Berlin: The Ramones Museum

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Today’s my birthday, so I’m going to celebrate with a post on a museum that I would have loved to visit a decade ago (just to remind myself how old I’m getting, jeez!).  Back in the day, in my teens and early 20s, I was a full-fledged punk rocker.  While I’ve probably still got the attitude problem (and unfortunately, the tattoos) to show for it, I no longer rock some of the more, er, colourful looks of my past (I’ve had hair in every colour of the rainbow, including a bright red spiky do, a blue mohawk, and in the most ill-advised moment of all, blonde dreadlocks.  The memory of the dreads lives on to haunt me in my passport picture, which is sadly still valid for another three years).  I also gave up on most of the music (especially that awful D-Beat crap and anything else that was pretty much just yelling over noise), though I do retain a fondness for some of the bands with actual lyrics, including the Ramones (yes, just repeating “Sheena is a punk rocker” over and over again counts as lyrics.  At least you can sing along to that!).  This is all my way of explaining why I was excited when I found out Berlin was home to the world’s only museum devoted to the Fast Four.

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The museum was located in a bar/cafe a few streets away from our hotel, near Hackescher Markt.  You pay either 3.5 euros for admission, or 5 euros for admission plus a drink (cheap beer or fancy soda), which means that you can walk around the museum drinking a beer if you choose, in true punk style. They give you a Ramones badge as your ticket – if you manage to hang on to it you get admission for life (though I have never been able to hang onto a badge for more than a couple weeks, those stupid cheap pins always come undone and fall off).  This is less of a traditional museum and more just a collection of Ramones memorabilia, so there’s absolutely no point in visiting here unless you already know and like the Ramones (I used to read all those punk biographies back in the day, like DeeDee’s Lobotomy and Please Kill Me, so I’ve got a decent amount of Ramones trivia floating around in my cranium somewhere, even if it’s not a part of my brain I normally access).  Also, everything is in English, with absolutely no German, which is a little odd, considering the museum is in Berlin, but obviously wasn’t a problem for me.

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With the death of Tommy Ramone just a month or so ago, all of the original Ramones are now dead, and though the museum hadn’t had time to set up anything for Tommy when I visited, there were memorial sections for all the other members that contained a mix of biographical details and photo collages.  Most of the museum just consisted of hundreds of photos plastered over every available surface, with terse yet humorous captions provided by their friend/manager Danny Fields.  There was an outfit, or some clothing anyway, from each Ramone, as well as loads of albums and other random crap.

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There were also lots of lists – set lists, lists of tour stops, and lists of their catering requirements; I found the last item particularly intriguing.  Who was drinking all that fresh milk and YooHoo? (the thought of drinking milk before going on a hot stage in a leather jacket makes me feel ill).  I get why they didn’t want Soft-Baked Pepperidge Farm cookies though, those are offensively artificial (not that the traditional crunchy ones aren’t, I guess, but they taste better.  Especially Milanos, mmm).

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A back room (which was even hotter than the rest of the place, because it was in Berlin after all, why would there be air conditioning?) showed videos – it appeared to include a mix of clips from Rock n Roll High School (which is just as terrible as you’d imagine, but pretty much required viewing for any budding punk along with The Great Rock n Roll Swindle and the dreadful Suburbia), and the story of how Joey lost Linda, the love of his life, to Johnny, who married her (which caused quite a few problems within the band, as you can imagine).

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Appropriately enough, since it was in Berlin, much of the museum was devoted to their European tours (and how much they supposedly hated Europe, which I think was at least partially tongue-in-cheek).  I learned that Bono, of all people, was good friends with the band, and sent Joey gifts when he was dying from cancer (which I guess means Bono has done some non-douchey things in his life, though nothing will induce me to like U2).  The museum also contained a stage,where I guess you could either pretend to rock out, or just sit and have a read, since it was stocked with comfy chairs and magazines.

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Obviously, since it was just a shitload of photographs, and more reminiscent of a poor man’s Rock n Roll Hall of Fame than anything else (I’m from Cleveland, and I’ve only been to the real one once because it is so damn expensive, and not at all worth the money), it wasn’t the most amazing museum I’ve ever visited, but it was nice to revisit the music of the Ramones (which was playing in the museum throughout the visit, as you’d want and expect) and some of my misspent youth.  The atmosphere was pretty chill (though not literally, it was boiling in there), and it seemed like a good place to have a drink and enjoy a walk through the history of one of the most influential bands in the history of punk.  3/5, for the nostalgia factor.

Berlin: The DDR Museum

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I think it would have been difficult to visit Berlin and NOT go to the DDR Museum, as its advertisements are prominently displayed throughout the city.  In addition to that, it was literally right next to my hotel, so I couldn’t even use laziness as an excuse not to go.  Not that I was a particularly reluctant visitor, as the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, praising the many interactive exhibits.  I was a bit put off by the queue to get in, but naively assumed they wouldn’t let everyone in if the museum was filled to capacity.  How wrong I was.  We paid 7 euros each, and scanned our tickets in the Ampelmann barriers (he’s the little green man on crosswalk signs in Germany, and is apparently much better than green men in other countries because he is wearing a hat and shoes) for entrance…and were met with utter chaos.

