The Moscow Central Circle Railway Line

The opening of the Moscow Central Circle Line was a cause of much excitement in our house.

Mama generally prefers to use public transport in big cities than drive, and although she persists in thinking that London has far FAR worse traffic problems than Moscow, any improvement to the network in the town she now lives in must be a cause for rejoicing. The Central Circle Line connects up all of the radial lines of the Metro, and from Mama’s point of view does so in a way which makes it a bit more convenient to do at least one of the journeys we take regularly.

Plus, y’know, get to Moscow City, which is clearly an advantage.

Add to this that, despite the fact it is administratively part of the Moscow underground system, it is 100% above ground AND that it is, as you may be able to tell from the title, a circular route and you really do have a guaranteed winner in Mama’s eyes. Virtually free sightseeing tours!

They have produced a set of all new locomotives and attendant carriages specifically for the Central Circle Line. Named after the bird ‘lastochka’ or ‘swallow’. Surprisingly this does not mean that they stop working in winter, but that they are fast.

Lastochka Moscow Central Circle Line

Either way, due to the fact that the Russian railway gauge is significantly wider than the standard used in the rest of Europe, you can fit a fairly large number of comfortable seats fairly comfortably into the passenger areas and have plenty of room for a generous aisle space as well. There is leg room and little tables to put your sandwiches down on! There are quite pleasant toilets! There are LED displays showing you how fast you are travelling and what the temperature is outside as well as what the next station will be.

And there are TV screens, but Mama does not recommend looking too closely at these as what they show is mostly show infomercials about what happens to you if you try to cross over the train tracks. Mama has always made sure we are seated with our backs to those since discovering that. There is instilling a reasonable sense of safety in your users, and then there is inviting screaming nightmares for the rest of the week. In her.

The other thing about the Moscow Central Circle Line that Mama grinds her teeth at are the announcements. Which are in English as well as Russian.

Now 1) this means there are rather a lot of announcements, but 2) it also means that she has to listen to the AngloRusski equivalent of Dick Van Dyke mangling Cockney in the film Mary Poppins every time one of the stations is mentioned. Somehow this annoys her even more than the actual Russian speakers in her family, who just find it amusing. Why oh why oh why they couldn’t find someone with a nice RP accent who ALSO speaks a bit of Russian Mama does not know. Someone did suggest to her recently (because, yes, she has gone on about this a bit to more people than you might imagine) that it’s all done with computers splicing together the appropriate phonemes rather than recorded voices. But this means it’s even more indefensible! Why use English sounds for Russian place names? If you are actually there, what you need to know is how the locals pronounce it, not how one of your countrymen botches it.

Muttermuttermuttermutter. Says Mama at length, particularly after the 20th station.

Most important, of course, are the windows. Now at this point Mama must admit that the name ‘central’ does somewhat oversell the potential for tourist viewing. In that it’s not that central. Quite why it is called the Central Circle Line, in fact, escapes Mama, doing as it does little to distinguish the route from the actually central Circle Line. Possibly the Moscow authorities are teasing us with the potential for a future line with an even wider radius – for the Central Circle Line, while not being actually in the middle of Moscow, does not quite encompass the full width of what is also an increasingly expanding city. Yet another circular route, more accurately named the Greater Circle Line, does, but that is a giant 24 hour journey mainly for freight traffic, which Mama does not feel counts as it is too far away, if convenient if you don’t want to come too close to Moscow at all.

Given that this Central Circle Line has taken over 100 years to properly get going, Mama does not think that it is really worth looking that far ahead to the Somewhat More Encompassing Circle Line.

Yes, you did hear that right. The Central Circle Line is over 100 years old. It was, in fact, first laid and opened to passengers in the time of Nicholas I. So one of the really interesting things you can see as you chug round are the old original station buildings, which were state of the art when built, electrified, heated and fitted with precision clockwork.

Original Station Moscow Central Circle Line

Unfortunately, it cost a whopping 3 and a half roubles to go all the way round. Nevertheless, it endured until 1917, when it closed to passenger traffic. It was resurrected during the war, but eventually closed again until serious renovations, the orders for the new trains and the constructions of new stations began in 2012.

It does still share its tracks with freight trains, though, and whether you are into train spotting or not, keep you eye out for what Mama thinks are the very cool engines that will be sharing your journey.

Freight train Moscow Central Circle Line

So what can you see? Well, in the north a fair number of trees, as on one side you have the Elk Island National Park (look out for elks) and on the other the very large Botanical Gardens. At some point, between the Botanichesky Sad and Belokamennaya stations on the right (assuming a clockwise direction) you can see down a large highway to the famous statue of the Worker and the Communal Farm Worker.

Worker and Collective Farm Worker

Between Locomitive and Ismailova you can look right and see the fairytale reconstructed Kremlin of Ismailova Park.

Then it’s pretty industrial backlots, streets and half built flyovers until ZIL, which is the name of a giant former car factory as well as a station. This is what’s left. On the right. Keep your eye on this building site, though – it’s going to be a giant museum/ gallery/ leisure complex eventually.

ZIL Moscow Central Circle Line

As you swing round the south west, you’ll cross over the Moscow River a couple of times, eventually getting to the bit which has rather grand apartment blocks on it, shoot past Novodevichiy convent (famous people in the cemetary) and you’ll go past Moscow City. Mama has utterly failed to catch a good shot of it, but she can assure you that you will get a very good view for quite a long time.

Moscow City from the Central Circle Line

The rest of the journey is mostly looking out over residential blocks of varying levels of fabulousness until you get round to the trees again.

Street art Moscow Central Cricle Line

Thrilled? No, we weren’t either when Mama and Papa first made us go most of the way round. We’re good for about half way, if liberally provided with snacks.

Mama and Papa, on the other hand, were more keen, and actually engineered a child-free morning to go and ride the rails without the distraction of someone tugging at their sleeve for more food or entertainment every five seconds. That sort of enthusiasm might be more for jaded Muscovites looking for distraction rather than the casual visitor, but it’s still an interesting alternative to being carried around underground and not getting to see much of the city outside of the centre.

More information

The railway’s official page.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the London Underground’s Circle line.

Tickets: Same price as the Metro (50 roubles), and if you buy a ticket to ride here, keep it and you can use it on that system without paying again should you decide to stop going round in circles.

Operating hours: 5.30am to 1am

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Going round and rournd Moscow on the Central Circle Line

MummyTravels
Suitcases and Sandcastles

Moscow City aka the International Business Center

Regular readers of t’blog may have noticed that Mama has a somewhat irreverent attitude to the Russian delight in having the BIGGEST OF EVERYTHING.

