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).
Almost the entire point of going to Scotland as far as my Amazing Big Brother is concerned is visiting the Scottish Owl Centre, conveniently situated midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow on the M8.
This is because of the owls (surprise!).
There are a lot of them though. Big ones, medium ones, small ones, really really small ones, white ones, grey ones, brown ones, ones with speckled feathers, stripy patterns, spots, owls that hide away in burrows with alarmingly long legs, fishing owls, owls from hot countries, cold countries and tropical rainforests (Tropical! Rainforest! Owls! Says Mama, delightedly), owls with black eyes, yellow eyes and orange eyes (there’s a story behind that), owls with signs on the doors suggesting you stay weeeeeeell back so that they do not savage your little fingers, hooting owls, screeching owls, owls which make other hauntingly beautiful noises while you eat your sandwiches and play happily in the sunshine, and lots of owls who are, apparently, getting ready to hatch out new baby owls before our very eyes.
Which is reassuring from an ‘are the owls enjoying themselves in those cages’ kind of way.
And all of these owls had that thousand yard solemn unblinking stare and did that distinctive wiggly head movement as they watched me go by.
My Amazing Big Brother is convinced this means they are trying to get a bead on the aerodynamic possibilities of swooping down and carrying me off like a mouse.
Sometimes it’s quite worrying being small. But it certainly added a bit of spice to our visit.
But despite the variety of owls, the Scottish Owl Centre is not really a full day out, even if, like my Amazing Big Brother you insist on going round twice, very very slowly, getting Mama to read all the placards. In fact, it will probably only take you forty five minutes to an hour tops to saunter around all the owl enclosures, although there is also a giant fast tube slide and a small crawlabout maze to occupy you next to a picnic area, and some oldschool educational displays in a covered space, which do an excellent job of conveying really quite a lot of information about owls, their habitats and habits in a simple, but fun interactive manner. We particularly recommend the one where you have to stick your hands in squidgy wet artificial snow and play hunt the voles. It’s FABULOUSLY gross.
Luckily there also is an excellent and quite extensive adventure play area right outside in Polkemmet Country Park, where the Owl Centre is situated. There’s a sandpit with its own built in sand toys, a wooden castle, various climbing nets and structures, a zipwire, and swings.
There’s also a real life steam engine parked and ready to climb over, although much to our disappointment, you couldn’t actually turn the handles, stoke the fires or set it moving.
Tickets for the Scottish Owl Centre are valid all day so you could pop in and out after playing there, and there are also woodland walks to had, although much of the park is taken up by a golf course, which Mama says might spoil things, although I think she might be quoting Churchill there.
Why would you want to pop back in, I hear you ask?
Because the highlight of your visit to the Scottish Owl Centre will be the thirty minute flying shows that take place twice daily in winter and three times in the warmer months.
It’s not just that wherever you sit in the covered flying area you will feel (but not hear, their silent flight not being a myth) an owl swoop millimeters past you, or, if you go to the show where you get to lie down on the floor while the owl skims your nose, over you (which frankly is thrilling enough), but that the handler’s chat which accompanies the display is packed full of genuinely interesting tidbits of owly facts as well as a fair amount of background into the history of the place and its work as a conservation centre.
The particularly nice thing is that each show is different, with different owls, different information and even different handlers, so Mama and my Amazing Big Brother think it is well worth sticking around for more than just the one. I, on the other hand, was enthralled for the entirety of the first show, but I did find that my three year old attention had wandered a bit by the end of the second one. This was the reason that we didn’t go back for the third.
I think our favourite bit, though, was when we got to HOLD THE BIRDS! One of my Amazing Big Brother’s most prized possessions is the photo of him with an owl on his arm from our first visit here, but that time he was only my age so he had to make do with a smaller owl. This time, he was determined to hold a really big one, and so he did, even though it was so heavy he could barely manage it on his own.
I took one look at the size of the Milky Eagle Owl’s beak and declared myself quite happy with the exceptionally cute White Faced Owl, whose parents Mama had only just that minute been admiring. You have to pay extra for this privilege, of course, especially if you want the centre to print you off a photo, but we are convinced it is well worth it.
Plus, if you have any burning owl questions still left unanswered, this is the time to ask them. The advantage of this small venue is that the people manning this attraction are fully involved in the work of the centre and very happy to chat about it.
