Thursday 28 June 2012

There's no place like home

Yesterday we went to Manchester Museum with CultureGrandad. I've mentioned in a previous post that one of my enduring memories of my childhood was my love affair with this museum. Though quite a bit has changed, and at times I felt the sort of disorientation one feels when a much loved house is redecorated, the place still feels like home, and I wandered around (coincidentally wearing my ruby slippers), bombarded by a flurry of wonderful memories. One of the things I adore about this fabulous collection is that it is a melting pot of so many types of museum under one roof. It has natural and ancient history, dinosaurs and minerals, anthropology and live animals. As a child this provided hours and hours of interest on a regular basis, and (for better or worse) it is completely responsible for my ongoing obsession with Egypt.

So it was not a surprise to me that this fantastic museum provided one of Culturebaby's most exciting experiences to date. We went to visit the vivarium. This was one of my favourite areas as a child and once contained an alligator and some large snakes. These are no longer living there, but there is an excellent and colourful collection of frogs and lizards. I think it was a bit tricky for Culturebaby to spot some of the more camouflaged or still creatures but she found other tanks extremely exciting. She waggled her legs and stroked the glass of the flooded Amazonian rain forest. This was fascinating with water vapour recreating damp rain and lush green foliage with lizards and frogs. She also seemed to be trying to splash the water in the tank with the tadpoles. However, we couldn't have imagined what was waiting for us round the corner. The Museum has recently acquired a vibrant young Panther Chameleon. This little chap is apparently the exact same age as Culturebaby, a little over 8 months, and perhaps it recognised a peer or potential playmate as she looked into the glass. It saw her, moved down the tank onto the glass next to her hand, peered back at her and reached out its own hand under hers. This was such an amazing moment that it gathered rather a crowd and I think will remain a rather magical memory for us!

We were then really pleasantly surprised to find that we had stumbled across the time that the public are able to meet and touch some of the animals. Apparently the museum tries to do this between 3 and 4pm in quiet times during the week (not school holidays). There were a number of children present and they each (along with Culturebaby) were able to stroke the very tolerant and friendly lizards who are available for handling. Again this was an unexpected and thrilling sensory experience for her.

I'm not going to talk about the rest of the museum in this post, but bear with me a moment as I go slightly off brief to rave about a wonderful and highly original exhibition the museum has at present for slightly older children. As a child I wanted to be an Egyptologist and, unlike most children perhaps, I never grew out of this. I could only have in my wildest dreams imagined at the age of 7 that such an exhibition as Unearthed would be available. While the mummies section of the Museum is being revamped (due to reopen in the Autumn), the curators have thoughtfully provided a quality temporary exhibition on Egypt aimed at Key Stage 2. However, with some parental support I think the intelligent 3 or 4 year old would also get something really valuable from the experience. You enter the exhibition to a video of Dr Digby (played on film by Terry Deary, author of Horrible Histories) introducing his dig. For a taster see here. To your right is also a professor's study (an installation by American artist Mark Dion, ‘Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy.’) While an artwork in its own right, it does a marvellous job in setting the scene and creating an atmosphere for the exhibition. Dr Digby explains to visitors that he has collected so much from his years of exploration and discovery in Egypt, that he hasn't had enough time to investigate and record it all. The visitor enters an emotive store room with artefacts in display cases, topped by packing cases and luggage, and surrounded by archaeologists' tents. They are invited to select a worksheet for a topic (such as belief, language, the home etc...), complete unfinished tasks and claim a certificate. The exhibition really gets the visitor of whatever age to focus on the parallels between ancient and modern items, and take the time to observe, measure and draw them. Descriptions of the objects from visitors are displayed as part of the exhibition, building on the idea that it is all a work in progress. Other highlights include a creative video produced with local primary kids showing the process of mummification and the discipline of archaeology (think Morph being disembowled and mummified!) and a dressing-up box with the opportunity for a photograph in front of the pyramids. And even Culturebaby got something out of the experience - she selected a mirror from the modern artefacts and had a whale of a time carrying it round the exhibition, while she looked at the eye-catching decoration, videos and artefacts on display and sported an explorer's hat.

Sometimes in a museum there is so much to see that you don't really take anything in. This exhibition ensures that you really look and think about what is in front of you. I thought it was wonderful, and created that warm fuzzy feeling where you feel like a part of the excitement of your childhood, long forgotten, has itself been unearthed. In that respect there's something for all of us there. Please keep it Manchester.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Nature Baby

Last week we took Culturebaby to our favourite place; The Lake District. As William Wordsworth said of their mountains: "in the combinations which they make, towering above each other, or lifting themselves in ridges like the waves of a tumultuous sea, and in the beauty and variety of their surfaces and colours, they are surpassed by none". So true Will.

