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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Horniman Museum, London

Mama likes to think that my Superdooper Big Brother is *her* son, although the animal obsession is all his own. But every now and again, he reminds her that Papa also had something to do with it.

One of those times was when she realised that he is a born collector.

It always puzzled her when, after she had given him control of the car boot sale toy budget, he would pass over that snazzy looking lion in favour of this motheaten sorry specimen of an armadillo. Eventually she realised it is because my Superdooper Big Brother is filling in the gaps in an increasingly vast collection of the animal kingdom in soft toy form, currently occupying half the bedroom and most of the space down the back of the sofa.

Mama thinks that he would really have preferred to be born in the Victorian age. This is because his ambition is to have a live animal museum. ‘You mean a zoo?’ Mama corrected. ‘No,’ said my Superdooper Big Brother. ‘You can’t see the animals properly in zoos. I will have them in those small glass museum cases, but alive, because that’s more interesting.’

He also wants to hunt the animals for his museum down himself. Look, he’s six. He’ll develop empathy later. Mama hopes. He is also quite keen on becoming an assassin of rhino poachers, so that’s something.

Anyway. Mama thinks that both my Superdooper Big Brother and Papa would have got on very well with Mr Horniman of the Horniman Museum, a Victorian tea trader and avid collector who eventually realised that he had filled so many of his rooms with carefully labelled stuff that he might as well be living in a museum, and so promptly did. Or rather, didn’t, because at about that point his wife insisted they move out (‘Either the collection goes or we do,’ were the exact words, apparently. Mama sympathises. She also wonders if Mrs Horniman and Mrs Soane had a support group).

The Horniman Museum

Obviously what my Superdooper Big Brother appreciates most are the large number of stuffed animals. The Horniman Museum is particularly proud of its walrus, but Mama really likes the way many of the cases are designed to actually teach viewers something rather than just serve as curiosity cabinets. She and my Superdooper Big Brother, for example, can spend rather more time than I think is strictly necessary looking at the cases about how animals defend themselves and identifying the method each little group of animals used. There are labels, Mama! Yes, says Mama smugly, but my Superdooper Big Brother hasn’t quite twigged to the advantages of being able to read yet and has to work it out from pure observation.

The Natural History Room at the Horniman

Of course, she is also approving of the way that the Horniman Museum supports understanding of the concept of evolution too. In fact, until she discovered the Darwin Museum in Moscow, the Horniman was her go to museum every time she felt he needed a top up.

Evolution of the horse at the Horniman

Attached to the natural history room is a hands on kids area, which is also very well designed – you can draw stuff, listen to bird calls and the game about identifying trees is, Mama thinks, almost unique as a button pushing opportunity which is both doable for people my age and also gets a point about classification across while you play it. Plus! In case you have been driven mad by the fact that is forbidden to fondle the extremely tactile exhibits next door, there are a couple of examples of the taxidermists’ art that you are allowed to stroke here too.

The highlight of the room is the ACTUAL LIVE ANIMALS (emphasis my Superdooper Big Brother’s). Bees, to be exact, and tiny tiny mice, both in cases small enough to make it to my Superdooper Big Brother’s own future museum, although the bees seem to be able to escape at will down a transparent tube.

That’s not all the animal action at the Horniman Museum though! There is also a reasonably priced aquarium in the basement which has a varied selection of small to medium sized fish from all around the world. And jellyfish. Also, butterflies. My Superdooper Big Brother likes the fish with the legs best. I like all of the tanks that come down to the floor, which is sadly not all of them. They do have little boxes you can carry about and stand on to get to the higher up ones though, which is almost as much fun as the fish themselves.

But. The aquarium has all but been eclipsed by the live animal walk in the grounds which arrived a year or two ago. For reasons which are inexplicable to Mama, it’s the rabbits at the Horniman Museum that are the truly fascinating furry things there. She prefers the lamas.

Lama at the Horniman

What she doesn’t realise is that as well as being a varied group with one record breakingly huge white one, the rabbits are pretty lively. No lounging around sleeping off lunch, hiding in the corner of the enclosure visitors cannot see into or staring contemplatively but unmoving into the distance for half an hour while chewing grass for the rabbits! No, it’s all nose twitching and bounding enthusiastically through the tunnels! In close up! Fabulous stuff.

The only down side is that bit opens at 12pm, so you shouldn’t plan to head straight for it when you arrive the way we always want to. Unless, of course, you get there after 12.

