Maidstone, Kent: Teapot Island

20140927_130124   20140927_125948

Sometimes I worry that Britain is lacking in the sort of cheesy roadside tourist traps that America does so well.  And then I find a place like Teapot Island.  Boasting over 7000 novelty teapots, Teapot Island seemed like a must-visit attraction on the way to Leeds Castle (which is not actually in Leeds, but in Kent).  I gleefully pictured an island shaped like a teapot with teapots hanging from trees and piled on every available surface, though I strongly doubted this was actually the case.  Indeed, like all true tourist traps, the reality is more prosaic.  Teapot Island isn’t even technically an island, it’s just next to a weir.  And the teapots, except for the oversized one shown above, are kept inside the rather dreary looking building on the right.

20140927_124328   20140927_124325

There were some older people sitting around tables outside when we walked up, but no one inside the shop, so we awkwardly stood around for a while until one of the men outside who apparently worked there finally came in and took our money.  £2.50 each, which would have bought us one of the sale teapots in the gift shop, but in the grand scheme of things I can’t do too much bitching about the price.  And it is a shitload of teapots.  As you can see, rows of teapots behind glass lined the walls of the building, which was like some kind of teapot TARDIS (bigger than it looks on the inside).

20140927_125315   20140927_125230

I’m not sure that there’s much to be said about the teapots.  They were certainly, erm, novel, and most interests were catered to just by the sheer volume of them on show, but there’s literally nothing else inside this place but teapots.  Teapot Island definitely knows how to specialise, if nothing else.  So, here are some of the highlights.  Excuse the glare in many of the pictures; it’s quite difficult to photograph through glass when there’s light coming in through the back of the cases.

20140927_125504   20140927_124004

20140927_124212   20140927_124948

20140927_124631   20140927_125650

20140927_124353   20140927_124511

20140927_124412   20140927_125635

It took us maybe half an hour to survey the array of teapots on offer.  Naturally, there is a tearoom on the premises, but the atmosphere felt a bit grim and I wasn’t inclined to linger, so I couldn’t tell you how it was.  Going by the clientele, who were on average a good forty years older than us, and the fact that their specialty was bread pudding, which I consider one of the vilest substances known to man, I doubt I would have enjoyed it very much, but I’m maybe being a little harsh here; their bathrooms were very clean, so maybe I would have been pleasantly surprised by the tea as well.  The weir is reasonably pretty, but there’s really no reason to come to Yalding unless you want to see more teapots than you’ve ever seen in your life.  To be honest, this is about what I was expecting, so I wasn’t necessarily disappointed; it was just kind of meh.  2/5.

20140927_123422   20140927_123350

London: Merge Festival, including Bompas and Parr’s “Sensed Presence”

20141011_151453   20141011_151500

So, the Merge Festival.  I am the last person who would go to a music festival (I don’t do camping, I’m not a big fan of live music, and I’m certainly not up on any of these new bands (I stopped listening to new music sometime in high school, so anything past the early 2000s is not for me, and to be honest, I mostly just listen to Journey and the Eagles anymore anyway)); fortunately, Merge is an arts festival, so there was no queuing for hours to use a disgusting Porta-Potty required!  This still wouldn’t necessarily be my thing, but this festival was entirely free and not crowded because the installations were fairly spread out, plus I had already booked tickets to the featured Bompas and Parr event.

You may be familiar with Bompas and Parr from their work with unusual jellies, or their recent installations at Kew Gardens.  I went to play their “cake minigolf” on the roof of Selfridges a few years back and consequently made it onto their mailing list, which means I now get inf0rmed about their latest projects before the general public, and thus have a shot in hell of booking tickets before they sell out.  So when I read about “Sensed Presence,” I immediately snapped up a pair of tickets for me and my boyfriend.

The event is now sold out, so I suppose there’s not much point telling you about it, but obviously that’s what I do, so here goes.  The premise behind it was that of a “multimedia seance,” wherein you would be put alone in a room of a supposedly haunted museum, wearing this special helmet (a Koren helmet) that is meant to stimulate the part of your brain responsible for religious and paranormal visions.  Me being me, I booked this, felt smug for a minute at grabbing a spot, and then the smugness instantly turned to panic as I freaked out about the idea of sitting alone in a ghost room.  I mean, I don’t really believe in ghosts, but it’s one thing to say you don’t believe in ghosts when it’s broad daylight; quite another when you’re left alone in a dark room with spooky sound effects.  I honestly was debating whether or not to even attend by the time the event rolled around, as I’d had a couple weeks to be anxious about it, but curiosity won out over cowardice (even if I don’t exactly believe in it, you all know that I am fascinated with weird shit, including the paranormal).

On the way there, we stopped to see another installation on the same street, “A pound of flesh for 50p,” which I keep calling the Melty House (the pound of flesh thing kind of implies that the wax is made of human fat or something, and I definitely don’t think that’s the case).  It is essentially a full size building made of wax that is going to gradually be melted over the course of the festival (the last day of Melty House is 26th October, so you still have time to see it!); you can see the degree of meltedness it was in last weekend in the pictures at the start of this post.  Apparently there used to be a candle factory on that spot in Southwark Street, hence the wax theme.  Honestly, I think it’s quite an attractive looking house; if it were made of brick, and not on Southwark Street, I’d happily move in, but as it stands, Melty House is just going to be a puddle in a week or so.  Having seen that, we headed up the street a little ways to the Kirkaldy Testing Museum, where the Bompas and Parr event was being held.

20141011_153037

(If you have managed to score tickets to this event, I’m going to issue a spoiler alert from this point on, unless you don’t mind knowing what happens.) We had to surrender our phones upon entering, so there was no chance of taking pictures of anything, but the museum itself looks kind of neat.  I’d never been before because I think they have pretty erratic opening hours, but we were given a brief tour before we were due to start our “experience,” and had the dominant object in the room explained to us, which was a bridge testing machine.  Only one person could take part in Sensed Presence at a time, and I opted to go first because I was scared shitless and just wanted to get it over with.

