Lewes, Sussex: Lewes Castle

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Lewes is a town in Sussex that is probably most famous for its exuberant Bonfire Night celebrations (which I’ve never been to, as I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea behind Guy Fawkes Day at the best of times, and people who are really enthusiastic about burning things in effigy kind of freak me out.  Also, fireworks scare me, and I’m terrified of being hit in the eye with a firecracker or something), but the rest of the year, it is a very middle class kind of place (typical of much of the South) with streets lined with antique shops, secondhand bookshops, and even an artisan bakery (which is, regardless of what this may say about me, exactly the sort of place I enjoy, especially the aforementioned bakery.  It’s called Flint Owl Bakery, and the cheese straws and raspberry friands (or butter muffins, as I like to call them) are amazing).  Whew, that was a long run-on sentence.  At any rate, in addition to stuffing myself with pastries, and visiting the shop at Harvey’s Brewery with my boyfriend (since he accompanied me to all the history), I also had time to visit Lewes Castle.

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The castle offers half priced entry for English Heritage members, which they sneakily don’t really mention, I had to ask as I saw it listed in the official English Heritage handbook, but it’s £7 without the discount (they do a combined ticket with Anne of Cleves House, which I’ll discuss in the next post).  The castle itself was built in 1069 by William de Warenne, Norman nobleman and brother-in-law to William the Conqueror, and was the scene of the Battle of Lewes in 1264.

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Seeing the castle pretty much consists of walking up a shit-ton of stairs, and not just any stairs, but really narrow and uneven winding staircases, so this is maybe not the place to go if you have mobility issues.  Personally, I’m fit as a fiddle, but I’m slightly scared of heights, and in particular steep staircases and ladders and stuff where I feel like I might fall and die, so it wasn’t really my cup of tea either, but I persevered (it helped that it wasn’t super busy, so there weren’t people trying to climb up staircases whilst I was going down, or vice versa.  I hate when that happens!).

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On each level of the castle (which was in two separate parts, the Barbican and the Shell Keep), there were small displays about its history, including a really long comic strip about the Battle of Lewes (which was useful, as I’d never heard of it before; medieval history not really being my thing (aside from the Black Death of course).  It was where Henry III fought a group of barons led by Simon de Montfort).  I also learned that the castle was used as a folly in Georgian times, gotta love those Georgians!

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The views from the top were of course pretty spectacular, since the castle is the highest point in Lewes, and looks out over the South Downs, for all that it was kind of a bitch to get up there.

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I think I enjoyed the Barbican more than the Shell Keep because they had some games that were undoubtedly intended for children, but as there were none around, I took control of the medieval crane and built a kick-ass castle of my own.  They also had a huge chest of dress-up stuff.

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After finishing with the castle (which didn’t take that long to see, sans all the climbing, as there wasn’t really that much information inside), we headed over to the small museum next door, in the building where we bought tickets.  This was mainly on archeological digs in Lewes and around Sussex – lots of prehistoric and Roman rusty things that I was not super interested in.  They had a map of all the discoveries in the area on the wall, but the coolest stuff wasn’t in their collection, like a creepy stone face-thing.  They did have a Roman milestone, which was neat.

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The upstairs part was slightly better, as it had some cool Georgian jugs and other (relatively) more recent artefacts, in addition to an extensive display on medieval life in Lewes based on some of the things they’d dug up.

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In keeping with the general ambiance of Lewes, there was a secondhand bookshop in the museum that specialised in local history books, and a gift shop that had an excellent magnet featuring the Lewes Martyrs being burnt at the stake, but that was all there was to the complex.  I did like exploring the castle, especially as it felt mostly untouched, but the museum wasn’t the greatest, and I left feeling glad we got the discount, as I would have been slightly salty about paying full price for what was on offer, so I’ll give it a middling 3/5.

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I can’t leave Lewes (even though I’m coming back to it next time) without mentioning that Thomas Paine, the writer and philosopher so beloved of the fathers of the American Revolution, lived here for about a decade.  As an American who loves history, I was super excited to learn this, and made sure to grab a picture with his commemorative plaque.  There’s also a pub called the Rights of Man after one of his most famous works (save Common Sense of course) across the street.  I didn’t have a chance to stop in, but it’s a Harvey’s pub (naturally) with an excellent sign featuring his portrait and his giant out-of-proportion hand.  This isn’t really relevant to the post, but I thought it was a point of interest, especially for American history buffs.

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London: Florence Nightingale Museum

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In carrying on with my newfound habit of paying to visit London museums (because I’ve exhausted most of the free options, not because I’m rolling in the dough, because I am still completely broke.  If any museums would like to give me a free ticket, it would be much appreciated!), I went to the Florence Nightingale Museum, which set me back 7 quid.  You all probably know by now how much I love medical history, but I had put off visiting Florence’s museum as I’d always thought of her as an unpleasant old biddy, moaning about the modern world from the comfort of her bed.  On reflection, however, that is not dissimilar from what I do (although not being an invalid, I usually at least park my ass on the couch to write these things), so maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on her.

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The museum, at least, was not at all what I was expecting.  I don’t know why, but I imagined it as being a musty old attic stuffed with taxidermy and medical apparatuses, kind of like the Old Operating Theatre (and since that’s what I genuinely pictured, it makes it even more perplexing that I hadn’t already visited, since that is exactly the kind of thing I love), but it’s actually in a nondescript (I’m being nice here, honestly, it’s ugly) building on the edge of St Thomas’s Hospital, that looks more like a parking garage than a museum.   Inside though, is another story, as they’ve managed to completely transform the small space.

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The room was set up in three “pavilions,” each a circular space covering a different part of Florence’s life.  It actually felt similar to a Bompas and Parr installation I went to a few years ago (and I mean this in a good way); something about all the fake grass and sound effects I guess.  This set-up is quite useful for people like me who always seem to end up walking around a museum the wrong way, since as long as you visit the pavilions in the correct order (and they even give you a map), you can’t screw things up too badly (though I think I still managed to walk around one of them in the wrong direction; in my defence, I’ve always been rubbish at reading maps).  I started with the grassy one, which had birdsong in the background, and was about Florence’s early life.