She doesn’t understand the pressure to keep up the standard set by being the biggest country in the world, is what I say. Or, if I were feeling particularly sharp, I might point out that her amusement is the smugness of a collective psyche which has a somewhat sorrynotsorry attitude to the fact that its (former) superpower status. We don’t need no biggest Hamley’s, most extensive ice skating rink, heaviest clock mechanisms, most well stocked aquariums, list, list, list, list, or the European Union because we once RULED THE WORLD, BABY.

But she’d probably get a bit defensive, so we’ll brush right past that.

Whatever the psychosis behind what Mama describes as the need to get its metaphorical penis out and make comparisons, clearly when Moscow realised that monolithic Soviet buildings notwithstanding, there was a distinct lack of really tall glass office blocks which could be entered into some kind of record book, something had to be done. And thus Moscow acquired its very own City-with-a-capital-C.

And it’s absolutely obligatory for anyone Instagramming Moscow to have in their feed.

Imperia Tower Mercury City Tower and Evolution Tower Moscow City

Obviously.

So when a visiting relative from St Petersburg brought the possibility of venturing up one of the towers and having a squint at Moscow from far far above, Mama decided this would be the perfect outing for us and the collection of Babushkas to go on. Well, it was the holidays, we were miraculously between illnesses and at the time it was flirting with sub minus 20 degrees C temperatures. An attraction which combined a shortish outdoor walk and a longer rest in well heated surroundings was exactly what was wanted.

It helps that Moscow City finally has its own stop on the central circle line, making it more convenient to get to. A lovely green tinted station too, as the plastic roof design aesthetic serves to entice people off the train by making the skyscrapers look even more photogenic than usual. Or, possibly, just harder to get a clear shot of from inside the carriages.

It’s also hard to get a clear shot of the buildings when you are in amongst them, Mama soon found out. This is, of course, partly because they are very tall and Mama’s camera lens is only so big, but mostly because I had developed a bit of a taste for parkour after being an invalid for the best part of a month, and there are a lot of shiny marble steps to jump on and off, pillars to dance behind, bollards to swing from and ramps to run up and down, and the recent snowfall just added to the frolicking fun. Mama found this distracting.

Moscow City International Business Center

But in any case, the City is not a particularly interesting place to wander around on the ground at the moment. Mainly because it is very much still a work in progress. Quite a few pathways were therefore closed off with construction work still going on, somewhat to Mama’s surprise given the buildings have been dominating the skyline for a while now. It seems that one thing (global economic collapse) and another (sanctions), and other minor details such as a lack of good transport links has put Moscow City’s dream of rivalling the great business centres of the world on hold. Currently, it is about half built and operating at less than full occupancy. World financial domination will have to wait.

The shopping mall is open though, and it’s a rather nice one because Moscow City was not just conceived of as a business district but a one stop shop for high-end money-making, living, and playing. In the absence of bucketloads of high rollers, however, the fact that the place is still very tall and fancy means that tourist attractions have moved in, and they are not impossibly expensive. This winter, Moscow’s highest ice skating rink opened on the 85th floor of the OKO tower. And someone has opened a budget hostel somewhere high up in what should have been premium office space and a boardroom with a view. 1500 roubles a night for the 43rd floor in the Imperia building. Go for it, Mama says. Although not with kids. Kids are not allowed. Spoilsports.

Mama also suspects that it is a similar sort of collective who have also rented the 54th floor of the Imperia building for the Smotricity project, which is where you can go and squint down at Moscow and across at the surrounding businesses. Timed tours, so once you find the booth selling tickets, you may have a bit of a wait in the lobby for your slot. It’s a very pleasant sort of lobby though, with toilets and a coffee shop within easy reach.

When you finally get into a lift, your ears will pop as you ascend in what Mama thinks is an alarmingly brisk manner to not quite the top of the building. There is probably some statistic proving that this is the fastest lift in the northern hemisphere or something, but Mama was too busy yawning and waggling her head around to pay attention.

But what, you may be thinking, is Moscow City’s claim to bestness?

The most orange building?

City of Capitals Moscow City

The blockiest?

City of Capitals Moscow City

The twistiest?

City of Capitals Imperia Tower Evolution Tower Moscow City

Well, the thing is that Mama took advantage of being a variable Russian speaker to totally blow off the guided tour of the windows which gathered up us kids, the visitors from St Petersburg and most of the other tourists in favour of wandering about unburdened by needing to stop me flinging myself under a car or trying to remember she is British when queuing for a shot at photographing the available vistas. She took all the snaps her little heart could desire in largely solitary splendour, but she didn’t pay attention to what made Moscow City particularly fabulous and full of awesome.

Except the amazing view, of course.

It was a shame that, being the depths of winter and not a particularly clear day, the hope of seeing right across Moscow was somewhat ambitious.

View from Imperia Tower Moscow City

But then if you are 54 floors up, what’s actually interesting is just… how… high that is. And for that you don’t need to look out, but down down down down dooooooowwwwwwwwwwn to the tiny ant people and cars and buildings below.

Looking down from Imperia Tower Moscow City

Mama did a lot of happy boggling, and then it was time to take photos of us in front of the windows from every conceivable angle. And while she was doing this, she discovered the real reason that Russians try to outdo the universe.

It’s the drive to impress elderly Soviet ladies.

Because there was a distinct vibe of well, it’s alright but it’s no putting the first woman into space, is it? And how much did the tickets cost again?

Which may be why on the way home they insisted on having a fight with the train ticket sellers about whether or not people who went through the blockade in St Petersburg are entitled to free travel on the Central Circle Line. No, was the initial position of the Central Circle Line. We left before the argument really hotted up though so I am unclear as to what the final outcome was. But having a good shout did mean everyone arrived home happy, so that’s alright.

And OK, look, Mama has availed herself of Google and discovered…

Moscow City contains not JUST Europe’s tallest building, but ALSO the second tallest, AND the third tallest, the fifth tallest and the seventh tallest.

Federation Tower and Mercury City Tower Moscow City

And that ice skating rink? Is the highest EVAH!!! And!!!!! No hostel is as many floors up in the air as the High Level Hostel!!!

So there. World’s most expensive follies. We have ‘em.

Although Mama would not put bets against Moscow City in the long run. Well, just look at it. Preeeeetttty!

More Information

The website for Smotricity, the high rise tours (in Russian). The tours run from 6pm to 11pm weekdays and from 11am to 11pm weekends and holidays. It’s 700 roubles for adults and 400 for kids, and at weekends there’s a discount if you get there before 2pm, when it’s only 500 roubles for adults.

The website for the High Level Hostel (in English). Beds are from 1500 roubles a night per person to 3800.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Norman Foster, the architect behind the cancelled Russia Tower project for the City, which would have been the tallest skyscraper IN THE WORLD. It’s now a car park.