There isn’t any food outlet on the Owl Centre site, barring some tubs of ice cream in the reception foyer. The café in the grounds of the park (which otherwise gets rave reviews, Mama understands) was also closed when we went. But you can take sandwiches. There are certainly some attractive places to eat them both inside and outside the centre and the website for the Polkemmet Country Park also boasts a site you can hire for your very own barbeque in the spring and summer months.
All in all, a child less relentlessly fixated on the animal world than my Amazing Big Brother might not think that the Scottish Owl Centre is quite worth a drive of two days with an overnight stop at an unrevamped motel in a service station off the A1 to get there, but my Amazing Big Brother certainly does. I’m not joking – he’s been going on and on about in the three years since our last visit and clearly did not accept Mama’s description of quite how far it was as any kind of barrier for a weekly trip.
Mama and I are a touch less enthusiastic, but we both agree that if you are in the area and the weather is even halfway decent it is definitely somewhere you should have on your list.
Address: Polkemmet Country Park, Whitburn EH47 0AD, Scotland
Opening: Feb, March, Sept, Oct, Nov: 11.30 to 16.00 (flying displays 12.30 and 14.30). April to August: 10.30 to 17.00 (flying displays 11.30, 13.30 and 15.30). December to January: closed.
Admission: Adult: £7.50, child (3-15): £5.50, family (2+2): £24
By car: Leave the M8, which runs between Edinburgh and Glasgow, at junction 4a. The Centre (and Polkemmet Country Park) is clearly signposted from there on brown signs. The Centre is probably about 45 minutes from both cities. The car parks in the park are FREE!
By public transport: Apparently, buses which run through Whitburn and Harthill pass the entrance to the park.
The point of cycling, as I understand it after careful observation of Grandad, is to visit as many places you can get a nice slice of cake and something warm and wet to drink as possible in one afternoon, although quite why they need to do this by bike I am not sure. Church Farm is bang in the middle of a very picturesque village, Ardeley, all thatched roofs, village greens and whitewashed walls, and has a both an excellent café and a pub, so it was bound to come to his attention. And thus we came to find out about it.
It is a semi working farm. It certainly produces food from the animals and crops it keeps, but it seems to have been conceived from the first as an open farm where people can go and inspect the still-moving meat and its living conditions before they eat. Ditto veggies. And, increasingly, get some hands on experience of farming and outdoor life. They have an educational programme for people with learning disabilities or mental health issues called Rural Care. And internships for those planning a career in agriculture. They are even interested if you want to enter into a joint partnership as growers. And they accept volunteers if all you want to do is help muck out the pigs. Hours of fun.
Because visitors are so much part of the farm, you don’t have to tramp for long before you get to the fields full of pigs, chickens, geese, pigs, turkeys, cows, pigs, sheep and pigs (they seem to specialise in pigs) all of which seem to have ample space to roam around in and be enjoying a healthy outdoor lifestyle. There is also a longer ramble which takes you round the outer limits, through a wood and down to the orchards, but it also takes you away from the animals, and the one time Mama tried that one out, we complained BITTERLY about that all the way round, so we almost certainly won’t be doing that again. Even if she tries to bribe us with blackberries from the hedgerows as we walk.
Or, rather, trudge. Endlessly.
Walking and gawking are not the only two possibilities open to you at Church Farm, Ardeley though. You can also FEED THE ANIMALS! To do this you buy suitable food from the farm shop near the entrance and then look out for the feeding tubes dotted around the fields. Combining animal husbandry with a giant pinball/ splat the rat game! Genius!
Other entertainments. Well, the first time we went there a couple of years ago, my Amazing Big Brother got electrocuted, which Mama thinks was particularly enterprising of him as she wouldn’t have said that Church Farm is particularly given to making the electric fences easy to find for small hands.
It took Mama a while to realise why he was frowning every time he grasped the wire keeping the chickens safe from his desire to chase them, a testament to just how long she has been living in a big city. Luckily, she was able to turn it into a useful learning experience. You remember how the chicken fence bit you? Well, don’t stick your fingers in the socket then.
But the best thing about Church Farm is the MUD. It’s almost as if Mama waits until it has been raining for a good few days before she decides to bring us here. For some reason this always takes Granny by surprise and she loses a shoe. Which makes a very satisfying squelch. It’s a good thing that ever since my Amazing Big Brother fell full length in a stream within minutes of getting out of the car on one of our first countryside forays, Mama keeps a change of clothes in the car whenever we venture outside city limits. We may be kitted out in wellies but it is never long before we are up to our armpits in sticky brown muck.
