The Gorky House Museum, Art Nouveau staircases and the Ryabushinsky Mansion in Moscow

Mama has, over the years, read her way through at least one book by most Russian language writers who are not poets.

I wouldn’t say this has been a hardship, Russian writers are a lot less dour than they are given credit for. Except Dostoevsky. Don’t read him.

But she has read nothing by Maxim Gorky.

Which seemed odd given that he was a writer so famous they named the central park after him.

The thing is, Mama came to Gorky via Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a book about the extensive network of political prison camps, how they came about, what life was like in them, who got sent there and what it did to them.

Gorky pops up in the bit about the building of the White Sea – Baltic Canal, a project notorious for the number of its laborers, the majority of them from the gulags, it killed. Gorky praised it. He also praised one of the original gulags out on the Solovetsky Islands after he went on a visit there. He is supposed to have righted a newspaper, held upside down in protest by a zek (political prisoner) at the fact that they had been cleaned up and given leisure time and so on for the visit, thus showing his understanding of the deception and his sympathies for the condition of the prisoners.

But what he actually wrote about it was… different.

So Mama had got the impression that Gorky’s fame was mostly built on being a Stalin apologist for hire, and didn’t really feel the need to delve much deeper. Because Mama does not approve of Stalin apologists. Whether for hire or not.

However.

During his time in the Soviet Union Gorky was given a house with a very fabulous staircase in it, and Mama has wanted to see this staircase for quite some time. So off, eventually, we popped to have a look a it. The Gorky House Museum came as a bonus.

This house is one of a number of buildings in Moscow built at a time when Art Nouveau (what the Russians call Style Modern, with a decidedly French accent) was all the rage. The Gorky House Museum is a particularly shining example of this.

Ryabushinsky Mansion in Moscow

Of course, it wasn’t Gorky’s house to begin with.

No, it was constructed for the wealthy banker and industrialist, Stepan Ryabushinsky, who among other things started the first car factory in Russia. This was rebranded after the revolution as ZIL, the famous maker of Soviet cars, jeeps, tractors, trucks and so on. It’s been knocked down now, and is being turned into a cultural centre. Very Post Soviet Moscow.

But the name more properly associated with the house is Fyodor Shekhtel, the architect, who had a number of Art Nouveau projects on the go in the 1900s. Most of these now belong to embassies so are hard to get inside.

He also dabbled in some rather fabulous theatre costume designs. As you do.

The Shekhtel House, then, is thoroughly Style Modern from top to bottom, with the possible exception of the hidden Russian Orthodox chapel at the top. Not because Gorky turned out to be a secret Christian in an atheist communist world, but because the Ryabushinsky family were Old Believers, a version of Orthodoxy that was frowned upon in Russia, well before the Revolution.

Secret Orthodox Old Believers chapel at the Ryabushinsky Mansion Moscow

Mama sold Art Nouveau to us by explaining that that artists of this persuasion tried to do is take the natural world, plants, flowers and ANIMALS as their inspiration. She sold a visit to the Ryabushinsky Mansion to us with the challenge of trying to spot as many of these little details as we went round as possible.

This turned out to be a very fruitful pastime. There are animals (and plants) in the mouldings, the lintels, the wall and door panels, in the stained glass windows, as well as tiled areas on the outside.

Th window frames are particularly fascinating. To Mama (no animals for us).

Art Nouveau window at the Shekhtel House in Moscow

But when we were chatting to the cloakroom attendant at the end of our tour, and she had got out the big Shekhtel book to show us more of the animal theatre costumes than were displayed on the walls, she also quizzed us on what we had spotted in the house.

Turns out there are more animals than even my Animal Obsessed Big Brother had imagined possible, even though he had to hang around for quite a long time looking for them while Mama tried to get the perfect photo of the staircase.

Now we know where more are to be found, we will have to go back. Don’t make the same mistake. There is an owl here. Can you see it?

Art Nouveau owl window at the Shekhtel House in Moscow

Anyway. The Ryabushinsky/ Shekhtal mansion is a pretty fabulous one by anyone’s standards, and that’s before you are told it was designed with air conditioning and spot lighting. And the fact that Maxim Gorky was given it moved Mama to perhaps think that she had better find out what the actual deal with was him after all.

‘Gorky’ is the Russian word for ‘bitter’ and is not his original name, which was Alexey Maximovich Peshkov.

It turns out that Gorky grew up in difficult circumstances in Nizhney Novgorod, very nearly committing suicide around the age of twenty. Experiences arising from this childhood as well as extensive travel on foot around the Russian Empire led him into writing vividly angry journalism, vividly angry novels, vividly angry short stories, vividly angry plays and vividly angry essays of gritty social realism about the harsh realities of being poor or marginalised in Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th .

A very sobering contrast to the life of a cultured and fabulously rich merchant able to commission elegant harmonious living spaces from brilliant architects and contemplate the universe from his religious hidey hole in peace.

Door at the Shekhtel House in Moscow

In fact, Mama says as a writer and social commentator he was Charles Dickens on crack. Especially as he spent the (failed) 1905 revolution attempt in St Petersburg constructing home made bombs in some random apartment with a whole bunch of very energetic Marxists. After which he was exiled.

And went to Capri.

Anyway. It was actually Gorky’s pre-revolutionary writings and activities that make him a hero of the Soviet Union, what with the favourable publicity and support that they brought to the cause when they went viral around the world. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature five times.

Obviously he knew Lenin. He wasn’t, apparently, very impressed by Lenin, which is another point in his favour, says Mama, who is also not a Vladimir Ilyich Lenin fan. Although he did agree to front a Bolshevik fundraising drive in America at one point. In the end this was somewhat stymied by him taking along his girlfriend, rather than his actual wife, for the duration. The Americans were not, by and large, impressed by this, despite having much more time for his writing than you would expect given how thoroughly freaked out they seem to be if anyone mentions the phrase ‘socialised medicine’ today.

Mama also says.

Mama is in a decidedly spiky mood today, I see.

Mama also notes that Maxim Gorky seems to have a thing for interesting women, which is probably the best thing about him. His wife, Ekaterina Peshkova, worked tirelessly to advocate for artists, writers and so on caught up first in repressions of Tsarism, work she continued, vigourously, in communist times as one of the most effective members of the Political Prisoners Relief organisation.

And one of his later girlfriends was Moura Budberg. Who was a Soviet/ British double agent. After ending her association with Gorky, she ended up in England, where she repeatedly refused to marry HG Wells, of allegorical time travelling fame. She is also, incidentally, the Half Great (Great?) Aunt of Nick Clegg, which is possibly taking six degrees of separation a bit far, but still amusing to Mama.

What with one thing and another (Lenin didn’t like him any more than he liked Lenin), after the actual revolution, Gorky left and went to Sorrento, along a fairly large household of girlfriends, his ex wife and his children, adopted and otherwise. The reason why he ended up back in Russia again is a bit unclear. Mama, who cannot entirely shake her initial bad impression of Gorky, thinks it is either because he ran out of money, revolutionary writings now being less popular around the world once revolutionary reality had engulfed Russia and the surrounding area, or because he wanted to experience first hand some of the adulation he was nevertheless still getting inside the USSR (being conveniently out of the way).

Possibly both.

He certainly got a very cushy number in the Ryabushinsky Mansion, but his return was definitely also a propaganda coup for the communist regime. It seems he was expected to act, as president of the Union of Soviet Writers, as a sort of cultural ambassador and host to writers and so on from abroad, with the magnificent Art Nouveau staircase and so on as a backdrop. So perhaps one shouldn’t see it as entirely a gift without strings attached. Especially as there is also a suggestion that, along with most of the rest of the Soviet Union inhabitants, fear of what might happen to loved ones, including his children, effectively constrained him from the outspoken criticism of a repressive regime that had characterised his early life.

Here is his place at the table set up with tea things.

Tea set out for Gorky at the Gorky House Museum in Moscow Russia

He himself actually complained that the house was too grand.

Here is his bed.

Gorky's Bed at the Ryabushinsky Mansion Gorky House Museum Moscow Russia

He also said that he was continually watched.

Hence his behaviour, it is said, with regard to the canal and the
Solovetsky Islands .

Sigh, says Mama, who is not one of those people who goes around saying, deludedly, ‘if I lived at the time then I would have DONE SOMETHING’ from the perspective of a comfortable middle class lifestyle.

And Gorky only actually lived for four years after his return the the USSR, dying in 1938 at the age of 68. His son died before him. Rumours that one or both of them were purposefully killed abound. Naturally.

So, it might be better after all to focus on the interior of the house rather than the details of Gorky’s life, and thank our lucky stars that Shekhtel’s architectural masterpiece was, for whatever reason, preserved.

At one point before Gorky moved in, for example, Gorky’s house was a kindergarten. An experimental kindergarten.

!!!!!!!???????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????? Says Mama, worried about her staircase.

Whhhhhheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Say I, and my Obsessed Big Brother has just gone green with envy.

Among the preservees, says Mama, who is clearly determined to cram every last little tidbit of information she knows about this building into this review, was Nadezhda Peshkova, a painter and Gorky’s son’s widow. She lived in the house until 1965 and was then instrumental in having it turned into the Gorky House Museum.

That said, there is a certain lack of fine detail in some of the restoration. Russia, Mama says, is clearly not very used to actually having anything left to preserve and restore, so they do not seem to be doing a very good job of it. Rebuilding whole palaces from scratch in Kolomenskoye and Tsaritsyno parks is really not quite the same. Told you she was in a funny mood.

Still.

The staircase, in particular is TOTALLY worth it.

Art Nouveau staircase at the Shekhtel House where Gorky lived Moscow

Although we really preferred the jellyfish lamp.

And if you go up the stairs and look down, be sure to notice the turtle styling from above, this being another of the little secrets given to us by our connection in the cloakroom.

More information

The Memorial House Museum of Maxim Gorky’s official website.

Address: 6/2 Malaya Nikitskaya, just up from Tverskoi Boulevard, and across the road from the very church where Alexander Pushkin got married to the most beautiful woman in Russia.

Opening: Wednesday to Sunday, 11am to 5.30pm. Every third Thursday in the month Gorky’s house is also closed.

Admission: Adults are 300 roubles, kids are 100 roubles and if you are very obviously foreign like Mama you pay 400 roubles. Don’t forget to add the photo pass for 100 roubles.

Getting there: The nearest metro stations are probably the three connected ones of Pushkinskaya (purple line), Chekovskaya (grey line) and Tverskaya (green line), although see also Arbatskaya (both blue lines) and their connectiong stations on the red and grey lines, and also Barrikadnaya/ Krasnopresnehskaya (purple/ brown lines). It’s a good ten to fifteen minutes walk from any of these.

Pin for later?

The main reason to visit the Gorky House Museum Moscow, otherwise known as the Ryabushinsky Mansion, is the fabulous staircase. And the jellyfish lamp.
The main reason to visit the Gorky House Museum Moscow, otherwise known as the Ryabushinsky Mansion, is the fabulous staircase. And the jellyfish lamp

What to do in Kolomna, Russia in a snowstorm

Our visit to the town of Kolomna in the Moscow region is an object lesson in why you should pay attention to your surroundings in an unfamiliar place, as well as keep your mobile in the back pocket of your jeans and not an outer area of your coat when it is minus 15 degrees.

