Horniman Museum

Horniman Museum

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The Horniman Museum and Gardens in Forest Hill is a Londoner’s favourite. Being outside of the city centre, it doesn’t attract the same tourist footfall as the Natural History Museum or British Museum and it’s so much more relaxed for that. The permanent collection consists of natural history, anthropology and musical instruments. The dodgy taxidermy is legendary and a selfie with the famous stuffed walrus is pretty much obligatory. Having been a long-term South London resident, it’s a place I’ve been to many a time and it never disappoints but since I’ve had Pea I’ve come to love it even more as its so child-friendly.

Our visit

As a rule, I avoid family-friendly museums and galleries during half term in London because I simply do not have the tolerance threshold for the queuing and the noise and the madness that entails. However, my last visit to Horniman with Pea was indeed during half-term as I really wanted to check out the current temporary exhibition Colour: the Rainbow Revealed and I had limited time to do this before leaving London.

We arrived early, and it was as busy as I’ve ever seen this place with a queue for tickets, a queue in the cafe and both the ground floor buggy storage space and the locker room chock full of buggies, scooters and tricycles. Despite this, it took only a few minutes to queue for our exhibition tickets so we were soon inside, exploring “the many ways in which colour shapes our world”. Except we weren’t really, as it was, as predicted, pretty busy in there, and Pea had just that week started walking. So mostly I spent the time learning that a newly walking child is not really any less terrifying than a crawler, as there’s ample opportunity for them to be trampled. The mood room was nice and the little baby area with rainbow coloured soft play apparatus was very welcome but I don’t think we got the full benefit of this exhibition – I would have liked a bit more on the psychology of colour, and Pea was just a tad too unsteady on his feet at this point to be able to safely roam as he would have liked to.

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A trip to Horniman is never wasted though. We went through to the music gallery and had a go on some of the interactive instruments there. It was a bit quieter in there, but poor little Pea still got bulldozed away from the bodhrans by an older girl. We then took a little walk through the aquarium, which is lovely, but Pea was sleepy by this point so it was more for my benefit than his. I didn’t bother with the museum cafe for lunch – it’s great, but was way too crowded on this occasion so I headed back out into Forest Hill and found a cosy little Vietnamese cafe opposite the railway station. It was nice and quiet in there, Pea slept and I got peace to savour a sweet coffee and the nicest Banh Mi I’ve had in London.

After lunch, we went back to the Horniman for a little wander around the gardens and the animal walk. The view over London from the Horniman bandstand is spectacular and it’s worth a visit for this alone. We went back inside the museum to check out Hands On Base, a special gallery filled with items that can be handled. This gallery is only open occasionally so we’d never managed to go before but it’s brilliant and Pea absolutely loved it. Museum staff were there to draw attention to and discuss some of the items, such as Brazilian carnival outfits, Chinese masks and, Pea’s favourite, a taxidermied fox. In addition to the handling items, there was a good selection of children’s books to browse and enough space for Pea to totter around.

Horniman is such a brilliant museum for families and I’ll really miss having a resource like this so nearby. It was a shame we needed to make our last ever visit during half term as I think we would have gotten so much more from the Colour exhibition if we’d gone during a quieter time. However, we wouldn’t have experienced Hands On Base which was easily the most successful part of our day.

Essential info

The Horniman Museum and Gardens is at 100 London Road, SE23. Admission to the gardens and permanent collection is free, but a fee applies for temporary exhibitions, the aquarium and the butterfly house. The museum has lift access throughout, a really good cafe, buggy storage, lockers and baby change facilities. Colour: the Rainbow Revealed is on until 28th October.

Fashion & Textiles Museum

Fashion & Textiles Museum

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The Fashion and Textiles Museum is one of those London museums I’ve meaning to visit for years but just never quite gotten my shit together to go. It’s not the first place that would spring to mind as a suitable destination for a 13-month-old but this was a pretty successful outing. Admittedly, that’s largely down to Pea napping for most of the time we were there.

 

What’s it all about?

Fashion. And textiles. It was founded in 2003 by zany haired fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. The museum doesn’t have a permanent display but rather a series of temporary exhibitions.

Our visit

I took Pea here following a Bach to Baby concert nearby. He was getting antsy in his pram while we were on route to the venue. Consequently, once I let him out he was like a captured animal being released back into the wild and spent the hour-long concert just sort of… rampaging aboutHe thoroughly exhausted himself and when the concert finished we were barely out the door before he’d fallen asleep. My plan had been to pop into the museum only if Pea was either napping or on the verge of so I seized my moment. Naturally, I went to the museum cafe and fuelled up on coffee first. It had already been a long morning.

The current exhibitions are Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of her Own, Wallace Sewell: 25 Year of British Textile Design and Harper’s Bazaar 150 – The First and Last Word in Fashion. I really enjoyed the Dahl-Wolfe retrospective. I loved seeing her Hollywood portraits and learning how she photographed movie stars in a much more natural and relaxed way than was typical of the time. There’s a small selection of photographs taken in Tennessee during the Depression and these are so tender and truthful and (to me, fairly unfamiliar with her body of work) unexpected.

