Day tripping to Belfast Zoo in Northern Ireland from Scotland

Hello, R here again, Herself’s small Scottish correspondent. Mummy and daddy took us to the zoo to see All The Animals, and I am here to tell you all about it in a guest post.

It was a day trip. Ah! I see you thinking. Scottish. I see you thinking. Zoo. I see you thinking. Off you popped to Edinburgh then! But there you would be wrong.

In fact, we went across to Ireland to Belfast Zoo on Stenaline ferries. Because Stenaline have a summertime offer which includes ferry tickets, zoo tickets, and a bus transfer between the two, which still works out cheaper than trying to see captive animals in Scotland’s capital.

And because the drive down to catch the ferry is somewhat more pleasant than dragging along the motorway and crawling through bits of two cities.

Plus, we got to go to Gran and Grandpa’s house because it’s on the way to Cairnryan! That’s where we catch the boat. Convenient, huh?

Everybody was very busy making lots of sandwiches and other yummy things to eat on the journey when we arrived. Preparations!

“moar biskits”

You remember my little brother L right? He approves of preparations too.

Although they do take a while. After waiting aaaaageeees (maybe even as much as a whole night) for everyone to get everything ready, we got in the car again. We drove and drove, then had to find the car somewhere to sleep. And then we had to wait for everyone else to come in the other car. Again with the waiting!

At least we got to have some snacks.

“my teddy bea crimps”

Yes L, we had crisps. The preparations were worth it!

Of course, after that we still had to walk a reeaaalllly looong way to get on the ferry (five minutes). Which is a really really big boat and cars and trucks can go on too. From my point of view, this is less interesting, though, than the fact that there’s a cinema and soft play, and there are also restaurants and even a spa (whatever that is) on board. The walk was worth it too!

Mummy said we were on the boat for over two hours.

But that’s not really very long as by the time we had had lunch and played in the little soft play area and explored the boat and run about for a bit more it was almost time to get back off again, and we hardly noticed this bit!

Then we had to go across aaanooootheeer big long bridge to get to the bus (ten minutes)!

I liked the bus though; it took us to Belfast Zoo!

When we got to the zoo we looked at lots and lots and lots of animals. There’s everything there! I really liked the big giraffes, and there were some baby giraffes too!

Baby Giraffe Belfast Zoo

And big elephants!

Elephant Belfast Zoo

“I seed a goats, dey was hungy”

Goats Belfast Zoo

Yep, there were goats and pigs and donkeys, rabbits and guinea pigs at the farm area, there were also LOTS of different kinds of monkeys. From huge big gorillas to capuchins and a wild variety of other things like lemurs and tamarind too.

And! There were brown bears, otters, sea lions, oh, and penguins!

Seals Belfast Zoo

We couldn’t see the tigers (they were doing very good hiding) but we did see a mummy lion!

And we also saw meerkats, prairie dogs, and flamingos too!

Belfast Zoo has all the animals, in fact, you could possibly ask for. I bet even Herself and Herself’s animal obsessed big brother would be impressed!

Of course, we had to do more walking to see all the animals. And the zoo is on a big hill so we didn’t quite get round all the animals in the three hours we had before we had to get back on the bus. It was still huge fun though. And we got to play on the ferry again on the way back, we even had dinner in the restaurant!

That’s what I call a day out!

It was so good that when Mummy and Daddy got us back in the car, L was already asleep, and I fell asleep on the way back to Gran and Grandpa’s house.

So if you live close enough to Cairnryan to take advantage, Stenaline ferries have day out offers to convenient bits of Ireland throughout the year, although this specific one to Belfast Zoo has already finished. Still, I imagine there are people actually living or staying close enough to Belfast who might be interested in a zoo experience too, so my advice is go!

More Information

The zoo’s website.

The ferry’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the motorway network of Northern Ireland.

Address: Belfast Zoo, Antrim Rd, Belfast BT36 7PN

Opening: Winter opening: 10am to 4pm daily Summer opening is longer.

Admission: Families – 33.50GBP, adults – 17GBP, kids over four – 6.50GBP, kids under four – free! Plus, the aforementioned deal with Stenaline ferries, which

Getting there: Obviously we recommend being in Scotland and going across to Ireland via Cainryan with Stenaline. If this is not convenient for some reason, you can get to Belfast Zoo via the M1 or M2 motorways depending on which direction you are approaching Belfast from. There is, the zoo’s website assures me, plenty of free parking. The nearest train station (Whiteabbey) is three miles away. There are numerous buses from Belfast city centre.

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Day tripping from Scotland to Belfast Zoo in Northern Ireland with Stenaline ferries

Heads of Ayr Farm Park, Scotland: more than just chickens and pigs.

Today we are hosting my small Scottish correspondent again, and this time his post comes all the way from the West coast of Scotland, just down from Glasgow, in Ayrshire.

Seeing as we had our caravan holiday was right next door to the Heads of Ayr Farm Park, Mummy and Daddy said we could go after we had given the caravan keys back at the end of our stay.

So of course, we got there too early and the man said we had to wait a little while. Not a problem – we had snacks!

“Biskits!”

Oh, that’s my younger brother L. He is just a little boy. I’m a big boy –  I’m 4! Herself is looking at me witheringly. It’s nice not to be the youngest, I tell her!

Eventually we got tickets, and some animal food

“May have some?” Well done L. It’s important to remind parents that just because we have eaten our own body weight in apples, it doesn’t mean we don’t have room for more. Unless, of course it is something the parents want us to eat

But no, L, the yummy looking edibles are strictly for the animals – they’re yukky.

