The Crystal (London)
The Crystal is a fairly new visitor attraction in central London. Our visit to the venue co-incided with a visit to London for a family wedding. We took a trip on the cable car across the River Thames, and one of the most local things to do at the Royal Docks terminus was a visit to the Crystal building. The Crystal is a very ... striking building, sponsored by Siemens, and designed to promote sustainability. I was very interested to visit the building to see how sustainable living within cities was being promoted to visitors to the centre.
Entry to this exhibition is free, like many attractions in London. It is open between 10am and 5pm between Tuesdays and Sundays with the last entry being 30 minutes before closing time. Our visit included a wide range of people, from a wheelchair user, to several younger children and buggies. Our group had about 25 people in it, and we were not the only people there on a Saturday afternoon, but it was not what I would call a busy venue.
We entered the building through the cafeteria as we stopped for some warm drinks when we first arrived at the building. Drinks and snacks like cakes or soup were available for pretty average prices. A couple of cups of tea were just under £5. Facilities were bright within the glass fronted building, and the idea of sustainability is carried throughout the building - putting their money where their mouth is as such. The food that was on display in the cafe had a bit of a home made look to it and the food was pretty seasonal. A visit to the amenities felt very futuristic with a self flushing toilet when you stood up (be careful if just leaning forward to get some paper is my top tip of the day), taps that worked by putting a hand underneath, and hand dryers that were similarly efficient.
Entering the exhibition, we passed a small shop type area where we passed a member of staff who gave us a swipe card while we were in the building. It soon became clear that we needed this to work some of the exhibits in the building.
There is some guidance to follow the exhibition in a kind of order starting with upstairs. Here there was a cinema experience in a white room with a projector displaying a moving image on the wall, floor and roof of the room. Some of the children in our party seemed to really enjoy this experience. I didn't take my youngest in here as it was pretty loud, and although the things being shown was pretty interesting to me, I could not personally stay in here very long as I felt a bit dizzy with the way the images were moving around. The show was about how people live, and the skill sets we currently have, and what we might need in the future.
Other exhibits on the upper floor were interactive displays looking at things like how people live in different cities, and the difficulties you get when you have to make people live in tower blocks, and how extreme weather affects built up areas. Exhibits here felt more adult as there was a bit of reading to do to understand the point of them.
Downstairs was a much larger area and a lot more appealing to the younger visitors in our party. Here there were a lot more exhibits that were like computer games. My eldest son really enjoyed an exhibit about controlling crowds. While I don't think he got the full idea of the game and how serious crowd control can be (ie result in people getting hurt if crushed) he enjoyed the lemming style game set in scenarios like a tube station, opening and shutting lifts and gates to make sure the platform does not get overcrowded before the train arrives.
Another activity that was hugely popular among the children involved them pretending to be windmills in front of a computer display. A town needs energy, and to create optimum energy, you need to windmill your arms in front of the sensor to create the electric they need. You need to follow what is happening on screen and match your arm speed to meet the demand. Slightly difficult, but quite fun for the kids. We found that the kids were a little short to work it properly but a parent stood behind them could help them without them feeling like they were not doing it themselves.
Popular with some of the party was a waterfall designed to look at renewable energy. It was very popular with one child with hearing difficulties. My children recognised some of the renewable fuel options due to us having solar panels ourselves and we have also experienced similar exhibits at Magna near our home looking at tidal power.
Other displays like looking at different building materials used for housing were a little dry, thought we enjoyed touching the different materials on display and thinking about how our home was different to other peoples houses.
Overall, for a free exhibit, there is enough there to kill one or two hours with children. You might spend longer there as an adult if you want to read the information within the displays, but children will find it a bit harder to get information from it. There was a fair amount of interactive displays to keep them engaged but our difficulty was we had one swipe card between the four of us, so if one child paused to look at something, you could guarantee the other had stopped at another display, and for me, I could have spent a lot longer reading the information by myself as I find it hugely interesting how people plan cities trying to take into account so many factors. I think the staff were fairly accomodating and would have let us have another card if we asked for one, but by the time we thought of it we were ready for leaving.
