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.

The Natural History Museum, London

The Natural History Museum is my Brilliant Big Brother’s choice. He is very very keen on animals. And dinosaurs. So regular visits here are a bit of an inevitability.

The Natural History Museum from the outside

Dino world, here we come!

The problem with this, from Mama’s point of view, is that my Brilliant Big Brother is actually interested in the exhibits. He wants to stop, and look at them, and discuss them. I, however, am not. I want to run around and find something random to fixate on, like a rope barrier (oooooh) or a leaflet holder (aaaaaah).  FIRE EXTINGUISHERS! IT DOESN’T GET BETTER THAN FIRE EXTINGUISHERS!!!

This means that Mama is constantly either having to coral me in the pushchair or drag my Brilliant Big Brother away from a stuffed swan, plaster of Paris crocodile or fossilised triceratops. Both of us end up feeling that Mama is an unreasonable old whatsit and are not afraid of making our opinions on this subject known.

Still, we usually manage to spend a certain amount of time in the usually exceptionally crowded bird hall, where Mama, the career teacher, simply cannot restrain herself and insists on setting my Brilliant Big Brother questions designed to better his understanding of how animals work. ‘Which birds,’ she is wont to ask, ‘eat meat? How do you know? Lookatthebeaklookatthebeak’ This is sometimes successful, sometimes not, and sometimes my Brilliant Big Brother silences her by keeping up a running commentary of random factoids about the lives and loves of the feathered exhibits himself.

Stuffed dodos in a display case

Dodos!

My Brilliant Big Brother, you see, pays close attention to nature programmes. Mama, on the other hand, thinks that nature in its entirety goes ‘they have sex and then something eats the really cute baby’ and that this is especially true if you watch David Attenborough’s Planet series. Except that in the programmes it is done to ominous music. Nature missing a trick there. Mama, basically, finds the animal world both boringly predictable and excruciatingly traumatic. My Brilliant Big Brother does not.  Therefore, in a fauna fact-off, my Brilliant Big Brother always wins.

A blue whale and other animals at the Natural History Museum

That’s not a *real* whale, you know.

It should come as no surprise then that the mammal room is also popular. My Brilliant Big Brother finds the elephants in various stages of evolution fascinating. Similarly the fish corridor. With added crocodiles! And the bit with the giant sloth (it’s GIANT!). And the bug exhibition. With your actual leaf cutter ants carrying your actual leaves. Although he also thinks the case explaining the difference between centipedes and millipedes (not as obvious as you might think, Mama says) pretty essential. And… well, let’s just say that all the bits with any kind of animal are equally as thrilling to my Brilliant Big Brother, and, unfortunately, equally as packed with other nature obsessed big children and so equally as unfriendly to wide-roaming toddlers as each other.

Giant prehistoric sloth at the Natural History Museum

GIANT SLOTH IS GIANT!

Except the dinosaur exhibition, which is even more so. In fact, Mama recommends that the Natural History Museum should be avoided at weekends*, during school holidays and especially in half term, when everybody with children within reach of London decides to visit in the space of one week. Not only are there lengthy queues to get into the place, but the entire entrance hall is given over to the hour-long line of people waiting to go and see the animatronic T-Rex, with only the admittedly impressive Gothic detailing and the huge, iconic diplodocus skeleton to entertain them.

Entrance hall and Diplodocus skeleton at the Natural History Museum

An unusually empty day at the Natural History Museum.

Actually it can be quite entertaining. They’ve rigged the massive plant eater so that you can light it up different colours and even make it roar. But only if you pay an extortionate sum of money, which Mama, well, Mama doesn’t. Of course, if you should make a half term visit there will be many many desperate parents, and so the roar gets played quite often anyway. Still, this does not compensate you, in Mama’s opinion, for the wait, especially when it is followed by the news that the lift to the walkway you have to use in order to reach model dino heaven is out of order and no, you cannot just abandon the pushchair here and come back for it later.

Gothic details at the Natural History Museum

Cool, eh?

Of course, the T-Rex is almost worth it in Mama’s opinion and TOTALLY worth it in my Brilliant Big Brother’s, which is why we all keep coming back and back. I am less convinced, being much of the opinion of my Brilliant Big Brother on his first visit (< wobbly voice > “Teef, Mama, TEEF!”< /wobbly voice>), but I am generally overruled.

The animatronic T-Rex at the Natural History Museum

Teeeef!

There’s also a whole other bunch of galleries about the earth, the environment and, I dunno, plants and such, but we only go there when my Brilliant Big Brother thinks they might have hidden a few more animals in them or when Mama is trying to make me fall asleep. Not even being in a real earthquake or making your own clouds really compensates for the lack of furry/scaly action. Although the rocks room is a hit. To Mama one bit of quartz looks very much like another, but she says Granny, the geologist, should be proud that her grandson can spend hours and hours and hours in there getting Mama to read the captions (“Quartz. Quartz with iron. Quartz with copper. Quartz quartz. Quartz with gold. Oooh. Quartz.”) and I am happy because it is really quiet up there and Mama let’s me play hide and seek round the quartz cases. Granny must really like quartz. I wonder what she does with it?

