Tag Archives: exhibit

Oxford Mommy’s Guide to Washington DC

Our trip to America with the Baberoo began with 36 hours in New York, then continued on to Princeton, NJ. We left Oxford Daddy there for the week while he did his archival research, and the Baberoo and I took a train trip to Washington DC to visit my sister. I had never been to Washington before but I had heard good things about both its baby-friendliness and its amazing sightseeing opportunities. And of course, it was great to see my sister and also to be able to sleep and eat in a real house instead of being in a hotel and restaurants all the time.

Hands down, Washington DC wins the baby-friendliness award when it comes to transport. The Metro, its underground/subway system, is fully accessible to all strollers (and wheelchairs), with elevators at every single station so that you can get from street level to platform without folding your buggy, even if it’s a huge one or a double stroller. Are you listening, other cities? Every. Single. Station! Just look for the elevator entrance on the street (a dark brown structure with a big M) and you’re on your way down to start your journey. Sometimes it’s a little complicated, with a few elevator changes before you reach your chosen platform, but most of the time it’s straightforward and easy to use. The signposting is also very good and the fares are quite reasonable – most of the time they were $1.70 or so, depending on the time of day and distance travelled. There’s even a section on the Metro website that gives you elevator and escalator status, updated 24 hours a day, so you can see if there are any outages before you travel.

Washington DC Metro

With such a great transport system, I nearly didn’t try any other ways of getting around, but for the sake of thoroughness I decided I better check out the city bus and the taxi service. The city bus requires you to fold up your stroller – which I didn’t know before I attempted to get on, but it does say so right on the door of the bus. So I folded up, but it would have been an easier journey if I’d taken the Metro instead. Unless you’re travelling light and can fold your stroller easily, go for the Metro rather than the bus. Taxis were fine, and not very expensive. It was easy enough to hail one from the street, although by mistake we got one that had been pre-booked by someone else! One note about being in a taxi or walking on the street: drivers in DC are completely nuts and will drive into the intersection even though they have a red light. Be very careful when crossing the street.

Washington DC is a very pretty city, especially in April, when the cherry blossoms are out. We were lucky and picked the exact week when the blossoms were most on show, and we also lucked out with temperatures soaring as high as 26 degrees. It was so beautiful and sunny that everyone seemed in a good mood and the sense of fun was heightened. We decided to take a walk to see the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks. It was gorgeous, but there were so many people walking along the same path that it was also really crowded and slow. Lack of  sunscreen and pretty hot weather made us turn around before we even got to the Jefferson Memorial – but we enjoyed the short walk anyway.

Cherry blossoms

 

We took refuge in the National Museum of American History, one of the many Smithsonian museums (all free). Our exhibit of choice was the First Ladies, which was an amazing look at the contributions made (and the dresses worn!) by Presidents’ wives from Martha Washington onwards. As a fashion lover I found it fascinating, and the Baberoo seemed to like it too – although, as one of the museum docents pointed out when we asked, there is really nothing for under-5s at the museum. The museum has two Family Rest Rooms where you can change your baby. We didn’t manage to make it to any of the other Smithsonian museums, but if you are planning a visit, especially if you plan to stay all day and see many of the museums, your first stop should be the Smithsonian Visitor Center, in the Castle, which is open 1.5 hours earlier than all the museums so you can plan your day. The Smithsonian is great for children and families, but the Baberoo is still too young to enjoy most of it.

We did find a very baby-friendly activity, however, in the form of Story Time… at the Library of Congress! I was so excited to find that the Library has programmes for even the youngest of audiences. The free Story Time for Infants and Toddlers takes place every Friday (except holidays) at 10:30 am. Roll up early, because they only have 50 places (including adults) and they hand out numbered admission stickers on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 10 am. If you are there early and have got your stickers, you can browse the collection of children’s books and play with the toys in the Young Readers Center. The Jefferson Building, where the Young Readers Center is located, requires everyone entering to go through the security system, so leave time for that, especially since you’ll have to put your baby and your stroller through the metal detector separately. Storytime is a fun half-hour with sing-alongs and some books read aloud by the librarian. You get a handout with the words to the songs, so you’ll always know what’s coming up – the theme the day we were there was Springtime. The room was a little warm on the day we went, so the Baberoo got a bit hot and bothered, but she enjoyed most of the experience and if we lived there I’d be first in line every week for this lovely event.

