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

Moskvarium Aquarium, Moscow

Mama was outraged when Papa took us to the aquarium Moskvarium, Moscow’s newest animal attraction, without her over the summer. Particularly as he managed to lose my Adorable Big Brother half way round. Serves Papa right for clearly not reading my account of London’s Sealife Aquarium in which I specifically warn people of the dangers of such dark, packed but fatally fascinating animal attractions. But the main issue was what a wonderful story for the blog Mama missed!

So when we had completed a grim-faced march across the exhibition complex VDNH in even for Russia unseasonably early horizontal frozen sleet on our way to what turned out to be recently closed exhibition of animatronic dinosaurs, she didn’t need much convincing to nip round the corner to the giant blue box covered with bubble pictures instead. Mama loves VDNH, but she is forced to admit that in the colder months is it possibly a bit too extensive when you are actually trying to get somewhere specific, especially when that somewhere specific is unavailable.

Moskvarium Moscow

Much of Moscow apparently considers Mama a bit of a nelly though judging by the constant stream of people heading towards the Moskvarium ahead of us, behind us and even as we were leaving quite a bit later in the day. Of course, Moskvarium is a great name. My Adorable Big Brother was amused by it for ages after he worked out the clever smashing together of its location and function. No wonder people are prepared to suit up their young in the heavy-duty snow gear and head out for a lengthy trek to get to it.

Not that Moscovites need much convincing to get out the heavy-duty snow gear for their kids. I feel decidedly underdressed, even if autumn has returned and it is 15 degrees centigrade outside.

Anyway, let us return to the Moskvarium, where there are fish.

Fish at the Moskvarium Moscow

A lot of fish, as this is now Europe’s largest aquarium. The Moskvarium is arranged in what I am inaccurately going to describe as a rectangular semi-circle, which basically goes fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish, and then you get to a large central hall with the more interesting aquatic livestock and then it’s fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish fish all the way to the finale of sharks and seals at the end.

To be honest, I find the fish a bit boring, especially after the first five hundred tanks. I allowed Mama a few moments of awe at the toothy looking pikes near the entrance, but then I started agitating to get to the crocodiles.

Crocodile two at the Moskvarium Moscow

Crocodiles are cool. There they hang, only their cunning little eyes peeping out above the water, but underneath, underneath there is this great long dinosaur body with a giant tail.

Crocodile at the Moskvarium Moscow

I know this because one of the advantages of having the space of what I am told is the largest aquarium in Europe is that unlike the London Sealife aquarium you can afford to really make a meal of a number of different habitats rather than relying on having one really good big tank and making visitors squint through relatively small windows off the sort of narrow corridors that do not encourage visitors to linger and get a really good look at everything else. The crocodile cage in the Moskvarium is a giant affair housed in a giant room where the only thing stopping the water and the toothy predator from sploshing all over you is a tall thin sheet of glass.

Turtle at the Moskvarium Moscow

You can also sit and sip coffee and get a snack next to what will be some dugongs when they have arrived, which they haven’t yet. Now that’s a view. Will be a view.

On the other hand, Mama would say that when it comes to what she thinks should be the deep-sea showstopper full of sharks and pretty fish there doesn’t seem to be much depth to them, which turns it into mere rectangular water cage rather than conveying the proper impression that you really have a window onto the ocean. The designers lack the desperate imagination of Sealife in London here in fact. Possibly the excitement of having so much space to play with – this is Europe’s largest aquarium apparently – has has caused them to be complacent,  although I also think Mama has spent too many Saturday mornings glued to the reality TV show Tanked! about the large gentlemen who install aquariums across America (much more thrilling than you might expect. Say Mama and my Wonderful Big Brother). She has become jaded.

Shark tank at the Moskvarium Moscow

Or possibly, she had just had enough by the time we came to that point. I know I had.

Despite the fact that the last set of tropical tanks with the most colourful and attractive fish so far also give you fun to climb knobbly plastic rocks so you can scramble up to view them, my fish appreciation capacity had completely run out just before we got to that section. The Moskvarium, being Europe’s biggest (did I mention that already?), is about twenty fish tanks too large for me. This wouldn’t have been a problem, really, except that my Adorable Big Brother was just getting into his stride. The last couple of thousand metres of our trip pleased nobody, but I am louder, so I won.

Lion fish at the Moskvarium Moscow

As far as my Adorable Big Brother is concerned they save the best for last though and that is the seals. From Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake and surely one of the great eco-tourism destinations out east in Siberia. Personally, I think one seal looks much like another. Perhaps these ones do seem somewhat rounder than your average sea-lion, but equally as obliging then it comes to rolling around in the water, splashing each other and performing somersaults. My Adorable Big Brother was transfixed. I lay on a handy beanbag, stared at the ceiling in fished out apathy and ate prunes.

But!

Even I perked up when just as we were about to leave, feeding time happened, because feeding time at the Moskvarium seal enclosure is like a mini show, with pairs of seals teamed up with a keeper who combines slipping them their tidbits with practising all their best tricks. Very very cool.

Of course, this may just be last-ditch advertising for the shows before you leave. Mama suspects that’s where you get to see the killer whales, the dolphins and the other big aquatic mammals properly, as the viewing into bits of their tanks don’t give you much of a view, especially of the dolphins.

