Scotland Mop-up Post

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As always at the end of a trip, there’s a few things I saw in Scotland that don’t fit neatly into any of my other posts.  Usually, I’d just throw the excess pictures up on Facebook or Google and be done with it, but the scenery in Scotland was pretty amazing, and my boyfriend has taken some nice photos, so just consider this a mop-up/photography post.  The photo above, and the ones below are from our drive between Inverness and Loch Lomond, maybe around Glencoe?  The weather was extremely terrible that day, so we didn’t much fancy walking around, but we did get out of the car and freeze our asses off long enough to snap a few pictures.

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Speaking of Inverness, although I wasn’t too impressed with some of the inhabitants of the city (I was scared to leave the hotel because there was a gang of thuggish youths congregated out the front), there is a lovely used bookshop called Leakey’s that I only had time to briefly visit because we arrived late in the afternoon and they were closed the next day.  The travel section was particularly enticing, but I didn’t have enough time to make a decision, so I left empty-handed (am I the only one who gets stressed out in bookshops if I don’t have a good hour or two to browse?).  There was also a rather attractive churchyard that we cut through on our way back to the hotel, as immortalised in photographic form below.  I spent the rest of the evening back in my hotel room eating an Indian takeaway (they did a much better dosa than my local Indian), so I can’t comment too much more on Inverness.

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We spent a night at Loch Lomond, in what was by far the swankiest hotel of the trip (which isn’t saying much, since we stayed in some run-down, smelly places, but this was actually a pretty nice hotel, bar the shower and sink being located at the back of the bedroom, out in the open, and the overwhelming smell of feet from the sauna), and strolled down to the village of Luss in a futile attempt to find a shop open past 5 o’clock on a Sunday.  Quaint little village, despite the proliferation of “Yes” banners, and the loch wasn’t half bad either.

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Finally, on the drive back to Edinburgh, we stopped in Falkirk to see the Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel (I wanted to see the William Wallace monument in Stirling, but thanks to our train arriving late the first day, we never had time).  Kelpies are some kind of mythological Scottish horse-beast, and someone made giant horse head sculptures rising out of a pool to commemorate this; there was a sign outside a hut saying there was an admission charge, but I’m not sure what it was for, as anyone can walk over and see them for free.  Maybe to go inside?

The Falkirk Wheel is some kind of crazy rotating boat lift, and acts as a link between two canals.  They have a small visitor’s centre, but it was literally one of the most crowded places I’ve been in my life, so I only had a quick look around.  They seem to do a roaring trade in boat tours, but we just grabbed a few pics of the Wheel and headed off.  That’s it for the Scottish trip; although the weather wasn’t great, I think we still managed to have a pretty decent time.  I’d go back!

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Loch Ness, Scotland: Urquhart Castle

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Let’s face it: the only reason most people are going to Urquhart Castle is for the views of Loch Ness.  After all, ruined castles are a dime a dozen in the UK (or maybe I should say 10p a dozen?  Or about 6p if you convert it), and the main thing Urquhart has going for it is its deeply picturesque surroundings.  And being that most of the road around Loch Ness runs worryingly close to the edge of the loch (I was terrified of swerving off the road and drowning in the icy water), there aren’t that many places to get out and photograph it without risking death.  Which is probably why people are willing to pay £7.90 a pop to see some mouldering old stones (half price admission to Historic Scotland properties with English Heritage membership, woot woot, although the mean woman working the admissions desk clearly resented us for it).

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Actually, as far as things go, £7.90 isn’t all that bad, considering we paid the same to go to the “Loch Ness Experience,” which I need to take some time to warn you away from.  I knew it would be a tourist trap, but I often like tourist traps, as long as they make a bit of an effort to give the people what they want (hint, usually plenty of photo ops or weird stuff to look at, so in the case of the Loch Ness Experience, you’d expect a Nessie to pose with, right?  Wrong).  This place was so awful though, it still pisses me off.  It advertised itself as having all these different exhibits, but was actually just six different small rooms where they showed different bits of the same old-ass documentary.  It was seriously just one of those shows that they used to play on the History Channel along with all the alien abduction programmes (my dad used to watch those for hours for some reason, so I’ve definitely seen the Nessie one before) before it became the all Pawn Stars all the time channel.  I didn’t even watch the videos; they were so boring, and I was in a hurry to get to what I thought were the exhibits, only to find myself going direct from the videos into the gift shop, filled with every kind of Nessie tat available.  I actually asked one of the people working there if I’d somehow missed the museum, because I could not believe how shit it was.  And yes, there was not even a fake Nessie statue, we had to pull into some random hotel parking lot for a photograph with one of those.  Avoid the Loch Ness Experience like the plague, it is one of the worst places I’ve ever been!

