Eat, Bray, Love
Looking for a heehaw-some day out with the kids? Hoof it over to The Donkey Sanctuary at Sidmouth.
Maybe because it’s on my doorstep, maybe because I’m a terrible mum, but somehow or other, I’ve never got round to taking any of my three Mudsters to The Donkey Sanctuary. But it was Easter and the eggs were calling, so I packed my littlest in the car and we set off to Sidmouth for a day of choccy-egg hunting and free, yes FREE, donkey-focussed fun.
Perched in 130 acres on a hillside on the East Devon coast, with glorious views out across the Jurassic Coast, The Donkey Sanctuary is celebrating 50 years of rescuing donkeys this year, since founder Dr Elisabeth Svendsen MBE rescued her first donkey ‘Naughty Face’ in 1969. More than 20,000 have been saved from poor conditions since and there are currently 207 donkeys to meet, pat and if you’re so inclined, adopt (for around £3 a month by direct debit) as your own. Though there are 30,000 donkeys in the UK, this is the place in Devon to see so many different breeds, sizes and colours all in one place.
The rescue donkeys are spread out everywhere, grazing in the many paddocks. They’ll nuzzle you for strokes and you can read all about them, as well as watch one of the displays in the main barn area. It’s fascinating to hear some little-known facts about these creatures (they have 16 muscles in their ears alone) and heartwarming to know that many have escaped difficult past lives and are now living it up near Sidmouth.
A lot of love has gone into the donkeys and ensuring there’s plenty to do while you’re here. Every donkey wears a loose collar with its name on it; red for a boy, yellow for a girl. And there are signs next to each enclosure telling you how old each donkey is and its (often sad) story of how it was rescued and came to be here. Don’t go thinking you’re just going to Instagram a few gorgeous donkeys; be prepared to get lost in a maze, follow trails and become immersed in the interactive displays.
My Muddler was intrigued by the various shelters where the more needy donkeys are housed, including the oldies (donkeys can live to 30 years or more) and blind donkeys, who we were amazed to see had no problems finding their way round due to their good sense of smell which is 100x better than that of a human’s apparently. (I’m going to be testing you at the end).
Meet D’Artagnan, a breed of large donkeys called Poitou, and one of their stars, thanks to his size and strokeable shaggy fur though he was having a snooze when we saw him so this was as close as we got. There were also cute miniature donkeys which hail from the Mediterranean and were traditionally used for grinding grain.
There’s a rustic play area designed for very young children, with mini wooden donkeys to ride, an old tractor and a little barn for the young farmers. Head behind the visitor centre for some seriously inspiring gardens complete with espalier trained hedges and apple trees, along with Dr Svendsen’s Hut and an Understanding Donkeys Zone with lots more interesting facts for kids.
Cross over the road to a maze where you can lose
the kids yourself among the shelter of the high beech hedges for an hour or so, before heading back to the visitor centre to learn about donkeys through the ages, and, if pocket money allows, have a rootle round the gift shop, full of bespoke-made and local products. Profits go towards helping donkeys in need; all very reasonably priced too, I thought.
SCOFF & QUAFF
The Taste of the West Gold award-winning cafe is huge with with big glass windows and a wooden terrace overlooking the donkey fields, where there’s a golden donkey etched into the turf (to match the chocolate donkey ears etched into your coffee and hot choc) and lots of local suppliers on the menu. It’s a lovely space to sit and catch up with yourself, following a morning with the furries. It would be the perfect place to get together with a gang of friends and their Muddlets for relaxed, feel-good fun.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Brilliant quality, heart-warming with great attention to detail and fabulous visitor centre and cafe worth coming for alone. The fact entry and parking is free makes it 10 out for 10 from me and 9 out of 10 from the Muddy though she fessed she could find nothing wrong.
Good for: day-trippers; brunchers, lunchers and cream tea fans; dog-walkers; meet-ups with big groups of friends and their kids.
Not for: easily bored teens unless they’re woo-woo about donkeys or thinking of becoming a vet (Vet Experience sessions available for £120 or a VIP Donkey Experience with the Poitous for £80).
The damage: Free entry and parking; trails and Easter egg hunts, £3.
The Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth, Devon EX10 0NU Tel 01395 578222; firstname.lastname@example.org
Find more kids activities here.