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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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).
They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
“A soldier’s life is terrible hard,”
Quite why Mama, who spent a large number of her formative years buttonholing people and ranting about the evils of the monarchy, should so frequently find herself in front of Buckingham Palace watching some kind of royal pagent is something of a mystery, although what I say is that if you don’t support your local princesses, who will be there when you need birds sung to, fancy pink dresses worn or virtual strangers married?
Mama likes to pretend that she is on her way somewhere and it is the quickest way up from Victoria to Piccadilly, but I am not convinced that this explains how she has pitched up there for things like 71 gun salutes fired in a particularly chaotic but difficult to achieve manner, views of the entire Royal Family standing on the balcony mugging at the crowd, and more than one fly past including everything from very old bombers through bright red planes trailing coloured smoke to modern fighters.
They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We saw a guard in a sentry-box.
“One of the sergeants looks after their socks,”
About the only thing she has not turned out for, apart from most of the Jubilee celebrations, which wasn’t her fault as she tried to go to them all, but managed to get thoroughly rained on, choose the wrong place to stand, spend the duration hunting for the rest of her party or just turn up late with impressive regularity, was the relatively recent royal wedding.
She insisted on watching it on TV instead, much to our bored amazement. I hadn’t entered my pink phase then, and to be honest, even if I had, Kate is insufficiently blonde.
Mama claims that she finds it amusing that despite how very much in the public eye they are, none of the Royals are really all that good a behaving like celebrities, particularly when it comes to making sure their profile is in the right light at all times.
They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We looked for the King, but he never came.
“Well, God take care of him all the same,”
William in particular has terrible posture she says, although Papa says that this is how you tell he is an aristocrat rather than middle class like Kate. Only someone that in-, sorry, well-bred can get away with slouching his way through his own wedding ceremony on national TV while his lowly future wife sits up ramrod straight, knees elegantly together, hands delightfully folded in her lap.
Commenting on the finer nuances of the class system. Oh dear. I think Papa may have spent too long in the UK and gone native.
Huh. Mama is making choking sounds in the corner. I think she might disagree.
They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
They’ve great big parties inside the grounds.
“I wouldn’t be King for a hundred pounds,”
Anyway, we have not, thus far, actually done the regular Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace from start to finish, and so jumped at the chance when one was presented to us in the form of accompanying an American friend recently.
The Changing of the Guard, is also known, to Mama’s inexplicable amusement, as Guard Mounting. It basically consists of one group of soldiers taking over, wait for it, guard duty from another. Quite why this needs two bands, lots of spectators and 45 minutes I do not know, but Mama says it is tradition. Tradition sounds expensive. Mama says, probably not when you consider the tourist trade as a whole.
We approached through St James’ Park. There’s a particularly well-placed bridge from which everybody should get their first view of Buckingham Palace looking whitely elegant, framed by trees, reflected in the water, peeping modestly out from behind the glorified traffic island topped by a socking great gold leaf cover statue of somebody or another.
You can also pick up a coffee from the refreshment vans in the two park corners nearest the palace. You will need this to fortify you for the wait. We got there at around 10.30. The action does not really start until 11.15. Despite this, what Mama now realises are probably the prime spots directly in front of the very high wrought iron railings looking onto the forecourt of the Palace, and the very top steps of the roundabout-cum-Victoria memorial were already pretty fully occupied. If you are wanting to see absolutely everything, you are going to have to get there even earlier or develop very sharp elbows indeed.
We declined to engage in pushing and shoving. Instead we opted for a front row position overlooking the road just off the right of the main gates and settled down to wait. At this point Mama recommends taking along someone who is an entertaining conversationalist. Which she had done. So that was her sorted.
They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
A face looked out, but it wasn’t the King’s.
“He’s much too busy a-signing things,”
Fabulous for her, not so great for me, but luckily for Mama the coffee kiosks also sell ice cream. You might be thinking that half ten is a little early for ice cream, but it provided an excellent distraction for a good ten minutes, and then the clean up operation was also extensive. After that there was the fun of watching the police horses, in gloriously plentiful supply, who obligingly came and stood right in front of me on a number of occasions while their rider shouted instructions at the crowd. Mainly to do with keeping your valuables safe, I think. Mama was always going to be ok there – she always keeps a tight hold of me in crowds.
And then the horseguards trotted past in full regalia! Was this it? Had the time come?
No. Apparently the were just going home after mounting the guard somewhere else.
After that highlight it was a bit of a long haul to the grand show.Every now and again a police horse would charge an errant pedestrian back behind the rope barriers. I started to get restless.
Finally, faintly, in the distance we heard a brass band playing. Louder and louder it got and closer and closer it came until the musicians hove into view, all bright red coats, shiny black boots and really really big furry hats.
And they marched straight into the entrance at completely the opposite side to where we were standing. We’d caught an intriguing glimpse, but not much more.
At this point, Mama realised that perhaps she should have done a bit of rudimentary investigation into how the Changing of the Guards works, and whether or not it is worth turning up if you don’t get there three hours ahead.
However, before guilt at being a monumentally bad hostess started to eat too much into her soul, a new band could be heard approaching. And this one swept past the first gate, past the middle gate and past us, with their big parpy trumpets, big booming drums, more big furry hats and big machine guns topped with bayonets, before diving into the final set of gates.
What happens next Mama cannot tell you, as it was audio only for our little tourist group. Some shouting, the occasional stamping and some kind of battle of the bands were what reached us. Mama began to regret not insisting on crushing people’s toes in the pursuit of a good view, but I quite enjoyed balancing on the rope barrier like a circus princess, and then some kids came and sat on the curb in front of us, so I joined them, made friends and got to play with Mama’s camera.
Lots of bottoms in my world Mama discovered later.
Eventually, the Guards had done enough Changing. The middle gates opened and out marched the first group, executing a smart right as the did so and providing us with an excellent view of their retreating backs.
But we were wise to this behaviour now and hung on for the second wave, who, sure enough, turned the other way when they left and we got another splendid view.
The whole thing was over by about 12 noon.
They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
“Do you think the King knows all about me?”
“Sure to, dear, but it’s time for tea,”
Mama decided to reward my quite good behaviour with a trip to the children’s play area in a well-placed nearby corner of St James’s Park. It’s one of those places which is split up into hidden zones. But there’s an excellent little picnic island with a clear view of the one and only exit and the whole playground is fairly compact. And I am, after all, over three now and not quite so prone to hurling myself into dangerous situations as before. Overall, Mama feels that the layout is acceptable. As for the equipment, I think it has a great sandpit, full of really big, slippy and hard rocks to jump on and off. Mama sees Prince Philip’s hand in this breach of health and safety rules for children. I also like the sunken slide area.
Basically, it’s clear that if you are on the parade route, wherever you stand, the Changing of the Guard is organised so that at some point, soldiers will stamp past you. The closer to the central gates you are, the more you will see of both groups of soldiers, but to be honest, Mama thinks that if you just have a casual interest in seeing the ceremony, you might want to turn up fairly late on and just take your chances in the crowd.
Everybody is pretty obliging about letting children through to the front, and as long as you don’t mind sitting on the curb, the odd Mama and Papa might be able to wiggle though too on the grounds that their kids might need protecting from flying police horse poo.
We also noticed that a couple of people with wheelchairs had been positioned by the police horses on the edge of the road in a pretty decent spot, so that’s something to take into consideration if you have mobility requirements which might otherwise put you off going.
If you want to see the whole thing, Mama thinks you are looking at an arrival time of at least 10am. She thinks your children might need to be a bit older than me, or more stoic to put up with that.
Is it worth it? Take snacks, plenty of water, and lots of photos of the police horses and I’d say so. It was certainly an excellent start to our day of wandering through the rest of Central London.
