Butterflies are one type of insect that most adults, and just about every child, like. They have a kind of ethereal quality, their gossamer wings a rainbow of colour bringing momentary delight to the watcher. People of a certain age probably remember the time a butterfly interrupted play during the Wimbledon final when Chris Evert was about to serve. It was fluttering around Ms Evert and she didn't move until it settled — on her tennis racket. The crowd watched spellbound, and the TV commentator remarked upon what a magic moment it was. That butterfly was a star and the moment in time etched on the memory of all who experienced it.
If it has never been your privilege to have a butterfly land on you, don't despair. You could go along to the Amazing Butterfly Exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London and experience everything butterfly-related.
At the time of writing (May 2008) the cost of tickets is £5 (adult) with concessions for senior citizens and children. You don't need to book in advance but you will probably have to queue, particularly if you go early (opening time 10am). The ground you will be walking on is muddy so open-toes sandals or high-heeled shoes aren't such a good idea. The butterfly enclosure itself is hot, humid and clammy, like stepping out of the Tardis doors onto Jungle planet. Take a camera or better still, video equipment, as it's allowed and you'll have photographs and images to treasure forever.
One the tickets have been purchased, you're directed towards a maze, which you can bypass if you don't have little children with you. The maze is made up of open-top pathways each leading to a butterfly life-cycle stage. The enlarged models are interesting, as is the literature explaining each development stage. There are no directions though, and in the end we had to leave by the emergency exit, go back to the entrance and walk around the outside of the maze to the butterfly enclosure.
Upon entering, the first thing that hits you is the heat, and the claustrophobic atmosphere, it didn't bother me as I am used to the conditions inside The Jungle in Cleethorpes which is a place I regularly visit. Other people should be aware though, particularly asthmatics, don't forget your inhaler.
The second thing you notice are the awesome plants, you spot the exotic flowers like Bird of Paradise on display and when you stoop down to admire, you're startled to realise you're nose-to-proboscis with a huge butterfly, which is quite happily ignoring you and about to have a sup of delicious nectar.
This is the instant you remember you brought your camera, but by the time you've retrieved it and set it up for a shot, the moment has passed and the butterfly is long-gone. However, don't despair, because all around you, butterflies are fluttering from one exotic plant to another. As you wind your way around, look in every flower-head, check the branches of the bushes and also watch where you're stepping, as we spotted quite a few butterflies on the ground! You will see butterflies of every genus and colour you ever knew, and then some which, quite literally, take your breath away. When I passed a shelf upon which was a small bowl of fruit, I was astonished to see an alighted butterfly, feeding on a grape. This butterfly's wings were the size of the palm of my hand, and my first photo opportunity, which I acted out in slow-motion and got my prized snap.
In the meantime my companion Wilma had been admiring the life-stages from cocoon to emerging adult through a window of what looked like a glass-fronted shed. There were several different species and all at different stages of development. Some looked like folded leaves, others glinted like they were fashioned from spun gold. A few were even emerging! There were staff on hand, all distinguishable by their matching museum tops, to answer questions.
Wilma found a tree from which was hanging a huge butterfly which was tending a hanging pupa. A butterfly landed on my hand and I was able to pass Wilma my camera to get a candid shot. That same friendly butterfly then flew off, but obviously liked me because it landed on my hair! It's incredible that you can actually feel a butterfly but you can. I desperately tried not to react (my first instinct was to brush it off) while bobbing down just a little so Wilma could take another snapshot. Success! Behind Wilma I could see a tall mirror near the exit, where you're supposed to check yourself for butterfly hitchhikers. As my new friend flew off, I was astonished to see what I'd thought was a picture of a huge butterfly on the mirror was actually a real specimen, so I pointed it out to Wilma who still had my camera in her hand. She stood to the side slightly so the flash didn't ruin the shot, and snapped it. The image is wonderful, the beautiful back of the butterfly's wings and also the mirror image of the underside of the fascinating creature.
When that flew off we checked each other for potential-escapees and left via the exit which leads to the perfunctionary gift shop. This is worth a browse but it's expensive, the book I wanted was priced at £25 so that got left on the shelf. Superlatives aside, we both had a fabulous time, and would recommend the exhibition to anyone in the vicinity. I'd even stick my neck out and say go to London specially for this unforgettable experience. You're only inside for about half-an-hour, but there's always the Natural History Museum which you can spend the rest of the day in, quite easily.
- The exhibition runs from 5 April to 17 August, 2008.
10am - 17:30 daily, last entry at 16.45pm.
- Tickets cost £5 adults, £3.50 children and concessions, £14 families. Free entry to Members, Patrons, children aged three and under.
- Buggies, pushchairs, prams, etc. are not allowed inside the butterfly enclosure but can be left free of charge in the cloakroom of the NHM.
- You can book tickets online but there is a booking fee applicable.