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Though I was already aware of Florence’s privileged upbringing, I did not know that she nearly married a sadist (not in terms of his personality, as he remained her good friend throughout his life, but sexually) – the Lord Houghton, pictured above, who apparently was a huge fan of the Marquis de Sade, and had an enormous pornography collection.  This section also held the object I was most looking forward to seeing (and probably the reason I was expecting all kinds of taxidermy), Florence’s pet little owl (that is actually what they’re called, and she was indeed quite small) Athena, who was adorable.

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The next section was all about Florence making a name for herself during the Crimean War, and becoming known as the “Lady with the Lamp” (yes, they had a lamp there that she was meant to have carried, it’s in the left corner of the second picture above).  These walls were decked out in blue and white Islamic style tiles and bandages, and this “pavilion” had a good selection of various medical implements and other items used during her time in the Crimea.  Interestingly, although Florence and her handpicked crew of nurses worked tirelessly with the soldiers, suffering through crappy conditions and ugly uniforms (I’m only being a bit facetious here, they REALLY hated their uniforms), the death rates actually rose after their arrival, as this was a good twenty years before germ theory, and the hospital was built over a cesspool.  It was only when a proper drainage system was installed that the mortality rates declined.

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There were also some figurines and other objets d’art made to commemorate her service during the war, items that Florence herself hated.  She was not at all a fan of the attention lavished on her, as she would rather the energy go to improving conditions for soldiers and training more nurses.  She did agree to sit for a portrait and a photograph at Queen Victoria’s request, but otherwise wasn’t keen.  It probably didn’t help that she had picked up a long-lasting bug in the Crimea, making her extra-cranky and bed-bound much of the time (probably brucellosis, though the jury is still out).

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The final section was about this last part of Florence’s life, when she became a medical crusader and writer, despite not being able to personally go out and do much herself.  It was made of up cabinets, some of which had drawers that opened, and included a couple of her dresses, and an impressive gathering of pictures of her (considering her reluctance to pose for them), which showed how much she aged during the war, and her progress towards becoming a rather plump old lady (she lived to be 90, which is remarkable given the state of her health).  There was also a special exhibition on, about nursing during WWI, in a small annex off the main room, with a few informational signs and pictures – this was interesting, but could easily be seen in just a few minutes.

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Though the museum was small, and perhaps not worth 7 pounds, I do give them a lot of credit for the layout, which was clever and fun, and made exploring the museum feel like a bit of an adventure (and also helped to make things more private, as the other visitors were usually hidden behind walls – always a plus for this misanthrope)!  I managed to learn a few new things about Florence, and I did love cute little Athena, since I’m a total sucker for owls.  I will say that there is no pleasant way of getting to this museum, which is not really their fault, but: I decided to walk there from Waterloo, as it’s sort of between Waterloo, Lambeth North, and Westminster.  I don’t think I’d ever turned left on York Road before, but it is a hideous street, full of car rental places.  When I left the museum, I walked up to Westminster instead, as it seemed closer, but that involved crossing Westminster Bridge, which was so full of slow-moving American tourists that I wanted to scream.  They were all taking pictures of Big Ben whilst sticking a hand out towards it.  Is that a thing I’m not aware of, like pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa?  I don’t know, whatever they were doing, it was annoying, and they need to move their asses out of the way.

So maybe I am kind of like Florence, only without having accomplished anything, which I suppose gives me even less right to complain than she had (but doesn’t mean I’m going to stop).  Judging by the fact that all the other visitors appeared to be American tourists when I was there, I think this place does a fairly good job of picking up some of the spillover tourist trade from Westminster, which is probably what the ticket prices are geared towards.  Enjoyable, and better in many ways than I was expecting, but I’m not convinced it’s worth the price of admission.  3/5

 

London: The Foundling Museum

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I think I’ve been to most of the free museums in London, so it’s time to suck it up and start working my way through some of the ones that charge admission, despite my very limited budget.  To that effect, I went to check out the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury a few weeks ago (£7.50 for admission, closed Mondays).  The Foundling Museum was established to house the collections of the former Foundling Hospital (now known as Coram).  A foundling hospital was similar to an orphanage, the difference being that “foundlings” were children whose parents were alive, but unable to care for them for one reason or another (poverty, illness, etc), as opposed to orphans, whose parents were dead.  Because of that aspect of the Hospital, much of its collection is naturally quite poignant.

I was advised to start on the ground floor, in the gallery that detailed the history of the Foundling Hospital.  It was founded by philanthropist Thomas Coram in 1739, and began accepting children in 1741, although the hospital building itself wasn’t completed until 1745.  In the early years, parents who left their children at the home were encouraged to leave a token with them, so if they were able to support the child at a later date, there would be a way of claiming them (sadly, the children weren’t allowed to keep the tokens, as they were put in safekeeping in case the parents returned).  These were usually coins or other small objects, often engraved with the name of the child (which was changed when the child became a foundling, so they could start a new life) and their birth date – the museum has a case full of them.  Beginning in the late 18th century, a system of  paper “receipts” was instituted instead, rendering the tokens obsolete (which I suppose is an unsentimental way of putting it).  Due to the poverty that was rampant in Georgian and Victorian London, there was more demand than there were places (as in a pre-birth control era, the only alternative for destitute parents was infanticide), so a lottery system was instituted – only those who drew a white ball would have their children accepted.

