horizon, which looked brilliant when lit up at night.
"I also remember standing in the area around the firework lake and being told that they used to dance on the outdoor boards then watch a firework display or, in earlier years, a battle re-enactment on the island, using local people as actors being paid in beer and pies from [Belle Vue founder John] Jennison’s own stock. I wish I could have seen that."
As vivid as those memories are for Brian, when time was finally called on the zoo, the moment somewhat passed him by in an adolescent haze. Yet in the period since it disappeared, he’s come to realise just what the city lost with the closure, which is why he’s put his much-loved memorabilia on show for the whole of Manchester to enjoy.
Belle Vue poster (detail)
"Everyone has a story about Belle Vue and everyone has an opinion on whether or not it should have closed. It still stirs many a debate in the papers and even the mention of Belle Vue brings the nostalgia flooding back.
"Personally, I think it’s a massive part of Manchester's past social history and the story itself would probably go down well in schools as part of local history."
Such is Brian’s passion for Belle Vue that he'd be happy to permanently loan his collection to anywhere in Manchester that would like to put it on display.
Until someone takes him up on the offer, all Manchester can do is enjoy the exhibition at the Central Library and its own memories of what was once one of the North's biggest and best attractions.
'Belle Vue's Back in Town' is at Manchester Central Library until Friday 17 October
last updated: 24/09/2008 at 08:38