Because at some point Mama got separated from her party and found herself in the middle of the biggest snowstorm in seventy years in the dark with no clear idea of the direction she should be going in. And her phone had died from the cold.

Kolomna near Moscow in Russia

She could have retraced her steps – we are not talking serious levels of peril here. Mama is not that kind of travel blogger. But she was tired, and was also attempting one of those complicated parental manoeuvres where you and your Significant Other swap over which child you are looking after in the middle of an excursion. Tracking back down my Oblivious Big Brother, happily scoffing pancakes in the warmth of a cafe, would have meant this relay would not have happened.

So she asked the first person she saw for help.

Now the problem with asking a local for help is that they don’t know the name of the hotels.

And although Mama had previously clocked with amusement it was on a street with a very typical name for a street in a town in Russia, she couldn’t at that moment remember what that was. Lev Tolstovo Ulitsa? Leninskaya? Pushkinskaya? Unfortunately, all of these also exist in Kolomna, so this insight was not helpful.

Locals also don’t necessarily know the location of every random museum Mama might have happened to visit nearby to where she was staying. And saying to someone ‘it’s on the street with the really attractive houses’ is really not a helpful thing to say in Kolomna. At all.

Kolomna Streets in Russia

But luckily ‘it’s next door to the McDonald’s’ is. Thus, Mama was escorted ten minutes out of the Russian man’s way back to the street Oktyabreskaya Revolutsia, and was able to successfully take over supervision of my pig-headed determined effort to lounge around at the Hotel Kolomna rather than engage in tourism.

Mama thinks I have watched too many episodes of the (admittedly excellent) travel show Oryol i Ryeshka (Heads or Tails), in which one presenter gets to experience a destination in luxury and the other has 100 dollars to spend for three days. I was distinctly more interested in exploring the facilities in our accommodation for the whole of our first day, and decidedly frustrated every time we didn’t get further than the lobby before sauntering back out again to visit some other attraction. Eventually I flatly refused to go anywhere else.

Which is how Mama and Papa came to be at opposite ends of the town in the first place.

Well, to be fair, it was very cold, and a free excursion courtesy of the hotel didn’t really sound that interesting. Mama begs to differ though as she found out quite a lot about the history of Kolomna.

The history of Kolomna and its kremlin

Kolomna is directly south of Moscow and on the Moscow River, and thus of some strategic importance in Moscow’s long struggle for dominance in the area. It was officially first recorded as existing in the 12th Century.

There’s a socking big statue of Dimitry Donskoi outside one of the remaining walls which commemorates the time he gathered his troops in Kolomna before marching actually some considerable way away to have the battle of Kulikovo in 1380. Which he won, and although it’s one of those victories which has definitely grown in the telling, in the Russia origin story it marks a sort of turning point both in the decline of the power of the Mongols in the area, and also in Moscow beginning to claw its way up, in a sea of competing small Eastern states.

Russian armour

Worth a statue, then. Not that Mama has a photo of it because at that moment in the tour she had lost the feeling in her toes and was wondering if perhaps I hadn’t made the right choice after all.

The Kolomna kremlin is also worth gawping at as it eventually graduated from being a wooden construction to more durable walls a bit more than a hundred years or so later, some of which still remain. Quite impressively.

‘Kremlin’ being, you understand, the Russian word for fortress, not something special to Moscow. There’s a whole set of them scattered along the border of medieval Moscow’s influence, mainly as a protection against the raids of Crimean Tarters.

Kremlin walls and tower in Kolomna

The next big skirmish Kolomna was involved in was during the Time of Troubles in the 16th Century, when the succession to the throne was contested by a succession of False Dmitrys pretending to be the son of Ivan the Terrible (the name is a clue that they did not, in the end, win the argument). Maria Mniszech, who was, optimistically, married to both of them, took Kolomna during the fight and harried Moscow from there, until she herself was captured and imprisoned in one of the towers that is still standing. Today it still bears her name. And, apparently, her ghost.

Marinskaya Tower Kolomna

The kremlin walls are incomplete now, not because of their failure to keep anyone out, but because during the 18th and 19th centuries the building materials were re-purposed by Kolomna inhabitants for other things. But as well as some walls, there is a gatehouse and those towers to admire, and you can tour the top of the walls too if you join the right excursion.

Gatehouse front and back in Kolomna Russia

There are a number of churches and monasteries inside the kremlin territory or scattered around the town. So if you are into your Orthodox ecclesiastical architecture, Kolomna is a great place to visit.

Monastery in Kolomna Russia

Churches inside the Kremlin In Kolomna Russia
Yellow Russian orthodox church
Church of St Nicholas Posadsky in Kolomna Russia

Mama would like to draw your attention particularly to this church, Krestovozdvizhensky Cathedral, and especially to the splindly red and white towers you see surrounding it. Look familiar? They should if your read our blog as they are by the same architect who was responsible for the Gothic gingerbread palace for Catherine the Great in Tsaritsyno in Moscow (not that Catherine appreciated it).

Krestovozdvizhensky Cathedral inside the Kremlin in Kolomna Russia

Mama, however, was more interested in the wooden village style houses.

Wooden house at night in Kolomna Russia

Many of which have gone full on quaint, especially if they are near to or inside the kremlin.

Wooden houses in Russia

Of course, pausing to take another photo every few minutes probably didn’t help the problem she had keeping up with the Russians in her party. Mama is unclear if she is just terminally unfit or has not yet developed enough of an irritation with wading through ankle deep snow to have worked out the best way to do it.

Wooden Houses in Kolomna near Moscow in Russia

Museums in Kolomna and other attractions

Aside from photography there are a number of museums to choose from when you visit Kolomna.

We went to the main Kolomna history museum, which started off in prehistoric times and the natural world and worked its way up from there, as small local museums are wont to do.

Mama has clearly been in Russia too long – she no longer finds the idea of bears, wolves and so on particularly exotic as part of the local wildlife scene. But she did get quite excited by this odd looking creature. It’s a wolverine, apparently.

Wolverine

Anyway, aside from walls, what Kolomna is mostly known for is industrialism, so there are a number of exhibits about that, especially the locomotive factory.

Mama was more distracted by trying to take a photo of the model of the centre of town from every conceivable angle – she was determined never to get lost when visiting Kolomna again – and by the discovery of an English grandfather clock. This shot shows where she was standing while taking the two kremlin wall pictures above. The haunted tower is on the right.

Model of the Kolomna kremlin

That said, what they do not seem to make much of in the museum is the reason why Kolomna is still not officially on the list of Golden Ring towns – the recommended list of places in the Moscow region which tourists might like to go and visit if they fancy a few days away from the capital. Despite it being super pretty and relatively convenient to get to.

This is that it was a closed town until 1994.

Closed towns were the ones which had some kind of strategic military importance, and so there were restrictions on foreigners visiting.

The strategic importance of Kolomna were the armament factories.

This history is hinted in the Museum of Military Glory (fabulous name. Mama says, dubiously). Observe the diorama of shell making!

Armaments factory worker USSR

The museum is small, but the guide was enthusiastic about pointing out the equal participation of women in the death and destruction industry in the Soviet Union generally, and the Great Patriotic War (World War Two) in particular. Hurrah!

It is also one of those museums that takes a personal approach to history, with most of the exhibits being illustrated by pictures, stories and artefacts of real Kolomna natives and residents.

Mama was particularly determined to draw my attention to the photo and letters of one of the Night Witches. This was a squadron of lady bomber pilots, fabulously nicknamed by the enemy as somehow it was much much worse to be killed by females than by your regular Red Army fly boys. Kolomna has an aerodrome nearby, and the flying club attached to it has a long and venerable history. Currently it has a reputation for being a particularly good place to go and learn about parachute jumping and sky diving. If you are that way inclined.

The Night Witches

This is one of the first instructors at the aerodrome.

Female flying instructor Kolomna aerodrome

Of the other places of interest available on your Kolomna visit, the one that was enthusiastically mentioned as a top attraction by everyone Mama spoke to about her trip is the Pastila Factory Museum. Pastila is a fruit sweet, and the museum is very well worth the fuss, being interactive, immersive and ending with a guided pastila tasting and tea. We all echo the recommendation therefore. Here is what we wrote about it in more detail.

Demonstrating how to make traditional Russian fruit pastille sweets

And then there’s the museum to the life and times of the local writer, Ivan Ivanovich Lazhechnikov, who in theory is famous for being one of the first writers of historical fiction in Russia (think Walter Scott).

However, because finding a connection to Alexander Sergevich Pushkin, the (greatest) poet (who evah lived), is a national obsession, much is also made of the fact that he also saved Pushkin from a duel by getting the other guy to apologise.

Bust of the writer Lazhechnikov

But didn’t Pushkin die in a duel, I hear your cry? Yes, indeed he did. Just not this one. Clearly toxic masculinity is not a new phenomenon.

The museum is mostly just a collection of odds and ends and a few dressed up dummies in Lazhechnikov ’s reconstructed family home, and Mama did not, if she is absolutely honest, find it all that interesting. But it does have some nice furniture and she has made a mental note to see if there are any translations of the great man’s works.

Books by the writer Lazhechnikov

Other museums that caught our eye were the one about a type of gramophone, the one about life on a communal farm, and also the ones more dedicated to crafts such as soap making, and honey production. Also with very tempting shops attached.

Soap museum and shop in Kolomna

If all of this history, culture, boutique shopping or parachuting palls, you can check out the fancy new sports centre, which is mainly there to house a top of the range speed skating rink. Even if you are not into speed skating, you can hire skates and whiz round the rink in the comfort of indoors.

Ice rink in Kolomna Russia

Or you can do what my Oblivious Big Brother particularly enjoyed, and slide on your tummy down the moat of the kremlin walls. Over and over again. At least someone enjoyed the snow.

There are also a number of pleasant cafes and eateries dotted about, in addition to the MacDonald’s.

But what about the hotel, I hear you cry? Did it live up to my expectations?

Hotel Kolomna

In Mama’s view the Hotel Kolomna was a perfectly respectable three star hotel. The communal areas were pleasant, and they have such facilities as their own gym, restaurant and cafe.

The rooms included sturdy examples of the sort of furniture you usually find in hotel rooms. The beds were comfortable, the en suite bathrooms were fully equipped, and the carpets were thick. Everything was clean.

Hotel Kolomna in Kolomna n

Check in was smoothly accomplished, and reception was able to lend Mama a charger to revive her dead phone, which she was particularly happy about.

Hotel Kolomna was, in short, a bit better than some of the motel chain hotels she has experienced in the UK and decidedly less grubby and with better fitting windows than a couple of the B&Bs. Also, being a pretty large hotel building and able to do economy of scale, it was also cheaper, especially off peak in a blizzard.

Mama isn’t sure how good anyone’s English is, but she can definitively say they didn’t have any trouble coping with her wayward Russian, which is a good sign. And all of the information, hotel services, rules, general information, comes in English as well as Russian as standard. So they can probably manage foreigners.