Next we discovered that there is a play area right inside the Heads of Ayr Farm Park gates! But spoil sport that she is, Mummy said we should go see the animals first.

Luckily we were easily distracted as there’re birds next to the playpark, and just a little further up the hill are meerkats.

“Tha’s not a tat!” There’s no sneaking anything past my little brother!

Then we found some animals we could feed – little horses, (ahem, miniature ponies says Mummy). They were a bit licky! Watch out!

Right next to the ponies were slides, but Mummy and Daddy, who had a good idea of how much there was still to cover, only let us have one shot.

“Like big slide ‘swell” L does not share their anti equipment stance.

Daddy found some little goats, (which I am surprised Mummy is not calling miniature ruminant animals) so we fed them too. Not as licky as the horsies, I am pleased to report!

The goats were next to the inside animals, so we went to see who was being so loud! It was a white birdie with funny hair (a cockatoo, coughs Mummy). There were also rabbits, and mouses, baby chickens, guinea pigs, a tortoise, rats and even more birdies (Mummy has given up). For the connoisseurs of the more exotic, we also found some snakes too – a little orange one and a big big big yellow one (Mummy has got nothing).

Heads of Ayr Farm Park lemur
Heads of Ayr Farm Park lemur

“There’s lizzy’d ‘swell”  And a lizard, yes, thank you little bro! And, apparently, lemurs.

We washed our hands and had some lunch at the picnic benches. There were lots of picnic benches! But if you haven’t brought sandwiches there are also places to buy food on site.

Then we found bouncy pillows, a bit like a bouncy castle!  

heads of ayr farm park pillows

“I no like bounce.” Sometimes small children are a bit of a bind.

At this point, Mummy looked at the map and found MORE animals, so we went off and admired more goats, a VERY fluffy sheep and… seagulls? They’re not ‘pposed to be there!

Then we saw alpacas and llamas and really big camels (I am looking at Mummy, but apparently she agrees on the terminology)! These enclosures had a tube to roll food down instead of giving them food in your hands. Wheeee!

Heads of Ayr Farm Park Camel

“We play park now?” Persistence is everything in little brothering.

And rewarded. There’re lots of places to play at the Heads of Ayr Farm Park. Trampolines, slides, castles and even pirate ships and diggers. Lots of sand play areas too with buckets and spades provided! (There were also indoor play areas but it was a very sunny day so we didn’t go in).

Heads of Ayr Farm Park Pirate ship

“That a big mouse!?” No, L, it’s a wallaby! You can walk through the wallabies field for a final encore. Now that is a way to finish a day!

All in all, I can heartily approve my Mummy and Daddy’s choice of holiday campsite. Location location location is everything, and being next to the Heads of Ayr Farm Park is definitely worth the repetition. 

The images in this post were kindly supplied by the Heads of Ayr Farm Park as we had so much fun we forgot to take ones suitable for the blog! Our visit was totally independent of the attraction, however, as are our views.

More information

The farm park’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the rise of the urban seagull.

Address: Heads of Ayr Farm Park, Dunure Road, Alloway by Ayr, KA7 4LD

Opening: 7 days a week 10am to 5pm, from March to the end of October. Some indoor attractions are also open in winter.

Admission: Adults: £11, Kids £9.50, Family £30 – £45 (depending on how many people you are bringing).

Getting there: From the A77 you can either exit just after Ayr at the Alloway turn off (there are signs for Heads of Ayr) if coming from Glasgow. Drive through Alloway and onto the A719. The farm park is 2 miles further on. Or you can leave onto the A719 at Turnbury if coming from the South. The Heads of Ayr Farm park is five miles on the left.

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Heads of Ayr Farm Park in Ayrshire Scotland is an excellent family friendly day out with a range of animal and play attractions

The Zoological Museum of Moscow University

The power a Zoological Museum has over children is a source of never-ending surprise for Mama, who proposed a trip to the one in Moscow without very high expectations given that we have trekked past what seems to her to be an endless number of stuffed animals so far in our short lives. Surely by now the fascination would have worn off?

Lizards in a Jat Moscow Zoological Museum

She had even lower expectations after I whinged all the way there. Well, really, Mama. If you will take us to Burger King first only to discover they had run out of the plastic tat we went there to claim AGAIN. And then double down on the disappointment by dragging us away from the soft play area after a mere half an hour in order to embark on a lengthy overheated Metro journey when we were dressed for Siberia.

But! She had definitely underestimated the restorative powers of dead animals and birds.

Toucan at the Moscow Zoological Museum

I cheered right up almost as soon as we stepped through the front doors of the Moscow Zoological Museum. It may have helped that we got to take off the padded over trousers, the heavy coat, the hat, the scarf, the gloves, and the extra jumper and put them into the ever-present cloakroom. Although Mama thinks that the giant mammoth mural in the entrance hall also helped.

You see, the Zoological Museum is in an old building. It’s actually not just any old Zoological Museum, but the original one attached to the original Moscow University, housed in the even more impressively classical mansion building next door. The actual work of educating the next generation is now in one of the Stalin skyscrapers on top of a hill overlooking the Moscow River far away. But they still retain their former premises, which are right next to Red Square and opposite the Kremlin.

Zoological Museum and the Kremlin

(That’s the Zoological Museum on the left, and the orangey building at the bottom of the street is the Kremlin. No, it’s not supposed to have onion domes).

Did I hear the sound of travellers with children everywhere sitting up and paying attention? Yes, there is indeed a guaranteed child-pleasing attraction within a very very short walk of the must-see sights of Russia’s capital city. And better yet, it’s good, but it’s not that extensive, so would make the perfect pit stop to refresh a small person’s soul before pushing on to more historically significant places. Assuming said small person’s interest in such heritage-heavy destinations has temporarily waned.