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Anyway, back to Urquhart Castle, which at least delivers on what it promises.  Spectacular views of the loch, and some castle ruins.  There are a lot of steps involved, and the weather will probably be terrible, so prepare yourself for these things.  They did at least install metal steps in one of the towers, so you’re not having to climb those scary old stone staircases, but the other tower is still old-school, and passing people going the opposite direction on the stairs is really difficult.

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They did have signs in each former room of the castle, but they didn’t get that much into the history of it (or maybe they did, just not to the extent that I can remember it), it was more what each room was used for, that sort of thing.  It was, as I’ve said, very dramatic scenery, but I was kind of glad we only paid half price to see it.

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There was also a gift shop/cafe with a very small exhibit inside, basically just a wall of posters which got more into the timeline of the castle, and a few artefacts.  The gift shop was trying to hawk CDs of Scottish music, which meant that the soundtrack as I was looking at the timeline was frankly hilarious; some kind of Caribbean remix of “Amazing Grace,” featuring bagpipes and steel drums.  A video presentation was available to watch, but we didn’t hang around to see it, as we still had a lengthy drive down to Loch Ness, and I was starving (the cafe was less than thrilling, so we stopped off for cheesy chips in Fort William).  So, Urquhart Castle: Come for the scenery, not for the detailed history, basically. (If you zoom in, you may be able to spot Nessie in the right hand picture immediately below.  Please ignore the incredibly stupid face I’m making.)  2.5/5

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Newtonmore, Scotland: Highland Folk Museum

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Though the winds increased in intensity as we drove up through the Highlands on the second day of our Scotland trip, and there appeared to be a promise of rain in the not-so-distant future, I could nonetheless see that the Highland Folk Museum, was still a pleasant place to be, set as it was on acres of picturesque countryside and sloping heather-lined hills.

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The museum was reminiscent of a less elaborate, pastoral version of the Black Country Museum, only happily, it was free (quite a bonus, as most living history museums charge upwards of 20 quid for admission). The property is quite extensive, and it’s probably a good half an hour walk from one side of the site to the other, which was a nice chance for us to stretch our legs after the car ride up from Pitlochry.  Because it’s based outdoors and in unheated buildings, it’s only open from April until the end of October (meaning I’ve left it a bit late for this year, but hopefully someone can use this post for future reference).

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We headed first to the extreme left side of the grounds, which turned out to be fortunate as we discovered a small old timey sweet shop selling a range of peculiar Scottish boiled sweets I’d never heard of before.  We opted for soor plooms (Scottish for sour plums, invented, according to Wikipedia, after a battle where the English were easily defeated because they were busy stuffing their faces with unripe plums (though I rather suspect the real reason for the defeat may have been the ensuing diarrhea from eating unripe fruit)), which turned out to be an excellent choice, but means that my boyfriend was hard pressed to get a picture of me from that point on where I don’t have a sweet stuffed in my cheek.  We passed a number of small cottages  and workshops we could poke our heads into and investigate – I think this part of the museum was representing the first half of the twentieth century.

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As we travelled the opposite way on the path, we seemed to be moving back in time, as the properties became grimmer and more Victorian in appearance (to be honest, even the more “modern” buildings looked draughty and dark).  I love old Staffordshire figurines (I am inordinately proud of one I own of Daniel Lambert, Georgian Britain’s fattest man), so I was delighted to find one of that Scots hero Robbie Burns adorning a mantle, even if the cottage itself wasn’t particularly appealing.

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Accessing the 18th century village meant a trek through the woods on a very muddy trail (mud and wind were common themes of the Scottish countryside, so I definitely advise bringing wellies and a good warm jacket.  And seriously, my hair was probably the knottiest it’s ever been after a day getting whipped around by the wind, but it was too cold to put it up, so I’m not sure what to suggest there), but it was also a chance to see some red squirrels, which my boyfriend was thrilled by for some reason.  I don’t know, to me a squirrel is a squirrel, and we have all different coloured ones in America, but apparently red squirrels are special somehow.

