They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
“A soldier’s life is terrible hard,”
Says Alice.

Quite why Mama, who spent a large number of her formative years buttonholing people and ranting about the evils of the monarchy, should so frequently find herself in front of Buckingham Palace watching some kind of royal pagent is something of a mystery, although what I say is that if you don’t support your local princesses, who will be there when you need birds sung to, fancy pink dresses worn or virtual strangers married?

Mama likes to pretend that she is on her way somewhere and it is the quickest way up from Victoria to Piccadilly, but I am not convinced that this explains how she has pitched up there for things like 71 gun salutes fired in a particularly chaotic but difficult to achieve manner, views of the entire Royal Family standing on the balcony mugging at the crowd, and more than one fly past including everything from very old bombers through bright red planes trailing coloured smoke to modern fighters.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We saw a guard in a sentry-box.
“One of the sergeants looks after their socks,”
Says Alice.

About the only thing she has not turned out for, apart from most of the Jubilee celebrations, which wasn’t her fault as she tried to go to them all, but managed to get thoroughly rained on, choose the wrong place to stand, spend the duration hunting for the rest of her party or just turn up late with impressive regularity, was the relatively recent royal wedding.

She insisted on watching it on TV instead, much to our bored amazement. I hadn’t entered my pink phase then, and to be honest, even if I had, Kate is insufficiently blonde.

Mama claimed that she finds it amusing that despite how very much in the public eye they are, none of the Royals are really all that good a behaving like celebrities, particularly when it comes to making sure their profile is in the right light at all times.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We looked for the King, but he never came.
“Well, God take care of him all the same,”
Says Alice.

William in particular has terrible posture she says, although Papa says that this is how you tell he is an aristocrat rather than middle class like Kate. Only someone that in-, sorry, well-bred can get away with slouching his way through his own wedding ceremony on national TV while his lowly future wife sits up ramrod straight, knees elegantly together, hands delightfully folded in her lap.

Commenting on the finer nuances of the class system. Oh dear. I think Papa may have spent too long in the UK and gone native.

Huh. Mama is making choking sounds in the corner. I think she might disagree.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
They’ve great big parties inside the grounds.
“I wouldn’t be King for a hundred pounds,”
Says Alice.

Anyway, we have not, thus far, actually done the regular Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace from start to finish, and so jumped at the chance when one was presented to us in the form of accompanying an American friend recently.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

The Changing of the Guard, is also known, to Mama’s inexplicable amusement, as Guard Mounting. It basically consists of one group of soldiers taking over, wait for it, guard duty from another. Quite why this needs two bands, lots of spectators and 45 minutes I do not know, but Mama says it is tradition. Tradition sounds expensive. Mama says, probably not when you consider the tourist trade as a whole.

We approached through St James’ Park. There’s a particularly well-placed bridge from which everybody should get their first view of Buckingham Palace looking whitely elegant, framed by trees, reflected in the water, peeping modestly out from behind the glorified traffic island topped by a socking great gold leaf cover statue of somebody or another.

Buckingham Palace from St James park

You can also pick up a coffee from the refreshment vans in the two park corners nearest the palace. You will need this to fortify you for the wait. We got there at around 10.30. The action does not really start until 11.15. Despite this, what Mama now realises are probably the prime spots directly in front of the very high wrought iron railings looking onto the forecourt of the Palace, and the very top steps of the roundabout-cum-Victoria memorial were already pretty fully occupied. If you are wanting to see absolutely everything, you are going to have to get there even earlier or develop very sharp elbows indeed.

Buckingham Palace

We declined to engage in pushing and shoving. Instead opted for a front row position overlooking the road just off the right of the main gates and settled down to wait. At this point Mama recommends taking along someone who is an entertaining conversationalist. Which she had done. So that was her sorted.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
A face looked out, but it wasn’t the King’s.
“He’s much too busy a-signing things,”
Says Alice.

Fabulous for her, not so great for me, but luckily for Mama the coffee kiosks also sell ice cream. You might be thinking that half ten is a little early for ice cream, but it provided an excellent distraction for a good ten minutes, and then the clean up operation was also extensive. After that there was the fun of watching the police horses, in gloriously plentiful supply, who obligingly came and stood right in front of me on a number of occasions while their rider shouted instructions at the crowd. Mainly to do with keeping your valuables safe, I think. Mama was always going  to be  ok there – she always keeps a tight hold of me in crowds.

Police horse

And then the horseguards trotted past in full regalia! Was this it? Had the time come?

Household Cavalry

No. Apparently the were just going home after mounting the guard somewhere else.

After that highlight it was a bit of a long haul to the grand show.Every now and again a police horse would charge an errant pedestrian back behind the rope barriers. I started to get restless.

Finally, faintly, in the distance we heard a brass band playing. Louder and louder it got and closer and closer it came until the musicians hove into view, all bright red coats, shiny black boots and really really big furry hats.

And they marched straight into the entrance at completely the opposite side to where we were standing. We’d caught an intriguing glimpse, but not much more.

At this point, Mama realised that perhaps she should have done a bit of rudimentary investigation into how the Changing of the Guards works, and whether or not it is worth turning up if you don’t get there three hours ahead.

However, before guilt at being a monumentally bad hostess started to eat too much into her soul, a new band could be heard approaching. And this one swept past the first gate, past the middle gate and past us, with their big parpy trumpets, big booming drums, more big furry hats and big machine guns topped with bayonets, before diving into the final set of gates.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

What happens next Mama cannot tell you, as it was audio only for our little tourist group. Some shouting, the occasional stamping and some kind of battle of the bands were what reached us. Mama began to regret not insisting on crushing people’s toes in the pursuit of a good view, but I quite enjoyed balancing on the rope barrier like a circus princess, and then some kids came and sat on the curb in front of us, so I joined them, made friends and got to play with Mama’s camera.

Lots of bottoms in my world Mama discovered later.

A three year old view of crowds

Eventually, the Guards had done enough Changing. The middle gates opened and out marched the first group, executing a smart right as the did so and providing us with an excellent view of their retreating backs.

But we were wise to this behaviour now and hung on for the second wave, who, sure enough, turned the other way when they left and we got another splendid view.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, exit

The whole thing was over by about 12 noon.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
“Do you think the King knows all about me?”
“Sure to, dear, but it’s time for tea,”
Says Alice.

Mama decided to reward my quite good behaviour with a trip to the children’s play area in a well-placed nearby corner of St James’s Park. It’s one of those places which is split up into hidden zones. But there’s an excellent little picnic island with a clear view of the one and only exit and the whole playground is fairly compact. And I am, after all, over three now and not quite so prone to hurling myself into dangerous situations as before. Overall, Mama feels that the layout is acceptable. As for the equipment, I think it has a great sandpit, full of really big, slippy and hard rocks to jump on and off. Mama sees Prince Philip’s hand in this breach of health and safety rules for children. I also like the sunken slide area.

Basically, it’s clear that if you are on the parade route, wherever you stand, the Changing of the Guard is organised so that at some point, soldiers will stamp past you. The closer to the central gates you are, the more you will see of both groups of soldiers, but to be honest, Mama thinks that if you just have a casual interest in seeing the ceremony, you might want to turn up fairly late on and just take your chances in the crowd.

Everybody is pretty obliging about letting children through to the front, and as long as you don’t mind sitting on the curb, the odd Mama and Papa might be able to wiggle though too on the grounds that their kids might need protecting from flying police horse poo.

Another police horse!

We also noticed that a couple of people with wheelchairs had been positioned by the police horses on the edge of the road in a pretty decent spot, so that’s something to take into consideration if you have mobility requirements which might otherwise put you off going.

If you want to see the whole thing, Mama thinks you are looking at an arrival time of at least 10am. She thinks your children might need to be a bit older than me, or more stoic to put up with that.

Is it worth it? Take snacks, plenty of water, and lots of photos of the police horses and I’d say so. It was certainly an excellent start to our day of wandering through the rest of Central London.

 More Information

The Changing the Guard website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about how to work for the Queen.

Address: Buckingham Palace, London, SW1A 1AA.

Times: Every other day throughout the year, except April through July, when the guard changes every day. Cancellations are due to extremely bad rain, or other weather. The show starts at 11.15am and finishes around 12 noon.

Admission: Free

By Tube/train: Victoria (Railways station and Victoria line), Green Park (Victoria and Piccadilly lines) and Hyde Park Corner (Piccadilly line).

By bus: Numbers 11, 211, C1 and C10 stop on Buckingham Palace Road.

By car: You are insane.

Covent Garden was once the capital’s most modern and trendy square, then it morphed into a fruit and veg market, and finally became an extremely disreputable courtyard to London’s theatre district and the Royal Opera House on the corner. Mama says. She won’t say why it was disreputable. I suspect sugar is involved.

The banal edibles have since been sent off south of the river, and I have no idea what has happened to whatever the other thing was.

Fear not. The very 19th Century steampunk market building, all fancy metal girders, glass rooves and classical stone columned entrances has not gone to waste. It is now colonised by stalls selling upmarket handicrafts for the tourist trade, and rather boutiquey shops doing similar.

Steampunk street performer at Covent Garden

And the Apple store, although oddly enough this does not sell many Bramleys. Mama tries not to go in here. Shame, as they have a whole bunch of those wonderful touchscreens and seem happy to let us play with all of them. Mama is worried that she might get carried away and bet the house or something I gather. She can resist everything except temptation.

She quite fancies a nose round the Moomins emporium though.

Covent Garden market at Christmas

But generally, we prefer the bit of in the slightly more down-at heel area to the back. It has a higher proportion of trashy plastic toys and souvenirs, and there’s a much better chance Mama might buy us something.

Still, we don’t really come here to shop. We come here for the free(ish) entertainment. Covent Garden has living statues, highbrow buskers and street performers in various locations throughout the market going at it throughout the day, and we can quite easily spend an hour or two wandering from one to another before grabbing a bite to eat and going for a mooch around the back streets leading away from the piazza.

 

I find the statues a little freaky and alarmingly avaricious. They move when someone gives them money. I wouldn’t mind so much, but unlike so many throughout the rest of London, none of them are of horses.

