Gorky Park in Moscow is not what you think (probably)

Mama was recently startled to find that despite her best efforts on Instagram, at least two of her UK-specific friends seem to have a very Soviet view of the centre of Moscow. Don’t they know that the monumentally ugly Rossiya hotel was pulled down and is now the most hipster of hipstery parks IN THE WORLD?

For example.

We now have trees and specially widened pavements on what used to be an unrelievedly grim multi-lane highway, Tverskaya Street, barreling down to Red Square.

The massive pedestrianisation project of the rest of Central Moscow is almost complete.

Cafe culture, albeit strictly in the spring and summer months, is a thing (in the winter it’s all outdoor skating rinks, light shows and street parties).

Not only this, but you can hire not only bikes but, god love us all, scooters, the better to idly tool your way round the leafy, flower-infested boulevards, past the restored facades of pre-twentieth century mansion houses, factory buildings and churches, or around the ponds. As well as gasp at the monumental Soviet architectural doorway architecture, constructivist balconies and such like.

At night, it’s all lit up!

And at any given moment you are very likely to find the whole of central Moscow putting on some kind of festival. New Year, spring, jam, history, fish, teachers, singing, war – we celebrate them all.

I’ll grant you that some of the residential tower blocks in the suburbs are a bit grim. But if the Moscow Mayor gets his way, many of these are not long for this world either. Of course, this demolition project has prompted the Guardian to publish a series of articles explaining how these are not monstrous carbuncles with inconveniently small kitchens, out of date wiring, inadequate sewage systems and nowhere to put a washing machine, but charmingly well thought out residencies and one of the pinnacles of communist social and engineering achievements, which all the former Soviet states were lucky to benefit from. Why oh why would anyone think of pulling them down? And rehousing the inhabitants!

Although they are right about the fact that the replacement of the generously sized leafy courtyards and five floor blocks with 24-story high rises and concrete forecourts is less than ideal. And that this has proved a lot less popular with Muscovites than perhaps Sobyanin was expecting. Possibly because in addition to the loss of pleasant surroundings, the developers and city hall have also found a clever dodge so that the city government does not have to keep its infrastructure provision in line with the proposed quadrupling of residents.

However.

As a result, Mama is of the mind that perhaps y’all have entirely the wrong picture of Gorky Park, Moscow’s most famous outdoor space in your heads. Which is a shame.

In the foreground on the left are some spiky palm leaves. On the right some formal flowerbeds made from low clipped bushes and some deep red flowers. In the background is a rectangular white stone structure. Two pillars and six pairs of columns hold up a roof of the gateway to Gorky Park in Moscow. It is a bright sunny day and the sky is blue.

So what is Gorky Park like?

In summer, you can lounge around on the free cushions, benches and other seating admiring the flowers.

Selection of white, pink, yellow and red flowers in close up
A circular flowerbed with a swirly pattern made of different coloured flowers, especially red. In the middle an urn made of a clipped bush rather than stone rises up, with spiky leaves growing out of the top. The flowerbed is surrounded by trees and benches, and there are people sitting or walking around it.

Or you can hire all sorts of modes of personal transport: bikes, scooters, tandems and so on and enjoy a lengthy run along the Moscow River embankment.

A white structure holds bikes for hire. Hanging from the ceiling are some skateboards and scooters. On some shelves to the left are roller skates. Two people are talking to the assistant in the centre. They are dressed mostly in white and the assistant has a yellow T short on. In the background are trees. The sky is blue.

Or get a pedalo and drift around the lakes (there are two).

A pond surrounded by some reeds with some pedalos drifting around it. There is a small arched bridge and trees in the background, as well as a sculpture of white boxes stood on one another in a 3x3 grid

You can take part in other sports too, with a beach volleyball area, and plenty of free outdoor yoga classes and the like.

A group of men are bunched under a basket ball hoop, looking up. Another man to the left in green shorts has shot, and the ball is about to go though the hoop. Other players are distributed around the court. A spectator watches from the side. In the background there are people playing beach volleyball in swimming costumes on an artificial beach in Gorky Park.
To the left there is a red stage with Reebock written over it. On stage people in exercise gear demonstrate moves. In front of the stage, some people in aerobics gear are copying them, while others watch. They all have their back to the camera. It is a rainy day, and everyone is dressed for that weather.

There are children’s play areas, which are pretty cool no matter what the weather.

In the Gorky Park playground there is a large wooden blue cruise liner style ship, slighly heeling to one side as if sinking. There are handholds so children can climb the sides and lots of small round portholes because you can climb inside and look out. At the back is a large white sphere, which you can also climb inside and a round red pipe. In the foreground are some wooden steps in the form of waves to climb over or sit on. In the background there are trees without any leaves on.
Behind some bushes there is an area with swings set in a circle suspended from white metal frames. Some of the swings are traditional, some are less so. You can see adults, teenagers and kids in the swinging equipment. In the foreground are some bushes and in the background a concrete building with lots of windows.

Food and drink stalls, cafes and restaurants abound.

There are five food stalls. The signs are all in Cyrillic. The nearest has tea urns with bread snacks a bit like pretzels handing. Stallholders are busy preparing food or standing looking out. One customer is leaning on the stall and chatting to the stallholders. It has been raining and the customers are wearing warm coats, hats and boots.

And! There is a dancing fountain!

In the foreground are spikey blue and white flowers and in the background, out of focus, a fountain arcs water straight up, left and right. A man is looking at it with his back to the camera.

In winter the whole place turns into a giant outdoor ice rink. It’s not quite as big as the one out at VDNKh usually is, but it’s just as cool.

You can also climb on top of the entrance gates to a viewing platform. And visit Gorky Park’s very own museum (it’s on our list. Obviously).

The Gorky Park gateway from underneath. You can se white stone columns on either side and sandy coloured stone above, with large round indentations cur into the stone. The sky is a strong blue colour to either side.

There is even a highly regarded modern art gallery, Garage, to look round.

Delicate blue, purple and white flowers with on tall thin stems with frothy frondy leaves in the foreground. In the background are some trees and grass surrounded by paths, and behind that a silver rectangular building that is Garage art gallery.

And an observatory.

Partially hidden by trees is a small cylindrical red and white building with a shiny silver metal dome that the sunlight is bouncing off. In the foreground there is long grass and a plant with bushy broad leaves. There are some white globe lamps dotted around, close to the ground.

