28 February 2009
The Tring Cycle
The Natural History Museum: London! Tring! Yes, the NHM is only half based in posh Kensington. It has another branch in Tring, Herts, 40 minutes north from Euston by train.
We went up there today, bike-and-train being the best way to go and see it from London. Because the museum itself is a couple of miles from the station - too far to walk comfortably, too tedious to do by bus, but too far from London to do by car.
And make no mistake, NHM Tring is no dusty old warehouse of provincial junk. It's got an astounding collection of stuffed mammals, birds and fish that you knew from books but which are amazing when you see them life size in front of you. There's a Scrabble-player's resource list in the bird section alone: ani, shama, coleto, trogon, motmot, piapiac, aracari, gonolek, minivet.
You can see stuffed examples of a Bengal florican, a Wonga pigeon, scaly-breasted lorikeet, Temminck's tragopan, or the splendidly named noisy pitta. The Victorian galleries deafen you with excited kids shouting and running up and down, and mums saying 'Look George, that animal comes from Kenya. We went to Kenya, didn't we?', and dads fretting 'Amber, stop that RIGHT NOW'.
It's great fun. And it has a pair of fleas in costume. And it's all free!
It's a fine day trip from London, and Tring is fun to nose around. As you'd expect from a place that sounds like a Bakelite phone, it has some handsome olde houses and cottages and picturesque back-lanes like Akeman St, the old Roman Road. Get to the town centre from the train station by the signposted roadside cycle path, and go back along the Grand Union Canal (pictures) and drop in on picture-postcard Aldbury, a village a mile east of Tring station.
We did what everyone does when exploring a new town, and consulted the windows of the local estate agents to see how much houses cost. Half a million quid, is the answer, which made us think: Wow! We could sell up in London and come to live here. If someone gave us half a million quid. Except we might be a bit bored by, say, the second day.
But if you do go to Tring, take a side-trip of an hour or so to visit one of England's few magnetic hills: a geographical optical illusion which makes a downhill road look like an uphill road, enabling you to freewheel magically uphill (right). For a few dozen metres, anyway. The physics-bending place is Dancersend Lane outside Aston Clinton just west of Tring, and there's a chapter about it in my book.