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 Stalin already did this when he switched the previously whitewashed Kremlin walls to painted red on precisely these grounds.

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 there is now 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.

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.

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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?

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

Suitcases and Sandcastles

Rather a lot of pictures of Dubna, a science town on the Volga River in Russia

You may have gotten the impression that Mama never takes us anywhere outside of Moscow, but you would be wrong. We recently spent the day in Dubna, which is over 100km north of Russia’s capital.

While we were on the bus going there, Papa interrogated the conductoress as to where would be the best places to visit. She seemed a little nonplussed, which wasn’t very encouraging. Mama has since found out that Dubna has the second largest Lenin statue in the world, which you might think was worth a mention. There are also not one, not two, not three but four museums.

But we knew nothing of this so on the advice of the locals we got off at the far end of town, next to the infestation of fancy new apartment blocks and generic shopping malls. It’s an object lesson in the difference between what residents think is important versus what might attract visitors.

Dubna is principally not very famous for being a science town (this is an official designation). Nuclear physics to be precise, but as far as Mama can tell, not the blowing shit up end of the field. It’s more theoretical physics, elementary particle physics, condensed matter physics, computing networks and nanotechnology. No, I don’t know what any of that means any more than Mama, but it all sounds very cool.

These endeavours are organised by a Joint Institute for Nuclear Research. Joint with whom, Mama wanted to know, and the answer seems to be everybody. They are very proud of their participation in the CERN super hadron collider for example. There is also a university, which leans hard on the sciences, and the town seems to hang on to a lot of its graduates, who have what is to Western eyes an unusually high proportion of women. Science, in Dubna, is a hereditary profession rather than discriminatory, apparently.

Joint Institute for Nuclear Research Dubna Russia

This is probably, says Mama, scratching her insect bites, because Dubna was built in a strategically isolated position on a virtual island at the intersection of a couple of rivers and the canal linking the Volga to Moscow and surrounded for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and (look, you do realise how big Russia is, right?) MILES by boggy forest. A forest which goes, my Babushka tells me, all the way to St Petersburg! Once the scientists were relocated here in the late 1950s, after the town had been specially built by prisoners of the Gulags, there was no getting out. You, or rather your children, might as well surrender to the siren call of STEM, regardless of your birth gender.

Volga Dubna Russia

Of course, after Dubna was designated an area of special economic interest in 2016 and investment incentives for science and technology firms set up, people probably are less interested in leaving anyway. This is the significance of the regeneration the bus conductor wanted to draw our attention to.

New apartment blocks Dubna Russia

They are also constructing in a new bridge over the Volga, which seems like a good idea as the nearest one is that thing in the far distance, which is actually the wall of a dam for a reservoir. Otherwise you have to queue for a ferry.

Bridge Volga Dubna Russia

And on the other side is likewise a fancy looking complex going up apace.

Volga River Dubna Russia

But while Mama is not unappreciative of having had this pointed out, we were much more into the Volga river itself, where Papa spotted people swimming. Before we knew it he had stripped down to his pants and plunged in. Mama, ever the spoil sport, kept a firm hand on our collars. Well, the last time she let us mess about in a river (the Firth of Forth in Scotland) we spent the next twenty-four hours tag team projectile vomiting.

Then up ahead Mama spotted what looked like a beach. After we rambled and rambled and passed the river cruise station, and Mama bought a souvenir mug and magnet at the hopeful looking stall next to it, and rambled a bit more we discovered it was, in fact, a beach.

Beach Volga Dubna Russia

Yes, with actual sand. Which was a bit of a surprise. So Mama surrendered to the inevitable because splashing about in water in inappropriate clothing is my FAVOURITE THING. And since there was shade for Mama to avoid the plus 25 degrees centigrade heat she didn’t clench her teeth as much as she usually does when we come across unexpected water play situations. She was even kept moderately entertained by the number of boats that swished past, some of which were very wizzy. We got an impromptu WAVE MACHINE effect! Wheeee! Gurgle, splosh!

Boats Volga Dubna Russia

Cargo boat Volga Dubna Russia

Fast Boats Volga Dubna Russia

However, Mama did draw the line when I started to turn blue and shiver uncontrollably, this not actually being the Mediterranean sea, and so having unlocked that most Russian of childhood achievements, baptizing ourselves in the Volga, we went for another long walk back though the town and admired the outsides of the various apartment blocks the Soviet scientists had gotten to live in.

