Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

Polytechnic Museum entrance

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

It’s currently closed for a total refurbishment.

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

Polytechnic museum pavilion, ornate details

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

We first came to a stop in front of a large TV screen showing a life size image of a scientist pottering about his laboratory. And then he started to talk to us! In Russian, but we were invited (in English) to hold our hands up, in which case he switches to English. I know this because Mama immediately did. The hologram then gives you a little overview of the section you are standing in, with options at the end for you to ask him to explain more about some of the individual exhibits.

It’s FAB.

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

Holograms at Polytechnic Museum

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

She suspects that the designers are trying to be very clever and providing enhancements pitched at different levels of understanding or different levels of interest, rather than make every interactive dodad work for the under tens. As well as the labels for the serious enthusiast, the museum has plenty of child-height tablets showing short visual cartoon clips explaining, for example, the history of communication for the next generation, comfy armchairs which murmur soothingly in your ear about inventions and inventors for the senior citizens, and an array of frankly bonkers artistic interpretations of science for the humanities graduates.

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

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

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

Science is Art at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

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

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

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

Nature-inspired science at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

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

But then, what glory days they were!

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

TV with fishbowl lense at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

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

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

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

Guess who did the asking in our party?

Nuclear bomb at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

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

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

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

More information

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

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

Address: VDNKh, Pavilion #26.

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

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

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

Thomas and Jane Carlyle’s House, London

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

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

Thomas Carlyle and quote about gunpowder

PD via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

Thomas Carlyle and a quote about history

PD via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

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

Thomas Carlyle by Whistler

PD via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

© National Trust / Geff Skippings

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

Duty Calls by xkcd.com

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Carlyle and quote about love

PD via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

More Information

The Carlyle house on the National Trust website.

The Carlyle letters online.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The State Darwin Museum, Moscow

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

Stuffed animals at the State Darwin Museum Moscow

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

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

Stuffed dogs at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

That’s a lot of stuffed dogs.

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

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

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

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

Stuffed big cats at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

Cats and their art.

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

Horse evolution at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

Horses through the ages!

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

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

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

Interactive exhibit at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

“Who did this?”

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

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

Dinosaurs at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

Dinosaur rrrrooooaaaaarrrr!

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

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

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

Early man at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

That man is NAKED Mama!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Information

The State Darwin Museum website (in English).

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

Address: 117292, Moscow, 57/1 Vavilova Ulitsa

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

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

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

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

Moscow River Trip with CCK Riverboats

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

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

Sailing down the river

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

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

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

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

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

The Kremlin Armoury from the Moscow River

Kremlin!

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

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

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

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

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

St Basil's from the Moscow River

Red Square!

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

The Kremlin from the Moscow River

Kremlin again!

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

St Saviour's Cathedral from the Moscow River

Cathedral!

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

The House on the Embankment from the Moscow River

Grim Apartment Block is Grim!

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

Red October Chocolate Factory from the Moscow River

Chocolate!

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

Peter the Great Statue from the Moscow River

Peter!

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

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

People sitting on a bridge over the Moscow River

Do Not Try This At Home Folks!

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

Skyscrapers from the Moscow River

Money Money Money!

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

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

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

More Information

The CCK riverboat website (in English).

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

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

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

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

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

Red Square, Moscow

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

Red Square, Moscow

Big, huh?

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

GUM, Red Square, Moscow

It’s not red!

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

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

This is not the Kremlin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

Onion domes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lenin's Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow

Lenin lives here.

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

Inside GUM, Red Square, Moscow

Roof!

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

Air con in GUM, Red Square, Moscow

Misty!

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

Flower carpt in GUM, Red Square, Moscow

Flowers!

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

More Information

St Basil’s website (English).

Lenin’s Mausoleum website (English).

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

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

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

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

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

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, Moscow

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

Soviet space programme mural

Space! The final frontier!

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

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

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

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

Belka and Strelka in the (stuffed) flesh.

Belka and Strelka in the (stuffed) flesh.

