Lest you are thinking that Mama never takes us anywhere more child friendly than a benignly disposed art gallery, let it be known that over the Christmas holidays we went to a Panto. Aladdin at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre.

Aladdin at Stevenage

It was my first visit to such an entertainment. And here’s the thing about Pantos.

They are no place for newbies.

I mean, sure, you think the plot is simple enough, and indeed, should be familiar from your basic bedtime fairytale reading, but what I noticed was that there seemed to be an awful lot of unnecessary diversions, which everybody except me seemed to be expecting, and on top of this, the whole audience including Mama, my Best Big Brother, and Granny and Grandad had been given parts, which they had evidently studied carefully.

I spent the whole time wondering what my lines were and when to join in among a sea of people shouting their heads off in chorus when prompted from the stage. Or booing. Mama in particular seemed to like the booing, which seems uncharacteristically rude.

Mama tells me not to worry and I will get the hang of it. She says that my Best Big Brother was likewise totally bemused for the duration of his first two shows, and only this year, his fourth visit, has he really got the hang of it. And how! He spent most of the performance on his feet bouncing up and down and yelling his head off. Panto suits my Best Big Brother.

Mind you, even Mama found herself sitting there wondering why Aladdin, which is clearly a story which should be set in the Middle East takes place in the Far East, although to be fair, this is the original version of the story and not some way for bygone Pantos to take a pop at two varieties of Johnny Foreigner at once. Presumably even exotic locations need their own exotic locations.

It does mean that, Panto being the comic vehicle that it is, modern theatre has a delicate balancing act to do. Of course, nobody goes to Panto for cutting edge political correctness, but Mama felt adding the two black actors as self proclaimed slaves was an exceptionally bold way to distract us from the fact that this year’s fond Papa was a foolish Chinaman and the bad guy an Arab.

Fairly successful though.

Especially as having the Genie riff off Shaft did at least allow for equal opportunity sexual harassment of the audience. Just as all the women had relaxed as Stevenage’s perennial Dame, Paul Laidlaw, targeted this year’s hapless male in the front row (“You’re going to regret sitting there, Dave”), so the large man in the skin tight suit came and stood opposite them (“Look at my eyes. My *eyes*, lady!”).

Mama sniggered. Sometimes Mama has a very low sense of humour. Low. Look at his EYES, Mama.

At least none of the scripted jokes poked fun at anyone’s origins. Unless you count coming from Stevenage and the surrounding area. Mama, who does, doesn’t. Some things are fair game.

Anyway. My faint bewilderment at the intricacies of the medium and feeling of missing out on some crucial inside information notwithstanding, I did very much enjoy Aladdin.

Of course, this was helped by the fact that for some reason, Panto overrides Mama’s aversion to expensive plastic tat, and we got given huge toys which lit up in three different patterns with practically no pestering whatsoever before we’d even got into the auditorium.

And then there was the singing and dancing. I was out of my seat, bopping away, waving my flashing magic wand dangerously in the direction of the little old lady sitting next to me on more than one occasion. All the music was good, but the bit I liked best was that there was not one, not two, but *three* songs from Frozen!!! And one of them took place on a flying carpet which was really and truly up in the air and wafting around above us.

Which was not the only impressive bit of special effects. We had dragons spewing smoke, startling pyrotechnic explosions, a dragon shaped Cave of Wonders opening up before our very eyes, and a five minute lazar show just before the break. Multi coloured light shapes appeared in the air above us! MY VERY WORD!

Mama, who likes to peruse the programme in the interval, would like to give a big up to the business acumen and general logistical prowess of the production company, Jordan Productions, who run the Pantos in Stevenage at this point. She gathers that they have a whole stable of medium sized theatres for whom they put on these festive shows. Which means they can afford to splurge on the scenery and costumes, as they will definitely be getting their money’s worth when Aladdin, Cinderella and Robin Hood et al relocate round the circuit next year. So they do. You might be in the provinces, Mama, who is married to a snobby Moscovite, says, but the kit for Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre’s Pantos is always, therefore, very good. Mama’s money for next year’s Panto, looking at the offerings at the other locations and her imperfect memory of what has gone before, is on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs coming to her hometown next year, with an outside bet on Beauty and the Beast.

It’s probably the retro magic tricks which swung it for Mama this time though. Mama, child of the 70s that she is, likes seeing young women cut in half. I was less certain and needed reassuring that no permanent harm would come to her.

Mama was also impressed by the singing. The problem with Panto, she says, is that one of the requirements is to have actors you have actually heard of in the lead roles. This, she tells me, does not always make for a happy earful, as most of the ones who come to Stevenage used to work in soap operas. Especially, Eastenders.

Which is not particularly known for its fabulous musical numbers, apparently.

But this year Aladdin and friends had actual voices. Even the chappie from Eastenders. A Panto with a successful three part harmony is thing of beauty, Mama says. Almost better than the time they had Davy Jones from the Monkees. But not quite.

Especially the during the singalong. Thank god – they provided the words this year, Mama will never forget the shame of trying to belt out ‘There’s a worm at the bottom of the garden…’ order to win the deadly serious singing competition between the two halves of the audience without knowing one of the lines. Never assume, Panto people, never assume…

Aladdin at Stevenage Poster

So. Basically, Aladdin at the Gordon Craig Theatre is in most ways one of the better of Stevenage’s always enjoyable Pantos, and is extremely good value compared to the ones at the London theatres to boot. It’s running to 25th January, so there is still time to get down there and shout ‘it’s behind you’ at every available opportunity for reasons I do not really understand if you so wish.

