SEA LIFE London Aquarium

It took Mama three years to get around to taking us to the London SEALIFE Aquarium the first time, which is odd given how fish-adoring my Incomparable Big Brother is. She says it is because the aquarium is something called ex-pen-sive. But there she was, practically about to give birth to me at any moment, feeling sorry for my Incomparable Big Brother, who was about to be thoroughly displaced a king of all he surveyed by a small smelly little sister. Mama thought. So off we went. Funnily enough I do not remember much about that visit. I have been since, though, and I can tell you that the London SEALIFE Aquarium is worth the money. And if you can visit often, the yearly membership is not as outrageous as you would expect from the one-off entrance fee. Mama says.

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Mama thinks the creators of this big fishy extravaganza have been very clever. Faced with a relatively small plot of land, they have dug down and built the place on the vertical. Admittedly this means that they milk the huge shark tank and the enormous giant turtle tank for all they are worth – you go up a level, round a corner and think you are going to look at something new, but actually it’s just the same old fish bowl from another angle. However, they are correct that this doesn’t really matter. My Incomparable Big Brother  and I are quite capable of spending the entire evening staring gormlessly at the two goldfish and four snails we have at home going round and round in only a few centimetres of water. We can be entranced by the rather larger, more exotic circles made by the diverse creatures in the London SEALIFE Aquarium again and again and again and for much much longer.

Well, my Incomparable Big Brother is. He really does like fish. And sharks. And turtles. And cats. And dogs. And mice. And snakes. And birds, and worms, and bees, and spiders, and pigs and cows and sheep and goats and zebras and tigers and elephants and… look, he pretty much likes any and all animals to a quite obsessional degree.

But calling the London SEALIFE Aquarium a two tank pony is a bit rude of Mama too, I reckon. There are plenty of other glass fish boxes with the smaller or, in the case of the piranhas, vicious exhibits in them leading up to and away from the showstoppers. Plus penguins! Penguins I tell you! And a small crocodile. And even a special tank you can lean over and absolutely not stroke some rays. Or, in the case of Mama, eye up the plaice that also occupy that space speculatively. Mama enjoys cooking fish.

I like taking things apart. Papa has taped down the lid of the aquarium at home because I was looking like I would be in there disassembling the really cool bubble making machine as soon as his back was turned. Or possibly the fish. So although I really enjoyed the tanks with the brightly coloured tropical fish, and the ones with the boiling masses of small turtles banging up against the glass, and naturally I relished the opportunity to stick my hand in the water and try to grab hold of a starfish in the actual handling tanks, I get quite restless and start looking for the plug was when all that is on offer is a large grey toothy predator lazing around in the middle distance.

It is for this reason that Mama recommends a sling or a pushchair for active toddlers. The London SEALIFE Aquarium is dark, full of twisty passages and lots of people and if you are in any doubt about your young’s ability to stick close and come when called, you really want them strapped in somewhere accessible. She says. Adult chest height is best I say, because the aquarium is one of those places which take insufficient account of the eyeline of people in pushchairs.

Mama also thinks it is genius that the aquarium plays really soothing music… really soothing… soothing… mmmmmmmzzzzzzzzzzzzz… all the way round. Even the most energetic of small people are reduced to a zombielike calm by the time they leave the place, for which Mamas and Papas should be duly thankful. Except that what it is really for is inducing a hypnotic state of extreme suggestibility in the big people, so that when the family pops up into the sunlight and the shop, every time the children, who shake off the spell much quicker than the adults when faced with brightly coloured tactile shiny STUFF, demand ‘I want…’ the parents ask ‘how high?’ Certainly works on Mama. My Incomparable Big Brother and I have scored bendy sharks, a snake and a pot of miscellaneous underwater creatures on our visits. Result!

The one major sacrifice the London SEALIFE Aquarium constructors have made to the finding the space in London problem is to not include a café. Or any other kind of food consumption area. They even discourage you from munching your sandwiches in front of the tanks. Now, they will let you in and out as many times as you want, and there are plenty of food outlets and a park nearby. But basically Mama recommends that you either feed up before you go in for a long afternoon, or arrive smartly after breakfast because the aquarium, while not quite suitable for a whole day’s adventuring, is certainly a long half day’s worth of outing, and you don’t want to schlep all the way back through the winding corridors, eat, and then trudge back again only to discover that there are just two more small tanks and the shop to go. Not that that has happened to Mama ever.