Times: Every other day throughout the year, except April through July, when the guard changes every day. Cancellations are due to extremely bad rain, or other weather. The show starts at 11.15am and finishes around 12 noon.
By Tube/train: Victoria (Railways station and Victoria line), Green Park (Victoria and Piccadilly lines) and Hyde Park Corner (Piccadilly line).
By bus: Numbers 11, 211, C1 and C10 stop on Buckingham Palace Road.
Covent Garden was once the capital’s most modern and trendy square, then it morphed into a fruit and veg market, and finally became an extremely disreputable courtyard to London’s theatre district and the Royal Opera House on the corner. Mama says. She won’t say why it was disreputable. I suspect sugar is involved.
The banal edibles have since been sent off south of the river, and I have no idea what has happened to whatever the other thing was.
Fear not. The very 19th Century steampunk market building, all fancy metal girders, glass rooves and classical stone columned entrances has not gone to waste. It is now colonised by stalls selling upmarket handicrafts for the tourist trade, and rather boutiquey shops doing similar.
And the Apple store, although oddly enough this does not sell many Bramleys. Mama tries not to go in here. Shame, as they have a whole bunch of those wonderful touchscreens and seem happy to let us play with all of them. Mama is worried that she might get carried away and bet the house or something I gather. She can resist everything except temptation.
She quite fancies a nose round the Moomins emporium though.
But generally, we prefer the bit of in the slightly more down-at heel area to the back. It has a higher proportion of trashy plastic toys and souvenirs, and there’s a much better chance Mama might buy us something.
Still, we don’t really come here to shop. We come here for the free(ish) entertainment. Covent Garden has living statues, highbrow buskers and street performers in various locations throughout the market going at it throughout the day, and we can quite easily spend an hour or two wandering from one to another before grabbing a bite to eat and going for a mooch around the back streets leading away from the piazza.
I find the statues a little freaky and alarmingly avaricious. They move when someone gives them money. I wouldn’t mind so much, but unlike so many throughout the rest of London, none of them are of horses.
Mama quite likes to check out the classical musicians playing in the sunken courtyard in the middle of the market. She lives in hope that one of them will be a solo bassist one day, but will put up with a really good soprano any day of the week. Lean on the balcony overlooking the performance or use this as your coffee break and occupy one of the tables down below.
My Darling Big Brother and I much prefer the circus acts. And we have seen so many of these shows now that Mama feels confident in providing a brief overview of what to expect because, well, because they do all have quite a lot in common with each other. I do not know if there is some kind of script which they have to conform to in order to get licences, but should you emulate one of our favourite Sunday afternoon outings you can feel confident that any given act will:
– Spin out one really good trick for a good twenty or thirty minutes – the length of each performance. This is quite a feat, Mama thinks. Anyone can wow with back to back showstoppers for ten minutes. Only the best can pull this off.
– Involve the artist at some point pretending s/he has never done (this version of) the trick before and has learned it off YouTube the night before.
– Include two of the elements of juggling with sharp implements, balancing on something precarious, magic or dragging the showperson’s body through a tennis racket. Clearly combining three things would be too much.
– See people pulled out of the audience to take part. This is usually fairly burly middle-aged men or a particularly chippy looking twelve-year-old boy. If you are either of these and do not fancy taking part, stand well back is Mama’s advice. But do not get too complacent if you are a woman. Just as you think you are safe you will encounter the man on the pogo stick.
– Discover that at least one of these glamourous assistants has a hitherto undiscovered flair for comic timing. More props to the performers for really knowing their stuff.
– Have lots of heckling. Of the crowd by the act. Clap loudly, do whatever they tell you, and NEVER stand behind the performers or you will be publicly humiliated. Especially, do not stand behind the showperson with your back to the proceedings ignoring what is going on while wiping some dirt off your wife’s face. Says Mama, shuddering.
– Emotionally blackmail the crowd into parting with money. £20 is a standard amount, apparently, although the performer, who, you will find out repeatedly, does not get paid by Covent Garden authorities to be there, will reluctantly accept a fiver for the support of their seventeen children and their stalwart attendance in rain or shine. Mama tends to give a pound or two, but then she is mean.
It’s great. And if you do get bored, there are pigeons to chase across the fabulous obstacle course of cobblestones, and also the London Transport Museum, which is one of the best museums for the under tens in London.
And! Public art. Currently, for example, someone has floated the whole market facade up in the air and then tethered it for our amusement. We seem to have just missed its unveiling last week, which is a shame, but it’s on until 24th October, so there’s every possibility we might get to marvel at it in person. It’s called ‘Take my lightning but don’t steal my thunder’. No, I don’t know why either.
As for refreshments, there are plenty of cafes and food stalls, and also plenty more in the streets around, and many of these put out chairs on the square in the summer. Brought your own sandwiches? There’s a nice little spot in the grounds of St Paul’s church with some benches and room to run around away from the crowds. The toilets are close by there too, which Mama always feels is an important piece of information for those with preschoolers.
Mind you, Mama recommends that you step away from the square a bit so you can nosh at a pub which appeared in the novel ‘Murder Must Advertise’ by Dorothy L Sayers. Why? Because Lord Peter Wimsey spent time there. What other reason do you need? Says Mama.
Anyway. Covent Garden is an excellent fair weather hang out for the whole family, with plenty going on throughout the year. It’s never dull! But it might be quite crowded.
Opening: The area doesn’t close as such, although the shops and performers and so on keep normal London opening hours.
Price: The piazza is free, but you ought to bring some money for the performers.
By tube/ train: Covent Garden station is currently exit only and probably rammed due to repairs. Better to use the stations of Leicester Square, Charing Cross, Holborn, Temple of Tottenham Court Road, all within about a ten minute walk.
By bus: There are any number of buses which stop nearby. Look for ones going to Aldwych or Trafalgar Square for the closest drop offs.
Mama has always rather fancied going to the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition. Preferably at the beginning of the 19th century sometime. But in the face of not knowing where to find a time machine, having to stump up actual cash for it and the absence of any real reason to go, she hasn’t, hitherto, gotten around to it.
Then Babushka’s birthday loomed. Babushka quite likes going to art galleries; there’s not much of a language barrier in art. But we’ve exhausted all the free ones. So Mama stifled her misgivings regarding Babushka’s reaction to the Tate Modern, seized the day and bought us all tickets to the RA’s 2014 Summer Blow Out.
The tickets are sold in half hour slots. We got there early for ours. Not a problem. The Royal Academy has a courtyard which at any time is a great place to let off a bit of steam safe from cars, wall to wall tourists and inconvenient flowerbeds. Now they have a little pop up cafe out there too, so I got to gambol about the cobblestones and Mama and Babushka got to sip coffee and admire the statue of a man waving a paintbrush in the air, decked out in a flower garland for the occasion. Mama says it’s Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is nice.
Once inside, I remembered the Royal Academy. It’s the place where you are allowed to touch, jump on, roll around in and add to all the things. Fabulous. As a result I was straight in there, rushing towards the brightly patterned man carrying cakes on his back, ready to have a go at trying to twist his head off. But Mama extracted herself from the business of getting the tickets checked, dodged smartly around a gaggle of slow moving, less encumbered patrons and scooped me up under her arm. You aren’t allowed to play with the pieces in this exhibition, which was a bit of a let down at first. I sulked my way through the first gallery.
The Twitter tag for the RA Summer Exhibition is #RANewAndNow, which we all agreed was an excellent title for it. It’s very obvious that this is contemporary art, and Mama assumes if you know what you are looking at you can probably sweep through the rooms and come out with a decent overview of what themes and techniques are current or up and coming in the art world. But anyone can enjoy it. It’s eclectic, vibrantly colourful and ever so slightly bonkers in places.