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The pictures above should give you some idea of how many people were crammed into this relatively small (only two main rooms) museum.  Clearly, the advertisements work, which is great for them, but they need to institute some kind of timed ticket system or something, because as things stand now, it is a most unenjoyable experience.  I don’t relish having to push my way through crowds of fat smelly teenagers (for real, there were some serious B.O. problems happening in there, and the cramped conditions weren’t helping matters) to look at things.  The most crowded display was a Soviet car you could climb into; there was a queue stretching half the length of the museum to get in, and these people weren’t budging.  It might have helped if they had simply climbed into the car, snapped a picture, and got out, but nope – there were middle-aged men sat in there pretending to drive for minutes at a time, I mean, really?!

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I’ve somehow gotten halfway through this review without even telling you what the museum is about, so I should remedy that now.  It basically tells the story of life in the DDR, or East Germany, which was of course the Soviet half.  However, this was a more lighthearted perspective on the DDR than at the Stasi Museum, or the Tranenpalast, as the DDR Museum chose to focus more on the mundane drudgery of everyday life, rather than the dark side of living under communism.  Not that those subjects weren’t addressed, but they were done so in a playful way (that I supposed detracted from some of the harsh realities of life under the Soviet system), for example,  a mock interrogation room where you could have the fun of pretending to torture your friends!

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In addition to the interrogation room, there was also re-creations of a jail cell and a typical DDR era home, where you could theoretically touch and fiddle with everything, though you couldn’t in reality as it was so crowded and there was already a crowd of people plopped on the sofa to watch Soviet television.  Another annoying feature of the museum, which would have been fine if it wasn’t so busy, was that most of the information wasn’t out in the open – the museum was set up as a series of walls covered in cabinets, and you had to open the drawers and lift the flaps to read everything, which you couldn’t do if someone was blocking the way, so it just added to the general inconvenience.  There also seemed to be some “Disneyfied” touches in there for no reason at all, other than to increase the “interactivity,” for example, a spray of mist as you walked from one room to another and some portraits of Karl Marx and Lenin (and other some other communist, Engels, maybe?) with moving eyes that followed you around the room (which was neat, I’ll grant them that, but would have felt more at home in the Haunted Mansion than a museum).

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There were, as promised, many interactive things, but I didn’t have a chance to use most of them as the smelly teenagers already had their paws all over everything.  There was a short film, or game, or objects to look at under every one of these many flaps, but there was no way you could stand there and watch a film with a crowd of people waiting behind you, and though I did play a couple of the games, I felt like a jerk as I really had to hog the space to do so.  One was a game where I was a factory manager trying to increase productivity, and the game told me I would have been an awesome manager under the communist system (maybe that’s where I’m going wrong, work-wise), in another I had to create the ideal communist by dressing up a girl from a selection of outfits and expressions (I was trying to make her look a bit like me, which led to the game informing me I did not look like a good communist, so now I’m not sure what to think).

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The museum did have a lot of gen-u-ine Soviet artefacts, which was pretty cool, and seemed to be really aimed at capturing quotidian affairs, so there was a lot on fashion (ugly, everyone was desperate for Levis because Soviet jeans blew), travel (you could only travel to other Soviet countries, so lots of trips to the Baltic coast, especially to Nudist resorts.  There were a LOT of nudists back then), and work.  There were also some cute whimsical touches, like puppet versions of Soviet party leaders and the little military dove shown below.

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Everything was in German and English, and the displays I was able to look at (by pushing through the crowds) were quite interesting, so I think this could have been a very good museum if they somehow regulated their visitors (and I was there on a Wednesday morning, so it really shouldn’t have been a peak time or anything).  It is definitely quite a different approach than that taken by the Stasi Museum et al towards the DDR, and I think perhaps glosses over some of the worst parts of communism (or tries to turn them into a game, which is just as bad), but I think as long as you balance your visit to the DDR Museum with one to a more serious museum, you can still manage to get a good picture of Soviet German life.  However, I’m going to have to majorly downgrade them for not doing something to limit the flow of visitors, as it ruined my whole experience.  2.5/5, but could have easily been a 3.5 or higher with proper crowd control.

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Berlin: The Stasi Museum

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I’ve mentioned before how I’m not hugely interested in 20th century history (except FDR, I love FDR), but the Stasi Museum sounded intriguing – a museum on the East German secret police based in their former headquarters, with authentic preserved offices.  I read before visiting that only the main displays were in English, but that was also the case at the Criminology Museum in Rome, and that worked out ok, so I was willing to give it a go.  Since it was obviously located in the former East Berlin, the museum was in an extremely ugly area of town (I’ve heard that Karl Marx Allee, the youngest planned thoroughfare in a major European city, is within walking distance, and is bleakly imposing), though one of the nearest stations is the hilariously named Frankfurter Allee.

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Reviews of the museum also mentioned that they gave you a cloth propaganda patch as your ticket, but after paying my 5 euros, the guy just handed me a receipt, so I guess not anymore.  However, the museum charged an extra fee if you wanted to take pictures (not sure if it’s that well-enforced, but I didn’t want to take any chances (given the venue and all) so I just paid the extra euro – the things I do for you guys!) and they gave us one of the patches as proof we’d paid that fee, so I guess that’s the way to get one (there was also a shop, but it appeared to be shut when I visited, so not sure exactly what they sell in there).  At least they didn’t charge for the toilets, unlike a lot of other museums in Berlin, but of course there was no air conditioning, which made the visit brutal, especially when we got up to the 2nd and 3rd floors. There wasn’t even any windows that opened on one side of the building (so I can kind of see why Stasi agents might have been pissy)!