Gorky Park always gets in on any of the big city wide celebrations happening in Moscow, so it’s a definite place to consider going if you want to join in.

Two men and a woman stand around a small forge next to the Moscow River in Gorky Park. The woman is looking down, with her hood up and her hands in the pocket of her coat and operating bellows with her foot. A man opposite her is smiling and holding a long metal rod in the fire. He has on a beanie hat and a cagoule and some gloves. The other man stands between them with his hands in the pockets of his trousers, looking at the fire. He is wearing a hoody and a bodywarmer.
There are a whole bunch of people climbing over tanks parked on the embankment of the Moscow river in Gorky Park
Two large men have picked up a large tractor tire and are carrying them in parallel in a rage. Straw bales mark the area they are racing in. Other people are standing and watching them. It is a wet day.

But you also probably don’t realise how big it is.

Neskuchny Gardens are not boring

The bit with the organised fun, the bit actually called Gorky Park, is really only the start of it.

If you amble further along you get to Neskuchny Gardens, which literally translates to ‘Not Boring Gardens’. These are the remains of the formal gardens belonging to the mansion houses of aristocrats, which after the revolution were commandeered to form the backbone of the new proletarian leisure facility.

This isn’t a mansion house though. It is a library.

A classical looking yellow and white  building with a columned frontage sits on top of a steep hill covered in brown autumn leaves. The trunk of a willow tree leans in from the left, and dangles its thin branches down from the top of the picture.

There are also grottos, statues, pleasant grassy knolls and a continuation of the embankment to continue to stroll along. Somewhere there is also a round pavilion where What? Where? When? is filmed. A quirky and very beloved TV show, it is something like what would happen if you crossed University Challenge and QI, let the participants wear evening dress and had members of the public setting the questions.

And! Mama and Papa came here for their very first date. Which seems to have worked out quite well all told.

Sparrow Hills are quite hilly and might have some sparrows

If you keep going, you will find yourself in the midst of the wooded Sparrow Hills. Through which you can walk and walk and walk, and take in this fabulous building.

It’s the Russian Federation’s Science Academy. Isn’t the architecture just perfect for an academy of sciences? And if you nip across the bridge here you can go to the Moscow Art Deco Museum.

However!

You are still not done and can continue walking though woods, next to the river, past the urban beach, which Mama does not really recommend you swim from, right round to the Luzhniki football stadium, Novodovichiy convent and Moscow City. Although you’ll have to cross the Moscow River to get to them.

Luckily, a brand new method of doing this has just started up – taking a cable car. Which doubles, in winter, as a means of getting to the inner city downhill ski run.

So, Gorky Park. Well worth a visit, especially if you are in Moscow for any length of time, in summer or winter. Not much to get back to the USSR with (you want Muzeon, just over the road, for that) but a lot of other things to see and do.

And for more information about the man behind the name, see this post.

More information

The park has its own website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Terry Pratchett, author.

Address: Krymsky Val, 9, Moscow, 119049

Admission to the park is free.

Opening: 24 hours. Allegedly.

Getting there: For the main entrance, you want either Oktyabrskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) or Park Kultury (red line). But there are a number of other entrance points, notably Vorobyovy Gory (red line), which will give you a walk through the Sparrow Hills wooded area, through Neskuchny Sad/ Not Boring Gardens and on to Gorky Park.

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VDNH, Moscow: the biggest open air ice skating rink in the WORLD

Not last winter but the winter before, we had our first ice skating experience on the open air ice rinks in Moscow, and we picked what Mama is certain is the very best, the one at VDNH. This weekend we set foot on the ice for the first time since then. VDNH was great but it turns out that falling awkwardly when you are an adult can be a lot more damaging than you might think.

Still, all better now, and Mama has decided that this is the year we will all find out ice legs properly. We are starting less ambitiously this time on one of the small local rinks. Mama managed to stay upright for a whole hour! Mainly because she shouted ‘don’t touch me!’ every time we got close. My Optimistic Big Brother fell over a lot, but remained undaunted! I insisted on a penguin, and so I got on the best of all of them. Me and my cold friend were whizzing all over the ice by the end. But if you continue reading you can find out how this differed the first time round, and why we still totally recommend this ice rink.

Mama has been putting off going ice skating on one of the open air rinks in Moscow.

She says it is because this winter has been unsatisfactory. Outdoor ice skating in Russia’s capital, she says, should be undertaken when the temperature is determinedly at minus 10 or lower, and with huge piles of snow surrounding you on all sides and, preferably, falling from above too.

We had about three weeks of that just after New Year. It was great.

Since then the thermometer has barely got below zero and while it has snowed, sometimes energetically, it has also rained quite a bit, and in Mama’s stated opinion, one should NOT have to wade through slush and one SHOULD have to put on skates to take a slide past some of the iconic sights on Red Square, VDNH, Gorky Park or similar.

This, however, is nonsense.

Mama’s real reason for not taking us ice skating was fear.

I attribute this to her twice breaking her arm aged seven due to the terribly dangerous activity of falling over a bit awkwardly while running around outside and then falling over a bit awkwardly having just recovered from the first fracture. Since then, anything that might involve falling over has not really struck her as something fun.

It’s not the anticipation of pain, it’s the anticipation of sitting staring moodily at your friends playing outside for half a year while you scratch under your plaster with a knitting needle.

Foremost among Mama’s most mistrusted sports, then, are roller skating, rollerblading, downhill skiing and ice skating. Under normal circumstances she cannot be doing with any of them.

But here we are in Moscow, Russia for the foreseeable future and outdoor ice skating is one of the things you have to do when it’s too cold to go to outdoor yoga classes. And Mama decided that the sooner we get started, the sooner we might actually get good enough to enjoy ourselves a little bit. She doesn’t want us to end up being forced to stand at the edge holding everybody else’s coats pretending we are too cool for that sort of thing because of the deficiencies of our English heritage.

Ice skating at VDNH Moscow

So there we were at the end of the ice skating season, biting the bullet and heading off towards Mama’s first choice for an ice skating venue, VDNH, which has for two years now held the title of most extensive outdoor ice skating complex in the WORLD, and has an array of striking buildings to distract you from the wobbling.

UPDATE: Still the biggest, two years later, apparently. Come on Canada, surely you can take the Russians?

Anticipation was high (me and my Optimistic Big Brother), trepidation was rampant (Mama) and it was business for usual for the man who regards outdoor winter sports as something to be endured as part of the PE programme at school (Papa).

