There’s a place near our house where Mama and I often go to while away time on the way back from dropping off my Brilliant Big Brother at school, or when waiting for him to finish sitting on people at JuJitsu, or just because its sheer brilliance calls to us and it is raining. It’s a huge cave of wonders full of shiny things, exotic plants, thrilling computer games, colourful soft furnishings, thoughtful short films, well maintained race tracks, beautiful samples of crafting paper, giant wendy houses stuffed with really cool furniture, none of your cheap plastic tat, and it even has a thrilling fairground ride.

It’s name is Homebase and I really love it.

The first thing that makes Homebase the perfect preschooler hangout is that on a weekday it is almost deserted. As long as I don’t go mad and try to break the land speed record for someone on a Minimicro, nobody seems to mind me puttering around its acres of splendidly wide aisles to my heart’s content so Mama’s normal ban on such things is relaxed. Even better though is that Homebase has the kind of professionally smoothed plastic flooring that means I can glide with the merest of featherlight pushes. Delightful.

Aisle at Homebase

Another thing I like are the funky interior decorating games on the touch screens. You pick your room, select your paint colours and go wild! Lately I am also getting well into selecting my flooring and pimping the furniture too. Perhaps one day I will persuade Mama to bring in pictures of our actual house, just like the game suggests, for me to have fun with. I am sure we can do better than Mama’s current choice of mainly mushroom throughout. I’ve managed to get her to pick up a few samples of wallpaper before, but what usually happens is that Mama suffers a crisis of confidence in our choice of teal with pops of scarlet and turns it all into a craft project.

There is a reason why this is not a home and interiors blog, and the other one is that Mama has been trying to choose the right floor standing lamp for about eight years, but despite numerous excursions around the section of the store that is forever celebrating something with its joyful mishmash of all possibly lighting designs, she hasn’t been able to settle on one yet.

The only niggle I have with the computers is that for some reason these play stations have been placed inconveniently high up from the point of view of a four year old. However! This problem is usually solved by means of a handy chair to stand on. Or there’s always Mama to pick me up. Still, you’d think Homebase’d find it easier just to put them where its main customer base could easily get at them.

Touchscreen at Homebase

When gaming palls, there is always… the lift! It’s one of those ones where you get to operate the elevation machinery yourself, which always makes for a fabulously exciting ride, even if it is also extremely slow. Actually, I think that the building anticipation of getting to the top brought about by travelling at roughly the speed of a very tardy snail crawling up a wall is part of the fun. I am ready to explode when we finally get to step out!

Lift at Homebase

And I am rewarded! At the top of the lift are the full sized toy kitchens, living rooms and bathrooms. Amazing number and wonderful variety of drawers to open and close, open and close, open and close! Mama really gets into the play opportunities alongside me here. She seems fascinated by the doors where you can pull out double the number of shelves from inside a seemingly small cupboard. It’s her love of Doctor Who and the TARDIS I expect, although she also enjoys gazing wistfully into the really giant fridges. I can see why. There’s never anything in them! That would make anyone sad.

Cupboard at Homebase

That said, I am always a bit disappointed that the experience of finding a whole bunch of sweets waiting for us up there has not been repeated since the mince pie, mulled wine and chocolates excitement of Christmas. I thought we’d struck lucky again last week, because there was a large vase full of marshmallows in exactly the same place the Quality Streets were yuletide. It turned out that you were not supposed to eat them but guess how many there were inside. Huge let down. No idea what prize could possibly be more exciting than getting to eat the squidgy goodness, preferably with cocoa.

Not that I will be getting any cocoa as Homebase inexplicably does not contain a cafe. There is a hot drinks vending machine, and a burger van in the carpark too, but somehow this is not the same, especially as for some reason you are not able to make use of all the lovely sofas, armchairs, breakfast bars, garden furniture, dining rooms sets or even the large number of broken toilets that litter Homebase in order to have a nice sit down when you consume your purchase. This is a great shame in my opinion.

My Tremendous Big Brother likes the documentaries that are showing on screens scattered throughout Homebase. He was particularly taken by the one about the nifty new invention you can use to wash your feet while in the shower without having to do any bending. It’s a plastic slipper! But it’s also a brush! And more! You can buy them in Homebase! How cool is that? My Tremendous Big Brother was insistent for weeks that this was what he wanted for his birthday. In the end, the slipperbrushes lost out to more soft toy animals. It was a close run thing though.

In fact, we do buy some things at Homebase, altough that’s obviously not the main point of the place. Especially at Christmas. For some reason, Homebase celebrates the festive season two weeks in advance of everybody else, and takes away all its decorations down straight after. That’s OK, because they practically give away all their fairy lights, holly shaped banners and glass baubles at exactly the time when Mama is just thinking about putting our shiny things up, and so we invariably find ourselves with a large bag of new Santa shaped items for what Mama describes smugly as mere pennies.

But Mama really likes their outdoor garden area too and so too do our balcony window boxes. Bulbs, herbs, tomatoes and lots and lots of small mixnmatch flowers are what we are into. Every year we buy more and more. I think Mama is going for the record of how many plants she can cram into one small teracotta trough. It probably would just be easier to get Mama an allotment, but that might require her to learn more about gardening than just the ability to shove things other people have grown into compost and water them regularly. I do not think that is going to happen, frankly. Mama can barely cope with indoor houseplants requiring a year-round commitment.

I am prepared to tolerate the living things section because there is quite a high possibility that when we go there, somebody might be spraying water around. And my Tremendous Big Brother, ever the art lover, likes the animal sculptures. Not quite as much as he likes the door stopper shelf though. Massively heavy cuddly toy heaven!

Homebase, then, has a wide variety of attractions for all the family and deserves your consideration as a going out venue, not merely a place to pop to if you are in need of some mouse traps, cement, sand or a replacement peace lily. Go for it!

More Information

Homebase’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the real cost of improving your home.

Address: A big box retail park near you throughout the UK.

Opening: Typically, 9am to 9pm Monday to Saturday and 11am to 4pm Sunday. Some stores have slightly longer hours.

Admission: Free! To get in.

By car: Even in London, Homebase stores have decent amounts of free parking.

The first thing you see as you walk through the door of the Grant Museum of Zoology is a cabinet containing the strangely popular jar of moles, a large glass jar completely full of small pickled moles.

Well, you might as well start as you mean to go on.

The Grant Museum of Zoology is University College London’s collection of preserved dead animals, originally put together in order to provide students with instructive examples to enhance their studies, now also open to the public.

Grant Museum of Zoology

That’s said, it’s a one room museum, albeit one fairly large room reminiscent of one of those libraries in the stately homes Mama is always dragging us round. And so if you are going there thinking you will be able to see the whole, the very whole, of the animal world stuffed and mounted, preserved in formaldehyde, or posed in skeleton form, you will be disappointed. You want the Darwin Museum in Moscow for that.

Plus, quite clearly while some items were indeed acquired or at least displayed purely with science in mind, others seem to have been added because of their yuk factor, their exoticism, or even their beauty.

Brains at the Grant Museum of Zoology

Eclectic is probably the best way to describe it. You wander round and see what you can find that catches your eye. They have specimens from all types of environment, in all different sizes, in all states of preservation. Complete animals, braaaaiiiiiiiiins, skins and, I dunno, toenail clippings or something. Mammals, reptiles, insects and squidgy things that used to live in the sea. Large animals and microscopic ones. Fluffy cute things and monsters that should never have seen the light of day in a properly ordered universe. There will be something, I assure you, that makes you want to stop and stare.

Pangolin at the Grant MMuseum f Zoology

Although if you are my height that might involve a bit of being lifted up. Many of the glass cases are not very accessible for the very short.