I was taken down a pitch black set of stairs (the girl working there had a flashlight, but I still almost tripped) and instructed to knock three times at a door in the back of a room filled with various testing devices , red light, and some swirling mist.  As you may have guessed, a large part of the experience was the theatrical build-up.  A man answered the door, and had me sit down to watch a 5 minute video about the helmet.  This kind of freaked me out, because I was left alone in this room with my ears covered by headphones, so I was kind of concerned someone was going to sneak up behind me, and so I kept whipping my head around.  Nothing happened except the video though, which was kind of freaky in itself as it consisted of people talking about the “spirits” they’d seen whilst wearing the helmet.  Again, this was all about creating atmosphere, and adding to your sense of unease.  When my turn to don the helmet came, I was led into another dark room, this one filled with a big squishy chair and large machinery (part of the museum’s collections) and had a squishy head cover and then the helmet placed on my head (although the people originally testing the helmet were blindfolded, that wasn’t the case here, presumably so their lighting effects didn’t go to waste).  A timer was set on the purposely outdated computer screen next to me for ten minutes, the guy working there left (though I had access to a panic button, and he was just in the next room), and the sounds of Buddhist chanting and throat singing filled the room, whilst light effects played on the wall opposite me.

I suppose I’m kind of like Father Ted in the “Flight into Terror” episode, in that I am a total worrywart, and get super anxious in the lead-up to doing anything remotely stressful, but when I’m actually in the middle of doing said thing, I’m completely calm.  That was certainly the case here, as I’d been freaking out prior to entering the museum, but I felt a-OK sat in that chair.  I’m relieved to say I didn’t “see” anything, but my head did feel kind of odd.  It may have just been a placebo effect, but I definitely felt this weird hotness and pressure on my brain, and I felt weirdly emotional, like I was going to start crying for no reason at all. The time also seemed to go by really fast, though they may have had a tricky fast clock; it’s hard to say as I wasn’t staring at it the whole time, but the first six minutes went by in what felt like one.

I was asked to sign the guestbook and write a little bit about my experiences; flipping through the pages, I saw that most people experienced something similar to what I did, though a few were claiming sightings (a few more said they were too scared to even go in, which led to my feeling of smugness returning).  Overall, I do think it was a cool experience, and I’m really glad I went…if you did manage to get tickets for the last weekend of the event and you’ve come here for reassurance, don’t be scared, it’s not that bad!  As the man working there told me, “It’s all in your head, so you can’t see anything that isn’t already in your mind,” (which wasn’t really reassuring as I have an overactive imagination and some terrible things running through my head, but still).

Although some of the events have finished, a few more run through this weekend, so there’s still time to check out some of the Merge Festival if you haven’t already (though most of the cooler sounding things have admittedly ended).  It’s all kind of centered around Southwark and London Bridge, so there’s always Borough Market to stop at if nothing else, plus I really like that area around this time of year; all the history and the dry leaves lying in the street give it a nice spooky feel.  Also, there’s a pretty cool art exhibition in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall called “Catching Dreams,” featuring the art of prisoners (a couple pieces are shown below, since I popped in for a minute on my way over to Southwark) so you could probably do a whole day of Banksidey fun, if you were so inclined.

20141011_143119  20141011_143532

 

London: Alexander Pope’s Grotto and the Georgian House

P1130393   P1130392

Another London Open Weekend has come and gone (a few weeks ago, sorry I’m not more timely), and as usual, it was kind of a bust for me.  I always get really excited when it rolls around, but then realise most of the buildings on the list either require advance booking, which I’m not usually organised enough to do in time, or are examples of modern architecture that I couldn’t care less about.  This year, to add insult to injury, I attempted to volunteer at the historic almshouse at the Geffrye and thought I had successfully signed up for it only to be told a month later, when there were no other volunteering slots left, that the Geffrye didn’t actually need volunteers this year.  Guess I’m not the only one with poor organisational skills.  The only benefit of this was that it freed up my Saturday to visit Alexander Pope‘s Grotto, something I’ve been longing to do for years!

P1130369   P1130370

Pope was one of the people I discussed in my Master’s thesis, so I’ve long been interested in him (though his personal life more so than his poetry), and anxious to see this grotto, which is the only surviving part of his once extensive estate in Twickenham.  The grotto is now located beneath a school, is only open to the public on London Open Weekend, and requires advance booking to see it even then (which is why I haven’t been there until now).  By the time Open City informed me that my services wouldn’t be required, only the 10 am slot was left, which meant I had to get up far earlier on a Saturday then I would normally find acceptable, but damned if I didn’t just about manage it.  Well, we ran in just as the tour was starting, but that was more to do with it taking ages to find a parking space.

P1130373  P1130372

I say “tour,” but fortunately after an introduction from some guy who I think was probably the headmaster of the school, we were free to wander on our own, probably for the best as the grotto was not huge (not that it needed to be, for Pope anyway).  They did pass out a little map and scavenger hunt, and some of the pupils were available to answer questions, although they had signs hanging up around the outside of the grotto that were quite informative on their own.  Pope was pretty keen on geology, so his grotto had interesting rocks built into its walls, many of them from places I’ve been lucky enough to visit already, like Wookey Hole, and Mother Shipton’s Well.

P1130379   P1130382

The grotto had three separate tunnels, one just leading out to the road (which was the reason why the grotto was preserved even though Pope’s house wasn’t; the Baroness who bought the estate kept the grotto so she could cross under the main road), and the other two leading to little sanctuary like rooms that contained religious statues.  Though these were probably the coolest aspect of the grotto, they weren’t even there during Pope’s day, but were added some time later.

P1130385   P1130398

Although the grotto didn’t take all that long to see, it was really neat getting to walk in Pope’s footsteps, and I always love a good Georgian folly, so I really enjoyed this, and definitely recommend checking it out when the Open Weekend rolls around next year.  I can’t say the same for the next destination, the Georgian House.

P1130405    P1130403

There were actually quite a few other properties open around Richmond and Hounslow, but a lot of them were normally open to the public anyway, or only open on the Sunday (like some awesome sounding mausoleums), so after a stop at Hansel and Pretzel to stock up on salty twisted bready goodness (which I would also recommend), we decided to check out the Georgian House at Hampton Court.  I love Hampton Court, and have been many times before, but this Open City event was for the Georgian House, a building to the side of the palace that is not normally open to the public except as a holiday home.  They were offering free 40 minute tours, so we signed up for the next available one, and walked around the free gardens to kill some time beforehand.