Oh yes you do, oh no I don’t, oh yes you do. Says Mama, incomprehensibly.

Photo credit: I have used the official poster for Jordan Production’s Aladdin at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre. Clicking on the image will take you to the page where it appears on their website.

More Information

Gordon Craig Theatre website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about audience participation in pantomimes.

Address: Stevenage Arts and Leisure Centre, Lytton Way, Stevenage, Herts, SG1 1LZ

Times: Various, including afternoon and both early and later evening performances.

Tickets: Currently £15.50 per seat

By train: Stevenage station is right opposite the theatre, although Mama is genuinely sad to report the theatre is no longer the striking eyesore landmark it once was when covered with large yellow bubbles. There are regular trains out of Kings Cross and the fast ones take about half an hour (other directions are available).

Gordon Craig Theatre Stevenage

By bus: You are just in time to be able to catch one of the last 797 coaches from Victoria to Stevenage before the service is discontinued. The journey takes about 1 and a half hours. Other bus routes from different starting points are available.

By car: Stevenage is famous for its cycle paths (Oh no it isn’t, oh yes… Lets not, Mama eh?), but has extensive and relatively cheap parking all around the theatre. Stevenage itself is bang on the A1M, which is convenient for London (40 minutes to the outskirts). You can come from the other way too.

By plane: Stevenage is excellently served by both Luton and Stanstead airports, both within 30 miles. Heathrow is 45 miles and a trip round the M25 away.

“I’ve got a treat for us today,” said Mama. Toys, we thought. A trip to the zoo, we got even more exited. Maybe even lunch at Macdonald’s. Lunch at MacDonald’s, with a Happy Meal toy at the zoo?

No.

“We’re going to look at Christmasy shop windows around London!” Said Mama.

Mama thinks we should be more into walking. She’d like it to be walking around wild open spaces, preferably upwards towards the top of a smallish mountain, but our big city is curiously lacking in really large hills in the middle of nowhere so sometimes she makes do with the highways and byways of central London.

She recognises that we are less than keen on rambles with no discernible point. Thus the idea of the Great Christmas Window Scavenger Hunt 2014 was born. Won’t it be fun, Mama put to us, to go and look at all the festive offerings around town? Father Christmas and His reindeer! Tinsel!! Baubles!!! Cute winterproof animals!!!! High calorie foodstuffs carved into the shape of Christmas trees!!! Snooooooooooooooooow! Twinkley lights!!!! TOYS!!!!! And other such heartwarming scenes of rampant commercialism.

We were a bit dubious and had to be bribed with the promise of actually being allowed into a shop to look at overpriced plastic tat. Papa was a bit dubious too but Mama said he could have dinner in Chinatown, so he was won round. Babushka, well, I am not sure what Babushka thought but she came along anyway.

We started off at the John Lewis on Sloan Square. Penguins! Can’t go too far wrong with penguins in amusing positions Mama thought.

John Lewis and knitting penguins at Christmas

The ones with underwear on their heads were a particular hit with us children.

John Lewis and underwear penguins at Christmas

Mama felt it was a bit minimal and lacking in your actual jolly sparkly decoration. But then she managed to go the whole Christmas period without seeing That Advert and so is probably missing something.

John Lewis and yet more penguin action at Christmas

Harrods, I am pleased to say, did not disappoint Mama. You want a giant Santa with moving flying reindeer toting prominently placed dolly Elsa from Frozen? YES MAMA WE CERTAINLY DO! ELSA! LETITGOHEREISTANDLETITGOLETITGOLETITGOLETITGO! Sorry, where were we?

You want rotating men with antlers on their bowlers, despite the fact that Papa felt it was a potentially controversial reference to Joseph as a cuckold (whatever that is)?

Harrods and an odd choice of headgear at Christmas

 

You want miniature mousey dioramas with ACTUAL FALLING SNOW? Which admittedly were far too high up the wall for me, but then what are parents for?

Harrods where mice are definitely striring at Christmas

You want inadequately dressed women in chilly-looking forests? A giant clock? Handbags? Harrods had ‘em all.

Harrods Happy New Year

Not sure what the rainbow stripy clothes in the window at the end have to do with the nativity, but I am young and some of the references go over my head. They were lovely and bright though so its all good.

We went into Harrods. Mama normally enjoys a good poke around this fabulous emporium of really REALLY expensive stuff. And the toilets. But on this occasion it was very very busy and not so much fun. I spent a lot of time being firmly towed through a huge wall of bodies (well, legs) as Mama and Papa tried to find the Christmas bit with only a brief pause to contemplate the price of caviar and enjoy the tiling in the food hall. Harrods, it seems, is large and somewhat labyrinthine, if also exceedingly shiny. When we eventually found the Christmas area, it was smaller than expected, although that might have been the effect of so many people. It did have an excellent advent calendar in the form of a porcelain dolls house where every door concealed another delicate Wedgewood ornament. A snip at many thousands of pounds. For some reason, us trying to play with it stressed Mama and Papa right out and we exited without going up to the toy floor. If you decide to take a look inside Harrods during peak Christmas shopping days with small children, Mama recommends going straight there, having worked out your route ahead of time. Or just giving the inside a miss altogether.

