When the dragonflies were as big as kestrels

With hindsight, it seems amazing that such a simple idea wasn't thought of earlier: draw on the vast resources and expertise of the BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) in Bristol, combine it with the city's reputation for environmental film expertise and throw in £97m of National Lottery funding. The result? at-Bristol, one of the country's best centres for wildlife, science and entertainment.

In at-Bristol's first year, 810,000 people visited, about 11 per cent more than expected. It is easy to see why. The vast complex, based in the redeveloped docklands of the city centre, comprises three attractions: Wildwalk, where a range of exhibits including creepy-crawlies and a hothouse guides you through the history of evolution; Explore, a converted Great Western Railway goods shed, which houses a mini science museum; and an Imax cinema which shows both wildlife films and scary 3-D flicks for children.

A giant sculpture of a rhinoceros cockroach welcomes you outside Wildwalk, our favourite attraction. It is always lively, with plenty of eye-catching live exhibits, such as poison-arrow frogs, Borneo scorpions and touch-screen gadgets offering fascinating information. Did you know there may be five million trillion species of bacteria or that there were once dragonflies as big as kestrels?

Wildwalk does not have any big animals. Instead it has extraordinary footage of these, drawn from the NHU and independent film-makers. We walked through a botanical hothouse twice, full of rainforest plants, trees and butterflies. Not everything is labelled; instead of reams of information, at-Bristol has enthusiastic zoologists and palaeontologists who roam the complex and answer questions. There is also a good environmental section where you can contact a long list of related organisations. Soon you will also be able to access Arkive, an internet database of endangered species, being trailed as a modern Noah's Ark.

Explore is more science based, with zones dealing with the brain, eyesight, hearing and human growth. I found it more informed and entertaining than the Dome, though its attraction may be stronger for children than adults. I especially enjoyed the virtual sperm journey.

Wildwalk and Explore can each easily take up three hours. There are a couple of drawbacks. The organisers seem to have run out of ideas on the top floor of Explore and we thought the ticket prices at £7.50 for adults and £4.95 for children were a little high, especially as it costs a further £2 to visit the planetarium; tickets for any two attractions and family tickets for all the attractions (£52) offered better value.

Despite these reservations, we enjoyed our day immensely. A lot of poetry is posted around Wildwalk to remind us just how extraordinary this evolution business is. As Ted Hughes put it when eulogising about the jellyfish: it's a delicate job being just a blob.

at-Bristol, Harbourside Bristol BS1 5DB (0845 345 1235; www.at-bristol.org.uk). Open daily, 10am-6pm.

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