P1130401   P1130402

We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the house and had to walk through some security gates to even access it, but the exterior was pleasant enough, as it was built early in the reign of George I in a style of architecture he was familiar with from his native Hanover.  We were only taken through half the house, which had unfortunately all been modernised for use as a rental home.  Well, I say modernised, but really it was like a particularly grim B&B, with lumpy beds, gross looking carpets, and no TVs, so I kind of pity anyone who has stayed there (we were told the Beach Boys spent the night, and I imagine they probably couldn’t wait to get out and check into a modern hotel!).

Our tour guide was fine and told us some interesting facts about the kitchens and the kind of food George preferred (Germanic, obviously), but nothing could save the uninspiring interior, not even the excellent portraits of Stuart kings lining the walls.  I’m sorry I wasted my time here when I could have been seeing something more to my liking.  Ah, well, these are the risks that must be taken on London Open Weekend!  Frankly, I’m proud of myself for at least seeing one cool thing; sadly, that’s the best record I’ve got going with Open City.

 

Burton, OH: The Great Geauga County Fair

P1130236   P1130235

OK, this isn’t a museum or anything like that, but for me, county fairs always seem to herald the start of fall, even if they are technically usually held in the summer; and despite the cold rain that’s been lashing down on London since the weekend, I’m definitely in an autumnal mood, so this week you get the Burton Fair (this is kind of a rambling, reminiscing type post with a bunch of subpar animal pictures thrown in at the end, so feel free to skip it and wait for the next museum post on Friday if you don’t want to listen to me blather on).  Technically, it’s the Great Geauga County Fair, but it’s in Burton, so there you are.  Geauga County is probably best known for Amish people and an absolute crapload of snow, but it’s also home to Ohio’s oldest fair, founded in 1823 and still going strong (you may also recall me mentioning the Apple Butter Festival some time ago, which is also in Burton)!  It’s always held over Labor Day weekend, and might not be as large as the State Fair, but is still a fairly sizable venue, particularly by the standards of British fairs I’ve visited (not to mention that there’s about 1000x more random fried foods at an American fair). For the first time in a couple years, I was back in Northeast Ohio when the fair was on, so I got to partake in this year’s festivities.

P1130245   P1130247

I’m sure most of my American readers have been to a similar event before, but I’ll give you the basic set-up.  A large portion of the grounds are devoted to vendor booths, rides, and carnival games, but those things have never really interested me so much as the animals and various 4H buildings around the back of the fairgrounds.  I’m from the suburbs halfway between Cleveland and Akron, so my experience of farm animals, square dancing, and the 4H Club was pretty much limited to my annual visit to the fair, and I admit part of the appeal for me was always looking into this strange “country” world that I didn’t really understand (kids excited about gardening?  How odd!).  Of course, I also loved petting cute animals, and spending time with my grandparents, who always accompanied us; my grandpa especially loved it (and also loved the fact that senior citizens get free entry on Fridays).  Nowadays, my grandparents are gone, so fairtime is always a little bittersweet, but I still enjoy it – particularly the chance to stuff myself full of all the classic American foodstuffs that you just don’t get in Britain.

P1130299   P1130297

While the Burton Fair doesn’t quite have the full creative range of fried things that you might find somewhere like the Texas State Fair (although I did spot deep fried pierogies, which are probably not as well known down South), you certainly won’t go hungry either (although if you have IBS like me, you might well pay for it later!).  Though I am willing to go off piste if something else appeals, there are a few items I must always consume.  One: A milkshake from the booth that is near the cow barn (yep).  All they sell are milkshakes, and they are super thick and amazing.  I always joke that they must have been pumped straight from the cow, but I’m sure they have to pasteurise in this day and age.  Awesome nonetheless, especially because in America, we believe in putting ice cream in our milkshakes.  Two: Hawaiian Shave Ice.  This is especially good on the really hot years, but I love it anytime.  Pink lemonade is my favourite syrup, but I usually go for the huge one where you can choose three syrups.  It is far superior to the Sno Cone because the finer grind of ice nicely soaks up the syrup, instead of turning into dirty ice with a pool of syrup on the bottom. Three: French waffles.  My grandpa would always buy a huge bag of these for us to take home (after much grumbling about the price) and we carry on the tradition.  A French waffle is actually based more on a Swedish pastry (although the American interpretation is thankfully sans cardamom), wherein a fluted iron is dipped into a thin batter, and then the whole thing is plunged into deep fat; a thin, crispy waffle emerges, and is then smothered in powdered sugar that will end up all over your clothes.  Greasy and divine.  If I’m feeling brave, I will attempt an elephant ear, but this year my confection of choice was a deep fried Snickers, because obviously a Snickers is far superior to a Mars Bar (Snickers and Twix are my two favourite candy bars).

P1130246   P1130237

I do have to burn off all those empty calories, and that’s where walking around the exhibition spaces comes in.  A few of them are devoted to arts and crafts done by children, and the things they make can sometimes be a bit creepy (see several examples of this, above), especially the section where they demonstrate their sewing skills by making doll clothes (the clothes themselves are always very good, it’s more that some of the dolls the children use look as though they want to eat your soul), but there’s also plenty of cute things, like the parsnip family and that picture of a cat, and I always find it just a little depressing that 8 year old children have more artistic skills than I ever will.

P1130241   P1130243

I also love the building where all the vegetables are on show, especially the giant sunflowers (they always tell you the height, and they are often over 14 feet), but the bee keeping display is my favourite, because they always have an array of honeys to sample.  There are also buildings holding the entries for the adult competitions.  They award prizes for various categories of baked goods, which I always enjoy admiring even if you don’t get to actually try them (probably for the best, as they start to look a bit rough over the course of the weekend).  There’s also prizes for sewing, maple sugar moulding (Geauga County is also known for its maple syrup, and there’s a Maple Sugar Festival held there as well), and even table arranging!

P1130301   P1130303

And of course, there’s a whole building for flowers.  I’m not super into flowers or anything; I enjoy looking at them, although I don’t know the names of most of them, but the flower building is nonetheless a treat for the senses, especially if you come straight from the charming odours of the cow barn.