It has to be said that for the first half of the experience, Mama was really not enjoying it, and my Increasingly Less Optimistic Big Brother and I were not far behind her.

There is a children’s rink where you can pilot some penguins around and get your ice legs, and there is also an option to hire a tutor for an hour to help you take your first steps. We, of course, did neither of these, just blithely hired the skates and flung ourselves onto the main expanse of ice, where we promptly fell over. Except Papa, who was annoyingly good.

We then spent a long long looooooooooong time, making our way round the edges of the skating track, clutching desperately at the barriers in order to stay on our feet and hating every minute of it. By the time we got to the farthest end, we were ready to go home. At which point we realised that going to the most extensive outdoor ice skating rink in the WORLD has its drawbacks and one of those is that there is a considerable way to go before you can get back to the place where you left your shoes.

Frozen fountain at VDNH Moscow

I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are exits and entrances all around, and we could probably have flagged down one of the skaters in VDNH jackets who are obviously there to make sure that all is ok with the ice and its inhabitants, but there is a not unreasonable expectation that you will at least be able to complete one circuit and so the builders of the rink do not provide you with walkways around the sides so you can stagger back overland.

There are, however, places to sit down, as well as a wealth of cafes and even toilets that you can access from the ice. And after a brief pause to loll about on one of the on-ice benches and eat oranges, things started to get better. My Suddenly More Optimistic Again Big Brother developed a style of running on ice which made him happy if not much more upright, and Mama put on her big girl pants and let go of the side rails, which meant that she and Papa could now tow me along at a glide between them, which was almost (almost) fun.

To celebrate reaching the half way point we stopped and had hot chocolate, a drink which is usually inexplicably rarer than you might expect in a country which a) is cold in winter b) likes children and c) thinks that children consuming cold drinks in anything less than 30 degrees centigrade above freezing will addle their insides.

Ice skating cafe at VDNH

Fortified by my favourite beverage, we managed to complete the final circle in style, and then Mama decided to throw caution to the winds and go round again all by herself.

And there, on the ice, sailing reasonably eptly along in the open air in a location she thinks of as one of the coolest in Moscow, Mama decided that the whole moving countries project was TOTALLY worth it. She has completed a bucket list she never new she had and the rest of her life will be downhill from here on in. Sort of thing.

Friendship of Nations Fountain in Winter at VDNH Moscow

At which point she fell over, naturally.

And then she fell over again, because she found my By Now Positively Giddy With Optimism Big Brother half way round, insisted they held hands while gliding incautiously fast, and got taken down by my Actually Protesting This Quite Loudly Big Brother and nearly wrenched her left shoulder out of its socket.

Ow.

Luckily it only took a week (actually, it was a year in the end) for her to be able to lift her arm above her head again, so it does not seem to have put her off (it totally put her off. For, you know, a bit).

Lovers Lane ice skating at VDNH

The open air ice skating at VDNH has just reopened for the 2017/2018 season, and ignoring the somewhat dull weather in these photos, Mama guarantees it will be fabulous as long as you do NOT try to hold your children’s hands once they have reached a certain age and weight category until they are actually able to skate reasonably competently. Or you are.

More Information

VDNH’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about why we slip on ice.

Address: 119, Prospect Mira, Moscow, 129223

Opening: From December to Mid March.

Price: 450 roubles to 650 roubles for adults and 200 roubles to 400 roubles for kids in 2017/2018.

By public transport: For the Metro, you want the orange line, station ‘VDNH’. If you are on the first wagon from the centre, head for the nearest exit. There are a huge number of buses, trams and trolleybuses which also stop here, and the monorail too.

By car: Actually, I reckon there is parking. Somewhere.

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VDNH Moscow has the biggest outdoor open air ice skating rink in the world and it is fabulous.

Going wild at Zaryadye Park near Red Square in Moscow

Zaryadye Park, subtitled ‘wild urbanism’ by its designers, is a wholly new park just off Red Square in Moscow, the first new park in the capital of Russia for fifty years.

There are, apparently, four different zones, to represent the different terrains of Russia, all with their own different microclimates and appropriately chosen plants, geological features, trees and so on to match.

Birch Trees New Zaryadye Park Moscow

There are also new performance spaces, one indoor built into a hill and one outdoor on top of the hill and all covered up with a fancy dome so you can sit out there even if it is raining. Not sure what they will do about the snow and the sub-zero temperatures, but I daresay you can bring your own cocoa.

Philharmonic Hall Amphitheatre New Zaryadye Park Moscow

There is going to be an underground ice cave, an underground museum of all the archaeological whatsists they found while digging the park, and an underground media centre showing wall to wall films, with surround sound, surround wind machines and surround, I dunno, smellovision about just how awesome Russia is. Although this isn’t quite ready yet.

There is a lovely view onto the back of one of the oldest streets in Moscow, Vavarka Ulitsa, which is lined with churches, the house of the Romanov family back before it became a royal dynasty, and the Old English Court.

Old English Court Church of the Martyr Vavara New Zaryadye Park Moscow

Znamensky Monastery New Zaryadye Park Moscow

There are also a number of vistas across Red Square and the Kremlin, the most impressive of which is from the floating bridge, which sweeps dramatically out over the Moscow River, and then sweeps right back round again, with no visible support (or, you know, actual transportational point).

Floating Bridge New Zaryadye Park Moscow

What there isn’t in Zaryadye Park, though, is a playground. I was not amused.

It has been constructed on the site of the old Rossiya Hotel, a gigantic guesthouse which was legendarily ugly. Ten years ago it was knocked down, and the area spent a long time looking like the abandoned lot it was.

Rossiya Hotel Knocked Down Zaryadye Park Moscow

But for the last five years they have been turning it into the ambitiously fabulous public space you now see before you.

Kremlin Floating Bridge New Zaryadye Park Moscow

This will go nicely with the ambitiously fabulous public space that the mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, has been busy turning the whole of central Moscow into in recent years. Mainly, on the surface, by softening the multi-lane highways that used to bulldoze their way through the centre – widening the pavements, planting lots of trees, bushes and benches, renovating squares, rerouting traffic on an impressively ruthless scale, and pedestrianising large numbers of streets altogether.

Of course, this sort of thing costs. And Zaryadye Park itself has cost an absolutely eye-watering amount. But central Moscow is now a really very pleasant place to go wandering around. A very very pleasant place. Mama rather enjoys this, and is somewhat defiant about it.