The quartz room at the Natural History Museum

Quartzquartzquartzquartzquartzquartzquartz!

And so to the coffee, or not because Mama rarely stops for refreshments inside. The cafes are too open plan and busy for someone with over-stimulated children who will probably run off in different directions just as she has taken her first sip of the warm brown drink she seems to like to much. If you must go, the one in the Darwin Centre is probably the quietest. There’s also a restaurant, but that is particularly expensive and even a balloon per child cannot make up for that. Says Mama. The best option on rainy days is the basement, where there is a vast lunch room for school parties and other picnickers. It even has a small coffee shop at one end! On better days, there is a nice bit of grass outside and it even has its own snack kiosk and, in summer, a carousel. In good weather there is also a stall selling ice-creams at the entrance to the nature garden, a small wildlife preserve of overgrown foliage, twisty pathways and water features, with which my Brilliant Big Brother and I like to end our visit to the museum. You aren’t supposed to picnic there though.

Stone monkey climbing the walls of the Natural History Museum

Awww. Cute, innit?

Anyway. The Natural History Museum is an essential on any list of places to visit in London for children of all ages. Mama will just have to continue sucking up the drawbacks and start bribing me with the promise of dinosaur toys, because we will be regulars here for some time to come.

*Except for the last half term before the summer holidays. Mama reckons people are saving it up. Go then, if you are trapped by school. Unlike me. Nyahnyahnyahnyahnya.

More Information

The Natural History Museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about dodos – an extinct bird.

Address: Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD

Opening: 10.00 – 18.00 every day.

Admission: Free

By Tube: South Kensington (District, Circle and Piccadilly lines). 

By Bus: The 360 stops on Exhibition Road. The 14, 49, 70, 74, 345, 414, 430 and C1 stop at South Kensington.  

By Car: *sigh*

Imperial Festival, Imperial College, London

On one level, you can see the Imperial Festival, when Imperial College London invites its alumni and the general public to come and see what research it has been doing lately, as just a series of fun activities for kids, albeit a LOT of activities, which are HUGE amounts of fun.

A scientist dips a hose funnelling dry ice fumes into washing up liquid

Fun! For everyone!

While we were there we stuck our hands into bowls of slimy snot; we had close up views of creepy crawlies such as a tarantula, some earthworms, a scorpion, and a giant millipede; we made water dance by rubbing the sides of a bowl; we crafted lollipop stick antibodies; we rode on a mechanical horse; we raced plastic tag boats powered by washing up liquid; we blow-painted pictures of our lungs; we set up dominoes and knocked them down to simulate a flu epidemic; we fished for good and bad bugs; we added to a chalk mural on the street; we used a xylophone to make slime dance; we extracted and admired our own DNA; we helped colour in a giant fresco; we fed computerised bacteria; we knitted arteries; we watched someone make bubbles out of frozen smoke. And we certainly did not do all of the things on offer, but since they practically had to throw us out of the place about half an hour after the official ending of the event, that certainly wasn’t through lack of interest.

Children crafting lollipop antibodies

To the glitter glue table!

But the Imperial Festival is much more than that.

Swabbing the inside of your mouth to extract your own DNA

Budding scientists extract their own DNA

Magic, Mama thinks, is frustrating. The whole point of the tricks is that you don’t get to find out how it is done, and Mama hates this with a passion. Sense of wonderment? Bah. She says. Science as done by the Imperial Festival, on the other hand, is great. This is because while the many many experiments, interactive demonstrations and straight explanations are, to Mama, pretty indistinguishable from magic at first glance, the whole point of them is to make the inexplicable, ‘splicable, and what is more there were actual researchers on hand she could quiz until she had total satisfaction. The activities were, in fact, well chosen to provide a gateway to the research and did indeed serve as excellent conversation starters for small people and big people alike.

Creepy crawlies in tanks

We spent hours looking at the bugs, and when I say we, I mean my Bestest Big Brother

Given the sheer variety of topics on offer, it would be virtually impossible for nothing to fire the imagination enough to inquire further. My Bestest Big Brother got to ask people who actually know the answers questions about germs, a topic he has been plaguing Mama with recently. Meanwhile Mama found herself fascinated by the Bacterial Nanotechnology stand even if she did blot her copybook by asking what the point of spending fifteen years refining technology so that scientists could see the mechanisms by which bacteria propel themselves in ever clearer detail actually was. She did rather enjoy the fact that this showed signs of developing into a spirited discussion amongst the researchers manning the stall themselves though.

But the clear win for the Imperial Festival’s overall inspirational quality is that my Bestest Big Brother has been devising and conducting experiments or at least observations, frequently involving copious amounts of water (funny that), but sometimes designed to answer a question about animals, all week since. In addition, Mama did not do a headcount of girl researchers/ students vs boy researchers/ students, but certainly any child attending this event would not for a moment get the impression that science and engineering are boys’ subjects.

