GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, London

Back in the summer sometime, Mama discovered that there was a newish art gallery in town, GRAD, and that it was devoted to the art, design and culture of Russia. So clearly she had to go, and this, inevitably, meant that we had to too.

The exhibition that was on at the time was called ‘work and play behind the Iron Curtain’, and she sold this to us as a display of toys that Papa would have played with as a boy, and a series of dioramas from his young life. I can’t say we were overly enthused about this, but we went along with it because Mama with the gallery goer’s bit between her teeth is hard to get away from. Plus, she said we could take our cameras along and photograph whatever we liked.

Caviar tins at GRAD
Fish eggs!

The gallery is tucked up behind Oxford Street and as such a bit of a faff to get to from the part of London that is forever work and play in the former Soviet Union. So Mama was a little taken aback to realise that she has been spoiled by the vast national galleries and museums of the capital into overestimating how big GRAD’s exhibition space is and how extensive the displays actually are.

It’s a one room area, people. Quite a largeish room, but nevertheless not somewhere you will be spending the lengthy morning Mama had envisaged. Plus, no full sized mock ups of Soviet communal apartments. Mama was disappointed. Mama blames the very seductive photography on the website. To be fair, they also have an extensive programme of talks and tech support from informative apps and other publications.

Cars at GRAD
Not quite so seductive photography!

Also, the prediction that we would be looking at items from Papa’s past proved only too true. In fact, Mama has a sneaking suspicion that many of the objects had been sourced from Papa and his extended family. Top marks for authenticity, then. Perhaps a little odd to see them lauded as museum pieces though but then Mama has much the same feeling about the cheap plastic footspa in Stevenage Museum.

GRAD work and play behind the Iron Curtain
We have those dolls!

Nevertheless, we had a good time taking pictures of every. Single. Thing from every. Conceivable. Angle. Until that got really old and we demanded to leave, which took about 10 minutes.

In the meantime, Mama had discovered the reason she was glad we made the trip.

Ribs at GRAD
Coolest. Exhibit. Evah!

Called ‘ribs’, they are bootleg recordings made out of old X rays of records which were almost (but obviously not quite) impossible to get hold of in the Soviet Union. The story of underground music in the USSR is something that fascinates Mama even more than the rather better known stories of banned writers and their works, so to see these was genuinely moment which thrilled Mama right down to her little black socks.

Bless.

Anyway. After this we went for a walk. Away from Oxford Street. Mama was happy wandering around the back streets but it wasn’t long before we tired of taking pictures of random doorways, people, dresses, shoes and so on and demanded actual entertainment. We all got a kick out of this pyrexed over wall painting though, which Mama says is by somebody called Banksy. Well, it’s a rat, innit? Animal interest, especially animal interest which Papa is scared of is always worth seeing.

Banksy near Regents Park
Banksy!

Luckily, before rebellion really set in we stumbled upon an excellent little playground in the bottom right hand corner of Regents’ Park, and thus the day was saved.

Currently GRAD has an exhibition on Bolt, a 1931 ballet by Dmitri Shostakovitch. Mama is wise to GRAD now and we popped in there when we were in the area and had a bit of time to kill.

Bolt is a fascinating sort of ballet. It tells the story of a young Soviet man who gets sacked from his job at a local factory for skiving off, goes to a bar, gets what Mama describes as ‘rat arsed’ and decides to stick a bolt into the machinery in the factory where he works, thus sabotaging it. As you do.

He actually gets caught at the very beginning of the second act and the dastardly plan is foiled. The rest of the ballet is, in fact, the surreal dream of the young Soviet boy who grassed up our anitihero. It’s all about becoming a lifeguard (what else?) and military parades (of course it is).

Mind you, that sort of plot twist is perfectly normal for ballets, Mama says, she who went to see Giselle last year.* This is not what makes the ballet so interesting.

What makes it interesting is that at first glance it is a straight bit of Soviet propaganda, yes, that’s right folks, a propaganda BALLET, but either because they actually meant to poke fun at the genre or because Shostakovitch, the choreographer, Fedor Lopukhov, and the costume designer, Tatiana Bruni, got a bit carried away with the enjoyment of plotting the scenes of debauched revelry, including wildly entertaining drunken ballet dancing, and putting wiry ballerinas into unflattering gym slips for the morning exercises at the workplaces set pieces, it comes across as more of a bit of a piss take (says Mama).

Gym slips for Bolt at GRAD
Ballet dancers should not wear shorts.

Which was not well received. The perils of glorifying industrial processes through the medium of interpretive dance.

The ballet was closed after the first performance, Lupukhov was sacked and Shostakovitch plundered his score to use in other ballets. Bolt itself was not put on again until 74 years later, when the Bolshoi re-imagined it for Shostakovitch’s 100th birthday, a performance Mama tells me she actually saw. You haven’t lived until you have seen the Red Army in scarlet PVC uniforms riding around on scooters, she says, especially when one of the dancers falls off.

They were definitely going all out for the ‘satire’ interpretation.

GRAD’s exhibition focuses mainly on the costumes, although they do have Shostakovitch’s music playing quietly in the background. The walls are full of design sketches and they even have some of the original and remade costumes on display.

Soviet women for Bolt at GRAD
Hero women of the Soviet Union.

The drawings are very familiar in style if you are used to seeing images of Soviet posters. Bright, styalised and slightly geometric. And they do come across as very over the top caricatures of a series of Soviet baddies. You can, perhaps, see why sensitive censors at the beginning of the Stalin era’s headlong plunge into Soviet realism were suspicious.

Enemies of the people for Bolt at GRAD
These people, I *think* might possibly be baddies, maybe? Except the woman with the slide rule. She rocks.

The centrepiece is the original costume for the US navy. Yes, those are Mickey Mouse hands on a grotesque representation of Uncle Sam.

US Navy costume for Bolt at GRAD
Hahahahahahahahaha! Ahaha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Etc.

You can see the Bolt exhibition until, wait for it, February 28th. Better make it quick! Yes, Mama does seem to turn up to shows as they are about to close. It’s because she likes to play chicken with deadlines. Usually she wins, but it isn’t good for blogging reviews.

But then this is no one off review. GRAD clearly has a knack for picking out not particularly obvious, quirky slices of Russia and the Soviet Union’s artistic heritage. Mama, of course, would always be interested in this, but it now also serve as a reminder that Russia may be big, but it has never been monolithic even at its darkest moments. She will certainly be finding excuses to drop in to whatever exhibition they have on next… and the one after that, and she suggests that if you share her tastes and are in the area, you do the same.

 

*Giselle, the lead character, dies at the end of the first act and the rest of the ballet is about dancing lady ghosts. Mama, Granny and Babushka were taken aback. They had not seen that coming at all.

More Information

GRAD’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about from ballets Russes to ballet noir: the Specter of the Rose on stage and screen.

Address: 3-4a Little Portland Street London W1W 7JB.

Opening: Tuesday – Friday 11am – 7pm. Saturday 11am – 5pm.

Admission: exhibitions are free.

By tube:Oxford Circus (Victoria, Central and Bakerloo lines): 3-4 mins walk or Great Portland Street (Circle, Hammersmith and City and Metropolitan lines): 10 mins walk.

By bus: These buses all stop on Oxford Street – 3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 23, 25, 53, 73, 88, 94, 98, 113, 137, 139 & 159.

By car: Oh, give over.

Stevenage Museum, Hertfordshire: why small is beautiful and Dickens was wrong.

‘The village street was like most other village streets: wide for its height, silent for its size, and drowsy in the dullest degree. The quietest little dwellings with the largest of window-shutters to shut up nothing as if it were the Mint or the Bank of England.’

– Charles Dickens on Stevenage.

Mama, who grew up in the town, is quite capable of taking the piss out of Stevenage with the best of them. It is, after all, a new town, built to relieve the pressure on the slums and bombsites of London after the second world war and designed with all the architectural and aesthetic principles the 50s and 60s could muster .

It is also the forerunner of Milton Keynes. Yes that’s right, Milton Keynes is what they built while applying the lessons learnt from their previous efforts in Stevenage. Milton Keynes is, in fact, an improvement on Stevenage. Says Mama (see what I mean?).