Of course, there’s always the giant child-themed department store up the road. But this more educational. And cheaper.

The most essential room is the one with the mammals and the birds. Mama, who is starting to consider herself a bit of a taxidermy connoisseur, was particularly delighted by the mammals. She thinks that there is a certain quirkiness in the stuffing. Take, for example, this seal.

A ferocious seal at the Moscow Zoological Museum

Not, Mama would suggest, the usual presentation of this beloved furry creature, albeit one which from a penguin’s point of view is probably quite accurate. Mama thinks that the ensuing cognitive dissonance might be good for kids, who are generally encouraged to anthropomorphise the natural world to an unhealthy degree.

Otter with a fish Zoological Museum Moscow

Of course, the stuffed birds will also be popular – it’s the colours of the plumage and the variety of beaks – but what’s even more guaranteed to please in the Moscow Zoological Museum is that the room has a high number of the larger and more impressive animals people usually go to zoos for. Mama has written before about weighing up the ethics of zoological museums like this one versus live animal experiences, and the fact that these were collected not for someone’s trophy cabinet but to educate generations at a time when you couldn’t just go out and make a high-resolution film of the creatures, well, she thinks that has some value.

Tigers at the Moscow Zoological Museum

Basically, if you want to study the natural world, it helps to know what it looks like, and if anyone is any doubt, they should go off to the Grant Museum in London and ask to see the sketches of kangaroos made by people who were relying purely on descriptions to make them. The Zoological Museum of Moscow University celebrated its 225th anniversary last year. You can see why someone thought it necessary to bring back all the big cats, and a polar bear, not to mention the bison, the bears, and the weird antelopes with the big noses, although Mama suspects that the really scientifically interesting collections are probably not actually out on display, and probably consist of seventy-two examples of the same species of dull brown rat. For, y’know, the purposes of comparison.

Bison Zoological Museum Moscow

That said, there is almost certainly no scientific justification for making the imperial double-headed eagle out of dead bugs. This just goes to show that Russians might not strictly speaking have been Victorian, but that people 150+ years ago were pretty much the same all over.

Russian Imperial eagle made out of bugs Moscow Zoological Museum

The other rooms consisted of things preserved in formaldehyde in glass jars, mostly anything you can’t really stuff, and the Skeleton Room, which for some reason really freaked me out. Possibly because it wasn’t bones of mythical dinosaurs but real creatures which might, y’know, rattle to life and come chasing me down the corridor. The dim lighting didn’t help either. I imagine this sort of thrill might actually be a draw for some people though. My Ghoulish Big Brother was certainly a fan.

Skeletons at the Moscow Zoological Museum

So my lack of enthusiasm brought the visit to a close, although not before Mama had bought herself a mug as a reward for discovering the place. I scored a rubber snake. My Ghoulish Big Brother got a magnet and a book about fish, which, much to Mama’s shock, he read steadily on the journey back and at home until it was finished. As a result, she’d have happily popped in and got the rest of the series too, if the shop (actually a small table – Mama does worry about the commercial arm of some of these Russian museums) wasn’t behind the ticket barrier. The Zoological Museum of Moscow University is reasonably priced, but not that cheap.

Oh dear, what a pity. We’ll have to go back in the not too distant future…

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The Zoological Museum of Moscow University is full of stuffed animals and birds large and small and things pickled in glass jars

More information.

The museum’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Hoover, the talking seal.

Address: 6 Bolshaya Nikitskaya, Moscow, 125009

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm with late night opening on Thursday to 9pm. CLOSED every Monday and the last Tuesday in every month.

Admission: 400 roubles for adults, 100 for kids over seven (the English version of the website is wrong on their pricing – it’s gone up a bit).

By public transport: The Zoological Museum is a short walk from either of the two red line stations of Okhotniy Ryad and Biblioteka Imeni Lenina and their connecting stations of Tverskaya (green line), Ploshad Revolutsii (dark blue line), Boroviskaya (grey line) and Arbatskaya (dark blue line).

By other means: If you live here and are looking for somewhere to amuse your offspring in the centre, I assume you already know where to park. Cos I don’t.

MummyTravels
Flying With A Baby

Moskvarium Aquarium, Moscow

Mama was outraged when Papa took us to the aquarium Moskvarium, Moscow’s newest animal attraction, without her over the summer. Particularly as he managed to lose my Adorable Big Brother half way round. Serves Papa right for clearly not reading my account of London’s Sealife Aquarium in which I specifically warn people of the dangers of such dark, packed but fatally fascinating animal attractions. But the main issue was what a wonderful story for the blog Mama missed!

So when we had completed a grim-faced march across the exhibition complex VDNH in even for Russia unseasonably early horizontal frozen sleet on our way to what turned out to be recently closed exhibition of animatronic dinosaurs, she didn’t need much convincing to nip round the corner to the giant blue box covered with bubble pictures instead. Mama loves VDNH, but she is forced to admit that in the colder months is it possibly a bit too extensive when you are actually trying to get somewhere specific, especially when that somewhere specific is unavailable.

Moskvarium Moscow

Much of Moscow apparently considers Mama a bit of a nelly though judging by the constant stream of people heading towards the Moskvarium ahead of us, behind us and even as we were leaving quite a bit later in the day. Of course, Moskvarium is a great name. My Adorable Big Brother was amused by it for ages after he worked out the clever smashing together of its location and function. No wonder people are prepared to suit up their young in the heavy-duty snow gear and head out for a lengthy trek to get to it.