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Anyway, we eventually made it to the village, which had a couple costumed interpreters in it to explain just how brutal life was for Highlanders (in case the tiny cottages don’t make that clear enough.  You can see that my 5’4″ frame looks giant compared to one in the picture at the start of the post). People back then slept in box beds in an attempt to keep out the cold, which if you’ve never seen one is this horrible claustrophobic looking enclosed wooden frame with a mattress thrown inside.  It gets worse; because of the smoke, they couldn’t even lay down without risking respiratory problems, so they slept sitting up in these contraptions, often 5 people to a bed.  It’s pretty obvious why despite the beauty of the land, many of them chose to immigrate to America.

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There was a grouping of about five of these stone-walled, thatched roof huts in the village, and two more further up the trail; because the only light came in through the door (windows would have meant letting more heat out), they were virtually pitch-black inside, and we couldn’t even see what was lurking in the corners of the rooms.  I think in some of these living history museums, there is a danger of romanticising the past, with twee rows of cute shops and quaint trades, but the Highland Life Museum fully conveyed the harsh reality of 18th century life for the average country-dweller, particularly in this section of the museum.

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Of course, it wasn’t all unrelenting bleakness, at least for modern day museum visitors.  In addition to the aforementioned sweet shop, there was also a farm building with animals; random cat statues, and the digger pictured above (there were no children in sight, so I had a go).  One odd thing about this trip in general was that although pictures of Highland cattle are available on postcards, calenders, in stuffed toy form, and pretty much every other form of tat you could imagine, I didn’t see an actual Highland cow on the entire trip.  Plenty of regular cattle, but no Highland ones.  Where are they hiding them all?! (although I wouldn’t want to run into one in the wild…sometimes there are big cows wandering free around the North Downs when we go walking there, and they freak me out)

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I don’t really want to get into politics here, but I have to admit I was initially apprehensive as we approached Newtonmore and I saw all the “Yes” flags lining their high street a good month after the referendum, since folk museums can sometimes verge on being creepily nationalistic at the best of times, and I wasn’t sure if my boyfriend’s English accent might mean we’d receive a frosty reception.  But although all the signage was in Gaelic in addition to English, I didn’t get that impression here, and I didn’t feel at all unwelcome. In fact, it was a very agreeable outing, and I’d definitely recommend checking this museum out if you’re in the area.  Though they seemed a bit short on staff, and weren’t able to do the many craft type demonstrations that a lot of these kinds of museums feature, to be honest I preferred this, as I always find interacting with the actors really awkward, and this felt like a more honest, less contrived experience.  The website suggests a visit will take 3-5 hours; it only took us about an hour and a half, but we don’t have children slowing us down and we’re fast walkers and readers, so I’d probably allot at least two hours for this so you have time to see everything.  I’m impressed that a museum of this size is completely free, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  3.5/5.

 

 

Pitlochry, Scotland: The Enchanted Forest and a Fish Ladder

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My boyfriend and I recently spent a long weekend in Scotland, at least in part to try to see some autumn colour, which tends to be lacking in Southeast England, so it made sense to check out the “Enchanted Forest,” a whole forest experience set in Faskally Wood, near Pitlochry.  Our day started off rather horribly as our train to Edinburgh only made it as far as Newcastle, meaning we had to cram onto another, already full train for the remaining two hour journey, forced to stand in the vestibule, essentially packed in like cattle.  When we finally made it to Edinburgh and picked up our rental car, we then got stuck in traffic for another couple of hours, so we barely had time to drop our stuff off at our hotel before we had to leave again for the Enchanted Forest shuttle bus.  This meant we were both tired and cranky, and didn’t much feel like strolling around in the rain, but we’d already spent over 40 quid on non-refundable tickets for both of us, so we were damn well going to see this thing.

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It seemed like the shuttle bus pretty much just drove us around the corner, but it was long enough for us to listen to a humorous health and safety tape narrated by a mother and her son, Finlay, where Finlay advised us that if we didn’t wear proper clothes, we might get so cold that our legs would fall off (bit late telling us this when we were already on the bus, fortunately I was dressed sensibly for once with wellies and my very own waterproof coat (bought specially for the trip, and the first one I’ve owned in six years of living in Britain).  This turned out to be sensible advice, as it drizzled intermittently throughout the evening, and it was extremely muddy.

