My favourite museum in the city is the Natural History Museum; always has been and probably always will be. My friend Claire again accompanied me this week for my London jaunt, and while we had originally planned to go to Kensington, we decided spontaneously that morning to go somewhere else instead. Thus, the Natural History Museum isn’t the focus of this week’s post. The Horniman Museum, however, is.
Situated not far from Forest Hill train station, the museum was founded by Frederick John Horniman in 1901. He was an avid collector, and after years of travelling had amassed around 30,000 items, mostly anthropological artefacts, examples of natural history, and slightly more unusually, musical instruments.
The natural history cases are particularly marvellous, although some of the taxidermy is perhaps slightly unnerving. (If you visit, look for the rockhopper penguin and you’ll know what I mean.) Standing proud in the centre of the room on an enormous iceberg is a behemoth of a walrus. It’s a real one, now stuffed, and it’s been on display for over a century. However, when it was mounted, few people had ever seen a walrus alive, so this particular model is, shall we say, “overstuffed”. Walruses are far wrinklier than this in real life, but his popularity is assured, being a mascot to the museum in the way that Dippy and the blue whale are to the Natural History Museum.
Around him are many cases containing examples of many mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and invertebrates. They are mostly arranged by species and family – for example, whole cases are given over solely to different species of ducks or parrots, but some work in other ways. One, for example, shows the many different ways that animals have learnt to defend themselves, lining up creatures with spikes, horns, toxic bites or noxious tastes together. One notable exhibit has the head of a wolf surrounded by the heads of various breeds of dog such as a bloodhound, bulldog and collie, showing how selective breeding has changed dogs into so many different appearances.
Personally, my favourite creatures in here are a bittern with a serious case of “resting bitch face”, two skunks, the okapi and the family of musquash (also known as muskrats). There’s plenty else to see in this room alone, though. Almost every species of primate seems to be present and there are comparative skeletons of all the great apes, including a human one, making the similarities look even more striking.
Downstairs is a small aquarium which splits off into tanks showing several different biomes, from a typical British pond to coastal seas and rainforest swamps. It’s small and you have to pay extra to go in, but it’s worth taking a look around. It’s home to dogfish, jellyfish, rays and rather a lot of frogs.
Another room is called the African Worlds Gallery. I confess that Claire and I didn’t spend too long in here because of an unnecessarily loud school party (we’re too old for that nonsense) so I can’t give you too much detail about it. From what I did see, it was a lot of photos, costumes and artefacts from all over Africa, displaying great examples of the people and culture of this often misunderstood continent. If I go back again, I shall check out this exhibition in more detail.
The final part of the museum’s interior is perhaps the oddest, dedicated as it is to thousands of musical instruments. Contained here are examples of everything you could ever imagine from pianos to mouth organs, violins to bagpipes, xylophones to flutes. Whether you pluck it, blow it, bang it, shake it or tap it, there’s one of it here. We got excited at the prospect of the primary school favourite, the recorder, turning up and weren’t disappointed. The museum has several, including an enormous bass recorder that would certainly make school assemblies a bit more interesting.
I’m not musically inclined, but seeing all these together is rather astounding. Humans have been making music for as long as we’ve been talking, probably longer, and the wide variety of instruments we’ve created for the purpose is nothing short of breath-taking.
Our visit to the Horniman Museum was rounded off by a stroll through the beautiful gardens. It was a gloriously clear day and from the bandstand just above the museum itself you can see right across London, taking in Battersea Power Station, the Shard and the other nearby skyscrapers and St Paul’s, which looks miniscule from this far away. There are also specialist gardens here, one for food and one for medicinal plants, all labelled to tell you what they do. Most spectacularly of all though is the Grade II listed conservatory that sits just behind the museum. It dates back to 1894 and used to be at the Horniman’s Croydon family home, but was moved to the museum in the 1980s. It is beautiful in the extreme, ornately crafted and makes your average conservatory look pathetic in comparasion.
The Horniman Museum is a reminder than London is packed full of museums that most people don’t bother to go to, or even know about. The three in Kensington get all the glory, but one of the purposes of this blog is to show people places off the beaten track and find treasures like this that they may not normally see. I daresay there will be many more museums to come, so watch this space.
I’m not a native Londoner. I live in the heart of Sussex, in a small town crowded on all sides by farmland, open countryside and expansive forests. As such, one would believe that there is a lot more wildlife to be seen in my neck of the woods than in London. One wouldn’t necessarily be right.