We go every year at least once if we can. We spend half of the week dreaming about potential career options that could allow us to live there, and then the second part of the week lowering our expectations again for the return trip to our hill-less home. We never learn.

It was rather a tricky visit last summer. With a bump the size of a beach ball it was surprisingly difficult for me to find manageable walks waddles to do. Fortunately I had a friend with me who had a broken ankle (well not fortunate for him really) but the pair of us must have been a rather amusing sight as we hobbled from pub to pub as the rest of our party went rambling. Suffice it to say, we didn't make it very far and I couldn't wait to get up some hills this year and to show the place to our little lady. We did three great walks that I would recommend for a baby, with lots to see and exciting new experiences for little senses.

1. In the first few days of our holiday I have rarely seen so much rain, so we donned our wellies and went for a short wander along the Greater Langdale Beck (map) to see the fast flowing river and the roaring weir, which had more water running over it than normal. This was a really exciting experience for Culturebaby, who loved being carried around in her Baby Bjorn (under a brolly of course), taking in the sights, sounds and smells of nature all around her. The air is different up there and there is so much wildlife that it was a really new sensory experience wandering under the trees in the rain.

 2. A couple of days later the sun (finally) came out in force, it was absolutely stunning and clear, and we made our annual pilgrimage up the Langdale Pikes. The walk is quite hard work, with sections that need to be scrambled up, but Culturedad managed admirably with the Baby Bjorn. We passed a surprising amount of families with young children, sporting a bewildering array of baby backpack carriers (next on our wish list). This walk really has it all and Culturebaby seemed to love it - a river and sections of waterfall, a good climb (ensuring you really feel like you've achieved something), stunning views all the way up, and a tarn half way which transports you right to Middleearth (you half expect to stumble across the the door to the mines of Moria round the corner).We only made it to Stickle Tarn this time (enough...) but it's a fabulous walk if you want to go further. For the pre-history buffs amongst you it is also a hugely important heritage site: the Langdale Axe Factory (see map). In the Neolithic period, the 'new stone age' (from 10,000 years ago), people were beginning to learn to farm and stone tools were needed to exploit the land or clear areas of forest. Early Cumbrians mined the hard greenstone in the remote volcanic rocks of Langdale to produce axes, and the evidence can still be found today (though despite being an archaeologist I have sadly never yet spotted an axe as I've treked the pikes). It is unclear whether these particular axes were used for work or whether they had a more ritual significance (they seem at least to have been exported out of Cumbria), but if the latter, it does make sense to me. You can clearly see as you gaze from the mountains across the panorama of the heart of the Lakes below, that this is truly an extraordinary, even otherworldy place. The climb back down always seems a little longer, but there's the promise of a pint or a cuppa at the bottom. The National Trust has recently taken over The Sticklebarn pub at the base of the pikes. It's friendly and and you know your money goes towards caring for the local environment.


The Potter family at Wray Castle
3. With sore backs from our climb the day before, we opted for a rather more relaxed (and flat) stroll the following day. We bought the Windermere Cruises Walkers' Ticket and followed a part-cruise and part-walking route from Ambleside. This began with a ferry ride across to the newly opened Wray Castle, run by the National Trust. (NB. You'll need to fold your pram up on the ferry). This Victorian mock-gothic building (complete with fake arrowslits) was recently opened to the public following a decision not to turn it into a hotel at present. We joined one of their friendly tours and learnt that the castle was in fact designed by the original owner's accountant (who incidentally killed himself drinking before the house was furnished). This perhaps explains a number of bizarre features such as drainage systems in the walls and fake ruins. What I found interesting is that one rarely gets to see a National Trust house in a state of undress, so to speak. It still looks like the conference centre it had functioned as in recent years, with strip lighting, dodgy wallpaper and damp in the basement. The Trust is trying to make the best of the temporary space by filling it with lots of family activities and games, including a dressing-up room and giant cardboard fort. They are also asking visitors to record their views on what the castle should become in the future. One of its more interesting connections is that the Potter family stayed there in 1882 when Beatrix was still a teenager. Here she first met Reverend Hardwicke Rawnsley, also a co-founder of The National Trust. I personally think it would be interesting to explore this connection further in any future plans for the building. The Castle also has stunning views over Windermere and a much needed tea shop (on a walk from Ambleside to Ferry House a previous year we realised quite how far one can go on this side of the lake before reaching civilisation, or a toilet!).