Which makes it no surprise at all that Mama decided one week after Zaryadye Park had opened would be the perfect time for me and her to go and see it.

So did much of the rest of Moscow.

Entrance New Zaryadye Park Moscow

In fact, it is already in desperate need of replanting, that many visitors have wandered along its paths, wandered off its paths, and trampled willy nilly over the foliage in the seven days since it opened.

Replanting New Zaryadye Park Moscow

And that’s before you take into consideration the fact that some people have allegedly been seen digging up some of the rarer plant specimens and making off with them.

So if you look carefully at the picture down below you can see orange suited workers already trying to make up for some of the damage. Including some standing on the top of the dome of the amphitheatre, as within hours of Zaryadye Park being opened, someone had managed to lob something up there which broke a number of the solar panels.

New Zaryadye Park Moscow

In fact, while Mama was taking this photo, she was standing next to two policemen, presumably there to protect the last remaining Altai heather orchid or something, who had simply given up trying to stop the mass of humanity from dashing hither and thither across what was left of the rest of the greenery, muttering to each other about how ‘Keep off the grass’ clearly had a meaning they weren’t previously aware of then. Unless someone was doing a bit of particularly blatant plant dancing, in which case they said it a bit louder.

A colleague further on had not yet given up hope but was looking somewhat frazzled as yet another babushka sailed straight past his ineffectual gesticulating with a cheerful, ‘Whoops, sorry, didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to step there.’

Wild urbanism indeed.

Mama, I’m sorry to say, found this quite funny, not least because she gets to say ‘wild urbanism indeed’. But although I was keen to get in on the flora squashing act too (‘EVERYBODY ELSE is walking there, Mama! Why do WE have to stay on the path?’), she only let me stand on some strategically placed rocks right next to the walkway and have my photo taken. Spoil sport.

Anyway. Mama recommends that if you wait about six months everyone might have calmed the fuck down and the park will be the place of marvel and wonder it was conceived to be by the same people who designed the High Line park in New York. Possibly. They might have even added a playground. In the meantime, tread lightly and remember the bridge is only designed to take 4,000 people at once.

Looking for where to go next in Moscow? Try THE guide to Moscow, as written by Mama.

More information

The park’s official website (in Russian).

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

Address: Varvarka Street, Moscow, 109012

Opening: Wednesday to Monday 10am to 10pm. On Tuesday it opens at 2pm.

Admission: Entrance to the park is free, but the coming attractions such as the ice cave will cost 600 roubles for adults.

Getting there: The nearest metro station is Kitai Gorod (orange and purple lines). The park is a bout ten minutes down towards the Moscow River from there. Or you can nip across Red Square from Okhotny Ryad/ Teatralnaya/ Ploshard Revolutsi (red, green and dark blue lines). Parking, what parking? How can they fit parking in with all the newly pedestrianised streets to accommodate?

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Newly opened near Red Square Moscow Zaryadye Park features a variety of terrains, a floating bridge, an ice cave and an all weather outdoor amphitheatre.

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Untold Morsels

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

Don’t forget your camera when you visit Kolomenskoye Park in Moscow

One of the main attractions of Kolomenskoye Park in the South of Moscow is that while it has more manicured sections, there’s a fair amount of wilderness you can wander around in too.

We went in late May last year, which is just when the greenery has finally recovered from winter and before it all gets shrivelled by the hot summer sun, and you can spend many happy hours strolling through sunlit glades along largely unfrequented paths if you pick your weather right.

Plus, bits of it overlook the Moscow River, and so you can sit, eat your sandwiches and hunt for ants with a pretty good view.

Wilderness in Kolomenskoye Park Moscow

The hilliness you might be able to detect is also a plus. We might have been able to go for a really excellent scramble up and down some epically steep paths if Mama hadn’t been wearing the wrong shoes. She declined to try attempt it without really grippy trainers and someone else there to help catch us when we took a header off the slope.

Apparently it’s even got a rift in the time and space continuum down there too, the Golosov Ravine, which might explain why they’ve tried to make it so hard to get to. Legend has it that people go into the gully and then don’t come out for years and years. Coooooooool. And one way to survive the immediate future with sanity relatively intact perhaps.

At either end of the park there is more organised fun. If you arrive at the Kolomenskoye metro station end, you will soon come across a particularly unique bit of ecclesiastical architecture, even more venerable than places like St Basil’s on Red Square.

Church of the Ascension White Column Kolomenskoye Park Moscow

The Church of the Ascension, otherwise known as the White Column possibly because it is constructed in such a way that it doesn’t need any supporting pillars to supplement its toweryness, was built in 1532 and commemorates the birth of Ivan the Eventually Terrible. Yes, I know there aren’t any onion domes or gaudy external painting. Orthodox Christianity does the history of church decoration backwards from a Protestant outlook, and this one is supposedly based on more traditional wooden structures, as well as having an Italian influence.

In fact, dotted around the territory are a whole bunch of other old buildings, because for many years now Kolomenskoye park has been a refuge for distressed, mainly wooden constructions, from all over Russia.

Wooden building Kolomenskoye Park Moscow

It is also a former royal estate, so some of the stone gateways and suchlike are survivors from their era.

Tulips and stone gateway Kolomenskoye Park Moscow

But there are also the remnants of a traditional Russian village, which existed for real until quite recently in the 1980s, allegedly populated by descendants of the peasants who were attached to the Tsars’ estates. Live action bee keeping still takes place there!

Most impressive is the recreation of a magnificent royal palace erected by Alexei Mikhailovich, the father of Peter the Great, which represents the pinnacle of what you could do with wooden architectural design in the 17th Century. You can go inside and examine the fully worked up interiors too, which Mama definitely intends to do sometime in the not too distant future. It’s right next to the metro station at the other end of the park from the great white Church of the Ascension, Kashirskaya. Convenient!

Alexei Mikhailovich Palace Kolomenskoye Moscow

And Kolomenskoye Park frequently holds some of the more interesting outdoor events in Moscow. Mama has her eye on the historical re-enactment festival Time and Epochs, which is scheduled for June. Admittedly this year, they are branching out all over the capital, but their biggest event will still be held in this park.

Horse and carriage ride Kolomenskoye Park Moscow

But when we visited on this particular occasion, what we mostly did is wander around the extensively replanted royal orchard area…

Apple Orchard Kolomenskoye Park Moscow

…and look at people photographing the apple blossoms.