Still, if you are caught out, the Horniman Museum’s grounds are pretty cool, all 16 acres of them. Mama likes the spectacular view over London best, but we are more into the small play area. It is musical! There are things to bang, tap and generally make a loud noise with. It’s great!

View from the Horniman

As well as this, there’s a massive field where you can run around shouting or sit and eat a picnic, although there is also an outdoor café with tables, and even a few tables inside a small room if the weather is bad. This is apart from the proper café, which is back towards the main building. What Mama likes about that is that their overspill seating is inside a particularly splendid conservatory. It is imperative that if it is open we have a coffee break here regardless of how awash we are with beverages and sandwiches already.

Conservatory at the Horniman

Now that, as far as my Superdooper Big Brother in particular is concerned, is pretty much it for the Horniman Museum. Mama would like to spend a bit more time looking at some of the other collections they have, such as the African World one, which BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH (emphasis my Superdooper Big Brother’s, who is not one iota moved by the riot of colour, the wild variety of textiles, the oddly shaped statuettes, the mysterious objects or even the mummies inside. No obvious lion/rhino/zebra/giraffe/camel interest, you see) and especially the one about 100 years of collecting at the museum, which is what Mama describes as a fascinating look into the way that what people consider both cool and acceptable to acquire has changed over time, and what we describe as an area insufficiently full of animals or things I can touch.

In the end, in the face of our total disinterest, Mama compromises on taking us down to the music room.

The music room is pretty good not because of the thousands of instruments on display, but because of the computers. Touch screens! Woohoo! To be honest, for me touch screens can show pretty much anything and I am hooked, but these ones are particularly excellent because what they allow you to do is hear the instruments around you playing, and so Mama will allow us to muck about with them for HOURS because she find this interesting. Yes! My Sooperdooper Big Brother likes it because the sound tables are arranged in such a way that a small crowd of children can (and do) gather around one all at the same time and oooh and aaah over the sounds, and he can socialise, which is something he likes almost but not quite as much as animals.

There are also some live demonstrations of some of the instruments, or at least, we tripped over someone playing a harpsichord last time we went.

Harpsichord at the Horniman

And if you want a go yourself, there is a room with a whole bunch more of hitting, stroking, whacking and plucking opportunities, in case you didn’t get your fill outside. Mama clearly didn’t because she LOVES it in there.

Drum at the Horniman

The Horniman Museum, then, is a quirky treasure trove of all sorts of interesting dodads, and certainly well worth a visit for young people, especially as they are very welcoming towards children, even quite small children. Despite the fact that local families clearly know this and have made it a firm favourite in their going out repertoire, it is still not nearly as busy as the big Kensington Museums at any given time. It even also has what seem to be quite interesting temporary exhibitions on too, although we have never found that we have exhausted the rest of the museum with sufficient time to spare to make paying the entrance fee worth it.

So if you are planning on heading in to London some school holiday and can’t face standing in queues all day to catch a sixty second glimpse of an anamatronic T Rex and some increasingly dusty mammal models, this is a very viable alternative. And if you already live in London and haven’t made it to the Horniman Museum, whether or not you have children, what on earth is keeping you away?

More Information

The museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about wanting to be a conductor.

Address: 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London, SE23 3PQ

Opening: 10.30am to 5.30pm daily.

Admission: Free, except for the aquarium (Adults £3.50, Kids £1.50, Family £7.50) and any special exhibitions.

By bus: Routes 176, 185, 197, 356, P4 stop outside the Museum and Gardens on London Road, and there are a few more which stop close by.

By train: Forest Hill station is a five to ten uphill walk away. It’s on the Overground network (Highbury and Islington to West Croydon/ Crystal Palace) and also has trains from London Bridge (Northern and Jubilee lines) and Victoria (Victoria, Circle and District lines) as well as others from Croydon and Surrey.

By car: There is no parking at the Horniman itself, except disabled parking. The Horniman website suggests some parking spots in the area you could try but is discouraging about the whole idea of car travel as a good travel option for visiting the museum.

GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, London

Back in the summer sometime, Mama discovered that there was a newish art gallery in town, GRAD, and that it was devoted to the art, design and culture of Russia. So clearly she had to go, and this, inevitably, meant that we had to too.

The exhibition that was on at the time was called ‘work and play behind the Iron Curtain’, and she sold this to us as a display of toys that Papa would have played with as a boy, and a series of dioramas from his young life. I can’t say we were overly enthused about this, but we went along with it because Mama with the gallery goer’s bit between her teeth is hard to get away from. Plus, she said we could take our cameras along and photograph whatever we liked.