Mama quite likes to check out the classical musicians playing in the sunken courtyard in the middle of the market. She lives in hope that one of them will be a solo bassist one day, but will put up with a really good soprano any day of the week. Lean on the balcony overlooking the performance or use this as your coffee break and occupy one of the tables down below.

My Darling Big Brother and I much prefer the circus acts. And we have seen so many of these shows now that Mama feels confident in providing a brief overview of what to expect because, well, because they do all have quite a lot in common with each other. I do not know if there is some kind of script which they have to conform to in order to get licences, but should you emulate one of our favourite Sunday afternoon outings you can feel confident that any given act will:

– Spin out one really good trick for a good twenty or thirty minutes – the length of each performance. This is quite a feat, Mama thinks. Anyone can wow with back to back showstoppers for ten minutes. Only the best can pull this off.

– Involve the artist at some point pretending s/he has never done (this version of) the trick before and has learned it off YouTube the night before.

– Include two of the elements of juggling with sharp implements, balancing on something precarious, magic or dragging the showperson’s body through a tennis racket. Clearly combining three things would be too much.

Juggling and balancing street performer at Covent Garden

– See people pulled out of the audience to take part. This is usually fairly burly middle-aged men or a particularly chippy looking twelve-year-old boy. If you are either of these and do not fancy taking part, stand well back is Mama’s advice. But do not get too complacent if you are a woman. Just as you think you are safe you will encounter the man on the pogo stick.

Pink street performer at Covent Garden

– Discover that at least one of these glamourous assistants has a hitherto undiscovered flair for comic timing. More props to the performers for really knowing their stuff.

– Have lots of heckling. Of the crowd by the act. Clap loudly, do whatever they tell you, and NEVER stand behind the performers or you will be publicly humiliated. Especially, do not stand behind the showperson with your back to the proceedings ignoring what is going on while wiping some dirt off your wife’s face. Says Mama, shuddering.

– Emotionally blackmail the crowd into parting with money. £20 is a standard amount, apparently, although the performer, who, you will find out repeatedly, does not get paid by Covent Garden authorities to be there, will reluctantly accept a fiver for the support of their seventeen children and their stalwart attendance in rain or shine. Mama tends to give a pound or two, but then she is mean.

Unicycling street Performer at Covent Garden

It’s great. And if you do get bored, there are pigeons to chase across the fabulous obstacle course of cobblestones, and also the London Transport Museum, which is one of the best museums for the under tens in London.

And! Public art. Currently, for example, someone has floated the whole market facade up in the air and then tethered it for our amusement. We seem to have just missed its unveiling last week, which is a shame, but it’s on until 24th October, so there’s every possibility we might get to marvel at it in person. It’s called ‘Take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder’. No, I don’t know why either.

As for refreshments, there are plenty of cafes and food stalls, and also plenty more in the streets around, and many of these put out chairs on the square in the summer. Brought your own sandwiches? There’s a nice little spot in the grounds of St Paul’s church with some benches and room to run around away from the crowds. The toilets are close by there too, which Mama always feels is an important piece of information for those with preschoolers.

Mind you, Mama recommends that you step away from the square a bit so you can nosh at a pub which appeared in the novel ‘Murder Must Advertise’ by Dorothy L Sayers. Why? Because Lord Peter Wimsey spent time there. What other reason do you need? Says Mama.

This pub was in Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L

Anyway. Covent Garden is an excellent fair weather hang out for the whole family, with plenty going on throughout the year. It’s never dull! But it might be quite crowded.

More Information

Covent Garden’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about easy to perform magic tricks.

Address: 35 Cranbourn St, London WC2H 7AD

Opening: The area doesn’t close as such, although the shops and performers and so on keep normal London opening hours.

Price: The piazza is free, but you ought to bring some money for the performers.

By tube/ train: Covent Garden station is currently exit only and probably rammed due to repairs. Better to use the stations of Leicester Square, Charing Cross, Holborn, Temple of Tottenham Court Road, all within about a ten minute walk.

By bus: There are any number of buses which stop nearby. Look for ones going to Aldwych or Trafalgar Square for the closest drop offs.

By car: Do. Not. Go. By. Car.

Polytechnic Museum entrance

The Polytechnic Museum is Moscow’s premier science, engineering and technology museum.

It’s currently closed for a total refurbishment.

Luckily it has found a temporary home in one of the large pavilions in the exhibition park VDNKh. Mama heard was particularly chock full of interactive aspects. Clearly we had to check it out.

Polytechnic museum pavilion, ornate details

The pavilion is rocking a sort of ornate classical look, but once you get inside you are in a dim mysterious world of technological goodies gleaming in the spotlights of all the different ways artificial light can illuminate.

We first came to a stop in front of a large TV screen showing a life size image of a scientist pottering about his laboratory.

Then he started to talk to us! In Russian, but we were invited (in English) to hold our hands up, in which case he switches to English. I know this because Mama immediately did. The hologram goes on to give you a little overview of the section you are standing in, with options at the end for you to ask him to explain more about some of the individual exhibits.

It’s FAB.

And repeated for all of the different areas and themes. Mama enjoyed the stern Soviet era babushka physicist and the floaty cosmonaut but she was particularly impressed by the splendidly sneery rapper who introduced the display on genetic engineering, although the translation really doesn’t do him justice.

Holograms at Polytechnic Museum

She was a bit dismayed thereafter though to find that the in depth explanatory labels, also helpfully provided in British English as well as Russian if you stab at the Union Jack in the corner of the screen, were a good few notches above her level of understanding of how physics works. And sadly this was not due to dodgy translations.

She suspects that the designers are trying to be very clever and providing enhancements pitched at different levels of understanding or different levels of interest, rather than make every interactive dodad work for the under tens.

Fair enough.

So as well as the labels for the serious enthusiast, the museum has comfy armchairs which murmur soothingly in your ear about inventions and inventors for the senior citizens, child-height tablets showing short visual cartoon clips explaining things to the next generation, and an array of frankly bonkers artistic interpretations of science for the humanities graduates.

Still, Mama thought the bit that worked best for her was the section on teraforming on Mars because she actually came away knowing more about the subject than she did when she started, and interestingly, this was arguably the most traditional of the displays, with a series of dioramas doing most of the work.

Or perhaps she was just most interested in this. Too much Heinlein in her formative years.

Which is not to say that she didn’t enjoy the modern art. The one with the bank of TV screens of performance artists interpreting science was hysterical if almost completely baffling, and we were all delighted by the installation which converted waterflow into binary digits for, as far as we could tell, no real reason whatsoever.

Science is Art at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

We also enjoyed lighting things up, making electricity spark, smearing our fingers all over the many many touchscreens, the experiment to make water spike into different shapes by the power of hand held or knob-twiddled magnets, and especially the place where we were all able to lay flat on some cushions and contemplate the universe swirling on the ceiling above us.

Mama’s main reservation is that some of the whiz bang squeeeeeeee completely overshadows the actual exhibits rather than enhancing our appreciation of them, although I think she is being a bit of a killjoy there. It would also have been nice if more of the buttons were actually working. Mama in particular was disappointed she didn’t get to launch a spaceship.

She thought the doors which invited us to guess what invention had been inspired by someone observing nature closely were particularly good value, though, being comprehensible, touchy feely and, specially for my Amazing Big Brother, involving copious animal interest.

Nature-inspired science at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

The actual name of the whole exhibition is ‘Russia did it herself’ which is both disconcertingly flag wavy and also oddly defensive, Mama says. This might be because, as most of the actual stuff is from upwards of 40 years ago, you do get the impression that Russia’s glory age of scientific exploration is somewhat in the past.

But then, what glory days they were!

Clearly the pinnacle is the TV with the water filled goldfish aquarium as a standard attachment. Papa says his Papa used to have one of these at work. Once again I am persuaded that this Soviet Union must have been a paradise. How great must that have been?

TV with fishbowl lense at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

Mama’s highlight was the simulation of a nuclear bomb exploding. Now, some people might feel that this is a monumentally tasteless bit of button pushing fun, and Mama admits that there is some merit in this although, she also points out, the Russians have never actually used a nuclear explosion to incinerate thousands and condemn survivors to a particularly nasty lingering death, unlike some people.

Perhaps you should assume that what the designers are trying to do is instill awe in the visitor at the sheer scale of the power involved. And if you do, then by means of clever white out lighting, a super strong blast from some hidden fans, and a truly impressive noise which is not only loud but so low it vibrates right through you it really does the job.

If it helps, you have actually ask for the exhibit to be turned on. It gets a bit much otherwise, the docent said, and lessens the impact.

Guess who did the asking in our party?

Nuclear bomb at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

It’s not that the museum ignores the destructive uses of this invention. Visitors are invited to reflect on what happens when science is harnesssed for evil purposes while adding to an ever-growing mobile composed of origami doves. Not sure it entirely makes up for it though. Mama clearly was more interested the BIG BADDA BOOM than contemplating the horror, and, again, it is perhaps a tad sophisticated for us kids, especially my Amazing Big Brother, who has the paper folding skills of a jellyfish.

Basically, if the aim is to make people generally excited about how utterly cool science, engineering and technology can be, Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum scores a resounding win. And Mama thinks it’s pretty exciting that given a temporary space to play with, the Polytechnic Museum has decided to have fun and accelerate right out beyond the edge of what an established museum might attempt with its displays.

So as a teaser for the eventual reopening of the main building it is very successful. She will certainly have us first in the queue to find out. And we will be bouncing up and down beside her.

More information

The Polytechnic Museum’s website (in some English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Andrei Sakharov, the USSR, the H bomb and human rights.

Address: VDNKh, Pavilion #26.

Opening: Tues – Fri, 10am to 8pm. Sat – Sun, 10am to 9pm. Monday – CLOSED.

Prices: Adults – 300 rubles (£4.50), schoolchildren – 150 rubles (£2.30), under 7s – free.

By metro: From VDNKh (on the orange line) you need to walk through the VDNKh exhibition park. The Polytechnic Pavilion is easy to find, being on the left of the full size space rocket.