In short, Mama quite recommends it, especially as it is within a reasonably short amble of the pretty bits of Kolomna and the station.

On Oktyabreskaya Revolutsia street. Remember this. It might come in handy.

Obviously, other hotels, hostels and sleeping arrangements are available. Not that you absolutely need to make an overnight stay of it.

Getting there

Getting to Kolomna to experience all of these things is simplicity in itself even if you do not have a car as there are regular trains from Komsomolskaya station. You can get the basic local train, the electrichka, which will have hard benches to sit on and stop in more places, or the express, which shaves only a few minutes of the approximately two hour journey, but will definitely have better seats and free wifi as well as a refreshment trolley.

So you should definitely visit Kolomna. Mama thought that the off season in winter was a perfectly reasonable time to go, especially if you like to photograph wooden houses in a layer of freshly laid snow, but doubtless Kolomna will be equally as pretty in full summer. And there will be all sorts of festival-type celebrations for major holidays such as New Year, Maslenitsa, Easter or the May holidays too.

More information

The Hotel Kolomna’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Night Witches, Russian combat pilots of World War Two.

Pin for later?

Kolomna is a town about two hours from Moscow, Russia. It has history, a kremlin, traditional wooden buildings, museums, sky diving and a sweet factory.
Suitcases and Sandcastles

Noss Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage in Scotland

The Internet is a wonderful thing.

You may have noticed the limited range of places we write about. Moscow. The centre of Moscow. The edges of Moscow. The very occasional journey outside of Moscow. A number of articles about Mama’s hometown, Stevenage. The backlog of posts about where we used to live, London. The centre of London, the edges of London, the… OK, you get the idea.

Mama, in fact, is a travel blogger who doesn’t actually like travelling much. Well, it’s a niche.

But thanks to the World Wide Web, she can armchair travel as much as she wants. Mama enjoys other people’s trips to far flung places quite a lot.

Plus, it allows her to keep in contact with all sorts of people in all sorts of places, to share a laugh, to see what they think is happening in the world, to peer into the tiny details of lives and living situations very different from hers. Even, in some ways, to participate.

Which is what happened when her friends bought Noss Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage, in the North East of Scotland, close to Wick and Inverness and their airports and train connections, and twenty minutes from the very top of mainland Britain, John o’Groats itself.

Noss Head Lighthouse Keeper's Cottage

Now Mama had not previously given much thought to the existence of Scottish lighthouses, or lighthouses in general. She might be the product of a proud island nation and the daughter of an enthusiastic amateur sailor, but she’s never lived within sight of the sea, the boat she is most familiar with is a Mirror dinghy, and her sailing has all been done on lakes. Very small lakes, mainly.

So previously she did not know that Scottish lighthouses were frequently built by one or another member of a family of engineering-minded Stevensons. With the exception of Robert Louis Stevenson, who benefited from lighthouse building being quite a lucrative business on the rocky north coast of Scotland and became a writer. Yes, that Robert Louis Stevenson.

‘I dreams of cheese! Toasted mostly! Oooh arrr Jimlad! Shiver me timbers! Pieces of eight!’ says Mama, helpfully.

This is what Robert said about the Stevenson Scottish lighthouses:

‘There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, but one of my blood designed it. The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather; the Skerry Vhor for my uncle Alan; and when the lights come out along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father’.

Winter on the NC500 in Scotland

Alan Stevenson, the uncle, was the one who oversaw the construction of Noss Head Lighthouse and surrounding buildings, and Noss Head has some interesting features. The diamond-shaped windows in the lantern room were a new design, subsequently employed in future lighthouses. He also went a bit overboard with the architectural detailing on the cottages and outhouses, which means that some of them, although not the Noss Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage itself, are grade A listed.

The Noss Head Lighthouse is still in operation, but has long been automatised, which is why you get to stay in the keeper’s cottage rather than the keeper. Cool, huh?

Noss Head Lighthouse by Alan Stevenson

Mama has a somewhat proprietorial feel for the place, despite living very much at the other end of Europe, as she is part of a brainstorming group her friends use to make sure that their meticulous holiday cottage planning is on point.

The discussion about the type of biscuits to include in the welcome pack was a particular highlight, not least because Mama discovered there is such a thing as Blue Stilton and Walnut Shortbread.

In fact, when you walk into the cottage, contemplate Mama being quite proud to have contributed (a very very small part) to choosing the best colour of curtains to create a warm and inviting atmosphere; deciding what kind of saucepan would suit visitors best; searching for interesting books about lighthouses to add to the sitting room bookshelves; stress testing the cottage’s website and the information provided for guests; and working out how to make the cottage child friendly without compromising the aesthetic for adult guests.

Currently debate is buzzing about Noss Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage fridge magnets. You are very welcome.

Kitchen at the Lighthouse Keeper's Cottage

Overall, Mama’s friends richly deserve the enthusiastic comments about the attention to detail in the visitors’ book.

Bedroom at the Lighthouse Cottage

Now, obviously you want to be comfortable and have a cool place to stay on holiday, and with this holiday cottage you are clearly sorted. But presumably you also want to get out and about and see a bit of Scotland while you are there. Luckily there is certainly plenty to do, in terms of taking in spectacular coastal views and rockpooling along beaches around Noss Head Lighthouse, and also in the surrounding area.

The beach near Noss Head Lighthouse in Scotland

Caithness is plentifully supplied with castles, including a ruined one you can see from Noss Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage itself. As well as the views, there are opportunities to see all sorts of wildlife and birdlife from puffins, through hairy cows to seals. There is ancient history in the form of prehistoric stone towers called brochs. And this being Scotland, there is a whisky distillery. More than one, in fact. And a gin distillery. And a vodka distillery. And also a brewery.

Plus, many small craftspeople crafting away and prepared to sell their unique items of knitwear, pottery, ironmongery and so on. A number of the paintings in the cottage are by local artists, to give you an idea of what is out there.

If you are really lucky, the northern lights might come out to play. If you aren’t lucky, the chances of a cloudless night are good, giving you the opportunity to stargaze away from the light pollution of most towns, cities or villages.

Moon and stars at Noss Head Lighthouse

More than this, the North Coast 500 road trip route goes right past the Noss Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage.

Even though Mama blanches at the thought of travel, she does have a sort of fascination with road trips and similar. She quite enjoys the thought of packing up a car, an RV, a canal boat or even the Trans Siberian Express, and being gently wafted from place to place, waking up somewhere new every few days, yes, but with somewhere convenient to stash all the extra changes of socks, snacks, extra camera batteries, two tablets and a kindle, five more pairs of pants than the number of days we are staying away for, my bedtime cuddly toy, a couple of books, the wellies, the flip flops, the swimming things, the umbrella, the thermos, and the crafting activities so she doesn’t have to lug them all around with her.

Or worse, leave them at home.

So when Mama finally decides it’s time to go, the journey will be EPIC, and driving round the top of Scotland on the NC500 sounds pretty perfect, with moorlands, lochs, Highland glens, white sand beaches, hamlets, fishing villages and oodles of Scottish wilderness to explore.

Aside from the breathtaking scenery, after years of city living she actually rather enjoys the infrequent occasions she gets to fling a car round country roads. The fact that Papa is generally closing his eyes and gripping the edges of his seat in fear is revenge, Mama thinks, for years of her putting up with Muscovites and their overly breezy attitude to lane changing at speed.

Even the idea of trying to shift Papa’s opinion that whisky tastes a lot like moonshine vodka sounds quite appealing. And you get to stand at the very top of a country, at John o’Groats and contemplate taking off and seeing how long it might take to get down to the bottom and Lands End, just for the fun of saying you did it. Mama wants to go to Vladivostock, for much the same reason. End to end, baby. It’s a (very long term, and probably hypothetical) goal. Especially as her fitness levels are not going to see her climbing any serious mountains any time soon.

Although there are a few of those Northern Scotland too. Bagging one of the Munros is a thing, and there are 37 of them on the NC500 for you to choose from.

Noss Head Lighthouse Keeper's Cottage in Scotland

So, if you want a quirky holiday cottage in the Highlands of Scotland, a quirky holiday cottage on the NC500, a quirky holiday cottage near John o’Groats, or just a really comfortable (and quirky) holiday cottage somewhere scenic, you really should consider the Noss Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage.

Like we are.

Just to be clear, we have not received any financial or other incentive for writing this post. We just like our friends and think their lighthouse cottage is way cool.

More information

Noss Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage website.

The cottage is 2.5 hours drive and 100 miles from Inverness.

It takes five or six hours to drive from Edinburgh or Glasgow. Buses and trains take longer. You can fly into Wick airport, next door to the cottage from Edinburgh or Glasgow.

If you are coming from England there’s a sleeper train from London to Inverness, or you can fly into Inverness airport. Then hire a car.

Pin for later?

The Noss Head Lighthouse Keeper's Cottage is a comfortable, quirky holiday cottage on Scotland's NC500 coastal route, only 20 minutes from John o'Groats.

How to use and admire the Moscow Metro

The Moscow Metro is widely touted as one of the must-see attractions on any Moscow bucket list. Which seems odd for a public transport system but then you have probably heard about the fabulously beautiful stations.

Electrozavodskaya Staion Moscow Metro

And the station design is indeed a draw. We’ll get to that. Scroll down if you just want to admire the pictures of the best stations on the Moscow Metro.

But the Moscow Metro is more than just a stunning public space. There are all sorts of wild claims on the Internet about its efficiency and punctuality. Of course, when you actually use the network for any length of time you will discover that…

…amazingly they are almost certainly all true.

Even at 11pm at night, if the countdown clock at the end of the platform showing when the previous train left goes above 2.5 minutes, Muscovites start getting restless. At rush hour you can rely on the trains being closer to 90 seconds apart. And although there are sometimes planned closures at the weekends, it very VERY rarely stops running unexpectedly. In fact, the one thing you can never use as an excuse for being late is that you had a transport crisis involving the Moscow Metro. Far too easy to check up on. It will have been headlines news.

Muscovites tend to claim to have been stuck in a lift instead.

So given that people who are not used to regularly driving around London say that Moscow is the Worst Place Evah to tool around on the roads, this subway train system ought to be your go to method of getting about on a visit to the capital of Russia. We’ll deal with how to use the Moscow Metro first, therefore, and get to the history and which stations you should visit for their sheer visual appeal later.

Tips for using the Moscow Metro

Metro stations are easy to spot because of the big red M that marks their entrances. The system is laid out in a very straightforward way, with number of straight (ish) lines running into and out of the centre, bisecting the brown circle line. In any case, you can download the official Moscow Metro app to help you navigate.

Moscow Metro Map

However, to keep you on your toes in the face of this simplicity, connecting stations frequently do not have the same name; although Biblioteka Imani Lenina, Borovitskaya, Arbatskaya and Alexandrovsky Sad are four different platforms belonging to four different lines, they are all basically one (large) station. Keep an eye on this.

Arbatskaya (dark blue line) is the pretty one though.