Story Time at the Library of Congress

We mainly took a much-needed break from eating out while we were in Washington – I do love going out to eat, but not twice a day every day for a week! – so we only went to one restaurant. But it was probably my favourite meal of our entire trip to America. We ate an early dinner at Founding Farmers, a restaurant showcasing American cuisine (and owned by a collective of American farmers) in eco-friendly settings. I ordered the Skillet Corn bread ($5) to share with the Baberoo as a starter, and we were presented with a huge cast-iron pan full of the lightest, fluffiest cornbread I have ever had. It came with whipped butter in a pool of honey, with sea salt on top. What a revelation! It was so good that the Baberoo, a big fan of corn and anything corn-based, wolfed it right down, although it was such a big portion that you could actually order it as your meal and not be hungry afterwards. Luckily, I had ordered us a main to share as well, and it was equally good. The Founding Farmers take on Macaroni and Cheese ($14) includes Gouda, Gruyère, ham, peas, and apples, and is a very sophisticated dish for such a comfort-food favourite. We both loved it, and there was enough left to take home and eat for breakfast the next day. The only strike against Founding Farmers is the lack of baby-changing facilities in its bathrooms, which is a shame because they could easily modify the disabled bathroom to include a changing table. Still, they do cater well for babies with good booster seats (that strap onto a regular dining chair) made by Stokke, so I felt that the Baberoo was comfortable and secure while she was eating – more so than with your standard restaurant high chair. Note: the restaurant books up well ahead, so make a reservation!

Founding Farmers

We had a wonderful time in Washington DC, and it was very easy to get around thanks to the brilliant Metro system. There were some opportunities for baby-friendly activities, and I am looking forward to going back sometime when the Baberoo is older so we can really appreciate the museums together. For now, I’m just happy to be back home in good old Oxford, so we can resume our regular schedule of testing the city’s offerings for baby-friendliness.

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University of Oxford Botanic Garden

The forecast for tomorrow is 16 degrees with rain all day, a sure sign that autumn is right around the corner. Today, however, was a scorching 27 degrees. The Baberoo and I took advantage of summer’s last hurrah by visiting the University of Oxford Botanic Garden (Rose Lane, OX1 4AZ).

Riotous colours

We’ve been big fans of the botanic garden since the Baberoo was only three months old. I first took her there at the end of March, when the hellebores were nearly the only thing blooming and the rain and my baby-induced sleeplessness made it seem as if the winter would never end. We’ve been going back ever since on our annual pass, which is the best £15.50 I’ve ever spent (and it gets you into Harcourt Arboretum too!). Every few weeks we’ve gone back to see the changes in the botanical season, from tulips to peonies to dahlias. And that’s only the herbaceous borders: there’s also a fabulous vegetable garden, fruit trees, seven glasshouses, a rock garden, a bog garden, and the new Merton Borders, which feature an ornamental, environmentally sustainable display using direct sowing of seeds.

Merton Borders

Today the vegetable garden was a pretty amazing sight, with corn, beans, rhubarb, and squash all looking like they were at their peak (we missed the giant pumpkin, though, as I discovered to my chagrin when we got home). The Merton Borders were full of bees (a good thing!) and blooming splendidly; I remember seeing the area in March and there was nearly nothing in it. I can’t believe it’s the same garden! There was some riotous colour in the herbaceous borders, and the bog garden – where we sat for an alfresco lunch – was so lush that you could hardly see the water for all the plants.

Corn

Not only is the botanic garden a treat for all the senses, it’s baby-friendly too. Here’s how it stacks up against my four criteria for baby-friendliness (space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding – see my About page for a full explanation of my criteria for rating attractions that aren’t eateries).

Space: There’s an entrance for prams and wheelchairs at the side of the garden on Rose Lane. There’s plenty of space in the two outdoor gardens (the Walled Garden and the Lower Garden), so you can wheel your baby carriage around as much as you like. It’s a bit more difficult getting into the glasshouses; the conservatory (which houses the citrus plants) has plenty of room inside but it’s difficult to get in the doors; usually I need someone to help me because you need to open both doors to fit a stroller in. Happily, today they were already open because of the hot weather. The other glasshouses are more difficult; a larger pram might not fit the width of the very narrow corridors (especially since there are huge plants coming at you from either side), and if you do fit, there’s no chance of anyone being able to pass your carriage in the space so you might have to do some backing up. The rose garden facing the High Street isn’t accessible to strollers unless you have wheels that can roll on gravel; mine can’t. To be fair, I don’t think that this is actually part of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden so isn’t managed by them – but when you’re going for the experience of a garden, you don’t care about technicalities like this: you just want to see the roses!