Address: Presnenskaya Naberezhnaya, Moscow, 123317

By public transport: Delovoy Tsentr (connected to the dary blue line) and Vistavochnaya (light blue line – probably open any time now) and there is also the Delovoy Tsentr on the Central Circle Line.

By car: Apparently the construction traffic has been playing merry hell with the surrounding roads. But then there is what may well be the world’s largest, or certainly the most expensive car park (see above) so…

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Looking down on Moscow City

 

Travel Loving Family
Wander Mum

Inchcolm Island and the Forth Bridge by boat

Nobody is ever going to go to Scotland for the glorious sunshine, although we have experienced at least two whole days of lovely blue skies in our total of two visits to nearish Edinburgh so far.

Forth Bridge and Forth Road Bridge

Sadly, the high summer’s day we decided to take a boat trip up and down the Firth of Forth to admire Inchcolm Island and the Forth Bridge was not one of those days.

Forth Bridge in the Rain

But despite the brisk winds, the flurries of rain and the fact that we were having to wear both a thick jumper and our winter coats, this remains one of Mama’s favourite bits about our trips to one of the Venices of the North. Which is why she is writing about it almost three years after it actually happened.

It may be that she is more nostalgic for the summer holidays of her youth spent mainly in full body waterproofs in the Lake District than you might expect.

Especially because those holidays also involved messing about in boats. And as everybody knows, boats are much more interesting when there are a few waves and a whole lot of spray, which is what we got on this occasion in Scotland.

Boat Trip to Inchcolm Island

Papa huddled inside the undercover cabin. Mama stood out back with her face in the wind. And the rain. Did I mention the rain? Of course, she had me strapped to her chest as a makeshift bodywarmer. Sometimes Mama finds having children comes in handy.

The Firth of Forth is quite something from a boat, or indeed from any prospective at all. It’s really an enormous estuary with Edinburgh at its mouth and it is easily able to accommodate multiple ocean-going oil tankers passing each other at a distance. By which I mean, it’s big.

And this is why the Forth Bridge, the railway bridge first crossed in 1890 connecting the north side of the Forth to the capital of Scotland is such an engineering marvel. It is still the second longest cantilever bridge in the world, and was the first of its kind when built, says Mama nodding sagely as though either she or I have the faintest idea who cantilever is or why we should eat it.

But I do know it is so fabulous it is has just been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, along with the Kremlin and Red Square, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, and, apparently, the whole city of Liverpool. Cool, huh?

It’s also responsible for Papa realising he’d been in the UK too long. Making small talk, someone referred to their job as being in its futility much like painting the Forth Bridge, and Papa found himself nodding sympathetically, fully understanding the obscure reference to the fact that as soon as you finish painting one end, you have to start again at the beginning again.

Which is a myth, apparently. They use specially formulated paint to protect the cutting edge but fatally rust prone mild steel, and as a result it doesn’t wear off that quickly. Still, that didn’t stop Papa feeling traumatized. In fact, the Forth Bridge may be responsible for our move back to Moscow!

Of course, there is no chance that my Brilliant Big Brother will take and interest in all this because of his obsession with the natural world.

Luckily, the Firth of Forth boat trip held plenty of interest for him too, mostly in the form of numerous sightings of grey seals basking on rocks, buoys and Inchcolm Island itself.

Seals around Inchcolm Island

Although we also saw a puffin flitting around the boat thanks to his animal obsessed eyes too.

The boats set off from South Queensferry, which is either a short train ride away from Edinburgh proper, or reachable by a dedicated coach journey laid on the by river trip organisers. South Queensferry itself is a very pleasant sort of town for someone who wants to get away from big cities for a while. If you are early you can wander around the High Street. There’s a fish and chippie that sells deep-fried Mars bars and everything, as well as more rustically attractive shopping experiences.

Or, if that doesn’t appeal, maybe pottering about on the rocky seaweed-infested shoreline will. We could certainly spend hours down there. Just make sure you wash your children’s hands thoroughly afterwards, says Mama darkly, who once had to weather tag team explosive vomiting after she didn’t. The Firth of Forth is pretty but it’s not that clean.

Anyway. Once you have admired the elegant red struts of the Forth Bridge and the wildlife and the choppy ride, you will be deposited on Inchcolm Island and marooned there.

There is something quite thrilling about this to Mama, who along with all Brits of a certain age, was forced to read the trapped-on-a-small-island-with-your-school-chums survival manual Lord of the Flies in school. Did we go feral and start beating each other around the head with conch shells? The anticipation would be rampant except that… how exactly is that different from a normal day out with kids? Everybody else can probably just get excited about the prospect of eating all sorts of unlikely live insects courtesy of Get me Out of Here…

Luckily, before it came to that, Mama broke out the sandwiches, which we ate inside the ruined monastery. It’s very scramble-able and picturesque and a whole bunch of fun to look round. Because of course, what else do you do with an island in the middle of an estuary but build a monastery?

Inchcolm Abbey from the water

Well, build military fortifications, that’s what. Bunkers and whatnot. Gotta protect the Forth Bridge from invaders.

We missed out on that because as well as poking around on Inchcolm Island’s sandy beach (WASH YOUR HANDS. Luckily there are fully plumbed toilets by the landing stage), we also discovered the path round the back of the monastery which leads you to the rockier, less built up island area and the end of the island, where the seals lurk.

Unfortunately we did not get to see the seals from land. Papa, who was the first to find the footpath, came back after a few minutes looking shaken and warning us to stay away. So obviously Mama had to take us to have a look.

No sooner had she stepped onto the broad green inviting walkway than she understood his fear. It was nesting season for seagulls, who turned out to be extremely unimpressed by anyone coming within any kind of distance of their young and totally unafraid to dive bomb en mass those that do so.

Seagulls on Inchcolm Island

Being attacked by waves and waves and waves of large raucously shrieking birds who have no fear of humans after years of nicking their packed lunches is quite an experience. Mama made it to the top of the incline on the off-chance it would be a momentary inconvenience, realised the whole area was covered with the angry sea birds and beat a hasty retreat.

Seagulls and the abbey on Inchcolm Island

Never let it be said that our family is not occasionally sensitive to conservation issues and leaving our animal brothers and sisters in peace.

Anyway, after that it was time to get back on the boat again. More waves, more seals, no more puffins, another look at the Forth Bridge, the chance to compare it to the prosaically modern road bridge, and if you are lucky and get there quick before it is finished, the privilege of watching the ALL NEW, almost ethereal, road bridge go up. We may be a hundred and twenty five years on, but it is still damn difficult to get it right. Perhaps you will be there when they discover they are two millimeters off in being able to assemble there flat packed 21st century bridge kit, and everything!