Upstairs there’s a small selection of mannequins in exquisite Dior gowns, a reading area, a little section on fashion photography and the Harper’s Bazaar exhibition. There’s a bench directly in front of the Dior dresses – I could have sat there looking at those all afternoon. It wasn’t to be, as Pea woke up, and he was angry (actually, he was hangry) so I thought it best to just get out of there. Such is the tension of visiting a quiet place like this with a baby. On the one hand, the fewer people, the easier it is to push around a buggy and to make haste your escape should it come to that. On the other, more people equals greater background noise to dull the piercing screams of your child when the inevitable tantrum occurs.

Downstairs, we had a quick look at the Wallace Sewell exhibition (London underground moquettes! Right up my street) and checked out the gift shop before we got going.

While this is not a museum that caters directly to under 5s (no surprises there) it’s not a total disaster either, and there are a few reasons for this. One: it’s quite small and I’d estimate it would take no more than a couple of hours to get around the whole space, depending on the nature of the temporary exhibitions at the time. Two: there’s a reassuring absence of precious, delicate things within the pawing range of most babies/toddlers (but you’d probably want to keep walkers on a short leash around the pretty frocks). Three: it’s spacious enough to be able to get around with a buggy, but you do need staff assistance to operate the lift to the first floor. Four: there’s a nice cafe on site you can escape to if a time out is needed. There isn’t loads of space, but unless it’s rammed and you’re clocking a big, fuck-off, beast of a buggy it should be fine.

Where/When/How Much?

83 Bermondsey St, SE1. Admission is GBP9.90, under 12’s go free. Open Tuesday-Sunday.

Facilities

Baby change, accessible toilet, step-free access (ask a member of staff to operate the lift), free cloakroom, gift shop and cafe.

The Charles Dickens Museum

The Charles Dickens Museum

I’ve passed by the Charles Dickens Museum on route to other activities on many an occasion but I had assumed it wouldn’t be terribly baby friendly. According to Londonist the museum’s cafe and garden is one of the nicest in the city . I do love a garden cafe so really wanted to check it out. Then I discovered that with my National Art Pass I’d get free entry to the museum so decided to give it a go when next in the area. It turns out that my concerns about the baby friendliness of this museum were actually…. somewhat justified.

What’s it all about?

The Museum is actually one of Dickens’s former homes where he produced some of his most famous works. It has been restored to give an insight into the private world of the Dickens family (Dickens and his wife Catherine raised three of their ten children in this home). You can walk around the house to get a look at Dickens’s writing table and dressing room and see his wife’s engagement ring. There’s also a temporary exhibition space currently occupied by Ghost of an Idea: Unwrapping ‘A Christmas Carol’ which explores the inspiration behind the novel and its continued legacy.

Our visit

I really wanted to take Pea here in December to see the museum decorated in Victorian Christmas style. Transport disruptions and a double dose of the lurgy prevented that from happening so we made do with an early January visit instead. When we arrived, I was pleased to see the festive wreath still on the door and looked forward to having a look inside.

It was around midday when we got there and Pea was tired from our morning activity but I hoped I could have a casual walk around inside with him in his pram and he’d soon crash out. However, when I ordered my ticket I was informed that I couldn’t take the pram inside the main part of the museum. Time to initiate Plan B – go to cafe, push him back and forth for a few minutes till he dozes off and then consume coffee in the beautiful surroundings.

The key word that failed to register with me from the Londonist description of the cafe was ‘çosy’. That should have been a red flag right there. It is indeed quite small and also very quiet. Cosy, quiet spots don’t have quite the same allure when you’ve got to blunder in with a pram and a tantrum ready toddler. There were no free tables and the garden appeared out of bounds as it the entrance was blocked by a table and chairs. There were some free seats though so I thought I could chance asking to sit next to someone else and hoping Pea remained docile.

With impeccable timing, Pea waited until I had ordered and, crucially, paid for my coffee before launching into a full on ear shattering scream fest. I knew he was just tired and he’d be fine soon enough but in a confined space full of strangers unfamiliar with the range of his keening it was just awkward. People were looking. I got the coffee to go and we left.

A short walk outside eased Pea into an inconveniently long nap. I had lunch elsewhere and we returned for another crack at Charlie’s house just the two hours after getting our ticket. By this time there was really only about an hour to spare before heading home to avoid rush hour.

Carrying Pea around the house was tricky as he’s both heavy and strong-willed. If something catches his eye that he wants to get to it takes strength I just don’t have in abundance to hold him back. It was quiet when we visited so I did release him onto the floor for a few brief bursts to give my back a break and prevent a tantrum but even then he was only ever seconds from head butting a glass cabinet, eating some fake holly or yanking on the extravagant curtains with his drool sodden little paws. The no prams inside the house rule makes perfect sense by the way as it would have been a tight squeeze on an even moderately busy day. It all would have been fine if only we had our baby carrier but we lost it on a trip to Sydney last year and haven’t gotten around to replacing it.