Photographing Apple Blossoms Kolemskoye Park Moscow in Spring

Maybe there was some kind of event going on. But since Mama couldn’t find any information about it at the time, she prefers the theory that everybody with a camera just looked out of their window, saw the glorious sunshine, remembered that there hadn’t been any wind lately, and decided to make the most of it.

A number of people bought props and costumes. There were swings trailing white gauze dangling from the trees, people!

Photoshoot Kolomenskoye Park Moscow in Spring

We made do with our beautiful selves, as Mama was inspired and got quite enthusiastic about us posing with dreamy expressions while sniffing the dandelions. Hours of fun.

So Kolomenskoye Park is a perfect location for a day in the outdoors in Moscow. If the weather is good, grab a picnic and head out. And don’t forget your camera.

Want to know what else to do in Moscow? Read Mama’s comprehensive guide here.

More information

The park’s website (in English).

The Time and Epochs webesite (in English).

More about the Golosov Ravine.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the mystery of the Franklin expedition to the Northwest Passage.

Address: 39 Andropova Avenue,Moscow

Getting there: The green metro line has two stops you can use for either end of Kolomenskoye Park, Kolomonskoye and Kashirskaya.

Find our why Muscovites are sure to take their cameras when they visit Kolomenskoye Park Moscow

Wander Mum

Coram Fields, Bloomsbury, London

One unusually sunny spring day, Mama was rather regretting deciding to check out Coram Fields, a mysterious child friendly oasis in Bloomsbury she’s been hearing about for quite some time now.

This was because we were stuck in a traffic jam. Sometimes Mama should really overcome her preference for the bus instead of the tube, and when you have to get across central London of a weekend just after a fire has closed down one of the major road routes is one of them.

Anyway. Coram Fields, Mama thought, was going to have to be very good indeed to make up for having to exhaust all of her travel games and endure our well rested inability to sit still quietly for at least half an hour longer than was absolutely necessary.

The park sounded marvellous, of course. The land was originally part of Captain Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital for abandoned and homeless children. When the hospital was relocated at the beginning of the 20th Century, the area was due to be sold off but instead became this charitably maitained public park, aimed at keeping London’s kids amused and in the outdoors. You can’t even get in, in fact, without a child in tow. I expect that’s why Mama brought us. I sometimes think she only ever brings us so she has an excuse to go to interesting places.

Thus there is a good variety of play equipment spread out in small play areas dotted around the edges of Coram Fields. Big climbing frames, slides and zip wires. Small climbing frames, rocking horses and swings. You can scamper from one to the other for quite some time.

The whole park is not quite as big as the name ‘Fields’ implies, but what’s good about it being only somewhat larger than the other squares which are such a feature of this part of London is that it is relatively easy to keep an eye on your children, even if they should choose to splinter off in different directions. Even better is that there is only one exit, and this is even manned by a security guard intent on keeping out any adults who have turned up unaccompanied by kids.

And there are animals, which practically guarantees success in my Terrific Big Brother’s eyes. Chickens in a large coup, a couple of goats in a pen, some rabbits and a cage full of budgies. Quite enough to provide animaltastic diversion and thrills, especially the chickens, who were obligingly active.

Chicken at Coram Fields

Calling it a city farm, which the Coram Fields website does, is pushing it in Mama’s opinion, though. We’re not *that* urban that we don’t know that a farm means that there has to be a cow and a pig. One of each will do.

Goats at Coram Fields

Best of all in my opinion is the giant sandpit! With just enough working water exuding bits of equipment to make sure there was a socking great puddle in the middle and running water to splash about in. Oh joy! Oh frabulous day! WATER PLAY! LOVE!! IT!!!

Sandpit at Coram Fields

Mama did not say. What she did say is, ‘FOR FUCK’S SAKE’ (in her head).

‘Look’, she mentally continued, ‘yes, children like mucking around in water, of course they do, and in the height, the absolute height of that rare thing, a glorious summer’s day, it’s wonderful to be able to let them run about the parks which double as London’s personal outdoor space, get wet, and then, and this is the crucial bit, dry off quickly in the baking hot sunshine. But,’ this is where she gets a bit ranty, ‘for about 360 days of the year, what actually happens is your children get sopping wet and then they also get cold and miserable pretty quickly too. London is big. Travel is slow. Nobody has a car in a nearby car park with some spare trousers in the back. Nobody wants to shlepp a change of clothes across the capital. What in GOD’S GOOD NAME possesses the London park designers to think that water play in this climate is a good thing, PARTICULARLY in a public space which must surely have only minimal local residents for whom popping back home for a new jumper is doable?’

So the visit descended a bit of bad tempered wrangling at this point. Well, Mama was bad tempered. We were enjoying ourselves hugely. She made us take off as many clothes as she could without risking hypothermia in what was still, despite the sun, the slightly chilly spring weather, and then kept shouting from the sidelines every time it looked as though we were about to forget ourselves and dampen the rest of our outfits.

Needless to say, Mama was largely unsuccessful in keeping us in any way dry. But that’s OK. She *likes* carrying round dripping cardigans for the rest of the day and holding us under the blow dryers in the toilets to stop us moaning about being cold.

In the end Mama decided that the only way to tear us away from the enticing sandpit area was to take us to the café in the corner of Coram Fields. And this certainly restored her good cheer, mainly because it served pancakes, which Mama thinks are an excellent alternative to chips for a meal on a family day out. And there was coffee, of course. That always makes her somewhat more able to face the difficulties childcare throws up.

Mind you, it would also be a great place for a picnic. The large square of open ground in the middle is just begging for blankets and thermoses. If, of course, you do not mind adding them to your overfilling bag along with the changes of clothes.

Coram Fields

Mind you, the fact that you almost certainly do not live close to Coram Fields means that it is, for a London park, really rather uncrowded. Don’t get me wrong, there were enough kids there on the weekend we went to make it a cheerful place to rock up and find some new friends. Playgrounds are boring without some other children after all. But considering how rammed some of the parks get on a Saturday and Sunday, Coram Fields is a haven of tranquillity.

Yet it is also very close to some interesting tourist attractions. Most notably, it is just up the road from the British Museum, but nearby there are also the very interesting Grant Museum of Zooology and the Petrie Archaeological Museums belonging to University College London, and the Soane Museum and Huntarian and the Operating Theatre museums too. With the exception of the British Museum, these are all smallish and not going to take more than a couple of hours to visit. Coram Fields is exactly the sort of place you want to have up your sleeve to make it worth braving London’s public transport system to see them with kids, which you should really, because they are great.