Of course, Babushka does not really appreciate bonkers in art the way Mama does. Mama gets a kick out of microphone stands set up with a hairbrush in place of actual amplification equipment. Babushka, by and large, does not. She also wonders why anyone would want to make a portrait of a grubby bathroom, let alone give it a prize. But there is a decent sprinkling of perfectly well-drawn representations of actual things of inherent beauty about the exhibition and also flowers, so she was perfectly well catered for overall.
One of my favourite rooms was the one with all the small paintings. Mama gathers that this is a traditional way to hang this space, but the artist in charge had also clearly gone out of their way to refute any charges of conventionality. My Super Big Brother would have approved of all the animal portraits, especially the collage-like owls. I really enjoyed the large red robot rampaging through Margate. The washed out Mini Mouse worried me though. I don’t really approve of messing with the Mouse cannon. Big fan here. Not enough bows there.
The room with all the dolls houses was pretty cool too, especially the building with all the smiley, frowny, crying stick people. And the lights. I was looking for some buttons to turn them on and off. There didn’t seem to be any though. Next year, perhaps. I was also pleased to see that there were quite a few horses dotted about the galleries. The video near the end was probably the best for fans of all things equine. Like me! Can’t beat a bit of hooves thundering through the surf action. But I was delighted by the 3D effect picture of the unicorns in the woods. Mama thinks I have not realised the significance of their being surrounded by ravening dogs. Nonsense! I am confident they will reach a peaceful solution in the end.
At some point we found out that you can buy most of what is on display. Mama is not sure how she feels about this. For her, it means that she immediately starts to see every painting through the eye of an interior designer rather than as a piece to be savoured as, y’know, Art. Will that, she worries, go with the cushions in the living room? Then she starts to judge all the pieces by how much they cost, which is irritating as one of the nice things about the exhibition is not really knowing at first glance which canvases are done by the established artists and which by the unknowns. As it turns out, she has expensive tastes. Her favourite paintings were on for not less that £4,500. Two children with their faces obscured by the ornaments of birds they were looking at. Mama feels this is, more or less, how my Super Big Brother should be immortalised, albeit it would work better as a window on his inner soul if it was done with actual wildlife.
The one I want, however, is £100,000, which is much more reasonable. Ones and naughts can’t be that much. A bicycle with wheels made out of metal flowers. We watched the video of somebody taking it for a spin around London three times before Mama dragged me away. It’s called the Two Nuns, although why, Mama could not explain to me. Shame it’s so long until my next birthday, but on the other hand I can’t ride a bike yet, so perhaps it is better to wait.
I also liked the climbing frame in the room with the big bit of burnt tree. The climbing frame you can’t actually climb on. Clearly some kind of artistic comment on the futility of something or other. Very clever. Mama was relieved to find the charcoal lump. She’d been wondering whether she was imagining the aroma of charred wood since she walked in to the gallery, or if she had missed the massive news story of the first version of the Summer Exhibition burning down. It was great to find out that it was all just part of the plan. She does wonder who would pay £54, 000 for that very intrusive smell though. Perhaps a hermetically sealed room? She has given some thought to this. There go holidays for the next few years then.
The exhibition took us just under an hour, Mama would have gone back for another go round, there’s just so much to see, but Babushka and I overruled her.
We went home via Green Park and Buckingham Palace. Mama had to carry me most of the way as we had left the scooter at home. The Royal Academy has a very small cloakroom, and although they let her take the pushchair in last time, Mama didn’t think trying to cope with that while trying to protect the artwork from me was a good idea. There were ice creams all round, and we all got to watch people spreading gravel with a determined display of righteous hard work in front of the Queen’s house for ages. It’s hard to knock off for a cigarette when you know you’ll get photographed by 500 tourists as soon as you do. Mama says.
Anyway. While there were some serious points being made by some of the artists, the overwhelming impression of the Royal Academy’s 2014 Summer Exhibition when you are pushing through it at the speed of the whimsy of a three year old and a seventy *cough* year old is one of cheerful colour, good humour and celebration. Almost irresistible. Mama is quietly determined to go again next year. And I can’t say as how I’d protest that much.
Our thanks to the Royal Academy of Arts for letting us use some of their photos, taken by Benedict Johnson. If you watch the video, you should be able to spot some of our favourites.
WWT London Wetland Centre is one of those places, Mama thinks, which is not obviously going to appeal to a toddler and her Fabulous Big Brother, even if he is obsessed by all things animal. It sounds like somewhere where serious people go and watch birds seriously from small, serious huts where you are not allowed to make noise and are expected to sit seriously still for extended periods of time. None of these are things we are good at. Plus, we might not see anything more exciting than a seagull, even if we do manage to get to grips with binoculars, and frankly, we can nip the five minutes down to the Thames any day of the week to look at seagulls, with the added bonus that we might get to feed them and chase them a bit too.
As it turns out, the WWT London Wetland Centre is a bit like this. But only a bit and it is also so much more. It is, in fact, one of the best places to take small children in the whole of London. Mama thinks. And so do we.
As well as the extensive lake ringed by hides, there are also a large number of small artificial habitats where you can get up close and personal with the naked eye to collections of semi-captive water birds from around the world. It always surprises Mama that what are, essentially, ducks, albeit large ducks, small ducks, ducks with blue beaks, spoon billed ducks, white ducks with black polka dots, brown ducks, grey ducks, stripy ducks, ducks with golden eyes, tufty-headed ducks, diving ducks, waddling ducks, huge black ducks that look suspiciously like swans and so on can hold our attention to quite the degree they do, given how often we visit the local parks, which have themselves quite a duck collection of their own, but hey. They do.
But if you are a wildlife fanatic, you do not just go to the WWT London Wetland Centre for the birds. No, you go for the otters. Situated to the left of the entrance, they have an extensive outdoor enclosure and three feeding times when the Centre is open, at 11am, 2pm and 4pm, although you can often see them out and about at other times too. They are CUTE! They are cute when they eat with their cute little hands, and cute when they swim, playing with each other cutely in the water. Cute! A must see.
Mama is there for the surroundings. You can go from the world duck zone through an intriguingly large gatehouse promising all sorts of safari like fun straight into a countryside walk. Lots of long grass, reeds, overgrown watery areas and short British trees. I think it’s probably because the wilder birds like that sort of environment, but Mama clearly thinks it’s her own personal sanctuary from the existential stress of living in a place surrounded by man-made structures and traffic jams for 300 miles each way. From my Fabulous Big Brother’s point of view there is not quite enough of a guarantee of wildlife sightings, but we have encountered frogs, there is a vague promise of voles, and in summer the place is humming with insects, especially easy to spot brightly coloured dragonflies, and the whole ramble is a much more manageable length than Mama normally makes us do if she manages to prise us out of an urban environment for an afternoon. Thus we do not protest too loudly when she drags us inside.
There’s a similar sort of vibe to the territory in the other half of the Centre, back through the building complex near the entrance. Our focus here is more on reaching the playground area, although we can get very distracted by poking around the insect garden and checking to see if we can see bats in the specially built bat house. So far, no. But one day! We’ve seen frogs round here too.
A tip: the area covered by the WWT London Wetland Centre is quite extensive. It’s all easy going, but it is one of the few places Mama still takes a pushchair to. Understandably, no scooters are allowed inside.
The playground itself is one of those all divided up into different areas, which are all on different levels with bushes and such separating them off from each other and Mama’s line of sight. It’s great. We think. Because of the tunnels, mainly. Mama is less enthusiastic. Because of the tunnels, mainly. Mama no longer has to bribe my Fabulous Big Brother to look after me in them, which is excellent because the playground no longer rings either to the sounds my wails when he abandons me at the first opportunity, or his loud overprotective berration of any other child who dares to breathe in my direction (“That’s my SISTER! She is SMALL!! You be CAREFUL!!!”).
