Mama was outraged when Papa took us to the aquarium Moskvarium, Moscow’s newest animal attraction, without her over the summer. Particularly as he managed to lose my Adorable Big Brother half way round. Serves Papa right for clearly not reading my account of London’s Sealife Aquarium in which I specifically warn people of the dangers of such dark, packed but fatally fascinating animal attractions. But the main issue was what a wonderful story for the blog Mama missed!

So when we had completed a grim-faced march across the exhibition complex VDNH in even for Russia unseasonably early horizontal frozen sleet on our way to what turned out to be recently closed exhibition of animatronic dinosaurs, she didn’t need much convincing to nip round the corner to the giant blue box covered with bubble pictures instead. Mama loves VDNH, but she is forced to admit that in the colder months is it possibly a bit too extensive when you are actually trying to get somewhere specific, especially when that somewhere specific is unavailable.

Moskvarium Moscow

Much of Moscow apparently considers Mama a bit of a nelly though judging by the constant stream of people heading towards the Moskvarium ahead of us, behind us and even as we were leaving quite a bit later in the day. Of course, Moskvarium is a great name. My Adorable Big Brother was amused by it for ages after he worked out the clever smashing together of its location and function. No wonder people are prepared to suit up their young in the heavy-duty snow gear and head out for a lengthy trek to get to it.

Not that Moscovites need much convincing to get out the heavy-duty snow gear for their kids. I feel decidedly underdressed, even if autumn has returned and it is 15 degrees centigrade outside.

Anyway, let us return to the Moskvarium, where there are fish.

Fish at the Moskvarium Moscow

A lot of fish, as this is now Europe’s largest aquarium. The Moskvarium is arranged in what I am inaccurately going to describe as a rectangular semi-circle, which basically goes fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish, and then you get to a large central hall with the more interesting aquatic livestock and then it’s fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish all the way to the finale of sharks and seals at the end.

To be honest, I find the fish a bit boring, especially after the first five hundred tanks. I allowed Mama a few moments of awe at the toothy looking pikes near the entrance, but then I started agitating to get to the crocodiles.

Crocodile two at the Moskvarium Moscow

Crocodiles are cool. There they hang, only their cunning little eyes peeping out above the water, but underneath, underneath there is this great long dinosaur body with a giant tail.

Crocodile at the Moskvarium Moscow

I know this because one of the advantages of having the space of what I am told is the largest aquarium in Europe is that unlike the London Sealife aquarium you can afford to really make a meal of a number of different habitats rather than relying on having one really good big tank and making visitors squint through relatively small windows off the sort of narrow corridors that do not encourage visitors to linger and get a really good look at everything else. The crocodile cage in the Moskvarium is a giant affair housed in a giant room where the only thing stopping the water and the toothy predator from sploshing all over you is a tall thin sheet of glass.

Turtle at the Moskvarium Moscow

You can also sit and sip coffee and get a snack next to what will be some dugongs when they have arrived, which they haven’t yet. Now that’s a view. Will be a view.

On the other hand, Mama would say that when it comes to what she thinks should be the deep-sea showstopper full of sharks and pretty fish there doesn’t seem to be much depth to them, which turns it into mere rectangular water cage rather than conveying the proper impression that you really have a window onto the ocean. The designers lack the desperate imagination of Sealife in London here in fact. Possibly the excitement of having so much space to play with – this is Europe’s largest aquarium apparently – has has caused them to be complacent,  although I also think Mama has spent too many Saturday mornings glued to the reality TV show Tanked! about the large gentlemen who install aquariums across America (much more thrilling than you might expect. Say Mama and my Wonderful Big Brother). She has become jaded.

Shark tank at the Moskvarium Moscow

Or possibly, she had just had enough by the time we came to that point. I know I had.

Despite the fact that the last set of tropical tanks with the most colourful and attractive fish so far also give you fun to climb knobbly plastic rocks so you can scramble up to view them, my fish appreciation capacity had completely run out just before we got to that section. The Moskvarium, being Europe’s biggest (did I mention that already?), is about twenty fish tanks too large for me. This wouldn’t have been a problem, really, except that my Adorable Big Brother was just getting into his stride. The last couple of thousand metres of our trip pleased nobody, but I am louder, so I won.

Lion fish at the Moskvarium Moscow

As far as my Adorable Big Brother is concerned they save the best for last though and that is the seals. From Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake and surely one of the great eco-tourism destinations out east in Siberia. Personally, I think one seal looks much like another. Perhaps these ones do seem somewhat rounder than your average sea-lion, but equally as obliging then it comes to rolling around in the water, splashing each other and performing somersaults. My Adorable Big Brother was transfixed. I lay on a handy beanbag, stared at the ceiling in fished out apathy and ate prunes.


Even I perked up when just as we were about to leave, feeding time happened, because feeding time at the Moskvarium seal enclosure is like a mini show, with pairs of seals teamed up with a keeper who combines slipping them their tidbits with practising all their best tricks. Very very cool.

Of course, this may just be last-ditch advertising for the shows before you leave. Mama suspects that’s where you get to see the killer whales, the dolphins and the other big aquatic mammals properly, as the viewing into bits of their tanks don’t give you much of a view, especially of the dolphins.

Of course, this probably means they have a decent amount of space to hide from us in, but I am four and I do not care about this.

Mama is a bit unclear as to how you get to go to the shows (buying a ticket would probably help, yeah, Mama?) because she didn’t seem to see any signs pointing the way while we were there, which is good for her bank account, but terrible for her curiosity. Luckily my Adorable Big Brother has not twigged to the extra entertainment possibility on offer yet, but as soon as he does I expect he will be on translation duties as we attempt to track the auditorium down.

In the meantime we were stuck with standing in front of the large window with the view of the largely empty tank, waiting for the killer whales to drift past. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting. And waiting and waiting and waiting.

Killer Whale at the Moskvarium Moscow

And then we went to play with the handling tanks.

The largely unsupervised handling tanks.

The largely unsupervised handling tanks where you can stick your arms in right up to the shoulder to chase the fish and the rays around. The rays are great! Very slow-moving!

Mama considers this wrong for all sorts of reasons, and after we had stood in the toilets with our sleeves under a blow dryer for a bit she marched us severely over to the colouring in wall, which was surprisingly popular with all sizes of people. Perhaps I was not the only one who was having fish processing problems in Europe’s largest aquarium?

It could be people processing problems. There were a lot of them there by the time we were getting towards the end. Unless you are used to London crowds everywhere, in which case you will be wondering where everybody is.

But back to the fish! The Moskvarium is definitely worth a look, especially with older children who have more stamina than I do for a trek around what may be Europe’s largest aquarium. Get there early to avoid the crowds, and say hi to the crocodiles from me.

More information

The Moskvarium’s website (in Russian because the English version is pretty minimal. This is what Google translate is for).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the African Dwarf Crocodile.

Address: VDNH Estate 119, Prospect Mira, Moscow, 129223.