All in all, a highly recommended day trip if you are ever in Edinburgh. QE2 smooeetoo is what Mama says. If you want boats, you want this one.

More Information

One of the tours available.

Another of the tours available.

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

Address for the launching area: Hawes Pier, South Queensferry, Edinburgh, EH30 9TB

Trip times: The boats run between from February to the end of October.  There are between one and three sailings a day, depending on the time of year and whether or not it is a weekend.

You can also do a boat trip without getting off on the island (but that would be a mistake).

Prices: Child over 5 £9.30 – £10.30, adult £18.50 -19.50, family ticket from £49.60. Concessions for Historic Scotland members.

By car: There is a large free car park next to the pier.

By train: Edinburgh Waverley to Dalmeny Station (South Queensferry). Then you walk down the path from the station to the Hawes Pier going under the Forth Bridge. You could even have a go at going over the bridge on the train to North Queensferry and coming back again to Dalmeny if you wanted to really get your Forth Bridge fill.

By bus: Stagecoach 40/40A from Edinburgh Princes Street. Get off the bus at the Police Station (bottom of the hill) and it is a 10 mins walk along the High Street of South Queensferry to the pier.

The first tour operator also does a coach tour of Edinburgh followed by the river cruise.

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

ANIMALTALES

Welwyn Roman Baths, Hertfordshire

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

Welwyn Roman Baths entrance
What is behind door number 3?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman board game at Welwyn Roman Baths
Hours of fun!

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

Centurion's helmet at Welwyn Roman Baths
This is heavy!

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

Roman baby's bottle at Welwyn Roman Baths
Plastic tat eat your heart out!

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

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

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

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

More information

Welwyn Roman Baths internet page.

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

Address: Welwyn Bypass, Hertfordshire, AL6 9FG

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

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

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

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

Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s house, Kent

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

Chartwell, Winston Churchill's house

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

Chartwell from the swings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bug in brambles at Chartwell

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

Butterfly house at Chartwell

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

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

Jock the cat at Chartwell

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

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

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

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

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

The view from the swimming pool at Chartwell

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

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

Marycot at Chartwell

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

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

Bug in the grass at Chartwell

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

Swing at Chartwell

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

Bug on wood at Chartwell

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

Roses at Chartwell

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

Goldfish pond at Chartwell

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

More Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland

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

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

This did not go well for him.

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

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

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

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

Dunstanburgh Castle beach and Craster

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

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

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

Dunstanburgh Castle from afar

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

Dunstanburgh Castle a bit nearer

…and closer…

Dunstanburgh Castle nearly there

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

Dunstanburgh Castle up close

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

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

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

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

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

But in fact, worse was to come.

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

Dunstanburgh Castle gatehouse

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

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

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

Inside Dunstanburgh Castle

So we decided to cut our losses and leave.

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

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

Craster

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

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

Anyway.

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

Unless it is raining.

More information

Dunstanburgh Castle’s page on the English Heritage website.

Dunstanburgh Castle on the National Trust website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas and Jane Carlyle’s House, London

The point of going to other people’s houses is to play with a different set of toys. Sometimes you also have to put up with sharing with other children, which is why I like going to Granny’s. There I only have to fight for control of the horsey train ball sandpit set with my Marvellous Big Brother and get the dedicated attention of a besotted grandparent or two thrown in as well. But you have to take the rough with the smooth and some children are quite easily manipulated.

So I was hopeful when we rocked up to the house of Mama’s acquaintances, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, just over the river. Especially as it was a nice tall house in a clearly genteel area. Lots of kids I thought. Expensive toys I thought.

Thomas Carlyle and quote about gunpowder
PD via Wikimedia Commons

We rang the bell and an adult, who turned out to be neither Thomas nor Jane, ushered us straight into the lounge.

That’s when it started to go wrong. There weren’t any kids and I couldn’t see any toys. I immediately set off to look for them both, and Mama decided to take the opportunity presented by the seeming absence of her hosts to have a good nose round.

What we found was quite a lot of that oldish kind of furniture and a whole bunch of knick knacky stuff of the type Mama seems to think should not be touched. Great staircases though, really nice and steep and just when you think you have got to the top there’s another one.

It’s nice to know that even Victorians are obsessed with building extensions. The Carlyles’ is a sort of massive study at the top of the house in a specially designed sound proofed room. Which isn’t sound proof, apparently. Thomas goes on about that a lot, Mama says.

There were also a whole load of both painted and photographed portraits of a rather ruggedly handsome gent of varying age, occasionally with a really fashionable beard. Mama says it’s Thomas and he hates them all. She told me some of the things he says about them, which are written on bits of paper next to the pictures. Odd thing to do, but then adults are odd.

Thomas Carlyle and a quote about history
PD via Wikimedia Commons

Mama’s favourite painting was one of the room we started in, with Thomas and Jane somewhere in the background. Apparently Jane hates this one, so presumably Thomas keeps it up as revenge for her insisting on displaying his face on every other available surface. She dislikes it because the painter told her it is how she will be remembered in 100 years time, and she considers that, therefore, she will be famous for having a really ugly tablecloth and a freakishly large lapdog. She is definitely right about the tablecloth. They seem to have changed it since the picture, but it is still outstandingly unattractive. Also, check out that carpet!

A CHELSEA INTERIOR by Robert Tait, 1857, in the Parlour at Carlyle's House, 24 Cheyne Row, London.
©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

Thomas, on the other hand, is famous for writing extremely lengthy history books full of German-inspired impenetrably complex sentences accompanied by a huge number of made up words which have subsequently became inexplicably popular. Mama says that nobody reads them now. Perhaps the Internet generation cannot handle seven hundred volumes just to get through the childhood of some foreign king from back in the day.

Mama says it also has something to do with the fact that he is on the wrong side of most of the major political and moral debates of the Victorian age, and also that he was very popular with an unpleasant sounding little boy called Hitler.

Thomas Carlyle by Whistler
PD via Wikimedia Commons

Papa says he should have known it was all a Brit’s fault. Mama then points out that Thomas is a Scot, and that 45% of Scots agree he is officially not her problem.

So now he is more famous for the large number of letters he and his wife have written. And for the fact that they apparently have a spectacularly bad marriage, although Mama is hoping that is mere Internet gossip. It isn’t much in evidence in the house itself, unless you count a particularly exasperated sentence by Jane about the difficulties of living with a dyspeptic man of genius, which Mama doesn’t, mainly because she found herself nodding emphatically in recognition.

