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

MummyTravels

Warts and All at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum in Ely

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver Cromwell's House in Ely

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

Peter the Great springs immediately to mind.

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

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

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

He did have tiny hands though.

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

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

The kitchen at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum

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

Dressing up and helmets at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum

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

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

Popular support is very useful for a head of state.

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

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

Which I listened to.

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

Poor girl.

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

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

Mama does not consider this a mindset to admire.

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

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

Voting Oliver Cromwell House Museum

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

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

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

So where are we?

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

That’s not villainy. But is it heroism?

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

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

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

Warts and All Oliver Cromwell

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

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

Death Oliver Cromwell House Museum

More information

The museum’s website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tin Box Traveller
Wander Mum

Puttering away at Mr Mulligan’s Lost World Golf Stevenage, Herts, UK

Mama had never actually been round a themed mini golf course before she went to one at the Stevenage Leisure Park. Or indeed any golf course, barring a foray or two into a very basic pitch and putt back in the 70s. Possibly because she has no natural ball control skills and doesn’t aspire to be president of any given country. Or maybe because she actually likes walking in the countryside, and doesn’t require any further excuse. But I think it is because she spent some of her yoof working as a waitress at a golf club, which turned out to be a lot less interesting than you might expect.

However, this mini golf experience is called Mr Mulligan’s Lost World Golf, which sounds positively thrilling, and it was recommended to Mama as coming quite high up on the list of things to do in Stevenage with children that they actively enjoy, so she decided to give it a whirl.

It was probably raining, after all.

But beyond being a wet weather indoor venue, it is indeed really cooooooool!

There are two courses, which is sensible given that you want everybody in car driving distance of Stevenage to visit more than once a year. One involved dinosaurs and one was a deep sea experience. We chose the fishy one. And away we went.

Shipwreck Mr Mulligan’s Lost World Golf Stevenage

We were very very bad at it. Mama swiftly abandoned any thought of marking our scores on the handy card they had given us with our equipment. Being bad at it, however, did not dampen our enthusiasm in any way.

The course, in fact, is carefully designed to get a balance between pleasing the people who have developed a bit of skill in this sort of game and so require a measure of golfing challenge in the form of slightly tilted greens or oddly placed bumps, and pleasing Mama, who is going to take thirty-five shots just to get the ball anywhere near to the hole no matter how flat it is and therefore requires a bit of non-putting related diversion to keep her interested.

mini golf course Mr Mulligan’s Lost World Golf Stevenage

This meant some holes saw Mama surreptitiously nudging the ball into a good position on the edge of the sunken cup with her foot so that we could just. Get. Past. It.

Others we lingered over because there were piratical props to exclaim arrr at, constructions which first swallowed and then spat our ball out in an impressively random but brisk manner no matter how weakly we hit them in there, or because they were liberally splattered with luminous paint and lit with ultra violet light. Mama abandoned the game entirely for a bit in favour of photographing us cuddling a bright pink octopus at that point.

Octopus Mr Mulligan’s Lost World Golf Stevenage

That said, if Mama is really honest, she felt that the people who enjoy golf had won the design fight over the people who want to see an anamatronic shark try to savage their ball before it disappears into an endlessly opening and closing whale mouth while a robot Captain Sparrow rolls ineptly past, all clattering braids and fluttering hands. Sort of thing.

I think she has probably watched too many American movies which involve people taking part in crazy golf games where the sets are designed to look good rather than be actually playable. If she were really forced to try to get her ball past the rotating sails of a windmill, for example, we would almost certainly still be there.

Shark Mr Mulligan’s Lost World Golf Stevenage

You can book a slot for your round online, or turn up and take a chance that every other family with children hasn’t decided to choose this way of entertaining the children on a damp Sunday afternoon. We went at a decidedly off peak time, so we had no issues with waiting either when we arrived or because we were faster than people doing the course in front of us.

As it was, we whiled away a very pleasant mini golf afternoon at Mr Mulligan’s Lost World Golf and then at the end there was a cafe where we had ice cream, and which serves beer and all sorts if you are a bit older. Personally I am good with the whole experience and will be taking Mama back again whenever we visit Stevenage next.