Arbatskaya Station Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro tickets

The Moscow Metro has a flat rate fare, so you pay the same amount if you go two stops on the outskirts as if you go all the way across the city. You can get tickets from machines, which have an English language option, or you can go to the manned (or, more usually, womaned) counters, called a kassa. You probably shouldn’t assume English language support here, but there has been a drive to recruit more English-speaking cashiers, and stations which are English-enabled have a sticker that says ‘we speak English’ in the window.

We Speak English Moscow Metro

A single ticket costs 55 roubles, and a two journey one, 110 roubles. You can also buy a 90 minute ticket which allows you to use as many forms of underground or overland public transport as you like within the 90 minute time period. This costs 65 roubles.

If you buy a ticket for multiple metro rides of 20 or more, then it will cost about 33 roubles per journey. You will only need one ticket for your group as you can just keep using it to open the barriers until it runs out.

Taganskaya Moscow Metro

There is also a plastic reusable card, called the Troika, which you can either load up with money or one of the monthly unlimited passes (should you be in town for a while), which you can then use on all public transport in the city. The Troika, however, can only be used to let one person through the barriers as there is a block on its being used again for 20 minutes, so you would need one for everyone in your party. They cost 50 roubles to acquire, although you can get special ones for tourists from tourist information booths attached to some of the central Moscow Metro stations, which you just hand back at the end of your stay.

These information stands also sell Moscow Metro themed souvenirs. And, recently, started giving out all sorts of advice and help for your stay in Moscow. Worth a stop then.

How to get on a train on the Moscow Metro

Once you get onto one of the platforms, which are generally open plan with tracks on both sides, you will be looking at the signs dangling from the ceiling to tell you where to get on your train from, as these list the stations served by each route. On the back walls there is also a long list of the stations available from where you are. These also indicate where you can change to other lines and the stations served from there.

Semenovskaya Moscow Metro

Other signs to look out for are the ones which tell you where you can transfer to another line, which will be colour coded to help you work it out, and also the ones that say ‘Выход в Город’, or ‘exit to the town’ followed by some of the most interesting places you can find at each exit. Which are often quite far apart from each other so it always helps, if following somebody’s directions, to find out if you should be going out the exit from the front of the train or the rear, depending on which direction you are coming from, into the centre or out of it.

Sign Moscow Metro

This is because most of the signs are still in Cyrillic, so may not be wildly helpful to you. Although look out for the flagstone signs set into the floor, which are in English and Russian, and the bilingual Moscow Metro maps on the information posts, usually in the centre of the platform, as well as on the trains themselves. These information posts also allow you to press a button and ask for help from a live interlocutor, both with getting about or more serious problems.

Decorative details Moscow Metro

Announcements on the trains themselves are now also in English as well as in Russian, and even if you do not catch the name of the station coming up next, you can always tell if you have got on the train going in the wrong direction as those going towards the centre have a man’s voice, and those leaving the centre have a woman’s voice.

Except on the circle lines, in which case it’s a man’s voice for clockwise and a woman’s for anticlockwise

The English version refers to the lines by number, whereas the Russian one says the lengthy full name of each line, which consists of two of the stations at either ends of the line. We are using colours, to, err, cut down on the confusion. Um.

Etiquette on the Moscow Metro

Once on the carriage you can sit down if there are free spaces and no pensioners who need the seat. Do NOT attempt to sit if there are pensioners who need the seat, or kids, or anyone else who looks like they might want it more than you if you are under the age of 50. Especially if you are a man. Russians take the etiquette of giving up seats quite seriously. This may well not be a problem as a lot of people use the Moscow Metro, and getting a seat often isn’t possible anyway.

Park Kulturi Moscow Metro

Other areas where Russians practice strict Moscow Metro etiquette are NOT standing on the platform right in front of the doors while waiting to get on. You stand just to one side and let the people getting off get off first. Failure to do so will probably result in injury as nobody is expecting you to be in such a stupid place and passengers will pour off the carriage briskly as soon as the doors open.

In order to facilitate this, if you are standing in front of the doors inside the carriage, you may well be asked something. It will sound something like ‘vii oohoditeh sledushaya?’ and means ‘Are you getting off at the next stop?’ If the answer is no, the idea is to jiggle around with your neighbours on the carriage until those getting off are nearest the door.

Best to move down inside the carriage when you get on then, if you are going more than a few stops. Luckily this is made easier by the fact that Metro carriages are much wider than most European ones, so there will actually be some room down the central aisles.

Carriage Moscow Metro

Entertainment on the Moscow Metro

If you have a long journey, consider logging onto the free WiFi, which you can do by finding the WiFi provider marked MT_FREE. You will need to supply your mobile number so that the service can send you an access code, but you only need to do this once. This is standard practice for all free WiFi providers in Moscow. There will be ads. Frequently for Durex. Clearly riding the Moscow Metro gets you in the mood.

If you don’t want to enjoy that experience, then an increasing number of trains have TV screens which show Moscow related news about Moscow specific exhibitions, shows, events, and other places to visit, as well as community initiatives implemented by the Mayor of Moscow, and the weather forecast. FIFA World Cup matches too.

You can also look out for some of the specially decorated trains. There are retro ones, celebrating past versions of the wagons. Or carriages commemorating different historical, cultural and sporting events, or high days, holidays, or other important aspects of Russian life.

Trains Moscow Metro

Other entertainment is provided between platforms by the Metro Music programme and consists of organised busking throughout the day at dedicated spots. You can look it all up and see who will be playing as you walk past. Every now and again they shift all the designated areas around so that a) you don’t get too fed up of being serenaded on your regular commute and b) you don’t miss out being serenaded on your regular commute.

Moscow Metro history

Along with the general user-friendliness of the system being built rather later than, say, the London underground and to a more unified plan, the other attraction of the Moscow Metro is the striking beauty of many of the stations. This came about not by accident, but is an integral part of the history of the underground train network.

They started off with the red line in the 30s, and for this they dug up great tracts of the city, bulldozing everything in the Moscow Metro’s path. This was a bit much even for the Soviets, despite not really being known for worrying about making people feel uncomfortable. And so they got in some engineers from abroad, invested a whole lot of money in machinery, and started to tunnel deep underground. This was a big deal in a country reeling from the aftermath of the revolution and civil war, and is one of the reasons why the stations which were built in the next wave of construction were turned into People’s Palaces – the whole project was a showcase for the might, determination, glory, and other impressive sounding positive adjectives of the USSR.

Lenin Moscow MetroThey also then arrested all the foreign engineers, who happened to be British ones from the London Underground, and deported them shortly afterwards. Not a high point in Anglo-Soviet relations.

Mosaic Moscow Metro

But on the upside, disruption on the surface was minimised and sustainable network growth established. They are still extending the lines today. Since 2010, 61 new stations have been completed, with up to 20 more expected later in 2018 alone. This massive project, which in part is designed to connect the outer suburbs of an expanding Moscow to the centre, is expected to last until 2025. At this point there will be double the kilometres of track as compared to when they started, and a whole extra Large Circle Line, to add to the other new one, the overland Central Circle Line, they opened in 2016.

Novokusnetskaya Moscow Metro

The most beautiful stations of the Moscow Metro

The first station from the underground drilling phase, Mayakovskaya on the darker green line, is considered one of the most elegant. Art deco styling for the columns, and be sure to look up at the mosaics in the ceiling.

Mayakovskaya Moscow Metro

Another well decorated line from the early days is the dark blue line, going out east. Electrozovodskaya, dedicated to factory workers, is worth a look for the marble reliefs and the ceiling lights.

Electrozavodskaya Metro Station

This line conveniently takes you to Vernissage souvenir market, where you will get off at Partisanskaya, celebrating the guerrillas who fought against the invading army in World War Two.

Partisanskaya Moscow MetroWhich is one of the other major themes of station design, after glorifying the revolution through the means of public transport.

Work did not stop on the Moscow Metro just because the country was involved in a war which would claim 27 million of its citizens’ lives, although it did slow down a bit. Thus the mosaics for Novokusnetskaya on the dark green line (one of the nearest stations for the Tretyakov art gallery) were completed by an artist actually trapped in the siege of Leningrad (now St Petersburg), who managed to get his works of art out, but not himself. He later died of starvation, along with large numbers of the rest of the population of that city.

So as some of the major construction was done relatively soon after the end of this war, when the victorious struggle for survival and the sacrifices to achieve it were still uppermost in people’s minds, it is not surprising that many of the stations are memorials to this period.

World War Two Moscow Metro

If you only have a limited amount of time to navigate the network, then your best bet is just to go right round the brown circle line, whose stations are all very worth seeing.

Probably the most stunning is Komsomolskaya, which connects to the red line. This is because here is where a number of long distance railway lines terminate, and so would be one of the first stations visitors from outside Moscow would see.

Komsomolskaya Moscow Metro

Another particularly notable stop is Novoslobodskaya (connected to the grey line), with its stained glass, a craft not much in evidence in Russia generally speaking.

Novoslobodskaya Moscow Metro

The brown circle line will also allow you to admire the other decorating theme, that of celebrating some of the different ethnic and national identities which made up the Soviet Union.

Belorusskaya Moscow Metro

As well as the generally superior lifestyle everybody was leading.

Skiing Park Kulturi Moscow Metro

Stations built after Stalin’s death under Khrushchev are much plainer, a trend mirrored in the construction of apartment buildings above, as the emphasis shifted from housing people in style, so simply getting people housed at all. But marble, solid wooden benches, and beaten metal, with the odd painted detailing still exist.

You can, however, see a resurgence in impressive design features at the new stations. As well as central ones such as Trubnaya or Dostoyevskaya on the light green line, you might want to take a trip down to the bottom of the red line to stations like Troparevo, Rumyantsevo or Salaryevo, or along the yellow line.

Rumyantsevo Moscow Metro

Troparevo Moscow Metro

This end of the red line also has the only Moscow Metro station on a bridge, Vorobyovy Gory, which coincidentally also has the best view over the FIFA World Cup stadium, Lujniki.

Plus, if you keep going along the dark blue line, you will get to Park Pobedi, which has the longest escalator in the world!

The final station you cannot miss, however, is Ploshchad Revolutsii on the dark blue line, which conveniently is the one nearest Red Square. This is because it has a whole bunch of bronze sculptures of Soviet super heroes.

Sniper Moscow Metro

Befitting super heroes, they have super powers. You will note that a number of the sculptures are rubbed shiny in places. This is because it is good luck to rub (some of) them. You can get help with exams, money issues, children, your job, quitting smoking, first dates and travel, depending on which statue you rub and which Internet site you believe.

The most famous is the border guard and his dog. You may be suspicious, watching the many many tourists pose with a hand on his nose, that all of this is just something only visitors believe in (so it is lucky there are actually four versions of each statue, meaning queues do not form). But in fact you only have to wait a few seconds more to see a passing Russian casually reach out a hand too as they walk briskly by.

Border Guard and Dog Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro tour

It is perfectly possible to find tours of the Moscow Metro, from various tour companies as well as the organisation which runs Metro itself, in partnership with the Museum of Moscow. If you want to do a self guided Moscow Metro tour, then it might be better to go early on a Sunday, when your main competition for the best selfie spot (clearly marked out on the floor for you in key stations – I am not even joking) will be the other tour groups, rather than somewhat irked commuters.