Stevenage Museum entrance

Stevenage Museum has a fairly large section devoted to the new town aspect. However, Stevenage also:

  • was settled even in prehistoric times
  • hosted a Roman villa yielding 2000 silver coins in an archaeological dig on a new building site a few years back. Must have made the property developers happy
  • takes its name from an Anglo Saxon phrase meaning ‘strong oak’
  • was raided by the Vikings
  • got itself mentioned in the Domesday Book
  • constructed a 12th Century church
  • endured the excitement of trying to farm Hertfordshire’s awful clay soil throughout the medieval period and sending most of it off to the main local landowner, Westminster Abbey
  • was decimated by the Great Plague
  • built a 16th century grammar school founded by a monk
  • which is now haunted (not by the monk)
  • acquired an occupied coffin and alternative tourist attraction in the rafters of a local house
  • went through a boom period when road travel really took off as one of the first major staging posts on the route up north out of London
  • saw Dick Turpin, who worked the area, escape through a secret passage in one of its pubs
  • died down a bit with the coming of the railways
  • was dissed by Pepys and Dickens
  • survived the world wars
  • produced the odd writer, formula one star, a French resistance leader, two films, a heavy metal band, the last person every to be accused of witchcraft in Britain, a brace of footballers of varying levels of fame, a handful of contestants in programmes such as the Voice, twin brother poachers, and at least one actor
  • is currently a relatively popular place for major companies to park their headquarters, being with easy reach of the capital and cheap
  • one of the first representatives of which was the Vincent motor cycle factory
  • is also (for much the same reasons) the first stop for any journalists wanting to report on likely chavy behaviour in the provinces. The Black Friday riots reporting? Was filmed in Stevenage’s Tesco.

Vincent motorbike at Stevenage Museum

Stevenage is a great town, in fact, for exemplifying in a largely undramatic way how history affects ordinary people. There are even six mysterious mounds in the centre which, as tradition demands in such cases, everybody thinks are plague pits, but actually aren’t. It really doesn’t get any more representative than that.

Shopping List at Stevenage Museum

And Stevenage Museum does not miss the opportunity to showcase the full extent of this. It’s emphatically not a museum which just glorifies Stevenage’s award winning cycle paths.

The coming of the railways at Stevenage Museum

Although perhaps there should be more about these given that Stevenage is responsible for proving that it doesn’t matter how good your bike infrastructure is, the same small number of people will still cycle to work and the rest will take the car (no really. There are studies).

Actually, Mama thinks that if they wanted more people to cycle they shouldn’t have made Stevenage so easy to drive around. As long as you like roundabouts. You can do 40 mph right through the centre, round the edges and then all the way back again along arterial roads! Mama, who always drives in Stevenage immediately after having had to slog across the middle of London by car, really appreciates this sort of thing. And the ample reasonably priced parking.

Ahem. Where were we?

Medieval house building at Stevenage Museum

Stevenage Museum also understands that the people who will be most interested in what it has to say are those living in the town and to keep them coming back you need to offer a wealth of different activities so you can never feel that you have definitively ‘done’ it.

Back when Mama was a girl (a looooooooong long time ago), this was mostly achieved via a vast and ever changing number of paper scavenger trails. Stevenage Museum still has these, but they have also added an extensive and very varied selection of extra button pushing and other interactive opportunities sprinkled around the exhibits in addition. We certainly didn’t have time for half of these in one visit.

Coin rubbing at Stevenage Museum

Of the ones we partook of, my Fantastic Big Brother particularly enjoyed the multi-part audio recordings of a modern day Stevenage boy who travels back in time and meets an equally ordinary child from the past. A particularly nice touch was how each episode involved things from the display cases nearby.

Mama, on the other hand, was thrilled to find a board where you can weigh up the arguments for and against building a New Town.

New town debate at Stevenage Museum

I preferred the full-sized 1950s play kitchen.

1950s kitchen at Stevenage Museum

And we all agreed the hats you could try on from each era were beyond cool.

Audio trail at Stevenage Museum

All in all, Stevenage Museum is probably not somewhere you will ever make a trip to specially unless you are enjoying a stay in Stevenage or the surrounding area and have some time to kill. Although when Mama found out about their excellent and very reasonable birthday party deals, with four different historical themes to choose from and food included, she did briefly consider hiring transportation and shipping all our little friends out there this year.

But if you are in the area permanently and you haven’t been then it’s high time you went, and I recommend you put it on your list of regular wet weather afternoon hangouts to boot.

More information

Stevenage Museum’s website.

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

Address: St George’s Way, Stevenage, Herts, SG1 1XX

Opening: Wednesday to Friday 10am – 4.30pm. Saturdays 10am – 5pm

Admission: Free.

By car: Stevenage is bang on the A1M, which is convenient for London (40 minutes to the outskirts). There is extensive parking in the town centre car parks, especially the multi-story carpark on the other side of the road. Use one of Stevenage’s iconic underpasses to reach the museum.

By bus: The SB6 is the route that gets the closest to the museum, but all buses will stop at the bus station, which is on the other side of the first totally pedestrianised town centre in the UK to the museum, about a ten minute walk away.

Getting to Stevenage by bus is now much harder than previously, after the cancellation of the 797 service from London.

By train: The train station is likewise on the other side of the town centre.  There are regular trains out of Kings Cross and the fast ones take about half an hour.

By plane: Stevenage is excellently served by both Luton and Stanstead airports, both within 30 miles. Heathrow is 45 miles and a trip round the M25 away.

Pin for later?

Stevenage Museum is an excellent example of a small local museum going out of its way to engage its visitors.

Church Farm, Ardeley, Hertfordshire

The point of cycling, as I understand it after careful observation of Grandad, is to visit as many places you can get a nice slice of cake and something warm and wet to drink as possible in one afternoon, although quite why they need to do this by bike I am not sure.  Church Farm is bang in the middle of a very picturesque village, Ardeley, all thatched roofs, village greens and whitewashed walls, and has a both an excellent café and a pub, so it was bound to come to his attention. And thus we came to find out about it.

Piglets at Chruch Farm Ardeley

It is a semi working farm. It certainly produces food from the animals and crops it keeps, but it seems to have been conceived from the first as an open farm where people can go and inspect the still-moving meat and its living conditions before they eat. Ditto veggies. And, increasingly, get some hands on experience of farming and outdoor life. They have an educational programme for people with learning disabilities or mental health issues called Rural Care. And internships for those planning a career in agriculture. They are even interested if you want to enter into a joint partnership as growers. And they accept volunteers if all you want to do is help muck out the pigs. Hours of fun.

Cows at Chruch Farm Ardeley

Because visitors are so much part of the farm, you don’t have to tramp for long before you get to the fields full of pigs, chickens, geese, pigs, turkeys, cows, pigs, sheep and pigs (they seem to specialise in pigs) all of which seem to have ample space to roam around in and be enjoying a healthy outdoor lifestyle. There is also a longer ramble which takes you round the outer limits, through a wood and down to the orchards, but it also takes you away from the animals, and the one time Mama tried that one out, we complained BITTERLY about that all the way round, so we almost certainly won’t be doing that again. Even if she tries to bribe us with blackberries from the hedgerows as we walk.

Or, rather, trudge. Endlessly.

Walking and gawking are not the only two possibilities open to you at Church Farm, Ardeley though. You can also FEED THE ANIMALS! To do this you buy suitable food from the farm shop near the entrance and then look out for the feeding tubes dotted around the fields. Combining animal husbandry with a giant pinball/ splat the rat game! Genius!

Feeding the pigs at Chruch Farm Ardeley

Other entertainments. Well, the first time we went there a couple of years ago, my Amazing Big Brother got electrocuted, which Mama thinks was particularly enterprising of him as she wouldn’t have said that Church Farm is particularly given to making the electric fences easy to find for small hands.

Poultry at Chruch Farm Ardeley

It took Mama a while to realise why he was frowning every time he grasped the wire keeping the chickens safe from his desire to chase them, a testament to just how long she has been living in a big city. Luckily, she was able to turn it into a useful learning experience. You remember how the chicken fence bit you? Well, don’t stick your fingers in the socket then.

But the best thing about Church Farm is the MUD. It’s almost as if Mama waits until it has been raining for a good few days before she decides to bring us here. For some reason this always takes Granny by surprise and she loses a shoe. Which makes a very satisfying squelch. It’s a good thing that ever since my Amazing Big Brother fell full length in a stream within minutes of getting out of the car on one of our first countryside forays, Mama keeps a change of clothes in the car whenever we venture outside city limits. We may be kitted out in wellies but it is never long before we are up to our armpits in sticky brown muck.

MUD at Chruch Farm Ardeley

There are picnic areas, next to the guinea pigs and rabbits in the small spinney with the outdoor play equipment, but we seem to usually make it here in colder weather and so once we have washed as much of the mud off as we can in the toilets and changed clothes we go to the café. Where we recommend all the breakfasty type food made of the eggs, bacon and sausages they produce themselves, although they also do other mains and also Grandad’s cake.

It’s not cheap, but Mama is so impressed that they do not make her pay to get in to the farm that she is more than willing to shell out on food instead. It’s quite small though, even with seating outside, and so older people might want to make their way over to the very attractive-looking Jolly Waggoner pub just outside the farm gates, which is also owned by Church Farm.

As well as extra seating and the farm shop, there’s also a play area outside the café if the weather is good enough. And, apparently, an indoor playroom somewhere nearby if it isn’t. However, I predict we will almost certainly never go to because Mama thinks the point of Church Farm is fresh air, exercise and rolling around in the mud.