I wonder if any of us will have improved in the meantime?

More information

Stevenage’s page on the website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the ‘Golf Sale’ placard phenomenon. 

Address: 3q, Stevenage Leisure Park, Gunnels Wood Rd, Stevenage, Hertfordshire, SG1 2UA

Opening: It varies a bit but either 10/11am to 10pm or midnight.

Admission: For one round of mini golf it’s adults 8.25 GBP and kids under twelve 5.25 GBP, or 2 GBP for the under 3s. There’s a discount if you book two games, and you can also get a family ticket.

Getting there: The Stevenage Leisure Park in has ample parking (some might say it;s a giant car park, with attractions and eateries dotted about), and this is free. Stevenage is situated on the A1(M) motorway out of London.

Stevenage railway station is about five minutes away oer a little bridge, and that takes you into Kings Cross London, or all the way up to Edinburgh.

Luton and Stanstead airports aren’t that far, and there’s a helipad via the Novotel on the outskirts of town.

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Mr Mulligan''s Lost World Golf in Stevenage Herts UK

Flying With A Baby

Lavender’s blue at Hitchin Lavender Farm, Hertfordshire

Outdoor activities are hard to predict in any country. In Russia, you may think you are going to get a guaranteed couple of months of minus 15 and tons of snow, and then find that it’s March and you still haven’t had suitable climatic conditions for a proper go at outdoor skating. Or that it’s barely mid November and the snow drifts are up to your hips before the leaves have finished turning yellow, scuppering the last opportunity for walks in the countryside to inhale the delightfully dank smell of rotting leaves and hunt the wily mushroom entirely.

In the UK, of course, the problem is usually rain. Certainly was this last year gone, wasn’t it? Says Mama who abandoned the (typical) heat of a Moscow summer to spend July in a jumper in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. Although she’ll admit it picked up a bit there at the end. Briefly.

So we were lucky that the day we went to Hitchin Lavender Farm was actually very pleasant. I believe we may have made do with a light cardigan or something.

Lavender at Hitchin Lavender Farm

Now, I’ll be honest, I was expecting the fields of lavender to be a tad more extensive than one admittedly quite large one round the back of the outbuildings, which just goes to show that you can take the girl out of Russia…

But this almost certainly means that it is a more suitable small person rambling space that the average country walk Mama takes us on if she has half a chance. Especially as instead of expecting me, the city girl, to glory in the variety of trees, grass, the occasional bird sighting and fifteen different varieties of nettle, at Hitchin Lavender Farm you get to wield scissors in earnest in order to cut enough of the smelly blue sticks to fill a few bags to take home with you.

Lavender rows at Hitchin Lavender Farm Hertfordshire

Although I found that a bit difficult, unfortunately. My fingers as yet are insufficiently muscly. As a result Mama and the Grandparents’ determination to stop every few paces and gather more, just a bit more, and yes, a bit more sweetie pie, got a bit old rather quickly. You’ve sniffed one lavender bush, you’ve sniffed them all in my opinion.

Except that this is not true, says an excited Mama, for whom finding out anything new is always a pleasure. Must be her age, because I, personally, was much more jaded about the realisaiton that while the lavender on this side was pretty, the lavender on that side was much more fragrant. You can also imagine her delight in the discovery that photographed from this angle, the boring but stinky flowers looked a rather dull grey, but from the other side of the field the purple highlights showed up much better. It’s lovely to see Mama’s little face light up. Big up to one of Hitchin Lavender Farm’s workers for pointing that out to us.

The smelly lavender Hitchin Lavender Farm Hertfordshire

There is white lavender too!!! Exclamation marks definitely Mama’s.

The adults also enjoyed looking at the view from the top of the field, and admiring the red poppies mixed in with the blue.

Lavender and Poppies at Hitchin Lavender Farm Hertfordshire

I really think they need to get out more.

But Mama brought out the sandwiches at this point so the day improved significantly for me, and Grandad revealed he had coffee, so Mama was also thrilled. Again.