Of course, this probably means they have a decent amount of space to hide from us in, but I am four and I do not care about this.

Mama is a bit unclear as to how you get to go to the shows (buying a ticket would probably help, yeah, Mama?) because she didn’t seem to see any signs pointing the way while we were there, which is good for her bank account, but terrible for her curiosity. Luckily my Adorable Big Brother has not twigged to the extra entertainment possibility on offer yet, but as soon as he does I expect he will be on translation duties as we attempt to track the auditorium down.

In the meantime we were stuck with standing in front of the large window with the view of the largely empty tank, waiting for the killer whales to drift past. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting. And waiting and waiting and waiting.

Killer Whale at the Moskvarium Moscow

And then we went to play with the handling tanks.

The largely unsupervised handling tanks.

The largely unsupervised handling tanks where you can stick your arms in right up to the shoulder to chase the fish and the rays around. The rays are great! Very slow-moving!

Mama considers this wrong for all sorts of reasons, and after we had stood in the toilets with our sleeves under a blow dryer for a bit she marched us severely over to the colouring in wall, which was surprisingly popular with all sizes of people. Perhaps I was not the only one who was having fish processing problems in Europe’s largest aquarium?

It could be people processing problems. There were a lot of them there by the time we were getting towards the end. Unless you are used to London crowds everywhere, in which case you will be wondering where everybody is.

But back to the fish! The Moskvarium is definitely worth a look, especially with older children who have more stamina than I do for a trek around what may be Europe’s largest aquarium. Get there early to avoid the crowds, and say hi to the crocodiles from me.

More information

The Moskvarium’s website (in Russian because the English version is pretty minimal. This is what Google translate is for).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the African Dwarf Crocodile.

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

Opening: 10am to 10pm, everyday except the last Monday of every month.

Admission: At weekends and on holidays, adults and children over 120cm: 1000 roubles (£10) and children up to 120cm: 600 roubles (£6). Weekdays, it’s 600 roubles and 400 roubles respectively. There are family tickets available too.

By metro: From VDNH (on the orange line) you need to walk through the VDNH exhibition park. This is quite a walk. The Moskvarium is in the same area as the Polytechnic Museum, behind the giant space rocket.

There are also trams and such which stop at VDNH.

By other means: Dunno.

ANIMALTALES

Wander Mum

Trolleybus Parade 2015, Moscow

There is something splendidly foreign about trams and trolleybuses.

Yes, alright, Mama is aware that London, Manchester and Edinburgh (at least) have their own versions, but let’s face it they are at best curiosities and at worst the local council’s expensive vanity project. It’s not like having the whole town crisscrossed by overhead wiring.

Trolleybus parade 2015 Moscow

Of course, many people feel the same way about double-decker buses. Actually, I feel that way about double-decker buses. Nothing like riding on the top floor! At the front! Especially, and you have no idea how much is galls Mama to admit this, the revamped old style Routemasters which the um flamboyant? Let’s go with flamboyant. The flamboyant mayor of London, Boris Johnson, spent a lot of money bringing back on the more touristy routes in London. No, really, if you are there I insist you wander down to the bottom of Hyde Park and pick up a number 9 going towards the centre of town. You get to climb up w a windy staircase at the back! Even the seats are retro styling! Never gets old.

Mind you, Mama quite liked the controversial bendy buses which the um flamboyant? Let’s go with flamboyant. The flamboyant mayor of London, Boris Johnson, got rid of. Luckily we have a lot of them here in Moscow out in the suburbs. There is no danger of them squashing cyclists because nobody cycles. Mama is still twitching as she crosses roads in anticipation of being mown down by a phalanx of manically determined two wheelers attacking her out of nowhere in rush hour but in about five more years she may stop obsessively checking for this oncoming menace before she steps out. PTSD I say.

Bicycle and trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015

Mama is a bit of a transport geek, isn’t she? You might be wondering if she has a little notebook full of train serial numbers.

No.

It’s just that a) if she is on a bus in London, she is not trying to drive across it and b) there’s really nothing like everyday transport solutions to produce a delightful frisson of otherness when you are somewhere unfamiliar. Mama really believes that when it comes to abroad, obviously there’s something in the showstopper sights, the must-visit museums, the never to be repeated experiences, the explosive taste sensations and whatnot. But the most interesting thing about it for Mama is the oddly flavoured chocolate bars, the infinitesimal look of horror people give as she absent-mindedly tries to shake their hand and the weird-ass programmes they show on TV.

It’s why this is not a proper travel blog. Mama actively dislikes travel if you must know. She thinks that on her budget it sounds uncomfortable, and she also likes to be very sure of where her next coffee is coming from. This goes double now she has children.

Living in another country, on the other hand, now that’s cool.

It’s unlikely, for example, that if you were just a casual visitor to Moscow this last weekend you would have bothered turning out for the increasingly annual trolleybus parade (now in its third year) to celebrate the 82nd anniversary of trolleybuses in the capital of Russia. Not least because Mama had to venture on to the Russian Internet to find out exactly what roads they were going to be trundling along at what time.

Red and white trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015

In which she failed, to be honest. Mama considers the actual parade scheduling information provided by the various websites she ineptly skimmed to be insufficient for the purposes of pitching up somewhere along the route with two easily bored children.