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I’m tempted to compare the experience in some ways to the Great Jack o’ Lantern Blaze we visited last year, but obviously pumpkins and American foodstuffs like cider doughnuts and mulled cider win out over lights and vegetarian stovies (and Crabbie’s mulled wine, surely they could have at least made their own?).  However, although the Enchanted Forest was also sold out, it seemed much more efficiently organised, and the area was large enough that the crowds weren’t really a problem.  The theme for this year’s event was “Elemental,” which was manifested through the use of fire and water elements.  Basically, you walk in a loop around the forest (you can go around as many times as you like, though it took us about an hour to circle once) and stop at various points to watch sound and light shows.

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The trees are also lit up in various attractive ways, with a myriad of colours, though the lighting effects did make it difficult to see any natural leaf colouring.  There was a storytelling tent for children, and they seemed to be doing a roaring trade in balloons with a glowstick inside, much to my dismay (I have an aversion towards balloons because I hate sudden loud noises.  Sure, they’re fun when they’re inflated, but they’re inevitably going to pop at some point, and every time I’m near balloons, I can’t help cringing in anticipation of the explosion.  Yes, I am weird.).  The whole lake was transformed with fountains spewing coloured water, and there was a fire show further up along the lake accompanied by loud music, as well as some flashing strobe lights.

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The freakiest thing was probably the aerial acrobats, who had to wear weird outfits and scary-ass masks for some reason.  Though I didn’t mind the shows, I probably just enjoyed walking through the lighted forest the most, especially the strange pipe garden that shot out smoke, and the hillside with tube lights snaking down it.  It wasn’t a terrible time, but I feel like children might have enjoyed it much more than I did (though for once, we weren’t the only childless people there by a long shot – there were plenty of other couples, both older and younger), and it was too expensive for what it was.  I think a tenner would have been a reasonable amount to pay, but the fact that we stuck around, being as tired as we were, meant it can’t have been that bad.

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After an awful night’s sleep on a lumpy mattress with a pillow that destroyed my neck, I wasn’t exactly raring to explore Pitlochry, but we were already there, and the fish ladder beckoned.  The town itself was very touristy, full of sweet and cake shops and the ubiquitous Scottish woolens, but the scenery as we headed down to the dam was quite pretty, and the leaves made me feel as though I was temporarily back in America.  And we got to cross some weird bridge that was extremely bouncy, so that I felt a bit ill walking across it, but in a fun way.

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You can see for yourself that the scenery was fairly spectacular, and this was the one non-rainy day of our trip, so we had to make the most of it.  The fish ladder itself is just a set of stepped pools, that I guess salmon somehow climb up (not sure exactly how it works, there was a sign that claimed there was an exhibition room about it in the dam, but nothing was open when we were there, even though it was supposed to be open til the end of October).

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I can’t pretend that Pitlochry is the most amazing place to visit, and the fish ladder is less than thrilling, but it was undeniably a gorgeous setting, and I was glad of the chance to finally see some leaves in a colour other than brown!  Never fear though, the Scotland adventures continue throughout the next few posts, and there’ll be lots more stunning scenery and attractions of varying quality to take in!

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London: Ghost Tour of Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum

I feel like I’ve been jumping around quite a lot on the blog lately, and though I will continue with the Scotland posts after this one, this is the promised write-up of the ghost tour I went on last Saturday night.  But before I get down to that, I wanted to briefly mention my other blog.  You may remember me saying a while back that I was going to be starting a blog about my grandpa’s wartime letters to my grandma, but that was before I had things up and running.  I’m pleased to announce that I’ve had the site up since September, and though posts were very sporadic at first (due to the simple fact that my grandpa went on furlough right after he wrote the first letter, so he had no need to write home for a while), they should be fairly steady from this point on (maybe once a week or so).  I’m bringing this up specifically today because it would have been my grandpa’s 99th birthday and the letter in the latest post tells the story of his 29th birthday.  The blog probably won’t appeal to everyone, but please check it out if the concept interests you!

And now, on with the ghost tour.  I’ve been to some Halloween events at London museums in the past, and while they’re usually reasonably fun, they’re all quite similar, so I wanted to try something a bit different this year.  I found a ghost tour being offered by the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich, and I knew my boyfriend could easily be convinced to go because they were offering a bangers and mash supper beforehand, so that pretty much decided it.  It was £15 a ticket, which included the dinner.