Opening: 10am to 10pm, everyday except the last Monday of every month.

Admission: At weekends and on holidays, adults and children over 120cm: 1000 roubles (£10) and children up to 120cm: 600 roubles (£6). Weekdays, it’s 600 roubles and 400 roubles respectively. There are family tickets available too.

By metro: From VDNH (on the orange line) you need to walk through the VDNH exhibition park. This is quite a walk. The Moskvarium is in the same area as the Polytechnic Museum, behind the giant space rocket.

There are also trams and such which stop at VDNH.

By other means: Dunno.


Wander Mum

There is something splendidly foreign about trams and trolleybuses.

Yes, alright, Mama is aware that London, Manchester and Edinburgh (at least) have their own versions, but let’s face it they are at best curiosities and at worst the local council’s expensive vanity project. It’s not like having the whole town crisscrossed by overhead wiring.

Trolleybus parade 2015 Moscow

Of course, many people feel the same way about double-decker buses. Actually, I feel that way about double-decker buses. Nothing like riding on the top floor! At the front! Especially, and you have no idea how much is galls Mama to admit this, the revamped old style Routemasters which the um flamboyant? Let’s go with flamboyant. The flamboyant mayor of London, Boris Johnson, spent a lot of money bringing back on the more touristy routes in London. No, really, if you are there I insist you wander down to the bottom of Hyde Park and pick up a number 9 going towards the centre of town. You get to climb up w a windy staircase at the back! Even the seats are retro styling! Never gets old.

Mind you, Mama quite liked the controversial bendy buses which the um flamboyant? Let’s go with flamboyant. The flamboyant mayor of London, Boris Johnson, got rid of. Luckily we have a lot of them here in Moscow out in the suburbs. There is no danger of them squashing cyclists because nobody cycles. Mama is still twitching as she crosses roads in anticipation of being mown down by a phalanx of manically determined two wheelers attacking her out of nowhere in rush hour but in about five more years she may stop obsessively checking for this oncoming menace before she steps out. PTSD I say.

Bicycle and trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015

Mama is a bit of a transport geek, isn’t she? You might be wondering if she has a little notebook full of train serial numbers.


It’s just that a) if she is on a bus in London, she is not trying to drive across it and b) there’s really nothing like everyday transport solutions to produce a delightful frisson of otherness when you are somewhere unfamiliar. Mama really believes that when it comes to abroad, obviously there’s something in the showstopper sights, the must-visit museums, the never to be repeated experiences, the explosive taste sensations and whatnot. But the most interesting thing about it for Mama is the oddly flavoured chocolate bars, the infinitesimal look of horror people give as she absent-mindedly tries to shake their hand and the weird ass programmes they show on TV.

It’s why this is not a proper travel blog. Mama actively dislikes travel if you must know. She thinks that on her budget it sounds uncomfortable, and she also likes to be very sure of where her next coffee is coming from. This goes double now she has children.

Living in another country, on the other hand, now that’s cool.

It’s unlikely, for example, that if you were just a casual visitor to Moscow this last weekend you would have bothered turning out for the increasingly annual trolleybus parade (now in its third year) to celebrate the 82nd anniversary of trolleybuses in the capital of Russia. Not least because Mama had to venture on to the Russian Internet to find out exactly what roads they were going to be trundling along at what time.

Red and white trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015

In which she failed, to be honest. Mama considers the actual parade scheduling information provided by the various websites she ineptly skimmed to be insufficient for the purposes of pitching up somewhere along the route with two easily bored children.

Luckily, they were also planning to have a static display of the trolleybuses in question down by the river, opposite Gorky Park. So we went to that, aiming to arrive around oneish so as to give the trolleybuses time to parade there on the off-chance that the widely quoted 12 noon start was referring to the parade and not to the time they would available for climbing all over.

Because, let’s face it, there is nothing as exciting as getting on, walking through and climbing off a trolleybus which looks almost, but not entirely, like the ones we get on and off on a regular basis every day here in Moscow.

Modern trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015


Nicely painted on the outside, mind you. And there were people inside who were there to answer any and all transport questions that might occur to you as you saunter through the carriage. So of course, my Brilliant Big Brother asked one of them about the giraffe picture on one of the posters inside one of the cars. I am happy to report that trolleybus experts also know their animal factology too, or at least that this representation wasn’t a giraffe as such but a fantasy animal on a book cover connected to the person the trolleybus was dedicated to. Good to get that cleared up.

Yellow trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015

However, Mama recommends that if you should visit around this time next year you start at the other end of the line of trolleybuses because by the time we got to the older, more interesting models we children were a bit trolleybused out, and really really long queues were starting to develop for the pleasure of nosing around inside them. Mama managed to drag us onto the one with the extra-large windows but after that we rebelled and insisted on exploring the child friendly activities.

Trolleybus with big windows at the trolleybus parade 2015

Which mostly consist of painting opportunities.

Cardboard painted trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015

Regular readers are probably familiar with Mama’s view of the British insistence on including water play in all playgrounds or play areas, which, if you are an irregular visitor here, mostly consists of heartfelt swearing. When we moved to Moscow, Mama was smug in that she was pretty sure that Russians would never ever spring that on her except in the height of summer. Keeping your children warm is a concept people take very seriously here. Water play in anything less than 30 degrees centigrade is almost as bad as draughts.

But Mama was complacent too soon as what she has discovered is that in Moscow, the menace of unexpected dampness has been replaced by the Russian insistence on providing kids with things to paint at every public celebration.

Why? Whhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyy? Whyohwhyohwhy? Says Mama.

Woohoo! Say I. And emerge from inside the cardboard trolleybus model twenty minutes later with a new colour of hat and an interesting new pattern on my coat.

3D cardboard painted trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015

And that’s despite the fact that they’d pretty much run out of paints by the time we got there.

That is, frankly, the expat experience in a nutshell. You really like bits of your home country and (hopefully) your host country, but some things from both places are intensely irritating. What you want is a third pick and mix option where children can be entertained in a dry and mess free manner. Says Mama. I’d go for hot and cold running kolbassa and unlimited access to flavoured rice cakes myself.

At the trolleybus parade there were also food vans, a stage pumping out dancing and loud music, presumably trolleybus related although Mama did not really pay much attention to this, some giant rabbits organising children’s games, lots of balloons and people wandering around in period clothing for you to pose with. All good clean fun.

Costumes at the trolleybus parade 2015

We hung about for about an hour all told and then, as it started to get very busy indeed, bailed over the bridge to Gorky Park, which has some lovely autumnal avenues to gallop around, children with remote-controlled cars to play with and hot chocolate. Mama recommends that should you decide to attend the trolleybus parade next year, you turn up earlier rather than later. Or bring a book.

queue at the trolleybus parade 2015

And fortuitously, as we were waiting for the regular trolleybus to take us home, we caught the trolleybus parade after all as the celebration wound up and the trolleybuses made their way past us back to wherever they live when not on display in the centre of Moscow. All part of the plan! Mama said. Unconvincingly.