Luckily, they were also planning to have a static display of the trolleybuses in question down by the river, opposite Gorky Park. So we went to that, aiming to arrive around oneish so as to give the trolleybuses time to parade there on the off-chance that the widely quoted 12 noon start was referring to the parade and not to the time they would available for climbing all over.

Because, let’s face it, there is nothing as exciting as getting on, walking through and climbing off a trolleybus which looks almost, but not entirely, like the ones we get on and off on a regular basis every day here in Moscow.

Modern trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015

Nicely painted on the outside, though. And there were people inside who were there to answer any and all transport questions that might occur to you as you saunter through the carriage. So of course, my Brilliant Big Brother asked one of them about the giraffe picture on one of the posters inside one of the cars. I am happy to report that trolleybus experts also know their animal factology too, or at least that this representation wasn’t a giraffe as such but a fantasy animal on a book cover connected to the person the trolleybus was dedicated to. Good to get that cleared up.

Yellow trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015

However, Mama recommends that if you should visit around this time next year you start at the other end of the line of trolleybuses because by the time we got to the older, more interesting models we children were a bit trolleybused out, and really really long queues were starting to develop for the pleasure of nosing around inside them. Mama managed to drag us onto the one with the extra-large windows but after that we rebelled and insisted on exploring the child friendly activities.

Trolleybus with big windows at the trolleybus parade 2015

Which mostly consist of painting opportunities.

Cardboard painted trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015

Regular readers are probably familiar with Mama’s view of the British insistence on including water play in all playgrounds or play areas, which, if you are an irregular visitor here, mostly consists of heartfelt swearing. When we moved to Moscow, Mama was smug in that she was pretty sure that Russians would never ever spring that on her except in the height of summer. Keeping your children warm is a concept people take very seriously here. Water play in anything less than 30 degrees centigrade is almost as bad as draughts.

But Mama was complacent too soon as what she has discovered is that in Moscow, the menace of unexpected dampness has been replaced by the Russian insistence on providing kids with things to paint at every public celebration.

Why? Whhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyy? Whyohwhyohwhy? Says Mama.

Woohoo! Say I. And emerge from inside the cardboard trolleybus model twenty minutes later with a new colour of hat and an interesting new pattern on my coat.

3D cardboard painted trolleybus at the trolleybus parade 2015

And that’s despite the fact that they’d pretty much run out of paints by the time we got there.

That is, frankly, the expat experience in a nutshell. You really like bits of your home country and (hopefully) your host country, but some things from both places are intensely irritating. What you want is a third pick and mix option where children can be entertained in a dry and mess free manner. Says Mama. I’d go for hot and cold running kolbassa and unlimited access to flavoured rice cakes myself.

At the trolleybus parade there were also food vans, a stage pumping out dancing and loud music, presumably trolleybus related although Mama did not really pay much attention to this, some giant rabbits organising children’s games, lots of balloons and people wandering around in period clothing for you to pose with. All good clean fun.

Costumes at the trolleybus parade 2015

We hung about for about an hour all told and then, as it started to get very busy indeed, bailed over the bridge to Gorky Park, which has some lovely autumnal avenues to gallop around, children with remote-controlled cars to play with and hot chocolate. Mama recommends that should you decide to attend the trolleybus parade next year, you turn up earlier rather than later. Or bring a book.

queue at the trolleybus parade 2015

And fortuitously, as we were waiting for the regular trolleybus to take us home, we caught the trolleybus parade after all as the celebration wound up and the trolleybuses made their way past us back to wherever they live when not on display in the centre of Moscow. All part of the plan! Mama said. Unconvincingly.

More information

One of the pages Mama read when trying to figure out where to pick up the trolleybus parade.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Ebbelwei-Express, an unusual tram in Frankfurt am Main.

Location: This year, the static part of the festival was down by the river on Frunzenskaya Embankment, next to the Krymskiy Bridge.

Allegedly, the trolleybus parade started at Filivskiovo bus/ trolleybus station, although whether that was at 12 or an earlier time in order to reach the river by 12 Mama couldn’t tell you. She has put it on her list of things to find out (things Papa will find out) by next year.

Admission: Free

Metro: The nearest station is Park Kultury on the red and brown lines. You could also use Oktyabrskaya on the orange and brown lines if you don’t mind a bit of a walk over the bridge down to the other side of the river, or another red line station, Frunzenskaya (head over the road and down from the large square building you pop up out of the Metro from) if you want to wander left along the embankment of the Moscow river past the imposing government building first.

By trolleybus: Of course, you probably should arrive (or leave) by trolleybus. The circular B and BK routes stop right by the river (and outside Gorky Park) and then take you right round the centre of Moscow, hitting a number of Metro stations on the way.

Joining up with #WeekendWanderlust

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The Experimentanium, Moscow

The rules of the Experimentanium in Moscow explicitly forbid you to bring your double bass along. A bit big, they seem to think. Mama, the former double bass player, was duly outraged.

On the upside, they are quite keen on you touching the exhibits.

This is because the Experimentanium is less of a museum and more of all the good bits of the Science Museum in London, that is to say the play areas, installed in a large open plan building, with a healthy dose of the sort of crowd-pleasing interactive weirdness favoured by Edinburgh’s House of Illusions to spice it up further.

No wading though incomprehensible installations of machinery you aren’t allowed to climb on, just three floors of push button fun.