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

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics main gallery

Shiny shiny shiny

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

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

First gallery in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Shiny shiny shiny

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

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

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

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

Engineering genius on display

Engineering genius on display

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

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

The rocket sculpture above the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Wheeeeeeeeeeee!

More information

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics’ website.

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

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

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

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

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

By other means: Don’t be silly.

Summer Exhibition 2014, Royal Academy of Arts, London

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

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

The Summer Exhibition, formerly at Somerset House

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

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

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

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

Photo by Benedict Johnson, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts

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

Summer Exhibition 2014 at the Royal Academy of Arts

Photo by Benedict Johnson, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts

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

Summer Exhibition 2014 at Royal Academy of Arts

Photo by Benedict Johnson, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Information

The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2014 website.

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

Address: Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD

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

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

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

By bus: Lots of buses!

By car: Just don’t.

WWT London Wetland Centre

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

A swan and signets on a lake

Ducks!

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

A line of waterbirds

Ducks!

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

Black swans

Ducks!

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

An otter diving for food

Not a duck!

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

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

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

Insect hotels

Duck houses?

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

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

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

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

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

Entrance to a sewer exhibition that looks like a plughole

Poo!

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

Indoor fairground style games at the WWT London Wetland Centre

Water play!

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

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

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

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

Water birds at London Wetland Centre

More ducks!

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

Living willow wigwams

Duck houses?

And! Mama has saved the best for last.

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

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

But that is a story for another day.

More Information

The WWT London Wetland Centre website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By car: Ample FREE car parking! Yay!

RAF Museum, Hendon, London

Every now and again Mama realises that there are places to go in London which do not have anything to do with animals. One of those is the RAF Museum in Hendon, which is full of planes.

The Spitfire outside the RAF Museum, Hendon

Copyright Alan Wilson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It also has a really big car park. I think that if Mama found out somewhere had a really big car park in London she would visit it no matter what it contained. Admittedly, the car park at the RAF Museum is not free, but neither does it require lots of the shiny metal things Mama hordes so assiduously, and the museum itself does not charge for entry, so Mama doesn’t seem to mind. If you do, there is a limited amount of free parking on some of the streets round about. Or, y’know, public transport, which might be a better option if, unlike us, you are not going on a Sunday. We have only ever visited on a Sunday. If you have to travel all across London by car, reasonably early on Sunday morning is the time to do it. Mama says.

The first section is the one with the older flying contraptions. You can walk around the gallery at the top and observe the ones suspended from the ceiling but that’s not the main point of the place. No, the real attraction is that they have these REALLY AMAZING interactive touch screen information points, which I could play with forever. Press this, see the picture change, press that, see the picture change, press this, the picture rotates, press that and the picture stops rotating, press this, see the picture change, press that, hey Mama, pick me up again! I wanna press the buttons! Yes, there is a design flaw. You have to be a bit bigger than I was the first time we went to reach it all easily. But I’m getting there now! Next time it will be impossible to tear me away!

The ground floor allows you to get up close and personal with the plane undercarriages. Not that up close, though, as they are rather lacksidasically guarded by rope barriers. Someone really needs to do something about them. They seem to keep out the adults well enough but they are very easy for todders to climb over or slide under. Small people can have a lot of fun flaunting our amazing ability by cavorting just out of grabbing reach underneath the planes.

However, I am not entirely convinced all of the contraptions displayed in this area would really fly. The looked quite flimsy. We also discussed our favourite. The consensus of opinion was that we liked the one with the checked looking pattern in purple and green. Because it was pretty. Mama thought about pointing out the paintwork might have another purpose, but she suspected she might be overruled.

Then we went into a new hanger. The planes here were much bigger and rather less colourful. Even big people seem overawed by the sheer hugeness of some of them. It took quite a while to go round and see all of them, but that was just fine. There was plenty of room to run about, so it wasn’t necessary to find our own fun by hurdling the barriers too often. Because we were there quite early, we were allowed a moderate amount of overexcited shrieking, and even as it started to fill up later in the day, it never got really crowded.

