Last weekend on the Snowdog hunt we found ourselves on the last lap of the trail in Sunderland city centre. Sunderland evokes a lot of childhood memories for me as my Nana Betty and my Great Nana Kitty always took me and my brother in the school holidays for a day trips out from Jarrow on the 310 bus. No visit was complete without a purchase of tripe from Jackie White’s market for my Granda’s tea…… Now that’s a Geordie acquired taste! Later when I was a teen in the 90’s it served as my go to shopping place for clothes as I could get a short direct bus ride from Front Street in East Boldon right into the centre of the city. The city was compact enough to navigate, had a great range of stores and offered much more choice than South Shields! It has been a few years since I’ve ventured to the centre of Sunderland with the girls and there’s been a few additions notably lots of great landscaping like the lovely dancing fountains near the refurbished Crowtree leisure centre and on the less cultural side a huge purpose built Primark which was packed out!
As we headed across the city from Park Lane and the Bridges we made our way to the Sunderland Winter Gardens and Museum. The snowdog ‘Hiding Lions’ is situated just outside of the Museum on the outskirts of Mowbray Park – the tie in of this name will become apparent soon as I describe our visit. As we were passing and had time to fill we decided to pop in to fill an hour in. It had been quite a few years since we had visited this museum and neither of my kids could remember going in, so I’m guessing it was when Imogen was pretty small. The museum has a large atrium on the outside (very similar to the Laing) with a reception and well-stocked gift shop.
A pop up banner notified us that at the top floor a snake exhibition called ‘Snakes Alive’ was on so we paid the £8 supplement for the four of us to get in. A snake worksheet was also purchased at £2.50. The rest of the museum is free of charge to explore.
We headed up to the ‘Snakes Alive’ exhibition and were a little underwhelmed to be honest. Although i’m sure there has been staff cutbacks like the rest of the museums in the North East I was impressed to see a guy on the door taking in tickets. However, he wasn’t at all interactive with the kids (or adults) and inside there were no additional staff on hand to ask questions which seems a shame. It takes nothing to make small talk and stir the imagination of a child and this seemed to be a lost opportunity to engage with the visitors and build rapor.
I believe they do have snake shows, from reading this on their website, at certain times of the day but we weren’t given any information on this at the time.
One one side of the square room stood half a dozen tanks of snakes including a a boa constrictor, python, corn snakes and a king snake. They were pretty cool and active too (one looked like he was trying to escape from the top-eeek!!) and it was fun to watch them.
However, the rest of the space was a bit of a disappointment with plastic models of snakes and simple facts underneath them. Some soft play blocks were housed under a canopy of cargo nets and some under 5’s were having fun building these up and knocking them down.
Sunderland Winter Gardens and Museum
The rest of the museum was interesting though and did enough to make up for the snake disappointment, its main focus being to chart the past and present of Sunderland. As someone who loves local history this was right up my street! One exhibit hosts a history of glass making and china in Sunderland which was a massive employer in the region. Some of the pieces are quite intricate and breathtaking and go back to 1820 and have an impressive level of detail on them.
Moving through the museum there is a large gallery of paintings with some fantastic local oil paintings of important industrialists in the region and a gorgeous model of the gardens of Babylon. A small section of the gallery is dedicated to the work of L.S Lowery who came to the region many times to depict the scenes of ship building on the Wear. A 3D drawing of a painting was a good tactile way of bringing art to the visually impaired and to children. Good to see the Victorian stuffed lion is still around in this section (Hiding Lions Snowdog connection here!!) I remember this so clearly from when I came here as a kid! In this case is also a penny farthing and a stuffed Siberian walrus-a very random and surreal collection indeed!
As you move through there are a few rooms depicting the evolution of the world featuring a very rare fossil Gliding Reptile (Coelurosauravus) which is 250 million years old. The displays in this section are quite fun for children with interactive displays with buttons to press and puzzles to solves. The girls enjoyed the scene of the English garden in the summer at night and lit up the birds and animals marked on the display but quite a few of them weren’t working which was a bit annoying and could be improved upon. The cute axylotl in this area was a big hit though!
The back of the museum is the Winter Garden a tropical greenhouse with rare botanical plants and a water feature running through the middle. It was lovely to get a warm and we enjoyed a walk around feeling like we were in Florida rather than the North East in the hot and humid climate. Abigail enjoyed spotting the plastic dinosaurs hidden in the foliage and the plants and trees are well described and labelled.
Moving onto the present day there is a small exhibition celebrating 30 years of the car plant Nissan being on Wearside. The first car to roll off the production line the Bluebird with the reg Job 1 is in display and there is lots of talk of cars of the future and the improved safety and technological features. When the plant opened in 1986, 450 people were employed in the plant and now that figure is closer to 7,000, with one in every three car in the Uk being a Nissan. One of which is our own Nissan Note!
Taking it all on board I think the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens is worth a look if you are in the area, especially now the weather is turning for the worst as it’s lovely and warm!! I think the Museum does need a bit of work bringing the exhibits into the 21st century and the interactivity could be improved. This would bring them more to life for younger visitors. A lot of the exhibits involve the reading of facts which is tricky to small ones and not very engaging for the under 10’s. I’m guessing a lot of this all falls down to funding issues though.