Should you be wanting to make a day of it, do not fear. The London Eye is just outside although it’s not an eye at all but a socking great wheel carrying people up and over the Thames with excellent views of the nearby gothic splendour of something called the Houses of Parliament and beyond. Who Parliament is and what she does and why she needs more than one house sounds interesting given the architecture she has chosen to live in but Mama says no, not really, more infuriating and don’t get her started. Either way you can get deals on tickets for both the Eye and the Aquarium. Not that we have. They are not that great deals. Mama says. Although she has been collecting cereal packets with a gleam in her eye lately so perhaps they are particularly easy to turn into pounds. I look forward to that day’s craft project.

But if you don’t have any badly cut out bits of cardboard with you or have just blown what is left of the ents budget on some Happy Meals and a plastic turtle, the river is right there and available to be sauntered along free of charge so generally that’s what we do. If you turn right as you go out you’ll be on the run up to the South Bank Centre, where there is a whole avenue of people in costumes standing on boxes who will dance if you throw small round bits of metal at them. Which someone (not us) always does. They joys of being in tourist land. If you go a bit further up you can watch people attempt to jump improbable concrete barriers on planks of wood with a few wheels attached. Why, my brother and I wonder. Mama says we’ll probably find out when we turn thirteen or so.

Anyway. Go to the London SEALIFE Aquarium. It’s great. Just don’t expect any good coffee, take lots of the folding paper Mama seems to like so much, and don’t let any toddlers stick their hands in with the bitey fish.

More Information

SEA LIFE London Aquarium’s website.

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

Address: County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7PB

Opening: Monday to Sunday 10:00 to 19:00 (slightly longer in the school holidays)

Price: Adults £25.20 Children over 3: £19.50 Family (2 adults/ 2 children) £85 (there’s a discount if you book online and if you go after 3pm and you get some perks with the family ticket). Mama highly recommends looking out for 2:4:1 offers at the supermarket.

By tube/ train: The nearest station is Waterloo, although Charing Cross and Westminster tube station are also within walking distance.

By bus: Loads of buses stop at Waterloo, and the Aquarium is on the sightseeing bus routes too.

By car: No.

The British Museum, London

The British Museum makes Papa and Babushka laugh a lot. They walk around, look at the frankly astonishing amount of stuff from a ridiculously large number of countries and snigger about how hoseistvenii the British are. Being hoseistvenii, translated from the Russian not particularly well by my Mama, is connected to the idea of being a home-maker, a sense of ownership and playing the host, and whenever Papa makes this comment, which he does whenever these sorts of places are mentioned, Mama always imagines the British Museum as a sort of national mantelpiece upon which all the items brought back by people who would nick anything not actively nailed down as a souvenir of their holidays are beautifully arranged as conversation pieces for dinner parties.

The Elgin Marbles

The British Museum always makes Mama feel slightly guilty, and not just because she comes from a nation of tea leaves. She thinks she ought to understand the significance of what she is seeing more. For example, she once took a whole course at university which she calls the appreciation of pots module and which everybody else calls ancient history, and briefly she actually knew the difference between black figures on a red background and red figures on a black background in the GrecoRoman displays. Unfortunately, somewhere in the last twenty years or so she has forgotten it all, and is now forced to fall back on appreciating the aesthetic beauty of the objects. This is not Mama’s skill. She really should take a tour or something, but probably not when I am about. I take a lot of looking after in museums. Luckily the GrecoRoman area is not busy.

Pots @ the British Museum

The mummies do not need a lot of understanding in order to be appreciated but Mama would like to recommend that people with aggressively ambulatory toddlers do not go and visit them because the huge press of visitors makes it less fun to chase the small person around. If you have a pushchair, you can use it to ram the little knots of tourists preventing you from keeping up with the small body wiggling its way though their legs, but if you do not then you will be forced to use your elbows. Something to consider when you are faced with the choice of putting the pushchair in the very accommodating cloakroom or not. Mama says. I just think it is one big game.

