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Grudgingly Sharing South East London’s Hidden Gem

There aren’t many places for a family to enjoy a butterfly house, aquarium, 16 acres of stunning gardens, alpacas, a merman, gorillas and a giant, overstuffed walrus for less than a chippy tea. So thank chuff for Horniman Museum and Gardens.

The brilliant, South-East London attraction is one of the capital’s hidden and most eclectic gems and is a huge hit with kids of all ages, as well as grown-ups.

The vast gardens are completely free, dog-friendly and have some of the most breathtaking views across London and a variety of trails and activities. Children can make a racket on giant instruments in the Sound Garden, explore the Bee Garden, Wildlife Garden, play in the Meadow Field, picnic in South Downs Meadow and check out the living fossils in the Prehistoric Garden or visit alpacas, goats and sheep on the Animal Walk. The museum is also free and includes the wonderfully weird and fascinating Natural History Gallery, packed with taxidermy, skeletons and fossils including Forest Hill's most famous resident, The Horniman Walrus - generously stuffed by Victorians who had (clearly) never seen a real walrus before. There are floor to ceiling specimens, from a dodo, platypus to Bornean orangutang. And the Nature Base allows kids to stroke a fox, watch harvest mice and see hundreds of honey bees in a special hive.

One of its most unusual exhibits is its 19th century merman, also known as the Japanese monkey-fish. These bizarre specimens were made in Japan to appease the western obsession with the Feejee Mermaid hoax and were regularly sold by unsavoury rogues as real creatures. You can also buy tickets to the steamy and tropical butterfly house, to have hundreds of psychedelic-winged butterflies fluttering around your heads, within a pint-sized jungle. The ticketed aquarium (£2.50 for children and £5 for adults) houses 15 aquatic environments from around the globe, ranging from the British pond to Fijian coral reefs. Our four-year-old was mesmerised by the poison dart frogs, seahorses, multiple Nemos (clown fish) and elegant jellyfish. And our baby enjoyed licking the glass and looking at the colourful blobs darting about. There are also a slew of exhibitions, both free - like Hair: Untold Stories and Intimate - as well as ticketed, like their current exhibition, Cats and Dogs, a brilliantly executed, interactive show. The childrens’ excited shrieks were testament to the success of the games and simulations, which put them in each animals’ paws to understand them better. Under threes are free for this exhibition, while child tickets are £4.50 and adult tickets are £8.50. We must also give a special mention to the cafe, which does not provide the usual, tourist cafe fare - vacuum packed grease with a cameo of muffin or cruelly-butterless, processed ham baguettes. All vegetables used in their dishes are grown in the Horniman Gardens and everything is fresh, delicious and features high quality ingredients. The pre-packed kids’ lunchboxes are in another league - even the lollies are made with real fruit. What a time to be alive. It's a mystery why it's a hidden London gem, but the locals who fill it each day would probably prefer it to remain that way. Horniman is insanely free/cheap and has the most eclectic and lovingly put together offering, so apologies to its local fans for this piece.

The Horniman Museum & Gardens, 100 London Rd, London SE23 3PQ

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