P1130311   P1130310

P1130309   P1130317

Because I am a bookworm at heart, and love reading about a gazillion times more than any kind of outdoor activity, the highlight of my fair experience is picking through the shelves of the Geauga County Library booksale, which takes up an entire building right by the entrance; hardbacks are $1 and paperbacks 50 cents, so I grab as many books as I can justify hauling back to England (my three bookcases pay testament to this), but there’s so much more to enjoy that I haven’t even mentioned yet.  There’s always a band of some adorable old people playing trumpets and clarinets and things, there’s usually a big display of army memorabilia, and a huge field full of tractors (I find the tractors incredibly dull, but certain family members seem to enjoy them).  And I certainly can’t forget about the animals, who fill more of the buildings than anything else, because who doesn’t love adorable animals (though I feel bad for the ones that are going to be sold for food, but it doesn’t stop me wearing leather, so I guess I should just shut up).  I love the goats and rabbits the most, but they’re all pretty cute.  So I’ll spare you from my pictures of fair attendees with mullets, and just leave you with lots of animal pics!  And I’d definitely urge you to visit a county or state fair of this nature if you’ve never been, because they are clearly a riot of interesting sites, sounds, and smells (and that includes some of the people!).

P1130253   P1130256

P1130261  P1130262

P1130264   P1130268

P1130270  P1130271

P1130275   P1130284

P1130288   P1130289

P1130290   P1130293

P1130291   P1130294

 

Mentor, OH: Lawnfield (Home of James A Garfield)

P1130214  P1130201

I promised you more about James Garfield in my Teddy Roosevelt post, and here ’tis!  I grew up probably equidistant between the McKinley Memorial and Garfield’s estate, and yet hadn’t managed to visit either until after I moved to London and was back home visiting (isn’t that always the way?).  So this was my first visit to Lawnfield, although I’ve been to the Garfield Monument inside Lake View Cemetery many times.  The main thing putting me off visiting Lawnfield in the past was the fact that it was run by the Western Reserve Historical Society, since I’ve never been overly impressed by them (long story, involving an ill-fated internship and the general decline of their museum over the years). However, a while back, Lawnfield was taken over by the National Parks Service; as my experiences with the NPS have generally been quite positive, I was finally willing to check it out.

P1130212   P1130213

Lawnfield is currently closed for the winter season, but will reopen in the spring of 2015, at which time my pricing information and tour times may no longer be accurate. When I visited, it was only $5 for the museum and a tour of the house, and tours seemed to run at least once an hour, or whenever they got enough people together for one.  The next tour wasn’t due to start for 20 minutes, so the ranger put on a video about Garfield’s life for us to watch in the meantime, which talked a lot about his faith, his education, his role in the Civil War, and his relationship with his wife, Lucretia (basically, he held off marrying her for ages because he didn’t want to commit, although I think he should have been glad to snag her as she was well-educated and quite pretty, and he was average looking at best and seemed like kind of a drip).  He lived a fairly average, albeit blameless life, and was picked for the presidency primarily because of his bland inoffensiveness – when no one could agree upon a Republican candidate, he was turned to as the least objectionable option.  After finishing the video, we headed off on our ranger-led tour along with another couple who had just arrived.

P1130146   P1130152

The Garfields bought the property in 1876, and James was assassinated in 1881, so he didn’t spend a whole lot of time here, but they still managed to enlarge the house from a 9 room farm house into a 20+ room veritable mansion within his lifetime.  The family lived in Hiram before this, but Lake County was gerrymandered in the 1870s, so by moving to Mentor, Garfield was able to place himself back into a Republican stronghold.  It was here that he led the first “front porch” campaign (later emulated by McKinley), where he would give speeches on his front porch to reporters and members of the public who camped out on the lawn.  The interior of Lawnfield was fairly unassuming, which reflected Garfield’s modest background, but everything was furnished prettily and it came across as a place where people actually lived, rather than some kind of imposing, Rockefeller-esque monstrosity.

P1130154   P1130153

The ranger had plenty of amusing anecdotes for us.  For example, although Garfield wasn’t an only child, he was obviously his mother’s favourite, as she chose to live with him, and her entire room was decorated with pictures of him.  Seriously, every available surface was plastered with his portrait, and I didn’t see any pictures of any of her other children anywhere. This kind of made me feel bad not only for his siblings, but for Lucretia, as I could picture an awkward relationship similar to that between Sara and Eleanor Roosevelt going on.

P1130151  P1130156

I’d take a closer look at those fireplace tiles in the picture on the right if I were you, because they were painted by Lucretia and the Garfield children, and are really rather handsome (although the picture quality isn’t really good enough to pick out the detail, sorry about that).  Although their house was already large and nice, after Garfield’s death Lucretia expanded it even further, primarily for the purpose of creating a library in his memory (which is said to be the first presidential library, but lots of other presidential libraries make similar claims, and Garfield’s isn’t officially recognised as such or anything).

P1130165   P1130169

The library initially housed all his books and papers, but his papers have since been moved to the safety of the Library of Congress.  However, Lucretia did her best to protect them whilst they were in the house, creating a special vault to put them in, which had a thick, fireproof door.  Today, the vault holds a wreath sent to Garfield’s funeral by Queen Victoria, which was dipped in wax to preserve it.

P1130163  P1130170_stitch

His Congressional desk is also in this room (Garfield was in the House of Representatives prior to becoming president), and is dismayingly tiny, as Garfield was at least 6 feet tall (and rather portly too).  One wonders how he squeezed himself under it, much less used it to show off his famous displays of ambidextrousness, where he would write in ancient Greek with one hand whilst simultaneously writing in Latin with the other.

P1130174  P1130177

Much of the rest of the tour was devoted to the children’s bedrooms, which were upstairs (the Garfields had a bedroom upstairs for winter, and downstairs for summer, when it would be the coolest place in the house, though nowadays the house is air conditioned – a relief as it was 90+ degrees on the day of our tour!).  There was only one girl in the family, and she got the largest bedroom by far; really, it was almost her own personal suite.

P1130183_stitch   P1130182

The room I found most interesting, however, was Garfield’s study.  Take particular note of the chair (because I want one for myself!); it was specially designed for reading, so you would put your back against the flat side, and hang your legs over the low arm opposite.  Pretty nifty.  There was also a picture featuring the official portraits of all the presidents up to and including Garfield (he was the 20th), that had hung in the White House at one point.

P1130190   P1130192

P1130197   P1130200

There was a small museum inside the house that the ranger left us to look over for as long as we wanted.  It contained short biographies of all the Garfield children, as well as of their uncle, who was caretaker of the house for a number of years.  It also told more about the history of the house, and contained some personal objects belonging to the family.

