Under 5’s at the National Museum of Cardiff

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If you happen to find yourself in Wales this summer and are looking for something toddler (and adult friendly) to do on a drizzly grey day, I can highly recommend a trip to the National Museum Cardiff. We went last month, just before the Schools broke up for Summer. It is a bit of a trek from the Farm, and I was slightly apprehensive at the thought of a 2 hour road trip with C and JoJo screaming in unison. Fortunately it turned out to be a super straight route and, despite gatecrashing some Graduation photos on the steps of the Museum (!) , we had a fantastic time.

Here are my top 5 reasons to visit:

1.Hands on exhibits

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I have been to a fair share of stuffy museums and exhibits , with and without small children in tow. I remember getting ‘politely’ asked to leave the Tate as a child when my brother accidentally waved his arm too close to a priceless painting. I hate it when I can feel the guards eyes boring a hole in my back if I lean in towards a cabinet, bearing a ‘Do not touch’ sign .

It gets worse when there are toddler shaped tornados following me. It is seriously no fun for anyone to spend the whole visit listening to me bark orders ‘Don’t touch that! ‘Don’t lick the cabinet!’ ‘Don’t climb on the Reliant Robin (yes, it did happen.)’ No. I am avoiding any museum or gallery that is not interactive, engaging and entrancing until my little ones are safely through the toddler years.

Fortunately the National Museum is very hands on and accepts sticky toddlers. We skipped the  floor which houses the art exhibitions .C was in ‘Whirling Dervish’mode , and when we got out of the lift on the top floor she made a bee line for a bronze statue, arms outstretched in preparation to climb. I managed to spin her back round into the lift, and we went to look at ‘Wriggle: the wonderful world of worms’ exhibit. DSC_1115__1470740494_22576

The centre piece of this amazing family friendly exhibit is the Wrigloo, which is essentially a giant wormery. It offers visitors a chance to experience a worms-eye-view on life, complete with predators watching your every move . JoJo and C thought it was great!

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C enjoyed dressing up as a caterpillar, but wasn’t keen on trying the ‘Scientist’ costume on!

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I managed to do some learning and exploring of my own whilst the girls checked out the worm related book corner.

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My favourite discovery was that the late Lemmy from Motorhead had a ‘late’ worm (a fossil) named after him.How very rock and roll. I have somehow managed to cut the model out of the photo (well done me), so I’ll leave it as a surprise for you to find out what Kalloprion Kilmisteri looks like!

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This exhibition runs until September 2016, so still plenty of time to check it out.

The Clore Discovery Centre, located on the ground floor to the left of the main entrance, is another wonderful family friendly area. I couldn’t get over the fact that we were free to explore the items on display here.

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Skulls, arrowheads, fossils, preserved insects ;things that are normally encased in glass, behind barriers or locked in storage vaults.

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It was really enlightening to be able to  handle them and even use a microscope to get a closer look.

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2.Toddler time

We discovered that this is on (during Term Time) completely by fluke. On every floor, tucked into a quiet corner were little ‘treasure chests’ stuffed full of toys, instruments and books.

Each box was themed to the relevant section of the museum. They seemed really popular, so much so that we had to circle the dinosaur section twice before we could get to the box!

The marine box had a fantastic selection of toys and books which occupied the girls for quite a while.

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We also had fun taking part in the play activities in the Clore Discovery Centre.There were lots of different musical instruments for the kids to try, with some supervision from staff members. C also got to make a jingley jangley set of bells. She chose to put a single bell on. One. Measly. Bell. It was still a lot of fun.

3.Its Free!

Need I say more? Not much in life is free any more, certainly not when it comes to amusing children. I advise using the car park at the rear of the museum.(Currently priced at  £6 for a days parking). There is a direct path round to the entrance and tickets for the carpark are bought in the museum gift shop, so no faffing for change! We got there at 10.30 and left at 4, so that makes it a pound an hour for entertainment!

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Winning at ‘rewilding’- just beside the car park.

There are touring exhibits, which require tickets to be purchased.’Treasures:Adventures in Archaelogy’ is currently based at the museum, but as this is on until the end of October 2016 we opted to save it for another day.

4.Child friendly feasting

The café downstairs has a great set up for the under fives.The food looked and smelled delicious, but being the skin flint I am we had our own packed lunch. I did stretch to a caffeine hit and a piece of cake, mainly so the girls could take advantage of the games and books stationed around the restaurant.Our seating area was right next to a trolley full of things to keep little hands occupied. I think JoJo’s favourite bit in the whole day was playing with an activity cube, the very same make and model as the one we have at home. The museum is also Breastfeeding friendly, with a designated room should you wish to use it.