This was our top favourite.

House Dubna Russia

But this block looks pretty cool from the outside, doesn’t it?

Apartment block Dubna Russia

And how about this one?

Wooden Apartment Block Dubna Russia

Less enticing Soviet apartments.

Soviet apartment block Dubna Russia

In fact, clearly Dubna has everything, and a (one) hipster bar and open plan work out space as well.

Hipster Bar Dubna Russia

A few more pictures. This is a scrubby little park that smelled of overheated dog poo, but the flowers are rather attractive.

Flowers Dubna Russia

The smell from this building was much better as it is a bread factory.

Bread factory Dubna Russia

This public building didn’t smell at all.

Public Building Dubna Russia

And neither did this man, a large physicist, not a giant Lenin.

Physicist Statue Dubna Russia

Here is the war memorial.

War Memorial Dubna Russia

And some random pictures of urban decay to finish with.

Grafitti Dubna Russia

Teapot Dubna Russia

Street Art Dubna Russia

Anyway. Who knows when you might find yourself in Dubna? But if you do, it might interest you to know that we suffered no unpleasant after effects from our wild swimming experience. So don’t listen to women on buses, who clearly think that you are a hick who has never seen a MacDonald’s before. Make them take you to the beach in the old town and enjoy.

More information

The town’s website (in Russian).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about distortion – the physics of heavy metal.

Address: Dubna, Moscow Oblast, Russia

Getting there: There are trains and coaches to Dubna, which depart from Savolovsky station (Savolovskaya metro on the grey line). By car you follow the A104 out of Moscow.

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Reasons to visit Dubna on the Volga in Russia include its sandy beach, the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and a very large statue of Lenin

Untold Morsels

Tsaritsyno: gingerbread palace, fairytale chateau.

It is quite some time since Mama went to Tsaritsyno Park in Moscow, and while she wasn’t paying attention they have built a full-sized imperial palace in its environs.

Grand Palace Towers Tsaritsyno Moscow

And a whole bunch of royal outbuildings.

Palace buildings at Tsarityno Moscow

Tarted up some bridges and the like.

Bridge Tsaritsyno Moscow

And replumbed a cascading water fountain.

Fountain cascade Tsaritsyno Moscow

Which was all a bit of a shock.

Tsaritsyno references the Tsarina Catherine the Great who first saw the area, liked it, had it washed and brought to her, and decided to construct a nice new palace for herself there. Of course, at this time the capital of Russia was, and was to remain, St Petersburg. And Tsaritsyno was some way outside of Moscow proper at the time. But you can never have too many palaces, can you? And presumably there was something wrong with the Kolomenskoye royal estate, which is just down the road.

Anyway, the Empress’s dwelling was duly constructed, and unusually was designed and built by a Russian architect, Vasily Bazhenov, who deliberately set out to incorporate a certain amount of traditional Russian styling into the basically gothic sensibility of the place.

They certainly make gingerbread which looks a lot like this in Russia says Mama brightly. Thank you, Mama for your informed opinion about architecture.

Gateway Tsaritsyno Moscow

You are, or perhaps were because the occasional careless jumble of stones suggests that they haven’t quite recreated the exact floor plan of the original, supposed to view the collection of buildings as one whole. The idea was that as you moved around the complex, each structure would work in combination with the others, forming and reforming different pleasing ensembles. A bit like the work of Capability Brown, the English garden designer, but with fewer artfully natural-looking lakes, cunningly places spinneys and the ha ha keeping the sheep off the centuries-old lawn, and more red brick.

Sometime as it was nearing completion, Catherine turned up to see how it was getting on and hated it.

Not because the Russo-gothic style was a bit much, but because the rooms were too small.

(The. Rooms. Were. Too. Small. Yes, Mama is howling with laughter as we type this).

So they fired Vasily and got his apprentice Matvey Kazakov to try and sort out the lack of largeness a bit by building a huge new palace in amongst the gingerbread gothic ones. Has a certain Disney châteaux aesthetic around the towers, donchathink? Not surprising as Catherine was famous for being a big fan of the enlightenment, a pen pal of Voltaire’s, and German. Very continental.