Mama recommends taking in Coram Fields first. Normally she saves the things we like for last, as a sort of compensation for suffering through cultural appreciation. However, she discovered that a lengthy stint in Coram Fields perfectly softened us up for good humoured tolerance of her desire to show us glass cases full of things. Or perhaps that was the pancakes. Either way, we had a good time.

Just beware of the water.

More information

Coram Fields’ website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about well dressings of the English Peak District.

Address: 93 Guilford Street, London, WC1N 1DN

Opening: 9am to dusk.

Admission: Free, but bring a child or you won’t get in.

By tube: Nearest tubes are Russell Square (Piccadilly), King’s Cross St Pancras (Northern / Victoria / Circle / Hammersmith & City) and Holborn or Chancery Lane (Central).

By train: King’s Cross, St Pancras and Euston are all within walking distance.

By bus: Bus stops are about a 10-minute walk away. Nearest buses are the 17, 45 & 46 at Gray’s In Rd or the 7, 59, 68, 91, 168 & 188 at Russell Square.

By car: No. Just no.

Falkirk Wheel, Falkirk, Scotland

‘I’m sorry,’ said my Amazing Big Brother’s teacher to Mama recently, ‘that I can’t make everything about animals.’

Sometimes, when Mama feels that my Amazing Big Brother’s interests have been driving the family outings rather too much, she tries to make a special effort to accommodate what she thinks might be particularly cool for me.

Hence the Falkirk Wheel.

Mama has this fond notion that I am a budding engineering genius, mainly because she feels I take after the practically-minded Papa and I do not have quite the same aversion to construction toys and anything involving manual dexterity as my Amazing Big Brother.

Which is how we found ourselves standing at the bottom of this elegant looking metal structure, which allegedly lifts canal boats high up in the air to the next section of river in the sky, wondering how on earth it actually works. Because Mama’s theory prior to seeing it that it just goes straight up like an elevator was quite clearly wrong and unfortunately I might be able to slam a few building blocks together but this is quite out of my league. Currently.Falkirk Wheel

Luckily we did not have long to wait to find out. To make sure that the Falkirk Wheel is in use for the perhaps surprising number of people come to look at it, there are regular boat tours which start and end with a trip round the Falkirk Wheel and progress gently along the subsequent canal in-between times.

Which you may need to book in advance if you, like we, go on a reasonably fine day in the school holidays. While we were there the queue was looking like a few hours wait at least until the next slot and Mama decided against it.

Instead, after we had seen the Falkirk Wheel do its thing, we climbed up to the higher stretch of the canal to see what this contraption looked like from the top.

Waaaaaaaay cooooooooooooooool, in Mama’s opinion, she who spent a good deal of her formative years reading speculative fiction. Mama considers that the Falkirk Wheel from above is an excellent model for what some kind of futuristic transport system you could accelerate down and disappear in blizzard of sparks and a few licks of flame should look like.

Falkirk Wheel from the top

And at night, it gets all lit up. Imagine how excited Mama would get if we let her go and see that!

We were more impressed by the tunnel and enjoyed the ten minute walk through and back where we could shriek and make echos to our hearts’ content. Until Mama, after an incautious question from my Amazing Big Brother, told us all about canals, HORSES and canal boats, people lying on their backs to walk the boats through the tunnels, followed by a very lengthy excursion around the industrial revolution. Which sounds smelly.

Also, locks, the workings of and why the Wheel is an improvement, despite the fact that traditional locks are, Mama says firmly, a pretty damn nifty bit of engineering genius in and of themselves. A topic of discussion which was aided by the fact that back down below they have kept one of the eleven originals replaced by the Falkirk Wheel to, presumably, better contrast its method boat elevation with that of the older model.Falkirk Wheel and a lock

Which you are probably still wondering about.

Well, the clue to the operation of this feat of man’s triumph over nature is in the name. The Falkirk Wheel does not so much lift the boats up, as spin them around. It is genuinely awesome. The first three or four times, anyway. I’m not sure it needed to be photographed from every conceivable angle myself, but Mama clearly disagreed, and so we got to see it in action quite a lot.Falkirk Wheel in motion

What’s particularly impressive, Mama thinks, is that you can move a boat up and one down with the same operation. From which you will gather that Mama is very lazy and admires efficiency of effort above all things.

Falkirk Wheel from the side

Although she does rather wonder why, a fair old while after the canals became obsolete as a serious method of transportation, Scotland has gone to the trouble and,  more importantly, expense of building the thing. Still. What I say is that sometimes science and engineering just are, and we should marvel at them. Some people question the point of the space programme too, and that’s clearly crazy talk.

However, it wasn’t all improving educational experiences. The other reason why Mama thought I might like the Falkirk Wheel is because of the water play ground in its shadow. The main damp inducing area wasn’t quite ready when we were there just before Easter, but a glorified multi-level paddling pool, with its own locks and  pumping stations was.

We got quite thoroughly wet.

Luckily Mama had anticipated this, which was why she had saved this bit for last over our strenuous protests. A change of clothes was thus only a short squelch back to the car away. In even better weather, Mama thinks that parents should just go straight for the swim wear, or at least make sure whatever the kids are wearing it dries easily.

There is also a dry playground too, if your children are less enthusiastic about getting sodden than we are. And other attractions include various woodland paths, some of which will take you to Roman remains. Allegedly. We were too busy sploshing about to want to take advantage of this or the café and various hot food vans dotted around.

But Mama called time in the end and then we tried to action the third reason why Mama had chosen the Falkirk Wheel for me, which was that it is close to the gigantic horse-like Kelpies sculptures. Yes, that’s right, GIANT HORSE-LIKE STATUES!

Sadly, Mama, who considers the signposting to the Kelpies from the Falkirk Wheel somewhat inadequate, got lost trying to find them and we ended up in Stirling, which is, apparently, quite some way away in the other direction. When we eventually did get back to the Kelpies there was a lengthy queue for the car park, so we bailed and only got lost twice more in the way back to where we were staying, resulting in a lengthy detour round an oil refinery.

Which shoots real flame out of its chimneys! Not sure that this wasn’t more exciting than the Kelpies, to be honest.

Luckily, Heather at My Life in Type has written about the Kelpies here, so you can find out all about them and the park they are set in. If you can find it.