The point of going to other people’s houses is to play with a different set of toys. Sometimes you also have to put up with sharing with other children, which is why I like going to Granny’s. There I only have to fight for control of the horsey train ball sandpit set with my Marvellous Big Brother and get the dedicated attention of a besotted grandparent or two thrown in as well. But you have to take the rough with the smooth and some children are quite easily manipulated.

So I was hopeful when we rocked up to the house of Mama’s acquaintances, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, just over the river. Especially as it was a nice tall house in a clearly genteel area. Lots of kids I thought. Expensive toys I thought.

Thomas Carlyle and quote about gunpowder

PD via Wikimedia Commons

We rang the bell and an adult, who turned out to be neither Thomas nor Jane, ushered us straight into the lounge.

That’s when it started to go wrong. There weren’t any kids and I couldn’t see any toys. I immediately set off to look for them both, and Mama decided to take the opportunity presented by the seeming absence of her hosts to have a good nose round.

What we found was quite a lot of that oldish kind of furniture and a whole bunch of knick knacky stuff of the type Mama seems to think should not be touched. Great staircases though, really nice and steep and just when you think you have got to the top there’s another one. It’s nice to know that even Victorians are obsessed with building extensions. The Carlyles’ is a sort of massive study at the top of the house in a specially designed sound proofed room. Which isn’t sound proof, apparently. Thomas goes on about that a lot, Mama says.

There were also a whole load of both painted and photographed portraits of a rather ruggedly handsome gent of varying age, occasionally with a really fashionable beard. Mama says it’s Thomas and he hates them all. She told me some of the things he says about them, which are written on bits of paper next to the pictures. Odd thing to do, but then adults are odd.

Thomas Carlyle and a quote about history

PD via Wikimedia Commons

Mama’s favourite painting was one of the room we started in, with Thomas and Jane somewhere in the background. Apparently Jane hates this one, so presumably Thomas keeps it up as revenge for her insisting on displaying his face on every other available surface. She dislikes it because the painter told her it is how she will be remembered in 100 years time, and she considers that, therefore, she will be famous for having a really ugly tablecloth and a freakishly large lapdog. She is definitely right about the tablecloth. They seem to have changed it since the picture, but it is still outstandingly unattractive. Also, check out that carpet!

A CHELSEA INTERIOR by Robert Tait, 1857, in the Parlour at Carlyle's House, 24 Cheyne Row, London.

©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

Thomas, on the other hand, is famous for writing extremely lengthy history books full of German-inspired impenetrably complex sentences accompanied by a huge number of made up words which have subsequently became inexplicably popular. Mama says that nobody reads them now. Perhaps the Internet generation cannot handle seven hundred volumes just to get through the childhood of some foreign king from back in the day. Mama says it also has something to do with the fact that he is on the wrong side of most of the major political and moral debates of the Victorian age, and also that he was very popular with an unpleasant sounding little boy called Hitler.

Thomas Carlyle by Whistler

PD via Wikimedia Commons

Papa says he should have known it was all a Brit’s fault. Mama then points out that Thomas is a Scot, and that 45% of Scots agree he is officially not her problem.

So now he is more famous for the large number of letters he and his wife have written. And for the fact that they apparently have a spectacularly bad marriage, although Mama is hoping that is mere Internet gossip. It isn’t much in evidence in the house itself, unless you count a particularly exasperated sentence by Jane about the difficulties of living with a dyspeptic man of genius, which Mama doesn’t, mainly because she found herself nodding emphatically in recognition.

JANE CARLYLE a portrait at Carlyle's House, 24 Cheyne Row, London

© National Trust / Geff Skippings

The letters are great. Mama says Jane is a frustrated blogger whose trenchant wit, descriptions of domestic disasters and ruthless dissection of all those who came into her circle would have made her a definite hit. Thomas turns out to be an excellent source of inspirational quotes and pithy one liners for Internet memes. She also thinks he would have very much enjoyed being the inspiration for this cartoon:

Duty Calls by xkcd.com

All in all, it’s a shame they seem to eschew computers.

Luckily, Carlyle’s unappealing views do not seem to have stopped him having a lot of visitors for him to argue with, or rather at, in person, many of whom are quite famous in a middle class intellectual kind of way, Mama says. Charles Darwin comes to tea! Shame he wasn’t there when we were.

Thomas wrote a few sharp but very vivid lines about him and his works, including ‘I have no patience whatever with these gorilla damifications of humanity’. Also on display. In fact, Thomas’ short, sharp but vivid little pen portraits of lots of well-known Victorians both near and far litter the house, along with their views about him. Which mostly boil down to ranty, bad tempered and very very wordy, but you’d guessed that already. Another thing I’m not sure I’d leave lying around if it were me, but it certainly amused Mama a lot.

Once we’d searched all over the house, in the bedrooms and the kitchen and the upstairs living room and so on, we went out into the little garden. Nice spot, and there’s a little bench where you can sit and eat your sandwiches if you get really hungry waiting for your hosts to turn up and serve coffee, or if you have doubts about Jane’s housekeeping skills. Kings Road with its million coffee shops and restaurants is just round the corner if you didn’t plan ahead in this way.

Mama and Papa used the opportunity to have a brief ponder about why it is that the English used to build tall, thin but not, in the end, very sizable houses, and then leave a whole plot out back untouched. No real conclusions were reached. I smelled the flowers. Mmmmmmm.

Thomas Carlyle and quote about love

PD via Wikimedia Commons

All in all, it was definitely a visit the adults enjoyed more, mainly because they can read. Mama in particular has found herself absolutely fascinated by the couple and has been digitally stalking them ever since. But it isn’t a huge property and so there wasn’t time to actually get bored.

Plus, as I said, staircases! You can’t go wrong with staircases.

More Information

The Carlyle house on the National Trust website.

The Carlyle letters online.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say probably much more briefly than Carlyle about Oliver Cromwell’s name.

Address: 24 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, London, SW3 5HL

Opening: March – November, Wednesday – Sunday, 11am – 4.30pm.

Price: Adults £5.10, Children £2.60. Free to National Trust members.

By bus: The 170 bus from Victoria stops right next to Thomas’ statue on the banks of the river Thames. Cheyne Walk is just behind.

By tube: Sloane Square and South Kensington (Circle and District lines) are about a 15 minute walk away. Or there’s Victoria (Circle, District and Victoria lines, and railway station) and the 170 bus above.

By car: “I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom,” says Thomas. Go by car and you can do both!

 

It is fair to say that there is probably nowhere else in the world that has so many stuffed animals on display as the State Darwin Museum in Moscow.

Stuffed animals at the State Darwin Museum Moscow

Now what do these have in common? Anyone? You at the back there?

Three large floors of them, plus more in the building next door. You’ve got dioramas of animals in their native habitats; groups of endangered or extinct animals; scenes of animals being torn apart by other animals, and other educational interactions; displays of a bewildering number of different types of squirrel; cases showing a large selection of dog breeds in order of size and likely ferociousness, from wolves down to those little yippy ones you keep in handbags; expositions on the topic of genetics punctuated by the stuffed remains of generations of guinea pigs; collections of all the birds who have the hooked meat-ripping beaks, the pointy fish-spearing beaks, the bijou seed-winkling beaks, the big round night eyes, the really bright feathers, and so on and so forth. Basically, all the possible combinations of stuffed animals you could imagine, the State Darwin Museum in Moscow has ‘em, and a few more to boot.

Stuffed dogs at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

That’s a lot of stuffed dogs.

Which should make it both one of the creepier and, after the first room or so, one of the more boring museums in the world, but it isn’t. In fact The State Darwin Museum in Moscow is now Mama’s new favourite museum, both on a personal level and on the basis of somewhere good to take us kids. And we’re pretty keen on it too. Here’s why.

Firstly, it’s entirely devoted to explaining the theory of evolution. This is both interesting and, in Mama’s opinion, important. Interesting because Mama is the sort of person who likes an in depth look at things, and that’s not something that many museums have the luxury of giving. Important because she sends Stupendous Big Brother to not one but two church schools in not one but two different languages. She feels the need to nip any odd notions about the development of life on earth that he might pick up, because, say, his (English) teacher has told him that that’s what he believes, firmly in the bud.

Hitherto Mama has been using the children’s non-fiction books aimed at explaining such things, assisted only by the odd half a room display in the NHM. This makes it uphill work because, well, the biblical tale is just a better story than one which really requires you to grasp the concept of deep time and generations upon generations of living organisms first. We have difficulty understanding that Mama had a life before we appeared, for example, so it’s not an idea that just takes a few minutes to sink in.

But now she can (repeatedly) take us to a museum which exhaustively covers all the main points in a memorably visual manner. So well done is it, in fact, that Mama, whose Russian is not up to long scientific explanatory placards, and who is a wishy washy humanities graduate to boot, had no difficulty working out what the point of each section is. This, she thinks, bodes well for getting it across to kids. She and my Stupendous Big Brother certainly had a number of what looked like spirited and interested discussions while looking at the exhibits. If the stuffed animals aren’t enough, there’s also a vast collection of animal paintings on display. Mama is dubious about the artistic value of these, but my Stupendous Big Brother was very taken with them indeed.

Stuffed big cats at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

Cats and their art.

I simply basked in the fact that most of them were entirely visible of my height, nobody told me off for leaning on the glass and that there was plenty of room to gambol around looking for the horses.

Horse evolution at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

Horses through the ages!

It’s not that there’s no English, mind. Each room has a paragraph or two in that to get you oriented, should you feel the need.

Another thing Mama thought was particularly well done about the State Darwin Museum were the interactive touches that have been added to the basic glass cases, and I have to say that I heartily concur. They seem to have made a real effort to do things which bring the displays to life, and really add to what you are seeing, rather than distract or, worse, detract from them.

