Outings: Inside the giant doll's-house

Deborah Jackson and family visit the London Toy and Model Museum
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The Independent Culture
A stone's throw from Kensington Gardens, where James Barrie met the boys who inspired him to write Peter Pan, is the London Toy and Model Museum. It is a surprise to find this grandly-named collection squeezed into the various rooms of two Victorian terraces. But the scale of each small gallery is ideal for children: the effect is like stepping into a giant's doll's house.

The museum was founded in 1982 and completely refurbished in 1995, at a cost of pounds 4m to the Japanese corporation which bought it (the company president is a toy collector, with a toy foundation and a children's library in Japan.) The result is a friendly, well designed museum, which takes the visitor on a tour from a first-century Roman gladiator doll made of clay to the robots of the future.

When you've climbed enough stairs and pressed your nose against the last glass cabinet, take the mock elevator for a rooftop view over Baywest, a miniature city where night-time dramas are enacted every half hour. Or let the children loose in the back garden, for free rides on a steam train and a Twenties hand-turned roundabout. Adults can watch in peace from the Conservatory cafe.

The visitors

Author and journalist Deborah Jackson and her husband Paul, a training consultant, took their children, Frances, nine, Alice, six, and Joseph, two.

Frances: I liked the doll's house. It had a switch so you could turn on all the lights in it. And it had a bath and lots of stairs. There was a hole with a switch by the side of it and you turned it on, and the lights came on and you'd see Father Christmas and his sleigh and all the houses and people looking out of them - red, green and black.

I was interested in the man who collected 300 teddy bears. It makes me want to collect some. They labelled one of the bears as Sweep, but it was Sooty.

I liked the steam train because it actually went, with people on it, and all the steam kept on puffing in our faces. I like the miniature trains all running round the track, and the big, big trains with steam and traffic lights which went red and green and the sounds from real trains, so it sounded like they were real. I also liked the miniature city. It's amazing to see what our world looks like to a giant.

Alice: I liked the steam train, which we rode on, because it went inside and outside; and I liked the little trains we watched, which went quickly round when you put some money in the little money hole.

When we saw the miniature village, I could imagine going up the hill and looking at the view.

I liked the doll's houses with the little dolls in, and the little things which go in it, too. I found a Dream Dance Barbie. I liked the new dolls better than the old ones, because they look clean and shiny. And I liked steering the boat - I don't know if it was real, but I think it was.

Joseph: [watching the miniature railway] I want to see Thomas. Lift me up. Here comes Thomas, Mum. It's going through the tunnel now. It's going round and round.

[looking at the modern toys in the display cabinet] I want Power Ranger, Mum. Get it out, get it out.

Deborah: It was fascinating to compare this well organised collection with a recent visit to the toy museum at Bourton-on-the-Water, where visitors roam among the dusty exhibits. The London museum has rejected the hands- on approach for thoughtful cabinet displays - mostly to suit the height of toddlers.

I was drawn to the Doll Room, the Toy Arcade and the Games Room. I enjoyed the detail of older toys, such as the revolving model of animals entering Noah's Ark. I also loved the Peter Pan cabinet, featuring JM Barrie's writing-case and letters, and stage instructions for making Peter fly. Another treat was the palmist hand-reading in the Penny Arcade.

We followed the arrows from room to room, although there is no special order to the galleries. This is deliberate, to reflect the eccentricity of the original museum.

However, a little forethought would have provided an upstairs bathroom for visitors - I had to make a separate trek to the basement with each child.

Paul: It's a really good exhibition. The museum provided lots of nostalgia, reminding me of favourite toys I had played with in the past: the Chad Valley slide projector, for instance; James Bond's Aston Martin model with ejector seat; and the Batmobile with triple-rocket launcher. There were Man from UNCLE toys, just like I had when I was a boy. I could not find a Subbuteo set, though. And I would have liked to have seen some computer games in the Whatever Next gallery. But I was impressed by the working models, especially the mining village and the railway set.

The deal

The London Toy and Model Museum (0171-706 8000) is at 21/23 Craven Hill, London W2 3EN, near Paddington, Bayswater, Lancaster Gate and Queensway Tube stations.

Entrance: adults pounds 4.95, children four-to-16, pounds 2.95, concessions, pounds 3.95, family ticket, pounds 13.50. Excellent ring binder museum programme, pounds 2.50.

Opening times: Every day, 9am-5.30pm, last admissions 4.30pm. Allow two to three hours for a thorough visit.

Access: Tricky. Originally, the museum was on two lower floors and its founders lived over the "shop". When it was converted, the sitting tenants refused to move - their kitchen is where the lift shaft should be. For now, wheelchair access is restricted to the basement and ground floors. "We don't make a charge," said an apologetic receptionist. With small families, it is wise to make your loo stops before embarking on the four steep flights of stairs.

Toilets: Clean and well kept. Baby changing and disabled facilities.

Shop: End of the Pier souvenirs, beautifully presented and cleverly arranged to satisfy the appetites of children who have been salivating at toys through glass for two hours. This is the place to start that teddy bear collection.

Refreshments: Adequate snacks and lunches in the Conservatory cafe.

Attractions: Monthly prize draw to win the Hamleys Toy of the Month. Rooms to hire for children's parties.