Caviar tins at GRAD
Fish eggs!

The gallery is tucked up behind Oxford Street and as such a bit of a faff to get to from the part of London that is forever work and play in the former Soviet Union. So Mama was a little taken aback to realise that she has been spoiled by the vast national galleries and museums of the capital into overestimating how big GRAD’s exhibition space is and how extensive the displays actually are.

It’s a one room area, people. Quite a largeish room, but nevertheless not somewhere you will be spending the lengthy morning Mama had envisaged. Plus, no full sized mock ups of Soviet communal apartments. Mama was disappointed. Mama blames the very seductive photography on the website. To be fair, they also have an extensive programme of talks and tech support from informative apps and other publications.

Cars at GRAD
Not quite so seductive photography!

Also, the prediction that we would be looking at items from Papa’s past proved only too true. In fact, Mama has a sneaking suspicion that many of the objects had been sourced from Papa and his extended family. Top marks for authenticity, then. Perhaps a little odd to see them lauded as museum pieces though but then Mama has much the same feeling about the cheap plastic footspa in Stevenage Museum.

GRAD work and play behind the Iron Curtain
We have those dolls!

Nevertheless, we had a good time taking pictures of every. Single. Thing from every. Conceivable. Angle. Until that got really old and we demanded to leave, which took about 10 minutes.

In the meantime, Mama had discovered the reason she was glad we made the trip.

Ribs at GRAD
Coolest. Exhibit. Evah!

Called ‘ribs’, they are bootleg recordings made out of old X rays of records which were almost (but obviously not quite) impossible to get hold of in the Soviet Union. The story of underground music in the USSR is something that fascinates Mama even more than the rather better known stories of banned writers and their works, so to see these was genuinely moment which thrilled Mama right down to her little black socks.


Anyway. After this we went for a walk. Away from Oxford Street. Mama was happy wandering around the back streets but it wasn’t long before we tired of taking pictures of random doorways, people, dresses, shoes and so on and demanded actual entertainment. We all got a kick out of this pyrexed over wall painting though, which Mama says is by somebody called Banksy. Well, it’s a rat, innit? Animal interest, especially animal interest which Papa is scared of is always worth seeing.

Banksy near Regents Park

Luckily, before rebellion really set in we stumbled upon an excellent little playground in the bottom right hand corner of Regents’ Park, and thus the day was saved.

Currently GRAD has an exhibition on Bolt, a 1931 ballet by Dmitri Shostakovitch. Mama is wise to GRAD now and we popped in there when we were in the area and had a bit of time to kill.

Bolt is a fascinating sort of ballet. It tells the story of a young Soviet man who gets sacked from his job at a local factory for skiving off, goes to a bar, gets what Mama describes as ‘rat arsed’ and decides to stick a bolt into the machinery in the factory where he works, thus sabotaging it. As you do.

He actually gets caught at the very beginning of the second act and the dastardly plan is foiled. The rest of the ballet is, in fact, the surreal dream of the young Soviet boy who grassed up our anitihero. It’s all about becoming a lifeguard (what else?) and military parades (of course it is).

Mind you, that sort of plot twist is perfectly normal for ballets, Mama says, she who went to see Giselle last year.* This is not what makes the ballet so interesting.

What makes it interesting is that at first glance it is a straight bit of Soviet propaganda, yes, that’s right folks, a propaganda BALLET, but either because they actually meant to poke fun at the genre or because Shostakovitch, the choreographer, Fedor Lopukhov, and the costume designer, Tatiana Bruni, got a bit carried away with the enjoyment of plotting the scenes of debauched revelry, including wildly entertaining drunken ballet dancing, and putting wiry ballerinas into unflattering gym slips for the morning exercises at the workplaces set pieces, it comes across as more of a bit of a piss take (says Mama).

Gym slips for Bolt at GRAD
Ballet dancers should not wear shorts.

Which was not well received. The perils of glorifying industrial processes through the medium of interpretive dance.

The ballet was closed after the first performance, Lupukhov was sacked and Shostakovitch plundered his score to use in other ballets. Bolt itself was not put on again until 74 years later, when the Bolshoi re-imagined it for Shostakovitch’s 100th birthday, a performance Mama tells me she actually saw. You haven’t lived until you have seen the Red Army in scarlet PVC uniforms riding around on scooters, she says, especially when one of the dancers falls off.