Take, for example, the case of badly stuffed animals, where visitors are invited to speculate on the problems past taxidermists had of recreating an animal they had never seen in real life, something which ties in nicely to their current temporary exhibition, Strange Creatures: the art of unknown animals. Or in other words, representations of newly discovered animals such as the kangaroo in the age before the explorer would have posed for a selfie with it on Instagram before the cries of ‘Great Scot what is that?’ had even died away.

Don’t miss the skeletons of primates arranged to, I dunno, provide a bit of light relief for students stressed out by being asked to do yet another exam in an education system which doesn’t exactly stint on tests, assessments and grading. Certainly amused us, and that’s nice given that we are failing to meet all sorts of educational targets because of Mama’s firm belief that days out at places like the Grant Museum are more entertaining than practising spellings or attempting to persuade me to loosen my fisted grip on the colouring pencils.

Then there is the micrarium, an alcove of slides showing the Grant Museum’s vast collection of microscopic organisms, which we enjoyed exploring with the handy magnifying glasses nearby, but which Mama enjoyed photographing because it is just so striking, visually speaking.

Micrarium at the Grant Museum of Zoology

Mama would also like to report that the Grant Museum also has some excellent mature pushbutton fun. This takes the form of a number of touch screens dotted about with genuinely knotty ethical dilemas related to the world of conservation and collecting for you to comment on and have tweeted out to the world. Literally a tad above my head, (they are mounted high up), they were still child friendly enough for my Fabulous Big Brother to keenly formulate some answers, and, obviously, if you know Mama and her delight in holding an opinion, you will be unsurprised that she really got into this. Last time we went they were off being tweaked and were unavailable, much to Mama’s disappointment, but I daresay they will be back again when you go.

What we smaller people like best about the place, though, is that in school holidays they get out stuff for us to handle, and a goodly range of the weird, the wonderful, the knobbly and the very very strokable it is too. Also, the staff on hand helping out patiently let my Fabulous Big Brother pour out all his love of the animal world, list the interesting facts he could remember about something on the table in front of him, and ask all the questions he liked. To which he got serious, well considered answers. It’s a great environment for a budding naturalist to hang out in.

They also have crafting sessions, which is even more my speed, and Mama thinks that their Easter egg trail is one of the best she’s come across as you do actually have to solve the reasonably challenging riddle to either find the animal which is propping up the lettered egg or, if you stumble across an egg by accident, decide where it should go in order to make up the (fairly unguessable) name of the final animal you have to find. Very clever. We enjoyed it. Two years running now. Mama thinks they should get new clues for our paschal visit next year. I think we should just go wild and see perhaps what they have us doing at Christmas or something .

Obviously as you are on UCL’s campus there isn’t a café as part of the Grant Museum – you even have to get a special door pass from the front desk to break into the the toilet area – and the surrounding area is not crammed full with child friendly eateries. But you are in central London here, so you don’t have far to go to get back on more touristy beaten paths.

It is near other museums such as the British Museum and UCL’s other repository of stuff gained through its studious activities, the Petrie Museum of Archaeology. But I recommend that if you want to make a day of it you leaven the educational portion of the trip out with a visit to Coram Fields and its playgrounds, live animals and waterplay. Or shopping if that’s what floats your boat, as Oxford Street is just down the road.

The Grant Museum of Zoology, then, is highly suitable for both the animal mad and those who like curiosities. Which pretty much describes my family to a T. You?

More information

The Grant Museum’s website.

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

Address: Rockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University Street, London WC1E 6DE

Opening:Monday – Saturday 1pm to 5pm

Admission: Free!

By tube/ train: The closest tube stations are Warren Street (Victoria and Northern lines) and Eaton Square (Bakerloo, Circle and Hammersmith and City lines). Euston rail and tube station (Victoria and Northern lines) is also well within walking distance.

By bus: Lots of buses serve UCL’s campus.

By car: Nope.

One unusually sunny spring day, Mama was rather regretting deciding to check out Coram Fields, a mysterious child friendly oasis in Bloomsbury she’s been hearing about for quite some time now.

This was because we were stuck in a traffic jam. Sometimes Mama should really overcome her preference for the bus instead of the tube, and when you have to get across central London of a weekend just after a fire has closed down one of the major road routes is one of them.

Anyway. Coram Fields, Mama thought, was going to have to be very good indeed to make up for having to exhaust all of her travel games and endure our well rested inability to sit still quietly for at least half an hour longer than was absolutely necessary.

The park sounded marvellous, of course. The land was originally part of Captain Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital for abandoned and homeless children. When the hospital was relocated at the beginning of the 20th Century, the area was due to be sold off but instead became this charitably maitained public park, aimed at keeping London’s kids amused and in the outdoors. You can’t even get in, in fact, without a child in tow. I expect that’s why Mama brought us. I sometimes think she only ever brings us so she has an excuse to go to interesting places.

Thus there is a good variety of play equipment spread out in small play areas dotted around the edges of Coram Fields. Big climbing frames, slides and zip wires. Small climbing frames, rocking horses and swings. You can scamper from one to the other for quite some time.

The whole park is not quite as big as the name ‘Fields’ implies, but what’s good about it being only somewhat larger than the other squares which are such a feature of this part of London is that it is relatively easy to keep an eye on your children, even if they should choose to splinter off in different directions. Even better is that there is only one exit, and this is even manned by a security guard intent on keeping out any adults who have turned up unaccompanied by kids.

And there are animals, which practically guarantees success in my Terrific Big Brother’s eyes. Chickens in a large coup, a couple of goats in a pen, some rabbits and a cage full of budgies. Quite enough to provide animaltastic diversion and thrills, especially the chickens, who were obligingly active.

Chicken at Coram Fields

Calling it a city farm, which the Coram Fields website does, is pushing it in Mama’s opinion, though. We’re not *that* urban that we don’t know that a farm means that there has to be a cow and a pig. One of each will do.

Goats at Coram Fields

Best of all in my opinion is the giant sandpit! With just enough working water exuding bits of equipment to make sure there was a socking great puddle in the middle and running water to splash about in. Oh joy! Oh frabulous day! WATER PLAY! LOVE!! IT!!!

Sandpit at Coram Fields

Mama did not say. What she did say is, ‘FOR FUCK’S SAKE’ (in her head).

‘Look’, she mentally continued, ‘yes, children like mucking around in water, of course they do, and in the height, the absolute height of that rare thing, a glorious summer’s day, it’s wonderful to be able to let them run about the parks which double as London’s personal outdoor space, get wet, and then, and this is the crucial bit, dry off quickly in the baking hot sunshine. But,’ and this is where she gets a bit ranty, ‘for about 360 days of the year, what actually happens is your children get sopping wet and then they also get cold and miserable pretty quickly too. London is big. Travel is slow. Nobody has a car in a nearby car park with some spare trousers in the back. Nobody wants to shlepp a change of clothes across the capital. What in GOD’S GOOD NAME possesses the London park designers to think that water play in this climate is a good thing, PARTICULARLY in a public space which must surely have only minimal local residents for whom popping back home for a new jumper is doable?’

So the visit descended a bit of bad tempered wrangling at this point. Well, Mama was bad tempered. We were enjoying ourselves hugely. She made us take off as many clothes as she could without risking hypothermia in what was still, despite the sun, the still slightly chilly spring weather, and then kept shouting from the sidelines every time it looked as though we were about to forget ourselves and dampen the rest of our outfits.

Needless to say, Mama was largely unsuccessful in keeping us in any way dry. But that’s OK. She *likes* carrying round dripping cardigans for the rest of the day and holding us under the blow dryers in the toilets to stop us moaning about being chilly.

In the end Mama decided that the only way to tear us away from the enticing sandpit area was to take us to the café in the corner of Coram Fields. And this certainly restored her good cheer, mainly because it served pancakes, which Mama thinks are an excellent alternative to chips for a meal on a family day out. And there was coffee, of course. That always makes her somewhat more able to face the difficulties childcare throws up.