Mama thought, for example, that the little video screens showing clips of the animals in action in the section all about animals and their native habitats was inspired, and not just because they had put them at kids’ eye height. I liked the buttons you could press throughout the galleries to hear the sounds that different animals make. And the animal jigsaws, especially the ones where the aim was to focus on the massive differences in feet, mouths or limbs between different types of animals. And the fact that all of these things had boxes next to them to make them easy for me to reach if they weren’t at my height already. Stupendous Big Brother liked the computer games. Name that animal! Match the animal to their tracks! Match the animal to their habitat!

Interactive exhibit at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

“Who did this?”

There’s also a children’s play area for the under 7s. It has nothing whatsoever to do with animals, Darwin or evolution – it’s based on those big soft shapes you can move around, stack, build a fort out of and throw at each other and so on, but that in itself provides a nice break and refreshes you for a final push round the museum.

The two interactive show stoppers, though, are on the top floor. The first is the case containing the roaring, mooing, stomping and flapping animated dinosaurs, which are switched on on the hour every hour. Otherwise, the dinosaur section is not extensive (and, surprisingly, the models seem to be made of some kind of plastic rather than stuffed), but this is pretty jolly cool to make up for it.

Dinosaurs at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

Dinosaur rrrrooooaaaaarrrr!

By far the most exciting thing we have EVER come across in a museum, however, is the giant TV screen on the wall.

At first you just stand on the designated spot and admire your filmed self staring up at a giant TV screen on the wall in the midst of a bunch of glass cases full of stuffed animals. And then, suddenly, one of those animals COMES TO LIFE. And! Meanders over to where your screen self is and if you keep staring upwards, while reaching out, you can see yourself touching and interacting with the animals on the screen. It is FABULOUS. We played with lemurs, a huge tortoise, a deer, a lion, an alpaca, the lemurs again, and yet more lemurs (we liked the lemurs). Cannot recommend it highly enough. The only way it could have been better was if we’d had the actual animals with us instead.

Also on this floor is the section devoted to human evolution. Mama, once again, would like to congratulate the curators for their sheer genius in the placement of this. Nothing like making people walk through the crushing evidence in the two floors below before you hit them with the ‘difficult’ monkey man aspect. Hell with that, I say. It’s the evolution of horses bit you should be checking out. Radical!

Early man at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

That man is NAKED Mama!

Anyway, you might be thinking that it is time to go about now, but that would mean you miss all the stuff in the other building, which is connected to this one via a tunnel in the basement. They’ve got a whole bunch of experiences there – a planetarium, various 3D, 4D and, I dunno, 5D booths, and some kind of dinosaur labyrinth discovery trail which looked very exciting, all of which Mama declined to play extra for on this occasion, although she hasn’t ruled it out for subsequent trips as it wasn’t, she says, outrageously expensive.

But for us it was still worth trekking over for the live insects, including giant cockroaches, grasshoppers, colourful beetles, butterflies, and for the variety huge hairy spiders. I don’t know how it is, but when Stupendous Big Brother is faced with a zooful of animals, he insists on charging round at top speed, never spending too long in front of one cage. I think he is worried about missing out on something. But give him an attraction with a more limited number of creatures and he will spend hours in front of each one, especially if they fly. Luckily, I was also quite interested, and when I wasn’t they had a particularly nifty touch screen picture puzzle thing, which only needed Mama to commandeered a chair to be fully accessible. We also skipped the rooms on the history of natural history through sheer lack of time.

We didn’t miss out on refreshments though. The State Darwin Museum has not one but two cafes, both of which were open. The first is more the sort of place you can buy a hot lunch, although Mama was also delighted that they let, nay, dragged us in and offered us a spare table when they saw us eating in the (perfectly comfortable actually and opposite a LIVE FISH TANK) seating area outside instead. The second is more of a cakes and coffee affair, and dedicated to that famous naturalist, Janis Joplin. Mmmmmmm, cake, say I. Mmmmmmmm, coffee, says Mama. If, for some reason, you are not up for the ones in the museum, there are plenty of other cafes on the walk back to the metro.

So we had a good time. Mama’s favourite bit? The fact that in the whole museum there is not one mention of creationism. No pandering to the existence of this anti-science nonsense whatsoever. It’s great. She says. I think what edged it for my Stupendous Big Brother and I though was that the shop has a decent selection of reasonably priced plastic animal toys, and Mama was so delighted by our day that she let loose with the rubles and bought us some.

The only downside Mama can possibly think of is that you might feel squeamish about the sheer numbers of animals that have, at some point, been killed to furnish the displays. Mama offers up the opinion that, well, what’s done is done, and at least the museum is making use of the taxidermy it has inherited in a positive and educational manner. Arguably, too, it is a more ethical day out that some of the live animal entertainments she has seen in Moscow and the UK, especially the ones that are run for profit. No matter how well looked after the captive beasts on display are. But as ever, that is a decision you will have to make for yourself.

All in all, this is clearly a museum that has its eye firmly on the patronage of the under 7s, as well as being extremely appealing to the over 40s. There is even a nappy changing table in the toilets. As a result it was busyish, but still not rammed in the way that such a place would be in, say, London in the summer holidays. Things might be different in winter, of course, when it’s less attractive to be outside, and people have not packed their young off to the datcha with the grandparents for the duration.

We may well find out, because Mama plans to take us here pretty much whenever we visit Moscow from now onwards. She thinks you should go too if you are ever in town. She thinks, in fact, that all school children everywhere should be flown in specially whenever they get to the relevant section of the science curriculum. Hell of a field trip.

Especially as, rumour has it, they let you handle the cockroaches.

More Information

The State Darwin Museum website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say (at great length) about evolution and creationism.

Address: 117292, Moscow, 57/1 Vavilova Ulitsa

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed Monday and the last Friday of every month.

Price: 300 rubles (£5) for adults for the two buildings. 250 rubles (£4) if you just want the main exhibition area. Kids over 7 are 100 rubles (£1.50) for both buildings. A photography pass is 100 rubles.

By Metro: Akedemichiskaya (orange line). Be on the front of the train if you are heading out from the centre and leave by that exit. Turn right. Go up the right hand stairs. There should be a large sign directing you (in English as well as Russian) to take the first left. Walk up that street for about ten minutes and the museum is on your left.

By Bus/ Tram: You can get the 119 bus from Akedemichiskaya or the 14 and 39 trams from Univesitet (red line) to the stop Ulista Dimitriova Ulyanova.

Aaaaaaaaaaah. That’s the sound of Mama relaxing as she steps onto a Moscow riverboat run by CCK  (Столичная Судоходная Компания or Capital Riverboat Tour Company), finding a seat with a good view and preparing to drift along, carried, at a suitably sedate pace, effortlessly past sights of historic and aesthetic importance for over an hour.

Riverboat on the Moscow River with St Saviour Catrhedral in the background

Sailing down the river

Or at least that’s how it was before she had kids. Before she had kids, Mama did these cruises down the Moscow River on a regular-ish basis, at first romantically with my not-yet Papa, and then at least as often as friends and family from back in the UK visited her. But she’d never tried it with children before last summer. Passive sitting and taking calm enjoyment in our surroundings didn’t strike her as really us. Also, you may have noticed that she has this thing about my Wonderful Big Brother, me and water.

Still, Mama also believes that the summer holidays are a long time to spend without regular bouts of organised fun, and also that getting out and about makes everybody appreciate some down time the next day. Plus, it’s hot in Moscow in the summer. River breezes are always welcome. So she decided to give it a whirl.

And in fact, when we actually got on the board we discovered that the particular boat she had flagged down had had the bow end downstairs converted into a children’s play area with various craft opportunities, toys, a wendy house, a trampoline and best of all, a dedicated staff member employed to play with the children while she kicked back and ignored the mayhem that ensued, and we ignored the fact we were on a boat at all.

These special child-friendly boats set of from piers near Novospaskii Bridge at 11.40am and 3.30pm and Kievskii Railway and Metro Station at 1.40pm and 5.30pm each day. The ordinary cruises run every twenty minutes from the same places and they all have a number of other stopping points on the way, notably ones in Gorky Park. You can get on wherever you like and do the one way trip all in one go, which is a flat rate and costs the same wherever you embark. Or you can buy (more expensive) tickets which allow you to hop on and off all day. There is also a round trip option from the Kievskii Station pier.

Tickets are easy to get hold of, being sold at the kiosks attached to each landing station. Most people seem to prefer getting on at Kievskaya, saving the excitements of the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square for towards the end. Mama, of course, usually does it the other way. Well, it’s quieter, and has she mentioned yet she used to work in a building overlooking Red Square and the south-east corner of the Kremlin yet? Sometimes she forgets that that’s the best bit for everybody else.

The Kremlin Armoury from the Moscow River

Kremlin!

Having abandoned the small people, you can hang out in the small cafe on board but the place you really want to be is on the more open top deck, hanging over the sides, taking photographs. There isn’t any commentary, so read on for what Mama thinks are the highlights to look out for. Assuming you start more or less where she does.

The main attraction at the start of the route is the Novospasskii Monastery. Founded in the early 14th Century it one of the oldest religious institutions in Moscow, and has strong ties to the Romanov dysnasty. You can visit it and enjoy the contrast between the busy city and the tranquility here before or (if you insist on doing the tour the wrong way round) after your cruise. Or you can just sail past and photograph the traditionally white walls, the onion domes and the wedding-cake-inspiration bell tower.

Those big empire state buidingesque blocks you may already have seen elsewhere around the capital? Those are the Stalin Skyscrapers. There are seven in all. They are called the seven sisters, because, why not? One is part of the University and you’ll see that later, one is the foreign ministry, but the one you’ll encounter first on the river is an apartment block. Nice, huh? Cameras out!

Soon after that and just before Red Square, you’ll pass by the a large pile of rubble that was the former excessively ugly Rossiya hotel. Legend has it that it got to be such an eyesore because someone offered Stalin the choice of plans and he scrawled his signature so it went over two of them. Nobody then had the balls to ask him which he’d meant so… Personally, Mama just thinks it was the victim of architecture. She thinks it’s probably a good thing it has gone, but that really depends what they replace it with. You can take a picture of it if you do the tour when something has gone up and it is interesting.

Then it’s St Basil’s and Red Square, the back of. It looks even gaudier in winter, Mama tells me, which I imagine is quite a feat. It’s pretty colourful now.