But if Mama stays by the entrance near the exit, I will leave the tunnels at the other end and FLING myself in front of the teenagers sliding down the zipwire. If she stakes out that side, then she spends the whole time convinced we live to exit the playground and DISAPPEAR. Why she thinks this, when we have never show the slightest interest in doing so, and Fabulous Big Brother is old enough to understand not to anyway, I do not know, but there is is. She does. So she trots round and round the tunnels, trying to catch a glimpse of us inside. She thinks that to us she looks nonchalant as though she just happens to be where we are when we come out, but in fact, she just looks out of breathe and stressed. Hey ho. At least it’s exercise.
There are also a water-play section, with a long trough populated with rubber ducks to soak your sleeves in and, oh marvel and wonder, SHOWERS! In hotter weather, children can dance around underneath them and get WET ALL OVER. Mama says, if only I showed this much enthusiasm for washing at home, but what I say is, it’s only fun if you get to do it in all your clothes. Mama therefore recommends that people who visit the WWT London Wetland Centre at the height of summer either take a few spare T shirts and trousers or go the whole hog and pack the swimming cossies and towels.
Funnily enough, we have not been to the playground when the water section is open for quite some time. Since, in fact, the first time we stumbled upon it.
The fun does not end there. It is probably true that some of our favourite bits about the WWT London Wetland Centre are indoors. Our absolute best is the Digital Pond. This is projected onto the floor of a hut in the Pond Zone and has various games which involve, for example, vigourously stamping on the projections of rubbish in order to make them fade away, or vigourously stamping on wiggly things so a mayfly larva will swim over and eat them, or vigourously stamping on excessive amounts of pondweed to get rid of it, or… well, you get the idea. Vigourous stamping abounds. This, I can assure you, is the very height of excitement, and we always pester Mama to take us there. The Pond Zone also has underwater cameras you can drive around, pond dipping opportunities and a whole building devoted to explaining what happens to your poo after you flush the toilet, which Mama says is a particularly genius bit of understanding your target audience’s interests and enthusiasms.
That said, we are also keen on the upstairs of the main buildings, which have water related fairground attractions, including shooting streams of water into holes to make the endangered wetlands animals stand up, pumping water into a globe so that it will spill out into ice caps and wine glasses and so on and yay, MORE water play involving building villages out of lego on simulated flood plains only to have them swept away when it rains on the hills! Mama, as you might be able to guess, is less thrilled with this guaranteed dampness opportunity. Luckily, our favourite game actually does not involve water, but shooting more poo (soft balls) out of pneumatic tubes towards holes signaled by reeds. There is probably a serious educational point to be made out of all of this, but we do not care. We even enjoy the approach through a sort of underwater Madam Tussauds, involving model sharks, crocodiles and poisonous frogs.
And then there are the hides. Obviously if you are a serious bird watcher, you could head straight for these and spend hours and hours inside them, and judging by the lists of birds spotted that day Mama reads out to us sometimes, very profitably too. But we tend to just drop in for five to ten minutes at a time when we come across them as part of our rambles. And this approach seems to be working as we have seen a number of apparently interesting feathered flappy things. I’ll be honest – they all look much like yet more ducks to me, but Mama got very excited about the bittern (she says this is because of someone called Arthur Ransome), and she and my fabulous Big Brother spent the entire afternoon walking like the lapwing and giggling. In case you want to try it, you hold your body very still, with your arms straight down by your sides, bend your legs and walk really fast. Hours of fun.
We are even learning hide etiquette (do not lean out of the windows and shriek loudly at the waterfowl), with the exception of remembering to bring some binoculars. Mama has never yet done that. Not that this matters if you go to the hide specifically designated as the family friendly one, the Headley Hide in the middle of the duck collections. They have binoculars and even telescopes for you to look through already set up, and also big picture windows for small people to gawp through easily. They have some bird feeders set up here too, and garden birds come quite regularly. Mama likes this. She attempts to lure them onto our balcony, but so far has only succeeded in persuading sparrows to dangle in front of our living room windows for her enjoyment.
Although we do currently have swallows (or possibly swifts) nesting in our roof. This is impossibly cool, Mama thinks, especially when she is watching them swoop around looking for insects while sipping her coffee, but she does rather wish they weren’t right above my and my Fabulous Big Brother’s window. The baby birds are extremely piercing at six in the morning.
So by now you should be convinced that the WWT London Wetland Centre is an interesting place to go, but Mama would like to mention another plus anyway. It it has, she thinks, a particularly good range of activites on offer. Especially, but not limited to, the school holidays and weekends. Things we have particularly enjoyed are the daily bird feeding walks at 3pm (don’t eat the pellets, throw them at the birds!), the reptile finding walks (slow worms for us! Snooping over the back walls of the expensive houses bordering the Centre for Mama!), the afore-mentioned pond dipping (I got wet! Hurrah!), and the time they persuaded the man with the tanks full of scorpions, snakes, spiders and millipedes to come and show them off. They also do crafting, but we have never yet made it to a session, so engrossed are we in all the other things on offer.
Which include food! There is a cafe serving a small but tasty range of teatime or lunchtime edibles, including chips and coffee, so everybody is happy. You can eat inside, but the real treat is taking your meal out to the pond and admiring moire ducks while you chow down. If you have brought your own food, which we often do, there are benches at regular intervals, and hand cleaning stations nearby so you don’t have to use up a packet of wetwipes cleaning the duck poo off your hands before you eat. I recommend the tables in the middle of the world duck zone next to some living wigwams. Great to play in and out of when you are bored of ham sandwiches.
And! Mama has saved the best for last.
There is a huge car park. Oh yes, there is! It is free for visitors to use – just remember to take the special exit token when you check in.
Anyway. WWT London Wetland Centre is a MUST for anyone with kids and half way decent access to South West London. No really, it is. GO. In fact, go even if you do not have kids. It’s a proper grown up space as well as being child-friendly. The only downside is that it is a little pricy for a one-off visit, but the yearly memberships are more than reasonable particularly given just how much there is to do and see. And that membership will also get you into all the other WWT Wetland Centres around the country too, which if WWT Arundel Wetland Centre is anything to go by, are also FANTASTIC.
Prices: Adults £12.35, Concessions: £9.20, Kids over 4 years £6.90, Family £34.50. Annual family membership for one adult plus kids is £56, and for two adults plus kids is £72, and is well worth considering.
By bus: The 283 from Hammersmith stops right outside the Centre. The 33, 72 and 209 stop a few minutes walk away.
By train: Barnes or Barnes Bridge stations are about a 15 minute walk away. The 33, 72 (Barnes) and 209 (Barnes Bridge) buses also run past the stations if you don’t want to walk.
By tube: Get off at Hammersmith (Picadilly and District & Circle lines) and then get the 283 bus.
Every now and again Mama realises that there are places to go in London which do not have anything to do with animals. One of those is the RAF Museum in Hendon, which is full of planes.
It also has a really big car park. I think that if Mama found out somewhere had a really big car park in London she would visit it no matter what it contained. Admittedly, the one at the RAF Museum is not free, but neither does it require lots of the shiny metal things Mama hordes so assiduously, and the museum itself does not charge for entry, so Mama doesn’t seem to mind. If you do, there is a limited amount of free parking on some of the streets round about.
Or, y’know, public transport, which might be a better option if, unlike us, you are not going on a Sunday. We have only ever visited on a Sunday. If you have to travel all across London by car, reasonably early on Sunday morning is the time to do it. Mama says.