The very very big Lancaster Bomber at the RAF Museum, Hendon

Copyright Michael Reeve (CC BY-SA 3.0 and GNU FDL)

Popular flying machines included the maaaahooooosive great back monster aeroplane Mama says was for dropping things out of, an elegant varnished wooden one with brass fittings that looked like it should be a yacht for discerning rich people, the huge plane with raked back wings and scooped out with the TV inside showing how impressive a whole bunch of them looked taking off, the plane with its nose painted to look like a shark, which my Incredible Big Brother dragged us over to see specially, the one which had spent a great deal of time at the bottom of a lake and whose metalwork had gone an intriguing colour as a result, and ALL the toy ones in the shop, which is cunningly situated at the exit. We avoided it by trecking us back the way we had come and going out the entrance the next time we came.

If you start to get too rowdy, the grown ups can take you to where there is an extensive play area at the back, with a whole bunch of child sized cockpits you can pretend to drive, various machines which have a wide range of button pressing or handle turning opportunities, some flying ping pong balls, the opportunity to fire a parcel out of a plane at a target, a bit of shape sorting, and other such things. We were happy. Mama seemed a bit disappointed that neither me nor my Superlative Big Brother came up to a line on the wall next to a large box which kept flinging itself around every time someone gave it some of the round metal things. Mama says it is a flight simulator, whatever that is, and she is clearly determined that one of us will want to have a go on it someday. I am not so sure.

There are also tables for eating your lunch on, and a cafe too not far away, right in the middle of some helicopters. Mama also discovered that you can get coffee in a takeaway cup to bring over to the picnic area, so basically, the refreshment options are pretty good all round.

In fact, the only problem with the play space is that it has two exits. Mama really wishes that in dedicated play areas she could let us go out of sight and relax with her coffee safe in the knowledge that we haven’t escaped the child-friendly section and are being sticky all over delicate paintwork somewhere else. But then I fell out of a plane on my head the time she tried being laid back, so hey. It’s probably best if she follows us around closely at all times anyway.

Anyway. The RAF Museum London. if your children like planes the way we like animals and horses, this place is an absolute must visit. But even if they don’t, a bunch of grounded aircraft are a lot more interesting than you might think. In addition, it’s certainly not as busy as the big central London museums, but there is just as much floor space to get some much needed exercise. The (indoor) play area is good too. And don;t forget about the car park! Perfect, says Mama, for rainy days.

PS: Mama cannot find any photos of the RAF Museum. Either she is having a senior moment, which is possible as she is really really old, or the museum is SO GOOD that she forgot to take any. Whichever it is, we will be forced to return for pictures. Wheeeeee!

Image credits

The Spitfire: Copyright Alan Wilson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Lancaster Bomber: Copyright Michael Reeve ( CC BY-SA 3.0 and GNU FDL)

More Information

The RAF Museum, Hendon’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Supermarine Spitfire aircraft.

Address: Grahame Park Way, London. Use the postcode NW9 5QW for your satnav.

Opening: 10am -6pm.

Price: Free (apart from the car park).

By tube: Colindale (Northern Line). Do NOT get off at Hendon Central.

By train: Mill Hill Broadway (15 mins walk) on the Luton/Kings Cross/Thameslink line.

By bus: The 303 bus goes directly past.

By car: Yes! You can go by car! There’s a car park! It costs up to £4 but it is TOTALLY WORTH IT (says Mama).

Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, London

Hyde Park is big. It’s not as big as Richmond ‘the Poo’ Park or, y’know, space, but it is nevertheless big and particularly big for the purposes of this guide as Mama says I should include Kensington Gardens as well. No-one, she insists, really knows where one stops and the other begins anyway, certainly not her. So, Hyde Park (with Kensington Gardens) is very big indeed, a fact which is important for Londoners, most of whom do not have gardens to call their own. At the slightest hint of sun they will therefore head for a park en masse, and since the capital would probably give space a run for its money, it’s good that there is still room to move about in this very central open space despite the very large numbers of people who frequent it, lounging around on the grass; picnicking; playing football; contorting themselves into odd shapes while someone shouts at them; riding bikes; scooting on scooters; rolling on rollerblades; walking on tightropes; walking their dogs; or just wandering aimlessly about. Like us.