Electromagneticism at the Experimentanium Museum

There are explanatory placards though. And horrifyingly, many of them are in English. Mama insisted on reading some them out to us, especially when she couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to be doing. From which I gather that I may think mucking around with water is pure entertainment but actually the Bermuda Triangle sinks balls of methane because of ships’ density. Or something. Lots of learning to be done, clearly, as you make your way round the play stations *cough* experimental lab benches.

To underline its educational credentials, the Experimentanium divides its experiments up into zones of like-minded activities.

Handkerchiefs at the Experiementanium Museum

There are mechanical objects to manipulate and puzzles to solve. Mama was delighted to be able to demonstrate her superior intellect by smugly completing the one with the goat, the wolf, the vegetation and the boat in double quick time. I am suspicious. Mama is very old. I think she might have heard about it before.

There’s a electricity and electromagnetic area, where things stick together inexplicably and you can build yourself all sorts of strangely shaped metal towers out of iron filings.

There’s a windzone which has a fully sittable-on FLYING CARPET (I shit you not, says Mama, which I think is supposed to be high praise) and the real life mini tornado, which had Mama transfixed for a number of minutes. Mama clearly does not come from a place where tornadoes are a menace rather than a curiosity. I apologise to large sections of America.

There’s the optical illusions bit, where we all got delightfully frustrated trying to pick up a holographic sweetie, where we scrambled round a tilted house until Mama decided the cognitive dissonance was triggering her latent travel sickness, and where we got to muck around in a mirror maze (Dunk dunk dunk dunk dunk. My Super Big Brother has not got any better at picking his way though these). We also tried to navigate our way round a room in pitch blackness with only the shouts of family members watching on the infrared camera to guide us from the outside. We did that THREE TIMES!

Holographic sweet at the Experimentanium Museum

There is the waterzone, which has one of those tables you are supposed to navigate your boat down with only the ability to open and close various lock gates and direct the odd current (but where everybody under the age of ten just gets sodden up to the the elbows happily driving their ships around manually). Mama thought the water was looking a tad grubby in some of the surrounding tanks while we were there and got very busy with the wetwipes afterwards, which is unlike her. But she also had a lot of fun balancing the ping-pong balls on the jets of water herself, so I reckon she didn’t care that much.

Water table at the Experimentanium Museum

And then there’s the acoustics zone. Mama recommends you do not enter this if you are in any way of a nervous disposition. Let’s just say that the full-sized drum kit you could whack away at to your heart’s content was one of the quieter things, shall we, and tiptoe away while our eardrums are still intact. But not until you have had a jolly good go on everything, of course. BOOM CRASH BANG WHALLOP SCREECH SCREEEEEEECH PLINKETY PLINKETY PLONK.

Mama particularly enjoyed the machine where you could test your hearing of different frequencies. Her latent competitive nature insisted on turning the knob ALL THE WAY ROUND. Luckily, being a former bass player and thus sitting next to the brass section throughout her teenage years means that she has already very little hearing left anyway. Of course you are not supposed to be able to hear it, but the point where it gets impossibly squeaky is a sensation of its own.

Frequency at the Experimentanium Museum

But best of all is the bubble room. Mama and I have now been to many many of the Science Museum’s bubble shows, and while I still highly recommend them, the Experimentanium has upped the ante by providing us with all the equipment we need to DO IT ALL OURSELVES. Yes, we too have now wafted around the giant bubble wand to make bubble snakes, and we have personally stood inside the giant bubble ring and operated the pulley to enfold ourselves inside a person-sized bubble. In your FACE, the Science Museum (although with grateful thanks as our superior technique was much informed by your examples)!

Bubble machine at the Experimentanium Museum

If you are thinking that this sounds damp and not a little sticky you would be correct. But the room has clearly been specially prepped with, among other things, special non slip flooring and a sink to wash your hands afterwards. There are toilets are pretty close by too, which is helpful. Either way even Mama agreed that it was well worth it. WELL WORTH IT.

The Experimentanium has shows of its own, mind. No idea what they are like as we didn’t go. Mama considers the basic experience sufficient considering you have to pay extra. She may, of course, change her mind when we are in the middle of February and really really fed up of snow. Luckily, the Experimentanium looks as though it can soak up a fair number of visitors. On the day we went it was wet and busy without ever approaching the levels of being rammed full which make visiting such venues unpleasant. She is hopeful that this will hold true in the depths of winter too.

The Experimentanium also boasts a surprisingly modest shop, given the size of the place, and a very reasonably priced café. Mama would have preferred it if the café followed the usual Russian café tradition of being entirely chips and chicken nuggets free, but we wouldn’t. At least it wasn’t closed, and shows no sign of ever shutting its doors arbitrarily. And we all approved of the toys you could bring to your table and play around with while you ate. We also admired the lavishly supplied birthday party table set up next to us. If the Experimentanium only had animals, I reckon my Super Big Brother would be well up for coming here for his come the summer.

So the Experimentanium Museum is definitely somewhere that you should have on your list of places to hang out with children in Moscow, and let’s face it, places you can go and amuse yourselves if you don’t have kids too. It’s large, well-organised, interesting and educational to boot. And would stand up to repeated visits as there are so many things to play with, you’ll almost certainly find yourself fascinated by something different each time you go.