Still, one of the delights of the Moscow Metro is not the big show stopper stations, but coming across all the pleasing little finishing touches, the stylised ventilation grills, the imposing doorways, the many and varied light fittings, and other assorted details, and the best way to do that is just to use it as much as possible to get to as many places in Moscow as you can.

To help you do that, here is a great big guide to everything a visitor to Moscow might want to see. And another one about the best places to eat affordable Russian food.

Light fittings Moscow Metro

More information

This is the website for the Metro.

This is the part of the Moscow city government page which gives updates on Moscow Metro development related news (in English).

Information about the Museum of Moscow tour (in English).

Pin for later

Read all about the #Moscow #Metro and its #beautiful stations as well as a practical #guide to how to use it

MummyTravels

Discovering the wooden palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich at Kolomenskoye in Moscow

People in Moscow are always asking Mama for directions and she has a theory about this.

Of course it could be because sometimes she forgets to change her streetside face from the British perpetual half-smile to the less welcoming Russian deadpan stare. But in reality Mama reckons that when you are in a place where asking for directions requires the effort and concentration of talking in a language you aren’t completely comfortable in, you tend to be a lot more conscientious about looking up where you are going, what it will look like when you get there, how much it costs, where the cafe is and so on and so forth than you do when you can amble vaguely in what you assume is the right direction and hail people casually for help if your destination isn’t where you think it ought to be or, indeed, open.

You tend to look confident as you stride purposefully along the streets, annotated map in pocket, and this means that other less well-prepared passers-by assume you are the person to stop and dither at.

They used to bother Papa rather than Mama in London too, for example. Although that might just be because Papa gives off experienced urbanite vibes wherever he happens to be, born and bred capital city dweller that he is.

That said, Mama’s particular downfall when going places in Russia is not so much in inability to get people to tell her stuff but read signage accurately, as demonstrated by our trip to the wooden palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in Kolomenskoye Park this winter holiday. 

Room at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

Alexei Mikhailovich was the father of Peter the Great, and this palace, or rather the original as this is a reconstruction, was where he spent most of his time growing up. It was really supposed to be a summer hangout, but Tsar Alexei liked Kolomenskoye so much he had this giant wooden 250 room construction built, which people told him at the time was the eighth wonder of the world.

As you do, when your Tsar is really really into something.

Side of Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich in Summer Kolomenskoye Moscow

This seems to have been the sum of Alexei Mikhailovich’s achievements, aside from marrying two women whose families really did not get on, and dying a bit too early. He sounds somewhat wet, in fact, although just progressive enough that you can see from where Peter the Great got his compulsive need to shave off beards and build an entire city on a marsh in the middle of nowhere so he could get to Europe a bit more quickly.

As a spur of the moment trip out suggested by Papa and a place we had already noted as interesting when we came across it one spring, Mama didn’t do any further research other than remind herself of which Metro stop to get off at. She had even had a chat to the woman in the ticket booth last time out about what there was to see inside and everything! Nothing further to worry about!

Unfortunately, it turned out that there was more than one thing to see inside, and all of them needed separate tickets. This was complicated by the discovery that Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich’s palace was one of the museum buildings offering free tickets during the winter holidays. To some, but crucially not all, of what was on display.

So Mama enrolled the services of Bilingual Big Brother to figure out what we should ask to go and see.

The problem with Bilingual Big Brother is that he is nine and even with Mama’s determined efforts to cram us full of heritage and culture, he probably only had a vague idea of what Mama was after. Translation can only take you so far when you can’t quite conceive of what ‘nice old (replica) furniture and furnishings’ might consist of.

And the problem with the ticket booth that Mama chose to stand in front of this time was that it was only selling tickets for the exhibitions at this end of the complex.

Mama did not realise this, probably because she only bothered to read the first line of the sign that told her about the other ticket booth.

So we ended up touring two (2) exhibitions, neither of which included fancy recreated interiors, before Mama overheard one of the docents telling another visitor that to actually get into the palace proper, they needed the other cashier round the other side of the building.

Which, when Mama studied it properly, did look a lot more impressive.

Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich in Winter Kolomenskoye Moscow

Mama thinks they should have built the palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich the other way round, given that it is in a different part of the park from the original, so they could have quite easily erected it so that the entrance to Kolomenskoye Park is right next to the front rather than the back.

Although this, of course, is why they put up signs.

Hey ho. We got to see a collection of various typical folk art and crafts such as hinges, enamelled tiles, painted wooden trimmings and icon frames.

Russian folk art

Big up for the icon frames from me! They have cartoon-like pictures telling a story round the edges. I was fascinated to realise that the tales are frequently of how the main character is dismembered in different ways. Something I insisted on double checking at length with Mama.

She wonders if my lack of freaked-outedness means it is time to pay much more attention to what I am watching on YouTube.

We also got to see modern artists’ recreations of traditional folk art and crafts in a more 3D format. This consisted of bit less focus on the bloody bible stories and a few more animal carvings, but it was also quite pretty, and largely deserted.

St George and the Dragon

But I was not up for any more. I had already done my bit culture-wise. I had taken an interest. And now I was hungry.

Mama, on the other hand was determined.

I have developed a way to cope with Mama determined, unlike my Bilingual Big Brother who is easy to bribe. I am capable of keeping up a not-quite-subvocal-enough repetitive whine regardless of what Mama promises or threats for literally hours. The scowling is pretty impressive too. She gets her own way, but she doesn’t enjoy it and I live in hope that one day she will just learn that it’s better to cave quickly.

What it meant on this occasion is that we had to take the interiors at something of a brisk trot. Or as much of a trot as we could given that the free entrance meant that there were quite a lot of people inside.

If I had been more in the mood I am sure I would have been delighted by a number of aspects of the fancy-pants wooden palace.

Obviously one of them is that it is indeed wooden. Both inside and out.

Mama, however, was particularly taken by the medieval central heating system, in the form of the beautifully tiled enclosed stoves.

Stoves at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

She was also delighted to find that Alexei Mikhailovich had much the same taste in wallpaper as her.

Wallpaper at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

My Bilingual Big Brother was pleased with the lions in the throne room, which roar. These days it’s all done with electricity, but back then there was a much more mechanical way to impress visitors.

Throne at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

The dressed up guides were pretty fabulous, and we got to see a lot of them as the palace was so busy. But obviously not listen to then because I couldn’t be having with that in my state of mind.

Guide at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

Guide Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

What Mama particularly coveted (aside from the wallpaper) was the Royal bathroom/ sauna.

Bathroom at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

I just wanted the swan in the dressed feasting chamber. Although, as I repeatedly told Mama, it’s not actually real. Neither is the tower and wall cake, Mama says sadly.

Banqueting Room at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

Still, all in all worth tracking down. Just make sure you go round to the front of the palace for admission to the reconstructed interiors first or your six-year-old will not appreciate it properly and you’ll have to take her to MacDonald’s after all.

Although admittedly that meant we had to trek right through Kolomenskoye Park first. Which, funnily enough, is a lot less attractive in early January when there is unaccountably no snow, than it was in spring.

Want more ideas about what to do in Moscow? We have a comprehensive guide to the capital of Russia here.

More information

The palace’s page on Kolomenskoye Park’s website (in English).

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

Address: Andropova Ave, Moscow, 115487, Russia

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed Mondays.

Admission: 400 roubles for adults for the palace. Kids under 7 are free. Other exhibitions need separate tickets and cost extra.

Getting there: Metro station Kashirskaya (green line) is right next to the entrance to Kolomenskoye Park which is right next to the (back of) the palace. Kolomenskoye metro station (also green line) puts you at the other end of the park, which is a considerable walk away from the palace.

Pin for later?

Find out why the Palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich was once described as the eighth wonder of the world

MummyTravels

Deciphering the secrets of Bletchley Park, home to the codebreakers

Bletchley Park has a number of obstacles in the way of becoming a premier tourist attraction on the heritage trail.

Mansion Bletchley Park

One is that it isn’t actually the stately home that the name would suggest. Well, not most lately. And so it doesn’t have gorgeous interiors for everyone to sigh over, or showy gardens to smell and wonder how they grow grapes in this climate, or even naturalistic parklands to ramble around, sheep spotting.

Although there is a lake, free deckchair seating and the manor house does still exist, and is pleasant to look at, even if the interior is more functional than aspirational. And they have a cafe that would do the National Trust proud as well as a children’s play area.

Lake Bletchley Park

Shame that it’s the large number of ugly prefabs, and the later square brick buildings that the place is really about. Because the reason why you visit Bletchley Park is because it’s the place where the British codebreakers lived and worked during World War Two.

Memorial and huts Bletchley Park

Now this at first glance ought to make the whole place an easier sell. SPYING!

But no.

I mean, there are moments of high drama, such as when the navy captured the Enigma machine, which seems like a lot of effort for clunky gears, levers, and inexplicably crude keyboard to the 21st century child I am but ymmv.

Enigma Cipher Machine Bletchley Park

Or examples of intense tragedy such as what happened to Alan Turing after he stopped being indispensable to the war effort, which is something Mama sincerely wishes were also hopelessly outdated.

Apology to Turing at Bletchley Park

But mostly what Bletchley Park was about was people existing quietly in cold offices for hours and hours and hours and HOURS crunching numbers, changing cogs, smoking, eating in a canteen, probably not getting enough sleep, and then going back and doing it all over again the next day. In secret.

Cold codebreakers at Bletchley Park

It may have shortened the war by a couple of years but the high jinks of James Bond, it wasn’t.

There was an amateur dramatics society though. And a tennis court.

But this mild attempt to stop the inmates from climbing up the walls in what was probably quite a pressurised atmosphere isn’t really the sort of thing you can make a series of thrillers out of, even if I think that’s the best bit, having just joined an after school acting club. Which consists of wearing a hedgehog hat and wrinkling my nose a lot, as far as Mama can tell. She doesn’t think they are going to be making a film out of that any time soon, either.

Anyway. For years, Bletchley Park rather languished, semi forgotten, with only a few enthusiasts between it and its crumbling infrastructure being bulldozed to build tasteful semi-detached housing within easy reach of London.

But times change, information is declassified, technology is sexy, social media, computer scientists, and Stephen Fry mobilised behind the site, and not only was some serious money pumped into restoring it and making it attractive as a heritage tourism destination but someone did make a film about the building of a complicated mechanism AND it starred Benedict Cumberbatch, which is about as much of a rehabilitation as you can get.

So now all Bletchley Park has to do is try and explain to people who visit what breaking encoded messages actually involved.

Which brings us to the second problem because what it involves is higher level maths and the ability to complete the Times cryptic crossword in under six minutes. Unfortunately, Mama got a D in her Maths A-level and can’t complete cryptic crosswords no matter how long she is given. In addition, I am six and although Papa and my Put Upon Big Brother have been spending quite a lot of time lately wrestling with why he can’t just ASK Masha how old she will be in two years’ time instead of working it out from adding together the ages of Kirill and Katya and dividing by 42, I wouldn’t say they are actually very successful at it yet.