They were definitely going all out for the ‘satire’ interpretation.

GRAD’s exhibition focuses mainly on the costumes, although they do have Shostakovitch’s music playing quietly in the background. The walls are full of design sketches and they even have some of the original and remade costumes on display.

Soviet women for Bolt at GRAD
Hero women of the Soviet Union.

The drawings are very familiar in style if you are used to seeing images of Soviet posters. Bright, styalised and slightly geometric. And they do come across as very over the top caricatures of a series of Soviet baddies. You can, perhaps, see why sensitive censors at the beginning of the Stalin era’s headlong plunge into Soviet realism were suspicious.

Enemies of the people for Bolt at GRAD
These people, I *think* might possibly be baddies, maybe? Except the woman with the slide rule. She rocks.

The centrepiece is the original costume for the US navy. Yes, those are Mickey Mouse hands on a grotesque representation of Uncle Sam.

US Navy costume for Bolt at GRAD
Hahahahahahahahaha! Ahaha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Etc.

You can see the Bolt exhibition until, wait for it, February 28th. Better make it quick! Yes, Mama does seem to turn up to shows as they are about to close. It’s because she likes to play chicken with deadlines. Usually she wins, but it isn’t good for blogging reviews.

But then this is no one off review. GRAD clearly has a knack for picking out not particularly obvious, quirky slices of Russia and the Soviet Union’s artistic heritage. Mama, of course, would always be interested in this, but it now also serve as a reminder that Russia may be big, but it has never been monolithic even at its darkest moments. She will certainly be finding excuses to drop in to whatever exhibition they have on next… and the one after that, and she suggests that if you share her tastes and are in the area, you do the same.


*Giselle, the lead character, dies at the end of the first act and the rest of the ballet is about dancing lady ghosts. Mama, Granny and Babushka were taken aback. They had not seen that coming at all.

More Information

GRAD’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about from ballets Russes to ballet noir: the Specter of the Rose on stage and screen.

Address: 3-4a Little Portland Street London W1W 7JB.

Opening: Tuesday – Friday 11am – 7pm. Saturday 11am – 5pm.

Admission: exhibitions are free.

By tube:Oxford Circus (Victoria, Central and Bakerloo lines): 3-4 mins walk or Great Portland Street (Circle, Hammersmith and City and Metropolitan lines): 10 mins walk.

By bus: These buses all stop on Oxford Street – 3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 23, 25, 53, 73, 88, 94, 98, 113, 137, 139 & 159.

By car: Oh, give over.

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.


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.

Deep Sea World, Edinburgh

Today we have a guest post from far far far far far away from the centre of the universe (London). Mama says it is Kidding Herself’s nod to Burns Night. I have no idea what she is talking about, since she forgot all about it until now. 

Hi I’m R and although I’ve never met Herself, apparently my Mummy knows her Mama because of the inter-webs.

Anyway, we were in Edinburgh for a week and thought we would share with you one of our adventures. Edinburgh being, apparently, a bit far for Herself to travel for a day out on a regular basis. Despite what her Gallus Big Brother seems to think, having been here once and liked it.

He probably liked it because they went to the same place we did, Deep Sea World which is situated beneath the Forth Rail Bridge, across the other side of the river from Edinburgh proper.

Deep Sea World is decidedly fishy. You can tell this immediately you walk through the front door because you are greeted by a delightful aroma. Admittedly this made Mummy feel a bit sick (something to do with her currently growing a tiny human I think) but there’re some tanks that go all the way to the floor near the entrance which I think is compensation enough. I enjoyed sitting in front of these and pointing at all the different fish (the day involved lots of pointing at fish). There really were lots of them.

Deep Sea World Edinburgh

However, there were also lots of tanks that I was to small to see into properly which I was less amused by. Of course, says Herself, who is wise to the vagaries of aquariums. She recommends growing.

Still, we had a good look at a whole range of varied fish, piranahs, seahorses etc, then we ventured down into the main attraction, the big glass tunnel.

This has a moving walkway on one side and a normal path on the other side. Mummy, feeling a little lazy, parked my buggy on the moving walkway while we looked at even more fish and, wait for it, SHARKS! I liked the SHARKS and all the fish. Again I couldn’t easily see into the tank from my low vantage point, but the tunnel arches right above the walkway so I did get a good look at anything swimming overhead. Fish mostly and did I mention the SHARKS? ( I was rather keen on the SHARKS). Nevertheless, I got bored half way round on our second circuit so we ventured back up to the main level in search of lunch.