Plus, there is a trampoline park in a building next door, so if you feel like making a really long indoor day out of it, you can. I am pretty sure Mama really wants to go and jump around madly, and I am sure that we will be doing so in the not so distant future. But that will be a story for another time.

Photo Credits

Mama’s camera was being difficult on our visit, but luckily the nice people at the Experimentanium let her use some of their photos. Our visit was our own idea and at our own expense, however.

More information

The Experimentanium Museum’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Brainiac – Science Abuse! the TV programme.

Address: Leningradskii Prospekt d.80, k.11, Moscow, 127015

Opening: 9.30am to 7pm seven days a week.

Admission: Adults – between 450 to 650 roubles (£4.50 – £6.50). It’s cheapest on Mondays and most expensive on weekends. Children over 3 – between 350 to 550 roubles (£3.50 – £5.50). Family tickets and discounts for those with more than three children are also available.

By Metro: The nearest station is Sokol on the darker green line.

The steps up to the exit are in the centre of the platform. You need to follow the signs for Baltiiskaya Street and go right up the massive highway as you exit the station building. When you have completed the short walk to the junction for Baltiiskaya Street, turn right along it and walk for a minute or so until you see an archway entrance to a courtyard on the opposite side of the street with a large Experimentanium sign in orange letters above it. This is where you cross the street, using the pedestrian crossing. It’s important to come back the same way because there isn’t a crossing at the top of the street. Go through the archway, and the Experimentanium is the building on your right. You can’t miss it because it is covered in actually pretty cool murals.

By other means: Buses and trolley buses exist. There also seems to be some car parking in the courtyard, but it could be reserved for other buildings. Whatever. Go by Metro is Mama’s advice.

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Location, location, location and Moscow Zoo, Russia

The most memorable thing about Moscow Zoo, according to Mama, is its location, which just goes to show that she has probably now been to too many animal attractions. At this stage in her career as a parent of a hopeful zoo keeper, Mama’s ability to take interested in yet another round of zebras, toucans and orangutans is decidedly tepid. You’ve seen one spectacled bear, she is starting to think, and you have seen them all.

Bear at Moscow Zoo

Zoos are really starting to have to have a unique selling point beyond the animals for her to really sit up and pay attention.

This could be why the Moscow Zoo’s entrance is fashioned as a dramatic, if mostly plastic (or possibly fibreglass), mountain.

Moscow Zoo entrance
We’re going to the zoo!

But it has to be said that after the promise of this once you get inside, the first thing you will see is a giant pond.

Full of ducks.

Duck Filled Pond at Moscow Zoo
Ducks! Hurrah!

A bold choice for an opener, Mama thinks, even if they aren’t mallards, but that’s before she spotted the flamingos in the far corner. And indeed once you have schlepped round the perimeter of the water for a few hours, you will find on the other side the usual array of big and small wild cats, bears, giraffes, odd looking cows, more birds ranging from tiny colourful flitty parrots though haughty storking cranes, paddling wading birds to giant hulking vultures, elephants, bats, wolves and penguins.

White tiger at Moscow Zoo
Big cat!
Shaggy cow at Moscow Zoo
Funny looking cow!

Mama is bemused by the penguins to be honest. Moscow Zoo, being as it is in Russia, a country that gets pretty damn chilly in the winter, has special indoor habitats as well as the outdoor spaces for a number of its most popular animals from warmer climes. But its penguins are not outdoors because the zoo seems to have acquired the penguins which live in warm places.

Mama thinks this is pure contrariness.

Other prime attractions appear to be feeding the flamingos and doing the mouse spotting trail. Mama disapproves of the practice of flinging the flamingos the crusts from your sandwiches, which appears to be something of a Muscovite tradition, but what, precisely, the difference between poisoning the exotic pink birds, who at least get proper nutritional supplements from their keepers, and poisoning the common old ducks and seagulls, who in London almost certainly survive mainly on toddler thrown bread, she cannot actually pinpoint.

Flamingos at Moscow Zoo
Apparently ‘do not feed’ means something else in Russian.

The mouse spotting game is much less controversial. The zoo appears to have released any number of small largely white rodents throughout its enclosures, who will pop out at random moments next to this meercat, that lynx or the other mountain goat to surprise and delight any visitors who might be thinking that seeing a gibbon lick its private parts is not thrilling enough. I suspect there might be a prize for the family who see the highest number. You should have a go! It’s great!

Mice at Moscow Zoo
Release the mice!

By now you will have completed a full circle of the lake, and are thinking about where to go once you leave. This would be a mistake, because you have only, in fact, done half Moscow Zoo, so you’d be better off having something to eat.

The Moscow Zoo has been undergoing renovations in the last few years and these are still not quite finished, so the odd corner here and there may be closed when you go. But one of the things they have finished upgrading is the food outlets, and there are now cafés dotted around at very regular intervals, although none of these seem to be of the indoor type, which could be interesting in the depths of winter. Of course, there are any number of eateries on the way in or the way out and plenty of places for you to sit and eat sandwiches if you’d rather do that.

To get to the other half, you climb another fibreglass (or possibly plastic) mountain (soon to be upgraded, apparently), take the bridge across the road and descend to another duck filled pond past the giant sloth enclosure. And then it’s otters, goats, pelicans, lions, reptiles, monkeys, gibbons, orangutans, chimps, gorillas, zebras and polar bears all the way to the exit.