P1130203   P1130207

Upon leaving the house, we came directly to a small outbuilding next door that served as Garfield’s campaign headquarters during the presidential election.  He even had his own personal telegraph machine so he could receive important messages, like the election results!  There’s also a windmill on the property, although there’s nothing inside anymore.  Even though the estate is very near a busy road (which was a major road even in Garfield’s day), the many trees around the property help to give it an air of seclusion (though it’s obviously nowhere near as gorgeous and private as FDR’s Hyde Park estate).

P1130221   P1130224

There was an additional small museum inside the visitor’s centre, which was our next stop.  This one had wax figures of (“come on in, come to the place where fun never ends, come on in, it’s time to party with…”) Garfield and friends with a selection of audio recordings by actors to accompany the scenes they were portraying. And there were lots of Garfield’s personal effects, plenty of hats and clothes and things.

P1130229   P1130231

The final room contained an array of objects mourning Garfield’s death (he was shot by the madman Charles Guiteau for what was essentially an imagined slight, and lingered on for two months, being “fed” by enemas for a large part of that time.  It was the misguided care of his doctors (dehydration from the enemas, plus the main problem of infection where they had decided to probe his wound with dirty fingers) that was probably more responsible for his death than the actual bullet.  If they had left well enough alone, he might have survived.  Recommended reading: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (yes, another excellent Millard book, I really wish she’d write some more!)).  Sad though it was, his death helped to unite the nation, precisely because it was so lingering and unfortunate.  The items on display included a letter of condolence from Queen Victoria to Lucretia, which I have to believe was heartfelt, as Victoria was certainly familiar with the pain of losing a beloved husband unexpectedly.

P1130232   P1130233

I also think the gift shop was very good, probably better than the disappointing one in Hyde Park.  They had an array of books pertaining to Garfield and other presidents, postcards, magnets, and an Ohio Presidents mug, which I naturally purchased for myself (Ohio lays claim to 8 presidents, and while I would dispute some of them, like William Henry Harrison, who was a wealthy planter from Virginia who laid claim to Ohio primarily for the purposes of his “Log Cabins and Hard Cider” campaign, I still enjoy the hell out of my mug).  I was glad to finally see another piece of Ohio history, and was very happy with my experience here.  3.5/5.

I also have a couple of recommendations for you.  First, if you do go out to Mentor to visit Lawnfield, definitely stop at the East Coast Custard out here.  They have my favourite frozen custard in the world (it’s the proper kind that is creamy yet scoopable, rather than soft serve masquerading as custard), and it’s literally down the street from Lawnfield, on your way back to the highway.  Second, I also very highly recommend visiting Lake View Cemetery, where Garfield is buried (I’m including a couple pictures of his tomb so you can see how awesome it is).  It is a fascinating  and beautiful cemetery with famous people other than Garfield buried in it (like John D Rockefeller and Eliot Ness), and it has many creepy mausoleums and the spectacularly spooky Haserot Angel.  It is also right next to Cleveland’s Little Italy (because, Italian food) and is actually not that far from another East Coast Custard (just saying), and University Circle, where many museums are located.  It’s another way to appreciate this little-remembered president, especially while his house is closed for renovation.

  1919240_574879462015_1184722_n   cropped-1919240_574879611715_4206440_n.jpg

 

Pittsburgh: Heinz History Center

P1130130   P1130129

When I lived in Cleveland, I used to go down to Pittsburgh about once every other month, usually to see a punk show and eat a burrito and some waffle fries from Mad Mex.  I guess museums weren’t that high on my list of priorities back then, because I’d never heard of the Heinz History Center until my boyfriend was searching for things to do in Pittsburgh last month (my parents were keen to take us there because of this brewery in an old church that they like, but since I’m not that into beer, I didn’t want to go all the way there just for that).  Actually, he wanted to go there specifically to see the Heinz Ketchup gallery, but it was sadly closed for renovation during our visit (it has since reopened).  Fortunately, there was more than enough to see there without it.

d  P1130127

Although the museum is apparently affiliated with the Smithsonian, it is not free like the Smithsonian, charging a hefty $15 for admission.  However, unlike most places I visit, I do think this one was worth the money.  The museum is spread out over six floors, and we arrived less than two hours before closing (largely thanks to my parents’ inexplicable distaste for the turnpike, meaning we drove there via back roads that took twice as long).  I knew there was no way we’d have time to see everything, so I prioritised.  Obviously, that meant skipping the sports exhibits on two of the floors (though being from Cleveland, even my dad, who likes sports, had no interest in learning more about the “Stillers”) and focusing on the actual history.

P1130006   P1130007

We headed straight for the special exhibition on the steamboat Arabia, which sank near Kansas City, Missouri in 1856, en route to the frontier settlements along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and thus fully loaded with all the supplies a pioneer needed to survive out on a claim.  No one died during the sinking (except a mule), so this wasn’t really a “disaster” as such, but the sunken boat was highly sought after by treasure hunters until it was finally recovered in the 1980s.  Thanks to the lack of oxygen, the goods inside were immaculately preserved, and the museum had a fabulous array of them on display.

P1130018   P1130022

Even though I’ve seen the degree of preservation on the Tudor artefacts from the Mary Rose, it was still difficult to believe that these items had been underwater for over a hundred years, especially the bolts of cloth.  Much to my boyfriend’s delight (as I think he was still a little bummed out about the ketchup thing, although I think he was hoping they’d have something about Heinz Baked Beans more so than the ketchup), they had jars of ketchup and pickles that had been fished out of the wreck.  The exhibit had a fair amount of other activities too: you could make a paper steamboat, have a steamboat race, and even pose with a half a horse (see below).  The signage was also excellent, and I was already quite impressed with the Heinz History Center.

P1130020   P1130021

P1130025   P1130024

Heading upstairs (which the museum tried to make into a game by calling the steps a “fitness challenge” and providing stamps at each level; works for me!), we moved onto the history of Pittsburgh, starting with Native American settlements (there’s also a living history village set around this time called Meadowcroft that is associated with the museum, though I’ve never been there) and the early frontier, and moving onto the steel industry that the city is famous for.