JANE CARLYLE a portrait at Carlyle's House, 24 Cheyne Row, London
© National Trust / Geff Skippings

The letters are great. Mama says Jane is a frustrated blogger whose trenchant wit, descriptions of domestic disasters and ruthless dissection of all those who came into her circle would have made her a definite hit. Thomas turns out to be an excellent source of inspirational quotes and pithy one liners for Internet memes. She also thinks he would have very much enjoyed being the inspiration for this cartoon:

Duty Calls by xkcd.com

All in all, it’s a shame they seem to eschew computers.

Luckily, Carlyle’s unappealing views do not seem to have stopped him having a lot of visitors for him to argue with, or rather at, in person, many of whom are quite famous in a middle class intellectual kind of way, Mama says. Charles Darwin comes to tea! Shame he wasn’t there when we were.

Thomas wrote a few sharp but very vivid lines about him and his works, including ‘I have no patience whatever with these gorilla damifications of humanity’. Also on display. In fact, Thomas’ short, sharp but vivid little pen portraits of lots of well-known Victorians both near and far litter the house, along with their views about him. Which mostly boil down to ranty, bad tempered and very very wordy, but you’d guessed that already. Another thing I’m not sure I’d leave lying around if it were me, but it certainly amused Mama a lot.

Once we’d searched all over the house, in the bedrooms and the kitchen and the upstairs living room and so on, we went out into the little garden. Nice spot, and there’s a little bench where you can sit and eat your sandwiches if you get really hungry waiting for your hosts to turn up and serve coffee, or if you have doubts about Jane’s housekeeping skills. Kings Road with its million coffee shops and restaurants is just round the corner if you didn’t plan ahead in this way.

Mama and Papa used the opportunity to have a brief ponder about why it is that the English used to build tall, thin but not, in the end, very sizable houses, and then leave a whole plot out back untouched. No real conclusions were reached. I smelled the flowers. Mmmmmmm.

Thomas Carlyle and quote about love
PD via Wikimedia Commons

All in all, it was definitely a visit the adults enjoyed more, mainly because they can read. Mama in particular has found herself absolutely fascinated by the couple and has been digitally stalking them ever since. But it isn’t a huge property and so there wasn’t time to actually get bored.

Plus, as I said, staircases! You can’t go wrong with staircases.

More Information

The Carlyle house on the National Trust website.

The Carlyle letters online.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say probably much more briefly than Carlyle about Oliver Cromwell’s name.

Address: 24 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, London, SW3 5HL

Opening: March – November, Wednesday – Sunday, 11am – 4.30pm.

Price: Adults £5.10, Children £2.60. Free to National Trust members.

By bus: The 170 bus from Victoria stops right next to Thomas’ statue on the banks of the river Thames. Cheyne Walk is just behind.

By tube: Sloane Square and South Kensington (Circle and District lines) are about a 15 minute walk away. Or there’s Victoria (Circle, District and Victoria lines, and railway station) and the 170 bus above.

By car: “I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom,” says Thomas. Go by car and you can do both!

 

Cruise past the Kremlin on the Moscow River with CCK Riverboats

Aaaaaaaaaaah. That’s the sound of Mama relaxing as she steps onto a Moscow riverboat run by CCK  (Столичная Судоходная Компания or Capital Riverboat Tour Company), finding a seat with a good view and preparing to drift along, carried, at a suitably sedate pace, effortlessly past sights of historic and aesthetic importance for over an hour.

Riverboat on the Moscow River with St Saviour Catrhedral in the background
Sailing down the river

Or at least that’s how it was before she had kids. Before she had kids, Mama did these cruises down the Moscow River on a regular-ish basis, at first romantically with my not-yet Papa, and then at least as often as friends and family from back in the UK visited her. But she’d never tried it with children before last summer. Passive sitting and taking calm enjoyment in our surroundings didn’t strike her as really us. Also, you may have noticed that she has this thing about my Wonderful Big Brother, me and water.

Still, Mama also believes that the summer holidays are a long time to spend without regular bouts of organised fun, and also that getting out and about makes everybody appreciate some down time the next day. Plus, it’s hot in Moscow in the summer. River breezes are always welcome. So she decided to give it a whirl.

And in fact, when we actually got on the board we discovered that the particular boat she had flagged down had had the bow end downstairs converted into a children’s play area with various craft opportunities, toys, a wendy house, a trampoline and best of all, a dedicated staff member employed to play with the children while she kicked back and ignored the mayhem that ensued, and we ignored the fact we were on a boat at all.

These special child-friendly boats set off from piers near Novospaskii Bridge at 11.40am and 3.30pm and Kievskii Railway and Metro Station at 1.40pm and 5.30pm each day. The ordinary cruises run every twenty minutes from the same places and they all have a number of other stopping points on the way, notably ones in Gorky Park. You can get on wherever you like and do the one way trip all in one go, which is a flat rate and costs the same wherever you embark. Or you can buy (more expensive) tickets which allow you to hop on and off all day. There is also a round trip option from the Kievskii Station pier.

Tickets are easy to get hold of, being sold at the kiosks attached to each landing station. Most people seem to prefer getting on at Kievskaya, saving the excitements of the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square for towards the end. Mama, of course, usually does it the other way. Well, it’s quieter, and has she mentioned she used to work in a building overlooking Red Square and the south-east corner of the Kremlin yet? Sometimes she forgets that that’s the best bit for everybody else.

The Kremlin Armoury from the Moscow River
Kremlin!

Having abandoned the small people, you can hang out in the small cafe on board but the place you really want to be is on the more open top deck, hanging over the sides, taking photographs. There isn’t any commentary, so read on for what Mama thinks are the highlights to look out for. Assuming you start more or less where she does.

The main attraction at the start of the route is the Novospasskii Monastery. Founded in the early 14th Century it one of the oldest religious institutions in Moscow, and has strong ties to the Romanov dysnasty. You can visit it and enjoy the contrast between the busy city and the tranquility here before or (if you insist on doing the tour the wrong way round) after your cruise. Or you can just sail past and photograph the traditionally white walls, the onion domes and the wedding-cake-inspiration bell tower.

Those big empire state buidingesque blocks you may already have seen elsewhere around the capital? Those are the Stalin Skyscrapers. There are seven in all. They are called the seven sisters, because, why not? One is part of the University and you’ll see that later, one is the foreign ministry, but the one you’ll encounter first on the river is an apartment block. Nice, huh? Cameras out!

Soon after that and just before Red Square, you’ll pass by the a large pile of rubble that was the former excessively ugly Rossiya hotel. Legend has it that it got to be such an eyesore because someone offered Stalin the choice of plans and he scrawled his signature so it went over two of them. Nobody then had the balls to ask him which he’d meant so… Personally, Mama just thinks it was the victim of architecture. She thinks it’s probably a good thing it has gone, but that really depends what they replace it with. You can take a picture of it if you do the tour when something has gone up and it is interesting.