Mind you, it would also be a great place for a picnic. The large square of open ground in the middle is just begging for blankets and thermoses. If, and this is a crucial point, you do not mind adding them to your overfilling bag along with the changes of clothes.

Coram Fields

Of course, the fact that you almost certainly do not live close to Coram Fields means that it is, for a London park, really rather uncrowded. Don’t get me wrong, there were enough kids there on the weekend we went to make it a cheerful place to rock up and find some new friends. Playgrounds are boring without some other children after all. But considering how rammed some of the parks get on a Saturday and Sunday, Coram Fields is a haven of tranquility.

Yet it is also very close to some interesting tourist attractions. Most notably, it is just up the road from the British Museum, but nearby there are also the very interesting Grant Museum of Zooology and the Petrie Archaeological Museums belonging to University College London, and the Soane Museum and Huntarian and the Operating Theatre museums too. With the exception of the British Museum, these are all smallish and not going to take more than a couple of hours to visit. Coram Fields is exactly the sort of place you want to have up your sleeve to make it worth braving London’s public transport system to see them with kids, which you should really, because they are great.

Mama recommends taking in Coram Fields first. Normally she saves the things we like for last, as a sort of compensation for suffering through cultural appreciation. However, she discovered that a lengthy stint in Coram Fields perfectly softened us up for good humoured tolerance of her desire to show us glass cases full of things. Or perhaps that was the pancakes. Either way, we had a good time.

Just beware of the water.

More information

Coram Fields’ website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about well dressings of the English Peak District.

Address: 93 Guilford Street, London, WC1N 1DN

Opening: 9am to dusk.

Admission: Free, but bring a child or you won’t get in.

By tube: Nearest tubes are Russell Square (Piccadilly), King’s Cross St Pancras (Northern / Victoria / Circle / Hammersmith & City) and Holborn or Chancery Lane (Central).

By train: King’s Cross, St Pancras and Euston are all within walking distance.

By bus: Bus stops are about a 10-minute walk away. Nearest buses are the 17, 45 & 46 at Gray’s In Rd or the 7, 59, 68, 91, 168 & 188 at Russell Square.

By car: No. Just no.

The walk up to Dunstanburgh Castle along a section of the Northumberland coastline is one of the best bits about it, or would have been had we not chosen it to break up the second day of our journey from the centre of the known universe (London) to the barabaric wilds of nowhere (Edinburgh) on the windiest day EVAH.

Dunstanburgh Castle is a massive ruined fortification begun in the early 1300s by someone who wanted to set himself up in opposition to the king.

This did not go well for him.

But the castle went from strength to strength, being an excellent place to harry the Scots from, until the Wars of the Roses, when fierce fighting for its control between the supporters of the red flower and supporters of the white flower led to it falling into disrepair and eventual decay.

People really felt strongly about horticultural matters back in the day, huh? Good thing we don’t get het up enough about inconsequential disagreements to go about fighting each other over them now.

But back to the approach, through land owned by the National Trust.

Firstly, its fabulousness is because the path runs along the seashore. Now, it’s not a sandy beach, nor even pebbles, just rocks and I have no idea whether or not it is particularly good for swimming, but the rocks are very scramblable and, even better, there are lots of rock pools! We had an excellent time for about an hour climbing around looking for small seawater creatures. Found some too! Couple of snaily things, a few shrimps, some wriggly water bugs and a dead crab. Plus, the oyster catchers seemed not to be expecting us and let us sneak up quite close before flapping away.

Dunstanburgh Castle beach and Craster

Secondly, there are sheep. SHEEEEEP! ‘Nuff said. But these sheep do not just stand there chewing grass at you, they come down to the beach, climbing impossibly along a precipitous track to get there. Cool!

Thirdly, the gorse was in full bloom when we were there. I’ve never seen gorse before and its flowers are bright yellow. My favourite colour! It’s pretty startling in this landscape. Gorse is great.

Fourthly, when you do emerge from the water’s edge, you get an excellent view of the sprawling ruins in the distance over fields of gently rolling grassland. It’s very picturesque.

Dunstanburgh Castle from afar

And basically, the rest of the hike is you getting closer…

Dunstanburgh Castle a bit nearer

…and closer…

Dunstanburgh Castle nearly there

… and closer and noticing new details and angles, and getting to take lots and lots of photos of the same thing. If you are Mama.

Dunstanburgh Castle up close

But there’s that word. Distance. Some things are small, Mama, and some things are far away, and Dunstanburgh Castle is quite a walk on half a packet of rice cakes. Especially when the aforementioned wind is so strong that you can stand there with your arms outstretched and lean into it and not fall on your face.

Mama and my Brilliant Big Brother did that a lot at first.

Some while later (an eon later in my opinion), Mama was finding that strong gusts made it hard to catch her breath, and had a moment’s doubt about carrying on. But the castle was demonstrably nearer (a bit nearer, Mama), and having come so far, she thought we might as well push on.

By the time we were on the final approach, Mama was carrying me, which is unheard of, and I was wailing, which isn’t, but in honour of the occasion I was keening, ‘wind, wind go away, come again another day,’ over and over again in a small unhappy voice. A version I composed myself, people! And even my Brilliant Big Brother had stopped bounding around the fields in the hope of flushing out more sheep from behind some gorse.

Still, we really were very close now, and Mama was hopeful that the still imposing stone walls might provide some kind of shelter.

But in fact, worse was to come.

Because the thick walls of the gatehouse turned out to be funneling the wind through the tunnel-like entrance and magnifying it to a very high degree, as well as whipping up stinging grit into our faces and eyes. Mama just about made it through, with a determined sort of head down trudge, and she hauled me along after her with My Brilliant Big Brother in her windshadow. But he only got half way before his hat was whipped off his head, and as he turned and grabbed for it, the wind caught him and he was blown right back outside.

Dunstanburgh Castle gatehouse

He was not happy. He also could not make it back through on his own. In fact, on his own, he could barely stand up.

Luckily, just as Mama was about to plunge after him, a kind passer by rescued his headgear and helped him negotiate the opening, and we all retreated to the shop to recover our shattered equilibrium. Mama even splurged on two chocolate insects in an attempt to cheer us up.

Unfortunately this didn’t really work and once we discovered that being inside a former tower did not really lessen the windiness in any way, we refused even to attempt to explore the rest of the ruins, preferring instead to squat in the lee of one of the walls and stare mournfully at the tunnel we would have to go through again to get out.

Inside Dunstanburgh Castle

So we decided to cut our losses and leave.

The fact that the howling gale was behind us on the way back did not really make it any less unpleasant, and we were all three thoroughly miserable for the length of the journey. I think Mama had it worst though as she had to carry me, complaining, the whole way and put up with my Brilliant Big Brother, his enjoyment thoroughly destroyed, hanging on her arm, complaining, too.

At the end of this very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very long walk was Craster village.

Craster

Craster’s main role in life is to be a pretty fishing village supplying its centrally placed smokehouse with seafood worth making very smelly. It clearly has something of a seaside holiday cottage industry as well, but is far enough off the beaten track that it does not consist just of amusement arcades and frozen fish and chip shops. We were spoilt for quality food emporium choices, really, given its size but in the end its café was just what we needed. We refueled on the sort of food we enjoy, and Mama had kippers. Which, she remembered half way through, she doesn’t actually like very much, but when nearly in Scotland and actually at the source of such things, how could she not?

By the time we got back to the car, we had already turned The Day We Nearly Got Blown Away into an exciting and memorable adventure in our minds, and certainly we were so thoroughly tired out that we were perfectly happy to be stuck in a nice warm and above all unwindy car for another half a day. Not even getting stuck in a traffic jam outside Edinburgh because somebody’s lorry had been even more unfortunate than us and had actually blown over and was blocking the road could upset us now. Although I think Mama was less thrilled, given how much the car was shifting about in the wind on some of the more exposed sections of the A1, and having driven 700 miles to get away from such nonsense as sitting in queues of cars.