More information

One of the pages Mama read when trying to figure out where to pick up the trolleybus parade.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Ebbelwei-Express, an unusual tram in Frankfurt am Main.

Location: This year, the static part of the festival was down by the river on Frunzenskaya Embankment, next to the Krymskiy Bridge.

Allegedly, the trolleybus parade started at Filivskiovo bus/ trolleybus station, although whether that was at 12 or an earlier time in order to reach the river by 12 Mama couldn’t tell you. She has put it on her list of things to find out (things Papa will find out) by next year.

Admission: Free

Metro: The nearest station is Park Kultury on the red and brown lines. You could also use Oktyabrskaya on the orange and brown lines if you don’t mind a bit of a walk over the bridge down to the other side of the river, or another red line station, Frunzenskaya (head over the road and down from the large square building you pop up out of the Metro from) if you want to wander left along the embankment of the Moscow river past the imposing government building first.

By trolleybus: Of course, you probably should arrive (or leave) by trolleybus. The circular B and BK routes stop right by the river (and outside Gorky Park) and then take you right round the centre of Moscow, hitting a number of Metro stations on the way.

Joining up with #WeekendWanderlust

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Eff It, I'm On Holiday

The rules of the Experimentanium in Moscow explicitly forbid you to bring your double bass along. A bit big, they seem to think. Mama, the former double bass player, was duly outraged.

On the upside, they are quite keen on you touching the exhibits.

This is because the Experimentanium is less of a museum and more of all the good bits of the Science Museum in London, that is to say the play areas, installed in a large open plan building, with a healthy dose of the sort of crowd-pleasing interactive weirdness favoured by Edinburgh’s House of Illusions to spice it up further.

No wading though incomprehensible installations of machinery you aren’t allowed to climb on, just three floors of push button fun.

Electromagneticism at the Experimentanium Museum

There are explanatory placards though. And horrifyingly, many of them are in English. Mama insisted on reading some them out to us, especially when she couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to be doing. From which I gather that I may think mucking around with water is pure entertainment but actually the Bermuda Triangle sinks balls of methane because of ships’ density. Or something. Lots of learning to be done, clearly, as you make your way round the play stations *cough* experimental lab benches.

To underline its educational credentials, the Experimentanium divides its experiments up into zones of like-minded activities.

Handkerchiefs at the Experiementanium Museum

There are mechanical objects to manipulate and puzzles to solve. Mama was delighted to be able to demonstrate her superior intellect by smugly completing the one with the goat, the wolf, the vegetation and the boat in double quick time. I am suspicious. Mama is very old. I think she might have heard about it before.

There’s a electricity and electromagnetic area, where things stick together inexplicably and you can build yourself all sorts of strangely shaped metal towers out of iron filings.

There’s a windzone which has a fully sittable-on FLYING CARPET (I shit you not, says Mama, which I think is supposed to be high praise) and the real life mini tornado, which had Mama transfixed for a number of minutes. Mama clearly does not come from a place where tornadoes are a menace rather than a curiosity. I apologise to large sections of America.

There’s the optical illusions bit, where we all got delightfully frustrated trying to pick up a holographic sweetie, where we scrambled round a tilted house until Mama decided the cognitive dissonance was triggering her latent travel sickness, and where we got to muck around in a mirror maze (Dunk dunk dunk dunk dunk. My Super Big Brother has not got any better at picking his way though these). We also tried to navigate our way round a room in pitch blackness with only the shouts of family members watching on the infrared camera to guide us from the outside. We did that THREE TIMES!

Holographic sweet at the Experimentanium Museum

There is the waterzone, which has one of those tables you are supposed to navigate your boat down with only the ability to open and close various lock gates and direct the odd current (but where everybody under the age of ten just gets sodden up to the the elbows happily driving their ships around manually). Mama thought the water was looking a tad grubby in some of the surrounding tanks while we were there and got very busy with the wetwipes afterwards, which is unlike her. But she also had a lot of fun balancing the ping-pong balls on the jets of water herself, so I reckon she didn’t care that much.

Water table at the Experimentanium Museum

And then there’s the acoustics zone. Mama recommends you do not enter this if you are in any way of a nervous disposition. Let’s just say that the full-sized drum kit you could whack away at to your heart’s content was one of the quieter things, shall we, and tiptoe away while our eardrums are still intact. But not until you have had a jolly good go on everything, of course. BOOM CRASH BANG WHALLOP SCREECH SCREEEEEEECH PLINKETY PLINKETY PLONK.

Mama particularly enjoyed the machine where you could test your hearing of different frequencies. Her latent competitive nature insisted on turning the knob ALL THE WAY ROUND. Luckily, being a former bass player and thus sitting next to the brass section throughout her teenage years means that she has already very little hearing left anyway. Of course you are not supposed to be able to hear it, but the point where it gets impossibly squeaky is a sensation of its own.

Frequency at the Experimentanium Museum

But best of all is the bubble room. Mama and I have now been to many many of the Science Museum’s bubble shows, and while I still highly recommend them, the Experimentanium has upped the ante by providing us with all the equipment we need to DO IT ALL OURSELVES. Yes, we too have now wafted around the giant bubble wand to make bubble snakes, and we have personally stood inside the giant bubble ring and operated the pulley to enfold ourselves inside a person-sized bubble. In your FACE, the Science Museum (although with grateful thanks as our superior technique was much informed by your examples)!

Bubble machine at the Experimentanium Museum

If you are thinking that this sounds damp and not a little sticky you would be correct. But the room has clearly been specially prepped with, among other things, special non slip flooring and a sink to wash your hands afterwards. There are toilets are pretty close by too, which is helpful. Either way even Mama agreed that it was well worth it. WELL WORTH IT.

The Experimentanium has shows of its own, mind. No idea what they are like as we didn’t go. Mama considers the basic experience sufficient considering you have to pay extra. She may, of course, change her mind when we are in the middle of February and really really fed up of snow. Luckily, the Experimentanium looks as though it can soak up a fair number of visitors. On the day we went it was wet and busy without ever approaching the levels of being rammed full which make visiting such venues unpleasant. She is hopeful that this will hold true in the depths of winter too.

The Experimentanium also boasts a surprisingly modest shop, given the size of the place, and a very reasonably priced café. Mama would have preferred it if the café followed the usual Russian café tradition of being entirely chips and chicken nuggets free, but we wouldn’t. At least it wasn’t closed, and shows no sign of ever shutting its doors arbitrarily. And we all approved of the toys you could bring to your table and play around with while you ate. We also admired the lavishly supplied birthday party table set up next to us. If the Experimentanium only had animals, I reckon my Super Big Brother would be well up for coming here for his come the summer.