St Basil's from the Moscow River

Red Square!

And next to that it’s the Kremlin. From this side you can see right over what elsewhere are large imposing red walls to the palaces and cathedrals beyond, a view which is only available from the south bank or the river itself. Enjoy it. Photograph it.

The Kremlin from the Moscow River

Kremlin again!

The Christ the Saviour Cathedral is the large white Orthodox building with the very large golden onion domes coming up right after that. It’s a copy. The original was knocked down to make way for a HUGE monument to the ever-popular Revolution. However, it never got built because it turns out that HUGE monuments to Revolution are too heavy for the somewhat soggy banks of the Moscow River. So naturally it became an outdoor swimming pool instead. Papa used to go. He says it was quite chilly in winter. Quite why they decided to get rid of such an excellent sort of facility and rebuild the church again is rather lost on me, but they did. Mama says it’s a statement. It is certainly very photogenic. And popular with all female punk rock bands I’m told.

St Saviour's Cathedral from the Moscow River

Cathedral!

On the other side is a very grey building in what you will clearly recognise is the Constructivist style of architecture. This is an apartment block known as the House on the Embankment. It was built as a sort of especially fabulous communist living space for the Soviet elite of the 1930s, but it is famous, Mama carefully does NOT tell me, for how many of those people were disappeared in the Stalinist purges later on, with over half of the five hundred apartments left deserted following the arrest of their residents.

The House on the Embankment from the Moscow River

Grim Apartment Block is Grim!

More cheerfully, a bit further on is the former Red October chocolate factory, although it has now been closed down. This is a shame. Not only did the smell of cooking chocolate add a pleasant something to the atmosphere, Mama says, but she liked to go and spend lots money at the factory shop whenever she had an excuse. Still, you can still buy the brand in the shops (do, in fact) and the building is still there and it’s very red. Mama likes to have a picture of twenty of it, but your mileage may vary.

Red October Chocolate Factory from the Moscow River

Chocolate!

By now you should be able to see a large statue of a man steering an oddly truncated old fashioned ship into the horizon, waving a gold scroll around his head. Sometimes there are fountains spurting all around. That’s Peter the Great, ruler of Russia some time previously. Bit of a naval enthusiast I understand, although it’s odd that Moscow wanted the world’s eighth biggest statue to be of him given how much he hated the place, according to Mama. There is what Mama says is a probably apocryphal rumour that the artist only flogged it to Moscow when it was rejected as a commemoration of Christopher Columbus elsewhere, not that it stops her repeating it. Still, the river is one of the few places you can actually get a decent view, so snap away while you can.

Peter the Great Statue from the Moscow River

Peter!

The big boxy building next to there statue is, in part, the New Tretyakov Art Gallery. You will not want to photograph it but do consider visiting. Mama is a huge fan. Surrounding it is a parkette called Museon which you may be able to see contains many many statues. Half of them are fallen Soviet icons, originally dumped here after people revenged theselves for the previous 70 years on the inanimate features of key Communist figures, and the rest are not. It is, apparently, becoming a trendy hangout place.

Then it’s Gorky Park, which some of you may remember from old Cold War thrillers. Mama says. Recently it has been extensively remodelled and is also hugely popular. Observe the large number of people promenading along the embankment. At some point you will go under a rather fabulous looking bridge, which may well have people sitting on the very top of it. This just goes to show you really are in Russia, where nobody every accused anyone of pandering to the anti Health and Safety gone mad movement.

People sitting on a bridge over the Moscow River

Do Not Try This At Home Folks!

Then it’s more of Gorky Park. And still yet more. And it goes on. And on. And turns into the extensive wooded area they call the Sparrow Hills for reasons which now escape Mama. And basically it’s trees nearly all the way to Kievskaya after that. Look out for the University rising gothically above the leaves, and also the modern skyscrapers of some business park or another that has been built after Mama’s time, and people bathing in the Moscow River from the urban beaches. On your right, at some point you will see a stadium. Mama assumes some people might be mildly interested in the information that it is going to be one of the 2018 World Cup stadiums. Lots of photography options to pick from.

Skyscrapers from the Moscow River

Money Money Money!

For kids, when you finally look up from the toys and realise you are on a moving water-borne vehicle, which happened to us around the time we got to the endless tree section, there is a lot of fun to be had in scrambing around the different deck levels, going and hanging off the back of the boat watching the water churn, admiring the bucket and mop art installations and begging biscuits off the other tourists. People think we are charming. Mama is often surprised by this.

Anyway, eventually, you will get to the end of the route, at a pier just beyond the Crystal Bridge at Kievskaya Railway Station. It will have taken you around an hour and a half if you did the full route with the CCK riverboats. As you can imagine, other river tours are available, notably one which does a circular route from Gorky Park run by the Raddison Hotel group. Mama suspects that it might be a more luxurious experience, but she holds fast to the one she is used to especially as the Raddison one does not, as far as she is aware, have special facilities for kids.

But however you choose to cruise, she highly recommends that if you are a tourist in Moscow you take a trip down the river.

More Information

The CCK riverboat website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the monument to Peter the Great in Moscow.

Times: Novospasskii Bridge: 11am to 7.50pm. Kievskii Station: 11.30am to 9pm at 20 minute intervals. The trip takes about 1.5 hours.

The child-friendly boats set of from Novospaskii Bridge at 11.40am and 3.30pm and Kievskaya Railway and Metro Station at 1.40pm and 5.30pm.

Prices: The one way tour costs 500 rubles (£8) for adults and 300 rubles (£5) for children over 6. The hop on hop off version costs 800 rubles (£13) for adults and 400 rubles (£6.50) for children. The round trips are 600 rubles (£10) for adults and 300 rubles (£5) for children.

By Metro: For Novospasskii Bridge use Proletarskaya (purple line) or Krestyanskaya Zastava (light green line) – both basically the same station. For Kievskii Station use Kievskaya (brown, light blue and dark blue lines).

Red Square. We enter at one end, and get our first glimpses of so many iconic sights around the edges. Well, my first glimpses. The others have all done this before.

Red Square, Moscow

Big, huh?

There are the soaring brick-red walls sloping high up one side, protecting the Kremlin. These are cornered by the thin round (red) towers, topped with big ruby-red stars. In front of that there’s the squat blocky browny-red building you aren’t allowed to get to close to because someone called Lenin is inside, and the long lines of stone steps fanning out either side. At the back end is the Gothic blood-red splendour of the National History Museum. Next to that there’s a small coral church, and then all down the other side is a surprisingly unred beige affair, also fairly burdened with busy architectural detailing, inside which you can find the former State Department Store GUM.

GUM, Red Square, Moscow

It’s not red!

And best of all, at the front, there is the riot of colour, thankfully with red to the fore, that is St Basil’s cathedral.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

This is not the Kremlin.

Actually, Mama says that St Basil’s isn’t even called St Basil’s, technically speaking. But then she also claims that Red Square is so named because ‘red’ and ‘beautiful’ have the same root in Russian, rather than because of the scarlet nature of its surroundings. I say it’s only a matter of time before someone overrules her and paints GUM a soothing shade of pink. Mama counters with the information that someone called Stalin has already done much the same, when he switched the previously whitewashed Kremlin walls to painted red, for much the same simplistic reasons.

She leaves out the fact that the walls are, underneath the paint, red brick.

After what feels like three thousand hours, we are only just in the centre, and wilting in the blazing sunlight. Red Square is huge, very open, ever so slightly curved and covered in extraordinarily hard-to-walk-on cobbles. Which also have mysterious straight lines in different colours painted all over them. Mama reckons they are lines for organising either parades or to guide the erection of stages for some concert or other, which are the two things that Red Square is for, when it isn’t covered by people in what pass for wide smiles in Russia or, for the foreigners, fur hats with ear flaps or a T-shirt with Putin on the front, standing around mugging for the cameras in front of the stuff round the edges.

Mama is not at all sure how she feels about the prospect of Putin’s face relacing the hammer and sickle as the edgy ironic souvenir for the discerning tourist, but by and large I am guessing something negative here.

Anyway, it’s a bit hot. The only time Mama has ever found Red Square a nice place to hang out in the height of summer was on her wedding day, when she indulged in the Russian custom of taking her big white dress and her wedding party out for a stroll around all the most photogenic spots in town. Yes, Mama, too, clearly has hankerings after princessdom, for all her eyebrow-raising at my insistence on wearing my poufy pink tutu skirt to the playground, and her wedding photos therefore include shots of her daintily swigging champagne in front of a brightly coloured onion domes in a large Disneyesque ballgown. Cool. Someone should have told her that the ones of her with a cigarette dangling out of her mouth are just a tad trashy though. Real princesses do not smoke. Where anyone can photograph them.

Not that the cobbles are any easier to walk on in the middle of a blizzard. Mama tells me. Or when they are slick with rain. It’s a bit of a slog in almost any weather she says. I dunno, I made Papa pick me up around now and did the rest of the walk in comfort.

After a brief break while we do our own photography shoot, we resume our hike towards St Basil’s. Mama thought we might enjoy scrambling around it.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

Onion domes!

She was wrong. In my case. St Basil’s is an odd kind of structure. It started when a tsar, promisingly called Ivan the Terrible, started tacking churches onto an existing structure every time he won a battle in a spat he was having with a neighbour. Having sealed Moscow’s supremacy, he decided to set the thing in stone, and although the architect did not just slavishly replace the original wooden buildings, the best that most people can say about the end result is that it is ‘unique’. There is a story that the architect had his eyes put out by the aptly named tsar so he could not build anything similar again. Mama says this is doubtful, but it just goes to show.

I can’t blame the gaudiness on the bad taste of the original builders though. Apparently that came about when Russians discovered new pigments a couple of hundred years later. The original was much more inclined towards just showing off this exciting new building material called (red) ‘brick’, which, incidentally, is how the Kremlin came to be surrounded by the stuff. The whitewash was to disguise this fact.

The older a church is in Russia, the plainer it is, by and large. In direct contrast to how it is in the UK. History is strange.