There are picnic areas, next to the guinea pigs and rabbits in the small spinney with the outdoor play equipment, but we seem to usually make it here in colder weather and so once we have washed as much of the mud off as we can in the toilets and changed clothes we go to the café. Where we recommend all the breakfasty type food made of the eggs, bacon and sausages they produce themselves, although they also do other mains and also Grandad’s cake.
It’s not cheap, but Mama is so impressed that they do not make her pay to get in to the farm that she is more than willing to shell out on food instead. It’s quite small though, even with seating outside, and so older people might want to make their way over to the very attractive-looking Jolly Waggoner pub just outside the farm gates, which is also owned by Church Farm.
As well as extra seating and the farm shop, there’s also a play area outside the café if the weather is good enough. And, apparently, an indoor playroom somewhere nearby if it isn’t. However, I predict we will almost certainly never go to because Mama thinks the point of Church Farm is fresh air, exercise and rolling around in the mud.
All in all, if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Stevenage, you should definitely take a trip out to Church Farm in Ardeley, and Mama thinks this even if it hasn’t rained enough to activate the mud play option recently.
By car: Ardeley is situated between the A1 and the A10. It’s a 15 to 20 minute drive from either. There is a free car park on site. It doesn’t look huge, but Mama has never had any trouble finding a space in autumn and winter, which is when we’ve been.
By other means: The nearest train station is in Stevenage, which is about 20 minutes away by taxi. The local 700 bus goes from Stevenage to the next village, Cottered, which is a 30 minute walk away. Obviously you can also cycle.
Has Mama mentioned that my Brilliant Big Brother is quite keen on animals? She has? Then it should surprise nobody that when Mama discovered an opportunity to visit somewhere for FREE (Mama does like the free) with a promotion, she chose a zoo. Paradise Wildlife Park, specifically. That was quite some time ago now but this winter we went again voluntarily and paid our own money (well, Mama and Papa’s money) to get in. And we even took friends.
It’s an interesting name, ‘Paradise Wildlife Park’. It suggests a certain… commercial approach to zookeeping. And Mama did experience grave misgivings when as we first went in we were greeted by the ‘put a pound in this ride… and this one…. and that one…. and look, there are five more over here too’ area. Mama wondered if she was going to have to pay extra for everything and be fobbed off with orange dyed, stripily painted pet cats in lieu of your actual tigers. Although I don’t know what’s wrong with that. Cats! Woohoo!
In fact, nearly everything else, and there is a lot else, is included in the entrance price. And the animals are, Mama thinks, a very carefully chosen mix between, small and manageable, large and impressive, familiar crowd-pleasers and the full on exotic. What a relief it must be to be released from the terms of your latest scientific grant meaning you don’t need to try to convince the punters that forty-two species of slugs hiding in the leafmold are interesting.
My Brilliant Big Brother really liked ALL THE ANIMALS. Especially the snakes, the small monkeys and the sloths. The adults preferred the big cats, especially the oddly white tigers and lions. Mama was also thrilled to find the roosting, perpetually squeaking bats were extremely unnerving, even as she resisted the temptation to clutch at her hair. I actually refused to go into that room. Luckily they have obligingly cute chipmunks in the vestibule outside.
Me? I liked the stairs. There are stairs because there are a lot of viewing platforms and walkways that take you right over where the animals are hanging out. This is fabulous, especially for someone my height.
I also loved the ostriches, the goats, the sheep the pigs and the PONIES!!! This was because an advantage of the evils of capitalism approach is that Paradise Wildlife Park lets you feed some of the animals. Cabbage, mostly, which I don’t like, to Mama’s everlasting relief. There are signs telling Mama which animals you can throw bits of limp veggies at, and it definitely increases you chances of getting up close to those animals! The goats will eat from your hands!
Mind you, some visitors got to feed the tigers. This was very exciting. The remote but thrilling possibility that someone might get their fingers bitten off! Plus, the tiger stretched up really high, right on his hind legs. Coooooooooooooooool.
No, said the keeper, obviously used to deflecting the concerns of the British public that they are training wild animals circus style.
The reason you get your tigers to do this is so that you can check out their nails, take a bit of blood, examine their belly and so on. Without having to dope them so you can get close enough and not get your arm bitten off. It’s a deadly serious and really quite dull bit of exotic captive animal care. Honestly.
