Whales: Beneath the Surface – Natural History Museum

Whales exhibition

I’d been meaning to visit the Whales: Beneath the Surface exhibition for a while, and finally made it on its last weekend. As befits an exhibition at the Natural History Museum, it was superb: informative, fascinating and fun.

The exhibition began by looking at where whales began. Now, I’m sure I learned this at school, but I’ve certainly forgotten it in the intervening years, so I was surprised to find that the earliest cetaceans, 50 million years ago, were actually land mammals with legs and hooves. Pakicetus hunted small land animals, as well as fish. Ten million years later, these cetaceans had adapted to life in the water: the Dorudon had flippers instead of front legs, its back legs had all but disappeared, and it gave birth and fed its calves in the sea.


Around 34 million years ago some cetaceans evolved new way of eating – baleen plates. These baleen whales became known as mysticetes, while those that continued to use teeth – toothed whales, dolphins and porpoises – became known as odontocetes. Scientists worked out that mysticetes and odontocetes shared a common ancestor from watching growth in the womb – baby mysticetes were growing teeth which disappeared before birth.

Baleen plates
Baleen plates

Today, there are around 90 species of cetacean – 23 of which are found in British waters. 12 million years ago there were many more. Their ancestry is evident in the modern whale skeletons on display: tiny back leg bones, remnants of their land mammal past, and flippers that resemble hands. On display also is the skeleton of the ‘Thames whale’ – a northern bottlenose whale that ended up in the Thames in 2006 and died despite a rescue operation. Modern-day cetaceans have powerful tail muscles to help propel themselves forward. They move their tails up and down, whereas fish move their tails from side to side.

The 'Thames whale'
The ‘Thames whale’

The exhibition explored the differences between species of whale. Blue whales, for instance, have smaller flippers to help them travel long distances, whereas humpback flippers are bigger with grooves and bumps to help them twist and turn in the ocean. Baleen whales live alone, but toothed whales are sociable and live in groups. Toothed cetaceans use echolocation to find their food, whereas baleen whales gulp seawater and filter it out, keeping in the prey. A fantastic game, loved by the children in the exhibition, involved jumping on electronic pads to ‘track’ prey using echolocation.

Later on, the exhibition explored how whales hear and create sound, as well as how these incredibly intelligent creatures interact with one another, caring for each other, playing, and even singing ‘songs’. It also explored a possible future for whales: different killer whale skulls showed how groups of these whales ended up with different kinds of tooth marks from hunting very different prey, and may one day diverge into different species.

Killer Whale skulls
Killer Whale skulls

I loved this exhibition, not least because I was able to match my Erstwilder Wesley Whale brooch to the theme.

Exhibition selfie

London Mithraeum

Bloomberg SPACE Entrance
Bloomberg SPACE Entrance

I read about the London Mithraeum on the London’s Museums blog, and immediately put it on my list of places to visit. You have to book in advance, but entry is free, and I signed up to visit in the morning of the best Saturday of the year so far. It was bright, sunny and not too cold, and as I arrived at Bank station well before my entry time, I spent a few minutes just wandering around the area and enjoying the outdoors (something which is highly unusual for me).

'Forgotten Streams' by Cristina Iglesias
‘Forgotten Streams’ by Cristina Iglesias


The Mithraeum is located in the basement of Bloomberg SPACE, which is on Walbrook, just next to Bank station. The street was named after the Walbrook river which used to flow over this very spot; I also spied an artwork by Cristina Iglesias marking this lost river. The river is important to the Mithraeum, as it was the soggy conditions of the soil in this spot that allowed the preservation of so many incredible Roman artefacts.

The Roman settlement of Londinium was founded nearly 2,000 years ago. Almost two centuries later, a resident built a temple to the god Mithras on the banks of the Walbrook. Eventually covered over and forgotten, it was rediscovered in 1954, its purpose only uncovered on the last day of excavations when a head of Mithras was found. The discovery sparked great public interest, with more than 30,000 people queuing up to see the site on some days. The Temple was dismantled and reconstructed elsewhere, opening in 1962.

Bloomberg acquired the site in 2010, and worked with the City of London and conservation specialists to restore the Temple to its original location and allow the public to access it.