Admittedly, you probably have to be a bit older than me to get the most out of it. I still enjoyed it (once I’d had a nap). Water play, woohoo! Etc. Although I do not know why all the adults were smirking as I used my stick to push the boat across the bowl rather than whatever the heck they meant me to do. The thing moved! What more do you want?

Anyway. Basically, Mama fully intends to find out when next year’s Imperial Festival is on, and move heaven and earth to attend. She also plans to lobby Bestest Big Brother’s school about attending the pre-festival schools’ programme and sell it enthusiastically to anyone who has kids from about five upwards, and, in fact, anyone who doesn’t have kids too. It ran into the lateish evening on the Friday, so adults should have a clear shot at the stalls without having to fight their way through a wall of small fascinated bodies. You could go on the tours round the labs and attend some talks too. Just don’t tell Mama, she’ll only be jealous.

A steampunkesque robot dragon

A GIANT RED ROBOT DRAGON!

If you need any more inducement, the food options were pretty good too, if a little dampened by showers and driving winds, with some extensively stocked stalls and a pop-up pub. While you are eating (or drinking) you can watch the belly dancers. Or listen to the band. Or the other band. Or the other other band. Or the choir. Or watch the street dancers. Or the dance theatre troupe. Plenty of uncomplicated entertainment. I bopped along. I cavorted. I got underfoot. I ate chips. Hours of fun.

Highly recommended. #ImpFest 2015 awaits. Go!

More Information

The Imperial Festival’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about what do scientists know anyway: systematic reviews and meta analysis.

Address: Imperial College, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, SW7 2AZ.

Opening: Friday 9th and Saturday 10th May 2014

Price: Free!

By tube: South Kensington (District, Circle and Piccadilly lines). There is a subway walk that runs directly from the station to the entrance to the campus.

By bus: The 360 stops right outside the campus. The 14, 49, 70, 74, 345, 414, 430 and C1 stop at South Kensington. The 9, 10, 52, 452 and 70 stop at the Royal Albert Hall (five minutes away). 

By car: Don’t bother. Mama says. Emphatically.

The Science Museum, London

We go to the Science Museum a lot. This is because Mama finds herself in South Kensington with me waiting around for my Fabulous Big Brother to be culturally and linguistically indoctrinated at his Russian school quite often. So when it’s raining she often takes me here on the grounds that some of the rooms are really big and there is plenty of space to run around. Of course, sometimes she takes me here when it is sunny too. This is because if you want to go to the Science Museum on a weekend, you can avoid some of the worst of the crowds by picking a time when everybody else will have gone to the park. Sadly there isn’t much you can do about the crush in the shorter school holidays, but luckily the children will probably still enjoy themselves. Mama says, resignedly.

Bicycles hanging over the entrance to the Science Museum

Welcome to the Science Museum, give us all your money now.

I really like the Space bit. It’s dark and mysterious with odd things dangling from the ceiling. One of the first things both my Fabulous Big Brother as a toddler and now I make a beeline for is the diorama on the left, mainly because it has that rarest of things, a step up specially so we of under average height can actually see it. Mama tells me it shows the launch of one of the first rockets EVAH but also that it is basically one big bomb. She is therefore a bit miffed that she cannot embellish our interest further with a nice improving story. Still, I also like the big revolving ball hanging, apparently, freely in thin air, where they project what Mama calls satellite images of different aspects of terrestrial life as seen from space. Mama is quite entranced by the one where everybody switches their lights on, one by one, all over the world. I just want to know how I can get it down and throw it around.

The moon landing vehicle at the Science Museum

Check out the big US flag!

Sometimes, usually when Papa is with us, we play hunt the Russian references. This is surprisingly difficult given that, Papa rants, the Russians did almost everything in space first. Except land on the moon, Papa! Interestingly, the moon landing apparatus happens to be one of the focal points of the whole room. What can you do? That big car is shiny shiny shiny!

The Science Museum display about Yuri Gagarin

The extensive first man in space display at the Science Museum.

We started spending less time in the room with all the cars, trains, boats and weaving looms after I learned to walk. Mama was told off once too often for letting me touch the machinery. This is a great shame as I love machinery, and the plinths are at a very inviting height for exploring toddlers. They have even added a bit of exciting challenge in the flimsy string barrier, a challenge I was more than happy to take up. I recommend sliding underneath. Or flinging yourself wildly over the top.

The Making the Modern World gallery at the Science Museum

That is NOT the first steam engine.

Nowadays  I make sure to rush Mama past it, partly because I know about the play area on the other side and partly because if I stand still for long enough, Mama will yet again tell me how although the centrally placed Rocket is the most famous early steam locomotive, it wasn’t the first. The first one is over there, shoved out of the way in a corner. Which is, in its way, also significant. But then this will cause her to segue into a rant about how, whilst she, the early modern specialist with time to spare as she waited to see if I would get to touch the early Ford before the guard rugby tackled me or not, has given considerable thought to why each of the items in the room is there, she does feel that there could be a little more focus in the room itself as to the importance of the items on display and their placement.