It’s certainly worth a wander around at some point, mind.

Mama and I wanted to look at the Harvey Nicks windows, but we were bundled onto the bus by the menfolk at this point so only just caught a glimpse as we shot past at the best speed a double decker caught in Knightsbridge traffic can manege. Lovely lighting, lovely dresses, lovely colourful trees is about all I can tell you.

Instead we headed for Fortnum and Mason, which, according to the windows, sells food. Very very beautiful food. Very beautiful food, all frosty and glittery and magical. We particularly liked the Christmas puddings, although I think my Wonderful Big Brother might have preferred the robins.

Fortnum and Mason, Christmas puddings and robins

Mama was also taken by the silver sleigh and the vodka. She must have been thirsty.

Fortnum and Mason, the sliver sleigh at Christmas

But having learned from our Harrods visit, we didn’t go inside. Mama says the national beverage they sell isn’t all that anyway – her Russian visitors usually prefer Yorkshire Tea. This does not bode well for the chocolates, however fabulous they look.

Onto Regent’s Street, which Mama had been planning to miss in favour of the more attractive and considerably less busy back alleyways. We overruled her because of the toy shop. Called Hamley’s, apparently. It’s a very popular toy shop is Hamley’s. Mama is not entirely sure why because aside from the demonstrators and the opportunity to play with some of the merchandise, there doesn’t seem to be that much here than you can get anywhere else where you can accomplish your spending without the risk of being trampled underfoot by three thousand maurauding small people and their six thousand pursuing parents.

Hamleys at Christmas

I think Mama is still in mouring after they shut down the massive MASSIVE department store in central Moscow called Detskii Mir (Children’s World). A whole floor of Barbies she tells me. And a full scale working carosel on the main floor. Allegedly it is due to reopen, but Mama is suspicious it will not be the same.

We have not had the pleasure, and are entirely entranced by the hawkers and hands on opportunities. We are also oblivious to Mama’s panic as she tries to keep both of us in view while many many pretty things beckon us this way and that in an environment we are much better at wiggling our way through than she is. However, luckily for the success of the outing, nobody got lost, suffocated or had an epic strop when refused immediate gratification of our consumer whim, although it was a close run thing when Big Brother found the Steiff cuddly animals section.

Next up, Liberty, with a cursory glance towards what Mama thinks are the most fun street Christmas lights. Who doesn’t like a giant Santa face decorated with headphones?

Carnaby Street at Christmas

Mama also really likes Liberty, which she thinks is the genuinely eccentric old money cousin to Harrods brash neovaux rich extravagance. Unfortunately for her, we were starting to get hungry at about this point and so did not take to the ship themed windows at all.

Liberty saw a number of ships sailing in

Mama managed to persuade us to briefly look in on Oxford Street and its floaty light balls, but we were soon retreating at full pelt towards the promise of noodles and spring rolls in China Town.

China Town at Christmas

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Tantrums averted all round, we were ready for another leg, which is how we found out they have a small funfair on Leicester Square. If you don’t fancy the crowds of Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, this is a good alternative, especially if you like carousels, which Mama definitely does. There was also an excellent rollercoaster for small people and Papa had obviously let his sticky sweet pork balls go to his head too as he had a go at the archery. He nearly won too!

Leicester Square at Christmas

Then it was on to Trafalgar Square and the very tall but somewhat austerely decorated Norwegian pine tree, the traditional Christmas sound of busked bagpipes, and what Papa says is a very British nativity scene. See the woman doing all the difficult childcare work while the man lolls around chewing a straw? What is it with the incompetent Papa meme in this country, he would like to know. Of course, the nurses at the London hospital where Mama gave birth to my Wonderful Big Brother did single him out for special praise as an exemplary model of clued up fathering in Mama’s medical notes. But since they did this for changing a nappy without any special fuss or needing assistance, I am not sure what side of the argument this falls on. Mama says, you know your society is in trouble when a casual glance at adverts on Russian TV show a more equitable parenting lifestyle than the ones here. I think that’s a bit political for the Christmas episode of the blog, so all I will say is that we ran wildly around the fountains for a bit and then got the bus home.

Trafalgar Square and a very tall tree at Christmas

All in all I would say that as a thrilling day out for the under tens, going to look at Christmas windows isn’t as exciting as Mama thought it would be, although we did enjoy Christmas tree spotting, a sport which we carried on enthusiastically throughout the holiday period. Mama thinks that perhaps having some kind of additional bingo game incentive (the team that fills their score card of festive items first wins a chocolate reindeer!) might help, and that if you have less of an aversion to starting Christmas in November than she does then that might be the time to do it.

And next year they might have a fourteen foot Santa climbing up Selfidges while flinging sweeties to the children below. You can always hope.

Back in the spring, Mama had a yen to experience the full glory of the season, which is difficult in the centre of London. So she hatched a plan to take us out into the countryside to admire the new blooms.

Crocuses, she thought. Daffodils. Tulips. Azeleas. And so on.