Not that Moscovites need much convincing to get out the heavy-duty snow gear for their kids. I feel decidedly underdressed, even if autumn has returned and it is 15 degrees centigrade outside.

Anyway, let us return to the Moskvarium, where there are fish.

Fish at the Moskvarium Moscow

A lot of fish, as this is now Europe’s largest aquarium. The Moskvarium is arranged in what I am inaccurately going to describe as a rectangular semi-circle, which basically goes fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish, and then you get to a large central hall with the more interesting aquatic livestock and then it’s fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish all the way to the finale of sharks and seals at the end.

To be honest, I find the fish a bit boring, especially after the first five hundred tanks. I allowed Mama a few moments of awe at the toothy looking pikes near the entrance, but then I started agitating to get to the crocodiles.

Crocodile two at the Moskvarium Moscow

Crocodiles are cool. There they hang, only their cunning little eyes peeping out above the water, but underneath, underneath there is this great long dinosaur body with a giant tail.

Crocodile at the Moskvarium Moscow

I know this because one of the advantages of having the space of what I am told is the largest aquarium in Europe is that unlike the London Sealife aquarium you can afford to really make a meal of a number of different habitats rather than relying on having one really good big tank and making visitors squint through relatively small windows off the sort of narrow corridors that do not encourage visitors to linger and get a really good look at everything else. The crocodile cage in the Moskvarium is a giant affair housed in a giant room where the only thing stopping the water and the toothy predator from sploshing all over you is a tall thin sheet of glass.

Turtle at the Moskvarium Moscow

You can also sit and sip coffee and get a snack next to what will be some dugongs when they have arrived, which they haven’t yet. Now that’s a view. Will be a view.

On the other hand, Mama would say that when it comes to what she thinks should be the deep-sea showstopper full of sharks and pretty fish there doesn’t seem to be much depth to them, which turns it into mere rectangular water cage rather than conveying the proper impression that you really have a window onto the ocean. The designers lack the desperate imagination of Sealife in London here in fact. Possibly the excitement of having so much space to play with – this is Europe’s largest aquarium apparently – has has caused them to be complacent,  although I also think Mama has spent too many Saturday mornings glued to the reality TV show Tanked! about the large gentlemen who install aquariums across America (much more thrilling than you might expect. Say Mama and my Wonderful Big Brother). She has become jaded.

Shark tank at the Moskvarium Moscow

Or possibly, she had just had enough by the time we came to that point. I know I had.

Despite the fact that the last set of tropical tanks with the most colourful and attractive fish so far also give you fun to climb knobbly plastic rocks so you can scramble up to view them, my fish appreciation capacity had completely run out just before we got to that section. The Moskvarium, being Europe’s biggest (did I mention that already?), is about twenty fish tanks too large for me. This wouldn’t have been a problem, really, except that my Adorable Big Brother was just getting into his stride. The last couple of thousand metres of our trip pleased nobody, but I am louder, so I won.

Lion fish at the Moskvarium Moscow

As far as my Adorable Big Brother is concerned they save the best for last though and that is the seals. From Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake and surely one of the great eco-tourism destinations out east in Siberia. Personally, I think one seal looks much like another. Perhaps these ones do seem somewhat rounder than your average sea-lion, but equally as obliging then it comes to rolling around in the water, splashing each other and performing somersaults. My Adorable Big Brother was transfixed. I lay on a handy beanbag, stared at the ceiling in fished out apathy and ate prunes.

But!

Even I perked up when just as we were about to leave, feeding time happened, because feeding time at the Moskvarium seal enclosure is like a mini show, with pairs of seals teamed up with a keeper who combines slipping them their tidbits with practising all their best tricks. Very very cool.

Of course, this may just be last-ditch advertising for the shows before you leave. Mama suspects that’s where you get to see the killer whales, the dolphins and the other big aquatic mammals properly, as the viewing into bits of their tanks don’t give you much of a view, especially of the dolphins.

Of course, this probably means they have a decent amount of space to hide from us in, but I am four and I do not care about this.

Mama is a bit unclear as to how you get to go to the shows (buying a ticket would probably help, yeah, Mama?) because she didn’t seem to see any signs pointing the way while we were there, which is good for her bank account, but terrible for her curiosity. Luckily my Adorable Big Brother has not twigged to the extra entertainment possibility on offer yet, but as soon as he does I expect he will be on translation duties as we attempt to track the auditorium down.

In the meantime we were stuck with standing in front of the large window with the view of the largely empty tank, waiting for the killer whales to drift past. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting. And waiting and waiting and waiting.

Killer Whale at the Moskvarium Moscow

And then we went to play with the handling tanks.

The largely unsupervised handling tanks.

The largely unsupervised handling tanks where you can stick your arms in right up to the shoulder to chase the fish and the rays around. The rays are great! Very slow-moving!

Mama considers this wrong for all sorts of reasons, and after we had stood in the toilets with our sleeves under a blow dryer for a bit she marched us severely over to the colouring in wall, which was surprisingly popular with all sizes of people. Perhaps I was not the only one who was having fish processing problems in Europe’s largest aquarium?

It could be people processing problems. There were a lot of them there by the time we were getting towards the end. Unless you are used to London crowds everywhere, in which case you will be wondering where everybody is.

But back to the fish! The Moskvarium is definitely worth a look, especially with older children who have more stamina than I do for a trek around what may be Europe’s largest aquarium. Get there early to avoid the crowds, and say hi to the crocodiles from me.