Anyway, later restorations have stuck to the more vibrant colourscheme, with just a few areas and a model on the inside to show how it might have looked before they emptied the paintbox all over it. Mama, the lapsed protestant, approves of the murals inside no matter how modern. It’s like, she says, someone took the illuminations from the margins of medieval manuscripts and extended them all over the walls and ceilings. Nice. And I have to say that the outside is certainly a cheerful sight. Mama says it’s easy to speculate that such brightness is needed in the winter to perk people up through the gloom. But then, she adds, you get to the depths of February, and the skies are a bright blue, the sun is shining down and bouncing off the plentiful white snow, and St Basil’s then moves from being merely loud to almost unbearably dazzling.

But it isn’t my artistic sensibilities which made our visit a trial. No, it’s the nature of the inside. There are Orthodox churches which have wide open spaces inside, but St Basil’s is more of the tradition of a collection of intimate chapels spread across several levels, with small connecting passageways and even more claustrophobic twisting staircases. And it’s very dark, with few windows and dim artificial lighting. Oddly enough, this only makes the gold leaf richness of the iconostases stand out even more. All this gave me the willies. Mama did not help by following us up the stairs making ghost noises. Nor did the male voice choirette, whose traditional chanting from an indeterminate location added yet another layer of spook.

I spent the visit clutching anxiously at Papa’s trouser legs shouting ‘where’s Mama?’ whenever she went out of view to take yet another photograph. But the others seemed to be enjoying themselves.

After the terror of St Basil’s, I congratulate Mama on her decision to leave visiting the mausoleum for another few years. She reckons there’s a definite judgement call to be made in deciding when your children will happily celebrate the ghoulishness of going to look at an actual dead body in an almost blacked-out room surrounded by fully armed guards who will be abrupt if you pause to try to take a better look, or, heaven forbid, talk, or whether they will have nightmares for six months as a result. The smell is something too. Mama says. This does mean that you don’t get to see all the other graves built into the walls of the Kremlin, but Mama feels that sightseeing can be a bit full of looking at the headstones of dead people as it is. And the chances of my having any idea of who they might be are slim, so I am good with missing out.

Lenin's Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow

Lenin lives here.

Instead, both Mama and I recommend a visit to GUM. It is, these days, a luxury mall, not quite as out there in terms of outrageous conspicuous consumption as its sister round the corner TsUM, but nevertheless not somewhere you are going to want to go and shop at unless you actually like spending more on a Hermes tie than you would back home. But it’s a lovely space. Built well before this Revolution everybody keeps talking about, it is something of an engineering marvel, with it’s impressive curved glass roof topped with even more impressive glass domes, which have withstood not only time but also huge amounts of snow being dropped on them every year. Mama says you should spend a lot of time both looking up and going up, because the galleries and bridges overlooking the central spaces, and the way they interact are also rather attractive.

Inside GUM, Red Square, Moscow

Roof!

Mama also thinks the cafes on the overhangs on the top floor look rather fun, not least because in summer they mist the air around the tables with a fine spray of water in order to try to counterbalance the lack of air conditioning. Seems to work. We did not find the atmosphere inside oppressive, despite the glass roof and the excessive heat outside. If you don’t fancy that, there is at least one excellent ice cream kiosk near the main southern entrance, which will allow you to indulge in a Muscovite tradition. Especially if you have one in winter. Mama likes the pistachio or melon flavoured cones. I’d go for the strawberry ones myself.

Air con in GUM, Red Square, Moscow

Misty!

Other than that, there’s usually something to look at in GUM, like the window displays of idealised life from back when this was the biggest and most well-stocked Soviet department store, or the carpet of flowers down the left hand aisle. Aside from all the things in the shops.

Flower carpt in GUM, Red Square, Moscow

Flowers!

Basically, this is the space I enjoyed roaming out of the three available on Red Square. You can keep your historical monuments, and your unshaded outside urban fields. Shopping malls. That’s where it’s at. Most people seem to disagree with me on this one though.

More Information

St Basil’s website (English).

Lenin’s Mausoleum website (English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the mystery of the Egyption Pharaoh at Niagra Falls.

Opening: Red Square is closed when Lenin’s Mausoleum is open, which is Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 10am to 1pm. Red Square is also closed for selected public holidays depending on whether it is being used for some kind of display. You can usually get a view of square from the corners even if it is closed.

St Basil’s is open daily 10am to 7pm in summer and 11am to 5pm in winter.

Price: Red Square is free. Lenin’s Mausoleum is free and St Basil’s is 250 rubles (about £4) for adults and 50 rubles (less than £1) for children over 7.

Getting there: The nearest metro station is Okhotny Ryad (red line, with connecting stations on the green and dark blue lines called Tverskaya and Ploshad Revolutsii respectively), which, if you get the exit right, brings you up just behind the square on the other side of the National History Museum. Head for the (restored) gates with the small chapel set into them.

I think you might have to be a bit older than me to properly appreciate why the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, devoted to the Soviet and Russian space programme, is so utterly fascinating for Mama and Papa.

Soviet space programme mural

Space! The final frontier!

Currently I am quite concerned about some of my toys. They are not here. I keep asking Mama if they are in my far far away home. She says yes and I am reassured for another ten minutes. Mama is delighted. Not, I hasten to reassure you because I am undergoing angst, but because she thinks I have understood something important about the abstract concept of place. What I say is that you get on a train for ages, a plane for ages and ages and ages, a train for ages, an underground train for ages, and then still have a short bus ride to go, you would have to be considerably dim, or perhaps, you know, two or something, not to figure it out.

But space, its vastness, its inhospitable nature and the difficulty of finding a way in and how to stay there successfully escapes me utterly. It escapes my Cosmic Big Brother a bit too really. Mama blames his fixation on animals, and also modern life. Mama, who was born a long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long time ago still remembers the excitement of some impossible new milestone being reached, and has some grasp of the sheer effort involved in reaching it. Well, you would if the height of excitetment is watching snooker on a black and white TV.

Technology these days, however, is so sufficiently close to magic, that she is not convinced that we will ever quite understand what a big deal throwing a big metal object out of the Earth’s atmosphere and getting it back again in more or less one piece actually is. Mama had a jolly good stab at getting it across anyway, using up all her inconsiderable knowledge of physics and engineering in expanding on just why every. Single. One of the exhibits in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics is just so damn cool. By about half way round my Cosmic Big Brother had knuckled under and was actually taking an interest.

He still liked the stuffed representations of Belka and Strelka, the two dogs who made it back, and the model space toilets best though.

Belka and Strelka in the (stuffed) flesh.

Belka and Strelka in the (stuffed) flesh.

What excites Mama is that the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics has exhibits related to (*cough* nearly *cough*) ALL of the great space achievements of the last seventy years in one glorious building. The Soviets and Russians don’t have to try to impress you, they just have to empty out the contents of their space programme cupboards a bit. You don’t even notice the lack of footprints on the moon. Not when you have not one but two different types of nifty *cough* unmanned *cough* landing craft in front of you instead.

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics main gallery

Shiny shiny shiny

In addition, the four first flights are fully documented, there are displays devoted to engineering genius, insights into training methods, details of life on board a space ship, dioramas of dramatic landings, examples of probes to near satellites and the ones further away, and lots of stuff from both space stations, which in the case of MIR is also available in a walk through mock up. Look out for the aforementioned toilets, the upright sleeping arrangements, the computer stuck to the ceiling, and the fish tank.

The museum is visually stunning too. The rockets, satellites, landing crafts and probes which litter the place are design objects d’art in their own right, Mama reckons, and exceedingly shiny to boot. The first room you enter has lighting designed to simulate a particularly impressive starry starry night, which makes all the metal objects twinkle and the marble floor gleam. The main exhibition area has a space mural painted all over the ceiling, and with it’s ground floor overlooked by a mezzanine level of aluminium walkways Mama almost felt that at any moment she would be ushered into a spacecraft and countdown would commence. Thrilling!

First gallery in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Shiny shiny shiny

So it’s a fun space for an exploring pre-schooler to roam around, even if the stuff on display is just so much pretty background. They also have poufy armchairs at strategic points for you to dive headfirst onto so you can lie and stare at the planets whirling by overhead. And of course I was thrilled by the interactive touch screens. No idea what they were showing me, but wheeee! Stab stab stab stab stab. My Cosmic Big Brother liked the one which allowed you to virtually explore Mir, and Mama  played around with the one where you could look up international participants in the programme. Yay! Britain had one! Go the UK! Of course, the screens were so far up the walls that Mama or Papa had to heft me high to reach them, but my parents need the exercise so it’s fine.

Just don’t touch the rope barriers. There are many many babushka docents hovering and they will come and tell you not to. This is a shame, because the rope barriers are splendidly thick, hugely velvety and a rich blue colour. My Cosmic Big Brother was totally unable to stop himself from stroking and I was constantly drawn to unhook them, despite the constant reminders. You are also not allowed to put your hands on the glass cases whilst gawping at the things inside. Which you really would think we would have grasped by the end. On the upside, the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics is not inclined to trust its visitors with important objects in too close a reach, so only the fixtures and fittings were ever in danger from our questing little hands. This sort of thing makes Mama relaxed and happy in a museum.

What doesn’t make Mama happy is trying to take surreptitious photos. You are allowed to take pictures, but only if you buy a special photography pass. Mama did not realise she might really really want to until she was too far in, a mistake as Mama is an indifferent photographer at the best of times, and that is not while trying to press the button whilst hiding behind Papa and pretending to examine some moon rocks. Do not repeat her mistake. Buy the pass. You will want to take a lot of snaps.

Other things Mama found interesting: the wall of cosmonauts, which is constantly updated – the latest went up for his first mission in March of this year. The film loop of footage surrounding the first flights – clips of take offs, engineers fiddling with equipment, and the great dog/human cosmonauts themselves waving, of course, but also shots of ordinary peoples reactions to the news. The personal touch to the commemoration of the great engineering brains – not just their medals or items from their professional lives, but photos of them relaxing at the datcha and their favourite chess board and so on. The examples of the cosmonauts’ food – especially the nifty fridge, with all the fruit and vegetables tied carefully down. And the large numbers of oil paintings apparently done by the second man in space, who seems to have been particularly into Shishkinesque landscapes. It’s nice to know that even cosmonauts have hobbies.

