ONE of County Durham zoological experiences was the 210-acre Lambton Lion Park which Antony Lambton opened in the grounds of his family home, Lambton Castle, in 1972 in partnership with circus owner Jimmy Chipperfield.

Lambton was the Under Secretary for Defence at the time, and had renounced his father’s peerage so that he could stay in the House of Commons as MP for Berwick – although he liked people to call him “Lord Lambton”.

The lion park opened six months after Stanley Zoo closed – and it opened with a bang. In its first month, a visitors’ car burst into flames while they were driving through the lion reserve, and the terror-stricken family had to sprint to safety while wardens kept the big cats at bay.

The lion park was on the south side of the Wear and also contained giraffes, hippos, elephants and baboons – although the baboons, when they weren’t jumping on visitors’ cars and pulling off the wipers, liked to escape onto the A1 motorway, a hippopotamus was rounded up by a dairy farmer in Fatfield and a zebra was discovered grazing on the cricket pitch at Bournmoor.

In 1973, a classic newspaper sting using a tape-recorder in the nose of a teddy bear and a two-way mirror saw Lord Lambton photographed smoking cannabis in bed with two naked prostitutes. He immediately resigned all of his political positions, told Robin Day on Panorama that he “couldn’t think what all the fuss was about. Surely all men visit whores?”, and took himself off to Italy, where he died in 2007.

His lion park never really thrived, and its animals were sold off in 1980. The estate is now a large pheasant shoot – although most of the pheasants seem to end up dead in the gutter of the world’s most pheasanted motorway: the A1(M) at Chester-le-Street.