When Hippos Swam in the Thames…

A giant hippo is currently floating in the Thames. It goggly eyes and cartoon curves are a pop-art facsimile of  the real thing. Florentijn Hofman’s HippopoThames is totally unreal and rather improbable. But then the idea that a hippo would make its home outside the Houses of Parliament *is* improbable.


Hippos *did* swim in the Thames. In the last warm-stage of the current Ice Age (we’re in a warm stage now), 125,000 years ago, the same species of hippopotamus that is now only found in Africa lived all over Europe. And that included the UK. Bones of hippos have been found across London, including Trafalgar Square. It lived alongside lions, straight-tusked elephants, hyaenas and rhinos. Yes, once upon a time there Trafalgar Square had actual, real-life lions.


A Hippo tusk from Trafalgar Square, London. (c) Natural History Museum.

I talked about this, and other aspects of prehistoric London, yesterday at a special HippopoThames-linked event at the Doodle Bar in Battersea as part of the Totally Thames Festival. The poet Tom Chivers and Guerrilla Geographer Dan Raven-Ellison spoke as well, and our aim was to explore the changing nature of the River Thames, its natural — and unnatural — history in the past, present and future.

I covered the past. Tom brought us into historical time through poetry inspired by the lost tributaries of the Thames that flow beneath our feet, and the way that the ebb and flow of the Thames has shaped our modern city. His poems were introspective, thoughtful and quite beautiful. Then Dan launched us into the future with his call-to-action to help make his vision of London as the world’s first National Park City, with is rich urban biodiversity and culturally important landscapes.

Together I hope we showed the ever-shifting nature of the River Thames, and challenged simplistic ideas of what ‘natural’ means. But also the Thames’ fundamental importance in making London what is today. And, if course, making HippopoThames that ever-so-slightly less improbable.

Image credit (top): HippopoThames by Florentijn Hofman at Nine Elms on the South Bank © Steve Stills

Tucking Baby Lyuba in for her Journey Home

Mammoths: Ice Age Giants! is over and baby mammoth Lyuba is returning home to the Shemenovsky Institute in the Yamal-Nenets region of Siberia.

Lyuba is an almost perfectly preserved mammoth baby who, despite being healthy and well-cared for (the milk remains in her stomach show she had recently suckled from her mother), met an untimely end when she fell into a quick sand-like bog or pool. That same fate however led to her being so well-preserved, frozen in the permafrost for 42,000 years.

Having been thoroughly scanned, sampled and autopsied in the name of Science, Lyuba was preserved in the same way as Lenin so that she could go on public display. The Natural History Museum was the first time she had gone on display in Western Europe.

You can see me telling CBBC’s Newsround about Lyuba & the Exhibition here.

I wasn’t there when she arrived at the NHM (I was doing publicity for the exhibition on Start the Week instead – see this post), so I missed the emotional unwrapping of Lyuba by Adrian Lister. And even though it was still pretty special to see her even through a glass case, I was frankly rather jealous. I wanted to smell her, and look at her eyelashes, and get a really close look at her exquisite trunk.

So I wangled an invite to her ‘de-install’ on September 8th. Or as I prefer to think of it, the official tucking-up of Lyuba for her journey home.

And she was indeed beautiful, lying in her travelling case amidst layers of protective padding, her eyes closed as if she really was asleep. I can tell you that she didn’t smell at all. Perhaps the faintest hint of Siberian tundra in the summertime, but I may have imagined that.