This is why Mama needs me and my Fabulous Big Brother around to entertain her in such places, I say. Also, when would she have the chance to read explanatory placarding these days anyway?

Sometimes Mama takes me upstairs, especially when the Museum has a temporary exhibition on. She may be sniffy about what the website calls the ‘objects rich’ galleries (hahahaha. Oh deary me. Mama says) but some of the Science Museum’s exhibits in passing are as whacky as anything you find in the Tate Modern and considerably more grounded in something inherently interesting. Mama thinks.

Her favourite of recent times was the anatomy of an orchestra they put on, which led to strains of the Planet Suite by Holst randomly echoing round the ground floor. Mama enjoyed very much the experience of going through different ‘rooms’ and sitting with different sections of the orchestra, listening to the music from each instrument’s point of view. There were also some interactive elements, but Mama couldn’t get the hang of conducting and so we went and sat in the bass section so Mama could relive her youth playing in the coolest section of the orchestra. Until the school party in the percussion section got their hands on the drums, symbols, more drums, more symbols and a few more drums and really let fly right in the middle of the war section, startling me something wicked. Oh how I cried and clung to Mama as she hastened out of there, her hands over my ears. Still, also an authentic experience, Mama says. The brass section in particular were invented to deafen the basses.

Also somewhere on the upper floors is a play area for older children called the Launch Pad  with all sorts of hands on activities with a vague connection to something scientific. Mama does not like this area. It is absolutely heaving with large bodies and she has no hope of keeping an eye on both me and my Fabulous Big Brother at the same time. Especially as I can’t reach anything and just want to run around getting underfoot. There are plenty of buttons to push and computer screens to stare at and stab elsewhere up there though, even if the point of the displays does rather escape me, and it is well worth having a stroll around.

But the highlight of the Science Museum from my point of view are the two interactive areas for the under tens. Mama is a bit trepidatious about the one called the Garden. This is a secret play area, secret because the signage in the museum is a bit coy and unless you know what the Garden is you would probably never go down to the basement there and find out. All that’s there apart from the Garden is the picnic area for schools, a small coffee shop, some lecture theatres and the domestic appliances exhibition, which is almost always deserted. This is a shame, Mama feels. Early models of washing machines she can get quite enthusiastic about without further prompting, especially as there are more buttons to push so you can watch them spinning around. And the coffee shop is usually uncroweded and serves, well, it serves coffee. What more do you want? Anyway. The Garden. Yes, well, the thing about the Garden is that somebody decided that a really extensive and engrossing water section would be a good idea and when she first took my Fabulous Big Brother there, all unsuspecting like, Mama ended up having to hold him under the hand dryer in the toilets for forty five minutes to get him dry again. Nowadays we don’t go there unless it’s a really sunny day or Mama has bought a spare set of clothes because I, too, love splashing about in water with no regard for my clothing whatsoever.

Water play at the Science Museum

Those orange overalls do not protect clothes as well as you might think.

There’s also a bit where the Science Museum has decided to teach us about the futility and repetitive nature of our future lives as working stiffs, where we load up a wheelbarrow with bean bags, haul them up in a pulley driven bucket, slide them down a shute, load up the wheelbarrow again, fill up the bucket, tip them down the shute, load up the wheelbarrow… Mama seems surprised by how popular this is, but she clearly doesn’t know how thrilling it is to organise your minions into a smoothly operating machine, all doing exactly what you say and keeping you well supplied with all the bean bags you can eat.

The rest of the Garden pales into insignificance beside these two bits of equipment, but then we have plenty of big lego at home. Mama enjoys hitting the sound making objects, so I usually indulge her a bit in that, and less energetic children might enjoy the den with the soft toys or the self service puppet theatre.

The Pattern Pod is another play area for younger visitors on the ground floor just beyond Mama’s favourite Modern World extravaganza. When it’s not too busy and you can get a decent go on all of the equipment it is GREAT but that’s really only happened once or twice. I really like trying to catch the projected fish in the projected fish pool on the floor which RIPPLES WHEN YOU JUMP ON IT (finally, says Mama, water play which does not involve any dampness!), and putting ‘seed’ tiles into slots to make different patterns grow on the walls. I will also spend hours putting different geometric shapes together to make aeroplanes. But the best bit is the dancing room. They play you music, you bop around and your picture appears on the wall overlayed with different psychedelic effects. Even Mama wanted to have a go at that but she’s too big – the image is just one big blur. My height is perfect, which is not a sentence you get to type about museums on a regular basis.

The Pattern Pod at the Science Museum

It could be 1960 all over again.

Mama’s only reservation about the Pattern Pod, aside from a big sulk about her size not being adequately catered for, is that there are two exits, and she maintains that her paranoia about not being able to keep both of us under full surveillance when it is busy and one of us leaving from the other one and getting lost is perfectly reasonable, even though we have never shown the least inclination to do such a thing so far. There is a place to park pushchairs in both the Garden and the Pattern Pod, so at least Mama is free to chase after us unencumbered should she need to, for which she is duly thankful.