Hyde Park/ Kensington Gardens

Mostly our walks begin in the middle of the southern side, hoping for a sight of horses as we cross the sand-covered riding track, which runs right round the park and harks back to its days as the place for the great, the good and the beautiful to display themselves on horseback and in carriages to all and gossips. Horses happen quite often, actually. There are a couple of stables dotted around and, of course, the Horseguard Barracks right next door. We see the mounted soldiers exercising their nags, trotting back from changing the guard or, on really exciting days, practising for some big ceremonial outing. Clearly being in the army must be GREAT! I am thinking of joining, although I don’t see any girls up there. Probably they only bother with the very special occasions. But what with this, the casual trotters and dressage squares on both the north and south sides where you can hang around watching horses dance, all in all, Hyde Park (with Kensington Gardens) is a pretty good hunting ground for small equestrian-obsessed children. Like me!

The Albert Memorial run is the one we do if we are in a hurry. Mama says it was built by a Queen to remember her husband. He must have been very nice because it certainly is a very big sort of statue. I am going to be a Queen when I grow up. I thought about being a Princess because, dresses! Also, pink! Then I realised Kings get to ride more horses. But Queens are clearly the most important, so that’s the best job. The Memorial displays all the restrained taste and subtlety of which the Victorian age is known for (says Mama), and the fact that Albert is covered from head to foot in gold leaf and makes Papa, the Russian, feel right at home.  Public art that stands still for too long in Russia always gets covered by gold leaf. As a result, the Albert Memorial is the only bit of statuary in London Papa approves of.

Gold leaf covered Albert Memorial from behind

Behind the statue is the Flower Walk. It is an excellent route for toddlers, having broad, well-paved pathways, fences to prevent the plant life from getting carried away and savaging us, and a total absence of water features as long as you avoid the giant dog bowl at the bottom end. Also, everybody feeds the squirrels, and often they let us help. Those little guys are really friendly! They’ll come right up and take the nuts out of your hands! It’s a bit confusing because I thought the ‘do not’ on the signs means that it’s not allowed, but I must have been wrong. This language learning business is very hard.

Kensington Gardens

Then there is the Diana Memorial Fountain option. Mama says Diana was a Princess, but that can’t be true because there isn’t any pink. Mama first came across it in its early stages, back when she didn’t have kids and it spent six months cordoned off for not working properly. She was not impressed, and not just because of it being mostly white. Now we are all big fans (except of the colour). Of course, it remains more of a low lying circular cannalette than anything else, and certainly not, in the absence of your actual spurting water, a fountain. But they have fixed whatever the plumbing problems were, and it has become a pretty cool hangout on a nice sunny day. People sit on the wide stone edging, wade round and round the waters, or just picnic on the surrounding grass. There are a lot of kids, most of them wet, but it’s not all families and that is rather nice too. Best of all, up close the stream is interestingly textured with different flow patterns and in places even loud and oddly musical. Mama says that if you absolutely have to have open water for children to fall into in every park in Britain, and it appears to Mama that you do, this is the one she can tolerate, even if it does mean bringing along a spare set of clothes.

She thinks the nearby Serpentine lake, however, is best avoided with two water obsessed offspring. Mama is particularly adamant about this after she had to fish my Incredible Big Brother’s scooter out of the water not once but twice on one particularly tedious trip all the way round. So we generally depart the waterside briskly after hanging over a decently fenced off section admiring the ducklings and goslings and signets, pausing only to see if anyone is braving the waters in the special pool-like area. Mama tells me that you have to be a member of some club to actually get in the water. I think this is just an excuse and plan on testing the theory as soon as I can escape and fling myself in. In the meantime, we usually end up at the playground back up near the east end of the lake, down by the Horseguard baracks. It has a coffee dispensing kiosk right outside, so everyone is happy, at least in the summer months.