A scarecrow at Chruch Farm Ardeley

All in all, if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Stevenage, you should definitely take a trip out to Church Farm in Ardeley, and Mama thinks this even if it hasn’t rained enough to activate the mud play option recently.

UPDATE

Just to prove how fabulous Church Farm is, Lizzie of Me and My Shadow has just been writing about it too, and she knows something that we didn’t – you can go EGG COLLECTING! That’s so on the list now though!

More Information

Church Farm, Ardeley’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about farm animals and their names.

Address: Ardeley, Nr Stevenage, Hertfordshire, SG2 7AH

Admission: It’s FREE to get in.

Opening: Monday – Friday from 9am – 4pm, Saturday & Sunday 9.00am – 5.00pm.

By car: Ardeley is situated between the A1 and the A10. It’s a 15 to 20 minute drive from either. There is a free car park on site. It doesn’t look huge, but Mama has never had any trouble finding a space in autumn and winter, which is when we’ve been.

By other means: The nearest train station is in Stevenage, which is about 20 minutes away by taxi. The local 700 bus goes from Stevenage to the next village, Cottered,  which is a 30 minute walk away. Obviously you can also cycle.

Paradise Wildlife Park, Broxbourne, Hertfordshire

Has Mama mentioned that my Brilliant Big Brother is quite keen on animals? She has? Then it should surprise nobody that when Mama discovered an opportunity to visit somewhere for FREE (Mama does like the free) with a promotion, she chose a zoo. Paradise Wildlife Park, specifically. That was quite some time ago now but this winter we went again voluntarily and paid our own money (well, Mama and Papa’s money) to get in. And we even took friends.

It’s an interesting name, ‘Paradise Wildlife Park’. It suggests a certain… commercial approach to zookeeping. And Mama did experience grave misgivings when as we first went in we were greeted by the ‘put a pound in this ride… and this one…. and that one…. and look, there are five more over here too’ area. Mama wondered if she was going to have to pay extra for everything and be fobbed off with orange dyed, stripily painted pet cats in lieu of your actual tigers. Although I don’t know what’s wrong with that. Cats! Woohoo!

Lemur at Paradise Wildlife Park

In fact, nearly everything else, and there is a lot else, is included in the entrance price. And the animals are, Mama thinks, a very carefully chosen mix between, small and manageable, large and impressive, familiar crowd-pleasers and the full on exotic. What a relief it must be to be released from the terms of your latest scientific grant meaning you don’t need to try to convince the punters that forty-two species of slugs hiding in the leafmold are interesting.

Zebra at Paradise Wildlife Park

My Brilliant Big Brother really liked ALL THE ANIMALS. Especially the snakes, the small monkeys and the sloths. The adults preferred the big cats, especially the oddly white tigers and lions. Mama was also thrilled to find the roosting, perpetually squeaking bats were extremely unnerving, even as she resisted the temptation to clutch at her hair. I actually refused to go into that room. Luckily they have obligingly cute chipmunks in the vestibule outside.

White tiger at Paradise wildlife Park

Me? I liked the stairs. There are stairs because there are a lot of viewing platforms and walkways that take you right over where the animals are hanging out. This is fabulous, especially for someone my height.

I also loved the ostriches, the goats, the sheep the pigs and the PONIES!!! This was because an advantage of the evils of capitalism approach is that Paradise Wildlife Park lets you feed some of the animals. Cabbage, mostly, which I don’t like, to Mama’s everlasting relief. There are signs telling Mama which animals you can throw bits of limp veggies at, and it definitely increases you chances of getting up close to those animals! The goats will eat from your hands!

Mind you, some visitors got to feed the tigers. This was very exciting. The remote but thrilling possibility that someone might get their fingers bitten off! Plus, the tiger stretched up really high, right on his hind legs. Coooooooooooooooool.

Feeding the tigers at Paradise Wildlife Park

No, said the keeper, obviously used to deflecting the concerns of the British public that they are training wild animals circus style.

The reason you get your tigers to do this is so that you can check out their nails, take a bit of blood, examine their belly and so on. Without having to dope them so you can get close enough and not get your arm bitten off. It’s a deadly serious and really quite dull bit of exotic captive animal care. Honestly.

But enough about the animals! Paradise Wildlife Park also has a (free) bouncy castle! To be honest, it was hard to concentrate on the animals once I had seen that, and we had to take a jump break about half way round the zoo part because us smallest people kept going on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about it.

Bouncy castle at Paradise Wildlife Park

In addition, as we found out during our mild weather first visit, there is an extensive outdoor playground sporting a variety of slides with (yes!) more steps to climb to get to them. And an actual fire engine! And an actual steam engine!! Both of which you can scramble all over to your heart’s content. Papa had been so softened up by the quality of what had come before that he put a whole 20p in a slot and the steam engine roared and whistled and puffed for hours.

Train at Paradise Wildlife park

There was also a pirate ship, and an assault course, and some go carts to pedal around, and a (pay for) miniature railway, and a (pay for) crazy golf course as well as a large full on (free) soft play area/ café that much to our excitement we got to spend a good hour in at the end of our second visit because it was so jolly cold outside that day and the Mamas needed some hot refreshment. Coffee, possibly.

Mama reckons the zoo really works as either a good or not so good weather venue. In fact, given that there are distinct signs that the place may be rammed to overflowing in summer, Mama rather thinks off-peak is the time to go. It’s not that they stop the live feeding shows or anything. Although we always seem to miss them anyway.

More! In the colder months it’s just chilly enough that the lions might not be lolling around asleep in the sun for the duration of your visit. Even the gibbons put on a swinging display for us, which almost never happens.

Red pandas at Paradise Wildlife Park

There are plenty of places for humans to eat, both for those who have taken a packed lunch and for those who wish to buy something on site, hot or cold. For sheer coolness value, Mama recommends the snack bar overlooking the tiger enclosure.

And finally, they play you music in the toilets. Result!

Anyway. The Paradise Wildlife Park really is a full day out and was thoroughly enjoyed twice by a family who are quite the connoisseurs of wildlife experiences. If it was just a tiny bit closer to where we live, Mama would seriously consider getting us all year round passes. Which given that they would be between £250 and £300 for us is a serious recommendation.

Disclaimer: We first went to Paradise Wildlife Centre for free as part of a moneysupermarket days out discount promotion, but our subsequent visit was all our own decision as are our opinions.

More Information

Paradise Wildlife Park’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Glad Day – the Life and Works of William Blake.

Address: White Stubbs Lane, Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, EN10 7QA.

Opening: 9.30am to 5pm (winter) and 6pm (summer).

Admission: There are high, mid and low season prices which range from £19 – £17 for adults and £16 – £14 for kids. It’s always significantly cheaper to book in advance online, especially in the off season (£10 apiece for adults and kids in winter). Mama also recommends googling for any money off vouchers that might be available too.

By train: The park operates a minibus service from Broxbourne Station. £1 per person for the over 2s.

By car:  There is ample free car parking. also, nice clear signposting and it’s only a short ride A10 from that big M25 road we seem to spend our lives whizzing around. There’s also a cross country route from the A1.

Deep Sea World, Edinburgh

Today we have a guest post from far far far far far away from the centre of the universe (London). Mama says it is Kidding Herself’s nod to Burns Night. I have no idea what she is talking about, since she forgot all about it until now. 

Hi I’m R and although I’ve never met Herself, apparently my Mummy knows her Mama because of the inter-webs.

Anyway, we were in Edinburgh for a week and thought we would share with you one of our adventures. Edinburgh being, apparently, a bit far for Herself to travel for a day out on a regular basis. Despite what her Gallus Big Brother seems to think, having been here once and liked it.

He probably liked it because they went to the same place we did, Deep Sea World which is situated beneath the Forth Rail Bridge, across the other side of the river from Edinburgh proper.

Deep Sea World is decidedly fishy. You can tell this immediately you walk through the front door because you are greeted by a delightful aroma. Admittedly this made Mummy feel a bit sick (something to do with her currently growing a tiny human I think) but there’re some tanks that go all the way to the floor near the entrance which I think is compensation enough. I enjoyed sitting in front of these and pointing at all the different fish (the day involved lots of pointing at fish). There really were lots of them.

Deep Sea World Edinburgh

However, there were also lots of tanks that I was to small to see into properly which I was less amused by. Of course, says Herself, who is wise to the vagaries of aquariums. She recommends growing.

Still, we had a good look at a whole range of varied fish, piranahs, seahorses etc, then we ventured down into the main attraction, the big glass tunnel.

This has a moving walkway on one side and a normal path on the other side. Mummy, feeling a little lazy, parked my buggy on the moving walkway while we looked at even more fish and, wait for it, SHARKS! I liked the SHARKS and all the fish. Again I couldn’t easily see into the tank from my low vantage point, but the tunnel arches right above the walkway so I did get a good look at anything swimming overhead. Fish mostly and did I mention the SHARKS? ( I was rather keen on the SHARKS). Nevertheless, I got bored half way round on our second circuit so we ventured back up to the main level in search of lunch.