P1130043   P1130047

This section was huge, and where we spent the bulk of our visit.  There was simply too much here for me to talk about it all without boring you to death, but highlights included Elektro the robot and his dog Sparko (circa 1939, in case you couldn’t tell); Elektro was capable of smoking a cigarette (of course) and uttering a few phrases:

P1130069   P1130066

Wax figures of Andrew Carnegie, and my favourite, Mr Rogers (I still love Mr. Rogers, he always seemed like such a genuinely kind man, and he was sort of cute when he was in his 20s (though I feel weird saying that!)):

P1130065   P1130042

And a video about the Pittsburgh accent (surprisingly, it goes beyond “yinz” and “Stillers,” which are the words we always took the piss out of them for.  I mean, Clevelanders certainly don’t have an accent, right?), and a dinosaur decorated with pictures of famous Pittsburghers (Pittsburghians?):

P1130089   P1130090

Oh, and stuff about Jonas Salk and polio, and George Romero (director of Night of the Living Dead and all the other zombie sequels.  You can also visit the cemetery where the opening of Night was filmed, which I really must do someday… “They’re coming to get you, Bar-ba-ra!”).  This gallery really was all kinds of awesome.

P1130088   P1130092

We finally moved on to the other floors of the museum, one of which I think we only briefly looked at because it seemed like mostly kids stuff and sports memorabilia, and next headed to an exhibit on glass making, which was more interesting than I was anticipating (it didn’t hurt that they had a picture of FDR and Harry Truman using some fancy glassware right at the start).

P1130093   P1130095

Although Corning, New York, was famed for its glass industry (fun fact: I was in Corning with my parents when I was a teenager, but my dad was too cheap to pay the admission price of the glass museum there, so all I saw of it was the gift shop.  This is also why I never saw Monticello), apparently Pittsburgh had its own little glass scene going on too.  I found this section notable not only because of the glass, but because of a portrait of a guy who looked disturbingly like an older version of Chumley from Pawn Stars.

P1130096   P1130103

P1130100   P1130099

We were almost out of time by this point, so we quickly ducked into the “special collections” gallery, which appeared to hold all the miscellany the museum didn’t know how to otherwise categorise.  They had a collection for each ethnic group that has a sizable Pittsburgh population, which means that my own Polish and Slovenian heritage was well represented.

P1130115   P1130113

Again, this gallery just had too much stuff in it to name everything, but I obviously loved the objects with presidential connections, like the alleged piece of George Washington’s hair, and a bed Lincoln slept in.

P1130107   P1130119

There was also a great collection of old carnival games, a nice selection of military uniforms, and more random crap than I could count.

P1130124   P1130123

P1130121   P1130118

P1130108   P1130111

The loudspeakers started announcing that the museum was closed when we were in the middle of this gallery, so I had no choice but to leave the rest of the floors unexplored.  I am, however, very keen to see both the French and Indian War exhibit and the revamped Heinz Gallery, not to mention Fort Pitt (which is also in Pittsburgh, and appears to have some excellent wax figures; you get half price admission if you present your Heinz History Center ticket) the Museum of Post-Natural History, and the slightly creepy sounding Randyland, so I think a return trip to Pittsburgh is definitely in order the next time I’m in America!  This is one of the best history museums I’ve been to in a while; I only wish I had more time there.  4.5/5.

Oh, and you may have noticed that I recently changed the appearance of the blog; I was just getting sick of the old design, and I like how this new one looks a lot cleaner and makes the categories and archives easier to access. I hope everyone else likes it too (or that at least it doesn’t offend the senses), because this is about the best you’re going to get since I can’t afford to go custom!

P1130126   P1130106

As a treat for those of you who hung on til the end, here’s the best picture:  P1130070

 

Guest Post from Misadventures with Michael! Seville, Spain: Bullfighting Museum

I’ll be doing something a little bit different today by featuring a guest post on my blog for the first time!  Michael, from the always informative Misadventures with Michael, has kindly reviewed a bullfighting museum in Spain that he visited on his travels around Europe.  I highly recommend checking out his blog, especially if you’re in need of travel advice; he has a useful “City Guide” series, and offers many other tips for preparing for a trip and making the most of your destination once you’re there (he’s got some solid ice cream shop recommendations too)!  And now, here’s Michael:

Hi there! I’m Michael from over at Misadventures with Michael and am amped to get to write for Jessica on Diverting Journeys. For a little background, I’m a university student in the US but am currently studying in Bologna, Italy for the semester. Before I made it to Il bel paese, I made a pit stop in Spain and traveled around there for a little bit. One of my favorite cities was Seville. It seems to me the city that people imagine when they dream of Spain. In the city there’s a strong tradition of bullfighting, so, naturally, there’s a great museum on its history here, the Real Plaza de Los Toros.

IMG_4151

While assembling a tapas lunch at Bodega Morales nearby Seville’s Cathedral, I consulted with my trusted city map and saw that the museum wasn’t too far. It wasn’t the highest on my to-see list for the city, but I figured that if I was close I may as well check it out. To visit, you must go on a guided tour: they leave every twenty minutes and are bilingual with the guide speaking both English and Spanish at each stop. Tickets are seven euros (but make sure to bring your student ID for a discount).

IMG_4156

First, the guide brings you out to the bullring, showing you where Seville’s bullfights take place May through September, though with a break in August. Spain’s biggest bullring is in Madrid, but the one in Seville is also particularly famous and beautiful. While you can’t step onto the bullring itself, the guide allows you to climb up the bleachers under the king’s seat to get a good view of the whole arena. It’s pretty impressive, especially if you’ve never been to a bullring before (like me) and have studied Spain and bulls before.

IMG_4163

The guide brings you inside next and shows you some art related to and inspired by bullfighting. I particularly liked some old pictures demonstrating the arte de torear, or the art of bullfighting. They have the feel of one of those old school textbooks walking you through how to complete a task, although I think bullfighting may be just slightly more intense and dangerous than how to conjugate Italian verbs. The pictures there are pretty cool, and once you’re done the guide then shows you the last main exhibit with many more artifacts that pertain to bullfighting. Dummy human heads hang from the walls, and these are apparently used in training bullfighters. In the room with the different toreros’ trajes de luces (or suit of lights), my guide explained that toreros were not actually seen as heroic, romantic figures until the twentieth century. Before then, I believe she said, the picadors who are mounted on horses were considered more heroic and honorable figures. But as certain personalities and famous matadors emerged, the toreros or matadors became the most famous.