My Twitchy Big Brother liked chasing the swifts (or possibly swallows) who swooped obliging round the giant tent at the bottom of the hill.

Tent Hitchin Lavender Farm Hertfordshire

And, grudgingly, I am prepared to admit that the fact that Hitchin Lavender Farm has HORSES is also pretty cool, especially as they were very happy to let me stroke their noses!

Horses Hitchin Lavender Farm Hertfordshire

And yet more small girl pleasing experiences were to come in the shape of the play area next to the cafe, which didn’t just have climbing equipment outside, but also model farm buildings, animals and toy transport items to buzz around under cover. There was lavender flavoured shortbread too. Mmmmmmmmmmmm. Says everyone.

All in all, Hitchin Lavender Farm is not a day out, more of an afternoon. And it’s only open in the summer months, and the lavender doesn’t come into full flower until mid June. Which means you should make haste to visit when it is open! Because if you fancy a lunching spot with a difference near Stevenage in July, this will definitely do it for you, even if you are dodging rain showers.

More information

The farm’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about ideas for a small herb garden.

Address: Cadwell Farm, Ickleford, Hitchin, Hertfordshire, SG5 3UA

Opening: Hitchin Lavender Farm is closed from the beginning of September until the beginning of June. Opening hours are 10am to 5pm. The flowering season begins in mid June.

Admission: Adult 5GBP, Kids 1GBP, under 5s free. Picking rights included in the price.

Getting there: You’ll need a car for this one. It’s not far off the A1M. Detailed instructions on the website.

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A family day out at the Hitchin Lavender Farm in Hertfordshire is fragrant, colourful and has lavender flavoured shortbread.

Plutonium Sox

Tring Natural History Museum, Hertfordshire

It is a truth universally acknowledged that in the UK, London has all the best stuff worth visiting, with just a few lesser, obviously compensatory, projects mopped up by either the other larger British cities or the National Trust, at least until the capital figures out how to fit those in and insists on bringing them home too.

Which does not explain the existence of Tring Natural History Museum as it is in none of these locations.

Interesting Mammals at Tring Natural History Museum

Tring is a modest collection of dwellings at the other end of Hertfordshire to the one that Mama calls her hometown. It is principally famous for being the location of Mama’s uncle’s house for many years, for having an excellent running club, a canal, the 7th longest comedy festival in the world, a Co-op, a Tesco AND a Marks and Spencer (according to Wikipedia), and for being one of two possible birthplaces of the great-grandfather of the first president of the United States of America.

It was also a home of the Rothschild family, one of whom closely resembled my Zero Empathy Big Brother in both his passion for animals and his determination from a young age to catch as many of them as he could and keep them, alive or dead, it doesn’t really matter, in his house for his own gratification serious scientific study. Unlike my Zero Empathy Big Brother, being both Victorian and fabulously rich, this is precisely what Walter Rothschild actually did when he grew up, and the resulting collection of stuffed animals passed in the fullness of time to the nation and became known as Tring Natural History Museum (affiliated to the one in London).

Sadly his zebra drawn carriage, or at least the zebra drawn carriage with actual zebras attached, did not make it to the modern age, which is strange. I thought museums were short of funding these days. Imagine the prices you could charge for rides round Tring in that!

Anyway. Despite the fact that my Great Uncle mentioned Tring Natural History Museum to us a number of times when we saw him, we were generally too busy admiring his tortoise to bother visiting, and it was not until we needed a wet weather place to hang out during our recent Christmas visit to Stevenage that we actually got around to going.

This delay in checking it out may have been a mistake.

The thing is, just as having a pet is supposed to help children get their heads around the concept that animals are actual real beings of value as well as introduce the concepts of caring, responsibility and cleaning poo off everything in preparation for having their own children, there really is a lot to be said for being confronted in person by the sheer variety, the spectacular beauty, and the breathtaking unlikeliness of the animal world.

Delicate balancing act that, and in many ways stuffed animals are better than zoos for this. You can cram a lot into a small space, boggling opportunities therefore abound, nobody worries about how many square metres are the minimum for comfortable living for an elephant, or whether that rocking motion means the bear has gone mad with the boredom of it all, and, best of all, none of the livestock are going to go off and skulk at the back of their enclosure and refuse to come out until we are gone.