Anyway.

If you do not choose ridiculous weather to visit in, or if your children are old enough or fat enough to be able to stand on their own two feet in a gale, Dunstanburgh Castle has a bit of everything. A nice gentle walk with good views, interesting rockpools to splash about in, ancient ruins to explore, pleasant and not overly touristy places to have lunch, and locally caught seafood. Should you go, and you should if you are in the area, you will almost certainly enjoy it more than we did.

Unless it is raining.

More information

Dunstanburgh Castle’s page on the English Heritage website.

Dunstanburgh Castle on the National Trust website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about cycling into the wind.

Address: Dunstanburgh Road, Craster, Alnwick, Northumberland, NE66 3TT

Opening: Mon – Sun 10am to 6pm during the summer, until 4pm in autumn and spring. In winter it is only open at weekends.

Admission: The National Trust and English Heritage have done a deal seeing as how you can;t get to the castle without walking through NT property, so Dunstanburgh Castle is free for both English Heritage and National Trust members. Otherwise it’s £4.90 for adults and £2.90 for kids over 5.

By car: Dunstanburgh Castle is 8 miles north east of Alnwick, and well enough signposted from there that Mama did not get lost trying to find it. There is a decent sized reasonably priced pay and display car park in Craster. The Castle is then a 1 1/2 mile walk.

By public transport: There are two buses which stop in Craster, the Arriva service X18 and the Travelsure 418. The nearest train stations are at Chathill and Alnmouth, both of which are a good 7 miles away from the castle, apparently.

‘I’m sorry,’ said my Amazing Big Brother’s teacher to Mama recently, ‘that I can’t make everything about animals.’

Sometimes, when Mama feels that my Amazing Big Brother’s interests have been driving the family outings rather too much, she tries to make a special effort to accommodate what she thinks might be particularly cool for me.

Hence the Falkirk Wheel.

Mama has this fond notion that I am a budding engineering genius, mainly because she feels I take after the practically-minded Papa and I do not have quite the same aversion to construction toys and anything involving manual dexterity as my Amazing Big Brother.

Which is how we found ourselves standing at the bottom of this elegant looking metal structure, which allegedly lifts canal boats high up in the air to the next section of river in the sky, wondering how on earth it actually works. Because Mama’s theory prior to seeing it that it just goes straight up like an elevator was quite clearly wrong and unfortunately I might be able to slam a few building blocks together but this is quite out of my league. Currently.

Falkirk Wheel

Luckily we did not have long to wait to find out. To make sure that the Falkirk Wheel is in use for the perhaps surprising number of people come to look at it, there are regular boat tours which start and end with a trip round the Falkirk Wheel and progress gently along the subsequent canal in-between times.

Which you may need to book in advance if you, like we, go on a reasonably fine day in the school holidays. While we were there the queue was looking like a few hours wait at least until the next slot and Mama decided against it.

Instead, after we had seen the Falkirk Wheel do its thing, we climbed up to the higher stretch of the canal to see what this contraption looked like from the top.

Waaaaaaaay cooooooooooooooool, in Mama’s opinion, she who spend a good deal of her formative years reading speculative fiction. Mama considers that the Falkirk Wheel from above is an excellent model for what some kind of futuristic transport system you could accelerate down and disappear in blizzard of sparks and a few licks of flame should look like.

Falkirk Wheel from the top

And at night, it gets all lit up. Imagine how excited Mama would get if we let her go and see that!

We were more impressed by the tunnel and enjoyed the ten minute walk through and back where we could shriek and make echos to our hearts’ content. Until Mama, after an incautious question from my Amazing Big Brother, told us all about canals, HORSES and canal boats, people lying on their backs to walk the boats through the tunnels, followed by a very lengthy excursion around the industrial revolution. Which sounds smelly.

Also, locks, the workings of and why the Wheel is an improvement, despite the fact that traditional locks are, Mama says firmly, a pretty damn nifty bit of engineering genius in and of themselves. A topic of discussion which was aided by the fact that back down below they have kept one of the eleven originals replaced by the Falkirk Wheel to, presumably, better contrast its method boat elevation with that of the older model.

Falkirk Wheel and a lock

Which you are probably still wondering about.

Well, the clue to the operation of this feat of man’s triumph over nature is in the name. The Falkirk Wheel does not so much lift the boats up, as spin them around. It is genuinely awesome. The first three or four times, anyway. I’m not sure it needed to be photographed from every conceivable angle myself, but Mama clearly disagreed, and so we got to see it in action quite a lot.

Falkirk Wheel in motion

What’s particularly impressive, Mama thinks, is that you can move a boat up and one down with the same operation. From which you will gather that Mama is very lazy and admires efficiency of effort above all things.

Falkirk Wheel from the side

Although she does rather wonder why, a fair old while after the canals became obsolete as a serious method of transportation, Scotland has gone to the trouble and,  more importantly, expense of building the thing. Still. What I say is that sometimes science and engineering just are, and we should marvel at them. Some people question the point of the space programme too, and that’s clearly crazy talk.

However, it wasn’t all improving educational experiences. The other reason why Mama thought I might like the Falkirk Wheel is because of the water play ground in its shadow. The main damp inducing area wasn’t quite ready when we were there just before Easter, but a glorified multi-level paddling pool, with its own locks and  pumping stations was.

We got quite thoroughly wet.

Luckily Mama had anticipated this, which was why she had saved this bit for last over our strenuous protests. A change of clothes was thus only a short squelch back to the car away. In even better weather, Mama thinks that parents should just go straight for the swim wear, or at least make sure whatever the kids are wearing it dries easily.

There is also a dry playground too, if your children are less enthusiastic about getting sodden than we are. And other attractions include various woodland paths, some of which will take you to Roman remains. Allegedly. We were too busy sploshing about to want to take advantage of this or the café and various hot food vans dotted around.

But Mama called time in the end and then we tried to action the third reason why Mama had chosen the Falkirk Wheel for me, which was that it is close to the gigantic horse-like Kelpies sculptures. Yes, that’s right, GIANT HORSE-LIKE STATUES!

Sadly, Mama, who considers the signposting to the Kelpies from the Falkirk Wheel somewhat inadequate, got lost trying to find them and we ended up in Stirling, which is, apparently, quite some way away in the other direction. When we eventually did get back to the Kelpies there was a lengthy queue for the car park, so we bailed and only got lost twice more in the way back to where we were staying, resulting in a lengthy detour round an oil refinery.

Which shoots real flame out of its chimneys! Not sure that this wasn’t more exciting than the Kelpies, to be honest.

Luckily, Heather at My Life in Type has written about the Kelpies here, so you can find out all about them and the park they are set in. If you can find it.

Anyway. Mama is now considering a trip down to see the Thames Barrier in action. Admittedly when she last did this she concluded that watching paint dry was more exciting, but this was possibly because she was an unimpressable teenager at the time and because she didn’t have the prospect of a a trip down the Thames on a river boat to sweeten it, which Mama has decided is the best reward for travelling to a more Easterly London location.

And the highlight of the day for my Amazing Big Brother?

The frog that was sitting on the walkway next to the Falkirk Wheel when we first arrived.

A frog at the Falkirk Wheel

You can’t keep the next David Attenborough down with man-made genius at all, can you?

More Information

The Falkirk Wheel’s website.

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

Address: Lime Road, Tamfourhill, Falkirk, FK1 4RS

Opening: The Visitors Centre and boat trips are open from 10am to 5.30pm March to October. The site and play areas are closed by 8pm.