And Babushka, who is a bit of a maths whiz, thank you the Soviet habit of educating women in numbers and science, wasn’t available.

So we took Granddad with us. He at least understands the machinery.

Luckily, Bletchley Park seems to know that its visitors are likely to be lost within ten seconds of an explanation of what went on and has devised a number of ways of allowing you to hang in there.

One of them is to keep explaining the maths problems and engineering solutions to working out what was in the all important secret messages in as many different ways as they can, in the hope that some of it will make sense by the time you leave.

There are mock ups you can manipulate, film clips you can watch, touch screens you can fiddle with, computer programmes that walk you through the process, virtual table top card games to play around with, explanatory placards, displays of the machines taken apart and put together again in stages, ACTUAL WORKING MACHINES TO HEAR GO CRANK, CRANK, CLINK HISS, and a twenty minute talk about how they all functioned. With the opportunity to ask further questions.

Bombe by Turing Bletchley Park

And free audio guides (don’t forget to pick yours up), which include video. Mama didn’t spend much time looking at hers, although she enjoyed the commentary, but we insisted on finding a quiet place to watch our specially child-oriented one for each new installment.

Did it work? Well, neither I nor my Put Upon Big Brother are going to be hired by an intelligence agency to crack codes any time soon.

But Mama, Mama, after a full day spent at Bletchley Park, can reveal….

…that it was all done by magic.

Definitely, magic.

Mind you, at least she knew what the little cards in boxes were for. And had a lot of fun explaining how certain aspects of the world worked before you could just use a search function on a computer. Clearly not magic, but really, how did you all manage to tie your shoelaces and similar back in the dark ages?

Card catalogue Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park has a back up plan, however, in case you decide that the focus on calculus doesn’t float your boat and that is to emphasis the human element. Dressing the huts with little humanising elements such as cardigans slung over the back of chairs or cooling cups of tea was a nice touch. Depending on the area, you could pick up a telephone and hear actual codebreakers describing their work and lives at Bletchley Park. And although you do find out more about the work of some of the more famous Bletchley Park residents, like Alan Turing, it’s not just about him or the high ups, but the many other people there who did boring, repetitive, incomprehensible work without, really, knowing quite how much impact they were having, and without a hope of being acclaimed as heroes at the end. Because it was secret.

 Codebreakers Bletchley Park

A commitment Mama gets the impression was taken quite seriously by the people involved for a long time afterwards.

But the best bit was the digital theatre skits, which played out as you walked around looking the working spaces. Nothing dramatic, nothing explanatory, just the sights and sounds of people going about their work, and discussing it, projected onto the walls and broadcast quietly over hidden speakers. Even outside, sitting in deckchairs, you can hear sounds of motorbikes zooming up with the latest batch of communications from the radio interceptors, people wandering around chatting, banter between the Brits and the one Americans on the base as the natives try to teach the colonials rounders* and so on.

Interactve Multimedia at Bletchley Park

Mama thinks that it is the best example of how to use this sort of immersive interactive experience she has come across yet, and really lifts the visit for adults and not just the kids. In fact, Mama suspects that what with one thing and the mind bending equations and focus on mechanical engineering, this might all actually be aimed at the adults, or at least people who can do fractions.

Certainly, given that we were there in term time (have I mentioned that we get three months holiday in the summer yet?), there were a heck of a lot of  older people enthusiastically getting stuck into the interactive features in the absence of having to share them with the smaller element.

Codebreaking Bletchley Park

So Bletchley Park is interesting, whatever your age, accessible, whatever your maths skills, and an extremely good example of how to do multimedia museuming, for the amateur curators among us. And it’s only just outside London. What’s keeping you away?

*It’s a bit like baseball. It’s a children’s game. Not, y’know, something we take very seriously.

More Information

Bletchley Park’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Enigma Cipher Machine.

Address: The Mansion, Bletchley Park, Sherwood Drive, Bletchley, Milton Keynes, MK3 6EB. Use MK3 6DS for SatNav purposes.

Opening: 9.30am to 5pm in summer. In winter it closes at 4pm.

Admission: Adults 17.75 GBP, kids over 12 10.50 GBP, kids under 12 are free. Your ticket allows you to visit as many times as you like in one year.

Getting there: Use Junction 13 off the M1 – and there is a free, extensive car park. Blecthley train station is a few minutes walk away with trains out of Euston in London.

Pin for later?

Bletchley Park near London is where the codebreakers of World War Two had their headquarters. It is also an excellent example of how to do really engaging interactive museuming.

Wander Mum
“Untold

What (not) to do on Red Square in Moscow

Red Square. Is quite red.

Historical Museum Red Square
Red!

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 the mummy 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 State Historical 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 they already did this when they switched the previously whitewashed Kremlin walls to painted red.

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

Of course, at night, they light GUM up… yellow.

GUM on Red Square at Night
Still not red!

But on my first visit, it was midday in August. And after what felt like three thousand hours, we were only just in the centre, and wilting in the blazing sunlight.

Red Square is huge, very open, and covered in extraordinarily hard-to-walk-on cobbles. Which also have mysterious straight lines in different colours painted all over them.

Red Square from St Basil's
Biiiiig.

Mama reckons they are either for organising 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) standing around mugging for the cameras in front of the stuff round the edges.

It’s so hot and so exposed that 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 brightly coloured onion domes in a large Disneyesque ballgown. Cool.

Not that the cobbles are any easier to walk on in the middle of a blizzard. Or when they are slick with rain. It’s a bit of a slog in almost any weather. Although they do have a skating rink and a New Year/ Christmas market to liven things up in winter.

Christmas Market on Red Square
Check out St Basil’s (still not the Kremlin) in the background!

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 did our own photography shoot, we resumed our hike towards St Basil’s. Mama thought we might enjoy scrambling around it.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
Onion domes! Which are not the Kremlin.

She was wrong. In my then four-year-old 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 over increasingly large parts of Russia, he decided to set the thing in stone. The architect he commissioned did not just slavishly replace the original wooden buildings, but the best that most people can say about the end result is that it is ‘unique’. There is a story that the same architect had his eyes put out by the apparently very aptly-named tsar so he could not build anything similar again. I think this is going a bit far. It’s not THAT bad.

St Basil's Red Square Moscow
My eyes, my eyes. Are not seeing the Kremlin.

I can’t blame the gaudiness on the bad taste of the 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. Because traditionally, kremlins in Russia are white stone.

And 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, who is clearly a very 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 even 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 style 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.

After the terror of St Basil’s, I congratulate Mama on her decision to leave visiting Lenin’s mausoleum for another few years. I reckon 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 has not left the building.

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. Although if you are in Moscow now, there is also Zaryadye Park to hang out in next door, which is almost as good.

Still. You can keep your historical monuments, your mummies and your unshaded urban courtyards. Shopping malls. That’s where it’s at. Most people seem to disagree with me on this one though.

Want to find out what else there is to do in the capital? Read Mama’s comprehensive guide to what to see and do in Moscow.

More Information

St Basil’s website (English).

Lenin’s Mausoleum website (English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the mystery of the Egyptian Pharaoh at Niagara Falls.

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 11am to 6pm in summer and 11am to 5pm in winter.

Price: Red Square is free. Lenin’s Mausoleum is free and St Basil’s is 350 roubles for adults and 60 roubles for children over 7. 150 roubles for a photography pass.

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 State Historical Museum. Head for the (restored) gates with the small chapel set into them.

Pin for later?

If you visit Russia, then you have to go to Moscow. If you visit Moscow, you have to go to Red Square. But what should you do on Red Square?

MummyTravels
Mini Travellers

Gazing upwards at Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, UK

The problem with visiting Anglican cathedrals is that you spend a lot of time bending awkwardly backwards so you can stare at the ceiling. Ely Cathedral is no exception to this, although there is plenty to see at less crippling angles.

Ely Cathdral Roof

Notably the stained glass windows.

Ely Cathedral Stained Glass

In fact, to celebrate this, Ely Cathedral has a stained glass museum. Which we didn’t go to (it cost extra).

The other thing we didn’t do were the Tower Tours (it cost extra. Plus there were steps). This may have been a mistake as it is how you gain access to the upper walkways, bringing you nose to colourful window, and giving you the chance to see the fabulous space that is the cathedral from another angle.

Actually, perhaps with two under tens in tow that’s not such a good idea. You wouldn’t want centuries of craftsmanship to be destroyed by one enthusiastic bounce. The kids might suffer a bit from taking a header through the glass too.

Luckily, Ely Cathedral has other dedicated activities for its younger visitors. Mama tried to interest in us in the quiz, which encouraged us to contemplate key architectural details and their historical significance, but we quickly abandoned this for the sticker scavenger hunt. There is a map. There are locations marked on the map. There are locations marked on the map, which if you can find them, have stickers for you to collect and add to your compendium of interesting things to note about Ely Cathedral. We had a high old time galloping about what is quite an expansive site, and Mama got to take many many photographs in peace while we did so.

Flowers Ely Cathedral

The only downside was that when we arrived at the relevant spot the stickers were not actually there. Mama was not entirely sure this was a down side though as it meant that we got twice as much exercise and some useful practice in polite interaction in English, as each time we failed to find our reward we trotted back to the helpdesk to collect it there. Although after this happened for the 200th time, the very obliging staff did just hand us over the whole set. After which we lost a bit of interest. It’s the hunt that’s the thing, you see. But they did then go round to top up the displays ready for the next underage visitor. You are very welcome.

Mama is welcome too. She lost her purse while in Ely Cathedral. It’s one of those things which marks you out is a tourist is losing key belongings while on a trip out. That and getting pickpocketed. Mama was quite shocked at the thought she might have been pickpocketed inside a religious institution in the UK, but almost as the thought crossed her mind she realised that she had probably just dropped it.

And thankfully for the reputation of respectable cathedral-going visitors in Britain, this was exactly the case and somebody had handed it in, so she got her purse back (if not her dignity) entirely intact.

After which we got back to admiring the building. One of the great attractions of Ely Cathedral, apart from the ceilings, the windows and the stickers, are plaques to the great and the good of Ely and the surrounding area stating their main purpose in life. Apart from dying, which seems a popular achievement to mention, there appear to have been a lot of Cambridge University professors in the area.

Plaques Ely Cathedral

Occasionally, you get statues of people sleeping. Why sleeping, I do wonder. Is being good at snoring particularly impressive? Or something that the UK is particularly known for? I think we’d better book my Babushka a place right now because her penetrating buzz-saw whiffling is surely outstanding in its class.

On the other hand, I have no idea what talent this guy thinks he is showing off.

Reclining Victorian bishop Ely Cathedral

What Mama particularly liked about Ely Cathedral, however, was that it is clearly not just a carefully preserved monument to days gone by, but a working space.

Anglican vicar at work Ely Cathedral

Mama, in fact, spent a happy twenty minutes dragging my Long-suffering Big Brother, who has a much higher tolerance for being lectured at than I do, about the cathedral demonstrating the changing nature of Christian worship in the UK over the last five centuries or so.