More information

The Moskvarium’s website (in Russian because the English version is pretty minimal. This is what Google translate is for).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the African Dwarf Crocodile.

Address: VDNH Estate 119, Prospect Mira, Moscow, 129223.

Opening: 10am to 10pm, everyday except the last Monday of every month.

Admission: At weekends and on holidays, adults and children over 120cm: 1000 roubles (£10) and children up to 120cm: 600 roubles (£6). Weekdays, it’s 600 roubles and 400 roubles respectively. There are family tickets available too.

By metro: From VDNH (on the orange line) you need to walk through the VDNH exhibition park. This is quite a walk. The Moskvarium is in the same area as the Polytechnic Museum, behind the giant space rocket.

There are also trams and such which stop at VDNH.

By other means: Dunno.

ANIMALTALES

Wander Mum

Moscow Zoo / Московский Зоопарк

The most memorable thing about Moscow Zoo, according to Mama, is its location, which just goes to show that she has probably now been to too many animal attractions. At this stage in her career as a parent of a hopeful zoo keeper, Mama’s ability to take interested in yet another round of zebras, toucans and orangutans is decidedly tepid. You’ve seen one spectacled bear, she is starting to think, and you have seen them all.

Bear at Moscow Zoo

Zoos are really starting to have to have a unique selling point beyond the animals for her to really sit up and pay attention.

This could be why the Moscow Zoo’s entrance is fashioned as a dramatic, if mostly plastic (or possibly fibreglass), mountain.

Moscow Zoo entrance
We’re going to the zoo!

But it has to be said that after the promise of this once you get inside, the first thing you will see is a giant pond.

Full of ducks.

Duck Filled Pond at Moscow Zoo
Ducks! Hurrah!

A bold choice for an opener, Mama thinks, even if they aren’t mallards, but that’s before she spotted the flamingos in the far corner. And indeed once you have schlepped round the perimeter of the water for a few hours, you will find on the other side the usual array of big and small wild cats, bears, giraffes, odd looking cows, more birds ranging from tiny colourful flitty parrots though haughty storking cranes, paddling wading birds to giant hulking vultures, elephants, bats, wolves and penguins.

White tiger at Moscow Zoo
Big cat!
Shaggy cow at Moscow Zoo
Funny looking cow!

Mama is bemused by the penguins to be honest. Moscow Zoo, being as it is in Russia, a country that gets pretty damn chilly in the winter, has special indoor habitats as well as the outdoor spaces for a number of its most popular animals from warmer climes. But its penguins are not outdoors because the zoo seems to have acquired the ones which live in warm places.

Mama thinks this is pure contrariness.

On the other hand, she admires the business sense of having the dolphinarium in a strategically central location, surrounded by the walrus and sea lion enclosures. Going to see the show costs extra (but not much extra), and the nice thing about it being in Russian is that Mama feels she is exempt from having to listen to the usual spiel where trainers explain that really, the nature of these particular captive animals is that they are so intelligent that have to be kept entertained somehow and getting them to toss balls back and forth is the best way to do it.

Dolphin at Moscow Zoo
Splosh!

Other entertainments appear to be feeding the flamingos and doing the mouse spotting trail. Mama disapproves of the practice of flinging the flamingos the crusts from your sandwiches, which appears to be something of a Muscovite tradition, but what, precisely, the difference between poisoning the exotic pink birds, who at least get proper nutritional supplements from their keepers, and poisoning the common old ducks and seagulls, who in London almost certainly survive mainly on toddler thrown bread, she cannot actually pinpoint.

Flamingos at Moscow Zoo
Apparently ‘do not feed’ means something else in Russian.

The mouse spotting game is much less controversial. The zoo appears to have released any number of small largely white rodents throughout its enclosures, who will pop out at random moments next to this meercat, that lynx or the other mountain goat to surprise and delight any visitors who might be thinking that seeing a gibbon lick its private parts is not thrilling enough. I suspect there might be a prize for the family who see the highest number. You should have a go! It’s great!

Mice at Moscow Zoo
Release the mice!

By now you will have completed a full circle of the lake, and are thinking about where to go once you leave. This would be a mistake, because you have only, in fact, done half Moscow Zoo, so you’d be better off having something to eat.

The Moscow Zoo has been undergoing renovations in the last few years and these are still not quite finished, so the odd corner here and there will undoubtedly be closed when you go. But one of the things they have finished upgrading is the food outlets, and there are now cafés dotted around at very regular intervals, although none of these seem to be of the indoor type, which could be interesting in the depths of winter. Of course, there are any number of eateries on the way in or the way out and plenty of places for you to sit and eat sandwiches if you’d rather do that.

To get to the other half, you climb another fibreglass (or possibly plastic) mountain, take the bridge across the road and descend to another duck filled pond past the giant sloth enclosure. And then it’s otters, goats, pelicans, lions, reptiles, monkeys, gibbons, orangutans, chimps, gorillas, zebras and polar bears all the way to the exit.

Reptile House at Moscow Zoo
Cleverly placed metal walkway for small children!

Mama particularly enjoys the polar bears, mainly because there is an artificial snow making machine in their habitat, which is amusing because Russia, and because they always seem to have a cub on the go, which Mama always finds reassuring in a zoo.

Polar Bear at Moscow Zoo
Artificial snow! Because in Moscow, you can never have too much snow!

Just before the exit there is the petting zoo. Chickens, mostly. But also goats, sheep and a couple of cows in the corner. The Moscow Zoo has also wisely anticipated the rise of the selfie and provided a whole bunch of mosaic animal sculptures for visitors to pose on and around on their way out. Very cool. We have about a thousand of these snaps by now.

mosaic bear at Moscow Zoo
Selfie bear is waiting!