The first section is the one with the older flying contraptions. You can walk around the gallery at the top and observe the ones suspended from the ceiling but that’s not the main point of the place.
No, the real attraction is that they have these REALLY AMAZING interactive touch screen information points, which I could play with forever. Press this, see the picture change, press that, see the picture change, press this, the picture rotates, press that and the picture stops rotating, press this, see the picture change, press that, hey Mama, pick me up again! I wanna press the buttons! Yes, there is a design flaw. You have to be a bit bigger than I was the first time we went to reach it all easily. But I’m getting there now! Next time it will be impossible to tear me away!
The ground floor allows you to get up close and personal with the plane undercarriages. Not that up close, though, although the rope barriers guarding them are rather lackadaisical. Someone really needs to do something about them. They seem to keep out the adults well enough but they are very easy for toddlers to climb over or slide under. Us small people can have a lot of fun flaunting our amazing ability by cavorting just out of grabbing reach underneath the planes.
However, I am not entirely convinced all of the machines displayed in this area would really fly. The looked quite flimsy. We discussed our favourite. The consensus of opinion was that we liked the one with the checked looking pattern in purple and green. Because it was pretty. Mama thought about pointing out the paintwork might have another purpose, but she suspected she might be overruled.
Then we went into a new hanger. The planes here were much bigger and rather less colourful. Even our adults seemed overawed by the sheer hugeness of some of them. It took quite a while to go round and see all of them, but that was just fine. There was plenty of room to run about, so it wasn’t necessary to find our own fun by hurdling the barriers too often. Also, because we were there quite early, we were allowed a moderate amount of overexcited shrieking. But even as it started to fill up later in the day, it never got really crowded.
Popular flying machines included the maaaahooooosive great back monster aeroplane for dropping things out of, an elegant varnished wooden one with brass fittings that looked like it should be a yacht for discerning rich people, the huge plane with raked back wings and scooped out with the TV inside showing how impressive a whole bunch of them looked taking off, the plane with its nose painted to look like a shark, which my Incredible Big Brother dragged us over to see specially, the one which had spent a great deal of time at the bottom of a lake and whose metalwork had gone an intriguing colour as a result, and ALL the toy ones in the shop, which is cunningly situated at the exit.
Mama avoided it by trekking us back the way we had come and going out the entrance the next time we came. Spoilsport.
If you start to get too rowdy, the grown ups can take you to where there is an extensive indoor play area at the back, with a whole bunch of child sized cockpits you can pretend to drive, various machines which have a wide range of button pressing or handle turning opportunities, some flying ping pong balls, the opportunity to fire a parcel out of a plane at a target, a bit of shape sorting, and other such things. We were happy. Mama seemed a bit disappointed that neither me nor my Superlative Big Brother came up to a line on the wall next to a large box which kept flinging itself around every time someone gave it some of the round metal things. Mama says it is a flight simulator, and she is clearly determined that one of us will want to have a go on it someday. I am not so sure.
There are also tables for eating your lunch on, and a cafe too not far away, right in the middle of some helicopters. Mama also discovered that you can get coffee in a takeaway cup to bring over to the picnic area, so basically, the refreshment options are pretty good all round.
In fact, the only problem with the play space is that it has two exits. Mama really wishes that in dedicated play areas she could let us go out of sight and relax with her coffee safe in the knowledge that we haven’t escaped the child-friendly section and are being sticky all over delicate paintwork somewhere else. But then I fell out of a plane on my head the time she tried being laid back, so hey. It’s probably best if she follows us around closely at all times anyway.
Anyway. The RAF Museum London. if your children like planes the way we like animals and horses, this place is an absolute must visit. But even if they don’t, a bunch of grounded aircraft are a lot more interesting than you might think. In addition, it’s certainly not as busy as the big central London museums, but there is just as much floor space to get some much needed exercise. The fact that the play area is indoors makes it just about perfect for any inclement day.
And don’t forget about the car park!
PS: Mama cannot find any photos of the RAF Museum. Either she is having a senior moment, which is possible as she is really really old, or the museum is SO GOOD that she forgot to take any. Whichever it is, we will be forced to return for pictures. Wheeeeee!
Hyde Park is big. It’s not as big as Richmond ‘the Poo’ Park or, y’know, space, but it is nevertheless big and particularly big for the purposes of this guide as Mama says I should include Kensington Gardens as well. No-one, she insists, really knows where one stops and the other begins anyway, certainly not her. So, Hyde Park (with Kensington Gardens) is very big indeed, a fact which is important for Londoners, most of whom do not have gardens to call their own. At the slightest hint of sun they will therefore head for a park en masse, and since the capital would probably give space a run for its money, it’s good that there is still room to move about in this very central open space despite the very large numbers of people who frequent it, lounging around on the grass; picnicking; playing football; contorting themselves into odd shapes while someone shouts at them; riding bikes; scooting on scooters; rolling on rollerblades; walking on tightropes; walking their dogs; or just wandering aimlessly about. Like us.
Mostly our walks begin in the middle of the southern side, hoping for a sight of horses as we cross the sand-covered riding track, which runs right round the park and harks back to its days as the place for the great, the good and the beautiful to display themselves on horseback and in carriages to all and gossips. Horses happen quite often, actually. There are a couple of stables dotted around and, of course, the Horseguard Barracks right next door. We see the mounted soldiers exercising their nags, trotting back from changing the guard or, on really exciting days, practising for some big ceremonial outing. Clearly being in the army must be GREAT! I am thinking of joining, although I don’t see any girls up there. Probably they only bother with the very special occasions. But what with this, the casual trotters and dressage squares on both the north and south sides where you can hang around watching horses dance, all in all, Hyde Park (with Kensington Gardens) is a pretty good hunting ground for small equestrian-obsessed children. Like me!
The Albert Memorial run is the one we do if we are in a hurry. Mama says it was built by a Queen to remember her husband. He must have been very nice because it certainly is a very big sort of statue. I am going to be a Queen when I grow up. I thought about being a Princess because, dresses! Also, pink! Then I realised Kings get to ride more horses. But Queens are clearly the most important, so that’s the best job. The Memorial displays all the restrained taste and subtlety of which the Victorian age is known for (says Mama), and the fact that Albert is covered from head to foot in gold leaf and makes Papa, the Russian, feel right at home. Public art that stands still for too long in Russia always gets covered by gold leaf. As a result, the Albert Memorial is the only bit of statuary in London Papa approves of.
Behind the statue is the Flower Walk. It is an excellent route for toddlers, having broad, well-paved pathways, fences to prevent the plant life from getting carried away and savaging us, and a total absence of water features as long as you avoid the giant dog bowl at the bottom end. Also, everybody feeds the squirrels, and often they let us help. Those little guys are really friendly! They’ll come right up and take the nuts out of your hands! It’s a bit confusing because I thought the ‘do not’ on the signs means that it’s not allowed, but I must have been wrong. This language learning business is very hard.
Then there is the Diana Memorial Fountain option. Mama says Diana was a Princess, but that can’t be true because there isn’t any pink. Mama first came across it in its early stages, back when she didn’t have kids and it spent six months cordoned off for not working properly. She was not impressed, and not just because of it being mostly white. Now we are all big fans (except of the colour). Of course, it remains more of a low lying circular cannalette than anything else, and certainly not, in the absence of your actual spurting water, a fountain. But they have fixed whatever the plumbing problems were, and it has become a pretty cool hangout on a nice sunny day. People sit on the wide stone edging, wade round and round the waters, or just picnic on the surrounding grass. There are a lot of kids, most of them wet, but it’s not all families and that is rather nice too. Best of all, up close the stream is interestingly textured with different flow patterns and in places even loud and oddly musical. Mama says that if you absolutely have to have open water for children to fall into in every park in Britain, and it appears to Mama that you do, this is the one she can tolerate, even if it does mean bringing along a spare set of clothes.