Reptile House at Moscow Zoo
Cleverly placed metal walkway for small children!

Mama particularly enjoys the polar bears, mainly because there is an artificial snow making machine in their habitat, which is amusing because Russia, and because they always seem to have a cub on the go, which Mama always finds reassuring in a zoo.

Polar Bear at Moscow Zoo
Artificial snow! Because in Moscow, you can never have too much snow!

Just before the exit there is the petting zoo. Chickens, mostly. But also goats, sheep and a couple of cows in the corner. The Moscow Zoo has also wisely anticipated the rise of the selfie and provided a whole bunch of mosaic animal sculptures for visitors to pose on and around on their way out. Very cool. We have about a thousand of these snaps by now.

mosaic bear at Moscow Zoo
Selfie bear is waiting!

Anyway. Back to the location. Did you spot its fabulousness?

What Mama finds absolutely fascinating about the Moscow Zoo, and what keeps her happy about going back and back is the way that there you are, admiring the zebra in its semblance of an African Savannah, and you look up and see the apartment blocks dotted all around. It is frankly not a little freaky. Juxtapositioning and other such impressive sounding words. Plus, imagine having a flat up there, Mama likes to think, although not out loud in case my Animaltastic Big Brother overhears her.

Zebra giraffe ostrich at Moscow zoo
Check out that real estate!

All in all, the Moscow Zoo is one of the most popular destinations for those with children in the capital, not least because of its extremely reasonably priced entrance tickets. Children under the age of seventeen are FREE!

(Mama is allowing y’all a few minutes to boggle at that).

(Boggled out yet?)

Of course, in summer this means it gets very busy indeed, especially at weekends. Papa recommends that you go off season. Mama recommends that you sort out an also very attractively-priced season ticket. I insist you find the horses and my Animaltastic Big Brother doesn’t care what you do as long as you don’t stop him from going again and again and again any time soon.

More information

The Moscow Zoo’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about keeping mice as pets.

Address: Bolshaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa, 1, Moscow, Russia, 123242

Opening: Moscow Zoo is open 10 am to 6pm Tuesday to Sunday. The zoo is closed on Mondays.

Admission: Adults – 500 roubles. Children under the age of seventeen are FREE. I’ll just repeat that. A major zoo in a capital city allows children under the age of seventeen (and also pensioners and students) in for FREE.

By metro: Barrikadnaya (purple line) or Krasnopesnenskaya (brown circle line) are very close to the main entrance (and connected to each other).

By other means: Just take the tube, yeah?

Gorodskaya Ferma / Городская Ферма at VDNH, Moscow

So you think that summer holidays in the UK are looooooooong, do you? Well, if you are my age you probably don’t actually, but I gather the odd Mama here and there does. Anyway. Spare a thought for all those Russian parents out there. They start the long haul at the beginning of JUNE, people, and don’t stop until the 1st September.

There are many strategies Muscovites have for dealing with this. A popular one is packing the kids off to the datcha with the grandparents for the duration. But not everybody has a glorified allotment with a larger than usual shed on it and so Moscow is a particularly ripe spot for child-friendly profit-driven attractions.

One of these is the new(ish) Gorodskaya Ferma, or City Farm, at the exhibition complex VDNH, which is fast becoming the place in Moscow to house such things. The Polytechnic Museum has its temporary exhibition here, and Europe’s biggest aquarium has likewise just opened its doors.  And since the words ‘farm’ and ‘animals’ go together like ‘pelmeni’ and ‘smetana’, we inevitably found our way there within a short time of arriving in Russia’s capital.

Campfire at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

What we found is that Gorodskaya Ferma is more of a boutique farmette that your actual sprawling acres of muddy husbandry. Which is fine, especially as what immediately caught our attention when we stepped inside was the well designed play area. It was, in fact, quite some time before we prised ourselves away from the hammocks, the climbing nets, the slides and the sandpit and went in search of the live entertainment.

Play area at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

And there we found rabbits. Who seemed bent on escaping their enclosure. Some disinterested sheep. A handful of decidedly interested goats.

Goats at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Two cows. DONKEYS (I liked the DONKEYS – they are practically HORSES). And geese and chickens. Who have rather fabulous houses.

Chicken house at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

And ducks. Who have  rather splendid pom pom feather headdresses.

And all of this was very fine as such things always are.

But what Mama and my Terrific Big Brother really liked was the barn full of straw bales. Which you can climb all over.

I, on the other hand, did not like the barn full of straw bales.

In fact, I stood outside holding my nose and complaining. An unreconstructed urbanite, said Mama, from her perch on the top of the fragrant if slightly prickly tower.

Barn at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Straw does have its uses though. We got to take a handful back to the cows, for example. And then there was the straw modelling workshop which saw Mama, whose crafting abilities resemble that of the ten-year-olds the activity was probably pitched at, attack the activity of wrapping handfuls of the stuff into the shape of animals with admirable gusto. I think we were supposed to be making a fox. What we got was a giraffe and a goose. In case you were wondering.