Anyway. Back to the location. Did you spot its fabulousness?

What Mama finds absolutely fascinating about the Moscow Zoo, and what keeps her happy about going back and back is the way that there you are, admiring the zebra in its semblance of an African Savannah, and you look up and see the apartment blocks dotted all around. It is frankly not a little freaky. Juxtapositioning and other such impressive sounding words. Plus, imagine having a flat up there, Mama likes to think, although not out loud in case my Animaltastic Big Brother overhears her.

Zebra giraffe ostrich at Moscow zoo
Check out that real estate!

All in all, the Moscow Zoo is one of the most popular destinations for those with children in the capital, not least because of its extremely reasonably priced entrance tickets. Children under the age of seventeen are FREE!

(Mama is allowing y’all a few minutes to boggle at that).

(Boggled out yet?)

Of course, in summer this means it gets very busy indeed, especially at weekends. Papa recommends that you go off season. Mama recommends that you sort out an also very attractively-priced season ticket. I insist you find the horses and my Animaltastic Big Brother doesn’t care what you do as long as you don’t stop him from going again and again and again any time soon.

More information

The Moscow Zoo’s website (in English).

The Dolphinarium’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about keeping mice as pets.

Address: Bolshaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa, 1, Moscow, Russia, 123242

Opening: Moscow Zoo is open 10 am to 6pm Tuesday to Sunday. The zoo is closed on Mondays.

Admission: Adults – 400 roubles (£4) on weekdays and 500 roubles (£5) at weekends. Children under the age of seventeen are FREE. I’ll just repeat that. A major zoo in a capital city allows children under the age of seventeen (and also pensioners and students) in for FREE.

By metro: Barrikadnaya (purple line) or Krasnopesnenskaya (brown circle line) are very close to the main entrance (and connected to each other).

By other means: Just take the tube, yeah?

Gorodskaya Ferma / Городская Ферма at VDNH, Moscow

So you think that summer holidays in the UK are looooooooong, do you? Well, if you are my age you probably don’t actually, but I gather the odd Mama here and there does. Anyway. Spare a thought for all those Russian parents out there. They start the long haul at the beginning of JUNE, people, and don’t stop until the 1st September.

There are many strategies Muscovites have for dealing with this. A popular one is packing the kids off to the datcha with the grandparents for the duration. But not everybody has a glorified allotment with a larger than usual shed on it and so Moscow is a particularly ripe spot for child-friendly profit-driven attractions.

One of these is the new(ish) Gorodskaya Ferma, or City Farm, at the exhibition complex VDNH, which is fast becoming the place in Moscow to house such things. The Polytechnic Museum has its temporary exhibition here, and Europe’s biggest aquarium has likewise just opened its doors.  And since the words ‘farm’ and ‘animals’ go together like ‘pelmeni’ and ‘smetana’, we inevitably found our way there within a short time of arriving in Russia’s capital.

Campfire at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

What we found is that Gorodskaya Ferma is more of a boutique farmette that your actual sprawling acres of muddy husbandry. Which is fine, especially as what immediately caught our attention when we stepped inside was the well designed play area. It was, in fact, quite some time before we prised ourselves away from the hammocks, the climbing nets, the slides and the sandpit and went in search of the live entertainment.

Play area at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

And there we found rabbits. Who seemed bent on escaping their enclosure. Some disinterested sheep. A handful of decidedly interested goats.

Goats at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Two cows. DONKEYS (I liked the DONKEYS – they are practically HORSES). And geese and chickens. Who have rather fabulous houses.

Chicken house at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

And ducks. Who have  rather splendid pom pom feather headdresses.

And all of this was very fine as such things always are.

But what Mama and my Terrific Big Brother really liked was the barn full of straw bales. Which you can climb all over.

I, on the other hand, did not like the barn full of straw bales.

In fact, I stood outside holding my nose and complaining. An unreconstructed urbanite, said Mama, from her perch on the top of the fragrant if slightly prickly tower.

Barn at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Straw does have its uses though. We got to take a handful back to the cows, for example. And then there was the straw modelling workshop which saw Mama, whose crafting abilities resemble that of the ten-year-olds the activity was probably pitched at, attack the activity of wrapping handfuls of the stuff into the shape of animals with admirable gusto. I think we were supposed to be making a fox. What we got was a giraffe and a goose. In case you were wondering.

Straw animals at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

More my Terrific Big Brother’s thing was the autumn collages, involving the gathering and arrangement of leaves, twigs, straw, sand and anything else that took the group’s fancy into concentric circles. More and more concentric circles. Just another one Mama. Oooooh, how about a ring of sand to finish… hey, we could do some more leaves and… look, I’ve found a feather! That patch of grass over there had some excellent sticks let’s go back there and… Mama had to be firm in the end. It was time to go. It was PAST time to go. No, really, now. I pretty much had to throw a tantrum to get us out of there. The things I do for my family.

Leaf art at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Another thing Mama would like to note about Gorodskaya Ferma is that they are fully English-enabled. Mama knows this because when she made a total hash of enquiring how, exactly, one went about purchasing food to feed the animals, the cashier was utterly delighted to be able to wave over his English-speaking colleague to deal with her. In fact, this happened every time anyone realised we were talking in English, and as they were extremely crestfallen to discover that Mama’s Russian is not as bad as all that in any case she has her own personal translator in my Terrific Big Brother, Mama feels that it is necessary for all the non-Russian speaking peoples of Moscow to go down to the farm and make the very enthusiastic staff’s day.