Engineering genius on display

Engineering genius on display

The only slight niggles Mama would like to share are that the cafe was closed and the shop extremely abbreviated. The lack of a cafe was particularly annoying as there also isn’t even an ice cream cart anywhere near the museum following the city authority’s recent rather over enthusiastic crack down on all manner of street food vendors. And we all know how Mama gets when she doesn’t have regular infusions of coffee.

The museum does have the best entrance marker of any museum evah. A sliver rocket soaring on a silver smoke trail elegantly high into the sky. At its base are two very Soviet murals whose supermen (and dogs) marching gloriously forward into the heavens does not, in this instance, look at all overdone. Mama has been admiring it for years, but never made it into the museum. Do not dither in the same way yourself. If you are in Moscow, you must go and see the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. It’s important, it’s interesting, it’s beautiful and it’s really really well air conditioned.

The rocket sculpture above the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Wheeeeeeeeeeee!

More information

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics’ website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the first manned space flight.

Address: 129515, Москва, пр. Мира, д.111

Opening: 11am to 7pm every day except Monday, when is is closed, and athursday, hen it is open until 9pm.

Price: Adults – 200 rubles (about £3), Children over seven (and other concessions) – 50 rubles (less than £1), Children under seven – free. The photography pass (which you MUST get) is 200 rubles (about £3).

By Metro: The nearest station is ВДНХ (VDNKh) on the orange line. It is about 100m to the museum entrance past a couple of cruise missiles if you come out of the exit near the front of the train (assuming you are travelling out from the centre), but if you choose the exit past the rear carriages, you can walk up a pedestrian-only avenue lined with cosmonaut-planted trees, busts of famous space-programme-related people, stars commemorating important cosmic milestones, and a damn big solar system sculpture-come-sundial. Luckily, whatever you choose, you can’t miss the museum. Head for the rocket.

By other means: Don’t be silly.

Mama has always rather fancied going to the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition. Preferably at the beginning of the 19th century sometime. But in the face of not knowing where to find a time machine, having to stump up actual cash for it and the absence of any real reason to go, she hasn’t, hitherto, gotten around to it.

people dressed in Regency clothes looking at paintings in the Summer Exhibition at Somerset House

The Summer Exhibition, formerly at Somerset House

Then Babushka’s birthday loomed. Babushka quite likes going to art galleries; there’s not much of a language barrier in art. But we’ve exhausted all the free ones. So Mama stifled her misgivings regarding Babushka’s reaction to the Tate Modern, seized the day and bought us all tickets to the RA’s 2014 Summer Blow Out.

The tickets are sold in half hour slots. We got there early for ours. Not a problem. The Royal Academy has a courtyard which at any time is a great place to let off a bit of steam safe from cars, wall to wall tourists and inconvenient flowerbeds. Now they have a little pop up cafe out there too, so I got to gambol about the cobblestones and Mama and Babushka got to sip coffee and admire the statue of a man waving a paintbrush in the air, decked out in a flower garland for the occasion. Mama says it’s Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is nice.

Once inside, I remembered the Royal Academy. It’s the place where you are allowed to touch, jump on, roll around in and add to all the things. Fabulous. As a result I was straight in there, rushing towards the brightly patterned man carrying cakes on his back, ready to have a go at trying to twist his head off. But Mama extracted herself from the business of getting the tickets checked, dodged smartly around a gaggle of slow moving, less encumbered patrons and scooped me up under her arm. You aren’t allowed to play with the pieces in this exhibition, which was a bit of a let down at first. I sulked my way through the first gallery.

Brightly patterned sculpture of a man carrying a pile of cakes on his back

Photo by Benedict Johnson, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts

The Twitter tag for the RA Summer Exhibition is #RANewAndNow, which we all agreed was an excellent title for it. It’s very obvious that this is contemporary art, and Mama assumes if you know what you are looking at you can probably sweep through the rooms and come out with a decent overview of what themes and techniques are current or up and coming in the art world. But anyone can enjoy it. It’s eclectic, vibrantly colourful and ever so slightly bonkers in places.

Summer Exhibition 2014 at the Royal Academy of Arts

Photo by Benedict Johnson, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts

Of course, Babushka does not really appreciate bonkers in art the way Mama does. Mama gets a kick out of microphone stands set up with a hairbrush in place of actual amplification equipment. Babushka, by and large, does not. She also wonders why anyone would want to make a portrait of a grubby bathroom, let alone give it a prize. But there is a decent sprinkling of perfectly well-drawn representations of actual things of inherent beauty about the exhibition and also flowers, so she was perfectly well catered for overall.

Summer Exhibition 2014 at Royal Academy of Arts

Photo by Benedict Johnson, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts

One of my favourite rooms was the one with all the small paintings. Mama gathers that this is a traditional way to hang this space, but the artist in charge had also clearly gone out of their way to refute any charges of conventionality. My Super Big Brother would have approved of all the animal portraits, especially the collage-like owls. I really enjoyed the large red robot rampaging through Margate. The washed out Mini Mouse worried me though. I don’t really approve of messing with the Mouse cannon. Big fan here. Not enough bows there.

The room with all the dolls houses was pretty cool too, especially the building with all the smiley, frowny, crying stick people. And the lights. I was looking for some buttons to turn them on and off. There didn’t seem to be any though. Next year, perhaps. I was also pleased to see that there were quite a few horses dotted about the galleries. The video near the end was probably the best for fans of all things equine. Like me! Can’t beat a bit of hooves thundering through the surf action. But I was delighted by the 3D effect picture of the unicorns in the woods. Mama thinks I have not realised the significance of their being surrounded by ravening dogs. Nonsense! I am confident they will reach a peaceful solution in the end.

At some point we found out that you can buy most of what is on display. Mama is not sure how she feels about this. For her, it means that she immediately starts to see every painting through the eye of an interior designer rather than as a piece to be savoured as, y’know, Art. Will that, she worries, go with the cushions in the living room? Then she starts to judge all the pieces by how much they cost, which is irritating as one of the nice things about the exhibition is not really knowing at first glance which canvases are done by the established artists and which by the unknowns. As it turns out, she has expensive tastes. Her favourite paintings were on for not less that £4,500. Two children with their faces obscured by the ornaments of birds they were looking at. Mama feels this is, more or less, how my Super Big Brother should be immortalised, albeit it would work better as a window on his inner soul if it was done with actual wildlife.

The one I want, however, is £100,000, which is much more reasonable. Ones and naughts can’t be that much. A bicycle with wheels made out of metal flowers. We watched the video of somebody taking it for a spin around London three times before Mama dragged me away. It’s called the Two Nuns, although why, Mama could not explain to me. Shame it’s so long until my next birthday, but on the other hand I can’t ride a bike yet, so perhaps it is better to wait.

I also liked the climbing frame in the room with the big bit of burnt tree. The climbing frame you can’t actually climb on. Clearly some kind of artistic comment on the futility of something or other. Very clever. Mama was relieved to find the charcoal lump. She’d been wondering whether she was imagining the aroma of charred wood since she walked in to the gallery, or if she had missed the massive news story of the first version of the Summer Exhibition burning down. It was great to find out that it was all just part of the plan. She does wonder who would pay £54, 000 for that very intrusive smell though. Perhaps a hermetically sealed room? She has given some thought to this. There go holidays for the next few years then.

The exhibition took us just under an hour, Mama would have gone back for another go round, there’s just so much to see, but Babushka and I overruled her.

We went home via Green Park and Buckingham Palace. Mama had to carry me most of the way as we had left the scooter at home. The Royal Academy has a very small cloakroom, and although they let her take the pushchair in last time, Mama didn’t think trying to cope with that while trying to protect the artwork from me was a good idea. There were ice creams all round, and we all got to watch people spreading gravel with a determined display of righteous hard work in front of the Queen’s house for ages. It’s hard to knock off for a cigarette when you know you’ll get photographed by 500 tourists as soon as you do. Mama says.

Anyway. While there were some serious points being made by some of the artists, the overwhelming impression of the Royal Academy’s 2014 Summer Exhibition when you are pushing through it at the speed of the whimsy of a three year old and a seventy *cough* year old is one of cheerful colour, good humour and celebration. Almost irresistible. Mama is quietly determined to go again next year. And I can’t say as how I’d protest that much.

Our thanks to the Royal Academy of Arts for letting us use some of their photos, taken by Benedict Johnson. If you watch the video, you should be able to spot some of our favourites.

More Information

The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2014 website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the question of what is art – Constantin Brancusi’s bird. Or kitchen utensil?

Address: Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD

Opening: The Summer Exhibition runs until 17th August 2014. Sat to Thurs 10am -6pm, Fri 10am -10pm.

Price: £13.50 for adults, concessions £11.50, under 16s go free.

By tube: Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines) and Green Park (Jubilee, Piccadilly and Victoria lines). 

By bus: Lots of buses!

By car: Just don’t.

WWT London Wetland Centre is one of those places, Mama thinks, which is not obviously going to appeal to a toddler and her Fabulous Big Brother, even if he is obsessed by all things animal. It sounds like somewhere where serious people go and watch birds seriously from small, serious huts where you are not allowed to make noise and are expected to sit seriously still for extended periods of time. None of these are things we are good at. Plus, we might not see anything more exciting than a seagull, even if we do manage to get to grips with binoculars, and frankly, we can nip the five minutes down to the Thames any day of the week  to look at seagulls, with the added bonus that we might get to feed them and chase them a bit too.

A swan and signets on a lake

Ducks!

As it turns out, the WWT London Wetland Centre is a bit like this. But only a bit and it is also so much more. It is, in fact, one of the best places to take small children in the whole of London. Mama thinks. And so do we.

A line of waterbirds

Ducks!