But enough about the animals! Paradise Wildlife Park also has a (free) bouncy castle! To be honest, it was hard to concentrate on the animals once I had seen that, and we had to take a jump break about half way round the zoo part because us smallest people kept going on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about it.
In addition, as we found out during our mild weather first visit, there is an extensive outdoor playground sporting a variety of slides with (yes!) more steps to climb to get to them. And an actual fire engine! And an actual steam engine!! Both of which you can scramble all over to your heart’s content. Papa had been so softened up by the quality of what had come before that he put a whole 20p in a slot and the steam engine roared and whistled and puffed for hours.
There was also a pirate ship, and an assault course, and some go carts to pedal around, and a (pay for) miniature railway, and a (pay for) crazy golf course as well as a large full on (free) soft play area/ café that much to our excitement we got to spend a good hour in at the end of our second visit because it was so jolly cold outside that day and the Mamas needed some hot refreshment. Coffee, possibly.
Mama reckons the zoo really works as either a good or not so good weather venue. In fact, given that there are distinct signs that the place may be rammed to overflowing in summer, Mama rather thinks off-peak is the time to go. It’s not that they stop the live feeding shows or anything. Although we always seem to miss them anyway.
More! In the colder months it’s just chilly enough that the lions might not be lolling around asleep in the sun for the duration of your visit. Even the gibbons put on a swinging display for us, which almost never happens.
There are plenty of places for humans to eat, both for those who have taken a packed lunch and for those who wish to buy something on site, hot or cold. For sheer coolness value, Mama recommends the snack bar overlooking the tiger enclosure.
And finally, they play you music in the toilets. Result!
Anyway. The Paradise Wildlife Park really is a full day out and was thoroughly enjoyed twice by a family who are quite the connoisseurs of wildlife experiences. If it was just a tiny bit closer to where we live, Mama would seriously consider getting us all year round passes. Which given that they would be between £250 and £300 for us is a serious recommendation.
Disclaimer: We first went to Paradise Wildlife Centre for free as part of a moneysupermarket days out discount promotion, but our subsequent visit was all our own decision as are our opinions.
Address: White Stubbs Lane, Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, EN10 7QA.
Opening: 9.30am to 5pm (winter) and 6pm (summer).
Admission: There are high, mid and low season prices which range from £19 – £17 for adults and £16 – £14 for kids. It’s always significantly cheaper to book in advance online, especially in the off season (£10 apiece for adults and kids in winter). Mama also recommends googling for any money off vouchers that might be available too.
By train: The park operates a minibus service from Broxbourne Station. £1 per person for the over 2s.
By car: There is ample free car parking. also, nice clear signposting and it’s only a short ride A10 from that big M25 road we seem to spend our lives whizzing around. There’s also a cross country route from the A1.
Today we have a guest post from far far far far far away from the centre of the universe (London). Mama says it is Kidding Herself’s nod to Burns Night. I have no idea what she is talking about, since she forgot all about it until now.
Hi I’m R and although I’ve never met Herself, apparently my Mummy knows her Mama because of the inter-webs.
Anyway, we were in Edinburgh for a week and thought we would share with you one of our adventures. Edinburgh being, apparently, a bit far for Herself to travel for a day out on a regular basis. Despite what her Gallus Big Brother seems to think, having been here once and liked it.
He probably liked it because they went to the same place we did, Deep Sea World which is situated beneath the Forth Rail Bridge, across the other side of the river from Edinburgh proper.
Deep Sea World is decidedly fishy. You can tell this immediately you walk through the front door because you are greeted by a delightful aroma. Admittedly this made Mummy feel a bit sick (something to do with her currently growing a tiny human I think) but there’re some tanks that go all the way to the floor near the entrance which I think is compensation enough. I enjoyed sitting in front of these and pointing at all the different fish (the day involved lots of pointing at fish). There really were lots of them.
However, there were also lots of tanks that I was to small to see into properly which I was less amused by. Of course, says Herself, who is wise to the vagaries of aquariums. She recommends growing.
Still, we had a good look at a whole range of varied fish, piranahs, seahorses etc, then we ventured down into the main attraction, the big glass tunnel.
This has a moving walkway on one side and a normal path on the other side. Mummy, feeling a little lazy, parked my buggy on the moving walkway while we looked at even more fish and, wait for it, SHARKS! I liked the SHARKS and all the fish. Again I couldn’t easily see into the tank from my low vantage point, but the tunnel arches right above the walkway so I did get a good look at anything swimming overhead. Fish mostly and did I mention the SHARKS? ( I was rather keen on the SHARKS). Nevertheless, I got bored half way round on our second circuit so we ventured back up to the main level in search of lunch.