And in case you are wondering, the answer to Mama’s query is that you pay fifty roubles for a token, which you pay into bubble gum-esque dispensing machines in return for a small handful of either diced carrots or dry bread. If you don’t remember to pick up your tokens at the entrance there are also machines near the food.  It has to be said, there’s nothing like having food whiffled out of your hand by a snortingly warm muzzle.

Speaking of which, Gorodskaya Ferma has a café, or at least a food dispensing kiosk and some accompanying under cover tables. The café staff seemed a tad harassed – Mama thinks their menu is a bit ambitious for a hut with a microwave and a fridge – and frankly I was outraged that they did not sell hot chocolate, but Mama seemed happy with her coffee and the free WiFi and let us wander off to see what was happening over in the small cultivated area opposite.

Because verily, Gorodskaya Ferma is not just about cowsnchickens. You can also have a go at grubbing around in the dirt and waving a small watering can in the general direction of some lettuce.

Or painting the apple trees, which was the activity which had caught our attention. By the time Mama ambled over we were covered in whitewash and she was not at all to be distracted by the various reasons why such beautification is done. Why, Mama would like to know, when all Russian children manage to paint a tree without spattering it all over themselves, do we end up with it patterning our trousers and even in our hair? Luckily, not actually being paint, it washed out and off without too much effort.

Apple trees at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Of course, the summer holidays are over now and although we have been enjoying what Mama says is one of Moscow’s typically glorious Indian summers, now October is here it is getting nippy and at some point it’s going to snow. Russians are, of course, used to this and there are signs that the team at Gorodskaya Ferma have prepared for this with a number of the attractions being undercover affairs, but Mama has no idea what Gorodskaya Ferma’s plans are once the colder weather really sets in.

So you’d better get down there quick and enjoy the last of the good weather and the crafting opportunities while they last. They appear to be all about the pumpkins from their Instagram feed at present.

Say hi to the donkeys for me.

More information

Gorodskaya Ferma’s page on VDNH’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the chemistry of autumn colours.

Address: Next to the historic pavilion 44 (‘Rabbit breeding’), VDNH Estate 119, Prospect Mira, Moscow, 129223.

Opening: Every day except for Mondays from 10 a.m. till 8 p.m.

Admission: Adults and children over 3 years old, 200 roubles (£2) on weekdays and 300 roubles (£3) at weekends.

By Metro: The nearest metro is Botonichiskii Sad on the orange line, but the nearest exit from there is closed for renovation at the moment and so to get to Gorodskaya Ferma you have to go straight on down the road next to the railway tracks, cross left under the railway tracks, walk up the road a bit, cross the road into a path through a wood opposite the entrance to the actual Botonichiskii Sad (Botanical Gardens), amble through the wood, amble through a patch of rather attractive heathland, and cross another road to get to the back entrance of VDNH, whereupon the farm is directly on your right, though you have to head round to the entrance opposite the large pond. Mama thinks this may not be a trip for the fainthearted visitors out there, although all hail Google maps is what she suggests. That and heading in the general direction of Ostankino TV tower in the distance.

Ostankino tower at VDNH

However, your other option is to get off at VDNH (orange line) and then walk the length of the ex-Soviet exhibition space to the big pond at the back. Gorodskaya Ferma is at the end that doesn’t have the vaguely phallic fountain (Mama says). It’s a bloody long walk though (I say). Insist your big people take a scooter to tow you along and at the very least you must demand to go no further unless you are fed an ice cream every ten paces. On the upside, VDNH is always a fascinating venue to wander around.

By other means: No idea. Well, all right there are buses and trams and such which will get you a tad closer than the Metro, but unless you know about them already, Mama thinks you are better off with the hike. There may well be parking somewhere, but Mama is frankly uninterested in finding out where.

Battersea Park Children’s Zoo, London

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

We certainly do.

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

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

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

Is it the choice of animals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The season tickets are expensive.

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

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

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

More information

Battersea Park Children’s Zoo website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sensational Butterflies at NHM, London

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

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

Green butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

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

Was it worth the wait? I hear you cry.

Pink and green butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

YES! Yes, a thousand times YES!

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

Black and white butterflyat Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

Large blue butterfly on an arm at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

Black moth and large blue butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

White and black butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

Stripy black butterfly with pink spots at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

Butterflies feeding at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

Another large blue butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

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

Orange butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

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

More Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By car: God, no.

Scottish Owl Centre, West Lothian

Almost the entire point of going to Scotland as far as my Amazing Big Brother is concerned is visiting the Scottish Owl Centre, conveniently situated midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow on the M8.

Owl slide at the Scottish Owl Centre
This slide is whizzy! And very cool.

This is because of the owls (surprise!).

There are a lot of them though. Big ones, medium ones, small ones, really really small ones, white ones, grey ones, brown ones, ones with speckled feathers, stripy patterns, spots, owls that hide away in burrows with alarmingly long legs, fishing owls, owls from hot countries, cold countries and tropical rainforests (Tropical! Rainforest! Owls! Says Mama, delightedly), owls with black eyes, yellow eyes and orange eyes (there’s a story behind that), owls with signs on the doors suggesting you stay weeeeeeell back so that they do not savage your little fingers, hooting owls, screeching owls, owls which make other hauntingly beautiful noises while you eat your sandwiches and play happily in the sunshine, and lots of owls who are, apparently, getting ready to hatch out new baby owls before our very eyes.

Which is reassuring from an ‘are the owls enjoying themselves in those cages’ kind of way.