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For the children who were accepted into the home, life would be strictly regulated and spartan, but at least they were well-fed and educated, and had somewhere warm to sleep.  To illustrate this, the museum had a collection of the children’s utilitarian uniforms, which changed little over the centuries, and some schedules of their daily routine (the focus gradually changed from simply learning to read and practice a trade to a more well-rounded education including things like mathematics and geography, and of course, a hefty dose of religious education), and menus (a fairly basic diet, though not quite as much gruel as you might expect.  It was certainly a better life than a workhouse, even if the children were required to be silent during meals, and most other times).  Some of the children were eventually reclaimed by their parents when their income improved, as evidenced by a few leaving reports, but most of the children were there until they were apprenticed out around the age of 14; boys would learn a trade or join the military, and girls were usually put into domestic service.  Although this all sounds rather grim, there were many foundlings who went on to lead successful lives, with opportunities they may well not have had without the benefit of the education provided at the Foundling Hospital – some of their testimonials can be found in the museum.

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William Hogarth had close ties with the hospital, as he and his wife often took in foster children, and he helped the hospital out whenever he could through donations and raffles, which is how the museum ended up with the splendid The March of the Guards to Finchley (seen above).  They also have a few other Hogarths, mainly paintings of the hospital’s physicians, and lots of 19th century art, my favourite pieces being those by Emma Brownlow, who was a daughter of one of the hospital’s directors, and thus got an insider’s look at things, painting the children in various scenes of Foundling Hospital life.

George Frideric Handel, the composer, was another supporter, leaving the hospital £1000 in his will (the equivalent of around £70,000 in today’s money) in addition to the score of Messiah so the hospital could carry on with benefit concerts (he also hosted these concerts in his lifetime, raising the equivalent of an additional half a million pounds for the hospital).  Today, there is a small upstairs gallery devoted to Handel’s life and involvement with the hospital (and some neat grandfather clocks on the stairs leading up to it).  There are also a few rooms that re-create what the hospital would have looked like in the 18th century, with portraits and even an old ceiling brought in, as the current building only dates back to the 1930s.

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The museum also has a couple galleries for temporary art exhibitions – lucky for me, the current one is based around something I love, Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress.  In addition to the prints of Hogarth’s original, they had four modern artists interpret the theme.  My regular readers will know that I do not care for modern art, generally speaking, but this wasn’t bad.  I’m not a David Hockney fan, and his prints were probably my least favourite, as I didn’t really get what the hell was going on, and Jessie Brennan’s prints of council estates weren’t really to my taste, but I could see how other people would like them.  Yinka Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy didn’t seem to offer any great insight beyond commenting on race and colonialism by making Hogarth’s Rake black, but they were playful and I enjoyed looking at them.  I was most surprised by Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences, which were housed in their own small, and very crowded downstairs gallery, as I’ve never been particularly impressed by Perry when he’s on TV and such, but I really did like it.  The tapestries were colourful and pretty awesome looking, and I think the subject matter (social mobility) was interesting and relevant to the museum’s subject matter (please excuse my lame commentary, I’m not an art critic so I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about, just going by what I like!).

Although I wasn’t expecting so much of the museum’s collections to be art-based, I liked that the temporary exhibits all revolved around a central theme (it helps that the theme was based on Hogarth’s work, woot), which gave everything a nice cohesiveness, and even the permanent artwork wasn’t half bad.  I definitely enjoyed the section on the history of the Foundling Hospital the most though, as that was the whole reason I wanted to visit the museum in the first place.  The story of the children whose parents were forced by circumstance to give them up is a fascinating, albeit emotional one, and the museum does a good job of telling it.  4/5.

 

Brighton, East Sussex: Booth Museum of Natural History

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So a Sunday walk of the Devil’s Dyke in the South Downs somehow turned into a trip to Brighton to get ice cream (I say somehow, but obviously if I’m in the proximity of delicious ice cream, I’m stopping), where we happened to drive past the Booth Museum on the way, and decided to pop in for a visit (my boyfriend was sure I’d enjoy it, due to it being a collection of Victorian taxidermy).  I’m glad we did, because not only does it give me something else to blog about, it was quite a nice little museum.

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Admission is free, and the interior was pleasingly deserted, save for the cases of dead animals stacked four high that lined the walls of the museum.  These animals were mainly birds, because Edward Thomas Booth had a real bird obsession.  He apparently got kicked out of school because all he wanted to do was go shooting and study birds, so he devoted his life to his passion, becoming a pioneer of Victorian taxidermy as one of the first taxidermists to arrange animals in a natural setting.  His work with birds was indeed superb, and the only ones that suffered from derpy face syndrome are the birds that would naturally do so anyway.

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However, he was evidently less successful at mammals, as evidenced by the lion head on the right, which has to be the most melancholic lion I’ve ever seen (though really, why shouldn’t he be depressed?).  I LOVE derpy taxidermy, so I was definitely a big fan of Mr. Mopey Lion and the Tasmanian Devil at the start of the post.  Not that I didn’t enjoy the birds as well, particularly the splendid and varied tits on the back wall (teehee).

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Although birds made up the bulk of the collection, there were a few galleries hidden in the back about evolution and rocks and things.  If I wasn’t already won over by sad lion, I definitely was when I saw they gave a tongue-in-cheek nod to Just So Stories when explaining why elephants have trunks (I made my grandpa read me the story of how the camel got his hump every single day for a good few years as a child, because he did the best grumpy camel voice (and for some reason he went along with it, probably because he was awesome) and I am inordinately fond of Just So Stories as a result).  They also get props for hiding the bug gallery in its own section in the middle of the museum, so you didn’t have to walk through it if you didn’t want to (and I most certainly didn’t want to, stupid gross butterflies).

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I also really liked the re-creation of a Victorian parlour – excepting the butterfly case, it contained the kind of furniture and antique taxidermy I’d love to have in my own parlour (if I ever have a parlour), especially the lovely owl and fox, and the random scary monkey head on the wall.

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They even had a Feegee mermaid in there (based off of P T Barnum’s famous creation of a monkey head grafted onto a fish); the whole museum was like some grand taxidermied tribute to the Victorian era.  It was pretty fantastic.

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So, if you love Victorian taxidermy as much as I do, I highly recommend this charming little museum (I would say it’s probably not worth the trip on its own, but there’s so much to do in Brighton that you’d have absolutely no trouble filling up the rest of your day).  It’s sort of halfway between Brighton and Hove, so you can easily stop off in Brighton for ice cream and such, as we did (my favourite shop is Scoop and Crumb; their flavours are always changing, but they’re always delicious), but do check the museum’s website as their opening hours are slightly erratic (they close for lunch and stuff).  4/5.

