- Almond Valley Heritage Centre
It's many, many, many years since I've been to the Almond Valley Heritage Centre. In those days, I had a young family as the centre is geared towards educating and entertaining school-age children. But as with places like Disneyworld, that doesn't mean that adults can't enjoy going there too. Even so, it was with some trepidation that I recently called in to Almond Valley - after all, a septuagenerian, on his own, wearing an Italian tartan tie (I was going on later to lunch in Edinburgh at an italian restaurant, after all!) wasn't typical of the centre's customers. But as I wandered round, I realised there were many aspects of the facility that I could appreciate, perhaps even more than some of the younger visitors!
The Almond Valley Heritage Centre is situated just outside Livingston, West Lothian, about 15 miles west of Edinburgh. You can find it on Google Maps. As its name suggests, it is in the valley of the river Almond, which flows through the facility. It's an independent museum, established in 1990 with a mission "to preserve and interpret the history and environment of West Lothian and make this heritage accessible, engaging and enjoyed by all." It is based on an original Livingston Mill and farm which was restored in the early 1970's by local volunteers, supported by Livingston Development Corporation. It has gained recognition as a four-star visitor attraction under the VisitScotland accreditation scheme.
The smart new entrance to the centre houses a shop and the ticket desk. There is more information, including admission costs at the Almond Valley Heritage Centre Web site
Facilities for Children
One of the first "attractions" within the Almond Valley Heritage Centre, which you can't miss immediately after leaving the entrance, was definitely geared towards the youngsters - a large "bouncy castle". But instead of being the usual inflatable rubber castle for the kids to use up energy by jumping around on, this one was in the (rough) shape of a cow - with udders hanging down from the roof! Great fun! As it was quiet, I was nearly temped to have a go - but resisted...
Mums and dads can have a chance to relax with a cup of tea whilst watching the kids explore the secrets of "Morag's Meadow." Scaled up so that the kids appear to be shrunk to the size of a mouse, they can squeeze between the spaces of a dry stone wall, leap from leaf to leaf and bounce on giant vegetables.
Scottish weather is, to say the least, unpredictable, so there are a number of other facilities which are under cover, including an "adventure zone" and a display barn full of old farm machinery. The old mill also seemed to be popular, demonstrating how the power of the river was used to grind the corn. This has a restored 16ft-diameter mill wheel, in full working order.
Kids of all ages enjoy trains and Almond Valley Heritage Centre has a narrow (2' 6") guage railway that runs all of 500 metres from the farm to the weir, further up the river Almond. It is not just there for fun, but serves as a reminder of the days when such railways carried shale from the local mines to oil works (more on that later). There are plans to double the length of the railway, once funding permits.
Animals and Birds
Of course, the animals and birds around Almond Valley are a great attraction to both young and old. Admittedly, there is a concentration on the small, furry friends like rabbits and hamsters and on lambs and calves which children can easily relate to. But everyone finds the Highland cows and Shetland ponies irresistible! One of the buildings was the original byre of the farm and the kids can have fun pretending to "milk" some model cows, with some spectacular results!
Kids (and adults) always enjoy farm animals such as cows and calves, sheep and lambs, goats and horses. A pond has been formed in the mill lade which provided the water to grind the corn and this is now home to a collection of ducks and geese. I'm sure the ducks could fly away if they wanted to, but with food and water - and a duck house in the middle of the pond for shelter, why would any sensible duck want to leave? In addition to the ordinary Mallard ducks there are also Indian Runner Ducks and Muscovy Ducks - not forgetting the ducklings in the spring as well.
To entertain the kids visiting the Almond Valley Heritage Centre, there are "trail sheets" which the kids fill in when they see items listed on the sheets. These include "Beaky Business" with pictures of the beaks of twenty common birds around the site and "Tail Trail" getting kids to identify some animals by their tails. I'm not too sure about "Who's Poo?" though, where they have to match the droppings with the animal!
For adults especially, a walk along the banks of the river Almond can be most relaxing and informative - and kids can be encouraged with talk of a "nature trail" to identify numerous sights along the pathways. The weir with the water pouring over in a waterfall across the river is also impressively noisy, even though it is not that high.
The nature trail actually crosses the river via an elegant steel bridge, which was opened as recently as 2006. This provides access to the "Charles Fields" beyond, where there are picnic areas, an orchard and "Bones and Stones". This apparently has the laudable aim of showing kids the basics of archaeology - but seemed to be used more as a children's sand-pit, with buckets and spades.
War Time Garden Having been born just before the start of World War II (I don't think there is any connection between the two events), I probably got more out of the area designated as a "Wartime Garden" than many of the kids. The garden was complete with an Anderson shelter - a corrugated iron shell that was usually sunk into the ground and covered with turf and was meant to provide shelter for families during the "Blitz" when the Nazi aircraft were droning overhead and dropping bombs indiscriminately on the towns and cities below. I was too young to remember those times, but I was told later than during the Luftwaffe's bombing of Clydebank - which was only a few miles away from where we lived - I slept through the sound of exploding bombs a couple of streets away and the (ineffective) anti-aircraft fire.
The main entrance building to the Almond Valley Heritage Centre incorporates a museum area with items found in the local area. There are old shops to look into and rooms of an early 20th century house - complete with a tin bath in front of the fire. The museum area also includes an exploration of the sensations and depth of a shale mine. Many of West Lothian's towns and villages owe their origins to the shale oil industry, which operated between about 1860 and 1962. Since the early 1980's, Almond Valley Heritage Trust has assembled a wide-ranging museum collection illustrating the story of this unique and pioneering Scottish industry.
Morag's Milk Bar
Since I was moving on to lunch in Edinburgh after my visit to the Heritage Centre, I didn't actually go into the attractive Morag's Milk Bar - though a scrutiny of the menu was tempting! There was a wide range of sandwiches, baguettes, baked potatoes with a choice of fillings, "toasties" and drinks. Despite the many young customers, the menu proclaimed "we are proud not to serve chips" (known as French fries in some parts of the world.
So, despite being qualified to get in at "senior citizen" rates, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Almond Valley Heritage Centre. It was entertaining as well as informative and - most important from my point of view - allowed me to take a lot of photographs. So of course there is a Windows Media Video Slide Show if you want to have a look. Most of my videos are now also on YouTube - this slide show is at YouTube - Almond Valley Heritage Centre.
If you want to read the other Diary entries going back to 2009, there is an Index page.
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