Grand Palace Tsaritsyno Moscow

It didn’t help though; Tsaritsyno palace was never occupied for real. As a result, it soon fell into a state of disrepair and for a long time, including when Mama last visited, it was a picturesque ruin you could go and picnic around, paint a watercolour of, climb over and get your self engraved next to or have your photograph taken with. Depending on the era.

And then in 2005 they decided to rebuild it. Well, it’s very difficult to have a heritage tourist industry if you used to build everything out of wood and had a revolution. If you don’t do a bit of creative reconstruction, you will be stuck with flat museums of great Soviet writers and churches forever more, and nobody wants that.

Certainly my family decided it was worth having a look inside. The entrance is underground, and you can buy tickets for individual buildings separately – and there are quite a few of them, the territory is quite large – or for a number of buildings at once. We opted for the combined main palace and Bread House, mainly because Mama was quite curious about whether she was right about the architectural style after all.

We decided to put off finding out, and look at the main palace building first.

Now you may be wondering if they have redone the interiors to match the exteriors the answer would be, largely, no. There are a couple of Catherine-esque rooms though, including a giant gold covered reception room.

Ballroom Tsaritsyno Moscow

The thing about wandering through an ornate reconstruction of a room is how bright, gaudy and slightly fake it looks to someone who has been a National Trust member for years and expects such places to be faded with 400 years of patina all over everything inside. And yet, presumably, this is what all those stately homes looked like when they were actually lived in by the people we go and learn about, give or take a few square metres of gold leaf. It’s quite an eye opener really, because Mama finds it fairly tacky when new.

Except the chandeliers which are always fabulous.

The room also demonstrated the wisdom of asking docents what they think we should be interested in, because they directed us to admire the floor. Hand laid parquet, of many different shades from different types of wood, all fitted together in pleasingly symmetrical design. Cool. Give it 100 years or so and even Mama will coo over it.

Parquet Floor Tsaritsyno Moscow

Some other rooms have been left semi restored so you can compare the then and now and also find out more about the history of the palace and how they went about fixing Tsaritsyno up.

But mainly they have contented themselves with making the rooms look blandly pleasant and then filling them with art exhibitions.

Which lean towards the arts and crafts side of artistic expression. So in the basement, as well as a room full of things which were dug up during the restoration work (coins, mostly), there is an extensive display of silver and crystal work.

Russian cuisine leans heavily on salads, and crystal bowls of this type are an absolutely essential part of a celebratory table here. The silver lobster is, generally, optional.

Lobster Crstal Bowl Tsaritsyno Moscow

There was also quite a lot of porcelain and ceramic art. Some of this was pre-revolution, some from the big factories in the Soviet era, both folk-inspired and revolutionary themed, and some were individual works of decorative artists from the last 100 years regardless of political affiliation. Mama really enjoyed it, and as she allowed a fairly brisk pace, so did we.

Ceramics Tsaritsyno Moscow

There was also a whole floor given over to recreating the interiors Tsarskoye Selo, which is not actually anything to do with Moscow at all, but the suburban palace of the imperial family from turn of the 20th Century, Nicholas II, his wife and children. Mama took this at a brisk pace too, even when we wanted to linger round full-sized Christmas tree! Not sure why she looked a bit uncomfortable when they showed us little clips of the children at play and the like. Probably because you weren’t supposed to take photos, which always makes Mama cross, although the number 1917 appeared in such giant letters at the end of the series of rooms that I feel that this may also be significant.

As if in compensation for thwarting Mama’s hobbies, they have interactive photography opportunities on the next few floors. Mama was particularly delighted to find that you can hire costumes and parade around in them for your friends and family to snap you looking sharp! Although my Fashionable Big Brother didn’t get a look in as there were no outfits for boys she could see on a casual glance. Mama considers this a shame, as 18th century menswear was particularly fabulous.

Costumes Tsaritsyno Moscow

If you don’t want to have a go at this, there are 18th century themed cut outs for you to pose with on the top floor near the cafe.

Cut Outs Tsaritsyno Moscow

The cafe, ah yes. There are in fact, not one but TWO cafes inside Tsaritsyno palace, one at the top and one at the bottom of the building, which Mama considers very sensible positioning. She suspects the one at the top is less well-known about because it is much quieter. But it’s definitely worth searching out as next to the dining area is a display of cake design. We towed Mama over and pointed out the ones we want for our birthdays. Mama is totally going to be able to reproduce five stories of lifelike replica birds with a bit of fondant icing, yeah?

