Days out

London’s Secret Places #3: The Horniman Museum

One of the bonuses of living in a big city is not having to go too far to find a good museum.

The words museum and toddler don’t normally conjure a vision of harmony but at the Horniman Museum you’ll find happy children and parents of all ages having a lovely day out.

Originally a private house owned by Victorian tea trader and collector of exotic objects Frederick John Horniman, who opened his home to the public in December 1890. The Surrey House Museum was such a success that only eight years later it was demolished and replaced by a new building in 1901 that stands to this day.

The Horniman Museum is perched atop Sydenham Hill, although confusingly the area is now called Forest Hill. The Hill is one of the highest points in South London as the land rises away from the Thames Valley toward the Surrey Hills.

How To Get There

The nearest station is Forest Hill, a name coined by Victorian developers who built the first wave of housing here in the 1860s and stems from the Great North Wood that once covered much of South East London from what’s now Croydon all the way to Brixton and Camberwell.

Forest Hill station is well served by trains from London Bridge, Victoria, and the London Overground from Islington via Shoreditch. You come out of the station on the West side and from here it’s either a brisk ten minute walk uphill or you can jump on the 176, 197, or 185 buses heading toward Dulwich.

You will know when you’re there as this incredible totem pole greets you!

Totem Pole a Horniman Museum

Reasons To Visit

First of all it’s free! Yes, free, with some extras for exhibitions (more on this to follow).

One of the joys of the Horniman is the variety of attractions and the first one, if the weather is good, are the gardens. These cascade down the hill to the north of the museum entrance and are broken up into a series of enticing areas. Little B loved running around the vegetable garden and between the corn stalks; I didn’t know corn grew so tall!

Toddler running in Horniman Mueum Gardens

Toddler running in Horniman Museum Gardens

There is also a sunken garden with glorious flower borders, a garden of medicinal plants (make sure busy hands don’t eat them!), a big lawn, and at the top of the hill a bandstand that occasionally hosts concerts and film screenings, and you can hire it out for a summer party! There are superb views from here all the way back towards London – you can see all the towers of Canary Wharf, the City, and moving west to the BT Tower and the London Eye.

Horniman Museum Bandstand

Nearby is a clever little area of musical sculptures that children flock to and, talking of flocks, there are sheep, goats, and chickens in a small animal enclosure that you can walk through.

And as if this wasn’t enough the gardens play host to a weekly farmer’s market every Saturday 9am to 130pm.

After a good wander outside we headed indoors. Here you will find permanent exhibitions on music, sculpture and art from Africa, natural history (think stuffed animals and fossils), and a general gallery of the weird and wonderful things Mr Horniman brought back from his travels. Some of them are a bit scary and I think in general these areas are better for older children.

From pre-schoolers and up head for the Hands On section where you can play musical instruments and try on masks and costumes. We headed for the Aquarium (£3.85 for adults and £1.65 for children aged 3 to 16) as I knew Little B would be happy running around and looking at the pretty fish! It’s a small exhibit but they pack a lot in; different habitats from UK rock pools to Amazon rainforest and Coral Reefs feature a fantastic range of fish, invertebrates and an incredible blue jellyfish.

After all that excitement Little B spent a long time climbing up and down the stairs as he’d just learnt how to do this holding my hand, but I don’t think that can be listed as an actual attraction!

Food And Drink

We’d worked up an appetite with all our exploring so it was time to head for the cafe! This is a lovely big space, modern and with helpful staff who got us set up outside and brought our food and drink over.

There is a good selection of sandwiches, quiche, soup, and cakes, plus the usual array of hot and cold drinks.

I had a coffee and a slice of tiffin, and shared a cheese and ham croissant with Little B, who also had a nibble of the love heart jammy dodger that was meant to be going to his mummy. Most of it made it home.

Horniman Museum cafe foodIt’s a very pleasant place to sit looking out on the gardens and the white-painted iron and glass Conservatory, an original Victorian construction that can be hired for events. In fact, two of our friends got married there five years ago!

Horniman Conservatory

And after that there was time for a quick run through the shop, where I spotted some nice books, but didn’t linger lest I tempted busy toddler hands. We rolled back down the hill and caught the train home. We’re lucky to live nearby and will definitely be going back many times as Little B grows up but even if you’re in London for a short trip I recommend getting away from the main tourist attractions and checking out this much loved secret of the suburbs.

Useful Tips

The Museum is open from 1030am until 530pm every day but the gardens open earlier so I recommend doing what we did and letting your little ones run around outside before venturing indoors.

In addition to the permanent exhibits there are a wide range of temporary displays for children and adults. So do check the website to see what’s on. There is a regularly updated list of events for children.

As I’ve said the gardens and main museum galleries are free but the Aquarium and temporary exhibitions are extra so if you’re going to come back it’s worth purchasing an annual pass for £24 as this gives you unlimited entry to all the exhibits and 10% off in the shop.

Finally, there is a lift down to the lower floors of the museum but if you have a buggy I’d leave it upstairs by reception as some of the display galleries are a quite narrow, and it means you are free to chase after runaway toddlers without worrying about their transport!

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