The building itself is very modern, and very accomodating to people of different interest levels and capabilities. We had no difficulty moving around with wheelchairs and buggies between the two levels of the exhibition.
If you are in the area, then it is certainly worth having a look round as I felt there was something there for everyone to have a look at. For anyone who wants to read more or plan a visit, you can find out more here: http://www.thecrystal.org/_html/index.html
It was a nice day out for us when we combined it with a trip on the London cable car. It is not somewhere I would rush to go back to, but we enjoyed the time we spent there and its always good to get out and do something with the kids.
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St Fagans National History Museum (Cardiff)
Magnificent Freebie Alert: This has to be amongst my favourite museums ever and it is free. Did you note that magic word? It's free. A whole fun, informative, day out for free! St Fagans National History Museum is a must if you are ever in the vicinity of Cardiff in South Wales. There is one thing though - do not ... go in bad weather. There is a fair weather attraction because on wet, cold, and windy days, even the word 'free' isn't going to convince me to go.
Welsh Living History:
Now that you know you can have a day out with family, friends or on your own for free, FREE, you probably want to know what this museum is about. This is the place to learn about the history and people, of yesteryear and current, Wales without being bored out of your mind. The incredible thing about this is that buildings from across the ages, which would otherwise have been demolished and lost forever have been saved by this museum. Each brick, stone and slate has been taken down and rebuilt on these beautiful grounds. Can you imagine the complexity, expense and dedication of the team involved? History is kept alive when it would have been destroyed. There are buildings all over Wales here and I find the whole exercise both breathtakingly wonderful and efficient. You can get a real sense of the different parts of Wales and how small communities would have lived without having to travel the length and breadth of Wales to search out old documents and photographs. Here, are the communities which may have been lost forever. The enormity of the project from start to finish is incredible. Imagine moving a whole building, finding the space, engineers and builders reclaiming and rebuilding, and then training volunteers to meet and greet visitors at the doors of these saved architectural gems. These people have me in awe even before I step beyond the welcoming visitor centre.
Visitor Centre of this Welsh Folk Museum:
The first building to be approached is the visitor centre area which includes the all important toilets, cafe, gifts and main tourist information. The food is okay though prices can be a bit too high. There is no reason why you can't bring a picnic as there are plenty of benches to sit on. Please note, if you have the money, there is a container for donations. The informative guidebooks cost £3. Paper maps are available for 30p and are very useful. The museum is spick and span and clearly loved so any public donations will keep it this way for all to enjoy. I strongly advise making use of the food and toilet area as it might be a long while before the next opportunity is available, as the grounds are extensive. There are direction signs, guides, and other staff outside, but as the place is huge and you may have decided on particular buildings to visit, then get a map from the visitor centre.
There are well over fifty building that have been relocated from places all over Wales, and this site has been here since 1947 with the purpose of saving aspects of rural life which is disappearing due to continual urbanisation. Some information boards provide photographs so that you can see the building on the original site with people from the heyday.
A Glimpse of Buildings (as can be viewed on the museum website):
Communal bread oven
Garreg Fawr Farmhouse
Hendre'r-ywydd Uchaf Farmhouse
Melin Bompren Corn Mill
Nant Wallter Cottage
Newbridge War Memorial
Oakdale Workmen's Institute
Pottery and Kiln
Rhyd-y-Car Terrace Houses
St Fagans Castle
St Teilo's church
Stryd Lydan Barn
I could write reams and reams on each building but you can breathe a sigh of relief and I'll stick to a brief glimpse of a few.
Go to Church:
There are a couple of churches on site and couples can even have their marriage blessed there. I believe there are also occasional Sunday services. To me the most interesting church is St Teilo's church which is a rescued medieval church from Llandeilo Tal-Y-Bont. It has colourful wall paintings which have been repainted just as it would have been to show the crazy brightness. The boldness of colour is unexpected when we are so used to the somewhat subdued paintings in churches. When I was there the guide was able to describe seeing this church in its original location.