Ambiance: Couldn’t be nicer, at any time of the year. Whenever I visit I marvel at how quickly things change and how beautiful each season is. The staff at the reception are very welcoming and helpful, and so are the garden staff if you happen to meet any of them working outside. Even the ducks are friendly!

Borders

Facilities: There is a baby-changing facility in the disabled toilet. It’s spacious and has a pull-down changing table. It’s clean and presentable, although there’s no place to put your changing bag.

Baby-changing

Feeding: There are plenty of benches to sit on throughout the garden, but you can also bring a blanket and sit on the grass with your baby. We dined alfresco on a bench today (with regular food, although I’d have been happy to breastfeed as well). If you go in the winter it might be too cold for breastfeeding, though!

As an attraction, the Botanic Garden is a wonderful resource and a haven of peace and quiet away from the crowds in the city centre, and a perfect place to bring your baby to relax. I give it a 7.0 out of 8. If you love gardens, treat yourself to an annual pass and go throughout the year.

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Crisis Skylight Cafe

This week the Baberoo and I, both fighting jet lag, got pretty tired all of a sudden during an excursion to the city centre. This was all very well for her, since she could sleep in her carriage. I, on the other hand, having no one to push me around town while I snoozed in my own personal perambulating bed, needed to find somewhere to eat and recharge myself, pronto. I had been meaning to visit the very welcoming-looking Crisis Skylight Café (at the Old Fire Station, 40 George Street, OX1 2AQ), so I headed over and managed to make it there without actually collapsing.

The café is run by Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, and it trains people on-the-job in order to provide the experience needed for employment. It’s a great social enterprise, and the café offers good, inexpensive meals and snacks. They’re housed within the Old Fire Station, an arts centre that works with Crisis by providing opportunities for Skylight members to create and show work as well as to volunteer at the arts centre. (I’ll have to review the Old Fire Station itself in a future post, as their current exhibition, RAJ, wasn’t open yet when I visited.)

I chose the Spanish tortilla with two side salads and a green salad (£4.95 for the whole thing, an amazing deal), plus a lemonade (£1.85). The potato in the tortilla was cooked perfectly, and the tortilla was full of other roasted vegetables. It was pleasantly, if unexpectedly, curried. The side salads I chose were the rice with asparagus, olives, and egg (a combination I’ve never seen before, but which worked well), and tomato and green bean. The meal revitalized me and my seat at the open French doors gave me a great people-watching vantage point onto busy George Street.

Tortilla and salads

So, how did the Crisis Skylight Café measure up against my five criteria for baby-friendliness? The criteria are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding, all of which are explained in more detail on my About page.

Menu: The usual café-style fare is served here, so if you are up for eating a jacket potato or a sandwich with one hand while you hold a baby in the other arm, go for it. But for those with less dexterity, there are the daily specials, which are a hot entree plus salads of your choice – all pretty easy to eat one-handed. They also have a good selection of breakfast items, as well as pastries and cakes.

Space: It’s a bit tight at the café for a baby carriage if it’s busy. There was room for me to wheel the Baberoo all the way through to the window seat, but that was because we were past the main lunchtime hour and several tables were vacant. If they had been full we’d have been hard pressed to find a way through the café, and because many of the tables have wooden benches instead of individual seats it would also have been hard for patrons to move their seats to let us through. However, there are some smaller tables against the walls that would be the best place for parking a baby carriage. (Sorry for the not-great picture below; I told you I was jet-lagged!)

Tables

Ambiance: This is a very light, homey, friendly café and the diners I saw were happy to be relaxing and taking their time over their meals. The opening hours run from 8:30 am to mid-afternoon (check the website for times) so it’s great if you need somewhere to go early in the day; these are very baby-friendly hours. The fact that the French doors were open was even nicer and made it feel airy and fresh. The art on the walls is for sale.

Facilities: The bathroom with the baby-changing facility is located in the Old Fire Station, a half-level up, and is accessible via the lift. I was a bit nervous about the lift because it’s the kind where you have to hold down the button until you reach the floor you want, and you open the door yourself. There’s one like it at my husband’s work and I always get stuck in it! Luckily, I didn’t get stuck this time since this lift is in good nick. The changing room is fine, with a pull-down table and enough space to move around with the baby carriage. The hallway leading to the changing facility is a bit narrow if two prams are trying to pass each other, though.

Changing table

Feeding: I didn’t feed the Baberoo during this visit, but if I had wanted to, I’d have probably been more comfortable at a table with individual chairs rather than a long bench, since I can move a chair much more easily to the position I need. I don’t think I’d have had any trouble feeding her there, though, and it’s the kind of space that feels welcoming to anyone who would want to feed their baby.