Since we also have National Trust membership, she thought we could do this smelling the flowers at one of their properties. She chose Claremont Landscape Garden, on the grounds that it is, like, a garden. Gardens are always chock full of flowers, right?

Wrong.

In fact, when it comes to Claremont, the important word is ‘landscape’.

Still, we all had an excellent time and we highly recommend the place. But that is a story for another day. And we found carpets of crocuses just down the road in Battersea Park. So that was alright.

But never one to give up easily, at half term, Mama, who loves autumn with the passion of one whose birthday is slap bang in the middle of it, decided we would try again to revel in the fact that we live in a country where the change from summer to winter (and winter to summer) is protracted and quite beautiful.

This time she chose the National Trust’s Winkworth Arboretum.

Winkworth Arboretum is basically a sort of botanical garden devoted to more than 1000 types of trees spread over 9 acres. It has a nice steep tree-covered hill leading down to a big lake ringed with trees at the bottom and a large tree-studded meadow, and also an extensive, conveniently flat, very treey area at the top.

Winkworth Arboretum in autumn

This time nothing could go wrong.

And it didn’t.

The boathouse at Winkworth Arboretum

They even have a field full of lamas and horses next to the car park! Which, Mama would like to reassure everyone with the same obsession as her, is both free to National Trust Members and extensive. Useful, as many people seemed to have had the same thought as her about Winkworth being a good place to catch some yellowredorangebrown leaves.

Lamas at Winkworth Arboretum

This was ok though. Winkworth is such a big place that it absorbed the large number of visitors beautifully and didn’t feel crowded at all.

One of the cool things about National Trust places is their tendency to have children’s trails for every major holiday. This one was a full-on Halloween themed one with riddles dotted about the most accessible area of the wood to match to the pictures of ghosties, goulies and aliens we picked up from the entrance. My Spooktastic Big Brother loves riddles, and so this was just to his taste. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to find many of them as we left the safety of the pushchair friendly, walking stick amicable area and went for a more challenging extended ramble, mainly because Mama promised us a large expanse of water.

It was a bit of an effort getting Babushka down the very steep steps, and you should have heard her when Mama picked the scramble route back up again. There are, Mama would like to assure everyone, easier routes down and up. But we like a challenge, and in the end Babushka rose to it, albeit with an extended sit down at the top of the climb.

The lake was everything we could have hoped for, with not only plenty of ducks and geese to amuse my Spooktastic Big Brother, but also an area where I could sit and poke my stick in the water. Mama cut our enjoyment a bit short though because my Spooktastic Big Brother managed to get water in his wellies.

Geese at Winkworth Arboretum

Probably because Mama wasn’t paying sufficient attention. Mama was looking at the trees. Winkworth Arboretum, the tree zoo, has a huge variety of leaves to admire the changing colour of. Every shape, every colour, every texture. We had an excellent time collecting some of the more interesting ones. But what Mama was really there for was the view from the meadow. From there Winkworth really shows off its a tree-filled slope of autumn blazing away back up the hills you have just slid down.

Winkworth Aboretum in autumn from the meadow

The view from the top of the hill over the top of the trees to the sheep-dotted fields opposite isn’t bad either.

The lake at Winkworth Arboretum

Lovely. Says Mama. We were more interested in the GIANT MUSHROOMS.

Giant mushroom at Winkworth Arboretum

And the natural playgrounds in at least two different locations, where the climbing frames, obstacle courses and dens are made of sticks, with the odd bit of help from some twine or a bit of canvas sheeting. Hours of fun.

Den at Winkworth Arboretum

If Mama had to quibble, she would say that enjoying late October leaves in a such warmth that we were all down to T shirts after half an hour is frankly wrong.

This is hardly Winkworth’s fault though.

The unseasonable weather did mean that Mama was persuaded to buy us ice creams in the inevitable National Trust cafe, replete with all the scones and cake you might expect from such an institution, so there’s that too. The inside is not large, but there was plenty of outside seating, and another play area with a wigwam to keep us occupied while the adults drink their coffee.

Basically, Winkworth is an excellent place to go for a good outdoor ramble with all your relatives. There are paths for every sort of walker, including dogs, both long and short routes, scrambles and more gently sloping pathways. And whereever you go, and, probably, whatever season you go, you will find plenty to look at and amuse yourself with as you walk around. We enjoyed it a lot. We will certainly be back in spring to see what trees can offer us that flowerbeds can’t.

More Information

Winkworth Arboretum’s page on the National Trust website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the history of British woodlands.

Address: Hascombe Road, Godalming, Surrey, GU8 4AD

Opening: Autumn/ Winter – 10am to 4pm. Spring/ Summer –  10 am to 6pm.

Admission (with gift aid): Adult: £7.20, Child: £3.60, Family: £18.00. National Trust Members: FREE.

By car: There is a large car park, free to National Trust members.

By public transport: the nearest train and bus stops are in Godlaming, which is 2 miles away.

Buoyed by her success in taking us round the Old one, Mama decided to try out the New Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val.

Good choice. We much prefer modern art, it being similar to the sort of craftings we produce. It does not occur to us to scoff at the fact that the painter has labelled a series of inexplicable squiggles ‘Love’ because we have only that morning presented Mama with seventeen splodges of green we are calling ‘Cats’.