Shark Deep Sea World Edinburgh

Mummy had thoughtfully packed a lunch to bring with us. Gran ate from the café though. She says the food was a little expensive but had decent portions. I was happy with my sandwich and snacks. Mummy let me escape from the buggy for a bit of walking around after lunch but as it was quite busy I had to wear my backpack reins.

After lunch, we went round the big tunnel another couple of times and pointed at more fish and SHARKS. Then we tried out the shop. There were assorted cuddly sea creatures mostly with tags stating that they were only suitable for over 3s, and also the normal souvenir stuff of mugs and pens etc and sweets. All overpriced, Mummy said. But Gran bought me a bag of of squirty bath creatures so I didn’t come home empty handed!

To finish off with we went along to have a look at the other big aquatic draw, the common or harbour seals. These occur naturally in the Forth Estuary that Deep Sea World is attached to, but given that it is a socking large expanse of water, it’s nice that the centre has enticed a few up close for our entertainment, and, according to them, the purposes of conservation. I watched around half of the seal feeding show thing, but it was a bit busy and Mummy said I was too heavy to sit on her shoulders for too long so we missed the end.

All in all it was a reasonably enjoyable two and a half hours we spent there. Mummy said that its probably better for children who are a bit older than me because in the end fish are all pretty much the same to me (except the SHARKS). Mummy also notes that we went during the school holidays so it was rather full of other children! Be prepared to elbow them out of the way is what Herself advises, being that much older than me. I have listened to this advice carefully. Mummy will doubtless be so proud next time we go.

More Information

Deep Sea World’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about ‘SHARK Summer’, New Jersey 1916.

Address: Battery Quarry, North Queensferry, Fife, KY11 1JR.

Opening: Weekdays: 10am to 4pm. Weekends: 10am to 6pm.

Admission: Adults and over 13s: £13.50, children over 3: £9.50, family of 4: £44.00. You can save if you buy in advance online.

By train: North Queensferry Station is a short walk from Deep Sea World and is served by trains on the Fife Circle Line from both Edinburgh Waverley and Haymarket stations. The journey takes about 15 minutes.

By car: Deep Sea World is just off the M90, 20 minutes from Edinburgh, 50 minutes from Glasgow and under 2 hours from Aberdeen (according to the website). There is free car parking on site.

Aladdin at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage

Lest you are thinking that Mama never takes us anywhere more child friendly than a benignly disposed art gallery, let it be known that over the Christmas holidays we went to a Panto. Aladdin at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre.

Aladdin at Stevenage

It was my first visit to such an entertainment. And here’s the thing about Pantos.

They are no place for newbies.

I mean, sure, you think the plot is simple enough, and indeed, should be familiar from your basic bedtime fairytale reading, but what I noticed was that there seemed to be an awful lot of unnecessary diversions, which everybody except me seemed to be expecting, and on top of this, the whole audience including Mama, my Best Big Brother, and Granny and Grandad had been given parts, which they had evidently studied carefully.

I spent the whole time wondering what my lines were and when to join in among a sea of people shouting their heads off in chorus when prompted from the stage. Or booing. Mama in particular seemed to like the booing, which seems uncharacteristically rude.

Mama tells me not to worry and I will get the hang of it. She says that my Best Big Brother was likewise totally bemused for the duration of his first two shows, and only this year, his fourth visit, has he really got the hang of it. And how! He spent most of the performance on his feet bouncing up and down and yelling his head off. Panto suits my Best Big Brother.

Mind you, even Mama found herself sitting there wondering why Aladdin, which is clearly a story which should be set in the Middle East takes place in the Far East, although to be fair, this is the original version of the story and not some way for bygone Pantos to take a pop at two varieties of Johnny Foreigner at once. Presumably even exotic locations need their own exotic locations.

It does mean that, Panto being the comic vehicle that it is, modern theatre has a delicate balancing act to do. Of course, nobody goes to Panto for cutting edge political correctness, but Mama felt adding the two black actors as self proclaimed slaves was an exceptionally bold way to distract us from the fact that this year’s fond Papa was a foolish Chinaman and the bad guy an Arab.

Fairly successful though.

Especially as having the Genie riff off Shaft did at least allow for equal opportunity sexual harassment of the audience. Just as all the women had relaxed as Stevenage’s perennial Dame, Paul Laidlaw, targeted this year’s hapless male in the front row (“You’re going to regret sitting there, Dave”), so the large man in the skin tight suit came and stood opposite them (“Look at my eyes. My *eyes*, lady!”).