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In my opinion, we could quite happily avoid most rooms, because the huge space which now encloses the famous reading room is beyond fun for me to toddle around. There is a gutter! I can walk with one foot in the gutter and one foot out all the way round the edge of the massive, massive room, as long as I squeeze carefully behind the odd bust-bearing plinth. This gives Mama plenty of time to wonder why they still need a gutter when the whole thing is indoors.

A gutter

Mama likes the Oriental rooms, as most of the items are kept sensibly behind glass rather than on standing free and open for anyone (me) to touch. She was impressed,too, that most of the display cases came right down to the floor, giving me an excellent view, especially as they are also not obscured by a huge press of bodies. And as many of the ceramics are brightly-coloured and some of them are animal-shaped, the actual exhibits held my attention for all of five seconds, which is something of a record in a museum. Of course, I also had an excellent view of the fire extinguishers.

Ceramics @ the British Museum

But the clear highlight of our visits are the benches, which Mama not only lets me touch but also lets me pull myself on and slide off! Until we find ourselves on an upper floor and get to go down about five million steps to get back to the main hall. I really like going down steps even if it does take all afternoon. Mama, who is quite the connoisseur of staircases these days, likes it because it was sweeping and affords an excellent view of the people scurrying round the main hall with which to entertain herself during this long expedition.

The Great Hall @ The British Museum

Mama would like to recommend the eating arrangements. It seems as though the tables attached to the cafes in the main hall are open for all to picnic on, as long as the place isn’t too busy, and the main hall is a lovely place to hang out. Of course, Mama is generally compelled to supplement our packed lunch with a coffee, so she would like to add the caveat that you get a truly tiny cup for your three pounds. But hey, it’s all supporting the collections. If it isn’t raining there is always outside, where there is ample space for lounging around on walls, running around on a square of grass and a caravan selling coffee as well as ice cream.

A very small cup of coffee

Anyway, I recommend the British Museum to anyone who thinks their toddler would like to go on an indoor treasure hunt, where the terrain is vast and varied yet easy on the little legs. For older kids there are all sorts of trails and worksheets. And for the adults there is the satisfaction of being able to say that they briefly saw the Rosetta Stone as they trotted past it on their way to inspect another bench.

More Information

The British Museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about why we have museums.

Address: Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG.

Opening:  Daily 10.00 – 17.30, Fridays until 20.30.

Price: Admission is free.

Tube:  Tottenham Court Road (Northern and Central lines – 500m), Holborn (Piccadilly and Central lines – 500m), Russell Square (Piccadilly line – 800m), Goodge Street (Northern line – 800m).

Bus: Stops on New Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road, Gower Street or Southampton Row.

Parking: Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

Osterley Park and House, London

Osterley Park and House is a country house estate on the edge of London belonging to the National Trust, which Mama finally persuaded Papa to join last year.

The problem with the National Trust, from Papa’s point of view, is the Russian Revolution, who sounds very nasty indeed. This is because the Russian Revolution stole Papa’s family estate and sent our relatives off to Archangel. Or shot them. I thought Archangel sounded like a nice place to live but Mama says no. Too chilly. And being shot certainly sounds like it might sting a bit. Either way, landed gentry being forced to give up their houses is a sore point, and Papa regarded the National Trust with a certain amount of distaste.

Mama, on the other hand, thinks that National Trust membership is the minimum requirement for a certain standard of living, and being dragged off to Richmond ‘The Poo’ Park once too often meant that Papa was also open to the idea of finding other places to go. With National Trust membership, for the princely sum of £100 odd quid a year per family you can get access to what turns out to be quite a large number of properties in the London area (and beyond). So as soon as the tickets were emailed, off we went to look at our first house.

Osterley Park

Osterley Park was Mama’s choice. Mama has a secret vice – the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer – and one of the actual historical characters who makes regular cameo appearances in such things is Lady Jersey, influential leader of fashion. Osterley Park was one of her houses.

Except that much to Mama’s disappointment, really it wasn’t. Oh, it belonged to her, but she didn’t seem to spend much time there. No, Osterley Park is really the house of her Grandparents, the banker Sir Francis Child and his wife, and it was never properly lived in again after they died. The perils of cutting your daughter off because you disapprove of her choice of husband, but at the same time leaving your vast wealth to your female grandchild, who can then choose to marry a man with extensive estates of his own that she prefers, never having spent much time at Osterley because of the aforementioned estrangement.