Admission: Access to the site is free. The boat trips are £8.95 for adults and £4.95 for children (3+). You can get lunch/ tea deals too. Booking via the website can only be made prior to the day you want to go. Otherwise you need to phone or show up in person to book tickets.

By car: For some reason the Falkirk Wheel is insistent that you should use junction 8 of the M9 from Edinburgh, which has the advantage that it will take you past the Kelpies. However, other exit options are available, and unlike the Kelpies, as Mama can attest having driven all over the area trying to find them, reasonably well signposted, especially if you head towards Falkirk. From the North, the website recommends exiting at Junction 9. From Glasgow you should take the M80, then the M876 and exit at Junction 1.

The carpark costs £2 a day, but is extensive and very convenient.

By public transport: There is a rail station in Falkirk, and the website recommends a taxi or the #3 First Bus route.

One of the things about growing up is that you start to find a use for all the seemingly pointless things the grownups are always trying to teach you. Take reading for example. I am sure that my Fantastic Big Brother has for some time thought that learning to read (in two languages) was something sent purely to torture him, personally, on an epic scale. Which in the case of the total lack of a sound spelling relationship in English is probably true. I’m looking forward to that experience I can tell you!

However, my Fantastic Big Brother has also just started to realise that if he uses his new text decoding powers, he can understand the secret messages adults send to each other. One of which was a huge sign outside the Natural History Museum advertising an upcoming Sensational Butterflies exhibition, to consist of a biggish tent hosting hundreds of live butterflies, a number of plants and lots of people gawping at both.

Green butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

Ever since he spotted this we’ve been bugging Mama to take us and it was agony, agony I tell you, to walk past the site week on week and realise it wasn’t… quite… finished.

And then it was!!! But we were on holiday. And then it was Russian Orthodox Easter! And then there was a concert and a picnic we had to attend! But finally, FINALLY we got to go.

Was it worth the wait? I hear you cry.

Pink and green butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

YES! Yes, a thousand times YES!

Now contrary to what you might be expecting, the air was not thick with the beating of tiny wings when we got inside. The butterflies prefer, in the main, to lounge around picturesquely on the rather brightly coloured flowers and foliage inside. Which is just fine. Great photo opportunities abound, and for those of us unburdened by cameras, it is a lot of fun hunting around for butterflies with new colours or new shapes in amongst the leaves.

Black and white butterflyat Sensational Butterflies NHM

That said, it turns out to be surprisingly hard to avoid the butterflies at Sensational Butterflies when they do start to move about. The big blue ones in particular sure liked settling on our shoulders, bags, legs, backs, arms and, much to my Fantastic Big Brother’s delight, his hand. Mama really recommends feeding your kids jammy scones just before you go in for the maximum interactive experience, but in truth you don’t really need to try for it. You are just a big walking flower to these things.

Large blue butterfly on an arm at Sensational Butterflies NHM

Unfortunately for the butterflies who land on the visitors, they are absolutely irresistible to touch, the large numbers of signs reminding you not to and the large numbers of guardians on hand to shake their heads at you when you do notwithstanding. And that’s just the adults. Sensational Butterflies, basically, is not for the very squeamish about animal exploitation, as there is some collateral damage on busy days such as the weekend we went, even if you are scrupulous about keeping your hands to yourself. I trod on one, for example. I didn’t mean to! It landed right behind me just as I was stepping backwards! Mama assured me that the bent wing would grow back ok, but I am not so sure. Be careful in there people!

Black moth and large blue butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

It’s also very hot and humid. If you can stand the anticipation, Mama thinks it might be worth waiting until the weather outside more closely resembles the weather inside. But that’s just because she ended up carrying three sets of coats and jumpers. Even stripped down, we stayed so long that I began to wilt quite alarmingly and my Fantastic Big Brother had gone as pink and sweaty as he does in the hottest days of summer. Take plenty of water, Mama advises and probably an hour inside is pushing it.

White and black butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

Although I’m not sure who else other than my Fantastic Big Brother would insist on staying at Sensational Butterflies long enough to go round the tent four or five times just in case there was one type of butterfly hiding in the flora we hadn’t spotted yet. Most people seemed content to wend their way from one end to the other once, if once fairly slowly. And I could probably have lived with just the one repeat circuit, to be honest. The things I do for my Fantastic Big Brother.

Stripy black butterfly with pink spots at Sensational Butterflies NHM

There is some attempt at making the experience educational, with some large Q&A boards with what would have been interesting questions if the butterflies weren’t quite so enthralling, and a ink stamping trail. But we thought they were superfluous as entertainment, because the butterflies are quite fabulous enough on their own.

Butterflies feeding at Sensational Butterflies NHM

Well, the butterflies, and their chrysalis house. The variety of little butterfly casings are pretty cool in and of themselves, but of course, the excitement is in watching them break out of their cocoons. We were even there when they brought some new butterflies out! Cooooooool. New varieties to admire while they finish drying their wings into hardness!

Another large blue butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

And then, of course, there was the strategically placed caterpillar. With added poo! Mama thought they were eggs! Hahahaha! Pffff. Mama. My Fantastic Big Brother has a game called Plop Trumps and so is now an expert in poo. Silly her.

On exiting you will find yourself in the shop. This is an excellent arrangement. I highly recommend sauna-like conditions for weakening parental resolve when it comes to toy buying. I got a plastic pink butterfly and my Fantastic Big Brother, a tarantula. Not a real one, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to leap it out at Mama at every opportunity. He has even tried hiding it in her bed at night. Cute, huh?

Orange butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

Anyway. Sensational Butterflies is an excellent addition to the entertainment offered by the Kensington Museums, which is why it’s on its seventh summer appearance presumably. Take a good close up camera, someone who hates butterflies to hold the coats outside and your warm weather stamina and you’ll be golden. And covered in butterflies.

More Information

The Sensational Butterflies page on the Natural History Museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about butterflies (with excellent butterfly quotes).

Address: East Lawn, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD

Opening: 10.00 – 18.00 every day until September 13th 2015 (and probably next summer too).

Admission: Adullts and Children over 4: £5.90, Children under 4: FREE

By tube: South Kensington (District, Circle and Piccadilly lines). There is a subway walk that runs directly from the station to Exhibition Road, and you can pop out just outside the Sensational Butterflies tent.

By bus: The 360 stops on Exhibition Road just up the road. The 14, 49, 70, 74, 345, 414, 430 and C1 stop at South Kensington tube station. The 9, 10, 52, 452 and 70 stop at the Royal Albert Hall (ten minutes away).

By car: God, no.

Mama was curious when she heard that Morden Hall Park was having their annual Country Show. It might be the National Trust’s little green oasis in South West London but it’s still three hours of traffic jams away from being free of houses everywhere you look. She thought, in fact, that there might be a touch of the artificial rural themepark about the affair.

Luckily, within five minutes of arriving we were sat on the ground at the edge of a large square of grass watching terrier racing. Which did not go well. Rather than just chasing the lure up and down, the dogs kept catching it, despite the fact it was pedalled enthusiastically but somewhat ineffectually by means of a converted exercise bike. Plus, terriers, being small, were pretty hard to see running in the middle of the arena anyway. Mama was delighted. No coldly slick professional tourist fleecers here! Hurrah!

Terrier racing at Morden Hall Park Country Show

There were a lot of other shows, most involving animals, throughout the day and they were all fab. The small pony jumping display was about as cute as it is possible to get without actually being cats, in boxes, on Facebook.

Ponies at Morden Hall Park Country Show

The large shire horse equestrian trick riding and danceathon came complete with the bareback strip tease, which has got to be a plus in anybody’s book surely, although Mama chose just that moment to wander off for an ice cream so perhaps not.

And then there was the crotchety elderly gent who rammed a nail through his nose, confused my Splendid Big Brother by offering to make him a balloon animal and then presenting him with a long straight tube which turned out to be a worm, or possibly a snake, or even a caterpillar, but redeemed himself in our eyes for this betrayal by breathing fire LIKE A DRAGON.