Admire the craftsmanship and sheer effort of erecting this huge, gorgeous building in the middle of nowhere at a time when humanity was still constructing everything by hand.

Ely Cathedral

Nothing was more important than God!

Ely Cathedral Architectural Details

See the painstakingly ornate carvings, the colourful windows, the walls which would once have been covered in paint! And contemplate the impact that having a nice place to hang out in once a week and the prospect of a brighter future might have had on the Medieval mind.

Chapel Entrance Ely Cathedral

Thrill as you recognise the moment when Catholicism gave way to Protestantism in the decision to preserve the figures in the Lady Chapel with their faces smashed off.

Note how the rood screen, with its symbolic and actual separation of the congregation from the place where the most important God veneration used to take place, is now ignored in favour of a nice plain altar on the side where the great unwashed sit.

high altar Ely Cathedral

Modern Altar Ely Cathedral

Talking to God was a specialist job at one time. And people were assumed to need a bit of visual help in interpreting the stories. But now one is supposed to take a bit more responsibility for one’s own post-death safety. And be able to read.

Yet observe the moment that history comes full circle as the modern church decides that contemporary society demands that they try to convey the concept of the divine through the medium of interpretive art.

Ely Cathedral Modern artworks

And of course, there is also the serious business of the flower arranging rota to enjoy. Mama says you couldn’t get any more Anglican unless there was quiche, stewed tea in a tea urn, a jumble sale and people bickering over who gets to babysit the vicar’s son.

Flowers Ely Cathedral

And in fact there probably was quiche in the cafe near the entrance, although we opted for the generously sized portions of cake instead. No tea urn though, but then Mama does prefer coffee.

Basically, we enjoyed our trip round Ely Cathedral, which we completed on the same day as we visited Oliver Cromwell’s House Museum. Given that the two buildings are practically next door and all. Definitely a must see for anyone visiting Ely. It’s big, it’s relatively empty, it’s full of welcoming well-meaning people, it’s got lots of interesting things to look at and there are refreshments. What’s not to like?

More information

Ely Cathedral’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about stained glass windows.

Address: Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4DL

Opening: 7am – 6.30 pm, although the best time to visit  is 9am – 5pm Monday to Saturday. Bear in mind that if there is a service going on then access will be restricted. There’s a page on the website where you can check potential closures out.

Admission: 8 GBP for adults with 6 GBP concessions. Kids under 16 are free. It’s 15 (or 13) GBP to add the Tower Tour, and 12 (9) GBP to visit the Stained Glass Museum and the cathedral together. To do it all and get a free cup of tea is 18 (15.50) GBP. People who live in or go to church in the area can get a free pass.

Getting there: Ely is a bit farther north of Cambridge up the A10 or the A14. There’s no dedicated parking for the cathedral, but there are a number of free car parks in Ely and the one we were in was just a few minutes’ walk away.

Ely also has rail connections to Stanstead Airport, Kings Cross London, Birmingham, Norwich and Peterborough. The station is 10 minutes away from the cathedral.

Pin for later?

Ely Cathedral is historically interesting, visually stunning and welcoming to visitors

MummyTravels

Warts and All at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum in Ely

In case you were wondering if Mama’s previously stated interest in history is what landed her in Moscow all those years ago, the answer is no.

Mama’s period was always very firmly the early modern one, not the dubious social experiments of the 20th Century. What she really knows a lot about is religious kerfuffles between the Protestants and the Catholics in continental Europe (remember the Jansenists, anyone?), and Venice.

This is what you happens when you offer people free higher education. I’m going to be an engineer, do something with Maths or learn to draw really really well, preferably in a digital medium. Says Mama.

Anyway, this does also mean that she has a passing interest in Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil Wars, which, for the calendar challenged, happened in the 17th Century and had a certain amount to do with arguments about how much incense was the right amount to pacify God (some and hell no none were, variously, the answers. It’s a tricky one, of course).

So it came as something of a surprise when she admitted that she had never visited the Oliver Cromwell House Museum in Ely, Cambridgeshire, in the building he moved to at around the time his political dabbling as a member of parliament got a lot more serious. It’s only one and a half hours up the road from Granny and Grandad’s! What can she have been thinking?

Oliver Cromwell's House in Ely

Mama has had a horrible suspicion ever since Donald Trump came to power in the USA that a lot of the leaders from history she who amuse her were probably a lot less entertaining when you were forced to deal with them on an everyday basis.

Peter the Great springs immediately to mind.

Yes, he lived in a small modest shack of a house (still there) next to what would become the grandiose Winter Palace in St Petersburg (also still there), worked as a carpenter to learn shipbuilding and a foot soldier to learn warmongering (both of which he was quite successful at on a grander scale later), married a peasant, making her Empress in 1724, and had a collection of animals picked in jars.

But he also went round feeling up women all over the courts of Europe and being surprised that they had ribs that went up and down rather than side to side, exercised an extremely violent temper and a tendency to drink to excess on a regular basis, put to death with extreme prejudice a whole regiment of soldiers out of revenge (and because they were trying to overthrow him) had his son tortured with the result he also died (another rebellion), forced a number of inconvenient women into convents and forced his wife to keep the head of her lover in a jar in her bedroom until she died. After Peter had had it chopped off, you understand.

Mama also thinks that a lot of people at the time considered that building a city on a deserted piece of mosquito infested marshland where every piece of stone had to be carted in from far away with a not dissimilar sense of horror to the idea of building a wall across the bottom of America. Although to be fair, Peter did actually get the job done, while I do not see any fencing currently going up in the USA yet. And, unlike Trump’s, a lot of Peter’s more autocratic diktats were aimed at dragging his compatriots forward, kicking and screaming, into the more enlightened century of the Fruitbat. You might not think making everyone shave their beards off to be the equivalent of Obamacare, but…

He did have tiny hands though.

Oliver Cromwell is another such larger than life character Mama rather approved of back in the day. Well, you have to be impressed by the balls of someone who both goes to war with and then drives through the execution of a divinely anointed king based primarily on the power of his conviction in his own righteousness, don’t you? No? Well, perhaps you too are no longer eighteen and have paid attention to the extreme discomfort being stuck in a country whose system of government has just been overthrown with very little care as to what comes next.

The organisers of the Oliver Cromwell House Museum are not entirely blind to this issue, and present their exploration of his life in the guise of letting you decide for yourself if he was a hero or a villain. Although I am here to tell you that in my opinion the museum is just a teensy bit biased in favour of Cromwell, unless you happen to be so outraged at the mere idea of overthrowing the monarchy that you ignore the charms of a pleasant sort of kitchen containing recipes from Mrs Cromwell’s repertoire and a spirited defense of the lady in question’s cooking skills.

The kitchen at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum

There is also a reasonably large selection of dressing up clothes and period appropriate toys in the room upstairs devoted to the bliss of domestic life in a 17th Century Puritan home. Mama was disappointed to discover the petticoats did not come in her size, and I flatly refused to even contemplate such a ridiculous outfit, but we made up for it by trying on all the helmets. Which are quite heavy!

Dressing up and helmets at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum

Then it was onto the war room! Which brings us back to Donald Trump, mainly so that Mama can have a dig. This is because Oliver Cromwell shares with Trump the background of taking on a role he had no training for whatsoever, after he became one of the first members of parliament to sign up to fight the king. However, it turns out that Cromwell (unlike Trump) was very good at his new job.

Of course, until discovering his true talent he wasn’t all that. He started off as a very minor farming gentleman, having to leave Cambridge University before completing his studies because his father died and he needed to take care of the family. He and his wife moved to Ely when he was left some property there, and he became a tax collector. As an MP, he was active in opposing the king, but not influential. It was his success in leading his troops, and in winning their respect, that led to his eventually being promoted to second in command the of the whole boiling. And when King Charles was eventually defeated, the loyalty of the army meant that he could get away with doing things like dissolving parliament for fannying about too much. And that meant that he was eventually crowned in all but name as Lord Protector, and went swanning about Whitehall and Hampton Court being called Your Highness.

Popular support is very useful for a head of state.

Part of the way he won that though was in looking after his troops rather better than most in a conflict which was particularly badly provisioned. With, usually, a consequently particularly bad effect on the surrounding countryside. Not to mention the fact that this was a conflict renowned for bitterness, with families divided and willing to fight each other to the death for their side of the cause. Which also makes Cromwell quite considerate in the unusual discipline he imposed on his troops, who were infamous for the looting and other atrocities they had a tendency not to commit.

Although this didn’t always work as successfully as we might have wished, as a story on the audio guide which everybody gets free with their entrance tickets shows.

Which I listened to.

Mama, who was about ten seconds up the road in her guide did make the beginnings of a move to snatch the headphones off my ears, but too late.

Poor girl.

Mama stopped encouraging me to activate the extra commentary attached to each of the display cases after that. Stick to the basic kid friendly one is her advice. Although the side discussion about how Cromwell didn’t personally ban Christmas interested my Stoic Big Brother. Mama thinks that’s reaching in terms of rehabilitation though. Trump is inevitably going to blame everything on Congress and the Senate too when history delivers its final verdict that he is a bit of a tit.

Of course, what makes particularly uncomfortable reading in this day and age is the insistence that it was Cromwell’s religious faith that drove him forward. He was certain, certain, that he was doing the work of God in pursuing whatever course of action he took, and that his successes were proof of approval.

Mama does not consider this a mindset to admire.

But in the end, the main entry into the Cromwell-might-not-have-been-a-laudable-man-after-all ledger that the Oliver Cromwell House Museum admits to is contained in a small plaque mentioning in passing the vigour with which he tackled the uprising in Ireland following the beheading of King Charles.

Not, perhaps, too surprising then that when visitors get to vote by putting their token on a board in the appropriate column towards the end of the visit, the balance of opinion is more in favour of the man than against.

Voting Oliver Cromwell House Museum

I insisted on putting a tick in both columns (letting me listen to the guide was clearly a mistake there, the Oliver Cromwell House Museum) which Mama (who defiantly went for the hero side for old times’ sake) says is really the right answer, or rather that the question itself is wrong.

Partly, it depends on where you stand. If you are Irish, or pretty much anyone whose country was overrun by the British Empire then you have cause to see Cromwell as an unmitigated disaster. This is because the eventual restoration of the monarchy did not mean that monarchical or aristocratic power survived intact. Post interregnum, Great Britain was, for its time, a remarkably socially mobile society, and this almost certainly contributed to its success in technological and industrial advances. This, of course, contributed to its expansionist ambitions later.

And if you are a Brit and not from somewhere at the top of the social pile to start with, you can also be bitter that the class system has survived much longer and much more rigidly than you might expect for a 21st century country because of this early flexibility.

So where are we?

Oliver Cromwell was a man who rose to a position of power through a bit of good luck and a lot of being very competent when the situation demanded it. He had principles and tried to see them through, took them farther than many people would bother with, and was willing to compromise his own comfort to do so. But when given power he did not usually go blindly after the other side. For a man whose religious convictions had led him to war and eventually to killing a king, he was extraordinarily active in promoting the freedom to worship whatever way appealed to a person’s conscience, a tolerance he extended even to Jews, long expelled from Britain.

That’s not villainy. But is it heroism?

