London’s museums have lots of oddities in them, but an overstuffed walrus that resembles a blimp has to be one of the best.
As a fan of all chubby animals, I knew when I heard about the ‘Horniman Walrus’ that I needed to see it myself, for my own sake and other Londoners’ – and it definitely did not disappoint.
Humans love to see weird and wonderful creatures, whether they’re live animals at a zoo or a bygone species that has been preserved at a museum.
And while many Londoners might turn to ZSL London Zoo or the Natural History Museum to get their fill, I’d argue that Lewisham’s Horniman Museum and Gardens is not only less crowded but a lot more fun.
Home to exhibitions on everything from hair cuts to declining bird species, this quirky spot is an off-the-beaten-track natural history and anthropology museum in Forest Hill.
There’s lots going on for kids and adults to enjoy, from a petting zoo, butterfly house, aquarium and crazy mini-golf course to collections on musical instruments, clothing and more that you’re allowed to touch.
The chief attraction for many visitors, though, is a gigantic stuffed walrus.
This legendary beast sits at the centre of the Horniman Museum’s extensive taxidermy collection and is famous largely for being a seriously chunky boy.
Now, walruses aren’t exactly known for being skinny creatures, so that’s no surprise of its own accord.
However, what makes the ‘Horniman Walrus’ so special is that he has been overstuffed to the point of looking comically rotund.
Whereas a real-life walrus has wrinkles, the taxidermied version at the Horniman, which is thought to originate from the Hudson Bay area of eastern Canada in the early 19th century, does not.
The Horniman’s website explains: “Over one hundred years ago, relatively few Europeans had ever seen a live walrus, so it is hardly surprising that ours does not look true to life.”
A spokesperson for the Horniman added to MyLondon: “The Horniman Walrus does not have a name – but he is probably a young male and weighs in at just under one tonne.
“He was bought by Museum founder Frederick Horniman in the early 1890s and has been in the Horniman’s Natural History Gallery for over a century.”
Due to his extreme smoothness, roundness and general size, he has become something of an internet sensation, with his fans even setting up a Twitter account for him (@hornimanwalrus).
The Horniman Museum itself has also had a little fun at his expense in the form of a hilarious April Fools Day, that features a photoshopped picture of the blimp-like walrus.
All this was enough to ensure that the first weekend I could, I set off for Forest Hill with the ‘Horniman Walrus’ in my sights and a less enthusiastic companion in tow.
To get there, we took the Victoria Line tube to Brixton, followed by the P4 Bus from outside Brixton Station all the way to the very convenient Horniman Museum stop.
Other buses that stop there include the 185 and 176.
Either way, the stop is right outside the museum’s gardens and only requires a few minutes of walking up a mild hill to get to the main building’s entrance.
Like many cultural spots in London, the Horniman Museum and Gardens is free to enter, though donations are encouraged.
You do need a timeslot to enter, however, we arrived a little earlier than ours and weren’t made to wait.
From here, we followed the signs to the Natural History Gallery.
Though definitely not as massive as the Natural History Museum’s main gallery, this is a substantially sized room with an upper section you can climb to.
All the walls are lined with display cases, showcasing everything from the many, many types of UK owl there are to how dogs evolved into different breeds, illustrated with actual taxidermied dog heads.
In pride of place at the centre of this collection sits the regal Horniman Walrus.
Once inside the Gallery, all you need to do is walk round the front display case – which contains a Dodo, no less – and there he is, sitting there like a very large balloon, on his white iceberg replica.
Even from front, you can see that he’s comically overstuffed.
However, his full size becomes more clear when you walk to the side of him slightly.
Much like the Victorians who overstuffed the Horniman Walrus in the first place, I have never seen a walrus in the flesh and didn’t imagine a teenage one being that much larger than a seal.
This one was clearly fairly chunky to start with, however, all that extra stuffing padding out his wrinkles had turned into even more of a massive, adorable oblong ball.
In fact, I was struck by the thought that he genuinely seemed to be the size of a MINI Cooper.
Having since requested his exact measurements from the Horniman Museum, this turned out to be a reasonably accurate guess.
According to a spokesperson for the museum, his ‘dimensions’ are 1630 mm x 2580 mm x 1400 mm.
A MINI 3-door, by comparison, measures 1414mm x 3821mm x 1727mm.
As for what else you can do in the Horniman, the list is pretty endless.
From here, we moved onto the upstairs gallery, where you get a 360 degree view of the Horniman Walrus, plus a look at lots of fossils, bugs and other cool creatures.
And for the record, though initially reticent to spend their Saturday in museum, the friend who had accompanied me was by this point so overexcited about everything that it was them making sure we saw every last cabinet.
Off the lower corner of the Natural History Gallery, there’s also Nature Base, where signs confirm that you’re allowed to stroke taxidermied animals including a fox and badger and more.
As for the rest of the permanent collections, the Anthropology and Musical Instruments sections are also worth a visit, especially if you like guitars. Which my museum buddy did.
We bypassed the aquarium, which you have to pay extra for.
After this it was through the gift shop – where you can buy some Horniman Walrus memorabilia if you so wish – and onto the neighbouring coffee and cake shop, The Horniman Café, for a snack.
Be warned that a doughnut and iced coffee was fairly pricey at £7.80, though rather delicious.
Closing time was nearing by this point so to make our most of the trip, we whipped round the gardens.
These are extremely picturesque and contain various other activities you can do.
The Animal Walk, which lets visitors have close encounters with a variety of animals from goats, sheep and alpacas to guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens, sounded especially fun, as did the Plonk crazy mini-golf area.
The latter even features a second walrus called Gerald the Crazy Golf Walrus, who is styled after the Horniman’s real-life version.
Unfortunately, they had both closed up for the day by the time we made it to them, though we did spot Gerald, as well as get to play on a set of giant wind chimes.
From this side of the gardens you also get a pretty decent view of the City skyline, which was an unexpected treat.
However, as much else as the Horniman has to offer, there’s a reason the walrus is considered the star of the show.
Having seen him I can confirm that he really needs to be seen to be believed and is likely to continuously pop into your mind for the rest of your life and make you giggle.
Actually, I already want to go back to double check what he looks like in person again.
Find out more about the Horniman Museum and Gardens, on London Road, Lewisham, here.
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