Mama sniggered. Sometimes Mama has a very low sense of humour. Low. Look at his EYES, Mama.

At least none of the scripted jokes poked fun at anyone’s origins. Unless you count coming from Stevenage and the surrounding area. Mama, who does, doesn’t. Some things are fair game.

Anyway. My faint bewilderment at the intricacies of the medium and feeling of missing out on some crucial inside information notwithstanding, I did very much enjoy Aladdin.

Of course, this was helped by the fact that for some reason, Panto overrides Mama’s aversion to expensive plastic tat, and we got given huge toys which lit up in three different patterns with practically no pestering whatsoever before we’d even got into the auditorium.

And then there was the singing and dancing. I was out of my seat, bopping away, waving my flashing magic wand dangerously in the direction of the little old lady sitting next to me on more than one occasion. All the music was good, but the bit I liked best was that there was not one, not two, but *three* songs from Frozen!!! And one of them took place on a flying carpet which was really and truly up in the air and wafting around above us.

Which was not the only impressive bit of special effects. We had dragons spewing smoke, startling pyrotechnic explosions, a dragon shaped Cave of Wonders opening up before our very eyes, and a five minute lazar show just before the break. Multi coloured light shapes appeared in the air above us! MY VERY WORD!

Mama, who likes to peruse the programme in the interval, would like to give a big up to the business acumen and general logistical prowess of the production company, Jordan Productions, who run the Pantos in Stevenage at this point. She gathers that they have a whole stable of medium sized theatres for whom they put on these festive shows. Which means they can afford to splurge on the scenery and costumes, as they will definitely be getting their money’s worth when Aladdin, Cinderella and Robin Hood et al relocate round the circuit next year. So they do. You might be in the provinces, Mama, who is married to a snobby Moscovite, says, but the kit for Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre’s Pantos is always, therefore, very good. Mama’s money for next year’s Panto, looking at the offerings at the other locations and her imperfect memory of what has gone before, is on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs coming to her hometown next year, with an outside bet on Beauty and the Beast.

It’s probably the retro magic tricks which swung it for Mama this time though. Mama, child of the 70s that she is, likes seeing young women cut in half. I was less certain and needed reassuring that no permanent harm would come to her.

Mama was also impressed by the singing. The problem with Panto, she says, is that one of the requirements is to have actors you have actually heard of in the lead roles. This, she tells me, does not always make for a happy earful, as most of the ones who come to Stevenage used to work in soap operas. Especially, Eastenders.

Which is not particularly known for its fabulous musical numbers, apparently.

But this year Aladdin and friends had actual voices. Even the chappie from Eastenders. A Panto with a successful three part harmony is thing of beauty, Mama says. Almost better than the time they had Davy Jones from the Monkees. But not quite.

Especially the during the singalong. Thank god – they provided the words this year, Mama will never forget the shame of trying to belt out ‘There’s a worm at the bottom of the garden…’ order to win the deadly serious singing competition between the two halves of the audience without knowing one of the lines. Never assume, Panto people, never assume…

Aladdin at Stevenage Poster

So. Basically, Aladdin at the Gordon Craig Theatre is in most ways one of the better of Stevenage’s always enjoyable Pantos, and is extremely good value compared to the ones at the London theatres to boot. It’s running to 25th January, so there is still time to get down there and shout ‘it’s behind you’ at every available opportunity for reasons I do not really understand if you so wish.

Oh yes you do, oh no I don’t, oh yes you do. Says Mama, incomprehensibly.

Photo credit: I have used the official poster for Jordan Production’s Aladdin at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre. Clicking on the image will take you to the page where it appears on their website.

More Information

Gordon Craig Theatre website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about audience participation in pantomimes.

Address: Stevenage Arts and Leisure Centre, Lytton Way, Stevenage, Herts, SG1 1LZ

Times: Various, including afternoon and both early and later evening performances.

Tickets: Currently £15.50 per seat

By train: Stevenage station is right opposite the theatre, although Mama is genuinely sad to report the theatre is no longer the striking eyesore landmark it once was when covered with large yellow bubbles. There are regular trains out of Kings Cross and the fast ones take about half an hour (other directions are available).

Gordon Craig Theatre Stevenage

By bus: You are just in time to be able to catch one of the last 797 coaches from Victoria to Stevenage before the service is discontinued. The journey takes about 1 and a half hours. Other bus routes from different starting points are available.