IMG_4170

Overall, the museum was interesting, but I was expecting a little more umph. There may have been less time spent idly standing around if there were designated tour slots in the different languages so that you don’t have to listen to everything twice, though it’s understandable that a small museum would do it this way. It’s certainly worth a visit, though, if you’re interested in learning more about bullfights. 3.5/5

London: ‘Tales from the Autumn House’ and Other News

I adore autumn (or fall, as I usually refer to it).  I’m always sad when I’m not in America when the leaves kick into gear, because the foliage in Southeast England (and yes, I’m including Kent and Surrey in that assessment) can’t come close to comparing to the stuff back home, not to mention that I’m missing out on all those other fall traditions: caramel apples, cider doughnuts, hayrides, pumpkin picking, haunted houses, and of course, the Halloween section at Target.  Needless to say, I was thus excited to hear about “Tales from the Autumn House,” a “multi-sensory experience” held in the belfry of a church in Bethnal Green.  Excited enough to trek all the way across London to see it last weekend.

The church (St John on Bethnal Green) is literally right when you walk out of Bethnal Green Tube Station, which was a kind of surprising to me; I don’t know why, since I knew it was in London, but I thought maybe it would be set back from the main road a bit, perhaps in a nice wooded park or something.  The exhibit is upstairs, and has no connection with the church or religion or anything, as far as I could tell (which I was admittedly relieved about, though I do quite like the incense-scented air that hits you as you enter the church), and is also free.

This was definitely the sort of thing that would have been ruined by a crowd, so I was glad to see we were the only visitors (and the exhibit is in a long, narrow room, so I think any more than four people would definitely constitute a “crowd”).  I didn’t take pictures because it seemed like it would ruin the experience, but I think they did do an effective job of making the space feel autumnal by strewing leaves everywhere, and relying on candlelight in the dim space.  There was a recurring theme of keys (the big, old-fashioned sort), and little poems to read throughout, as well as the promised sound and smell effects.  While I enjoyed the time I spent in there, the fact remains that it was a very small space, and only requires about five minutes to thoroughly see everything, so I definitely don’t think it was worth going to the opposite side of London.  However, if you already live or work in the area, I think it is worth popping in to check it out, though be warned – it may leave (ha) you longing for fall more than ever!  I also think it would have been much more potent had it been in a different sort of space; ideally, I think a shed in the middle of a forest would have been awesome (but if a suitable forest existed, I suppose you wouldn’t have to re-create the atmosphere of fall in the first place), or at least somewhere with more trees hanging around the place, as it’s kind of disorientating to leave a secluded space and find yourself instantly thrust into the chaos of Bethnal Green Road.  Anyway, it’s on til the 2nd of October, and is open 6-9 Thursday and Friday, and 12-5 on weekends.

And now for the other news; first, I’m featuring a guest post on this blog for the first time ever on Friday, so check back to see a museum review from Misadventures with Michael!  And secondly, I’m starting a new blog next week (don’t worry, Diverting Journeys isn’t going anyplace, the new blog is a completely different project), which is very much a labour of love for me.  It’s going to be based around the letters my maternal grandfather wrote to my grandmother when he was stationed in Europe during WWII (they didn’t get married until after the war, so you can see how their relationship progressed over the course of the letters).  I just discovered them last year, and have been wanting to do something with them for a while; as 2014 is the 70th anniversary of when he began writing them, it seemed like the perfect time.  The blog will essentially just include excerpts from his letters, fleshed out with extra historical details where necessary, and the occasional photograph, all done in chronological order, designed to mirror the dates he wrote them, so posts will at times be sporadic, but I eventually hope to visit some of the places he did (at least the ones in England) and write about those as well.  I know this will be even more niche than Diverting Journeys is, and probably primarily of interest to my family, but I thought I’d mention it anyway just in case anyone is interested!  I should hopefully have things up and running by the 23rd of September (the date of the first letter!).

New York City: Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace

DPP_6278

I know I seemed pretty down on New York in my last post, but it wasn’t all bad.  I ate a lot of delicious pizza, some killer mac n’cheese, and awesome doughnuts from the Doughnut Plant (especially the chocolate chip cookie doughnut, because combining chocolate chip cookies and cake doughnuts is the best thing ever).  I also got a chance to visit Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood home.

DPP_6277   DPP_6276

I’m sure you all know by now how much I love presidential history, and of my quest to visit all the presidential sites in America eventually; this was the only preserved presidential home I could find in NYC (there’s a building where Chester A Arthur was inaugurated, but it’s currently just a shop) so it definitely made the list.  I don’t love TR with the same fervour that I do FDR, but a Roosevelt is still a Roosevelt, so I was keen to see it.  The upper galleries of the museum are currently closed for renovation (not sure if this has anything to do with Hurricane Sandy or not…Ellis Island is still mostly closed for that reason, which is why I did not bother visiting it), and there’s not a tonne in the lower levels right now, but it’s free, and they still offer tours of the home, so I really can’t complain too much.

DPP_6270   DPP_6271

The house is a brownstone located on E. 20th Street, which is the original location of the house, even if the house isn’t completely original (the decision to preserve it wasn’t made until it was too late, so the house is a re-creation, but Teddy’s siblings were still living when it was rebuilt, so they were able to assist with all the details of architecture and furnishings).  The site is run by the NPS, which I generally consider to be a good thing as the rangers are usually very nice, and the quality of NPS sites seems pretty consistent.  They also have public toilets, which I must say was a real relief (literally) as those are few and far between in New York (in desperation, I even popped my head into a couple of coffee shops, and even they didn’t have toilets, which is just bizarre and unhelpful).  We arrived a little early for the tour, which gave us time to poke around the bits of the museum that are currently there, and watch a short film about Teddy’s life.  Most of the display cases were empty, or just filled with timelines of his life that appeared to have been hastily printed out, but the series of cases to the back of the room held a few things that I really wanted to see.  There was one of his Rough Rider uniforms, which was cool, but it was a bit overshadowed by the ensemble he was wearing when someone attempted to assassinate him.  Fortunately, the bullet was slowed down by his layers of clothing, the copy of his speech that was folded in his shirt pocket, and his eyeglasses case, all of which were on display, complete with bloodstains and bullet holes.  The bullet did go inside his chest but Teddy had a “’tis just a flesh wound” attitude, and refused to go to the hospital until after his speech was finished (and actually never ended up having the bullet removed; probably not a bad decision considering what had happened to James A. Garfield (more on him in a future post!)).  So that was really neat to see.  I also enjoyed looking at some of the Bullmoose propaganda on display, and of course the actual moose head mounted on the wall.  There was also a hallway filled with some amusing caricatures of Teddy, which is always amusing.

