London with kids: the V&A Museum

V&A Museum Cast CourtsMost of the time, if I’m planning on taking the kids into the centre of London, I try to find somewhere that is super child-friendly and where we won’t be the only ones running, jumping and yelling at the top of our voices.

But occasionally – most especially during the school holidays – my one priority for a central London day out with my children is to find a place where there won’t be too many other families.

Yes, I love the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and Tate Modern as much as the next person (or, not quite as much, if the next person is one of my offspring) but I do not love queuing for hours to get into a museum or have lunch and (whisper it) I am not actually a huge fan of being surrounded by millions of other people’s children. My own three can be a stretch at times, and I am basically contractually obliged to love them.

That happy medium between somewhere not heaving with hundreds of other people’s children, but still not too disapproving if your own are behaving a touch on the loud side? The V&A Museum.

I took my oldest there for a day at the start of the Easter holidays and we really couldn’t have had a better time.

The place was pretty busy, to be sure, but it was mostly busy with incredibly chic women of a certain age. (That age being about a decade older than me.) They were wafting around looking at the Dior and Quant exhibitions, eating lots of cake for lunch and showcasing seriously sharp haircuts, red lipstick and well-tailored, clearly very expensive but very edgy clothes. I was properly inspired.

But back to the kids. I’d read a tip that there were special gallery backpacks available for children, so our first port of call was the Sackler Centre on level 1 to pick one up.

There was a list of different activities to choose from, with suggested age ranges. The six-year-old chose one on ceramics, and we set off with the bag for level 4, to open it up and explore.

V&A museum childrens activity backpacks

Inside the backpack were individual drawstring bags and an instruction booklet, telling you what to open when. We felt raw clay, searched for giant vases and designed a “flower tower”. The 6yo was pleasingly engaged the whole time and loved completing the tasks, and we spent a fantastic hour wandering around talking about pottery.

Child enjoying V&A museum activity backpacks

(I actually think all my parenting goals are achieved when my kids want to talk to me about art or books or history. My all time favourite ever conversation was when the eldest and I discussed the ethics of creating a clone of a woolly mammoth from its frozen DNA and he said about six times, “Of course, it’s just our opinion, we can all have our own opinion on it…” Just to reassure you, this sort of conversation only happens about once every few months; most of the time they are just busy punching each other and asking me whether Superman or Spiderman would win in a fight…)

Hungry from all of our lovely ceramics chat, we ate lunch in the frankly palatial surroundings of the café. The food ranked around average for museum fare. My fish was tasty, though slightly dry (as I suspect everything was, sitting on the hot plates waiting to be selected) but my slice of potato gratin was incredibly delicious. The sproglet had a children’s macaroni cheese, which had little identifiable cheese and a lot of very milky sauce. He was in the mood for being delightful though, so told me a lot of times how much he was enjoying it (he knows all too well that I get exasperated by the constant complaints about food that come from the kids) before deciding he was “really quite full up” after five mouthfuls. I couldn’t blame him, it really was very runny.

V&A cast courts
Spot the boy

After lunch, a wander round the cast courts, which were bathed in the most heavenly sunlight. We sat inside the replica Trajan’s column and I bored on for a little bit about when I used to live in Rome. We watched someone winching a piece of carvings out of the way for repair. And the sproglet obligingly stood in all the locations I asked him to, so I could take a photograph.

The sunbeams tempted us outside, where I sat by the pool, watching the sunlight dancing across the water and the sproglet – quite worn out now by all the most excellent behaviour he’d been doing – ran round and round and round quite a lot of times, incredibly close to all the other people relaxing, and we decided it was best to head for home.

Sunlight on marble

A fabulous, picturesque day. One to be added to the memory banks of parenting triumphs, and thought about in days of total parenting fails.

 

An Eltham Palace jaunt

Eltham Palace window

1930s interiors, beautifully planted gardens and a pet lemur: surely an irresistible combination for a Saturday afternoon. On a recent drizzling weekend, we bundled the kids into the car and set off for a return visit to Eltham Palace and Gardens. (Disclaimer: the pet lemur is no longer there in any living form, sadly, though there is a huge number of pet lemur toys for sale in the shop.)

We last visited at the height of summer and spent most of the day in the gardens, with a quick detour inside. This time round, a mizzling rain was falling and the much-anticipated playground was closed for re-turfing, so we took the time to explore the house more fully.

Learning from our last visit*, we slipped past the persuasive English Heritage membership advocate on the door and managed to resist his attempts to sign us up for a year’s membership.

Eltham Palace cafe

After the rather disappointing discovery of the closed playground, we went straight for the cafe for a restorative cuppa and lunch, despite it only being 11.45am. The cafe tables are located in a greenhouse, surrounded by potted plants and views to flower beds. I think I would be happy if every meal for the rest of my life was eaten inside a greenhouse, but a slight word of warning to anyone else planning on eating at Eltham Palace: the food is good, the surroundings are lovely but the service is really incredibly slow. Start to queue up and order long before the pangs of hunger begin to nip.

Sated and quenched, and having answered the question, “Mum, what’s the name of that flower” about a hundred times, we set off to jaunt round the house.

Eltham Palace bedroom

If you’re visiting with kids, there is a good trail you can follow round the rooms with obligatory stamps and sticker prize at the end. This meant we could linger long in any room with an animal motif to search out for the trail, but rooms not included were rushed past, while I gazed in longingly. The rooms epitomise all that is desirable from the 1930s as far as I am concerned, and I took endless photos with the vague intention of making every single room in my house look the same. There is a brilliant austerity to some rooms, combined with extravagant luxury in others that greatly pleases me.