Shark Deep Sea World Edinburgh

Mummy had thoughtfully packed a lunch to bring with us. Gran ate from the café though. She says the food was a little expensive but had decent portions. I was happy with my sandwich and snacks. Mummy let me escape from the buggy for a bit of walking around after lunch but as it was quite busy I had to wear my backpack reins.

After lunch, we went round the big tunnel another couple of times and pointed at more fish and SHARKS. Then we tried out the shop. There were assorted cuddly sea creatures mostly with tags stating that they were only suitable for over 3s, and also the normal souvenir stuff of mugs and pens etc and sweets. All overpriced, Mummy said. But Gran bought me a bag of of squirty bath creatures so I didn’t come home empty handed!

To finish off with we went along to have a look at the other big aquatic draw, the common or harbour seals. These occur naturally in the Forth Estuary that Deep Sea World is attached to, but given that it is a socking large expanse of water, it’s nice that the centre has enticed a few up close for our entertainment, and, according to them, the purposes of conservation. I watched around half of the seal feeding show thing, but it was a bit busy and Mummy said I was too heavy to sit on her shoulders for too long so we missed the end.

All in all it was a reasonably enjoyable two and a half hours we spent there. Mummy said that its probably better for children who are a bit older than me because in the end fish are all pretty much the same to me (except the SHARKS). Mummy also notes that we went during the school holidays so it was rather full of other children! Be prepared to elbow them out of the way is what Herself advises, being that much older than me. I have listened to this advice carefully. Mummy will doubtless be so proud next time we go.

More Information

Deep Sea World’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about ‘SHARK Summer’, New Jersey 1916.

Address: Battery Quarry, North Queensferry, Fife, KY11 1JR.

Opening: Weekdays: 10am to 4pm. Weekends: 10am to 6pm.

Admission: Adults and over 13s: £13.50, children over 3: £9.50, family of 4: £44.00. You can save if you buy in advance online.

By train: North Queensferry Station is a short walk from Deep Sea World and is served by trains on the Fife Circle Line from both Edinburgh Waverley and Haymarket stations. The journey takes about 15 minutes.

By car: Deep Sea World is just off the M90, 20 minutes from Edinburgh, 50 minutes from Glasgow and under 2 hours from Aberdeen (according to the website). There is free car parking on site.

Aladdin at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage

Lest you are thinking that Mama never takes us anywhere more child friendly than a benignly disposed art gallery, let it be known that over the Christmas holidays we went to a Panto. Aladdin at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre.

Aladdin at Stevenage

It was my first visit to such an entertainment. And here’s the thing about Pantos.

They are no place for newbies.

I mean, sure, you think the plot is simple enough, and indeed, should be familiar from your basic bedtime fairytale reading, but what I noticed was that there seemed to be an awful lot of unnecessary diversions, which everybody except me seemed to be expecting, and on top of this, the whole audience including Mama, my Best Big Brother, and Granny and Grandad had been given parts, which they had evidently studied carefully.

I spent the whole time wondering what my lines were and when to join in among a sea of people shouting their heads off in chorus when prompted from the stage. Or booing. Mama in particular seemed to like the booing, which seems uncharacteristically rude.

Mama tells me not to worry and I will get the hang of it. She says that my Best Big Brother was likewise totally bemused for the duration of his first two shows, and only this year, his fourth visit, has he really got the hang of it. And how! He spent most of the performance on his feet bouncing up and down and yelling his head off. Panto suits my Best Big Brother.

Mind you, even Mama found herself sitting there wondering why Aladdin, which is clearly a story which should be set in the Middle East takes place in the Far East, although to be fair, this is the original version of the story and not some way for bygone Pantos to take a pop at two varieties of Johnny Foreigner at once. Presumably even exotic locations need their own exotic locations.

It does mean that, Panto being the comic vehicle that it is, modern theatre has a delicate balancing act to do. Of course, nobody goes to Panto for cutting edge political correctness, but Mama felt adding the two black actors as self proclaimed slaves was an exceptionally bold way to distract us from the fact that this year’s fond Papa was a foolish Chinaman and the bad guy an Arab.

Fairly successful though.

Especially as having the Genie riff off Shaft did at least allow for equal opportunity sexual harassment of the audience. Just as all the women had relaxed as Stevenage’s perennial Dame, Paul Laidlaw, targeted this year’s hapless male in the front row (“You’re going to regret sitting there, Dave”), so the large man in the skin tight suit came and stood opposite them (“Look at my eyes. My *eyes*, lady!”).

Mama sniggered. Sometimes Mama has a very low sense of humour. Low. Look at his EYES, Mama.

At least none of the scripted jokes poked fun at anyone’s origins. Unless you count coming from Stevenage and the surrounding area. Mama, who does, doesn’t. Some things are fair game.

Anyway. My faint bewilderment at the intricacies of the medium and feeling of missing out on some crucial inside information notwithstanding, I did very much enjoy Aladdin.

Of course, this was helped by the fact that for some reason, Panto overrides Mama’s aversion to expensive plastic tat, and we got given huge toys which lit up in three different patterns with practically no pestering whatsoever before we’d even got into the auditorium.

And then there was the singing and dancing. I was out of my seat, bopping away, waving my flashing magic wand dangerously in the direction of the little old lady sitting next to me on more than one occasion. All the music was good, but the bit I liked best was that there was not one, not two, but *three* songs from Frozen!!! And one of them took place on a flying carpet which was really and truly up in the air and wafting around above us.

Which was not the only impressive bit of special effects. We had dragons spewing smoke, startling pyrotechnic explosions, a dragon shaped Cave of Wonders opening up before our very eyes, and a five minute lazar show just before the break. Multi coloured light shapes appeared in the air above us! MY VERY WORD!

Mama, who likes to peruse the programme in the interval, would like to give a big up to the business acumen and general logistical prowess of the production company, Jordan Productions, who run the Pantos in Stevenage at this point. She gathers that they have a whole stable of medium sized theatres for whom they put on these festive shows. Which means they can afford to splurge on the scenery and costumes, as they will definitely be getting their money’s worth when Aladdin, Cinderella and Robin Hood et al relocate round the circuit next year. So they do. You might be in the provinces, Mama, who is married to a snobby Moscovite, says, but the kit for Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre’s Pantos is always, therefore, very good. Mama’s money for next year’s Panto, looking at the offerings at the other locations and her imperfect memory of what has gone before, is on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs coming to her hometown next year, with an outside bet on Beauty and the Beast.

It’s probably the retro magic tricks which swung it for Mama this time though. Mama, child of the 70s that she is, likes seeing young women cut in half. I was less certain and needed reassuring that no permanent harm would come to her.

Mama was also impressed by the singing. The problem with Panto, she says, is that one of the requirements is to have actors you have actually heard of in the lead roles. This, she tells me, does not always make for a happy earful, as most of the ones who come to Stevenage used to work in soap operas. Especially, Eastenders.

Which is not particularly known for its fabulous musical numbers, apparently.

But this year Aladdin and friends had actual voices. Even the chappie from Eastenders. A Panto with a successful three part harmony is thing of beauty, Mama says. Almost better than the time they had Davy Jones from the Monkees. But not quite.

Especially the during the singalong. Thank god – they provided the words this year, Mama will never forget the shame of trying to belt out ‘There’s a worm at the bottom of the garden…’ order to win the deadly serious singing competition between the two halves of the audience without knowing one of the lines. Never assume, Panto people, never assume…

Aladdin at Stevenage Poster

So. Basically, Aladdin at the Gordon Craig Theatre is in most ways one of the better of Stevenage’s always enjoyable Pantos, and is extremely good value compared to the ones at the London theatres to boot. It’s running to 25th January, so there is still time to get down there and shout ‘it’s behind you’ at every available opportunity for reasons I do not really understand if you so wish.

Oh yes you do, oh no I don’t, oh yes you do. Says Mama, incomprehensibly.

Photo credit: I have used the official poster for Jordan Production’s Aladdin at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre. Clicking on the image will take you to the page where it appears on their website.

More Information

Gordon Craig Theatre website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about audience participation in pantomimes.

Address: Stevenage Arts and Leisure Centre, Lytton Way, Stevenage, Herts, SG1 1LZ

Times: Various, including afternoon and both early and later evening performances.

Tickets: Currently £15.50 per seat

By train: Stevenage station is right opposite the theatre, although Mama is genuinely sad to report the theatre is no longer the striking eyesore landmark it once was when covered with large yellow bubbles. There are regular trains out of Kings Cross and the fast ones take about half an hour (other directions are available).

Gordon Craig Theatre Stevenage

By bus: You are just in time to be able to catch one of the last 797 coaches from Victoria to Stevenage before the service is discontinued. The journey takes about 1 and a half hours. Other bus routes from different starting points are available.