In total, the Crisis Skylight Café rates a 7.25 out of 10 for baby-friendliness. I will be back because I like to support a good cause, but also because of the nice ambiance and the fact that it’s probably the cheapest lunch on George Street!

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Modern Art Oxford

I needed a quick snack while out with the Baberoo this morning, so we dropped in to the café at Modern Art Oxford (30 Pembroke Street, OX1 1BP). What started off as a pit stop for a piece of cake turned into a much longer visit, as I became enthralled with both of the current exhibitions, Chapters by Haris Epaminonda and Black Drop by Simon Starling.

Our visit started off with cake and tea, though, and boy, was it good. The Butterscotch Cake I ordered (£3.10) was moist and not too sweet for a butterscotch confection, and my pot of Earl of Grey tea (£2.10) from local company Jeeves and Jericho had a delicate bergamot taste without any tannic bitterness. I also got a Biscuit and Brazil Nut Tiffin (£2.50) to bring home to my husband, but it was half gone before he got any.

Butterscotch cake

Being a museums person myself (until very recently I led the Digital Programmes team at the V&A), I can never pass up an exhibition, so the Baberoo and I entered the poetic, ethereal world of Haris Epaminonda’s Chapters (exhibition ends 8 September). Four film installations comprise the main part of the exhibition, and the staged scenes and shots of natural elements, accompanied by an eerie, haunting soundtrack, were mesmerizing. Chapters also comprises another two rooms with three-dimensional installations.

I was then just in time for a showing of Black Drop, Simon Starling’s 30-minute film about the transit of Venus and its relationship to the beginnings of cinema (exhibition ends 26 August). The film is beautifully shot in black and white, and although I’m not sure I understood everything about the astronomical phenomenon (last seen in June 2012 and not scheduled to happen again until 2117), just watching the film and being swept away by thoughts of the vastness of the universe was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Entrance

So, how did Modern Art Oxford’s café and exhibition space rate on my scale of baby-friendliness? My five criteria are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (all explained in detail on my About page).

Menu: There’s one soup and three paninis on the menu each day, plus lots of cakes and other sweet snacks. Paninis aren’t the easiest thing to eat with one hand if you’re holding a baby, and neither is soup – but if you’re dextrous you can do it, and the cakes and other baked goods are easy. Go for tea/coffee and a sweet pick-me-up.

Space: Plenty of it, and there were lots of parents with prams there today. During the summer the café is located in the side entrance to the museum off St. Ebbe’s Street. It’s a vast cavernous space that presumably must have been an entry for trucks or deliveries, but they’ve transformed it into an area that holds several tables with lots of room for baby carriages all the way through to the entrance to the gift shop. In winter the café is indoors on the ground floor, and has just as much space for carriages. The first time I went, in fact, there was a group of mothers with about seven baby carriages.

Tables

Ambiance: In the café it’s laid-back, colourful, and streamlined. Because of the high ceilings it’s light and breezy but also sheltered and quiet. You feel like you could stay for hours. Café staff were very friendly and brought sugar and cutlery to my table, seeing that I had too much to carry. In the museum, the ambiance is what you might expect from a modern art museum: spare and plain, concentrating on the works of art rather than on any décor. Museum staff were also very friendly and held open doors and curtains for me so I could manoeuvre the baby carriage through the gallery spaces.

Tea selection

Facilities: The baby-changing toilet is on the lower level, past a space that is used for talks. Unfortunately, although the facility was clean and fresh-smelling, it caused me problems in terms of space. I could bring the baby carriage in, but then there wasn’t enough room to pull down the changing table or stand next to it to change the baby. I also couldn’t leave the carriage right outside the door because it would have blocked the entrances to both the men’s and women’s toilets. So I had to leave the door open with the carriage half-in and half-out of the bathroom. There were further problems with the layout of the room; once the changing table is pulled down there’s no way to reach the garbage can to throw away used diapers and wipes.  It wasn’t an easy experience and the Baberoo also screamed her way through it (you would too, if the bathroom door was open so everyone could see you).

Changing table

Feeding: I was at a table where everyone could see me breastfeeding, although I didn’t mind, and I got a few smiles of encouragement from museum staff who passed by. There aren’t really any private, quiet corners in the layout of the café, so it’s not for shyer nursing mothers.  There are no benches, sofas, or pillows, but if you and your baby are OK nursing from a standard-sized chair then it’ll be a fine experience.

My final rating for Modern Art Oxford is a 7.75 out of 10. Despite the difficulty with the baby-changing facilities, I’ll be going again for cake and the chance to see world-class art in my new city.

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