Sticks at the Tretyakov Gallery

This is Art we thoroughly approve of.

Plus, the permanent galleries of the New Tretyakov Gallery are almost completely empty whenever she goes there. If you are going to take small children round an art gallery, doing it when there are not likely to be art lover patrons who want to study the works in meditative contemplation is always a bonus.

The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsy Val

Look! No people!

The lack of visitors is odd, in Mama’s opinion. She thinks that foreign tourists from outside of the Former Soviet Union are actually more likely to be excited by the paintings in the New Tretyakov Gallery than the Old, unless they have a special interest in finding out about more Russia than the activities of Tsars, how awful Communism was and lots and lots of ballet. Or circuses. The art, history and culture in the Old Tretyakov Gallery is largely unknown to abroad and Mama is not sure that is what people come to Moscow for.

The art in the New Tretyakov Gallery, on the other hand, contains pieces by internationally famous artists (Kandinsky, Chagall, Malevich, Goncharova to start you off), internationally famous avant-garde movements (Neo-primitivism, suprematism, constructivism and futurism, otherwise known and geometric shapes r us), internationally famous images of glorious workers (Mama’s favourite is the woman posing dramatically with the slide rule) and pictures of internationally famous mass murderers (Stalin and Lenin and so on).

Slide rule and woman at the Tretyakov Gallery

There is nothing more fabulous than a slide rule.

Part of the problem, Mama ruminates, is that really, the paintings all belong to the Old Tretyakov Gallery, which inherited them almost by accident. The core of the New Tretyakov Gallery comes from a private collection of a Greek expat, who, at a time when the authorities just weren’t having the more interesting expressions of artistic temperament, quietly went around snapping up what ought to have been national treasures for an absolute song.

Eventually, Soviet society twigged to the possibilities and the collector started suffering a number of burglaries. It seems that the state then got most of his acquisitions in some kind of deal that allowed him to leave the country with his favourites at a time when leaving the country was, Mama says, tricky. Can’t think why. Mama only needs our birth certificates, her marriage certificate and a letter from Papa in addition to our many passports to break us out.

So Mama always wonders if the lack of popularity has something to to with the Old Tretyakov Gallery being at a bit of a loss as to know what to do with its modern art, suppressed for so long that, by the time they took over, even if it wasn’t outright banned, it was seriously unfashionable.

And, perhaps, a bit unfathomable. The problem with the glorification of forms, migraine inducing swirls of colour and childishly drawn representations of what might (or might not) be a person, well, Mama thinks that to a certain extent, you had to be there. Doubtless it was a gloriuous shock at the time, but now, now it is just a big black square on a white canvas. It’s not even in the icon corner for maximum symbolic impact.

Malevich at the Tretyakov Gallery

The original Black Square.

The world has moved on to unmade beds, big unadorned lumps of burnt wood and giant green plastic butt plugs.

Says Mama.

Nowadays it is probably also true that for Russians and those from the Former Soviet Union, a good half if it are those sorts of idealised Communist images, or reactions to Communist images, which they must all be heartily sick of, in all senses of the word.

Constructivism at the Tretyakov Gallery

I could do that.

Although someone has certainly given a lot of thought to how to hang it so that philistines like Mama will actually get it.

Kandinsky and Malevitch’s contempories surround their paintings and give you a really good impression of how artists riff off each other in creating something new and exciting.

The room of the joyful and (Mama finds) truly inspirational Soviet images from the earlier days gives onto the contrasting rooms of the official and unofficial artists from later, somewhat less joyful, periods.

Heros of the Soviet Union at the Tretyakov Gallery

Hero footballers of the Soviet Union.

Soviet Realism at the Tretyakov Gallery

Soviet Realism is real.

Unapproved Soviet art at the Tretyakov Gallery

This is not Soviet Realism. This is a kitchen!

The nature of repression and its effect on art is topped with the room dedicated to massive paintings of an avuncular Stalin twinkling his way though various scenes and from there you are plunged straight into the section showcasing what the expat Soviet artists were doing at the same time, with considerably more freedom.

Expat Soviet artists at the Tretyakov Gallery

I can see bottoms, Mama!

To finish off, there are examples of the sorts of things which artists produced during and after the Fall. Mama thinks that this section is definitely a bit patchy, but then she suspects that is because the New Tretyakov Gallery has only a fraction of the works of that time and, in any case, coherent movements were definitely not really what that era was about.

They do also have exhibitions, and these are actually very well attended and included in the price of your general entrance ticket. But they focus on retrospectives rather than new works, and often of artists who feature more in the Old Gallery.

The New Tretyakov Gallery is, in fact, a museum of 20th Century art not an art gallery as such. You should go and see it though and don’t let them fob you off with the Old Gallery. It’s a very interesting museum of art for anyone who hasn’t had  to deal with the reality of living under or in the aftermath of the Soviet years. And most of it has extensive English text to explain things, as well as an audio guide option.

But don’t be expecting to buy anything too exciting afterwards. The shop is absolutely minimal, consisting of one small kiosk, rarely, in Mama’s experience, actually open.

And the cafe never has been. Not once in the actually quite large number of time Mama has been there. Luckily, the sculpture park surrounding the New Tretyakov Gallery, Museon, has a number of small coffee and snack vendors dotted around, and the time we were there there were also at least two places selling more substantial meals further along the building. You could also hop over the road to Gorky Park, or head back towards the metro too, all of which have more places to eat.