5. Something for everyone

There is an awful lot packed into this museum. The ‘Evolution of Wales’ gallery was so good, we went round twice. In fact, C watched the audiovisual about our galaxy three times. I think she’d still be there now if she’d taken enough food in with her.

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The natural history galleries are also jam packed with interesting finds. I dare you to stand under the Basking shark and not be amazed at the sheer size of a creature that feeds only on Zooplankton. Mind blowing stuff!

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If nothing else in this blog takes your fancy, go and visit Kevin the crab. For a hermit crab, he’s pretty friendly!

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For more information and an up to date list of ‘what’s on’ take a look at the Museums website. If you do visit, let me know what your favourite bit was and why!

Adventures in Aberystwyth

Tuesdays are usually our day for spontaneous trips and succumbing to wanderlust. Midweek exploration benefits from quiet roads, beaches free from humans and empty attractions. Heaven!

I had stumbled across Bwlch Nant Yr Ariant the night before, whilst faffing about on the internet. I scrolled through the sites attractions and discovered they had Red kite feeding. That was me sold.

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Aberystwyth is a 2 hour drive away, and allowing for traffic and breaks I figured it would be best to start out early. I was flying solo today so bundled the kids into the car along with a picnic, snacks and birding gear and set off shortly after 8.30am.

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We headed north, cutting across the misty Preseli mountains. As we crested the summit we spotted a herd of wild Welsh mountain ponies grazing close to the road. We drove on, vowels disappearing from the village names (Eglywsyrw…need I say more!) the further North we got. Eventually we made it to our destination, four and a half hours before Kite feeding time! Plenty of time to explore!

We started off in the visitors centre. First stop-the loo.

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By the time we had ‘freshened up’ the café had opened and the smell of breakfast was wafting out from the kitchen. I hadn’t planned on buying anything but C decided otherwise. Whilst my back was turned she had helped herself to a milkshake carton from the fridge, unwrapped the straw  and was settling down at a table to drink it.To be honest, it didn’t take much to twist my arm into buying a coffee and sausage sandwich. The girls enjoyed sitting up at their very own pint sized picnic bench whilst I lounged back and enjoyed the view.

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Over breakfast we were treated to an avian floor show.Siskin, redpoll,sparrow, blue tits and chaffinch flitted back and forth from the evergreens to a massive feeder hanging from a climbing rope.

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Once my mug was drained and sandwiches scoffed we headed to the  adventure playgrounds. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a climbing frame with such an amazing view.

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The girls would quite happily have stayed on the basket swings all day, but I thought we should attempt to have at least a short walk. The most accessible route is the circular Barcud Trail, which leads along the shore of the lake and round to the Bird hide. It is perfect for little legs and buggies, and their are plenty of strategically placed benches along the way.DRAG.jpg

To keep little minds engaged you can take part in the animal trail, and try to spot the wooden animals that are dotted about. Unfortunately some are really quite well hidden, and it wasn’t until I spotted the dragonfly (number 10) that I realised we were going backwards along the route!DSC_0564__1468007935_52989

The wind was whipping over the lake, rippling the surface and sending tiny, choppy waves in to shore. A crested grebe propelled itself solemnly across the water, heading for a patch of reeds on the far side.

DSC_0629__1468008397_10609We followed the gravel path along the shoreline, gently sloping down to enter a stand of conifers.The scent of evergreen resin and pine needles hung heavily in the warm air. Further on it meanders through birch, rowan and oak trees. We traced our steps back along to the hide.We claimed our spot right in line with the feeding area, set out our picnic and played with the bird call ‘machine’.Lunch was eaten in the company of ‘a prince'(according to C, they were due to be married.Such an imagination!)

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Around 2pm the slate grey sky began to fill with kites,their whistles and shrieks bouncing around the valley as they lazily rode the thermals.  By 2.30pm I estimated there were about 100 birds waiting patiently for their meal.

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The 3pm feeding frenzy was spectacular. Birds practically dropped from sky, plummeting down to the patch of green grass to snatch up scraps of meat before shooting out over lake. Some flew low over the water, dragging their talons behind them over the surface Others hassled a gull that had floated a bit too close to the feeding station.