By car: Stevenage is famous for its cycle paths (Oh no it isn’t, oh yes… Lets not, Mama eh?), but has extensive and relatively cheap parking all around the theatre. Stevenage itself is bang on the A1M, which is convenient for London (40 minutes to the outskirts). You can come from the other way too.

By plane: Stevenage is excellently served by both Luton and Stanstead airports, both within 30 miles. Heathrow is 45 miles and a trip round the M25 away.

The Great London Christmas Window Scavenger Hunt 2014

“I’ve got a treat for us today,” said Mama. Toys, we thought. A trip to the zoo, we got even more exited. Maybe even lunch at Macdonald’s. Lunch at MacDonald’s, with a Happy Meal toy at the zoo?

No.

“We’re going to look at Christmasy shop windows around London!” Said Mama.

Mama thinks we should be more into walking. She’d like it to be walking around wild open spaces, preferably upwards towards the top of a smallish mountain, but our big city is curiously lacking in really large hills in the middle of nowhere so sometimes she makes do with the highways and byways of central London.

She recognises that we are less than keen on rambles with no discernible point. Thus the idea of the Great Christmas Window Scavenger Hunt 2014 was born. Won’t it be fun, Mama put to us, to go and look at all the festive offerings around town? Father Christmas and His reindeer! Tinsel!! Baubles!!! Cute winterproof animals!!!! High calorie foodstuffs carved into the shape of Christmas trees!!! Snooooooooooooooooow! Twinkley lights!!!! TOYS!!!!! And other such heartwarming scenes of rampant commercialism.

We were a bit dubious and had to be bribed with the promise of actually being allowed into a shop to look at overpriced plastic tat. Papa was a bit dubious too but Mama said he could have dinner in Chinatown, so he was won round. Babushka, well, I am not sure what Babushka thought but she came along anyway.

We started off at the John Lewis on Sloan Square. Penguins! Can’t go too far wrong with penguins in amusing positions Mama thought.

John Lewis and knitting penguins at Christmas

The ones with underwear on their heads were a particular hit with us children.

John Lewis and underwear penguins at Christmas

Mama felt it was a bit minimal and lacking in your actual jolly sparkly decoration. But then she managed to go the whole Christmas period without seeing That Advert and so is probably missing something.

John Lewis and yet more penguin action at Christmas

Harrods, I am pleased to say, did not disappoint Mama. You want a giant Santa with moving flying reindeer toting prominently placed dolly Elsa from Frozen? YES MAMA WE CERTAINLY DO! ELSA! LETITGOHEREISTANDLETITGOLETITGOLETITGOLETITGO! Sorry, where were we?

You want rotating men with antlers on their bowlers, despite the fact that Papa felt it was a potentially controversial reference to Joseph as a cuckold (whatever that is)?

Harrods and an odd choice of headgear at Christmas

 

You want miniature mousey dioramas with ACTUAL FALLING SNOW? Which admittedly were far too high up the wall for me, but then what are parents for?

Harrods where mice are definitely striring at Christmas

You want inadequately dressed women in chilly-looking forests? A giant clock? Handbags? Harrods had ’em all.

Harrods Happy New Year

Not sure what the rainbow stripy clothes in the window at the end have to do with the nativity, but I am young and some of the references go over my head. They were lovely and bright though so its all good.

We went into Harrods. Mama normally enjoys a good poke around this fabulous emporium of really REALLY expensive stuff. And the toilets. But on this occasion it was very very busy and not so much fun. I spent a lot of time being firmly towed through a huge wall of bodies (well, legs) as Mama and Papa tried to find the Christmas bit with only a brief pause to contemplate the price of caviar and enjoy the tiling in the food hall. Harrods, it seems, is large and somewhat labyrinthine, if also exceedingly shiny. When we eventually found the Christmas area, it was smaller than expected, although that might have been the effect of so many people. It did have an excellent advent calendar in the form of a porcelain dolls house where every door concealed another delicate Wedgewood ornament. A snip at many thousands of pounds. For some reason, us trying to play with it stressed Mama and Papa right out and we exited without going up to the toy floor. If you decide to take a look inside Harrods during peak Christmas shopping days with small children, Mama recommends going straight there, having worked out your route ahead of time. Or just giving the inside a miss altogether.

It’s certainly worth a wander around at some point, mind.

Mama and I wanted to look at the Harvey Nicks windows, but we were bundled onto the bus by the menfolk at this point so only just caught a glimpse as we shot past at the best speed a double decker caught in Knightsbridge traffic can manege. Lovely lighting, lovely dresses, lovely colourful trees is about all I can tell you.

Instead we headed for Fortnum and Mason, which, according to the windows, sells food. Very very beautiful food. Very beautiful food, all frosty and glittery and magical. We particularly liked the Christmas puddings, although I think my Wonderful Big Brother might have preferred the robins.

Fortnum and Mason, Christmas puddings and robins

Mama was also taken by the silver sleigh and the vodka. She must have been thirsty.

Fortnum and Mason, the sliver sleigh at Christmas

But having learned from our Harrods visit, we didn’t go inside. Mama says the national beverage they sell isn’t all that anyway – her Russian visitors usually prefer Yorkshire Tea. This does not bode well for the chocolates, however fabulous they look.

Onto Regent’s Street, which Mama had been planning to miss in favour of the more attractive and considerably less busy back alleyways. We overruled her because of the toy shop. Called Hamley’s, apparently. It’s a very popular toy shop is Hamley’s. Mama is not entirely sure why because aside from the demonstrators and the opportunity to play with some of the merchandise, there doesn’t seem to be that much here than you can get anywhere else where you can accomplish your spending without the risk of being trampled underfoot by three thousand maurauding small people and their six thousand pursuing parents.

Hamleys at Christmas

I think Mama is still in mouring after they shut down the massive MASSIVE department store in central Moscow called Detskii Mir (Children’s World). A whole floor of Barbies she tells me. And a full scale working carosel on the main floor. Allegedly it is due to reopen, but Mama is suspicious it will not be the same.

We have not had the pleasure, and are entirely entranced by the hawkers and hands on opportunities. We are also oblivious to Mama’s panic as she tries to keep both of us in view while many many pretty things beckon us this way and that in an environment we are much better at wiggling our way through than she is. However, luckily for the success of the outing, nobody got lost, suffocated or had an epic strop when refused immediate gratification of our consumer whim, although it was a close run thing when Big Brother found the Steiff cuddly animals section.

Next up, Liberty, with a cursory glance towards what Mama thinks are the most fun street Christmas lights. Who doesn’t like a giant Santa face decorated with headphones?

Carnaby Street at Christmas

Mama also really likes Liberty, which she thinks is the genuinely eccentric old money cousin to Harrods brash neovaux rich extravagance. Unfortunately for her, we were starting to get hungry at about this point and so did not take to the ship themed windows at all.

Liberty saw a number of ships sailing in

Mama managed to persuade us to briefly look in on Oxford Street and its floaty light balls, but we were soon retreating at full pelt towards the promise of noodles and spring rolls in China Town.

China Town at Christmas

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Tantrums averted all round, we were ready for another leg, which is how we found out they have a small funfair on Leicester Square. If you don’t fancy the crowds of Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, this is a good alternative, especially if you like carousels, which Mama definitely does. There was also an excellent rollercoaster for small people and Papa had obviously let his sticky sweet pork balls go to his head too as he had a go at the archery. He nearly won too!

Leicester Square at Christmas

Then it was on to Trafalgar Square and the very tall but somewhat austerely decorated Norwegian pine tree, the traditional Christmas sound of busked bagpipes, and what Papa says is a very British nativity scene. See the woman doing all the difficult childcare work while the man lolls around chewing a straw? What is it with the incompetent Papa meme in this country, he would like to know. Of course, the nurses at the London hospital where Mama gave birth to my Wonderful Big Brother did single him out for special praise as an exemplary model of clued up fathering in Mama’s medical notes. But since they did this for changing a nappy without any special fuss or needing assistance, I am not sure what side of the argument this falls on. Mama says, you know your society is in trouble when a casual glance at adverts on Russian TV show a more equitable parenting lifestyle than the ones here. I think that’s a bit political for the Christmas episode of the blog, so all I will say is that we ran wildly around the fountains for a bit and then got the bus home.

Trafalgar Square and a very tall tree at Christmas

All in all I would say that as a thrilling day out for the under tens, going to look at Christmas windows isn’t as exciting as Mama thought it would be, although we did enjoy Christmas tree spotting, a sport which we carried on enthusiastically throughout the holiday period. Mama thinks that perhaps having some kind of additional bingo game incentive (the team that fills their score card of festive items first wins a chocolate reindeer!) might help, and that if you have less of an aversion to starting Christmas in November than she does then that might be the time to do it.

And next year they might have a fourteen foot Santa climbing up Selfidges while flinging sweeties to the children below. You can always hope.

