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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That said, I think it was the more unusual looking animals that caught our eyes, and there are plenty of those too.
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.
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.
Address: The Walter Rothschild building, Akeman Street, Tring, Hertfordshire, HP23 6AP
Opening: 10am – 5pm Monday – Saturday, 2pm – 5pm Sundays.
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.