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As promised, though the walls were lined with colourful propaganda posters with no English translation, the main exhibit in each room was written in English in addition to the German (the museum was divided up in a bunch of small rooms, I’d imagine these were Stasi offices at one time as well).  A lot of the content seemed to be on all the communist organisations that were set up for the East Germans to join, like youth clubs; and the Soviet holidays they attempted to introduce (only the youth day caught on, rather than the substitutes for Christmas and Easter and such).  However, there wasn’t much background information, and the museum seemed to assume the visitor already knew all about the Stasi, including how they were formed, and the names of the main officials, which was definitely not the case for me.  Also, half the rooms on the first floor just contained an ugly chair (and a wall covered with seat cushions, so I guess we were supposed to note the different fabrics used in East Germany for some reason), and a poster with a photo and biography of various people, all in German, which I think was meant to be a tribute to those who were wrongfully imprisoned or killed by the Stasi, but it took me a good few rooms to figure this out.

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There were also an inordinate amount of everyday objects that had been reconfigured as spy cameras on display, so I guess everyone was spying on everyone else at all times.  This did convey, more so than the actual text, some of the horrors of living under communism, and the lengths the Stasi would go through to try to police people’s lives and thoughts.

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Because of this, I expected the preserved offices to be simultaneously utilitarian and formidable, but they turned out to be a surprisingly cozy homage to mid-century style.  I mean, this was furniture any hipster would kill to have in their living room.  It’s certainly not to my taste, but it wasn’t particularly communist looking at all; it actually looked pretty trendy for the time, unlike the dated furniture and clothing they were fobbing off on the ordinary citizen.

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They made a big stink about Erich Mielke’s preserved office being there (I kept referring to him as Eric Milky, because I have no idea how you actually pronounce his surname), and I know he was the head of the Ministry for State Security because the museum told me, but I don’t know anything else about him other than that.  Maybe the average German has heard of him, because the lack of information was puzzling otherwise.

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There were also some kind of crazy lifts that my boyfriend was interested in; apparently they somehow go sideways or on a circular track or something?  I dunno, they weren’t operational so I couldn’t witness them in action.  Anyway, the offices were probably the most interesting part of the museum, simply because of the chance to see the creature comforts that these leading communists surrounded them with, like a mod looking TV, and a radio with (very high-tech) Scotch tape marking the approved Soviet stations, though there was nothing to stop you from listening to Western radio if no one else was around (except of course, for the spy cameras hidden in literally everything).  Though the museum managed to get across the authoritarian leanings of the DDR, as well as the paranoia lurking under the surface of the government, and it was clear that most citizens would have had to be constantly on edge to avoid getting hauled off by the Stasi, I still would have liked to learn more about the history behind the agency, and I don’t feel that the displays were all they could have been.  3/5.

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While we’re on the subject of East Berlin, I of course had to swing by Checkpoint Charlie for a quick photo, which was easier said than done because the place is absolutely swarming with tourists trying to do the same thing, and they also have a couple “American” guards stationed at the checkpoint who pose for pictures (for a fee) so I had to avoid them as well.  I did not go to the museum, because it cost something ridiculous like 15 euros, and all the reviews said it wasn’t that good, particularly as there is plenty of wall-stuff to see for free, like a section of the remaining wall (as seen below) and the Traenenpalast (though they’re both a fair walk away from Checkpoint Charlie).

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Finally, this has nothing to do with anything communist, but I thought this post could use something funny at the end to lighten the mood, and I had to throw these pictures in somewhere.  We kept seeing these stupid bears all over Berlin, since “Ber” means bear in German.  Here are two of the creepiest examples (and I kind of look like a creeper too).  Enjoy!

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Berlin, Germany: Charlottenburg Palace

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I know I often complain on here when I feel that museums in England are poor value, but after a recent trip to Berlin, I might have to rethink some of my grievances with British museums.  I went to Munich years and years ago, when I was doing the whole backpacking thing, and I wasn’t terribly impressed, but I thought I ought to give Germany another chance, so we headed to Berlin a few weeks ago.  In retrospect, going in the middle of July was a mistake, because almost nothing was air conditioned, something I wasn’t counting on because unlike Britain, Germany gets proper summers (and even though it’s only hot in London for a few weeks, most public places are still air conditioned, even if our homes aren’t).  I completely wilt in hot conditions, and lose the will to do much of anything (as evidenced in my trip to Thailand), so making it to all the attractions I’d planned on visiting was always going to be a losing battle.  However, I did head across town with my boyfriend (on the most awful sweltering train) to see Charlottenburg Palace, which was built for Sophie Charlotte of Hanover in the late 17th century (Sophie Charlotte was the sister of George I of England, and was by all accounts an extremely intelligent and cultured woman who sadly died in her prime, at the age of 36).

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I implied at the start that I had some complaints, so here we go.  Admission to just the palace was 12 euros, which I figured fair enough, it was comparable to other stately homes, and cheaper than most British palaces.  However, they made it seem like the gardens weren’t included in the price of admission, so we paid the extra 3 euros for a Charlottenburg+ pass, which was good for entrance to everything on the site.  After visiting the palace, we realised that the gardens surrounding it were public grounds, and we didn’t need to pay admission at all to visit them, much less a supplementary cost to our palace admission.  All the extra cost of the + pass was to gain admission to a little bonus pavilion behind the palace that we couldn’t have cared less about visiting anyway, and the mausoleum, which was fine but not worth paying to see.  So be aware that unless you want to see some extra art, the base 12 euro ticket will suffice.  Another thing that riled me up was the fact that they charged 50 cents to use the toilet.  I understand why they might charge for the toilets in the gardens, since they’re open to the public, but the only way you could access the toilets in the palace was if you paid admission, and if I pay 15 euros for something, I at least want to be able to use the bathroom free of charge.  They also charged extra for information sheets (I mean, basic single sheets of paper that would be free to just stand there and read and then return in any other museum), and it was another 3 euros if you wanted to take pictures in the palace, which is why all of mine are of the grounds.  I understand that the palace is probably enormously expensive to run, but if that’s the case, then just tack an extra euro onto the admission fee, don’t charge people to use the loo!  It just felt really money-grubbing and made me instantly resent the place.