Eltham Palace Great Hall
The Great Hall

After a trot round the house, the rain had just about let up, so we explored the gardens. A lot of the planting here is herbaceous, so there wasn’t a huge amount to see at this time of year (nothing compared to our last visit, when the borders were heaving with blooms) but blossom was just starting to show on the trees and carpets of daffodils, crocuses and scillas brought colour to the grassy areas. The moat, rockeries and huge walls look just as splendid at any time of year.

Eltham Palace moat and bridgeSpring at Eltham Palace

Eltham Palace moat
Looking at the fish

All in all, it was so lovely that I’m really looking forward to visiting again in a few months to see how the garden is growing. Drat, I wish we’d bought that annual pass now…

*I’m sorry to say that, despite our best intentions, we actually never visited a single other English Heritage property in the year we held membership.

Trips to the Horniman museum

At last! Another post in my Making the most of London series. A mere year since the last one, ha ha…

Horniman museum | Wolves in London
The stunning conservatory at the Horniman museum. I want to live here

Overstuffed walruses, giant totem poles, kitchen gardens growing lentils; what’s not to love about the Horniman museum?

It’s one of those collections of eclectic eccentricity that the British seem to do so well.

Luckily for us, it’s a mere 15-minute walk from where we live (albeit up an extremely steep hill) so we visit almost every week. But weekly visits are almost a necessity to even start to explore just a little bit of the amazingly diverse activities and sights here: almost all of them ideal for children.

Bandstand Horniman museum | Wolves in London
A view out across the grounds by the bandstand. Look closely and you can see the London skyline in the distance…

The museum was founded by Frederick John Horniman, a Victorian tea trader, philanthropist and collector in 1890 to showcase the bits and pieces he’d picked up on his travels around the world. [Side note, if only current job descriptions were as exciting as “tea trader, philanthropist and collector” — I’d be updating the CV as we speak…]

Added to slowly in the centuries that have followed, the museum is a brilliant juxtaposition of the old anthropological exhibitions that you expect from a natural history museum and crazy architectural features like a totem pole, with modern additions such as the beautiful green-roofed library and aquarium in the basement.

Horniman museum totem pole | Wolves in London
Just your average view in South East London

Being something of a fishy family (in the nicest possible way), the aquarium tends to be our first spot to visit, where the sproglet races round pointing out all the fish excitedly to anyone listening and the baby and I tend to spend a little more time staring into the tranquility of the jellyfish tank. So peaceful and beautiful, I’d really love one in my own house.

I try not to bore on too much about the differences between a pipe fish and a seahorse to the sproglet, so once we’ve completed the loop a few times, we head upstairs to the natural history museums.

Here, two floors of glass cases are filled with stuffed animals, where the most famous exhibit is the fat walrus – bought by Horniman for the opening of his museum and originally from Canada. He’s a little chubbier than he should be as the taxidermist who stuffed him who had never before seen a photo of an actual walrus so had no idea they had folds in their skin.

If fish and stuffed animals aren’t your thing though, there’s plenty more to see.

The music room showcases practically every musical instrument you could ever imagine. Though safely behind glass, two tables in the room allow you to select photos of the instruments and listen to what they sound like. An adjacent room has a hands on area where you can play a selection of random instruments (most often populated by dads with their children, I’ve noticed, “just showing them” how to play the instrument correctly)… Outside, by the bandstand, every day objects have been turned into giant instruments – plastic pipes become a huge organ, and metal ones a giant xylophone. The sprog absolutely adores this area.

Outdoor music at the Horniman museum | Wolves in London
He’s a musical genius, I suspect…

The bandstand itself is the setting for weekly story readings as well as a series of concerts over the summer.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the animal walk – a (really pretty tiny) walkway where you can admire chickens, goats, sheep, rabbits and… …two alpacas. Alpacas being pretty much one of my favourite animals in the world right now, I often lose myself, leaning on a gate, dreaming of owning an alpaca farm in the country and making my fortune selling beautiful alpaca yarn. Right until the sprog starts tugging at my sleeve and demanding, “Wot Mummy doin’?”

Horniman museum gardens | Wolves in London
The dye garden: full of wonderfully bright coloured flowers

There’s also a kitchen garden, ten acres of grounds to explore, and the most stunning glass conservatory, in which occasional exhibitions are shown and which is available to rent for events like weddings (we did consider it for ours…)

Conservatory at Horniman museum | Wolves in London
Just one more of the amazing conservatory

The summer events programme is particularly impressive, I think. With an Edwardian theme (to match the newly renovated Edwardian bandstand), they’ve really gone to town on creating events to cater to all whims. Open air cinema, Edwardian “lates” with tea dances and live music (sooooo up my street!) and activities for kids on every day of the week, such as storytelling, art and minibeasts tours of the grounds. I genuinely think this must be one of the most “interactive” museums in the whole of London.

So, if you like a bit of weirdness in your kulcher, definitely somewhere to add to the “to visit” list. It’s in Forest Hill, so fairly easy to get to on the Overground or train line. Just be warned that the hill to get there is pretty steep…

Related articles:

  • Check out all the events, activities and exhibitions on the Horniman museum website. (NB, despite the gushing, I’m not in any way in cahoots with the Horniman on this post; just a genuine fan!)
  • For more Sabrina-reviewed places to visit in London, check out my series Making the most of London