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Once the majority of the meat had been snapped up, the crowds of people dispersed quickly. We wandered back to the playground which was almost level with the Kites that had remained.A young boy  stood beside us and watched, open mouthed as a juvenile kite soared overhead. He stretched his arms up towards the bird as it disappeared over the crest of the hill. ‘Woah, did you see that?’ he exclaimed to nobody in particular.

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By now the girls had had enough. We managed to pick up a handmade Red kite badge as a souvenir (family tradition, its getting quite tricky to find real badges!) from the shop, and started out on the journey home. Soon both children were asleep. I spent the remainder of my trip with Mr Packham, narrating his amazing ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar’. Bliss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welsh botanical gardens

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Ok…in the interests of ‘transparency’ and ‘honesty’, this post comes with a disclaimer. Day 14 actually happened on Day 1 of 30 Days Wild (collective sharp intake of breath from readership). I know, I know, that’s cheating. But I have a gap in my posts. I don’t like gaps. I also really want to share my bioluminescence story. Therefore day 14, written on day 30, experienced on day 1, is about Fungi. And I suppose it’s not really cheating. I can put a spin on it…yes, Day 14: Reminiscing on a wild day out.

The National Botanical Gardens of Wales is a real gardeners delight. And for a cactus killing, not-green-fingered person like me it is still a treat.  It is fantastic for families (the new adventure playground has a trampoline!!!)  and those in need of easy access as most of the paths are flat.

The massive dome glasshouse (reminds me of the Eden project) at the top of the garden houses an impressive collection of Mediterranean plants. It is also home to the a touring exhibition (from Edinburgh) about Fungi.

Fungi are neither plants, nor animals. They belong to a whole separate kingdom, hence the title of the exhibit. Like plants they are stationary and have cell walls, but like animals they get energy from digesting matter.

 

The exhibition space is dark and had an earthy, damp soil smell to it. We were immediately confronted by a towering Toadstool. I felt as if we had become Alice and’gone down the rabbit hole’ to Wonderland.

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Behind the Toadstools something was giving off a faint green glow. We went in for a closer look and found tanks full of these bioluminescent fungi.

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This process occurs due to a chemical reaction (the oxidisation of Luciferin) creating energy which is converted to and emitted as light without causing any heat to be produced. It is a common phenomenon amongst marine life, but on land is restricted to Fungi and invertebrates.The resultant eerie glow may function to attract prey or warn off predators. Neat!DSC_0307

 

 

 

 

I love interactive exhibits. I can’t stand stuffy cases full of dusty objects that are virtually impossible to identify due to poor labelling or tiny writing. Boring. Fortunately this exhibit was all about putting the FUN into Fungi (yes, I really did just write that.). I enjoyed fiddling about with the light up ‘Russian roulette’ good and bad fungi exhibit, very helpful for anyone wishing to rustle up a mushroom based snack.

 

If you are thinking of doing a bit of ‘foraging’ make sure you follow this advice

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The exhibition space was not very big but the exhibitors have managed to cram in a lot of stuff. Quantity with no loss of quality, I hasten to add.Around the corner from this was a light box and stack of ‘x rays’ and CT scan images to explore. They had been taken from patients suffering from Aspergillosis, a respiratory disease caused by mould spores. The disease also affects other species, including dogs, chickens and parrots. Once I’d managed to figure out which way up the radiographs were supposed to hang (i’m a vet,not a medic…thankfully) it was interesting to see how the fungal spores affected humans.

 

I was being dragged about by my whirling dervish toddler (fortunately JoJo was having a snooze) so I didn’t manage to see everything. Some times I just grabbed a quick photo before moving on. I’m glad I did.

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I have walked past the sign for this exhibit on several previous visits,  always thinking that one day I will make it across the threshold to explore its offerings. I’m glad that participating in  30 Days Wild made me finally go in!

Day 18 – Red kite brings delight.

Red Kites are a frequent sight in the skies over Pembrokeshire. I have often stopped when out on my calls as a vet to watch one gliding over the fields. They often visit our farm, especially after the grass is cut at silage time. I guess it could be easy to become blasé about them but my years of city dwelling mean I get super excited over anything that isn’t a sparrow.

When F said we could go to the Red Kite centre, I felt like Christmas had come early. We had to get there by 3pm, which is when daily feeding occurs.A variety of meat is put out (Today’s menu included a rack of beef ribs!)which attracts buzzards, crow, ravens and magpies as well as the Red kites.   As per usual it was a bit of a battle to get everyone washed, dressed, fed and into the car, along with packing a picnic, baby changing bag, my camera and binoculars. We finally crammed everything in and set off.