If for some reason you don’t fancy either cafe, the warmer months see stalls of food sellers popping up all over the park, and there is also some kind of restaurant down by the fountain too. For once your visit to an attraction is Moscow is not likely to be blighted by finding eateries unavailable!

Anyway, after some refreshment it was time to finally go and find out what the Bread House was.

Well, there’s a covered atrium, which was very pleasant, and then it is full of animal themed ceramic displays.

Ceramic Bird Tsaritsyno Moscow

No, we don’t know what that has to do with bread either, but as there was also animal themed crafting, we did not complain. And neither did Mama because since we now owned a new paper pet, we trotted disinterestedly past the shop at the exit and had renewed enthusiasm for gamboling around in the grounds before we made our way home.

Mama was more enthralled by the intergenerational volleyball matches in the casual volleyball court area, the very popular chess meet and the over seventies outdoor disco we wandered past, where if you assumed they would be playing sedate waltzes you would be very very wrong.

Chess Tsaritsyno Moscow

Tsaritsyno clearly has it all and a boating lake to boot. Definitely worth a trip if you are bored of the usual Moscow sights.

More Information

The park’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about how to make a gingerbread house.

Address: 1 Dolskaya St., Moscow 115569

Opening: Tuesdays to Fridays: 11:00–18:00, Saturdays: 11:00–20:00, Sundays: 11:00–19:00, Mondays: CLOSED.

Admission: It varies depending on which building or combination of buildings you want to visit, but the combined Grand Palace and Bread House ticket we had costs 350 roubles for an adult, 100 roubles for school children and anyone under seven goes free. You can get an all in one ticket valid for one month for 680 roubles if you are really keen.

Getting there: If you get off at Tsaritsyno metro station (green line), don’t expect much help from street signage about which way to go after that. It’s not that difficult though, even if you don’t have your smart phone plugged in – just head under the railway tracks and there you are right next to the cascading fountain. A much more obvious entrance is in from the next station out from the centre, Orekhovo, and then you cut through the wooded area down to the palace. Although there isn’t much to tell you which way to go then either (go forward and left. Or left and then forward). To ensure full coverage and not missing the fountain, you can do what we did and enter one way and go out the other.

Don’t ask Mama about cars and car parking – she doesn’t know.

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Tsaritsyno in Moscow, originally built for Catherine the Great, is a cross between a gingerbread palace and fairytale chateau

Wander Mum

Is VDNH, Moscow just a memorial to a Soviet never-never land?

Russia is one of those countries which every foreigner has an opinion about.

Of course, what people think about it changes. A bit. When Mama first came to Moscow, it was all food lines, bears on the streets and year round snow. Ten years later it was more about the super rich owning football clubs, bears on the streets and year round snow. Twenty years earlier, it was the stone-faced communists and their threat to the world, bears on the streets and year round snow. We are back now to super villain status – bare-chested, riding on a bear, in year round snow – but through all of this what people have seen as a handy symbol of whatever they think of the country is Red Square and the Kremlin.

They are where gold leaf is frowned on in favour of severe granite blocks and lots of marble, and then plastered back again twofold and with added malachite in the government buildings and state apartments.

Where churches are demolished to make way for the tanks, and then rebuilt with a super large statue of St Vladimir the bringer of Christianity to ancient Rus round the corner for good measure.

Where conspicuous consumption conspicuously isn’t in the State Department Store GUM, and then returns at conspicuously high prices, supplemented by advertising that takes the form of a giant Luis Vuitton suitcase slap bang in front of St Basil’s.

Where military parades now jostle for their place with extravagant firework displays, exclusive rock concerts and public skating in the winter.

Where Lenin still hasn’t been moved out of his mausoleum, but is can be covered by a jaunty awning if his presence is inconvenient, such as when Easter coincides with the 1st May.

Sort of thing.

So of course, you need to visit both. But there are other places which represent the changing face and fortunes of Russia in the 20th Century.

One of those is VDNH.

The Soviet exhibtion complex VDNH VDNKh Moscow

Or VDNKh, because the last sound doesn’t transliterate very well into English. Try doing the ‘ch’ in the Scottish ‘loch’ and you are close. Mama prefers the second spelling, but the Russians themselves seem to have given up.