It’s a cautionary tale, Mama.

The House itself is a lovely building, a sort of classical take on the tower of London, but while the downstairs formal rooms are well kitted out with all the opulence you could wish for, the upstairs is more sparsely furnished. The National Trust has only recently taken back the task of slowly tarting the place up to something more like its former glory again. This is quite interesting, Mama thinks, as it gives an insight into what her £100 is doing apart from funding a national Victoria sponge mountain or tempting unsuspecting aristocrats into giving up their birthrights, and worth making Osterley Park somewhere to visit on a regular basis to see the changes. It seems to be slow going. You’ve got plenty of time. If you can’t, you can follow the progress of the Breakfast Room renovations, for example, via a blog.

Luxurious interior at Osterley Park

Of course, the bit we children liked best was the basement. My Outstanding Big Brother and I have never really taken to dressing up and so the box on the first floor left us a bit cold, and the other activity suggested to us – counting the ridiculously huge number of roses worked into the mouldings in each room – didn’t appeal to my numeracy-adverse fauna-obsessed flora-disinclined Outstanding Big Brother much either. The basement, on the other hand, has a narrow corridor to scamper wildly along without fear of knocking into something expensive and, as we arrived back at the beginning again fairly quickly, around it turned out. We also played hide and seek in the coal cellar.

The basement at Osterley Park

Mama liked the kitchens. Obviously someone at some point had a fascination with kitchen equipment and so the basement also houses some very snazzy but curiously unused looking cast iron oven ranges, which must have been the last word in domestic appliances 100 years ago or so. Mmmmmmmmm. Says Mama.

Outside there is everything to gladden two active children’s hearts. There is a lake with ducks my Outstanding Big Brother and I were not allowed to chase. There are farm animals and horses, which are all quite happy to come up and say hello or, in the case of the cows, follow my Outstanding Big Brother along the length of the fence, much to his delight. The parkland is heaving with dogwalkers, some of whom let us throw balls for their dogs. And in the more maintained gardens there is a natural play area with logs to climb on and jump off. Plus some nice plants and flowers. Mama says.

A cow at Osterley Park

There is also a café. Mama adds ‘of course’ because this is the National Trust, which I have decided must mean ‘house-napping with cake’. It is housed in an old stable block – you eat your lemon drizzle cake in a former horse stall. Mama is torn between feeling this is vaguely unsanitary and being thrilled to her bourgeois soul, which would also like to live in a barn conversion. Mainly she is thankful that one stall has toys and chalk boards in it so that she can sip her coffee in peace. But the best thing about the café was that outside I found another toddler whose scooter I could steal and who I could mug of his cheese puffs.

All in all Osterley Park is a stately home without too much state to distract the parents from letting kids run round the grounds but with a good back story. Apparently they also have quite a bit on at the weekend and in school holidays. Mama has bookmarked this piece of information. Watch this space.

More information

Osterley Park’s page on the National Trust website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about the regency romances of Georgette Heyer.

Address: Jersey Road, Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 4RB (sat nav TW7 4RD).

Opening: Fully open 12 noon – 4pm from 1st March, although the house proper and the basement are open on different days. Until then, the park is open 8am – 6pm all week.

Price: Free to National Trust members. Monday and Tuesday are half price for non-members.

By train: Nearest station is Isleworth (1 ½ miles).

By underground: Osterley on the Piccadilly line is 1 mile.

By bus: The H28 and H91 stop within 1 mile.

By car: Parking is free for National Trust members, £4 otherwise.

Richmond Park, London

Richmond Park is a large expanse of land on the outskirts of London whose main purpose is to shelter large numbers of deer, and after he had spent an afternoon wading through the resulting spores and also quite a large number of rabbit droppings, Papa named the place the Poo Park. This label has stuck in our family, probably because later visits have just served to confirm the widespread and plentiful nature of crap pellets in the park. Mama now only remembers it isn’t actually called that when other people look at us strangely when my Fantastic Big Brother starts talking about it at the top of his voice.