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The centre is a 2 hour road trip away, so I had plenty of time to read up on the biology and conservation history of Red Kites, or to give them their ‘proper’ name, Milvus milvus. They belong to the Accipitridae family, along with Hawks and Raptors. A distinctive forked tail along with their red and grey plumage can help identify them. The bulk of their diet is formed from carrion and worms , but they can act opportunistically to take rodents and small birds. Breeding begins at 2, with both the male and female sharing nest building duties. I found it amusing that pairs will decorate the nest with found objects (including plastic bags, underwear and toys!) before eggs are laid. It reminds me of the ‘nesting’ phase I went through with both of my pregnancies, although my nursery decorations tend to come from Mothercare! It takes around 32 days for each egg to hatch, and as they are laid over a few days there is a slight age gap between the siblings. For the first fortnight females stay on the nest, with all food being provided by the male (human fathers take note, this is a GOOD move to win brownie points!). Once the birds fledge, they stick around for a short period before setting off for a while. They return home as adults, ready for breeding.

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I was also intrigued to learn that genetic studies have shown all welsh birds to be descended from a single female. There is a slight variation in genes noted between Northern and Southern populations, the divide running along the Towy valley. This shows that the birds have chosen to remain sedentary and breed where born.

Just outside Carmarthen I spotted a solitary Red kite hovering over a field. “Great, you’ve seen one, now we can go home” exclaimed F, gleefully. I glared at him from the passenger seat, and turned Radio 4 on to drown out his silliness. The countryside whizzed past as we journeyed east, the landscape gradually changing from relatively flat, green fields to rolling hills, green forests and eventually the moor covered mountains on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. By the time we reached Llandovery I was literally bouncing in my seat with excitement. F took a short cut, then missed our turning. “It’s fine” I said, through gritted teeth” We’ve still got 45 minutes to find it before feeding starts”. “Hmmph”replied F. This did not inspire confidence.

Fortunately the centre is well sign posted and it didn’t take us long to find it. We pulled up in the car park, and I got JoJo  settled into her sling. C was quite enthusiastic, as she got to carry the ‘noculars’.

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There were already kites gathering overhead as we walked up the lane to the hide. Twisting and turning they rode the thermals, whistling and mewing to each other noisily. I nearly fell over, tipping my head back to get a better view of their acrobatics. Not a good idea to lean backwards when carrying a 22lb baby on your hip!

This was the closest I have ever been to a Red kite. I could count the number of feathers on their beautifully forked tails, and see their golden irises glinting in the sunlight. We hadn’t even got to the hide yet, I was grinning with anticipation. Without a doubt, this was the most red kites I had ever seen.Once in, we settled the girls on the lowest bench overlooking the feeding area. I glanced around at the information posters  and my heart sunk “Children must be kept sat down and quiet during feeding.If they make too much noise, they will have to leave.””Shhhhh!” I’d stupidly left the bag full of distractions in the car, and C was already getting a bit antsy. How were we going to keep them still and quiet? I had a brainwave and managed  to keep C happy by building a ‘den’ with the sling. JoJo was happily gurgling at the 2 swallows that had built their  nest in the hide.

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I breathed a sigh of relief and got back to birdwatching. I counted 10 red kites perched in an oak tree about 150 yards away, and another dozen soaring over the sheep field next door. I stuck my head out of the hide and looked up. The sky above was thick with red-brown birds.

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About 20 juveniles, distinguished by their lighter plumage, mixed with fully grown adults. The odd buzzard hovered amongst them. Then it was time. Food was carried out onto the small field directly in front of us. Kites came in from every side, folding their wings behind them as they stooped to the ground. Chunks of meat were grabbed in curved talons and carried off to be devoured. Scuffles broke out occasionally, with birds tackling each other mid air. Meat was dropped, snatched, scooped back up then dropped again. Those of us in the hide jumped out of our skin as a huge piece of beef landed on the tin roof. I think I must have whispered ‘ this is amazing’ twenty times in the hour we were there.

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My bird watching reverie was broken by a distinctive aroma coming from about JoJo’s person. Uh -oh! Time to go. We made our exit as quietly as possible and headed back down the lane. From the car park I could still see the kites gliding around over the hills and fields of sheep. In the distance a shepherd on a quad bike gathered in his flock.

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