Anyway. Mama is now considering a trip down to see the Thames Barrier in action. Admittedly when she last did this she concluded that watching paint dry was more exciting, but this was possibly because she was an unimpressable teenager at the time and because she didn’t have the prospect of a a trip down the Thames on a river boat to sweeten it, which Mama has decided is the best reward for travelling to a more Easterly London location.

And the highlight of the day for my Amazing Big Brother?

The frog that was sitting on the walkway next to the Falkirk Wheel when we first arrived.

A frog at the Falkirk Wheel

You can’t keep the next David Attenborough down with man-made genius at all, can you?

More Information

The Falkirk Wheel’s website.

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

Address: Lime Road, Tamfourhill, Falkirk, FK1 4RS

Opening: The Visitors Centre and boat trips are open from 10am to 5.30pm March to October. The site and play areas are closed by 8pm.

Admission: Access to the site is free. The boat trips are £8.95 for adults and £4.95 for children (3+). You can get lunch/ tea deals too. Booking via the website can only be made prior to the day you want to go. Otherwise you need to phone or show up in person to book tickets.

By car: For some reason the Falkirk Wheel is insistent that you should use junction 8 of the M9 from Edinburgh, which has the advantage that it will take you past the Kelpies. However, other exit options are available, and unlike the Kelpies, as Mama can attest having driven all over the area trying to find them, reasonably well signposted, especially if you head towards Falkirk. From the North, the website recommends exiting at Junction 9. From Glasgow you should take the M80, then the M876 and exit at Junction 1.

The carpark costs £2 a day, but is extensive and very convenient.

By public transport: There is a rail station in Falkirk, and the website recommends a taxi or the #3 First Bus route.

Holland Park, West London

Holland Park is just down the road at the other end of Kensington High Street from Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park and surrounded by many large mansions housing diplomats, bankers, supermarket chain owners and celebs such as the Beckhams, Elton John, Simon Cowell, Robbie Williams, Richard Branson, Brian May and Jimmy Page. Whoever they are. If they aren’t on Cbeebies, they can’t be that famous.

It’s not really on the tourist trail but Mama knows it well as she used to live round the corner herself in a flat that was a lot less glamorous than the address makes it sound. Actually, calling it ‘a flat’ is probably exaggerating things too, she says. But she must have liked the area as she still takes my Awesome Big Brother and me to Holland Park on occasion, which suits us just fine because it’s great.

Formal Gardens and Orangery at Holland Park
Park!

Holland Park occupies the land surrounding the former residence of Charles Fox, an 18th Century politician famous for living it large, a fact that endears the place to Mama from the get go although it had many other interesting owners. The house itself is now in ruins following bombing in World War II. What’s left used to be a youth hostel and is now the very impressive looking backdrop for outdoor opera in the summer. Every year Mama says she really must go one day. Every year she doesn’t. We’ll see what happens this time, now that they are just erecting the awning.

Holland Opera House
Doh ray me fah so la tee doh!

To the south, there is a large playing field, which I never get to run around on because it is pretty much constantly occupied by people playing football, cricket, or other energetic ball games.

In the middle there are some rather splendid formal gardens, seasonal blooms corralled by squares of privet, walls and very well clipped taller hedges. Apparently Mama used to spend whole weekends here with only a book and the people having their personal trainer shout at them as they ran up and down the steps or did push ups on the statue bases for entertainment, a concept I just don’t grasp – Mama allowed to sit down? With a book? Surely not. Next you will be telling me she used to have lie ins.

Formal Gardens at Holland Park
Spring has sprung.

There are some very nice benches there though. I can see why people who enjoy relaxing might like them.

Bench at Holland Park
It’s important to rush Mama past these.

There is also a Japanese garden, complete with elegantly shaped lake, bamboo toys, contorted trees, a nonchalantly sculpted waterfall, and thoughtfully placed stones.

Japenese Garden Decoration at Holland park
Donk. Donk. Donk. Donk. Donk. Donk.

And GIANT koi carp, which at one point even had their own personal guard to make sure that nobody pinched them. Probably my Awesome Big Brother, who would certainly spend the entire weekend on his tummy watching them and trying to get them to eat his finger (they are very obliging about this) if Mama let him.

Koi Carp at Holland Park
Come here little fishy!

The only thing that will tempt him away is going on a peacock hunt.

Yes, there are peacocks. Roaming free! In a park!! In London!!! How cool is that?!!!! Luckily they are very easy to track down, being plentiful and extremely loud. Mama is unsure if introducing children to their cry is a wholly sensible thing, as we quite enjoyed emulating their squawks for whole hours at a time afterwards, but overall this is a small price to pay for the exoticism, I reckon.

When we find them, they mostly spend their time sticking their tails up mockingly at my Awesome Big Brother from behind a fence or perching on top of walls shrieking insults at him, which shows a certain surprising streak of intelligence because at one point he thought chasing birds was even more fun than tickling fish. I just think they’re splendid and can only be tempted away with promises of… well, actually Mama mostly just picks me up and carries me off when it’s time to move on.

Peacock at Holland Park
Pick meeeeeeeeeeee!

Next to the Japanese garden there’s a grassy area which is so ludicrously full of people in the summer that it is actually impossible to pick your way between the picnic blankets without trampling all over them. So we rarely try to avoid it, my Awesome Big Brother and I. Beware.

Then there are the woods. Mama, ever the pseudo nature lover, would spend more time rambling in amongst trees if we hadn’t used up most of it on the fish and the peacocks. It might be easier to tempt us in now that my Awesome Big Brother discovered the pond full, and I do mean full, of frogspawn the last time we were here.

Somewhere in the woods there is a big children’s playground, which has a very good range of equipment mainly focused around climbing, swinging, spinning and leaping around madly, suitable for a range of different ages. It is also arranged so that you can pretty much see the whole of it at once, which is the sort of playground design Mama really approves of.

Playground at Holland Park
This is only a small corner of the playground. But it has a peacock!

There’s also a massive sand pit playground best for the smallest children next to the playing field. It’s a wonderfully fraught place where all the Mamas try to keep track of which little tea leaf has walked of with their bucket and spade this time and usually fail, resulting in the place being littered by a lot of abandoned freebie toys, just adding to the confusion. My Awesome Big Brother loved it when he was little, especially the playing with other people’s stuff part. However, sand is not quite as fabulous as water as far as I am concerned, so these days we very quickly end up in the conveniently nearby café, getting ice cream.