We then walked the 4 miles from Wray to the Ferry House. This was a pretty gentle stroll, with the exception of the rough road which was at times tricky with the pram (prams with small wheels need not apply...). It took a couple of hours. At times there were great views of the lake and, at others, a shaded forest walk. We then (just!) caught the last boat from Ferry House, changing at Bowness (enough time to pick up an ice cream) and returned to Ambleside about 5 hours after we began. The openair journey and views from the various ferry routes were wonderful, and Culturebaby loved it all - and for those of us actually walking it was an ideal combination of sights and exercise!

The Lakes was a new experience with a baby (for a start the local pub at night was out), but it was also completely wonderful. We found ourselves thinking about the many fabulous memories we both have of visiting the Lakes from childhood onwards and getting excited about our daughter growing up there each year too. CultureGrandad's favourite childhood book was Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, set around Coniston. I loved the '70's film as a child too. Nothing captures childhood innocence like this adventure book, and I very much hope my daughter experiences something of this too in her trips to the Lakes - and that she too will have the opportunity to have that sort of old-school, dam-building, boat-sailing, hill-climbing, nature-loving, camp-building authentic childhood.

Monday 11 June 2012

Three under four?

A few weekends ago, we looked after Culturebaby's best buddies for the weekend. As our house is in no way toddler proofed yet (think antique glass fronted cabinets and precarious plant stands), we thought going out might be the best option.


First stop bowling. This was a treat for the four year old who had never been before. Other than the rather cool Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes, designed for adults and serving alcohol and diner food in 1950s style surroundings, I hadn't been to a normal bowling alley for a long time. It seems that they now resemble an unhappy marriage between an amusement arcade and a disco. I've never been very good at bowling. Shamefully, albeit with the help of side barriers, both the four year old and two year old beat me.

Zip Wire at Wrest Park
Success with the little ones? The four year old really enjoyed herself; the two year old seemed to enjoy her turn and spent the rest of the time looking vaguely confused; and Culturebaby got over excited and then promptly fell asleep. This only took an hour. We had to think harder. So we consulted the Culture Bible (our combined National Trust and English Heritage Guides).

Next stop, English Heritage's nearby Wrest Park. What a find. They have a fabulous cafe and adventure playground, which entertained all three children for hours. There was something for all of them - from swings for Culturebaby, through to a zip wire for the four year old. They had so much to occupy them that we didn't even make it into the gardens.

It was a bit drizzly, but we headed off to Whipsnade Tree Cathedral to explore. We had CultureUncle with us too. One child per adult: much easier! The site is made from trees, shrubs and plants and is roughly laid out like a cathedral, with chapels and cloisters to explore. It was created after the First World War in the spirit of 'faith, hope and reconciliation'. It's a fascinating place and in a moment of creative genius, Culturedad suggested we play hide and seek. This was the perfect game for this location and kept us occupied for ages. Everyone enjoyed it, including Culturebaby who giggled as she was carted around in her Baby Bjorn. Despite some seriously soaking feet (meaning kids had to be carried round in socks for the rest of the day), it was good old fashioned outdoorsy fun. And free. (Though I might not wear my bright red coat next time...)

Hide and Seek at Whipsnade Tree Cathedral
Next stop, the nearby Dunstable Downs. They have a great cafe, which amongst other things serves comfort food, and has spectacular views. There's also a shop with a selection of classic bargain books for kids. It seems to be rather a popular hang out with families, who come there to fly kites or walk across the downs. While it rained we snuggled up, got our feet dry, and the kids coloured in nature activity sheets provided by the National Trust. When it stopped raining we wandered, watched the kites and bounced on the bouncy castle.

With the help of our trusty friends EH and NT, three under four was not only manageable, it was great fun. We had a fabulous time, and it just shows that the classic (and often free) games are still in many ways the best.

Thursday 7 June 2012


I suspect the National Trust will feature rather prominently in Culturebaby's travels. I (shamefully) have thus far failed to learn to drive, so when my parents come to stay we pack the Baby Bjorn, jump in the car and go on heritage adventures. Now we have a baby, my husband and I have also decided to take advantage of the fact that Culturebaby's luggage for a weekend trip requires a vehicle with the capacity of an articulated lorry, and holiday in England this year. We love England anyway, it is beautiful and there is so much to explore; and frankly one of the best things about England for me is The National Trust.