There are, of course, cafés. The one in the basement is always surprisingly quiet, and so is definitely worth a visit if a fix of caffeine and cake is all your big people need. Mama’s other favourite is called the Energy Café. It’s in the first gallery, the one with all the early steam engines, the ones that weren’t used for locomotives. Mama loves that they have the biggest one working at weekends (and holidays?) so much that she sometimes pops in just for that. It’s something about the noise, she says, and the smell, all hot oil and metal. In the cafe, Mama recommends the generous salad plate, which I like a good nibble off too. And the coffee is ok. She says. You have to play hunt the child high chair a bit sometimes, but now that I am bigger and spurn high chairs, this is less of an issue. The restaurant at the back of the ground floor we haven’t been to. But it is very blue and luminous, which looks lovely.

The Science Museum is huge and has a huge variety of different exhibits which we have only really scratched the surface of, despite our many visits. The top floors have a lot more for the bigger kids, and when we have my Fabulous Big Brother with us again, I suspect we will be spending more and more time up there. There are also a lot of shows and 3D film experiences and so on and I can see from her longing looks at the posters that Mama is just itching for us to grow up a bit so she can go to all of them. As is it is, I highly recommend the Science Museum for really young kids for the play areas alone. But those are not the only reasons I like it, and I am always happy to go, to the extent of gesticulating wildly in its general direction if Mama tries to nip past it to go and look at dinosaurs.

For example.

More Information

The Sceince Museum’s  every daywebsite.

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

Address: Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2DD.

Opening: 10.00 – 18.00 every day.

Admission: Free

By Tube: South Kensington (District, Circle and Piccadilly lines). There is a subway walk that runs directly from the station to the museum entrance.

By Bus: The 360 stops right outside the museum. The 14, 49, 70, 74, 345, 414, 430 and C1 stop at South Kensington. The 9, 10, 52, 452 and 70 stop at the Royal Albert Hall (five minutes away). 

By Car: No. Nonononononono. NOOOOOOOOOOO!

Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

The success of the recent(ish) Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts can probably be summed up by my reaction to the first installation we came across.

I stopped short and breathed WOW! in an awed voice.

 A huge squareish wooden War of the Worlds alien dominating what in the normal run of things is a very classically proportioned room

Well, you would wouldn’t you? A huge square wooden War of the Worlds alien, dominating what in the normal run of things is a very classically proportioned room, complete with gold angel trimmings? It was impressive stuff, especially when it turned out you could scramble up and down twisty steps in the legs or run up and down a series of shallow ramps to get into the box on top and squint though slits at the punters below or the ceiling mouldings above.

We did that a lot. I do like a good staircase. My Wonderful Big Brother liked the ramps. Mama liked the spy holes. Something for everyone.

We also approved of the room with the tunnel of straws. Of course, manual dexterity is not really my Wonderful Big Brother’s thing, so he didn’t really get involved in the suggested activity of adding our own creations made from long coloured plastic tubes. And I would have preferred removing the fruit of the other visitors’ labour. But it was nice to be able to touch something so visually attractive and tactile, and nice to see the many many adults’ little faces all lit up as they all threw themselves enthusiastically into the crafting opportunity.

Adults adding brightly coloured straws to a plastic honeycomb tunnel

Next up was dashing around a stick-walled maze, interspersed with lots of little wooden wendyhouse type rooms for us to explore. At its heart was a pebble room, which made truly satisfying crunchy noises as we stomped around it. We spent quite a bit of time in there building cairns. Just like being at the beach! Without all the inconvenience of being boiled by the relentless sun, covered in eye-stinging sunscreen, getting sticky from ice cream, or having to deal with all that salty wet stuff. Mama definitely approved, and wonders why more playgrounds don’t replace the unpleasantly gritty sandpit with a nice pebble box instead.

A pile of pebbles at the Royal Academy

Not everything was to our taste. There was an exhibit which mostly involved standing still and looking up rather than whizzing around and touching stuff which we were less impressed by although the big people seemed entranced. And while Mama LOVED the dark rooms with the mysteriously lit thin sticks we all thought looked like fire, I found it positively frightening  refusing to let her into the second part altogether, and my Wonderful Big Brother lost interest when he realised he wasn’t allowed to fling himself into the middle of the flames.

Thin bamboo sticks twisted into flames and lit up in the dark

 

But overall it was by far the most interesting high art experience Mama has dragged us off to, and it’s a shame she can’t recommend it because it has now closed, and the various exhibits sold off.

There is a wider point Mama wants to make here though.

The reason we went to this exhibition in the first place was because the RA had made an effort to market it at parents and their children, going so far as to host a get together of Brit Mums bloggers in their cafe (with the opportunity to go round Sensing Spaces for free afterwards). The reason why we went back with my Wonderful Big Brother in tow and paid actual money to get in was because Mama was impressed on this visit by the staffs’ genuine commitment and enthusiasm for getting the kids in and letting them have at it, and damn the noise and sticky fingers. Even the doorman was jolly.