We enjoyed our time in the gallery, wildly creepy black and white final exhibition notwithstanding.

Prigov at the Tretyakov Gallery

This artist scared the living daylights out of us.

We expressed our opinion that Kandinsky mainly painted dinosaurs; tried out some of the poses, particularly of the more anatomically challenged figures; found all the naked people in the radical Where’s Wally painting (see above), especially the three breasted ones; descended with glee on the multimedia visual sound poems like the children of the push button Internet age we are; and kept a look out for the docents to distract so Mama could snap a few pictures. The trick is to smile and show them your toy lizard. They loved that.

Kandinsky at the Tretyakov Gallery

Kandinsky’s dinosaur painting.

And Mama had a grand old time using her imagination to explain conceptual art to us. So that’s alright.

More Information

The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsy Val’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about constructions with a ruler and a compass.

Address: 10 Krymsky Val, Moscow 117049

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday – 10am to 7.30pm. Monday – CLOSED.

Admission: 450 rubles (about £6.50) for adults, 250 rubles (£3.50) for students, children under 7 are free.

NB: It’s slightly cheaper for Russians. The New Tretyakov Galley is the only place where Mama has ever been offered the cheaper price, unless she is hiding behind Papa and scowling. Doesn’t work when we are with her though. We refuse to speak Russian to Mama.

By Metro: Oktabrskaya (orange and brown lines) – turn right, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left down the other massive seven million lane highway. Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. The Gallery is opposite Gorky Park.

By other means: Actually, the trollybus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way. It’s quite a fun way of getting to or from the Gallery.

What you have in the Old Teatrakov Gallery, begun by a wealthy businessman (Tretyakov himself) and added to by the state when the acquired it on his death, is half of nearly all the famous paintings done by painters working in the Former Russian Empire. The other half are in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. This makes it a very interesting place to someone who likes a hefty dose of cultural history alongside her aesthetic appreciation (Mama).

Sometimes there are advantages to artists not being particularly famous outside their own country. Or, y’know, enforced nationalisation of aristocratic possessions.

Old Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow

Mama has been going to the Tretyakov Gallery about once a year so for about 15 years now. Last time we let her go on her own she took the (English. Other languages are available) audio guide tour. Five hours later she staggered back out of the building, and that was despite suffering a total failure of will when it came to the icon section. The tour is organised around you deciding which of the paintings to find out more about, and Mama, who really likes the gallery and everything in it, wanted to find out more about nearly all of them.

She wonders if it might not be a good idea to give more casual visitors an indication of the absolute must sees for a shorter version, or an alternative more overview focused guide. But the descriptions are excellent, and you learn a lot about the individual pictures, the artist, and the cultural, political and sociological context surrounding them.

Mama was amused to note that not all of the paintings are described in glowing terms. The experts are not afraid to say when they consider that the painter has made a fist of the composition, for example, and their critiques take in even some of the images which are, for the people of the Former Soviet Union, as familiar as the Sunflowers, The Hay Wain or the Mona Lisa are to someone like Mama.

My Excellent Big Brother and I are now resigned to viewing art with Mama, but to be fair, Mama has got better at showing us around. She is quite prepared to cover the whole building in less than an hour, makes sure we are well fed and have had a run around before we go in, takes pencils and paper in case we want to do some copying and shamelessly bribes us with a promised trip to MacDonald’s after we have finished.

As it turns out, you are not supposed to sit on the floor and sketch in the Tretyakov Gallery.

We discovered this when we tried to draw our favourite painting, the Three Bogatyrs. My Excellent Big Brother likes it because it is of three famous characters from Russian fairy tales, one of which Mama pretends he is named after. I like it because they are sitting on three magnificent horses. Plus, it’s huge, brightly-coloured and not at all depressing, which Mama discovered is not at all true about many of the other paintings she usually likes to linger over.

Vasnetsov's Three Bogatyrs at the Tretyakov Gallery

One in particular made my Excellent Big Brother cry. It’s the one where the soldiers of the Strelki Guard are waiting with their distraught families on Red Square to be executed, overlooked by a vengeful Peter the Great (on a horse!). The Strelki, as a unit, being the ones who brutally murdered his family when Peter was a boy.

Surikov's Streltsi and Peter the Great at the Tretyakov Gallery

Perhaps Mama should not have explained the background to that one.

She managed to restrain herself when it came to Ivan the Aptly-Named Terrible desperately cradling his son, after he had bludgeoned him to death in a rage and rushed us past it before we could ask, even though it is a painting she finds particularly powerful.

Repin's Ivan and Son at the Tretyakov Gallery

Mama also decided that some of her other favourite paintings, the bitingly satirical commentaries on contemporary society, might also require a rather sophisticated explanation, although she did point out the somewhat heartbreaking troika of three poor children employed in the freezing cold as water barrel movers. Mama feels we should occasionally appreciate our comfortable lifestyles more than we do, specially when we are pestering her for new toys.

Perov's Troika at the Tretyakov Gallery

Luckily the painter seems to have sold out later and done a cheerful hunting scene. Be sure to press the button for the commentary on this one. It is magnificently scathing.