Mummy had thoughtfully packed a lunch to bring with us. Gran ate from the café though. She says the food was a little expensive but had decent portions. I was happy with my sandwich and snacks. Mummy let me escape from the buggy for a bit of walking around after lunch but as it was quite busy I had to wear my backpack reins.
After lunch, we went round the big tunnel another couple of times and pointed at more fish and SHARKS. Then we tried out the shop. There were assorted cuddly sea creatures mostly with tags stating that they were only suitable for over 3s, and also the normal souvenir stuff of mugs and pens etc and sweets. All overpriced, Mummy said. But Gran bought me a bag of of squirty bath creatures so I didn’t come home empty handed!
To finish off with we went along to have a look at the other big aquatic draw, the common or harbour seals. These occur naturally in the Forth Estuary that Deep Sea World is attached to, but given that it is a socking large expanse of water, it’s nice that the centre has enticed a few up close for our entertainment, and, according to them, the purposes of conservation. I watched around half of the seal feeding show thing, but it was a bit busy and Mummy said I was too heavy to sit on her shoulders for too long so we missed the end.
All in all it was a reasonably enjoyable two and a half hours we spent there. Mummy said that its probably better for children who are a bit older than me because in the end fish are all pretty much the same to me (except the SHARKS). Mummy also notes that we went during the school holidays so it was rather full of other children! Be prepared to elbow them out of the way is what Herself advises, being that much older than me. I have listened to this advice carefully. Mummy will doubtless be so proud next time we go.
Address: Battery Quarry, North Queensferry, Fife, KY11 1JR.
Opening: Weekdays: 10am to 4pm. Weekends: 10am to 6pm.
Admission: Adults and over 13s: £13.50, children over 3: £9.50, family of 4: £44.00. You can save if you buy in advance online.
By train: North Queensferry Station is a short walk from Deep Sea World and is served by trains on the Fife Circle Line from both Edinburgh Waverley and Haymarket stations. The journey takes about 15 minutes.
By car: Deep Sea World is just off the M90, 20 minutes from Edinburgh, 50 minutes from Glasgow and under 2 hours from Aberdeen (according to the website). There is free car parking on site.
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.
It took Mama three years to get around to taking us to the London SEALIFE Aquarium the first time, which is odd given how fish-adoring my Incomparable Big Brother is. She says it is because the aquarium is something called ex-pen-sive. But there she was, practically about to give birth to me at any moment, feeling sorry for my Incomparable Big Brother, who was about to be thoroughly displaced a king of all he surveyed by a small smelly little sister. Mama thought. So off we went. Funnily enough I do not remember much about that visit. I have been since, though, and I can tell you that the London SEALIFE Aquarium is worth the money. And if you can visit often, the yearly membership is not as outrageous as you would expect from the one-off entrance fee. Mama says.
Mama thinks the creators of this big fishy extravaganza have been very clever. Faced with a relatively small plot of land, they have dug down and built the place on the vertical. Admittedly this means that they milk the huge shark tank and the enormous giant turtle tank for all they are worth – you go up a level, round a corner and think you are going to look at something new, but actually it’s just the same old fish bowl from another angle. However, they are correct that this doesn’t really matter. My Incomparable Big Brother and I are quite capable of spending the entire evening staring gormlessly at the two goldfish and four snails we have at home going round and round in only a few centimetres of water. We can be entranced by the rather larger, more exotic circles made by the diverse creatures in the London SEALIFE Aquarium again and again and again and for much much longer.
Well, my Incomparable Big Brother is. He really does like fish. And sharks. And turtles. And cats. And dogs. And mice. And snakes. And birds, and worms, and bees, and spiders, and pigs and cows and sheep and goats and zebras and tigers and elephants and… look, he pretty much likes any and all animals to a quite obsessional degree.
But calling the London SEALIFE Aquarium a two tank pony is a bit rude of Mama too, I reckon. There are plenty of other glass fish boxes with the smaller or, in the case of the piranhas, vicious exhibits in them leading up to and away from the showstoppers. Plus penguins! Penguins I tell you! And a small crocodile. And even a special tank you can lean over and absolutely not stroke some rays. Or, in the case of Mama, eye up the plaice that also occupy that space speculatively. Mama enjoys cooking fish.