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Liverpool, UK: Merseyside Maritime Museum and the Museum of Liverpool

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Ah, Liverpool.  Home of The Beatles and technically, the Titanic (though she launched from Southampton, Liverpool was registered as her home port).  As the city was only one stop of many on this road trip, my time there was limited, so this will only be a partial review of these museums, since I didn’t have a chance to explore them as thoroughly as I normally would.  I go to a lot of maritime themed museums, so I probably would have felt safe skipping the Merseyside Maritime Museum, had it not been home to the Border and Customs Museum, which resides in a corner of the Merseyside Museum’s basement.

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I think I was expecting something slightly more awesome, based on the description in the outdated, but still quite useful Weird Europe guidebook, like maybe all the really unusual things that have been confiscated by customs over the years – there was some of that, but not to the extent I was hoping.  I don’t know, I mean, it was perfectly fine, just not quite what I anticipated, which is probably my own fault.  It did kind of feel like a “what not to do” guide for potential smugglers, with a few games to see how well you could identify suspicious behaviour. However, aside from a case of exotic (dead) animals that had been smuggled in, and a prosthetic leg that had been used to hide drugs, most of the prohibited items  on display were mundane things like counterfeit bags and shoes.

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Fortunately, not all was lost, as the other side of the basement contained an exhibit on the immigrant experience, complete with a re-creation of steerage class on a ship, which possibly had authentic smells, it was hard to tell.  Even if it didn’t, odours were available in the customs bit, where you could even smell “faeces” (of course I did, why wouldn’t you?), but when I turned the knob, a puff of some kind of faeces dust went up my nose, so use with care!  All this was just in the basement- the museum had three more floors to explore, but the fact that it was so huge meant that I didn’t have time to give the rest of the museum my full attention.

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I did walk through the International Slave Museum on the third floor, which looked very interesting, and included an example of a slave’s hut.  Even though I’m not really all about the Titanic (my friend and I went to the cinema when the film came out for the sole purpose of making fun of it, and as an excuse to eat ourselves stupid on candy and popcorn of course), I checked out the exhibit on it because, like the Thackray Museum, they had character cards to choose from, so you could see if you would have survived the sinking (I chose wisely), and I love that kind of crap.  I was also quite interested in “Hello Sailor,” an exhibit about homosexuality at sea, as cruise ships often served as a safe haven for gay men back in the middle part of the 20th century.  It included a guide to “Polari,” a special language invented by gay sailors both as a way to identify each other and prevent others from understanding their conversations.

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There were many other galleries that looked fascinating, including ones on the Lusitania, sailing during wartime, and even a special trail you could follow that would take you to all the objects pertaining to the American Civil War, that I would love to go back and check out someday (Liverpool had close ties to the South due to all the American cotton coming through its ports for British mills, as anyone who’s read Gone with the Wind knows, so I bet there was some cool stuff in their collections), but I also wanted to see a bit of the Museum of Liverpool, so I headed over there instead.

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The museums are just across the river from each other; the Museum of Liverpool in some fancy modern glass construction, with an awful lot of steps winding round the interior.  The museum focuses on the non-maritime side of life, primarily the former and present inhabitants of the city, which means of course, The Beatles.  I like The Beatles just fine, but I wouldn’t say I’m suffering from any kind of “Beatlemania,” so I was content just to look at what they had in the museum rather than go on one of the full-fledged Beatle tours or something.  We were nonetheless enticed by the Beatle Experience, which takes place on the top floor every half an hour or so, but rather than being some kind of mini-concert involving impersonators or even holograms (that would have been cool) as I was expecting, it was just some informational video projected onto the walls of a round room.  It wasn’t really worth waiting for, but it does give you a chance to check out the stage where John and Paul met, which is kept inside the room.

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They had more Beatles memorabilia outside, like a set of their suits, and a quilt that John and Yoko slept under when they were doing their protest for peace and stayed in bed for a hella long time, but if you really want to get a proper Beatles experience, I think you’d be better off on one of the aforementioned tours of Liverpool.  Most of the rest of that gallery was devoted to other stars of Liverpool – a few actors, and quite a few sports stars.

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The other half of the top floor was about Liverpool life, and my favourite things were a large model of the Liverpool Anglican cathedral, which is apparently super huge in real life, a small replica of a working class Victorian street (which had a stuffed cat, and an outhouse that made farting noises when you touched the door and told you to go away, loved it!), and a little quiz about the Scouse accent, which I found hilarious and informative.  The floor below this appeared to be a timeline of the city, with an old train you could climb into and stuff, but I gave it the most cursory of glances in our (unsuccessful) attempt to get back to the mega-expensive carpark before we got charged for another hour.

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Bottom floor was a crazy mix of objects from Liverpool’s history, as well as a section on immigration that also appeared to have neat stuff in it.  I feel bad that I didn’t get to really appreciate everything, but both the museums were massive and free, and I’d love to go back and investigate them more thoroughly in future, in addition to checking out some of Liverpool’s many other museums.  4/5 for both.

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Keswick, Cumbria: The Pencil Museum

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After my successful trips to the Pen Room and the Museum of Everyday Life (the latter had a special exhibit on pencils), I was very keen indeed to visit the Pencil Museum in Cumbria.  I love the quirkiness of museums that focus intensely on one mundane object (and I was planning on seeing the Lawn Mower Museum as well, but it was closed without warning on the day I attempted to visit), so I had high hopes for this little museum.  However, I was instantly irritated when we pulled into the extremely full carpark and were met with a hefty £4 parking fee from a machine that didn’t take notes or cards (do people really just travel around with that much change at all times in this day and age? I sure don’t), so we had to backtrack to a supermarket to get change before we could even park (in retrospect, we should have just left the car in the supermarket parking lot and walked to the museum, but I was too annoyed at the time for logic).  The museum does refund £1.50 of the parking fee with admission to the museum, which I guess they don’t have to do since they don’t own the carpark, but it still seems ridiculous to have a flat parking rate that high in a random village (on top of parking, it’s another £4.25 for admission).