Plus, at Tring Natural History Museum there are animal-themed fancy dress costumes and a fascinating video of someone committing taxidermy, with none of the gory bits left out.

At small child eye level.

Taxidermy Video at Tring Natural History Museum

We gathered round it and refused to move until the last drop of blood had been wiped off the scalpel.

It was FABULOUS.

And surprisingly nobody had nightmares, not even Mama.

In addition, we may not consider hunting animals down and dragging their decomposing bodies back to admire on our mantelpiece quite the thing these days, but that doesn’t stop many more of us than just the super rich exploiting the natural world for our own amusement, and the Tring Natural History Museum is a good place to contemplate the consequences of letting your enthusiasms get the better of you at the expense of the greater good.

Especially as this message that this sort of behaviour is hardly all in the past is underlined by the notices telling visitors that the rhino horns on display are all fake, so nobody should contemplate trying to steal them.

Fake rhino horn at Tring Natural History Museum

Which, apparently, someone did once. WT actual F. Says Mama.

All of these animals are housed in the splendid Victorian building Walter Rothschild had built to house the largest private collection of stuffed animals ever assembled. This makes it tall rather than wide, and our first top tip is to head straight up to the top floor while everyone else starts at the bottom.

You will briefly have the place to yourselves, although this will not stop the bottom floor from being absolutely rammed by the time you get to it. Tring Natural History Museum is clearly (and deservedly) a favoured hangout for those with kids in inclement weather and people will be arriving all the time.

Antelope with a big nose at Tring Natural History Museum

This means that it is great that the cases are decidedly families-with-small-children friendly, coming straight down to the floor with plenty of interest at all eye-levels. Big up to the forethought of our Victorian forefathers there.

Who also appreciated the delight of a good set of drawers set round the gallery overlooking the ground floor. Admittedly these are a bit higher up, but Mama had just been eating for Christmas so the effort did her good. Butterflies! Shiny beetles! Cockroaches! Coool!

If you like your animals bigger, there is plenty for you to look at too, with crowd-pleasers like a polar bear front and centre.

Polar Bear at Tring Natural Hisotry Museum

That said, I think it was the more unusual looking animals that caught our eyes, and there are plenty of those too.

Vampire Deer at Tring Natural History Museum

The only downside is that you will want to be leaving the pushchairs and such like in the car. Quite apart from anything else, the queues for the lifts will annoy you, but mainly it’s because it’s all a bit narrow and crowded.

Another suggestion is to either bring your own sarnies – there is a lunch room in the car park – or plan to eat out somewhere in the town (the High Street is just a short walk down the road), as the café is quite small and mainly set up for coffee and snacks rather than anything more substantial.

But there is parking! We arrived at the beginning of the day and caught the last two parking spaces in the museum’s very own FREE car park. It’s a busy place on a wet winter holiday day, is Tring Natural History Museum. Not to worry though. There are other (reasonably priced. It’s not London after all) car parks not far away in Tring proper.

Of course, any display of stuffed animals is going to garner the inevitable comparisons (from my besotted Mama) to the Darwin Museum in Moscow, and we may as well get it out the way up front that is not quite as extensive and therefore as fabulous as that.

Rams at Tring Natural History Museum

It is, however, the closest we have found in the UK to the world’s best museum so far, and therefore if you are not planning to hop across to the other end of Europe any time soon, it will have to do.

And it certainly will do. Its London-deficient status notwithstanding.

More Information

The museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the resurrection of George Washington.

Address: The Walter Rothschild building, Akeman Street, Tring, Hertfordshire, HP23 6AP

Opening: 10am – 5pm Monday – Saturday, 2pm – 5pm Sundays.

Admission: Free

Public Transport: Trains exist out of London from Clapham Junction. The station is about two miles from Tring Natural History Museum. There are buses.

By Car: See above re the parking! Tring is on the A41 about 30 miles from London. You want junction 20 of the M25.