While I’ve always noticed that there seems to be a distinct lack of dogs and cats in London, there is wildlife in abundance. Before London was there, of course, it was just wild land and forest, so we’ve encroached on the natives who haven’t all been so keen to leave. Some of them even perhaps seem to prefer the city. Oh sure, the majority of these animals are squirrels, mice, rats and pigeons, and even the most eager of tourists would have to be hard-pushed to find any of those particularly exciting to see.
But did you know that there are pelicans in London? Deer? Parrots? Flamingos? Well, there are. But how did all of this come about?
Let’s start with the deer, since that’s probably the one I mentioned that most people do know about. The current herds of red deer and fallow deer are likely descended from those installed by Charles I in the 17th century. When a plague was threatening London, he moved his court out to Richmond and decided that he wanted to do some hunting. Today there are over six hundred deer living in the park, all of them completely wild and free to roam. They came to the public eye a few years ago when, in a viral video, a dog walker was left helpless when his Labrador decided to give chase. (I’ve included the link for the three people who haven’t seen the video.)
I’ve spent a lot of time in Richmond Park and the deer are astonishingly beautiful. I’d advise you don’t try and get too close. The fallow deer are more likely to flee, but the red deer are prone to standing their ground. And if it’s the breeding season then anything goes and I’d stay away altogether.
The deer are culled twice a year, simply because they have no predators and if left to breed indefinitely, there would be too many for the park to sustain. If you really want to see deer but Richmond Park is too difficult to get to for you, there are deer in Bushy Park too, again both red and fallow deer.
Speaking of Richmond Park though, this is where you’ll find parrots. Granted, the maritime climate of Britain doesn’t seem appropriate for these birds better suited to tropical forests, but nonetheless a population lives here, known to some as the Kingston, or Twickenham, parakeets. They are rose-ringed parakeets to be specific and they’ve been here since – well, that’s just it. No one can really agree on when or how they arrived, because they’re definitely not native.
The first recorded sighting of a parakeet was in 1855, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that their population exploded and they became a common sight in south London, although their territory seems to be spreading ever more northwards. How they got there is a mystery. Some say that they escaped from the film set in the 1950s. Others prefer the theory that they escaped from an aviary during the 1987 hurricane. Another theory posits that Jimi Hendrix released a pair in Carnaby Street in the sixties. Not only can we not agree on how they got there, but no one knows how many there are either. Estimates range from 6,000 to 50,000.
Moving to a different park, St James’s Park specifically, we find another strange bird that looks out of place in the city of London, but has now become so accepted that most Londoners simply don’t question it anymore. Yes, these are the pelicans of Duck Island. Their population has grown and dipped over the years, ever since they arrived in 1664, as a present from the Russian ambassador. They’re hugely sociable, but that doesn’t mean they’re always pleasant, and some of them have a nasty habit of eating the pigeons. Again, there’s a video, but watch at your own risk.
The pelicans seem to live a semi-wild state, as while they hunt for their own fish and, apparently, pigeon, they are also fed every day by the park’s wildlife officer, who also deals with the other exotic birds of the lake.
If you’re of a certain age, you will remember that Trafalgar Square used to be absolutely heaving with pigeons. Less so these days, mostly because it was becoming a health hazard, but there are still some about and the rest seem to have scattered to elsewhere in the city. But another reason that the population dropped was that birds of prey were introduced to scare the smaller birds away. Because of this, even the densely packed city of London is home to several hawks and falcons. Peregrine falcons have been known to nest here, and are often seen around the Tate Modern, St Paul’s and the Barbican, so keep your eyes peeled to the skies and you may catch the sight of one.
I knew about all of these before I started my research but I had no idea that the city also hosts flamingos, right there in Kensington. While people are at ground level shopping their way through the department stores, one hundred feet above them are the Kensington Roof Gardens, a peaceful spot that’s been there for eighty years and seems to be one of London’s best kept secrets. In one of its three themed gardens you’ll find flamingos, which just seems a tad insane. But, then again, I didn’t know that a building in Kensington has seventy full-sized trees on its roof, so I guess it’s all relative.
To finish off, let’s descend below the surface and find an animal that’s far less beautiful or cute and turn our attention to the London Underground mosquito. Although mosquitos are probably not massively associated with Britain, much like the other animals we’ve discussed here, they have been living in the tube network for long enough that they have become their own species, resistant to the cold and not fussy about what they bite. They pestered Londoners sleeping down here during the Blitz and spread disease. Even more interesting is that different tube lines have different subspecies of the critter. They’re not unique to London though – pretty much any underground network you can name has them, although how they’ve spread from one to the other is a little unclear. However it’s done, they are one of the most recently evolved species on the planet.
So next time you’re in London and want to see something a little more exotic, hunt down one of these curious creatures (though maybe not the mosquito), and be reminded again that this is a city that always has another surprise tucked up its sleeve.