She also declined to comment on the fate of this young lady. I think she must be Ariel from the Little Mermaid, and we all know that turns out ok in the end. In the Disney version, mutters Mama, darkly. And it’s true that this girl does not have red hair (or much pink about her).

Flavitsky's Tarakanova at the Tretyakov Gallery

The Russians also seem to have gone to war a lot. Mama resigned herself to the inevitable and we spent time contemplating what the artists’ views about war were, whether they wanted to glorify the victory or highlight something else.

Mama herself seems to be broadly against war. She thinks that these paintings, by a man who was there for one, tell you everything you should know about it, then and now.

Vereshchagin Apotheosis of War at the Tretyakov Gallery

My Excellent Big Brother was more struck by the personal tragedy of this one. Or it might have been the vultures that caught his eye.

Vasnetsov's Erruption at the Tretyakov Gallery

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

There are a number of famous Russians in the gallery. The first set of rooms is full of paintings of people with very big grey hair and very big fancy clothes. Mama pointed out that at the time, there were no cameras and if you wanted a picture of yourself or your loved ones, you had to pay someone to spend hours bringing you to life on paper. She asked us who we thought got painted.

My Excellent Big Brother decided on kings and queens and so we looked for some of them in each room. And found them! Mama’s favourite painting is the one where you can see the considerable difference between the sketch and the finished picture, which goes to show airbrushing is certainly not a new idea. Here is the cleaned up version. I shall leave the probably-more-accurate quick fire one to your imagination.

Antropov's Peter III at the Tretyakov Gallery

My Excellent Big Brother prefers the one of the benign elderly lady walking her dog in her dressing gown, which Mama says is almost certainly a through misreading of the piece although also an interesting departure from the pomp and circumstance of previous portraits. My Excellent Big Brother doesn’t care. He just likes the dog.

Borovikovsky's Catherine the Great at the Tretyakov Gallery

I like the pretty woman with the froth of wispy hair. Mama says she’s not a princess, but I knew that already. Not enough pink.

Levitsky's Mniszek at the Tretyakov Gallery

After this we passed into a room with lots of paintings of ruins, none of which we were very interested in, although it did have a portrait of Pushkin, who is a poet. You can tell he is an important poet because they have a little rope barrier in front of the painting in case you try to throw yourself at it in an excess of artistic sensibility or something. Mama says I will doubtless be finding out more about just how important he is shortly, when I start learning large swathes of his rhymes off by heart, just like my Excellent Big Brother has already. I am looking forward to that, I can tell you!

Kiprensky's Pushkin

Mama has recently managed to find a way to shoehorn Pushkin into my Excellent Big Brother’s English school homework. She is so proud.

Mama was a little disappointed to find that the section towards the end with the jolly peasant girls swirling in bright red dresses was closed for refurbishment, but some of the pre-revolution impressionistic stuff was bright and jolly. Mama tried to get us to notice how the portraits here were so very very different in what they chose to highlight about their subjects from the ones that we’d seen at the beginning of the gallery, but my Excellent Big Brother was transfixed by the large pink naked woman lolling around on a sofa and wasn’t paying attention. Mama also wisely decided to give up on attempting to explain how the artists were painting light not things.

Kustodiyev's Beauty

At the Tretyakov Gallery, there are also a lot of religous themes, and surprisingly many of them are without trauma. Mama enjoys this very bright and busy one, which apparently took the artist 20 years to complete. It’s called Christ’s First Appearance to the People. We played hunt the Christ. My Excellent Big Brother, he of the two chruches education, had no trouble picking Him out. But Mama thinks the fun of this painting is looking at the some of the many many preliminary drawings the artist did on the surrounding walls. See how John the Baptist starts life as a woman! Watch as he experiements with getting just the right amount of sceptisism into Thomas the Doubter’s expression! Thrill at the way the amazing curls of John the Beloved take shape!

Ivanov's Appearance of Christ at the Tretyakov Gallery

Mama, who clearly can’t resist poking a sleeping bear where religion is concerned, also had us look at two less flattering paintings. This one is, as my Excellent Big Brother twigged, is of a controversy within the church. Must have been a hell of an issue. Mama says, yes, something to do with the number of fingers it is appropriate to cross yourselves with. She also says, make sure you listen to the description of this one. Apparently, the artist (Perov again) got the composition ALL WRONG (it’s possible the commentators have something against Perov).

Perov's Dispute on Faith at Tretyakov Gallery

They don’t have anything against Repin. Repin is one of the truly great painters represented in the gallery. Mama and Papa once wated an episode of a programme called the Antiques Roadshow where a Repin painting turned up, fresh from somebody’s attic. Mama and Papa a) spat their tea right across the room when the expert revealed the name and b) marvelled at the coolness of the owner, until they realised he had know idea who Repin was. A mistake. The painting was worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Quite why he is great is easy to see from the Ivan painting above and the one of the religious procession. Not only is every last person in the crowd equistately rendeered and completely individual, but nobody will be saying the composition is a bit shaky or the satire a bit overdone. At first glance, it looks like an uncomplicated drawing of a cheerfully colourful parade, a happy occassion in the life of the small town. When you start looking more carefully, it’s the beautiful devout cripple you notice first. Only later do you realise that he has been marginalised by the rest of society, and that the mass of faces behind him are marred by expressions of pride, boredom, irritation or other unbecoming emotions.