So the Experimentanium Museum is definitely somewhere that you should have on your list of places to hang out with children in Moscow, and let’s face it, places you can go and amuse yourselves if you don’t have kids too. It’s large, well-organised, interesting and educational to boot. And would stand up to repeated visits as there are so many things to play with, you’ll almost certainly find yourself fascinated by something different each time you go.

Plus, there is a trampoline park in a building next door, so if you feel like making a really long indoor day out of it, you can. I am pretty sure Mama really wants to go and jump around madly, and I am sure that we will be doing so in the not so distant future. But that will be a story for another time.

Photo Credits

Mama’s camera was being difficult on our visit, but luckily the nice people at the Experimentanium let her use some of their photos. Our visit was our own idea and at our own expense, however.

More information

The Experimentanium Museum’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Brainiac – Science Abuse! the TV programme.

Address: Leningradskii Prospekt d.80, k.11, Moscow, 127015

Opening: 9.30am to 7pm seven days a week.

Admission: Adults – between 450 to 650 roubles (£4.50 – £6.50). It’s cheapest on Mondays and most expensive on weekends. Children over 3 – between 350 to 550 roubles (£3.50 – £5.50). Family tickets and discounts for those with more than three children are also available.

By Metro: The nearest station is Sokol on the darker green line.

The steps up to the exit are in the centre of the platform. You need to follow the signs for Baltiiskaya Street and go right up the massive highway as you exit the station building. When you have completed the short walk to the junction for Baltiiskaya Street, turn right along it and walk for a minute or so until you see an archway entrance to a courtyard on the opposite side of the street with a large Experimentanium sign in orange letters above it. This is where you cross the street, using the pedestrian crossing. It’s important to come back the same way because there isn’t a crossing at the top of the street. Go through the archway, and the Experimentanium is the building on your right. You can’t miss it because it is covered in actually pretty cool murals.

By other means: Buses and trolley buses exist. There also seems to be some car parking in the courtyard, but it could be reserved for other buildings. Whatever. Go by Metro is Mama’s advice.

Packing my Suitcase
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Eff It, I'm On Holiday

The most memorable thing about Moscow Zoo, according to Mama, is its location, which just goes to show that she has probably now been to too many animal attractions. At this stage in her career as a parent of a hopeful zoo keeper, Mama’s ability to take interested in yet another round of zebras, toucans and orangutans is decidedly tepid. You’ve seen one spectacled bear, she is starting to think, and you have seen them all.

Bear at Moscow Zoo

Zoos are really starting to have to have a unique selling point beyond the animals for her to really sit up and pay attention.

This could be why the Moscow Zoo’s entrance is fashioned as a dramatic, if mostly plastic (or possibly fibreglass), mountain.

Moscow Zoo entrance

We’re going to the zoo!

But it has to be said that after the promise of this once you get inside, the first thing you will see is a giant pond.

Full of ducks.

Duck Filled Pond at Moscow Zoo

Ducks! Hurrah!

A bold choice for an opener, Mama thinks, even if they aren’t mallards, but that’s before she spotted the flamingos in the far corner. And indeed once you have schlepped round the perimeter of the water for a few hours, you will find on the other side the usual array of big and small wild cats, bears, giraffes, odd looking cows, more birds ranging from tiny colourful flitty parrots though haughty storking cranes, paddling wading birds to giant hulking vultures, elephants, bats, wolves and penguins.

White tiger at Moscow Zoo

Big cat!

Shaggy cow at Moscow Zoo

Funny looking cow!

Mama is bemused by the penguins to be honest. Moscow Zoo, being as it is in Russia, a country that gets pretty damn chilly in the winter, has special indoor habitats as well as the outdoor spaces for a number of its most popular animals from warmer climes. But its penguins are not outdoors because the zoo seems to have acquired the ones which live in warm places.

Mama thinks this is pure contrariness.

On the other hand, she admires the business sense of having the dolphinarium in a strategically central location, surrounded by the walrus and sea lion enclosures. Going to see the show costs extra (but not much extra), and the nice thing about it being in Russian is that Mama feels she is exempt from having to listen to the usual spiel where trainers explain that really, the nature of these particular captive animals is that they are so intelligent that have to be kept entertained somehow and getting them to toss balls back and forth is the best way to do it.

Dolphin at Moscow Zoo


Other entertainments appear to be feeding the flamingos and doing the mouse spotting trail. Mama disapproves of the practice of flinging the flamingos the crusts from your sandwiches, which appears to be something of a Muscovite tradition, but what, precisely, the difference between poisoning the exotic pink birds, who at least get proper nutritional supplements from their keepers, and poisoning the common old ducks and seagulls, who in London almost certainly survive mainly on toddler thrown bread, she cannot actually pinpoint.

Flamingos at Moscow Zoo

Apparently ‘do not feed’ means something else in Russian.

The mouse spotting game is much less controversial, at least as long as we don’t have Papa, whose pathological fear of the scary monsters has not been improved by the infestation in our London flat. The zoo appears to have released any number of small largely white rodents throughout its enclosures, who will pop out at random moments next to this meercat, that lynx or the other mountain goat to surprise and delight any visitors who might be thinking that seeing a gibbon lick its private parts is not thrilling enough. I suspect there might be a prize for the family who see the highest number. You should have a go! It’s great!

Mice at Moscow Zoo

Release the mice!

By now you will have completed a full circle of the lake, and are thinking about where to go once you leave. This would be a mistake, because you have only, in fact, done half Moscow Zoo, so you’d be better off having something to eat.

The Moscow Zoo has been undergoing renovations in the last few years and these are still not quite finished, so the odd corner here and there will undoubtedly be closed when you go. But one of the things they have finished upgrading is the food outlets, and there are now cafés dotted around at very regular intervals, although none of these seem to be of the indoor type, which could be interesting in the depths of winter. Of course, there are any number of eateries on the way in or the way out and plenty of places for you to sit and eat sandwiches if you’d rather do that.

To get to the other half, you climb another fibreglass (or possibly plastic) mountain, take the bridge across the road and descend to another duck filled pond past the giant sloth enclosure. And then it’s otters, goats, pelicans, lions, reptiles, monkeys, gibbons, orangutans, chimps, gorillas, zebras and polar bears all the way to the exit.

Reptile House at Moscow Zoo

Cleverly placed metal walkway for small children!

Mama particularly enjoys the polar bears, mainly because there is an artificial snow making machine in their habitat, which is amusing because Russia, and because they always seem to have a cub on the go, which Mama always finds reassuring in a zoo.

Polar Bear at Moscow Zoo

Artificial snow! Because in Moscow, you can never have too much snow!

Just before the exit there is the petting zoo. Chickens, mostly. But also goats, sheep and a couple of cows in the corner. The Moscow Zoo has also wisely anticipated the rise of the selfie and provided a whole bunch of mosaic animal sculptures for visitors to pose on and around on their way out. Very cool. We have about a thousand of these snaps by now.

mosaic bear at Moscow Zoo

Selfie bear is waiting!

Anyway. Back to the location. Did you spot its fabulousness?