As well as the extensive lake ringed by hides, there are also a large number of small artificial habitats where you can get up close and personal with the naked eye to collections of semi-captive water birds from around the world. It always surprises Mama that what are, essentially, ducks, albeit large ducks, small ducks, ducks with blue beaks, spoon billed ducks, white ducks with black polka dots, brown ducks, grey ducks, stripy ducks, ducks with golden eyes, tufty-headed ducks, diving ducks, waddling ducks, huge black ducks that look suspiciously like swans and so on can hold our attention to quite the degree they do, given how often we visit the local parks, which have themselves quite a duck collection of their own, but hey. They do.

Black swans

Ducks!

But if you are a wildlife fanatic, you do not just go to the WWT London Wetland Centre for the birds. No, you go for the otters. Situated to the left of the entrance, they have an extensive outdoor enclosure and three feeding times when the Centre is open, at 11am, 2pm and 4pm, although you can often see them out and about at other times too. They are CUTE! They are cute when they eat with their cute little hands, and cute when they swim, playing with each other cutely in the water. Cute! A must see.

An otter diving for food

Not a duck!

Mama is there for the surroundings. You can go from the world duck zone through an intriguingly large gatehouse promising all sorts of safari like fun straight into a countryside walk. Lots of long grass, reeds, overgrown watery areas and short British trees. I think it’s probably because the wilder birds like that sort of environment, but Mama clearly thinks it’s her own personal sanctuary from the existential stress of living in a place surrounded by man-made structures and traffic jams for 300 miles each way. From my Fabulous Big Brother’s point of view there is not quite enough of a guarantee of wildlife sightings, but we have encountered frogs, there is a vague promise of voles, and in summer the place is humming with insects, especially easy to spot brightly coloured dragonflies, and the whole ramble is a much more manageable length than Mama normally makes us do if she manages to prise us out of an urban environment for an afternoon. Thus we do not protest too loudly when she drags us inside.

There’s a similar sort of vibe to the territory in the other half of the Centre, back through the building complex near the entrance. Our focus here is more on reaching the playground area, although we can get very distracted by poking around the insect garden and checking to see if we can see bats in the specially built bat house. So far, no. But one day! We’ve seen frogs round here too.

A tip: the area covered by the WWT London Wetland Centre is quite extensive. It’s all easy going, but it is one of the few places Mama still takes a pushchair to. Understandably, no scooters are allowed inside.

Insect hotels

Duck houses?

The playground itself is one of those all divided up into different areas, which are all on different levels with bushes and such separating them off from each other and Mama’s line of sight. It’s great. We think. Because of the tunnels, mainly. Mama is less enthusiastic. Because of the tunnels, mainly. Mama no longer has to bribe my Fabulous Big Brother to look after me in them, which is excellent because the playground no longer rings either to the sounds my wails when he abandons me at the first opportunity, or his loud overprotective berration of any other child who dares to breathe in my direction (“That’s my SISTER! She is SMALL!! You be CAREFUL!!!”).

But if Mama stays by the entrance near the exit, I will leave the tunnels at the other end and FLING myself in front of the teenagers sliding down the zipwire. If she stakes out that side, then she spends the whole time convinced we live to exit the playground and DISAPPEAR. Why she thinks this, when we have never show the slightest interest in doing so, and Fabulous Big Brother is old enough to understand not to anyway, I do not know, but there is is. She does. So she trots round and round the tunnels, trying to catch a glimpse of us inside. She thinks that to us she looks nonchalant as though she just happens to be where we are when we come out, but in fact, she just looks out of breathe and stressed. Hey ho. At least it’s exercise.

There are also a water-play section, with a long trough populated with rubber ducks to soak your sleeves in and, oh marvel and wonder, SHOWERS!  In hotter weather, children can dance around underneath them and get WET ALL OVER. Mama says, if only I showed this much enthusiasm for washing at home, but what I say is, it’s only fun if you get to do it in all your clothes. Mama therefore recommends that people who visit the WWT London Wetland Centre at the height of summer either take a few spare T shirts and trousers or go the whole hog and pack the swimming cossies and towels.

Funnily enough, we have not been to the playground when the water section is open for quite some time. Since, in fact, the first time we stumbled upon it.

The fun does not end there. It is probably true that some of our favourite bits about the WWT London Wetland Centre are indoors. Our absolute best is the Digital Pond. This is projected onto the floor of a hut in the Pond Zone and has various games which involve, for example, vigourously stamping on the projections of rubbish in order to make them fade away, or vigourously stamping on wiggly things so a mayfly larva will swim over and eat them, or vigourously stamping on excessive amounts of pondweed to get rid of it, or… well, you get the idea. Vigourous stamping abounds. This, I can assure you, is the very height of excitement, and we always pester Mama to take us there. The Pond Zone also has underwater cameras you can drive around, pond dipping opportunities and a whole building devoted to explaining what happens to your poo after you flush the toilet, which Mama says is a particularly genius bit of understanding your target audience’s interests and enthusiasms.

Entrance to a sewer exhibition that looks like a plughole

Poo!

That said, we are also keen on the upstairs of the main buildings, which have water related fairground attractions, including shooting streams of water into holes to make the endangered wetlands animals stand up, pumping water into a globe so that it will spill out into ice caps and wine glasses and so on and yay, MORE water play involving building villages out of lego on simulated flood plains only to have them swept away when it rains on the hills! Mama, as you might be able to guess, is less thrilled with this guaranteed dampness opportunity. Luckily, our favourite game actually does not involve water, but shooting more poo (soft balls) out of pneumatic tubes towards holes signaled by reeds. There is probably a serious educational point to be made out of all of this, but we do not care. We even enjoy the approach through a sort of underwater Madam Tussauds, involving model sharks, crocodiles and poisonous frogs.

Indoor fairground style games at the WWT London Wetland Centre

Water play!

And then there are the hides. Obviously if you are a serious bird watcher, you could head straight for these and spend hours and hours inside them, and judging by the lists of birds spotted that day Mama reads out to us sometimes, very profitably too. But we tend to just drop in for five to ten minutes at a time when we come across them as part of our rambles. And this approach seems to be working as we have seen a number of apparently interesting feathered flappy things. I’ll be honest – they all look much like yet more ducks to me, but Mama got very excited about the bittern (she says this is because of someone called Arthur Ransome), and she and my fabulous Big Brother spent the entire afternoon walking like the lapwing and giggling. In case you want to try it, you hold your body very still, with your arms straight down by your sides, bend your legs and walk really fast. Hours of fun.

We are even learning hide etiquette (do not lean out of the windows and shriek loudly at the waterfowl), with the exception of remembering to bring some binoculars. Mama has never yet done that. Not that this matters if you go to the hide specifically designated as the family friendly one, the Headley Hide in the middle of the duck collections. They have binoculars and even telescopes for you to look through already set up, and also big picture windows for small people to gawp through easily. They have some bird feeders set up here too, and garden birds come quite regularly. Mama likes this. She attempts to lure them onto our balcony, but so far has only succeeded in persuading sparrows to dangle in front of our living room windows for her enjoyment.

Although we do currently have swallows (or possibly swifts) nesting in our roof. This is impossibly cool, Mama thinks, especially when she is watching them swoop around looking for insects while sipping her coffee, but she does rather wish they weren’t right above my and my Fabulous Big Brother’s window. The baby birds are extremely piercing at six in the morning.

So by now you should be convinced that the WWT London Wetland Centre is an interesting place to go, but Mama would like to mention another plus anyway. It it has, she thinks, a particularly good range of activites on offer. Especially, but not limited to, the school holidays and weekends. Things we have particularly enjoyed are the daily bird feeding walks at 3pm (don’t eat the pellets, throw them at the birds!), the reptile finding walks (slow worms for us! Snooping over the back walls of the expensive houses bordering the Centre for Mama!), the afore-mentioned pond dipping (I got wet! Hurrah!), and the time they persuaded the man with the tanks full of scorpions, snakes, spiders and millipedes to come and show them off. They also do crafting, but we have never yet made it to a session, so engrossed are we in all the other things on offer.

Water birds at London Wetland Centre

More ducks!

Which include food! There is a cafe serving a small but tasty range of teatime or lunchtime edibles, including chips and coffee, so everybody is happy. You can eat inside, but the real treat is taking your meal out to the pond and admiring moire ducks while you chow down. If you have brought your own food, which we often do, there are benches at regular intervals, and hand cleaning stations nearby so you don’t have to use up a packet of wetwipes cleaning the duck poo off your hands before you eat. I recommend the tables in the middle of the world duck zone next to some living wigwams. Great to play in and out of when you are bored of ham sandwiches.

Living willow wigwams

Duck houses?

And! Mama has saved the best for last.

There is a huge car park. Oh yes, there is! It is free for visitors to use – just remember to take the special exit token when you check in.

Anyway. WWT London Wetland Centre is a MUST for anyone with kids and half way decent access to South West London. No really, it is. GO. In fact, go even if you do not have kids. It’s a proper grown up space as well as being child-friendly. The only downside is that it is a little pricy for a one-off visit, but the yearly memberships are more than reasonable particularly given just how much there is to do and see. And that membership will also get you into all the other WWT Wetland Centres around the country too, which if WWT Arundel Wetland Centre is anything to go by, are also FANTASTIC.

But that is a story for another day.

More Information

The WWT London Wetland Centre website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about birdwatching.

Address: Queen Elizabeth’s Walk, Barnes, London, SW13 9WT

Opening: 9.30am – 6pm (summer), 9.30am – 5pm (winter).

Prices: Adults £12.35, Concessions: £9.20, Kids over 4 years £6.90, Family £34.50. Annual family membership for one adult plus kids is £56, and for two adults plus kids is £72, and is well worth considering.

By bus: The 283 from Hammersmith stops right outside the Centre. The 33, 72 and 209 stop a few minutes walk away.

By train: Barnes or Barnes Bridge stations are about a 15 minute walk away. The 33, 72 (Barnes) and 209 (Barnes Bridge) buses also run past the stations if you don’t want to walk.

By tube: Get off at Hammersmith (Picadilly and District & Circle lines) and then get the 283 bus.

By car: Ample FREE car parking! Yay!