Repin's Easter Procession at the Tretyakov Gallery

If that’s a bit much, admire the painting of his daughter, the dragonfly. Looks a bit like me, huh?

Repin's Dragonfly at the Tretyakov Gallery

We didn’t do the icons though. Mama likes icons, as they are all significance and very little artistic florish, but they are right at the end of the show, and by that time we were shoing signs of restiveness. You could probably come just for the icons if that is your bag, Mama thinks. There are a lot of them, they are very old, and some of them work miracles. Mama, unfortunately, has never yet had the energy to appreciate them.

We appreciated the animal interest available at the Tretyakov Gallery! Shishkin, who is famous for painting trees, bears and bears hugging trees, although if Mama’s audio guide is correct, he contracted out the bears in his most famous picture.

Shishkin's Bears at the Tretyakov Gallery

Mama knew she’d spent too long hanging with the Russians when she started to feel fondly for the tourist tat knock offs on the Arbat rather than wondering who the hell the vendors think would by such insipid twaddle.

Shishkin knock offs on the Arbat

Of course, there’s a whole shop devoted to Thomas Kincaid in London.

Mama also realised she has developed alarmingly sentimental feelings for some of the great landscape paintings.

Levitan's Vladimirka at the Tretyakov Gallery

We, however, were not in the slightest bit interested, even in the ones with what Mama insists is a virtuoso performance in how to capture light without resorting to reducing everything to pixels. She says you should google Kuindzhi, or, better, visit Russia, because computer screens really don’t do him justice.

Kuindzhi's Night on the Dneiper at the Tretyakov Gallery

We preferred the Rooks Returning. Mama says it is a deeply meaningful meditation on the impact of their climate on the Russians. We just admired the birds. My Excellent Big Brother even managed to copy it because we found this room empty of attendants before we got told off for sitting on the floor in front of our knights.

Savrasov's Rooks Returning at the Tretyakov Gallery

And then there was the picture of the fly (with some fruit). Mama wanted to discuss whey the artist has painted the fly, although I suspect my Excellent Big Brother thought the real question was why bother with the vegetation? We decided the fly might lend realism, or be a joke, or show how beautiful things can have their dark side, or just represent a moment when a fly landed on a pear an artist was painting. What do you think?

Khrutskaya's Flowers, Fruit and Fly at the Tretyakov Gallery

But of course the highlight was the big black horse prancing towards the viewer with a young lady elegantly sidesaddle on its back. I like her little sister too. Cute! Like me!

Bryullov's Rider at the Tretyakov Gallery

And in the shop in jigsaw form! Mama feels that the shop, like others at the tourist attractions of Moscow, misses too many opportunities to fleece the tourists. She thinks it focuses a little too much on large glossy art books. But she has found the odd one or two things she she likes here in the past, notably the mugs covered in signatures by famous artists and collections of postcards, and she certainly appreciated the puzzle on the plane back to London.

The gallery also sports a cafe, which we had a brief look into. It is neither wildly cheap nor ruinously expensive, and serves a decent selection of hot Russian classics and cake in comfortable attractive surroundings. She wished she could have been sure it was open before we went, because in the end we held Mama to our promised trip to the golden arches back near the Metro. Mama failed once again to place her order for two happy meals and a fillet of fish without incident. It’s a basic tourist fail is not managing to order successfully in MacDonald’s and we are all thoroughly ashamed. I predict Mama is going to insist on us eating local next time.

If you do not have a date with fast food planned, Mama recommends turning left as you exit and walking down the pedestrianised street to the canal, where you will find many iron trees covered with heart shaped padlocks. This is one of the places where wedding parties come to celebrate their day, and you can kick back and watch a stream of beautifully dressed people take photos of each other, should you so wish.

Anyway. We found a lot to look at in the Tretyakov Gallery, and despite the ban on caryoning, the staff were welcoming and friendly to us small people. It’s a great place to go if you want to find out more about the Russia that existed before the revolution, and to delve a bit deeper into its history and culture.

Just don’t save the icon room until the end, if that’s what you are interested in. You’ll never make it.

Another random painting Mama really likes, because there aren’t enough of them in this post already:

Polenov's Moscow Courtyard at the Tretyakov Gallery

It is Mama’s understanding that all of these images are in the public domain by virtue of the originals being old. If she is wrong, she is very willing to amend this post.

More Information

The Tretyakov Gallery website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about being an artist’s model.

Address: 10 Lavrushinsky Lane, Moscow, Russia 119017

Opening: Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday: 10am to 6pm. Thursday and Friday: 10am to 9pm. Monday: CLOSED.

Admission: Adults – 450 rubles, children – 250 rubles, children under 7 – free. It is slightly cheaper if you can pass yourselves off as Russian. Good luck with that.

By Metro: Tretyakovskaya metro station (orange and yellow lines). Once you are out, you’ll be turning left and following the signs (in English and Russian). The very distinctive Tretyakov Gallery building is across a road and right round a corner. Try not to end up leaving by the connected green line station exit of Novuskusnetskaya as it’ll be a bit of a trek back. But on the upside, you’ll get to enjoy the newly nearly pedestrianised Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa.

By other means: Oh now really, no.

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.