Admittedly, this sort of attitude did encourage all the many many kids who were subsequently taken along to Sensing Spaces to think of the exhibition as a playground, and so the whole experience was a tad confusing as we were all were alternately encouraged to get stuck in and then sharply pulled up when we did, nearly bowling over an elderly art patron or shattering a large mirror in the process. As a result, the air did rather ring with desperate cries of ‘Not quite THAT fast/ loud/ energetically, honeypie!’ as the exhibition did rather too good a job of stimulating us. Mama also wondered if the non-children-encumbered patrons were enjoying the chaos as much. But the atmosphere seemed pretty good humoured, and our enthusiasm certainly got a lot of amused glances. She is forced to conclude that perhaps everybody was secretly delighted by the opportunity to wreak a bit of havoc in an art gallery.

Long colourful straws inserted into a plastic honeycomb tunnel

Anyway. Mama thinks the Royal Academy might be worth keeping an eye on. It’s a wrench, of course, to part with a full £14 in a city where there is so much free stuff to enjoy, but certainly the next time they say their latest offering is child-friendly, then we should probably believe them. And if they say it often enough, there are membership options to consider. Just leave the pushchairs at home. There isn’t room in the cloakroom.

More Information

The Royal Academy of Arts’ website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the world’s most beautiful buildings.

Address: Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD.

Opening: Sat to Thurs 10am -6pm, Fri 10am -10pm.

Price: This exhibition was £14 for adults, under 17s 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.

The Kremlin, Moscow

Mama thinks that a trip to the Moscow Kremlin with small children is more of an endurance tourism experience than an actually enjoyable outing for the whole family, although she concedes that other people might find it more interesting than she does after the number of visits she has paid to it over the years. Certainly it seems to surprise people. There are trees inside, and flowers, and most of the buildings are built in a distinctly classical mould as well as being quite colourful. And the main focus of a trip there is a square surrounded by a number of cathedrals, used by Russia’s Tsars for, variously, coronations, weddings, their tombs and personal worship. Quite why this is so odd, I have no idea. A bright yellow neo-classical building inside the Moscow Kremlin But to start with, there will be a massive queue to buy tickets although it might have helped a bit if Mama and Papa hadn’t turned up just before the ticket offices had a (scheduled) twenty minute ‘technical break’ around lunchtime. It helps that there is the whole of Alexandrovskii Sad, the park running along one side of the Kremlin wall, to hang out in while you wait. There are plenty of benches to sit on, trees and the flowerbeds for the kids to play hide and seek round, and you can even venture along to the fountain area if you don’t mind your smalls getting thoroughly soaked while they dance around in the spray from the one with the horses with every other Russian under the age of fifteen. Mama does a bit, although it is worth pointing out that Moscow in the summer can be blisteringly hot, so sometimes this is a bit of a godsend.

More soberly, you can have a look at the tomb of the unknown soldier and the eternal flame, commemorating those who fell in World War Two, called, in Russia, the Great Patriotic War, which gives you an idea of just how big a deal this is. Certainly, with 25 000 000 dead, there is a lot of commemorating to do and so if you are still waiting for your tickets at 1pm, this is where the Russian equivalent of the changing the guard takes place. Miss this and there is a good chance you might see instead a wedding party coming to lay flowers. Basically, Mama’s advice is to take mobiles and wander off while someone else stands in the queue. There’s plenty to keep the youngsters occupied with. A guard outside the Moscow Kremlin Except the problem is that all this waiting around will make me well well overdue for my nap, but all the excitement means I refuse to even contemplate it once we get inside. This means that given any excuse whatsoever, I will have an epic meltdown on the main square inside the Kremlin, the one flanked by the four cathedrals. Mama and Papa will then get told off by a plain clothes secret serviceman. Lying on the ground, screaming and drumming your heels brings the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute. Apparently. A cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin Trying to tour the cathedrals with two five-and-unders will also make Mama appreciate the value of the National Trust’s strategies for dealing with restless children. It’s amazing how much more attractive the idea of playing ‘hunt the small stuffed animals the curators have placed in blindingly obvious hiding places round the historical monument’ becomes when the alternative is listening to Papa tell the story of the boy-Tsar who commited suicide by throwing himself off the Kremlin walls. Look! Here is his tomb!

Cue another meltdown. Mama retreated briskly from any attempt to admire the icons and plied me with sweets before we got more than a hard stare from one of the attendants. Of course, Papa will eventually get told off again anyway for bringing the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute by sitting on the grass with two untidy looking children next to the toilets in full view of the official presidential offices while waiting for Mama to have a wee.

Mama, mark you, feels that the toilets in the Kremlin bring the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute. Someone at some point has decided to install the latest in toilet technology, consisting of eight stalls of supposedly automatic self-cleaning cubicles. Look no hands! You don’t even have to flush the loo yourself. Unfortunately, Mama reports that given the amount of piss swilling around on the floor and the number of attendants needed to manually override the automated mechanism allowing the next punter in, this wonderful system doesn’t work very well. And there is another big queue. Naturally there also isn’t a hint of a baby changing area, so it is probably a good thing that the secret serviceman arrived to chide Papa after I had brought the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute by mooning the government while having my nappy changed outside.