Deer poo

Unfortunately for Mama, there’s quite a lot to talk about because it’s huge. Mama parks in a different (FREE! Mama would like me to say that again because having a free car park at an attraction in London is almost unheard of. Having a car park is too really, but anyway, FREE!) car park each time and we strike out across unkempt grass, through spinneys and up and down hills, skirting the bracken, playing hide and seek in the rhododendrons and always avoiding the huge lake in the middle. My Fantastic Big Brother would want to chase the ducks and I would try to fling myself into the very accessible water, and Mama cannot be doing with either of these things. And apart from one unfortunate day when we came across it accidentally, Mama has successfully managed to convince my Fantastic Big Brother that the lake was a figment of his imagination. I know differently, of course, but I cannot talk that well yet, so she gets away with it.

We go there because, apart from the FREE car parks, Mama likes walking in the countryside and in Richmond Park, Mama gets to almost pretend she is, if the countryside were full of people, edged by a constant stream of cars and had low flying planes screaming overhead on their way towards Heathrow airport every two minutes.

I, however, am a city child of pavements and shorn grass and find the unmanicured ground here a bit heavy going, so my favourite bit is the Isabella Plantation, which is an enclosed, managed woodland area somewhere in the middle of the park. It’s not so much that the paths are any smoother as that Mama is forced to go very slowly because, oh wonder of marvels, there are streams. Much of my Fantastic Big Brother and my attention is therefore given over to attempting to dip various body parts in the water and so much of Mama’s attention is given over to hovering anxiously. This is a shame, she thinks, as the wood itself is very pretty, with great splashes of colour in spring from flowering bushes in particular.

Isabella Plantation

My Fantastic Big Brother’s favourite thing about the park is the deer and so it is lucky that so far we have never had a visit which didn’t include tripping across a herd of them. They are remarkably tame and thus surrounded at all times by people with serious looking cameras or, in the case of my Fantastic Big Brother, two large sticks he is holding to his forehead in an attempt to simulate antlers.

Richmond Park

The exception to this is the autumn when the park rings to the loud grunting roars of the rutting bucks, and everybody stays the heck away from all of them.

Mama, what does ‘rutting’ actually mean?

There are refreshments to be had from the odd café or hot drinks caravan, but this is picnic central really. We even came here for my first birthday and brought many rugs, home made quiche, buckets of salads and Pimms. The Pimms looked nice. It had lots of fruit in it. Mama said not though. Mama has been known to drag us out here purely for the pleasure of eating in the open air, but I don’t mind. If she and Papa are sitting down, I am not having to hike and also they always take care to park themselves next to some climbable tree trunks or near one of the multitude of wigwam-like dens that have been built repeatedly throughout the park. Mama is a little puzzled by these dens. She wonders if they are for the deer or for the humans, but either way is grateful for the distraction.

A den

Other toddler-friendly areas are the playgrounds. Mama has only stumbled across what she suspects was the Petersham Gate one once, but as she isn’t sure how she did that who knows when we may revisit it. This is a shame as it has the sort of slide that Mama thinks has been condemned elsewhere for being too high and too fast, and also something called a roundabout, which Mama says is now largely extinct in the UK because they are quite easy to fall off of especially when you are playing the leap on and off them at speed game, or get your limbs trapped underneath when you are lying on your tummy playing touch the fast moving ground game, neither of which activities Mama knows anything about at all. On the downside, Mama was a bit dismayed to find that the large sandpit also has a water feature. She managed to keep me out of it because I am extremely distrustful of sand, nasty gritty shifty stuff, but was forced to concede that there was no way that My Fantastic Big Brother was going to get out dry, and so it proved. The Poo Park got to see my Fantastic Big Brother modelling only his pants for the rest of that afternoon. A treat, I can tell you. I don’t know why Mama didn’t just remove his trousers when he first headed towards the wet stuff. Sheer blind panic I expect.

A roundabout

Anyway, Richmond Park comes highly recommended as a outside spot to take the whole family for an outdoor lunch, particularly if they enjoy a stroll over ruggedish terrain with guaranteed sightings of wildlife.

More information

Richmond Park’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about Richmond Park.

Address: Richmond Park, TW10 5HS

Opening: From 7am (summer) or 7.30am (winter) to dusk.

Price: Admission is free.

Tube/ Train: British Rail or District line to Richmond Park station (and then catch the 371 or 65 buses to the pedestrian gate at Petersham).

Bus: There are a large number of buses that get close to various sides of the park.

Parking: In six (SIX!) ample free (FREE!) car parks.