Then it’s St Basil’s and Red Square, the back of. It looks even gaudier in winter, Mama tells me, which I imagine is quite a feat. It’s pretty colourful now.

St Basil's from the Moscow River
Red Square!

And next to that it’s the Kremlin. From this side you can see right over what elsewhere are large imposing red walls to the palaces and cathedrals beyond, a view which is only available from the south bank or the river itself. Enjoy it. Photograph it.

The Kremlin from the Moscow River
Kremlin again!

The Christ the Saviour Cathedral is the large white Orthodox building with the very large golden onion domes coming up right after that. It’s a copy. The original was knocked down to make way for a HUGE monument to the ever-popular Revolution. However, it never got built because it turns out that HUGE monuments to Revolution are too heavy for the somewhat soggy banks of the Moscow River. So naturally it became an outdoor swimming pool instead. Papa used to go. He says it was quite chilly in winter. Quite why they decided to get rid of such an excellent sort of facility and rebuild the church again is rather lost on me, but they did. Mama says it’s a statement. It is certainly very photogenic. And popular with all female punk rock bands I’m told.

St Saviour's Cathedral from the Moscow River
Cathedral!

On the other side is a very grey building in what you will clearly recognise is the Constructivist style of architecture. This is an apartment block known as the House on the Embankment. It was built as a sort of especially fabulous communist living space for the Soviet elite of the 1930s, but it is famous, Mama carefully does NOT tell me, for how many of those people were disappeared in the Stalinist purges later on, with over half of the five hundred apartments left deserted following the arrest of their residents.

The House on the Embankment from the Moscow River
Grim Apartment Block is Grim!

More cheerfully, a bit further on is the former Red October chocolate factory, although it has now been closed down. This is a shame. Not only did the smell of cooking chocolate add a pleasant something to the atmosphere, Mama says, but she liked to go and spend lots money at the factory shop whenever she had an excuse. Still, you can still buy the brand in the shops (do, in fact) and the building is still there and it’s very red. Mama likes to have a picture of twenty of it, but your mileage may vary.

Red October Chocolate Factory from the Moscow River
Chocolate!

By now you should be able to see a large statue of a man steering an oddly truncated old fashioned ship into the horizon, waving a gold scroll around his head. Sometimes there are fountains spurting all around. That’s Peter the Great, ruler of Russia some time previously. Bit of a naval enthusiast I understand, although it’s odd that Moscow wanted the world’s eighth biggest statue to be of him given how much he hated the place, according to Mama. There is what Mama says is a probably apocryphal rumour that the artist only flogged it to Moscow when it was rejected as a commemoration of Christopher Columbus elsewhere, not that it stops her repeating it. Still, the river is one of the few places you can actually get a decent view, so snap away while you can.

Peter the Great Statue from the Moscow River
Peter!

The big boxy building next to there statue is, in part, the New Tretyakov Art Gallery. You will not want to photograph it but do consider visiting. Mama is a huge fan. Surrounding it is a parkette called Museon which you may be able to see contains many many statues. Half of them are fallen Soviet icons, originally dumped here after people revenged theselves for the previous 70 years on the inanimate features of key Communist figures, and the rest are not. It is, apparently, becoming a trendy hangout place.

Then it’s Gorky Park, which some of you may remember from old Cold War thrillers. Mama says. Recently it has been extensively remodelled and is also hugely popular. Observe the large number of people promenading along the embankment. At some point you will go under a rather fabulous looking bridge, which may well have people sitting on the very top of it. This just goes to show you really are in Russia, where nobody every accused anyone of pandering to the anti Health and Safety gone mad movement.

People sitting on a bridge over the Moscow River
Do Not Try This At Home Folks!

Then it’s more of Gorky Park. And still yet more. And it goes on. And on. And turns into the extensive wooded area they call the Sparrow Hills for reasons which now escape Mama. And basically it’s trees nearly all the way to Kievskaya after that. Look out for the University rising gothically above the leaves, and also the modern skyscrapers of some business park or another that has been built after Mama’s time, and people bathing in the Moscow River from the urban beaches. On your right, at some point you will see a stadium. Mama assumes some people might be mildly interested in the information that it is going to be one of the 2018 World Cup stadiums. Lots of photography options to pick from.

Skyscrapers from the Moscow River
Money Money Money!

For kids, when you finally look up from the toys and realise you are on a moving water-borne vehicle, which happened to us around the time we got to the endless tree section, there is a lot of fun to be had in scrambing around the different deck levels, going and hanging off the back of the boat watching the water churn, admiring the bucket and mop art installations and begging biscuits off the other tourists. People think we are charming. Mama is often surprised by this.

Anyway, eventually, you will get to the end of the route, at a pier just beyond the Crystal Bridge at Kievskaya Railway Station. It will have taken you around an hour and a half if you did the full route with the CCK riverboats. As you can imagine, other river tours are available, notably one which does a circular route from Gorky Park run by the Raddison Hotel group. Mama suspects that it might be a more luxurious experience, but she holds fast to the one she is used to especially as the Raddison one does not, as far as she is aware, have special facilities for kids.

But however you choose to cruise, she highly recommends that if you are a tourist in Moscow you take a trip down the river.

More Information

The CCK riverboat website (in English).

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Times: Novospasskii Bridge: 11am to 7.50pm. Kievskii Station: 11.30am to 9pm at 20 minute intervals. The trip takes about 1.5 hours.

The child-friendly boats set of from Novospaskii Bridge at 11.40am and 3.30pm and Kievskaya Railway and Metro Station at 1.40pm and 5.30pm.

Prices: The one way tour costs 600 roubles for adults and 400 roubles for children over 6. The hop on hop off version costs 1000 roubles for adults and 700 roubles for children. The round trips are 700 roubles for adults and 500 rubles for children. There are also family tickets.

By Metro: For Novospasskii Bridge use Proletarskaya (purple line) or Krestyanskaya Zastava (light green line) – both basically the same station. For Kievskii Station use Kievskaya (brown, light blue and dark blue lines).

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Cruising past the Kremlin on the Moscow River

Red Square, Moscow

Red Square. We enter at one end, and get our first glimpses of so many iconic sights around the edges. Well, my first glimpses. The others have all done this before.

Red Square, Moscow
Big, huh?

There are the soaring brick-red walls sloping high up one side, protecting the Kremlin. These are cornered by the thin round (red) towers, topped with big ruby-red stars. In front of that there’s the squat blocky browny-red building you aren’t allowed to get to close to because someone called Lenin is inside, and the long lines of stone steps fanning out either side. At the back end is the Gothic blood-red splendour of the National History Museum. Next to that there’s a small coral church, and then all down the other side is a surprisingly unred beige affair, also fairly burdened with busy architectural detailing, inside which you can find the former State Department Store GUM.