Not forgetting the ferret racing either, an event my Splendid Big Brother was so keen to see that we had to stay for a good hour beyond what I thought was strictly necessary. Of course, Mama ended up bribing me by winning TWO WHOLE TOYS via what she thinks was a suspiciously easy fishing game designed to (successfully) convince my Splendid Big Brother and me that their parents’ hitherto unsuccessful attempts to win a giant fluffy bunny on such attractions have been unusual bad luck, so it wasn’t all bad. Plus, extra goes on the trampolines!

And the ferrets were well worth the wait as they raced through a course consisting mostly of tubes, especially because the person in charge made a point of wiping the ferrets over our hair a couple of times after they had finished each round. He said it was because ferrets need to be kept flexible so you need to circle them around a lot. Mama thinks it was pure mischievousness, because the very pungent ferrety smell followed us all the way home. In fact, Mama thinks she may never get rid of the memory of it.

Best of all, we thought, was the bird of prey display. Now Mama feels that the bird of prey display at the Scottish Owl Centre had the edge, because while the handlers here at Morden Hall Park Country Show were clearly practiced at working a large arena, it still wasn’t quite the same as being overflown on every other pass by a large feathered shape.

But then on the other hand, because the Scottish show is indoors, you don’t get the thrill of watching a MASSIVE white hawklike bird soaring and swooping freely up, over, through and around the audience for about five minutes while attempting to catch the tidbit whirled by the man standing in the middle of the field. AWESOME. Literally. Especially because we got to be some of the lucky few children picked to sit inside the grass square the better to experience it even closer up.

Falconry at Morden Hall Park Country Show

In fact, the opportunities to get up close and personal with a large number of farm animals were something we urbanites really appreciated about the Morden Hall Park event. What was great here was that it wasn’t just about touching, but also interacting. So as well as gazing blissfully the ponies through a fence, we got to brush them down. As well as admiring the rabbits over a wall, we sat down with them on our laps and fondled their floppy little ears. And we didn’t just tempt the lambs with grass from the outside of their pen, we also went inside and bottle fed them.

Which turns out to be more of an extreme sport than I had imagined, because those lambs were really hungry when we started! It’s a good thing, Mama thinks, that I have had plenty of practice in defending myself against toy snatching attacks and similar by my Splendid Big Brother, because a less doughty child might have been a bit put out by being rushed by four footed beasts who were definitely on the larger side of lambhood. As it was, though, I loved it, and my Splendid Big Brother was beside himself with joy. We did that, in fact, twice.

Sheep at Morden Hall Park Country Show

Big up, in short, to the Totally Alive team, who were the animal experiences outfit providing all of the furry action at the Country Show.

Things Mama could have spent more time looking at if we had let her included the demonstrations of traditional crafts such as blacksmithing and basket weaving.

Basketweaving at Morden Hall Park Country Show

She also could have lingered round the historical battle re-enactors and the Renaissance fair archers for longer.

Historical Reenactment at Morden Hall Park Country Show

And there were a lot of stalls selling what Mama would probably call interesting handmade knickknacks and we called too far away from the bouncy castles. Which were large, plentiful, included those giant inflatable slides I REALLY enjoy and overall FABULOUS! And Mama will give them this. They may have advertised that each go would last a mere five minutes, but we got considerably longer.

In fact, the only thing that Morden Hall Park Country Show didn’t seem to have was an amateur misshapen vegetable growers prize, a lopsided homemade cake contest or a competition to see who could produce the piece of handicraft most unlike anything seen on Kirsty’s Homemade Britain. Disappointing. Maybe next year. Mama’s Victoria sponge is really something and deserves to be far more widely known about.

So all in all, Mama thought this was a well-arranged event and well worth spending our bank holiday Monday at. The Country Show at Morden Hall Park is now over, of course, but the organisers, Oakleigh Fairs, run these basically every weekend up and down the South East almost all year round and I am sure that the animal acts, sideshows and rides are pretty much exactly the same at all of the ones that aren’t, y’know, promoting Christmas. So you might want to see if there is one coming to a venue near you anytime soon. Because we really enjoyed ourselves.

And of course, for Morden Hall Park, there’s always next year.

More Information

Oakleigh Fairs website.

Totally Live website.

Morden Hall Park’s page on the National Trust’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about making your own cloak.

Address: Morden Hall Road, Morden, London, SM4 5JD

Opening: The Country Show was open 10am to 5pm. Morden Hall Park itself is open dawn to dusk.

Admission: Tickets for the Country Show were £7.50 for adults and £3 for kids over 5. You could buy cheaper ones in advance via the web. Some attractions cost extra, but the live animal shows and handling were free. Entry to Morden Hall Park itself is free.

By tube: Morden (Northern Line) is a 500 yards walk along Aberconway Road.

By tram: The Phipps Bridge stop sets you down right at the back gates.

By bus: There are a fair number of bus routes that serve the surrounding roads.

By car: Morden Hall Park has, good lord, a car park. In London! I know!!! Which isn’t huge, but still. For the fair, they threw open a few more fields for cars too, which Mama wishes she had known they were going to do before she took us via the very convoluted public transport routes from our area.

The tram’s great though. Use the tram!

People, or at least lists of child friendly days out, keep suggesting London’s Museum of Childhood as a suitable destination to Mama.

Mama does not really believe in this recommendation.

She is a bit over toys. Don’t get me wrong, the rise of things like adult colouring books show that everybody likes indulging their inner three year old at times. And indeed Mama herself enjoys a good sticking opportunity, a reasonably challenging jigsaw puzzle and the zip wires in the playground.

Plus, she LOVED the World of Illusions.

But toys no longer have the same pull of nostalgia that they might have done if every day she weren’t having to avoid treading on them, worry about whether this or that set is complete, scrub dried on glue off the table, listen to the robot shout rhyming demands for me to play with it every five seconds until she removes its batteries, or repeat the same mind numbing game of snakes and ladders over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Mama also considers that if she wanted to watch us get wound up into a froth of frustration over not being allowed to play with and take home the really cool things we see all around us, she could just take us to the local toy shop for a few hours.

So it might come as a surprise that one of the first places she took us to both times she has been in Edinburgh was its Museum of Childhood.

The thing is, it’s right on the Royal Mile.

Royal Mile from Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

In fact, it’s right on the Royal Mile in such a location that if you have come by train, crossed Waverley Bridge and entered the famous length of street, wandered up to have a look at the castle, wandered back down again, admired the Cathedral with its crown like cupola, its stained glass, its war memorials and its cafe, slogged past a thousand tacky souvenir shops, admired the architecture, boggled as Londoners at the idea that, apparently, many of the top floor flats in the buildings surrounding you are unoccupied, explored a few side streets, investigated how the streets are on top of each other in places rather than side by side and so on and so forth, then you will reach the Museum of Childhood at almost precisely the moment when us small children are about to rebel mightily at the thought of doing any more of the sort of idle rambling around a city that Mama and Papa used to enjoy before we turned up, leavened only by the street performers, who have a lot in common with those at Covent Garden and are therefore definitely worth a 20 minute look see.

And it’s free.

So Mama can be excused from popping in, she feels, in an attempt to break up the day and have a fighting chance of pushing on to Hollyrood House and the Scottish Parliament at the bottom of the hill.

And whaddayaknow. It’s certainly not totally without interest. Each room has a theme – games, books, dolls, trains and so on – and each room has a corresponding set of toys to play with, so we mostly did that, while Mama strolled round and looked at the stuff.

Fish Game Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

Plus, the Museum of Childhood has the most freaky looking mannequins we have ever come across. Definitely one for connoisseurs of the art of making full sized wax models of humans, although Mama rushed me through the school room full-sized mock ups on the grounds that she didn’t want any of us to be having nightmares that evening. Wise choice.