ANIMALTALES

Welwyn Roman Baths, Hertfordshire

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

Welwyn Roman Baths entrance
What is behind door number 3?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman board game at Welwyn Roman Baths
Hours of fun!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information

Welwyn Roman Baths internet page.

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

Address: Welwyn Bypass, Hertfordshire, AL6 9FG

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

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

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

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

Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, UK

Driving through the eastern side of England is a very odd experience. This is because many of the roads stick up out of the surrounding fields. It’s like driving along the top of a wall. Wheeeee! Mama says the land has shrunk. The water has been drained out of it. Sounds about right. My nappy certainly gets much bigger and heavier as the night goes on.

Wicken Fen is an exception to this. Preserved in its more original waterlogged state by the National Trust, it is a haven for wildlife, fascinatingly reddy brown water, reedbeds full of tall waving fluffy ended grass called sedge and people wanting to get out for a nice walk in the open air. Like us and Granny and Grandad.

The Fen at Wicken Fen
Sedge!

Wicken Fen has a number of different trails suitable for all walking styles, inclinations and abilities, but after a period of relentless damp they were keen for us not to do the squishiest one because of the time it would take for the path to recover from the hordes of our fellow half termers enjoying the first glimpse of sun for ages. Despite Mama actually remembering our wellies for once!

Since fens practically define the word squishy when it comes to the texture of the ground underfoot, this could have proved tricky for our stated aims for the day. Luckily, the team there have planned for what could possibly be a fairly regular occurrence, and built a 1.2 km boardwalk path, which lifts you right out of the water but allows you to roam quite extensively around the wetland. It also has the advantage of being wheelchair, pushchair and small legs accessible.

Boardwalk at Wicken Fen
No mud at all!

This route takes in what are presumably some of the highlights of the place. There are two windmills, both a traditional one for pumping water out of the surrounding area, and a more modern one for putting it back should the British summer surpass itself when what you want is to foster a particularly damp wildlife habitat.

Windmill at Wicken Fen
Windmill!

There are also two hides, both of which proved to be good value for bird spotting. The first looks out over a number of feeding stations which were teeming with small birds. Goldfinches? Greenfinches? Chaffinches? Collared doves? A good variety of tits? This hide had them all and probably a few more I have already forgotten. Much excitement. Helpfully, there are pictures on the back wall so that you can look up any species that elude you.

We also saw a rat. Or possibly a vole. Opinion was divided. Either way, that was thrilling too.

The second hide looked out over the reed beds, and was a bit dull at first. Until, that is, a huge form heaved itself up into the sky and flapped this way and that for a few minutes. Mama thought it was a heron, a bird we see often on the Thames, although she was a bit puzzled about where the legs and stabby beak were. My Brilliant Big Brother scoffed his rejection outright, and a spirited discussion ensued until Granny sided with him. Granny knows about birds.

That, Granny said, is a marsh harrier.

Having spotted a few other hawklike hovering birds of prey on the journey to the Fen we were duly impressed by the massive step up in size of this one. Mama wonders what it eats. Small children, perhaps?

Or a montjac deer? Which we also saw. As frequent frequenters of Richmond ‘the poo’ Park, you would think we were a bit over deer, but this one was soooooo small and cute! I hope the marsh harrier didn’t spot it.

Actually, even if you can’t see the birds, you can hear them and it was very noticable how different the calls coming from the fen are from the urban song birds, cooing pigeons, croaking rooks, and squabbling magpies we usually listen to. And no sqwarking green parrots either, which has got to be a bonus.

Sadly, the animal interest was mostly confined to the first half of the walk. If the damper trails are more accessible, you can make it out to the loomingly large birdwatching towers at the back of the Wicken Fen reserve and try your luck further there. I am also assured by local Claire of Mud and Nettles that wild pony sightings are a regular occurrence on the much longer walk on the other side of the river, which must be BEYOND COOL!

As it was we had a look at the open water channel the National Trust runs boat trips round in the sunnier months and then headed fairly briskly down the back straight to the tea room. Which also had a small play area of woven living willow dens and numerous children to hang out with. Result!

Play area at Wicken Fen
Den!