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They offer a free tour, but only in German, so everyone else is dependent on the audio guide, which surprisingly was free of charge (given that they charged for everything else).  It actually wasn’t that bad, as it had a fast-forward feature and most of the recordings were relatively short, so that you could hear all of it in the time it took to look at a room.  That said, though I have awesome retention when I read something, I suck at remembering things I’ve only heard, so most of the history of the palace completely escapes me.  My overriding memory is of room after room filled with portraits of bewigged men sporting hilarious “Dirty Sanchez” style mustaches that looked like they’d been Sharpied in over the painting as an afterthought.  And some portraits of Sophie Charlotte herself, and her husband, Frederick I of Prussia.  Whilst the palace was once home to the famed “Amber Room,” which was covered entirely with amber (obviously), it was given as a gift to Peter the Great of Russia (along with all Frederik Rusych’s finest specimens…man, I wish I could travel back in time just to see Peter’s baller collections), and “lost” after the Nazis stole it during WWII.  The most famous remaining room is therefore the Porcelain Cabinet, which certainly has the most porcelain I’ve ever seen adorning the walls of a room – it was built to hold Sophie Charlotte’s collection, but she died before it was finished.  There was also a small chapel inside the palace, with a pipe organ, and lots of rooms named after the colour of their panelling, which was usually some kind of ostentatious velvety looking number that certainly didn’t cool the place down any.

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There were two floors inside the palace (though the audio guide kindly gave me the option of only seeing one floor and then leaving, I guess in case I couldn’t bear the temperature inside the palace anymore, or really needed a pee but didn’t have any change), and the upstairs was set up more like a museum rather than as a reconstruction like the downstairs rooms.  I did like how when I was looking through some of the showcase rooms, the audio guide told me that they wouldn’t describe the pieces to me because then I’d linger in there too long and block everyone’s way, so they would just play some classical music for my enjoyment as I looked at the collections (I wish the English Heritage audio guides were so thoughtful and advised visitors to be considerate of other people trying to look at stuff…I’m looking at you, woman blocking the Horn Room at Osborne House).  My favourite display in this section was a set of china that Frederick requested be decorated with “exotic animals,” so he ended up with a monkey and then a bunch of imaginary creatures.  You could also see some of the Royal Jewels, though as the selection was limited to jewelboxes and one pair of diamond earrings, it was ultimately not that impressive.

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We were already pretty tired when we left the palace, because of the heat and all, but since we stupidly paid extra to see ALL the buildings, we felt like we should at least check them out.  The New Pavilion was directly behind the palace, and as I said earlier, is home to an art collection.  I cringed a little when the man inside offered us the use of another audio guide, because I felt it would be rude to turn it down, but I could not bear the thought of listening to another full audio tour.  So I took one, then fast-forwarded through most of it, but from what I heard, the guy voicing this one (which was entirely different from the one in the palace, which was split between a different man and a woman) sounded like the Crypt Keeper or Igor or something.  He had this really creepy monotone voice, which amused me, but wasn’t conducive to learning about art.  I gave all the paintings the most cursory of glances, and then thought it would be best to find the mausoleum, which was obviously more up my alley.  After wandering for a bit through the gardens (which had rather nice flowers and a fountain), I spotted a rock pointing to the mausoleum, which turned out to be about four times the size of any mausoleum I’d ever seen (when we spotted it in the distance, I couldn’t believe that was it).  The inside held stone effigies of four of the Hohenzollerns buried in there, and felt nicely chilled because of all the marble.  In fact, that’s probably the only thing that made the extra admission even sort of worth it, the delightfully cool temperature inside.

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After walking back through more of the gardens, I was ready to leave because the heat was just unbearable (I was hoping they’d have a stand that sold ice creams and maybe pretzels, like this one palace we went to in Vienna where I had the biggest and most delicious pretzel of my life, but no such luck), so we called it a day and headed back to the station, even though we never found the Gazebo, which was also included in the Charlottenburg+ pass.  I still don’t know an enormous amount about the Prussians or House of Hanover (at least, the branch of the family that never made it over to Britain), as the audio guide mainly covered things like the furnishings and the layout of the palace.  Even though it is the largest palace in Berlin, I’m not sure it was worth going to the outskirts of the city for.  Those little extra charges just really got on my nerves, and other than the Porcelain Cabinet, and Sophie Charlotte herself, there was nothing particularly remarkable about Charlottenburg.  2.5/5 is a fair score, I think.