What Mama finds absolutely fascinating about the Moscow Zoo, and what keeps her happy about going back and back is the way that there you are, admiring the zebra in its semblance of an African Savannah, and you look up and see the apartment blocks dotted all around. It is frankly not a little freaky. Juxtapositioning and other such impressive sounding words. Plus, imagine having a flat up there, Mama likes to think, although not out loud in case my Animaltastic Big Brother overhears her.

Zebra giraffe ostrich at Moscow zoo

Check out that real estate!

All in all, the Moscow Zoo is one of the most popular destinations for those with children in the capital, not least because of its extremely reasonably priced entrance tickets. Children under the age of seventeen are FREE!

(Mama is allowing y’all a few minutes to boggle at that).

(Boggled out yet?)

Of course, in summer this means it gets very busy indeed, especially at weekends. Papa recommends that you go off season. Mama recommends that you sort out an also very attractively-priced season ticket. I insist you find the horses and my Animaltastic Big Brother doesn’t care what you do as long as you don’t stop him from going again and again and again any time soon.

More information

The Moscow Zoo’s website (in English).

The Dolphinarium’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about keeping mice as pets.

Address: Bolshaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa, 1, Moscow, Russia, 123242

Opening: Moscow Zoo is open 10 am to 6pm Tuesday to Sunday. The zoo is closed on Mondays.

Admission: Adults – 400 roubles (£4) on weekdays and 500 roubles (£5) at weekends. Children under the age of seventeen are FREE. I’ll just repeat that. A major zoo in a capital city allows children under the age of seventeen (and also pensioners and students) in for FREE.

By metro: Barrikadnaya (purple line) or Krasnopesnenskaya (brown circle line) are very close to the main entrance (and connected to each other).

By other means: Just take the tube, yeah?

So you think that summer holidays in the UK are looooooooong, do you? Well, if you are my age you probably don’t actually, but I gather the odd Mama here and there does. Anyway. Spare a thought for all those Russian parents out there. They start the long haul at the beginning of JUNE, people, and don’t stop until the 1st September.

There are many strategies Muscovites have for dealing with this. A popular one is packing the kids off to the datcha with the grandparents for the duration. But not everybody has a glorified allotment with a larger than usual shed on it and so Moscow is a particularly ripe spot for child-friendly profit-driven attractions.

One of these is the new(ish) Gorodskaya Ferma, or City Farm, at the exhibition complex VDNH, which is fast becoming the place in Moscow to house such things. The Polytechnic Museum has its temporary exhibition here, and Europe’s biggest aquarium has likewise just opened its doors.  And since the words ‘farm’ and ‘animals’ go together like ‘pelmeni’ and ‘smetana’, we inevitably found our way there within a short time of arriving in Russia’s capital.

Campfire at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

What we found is that Gorodskaya Ferma is more of a boutique farmette that your actual sprawling acres of muddy husbandry. Which is fine, especially as what immediately caught our attention when we stepped inside was the well designed play area. It was, in fact, quite some time before we prised ourselves away from the hammocks, the climbing nets, the slides and the sandpit and went in search of the live entertainment.

Play area at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

And there we found rabbits. Who seemed bent on escaping their enclosure. Some disinterested sheep. A handful of decidedly interested goats.

Goats at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Two cows. DONKEYS (I liked the DONKEYS – they are practically HORSES). And geese and chickens. Who have rather fabulous houses.

Chicken house at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

And ducks. Who have  rather splendid pom pom feather headdresses.

And all of this was very fine as such things always are.

But what Mama and my Terrific Big Brother really liked was the barn full of straw bales. Which you can climb all over.

I, on the other hand, did not like the barn full of straw bales.

In fact, I stood outside holding my nose and complaining. An unreconstructed urbanite, said Mama, from her perch on the top of the fragrant if slightly prickly tower.

Barn at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Straw does have its uses though. We got to take a handful back to the cows, for example. And then there was the straw modelling workshop which saw Mama, whose crafting abilities resemble that of the ten-year-olds the activity was probably pitched at, attack the activity of wrapping handfuls of the stuff into the shape of animals with admirable gusto. I think we were supposed to be making a fox. What we got was a giraffe and a goose. In case you were wondering.

Straw animals at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

More my Terrific Big Brother’s thing was the autumn collages, involving the gathering and arrangement of leaves, twigs, straw, sand and anything else that took the group’s fancy into concentric circles. More and more concentric circles. Just another one Mama. Oooooh, how about a ring of sand to finish… hey, we could do some more leaves and… look, I’ve found a feather! That patch of grass over there had some excellent sticks let’s go back there and… Mama had to be firm in the end. It was time to go. It was PAST time to go. No, really, now. I pretty much had to throw a tantrum to get us out of there. The things I do for my family.

Leaf art at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Another thing Mama would like to note about Gorodskaya Ferma is that they are fully English-enabled. Mama knows this because when she made a total hash of enquiring how, exactly, one went about purchasing food to feed the animals, the cashier was utterly delighted to be able to wave over his English-speaking colleague to deal with her. In fact, this happened every time anyone realised we were talking in English, and as they were extremely crestfallen to discover that Mama’s Russian is not as bad as all that in any case she has her own personal translator in my Terrific Big Brother, Mama feels that it is necessary for all the non-Russian speaking peoples of Moscow to go down to the farm and make the very enthusiastic staff’s day.

And in case you are wondering, the answer to Mama’s query is that you pay fifty roubles for a token, which you pay into bubble gum-esque dispensing machines in return for a small handful of either diced carrots or dry bread. If you don’t remember to pick up your tokens at the entrance there are also machines near the food.  It has to be said, there’s nothing like having food whiffled out of your hand by a snortingly warm muzzle.

Speaking of which, Gorodskaya Ferma has a café, or at least a food dispensing kiosk and some accompanying under cover tables. The café staff seemed a tad harassed – Mama thinks their menu is a bit ambitious for a hut with a microwave and a fridge – and frankly I was outraged that they did not sell hot chocolate, but Mama seemed happy with her coffee and the free WiFi and let us wander off to see what was happening over in the small cultivated area opposite.

Because verily, Gorodskaya Ferma is not just about cowsnchickens. You can also have a go at grubbing around in the dirt and waving a small watering can in the general direction of some lettuce.

Or painting the apple trees, which was the activity which had caught our attention. By the time Mama ambled over we were covered in whitewash and she was not at all to be distracted by the various reasons why such beautification is done. Why, Mama would like to know, when all Russian children manage to paint a tree without spattering it all over themselves, do we end up with it patterning our trousers and even in our hair? Luckily, not actually being paint, it washed out and off without too much effort.

Apple trees at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Of course, the summer holidays are over now and although we have been enjoying what Mama says is one of Moscow’s typically glorious Indian summers, now October is here it is getting nippy and at some point it’s going to snow. Russians are, of course, used to this and there are signs that the team at Gorodskaya Ferma have prepared for this with a number of the attractions being undercover affairs, but Mama has no idea what Gorodskaya Ferma’s plans are once the colder weather really sets in.