Winkworth Arboretum, Surrey

Back in the spring, Mama had a yen to experience the full glory of the season, which is difficult in the centre of London. So she hatched a plan to take us out into the countryside to admire the new blooms.

Crocuses, she thought. Daffodils. Tulips. Azeleas. And so on.

Since we also have National Trust membership, she thought we could do this smelling the flowers at one of their properties. She chose Claremont Landscape Garden, on the grounds that it is, like, a garden. Gardens are always chock full of flowers, right?

Wrong.

In fact, when it comes to Claremont, the important word is ‘landscape’.

Still, we all had an excellent time and we highly recommend the place. But that is a story for another day. And we found carpets of crocuses just down the road in Battersea Park. So that was alright.

But never one to give up easily, at half term, Mama, who loves autumn with the passion of one whose birthday is slap bang in the middle of it, decided we would try again to revel in the fact that we live in a country where the change from summer to winter (and winter to summer) is protracted and quite beautiful.

This time she chose the National Trust’s Winkworth Arboretum.

Winkworth Arboretum is basically a sort of botanical garden devoted to more than 1000 types of trees spread over 9 acres. It has a nice steep tree-covered hill leading down to a big lake ringed with trees at the bottom and a large tree-studded meadow, and also an extensive, conveniently flat, very treey area at the top.

Winkworth Arboretum in autumn

Trees look good in autumn. This time nothing could go wrong.

And it didn’t.

The boathouse at Winkworth Arboretum

They even have a field full of lamas and horses next to the car park! Which, Mama would like to reassure everyone with the same obsession as her, is both free to National Trust Members and extensive. Useful, as many people seemed to have had the same thought as her about Winkworth being a good place to catch some yellowredorangebrown leaves.

Lamas at Winkworth Arboretum

This was ok though. Winkworth is such a big place that it absorbed the large number of visitors beautifully and didn’t feel crowded at all.

One of the cool things about National Trust places is their tendency to have children’s trails for every major holiday. This one was a full-on Halloween themed one with riddles dotted about the most accessible area of the wood to match to the pictures of ghosties, goulies and aliens we picked up from the entrance. My Spooktastic Big Brother loves riddles, and so this was just to his taste. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to find many of them as we left the safety of the pushchair friendly, walking stick amicable area and went for a more challenging extended ramble, mainly because Mama promised us a large expanse of water.

It was a bit of an effort getting Babushka down the very steep steps, and you should have heard her when Mama picked the scramble route back up again. There are, Mama would like to assure everyone, easier routes down and up. But we like a challenge, and in the end Babushka rose to it, albeit with an extended sit down at the top of the climb.

The lake was everything we could have hoped for, with not only plenty of ducks and geese to amuse my Spooktastic Big Brother, but also an area where I could sit and poke my stick in the water. Mama cut our enjoyment a bit short though because my Spooktastic Big Brother managed to get water in his wellies.

Geese at Winkworth Arboretum

Probably because Mama wasn’t paying sufficient attention. Mama was looking at the trees. Winkworth Arboretum, the tree zoo, has a huge variety of leaves to admire the changing colour of. Every shape, every colour, every texture. We had an excellent time collecting some of the more interesting ones. But what Mama was really there for was the view from the meadow. From there Winkworth really shows off its a tree-filled slope of autumn blazing away back up the hills you have just slid down.

Winkworth Aboretum in autumn from the meadow

The view from the top of the hill over the top of the trees to the sheep-dotted fields opposite isn’t bad either.

The lake at Winkworth Arboretum

Lovely. Says Mama. We were more interested in the GIANT MUSHROOMS.

Giant mushroom at Winkworth Arboretum

And the natural playgrounds in at least two different locations, where the climbing frames, obstacle courses and dens are made of sticks, with the odd bit of help from some twine or a bit of canvas sheeting. Hours of fun.

Den at Winkworth Arboretum

If Mama had to quibble, she would say that enjoying late October leaves in a such warmth that we were all down to T shirts after half an hour is frankly wrong.

This is hardly Winkworth’s fault though.

The unseasonable weather did mean that Mama was persuaded to buy us ice creams in the inevitable National Trust cafe, replete with all the scones and cake you might expect from such an institution, so there’s that too. The inside is not large, but there was plenty of outside seating, and another play area with a wigwam to keep us occupied while the adults drink their coffee.

Basically, Winkworth is an excellent place to go for a good outdoor ramble with all your relatives. There are paths for every sort of walker, including dogs, both long and short routes, scrambles and more gently sloping pathways. And whereever you go, and, probably, whatever season you go, you will find plenty to look at and amuse yourself with as you walk around. We enjoyed it a lot. We will certainly be back in spring to see what trees can offer us that flowerbeds can’t.

More Information

Winkworth Arboretum’s page on the National Trust website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the history of British woodlands.

Address: Hascombe Road, Godalming, Surrey, GU8 4AD

Opening: Autumn/ Winter – 10am to 4pm. Spring/ Summer –  10 am to 6pm.

Admission (with gift aid): Adult: £7.20, Child: £3.60, Family: £18.00. National Trust Members: FREE.

By car: There is a large car park, free to National Trust members.

By public transport: the nearest train and bus stops are in Godlaming, which is 2 miles away.

New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val, Moscow

Buoyed by her success in taking us round the Old one, Mama decided to try out the New Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val.

Good choice. We much prefer modern art, it being similar to the sort of craftings we produce. It does not occur to us to scoff at the fact that the painter has labelled a series of inexplicable squiggles ‘Love’ because we have only that morning presented Mama with seventeen splodges of green we are calling ‘Cats’.

Sticks at the Tretyakov Gallery
This is Art we thoroughly approve of.

Plus, the permanent galleries of the New Tretyakov Gallery are almost completely empty whenever she goes there. If you are going to take small children round an art gallery, doing it when there are not likely to be art lover patrons who want to study the works in meditative contemplation is always a bonus.

The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsy Val
Look! No people!

The lack of visitors is odd, in Mama’s opinion. She thinks that foreign tourists from outside of the Former Soviet Union are actually more likely to be excited by the paintings in the New Tretyakov Gallery than the Old, unless they have a special interest in finding out about more Russia than the activities of Tsars, how awful Communism was and lots and lots of ballet. Or circuses. The art, history and culture in the Old Tretyakov Gallery is largely unknown to abroad and Mama is not sure that is what people come to Moscow for.

The art in the New Tretyakov Gallery, on the other hand, contains pieces by internationally famous artists (Kandinsky, Chagall, Malevich, Goncharova to start you off), internationally famous avant-garde movements (Neo-primitivism, suprematism, constructivism and futurism, otherwise known and geometric shapes r us), internationally famous images of glorious workers (Mama’s favourite is the woman posing dramatically with the slide rule) and pictures of internationally famous mass murderers (Stalin and Lenin and so on).

Slide rule and woman at the Tretyakov Gallery
There is nothing more fabulous than a slide rule.

Part of the problem, Mama ruminates, is that really, the paintings all belong to the Old Tretyakov Gallery, which inherited them almost by accident. The core of the New Tretyakov Gallery comes from a private collection of a Greek expat, who, at a time when the authorities just weren’t having the more interesting expressions of artistic temperament, quietly went around snapping up what ought to have been national treasures for an absolute song.

Eventually, Soviet society twigged to the possibilities and the collector started suffering a number of burglaries. It seems that the state then got most of his acquisitions in some kind of deal that allowed him to leave the country with his favourites at a time when leaving the country was, Mama says, tricky. Can’t think why. Mama only needs our birth certificates, her marriage certificate and a letter from Papa in addition to our many passports to break us out.

So Mama always wonders if the lack of popularity has something to to with the Old Tretyakov Gallery being at a bit of a loss as to know what to do with its modern art, suppressed for so long that, by the time they took over, even if it wasn’t outright banned, it was seriously unfashionable.

And, perhaps, a bit unfathomable. The problem with the glorification of forms, migraine inducing swirls of colour and childishly drawn representations of what might (or might not) be a person, well, Mama thinks that to a certain extent, you had to be there. Doubtless it was a gloriuous shock at the time, but now, now it is just a big black square on a white canvas. It’s not even in the icon corner for maximum symbolic impact.

Malevich at the Tretyakov Gallery
The original Black Square.

The world has moved on to unmade beds, big unadorned lumps of burnt wood and giant green plastic butt plugs.

Says Mama.

Nowadays it is probably also true that for Russians and those from the Former Soviet Union, a good half if it are those sorts of idealised Communist images, or reactions to Communist images, which they must all be heartily sick of, in all senses of the word.

Constructivism at the Tretyakov Gallery
I could do that.

Although someone has certainly given a lot of thought to how to hang it so that philistines like Mama will actually get it.

Kandinsky and Malevitch’s contempories surround their paintings and give you a really good impression of how artists riff off each other in creating something new and exciting.