By car: Stevenage is famous for its cycle paths (Oh no it isn’t, oh yes… Lets not, Mama eh?), but has extensive and relatively cheap parking all around the theatre. Stevenage itself is bang on the A1M, which is convenient for London (40 minutes to the outskirts). You can come from the other way too.

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.

The Great London Christmas Window Scavenger Hunt 2014

“I’ve got a treat for us today,” said Mama. Toys, we thought. A trip to the zoo, we got even more exited. Maybe even lunch at Macdonald’s. Lunch at MacDonald’s, with a Happy Meal toy at the zoo?


“We’re going to look at Christmasy shop windows around London!” Said Mama.

Mama thinks we should be more into walking. She’d like it to be walking around wild open spaces, preferably upwards towards the top of a smallish mountain, but our big city is curiously lacking in really large hills in the middle of nowhere so sometimes she makes do with the highways and byways of central London.

She recognises that we are less than keen on rambles with no discernible point. Thus the idea of the Great Christmas Window Scavenger Hunt 2014 was born. Won’t it be fun, Mama put to us, to go and look at all the festive offerings around town? Father Christmas and His reindeer! Tinsel!! Baubles!!! Cute winterproof animals!!!! High calorie foodstuffs carved into the shape of Christmas trees!!! Snooooooooooooooooow! Twinkley lights!!!! TOYS!!!!! And other such heartwarming scenes of rampant commercialism.

We were a bit dubious and had to be bribed with the promise of actually being allowed into a shop to look at overpriced plastic tat. Papa was a bit dubious too but Mama said he could have dinner in Chinatown, so he was won round. Babushka, well, I am not sure what Babushka thought but she came along anyway.

We started off at the John Lewis on Sloan Square. Penguins! Can’t go too far wrong with penguins in amusing positions Mama thought.

John Lewis and knitting penguins at Christmas

The ones with underwear on their heads were a particular hit with us children.

John Lewis and underwear penguins at Christmas

Mama felt it was a bit minimal and lacking in your actual jolly sparkly decoration. But then she managed to go the whole Christmas period without seeing That Advert and so is probably missing something.

John Lewis and yet more penguin action at Christmas

Harrods, I am pleased to say, did not disappoint Mama. You want a giant Santa with moving flying reindeer toting prominently placed dolly Elsa from Frozen? YES MAMA WE CERTAINLY DO! ELSA! LETITGOHEREISTANDLETITGOLETITGOLETITGOLETITGO! Sorry, where were we?

You want rotating men with antlers on their bowlers, despite the fact that Papa felt it was a potentially controversial reference to Joseph as a cuckold (whatever that is)?

Harrods and an odd choice of headgear at Christmas


You want miniature mousey dioramas with ACTUAL FALLING SNOW? Which admittedly were far too high up the wall for me, but then what are parents for?

Harrods where mice are definitely striring at Christmas

You want inadequately dressed women in chilly-looking forests? A giant clock? Handbags? Harrods had ’em all.

Harrods Happy New Year

Not sure what the rainbow stripy clothes in the window at the end have to do with the nativity, but I am young and some of the references go over my head. They were lovely and bright though so its all good.

We went into Harrods. Mama normally enjoys a good poke around this fabulous emporium of really REALLY expensive stuff. And the toilets. But on this occasion it was very very busy and not so much fun. I spent a lot of time being firmly towed through a huge wall of bodies (well, legs) as Mama and Papa tried to find the Christmas bit with only a brief pause to contemplate the price of caviar and enjoy the tiling in the food hall. Harrods, it seems, is large and somewhat labyrinthine, if also exceedingly shiny. When we eventually found the Christmas area, it was smaller than expected, although that might have been the effect of so many people. It did have an excellent advent calendar in the form of a porcelain dolls house where every door concealed another delicate Wedgewood ornament. A snip at many thousands of pounds. For some reason, us trying to play with it stressed Mama and Papa right out and we exited without going up to the toy floor. If you decide to take a look inside Harrods during peak Christmas shopping days with small children, Mama recommends going straight there, having worked out your route ahead of time. Or just giving the inside a miss altogether.

It’s certainly worth a wander around at some point, mind.

Mama and I wanted to look at the Harvey Nicks windows, but we were bundled onto the bus by the menfolk at this point so only just caught a glimpse as we shot past at the best speed a double decker caught in Knightsbridge traffic can manege. Lovely lighting, lovely dresses, lovely colourful trees is about all I can tell you.