When I was young, my family fell victim for a time to one of the failing northern industries in the 1980s and early '90s and my Dad had a stage of being in and out of jobs. We were skint. However, whatever our family went through, my parents always ensured that they were able to retain our family membership to the National Trust. This may seem on the face of it to be wildly decadent, but it in reality ensured that we always had something wonderful (and educational) to do together very cheaply. The Trust was good to me, I believe that it made me who I am, and I feel very loyal to it in return. And I've recently seen yet another, hitherto ignored, dimension of its appeal - it is great to visit with babies.

Culturebaby started her journey with the National Trust at Benjamin Disraeli's house Hughenden Manor, appropriate as the long suffering husband believes she'll be the next female PM (though I think I'd rather she avoided climbing that greasy pole...). She was rather little at the time and permanently hungry, had an unsavoury nappy incident (known to the initiated as 'Poomageddon') in Disraeli's study (perhaps she questioned his imperialist politics?) and we had to make a hasty retreat to the babychanging facilities with her yelling loudly. This wasn't quite how I envisaged our first trip to a NT house, but frankly I was very impressed with the staff throughout. To a chorus of, 'we've all done it' and 'not to worry at all', the staff gave me a seat to feed the hungry little lady and made us feel really welcome.

Our next (fortunately less scatologically oriented) visits were while we were travel-cotting in the wolds (our first family hols). While the boys were playing golf, my mother in law and I snuck off with Culturebaby to Chedworth Roman Villa. Chedworth is one of the largest Romano-British villas in the country and it has some great mosaics, surviving hypocausts (underfloor heating systems - the Romans really were rather clever), and a selection of baths to rival any modern spa. There is a new building with raised walkways, and Culturebaby was really impressed with the projected images on the walls and the various items to touch. (Don't forget your baby carrier - prams are a bit tricky to navigate for this and the next property). We also visited Snowshill Manor. We already mentioned in an earlier post how the founder Charles Wade took his family motto 'Let nothing perish' rather seriously and restored an entire Cotswold manor house to display his huge collection of over 22,000 objects, and lived in a tiny building next door. I recently read that this quirky collection sparked one person's love of museums forever, and I can see why. It was an odd, sometimes oppressive, always fascinating, collection of handmade items. Culturebaby didn't know where to look there was so much to take in, and she chatted away at the various objects until she encountered the collection of (rather frightening) japanese armour which made her cry! I was impressed that the guides in the house took the time to talk to children and actually provided items for them to handle.
Chedworth Roman Villa
Snowshill Manor
 A few weeks later Culturebaby and I went to The Red House with Grandma and Grandad. It is the only house commissioned, created and lived in by William Morris, founder of the Arts & Crafts movement - rather a fad of mine. (N.B. for THE most amazing Arts and Crafts house visit Blackwell in the Lakes). This small property is accessible from the centre of London (you stumble across it in a residential street in Bexleyheath) and has a friendly little cafe (with highchairs) that feels rather like you are sitting in somebody's front room. It also has a lovely small garden, which provided Culturebaby with her first encounter with a scarecrow (I rooted out The Dingle Dangle Scarecrow from the recesses of my brain for an impromptu song) and a collection of fabrics and print blocks we were able to touch. The bold and colourful arts and crafts patterns really caught Culturebaby's attention. We combined this trip with our first visit to English Heritage's nearby wonderful Eltham Palace (one for a future post).

Finally, one of our best visits so far was to Dunham Massey, a favourite from my childhood. We visited with Culturebaby's Godmother and her one year old and there was so much for us to see and do. As one of the seemingly popular hangouts of northern yummy mummies, it is well prepared for little visitors. It is a great house and gardens anyway, and has a 300 acre deer park, but this time we encountered a family of tiny ducklings, chickens, deer on the lawn, stunningly coloured bushes and flowers, and the always exciting myriad of waterfeatures. The gardens are also very pram friendly, though be careful of the narrow bridges over the river - we narrowly avoided wet calamity on one of them! In the house we were offered a buggy park and, for the toddler, a hip baby carrier. One single annoying moment featured a guide telling Culturebaby not to touch a column (oh come on, we were hardly going to break it!), but in other rooms we were welcomed and given items to touch. Culturebaby was fascinated by a marble table with playing cards painted on the surface, which she tried to pick up... Best of all, we were able to play on the Grand piano in one of the rooms, and try on various items of dress in an area designed for younger visitors.

We have so much more to report on the National Trust, but we'll try to make it bitesized... and we'd love to hear about the properties and places that you and your little ones love too. If you haven't discovered the Trust yet, never fear, you can join in the fun here. I'm sure you'll soon agree it's one of the best value things you'll ever buy for your kids, and eventually forgive (or join) my evangel-trust-ism.
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