We showed up around 7, and were directed into the cafe, where a rather surly woman plopped down two plates of sausages in front of us without even asking if we wanted them (I’d ordered the vegetarian option, so she begrudgingly replaced my plate with an equally repulsive looking veggie version).  I’m super picky, and sausages disgust me, even the vegetarian version, and I also really really hate gravy, so there was absolutely no way I was going to enjoy this meal, meaning I’m not the best person to review the food portion of the evening.  However, my boyfriend, who thus got two plates to polish off, agreed that it was very bland and unappetizing.  However, the evening was mostly about the ghost tour, so after that ordeal, I couldn’t wait for the tour to begin.

The woman leading the tour gathered together the 25 or so people who had showed up, and proceeded to take us into the museum.  This portion of the tour simply consisted of her leading us to different points in the museum, and saying something like, “there’s the ghost of a soldier attached to this cannon.  No one told him to stand down, and so some people have seen him standing here.”  There was no real history or background given to most of the objects, let alone the history of the museum itself, and no sense of cohesiveness to the tour.  I’d never been in Firepower before, and it looked like quite an interesting museum, but you’d never know it from that tour.

After being led around the museum for a while, we moved outside to the various properties that are owned by the museum, situated around the attractive square.  Though the buildings themselves were interesting, once again, our tour guide’s stories were not, and some of them just straight up didn’t make any sense.  She told us one about the Crown Prince of France (son of Napoleon III), who died during the Zulu Wars, and this lieutenant who was supposed to guard him, and so felt responsible when the Prince was killed.  This Lietenant Carey was thus supposed to haunt the outside of a building where the Prince’s mother was waiting to hear the news about her son, and the tour guide referred to the ghost as pacing back and forth, speaking broken English and broken French.  This story made no sense to me (ghost aside, obviously); why would a British officer speak broken English?  So I looked it up when I got home, and the officer in question was indeed raised in Britain, went to school in Normandy, and was given the job of guarding the Prince specifically because he was fluent in French.  I guess she was trying to say that his speech might have been stuttering or something as he searched for the right words, but the broken English thing was just bizarre.

This wasn’t the only problem I had with the guide.  I mean, the stories were vague and boring, and I didn’t enjoy the tour as a whole, but she didn’t help by repeating the same expressions over and over.  For example, she kept referring to various ghosts as “a bit of a git.”  She literally used that phrase about ten times, and it really got on my nerves.  She also had a really foul mouth (so do I, as you can probably tell, even though I do tone it down quite a lot for the blog) and she kept dropping f-bombs all over the place.  Like I said, I swear a lot myself, so I’m not really one to be offended; I just thought it was kind of inappropriate in that sort of scenario, and I cringed and looked around every time she said it to see if anyone looked offended.  The woman herself was probably in her 50s, and had a son around my age who came along with the tour group, so she was certainly old enough to know better.  I’m not actually sure why she was giving the tour, since she never explained her background or connection to the museum (though she did mention that her son worked there).

In case you couldn’t tell, this tour really pissed me off (see, there’s my foul mouth kicking in again).  It’s such a shame, because the museum looked good, and the area surrounding it was lovely and so full of history, not that you could tell from the tour.  It didn’t even succeed as a ghost tour, as the stories were really lame, and the “hauntings” seemed to all take the form of dull ghosts who just stood there, or the supposed “cold spots” in rooms (because a draughty house in England is real unusual…right).  The sole highlight of the whole experience was that a cute soldier accompanied the tour group to unlock doors for us.  That was seriously the only enjoyable part for me (therefore I’m sure my boyfriend had an even worse time than I did), so it was pretty much a waste of fifteen quid (especially since admission to the museum is only a third of that, and then you’d actually get a chance to look at the exhibits (and any cute soldiers hanging around)). Not to mention that Woolwich is a total bitch to get to from where I live. I’d like to come back to see the museum some day, sans tour, but if they offer the ghost tours in future, I’d definitely give them a miss, unless they find a new, knowledgeable guide to lead them.  This was really the only Halloween activity I took part in this year (other than dressing up like Steve Perry, because Steve Perry is awesome and I always like to incorporate my schnoz into a costume if I can), so I guess I’m extra annoyed that it proved to be such a waste of time.

 

An Eerie Afternoon in Edinburgh

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Being stuck in the UK this year (normally not a problem, but I do miss fall), where Halloween-type events don’t tend to happen until on Halloween (or at least the week of), means I haven’t been able to do the run-up of creepy destinations that I featured last year.  However, I couldn’t let the holiday pass completely unremarked upon, so I can offer reviews of a ghost tour and an art exhibition that featured a few drawings of Death.  But no pictures of either, sorry.