At the same time, his actions had consequences. The proportion of the population who died in the English Civil Wars is huge, even when you compare it to some of the other ugly wars the country has been involved in. Was it worth it?

And that’s before you consider the massacres in the towns of Drogheda and Wexford. Which is certainly not heroism. But is it villainy? Out and out evidence of his basically evil nature? We recognise the brutalising effect war has on modern-day soldiers, and how sometimes the systems armies use to try to keep it in check fail. Why not understand the same processes are at work on people from the past? On Cromwell as well as the men he commanded?

Not that this is much comfort to all the dead people or any survivors, of course.

Warts and All Oliver Cromwell

But mostly Mama thinks that people shouldn’t be encouraged into the learned helplessness of thinking of their leaders as either saviours or the cause of all their ills.

Anyway. The Oliver Cromwell House Museum in Ely is worth a look round for anyone interested in the history of the UK, the nature of power and its relationship to responsibility, and ghosts, as Cromwell is said to appear in the bedroom at the end of the tour, and the museum does its best to allow you to imagine this experience.

Death Oliver Cromwell House Museum

More information

The museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say ( at even greater length than Mama) about Oliver Cromwell – Lord Protector of the Commonwealth.

Address: Oliver Cromwell’s House, 29 St Mary’s Street, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4HF

Opening: 10am to 5pm dailt in the summer with slightly shorter hours in the colder months.

Admission: Adults are 4.90 GBP and kids, 3.40. A family ticket is 14 GBP. There is also an Escape Room at the museum, which is what Mama understands is the British name for a Quest. Yes, she is sulking we aren’t old enough to appreciate this form of entertainment. Yet.

Getting there: Ely is a bit farther north of Cambridge up the A10 or the A14. There’s no parking at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum itself, but there are a number of free car parks in Ely and the one we were in was just a few minutes’ walk away.

Ely’s train station can take you to London King’s Cross or Cambridge, Norwich and the Midlands. It’s a fifteen minute walk to the House from there.

Pin for later?

The Oliver Cromwell House Museum in Ely invites you to decide if Oliver Cromwell was an English Hero or Villain

Tin Box Traveller
Wander Mum

Hever Castle and Gardens: knights, jousting, action

You may remember that when we lived in the UK Mama was a big fan of the National Trust. But the fact of the matter is that while we had membership Mama was very reluctant to go to any heritage sites which were not Trust properties on the grounds that this would involve shelling out extra money. And then for what reason had we got the multi pass, hmmmmm?

This was very frustrating for her because, of course, no sooner did she articulate this rule to herself than all sorts of interesting properties popped on to her radar which she realised she would NEVER BE ABLE TO VISIT. Nothing like banning something to make it more attractive.

Hever Castle and Gardens in Kent is one such property. So Mama was quietly quite chuffed when a visiting American Friend suggested it as an alternative to more sightseeing in London during our annual stay in the UK this year. Of course, Mama could quite happily have spent time pretty much anywhere with the increasingly innacurately named Internet Weirdo Friend Posse, but doing that in interesting surroundings can only be a bonus.

Plus, Other Friend’s Child Who Is Clearly Also Used To Being Dragged Round Cultural Attractions And Making The Best Of It had brought a football. We were impressed.

Hever Castle is a wonderfully liveable-in castle whose major claim to fame is that it was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, she who married King Henry VIII, gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I, and eventually got her head cut off in a martial dispute over whether or not Henry should get to be a complete and utter total arsehole (Mama says he won). Princessing is looking less attractive every day (except for the housing. I could totes go for the housing).

Hever Castle Gatehouse Kent

The gatehouse is part of the original fortification from the 13th Century, and it leads to a Tudor manor house you can look round and even stay the night in.

Hever Castle Tudor Manor Kent

Inside, you can see the room where Anne Boleyn (probably) slept and where she strolled up and down the inevitable picture gallery. There are recreated scenes from her courtship by Henry VIII told through the medium of interpretive waxworks! With, when we were there, someone playing Greensleeves on a lute. Live!

But the house and gardens were also extensively remodelled and added to by William Waldorf Astor, (rich, American), who bought Hever Castle at the beginning of the 20th Century. So many of the rooms are much more modern in style and decoration.

Hever Castle Interior Kent

Definitely worth having a gander at in fact, not least because as well as a room full of medieval torture implements (thank you Henry Tudor) it has a scavenger trail for kids that pays more than just lip service to trying to keep us entertained. We had to actually look quite hard at things, people! And hunt! And eliminate items from our search!

Of course, it helps that there was the added competitive element of having a child who was not a blood relation to race against. The great thing about this, from Mama’s point of view, was not the keeness with which we sprang into action, but that when we lost, when any of us children lost, rudimentary politeness towards a new acquaintance meant that we did not indulge in the usual bickering that happens if we just have each other to fight with. How the Mamas managed not to exchange smug glances all the way round I have no idea.

That said, it’s probably the grounds that are the main attraction at Hever Castle.

Hever Castle Gardens Kent

At first, our visit ran much as they always do when we go to a stately home. The adults were pleased with the gardens, which at Hever Castle in July are particularly fabulously in bloom, and we children were pleased with the naked statues (bottoms!) and grape vines.

Hever Castle Gardens Flowers Kent

We ate a grape, despite warnings that they would be sour and nasty (because of warnings that they would be sour and nasty), and the grape was sour and nasty.

Hever Castle Grapes Kent

But then we rounded the corner and began to get an inkling of exactly why we had just paid almost half the price of an annual National Trust membership to get in.

Young men whacking at each other with swords. Now that’s what I call a summer job, huh?

But this was nothing to my Monomaniac Big Brother’s delight when they brought out the falconers. He refused food in favour of standing enthralled next to the enclosure!

Mama and London Friend seemed to think the baby owl being put through its cutely inept paces was the last word in totally fabulous. We preferred the swoopy bird or prey, particularly after I narrowly missed being carried off by it as it made a pass straight over our heads. Very cool, and there is a tent next door where the birds hang out when not doing their flying thing, and you can go and chat to the people in charge about your love of all things animal. Or sulk because they prefer your Monomanic Big Brother’s suggestion for the baby owl’s name to yours.

And then sulk a bit more because Mama refuses to buy overpriced Tudor tat from the shopping marquee next door.

Round the corner were some re-enactors demonstrating aspects of life from the late medieval period. There were some people cooking, a man shaping red-hot iron with a hammer and a woman weaving.

Hever Castle Weaving Kent

There was also a maze, which we had a lot of fun dashing around and getting thoroughly lost in. Apparently we missed the one by the giant lake (no, we are NOT going boating, said both the Mamas. Repeatedly) which squirts water at you as you try to make it to the centre without getting wet. I cannot imagine how that happened.

However! All of this was a mere side attraction to the main event, and the reason for our being at Hever Castle in the first place, the jousting.

Hever Castle Jousting Knights Kent

Mama will admit that when American Friend brought the jousting to her attention that she was expecting to be at the back of a large crowd, failing miserably to see very much of two horses galloping carefully towards each other a few times and missing making any kind of connection whatsoever for health and safety reasons. She will freely admit now that she was entirely wrong about practically every aspect of this prediction.

Of course, it helps to be adults trailing helplessly behind children who have no regard for the concept of queuing and just want to get to the front of any given show. Oh deary me, can’t let them watch something like that unsupervised, excuse me, was that your picnic blanket, ooops, coming through, watch fingers! Room for twenty-two more? Yes? Excellent.

But in fact I don’t know if it was because it was the very beginning of the school holidays (for people in the UK. We have been off since the beginning of June) and parents were less desperate to find something to occupy their little darlings in the loooooooooong summer break (Ha! Three months! We get three months!) or perhaps it was the promise of rain, but there was ample space for everyone watching to spread out around the jousting field, sit down, and get a good view.

And what a very very good view it was. As well as some displays of consummate horsemanship involving the knights whirling sharp implements around their heads, tilting at dummies, collecting rings on a lance, picking up severed heads on a spike, waving both hands in the air in triumph and, yes, charging helter skelter at each other with long sticks of wood, which shattered dramatically on impact to order, there was also a proper show. Goodies, baddies, audience participation, Henry VIII as a compere, knights brawling with swords and knights having a strop with a basket on their heads.

Hever Castle Knight Jousting Kent

Basically I, my Monomanic Big Brother, our New Friend and all the adults were, I am quite confident in saying, enthralled, right from the moment we kids got to march round the jousting field waving large edged weapons to open the tournament.

Mind you, I reckon American Friend was keen because KING HENRY VIII KISSED HER HAND!!!!! Although I’d watch it if I were her. We all know where that leads with Henry.

We didn’t even mind when it started to rain, although it was lucky it didn’t develop into much given that Mama had forgotten to bring a coat AGAIN. You’d think she’d have learnt after the previous day’s downpour.

Still, our top favourite thing about Hever Castle? More exciting than the jousting, the maze, the excellent company, the musicians, the delightfully bijou castlette and outbuildings, the beautiful interiors, the birding, the sour grapes and the flowers?

The large goldfish in the ponds and the moat. We could have stared at them for hours. Every time we got taken away to do something else, we pestered the adults about when we could go back to the fish. You can feed them too if you buy some fishfood from one of the plentiful drinks and snacks stalls. Outstanding! We were the last people out of Hever Castle that day partly because of Mama wanting to put an entire roll of duct tape on the car (don’t ask) and partly because we wouldn’t be moved from the goldfish.

Goldfish. Says Mama.

Only slightly bigger than the ones we mostly ignored in the corner of the room for two years. Says Mama.

Goldfish. Says Mama.

Mama may despair but as King Henry might have said, the heart wants what the heart wants.

Hever Castle Rose Gardens Kent

All in all, Hever Castle is a really good day out for all the family and it really works hard to make sure that you are going to get a lot more for your entrance fee than just a look round a mouldering old house and a nice scone in the tea shop. Recommended even if you do have heritage membership with another organisation. Go on, splash out! You’ll thank me. There are goldfish!

More information

The castle’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about five ladies (including Anne Boleyn) and the Tower of London.

Address: Hever Castle, Hever Rd, Hever, Edenbridge, Kent TN8 7NG, UK

Opening: In summer (April to November) Hever Castle and Gardens are open daily from 10.30am (the gardens) and 12 noon (the castle). It closes at 6pm. It is a bit more complicated the rest of the year – check the website out for opening times in the colder months. Be warned – it is closed completely in January.

Admission: Adults 16.90 GBP and kids 9.50 GBP. A family ticket is 44.50 GBP. It’s cheaper if you just want to hang out in the gardens and watch the jousting and whatnot (which is included in the ticket price). It’s also cheaper if you book online in advance.

Getting there: There is a free car park and the castle is well signposted from junction 5 and 6 of the M25. You can also reach it from junction 10 of the M23. By rail from London Victoria or London Bridge you can come into Edenbridge Town Station and get a taxi three miles to Hever or get off at Hever Station and walk for one mile. There is a map of the route on the website.

Pin for later?

Hever Castle and Gardens in Kent UK is an excellent family friendly day out. With jousting!

Suitcases and Sandcastles