Where can you find an aquarium, a butterfly house, some alpacas and a natural history museum all in one place? In central London this would involve a considerable amount of trekking back and forth – but did you know you can actually enjoy all these in one place that is only in zone three?
If you haven’t heard of the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill you are missing out – especially if you have children.
I took my (then) 15-month-old there recently on a lovely sunny day – I wanted somewhere for a day out that wasn’t too far but had some interesting things for her to see, and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It’s easy to reach by public transport and with a buggy – we took a train to Forest Hill from west Croydon, and both stations have step-free access. The museum is a ten minute walk from the station but it’s fairly steep up hill on the way, then when you reach the museum you go up a hill to get in, then up another hill to get to the butterfly house! I was quite worn out by the time I had done all that with the buggy, but at least it wasn’t too hot – and when you’ve finished your day out, it’s all downhill back to the station!
The museum itself has a large natural history section which my daughter found really interesting – as it’s basically display upon display of large stuffed animals. There were a few skeletons and things that I thought an older child might find slightly creepy – I remember when I was a teenager going to a natural history museum in Germany and walking past one room I didn’t want to go in as it had some very large skeletons that made me shudder – so do bear that in mind. Other parts of the museum had artefacts I didn’t think my daughter would be that interested in so we skipped those parts as there was plenty to see otherwise. There’s a small room where children are encouraged to touch some of the natural history exhibits – there’s a stuffed fox pretty much at floor level – and live exhibits like mice and bees plus an area where you can draw pictures. At 15 months old my daughter was too young for most of that but liked the chance to get out of the buggy and stroke the fox!
Speaking of animals – another big draw for me was the animal walk. There are a series of enclosures with alpacas (my favourite), goats, sheep, rabbits, chickens and probably a few more things I can’t recall. You can walk along a path between cages/ paddocks and while it doesn’t take long, you can spend a good 20-30 minutes here and it adds another dimension to the day out. The animal walk is only open from 12.30-4 so if you go to the museum the morning it’s worth bearing that in mind.
The museum and animal walk is free, and there are big open spaces, pretty gardens and some lovely views over London (you can see the Shard) to enjoy. You do pay for the aquarium and the butterfly house; the aquarium starts at £4.50 for adults and £2.50 for children (under threes are free) though there are also combined family tickets available; you can also buy a combined ticket for the butterfly house and – at the moment – a temporary Lego exhibiton, but I decided not to do the latter as I didn’t think my daughter would be interested and it was already a lot to pack into a day.
The butterfly house is slightly more expensive at £6 per adult and also £6 per child over three (under threes are free) and it seemed a bit expensive given we didn’t spend long in the butterfly house at all as it was so hot. The tickets are timed at 15 minute intervals to make sure there are not too many people inside at once – you can stay as long as you want once you are inside but I think I only did 15 minutes! Tickets can be bought either online in advance or at the museum; I got mine at the museum as it was a week day during term time but I’d recommend if you expect it to be busy to book in advance.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a butterfly house – I think the last time was at Singapore airport (definitely make time for that if you have a stop-over) but I really liked them as a child. This one had some beautiful vivid blue butterflies and quite a few different species, which you can watch flying around or eating fruit or resting among the flowers. Buggies are not allowed inside the butterfly house, for good reason – the museum warns that you could easily end up leaving with some extra passengers, and I imagine it would be quite easy to damage the delicate creatures or plants while manoeuvring a buggy inside. So I carried my 15 month old in my arms (she isn’t walking yet) so only managed to take a couple of photos – and I think that didn’t help with us feeling hot and uncomfortable! But my little girl seemed to enjoy herself and was very interested in the butterflies – she did a lot of pointing and smiling!
The aquarium tickets are not timed and I was glad I had decided to go there after the butterfly house – it’s felt much cooler as it’s in the basement level of the main museum (there is lift access if you have a buggy or are disabled). It’s very small – I wasn’t expecting something the size of London Aquarium but it was smaller than I expected. But it wasn’t busy at all and we were able to take our time in front of the tanks and it was another enjoyable part of the whole experience. There were some exhibits showing the impact of plastic in our oceans, which I applaud – especially as I think they get a lot of school groups here – but the number of tanks that contained plastic (sometimes as well as fish, sometimes just plastic to make a point) compared to the total number of tanks in the aquarium seemed a bit excessive. Then again, the amount of plastic in our oceans is excessive!
The museum has a café but as it was a nice day my daughter and I enjoyed a picnic on the grass under a tree, then after we had done the animal walk and strolled around the grounds we were both ready to go home – my daughter falling asleep in her buggy before we had even got back to Forest Hill station!
I was really impressed by the Horniman museum – some of the exhibits are quite small, e.g. the aquarium is tiny, there are not that many animals – but most places you could visit have one or the other, and with the butterfly house as well – and the museum of course – there is plenty to do here. The grounds are lovely and should definitely be included as part of your day, whether that’s running around on the grass, playing crazy golf (which I think is only open on weekends) or just enjoying a rest while you admire the view. It’s easy to get to from either central London or the Surrey commuter belt where I travelled in from and pretty good value as well – so I’m sure we will be going back again.