GUM, Red Square, Moscow
It’s not red!

And best of all, at the front, there is the riot of colour, thankfully with red to the fore, that is St Basil’s cathedral.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
This is not the Kremlin.

Actually, Mama says that St Basil’s isn’t even called St Basil’s, technically speaking. But then she also claims that Red Square is so named because ‘red’ and ‘beautiful’ have the same root in Russian, rather than because of the scarlet nature of its surroundings. I say it’s only a matter of time before someone overrules her and paints GUM a soothing shade of pink. Mama counters with the information that someone called Stalin has already done much the same, when he switched the previously whitewashed Kremlin walls to painted red, for much the same simplistic reasons.

She leaves out the fact that the walls are, underneath the paint, red brick.

After what feels like three thousand hours, we are only just in the centre, and wilting in the blazing sunlight. Red Square is huge, very open, ever so slightly curved and covered in extraordinarily hard-to-walk-on cobbles. Which also have mysterious straight lines in different colours painted all over them. Mama reckons they are lines for organising either parades or to guide the erection of stages for some concert or other, which are the two things that Red Square is for, when it isn’t covered by people in what pass for wide smiles in Russia or, for the foreigners, fur hats with ear flaps or a T-shirt with Putin on the front, standing around mugging for the cameras in front of the stuff round the edges.

Mama is not at all sure how she feels about the prospect of Putin’s face relacing the hammer and sickle as the edgy ironic souvenir for the discerning tourist, but by and large I am guessing something negative here.

Anyway, it’s a bit hot. The only time Mama has ever found Red Square a nice place to hang out in the height of summer was on her wedding day, when she indulged in the Russian custom of taking her big white dress and her wedding party out for a stroll around all the most photogenic spots in town. Yes, Mama, too, clearly has hankerings after princessdom, for all her eyebrow-raising at my insistence on wearing my poufy pink tutu skirt to the playground, and her wedding photos therefore include shots of her daintily swigging champagne in front of a brightly coloured onion domes in a large Disneyesque ballgown. Cool. Someone should have told her that the ones of her with a cigarette dangling out of her mouth are just a tad trashy though. Real princesses do not smoke. Where anyone can photograph them.

Not that the cobbles are any easier to walk on in the middle of a blizzard. Mama tells me. Or when they are slick with rain. It’s a bit of a slog in almost any weather she says. I dunno, I made Papa pick me up around now and did the rest of the walk in comfort.

After a brief break while we do our own photography shoot, we resume our hike towards St Basil’s. Mama thought we might enjoy scrambling around it.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
Onion domes!

She was wrong. In my case. St Basil’s is an odd kind of structure. It started when a tsar, promisingly called Ivan the Terrible, started tacking churches onto an existing structure every time he won a battle in a spat he was having with a neighbour. Having sealed Moscow’s supremacy, he decided to set the thing in stone, and although the architect did not just slavishly replace the original wooden buildings, the best that most people can say about the end result is that it is ‘unique’. There is a story that the architect had his eyes put out by the aptly named tsar so he could not build anything similar again. Mama says this is doubtful, but it just goes to show.

I can’t blame the gaudiness on the bad taste of the original builders though. Apparently that came about when Russians discovered new pigments a couple of hundred years later. The original was much more inclined towards just showing off this exciting new building material called (red) ‘brick’, which, incidentally, is how the Kremlin came to be surrounded by the stuff. The whitewash was to disguise this fact.

The older a church is in Russia, the plainer it is, by and large. In direct contrast to how it is in the UK. History is strange.

Anyway, later restorations have stuck to the more vibrant colourscheme, with just a few areas and a model on the inside to show how it might have looked before they emptied the paintbox all over it. Mama, the lapsed protestant, approves of the murals inside no matter how modern. It’s like, she says, someone took the illuminations from the margins of medieval manuscripts and extended them all over the walls and ceilings. Nice. And I have to say that the outside is certainly a cheerful sight. Mama says it’s easy to speculate that such brightness is needed in the winter to perk people up through the gloom. But then, she adds, you get to the depths of February, and the skies are a bright blue, the sun is shining down and bouncing off the plentiful white snow, and St Basil’s then moves from being merely loud to almost unbearably dazzling.

But it isn’t my artistic sensibilities which made our visit a trial. No, it’s the nature of the inside. There are Orthodox churches which have wide open spaces inside, but St Basil’s is more of the tradition of a collection of intimate chapels spread across several levels, with small connecting passageways and even more claustrophobic twisting staircases. And it’s very dark, with few windows and dim artificial lighting. Oddly enough, this only makes the gold leaf richness of the iconostases stand out even more. All this gave me the willies. Mama did not help by following us up the stairs making ghost noises. Nor did the male voice choirette, whose traditional chanting from an indeterminate location added yet another layer of spook.

I spent the visit clutching anxiously at Papa’s trouser legs shouting ‘where’s Mama?’ whenever she went out of view to take yet another photograph. But the others seemed to be enjoying themselves.

After the terror of St Basil’s, I congratulate Mama on her decision to leave visiting the mausoleum for another few years. She reckons there’s a definite judgement call to be made in deciding when your children will happily celebrate the ghoulishness of going to look at an actual dead body in an almost blacked-out room surrounded by fully armed guards who will be abrupt if you pause to try to take a better look, or, heaven forbid, talk, or whether they will have nightmares for six months as a result. The smell is something too. Mama says. This does mean that you don’t get to see all the other graves built into the walls of the Kremlin, but Mama feels that sightseeing can be a bit full of looking at the headstones of dead people as it is. And the chances of my having any idea of who they might be are slim, so I am good with missing out.

Lenin's Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow
Lenin lives here.

Instead, both Mama and I recommend a visit to GUM. It is, these days, a luxury mall, not quite as out there in terms of outrageous conspicuous consumption as its sister round the corner TsUM, but nevertheless not somewhere you are going to want to go and shop at unless you actually like spending more on a Hermes tie than you would back home. But it’s a lovely space. Built well before this Revolution everybody keeps talking about, it is something of an engineering marvel, with it’s impressive curved glass roof topped with even more impressive glass domes, which have withstood not only time but also huge amounts of snow being dropped on them every year. Mama says you should spend a lot of time both looking up and going up, because the galleries and bridges overlooking the central spaces, and the way they interact are also rather attractive.

Inside GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Roof!