Straw animals at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

More my Terrific Big Brother’s thing was the autumn collages, involving the gathering and arrangement of leaves, twigs, straw, sand and anything else that took the group’s fancy into concentric circles. More and more concentric circles. Just another one Mama. Oooooh, how about a ring of sand to finish… hey, we could do some more leaves and… look, I’ve found a feather! That patch of grass over there had some excellent sticks let’s go back there and… Mama had to be firm in the end. It was time to go. It was PAST time to go. No, really, now. I pretty much had to throw a tantrum to get us out of there. The things I do for my family.

Leaf art at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Another thing Mama would like to note about Gorodskaya Ferma is that they are fully English-enabled. Mama knows this because when she made a total hash of enquiring how, exactly, one went about purchasing food to feed the animals, the cashier was utterly delighted to be able to wave over his English-speaking colleague to deal with her. In fact, this happened every time anyone realised we were talking in English, and as they were extremely crestfallen to discover that Mama’s Russian is not as bad as all that in any case she has her own personal translator in my Terrific Big Brother, Mama feels that it is necessary for all the non-Russian speaking peoples of Moscow to go down to the farm and make the very enthusiastic staff’s day.

And in case you are wondering, the answer to Mama’s query is that you pay fifty roubles for a token, which you pay into bubble gum-esque dispensing machines in return for a small handful of either diced carrots or dry bread. If you don’t remember to pick up your tokens at the entrance there are also machines near the food.  It has to be said, there’s nothing like having food whiffled out of your hand by a snortingly warm muzzle.

Speaking of which, Gorodskaya Ferma has a café, or at least a food dispensing kiosk and some accompanying under cover tables. The café staff seemed a tad harassed – Mama thinks their menu is a bit ambitious for a hut with a microwave and a fridge – and frankly I was outraged that they did not sell hot chocolate, but Mama seemed happy with her coffee and the free WiFi and let us wander off to see what was happening over in the small cultivated area opposite.

Because verily, Gorodskaya Ferma is not just about cowsnchickens. You can also have a go at grubbing around in the dirt and waving a small watering can in the general direction of some lettuce.

Or painting the apple trees, which was the activity which had caught our attention. By the time Mama ambled over we were covered in whitewash and she was not at all to be distracted by the various reasons why such beautification is done. Why, Mama would like to know, when all Russian children manage to paint a tree without spattering it all over themselves, do we end up with it patterning our trousers and even in our hair? Luckily, not actually being paint, it washed out and off without too much effort.

Apple trees at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Of course, the summer holidays are over now and although we have been enjoying what Mama says is one of Moscow’s typically glorious Indian summers, now October is here it is getting nippy and at some point it’s going to snow. Russians are, of course, used to this and there are signs that the team at Gorodskaya Ferma have prepared for this with a number of the attractions being undercover affairs, but Mama has no idea what Gorodskaya Ferma’s plans are once the colder weather really sets in.

So you’d better get down there quick and enjoy the last of the good weather and the crafting opportunities while they last. They appear to be all about the pumpkins from their Instagram feed at present.

Say hi to the donkeys for me.

More information

Gorodskaya Ferma’s page on VDNH’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the chemistry of autumn colours.

Address: Next to the historic pavilion 44 (‘Rabbit breeding’), VDNH Estate 119, Prospect Mira, Moscow, 129223.

Opening: Every day except for Mondays from 10 a.m. till 8 p.m.

Admission: Adults and children over 3 years old, 200 roubles (£2) on weekdays and 300 roubles (£3) at weekends.

By Metro: The nearest metro is Botonichiskii Sad on the orange line, but the nearest exit from there is closed for renovation at the moment and so to get to Gorodskaya Ferma you have to go straight on down the road next to the railway tracks, cross left under the railway tracks, walk up the road a bit, cross the road into a path through a wood opposite the entrance to the actual Botonichiskii Sad (Botanical Gardens), amble through the wood, amble through a patch of rather attractive heathland, and cross another road to get to the back entrance of VDNH, whereupon the farm is directly on your right, though you have to head round to the entrance opposite the large pond. Mama thinks this may not be a trip for the fainthearted visitors out there, although all hail Google maps is what she suggests. That and heading in the general direction of Ostankino TV tower in the distance.

Ostankino tower at VDNH

However, your other option is to get off at VDNH (orange line) and then walk the length of the ex-Soviet exhibition space to the big pond at the back. Gorodskaya Ferma is at the end that doesn’t have the vaguely phallic fountain (Mama says). It’s a bloody long walk though (I say). Insist your big people take a scooter to tow you along and at the very least you must demand to go no further unless you are fed an ice cream every ten paces. On the upside, VDNH is always a fascinating venue to wander around.

By other means: No idea. Well, all right there are buses and trams and such which will get you a tad closer than the Metro, but unless you know about them already, Mama thinks you are better off with the hike. There may well be parking somewhere, but Mama is frankly uninterested in finding out where.

Sensational Butterflies at NHM, London

One of the things about growing up is that you start to find a use for all the seemingly pointless things the grownups are always trying to teach you. Take reading for example. I am sure that my Fantastic Big Brother has for some time thought that learning to read (in two languages) was something sent purely to torture him, personally, on an epic scale. Which in the case of the total lack of a sound spelling relationship in English is probably true. I’m looking forward to that experience I can tell you!