She thinks the nearby Serpentine lake, however, is best avoided with two water obsessed offspring. Mama is particularly adamant about this after she had to fish my Incredible Big Brother’s scooter out of the water not once but twice on one particularly tedious trip all the way round. So we generally depart the waterside briskly after hanging over a decently fenced off section admiring the ducklings and goslings and signets, pausing only to see if anyone is braving the waters in the special pool-like area. Mama tells me that you have to be a member of some club to actually get in the water. I think this is just an excuse and plan on testing the theory as soon as I can escape and fling myself in. In the meantime, we usually end up at the playground back up near the east end of the lake, down by the Horseguard baracks. It has a coffee dispensing kiosk right outside, so everyone is happy, at least in the summer months.
At one time, when Mama had all the time in the world and no school runs to do, we used to go up to the Round Pond via one of the Serpentine Gallery buildings. Even through the Gallery sometimes. Everybody likes rooms with large screens showing rather incomprehensible films about a music box.
Back in his dissolute youth, the Round Pond was much beloved of my Incredible Big Brother, who would spend many happy hours herding any water birds which had the temerity to set webbed foot on land back into what he considers to be their only permissible habitat. The tourists who had got lost on their way from Kensington Palace to the Diana Memorial Fountain loved this kind of behaviour and took whole memory sticks full of pictures of a line of grown swans waddling, cowed, in front of a determined small boy. Nowadays, it’s mostly me trying to tree a squirrel they like to film. If anyone reading this has found themselves being shown pictures of extravagantly photogenic children harassing wildlife in Hyde Park (or Kensington Gardens) from a returnee from the Sceptred Isles, Hi from me and my Incredible Big Brother.
If we are up in this North West sort of area now, we would probably be going to the Diana Memorial Playground. In many ways it is an excellent playground, although, again, where is the pink? Don’t they know princess stuff must be smothered in pink? Ditto, frills? Instead there’s a huge sandpit, some really good slides, swings and climbing frames, and best of all a gigantic pirate ship, all divided up into different areas separated by high grassy banks or really big bushes. Of course, Mama likes to be able to keep half an eye on my Incredible Big Brother whilst following me around wherever my whimsy takes me and this is pretty much impossible with the Diana Memorial Playground. Mama is therefore forced to choose between being the helicopter Mama she likes to pretend she isn’t or the momentarily panic of not being able to find one of her children because he is sitting under a bush recruiting the other under tens in a plot to take over the world. Or finding bugs. Whichever you think is more likely. Either way, it’s stressful, and she is almost always forced to fortify herself at the large refreshments booth outside afterwards. I recommend the ice cream. Mama likes the coffee.
Recently we have discovered the Italian gardens, which surprisingly has nothing whatsoever to do with any member of a royal family. As far as Mama knows. They do have square ponds and real fountains with shooty water though. Also, some really big stone cups. This must be where the giants hang. They should take their rubbish with them. I like to scoot round and round and throw leaves in the water, which Mama suspects pleases the people who have to keep the place tidy not at all, so we always end up having a bit of an argument about that. Mama probably feels they have enough to do trying to shift the giant leftovers but I say this is not my problem.
Apparently, there is a famous statue of a small unruly boy around here somewhere. We haven’t found it yet but I think it is unfair. Why are they putting up monuments to my Incredible Big Brother and not me, I would like to know?
Anyway, Hyde Park (with Kensington Gardens). Mama has never actually taken a trip here simply to go to the park, although it is a great park, huge, lots to do, busy but not hopelessly crowded. But it’s near to quite a few of the places your big people might insist on taking you to in London, so if that has all become too much, you can restore yourself by running around and shouting to your hearts content here. If you don’t happen to have a first class park within easy reach, you could easily spend a day here just because. And if it is your local park, lucky old you.
By tube: Bayswater (District Line), Lancaster Gate (Central Line), Marble Arch (Central Line), Hyde Park Corner (Piccadilly Line), Knightsbridge (Piccadilly Line), High Street Kensington (Circle and District Lines).
By bus: North London: 6, 7, 10, 16, 52, 73, 82, 390, 414. South London: 2, 36, 137, 436. West London: 9, 10, 14, 19, 22, 52, 74, 148, 414. East London: 8, 15, 30, 38, 274.
By car: Actually, Pay and Display parking is available on West Carriage Drive and in car parks at either end of Serpentine Bridge. It’s not ruinously expensive either. But places are limited, and there’s maximum four hours stay Monday-Saturday. You still have to pay on Sundays, but there is no maximum stay.
The Natural History Museum is my Brilliant Big Brother’s choice. He is very very keen on animals. And dinosaurs. So regular visits here are a bit of an inevitability.
The problem with this, from Mama’s point of view, is that my Brilliant Big Brother is actually interested in the exhibits. He wants to stop, and look at them, and discuss them. I, however, am not. I want to run around and find something random to fixate on, like a rope barrier (oooooh) or a leaflet holder (aaaaaah). FIRE EXTINGUISHERS! IT DOESN’T GET BETTER THAN FIRE EXTINGUISHERS!!!
This means that Mama is constantly either having to coral me in the pushchair or drag my Brilliant Big Brother away from a stuffed swan, plaster of Paris crocodile or fossilised triceratops. Both of us end up feeling that Mama is an unreasonable old whatsit and are not afraid of making our opinions on this subject known.
Still, we usually manage to spend a certain amount of time in the usually exceptionally crowded bird hall, where Mama, the career teacher, simply cannot restrain herself and insists on setting my Brilliant Big Brother questions designed to better his understanding of how animals work. ‘Which birds,’ she is wont to ask, ‘eat meat? How do you know? Lookatthebeaklookatthebeak’ This is sometimes successful, sometimes not, and sometimes my Brilliant Big Brother silences her by keeping up a running commentary of random factoids about the lives and loves of the feathered exhibits himself.
My Brilliant Big Brother, you see, pays close attention to nature programmes. Mama, on the other hand, thinks that nature in its entirety goes ‘they have sex and then something eats the really cute baby’ and that this is especially true if you watch David Attenborough’s Planet series. Except that in the programmes it is done to ominous music. Nature missing a trick there. Mama, basically, finds the animal world both boringly predictable and excruciatingly traumatic. My Brilliant Big Brother does not. Therefore, in a fauna fact-off, my Brilliant Big Brother always wins.
It should come as no surprise then that the mammal room is also popular. My Brilliant Big Brother finds the elephants in various stages of evolution fascinating. Similarly the fish corridor. With added crocodiles! And the bit with the giant sloth (it’s GIANT!). And the bug exhibition. With your actual leaf cutter ants carrying your actual leaves. Although he also thinks the case explaining the difference between centipedes and millipedes (not as obvious as you might think, Mama says) pretty essential. And… well, let’s just say that all the bits with any kind of animal are equally as thrilling to my Brilliant Big Brother, and, unfortunately, equally as packed with other nature obsessed big children and so equally as unfriendly to wide-roaming toddlers as each other.
Except the dinosaur exhibition, which is even more so. In fact, Mama recommends that the Natural History Museum should be avoided at weekends*, during school holidays and especially in half term, when everybody with children within reach of London decides to visit in the space of one week. Not only are there lengthy queues to get into the place, but the entire entrance hall is given over to the hour-long line of people waiting to go and see the animatronic T-Rex, with only the admittedly impressive Gothic detailing and the huge, iconic diplodocus skeleton to entertain them.