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The museum is not large, as you can probably tell from the first picture, and about half the space is taken up by a gift shop + cafe, leaving the rest of the museum crammed into one large room.  You do enter the museum via a reproduction of a graphite mine, which I appreciated, but there were no authentic smells or anything.  The museum covers the history of pencils, in particular their connection to Keswick, and explains the details of pencil manufacturing.  Basically, the first graphite pencils were made in Keswick because of a large graphite mine discovered in Cumbria, in nearby Borrowdale; until the advent of artificial graphite in the late 18th century, that mine was the sole source of this material.  Over the years, the factory has changed hands (and names) several times, and is actually no longer in Keswick, having moved to Lillyhall in 2008, but the museum remains.

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Besides the history lesson, there were of course lots of pencils.  They actually had the same decorative display cases as the Pen Room, containing artistic arrangements made of pencils, and even one made of pen nibs (exactly like the one in the Pen Room).  The Cumberland factory seems to be mainly known for their Derwent line of coloured pencils, so there were a lot of sets of those knocking about the place (oddly, even their regular pencils appear to be made without erasers, which makes it strange that they included the famous saying about mistakes being why pencils have erasers, in a wall of pencil quotes at the start.  They gave us a free souvenir pencil with admission, which was also sadly eraserless).

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The world’s largest coloured pencil, in yellow, was hanging on the wall, which I guess is notable if you like giant versions of things, but one of the most fascinating exhibits was the one about wartime pencils, and the special ones created with a hollow space inside that could be used to hide maps or compasses.  Thousands of pencils were produced that contained maps of Europe, and distributed to troops during WWII, though only ten sets of them are currently known to remain in existence, one of which was of course in the museum.

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They also had a very luxe pencil (a sexy pencil, I’d say) that was created for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee a few years ago, with a top shaped like a crown that was made of diamonds (I still think an eraser would be more useful, but what do I know?).  In keeping with the extremely British theme, there was a model of Tower Bridge, made (naturally) of pencils.

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And there was a collection of pencil carvings, made by a man who was somehow able to sculpt the pencil tips into amazing tiny figures.  The museum provided a magnifying glass for studying them in depth, but you might be able to make out a man lifting a barbell and a tiny elephant in the picture on the right.  The museum of course also included the almost obligatory Mr. Rogers-esque video on pencil production, which was kind of mesmerising, and a clip of the Snowman, which was drawn using Cumberland brand pencils (I’ve always hated the Snowman because of that horrible song and also because it’s sad, but I know it’s a Christmas tradition for a lot of British people).

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I should confess that I hate using pencils, particularly the normal, non-mechanical variety, as the sound of the wood rasping against the paper if the tip isn’t perfectly sharp sets my teeth on edge, and the metal bit on the end scraping when the eraser gets worn down is even worse, but I don’t think my dislike of the central subject of this museum has influenced my opinion of the place (after all, I loved the Pen Room, and I suck at using a proper pen with a nib and everything).  I think part of my problem with it was that it was so crowded, which was perhaps to be expected on a bank holiday weekend, but still, it was out of hand for such a small space.  Even if it had been empty, however, it just wasn’t really big enough, and a lot of the items in it had scanty labelling, or no labels at all, so you were just looking at a bunch of generic pencils with no explanation of how they were different from every other pencil.  Plus the whole parking thing was super annoying.  It’s not worth making a special trip for, but is something different to do if you’re bored of just walking around in the Lake District (and there are some spectacular views of Windermere if you drive back south from the museum, so that’s a bonus).  But it’s no Pen Room, and certainly no Museum of Everyday Life – it’s probably best for children, as there’s lots of stuff they can draw or colour, and they get to do a special scavenger hunt.  2.5/5

Leyburn, North Yorkshire: The Forbidden Corner

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The Forbidden Corner is one of my new favourite places (and I mean that literally, I’ve added it to the Favourite Places list and everything!)  Sure, there were too many children there for my taste (to be fair, I am a crab-ass, and any children is too many as far as I’m concerned), and the weather was extremely terrible, but I still had a blast, which means it must have been good.  The Forbidden Corner is hard to describe; it’s kind of like a maze combined with lots of whimsical follies and just random crap, with a slightly sinister haunted house/funhouse vibe, and with some bawdy touches thrown in for good measure – the goal is meant to be to find the exit, but really it’s all about exploring this crazy place.

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It’s in the middle of the lovely Yorkshire countryside, and is easy enough to find if you follow the signs from Leyburn, but the signs do perplexingly allude to a “ticket office” that apparently no longer exists.  Basically, you’re meant to book tickets in advance, which we were totally unaware of, as the website fails to clearly indicate this (sure, they have a button you can click to buy tickets, but so does pretty much every museum – it doesn’t usually mean that you MUST buy advance tickets).  Fortunately, since we visited on such a cold and rainy day, they had room to let us in (I think it helped that we were pretty much the only people there without kids, so they probably figured we wouldn’t take that long), but you may not be as lucky, so do book to guarantee that you won’t end up sad and disappointed.  It’s £11 per person, not sure if they offer any kind of discount for booking online.

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Now, this is a bit of a tricky one to write about, since most of the fun is in being surprised, and experiencing the place for yourself, so I’m going to try to give a very generic overview, and only show pictures that don’t give too much away.  First of all, even if it’s not raining, wellies and some sort of waterproof jacket might not be a bad idea, because you WILL get wet.  There are lots of fountains and other things that unexpectedly squirt you throughout, and you won’t manage to avoid all of them.  Since I don’t actually own a waterproof jacket myself (yes, I do live in Britain), I had to borrow my boyfriend’s, which was probably good as it provided extra coverage.