Display of Roman artefacts found during the excavation
Display of Roman artefacts found during the excavation

My Visit

I entered the building at the appropriate time, had my ticket scanned, and was immediately confronted by a very un-Roman scene: a work by Isabel Nolan, Another View from Nowhen, comprising a colourful tapestry and a large open sculpture. before heading towards the display case at the back of the building. Gazing in awe at the huge range of archaeological finds I was offered an electronic tablet to help make sense of them. As previously mentioned, the damp earth allowed for many objects to be preserved that would ordinarily have decayed long before, including a door, sandals, and writing tablets. There were the usual pottery fragments and decorative acessories, including a striking bull ornament supposed to represent Taurus.

Heading down the stairs to the next level, a timeline on the wall leads you back through time via significant events in London’s history. At the bottom, models of important discoveries with interactive displays help you to understand the significance of Mithras and the Temple before you head into the Temple itself.

Writing tablet featuring the first recorded mention of 'Londinium'
Writing tablet featuring the first recorded mention of ‘Londinium’

Who was Mithras?

Scholars have been studying the cult of Mithras for two hundred years, but even so not a lot is known. Most of what we know is down to interpretation. The central icon of the cult, an reconstruction of which is displayed here, is an image of Mithras killing a bull, which may be a battle or a sacrifice. It has been interpreted as a creation myth and possibly a vision of the universe, owing to the Zodiac symbols surrounding one of the models. Other Mithras icons have been found all over Europe, and they and the archeological sites from which they come have helped scholars to deduct what a Mithraic ritual might have been like.

The Mithraeum
The Mithraeum

Inside the Temple

Temple ‘experiences’ take place every twenty minutes. You enter a long dark room, with a walkway around the edge of the wall and jutting out slightly into the centre. Audio and lighting effects create a spooky atmosphere, as if Romans were walking into the Temple to worship. It’s hugely atmospheric and effective, and you get a sense of what the Temple might have looked like and how it all fits together. A metal frame at the end shows where the model of Mithras would have been.


To sum up…

The Mithraeum is amazing and well worth a visit. The display is great and well-organised, and the temple itself is very atmospheric. Don’t miss if you have any interest at all in the Roman history of London.


Address: 12 Walbrook, London, EC4N 8AA

Website: londonmithraeum.com

Opening Hours: 10-6 Tues-Sat, 11-5 Sun (advance booking recommended)

Price: Free

Jewellery brand of the month: Black Heart Creatives

Happy February! I’m back in the UK with this month’s jewellery brand:


Black Heart Creatives is run by Charlotte in the Cotswolds. It specialises in bespoke and unique statement pieces. They make a lot of products that are completely different to those I’ve seen anywhere else.

I’m certainly not a Valentine’s Day person, but I couldn’t resist this Valentine’s Heart Chocolate Box Necklace.

Valentine's Heart Chocolate Box Necklace

This Prince Purple Rain Necklace is pretty cool.

Prince Purple Rain Necklace

This Eames Chair Necklace is available both with and without cat. Naturally I’ve chosen to picture the cat option.

Eames Chair Necklace with Cat

The Atomic Starbust Brooch is strikingly retro.

Atomic Starburst Brooch

Plenty of custom options are available too, including these dramatic Heart Word Earrings that can say anything you want to say.

Custom Heart Earrings

Check out Black Heart Creatives via the following links:

Website: blackheartcreatives.com

Etsy: etsy.com/uk/shop/BlackHeartCreatives

Instagram: instagram.com/blackheartcreatives

Facebook: facebook.com/BlackHeartCreatives

Twitter: twitter.com/BHCreatives

Royal Academy of Music Museum

Museum entrance
Museum entrance

Getting back into museum visiting mode, I paid a visit this weekend to a place I’ve been meaning to go for a long time: the Royal Academy of Music Museum. I’ve attended a few concerts at the Royal Academy of Music and often walked past the free museum, but I’ve never had the chance to go as it’s only open during the day. I headed down on Saturday afternoon, turning left out of Baker Street station and passing the queue of expectant tourists waiting to go into Madam Tussaud’s.

The museum is located in the RAM’s premises on Marylebone Road. It has an entrance area with a gift shop (not to mention a well-stocked selection of music books) and displays on three floors.