So you’d better get down there quick and enjoy the last of the good weather and the crafting opportunities while they last. They appear to be all about the pumpkins from their Instagram feed at present.

Say hi to the donkeys for me.

More information

Gorodskaya Ferma’s page on VDNH’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the chemistry of autumn colours.

Address: Next to the historic pavilion 44 (‘Rabbit breeding’), VDNH Estate 119, Prospect Mira, Moscow, 129223.

Opening: Every day except for Mondays from 10 a.m. till 8 p.m.

Admission: Adults and children over 3 years old, 200 roubles (£2) on weekdays and 300 roubles (£3) at weekends.

By Metro: The nearest metro is Botonichiskii Sad on the orange line, but the nearest exit from there is closed for renovation at the moment and so to get to Gorodskaya Ferma you have to go straight on down the road next to the railway tracks, cross left under the railway tracks, walk up the road a bit, cross the road into a path through a wood opposite the entrance to the actual Botonichiskii Sad (Botanical Gardens), amble through the wood, amble through a patch of rather attractive heathland, and cross another road to get to the back entrance of VDNH, whereupon the farm is directly on your right, though you have to head round to the entrance opposite the large pond. Mama thinks this may not be a trip for the fainthearted visitors out there, although all hail Google maps is what she suggests. That and heading in the general direction of Ostankino TV tower in the distance.

Ostankino tower at VDNH

However, your other option is to get off at VDNH (orange line) and then walk the length of the ex-Soviet exhibition space to the big pond at the back. Gorodskaya Ferma is at the end that doesn’t have the vaguely phallic fountain (Mama says). It’s a bloody long walk though (I say). Insist your big people take a scooter to tow you along and at the very least you must demand to go no further unless you are fed an ice cream every ten paces. On the upside, VDNH is always a fascinating venue to wander around.

By other means: No idea. Well, all right there are buses and trams and such which will get you a tad closer than the Metro, but unless you know about them already, Mama thinks you are better off with the hike. There may well be parking somewhere, but Mama is frankly uninterested in finding out where.

Did you know that in the middle of that large, varied, leafy, dog-infested urban oasis, Battersea Park, there is a zoo, and not just any old zoo, but one aimed fairly and squarely at children?

We certainly do.

Lemur at Battersea Park Children's  ZooIn fact, Mama is usually careful to stay at the other end of the park so as not to be inundated with requests to go visit Battersea Park Children’s Zoo. This does not work very successfully as my Tremendous Big Brother has no trouble whatsoever remembering things connected to animals, and so pesters her anyway no matter what part we are in. Or even if we are not in the park at all.

And sometimes we do indeed visit. Which rather undermines Mama’s position.

So what makes Battersea Park Children’s Zoo a children’s zoo, given that all zoos are places that most children are particularly fond of?

Is it the choice of animals?

Rooster at Battersea Park Children's ZooWell, perhaps adults are not likely to be impressed by a selection criteria which Mama suspects to be ‘small and manageable’. Adults, jaded thrill seekers that they are, clearly need the more exotic or dangerous or large or colourful species such as lions or gorillas or elephants or giraffes in order to get their gawking at captive creatures kicks. Mama also has a theory that the most thrilling animals for half Russians of a certain age are the ones all the stories are about. Rhinos don’t feature much in Russian fairytales but chickens do! Basically, I thumb my nose at your exoticism! Give me a good donkey and pig any day!

Pig at Battersea Park Children's ZooOf course, the choice of smaller animals means that they need smaller cages, and smaller cages mean fewer places to hide, and fewer places to hide mean the opportunity to get much closer than to the tiger skulking in the bushes at the back of the enormous enclosure behind three fences and some reinforced triple-glazed glass. This is certainly family friendly!

And I don’t know if we are particularly lucky, but it might well be that the species chosen for Battersea Park Children’s Zoo are the more lively and gregarious ones. Snails, roosters and rabbits, that kind of thing. Very active animals, usually.

Papa was a bit depressed by the mice though. We have mice in our flat. He does not really need reminding how busily they can zip about, chew things and poo everywhere.

Of course, reliably behaving like a caffeinated chipmunk is why everybody likes meerkats.

Meerkats at Battersea Park Children's ZooDitto otters. Battersea Park Children’s Zoo therefore has both, and the chipmunks themselves (sans coffee). And as my Tremendous Big Brother has got older and the fairystories have become old hat, the monkeys, when obligingly busy, have taken on a new lease of life.

Chipmunk at Battersea Park Children's ZooMama likes the coatis. This is because when we were there once she was delighted to find them busily shampooing their tails. Not, the nearby keeper explained, to wash themselves, but because in the wild they like to massage smelly things into their tail fur. It’s one of the enrichment opportunities for the animals Battersea Park Children’s Zoo provides that reassure you it is a professionally run place.

Mind you, I think my favourite bit is the sandpit in the extensive and well stocked play area. They have slides, climbing frames, trampolines, swings, a REAL LIFE FIRE ENGINE to sit in, diggers, indoor chalk boards, and the more touchable of the animals round there too, and most of this does not cost extra. But the sandpit is the best because it also has WATER PLAY.

Play equipment at Battersea Park Children's Zoo(Please imagine Mama’s weary groans at this point. Luckily we have recently only been there in high summer).

You might be wondering, then, why, with all this on our doorstep, we go, on average, once a year maximum. Why not get a season pass?

The season tickets are expensive.

They are expensive even though the zoo has an option to buy a child’s ticket which allows any random (rather than named) adult to accompany them for free. Especially as we would need two. This is a shame, and Mama wonders if a trick is being missed here as while the zoo clearly has no need to drum up trade on a sunny Sunday in June, we would still be likely to be popping in when other people aren’t, such as the dead of winter. Despite the water play (because of the water play). Some kind of off peak ticket might entice families such as us to take the plunge.

But running a zoo is not cheap, and although Battersea is an area with money these days, everybody likes a bargain and probably thinks like us. This system neatly assures that the nannies have somewhere pretty exclusive to take their charges and the zoo gets a fair chunk of cold cash and a guaranteed clientèle for its cafe. The rest of us will have to make do with the excellent London Wetlands Centre’s ridiculously cheap annual pass (Mama thinks they might be missing a trick in underpricing themselves, but is keeping quiet about that one).

To be fair, a one off trip to Battersea Park Children’s Zoo is much more reasonable, so if you do not live near the park, you should not let price considerations put you off going occasionally. It’s not quite a full day out, perhaps, but it is a very generous half day, and Battersea Park itself is very capable of soaking up any remaining time you might have. Go! The kids will love it!

More information

Battersea Park Children’s Zoo website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Gerald Durrell, animal collector, conservationist and author.

Address: Battersea Park, Wandsworth, London, SW11 4NJ. The zoo is towards the river end of the park on the Chelsea Bridge side.