Of the toys, we liked the fishing game, the board games and the tea set but our favourite by far was the puppet theatre, where we took turns elbowing each other out of the way to put on increasingly elaborate shows for Mama with the three available characters.

Puppet Theatre Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

Mama was enthralled by the playlettes of course, but also seemed pretty taken with the published book written by a nine year old in the 1800s, the doll house furniture and the many many dolls themselves, most of which rivaled the mannequins for worrying expressions and starey eyes.

Child Author Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

On his visit, Papa had his nose glued to the trains. And even we sometimes left off playing to come and look at the exhibits. We enjoyed quizzing Mama about the things that she said were straight out of her childhood games, and she enjoyed trying to impress upon us just how modest a set of random plastic tat children of days gone by were willing to put up with.

Early Board Game Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

It wasn’t convincing, that talk. Well, how could it be with floors and floors of toys to prove Mama wrong? And the shop. The shop you have to walk though to enter or leave. Now that’s what I call handy.

Mama seemed a tad less impressed though. She prefers to spend her tourist dollars in the café. But then there isn’t one at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. This matters not a jot, however, because, spiritually refreshed for more sightseeing, you should have ample time to track down some haggis or similar once you are back out on the Royal Mile before your children reach breaking point again.

The Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh, then, is perfectly placed to provide a distraction should you find yourself trundling through the middle of Scotland’s capital with small people to entertain. Enjoy!

More Information

The Museum of Childhood’s page on the Edinburgh Museums website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the seven deadly sins of electronic toy design.

Address: 42 High Street, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH1 1TG

Opening: Monday – Saturday 10am – 5pm; Sunday 12pm – 5pm.

Admission: Free

By public transport: By train to Waverley Station, and then head towards the Royal Mile over Waverley Bridge. You want to be heading away from the castle down the hill. The numbers 6 and 35 buses stop nearby, or you can get any number of buses which go over North Bridge and bisect the Royal Mile.

By car: Allegedly there are car parks in Edinburgh, including some pay and display spaces near the museum.

If you are ever in doubt as to whether or not your smalls will enjoy the Edinburgh’s World of Illusions and its Camera Obscura all you need to do is hang out on the street outside for a bit and let them play around with the fairground mirrors they have set up along the walls.

Look Mama, I’m really small! And! Terrific Big Brother’s really tall! You are (even) fatter, HAHAHAHAHA! My body has disappeared! WE’RE UPSIDE DOWN!!! Our heads! Our heads are unimaginably huge and our legs are really skinny!!! That’s the FUNNIEST THING I’VE EVAH SEEN!!!!!!!

World of Illusions entrance with mirrors

At which point you go in, if only because you are starting to feel as though you should give them the talk about how body shapes and physical attributes should not be quite so wildly amusing as they appear to be.

Once inside you are encouraged to book straight in for the next Camera Obscura show. This is probably because it’s at the very top of the five floor building, which is listed and therefore has no lift. It’s definitely best to get the climb over with and work your way down rather than have all those stairs to keep looking forward to.

Which, by the way, also means the place is pushchair unfriendly. They pack a lot into a smallish venue at the World of Illusions, and while there are generous (unlocked) cupboards for your coats behind the counter, it’s going to be difficult for them to store five hundred wheeled baby carriers. Bring the sling for those unambulatory children.

There may or may not be a short wait when you get to the Camera Obscura, but this is not a problem as there is a balcony up there too where you can look out over the very striking Edinburgh rooftops.

Edinburgh rooftops from World of Illusions

You are at the top of the Royal Mile here and at one of the higher points in this multi leveled town and so if you are into your cityscapes, this is an excellent place to indulge yourself. Especially because of the striking splodgy stone used throughout the city and, of course, the fact that the World of Illusion (with its Camera Obscura) is right by the castle, so you can have a good gander at those imposing walls too.

Edinburgh Castle from World of Illusions

The show itself will depend a bit on the weather – the brighter it is, the better you will see. It was a decentish day when we went, so everything was pretty clear.

Now, I’ll be honest, I am not sure what is so fabulous about looking at a slightly faded image of the outside world we were just admitting on the balcony projected upside down onto a table aside from the fact it has been going since the 1850s.

I mean, I have a camera of my own which makes films, cartoons and inserts my face into computer games, and I can turn my Mama pink or stick funny hats on her too!

But the woman wielding the controls had a good line in patter and we all enjoyed the tricks she, and then later we, got to play on the people walking down below, so our attention did not, in the end, waver.

Incidentally, if you are walking the last 100 metres up to the castle do look upwards and smile! People up there will be messing with you and it’s nice to acknowledge it!

After that it was time to go and play with all the illusions. Which are not at all just based around doing it with mirrors. Although some of them are. One of Mama’s cherished memories is of watching my Terrific Big Brother bounce off one of the genuinely confusing panels in the mirror maze before he realised that not all corridors are what they seem.

And then do it again round the next corner.

We were also highly entertained by the puzzle that made it look as though our severed heads were being served up on a plate and by the room which allowed us to swap places. I was the giant! My Terrific Big Brother was tiny! But were were still the same size really! Endless entertaining photo ops for those who do not mind putting their kids’ images on the Internet.

Entertaining photo opportunities abound, in fact. Unfortunately, Mama was having too much fun to remember about taking some for the blog.

We also thought that the shadow generators were cool – you throw a shape, the light flashes, and there is your shadow fixed on the wall! And you can do it with different colours and cutout shapes later on!!

You can also paint with light, paint with pixels, and manipulate a photo of yourself so that you are older, younger or belonging to a different gender. And… look, the list goes on and on, and it’s very varied.

Our very favourite was the computer games projected on the floor. You do it all with your feet! Jumping! We’ve come across these before, but the World of Illusions took it to a whole new level, with football, a PG version of Grand Theft Auto, fish squashing opportunities and more.

But we were also thrilled to see the mechanical automatons. The *singing* mechanical automatons. The singing mechanical automatons of the type which Mama usually declines to put 50p in to get to work. The singing mechanical automatons of the type which Mama usually declines to put 50p in to get to work and which here were FREE. Coulda watched those for hours.

Singing cats and a dog playing the piano automaton at World of Illusions

And my Terrific Big Brother was also pretty taken with the objects hidden in sometimes quite famous paintings, reproduced on the walls throughout the World of Illusions. Just goes to show that sometimes even the oldies are the best.

Which you can certainly see in what caught the adults’ eyes. They were particularly impressed by the electricity based illusions. Bless. They really are that old that a bit of artificial energy generation is thrilling. It’s so quaint! Mama also enjoyed making mini video clips of herself dancing around or pulling faces, which then got speeded up and put on a loop. So nice to see her entering the 20th century at last.

Thermal imaging at World of Illusions

They also liked the ones that messed with your head. The way you could shake hands with yourself if you stuck your hand just right in that hole, or boggle as your left hand became your right if you put them in this. I dunno. My sense of self is only a few years old. I’m discovering new things about it every day! Do your own hands ever get overfamiliar? Apparently.

In fact, the Edinburgh Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is that rare rare thing, though, a place which is equally as enthralling for both adults and children alike, where everybody can enjoy playing around for hours on end.

You know all those really good interactive bits in museums which are for the kids, and which adults have to all be mature and let the little darlings run off steam before they drag them back to the dead fly catching exhibits? Where, maybe, the adults’d like to join in but can’t because there are SO MANY small bodies in the way and potentially judgmental peers all about so they just have to stand around staring gloomily at their phones instead?

It’s like that but with adult participation positively encouraged without them without having to wait for late openings. Everything is even at adult eye height as well as kids’! Or at adult eye height with a box nearby for us to stand on. There were, in fact, adults there without any children at all! Radical!

