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

We certainly do.

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

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

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

Is it the choice of animals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The season tickets are expensive.

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

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

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

More information

Battersea Park Children’s Zoo website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welwyn Roman Baths entrance

What is behind door number 3?

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

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

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

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

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

Welwyn Roman Baths

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

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

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

Roman board game at Welwyn Roman Baths

Hours of fun!

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

Centurion's helmet at Welwyn Roman Baths

This is heavy!

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

Roman baby's bottle at Welwyn Roman Baths

Plastic tat eat your heart out!

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

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

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

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

More information

Welwyn Roman Baths internet page.

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

Address: Welwyn Bypass, Hertfordshire, AL6 9FG

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

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

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

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

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

Chartwell, Winston Churchill's house

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

Chartwell from the swings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bug in brambles at Chartwell

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

Butterfly house at Chartwell

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

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

Jock the cat at Chartwell

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

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

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

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

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

The view from the swimming pool at Chartwell

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

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

Marycot at Chartwell

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

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

Bug in the grass at Chartwell

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

Swing at Chartwell

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

Bug on wood at Chartwell

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

Roses at Chartwell

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

Goldfish pond at Chartwell

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

More Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aisle at Homebase

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

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

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

Touchscreen at Homebase

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

Lift at Homebase

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

Cupboard at Homebase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Information

Homebase’s website.

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

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

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

Admission: Free! To get in.

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

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

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

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

Grant Museum of Zoology

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

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

Brains at the Grant Museum of Zoology

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

Pangolin at the Grant MMuseum f Zoology

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

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

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

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

Micrarium at the Grant Museum of Zoology

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information

The Grant Museum’s website.

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

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

Opening:Monday – Saturday 1pm to 5pm

Admission: Free!

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

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

By car: Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicken at Coram Fields

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

Goats at Coram Fields

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

Sandpit at Coram Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coram Fields

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

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

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

Just beware of the water.

More information

Coram Fields’ website.

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

Address: 93 Guilford Street, London, WC1N 1DN

Opening: 9am to dusk.

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

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

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

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

By car: No. Just no.

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

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

This did not go well for him.

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

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

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

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

Dunstanburgh Castle beach and Craster

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

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

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

Dunstanburgh Castle from afar

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

Dunstanburgh Castle a bit nearer

…and closer…

Dunstanburgh Castle nearly there

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

Dunstanburgh Castle up close

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

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

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

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

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

But in fact, worse was to come.

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

Dunstanburgh Castle gatehouse

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

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

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

Inside Dunstanburgh Castle

So we decided to cut our losses and leave.

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

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

Craster

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

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

Anyway.

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

Unless it is raining.

More information

Dunstanburgh Castle’s page on the English Heritage website.

Dunstanburgh Castle on the National Trust website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hence the Falkirk Wheel.

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

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

Falkirk Wheel

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

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

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

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

Falkirk Wheel from the top

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

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

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

Falkirk Wheel and a lock

Which you are probably still wondering about.

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

Falkirk Wheel in motion

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

Falkirk Wheel from the side

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

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

We got quite thoroughly wet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A frog at the Falkirk Wheel

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

More Information

The Falkirk Wheel’s website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

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

Was it worth the wait? I hear you cry.

Pink and green butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

YES! Yes, a thousand times YES!

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

Black and white butterflyat Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

Large blue butterfly on an arm at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

Black moth and large blue butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

White and black butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

Stripy black butterfly with pink spots at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

Butterflies feeding at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

Another large blue butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

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

Orange butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

More Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By car: God, no.

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

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

Terrier racing at Morden Hall Park Country Show

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

Ponies at Morden Hall Park Country Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falconry at Morden Hall Park Country Show

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

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

Sheep at Morden Hall Park Country Show

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

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

Basketweaving at Morden Hall Park Country Show

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

Historical Reenactment at Morden Hall Park Country Show

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

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

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

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

More Information

Oakleigh Fairs website.

Totally Live website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tram’s great though. Use the tram!