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Even from the start, you’re faced with choices, as there are three different doors you can enter the maze from, and each will lead you down a different path.  When I say maze, I don’t mean that in the traditional labyrinth sense, though there actually is a hedge maze within the larger maze, but this is far more involved, as the paths all cross each other, and you traverse through various buildings and passageways on your journey.  I’m fairly sure we ended up going through things backwards, though I’m not convinced there’s necessarily a right way to take (I’m only going by the fact that we found the grotto near the beginning, when I think you’re not meant to find it til near the end).

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They give you a brochure when you enter that has objects you’re meant to check off as you find them (though as they didn’t provide pencils or pens, we had to mentally check them); I think in theory finding everything will mean you’ve seen the whole Forbidden Corner, and there were at least two that we never managed to locate.  There’s also very cryptic clues along the way that I kept forgetting to read, which is a shame as they might have been of some use in finding the exit.

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I’m really struggling not to give too much away, because I feel like I can’t properly convey how awesome this place was without describing it a bit.  I have to say that my favourite parts were probably the aforementioned grotto, and the mausoleum; we were the only visitors in there at the time, I guess because it was probably too scary for most children (it was super “haunted,” as the gate warned us, kind of a Yorkshire take on Disneyworld’s Haunted Mansion, so yeah, awesome).

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It’s meant to take a good few hours to make your way through; we left after about two hours because we were so cold and wet, but I could have easily spent most of the day there (as it is, I’ll have to go back to try to find the proper exit)!  It’s so bizarre, and I genuinely think adults will appreciate it just as much as (if not more than) children, as they’ll get all the little jokes and bawdy humour (speaking of, be sure to use the set of toilets in the parking lot…men will especially enjoy the murals above the urinals (not that I went in there myself of course…ok, maybe I peeked in after my boyfriend made sure there was no one inside)).  I don’t think it would be great for very young kids at any rate, as a lot of them seemed to be scared and crying, but I’m sure older kids would love it, even if they don’t “get” everything (it was originally built as a private maze for the owner’s friends and family, which I think explains a lot).  There is also a fair amount of walking, and some quite steep and slippery steps, so also take those things into consideration if you visit.

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But yeah, the Forbidden Corner is awesome, and I’m sorry I’m being so cryptic about it, but I hope if you visit, and you have an open mind and a sense of humour, you will really love it as much as I did.  It was so much fun to explore, and I hope I can go back someday to find all the things I missed.  5/5.

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Knaresborough, North Yorkshire: Mother Shipton’s Cave

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Mother Shipton’s Cave bills itself as the “England’s oldest visitor attraction,” and I am the most recent sucker in the centuries-long tradition of visiting this tourist trap – overpriced or not, I wanted the Mother Shipton’s experience.  The main draw of Mother Shipton’s (and I suspect the real reason why the area became a tourist attraction in the first place, since the story of Mother Shipton is heavily mythologised, if not outright made-up) is the petrifying well that turns objects to stone thanks to the extremely high mineral content of the water, but they’ve attempted to turn it into a whole complex with a small museum, wishing well, a few playgrounds, and a forest full of random wood carvings.

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Admission is £6 per person, with an additional £2 charge for parking, which I suppose isn’t really too extortionate, even though the well itself feels like the type of thing you should be able to see for free.  The area is extremely pretty, as is all the countryside in North Yorkshire, so at the very least you get a scenic walk out of the experience.  And it is a fair walk from the parking lot down to the well and cave area – be forewarned that the only toilets in the place are right near the chequerboard patterned entrance (many of the houses in the village seem to share this chequerboard motif, which I found rather charming).

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On the way, you’ll find lots of logs and stumps with faces carved into them – I guess to make the forest seem more darkly atmospheric.  It was of course raining during our visit, but the leaves were thick enough overhead to provide a protective canopy.  The forest includes unusually tall beech trees that thrive from growing on the banks of the Nidd (the river that feeds the well).

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The well itself is very, um, petrifying.  The lumps sticking out the side are apparently a top hat and bonnet belonging to a pair of Victorians, which have since grown into the stone.  You’ll notice there are things hanging from the side, mostly small teddy bears, which they sell online once petrified, though curiously, not in the shop, at least on the day I visited.  Celebrities (well, mostly very minor celebrities, like soap stars and the cast of Blue Peter) frequently are permitted to hang choice objects from the side, which end up in the small museum, but not so for us ordinary folk, which is where I think they’re missing a trick.  I’m sure that people would be thrilled to create their own petrified objects (the process takes about 3-6 months, so perhaps people could leave their address and have their stuff sent to them once petrified) for a small fee – I know I would!

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There’s a cave nearby with a Mother Shipton statue in the back – this is where Mother Shipton was supposedly born, as her teenage mother had fled to the cave to give birth, rather than be forced by the midwife to reveal the name of the baby’s father.  Again, this is all just based on local folklore, but they flesh out the story in some detail via a audio guide mounted in the cave.  Poor Mother Shipton just happened to look exactly like a fairytale witch, with a nose and chin so pointy that they almost touched.  The audio guide included some of Mother Shipton’s prophecies (which is her main claim to fame, though most of them seem to have been written centuries after she was meant to have lived) – she was allegedly visited by a few of Henry VIII’s cronies, and accurately predicted their deaths (though she doesn’t appear to have given them any information regarding that which might have been useful to their avoiding execution) and the 1665 plague, which really doesn’t seem like that much of a challenge, even if true.  I mean, Henry VIII obviously liked to turn against friends and wives and have them killed, and the plague was always reoccurring in England, so she really didn’t have to have any “powers” to come up with this crap.

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There’s a wishing well hidden round the side of the well, with very specific instructions.  You must dunk your right hand in the extremely cold water, and then let it dry naturally – my hand felt as though it was about to drop off from frostbite, which I guess would be my own stupid fault for buying into it.  My wish hasn’t come true yet, so I can’t say what I wished for, or whether the well works (yeah, I’m definitely not superstitious).