Actually it can be quite entertaining. They’ve rigged the massive plant eater so that you can light it up different colours and even make it roar. But only if you pay an extortionate sum of money, which Mama, well, Mama doesn’t. Of course, if you should make a half term visit there will be many many desperate parents, and so the roar gets played quite often anyway. Still, this does not compensate you, in Mama’s opinion, for the wait, especially when it is followed by the news that the lift to the walkway you have to use in order to reach model dino heaven is out of order and no, you cannot just abandon the pushchair here and come back for it later.
Of course, the T-Rex is almost worth it in Mama’s opinion and TOTALLY worth it in my Brilliant Big Brother’s, which is why we all keep coming back and back. I am less convinced, being much of the opinion of my Brilliant Big Brother on his first visit (< wobbly voice > “Teef, Mama, TEEF!”< /wobbly voice>), but I am generally overruled.
There’s also a whole other bunch of galleries about the earth, the environment and, I dunno, plants and such, but we only go there when my Brilliant Big Brother thinks they might have hidden a few more animals in them or when Mama is trying to make me fall asleep. Not even being in a real earthquake or making your own clouds really compensates for the lack of furry/scaly action. Although the rocks room is a hit. To Mama one bit of quartz looks very much like another, but she says Granny, the geologist, should be proud that her grandson can spend hours and hours and hours in there getting Mama to read the captions (“Quartz. Quartz with iron. Quartz with copper. Quartz quartz. Quartz with gold. Oooh. Quartz.”) and I am happy because it is really quiet up there and Mama let’s me play hide and seek round the quartz cases. Granny must really like quartz. I wonder what she does with it?
And so to the coffee, or not because Mama rarely stops for refreshments inside. The cafes are too open plan and busy for someone with over-stimulated children who will probably run off in different directions just as she has taken her first sip of the warm brown drink she seems to like to much. If you must go, the one in the Darwin Centre is probably the quietest. There’s also a restaurant, but that is particularly expensive and even a balloon per child cannot make up for that. Says Mama. The best option on rainy days is the basement, where there is a vast lunch room for school parties and other picnickers. It even has a small coffee shop at one end! On better days, there is a nice bit of grass outside and it even has its own snack kiosk and, in summer, a carousel. In good weather there is also a stall selling ice-creams at the entrance to the nature garden, a small wildlife preserve of overgrown foliage, twisty pathways and water features, with which my Brilliant Big Brother and I like to end our visit to the museum. You aren’t supposed to picnic there though.
Anyway. The Natural History Museum is an essential on any list of places to visit in London for children of all ages. Mama will just have to continue sucking up the drawbacks and start bribing me with the promise of dinosaur toys, because we will be regulars here for some time to come.
*Except for the last half term before the summer holidays. Mama reckons people are saving it up. Go then, if you are trapped by school. Unlike me. Nyahnyahnyahnyahnya.
On one level, you can see the Imperial Festival, when Imperial College London invites its alumni and the general public to come and see what research it has been doing lately, as just a series of fun activities for kids, albeit a LOT of activities, which are HUGE amounts of fun.
While we were there we stuck our hands into bowls of slimy snot; we had close up views of creepy crawlies such as a tarantula, some earthworms, a scorpion, and a giant millipede; we made water dance by rubbing the sides of a bowl; we crafted lollipop stick antibodies; we rode on a mechanical horse; we raced plastic tag boats powered by washing up liquid; we blow-painted pictures of our lungs; we set up dominoes and knocked them down to simulate a flu epidemic; we fished for good and bad bugs; we added to a chalk mural on the street; we used a xylophone to make slime dance; we extracted and admired our own DNA; we helped colour in a giant fresco; we fed computerised bacteria; we knitted arteries; we watched someone make bubbles out of frozen smoke.
And we certainly did not do all of the things on offer, but since they practically had to throw us out of the place about half an hour after the official ending of the event, that certainly wasn’t through lack of interest.
But the Imperial Festival is much more than that.
Magic, Mama thinks, is frustrating. The whole point of the tricks is that you don’t get to find out how it is done, and Mama hates this with a passion. Sense of wonderment? Bah. She says.
Science as done by the Imperial Festival, on the other hand, is great. This is because while the many many experiments, interactive demonstrations and straight explanations are, to Mama, pretty indistinguishable from magic at first glance, the whole point of them is to make the inexplicable, ‘splicable, and what is more there were actual researchers on hand she could quiz until she had total satisfaction. The activities were, in fact, well chosen to provide a gateway to the research and did indeed serve as excellent conversation starters for small people and big people alike.
Given the sheer variety of topics on offer, it would be virtually impossible for nothing to fire the imagination enough to inquire further.
My Bestest Big Brother got to ask people who actually know the answers questions about germs, a topic he has been plaguing Mama with recently. Meanwhile Mama found herself fascinated by the Bacterial Nanotechnology stand even if she did blot her copybook by asking what the point of spending fifteen years refining technology so that scientists could see the mechanisms by which bacteria propel themselves in ever clearer detail actually was. She did rather enjoy the fact that this showed signs of developing into a spirited discussion amongst the researchers manning the stall themselves though.
But the clear win for the Imperial Festival’s overall inspirational quality is that my Bestest Big Brother has been devising and conducting experiments or at least observations, frequently involving copious amounts of water (funny that), but sometimes designed to answer a question about animals, all week since.
In addition, while Mama did not do a headcount of girl researchers/ students vs boy researchers/ students, certainly any child attending this event would not for a moment get the impression that science and engineering are boys’ subjects.
Admittedly, you probably have to be a bit older than me to get the most out of it. I did not have a clue what was going on. But I still enjoyed it (once I’d had a nap). Water play, woohoo! Etc. Although I do not know why all the adults were smirking as I used my stick to push the boat across the bowl rather than whatever the heck they meant me to do. The thing moved! What more do you want?
Anyway. Basically, Mama fully intends to find out when next year’s Imperial Festival is on, and move heaven and earth to attend. She also plans to lobby Bestest Big Brother’s school about attending the pre-festival schools’ programme and sell it enthusiastically to anyone who has kids from about five upwards, and, in fact, anyone who doesn’t have kids too.
It ran into the lateish evening on the Friday, so adults should have a clear shot at the stalls without having to fight their way through a wall of small fascinated bodies. You could go on the tours round the labs and attend some talks too. Just don’t tell Mama, she’ll only be jealous.
If you need any more inducement, the food options were pretty good too, if a little dampened by showers and driving winds, with some extensively stocked stalls and a pop-up pub. While you are eating (or drinking) you can watch the belly dancers. Or listen to the band. Or the other band. Or the other other band. Or the choir. Or watch the street dancers. Or the dance theatre troupe. Plenty of uncomplicated entertainment. I bopped along. I cavorted. I got underfoot. I ate chips. Hours of fun.
We go to the Science Museum a lot. This is because Mama finds herself in South Kensington with me waiting around for my Fabulous Big Brother to be culturally and linguistically indoctrinated at his Russian school quite often. So when it’s raining she often takes me here on the grounds that some of the rooms are really big and there is plenty of space to run around. Of course, sometimes she takes me here when it is sunny too. This is because if you want to go to the Science Museum on a weekend, you can avoid some of the worst of the crowds by picking a time when everybody else will have gone to the park. Sadly there isn’t much you can do about the crush in the shorter school holidays, but luckily the children will probably still enjoy themselves. Mama says, resignedly.
I really like the Space bit. It’s dark and mysterious with odd things dangling from the ceiling. One of the first things both my Fabulous Big Brother as a toddler and now I make a beeline for is the diorama on the left, mainly because it has that rarest of things, a step up specially so we of under average height can actually see it. Mama tells me it shows the launch of one of the first rockets EVAH but also that it is basically one big bomb. She is therefore a bit miffed that she cannot embellish our interest further with a nice improving story. Still, I also like the big revolving ball hanging, apparently, freely in thin air, where they project what Mama calls satellite images of different aspects of terrestrial life as seen from space. Mama is quite entranced by the one where everybody switches their lights on, one by one, all over the world. I just want to know how I can get it down and throw it around.