London: Bank of England Tour

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The Bank of England had an open day a few weeks ago (the museum is open every weekday, but the rest of the building is usually only open to the public for a few days a year, typically London Open Weekend in September), and was offering free tours of some of the offices that are normally off-limits to the public (and we found out about it in time to attend, which is an equally rare occurrence).  When we showed up, I was quite discouraged because the queue literally stretched halfway around the building, and being a typical impatient American, I can’t stand waiting in line.  But my boyfriend was really keen to see it, and I had a book in my purse I could read whilst we waited (otherwise I probably wouldn’t have agreed), so we ended up standing there for the forty minutes or so it took to get inside (they were only taking 30 people per tour, but it seemed like a new tour started every ten minutes).  A quick security scan later, we were in!

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Quick note: we weren’t allowed to take pictures on the tour, so all the ones in this post are of the Bank of England Museum (of which more later). Our tour guide was a woman who worked at the bank (though obviously not one of the higher-ups), and she began by drawing our attention to the Roman style mosaics on the floor, which apparently took over ten years to lay when the Bank was rebuilt between the World Wars.  The Bank of England as an institution dates back to 1694; it moved to its current site on Threadneedle Street in 1734, and was redesigned in the later Georgian period by the famed architect John Soane (of the John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields), but by the early 20th century the Bank had become too small, so the entire interior was demolished and rebuilt (save for two rooms), meaning the only Soane structures remaining are the outer walls, which are eight feet thick!  Anyway, although the Bank is relatively new, it still retains a sense of grandeur and opulence, as emphasized by the aforementioned mosaics, which are coinage themed; the grand columns in the front hall; and the cantilevered staircase, which has an authentic Roman mosaic at its base (it was one of two found during the rebuilding; the other is kept at the Museum of London (or was it the British Museum?  I can’t quite remember, and both have Roman stuff, so either would be logical)).

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We progressed out to the garden, which apparently no one, not even bank employees, is normally allowed in.  The garden used to be the churchyard of St-Christopher-le-Stocks, but the church was eventually demolished as the bank grew around it, leaving only the burial ground intact.  It is now a remembrance garden, dedicated to bank staff who died in the First and Second World Wars, and features the ubiquitous (in historic homes in England, at any rate) mulberry tree for two reasons – one, paper money in Ancient China was printed on mulberry bark; and two, mulberry roots grow horizontally rather than vertically, which is handy as the vaults are underneath the garden (which we naturally didn’t get to see, though our guide kept tantalizingly referring to them).

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We then got to check out the Governor’s office, a position that currently belongs to the Canadian Mark Carney, and is just as large as you’d expect, with a carpet we weren’t allowed to step on because it’s very valuable, a beautiful grandfather clock, some old paintings of London, antique furniture, and of course modern computer screens and such.  It actually wasn’t that over-the-top compared to the rooms that followed it – a hoity toity waiting room framed with the portraits of former governors (these portraits spanned the past 150 years, and yet someone on the tour actually asked if they had all been painted by the same artist (after the tour guide finished telling us that they sat for the portraits, so it’s not like they could have been copies of photographs or something) – I just can’t even deal with people anymore) and an anteroom.

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The rooms above this were even more crazy-extravagant, with a huge anteroom where they sometimes hold banquets that was decorated to look like a gentleman’s club.  Maybe it was the gorgeous hand-flocked wallpaper lining the walls, or musty old carpets or something, but this room smelled pretty bad.  Still, I would have happily hung out in the malodorous room longer to admire the ornate chimney piece, and the globe from 1806 (especially the globe, as it had corrections pasted over the original globe as new territories were discovered; the outline of Australia kept changing).  The Committee Room was next door, with a chandelier so ostentatious that it takes days to clean it.  Like all the rooms, it had double doors (double as in a door built behind another door, not two side-by-side), which is meant to prevent eavesdropping.  It also had a portrait of Montagu Norman, pictured above, which the tour guide told us he hated because he thought it made him look like a cantankerous old goat, so they only hung it up after his death (which is a bit obnoxious), however, when we saw his photograph in the museum, we realised that it was actually very true to life – he might well have been a lovely man, but he did look like an old goat!

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The Committee Room and the Court Room, which was next to it, are the two rooms I mentioned earlier that were saved from the old building, although it wasn’t as simple as it sounds, as they were originally on the ground floor, so the rooms had to be reconstructed on the floor above.  They did retain many splendid Georgian accents, including the colourfully painted walls that are one of my favourite features of Georgian homes.  The Dining Room, however, was more recently constructed (mid 20th century), and had yellow walls, as it was Herbert Baker’s favourite colour (he was the Governor at the time, but I think he chose poorly as far as colours are concerned; I hate yellow), and collections of silverware, Polish glassware, and German china, all of which were given by their respective governments as tokens of appreciation for the aid England provided in various wars.  The tour ended with a peek at one of the old super-sensitive scales, on which they used to weigh each and every gold bar, and we were then directed into the museum to have a look around.

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Now, the museum is normally open on weekdays, so you don’t have to come at a special time like you do for the tour, which is fortunate because I’m going to have to go back and investigate ore thoroughly.  By the time we finished with the tour, it was only about a half an hour before the Bank shut (we got there late in the day, and the queuing didn’t help either), which at first looked like it would be enough time, as the museum only appeared to consist of a round central gallery, and a smaller currency gallery.  However, we realised that there were actually loads of other galleries out the opposite door, and there was no way I was going to have time to see them all, so I’ll do a proper review once I’ve seen everything.  What I saw of it was quite good – I especially liked the Wellington notes, and I’m eager to see some of the original banknotes from the 17th century that are kept in the outer galleries.  I did get to try to pick up a gold bar, but it weighs something like 28 pounds, which was a little tricky with just one hand (which was all you could stick in to the case, I guess for obvious reasons, and there was still a security guard stood there keeping his eye on me).  Anyway, the museum looks great, and was much larger than I was expecting, so I’ll definitely return for that, and let you know how it goes.  As far as the tour goes – if you manage to catch the Bank on one of its opening days, I think it’s worth going (just get there early so you don’t have to wait so long), even though you don’t get to see the vaults – you get a good sense of all the money floating around this place from the decor alone!