Instead we headed for Fortnum and Mason, which, according to the windows, sells food. Very very beautiful food. Very beautiful food, all frosty and glittery and magical. We particularly liked the Christmas puddings, although I think my Wonderful Big Brother might have preferred the robins.

Fortnum and Mason, Christmas puddings and robins

Mama was also taken by the silver sleigh and the vodka. She must have been thirsty.

Fortnum and Mason, the sliver sleigh at Christmas

But having learned from our Harrods visit, we didn’t go inside. Mama says the national beverage they sell isn’t all that anyway – her Russian visitors usually prefer Yorkshire Tea. This does not bode well for the chocolates, however fabulous they look.

Onto Regent’s Street, which Mama had been planning to miss in favour of the more attractive and considerably less busy back alleyways. We overruled her because of the toy shop. Called Hamley’s, apparently. It’s a very popular toy shop is Hamley’s. Mama is not entirely sure why because aside from the demonstrators and the opportunity to play with some of the merchandise, there doesn’t seem to be that much here than you can get anywhere else where you can accomplish your spending without the risk of being trampled underfoot by three thousand maurauding small people and their six thousand pursuing parents.

Hamleys at Christmas

I think Mama is still in mouring after they shut down the massive MASSIVE department store in central Moscow called Detskii Mir (Children’s World). A whole floor of Barbies she tells me. And a full scale working carosel on the main floor. Allegedly it is due to reopen, but Mama is suspicious it will not be the same.

We have not had the pleasure, and are entirely entranced by the hawkers and hands on opportunities. We are also oblivious to Mama’s panic as she tries to keep both of us in view while many many pretty things beckon us this way and that in an environment we are much better at wiggling our way through than she is. However, luckily for the success of the outing, nobody got lost, suffocated or had an epic strop when refused immediate gratification of our consumer whim, although it was a close run thing when Big Brother found the Steiff cuddly animals section.

Next up, Liberty, with a cursory glance towards what Mama thinks are the most fun street Christmas lights. Who doesn’t like a giant Santa face decorated with headphones?

Carnaby Street at Christmas

Mama also really likes Liberty, which she thinks is the genuinely eccentric old money cousin to Harrods brash neovaux rich extravagance. Unfortunately for her, we were starting to get hungry at about this point and so did not take to the ship themed windows at all.

Liberty saw a number of ships sailing in

Mama managed to persuade us to briefly look in on Oxford Street and its floaty light balls, but we were soon retreating at full pelt towards the promise of noodles and spring rolls in China Town.

China Town at Christmas


Tantrums averted all round, we were ready for another leg, which is how we found out they have a small funfair on Leicester Square. If you don’t fancy the crowds of Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, this is a good alternative, especially if you like carousels, which Mama definitely does. There was also an excellent rollercoaster for small people and Papa had obviously let his sticky sweet pork balls go to his head too as he had a go at the archery. He nearly won too!

Leicester Square at Christmas

Then it was on to Trafalgar Square and the very tall but somewhat austerely decorated Norwegian pine tree, the traditional Christmas sound of busked bagpipes, and what Papa says is a very British nativity scene. See the woman doing all the difficult childcare work while the man lolls around chewing a straw? What is it with the incompetent Papa meme in this country, he would like to know. Of course, the nurses at the London hospital where Mama gave birth to my Wonderful Big Brother did single him out for special praise as an exemplary model of clued up fathering in Mama’s medical notes. But since they did this for changing a nappy without any special fuss or needing assistance, I am not sure what side of the argument this falls on. Mama says, you know your society is in trouble when a casual glance at adverts on Russian TV show a more equitable parenting lifestyle than the ones here. I think that’s a bit political for the Christmas episode of the blog, so all I will say is that we ran wildly around the fountains for a bit and then got the bus home.

Trafalgar Square and a very tall tree at Christmas

All in all I would say that as a thrilling day out for the under tens, going to look at Christmas windows isn’t as exciting as Mama thought it would be, although we did enjoy Christmas tree spotting, a sport which we carried on enthusiastically throughout the holiday period. Mama thinks that perhaps having some kind of additional bingo game incentive (the team that fills their score card of festive items first wins a chocolate reindeer!) might help, and that if you have less of an aversion to starting Christmas in November than she does then that might be the time to do it.

And next year they might have a fourteen foot Santa climbing up Selfidges while flinging sweeties to the children below. You can always hope.