For me, then, this was mildly stressful and tiring. It was difficult to take in very much in between toddler wrangling and I was sad not to get to at least have a walk around the garden. I peeked out the windows to get a glimpse from the house and it looks ever so pretty. Indeed, I may well make another attempt to check out the cafe and garden if I’m in the area in future. I did appreciate fitting in a visit while the house was still all tarted up for Christmas. The kitchen, scullery and washhouse invited a bit more interaction and I actually preferred these over the more formal rooms. Maybe because I wasn’t quite so tense about Pea breadking something expensive. A very brief nod to The Muppet Christmas Carol made me very nostalgic and want to immediately watch it with Pea even though he won’t have a clue what’s going on.

Overall this was not our most successful museum visit but that’s not really down to any issue with the museum itself. Museums with a crawling critter are a hit and miss affair. So it’s not quite baby friendly but it is certainly child friendly.  There’s lots on offer to engage slightly older children including dressing up opportunities, a family trail for ages 4-12 and a Victorian toy theatre. It’s well worth a visit during the Christmas period to see the house festooned with holly and red ribbons. If the museum curators ever decide to dedicate a special exhibition to the Muppet Christmas Carol I’ll be back in a heartbeat.

Where/When/How Much?

48 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LX. Admissions is 9 for adults, under 6’s go free. Donations are encouraged and there’s a discreet donation box just inside the entrance. Open all year round. Closed on Mondays from January through to November. The gift shop, garden and cafe are free to enter.

Facilities

Small cafe serving hot drinks, simple hot meals and some very tasty looking cakes. High chairs were available. Cloakroom with space to park pushchairs and prams. Accessible toilet and baby change. There is lift access to four out of the five floors but you need to ask a member of staff to operate the lift. On our visit, I couldn’t identify any member of staff inside the main house so it’s probably best to ask about this when purchasing a ticket. The small gift shop sells a decent range of books, cards and toys. We purchased the Cosy Classics edition of Great Expectations which has already been enthusiastically chewed by Pea.

 

 

 

Introducing

Introducing

I’m Lee, a working parent to one year old Pea. We are currently South London residents but a relocation to Dublin is in the planning. Adjusting to motherhood has not been a natural or easy process for me. A traumatic birth swiftly followed by a severe but (mercifully) swift episode of postnatal illness left me struggling to reconcile my old self with my new role as someone’s Mum.

For me, the road to recovery has very much about getting us both out of the house and engaged in interesting activities. In the early days I tried a bunch of the usual Mum and Baby offerings but mostly felt awkward and out of place at these. If like me you cannot recall the words to a single nursery rhyme, cannot sing to save your life and are so desperately uncoordinated that you can’t deal with simple baby signing many parent and baby activities will be a stressful and uncomfortable experience. Venturing beyond our local area and to the many museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres, concerts halls and other cultural institutions that London has to offer opened up a whole other world of activities Pea and I could do together that were stimulating for both of us.

I took him to places I’ve never been to in more than a decade of being a Londoner, like Wigmore Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Old Vic. I took him to old favourites like Kew Gardens, Brockwell Park, the Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery, experiencing them differently with a baby in tow.  I got full benefit from both my National Art Pass and my Oyster card to visit areas of London I’ve never had a reason to go to before such as North Finchley, Deptford and Kingston. I’ve caught more films at the cinema than any previous year on account of parent and baby screenings. We’ve experienced some pretty surreal moments thanks to a baby opera (yeah, that’s a thing) and the questionable use of Tubular Bells during a space-themed baby class.

There were wonderful days were everything came together perfectly – smooth transport connections, conveniently located baby change facilities and the absolute serenity of a classically trained musician’s performance of Clair de Lune while Pea napped. We’ve had frustrating days of rail delays, dickheads on buses, explosive nappies and inadequate changing facilities and missing a performance I’d already paid for due to my poor sense of direction and a Google maps fail. Despite the sometimes shitty days, the upshot of all this was a renewed appreciation of my adopted city tinged with a sense of loss at the impending move.

Now that I’m back at work, our cultural adventures are limited to my one non-working day and weekends. The move is absolutely the right thing for us but departing hunting for similar opportunities in Dublin has offset some of the sadness at leaving. I’m pleased to have found some very promising options. So, all of this is a very long-winded way of introducing the focus of this blog. It’s a place to review and reflect on some of our last London activities before the move as well as documenting our Dublin discoveries. While this is first and foremost a record for my own benefit if it is at all helpful to anyone out there with a baby or toddler to entertain in London or Dublin then that is a bonus and questions on any of our activities are welcomed.