Back in 1675 by King Charles II decided he liked astronomy and founded The Royal Greenwich Observatory on top of a hill at latitude 0 in Greenwich, London. Fast forward 300 odd years to just after WWII and the lights and pollution in London made it a bit tough to see the stars properly. So the whole shebang upped and moved 60 miles out of London to Herstmonceux in Sussex. Fast forward another forty-odd years to 1990 and, with their biggest and best telescope relocated to the International Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in the Canary Islands, they shut up shop and moved to Cambridge.
Anyhoo, all this moving around has left two great buildings with no real purpose anymore, so what to do with them? Turn them into hands on science exhibitions of course! Greenwich concentrates more on the temporal and astronomical aspects naturally, leaving Herstmonceux to cover the more physical side of things.
Read on to find out more.
The first thing you see on entering (through the gift shop of course) is giant lens from one of the telescopes – the thing must be at least two meters in diameter, and is made even more interesting by a big flaw or crack at one edge. It’s stunning to look at in the sunlight, although you do start to feel a bit like an ant beneath a giant’s magnifying glass.
Once you come up the steps into the grounds you are greeted with a large waterstation, full of the lovely cold wet stuff and various methods for moving is around – pumps, buckets, pipes and an Archimedes screw. This bit was a big hit and it proved quite tough to drag the little ones away from it – luckily it was near the picnic tables so there was plenty of opportunity for more soakings.
The building itself is full to the brim with exhibits, including a vacuum cleaner powered lift, a model slingshot catapult, a working printing press, all with helpful description panels just in case the exhibit in question is not your particular area of geekdom.
One of the favorites amongst our little posse of geeklets had to be the vacuum forming machine. For an extra pound you can make your own name plate – or whatever you can come up with, using the hundreds of fridge magnet letters.
My little geeklet was eagerly picking out the letters for her name – and me being a designer, I was trying to steer her towards all Cooper Black, but I think her version turned out much better. She didn’t even panic to much when the noisy machine started up.
Out the back of the main building there are a couple of geodesic tents, where they hold special shows and talks, and we were in time to catch the ‘bubble extravaganza’. I think they must have seen a similar show that had been running at the Science Museum in London and thought, “hey we could do that too”! It was a bit flakey – there were loads of flattened cardboard boxes of the floor to catch the drips, some of the tricks didn’t work first time (or at all) and I really felt for the girl giving the presentation. She knew all her facts, but was a bit nervous at first, but once she warmed up she got some good audience participation going. Of course, none of this bothered the kids – they were just in awe of the giant bubbles she could produce with her super powered bubblejuice.
Next up was the Light and Colour exhibit, a darkened room full of things that light up and play tricks with your eyes. I’m a sucker for a plasma ball – having the slow motion lightening flowing up to your fingers is almost and much fun as seeing all the little blonde hairs of the geeklets standing up.
Other fun to be had here includes;
- ‘Tornado’ – dry ice, twirled into a vortex and lit up.
- ‘Ghost’ – two seats separated by a sheet of glass with a light each side, and adjusting their brightness merges the reflection of your face with the face of the person on the other side.
- ‘Glow Paper’ – a table covered in glow-in-the-dark material with a button that fires a flashgun. Anything on the table when the flash fires will leave its shadow behind – the best one we came up with had to be my 1 year old niece crawling over it.
Back outside, the lawn is full of big shiny chrome experiments. There is a giant balance plate, where you need to position yourselves correctly to get it to stay level – great fun trying to direct a 3 and 4 year old around and get them to stay still, just to say “Yay, we did it!” There’s an inclined track with bells attached to it that you have to position correctly to make them ring at even intervals when a big ball is rolled down it – although the finer principles of acceleration may be a bit lost on the geeklets, they do like the rings.
Favorite one in this area had to be another Archimedes screw – this time with a big ball inside it that you wind all the way up to the top. Once there it falls out onto a track that sends into a conical spiral, getting faster and faster as it descends, before popping out onto another bit of track that is curved perfectly to decelerate the ball and deliver it back to the starting place. Very satisfying to watch.
There really are far too many things to do at the place to mention them all here – I haven’t even got started on the talks and exhibits about the actual telescopes – which were a bit beyond our little posse of geeklets at this time. Suffice to say there were plenty of things to keep all occupied for the whole day and made it well worth the trip down from London.
There’s a big list of all the exhibits on their site – just don’t be put off by the web 0.5 design of it (hint: look in the ‘exhibits’ section in the nav frame – yes, I did say frame there)
And if you do run out of things to see and do, there is always the castle next door!
Wired: Tons of hands on things to entertain (and hopefully educate) the kids. Good value for money – £7.95 for adults, £5.95 for kids, under 4s free.
Tired: Some of the exhibits are a bit worn out. A bit of a trek if you’re based in London and you’ll have to sat-nav, as it’s not very well signposted.