And all of these owls had that thousand yard solemn unblinking stare and did that distinctive wiggly head movement as they watched me go by.

Tropical owls at the Scottish Owl Centre
Tropical owls! Tropical! Owls! Wanting to eat me for lunch! Cooooooool!

My Amazing Big Brother is convinced this means they are trying to get a bead on the aerodynamic possibilities of swooping down and carrying me off like a mouse.

Sometimes it’s quite worrying being small. But it certainly added a bit of spice to our visit.

Burrowing owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
This one will probably not be able to make off with me.

But despite the variety of owls, the Scottish Owl Centre is not really a full day out, even if, like my Amazing Big Brother you insist on going round twice, very very slowly, getting Mama to read all the placards. In fact, it will probably only take you forty five minutes to an hour tops to saunter around all the owl enclosures, although there is also a giant fast tube slide and a small crawlabout maze to occupy you next to a picnic area, and some oldschool educational displays in a covered space, which do an excellent job of conveying really quite a lot of information about owls, their habitats and habits in a simple, but fun interactive manner. We particularly recommend the one where you have to stick your hands in squidgy wet artificial snow and play hunt the voles. It’s FABULOUSLY gross.

British owls at the Scottish Owl Centre
My Amazing Big Brother got all of these right – can you?

Luckily there also is an excellent and quite extensive adventure play area right outside in Polkemmet Country Park, where the Owl Centre is situated. There’s a sandpit with its own built in sand toys, a wooden castle, various climbing nets and structures, a zipwire, and swings.

Playground at Polkemmet Country Park
Please be as amused as Mama is by the can of Iron Bru.

There’s also a real life steam engine parked and ready to climb over, although much to our disappointment, you couldn’t actually turn the handles, stoke the fires or set it moving.

Steam train at Polkemmet Country Park
Choo choo!

Tickets for the Scottish Owl Centre are valid all day so you could pop in and out after playing there, and there are also woodland walks to had, although much of the park is taken up by a golf course, which Mama says might spoil things, although I think she might be quoting Churchill there.

Why would you want to pop back in, I hear you ask?

Because the highlight of your visit to the Scottish Owl Centre will be the thirty minute flying shows that take place twice daily in winter and three times in the warmer months.

It’s not just that wherever you sit in the covered flying area you will feel (but not hear, their silent flight not being a myth) an owl swoop millimeters past you, or, if you go to the show where you get to lie down on the floor while the owl skims your nose, over you (which frankly is thrilling enough), but that the handler’s chat which accompanies the display is packed full of genuinely interesting tidbits of owly facts as well as a fair amount of background into the history of the place and its work as a conservation centre.

Grey grey  owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
Release the owls!

The particularly nice thing is that each show is different, with different owls, different information and even different handlers, so Mama and my Amazing Big Brother think it is well worth sticking around for more than just the one. I, on the other hand, was enthralled for the entirety of the first show, but I did find that my three year old attention had wandered a bit by the end of the second one. This was the reason that we didn’t go back for the third.

I think our favourite bit, though, was when we got to HOLD THE BIRDS! One of my Amazing Big Brother’s most prized possessions is the photo of him with an owl on his arm from our first visit here, but that time he was only my age so he had to make do with a smaller owl. This time, he was determined to hold a really big one, and so he did, even though it was so heavy he could barely manage it on his own.

I took one look at the size of the Milky Eagle Owl’s beak and declared myself quite happy with the exceptionally cute White Faced Owl, whose parents Mama had only just that minute been admiring. You have to pay extra for this privilege, of course, especially if you want the centre to print you off a photo, but we are convinced it is well worth it.

White-faced owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
This was my owl! Isn’t it cute!

Plus, if you have any burning owl questions still left unanswered, this is the time to ask them. The advantage of this small venue is that the people manning this attraction are fully involved in the work of the centre and very happy to chat about it.

There isn’t any food outlet on the Owl Centre site, barring some tubs of ice cream in the reception foyer. The café in the grounds of the park (which otherwise gets rave reviews, Mama understands) was also closed when we went. But you can take sandwiches. There are certainly some attractive places to eat them both inside and outside the centre and the website for the Polkemmet Country Park also boasts a site you can hire for your very own barbeque in the spring and summer months.

All in all, a child less relentlessly fixated on the animal world than my Amazing Big Brother might not think that the Scottish Owl Centre is quite worth a drive of two days with an overnight stop at an unrevamped motel in a service station off the A1 to get there, but my Amazing Big Brother certainly does. I’m not joking – he’s been going on and on about in the three years since our last visit and clearly did not accept Mama’s description of quite how far it was as any kind of barrier for a weekly trip.

Mama and I are a touch less enthusiastic, but we both agree that if you are in the area and the weather is even halfway decent it is definitely somewhere you should have on your list.

More Information

The Scottish Owl Centre’s website.

The Polkemmet Country Park page on the West Lothian council’s website.

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

Address: Polkemmet Country Park, Whitburn EH47 0AD, Scotland

Opening: Feb, March, Sept, Oct, Nov: 11.30 to 16.00 (flying displays 12.30 and 14.30). April to August: 10.30 to 17.00 (flying displays 11.30, 13.30 and 15.30). December to January: closed.

Admission: Adult: £7.50, child (3-15): £5.50, family (2+2): £24

By car: Leave the M8, which runs between Edinburgh and Glasgow, at junction 4a. The Centre (and Polkemmet Country Park) is clearly signposted from there on brown signs. The Centre is probably about 45 minutes from both cities. The car parks in the park are FREE!

By public transport: Apparently, buses which run through Whitburn and Harthill pass the entrance to the park.

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.