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Bletchley, Milton Keynes: Bletchley Park

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If you’re British, odds are good you’re already familiar with the story of Bletchley Park.  If you’re not, however, you might not know about it (I’d certainly never heard of it until I moved to Britain, and I love history), so perhaps a bit of background is in order.  Shortly after WWI, a German engineer invented the Enigma machine – a device that could be used to encode messages, which was basically a typewriter with up to four rotors attached; the code could be changed by changing the setting of the rotors, and the person receiving the message would have to know how to position their rotors to decode it ( I apologise if I’m describing this incorrectly, but I know almost nothing about engineering).  Although this device was initially conceived of for fairly innocuous purposes (its inventor thought that perhaps banks could have a use for it), it was adopted by the German military in the years leading up to WWII.  Obviously, in 1939, when the British entered the war, having the ability to crack the German codes would be extremely useful.  Enter Bletchley Park.

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Although Bletchley is now quite near to Milton Keynes (the famous “planned city” that was built in the 1960s), during the war, it was kind of in the middle of nowhere, which was one of its virtues.  Far enough from major cities to be an unlikely target of the Blitz, yet near enough to London to allow messages to be carried back and forth, the old country estate seemed an ideal location for MI6 to set up headquarters.  It had to be built in a hurry, so most of the staff had to work in crude huts that were boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter, yet it still attracted some of the greatest minds of the day, including Alan Turing.  (Benedict is set to play him in a film later this year, can’t wait!)  Turing improved a Polish invention, the Bombe machine (named after the pudding, rather than an incendiary device) to help with the decoding process, but it still involved a lot of quick-thinking on the part of the staff, particularly as the German codes changed every day (it helped that a lot of the messages contained standard phrases, like Heil Hitler, which was useful in sussing things out)!

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Anyway, there were lots of amazing inventions and innovations to come out of Bletchley Park, which I’m sure you can find more about elsewhere on the internet; suffice it to say that the work done here probably helped shorten the war by at least two years.  After the war, the whole Bletchley story remained classified until the ’70s, and the Park wasn’t decommissioned until the ’80s.  It was turned into a museum in the 1990s, which finally brings me to my visit here!

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It really is a whole complex, so you’ll want to set aside a good few hours for your visit.  Admission is £15 (though English Heritage members get £3 off, woot!), and they offer a number of free guided tours, though we didn’t partake of any.  You enter the park through a museum section with a short film, and an overview of the history of Bletchley (basically what I just did above, only in more detail).  It explained the whole process of breaking codes, which involved not only cracking the Enigma, but obviously required knowledge of German (and later, Japanese) to translate the messages!

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After that, they hand you an interactive tour device (a step up from the loathed audio guide, since it was a touch screen device, allowing you to skip around and only listen to the stuff you were really interested in, and they even had long and short versions of most clips for impatient people like me!), and you’re left to wander the property.

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The next building over was also a museum, but this one was deeply technical, about the exact working of the Enigma and the Bombe, and I really couldn’t follow most of what was going on, not being terribly technically minded myself (I’m the complete opposite of my brother, who’s currently getting a degree in mechanical engineering).  However, they also had information on Alan Turing, who I’ve always felt quite bad for (the British government basically stigmatised him for being gay, and effectively destroyed his career, which was certainly a major factor in his suicide a couple years later), including the statue of him, and even his adorable teddy (named Porgy).  They also had a 3D slideshow, which was again incomprehensibly technical, but hey, it was in 3D!

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The upper floor had some war memorabilia, and memories of life at Bletchley Park, which seemed to either involve delightful entertainments, like sport and films, or else just a crap-tonne of work, I suppose depending on one’s personality (I would have been one of the sad sacks who was miserable and unsociable).  We next headed around the “lake” (more of a pond, really) to the manor house, which looked really grand (and had an awesome griffin thing outside), but was pretty disappointing on the interior.  It smelled musty and was full of chairs, so I assume it’s normally just used as conference rooms and a banquet hall, as there weren’t really any displays inside.

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There were also a few huts to the left of the mansion, but they were either closed off, or just held small displays, like one on Ian Fleming that was actually fairly interesting (there was also another display on spies inside one of the museums).  There were a couple more huts behind the mansion, which were also closed off, though you could peer inside, and there was a small Polish war memorial hidden back here as well (and what appeared to be a cemetery behind a gate, though there wasn’t any information on that, so I’m not sure what the story is).

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The huts to the right of the mansion, however, were the ones that had already been restored, so those were pretty cool.  One of them had a bunch of interactive code breaking games, and the other ones were just decorated as they would have been during the war – they even had a re-creation of Alan Turing’s office!  Videos of actors playing the codebreakers were projected on the walls, and it’s worth noting that most of the workers here were women, recruited largely from the upper classes (like Baroness Trumpington) or the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service).  Indeed, the building housing the code-breaking machines was staffed entirely by women.