DPP_6269   DPP_6268

When it was time for our tour, we joined several other small groups of people that had accumulated and followed our guide up the stairs (I believe he was just a volunteer, rather than a ranger, since he wasn’t wearing the uniform like the other employees).  Though there was more to the house when the Roosevelts lived there, the current tour only encompasses two floors of the place, each with just a handful of rooms (brownstones tend to have long, narrow railroad rooms, since space was at a premium – and the house was effectively split in half, with Teddy’s uncle inhabiting the other side, which would have been a mirror image of Teddy’s half).  There was a library, dining room, parlour, nursery, and a bedroom, as well as an outdoor porch that Teddy’s father converted into an exercise space for the boy, as he was famously quite sickly and asthmatic as a child.  We were told how Teddy spent most of his time (when he wasn’t on the exercise porch) in the library, which I found rather depressingly small and lacking in books, even by 19th century standards (especially as the family clearly had money).  There was a cosy looking sofa, however.  The dining room only had one original piece of Roosevelt china (though I’m told Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Teddy’s niece, donated some of hers, so it was technically Roosevelt china, just not from Teddy’s parents).  The parlour was slightly cheerier, as it was quite a sunny room, and housed a fine looking piano and other furniture.  Teddy’s parents’ bedroom was also included on the tour, which included the bed where all the Roosevelt children, including Teddy (or Teedie, as his family called him) were born, and contained an extremely expensive suite of furniture (I guess you had to make the most of the space you had by filling it with really expensive things, since you couldn’t fit in many different pieces.)  So in addition to presidential deathbeds, I can add a presidential birth bed to the objects of interest I’ve seen.

DPP_6275   DPP_6272

The tour took about forty minutes, and was air conditioned, which was a welcome relief because New York was extremely hot when we were there (I mention the air conditioning because it was unexpected in a historic property, but I guess since it’s been rebuilt, they have more licence to do things like that).  Though some of the information was fairly basic, I did learn more about Teddy’s childhood, and it was nice to have a chance to see furniture that actually belonged to the family.  There’s a small gift shop downstairs that sells some neat TR memorabilia, like magnets and postcards (I of course snagged one of each), and some books about his life (I definitely recommend The River of Doubt if you haven’t read it yet, it’s about TR’s voyage down a little-explored river in the Amazon, where he and his son nearly died, and is a gripping read). This site was so much more interesting to me than the Morbid Anatomy Museum and I’m sure it will be even better when they finish renovating the museum.  3/5

DPP_6274   DPP_6273

 

New York City: Morbid Anatomy Museum

I’ve finally finished with Berlin!  (I can hear you breathing a collective sigh of relief.)  Sorry to drag it out so long, but I’ve been in America for the past few weeks, sans laptop, which makes it difficult to get much writing done.  But now you can see that one of the places I’ve been visiting is New York City.  I’d never been before (save for the airports), so I was excited to spend a few days there. Because I went with my brother, who has a low tolerance for museums,  I was somewhat limited in the weird attractions I could visit, trying to stick to only one a day (in the end, I didn’t even achieve that meagre total).  Unwisely (in retrospect), one of the places I decided was a must-see was the Morbid Anatomy Museum, in Brooklyn.

Now, I’ve long found their blog quite useful for finding medical museums and various other links to strange things (though not as useful as it could be if they’d simply organise their damn links by location – it is a bitch to search through them all alphabetically as most of the museums don’t begin their name with the city they’re in), even though I was unable to find any medical museums in New York City itself (which is pretty unbelievable in a city that size, and one of the many reasons I prefer London), so I had high hopes for the museum.  We arrived at the fairly nondescript building at noon, just as they opened (the street it’s on is also pretty crummy looking, but must not be that bad, since there was a huge Whole Foods down the block).  The ground floor is devoted to a cafe and shop, which did seem to have many interesting books, albeit at prices I couldn’t afford, and the museum is upstairs and costs $10. I thought that seemed like a lot to pay, but New York museum prices generally seem pretty inflated, so I just rolled with it, and hoped that the museum would be worth it.  As you may have guessed, it was not.

Naturally, you weren’t allowed to take pictures, because that’s how that sort of place works – I assume it’s so other people can’t see how small it is before they visit.  The museum was literally one room.  The current exhibit (which is all that’s there) is on death, so the contents of the room consisted of a few death masks, some spirit photography (where the faces of dead loved ones are superimposed as “ghosts” on a picture), and some mourning jewellery.  The signage was perfectly adequate, there just wasn’t a lot to see there.  To cap it off, the staff were all very self-consciously weird hipsters, and weren’t particularly friendly – the one guy who worked there kept talking to himself whilst we were the only other people in the museum, which I found really off-putting, especially because it didn’t seem like it was something he wasn’t aware of, but rather that he was trying to come across as strange.

There was another room attached, but it was a small library; it had a few taxidermy specimens sprinkled around here and there, and some fantastic books (I know because I own quite a few of them, and would like to own many others if they weren’t expensive and out-of-print), but I didn’t feel welcome enough to sit down and look through any of them (frankly, I don’t even know whether I was allowed to).  I am bearing in mind that their main library is currently closed, so perhaps they have better artefacts in there, as they’re meant to have a permanent collection somewhere, but their temporary exhibit was unbelievably lame.  I admit that I am spoiled by the excellent (and free!) exhibition on death that the Wellcome Collection put on a few years ago, but it’s hard for me to see how “the Morbid Anatomy Museum hosts the kind of temporary exhibitions that very few larger museums can produce” (as per their website), when I’ve seen better at pretty much every other medical museum, regardless of size (and most of those were free or very cheap!).  I know America can do better (for example, the Mutter Museum in Philly, which I adore), so I found the museum, and the price, very disappointing.  There are, however, many excellent places to eat around Brooklyn (I’d recommend especially the doughnuts from Pies n Thighs, and ice cream from Ample Hills Creamery or (the also hipstery, but friendlier staffed) Brooklyn Farmacy), so you might find yourself in the area anyway, but there must be something better to do there than this.  I honestly wish I’d rather just gone to Lorimer Street and snapped a picture in front of a Tree of Heaven or a suitably tenement-looking building or something, so I could pretend to be Francie Nolan (sans the extreme poverty).  I hate to say it, because I wanted so much to like this museum, but it’s nothing special, and kind of a rip-off.  1.5/5.