Stradivari violin
Stradivari violin

The ground floor covers the history of the RAM, which was founded in 1822 by a group of aristocrats. The Academy’s first premises were on Tenterden Street; the first pupils were youngsters aged 10-15 and the President was former child prodigy William Crotch. Eventually the Academy attracted royal patronage, with George IV signing the Royal Charter in 1830.

Early piano
Early piano

The rest of the ground floor is given over to special exhibitions; the current exhibition focuses on the Spencer Collection, which came to the Academy from the estate of Robert ‘Bob’ Spencer, professor of Early English Song at the Academy for many years. Spencer was a former librarian, and loved tracking down and collecting the rare manuscripts and instruments that form the backbone of his fascinating collection, which was instrumental (pun intended) in igniting the study of early music in England.

Steinway piano
Steinway piano

The first floor is the home of the Strings Gallery, which has some fine examples of harps, violins, violas, a cello and a double bass. One violin is a Stradivari. The Piano Gallery is located on the second floor, with a number of fine examples of instruments from several centuries, including Georgian square pianos, early nineteenth century Broadwood instruments (one of these was gifted to Beethoven) and a Steinway grand.

The gallery is a very pleasant place to visit for anyone with an interest in music and instruments; it’s full of fascinating historical information.


Address: 1–5 York Gate, Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5HT

Website: ram.ac.uk/museum

Opening Hours: 11.30am–5.30pm Monday to Friday, 12pm–4pm Saturday

Price: Free

My veganuary experience; or, confessions of an ice cream fiend

In January, for some unknown reason, I decided to give Veganuary a go. I’m already pescatarian, but eat a vegetarian diet most of the time, so I decided to try giving up all dairy and all other animal-derived products. Here’s my verdict:

The Good

I enjoyed making interesting vegan meals. I used Cooking on a Bootstrap pretty much as a Bible and in particular grew addicted to the black bean and peanut stew. Lots of the meals I ate as a vegetarian were suitable for vegans too. Price-wise, I didn’t find my vegan diet any more expensive than my veggie one, and in some ways it was cheaper as I wasn’t buying cheese.

I loved exploring the range of plant milks. Almond milk is yummy on cereal. Coconut milk is handy for curries and other meals. In general, plant milks and non-dairy spreads last longer than dairy ones, and in the case of spreads are often cheaper. I discovered that many of the foods I love are acidentally vegan – Hobnobs, Oreos, and Tesco Value garlic bread, among others.

I have a sweet tooth and was very happy to discover this brand of Tesco dark chocolate – which I often heated up with coconut milk to make an amazing hot chocolate.

Tesco Ivory Coast 74% Cocoa Plain Chocolate

I also found Alpro chocolate and hazelnut desserts, which are amazing.

Alpro Chocolate & Hazelnut Desserts

Tesco has recently brought out a range of vegan cheeses, which are reasonably priced and taste good – I really liked the one with jalapeños.

Tesco Free From Jalapeño and Chilli Cheddar

The Bad

I seriously missed regular cheese. And ice cream. I stalked Tesco daily to see if they had any dairy-free Ben and Jerry’s, but it was never in stock. Milk chocolate was out, too. In fact, sweet snack foods were notoriously difficult to find (savoury snack foods were easier, owing to the huge variety of crisps that happen to be vegan).

Constantly checking labels for hidden dairy ingredients became a bore. I know that this becomes less of an issue as you learn to know which foods are suitable and which not, but I grew very grumpy thinking about all the foods I could no longer eat. I felt cross and deprived, and that’s not a good thing.

The Indifferent

Health-wise, I felt no different on a vegan diet. I did feel a bit fatigued at first, but after upping my quota of beans and pulses, I felt fine. I’m convinced that a vegan diet can be just as healthy as a vegetarian or omnivorous one, for the average person anyway.

I had heard that a vegan diet can help clear up eczema, which can be triggered by dairy – this happened to one of my friends. Sadly it didn’t happen to me.

To conclude…

After January was over, I went out and bought a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, and I ate the entire thing.

I believe that a vegan diet can be healthy, cheap, exciting and practical. I also believe that it’s not for me. I’m afraid that I love ice cream, cheese, and chocolate way too much. Having said that, I’m happy to incorporate more dairy alternatives into my life – plant milks, for example. So the month hasn’t been completely wasted.