3D pictures at World of Illusions

And best of all, there is no obvious educational point to any of it. I mean, I daresay you could get all enthused about light, physics, computing power, psychology and so on and so forth but you don’t actually have to. Minimal explanatory placards! Very liberating once in a while. Wooohooo!

Basically Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is a LOT of fun. Highly recommended and definitely worth the price of admission.

More Information

The Edinburgh Camera Obscura and World of Illusions’ website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about making 3D pictures.

Address: Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH1 2ND

Opening: Every day 9.30am to 7pm (NB there are slightly shorter hours in winter and longer hours in summer).

Admission: Adults: £13.95, Children 5 – 15: £9.95, Under fives: free.

By public transport: From Edinburgh’s Waverley station, go over Waverley Bridge and up the Royal Mile towards the castle. The Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is on the right just before the castle. There is also St Andrews Square Bus Station off Princes Street, and local buses  23/27/41//42/45/67 to Market Street and George IV Bridge stop nearby the attraction.

By car: Apparently there are car parks in Edinburgh. Mama cannot comment on their ease of access or price, however.

Almost the entire point of going to Scotland as far as my Amazing Big Brother is concerned is visiting the Scottish Owl Centre, conveniently situated midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow on the M8.

Owl slide at the Scottish Owl Centre

This slide is whizzy! And very cool.

This is because of the owls (surprise!).

There are a lot of them though. Big ones, medium ones, small ones, really really small ones, white ones, grey ones, brown ones, ones with speckled feathers, stripy patterns, spots, owls that hide away in burrows with alarmingly long legs, fishing owls, owls from hot countries, cold countries and tropical rainforests (Tropical! Rainforest! Owls! Says Mama, delightedly), owls with black eyes, yellow eyes and orange eyes (there’s a story behind that), owls with signs on the doors suggesting you stay weeeeeeell back so that they do not savage your little fingers, hooting owls, screeching owls, owls which make other hauntingly beautiful noises while you eat your sandwiches and play happily in the sunshine, and lots of owls who are, apparently, getting ready to hatch out new baby owls before our very eyes.

Which is reassuring from an ‘are the owls enjoying themselves in those cages’ kind of way.

And all of these owls had that thousand yard solemn unblinking stare and did that distinctive wiggly head movement as they watched me go by.

Tropical owls at the Scottish Owl Centre

Tropical owls! Tropical! Owls! Wanting to eat me for lunch! Cooooooool!

My Amazing Big Brother is convinced this means they are trying to get a bead on the aerodynamic possibilities of swooping down and carrying me off like a mouse.

Sometimes it’s quite worrying being small. But it certainly added a bit of spice to our visit.

Burrowing owl at the Scottish Owl Centre

This one will probably not be able to make off with me.

But despite the variety of owls, the Scottish Owl Centre is not really a full day out, even if, like my Amazing Big Brother you insist on going round twice, very very slowly, getting Mama to read all the placards. In fact, it will probably only take you forty five minutes to an hour tops to saunter around all the owl enclosures, although there is also a giant fast tube slide and a small crawlabout maze to occupy you next to a picnic area, and some oldschool educational displays in a covered space, which do an excellent job of conveying really quite a lot of information about owls, their habitats and habits in a simple, but fun interactive manner. We particularly recommend the one where you have to stick your hands in squidgy wet artificial snow and play hunt the voles. It’s FABULOUSLY gross.

British owls at the Scottish Owl Centre

My Amazing Big Brother got all of these right – can you?

Luckily there also is an excellent and quite extensive adventure play area right outside in Polkemmet Country Park, where the Owl Centre is situated. There’s a sandpit with its own built in sand toys, a wooden castle, various climbing nets and structures, a zipwire, and swings.

Playground at Polkemmet Country Park

Please be as amused as Mama is by the can of Iron Bru.

There’s also a real life steam engine parked and ready to climb over, although much to our disappointment, you couldn’t actually turn the handles, stoke the fires or set it moving.

Steam train at Polkemmet Country Park

Choo choo!

Tickets for the Scottish Owl Centre are valid all day so you could pop in and out after playing there, and there are also woodland walks to had, although much of the park is taken up by a golf course, which Mama says might spoil things, although I think she might be quoting Churchill there.

Why would you want to pop back in, I hear you ask?

Because the highlight of your visit to the Scottish Owl Centre will be the thirty minute flying shows that take place twice daily in winter and three times in the warmer months.

It’s not just that wherever you sit in the covered flying area you will feel (but not hear, their silent flight not being a myth) an owl swoop millimeters past you, or, if you go to the show where you get to lie down on the floor while the owl skims your nose, over you (which frankly is thrilling enough), but that the handler’s chat which accompanies the display is packed full of genuinely interesting tidbits of owly facts as well as a fair amount of background into the history of the place and its work as a conservation centre.

Grey grey  owl at the Scottish Owl Centre

Release the owls!

The particularly nice thing is that each show is different, with different owls, different information and even different handlers, so Mama and my Amazing Big Brother think it is well worth sticking around for more than just the one. I, on the other hand, was enthralled for the entirety of the first show, but I did find that my three year old attention had wandered a bit by the end of the second one. This was the reason that we didn’t go back for the third.

I think our favourite bit, though, was when we got to HOLD THE BIRDS! One of my Amazing Big Brother’s most prized possessions is the photo of him with an owl on his arm from our first visit here, but that time he was only my age so he had to make do with a smaller owl. This time, he was determined to hold a really big one, and so he did, even though it was so heavy he could barely manage it on his own.

I took one look at the size of the Milky Eagle Owl’s beak and declared myself quite happy with the exceptionally cute White Faced Owl, whose parents Mama had only just that minute been admiring. You have to pay extra for this privilege, of course, especially if you want the centre to print you off a photo, but we are convinced it is well worth it.

White-faced owl at the Scottish Owl Centre

This was my owl! Isn’t it cute!

Plus, if you have any burning owl questions still left unanswered, this is the time to ask them. The advantage of this small venue is that the people manning this attraction are fully involved in the work of the centre and very happy to chat about it.

There isn’t any food outlet on the Owl Centre site, barring some tubs of ice cream in the reception foyer. The café in the grounds of the park (which otherwise gets rave reviews, Mama understands) was also closed when we went. But you can take sandwiches. There are certainly some attractive places to eat them both inside and outside the centre and the website for the Polkemmet Country Park also boasts a site you can hire for your very own barbeque in the spring and summer months.

All in all, a child less relentlessly fixated on the animal world than my Amazing Big Brother might not think that the Scottish Owl Centre is quite worth a drive of two days with an overnight stop at an unrevamped motel in a service station off the A1 to get there, but my Amazing Big Brother certainly does. I’m not joking – he’s been going on and on about in the three years since our last visit and clearly did not accept Mama’s description of quite how far it was as any kind of barrier for a weekly trip.

Mama and I are a touch less enthusiastic, but we both agree that if you are in the area and the weather is even halfway decent it is definitely somewhere you should have on your list.

More Information

The Scottish Owl Centre’s website.

The Polkemmet Country Park page on the West Lothian council’s website.

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

Address: Polkemmet Country Park, Whitburn EH47 0AD, Scotland

Opening: Feb, March, Sept, Oct, Nov: 11.30 to 16.00 (flying displays 12.30 and 14.30). April to August: 10.30 to 17.00 (flying displays 11.30, 13.30 and 15.30). December to January: closed.

Admission: Adult: £7.50, child (3-15): £5.50, family (2+2): £24

By car: Leave the M8, which runs between Edinburgh and Glasgow, at junction 4a. The Centre (and Polkemmet Country Park) is clearly signposted from there on brown signs. The Centre is probably about 45 minutes from both cities. The car parks in the park are FREE!

By public transport: Apparently, buses which run through Whitburn and Harthill pass the entrance to the park.