by Marie-Claire McGlade
As a North Londoner, I confess I rarely venture farther south of the river than the lovely South Bank for a day out with the kids. However the Horniman Museum and Gardens, in Forest Hill, had been on my to-do list for months. So over half term I took my 6-year-old boy along as I read that their popular Dinosaurs: Monster Families exhibition was due to close by Halloween and he is a massive fan of the Andy’s Dinosaur Adventure TV programme.
We took the Overground to Forest Hill station. If you have a toddler in tow I would recommend you take any of the numerous buses from outside the station to the museum as it is a fairly steep uphill walk.
We headed straight to the aquarium, which was really lovely and, at just £4 for adults and £2 for kids, a bargain compared to the entry cost of the Sea Life Aquarium. My son was particularly interested in the poison dart frogs and the clownfish. They have toddler steps that little people can carry around to get a better look at the tanks, which I thought was a really nice touch. Watching the jellyfish had an unexpectedly calming effect on the assembled crowd of kids!
The dinosaur exhibition was extremely interactive. On arrival we were greeted with a dressing-up box and my son was delighted to try on an explorer’s hat and magnifying glass to go on his own dinosaur explorer’s trail. I felt the exhibition was particularly family-friendly and, although smaller in scale than the daddy of dinosaur exhibitions at the Natural History Museum, much more manageable for smaller children. A particular favourite was the sandpit where you could dig up your own dinosaur bones and eggs.
By then it was definitely time for lunch so we decamped to the delightful café. They serve a range of delicious and reasonably priced hot and cold food, drinks and a well thought out kids’ menu. We were very lucky that it was warm enough to eat outside on the sunny terrace despite it being late October!
We then headed for the natural history section, packed full of enough taxidermy and skeletons to satisfy the curiosity of kids and adults of all ages. The highlight is undoubtedly the huge 100-year-old walrus perched on his iceberg in the middle of the exhibition. My son was very amused watching a video of how the walrus was lowered into position on a crane following a renovation of the gallery. This is a great place especially for toddlers to get up close with cuddly and not so cuddly animal exhibits if you find the crowds at the South Kensington museums a bit overwhelming.
The hands-on Nature Base was buzzing with activity. Kids and parents alike seemed to have a creepy fascination with looking at the huge beehive and the indoor mice run. The museum holds weekly ‘Busy Bee’ activity sessions for under 5s, which look really creative.
It was then time to head outside to the 16-acre gardens with stunning views over London. The gardens are also home to a small animal enclosure, a nature trail and a sound garden with huge windchimes to bang on! The sunken garden became an impromptu maze for my son and he was delighted with the range of challenging trees to climb.
A very popular farmers’ market runs every Saturday morning at the museum. The Christmas fair on the 3rd and 4th of December promises to be a real treat. The next special exhibition, Robot Zoo, due to open in February 2017, is sure to be a winner: described as ‘where amazing animals are recreated in robot form to reveal their inner workings’, it will provide answers to questions such as how do chameleons change colour, and why do grasshoppers jump so high?
Entry to this gem of a museum is free; there is an additional small charge for entry to the aquarium and other special exhibitions. I am very glad we ventured to Southeast London—we will certainly be back with the little brother and husband.
For more information about upcoming exhibitions and events, check out the Horniman Museum’s website.