The Houses of the Workers:
The museum has even reconstructed a street through the ages. You can pop into each house to see how the generations lived over a period of one hundred and eighty years, up until 1970. See how the furniture changes over time according to money and fashion. The terrace of Ryyd-y-car make up ironworkers' houses and outdoor toilets (not for your use though)! I promise you it is fascinating and do check out how even the street paving changes as you walk along from the lower to the top end of the street. For the best way to see this look backwards when you get towards the top of the street.
The woollen mill sometimes has demonstrations from people working at the looms. Last time, unfortunately, it was empty of volunteers but it still had a small fire in the corner which was fortunate on a cool but sunny March day.
I can spend silly amounts of time on the farm. It has real animals - turkeys, hens, sheep (with very new-born baby lambs in March), cows, ducks and incredibly, noisy pigs. I believe, sometimes there are pony and trap rides available. You can see the old farm machinery in the barn area. There is also a wonderful farmhouse, and like with many of the buildings, the working fireplace is alight. Don't be afraid to go in. It looks so real you feel like you are trespassing into someone's property! The smell of wood burning and the warmth from the glowing logs is wonderful. You can imagine the farmer coming in after a long day's work and resting before this fire. There will be a guide in here, as in most of the other buildings, to tell you all you need to know and informatively answer questions.
Last time, we went into the tea room above the Gwalia Stores, as we hadn't remembered to bring our packed lunches. It was way beyond our usual lunch hour as we kept being distracted by the wonderful buildings including the quaint post office. Eventually we made it, somewhat famished, and tired, into the upstairs tea room. We had a nice window seat. The tea room has an old-fashioned display of cakes and to reach the tea room you go through a shop of curiosities which includes objects like old bikes. We paid just over £5 for a sandwich with crisps on the side. I think it was too small and too expensive for what it was though it did taste nice and the atmosphere was pleasant. It was also a good opportunity to make use of the tea room toilets.
There are ice cream vans around to make purchases from too. You can even buy chutney and jams in the shops.
There is a wonderful old fashioned sweetshop in the row of stores in the village centre. You can purchase sweets, stored in jars, in here. The children and adults all looked impressed and happy in there! We had some tasty fudge.
Old fashioned Bake House:
The famous St Fagin's bread and is baked in the Turogs bakery but they sell out super quickly. Later in the day, I managed to get the last gingerbread, but it seemed a bit on the small side and insubstantial. The others got the last of the jam scones and liked them very much.
There is also a mini land train ride for 50p each person though I have never tried this and it is not always in operation.
There are pretty walks along lanes and wooded areas and all the paths will take you to cottages and other buildings of varying ages.
Go To School:
The school is very small. It has old fashioned desks with ink well and a blackboard at the front. The museum guide, and us, got quite put out when a pretend (?) teacher came in and rudely chucked us out to make way for a bunch of teenagers to come and re-enact school days. We would have liked to have watched that but we were given short shrift and a cane was in sight! However, whilst we wandered around we saw the teenagers lining up to go in, listened to the bell ringing, and later heard them singing, in Welsh, in the playground. This was toward the end of our day. When we arrived at the museum we watched as primary school children, dressed in Welsh costume, made their way across the hills to the school. It was a charming sight and the boys even doffed their hats for us! That was much better than seeing the actual school, which I found small and too restrictive, as it was roped off to the rest of the public even when not in use.
Always phone or check the website before going as some visitors can be disappointed when some buildings are closed for the day or parts of the day. There are also events and lectures that are timetabled in for peak times and this is always worth consulting. Events and talks enhance the visit and add to the wonderful atmosphere. Note that some events will not be free but they are worth the expenditure. Remember costs only really begin to mount if you don't bring your own picnic.
We go there on the first bus that comes close to opening time at the museum and stay until the gates are locked. Even this doesn't allow for everything especially if you want to take a leisurely pace.