VDNH (VDNKh) stands for ‘the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy’ (they tried to rename it ‘the All-Russian Exhibition Centre’ for a while. It didn’t stick). It began as the Soviet equivalent of the Great Exhibition in 19th Century London or the World Trade Fair in the US in the 50s and it is remarkable for the amazing set of buildings, or pavilions, each representing some achievement unlocked by the hero supermen and women of the Soviet Union.

Mama used to be particularly delighted by the fact that if you come in the front entrance of VDNH, the buildings start out being to really grand things like electromagnetic engineering! Armenia! And space!

Armenian pavilion VDNH VDNKh Moscow

And then work their way to the back with the more modest structures where it’s all pigs! Meat! And honey!

meat production pavilion VDNH VDNKh Moscow

She found out later that the agriculture section is where it all started, so it’s not surprising that it is curiously well represented if less epic in scope than later offerings.

A tad tasteless, too, given that this part was begun not long after a large number of people had starved to death due to the famine brought about at least in part by Soviet agricultural policies.

Told you it’s representative.

Today there are over 500 permanent buildings, 49 of which have been designated as listed buildings.

Pavilion at VDNH Moscow

What that means is that it has a very very big territory. Mama is itching to suggest that out of all the World Exhibition Great Fairs, Moscow’s is probably the biggest in some way, but she has no evidence to back this up. Wikipedia does say that the area is larger than the whole of the principality of Monaco though, so that’s something, right?

Belarus pavilion vdnh vdnkh Moscow

Anyway. Up until the dying days of the Soviet Union, VDNH (VDNKh), as the name suggests it ought to, did indeed host actual exhibitions, conferences and scientific meetings and so on. As well as being a pleasant spot for your average Muscovite to come and stroll around and have popular music piped to them over the outdoor loud hailer system, while eating ice cream and boggling at the architectural masterpieces.

Architectural detail at VDNH VDNKh Moscow

Then came the 90s, and the buildings were leased out to a random collection of ramshackle hawkers. The whole place became like a large, well-appointed and peculiarly eclectic pound shop. You could buy anything in the way of random tat here from one of the huge number of higgaldy piggaldy stalls crammed into every available corner in every possible building. Mama’s favourite find was a two dollar double bass bow. No it wasn’t a music specialist shop at all. They also sold plastic cutlery, cheap alarm clocks, tea and clothes.

So, in fact, also very representative, this time of the 90s in Russia. Rampant but basically ill-conceived capitalism.

They still piped out the latest hits around the park though, and if you weren’t to be lured inside by the thought of browsing for a new fridge, a pot plant and a bottle of not-best Crimean champagne, it was still worth going for the vast number of outdoor side shows and fairground attractions, as well as the large number of barbecued meat stalls.

And then all that changed. Since 2014, the governance of the area has been taken firmly back by the Moscow city authorities, who have evicted the kiosk holders and started a major overhaul of what were increasingly crumbling pavilions.

Today it is home to permanent spectacles you may even want to visit, such as the Moskvarium aquarium, the Polytechnic Museum’s not very temporary anymore exhibition, the Museum of Illusions, the Russia, My History multimedia extravaganza*, and the City Farm.

VDNH (VDNKh) puts on more and more performances, art exhibitions and the like every year, and there’s also space now for really large events such as comic conventions, travel shows, education fairs and lift exhibitions.

And, of course, it has a giant skating rink in winter, sports an urban beach in summer and is the backdrop for some of Moscow’s better firework displays on major holidays.

ice skating vdnh moscow

There is even a thriving equestrian centre. You can go on a tour of the stables, ride a horse or just hang around and watch people putting their steeds through their paces!

horses at the equestrian centre vdnh moscow

The next phase of renovations has just kicked in, and, once again, mirrors the re-beautification of all of Moscow under the current Mayor. This phase will see, among other things, the particularly large and fabulous Space pavilion totally revamped and, if Mama understands correctly, the collection from the current Cosmonautics Museum may well be moving there when it’s finished.

The current museum is too small, apparently. Mama is biting her tongue in an effort not to giggle, but not succeeding very well.

This does mean that an awful lot of things are swathed in scaffolding right now or being dug up, so if you visit this summer, the place will not be looking at its most impressive. But in a year or so’s time, wheeeee!