Actually, Mama thinks that the government of Russia is the one bringing the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute. She can get quite animated on this topic, but frankly I haven’t got a clue what she is going on about most of the time. What I do know is that Mama insisted on carrying this bag, with this ribbon attached to it at all times when we were out and about in Moscow this summer. She stole the ribbon from my scooter, in fact! She particularly insisted on carrying it into the Kremlin. And photographing it.

A bag in the Moscow Kremlin

But it does have to be said that the ribbon raised not one eyebrow while we were in Moscow, in the Kremlin or anywhere else. Mama has drawn a number of conclusions from this. Russians are less interested in who marries who than you might think. The rainbow motif was the wrong one. Muscovites are too transfixed by the scruffy appearance of the bag to notice anything else. Slightly frumpy middle aged British women can get away with anything. All of the above. Still.

My Super Big Brother and I did like the formal gardens, where you can get one of Moscow’s excellent ice creams (but no other kind of refreshment) and wander around looking for insects on the trees and admiring the view of the Moscow river and the presidential helicopter pad. Mama says she used to work in one of the buildings in the background of this picture, but Mama says that about a lot of buildings in Moscow, usually with a misty look in her eye. I am sceptical. She certainly doesn’t seem to do very much with her days apart from follow me around and wash clothes. What could she have been up to? The helicopter pad inside the Moscow Kremlin Oh! And wait until you try to cross the roads inside without using the somewhat arbitrarily situated zebra crossings. The whistle blast is quite something. Mama likes to hang around and watch the tourists jump out of their skin and look around wildly. She says putting a sign up would spoil everybody’s fun, and I have to say I agree.

We also quite enjoyed the large bell and huge cannon on display near the main square although it turns out you are not allowed to climb on them. You can scramble over the ones by the entrance though, so we did quite a bit of that while Mama admired the huge building opposite, the only one that Mama says actually looks like it belongs in the control centre of the Former Soviet Union. Mama says that you can go and watch ballet there. She says it’s quite good. Ballet! Like Angelina Ballerina does! The dresses! The twirls! The Soviet Union must have been a fun place to live. Oh! Mama has just spat some of her coffee out. Hang on. She appears to be choking… The ballet building in the Moscow Kremlin However, on balance, the Moscow Kremlin is one of the least toddler friendly places on the planet. Mama says. She does not recommend it for (those with) small children at all and she doesn’t think that going to see the bits we missed (you have to pay extra), the Amoury, where they keep the crown jewels and such, would improve matters either, although I think she may be wrong about this. It sounds exceedingly shiny. The Moscow Kremlin from the river   More information

The Moscow Kremlin’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about James Bond in the Cold War.

Address: Moscow, Russia 103073

Opening: 10am (ticket offices open at 9.30) to 5pm. The Moscow Kremlin is closed on Thursdays and public holidays. Entrance to the Armoury is via timed slots at 10am, 12 noon, 2.30pm and 4.30pm.

Price: 350 rubles for adults (about £6) and 100 rubles for school-age children (about £1.50). The Amoury is extra: 700 rubles (£12) for adults and 200 rubles (£3) for school-age children.

By metro: The closest metro is Bibliateka Imani Lenina/Alexandrovskii Sad/ Arbatskaya/ Borovitskaya (basically the same station).

By other means: Metro! Metro! Metro! Metro!

The Tate Modern, London

The Tate Modern art gallery is housed in an abandoned power station on London’s South Bank. Appropriately for a modern art gallery, says Mama rudely, it is a rather ugly abandoned power station.

Not everybody agrees with her about this though.

The excellent thing about the Tate Modern is that it is a bit of a walk to get there from Waterloo Station, which is where Mama starts out. Like the preschooler version of my Amazing Big Brother before me, I need to burn off a lot of energy before I can be expected to behave with any kind of decorum. So Mama considers the twenty minute ramble along the South Bank the perfect prelude to solemn attention to cultural artifacts. She rarely managed to reach the appropriate point of exhaustion with my Amazing Big Brother, but it doesn’t stop her trying the same tactic with me.

It also means that Mama feels better about the fact the she will be strapping me as securely as possible into the pushchair once we get to the gallery because one of the downsides of the Tate Modern is that it shares with the V&A the unfortunate habit of dotting sculptures well within toddler grasp throughout the gallery. Mama is particularly afraid that some of the installations consisting of seemingly random stuff, separated from the public only by a flimsy piece of string, will be rearranged by small enthusiastic hands. While she darkly suspects that no-one but the artist would notice, she doesn’t really want to find this out for sure. She is particularly adamant about this now that a less determined Mama has become something of an internet sensation for having a toddler similarly enthusiastic about the hands on opportunities in the gallery. And the Telegraph newspaper has launched a debate about whether nasty sticky children like me should be allowed out in public as a result.