Next door to this, there is an indoor Visitors Centre where you can pick up scavanger trails, do some crafting or look at a variety of items from the fen under microscopes.

After we had all fortified ourselves in different ways, with coffee, cake or recreational fun, we went off to have a look at the traditional Wicken Fen worker’s workshop and cottage. The workshop was pretty cool, with its boat, it’s wickerworked items, photographs of the fen dwellers of old doing baffling fen dwelling things, and satisfyingly gruesome decorations in the skulls of different small fen animals the fen dwelling humans had killed.

Workshop at Wicken Fen
Wicker!

The cottage itself was not officially open, but the very kind volunteers invited us in anyway and told us all about it.

Cottage at Wicken Fen
Cottage!

The fact that it was pre season probably made it a more authentically dank experience than normal, and Mama found it a bit depressing, especially when added to the story of how diphtheria ravaged the children of the cottage in one horrible week. Central heating, electricity, large windows and inside toilets, Mama says, have a lot to recommend them. Although she also says it was a shame that Papa was not there to find out that the British can make efficient ovens with chimneys designed to retain heat rather than funnel it straight out of the house as quickly as possible when they really want to make bread.

Last stop on the way back to the car park was the chicken run, and so, topped up with animal sightings once again, and let loose on the muddly puddles in the carpark to boot, we ended the day triumphant.

Chickens at Wicken Fen
Chickens!

All in all, Wicken Fen is good for a run around in a variety of different weather conditions, and suitable for all members of the family. It’s great. And we’ll be back when the sun has dried up the soggy paths a bit more.

And, of course, so we can see the horses!!!

More Information

Wicken Fen on the National Trust’s website.

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

Address: Lode Lane, Wicken, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 5XP

Opening: The fen is open from dawn to dusk year round. The rest of the facilities are available 10 – 5, except the cottage, which is open a bit later between mid March and mid October.

Admission: Adult: £7.15, child: £3.50, family: £17.75. National Trust members are FREE.

By car: There is a large parking area close by. Free to National Trust members, £2.50 to everybody else. The fen is south of Wicken (A1123), 3 miles west of Soham (A142), 9 miles south of Ely, and 17 miles north-east of Cambridge via A10.

By train or bus: Ely is 9 miles away. That appears to be your lot a far as public transport is concerned.

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

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

– Charles Dickens on Stevenage.

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

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

Stevenage Museum entrance

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

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

Vincent motorbike at Stevenage Museum

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

Shopping List at Stevenage Museum

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

The coming of the railways at Stevenage Museum

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

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

Ahem. Where were we?

Medieval house building at Stevenage Museum

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

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

Coin rubbing at Stevenage Museum

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

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

New town debate at Stevenage Museum

I preferred the full-sized 1950s play kitchen.

1950s kitchen at Stevenage Museum

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

Audio trail at Stevenage Museum

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

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

More information

Stevenage Museum’s website.

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

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

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

Admission: Free.

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

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

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

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

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

Pin for later?

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

Church Farm, Ardeley, Hertfordshire

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

Piglets at Chruch Farm Ardeley

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

Cows at Chruch Farm Ardeley

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

Or, rather, trudge. Endlessly.

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

Feeding the pigs at Chruch Farm Ardeley

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

Poultry at Chruch Farm Ardeley

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

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

MUD at Chruch Farm Ardeley

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

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

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

A scarecrow at Chruch Farm Ardeley

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

UPDATE

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

More Information

Church Farm, Ardeley’s website.

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

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

Admission: It’s FREE to get in.

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

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

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

Paradise Wildlife Park, Broxbourne, Hertfordshire

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

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

Lemur at Paradise Wildlife Park

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

Zebra at Paradise Wildlife Park

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

White tiger at Paradise wildlife Park

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

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

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

Feeding the tigers at Paradise Wildlife Park

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

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

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

Bouncy castle at Paradise Wildlife Park

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

Train at Paradise Wildlife park

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

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

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

Red pandas at Paradise Wildlife Park

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

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

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

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

More Information

Paradise Wildlife Park’s website.

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

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

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

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

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

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