Restoration at VDNH Moscow

It’s hard, and it’s particularly hard for Mama, who loves the place, to think of any down side to this, aside from the ever-present tension between public spending on the cosmetic upkeep of a city versus pumping extra cash into the welfare and social support system. At least VDNH (VDNKh) is a space that can be enjoyed by all.

Even with the debate about the appropriacy of keeping public memorials to historical regimes or figures which now represent ideals or behaviours we condemn, the thing about the sort of Soviet propaganda which VDNH (Veh. Deh. eN. Kh) is a particularly large example of, is that it celebrates human achievements which are largely positive.

This fountain, for example, which is portraying the gold-covered harmony in which all Soviet peoples lived may not be terribly accurate, but it’s not as if it isn’t something that should be true.

Friendship of Nations Fountain VDNH VDNKh Moscow

There are undoubtedly some difficult corners – Mama finds the statues to the children who denounced their parents for unSoviet behaviour disturbing round what used to be the pavilion celebrating children and childhood – but broadly speaking it is good to have a vision of humanity to aspire to sometimes, as well as reminders of when we have failed to live up to that.

And if you just simply and purely want to see a bit of Soviet kitsch, which isn’t really that much in evidence in the Kremlin and Red Square, then this is the place to come.

Soviet detailing VDNH Moscow

Mama does rather mourn the disappearance of her favourite by the glass wine bar (bar snacks included blue cheese on sticks and olives. Mama is so seventies, yeah?). But luckily they still play you cheesy pop songs over the loudspeakers, which Mama thinks has probably always been the best bit.

Nonsense, Mama. It’s the actual rocket, the real life space shuttle and the cosmos themed playground that’s the best bit.

Rocket space shuttle and playground at VDNH Moscow

All in all VDNH (or VDNKh. Do have a go at the rasp) is not something to miss out if you are ever in Moscow, and if you live here there is plenty to keep you coming back and back.

*Actually, don’t go to Russia My History. No, really, you have been warned.

More information

The park’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Millenium Dome, mediocrity on a colossal scale.

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

Admission to the territory is free.

By public transport: The VDNKh (VDNH) station is on the orange line and you will go in through the rather splendid front gates. You can also come in the back by getting off at Botanichisky Sad (the orange line, and also the new Moscow Central Circle Line) and if you don’t want to walk, there’s a shuttle minibus that takes you from this station into the very heart of VDNH too. There are also numerous tram, trolleybus and bus routes going past the park.

By car: Car parks exist.

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VDNH in Moscow is a Soviet exhibtition space full of architectural masterpieces

MummyTravels
Untold Morsels

The Moscow Central Circle Railway Line

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

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

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

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

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

Lastochka Moscow Central Circle Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Station Moscow Central Circle Line

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

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

Freight train Moscow Central Circle Line

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

Worker and Collective Farm Worker

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

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

ZIL Moscow Central Circle Line

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

Moscow City from the Central Circle Line

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

Street art Moscow Central Cricle Line

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

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

More information

The railway’s official page.

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

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

Operating hours: 5.30am to 1am

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Going round and rournd Moscow on the Central Circle Line

MummyTravels
Suitcases and Sandcastles

54 floors above Moscow City aka the International Business Center is a very high place indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

Imperia Tower Mercury City Tower and Evolution Tower Moscow City

Obviously.

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

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

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

Moscow City International Business Center

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

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

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

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

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

The most orange building?

City of Capitals Moscow City

The blockiest?

City of Capitals Moscow City

The twistiest?

City of Capitals Imperia Tower Evolution Tower Moscow City

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

Except the amazing view, of course.

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

View from Imperia Tower Moscow City

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

Looking down from Imperia Tower Moscow City

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

It’s the drive to impress elderly Soviet ladies.

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

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

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

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

Federation Tower and Mercury City Tower Moscow City

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

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

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

More Information

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

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

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

Address: Presnenskaya Naberezhnaya, Moscow, 123317

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

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

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Looking down on Moscow City

 

Travel Loving Family
Wander Mum

Inchcolm Island and the Forth Bridge by boat

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

Forth Bridge and Forth Road Bridge

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

Forth Bridge in the Rain

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

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

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

Boat Trip to Inchcolm Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seals around Inchcolm Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inchcolm Abbey from the water

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

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

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

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

Seagulls on Inchcolm Island

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

Seagulls and the abbey on Inchcolm Island

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

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

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

More Information

Forth Boat Tours.

Maid of the Forth boat trips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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