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A garage behind the manor house contained the vehicles used by the staff.  Though most of the code-breakers got around town by bicycle, due to rationing, there were quite a few other workers that weren’t involved in code-breaking, but played a crucial role in relaying the resulting messages to the government and military.  Many of these drivers were also women, who got to ride bad-ass motorcycles back and forth between London and Bletchley, often in the dead of night.  Obviously they had phones and telegrams and such back then, but then you ran the risk of your messages being intercepted (since the transmissions from the Germans were being intercepted by the British in the first place), so it was safer to just hand-deliver them.  They also had some Packards that were used by staff.

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In addition to the main buildings, Bletchley Park contains a lot of smaller museums that aren’t managed by the Trust, but are still included in the price of admission; there’s a radio museum, a cinema museum, and a post office museum, but my favourite by far was the Toy Museum. This place was all kinds of awesome.  It reeked of mothballs (which I kind of like, it reminds me of how my great-aunt’s house smelled) and had so much crap crammed into just a couple of rooms, even old caricature puzzles that showed FDR perched on a stool (unlikely, but I guess a good compromise between standing or showing him in a wheelchair).

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In addition to old toys (some of which visiting children were allowed to play with), they also had a variety of clothing from the ’40s, with descriptions of the fabrics used and how things were made, which I thought was fascinating (and explained the presence of the mothballs, I have a moth problem myself, and those newfangled “good-smelling” moth repellants they have now simply don’t do the job). I loved all the old dresses, and would happily wear them myself, even if they were made from flour sacks and old parachutes.

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I also liked all the old cookery booklets designed to help you make the most of your rations, and could have easily spent much longer here looking at everything (I have a Betty Crocker cookbook of my grandma’s from 1950, and it has those same charming illustrations of anthropomorphic food in it, as well as little poems – the one about eggs is unintentionally hilarious).

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I should mention that there is also a National Museum of Computing right in one of the car parks, which has the Colossus and other early giant computers in it, but apparently they’re engaged in a long-running feud with Bletchley Park, and so it is not included in the admission, but is a separate attraction that costs 5 pounds extra.  For that reason, we did not visit, and I imagine many other people don’t either, but it is there if computers are your primary interest.

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We spent three hours in Bletchley, and could probably easily have spent more, especially if we’d taken one of the tours.  Although some of the museums were just too specialised for me (I’m still not completely sure how the machines worked, but the museum assured me that I probably wouldn’t unless my mind worked like Alan Turing’s, so I don’t feel so bad about that), and it would have been nice if more had been done with the manor house, as it seemed like a gorgeous building that just needed some attention, overall the day was very enjoyable.  I really liked learning more about the people who worked here, and the amazing work they did, and I think it was worth the long drive up from London (don’t miss the chance to get your picture with the concrete triceratops in Milton Keynes whilst you’re in the area, as seen below).  4/5

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Lewes, Sussex: Anne of Cleves House and Lewes Priory

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Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of the famously oft-married Henry VIII, and, in many ways, she was probably his luckiest wife.  For one reason or another, although Henry was enchanted with this German princess’s portrait, when presented with the real article he found himself unable to perform (I’d be inclined to blame his extreme obesity, and revolting weeping leg ulcer, rather than poor old Anne – I also imagine Henry would have happily had me beheaded for my sass).  He quickly had the marriage annulled (because the main point of marriage for him was to sire another legitimate male heir), and since Anne was smart enough to go along with this without putting up a fight, she was given a favoured position in court as Henry’s “sister,” and a number of properties, which brings us to Anne of Cleves House, in Lewes.  For, although the house bears her name, she never actually lived here; she merely owned it and collected the rents.

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It is quite a nice house nonetheless, all timber framed and Tudory, having been built primarily in the late 1400s.  Admission to the house is £4.90, assuming you haven’t bought that combined ticket with Lewes Castle I was talking about in the last post, or don’t have English Heritage membership, as this is another property that gives you half-off (if you bring it up).  We were advised to start our visit in the bedroom, which was very large indeed; probably bigger than my whole flat – this was some luxe Tudor living.

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I was delighted to find an entire clothes-rail full of Tudor costumes, and since no one else was there, I grabbed the best dress for myself and pretended to be a hopefully sweeter-smelling version of Anne of Cleves, sans headdress, as I didn’t see any there.  I actually went as Anne Boleyn for Halloween about 7 years ago (proof shown on right above), at least, Anne Boleyn if she had her head sewn back on after decapitation, and was wearing a not very historically accurate dress, so it was nice to pretend to be another of Henry’s wives (though in reality I wouldn’t have wanted to be any of them, though if I had to pick I’d go with either Anne of Cleves or Catherine of Aragon because then at least Henry would be young and semi-attractive, I just wouldn’t have put up a fight when he wanted to get with Anne Boleyn (and would have told my stupid nephew to keep his huge Hapsburg jaw out of it), and would probably have been treated reasonably well).

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The rest of the bedroom was just random pieces of Tudor furniture, but a sign helpfully suggested that I might enjoy putting on the costumes and posing with various items of furniture (well yes, obviously I did enjoy that!).  We then headed downstairs, which proved to be unexpectedly large, starting with the obligatory Tudor kitchen (wow, spits, and mortars and pestles, and a buncha iron pots, woot), but I actually shouldn’t badmouth the kitchen, because it held a “magic” table.

