Tring Natural History Museum, Hertfordshire

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

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

Interesting Mammals at Tring Natural History Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At small child eye level.

Taxidermy Video at Tring Natural History Museum

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

It was FABULOUS.

And surprisingly nobody had nightmares, not even Mama.

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

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

Fake rhino horn at Tring Natural History Museum

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

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

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

Antelope with a big nose at Tring Natural History Museum

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

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

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

Polar Bear at Tring Natural Hisotry Museum

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

Vampire Deer at Tring Natural History Museum

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

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

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

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

Rams at Tring Natural History Museum

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

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

More Information

The museum’s website.

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

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

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

Admission: Free

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

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

ANIMALTALES

Scottish Owl Centre, West Lothian

Almost the entire point of going to Scotland as far as my Amazing Big Brother is concerned is visiting the Scottish Owl Centre, conveniently situated midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow on the M8.

Owl slide at the Scottish Owl Centre
This slide is whizzy! And very cool.

This is because of the owls (surprise!).

There are a lot of them though. Big ones, medium ones, small ones, really really small ones, white ones, grey ones, brown ones, ones with speckled feathers, stripy patterns, spots, owls that hide away in burrows with alarmingly long legs, fishing owls, owls from hot countries, cold countries and tropical rainforests (Tropical! Rainforest! Owls! Says Mama, delightedly), owls with black eyes, yellow eyes and orange eyes (there’s a story behind that), owls with signs on the doors suggesting you stay weeeeeeell back so that they do not savage your little fingers, hooting owls, screeching owls, owls which make other hauntingly beautiful noises while you eat your sandwiches and play happily in the sunshine, and lots of owls who are, apparently, getting ready to hatch out new baby owls before our very eyes.

Which is reassuring from an ‘are the owls enjoying themselves in those cages’ kind of way.

And all of these owls had that thousand yard solemn unblinking stare and did that distinctive wiggly head movement as they watched me go by.

Tropical owls at the Scottish Owl Centre
Tropical owls! Tropical! Owls! Wanting to eat me for lunch! Cooooooool!

My Amazing Big Brother is convinced this means they are trying to get a bead on the aerodynamic possibilities of swooping down and carrying me off like a mouse.

Sometimes it’s quite worrying being small. But it certainly added a bit of spice to our visit.

Burrowing owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
This one will probably not be able to make off with me.

But despite the variety of owls, the Scottish Owl Centre is not really a full day out, even if, like my Amazing Big Brother you insist on going round twice, very very slowly, getting Mama to read all the placards. In fact, it will probably only take you forty five minutes to an hour tops to saunter around all the owl enclosures, although there is also a giant fast tube slide and a small crawlabout maze to occupy you next to a picnic area, and some oldschool educational displays in a covered space, which do an excellent job of conveying really quite a lot of information about owls, their habitats and habits in a simple, but fun interactive manner. We particularly recommend the one where you have to stick your hands in squidgy wet artificial snow and play hunt the voles. It’s FABULOUSLY gross.

British owls at the Scottish Owl Centre
My Amazing Big Brother got all of these right – can you?

Luckily there also is an excellent and quite extensive adventure play area right outside in Polkemmet Country Park, where the Owl Centre is situated. There’s a sandpit with its own built in sand toys, a wooden castle, various climbing nets and structures, a zipwire, and swings.

Playground at Polkemmet Country Park
Please be as amused as Mama is by the can of Iron Bru.

There’s also a real life steam engine parked and ready to climb over, although much to our disappointment, you couldn’t actually turn the handles, stoke the fires or set it moving.

Steam train at Polkemmet Country Park
Choo choo!

Tickets for the Scottish Owl Centre are valid all day so you could pop in and out after playing there, and there are also woodland walks to had, although much of the park is taken up by a golf course, which Mama says might spoil things, although I think she might be quoting Churchill there.

Why would you want to pop back in, I hear you ask?

Because the highlight of your visit to the Scottish Owl Centre will be the thirty minute flying shows that take place twice daily in winter and three times in the warmer months.

It’s not just that wherever you sit in the covered flying area you will feel (but not hear, their silent flight not being a myth) an owl swoop millimeters past you, or, if you go to the show where you get to lie down on the floor while the owl skims your nose, over you (which frankly is thrilling enough), but that the handler’s chat which accompanies the display is packed full of genuinely interesting tidbits of owly facts as well as a fair amount of background into the history of the place and its work as a conservation centre.

Grey grey  owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
Release the owls!

The particularly nice thing is that each show is different, with different owls, different information and even different handlers, so Mama and my Amazing Big Brother think it is well worth sticking around for more than just the one. I, on the other hand, was enthralled for the entirety of the first show, but I did find that my three year old attention had wandered a bit by the end of the second one. This was the reason that we didn’t go back for the third.

I think our favourite bit, though, was when we got to HOLD THE BIRDS! One of my Amazing Big Brother’s most prized possessions is the photo of him with an owl on his arm from our first visit here, but that time he was only my age so he had to make do with a smaller owl. This time, he was determined to hold a really big one, and so he did, even though it was so heavy he could barely manage it on his own.

I took one look at the size of the Milky Eagle Owl’s beak and declared myself quite happy with the exceptionally cute White Faced Owl, whose parents Mama had only just that minute been admiring. You have to pay extra for this privilege, of course, especially if you want the centre to print you off a photo, but we are convinced it is well worth it.

White-faced owl at the Scottish Owl Centre
This was my owl! Isn’t it cute!

Plus, if you have any burning owl questions still left unanswered, this is the time to ask them. The advantage of this small venue is that the people manning this attraction are fully involved in the work of the centre and very happy to chat about it.

There isn’t any food outlet on the Owl Centre site, barring some tubs of ice cream in the reception foyer. The café in the grounds of the park (which otherwise gets rave reviews, Mama understands) was also closed when we went. But you can take sandwiches. There are certainly some attractive places to eat them both inside and outside the centre and the website for the Polkemmet Country Park also boasts a site you can hire for your very own barbeque in the spring and summer months.

All in all, a child less relentlessly fixated on the animal world than my Amazing Big Brother might not think that the Scottish Owl Centre is quite worth a drive of two days with an overnight stop at an unrevamped motel in a service station off the A1 to get there, but my Amazing Big Brother certainly does. I’m not joking – he’s been going on and on about in the three years since our last visit and clearly did not accept Mama’s description of quite how far it was as any kind of barrier for a weekly trip.

Mama and I are a touch less enthusiastic, but we both agree that if you are in the area and the weather is even halfway decent it is definitely somewhere you should have on your list.

More Information

The Scottish Owl Centre’s website.

The Polkemmet Country Park page on the West Lothian council’s website.

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

Address: Polkemmet Country Park, Whitburn EH47 0AD, Scotland

Opening: Feb, March, Sept, Oct, Nov: 11.30 to 16.00 (flying displays 12.30 and 14.30). April to August: 10.30 to 17.00 (flying displays 11.30, 13.30 and 15.30). December to January: closed.

Admission: Adult: £7.50, child (3-15): £5.50, family (2+2): £24

By car: Leave the M8, which runs between Edinburgh and Glasgow, at junction 4a. The Centre (and Polkemmet Country Park) is clearly signposted from there on brown signs. The Centre is probably about 45 minutes from both cities. The car parks in the park are FREE!

By public transport: Apparently, buses which run through Whitburn and Harthill pass the entrance to the park.