Opening: 10am – 5.30pm (4.30pm or dusk in winter).

Admission: Adults 8.95 GBP, kids over 2 6.95 GBP, family 29.00 GBP.

By bus: 19, 44, 49, 137, 156, 170, 239, 319, 344, 345, 452 all go by or near the park.

By tube: Sloane Square (District and Circle lines) is 1km away on the other side of the river is the nearest station. Take the 137 or 452 bus from there.

By train: Battersea Park Station and Queenstown Road station are within 300m of the park.

By car: Actually, Battersea Park has a couple of (smallish) pay and display car parks, and there are more pay and display spaces in the surrounding streets too, which are even free on a Sunday.

There are few things in life more exciting than an interesting door.

Welwyn Roman Baths entrance

What is behind door number 3?

What could be behind it? A rabbit? A talking mole? Winnie-the-Pooh and a giant pot of honey? Martin Freeman with oversized feet? Martin Freeman dressed as a talking rabbit-mole with oversized feet eating a giant pot of honey in front of Winnie-the-Pooh? Gotta be a possibility, yeah?

Of course, the dilemma then becomes whether or not to collapse the wave and actually go through the entrance and find out, because the problem with real life is that it very rarely measures up to professionally bumbling British actors and highly anthropomorphised animals.

Luckily, when you go though this door, you will find a bath, specifically Welwyn Roman Baths, and baths are pretty cool, even when they aren’t 2,000 years old. WATER PLAY!! BOO YAH!!!

Although I am bound to say there didn’t seem to be much of that fabulous wet stuff in evidence in these ones.

Welwyn Roman Baths, as well as having one of the best entrances in the heritage business, also amuse Mama by being under a motorway. In a steel vault no less. That’s what you get the authorities to do when you find out that the fascinating baths you discovered and have been excavating for ten years are about to have the A1(M) driven right over the top of them. Or at least, that’s what you do if you are Dr Tony Rook. Props to him. Must have been a hell of a fight, says Mama, who has had to negotiate building work with her local council.

Welwyn Roman Baths

The statue on the far right is, apparently, Tony Rook!

The baths are, of course, part of a much larger villa complex, much of which has not been thoroughly explored. But it seems that they were a smaller en suite to the ones probably used by the owner. Still jolly impressive. I could get right into the Roman lifestyle. Apparently they used to spend all afternoon lolling around in the water! Now that’s civilisation.

It helps that Welwyn Roman Baths are surrounded by a wealth of hands on opportunities and displays which really add value to the experience. Without them, we would of course, have looked, nodded seriously at the explanatory placards, but we would also have been out within ten minutes and have forgotten the place almost instantly, even with the H2O interest.

Roman board game at Welwyn Roman Baths

Hours of fun!

With the very child friendly activities, we were able to explore different aspects of the baths – how they were constructed, how people used them and the place they had in Roman culture. There was a focus on Roman life in general, always popular, especially when you get to wear the centurion’s helmet. And there was also quite a lot about how archaeology works, its triumphs and its pitfalls as well. Mama felt that this added up to a pretty immersive experience overall.

Centurion's helmet at Welwyn Roman Baths

This is heavy!

And not everything is just there for the kids. Mama particularly enjoyed the board of Roman era quotes about the public bathing experience. She thinks it’s important to be reminded that people from the past can be just as tartly observational as anyone on Eight Out of Ten Cats.

Roman baby's bottle at Welwyn Roman Baths

Plastic tat eat your heart out!

Mama also enjoyed the audio guide, narrated by Dr Rook no less, something she was actually able to listen to since we were happily occupied by the jigsaw puzzles, the colouring in and the sponge on a stick toilet paper replacement. Getting to listen properly to the audio guide is a thing that almost never happens to Mama, let alone at her leisure.

Not that she really needed the recorded version, because the man himself was pottering around the gallery, and very willing to answer questions, as was the enthusiastic guide looking after the whole experience. In fact, what Mama also particularly appreciated about Welwyn Roman Baths was that when not needed at the desk, the chappie in charge circulated among the visitors and engaged them in conversation. Mama is aware, you see, that docents in historic places of interest are very willing and able to answer questions, but she cannot always think of one to act as an ice breaker so this proactive approach was welcome.

But she would also like to reassure the more retiring visitor that it was also not intrusive.

So all in all, having popped in for what Mama assumed would be a very swift visit we ended up spending well over an hour or so inside, perhaps even longer (Mama failed to time our visit). If you are ever trundling up the A1(M) and see the turn off for Welwyn (it’s the one before Stevenage!), spare a thought to the history you are passing over, and if you happen to be visiting that area, give serious consideration to visiting the baths in person.

More information

Welwyn Roman Baths internet page.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about baths and the art of bathing in the UK.

Address: Welwyn Bypass, Hertfordshire, AL6 9FG

Opening: January through November on Weekends, Bank Holidays and School Holidays from 2pm to 5pm.

Admission: Adults £3.50, children under 16 are free.

By car: Leave the A1(m) at junction 6. It’s right there, give or take a roundabout or two. Free parking exists! There are also toilets and a picnic area on site. No coffee dispensing emporium though.

By public transport: Welwyn Roman Baths are 1.3 miles from Welwyn North station.

Winston Churchill is very famous. You can tell this because his house, Chartwell, belongs to the National Trust and as well as the usual stream of parents with young children and retirees milling about, it also sees whole busloads of actual tourists flocking in to visit it too.

Chartwell, Winston Churchill's house

Which is a shame as Chartwell is a very nice house. A really very nice house. A house so nice, in fact, that it is currently at the very top of places Mama would like to live in. Somehow, however, I do not think the National Trust will be giving it up any time soon.

Chartwell from the swings

Of course, what Winston Churchill is actually famous for, unless it is indeed his house, is a bit of a mystery to me.

Perhaps it is for being an artist. There are a lot of his paintings scattered about the house itself, and even more in a purpose built studio nearby. Yes, he must have been a famous artist. Although if I am honest, I am not at all sure that he was a very good one. Mama was inclined to be polite about them with the very approachable guides, who were full of little anecdotes about Winston’s life and habits at Chartwell. I suspect this is probably damming.

Apparently, he also liked to write. But although Chartwell has a vast number of books, unlike the paintings, very few of them seem to be by the great man himself. I expect this means that it was probably more of a hobby. Certainly his habit of marking the place a book had came from with a small stuffed animal, some of which are still in situ, shows a certain frivolousness of approach.

That said, Mama tells me he mostly went in for weighty historical tomes. I am not quite sure why, if this is the reason he is so revered, Churchill gets more visitors and a much nicer house than Thomas Carlyle, who was also famous for his exceptionally long history books. Unless it has something to do with the fact that Churchill was, I am told, considerably less popular with the unpleasant sounding Hitler than Carlyle.