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And then there is the very small museum/gift shop, which had the Aladdin soundtrack playing when I was inside (bonus!).  It holds a few cases of petrified objects, mostly, as I said, from “celebs” I’d never heard of, but there was a shoe belonging to Queen Mary (wife of George V), Agatha Christie’s purse, and John Wayne’s hat.

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And there were a few life-size tableaux round the corner of notable locals; some random local politician, a very tall blind man who worked as a guide in Mother Shipton’s Cave (pictured above), and once again, Mother Shipton herself.

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Aside from the couple “adventure” playgrounds for children (which looked like very standard playgrounds to me), and a small cafe, that was pretty much all there was to Mother Shipton’s (and of course, those adorable ducklings in the river), so it really doesn’t take more than an hour to see, and that’s assuming you stand there and listen to all the audio information down by the well.  It’s not a terrible stop if you’re in the area, and want to see the original British tourist trap and some petrified crap (which is not necessarily an unworthy goal), but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.  Very lovely area though, I will give it that.  3/5

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London: Eltham Palace

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With nothing better to do of a Sunday, I decided we should visit Eltham Palace, another English Heritage property, because I’m really putting that membership card to work (and the guy who sold us the membership hyped the place up).  Eltham Palace is in Greenwich, so I was thinking I could swing by the market and grab one of my beloved Brazilian churros, but it turns out that whilst Eltham Palace is technically in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, it’s about 4 miles away from the nice bit with the market and all the museums, so it’s about as much in Greenwich proper as Lewisham is.   So I was already kind of annoyed when we rocked up and had to pay for parking, which the website assured me would be refunded upon admission, only to see a giant “No Refunds” sign in the carpark.  I believe this was because they were having a “selected special event” in the form of their annual Art Deco Fair which meant the Great Hall was full of stalls selling antiques that I didn’t want and couldn’t afford even if I did.  Real special.  Like all English Heritage properties, there were people hanging around trying to foist memberships on people, and even having membership already isn’t enough to deter them, as they still ask you more than once (if you haven’t yet been suckered into joining, it’s £10.20 for admission to Eltham).  There is also no photography permitted inside the house, which I suspect has nothing whatsoever to do with preservation, as plenty of properties of a similar age and older allow flashless photography, but is a ploy to try to sell guidebooks.  Also like most of their properties, Eltham Palace has limited signage, forcing reliance on their extraordinarily long-winded audioguide, yet another attempt to sell guidebooks (I’m becoming increasingly cynical about English Heritage; visiting three of their properties in rapid succession has tipped me over the edge).

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Though Eltham Palace’s tourist literature makes quite a stink about Eltham being one of Henry VIII’s palaces (the original property was built around the 13th century, acquired by the future (ill-fated) Edward II in 1305, and added onto by subsequent monarchs), you’d never know it when visiting the property.  The Eltham Palace of today revolves around a house tacked onto the Great Hall by the Courtaulds (of Institute of Art and Gallery fame) in the 1930s, which is entirely done up in an Art Deco style.  Art Deco isn’t really my favourite style (I find circular furniture really off-putting for some reason), but the home was reasonably attractive, even though all trace of its medieval past (save for the Great Hall) had been eliminated.  The focal point of the house is the circular living room, with wings radiating out from that centre room.  There was some exquisite paneling on the walls, with some Romans in the living room, and animals with delightful expressions in the dining room.

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Virginia’s boudoir (which was really more of a sitting room than a boudoir) was also quite nice, there was some neat Kew Gardens wallpaper in Stephen’s bedroom, and I did like the Great Hall even though it had been restored by Stephen Courtauld, who had more of a Hollywood interpretation of medieval architecture than a historically accurate one, but it did feel like we were only getting to see a small number of the rooms in the house.  All the modcons of the house were firmly drilled into us via the audioguide, as they had underfloor heating (which is a hell of a lot better than the crappy radiators my flat has, 80 years on), electric fireplaces, and special spotlights built into the beamed ceilings to better highlight the couple’s art collection, but the most whimsical feature was the cage built to house the couple’s pet lemur, Mah-Jonng (obviously long-deceased, but they had stuffed lemurs hidden in unexpected places throughout the house, which I thought was cute).  I was glad that there was at least a small sign in each room with information about it, as it was better than suffering through the interminable audioguide, but it still wasn’t really enough, particularly as they never even made clear who exactly the Courtaulds were (other than involved in the film industry, and extremely rich).

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The gardens at Eltham are meant to be quite famous, and they were nice, but we had to circle the property a few times before we could figure out how to access them (via stone steps through an archway).  We visited on a cold and slightly rainy day, so they’re probably nicer when it’s not quite so cold and muddy, but there were still quite a few flowers in bloom.  I did think it odd how even in the gardens, it was difficult to get a good view of the palace from the front; it was like the grounds had somehow been contrived to keep you from getting too close to the estate, and created the impression that there were parts of the property we were somehow missing (though I’m fairly sure we saw everything that was open to the public).  Again, I was struck by how completely the medieval palace had been wiped from history; for all that elements of it were supposedly incorporated into the gardens, English Heritage made no mention of it anywhere on the site.

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Since it was free with our membership (except for the stupid parking; it was only 2 quid but it’s the principle of the thing), I don’t regret visiting, but if I had to pay a tenner, I would have been super annoyed, as I think what we saw was only worth about half that (at least Down House has a museum in the upper floor, so you actually leave feeling you’ve learnt something, rather than leaving perplexed about what happened to the medieval palace, as I did here).  Also, be forewarned that for some weird reason, in addition to being shut all winter, Eltham Palace is also closed on Friday and Saturday, so you’ll have to make any weekend visits on a Sunday.  It’s certainly a remarkable example of an Art Deco home, but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.  3/5.