Sometimes, usually when Papa is with us, we play hunt the Russian references. This is surprisingly difficult given that, Papa rants, the Russians did almost everything in space first. Except land on the moon, Papa! Interestingly, the moon landing apparatus happens to be one of the focal points of the whole room. What can you do? That big car is shiny shiny shiny!
We started spending less time in the room with all the cars, trains, boats and weaving looms after I learned to walk. Mama was told off once too often for letting me touch the machinery. This is a great shame as I love machinery, and the plinths are at a very inviting height for exploring toddlers. They have even added a bit of exciting challenge in the flimsy string barrier, a challenge I was more than happy to take up. I recommend sliding underneath. Or flinging yourself wildly over the top.
Nowadays I make sure to rush Mama past it, partly because I know about the play area on the other side and partly because if I stand still for long enough, Mama will yet again tell me how although the centrally placed Rocket is the most famous early steam locomotive, it wasn’t the first. The first one is over there, shoved out of the way in a corner. Which is, in its way, also significant. But then this will cause her to segue into a rant about how, whilst she, the early modern specialist with time to spare as she waited to see if I would get to touch the early Ford before the guard rugby tackled me or not, has given considerable thought to why each of the items in the room is there, she does feel that there could be a little more focus in the room itself as to the importance of the items on display and their placement.
This is why Mama needs me and my Fabulous Big Brother around to entertain her in such places, I say. Also, when would she have the chance to read explanatory placarding these days anyway?
Sometimes Mama takes me upstairs, especially when the Museum has a temporary exhibition on. She may be sniffy about what the website calls the ‘objects rich’ galleries (hahahaha. Oh deary me. Mama says) but some of the Science Museum’s exhibits in passing are as whacky as anything you find in the Tate Modern and considerably more grounded in something inherently interesting. Mama thinks.
Her favourite of recent times was the anatomy of an orchestra they put on, which led to strains of the Planet Suite by Holst randomly echoing round the ground floor. Mama enjoyed very much the experience of going through different ‘rooms’ and sitting with different sections of the orchestra, listening to the music from each instrument’s point of view. There were also some interactive elements, but Mama couldn’t get the hang of conducting and so we went and sat in the bass section so Mama could relive her youth playing in the coolest section of the orchestra. Until the school party in the percussion section got their hands on the drums, symbols, more drums, more symbols and a few more drums and really let fly right in the middle of the war section, startling me something wicked. Oh how I cried and clung to Mama as she hastened out of there, her hands over my ears. Still, also an authentic experience, Mama says. The brass section in particular were invented to deafen the basses.
Also somewhere on the upper floors is a play area for older children called the Launch Pad with all sorts of hands on activities with a vague connection to something scientific. Mama does not like this area. It is absolutely heaving with large bodies and she has no hope of keeping an eye on both me and my Fabulous Big Brother at the same time. Especially as I can’t reach anything and just want to run around getting underfoot. There are plenty of buttons to push and computer screens to stare at and stab elsewhere up there though, even if the point of the displays does rather escape me, and it is well worth having a stroll around.
But the highlight of the Science Museum from my point of view are the two interactive areas for the under tens. Mama is a bit trepidatious about the one called the Garden. This is a secret play area, secret because the signage in the museum is a bit coy and unless you know what the Garden is you would probably never go down to the basement there and find out. All that’s there apart from the Garden is the picnic area for schools, a small coffee shop, some lecture theatres and the domestic appliances exhibition, which is almost always deserted. This is a shame, Mama feels. Early models of washing machines she can get quite enthusiastic about without further prompting, especially as there are more buttons to push so you can watch them spinning around. And the coffee shop is usually uncroweded and serves, well, it serves coffee. What more do you want? Anyway. The Garden. Yes, well, the thing about the Garden is that somebody decided that a really extensive and engrossing water section would be a good idea and when she first took my Fabulous Big Brother there, all unsuspecting like, Mama ended up having to hold him under the hand dryer in the toilets for forty five minutes to get him dry again. Nowadays we don’t go there unless it’s a really sunny day or Mama has bought a spare set of clothes because I, too, love splashing about in water with no regard for my clothing whatsoever.
There’s also a bit where the Science Museum has decided to teach us about the futility and repetitive nature of our future lives as working stiffs, where we load up a wheelbarrow with bean bags, haul them up in a pulley driven bucket, slide them down a shute, load up the wheelbarrow again, fill up the bucket, tip them down the shute, load up the wheelbarrow… Mama seems surprised by how popular this is, but she clearly doesn’t know how thrilling it is to organise your minions into a smoothly operating machine, all doing exactly what you say and keeping you well supplied with all the bean bags you can eat.
The rest of the Garden pales into insignificance beside these two bits of equipment, but then we have plenty of big lego at home. Mama enjoys hitting the sound making objects, so I usually indulge her a bit in that, and less energetic children might enjoy the den with the soft toys or the self service puppet theatre.
The Pattern Pod is another play area for younger visitors on the ground floor just beyond Mama’s favourite Modern World extravaganza. When it’s not too busy and you can get a decent go on all of the equipment it is GREAT but that’s really only happened once or twice. I really like trying to catch the projected fish in the projected fish pool on the floor which RIPPLES WHEN YOU JUMP ON IT (finally, says Mama, water play which does not involve any dampness!), and putting ‘seed’ tiles into slots to make different patterns grow on the walls. I will also spend hours putting different geometric shapes together to make aeroplanes. But the best bit is the dancing room. They play you music, you bop around and your picture appears on the wall overlayed with different psychedelic effects. Even Mama wanted to have a go at that but she’s too big – the image is just one big blur. My height is perfect, which is not a sentence you get to type about museums on a regular basis.
Mama’s only reservation about the Pattern Pod, aside from a big sulk about her size not being adequately catered for, is that there are two exits, and she maintains that her paranoia about not being able to keep both of us under full surveillance when it is busy and one of us leaving from the other one and getting lost is perfectly reasonable, even though we have never shown the least inclination to do such a thing so far. There is a place to park pushchairs in both the Garden and the Pattern Pod, so at least Mama is free to chase after us unencumbered should she need to, for which she is duly thankful.
There are, of course, cafés. The one in the basement is always surprisingly quiet, and so is definitely worth a visit if a fix of caffeine and cake is all your big people need. Mama’s other favourite is called the Energy Café. It’s in the first gallery, the one with all the early steam engines, the ones that weren’t used for locomotives. Mama loves that they have the biggest one working at weekends (and holidays?) so much that she sometimes pops in just for that. It’s something about the noise, she says, and the smell, all hot oil and metal. In the cafe, Mama recommends the generous salad plate, which I like a good nibble off too. And the coffee is ok. She says. You have to play hunt the child high chair a bit sometimes, but now that I am bigger and spurn high chairs, this is less of an issue. The restaurant at the back of the ground floor we haven’t been to. But it is very blue and luminous, which looks lovely.
The Science Museum is huge and has a huge variety of different exhibits which we have only really scratched the surface of, despite our many visits. The top floors have a lot more for the bigger kids, and when we have my Fabulous Big Brother with us again, I suspect we will be spending more and more time up there. There are also a lot of shows and 3D film experiences and so on and I can see from her longing looks at the posters that Mama is just itching for us to grow up a bit so she can go to all of them. As is it is, I highly recommend the Science Museum for really young kids for the play areas alone. But those are not the only reasons I like it, and I am always happy to go, to the extent of gesticulating wildly in its general direction if Mama tries to nip past it to go and look at dinosaurs.