The room of the joyful and (Mama finds) truly inspirational Soviet images from the earlier days gives onto the contrasting rooms of the official and unofficial artists from later, somewhat less joyful, periods.

Heros of the Soviet Union at the Tretyakov Gallery
Hero footballers of the Soviet Union.
Soviet Realism at the Tretyakov Gallery
Soviet Realism is real.
Unapproved Soviet art at the Tretyakov Gallery
This is not Soviet Realism. This is a kitchen!

The nature of repression and its effect on art is topped with the room dedicated to massive paintings of an avuncular Stalin twinkling his way though various scenes and from there you are plunged straight into the section showcasing what the expat Soviet artists were doing at the same time, with considerably more freedom.

Expat Soviet artists at the Tretyakov Gallery
I can see bottoms, Mama!

To finish off, there are examples of the sorts of things which artists produced during and after the Fall. Mama thinks that this section is definitely a bit patchy, but then she suspects that is because the New Tretyakov Gallery has only a fraction of the works of that time and, in any case, coherent movements were definitely not really what that era was about.

They do also have exhibitions, and these are actually very well attended and included in the price of your general entrance ticket. But they focus on retrospectives rather than new works, and often of artists who feature more in the Old Gallery.

The New Tretyakov Gallery is, in fact, a museum of 20th Century art not an art gallery as such. You should go and see it though and don’t let them fob you off with the Old Gallery. It’s a very interesting museum of art for anyone who hasn’t had  to deal with the reality of living under or in the aftermath of the Soviet years. And most of it has extensive English text to explain things, as well as an audio guide option.

But don’t be expecting to buy anything too exciting afterwards. The shop is absolutely minimal, consisting of one small kiosk, rarely, in Mama’s experience, actually open.

And the cafe never has been. Not once in the actually quite large number of time Mama has been there. Luckily, the sculpture park surrounding the New Tretyakov Gallery, Museon, has a number of small coffee and snack vendors dotted around, and the time we were there there were also at least two places selling more substantial meals further along the building. You could also hop over the road to Gorky Park, or head back towards the metro too, all of which have more places to eat.

We enjoyed our time in the gallery, wildly creepy black and white final exhibition notwithstanding.

Prigov at the Tretyakov Gallery
This artist scared the living daylights out of us.

We expressed our opinion that Kandinsky mainly painted dinosaurs; tried out some of the poses, particularly of the more anatomically challenged figures; found all the naked people in the radical Where’s Wally painting (see above), especially the three breasted ones; descended with glee on the multimedia visual sound poems like the children of the push button Internet age we are; and kept a look out for the docents to distract so Mama could snap a few pictures. The trick is to smile and show them your toy lizard. They loved that.

Kandinsky at the Tretyakov Gallery
Kandinsky’s dinosaur painting.

And Mama had a grand old time using her imagination to explain conceptual art to us. So that’s alright.

More Information

The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsy Val’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about constructions with a ruler and a compass.

Address: 10 Krymsky Val, Moscow 117049

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday – 10am to 7.30pm. Monday – CLOSED.

Admission: 450 rubles (about £6.50) for adults, 250 rubles (£3.50) for students, children under 7 are free.

NB: It’s slightly cheaper for Russians. The New Tretyakov Galley is the only place where Mama has ever been offered the cheaper price, unless she is hiding behind Papa and scowling. Doesn’t work when we are with her though. We refuse to speak Russian to Mama.

By Metro: Oktabrskaya (orange and brown lines) – turn right, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left down the other massive seven million lane highway. Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. The Gallery is opposite Gorky Park.

By other means: Actually, the trollybus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way. It’s quite a fun way of getting to or from the Gallery.

The Old Tretyakov Gallery, Lavrushinsky Lane, Moscow

Mama has been going to the Old Tretyakov Gallery about once a year so for about 15 years now. Last time we let her go on her own she took the (English. Other languages are available) audio guide tour. Five hours later she staggered back out of the building, and that was despite suffering a total failure of will when it came to the icon section. The tour is organised around you deciding which of the paintings to find out more about, and Mama, who really likes the gallery and everything in it, wanted to find out more about nearly all of them.

Old Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow

What you have in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, begun by a wealthy businessman (Tretyakov himself) and added to by the state when they acquired it on his death, is half of nearly all the famous paintings done by painters working in the Former Russian Empire (the other half are in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg).

This makes it a very interesting place to someone who likes a hefty dose of cultural history alongside her aesthetic appreciation (Mama).

Sometimes there are advantages to artists not being particularly famous outside their own country. Or, y’know, enforced nationalisation of aristocratic possessions.

Mind you, regarding the tour, Mama wonders if it might not be a good idea to give more casual visitors an indication of the absolute must sees for a shorter version, or provide an alternative more overview focused guide. But the descriptions are excellent, and you learn a lot about the individual pictures, the artist, and the cultural, political and sociological context surrounding them.

Mama was amused to note that not all of the paintings are described in glowing terms. The experts are not afraid to say when they consider that the painter has made a fist of depicting the lightnshadows, for example, and their critiques take in even some of the images which are, for the people of the Former Soviet Union, as familiar as the Sunflowers, The Hay Wain or the Mona Lisa are to someone like Mama.

My Excellent Big Brother and I are now resigned to viewing art with Mama, but to be fair, Mama has got better at showing us around. She is quite prepared to cover the whole building in less than an hour, makes sure we are well fed and have had a run around before we go in, takes pencils and paper in case we want to do some copying and shamelessly bribes us with a promised trip to MacDonald’s after we have finished.

As it turns out, you are not supposed to sit on the floor and sketch in the Old Tretyakov Gallery.

We discovered this when we tried to draw our favourite painting, the Three Bogatyrs. My Excellent Big Brother likes it because it is of three famous characters from Russian fairy tales, one of which Mama pretends he is named after. I like it because they are sitting on three magnificent horses. Plus, it’s huge, brightly-coloured and not at all depressing, which Mama discovered is not at all true about many of the other paintings she usually likes to linger over.

Vasnetsov's Three Bogatyrs at the Tretyakov Gallery

One in particular made my Excellent Big Brother cry. It’s the one where the soldiers of the Strelki Guard are waiting with their distraught families on Red Square to be executed, overlooked by a vengeful Peter the Great (on a horse!). The Strelki, as a unit, being the ones who brutally murdered his family when Peter was a boy.

Surikov's Streltsi and Peter the Great at the Tretyakov Gallery

Perhaps Mama should not have explained the background to that one.

She managed to restrain herself when it came to Ivan the Aptly-Named Terrible desperately cradling his son, after he had bludgeoned him to death in a rage and rushed us past it before we could ask, even though it is a painting she finds particularly powerful.

Repin's Ivan and Son at the Tretyakov Gallery

Mama also decided that some of her other favourite paintings, the bitingly satirical commentaries on contemporary society, might also require a rather sophisticated explanation, although she did point out the somewhat heartbreaking troika of three poor children employed in the freezing cold as water barrel movers. Mama feels we should occasionally appreciate our comfortable lifestyles more than we do, specially when we are pestering her for new toys.

Perov's Troika at the Tretyakov Gallery

Luckily the painter, Perov, seems to have sold out later and done a cheerful hunting scene. Be sure to press the button for the commentary on this one. It is magnificently scathing.

She also declined to comment on the fate of this young lady. I think she must be Ariel from the Little Mermaid, and we all know that turns out ok in the end. In the Disney version, mutters Mama, darkly. And it’s true that this girl does not have red hair (or much pink about her).

Flavitsky's Tarakanova at the Tretyakov Gallery

The Russians also seem to have gone to war a lot. Mama resigned herself to the inevitable and we spent time contemplating what the artists’ views about war were, whether they wanted to glorify the victory or highlight something else.

Mama herself seems to be broadly against war. She thinks that these paintings, by a man who was there for one, tell you everything you should know about it, then and now.

Vereshchagin Apotheosis of War at the Tretyakov Gallery

My Excellent Big Brother was more struck by the personal tragedy of this one. Or it might have been the vultures that caught his eye.

Vasnetsov's Erruption at the Tretyakov Gallery

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

There are a number of famous Russians in the gallery. The first set of rooms is full of paintings of people with very big grey hair and very big fancy clothes. Mama pointed out that at the time, there were no cameras and if you wanted a picture of yourself or your loved ones, you had to pay someone to spend hours bringing you to life on paper. She asked us who we thought got painted.

My Excellent Big Brother decided on kings and queens and so we looked for some of them in each room. And found them! Mama’s favourite painting is the one of Peter III where you can see the considerable difference between the sketch and the finished picture, which goes to show airbrushing is certainly not a new idea. Here is the cleaned up version. I shall leave the probably-more-accurate quick fire one to your imagination.

Antropov's Peter III at the Tretyakov Gallery

My Excellent Big Brother prefers the one of the benign elderly lady walking her dog in her dressing gown, which Mama says is almost certainly a through misreading of the piece given that this is an Empress called Catherine the Great, although also an interesting departure from the pomp and circumstance of previous portraits. My Excellent Big Brother doesn’t care. He just likes the dog.