How to Get There:
St Fagan's museum is a few mile out on the edge of Cardiff city centre, on Cardiff Road. The bus journey is on a fairly straight road into a rural idyll. Buses from Cardiff are 32A, 320 and 322 which have journey times from around twenty minutes or more. Some buses have cheaper tickets than others. The bus drivers are really helpful at making sure you get on the right bus. On the bus, it can be confusing as there is a signpost for the museum on the main road. Lots of people unfamiliar with the route panic when the driver goes beyond it and they fear they have gone too far. It's okay the bus is taking you directly to the main visitor centre building which is beyond that big sign for the museum. You will be certain of arriving as you come up beside the car park and are dropped off in a bus line in front of the building. The last bus back to Cardiff from this bus stop, on the winter timetable seemed to be just before closing time. I would like to see more buses timetabled in for the end of the day so there is less rush.
The car park is busy but with plenty of room. The car park is pay and display and charges £3.50 per car but you can park there all day. Take the EXACT amount for the machines as no change is returned.
Waungron train station is a long two miles away and I have never attempted to come via the train station.
The riverside Ely cycle trail is very close to the museum though I have never tried it either.
Cardiff CF5 6XB, Wales (Creigiau - St. Fagans) 029 2057 3500
The grounds are vast and also hilly in many places. I don't think a wheelchair could be used to get across to the castle and landscaped area. We have aching legs at the end of the day. After heavy rain you might want to wear boots as places like the farmyard can get mucky. I saw someone struggling to push a wheelchair, and if I had either been in the chair or was doing the pushing, I think I would have gulped in trepidation at some of the hills. The person using a wheelchair did not go inside the woollen mill and had trouble with going down the slope afterwards.
Dogs on leads are allowed even if they are not for the blind.
There is the 50p per person land train, pulled by a tractor, which takes people from one side to the other but I don't know if this allows you to get off and on in different places. There are cobbled areas which could also make things difficult for the disabled and young. Prams and pushchairs cannot be wheeled through the doors as there is no room. I find the inside of the cottages crammed and some have barriers or stairs which would bar access to some. Historical buildings where never built to accommodate the disabled or young children.
The car park has a few designated disabled spaces near the entrance to the visitor centre and there are ramps leading into this building.
The museum has few wheelchairs on loan at the front desk but you can't book them in advance. When they are gone they are gone so do not come relying on wheelchair provision.
The 30p map shows designated paths for the disabled.
There is a motorised vehicle for the disabled if booked in a advance, but for no more than two severely disabled passengers at once and carries up to five passengers.
On my visit in March there were four of us and three were over sixty and one aged seventy. We all managed with bench and tea stops but I can see that it might be really restrictive for other people. This might not be the place to come if you have mobility difficulties or children in pushchairs unless you go prepared to be restricted in accessing all areas.
The museum is open from 10am - 5pm. I get here in time for opening and spend the whole day looking around.
In fact, last time we stayed so long, we feared we'd missed the bus, and a guide told us we could take the long walk through the gardens to a bus stop at the far end but that the gate would now be locked. He let security know that we were coming and when we arrived at the gate we could press an intercom button and they electronically opened the gates for us. I don't know if there would always be someone to let you out or if we were lucky to have been seen by a member of staff just before we walked to the other end of the beautiful park.
The good news is there are toilet facilities available on the castle grounds and very close to this exit gate that we were able to use. However, I would strongly advise to get the bus back from the same place where you were dropped off. We misread the timetable and thought we had missed the last bus but saw it at the bottom of the side road later, and rather annoyingly had to wait over an hour for a different routed bus to turn up, on the side street, outside a church. There was a bench there and it was a pretty spot. The extra plus point was that we got to see the river, lake, lawns and park land, before exiting, though on this occasion we had no time left to see the castle - yes, there is a castle here too (really a nineteenth century, upstairs-downstairs, grand country estate)!
I would recommend repeat visits because you cannot truly see everything in one day. The grounds are vast and also hilly in many places. Next visit I would love to sunbathe by the water, and go into the castle, instead of seeing everything in the reconstructed village.
There are imperfections but you get in for FREE.