At one time, when Mama had all the time in the world and no school runs to do, we used to go up to the Round Pond via one of the Serpentine Gallery buildings. Even through the Gallery sometimes. Everybody likes rooms with large screens showing rather incomprehensible films about a music box.

Back in his dissolute youth, the Round Pond was much beloved of my Incredible Big Brother, who would spend many happy hours herding any water birds which had the temerity to set webbed foot on land back into what he considers to be their only permissible habitat. The tourists who had got lost on their way from Kensington Palace to the Diana Memorial Fountain loved this kind of behaviour and took whole memory sticks full of pictures of a line of grown swans waddling, cowed, in front of a determined small boy. Nowadays, it’s mostly me trying to tree a squirrel they like to film. If anyone reading this has found themselves being shown pictures of extravagantly photogenic children harassing wildlife in Hyde Park (or Kensington Gardens) from a returnee from the Sceptred Isles, Hi from me and my Incredible Big Brother.

If we are up in this North West sort of area now, we would probably be going to the Diana Memorial Playground. In many ways it is an excellent playground, although, again, where is the pink? Don’t they know princess stuff must be smothered in pink? Ditto, frills? Instead there’s a huge sandpit, some really good slides, swings and climbing frames, and best of all a gigantic pirate ship, all divided up into different areas separated by high grassy banks or really big bushes. Of course, Mama likes to be able to keep half an eye on my Incredible Big Brother whilst following me around wherever my whimsy takes me and this is pretty much impossible with the Diana Memorial Playground. Mama is therefore forced to choose between being the helicopter Mama she likes to pretend she isn’t or the momentarily panic of not being able to find one of her children because he is sitting under a bush recruiting the other under tens in a plot to take over the world. Or finding bugs. Whichever you think is more likely. Either way, it’s stressful, and she is almost always forced to fortify herself at the large refreshments booth outside afterwards. I recommend the ice cream. Mama likes the coffee.

Recently we have discovered the Italian gardens, which surprisingly has nothing whatsoever to do with any member of a royal family. As far as Mama knows. They do have square ponds and real fountains with shooty water though. Also, some really big stone cups. This must be where the giants hang. They should take their rubbish with them. I like to scoot round and round and throw leaves in the water, which Mama suspects pleases the people who have to keep the place tidy not at all, so we always end up having a bit of an argument about that. Mama probably feels they have enough to do trying to shift the giant leftovers but I say this is not my problem.

Apparently, there is a famous statue of a small unruly boy around here somewhere. We haven’t found it yet but I think it is unfair. Why are they putting up monuments to my Incredible Big Brother and not me, I would like to know?

Anyway, Hyde Park (with Kensington Gardens). Mama has never actually taken a trip here simply to go to the park, although it is a great park, huge, lots to do, busy but not hopelessly crowded. But it’s near to quite a few of the places your big people might insist on taking you to in London, so if that has all become too much, you can restore yourself by running around and shouting to your hearts content here. If you don’t happen to have a first class park within easy reach, you could easily spend a day here just because. And if it is your local park, lucky old you.

More Information

The Hyde Park website.

The Kensington Gardens website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Diana, Princess of Wales, and the power of myth.

Address: Hyde Park’s postcode is W2 2UH.

Opening: 5am to midnight.

Price: Free.

By tube: Bayswater (District Line), Lancaster Gate (Central Line), Marble Arch (Central Line), Hyde Park Corner (Piccadilly Line), Knightsbridge (Piccadilly Line), High Street Kensington (Circle and District Lines).

By bus: North London: 6, 7, 10, 16, 52, 73, 82, 390, 414. South London: 2, 36, 137, 436. West London: 9, 10, 14, 19, 22, 52, 74, 148, 414. East London: 8, 15, 30, 38, 274.

By car: Actually, Pay and Display parking is available on West Carriage Drive and in car parks at either end of Serpentine Bridge. It’s not ruinously expensive either. But places are limited, and there’s maximum four hours stay Monday-Saturday. You still have to pay on Sundays, but there is no maximum stay.