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This table was mentioned at Lewes Castle, so I was very much looking forward to seeing it, and insisted on referring to it as a “magic table,” even though I think it was supposed to be more like a religious thing, so maybe “miraculous table” is more what they’re going for.  At any rate, if you haven’t already read the caption above, the deal with the table is that after the knights killed Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, they rode back to a house near Lewes, and threw their swords on the table, but the table threw them back.  I guess it’s impressive just that a table from the 12th century is still around, regardless of whether or not it possesses magical properties, but clearly I’m thrilled by the whole story.

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I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had a small ironmongers’ museum in a back room, which was absolutely rife with authentic smells (for real authentic ones).  In addition to some tools of the trade, it was mostly a collection of firebacks, basically, the things that go at the back of fireplaces (I might have my terminology wrong here because I was still too thrilled by the magic table to read things properly).  I thought it was delightfully ironic that they had one with the image of the Lewes Martyrs burning at the stake on it, as I believe the job of the fireback was actually to keep the fire from spreading and burning down the house (and by extension, whoever was inside at the time).

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There were also some cannons and things, and a lengthy description of the moulding process in the long-winded style of a very old-fashioned museum, which is obviously the sort of thing I love, even if I wasn’t quite in the mood to give it my full attention.

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This was because I’d spotted a local history room upstairs, and my god do I love a bunch of dusty cases full of local history (I’m not sure if most visitors even come back there, as we didn’t see anyone else the entire time, and it kind of had an air of being undisturbed).  One case in particular stood out, as it contained “relics” meant to be from Gundrada, the wife of William de Warenne, who died in childbirth (William de Warenne being the guy who built Lewes Castle, and many other fortresses), in the form of a couple nasty yellowed teeth, roots and all; a mummified rat and silver spoon that was apparently responsible for having a servant girl thrown out on the street (where she presumably starved to death; actually, I’m surprised she wasn’t just hanged, as I’d imagine a silver spoon is worth more than a couple shillings or whatever the cutoff was for a capital offence (6 shillings?  2 shillings?  I can’t quite remember, even though I was just reading about it the other day)), when it was the rat that really took the spoon; and a bunch of toys carved by French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars, like the ones that were recently featured on Antiques Roadshow.  All of this appealed very much to my inner nerd.

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They had loads of other awesome things, like a “liberty cap,” which is really just a iron thing shaped like a hat on a stick, which I guess ties back to Thomas Paine and all that (who lived in Lewes, in case you missed my last post.  Yep, still excited about Thomas Paine), and some stuff from Harvey’s Brewery back in the early days, when they had competition from other local breweries.  I was kind of disturbed by the painting on the wall of an early Victorian Bonfire Night in Lewes, which validated my decision to not attend it, because it looked just as creepy as I’d imagined.  There was also a painting of another disturbing event in Lewes, where a giant wall of snow collapsed and killed a handful of people because they refused to move even after they were warned that a huge snowbank was about to squish their homes (this happened in the Victorian era; I highly doubt Lewes gets that much snow in this day and age); there’s now a pub called the Snowdrop to commemorate it, which is perhaps a bit glib, but I can dig it (another pun?).

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Also in regard to Bonfire Night (because they’re REALLY into it), there were a couple interesting advertisements about it; one from a year when it was going on in full force, with the schedule of events (which seemed to include much loud singing of “God Save the Queen,” the Queen at the time being Victoria), and then another year (1874) when it had to be cancelled due to disease in the town (typhoid, apparently, i.e. the same thing that allegedly killed Prince Albert 13 years earlier, assuming he didn’t actually die of stomach cancer as some medical historians have claimed).

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There was one more room of the Tudor house, a parlour, which contained similar furniture to the bedroom, and was nowhere near as enthralling as the local history room, but was still quite nice.  Our visit ended up taking much longer than we’d thought it would, since we didn’t know there would be so many extra history rooms, and we almost had to run out and buy another parking ticket.  For the money, I think this was much more enjoyable than Lewes Castle (though Lewes Castle is still probably worth seeing, because it’s a castle, I just prefer the time periods covered in Anne of Cleves House, in case you couldn’t tell from all the historical tidbits I’ve been throwing in).  4/5.

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In Anne of Cleves house, they had a few posters up about Lewes Priory (also built by William de Warenne, the guy got around); it’s now in ruins that have been turned into a park.  It was just down the road from Anne of Cleves House, down the hilariously named Cockshut Road, so we decided to go quickly check it out.  This too was much larger than I was expecting, and had lots of helpful informational signs up everywhere.

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The best part for me, because I have the same sense of humour as a 12 year old boy, apparently, was the fact that most of the surviving bits were the monks’ toilets – not just one set of toilets, but toilets through the centuries, with three time periods represented.  The priory had 59 toilets at one time, so that none of the monks had to queue in between the lengthy masses and prayer sessions, though there were of course, no doors or anything else for privacy.

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They also had a sculpture thing that commemorated the Battle of Lewes (yet again) with scenes from the battle engraved in bronze along the sides of a big rock.  I preferred the ruins themselves though.  This was a lovely park, and I think it’s well worth popping over to see it on your visit to Anne of Cleves House – you can probably even have a picnic by the old toilets, as I would have done if I wasn’t so vehemently opposed to al fresco dining (I was attacked by an aggressive ladybug when wandering the ruins, and I don’t even mind ladybugs, so I’d hate to get on the bad side of bugs that freak me out, like butterflies and spiders).  So I guess my conclusion is that Lewes makes for a varied and entertaining day out, I’d recommend it.  Especially the raspberry friands from that bakery, they really were super delicious and I can’t stop thinking about them.

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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.   20140621_143752

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.