I like taking things apart. Papa has taped down the lid of the aquarium at home because I was looking like I would be in there disassembling the really cool bubble making machine as soon as his back was turned. Or possibly the fish. So although I really enjoyed the tanks with the brightly coloured tropical fish, and the ones with the boiling masses of small turtles banging up against the glass, and naturally I relished the opportunity to stick my hand in the water and try to grab hold of a starfish in the actual handling tanks, I get quite restless and start looking for the plug was when all that is on offer is a large grey toothy predator lazing around in the middle distance.
It is for this reason that Mama recommends a sling or a pushchair for active toddlers. The London SEALIFE Aquarium is dark, full of twisty passages and lots of people and if you are in any doubt about your young’s ability to stick close and come when called, you really want them strapped in somewhere accessible. She says. Adult chest height is best I say, because the aquarium is one of those places which take insufficient account of the eyeline of people in pushchairs.
Mama also thinks it is genius that the aquarium plays really soothing music… really soothing… soothing… mmmmmmmzzzzzzzzzzzzz… all the way round. Even the most energetic of small people are reduced to a zombielike calm by the time they leave the place, for which Mamas and Papas should be duly thankful. Except that what it is really for is inducing a hypnotic state of extreme suggestibility in the big people, so that when the family pops up into the sunlight and the shop, every time the children, who shake off the spell much quicker than the adults when faced with brightly coloured tactile shiny STUFF, demand ‘I want…’ the parents ask ‘how high?’ Certainly works on Mama. My Incomparable Big Brother and I have scored bendy sharks, a snake and a pot of miscellaneous underwater creatures on our visits. Result!
The one major sacrifice the London SEALIFE Aquarium constructors have made to the finding the space in London problem is to not include a café. Or any other kind of food consumption area. They even discourage you from munching your sandwiches in front of the tanks. Now, they will let you in and out as many times as you want, and there are plenty of food outlets and a park nearby. But basically Mama recommends that you either feed up before you go in for a long afternoon, or arrive smartly after breakfast because the aquarium, while not quite suitable for a whole day’s adventuring, is certainly a long half day’s worth of outing, and you don’t want to schlep all the way back through the winding corridors, eat, and then trudge back again only to discover that there are just two more small tanks and the shop to go. Not that that has happened to Mama ever.
Should you be wanting to make a day of it, do not fear. The London Eye is just outside although it’s not an eye at all but a socking great wheel carrying people up and over the Thames with excellent views of the nearby gothic splendour of something called the Houses of Parliament and beyond. Who Parliament is and what she does and why she needs more than one house sounds interesting given the architecture she has chosen to live in but Mama says no, not really, more infuriating and don’t get her started. Either way you can get deals on tickets for both the Eye and the Aquarium. Not that we have. They are not that great deals. Mama says. Although she has been collecting cereal packets with a gleam in her eye lately so perhaps they are particularly easy to turn into pounds. I look forward to that day’s craft project.
But if you don’t have any badly cut out bits of cardboard with you or have just blown what is left of the ents budget on some Happy Meals and a plastic turtle, the river is right there and available to be sauntered along free of charge so generally that’s what we do. If you turn right as you go out you’ll be on the run up to the South Bank Centre, where there is a whole avenue of people in costumes standing on boxes who will dance if you throw small round bits of metal at them. Which someone (not us) always does. They joys of being in tourist land. If you go a bit further up you can watch people attempt to jump improbable concrete barriers on planks of wood with a few wheels attached. Why, my brother and I wonder. Mama says we’ll probably find out when we turn thirteen or so.
Anyway. Go to the London SEALIFE Aquarium. It’s great. Just don’t expect any good coffee, take lots of the folding paper Mama seems to like so much, and don’t let any toddlers stick their hands in with the bitey fish.
Address: County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7PB
Opening: Monday to Sunday 10:00 to 19:00 (slightly longer in the school holidays)
Price: Adults £25.20 Children over 3: £19.50 Family (2 adults/ 2 children) £85 (there’s a discount if you book online and if you go after 3pm and you get some perks with the family ticket). Mama highly recommends looking out for 2:4:1 offers at the supermarket.
By tube/ train: The nearest station is Waterloo, although Charing Cross and Westminster tube station are also within walking distance.
By bus: Loads of buses stop at Waterloo, and the Aquarium is on the sightseeing bus routes too.