 

Kent, UK: Dover Castle

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After a short drive down the coast from Walmer, we found ourselves at Dover Castle, another English Heritage property, hence another chance to get our money’s worth out of that membership.  If you don’t have a membership pass, Dover Castle is a fairly pricy outing at £17.50.  The castle dates back to the 1160s, during the reign of Henry II, but the oldest buildings on the property are the Roman lighthouse and Anglo-Saxon church.  There are also a series of tunnels; medieval ones under the castle, and a different set that  were constructed for defensive purposes during the Napoleonic Wars, but in more recent history served as the place where “Operation Dynamo,” also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was planned (over 300,000 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk during WWII by a fleet of ships launched from Dover, including many privately owned small craft).

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As directed by the girl working at the admissions desk, we first headed to those tunnels, since they only take groups of thirty people down at a time, to wait in the inevitable queue.  They also only do tours every half an hour, and the first one was already full, so we ended up having to wait about forty minutes for the “Secret Wartime Tunnels Tour.”  If the tour had been good, I wouldn’t have minded the wait, but it turned out to be incredibly lame.  After being shown a short newsreel, and an informational video about Dunkirk that mainly served to showcase some outdated technology, we were ushered down a long tunnel where graphics appeared on the wall to tell the story of Dunkirk; unfortunately, because we were at the back of the group, we couldn’t actually see what was going on.  We were then allowed to wander the last portion of the tunnels on our own, which included the communications rooms and some supposedly haunted messaging room.

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I’m not sure why they made such a fuss about it being a “guided” tour, as the guide’s only purpose seemed to be to hustle us along the tunnel; everything else was done by video.  I’m not really sure why they couldn’t just make the whole thing self-guided to avoid the waits altogether, but whatever, it was lame, and I wouldn’t advise waiting for it.  However, the Underground Hospital Tour didn’t have much of a queue when we were there, so if you want to see something underground, I’d probably go with that one – if it is as bad as the other tour, at least you won’t have wasted as much time, plus it’s a hospital, so might intrinsically be more interesting than some bare tunnels (I’m not knocking Operation Dynamo, I think it’s an incredible story, which is why it’s such a shame that it wasn’t told in a more engaging way).

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We emerged from the tunnels into a gift shop (naturally) and small museum that told the story of the tunnels in more detail, including a collection of British uniforms throughout history.  There were also some splendid views of the coast, and of the famous White Cliffs of Dover from this side.

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We’d passed an ice cream hut on the way down to the tunnels, and far be it from me to pass up an ice cream, so I grabbed a scoop of mint chocolate chip for the trek up to the castle proper (they do have a “land train” available for the elderly/infirm/just plain lazy, but I needed to burn off that ice cream, so we just walked everywhere.  It really wasn’t that far, and was probably faster than waiting for the land train to rock up).  The Great Tower is ringed by a number of small museums, and we decided to start with those first.

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The first museum offered an introduction to the Tower, and a video about the early Plantagenets (until I moved to Britain, I always pronounced Plantagenet with a silent “t,” which I suspect was far too French-leaning of me.  However, I still stubbornly persist in leaving off the “t” in filet, and don’t get me started on the pronunciation of “fete”).  The main reason this museum is noteworthy is because of the little sketches of “Roland the Farter,” the court jester.  Considering many of the visitors to Dover Castle are French (on account of all the ferries and the Channel Tunnel; Dover is so close to France that we could only get French radio stations as we neared the coast), I thought the first cartoon pictured above was delightfully cheeky (as is the second, in a more punny way).  Plus, he’s called Roland the Farter, which is hilarious.

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When we wandered into the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment Museum, I wasn’t expecting much more than a respite from the cold wind that had suddenly kicked up, especially because the first room was just full of boring plaques.  Happily, this small museum proved to be a treasure trove of terrible mannequins, authentic smells (at least, I think they were authentic smells, it is entirely possible that it might have just stank in there), and even one of those machines I inexplicably love that turns normal pennies into “souvenir” pennies.

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It was finally time to journey up the many stairs of the centrepiece of the castle, the Great Tower.  The Tower has been decorated to look as it would have during the reign of Henry II, and it is pretty fantastic.  There wasn’t much signage, so I didn’t have a clue where we were wandering to, but that was part of the experience.  Navigating the maze-like interior of the tower helped me understand how the layout would have helped deter would-be invaders, plus it gave the whole thing the air of a grand adventure.

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We began in the medieval kitchen, because you have to, really, in these types of places, and ventured up to a banqueting room.

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And made our way through some tunnels to discover a throne room,with even more hidden rooms behind the throne.

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One of which was a small stone chapel, with lovely small stained glass windows.  There was also some rather plush bedrooms in the tower, and the day had gotten so chilly I would have happily curled up beneath the furs in one of the beds, had I been allowed.

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Finally reaching the top of the tower, we were rewarded with even more gorgeous views of the coastline, as well as a good peek into the yard below that contained a trebuchet.

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The trip back down led us into a few more rooms we hadn’t caught on the way up, many of them with costumed actors in who were patiently answering visitors’ questions (fortunately, they weren’t actually re-enacting anything, which I always find slightly cringy).

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Upon safely reaching the bottom, we decided to tackle yet more stairs by heading down into the medieval tunnels, which were certainly very tunnely, but didn’t have much else to recommend them, so if you’re pressed for time, you can probably give them a miss.

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I did want to see the Anglo Saxon church, so we popped into that on our way out.  The Roman lighthouse is right next door, so we were able to have a peek inside that as well – it is just a crumbling stone tower (it’s the structure to the right of the church, below).  The church had a little history display set up in the back, and quite a lot of photos of the Queen and various other Royals attending the services there.

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I very much enjoyed the Great Tower, but the rest of the castle was a mixed bag.  The Royal Regiment Museum was entertaining, the views were very good indeed, but the tunnels were disappointing, and most of the other attractions on the property weren’t terribly noteworthy.  I think Dover Castle has a fascinating history behind it, but I feel like that wasn’t always made as clear as it could have been, and many of the things could have benefited from more signage (but that would probably go against the English Heritage policy of trying to sell guidebooks to everyone, so there you are).  I feel that if I had to pay 17 quid for entrance I would have been kind of annoyed, but as it was, it was a decent outing that didn’t quite live up to the hype of the brochure.  3.5/5

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