The extra costs such as food and parking can be a lot but it is to be remembered that this helps keep the museum open and food costs can be avoided with advance planning.
Last March, despite having a full and fun day we found the Celtic Village empty when normally you can see a cobbler, saddler and blacksmith providing demonstrations. There was a guide in the tannery who gave a lot of explanation to how it operated and informed us about the bats that live there now. Whilst some people complain, we are aware that this is a free museum, staffed by many volunteers and that work and maintenance has to be addressed in other areas of the site. That day we saw people working on the waterwheel at the woollen mill. It was a shame not to see the wheel and Celtic village in action but we understood why and enjoyed wandering around and admiring the work that has gone into this massive project.
This museum is constantly in flux. New spaces are being made for the exciting finds from across Wales. No visit is ever the same. The whole expanse of Welsh history and current culture is covered on this land. It is amazing for living history, atmosphere, educational value, great for the outdoors type and awe inspiring. Well done to the people who make this museum wonderful. St Fagin's is a special place to visit. No one visit will ever be exactly the same which means you will want to return again and again.
I want to give this all the stars but I know that those with mobility issues and young children will struggle. I also see the food is overpriced and that wet weather could ruin your day. The museum can't do anything about the weather and probably can't change the structure of historical buildings. I think that visitors need to be aware of the access issues and if they choose to come to know that their visit will be limited in some areas. I suspect the museum could find a way to take the disabled around the site even better. Oh, and the person I saw in the wheelchair, later on I heard him whooping as he went down one of the lanes so it can't be all bad!
This museum does something quite amazing by saving the rural life and keeping it alive in a new space. I love it and so does everyone who I have spoken to about it. It is continually growing and moving forward with more and more, there's even an eco house to see and the entrance is FREE!
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National Railway Museum (York)
Having previously visited this museum on a school trip as an 8 year old my trip the 2nd time was no less enjoyable. 20 years later I returned with my wife and the size and array of the engines on display was no less impressive .It certainly was a nostalgic trip and one which I look forward to making again with my nephew and children of ... my own.
The range of engines that is on display at the National Rail Museum is fantastic. From the iconic, high speed steam engine The Flying Scotsman to the modern day high speed Bullet Trains from Japan. The museum has everything a train lover could wish for.
As well as the number of shiny engines which have been beautifully restored and maintained there is also a great selection of train memorabilia. There is a glimpse in to how the upper classes of society used to travel by train with some restored 1st class carriages. There is also engines on display to show how trains in this country have changes through the years.
What's even better about this museum is that it's free. I would strongly encourage people to leave a donation so that those at the museum can continue to grow and maintain this wonderful museum which celebrates all that is good and great about the Railways both in this country and abroad.
This museum is a must see for anyone with a passion for the railways and is highly recommended for any parents who have Thomas obsessed children (Like I was once upon a time!).
It's fun for all the family and is handily situated next to the Railway Station in York.
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Address: Nature in Art / Museum National / A38 / Twigworth / Gloucester / GL2 9PA
Address: Sticklepath / Museum National / Okehampton / Devon EX20 2NW / Tel: 01837 840046
Address: 1 Scala Street / Museum National / London W1T 2HL / Tel: 020 7636 3452
Address: The Market Hall / Museum National / Market Street / Craven Arms / SY79NW / Tel: 01588676176
Address: Orchard Side / Museum National / Market Place / Olney / MK46 4AJ / Tel: +44(0)1234 711516
Address: The Mound / Museum National / Edinburgh / EH1 1YZ / Tel: 0131 243 5464
Address: The Toll House / Museum National / The Beach / Clevedon / North Somerset / BS21 7QU / Tel: 01275 878846
The birthplace of Edward Elgar / Museum National / Address: Crown East Lane / Lower Broadheath / Worcester WR2 6RH / Tel: 01905 333224
Address: High St / Museum National / Coalport / Telford TF8 7HT / Tel: 01952 580 650
Address: Caphouse Colliery / Museum National / New Road / Overton / Wakefield / WF4 4RH / Tel: 01924 848806
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