A collection of things stuck to paper

The paintings and such make about as much sense to me as the exhibits in all the other museums and art galleries which Mama takes me to, which is to say, not much, but in the Tate Modern I am not alone in my lack of understanding. I can, nevertheless, get quite excited about some of the larger, brighter, splashier pictures, and if they are having a performance art session, as they were in the Turbine Gallery when I was there first, I will join in with enthusiasm. People wandering about almost indistinguishable from the little knots of punters in amongst them? Who occasionally start to do things in concert like walk, jog and finally run up and down the hall? Or chant? Bring it on. I will get underfeet chasing my (very small) football and Mama will assume that is perfectly ok. It is, in fact, what the artist intended to happen. She hopes.

A child's drawing of their family

Mama also enjoys the exhibits in a cheerful sort of what the heck spirit. She was particularly thrilled to once take part in a survey conducted on behalf of the Centre for Physic Research conducted by your actual mediums, telepaths and other psychic experts. She has no idea what this had to do with art, except that she half expects that the whole thing was some kind of pre-installation and she will be in a gallery one day and see herself on film, her delighted smile as she is questioned minutely on her philosophy and honesty expressing a profound something or other about something else in the exhibition notes. She suspects they may have edited out my disinterested but determined attempts to escape the pushchair half way though.

Thumb prinnts turned into pictures of animals

My Amazing Big Brother also has something of a mixed reaction to the exhibits. When we were last there, he very much enjoyed a film in which a woman flung paper letters randomly around in a variety of very scenic locations. Mama thinks this is because a) it was TV, and TV is definitely my Amazing Big Brother’s preferred medium, b) because it perfectly expressed his baffled feelings about trying to learn to read and write, and c) it resembled some of the more obscure Soviet cartoons my Amazing Big Brother and I are being brought up on.

Paint splodges

On the other hand, he HATED the room filled with architectural prints. I know this because he said THIS IS VERY BORING at the top of his voice after a couple of minutes. Caught unawares, the attendant nodded heartily before being recalled to where he was. It’s nice to know one’s artistic sensibilities are shared.

The sun made out of painted pumpkin seeds

Mama eventually went on the attack with questions. How did the artist feel when they made these wild splodges of red on a wall-covering canvas? (My Amazing Big Brother: happy. Mama: very very angry. They agreed to differ. Suspiciously). What is that made of? (A particular obsession at the time, and which resulted in long discussions about the precise manufacturing process of plastic vs wood. Mama is easily distracted and my Amazing Big Brother is not above exploiting this). Why did this artist get someone to take a series of photos of him throwing his clothes off a roof? (Not one clue between the two of them). What shape is that? (Much tilting of heads sideways and doubtful expressions all round). Which sculpture do you like best? (The one that looks indistinguishable from a tree. Mama wonders why she bothers).

A child's chalk drawing of people

Still, Mama reckons that one floor per visit is probably plenty of culture for everybody for one day. In good weather you can then let off steam by running around outside, where there is plenty of room and a van selling coffee, but there is a play area inside the Tate Modern itself too for those less clement days. We spent what Mama considered to be a surprising amount of time in it considering that it consists of a rather tame slide, which, Mama, for your information also makes noises, a small wendy house, with KNOBBLY BITS on the outside and MIRRORS inside Mama, and a large artificial… apple, but then she wasn’t the one who had had to exercise extreme restraint in the face of massive tactile temptation for the last hour or so. Mama also recommends the huge Turbine Gallery in damp weather. You can sit and eat your sandwiches on the giant sized steps there and if there isn’t anything else going on, my Amazing Big Brother and I recommend rolling down the gentle incline from the main entrance to the main floor. You may find, like us, that a gaggle of art students mistake it for an exhibition and join in. It’s astonishing that no-one has offered us $10 million to come back.

A variety of things stick to paper

Even in the holidays the Tate Modern’s sheer size means that with the exception of the indoor cafes and the lifts it doesn’t get too busy. Never ever refuse to get on a lift at the Tate Modern just because it is going down when you want to go up is Mama’s advice. For some reason, despite the fact that there are six cubicles, you will stand there for 20 minutes waiting for the next one to stop at your floor.

Anyway. The Tate Modern isn’t a bad place to while away a damp few hours for adults and has a better than average chance of offering some art that kids might actually enjoy looking at. But not touching. No hands. NO HANDS. No, don’t lie down there. Eeek! Don’t step on that! Don’t… oh, ok, that’s a fire extinguisher. Says Mama.

More information

The Tate Modern’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about bluffing your way through an art gallery.

Address: Bankside, London SE1 9TG

Opening: Sun-Thurs 10-18.00, Fri-Sat 10-22.00.

Price: Admission is free.

By tube/ train: Waterloo station is a fifteen to twenty minute walk down the river Thames. Southwark (Jubilee line), Blackfriers (District and Circle lines), St Paul’s (Central line) and London Bridge (Overland) are nearer.

By bus: Routes 45, 63, 100, RV1, 381 and 344 stop nearby.

By boat: You can get a boat between the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain and vice versa should you so wish.

By car: Even the gallery website says this would be an unwise transportation choice.