Mama also thinks the cafes on the overhangs on the top floor look rather fun, not least because in summer they mist the air around the tables with a fine spray of water in order to try to counterbalance the lack of air conditioning. Seems to work. We did not find the atmosphere inside oppressive, despite the glass roof and the excessive heat outside. If you don’t fancy that, there is at least one excellent ice cream kiosk near the main southern entrance, which will allow you to indulge in a Muscovite tradition. Especially if you have one in winter. Mama likes the pistachio or melon flavoured cones. I’d go for the strawberry ones myself.

Air con in GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Misty!

Other than that, there’s usually something to look at in GUM, like the window displays of idealised life from back when this was the biggest and most well-stocked Soviet department store, or the carpet of flowers down the left hand aisle. Aside from all the things in the shops.

Flower carpt in GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Flowers!

Basically, this is the space I enjoyed roaming out of the three available on Red Square. You can keep your historical monuments, and your unshaded outside urban fields. Shopping malls. That’s where it’s at. Most people seem to disagree with me on this one though.

More Information

St Basil’s website (English).

Lenin’s Mausoleum website (English).

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Opening: Red Square is closed when Lenin’s Mausoleum is open, which is Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 10am to 1pm. Red Square is also closed for selected public holidays depending on whether it is being used for some kind of display. You can usually get a view of square from the corners even if it is closed.

St Basil’s is open daily 10am to 7pm in summer and 11am to 5pm in winter.

Price: Red Square is free. Lenin’s Mausoleum is free and St Basil’s is 250 rubles (about £4) for adults and 50 rubles (less than £1) for children over 7.

Getting there: The nearest metro station is Okhotny Ryad (red line, with connecting stations on the green and dark blue lines called Tverskaya and Ploshad Revolutsii respectively), which, if you get the exit right, brings you up just behind the square on the other side of the National History Museum. Head for the (restored) gates with the small chapel set into them.

The Kremlin, Moscow, Russia

Mama thinks that a trip to the Moscow Kremlin with small children is more of an endurance tourism experience than an actually enjoyable outing for the whole family, although she concedes that other people might find it more interesting than she does after the number of visits she has paid to it over the years.

Certainly it seems to surprise people. There are trees inside, and flowers, and most of the buildings are built in a distinctly classical mould as well as being quite colourful. And the main focus of a trip there is a square surrounded by a number of cathedrals, used by Russia’s Tsars for, variously, coronations, weddings, their tombs and personal worship. A bright yellow neo-classical building inside the Moscow Kremlin But to start with, there will be a massive queue to buy tickets although it might have helped a bit if Mama and Papa hadn’t turned up just before the ticket offices had a (scheduled) twenty-minute ‘technical break’ around lunchtime.

It’s good, then, that there is the whole of Alexandrovskii Sad, the park running along one side of the Kremlin wall, to hang out in while you wait. There are plenty of benches to sit on, trees and the flowerbeds for the kids to play hide and seek round, and you can even venture along to the fountain area in summer if you don’t mind your smalls getting thoroughly soaked while they dance around in the spray from the one with the horses with every other Russian under the age of fifteen.

Mama does a bit, although it is worth pointing out that Moscow in the summer can be blisteringly hot, so sometimes this is a bit of a godsend.

More soberly, you can have a look at the tomb of the unknown soldier and the eternal flame, commemorating those who fell in World War Two, called, in Russia, the Great Patriotic War, which gives you an idea of just how big a deal this is.

With 27 million dead, there is a lot of commemorating to do and so if you are still waiting for your tickets on the hour, this is where the Russian equivalent of the changing the guard takes place, every hour. Miss this and there is a good chance you might see instead a wedding party coming to lay flowers. Basically, Mama’s advice is to take mobiles and wander off while someone else stands in the queue. There’s plenty to keep the youngsters occupied with. A guard outside the Moscow Kremlin Except the problem is that all this waiting around made me well well overdue for my nap, but all the excitement meant I refused to even contemplate it once we get inside. I therefore had a truly epic meltdown on the main square inside the Kremlin, the one flanked by the four cathedrals.

Tourists were taking photos and everything, I was that impressively cross.

Which led to Mama and Papa getting told off by a plain clothes secret serviceman. Lying on the ground, screaming and drumming your heels brings the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute. Apparently. A cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin Trying to tour the cathedrals with two five-and-unders will also make Mama appreciate the value of the National Trust’s strategies for dealing with restless children. It’s amazing how much more attractive the idea of playing ‘hunt the small stuffed animals the curators have placed in blindingly obvious hiding places round the historical monument’ becomes when the alternative is listening to Papa tell the story of the boy-Tsar who committed suicide by throwing himself off the Kremlin walls. Look! Here is his tomb!

Cue another incipient meltdown. Mama retreated briskly from any attempt to admire the icons and plied me with sweets before we got more than a hard stare from one of the attendants.

Of course, Papa will eventually get told off again anyway for bringing the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute by sitting on the grass with two untidy looking children next to the toilets in full view of the official presidential offices while waiting for Mama to have a wee.

Mama, mark you, felt that the toilets in the Kremlin brought the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute. Someone at some point decided to install the latest in toilet technology, consisting of eight stalls of supposedly automatic self-cleaning cubicles. Look no hands! You don’t even have to flush the loo yourself.

Unfortunately, Mama reported that given the amount of piss swilling around on the floor and the number of attendants needed to manually override the automated mechanism allowing the next punter in, this wonderful system doesn’t work very well.

And there is another big queue.

Naturally there also isn’t a hint of a baby changing area, so it is probably a good thing that the secret serviceman arrived to chide Papa after I had brought the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute by mooning the government while having my nappy changed outside.

My Super Big Brother and I did like the formal gardens, where you can get one of Moscow’s excellent ice creams (but no other kind of refreshment) and wander around looking for insects on the trees and admiring the view of the Moscow River and the presidential helicopter pad.

The helicopter pad inside the Moscow Kremlin

Mama says she used to work in one of the buildings in the background of this picture, but Mama says that about a lot of buildings in Moscow, usually with a misty look in her eye. I am sceptical. She certainly doesn’t seem to do very much with her days apart from follow me around and wash clothes. What could she have been up to?

Oh! And wait until you try to cross the (empty) roads inside without using the somewhat arbitrarily situated zebra crossings. The whistle blast from one of the nearby guards is quite something.

Mama says it is totally worth hanging around and watching tourists jump out of their skin and look around wildly again and again and again. She says putting a sign up to explain what you are supposed to do would spoil everybody’s fun, and I have to say I agree.

We also quite enjoyed the large bell and huge cannon on display near the main square although it turns out you are not allowed to climb on them.

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

More information

The official website (in English).

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Address: Moscow, Russia 103073

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

Price: 500 rubles for adults (about £5) and free for children under 16. The Armoury is extra: 700 roubles (£7) for adults.

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

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

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