Every summer holiday during junior school, my family would take me and my cousins to Tring to visit the Natural History Museum. I remember gripping on to my dad’s hand as he guided me up and down the aisles of taxidermy specimen display cabinets, teaching me the names of the animals, where they lived, what they ate and how precarious some of the species were. He encouraged me to question the animals’ anatomy and wonder why ducks have webbed feet and tigers have sharp teeth and peacocks have fancy feathers. Those early lessons in adaptation and evolution, survival of the fittest and predator-prey relationships made a tremendous impact on my view of the world and inspired a fascination with nature and conservation (I later went on to study genetics and evolution at university). And after all the lessons, there were the tiny, dressed fleas to stare at!
The museum was founded in the 1880s by Lord Walter Rothschild. The Rothschilds are a famous, aristocratic family who made their great fortune from finance and banking. Walter was disinterested in banking, preferring to learn about nature. He collected insect specimens from a very young age which he displayed in his first museum at age 10 in a shed at the bottom of the garden. As he got older, he sent collectors far and wide to secure rare and unusual animals. He worked closely with the Natural History Museum in South Kensington to further their research in taxonomy. And he expanded his museum into a purpose built house, presenting the animals in the cabinets with fastidious perfection. In his time, Walter had a reputation for being a little eccentric, a reputation that wasn’t helped by his zebra-drawn carriage!
Ok, so strictly speaking Tring Museum shouldn’t feature in a blog about London. I love rules, so I feel a bit naughty for breaking one. But it doesn’t take long to get to Tring; I took a train from Euston and then walked along country lanes to the museum. I arrived within an hour and a half of leaving my front door (which is, out of interest, the same as my daily commute to work). And really, 90 minutes isn’t that long for a trip down memory lane.