However, my Fantastic Big Brother has also just started to realise that if he uses his new text decoding powers, he can understand the secret messages adults send to each other. One of which was a huge sign outside the Natural History Museum advertising an upcoming Sensational Butterflies exhibition, to consist of a biggish tent hosting hundreds of live butterflies, a number of plants and lots of people gawping at both.

Green butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

Ever since he spotted this we’ve been bugging Mama to take us and it was agony, agony I tell you, to walk past the site week on week and realise it wasn’t… quite… finished.

And then it was!!! But we were on holiday. And then it was Russian Orthodox Easter! And then there was a concert and a picnic we had to attend! But finally, FINALLY we got to go.

Was it worth the wait? I hear you cry.

Pink and green butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

YES! Yes, a thousand times YES!

Now contrary to what you might be expecting, the air was not thick with the beating of tiny wings when we got inside. The butterflies prefer, in the main, to lounge around picturesquely on the rather brightly coloured flowers and foliage inside. Which is just fine. Great photo opportunities abound, and for those of us unburdened by cameras, it is a lot of fun hunting around for butterflies with new colours or new shapes in amongst the leaves.

Black and white butterflyat Sensational Butterflies NHM

That said, it turns out to be surprisingly hard to avoid the butterflies at Sensational Butterflies when they do start to move about. The big blue ones in particular sure liked settling on our shoulders, bags, legs, backs, arms and, much to my Fantastic Big Brother’s delight, his hand. Mama really recommends feeding your kids jammy scones just before you go in for the maximum interactive experience, but in truth you don’t really need to try for it. You are just a big walking flower to these things.

Large blue butterfly on an arm at Sensational Butterflies NHM

Unfortunately for the butterflies who land on the visitors, they are absolutely irresistible to touch, the large numbers of signs reminding you not to and the large numbers of guardians on hand to shake their heads at you when you do notwithstanding. And that’s just the adults. Sensational Butterflies, basically, is not for the very squeamish about animal exploitation, as there is some collateral damage on busy days such as the weekend we went, even if you are scrupulous about keeping your hands to yourself. I trod on one, for example. I didn’t mean to! It landed right behind me just as I was stepping backwards! Mama assured me that the bent wing would grow back ok, but I am not so sure. Be careful in there people!

Black moth and large blue butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

It’s also very hot and humid. If you can stand the anticipation, Mama thinks it might be worth waiting until the weather outside more closely resembles the weather inside. But that’s just because she ended up carrying three sets of coats and jumpers. Even stripped down, we stayed so long that I began to wilt quite alarmingly and my Fantastic Big Brother had gone as pink and sweaty as he does in the hottest days of summer. Take plenty of water, Mama advises and probably an hour inside is pushing it.

White and black butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

Although I’m not sure who else other than my Fantastic Big Brother would insist on staying at Sensational Butterflies long enough to go round the tent four or five times just in case there was one type of butterfly hiding in the flora we hadn’t spotted yet. Most people seemed content to wend their way from one end to the other once, if once fairly slowly. And I could probably have lived with just the one repeat circuit, to be honest. The things I do for my Fantastic Big Brother.

Stripy black butterfly with pink spots at Sensational Butterflies NHM

There is some attempt at making the experience educational, with some large Q&A boards with what would have been interesting questions if the butterflies weren’t quite so enthralling, and a ink stamping trail. But we thought they were superfluous as entertainment, because the butterflies are quite fabulous enough on their own.

Butterflies feeding at Sensational Butterflies NHM

Well, the butterflies, and their chrysalis house. The variety of little butterfly casings are pretty cool in and of themselves, but of course, the excitement is in watching them break out of their cocoons. We were even there when they brought some new butterflies out! Cooooooool. New varieties to admire while they finish drying their wings into hardness!

Another large blue butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

And then, of course, there was the strategically placed caterpillar. With added poo! Mama thought they were eggs! Hahahaha! Pffff. Mama. My Fantastic Big Brother has a game called Plop Trumps and so is now an expert in poo. Silly her.

On exiting you will find yourself in the shop. This is an excellent arrangement. I highly recommend sauna-like conditions for weakening parental resolve when it comes to toy buying. I got a plastic pink butterfly and my Fantastic Big Brother, a tarantula. Not a real one, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to leap it out at Mama at every opportunity. He has even tried hiding it in her bed at night. Cute, huh?

Orange butterfly at Sensational Butterflies NHM

Anyway. Sensational Butterflies is an excellent addition to the entertainment offered by the Kensington Museums, which is why it’s on its seventh summer appearance presumably. Take a good close up camera, someone who hates butterflies to hold the coats outside and your warm weather stamina and you’ll be golden. And covered in butterflies.

More Information

The Sensational Butterflies page on the Natural History Museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about butterflies (with excellent butterfly quotes).

Address: East Lawn, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD

Opening: 10.00 – 18.00 every day until September 13th 2015 (and probably next summer too).

Admission: Adullts and Children over 4: £5.90, Children under 4: FREE

By tube: South Kensington (District, Circle and Piccadilly lines). There is a subway walk that runs directly from the station to Exhibition Road, and you can pop out just outside the Sensational Butterflies tent.

By bus: The 360 stops on Exhibition Road just up the road. The 14, 49, 70, 74, 345, 414, 430 and C1 stop at South Kensington tube station. The 9, 10, 52, 452 and 70 stop at the Royal Albert Hall (ten minutes away).

By car: God, no.