Borovikovsky's Catherine the Great at the Tretyakov Gallery

I like the pretty woman with the froth of wispy hair. Mama says she’s not a princess, but I knew that already. Not enough pink.

Levitsky's Mniszek at the Tretyakov Gallery

After this we passed into a room with lots of paintings of ruins, none of which we were very interested in, although it did have a portrait of Pushkin, who is a poet. You can tell he is an important poet because they have a little rope barrier in front of the painting in case you try to throw yourself at it in an excess of artistic sensibility or something. Mama says I will doubtless be finding out more about just how important he is shortly, when I start learning large swathes of his rhymes off by heart, just like my Excellent Big Brother has already. I am looking forward to that, I can tell you!

Kiprensky's Pushkin

Mama has recently managed to find a way to shoehorn Pushkin into my Excellent Big Brother’s English school homework. She is so proud.

Mama was a little disappointed to find that the section towards the end with the peasant girls swirling in bright red dresses was closed for refurbishment, but some of the pre-revolution impressionistic stuff was bright and jolly. Mama tried to get us to notice how the portraits here were so very very different in what they chose to highlight about their subjects from the ones that we’d seen at the beginning of the gallery, but my Excellent Big Brother was transfixed by the large pink naked woman lolling around on a sofa and wasn’t paying attention. Mama also wisely decided to give up on attempting to explain how the artists were painting light not things.

Kustodiyev's Beauty

People are not the only thing to see at the Old Tretyakov Gallery, however. There are also a lot of religous themes, and surprisingly many of them are without trauma. Mama enjoys this very bright and busy one, which apparently took the artist 20 years to complete. It’s called Christ’s First Appearance to the People. We played hunt the Christ. My Excellent Big Brother, he of the two churches education, had no trouble picking Him out. But Mama thinks the fun of this painting is looking at the some of the many many preliminary drawings the artist did on the surrounding walls.

See how John the Baptist starts life as a woman! Watch as the artist experiments with getting just the right amount of skepticism into Thomas the Doubter’s expression! Thrill at the way the amazing curls of John the Beloved take shape!

Ivanov's Appearance of Christ at the Tretyakov Gallery

Mama, who clearly can’t resist poking a sleeping bear where religion is concerned, also had us look at two less flattering paintings. This one is, as my Excellent Big Brother twigged, is of a controversy within the church. Must have been a hell of an issue. Mama says, yes, something to do with the number of fingers it is appropriate to cross yourselves with. She also says, make sure you listen to the description of this one. Apparently, the artist (Perov again) got the composition ALL WRONG (it’s possible the commentators have something against Perov).

Perov's Dispute on Faith at Tretyakov Gallery

They don’t have anything against Repin. Repin is one of the truly great painters represented in the gallery. Mama and Papa once watched an episode of a programme called the Antiques Roadshow where a Repin painting turned up, fresh from somebody’s attic. Mama and Papa a) spat their tea right across the room when the expert revealed the name and b) marvelled at the coolness of the owner, until they realised he had know idea who Repin was. A mistake. The painting was worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Quite why he is great is easy to see from the Ivan painting above and the one of the religious procession. Not only is every last person in the crowd exquisitely rendered and completely individual, but nobody will be saying the composition is a bit shaky or the satire a bit overdone. At first glance, it looks like an uncomplicated drawing of a cheerfully colourful parade, a happy occasion in the life of the small town. When you start looking more carefully, it’s the beautiful devout cripple you notice first. Only later do you realise that he has been marginalised by the rest of society, and that the mass of faces behind him are marred by expressions of pride, boredom, irritation or other unbecoming emotions.

Repin's Easter Procession at the Tretyakov Gallery

If that’s a bit much, admire the painting of his daughter, the dragonfly. Looks a bit like me, huh?

Repin's Dragonfly at the Tretyakov Gallery

We didn’t do the icons though. Mama likes icons, as they are all significance and very little artistic flourish, but they are right at the end of the show, and by that time we were showing signs of restiveness. You could probably come just for the icons if that is your bag, Mama thinks. There are a lot of them, they are very old, and some of them work miracles. Mama, unfortunately, has never yet had the energy to appreciate them properly after hauling herself round the rest of the gallery.

We did appreciate the animal interest available at the Old Tretyakov Gallery though! This is Shishkin, who is famous for painting trees, bears and bears hugging trees, although if Mama’s audio guide is correct, he contracted out the bears in his most famous picture.

Shishkin's Bears at the Tretyakov Gallery

Mama knew she’d spent too long hanging with the Russians when she started to feel fondly for the tourist tat knock offs on the Arbat rather than wondering who the hell the vendors think would by such insipid twaddle.

Shishkin knock offs on the Arbat

Of course, there’s a whole shop devoted to Thomas Kincaid in London.

Mama also realised she has developed alarmingly sentimental feelings for some of the great landscape paintings.

Levitan's Vladimirka at the Tretyakov Gallery

We, however, were not in the slightest bit interested, even in the ones with what Mama insists is a virtuoso performance in how to capture light without resorting to reducing everything to pixels. She says you should google Kuindzhi, or, better, visit Russia and the Old Tretyakov Gallery, because computer screens really don’t do him justice.

Kuindzhi's Night on the Dneiper at the Tretyakov Gallery

We preferred the Rooks Returning. Mama says it is a deeply meaningful meditation on the impact of their climate on the Russians and their though processes. We just admired the birds. My Excellent Big Brother even managed to copy it because we found this room empty of attendants before we got told off for sitting on the floor in front of our knights.

Savrasov's Rooks Returning at the Tretyakov Gallery

And then there was the picture of the fly (with some fruit). Mama wanted to discuss whey the artist has painted the fly, although I suspect my Excellent Big Brother thought the real question was why bother with the vegetation? We decided the fly might lend realism, or be a joke, or show how beautiful things can have their dark side, or just represent a moment when a fly landed on a pear an artist was painting. What do you think?

Khrutskaya's Flowers, Fruit and Fly at the Tretyakov Gallery

But of course the highlight was the big black horse prancing towards the viewer with a young lady elegantly sidesaddle on its back. I like her little sister too. Cute! Like me!

Bryullov's Rider at the Tretyakov Gallery

And in the shop in jigsaw form! Mama feels that the shop, like others at the tourist attractions of Moscow, misses too many opportunities to fleece the tourists. She thinks it focuses a little too much on large glossy art books. But she has found the odd one or two things she she likes here in the past, notably the mugs covered in signatures by famous artists and collections of postcards, and she certainly appreciated the puzzle on the plane back to London.

The gallery also sports a cafe, which we had a brief look into. It is neither wildly cheap nor ruinously expensive, and serves a decent selection of hot Russian classics and cake in comfortable attractive surroundings. She wished she could have been sure it was open before we went, because in the end we held Mama to our promised trip to the golden arches back near the Metro. Mama was unsuccessful once again to place her order for two happy meals and a fillet of fish without incident. It’s a basic tourist fail is not managing to order successfully in MacDonald’s and we are all thoroughly ashamed. I predict Mama is going to insist on us eating local next time.

If you do not have a date with fast food planned, Mama recommends turning left as you exit and walking down the pedestrianised street to the canal, where you will find many iron trees covered with heart shaped padlocks. This is one of the places where wedding parties come to celebrate their day, and you can kick back and watch a stream of beautifully dressed people take photos of each other, should you so wish.

Anyway. We found a lot to look at in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, and despite the ban on crayoning, the staff were welcoming and friendly to us small people. It’s a great place to go if you want to find out more about the Russia that existed before the revolution, and to delve a bit deeper into its history and culture.

Just don’t save the icon room until the end, if that’s what you are interested in. You’ll never make it.

And finally, here is another random painting Mama really likes, because there aren’t enough of them in this post already:

Polenov's Moscow Courtyard at the Tretyakov Gallery

It is Mama’s understanding that all of these images are in the public domain by virtue of the originals being old. If she is wrong, she is very willing to amend this post.

More Information

The Tretyakov Gallery website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about being an artist’s model.

Address: 10 Lavrushinsky Lane, Moscow, Russia 119017

Opening: Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday: 10am to 6pm. Thursday and Friday: 10am to 9pm. Monday: CLOSED.

Admission: Adults – 450 rubles, children – 250 rubles, children under 7 – free. It is slightly cheaper if you can pass yourselves off as Russian. Good luck with that.

By Metro: Tretyakovskaya metro station (orange and yellow lines). Once you are out, you’ll be turning left and following the signs (in English and Russian). The very distinctive Old Tretyakov Gallery building is across a road and right round a corner. Try not to end up leaving by the connected green line station exit of Novuskusnetskaya as it’ll be a bit of a trek back. But on the upside, you’ll get to enjoy the newly nearly pedestrianised Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa.

By other means: Oh now really, no.