I am also at a loss as to why people kept giving Churchill presents. There is a whole room at Chartwell devoted to them. I entertained the brief thought that the gift of antique Russian salad bowls from the ever popular Stalin was signalling that Winston Churchill’s area of expertise was, in fact, being a chef, but the kitchen was small and quite basic, so I suspect not.

Very nice conservatory style dining room though. And conveniently close to the food preparation area, unlike the majority of these National Trust historic houses we tour. Perhaps Churchill was a pioneering architect? A wall in the garden with an important looking plaque that says that Winston built it himself with his own two hands, suggests being big in the construction business in someway is a possibility.

He might have been an actor, mind. There’s another room in Chartwell for his collection of costumes, which oddly enough are mostly military in some way. A character actor, then. I’m afraid we lost interest a bit when we discovered we were not allowed to try them on ourselves so I didn’t pay that much attention. Of course, he might just have been a collector. Who seems to have bothered a lot of apparently well known people for signed photographs of themselves over the years. Statesmen mostly. I wonder if Churchill was an impressionist?

What I think is most likely, though, is that Winston Churchill was a naturalist. That’s definitely the angle the National Trust is working in its efforts to entertain us children. We picked up a bird trail from the entrance, although we clearly should have got the insect one too as Chartwell is positively bugtastic.

Bug in brambles at Chartwell

In fact, unlikely as it may seem as a path to international fame, Winston Churchill was clearly a celebrity entomologist, with a particular enthusiasm for butterflies. He even had his own butterfly house to hatch out new cabbage whites for the garden, which the National Trust dutifully keeps well stocked in his memory. We were thrilled to see an actual chrysalis or two while we were there.

Butterfly house at Chartwell

There are also a lot of nesting swallows flitting about the eaves of the roof. But we have those too without any effort whatsoever on Mama’s part, so I do not think that cultivating them was Churchill’s raison d’être, no matter how much we enjoyed watching them.

Plus, there is a much beloved and semi famous cat, Jock, at Chartwell (although NOT in the house itself one of the guides said firmly, when my Outstanding big Brother asked), and surely no serious ornithologist would stand for that, even if he is dead. We, on the other hand, were delighted to spot Jock. My Outstanding Big Brother has a blithe disregard for the available evidence that cats, unlike dogs, take less than kindly to small unknown children bounding up enthusiastically to pet them. Jock was thankfully used to this sort of behavior and tolerated it well.

Jock the cat at Chartwell

Although not, obviously, to the point of actually allowing himself to be stroked.

Still, the bird trail gave my Outstanding Big Brother an excuse to head straight for the ponds to check out the geese, and BLACK SWANS, the latter being particularly thrilling as they are allegedly very aggressive when approached, something which we were of course fully determined to test out as soon as we heard about it.

I dunno, maybe having kids has mellowed them, but they didn’t charge us, even though we got within a good fifty metres of them and their signets before Mama dragged us off to gaze longingly at the swimming pool.

A SWIMMING POOL? Was the man a fitness guru now too?

Either way, Mama coverts that swimming pool. What a view.

The view from the swimming pool at Chartwell

I covert the wendy house. Which also has amazing views. It belonged to one of Chruchill’s daughters originally; now it belongs to the visiting children. To be honest, Mama thinks the wooden fruit, veg and hot dogs in the play kitchen could do with a bit of a refresh as they were looking a bit battered and thin on the ground the last time we went. From this I gather that the one thing Winston Churchill definitely is not famous for was his domesticity, or having children, or having grandchildren.

Of course not, says Mama, who is inclined to add something sharp about the way in which praise of parenting skills is generally considered to be something of a compensation prize for women rather than serious grounds for admiration at this point.

Marycot at Chartwell

As long as my Outstanding Big Brother and I could continue to have a lot of fun coming up with increasingly bizarre culinary combinations for Mama to sample, we were good though. And it’s wonderful how we will enthusiastically participate in a good game of *pretend* to mop, sweep, tidy and clean up. Mama says.

Over the other side of the lake, there is a large field perfect for picnicking in, rolling down or combing through the grass for insects.

Bug in the grass at Chartwell

But the main attraction here are the giant swings hanging from a number of the trees. Suitable for people of all sizes, you can go on slow ones, romantic ones, fast ones, high ones and downright alarming ones, and all of them have more stunning views! Highly recommended.

Swing at Chartwell

There are also some natural play areas in the woods. One is a sort of camp, complete with very comfortable hammocks, and the other is called a Dormouse Den, for reasons which escape all of us, but where you can jump from one wooden mushroom to another. They are lovely cool places to escape the heat of the day if you so wish, or the rain if that is your problem. I am not sure they were actually around in Winston’s day, unlike the swings, but you can certainly discover some really excellent bugs there, which is clearly why they have been built.

Bug on wood at Chartwell

But just as you think you have got Churchill pegged, you realise that what with the swimming pool, the lake and the goldfish pond, Churchill clearly had as much of a thing about water as my Outstanding Big Brother and me. He was a big fan of the pond next to the formal walled gardens (great flowers, mainly the preserve of Churchill’s wife, so at least I was able to rule out plant guru from his list of accomplishments, dunno who was responsible for the orchard and the extensive kitchen garden, and even more wonderful ants, which were presumably Winston’s contribution). Landscape gardener?

Roses at Chartwell

We therefore rounded off our visit in an unusually contemplative manner, sitting and staring meditatively at the large orange bodies milling around just below us, in much the same way Winston Churchill is said to have done while thinking about beetles or somesuch. Could have been there for hours, but Mama declined to brave the rush hour traffic on the M25.

Goldfish pond at Chartwell

Chartwell, then, is clearly a must for all the bug enthusiasts out there looking to see a more personal side of a pioneer of the field, and there sure are a surprisingly large number of them. But Churchill, for all his butterfly prowess, seems to have been a man of many parts, and so practically anyone will find his house and him interesting. In addition, Chartwell is set in such lovely and varied surroundings that should you just want a nice outdoor location to roll around this is a wonderful place to spend time and explore. Definitely worth a visit.

More Information

Chartwell’s page on the National Trust’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the trick that fooled Churchill.

Address: Mapleton Road, Westerham, Kent, TN16 1PS

Opening: 11am to 5pm. You’ll need a timed ticket to visit the house, and on busy days your slot could be several hours after you arrive. The house is closed from November to March, but you can still visit the gardens and the studio.

Admission: Adult: £14.30, child: £7.15, family: £35.75. There are also cheaper tickets for the gardens and the studio only. National Trust members, of course, get in for free.

By car: There is ample parking, which is free for National Trust members. Chartwell is well signposted from the A25, which is off junctions 5 or 6 from the M25.

By public transport: The 246 London bus route runs from Bromley, including Bromley North and Bromley South Stations, to Chartwell. Local stations with trains out of London are at Edenbridge (4 miles away), Oxted and Sevenoaks (6 miles away each).

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

It’s a one room museum, 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.

Brains at the Grant Museum of Zoology

Eclectic is probably the best way to describe it. 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. 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.