The ice cream is very nice and conveniently in pots, which means my Awesome Big Brother and I are less likely to get covered in it, and their babychinos, a word Mama cannot actually bring herself to say, resulting in tortuous conversations about hot milk for children until she gives in, very reasonable. This makes up for the fact their coffee cups are somewhat on the small side. There’s limited seating inside, but quite a bit more outside, and you can always take your haul into the rest of the park if you aren’t having, I dunno, soup.

Anyway, Holland Park is in many ways really a locals’ park and absolutely rammed full of families on the posher end of the spectrum whenever the sun shines. This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit though because it certainly is. One of London’s slightly less well known gems.

More Information

The park on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about burying yourself in sand.

Address: Ilchester Place, London, W8

Admission: Free.

Opening: 7.30 am to 30 minutes before dusk.

By bus: There are a large number of buses that run down either Holland Park Avenue to the north or Kensington High Street to the south.

By tube: Holland Park (Central line) is the closest to the northern entrance. Kensington High Street (Circle and Disctict lines), and Notting Hill Gate (Central, Circle and District lines) and Shephards Bush (Central line) are about 15/20 minutes from the south and north entrances to the park respectively.

By car: What part of ‘it’s in London’ did you not understand?

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.

Winkworth Arboretum, Surrey

Back in the spring, Mama had a yen to experience the full glory of the season, which is difficult in the centre of London. So she hatched a plan to take us out into the countryside to admire the new blooms.

Crocuses, she thought. Daffodils. Tulips. Azeleas. And so on.

Since we also have National Trust membership, she thought we could do this smelling the flowers at one of their properties. She chose Claremont Landscape Garden, on the grounds that it is, like, a garden. Gardens are always chock full of flowers, right?

Wrong.

In fact, when it comes to Claremont, the important word is ‘landscape’.

Still, we all had an excellent time and we highly recommend the place. But that is a story for another day. And we found carpets of crocuses just down the road in Battersea Park. So that was alright.

But never one to give up easily, at half term, Mama, who loves autumn with the passion of one whose birthday is slap bang in the middle of it, decided we would try again to revel in the fact that we live in a country where the change from summer to winter (and winter to summer) is protracted and quite beautiful.

This time she chose the National Trust’s Winkworth Arboretum.

Winkworth Arboretum is basically a sort of botanical garden devoted to more than 1000 types of trees spread over 9 acres. It has a nice steep tree-covered hill leading down to a big lake ringed with trees at the bottom and a large tree-studded meadow, and also an extensive, conveniently flat, very treey area at the top.

Winkworth Arboretum in autumn

Trees look good in autumn. This time nothing could go wrong.

And it didn’t.

The boathouse at Winkworth Arboretum

They even have a field full of lamas and horses next to the car park! Which, Mama would like to reassure everyone with the same obsession as her, is both free to National Trust Members and extensive. Useful, as many people seemed to have had the same thought as her about Winkworth being a good place to catch some yellowredorangebrown leaves.

Lamas at Winkworth Arboretum

This was ok though. Winkworth is such a big place that it absorbed the large number of visitors beautifully and didn’t feel crowded at all.

One of the cool things about National Trust places is their tendency to have children’s trails for every major holiday. This one was a full-on Halloween themed one with riddles dotted about the most accessible area of the wood to match to the pictures of ghosties, goulies and aliens we picked up from the entrance. My Spooktastic Big Brother loves riddles, and so this was just to his taste. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to find many of them as we left the safety of the pushchair friendly, walking stick amicable area and went for a more challenging extended ramble, mainly because Mama promised us a large expanse of water.

It was a bit of an effort getting Babushka down the very steep steps, and you should have heard her when Mama picked the scramble route back up again. There are, Mama would like to assure everyone, easier routes down and up. But we like a challenge, and in the end Babushka rose to it, albeit with an extended sit down at the top of the climb.

The lake was everything we could have hoped for, with not only plenty of ducks and geese to amuse my Spooktastic Big Brother, but also an area where I could sit and poke my stick in the water. Mama cut our enjoyment a bit short though because my Spooktastic Big Brother managed to get water in his wellies.

Geese at Winkworth Arboretum

Probably because Mama wasn’t paying sufficient attention. Mama was looking at the trees. Winkworth Arboretum, the tree zoo, has a huge variety of leaves to admire the changing colour of. Every shape, every colour, every texture. We had an excellent time collecting some of the more interesting ones. But what Mama was really there for was the view from the meadow. From there Winkworth really shows off its a tree-filled slope of autumn blazing away back up the hills you have just slid down.

Winkworth Aboretum in autumn from the meadow

The view from the top of the hill over the top of the trees to the sheep-dotted fields opposite isn’t bad either.

The lake at Winkworth Arboretum

Lovely. Says Mama. We were more interested in the GIANT MUSHROOMS.

Giant mushroom at Winkworth Arboretum

And the natural playgrounds in at least two different locations, where the climbing frames, obstacle courses and dens are made of sticks, with the odd bit of help from some twine or a bit of canvas sheeting. Hours of fun.

Den at Winkworth Arboretum

If Mama had to quibble, she would say that enjoying late October leaves in a such warmth that we were all down to T shirts after half an hour is frankly wrong.

This is hardly Winkworth’s fault though.

The unseasonable weather did mean that Mama was persuaded to buy us ice creams in the inevitable National Trust cafe, replete with all the scones and cake you might expect from such an institution, so there’s that too. The inside is not large, but there was plenty of outside seating, and another play area with a wigwam to keep us occupied while the adults drink their coffee.

Basically, Winkworth is an excellent place to go for a good outdoor ramble with all your relatives. There are paths for every sort of walker, including dogs, both long and short routes, scrambles and more gently sloping pathways. And whereever you go, and, probably, whatever season you go, you will find plenty to look at and amuse yourself with as you walk around. We enjoyed it a lot. We will certainly be back in spring to see what trees can offer us that flowerbeds can’t.

More Information

Winkworth Arboretum’s page on the National Trust website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the history of British woodlands.

Address: Hascombe Road, Godalming, Surrey, GU8 4AD

Opening: Autumn/ Winter – 10am to 4pm. Spring/ Summer –  10 am to 6pm.

Admission (with gift aid): Adult: £7.20, Child: £3.60, Family: £18.00. National Trust Members: FREE.

By car: There is a large car park, free to National Trust members.

By public transport: the nearest train and bus stops are in Godlaming, which is 2 miles away.