My boyfriend and I took a train to and from Edinburgh for a long weekend, and then rented a car to drive up to the Highlands (more on that in future posts), which means we didn’t spend a lot of time in the city, but we arranged to drop our rental car off a few hours before our train left for London so we would at least have an afternoon in Edinburgh.  We went there for our anniversary two years ago, so we’d already seen a fair bit of the city; therefore, this time I wanted to explore some of “hidden” Edinburgh.

I’d wanted to go to Mary King’s Close on our first visit, but by the time we rocked up they were already booked up for the day, so I looked into booking advance tickets this time.  However, once I realised how much it cost, I decided to look up some reviews to see if it was really worth it, and the general consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t (a lot of the reviews mentioned how most of the experience was just watching videos projected on the walls, which made it sound very similar to the Dover Castle Tunnel experience that I didn’t really enjoy, so I was put off going).  I thought we could at least go on some sort of ghost tour, even though we were slightly limited in our choices by not being there in the evening.  I picked Auld Reekie’s Original Underground tour solely because theirs was the only one early enough to allow us adequate time to catch our train home.

It turned out we were the only people taking the 2 o’clock tour that day, which on one hand is a scenario I dread because we are not very talkative people and we never ask any questions at the end, but on the other hand, it was kind of nice to not have to listen to other people’s stupid questions.  After awkwardly hanging around the front of Tron Kirk for a while as our guide tried in vain to attract more customers, we set off, heading for the famous South Bridge Vaults.  Basically, there’s a bridge with multiple levels of vaults under it that were built in the late 1700s to serve as storage space for the businesses above.  However, because they were so unpleasant and damp, they were soon abandoned and inhabited instead by the homeless of Edinburgh; even they couldn’t take the grimness for long, and eventually the vaults were filled with rubble to make them inaccessible..that is, until modern tour companies got their hands on them.  Nowadays, it seems like access to the vaults is divided between the city’s tour companies, meaning you pretty much have to pay to see them.  Most of the companies charge between £8-£12 for 45 minutes-an hour and a half tour

Because we were the only people on the tour, our guide gave us the option of the underground tour we had initially booked, the ghost tour, or a bit of both, so we of course went for a bit of both.  This consisted of a mix of rather basic history, and the usual sorts of ghost stories, but I was certainly entertained.  The vaults are pitch-black inside, the only illumination coming from a few candles and our guide’s flashlight, and there is constant moisture dripping from the limestone ceiling, so they don’t need much embellishment to make them scary, though some of the ghost stories didn’t hurt.  I was very interested in the history of the people who actually lived down there: they were crammed fifty-deep into smallish rooms, huddled together for warmth and safety, and it’s rumoured that Burke and Hare chose some of their victims from the wretchedly poor inhabitants of the vaults.

There’s a local Wiccan coven that has been given permission to use one of the vaults, which is rather swankily decorated with pentagram regalia (I used to dabble in Wicca as a teen, so I can identify witchy paraphernalia).  According to the guide, they had initially been allowed to use one of the other vaults, but quickly asked to change to further down the tunnel, as there was some bad mojo in the first vault.  Of course, we were taken inside that room, where there’s a stone circle in the centre that apparently trapped a malevolent spirit.  We were invited to step inside the circle, and though, as I’ve said, I only believe in ghosts sometimes, I wasn’t taking any chances and stayed on the edge of the room.  I’m sure it was just the atmosphere and anticipation, but I did have a distinctly creepy feeling inside the room, as though maybe something was watching me.  There’s also a poltergeist room, wherein the guide tells you a story about the scary things that have happened there (people feeling a ghostly touch, being dragged towards the walls, etc) and then abruptly flicks off her flashlight…my boyfriend admitted to being a little creeped out in there.

Since we were fairly quiet throughout and didn’t have any questions, our tour ended early, so our guide offered to show us the medieval torture room to make up for it.  It was the usual collection of nag’s bridles, thumbscrews, and various other implements that either weren’t actually used at all, or certainly not as often or in the ways that people think they were, but it’s to be expected really (at least there wasn’t an Iron Maiden).  Our guide also mentioned witches being burnt at the stake, which I was skeptical about since I know witches in England and America were hanged, not burned, but I’ve looked it up since and apparently they were occasionally burned at the stake in Scotland, though more commonly killed first by strangling, and then their bodies were burnt.  Either way, it’s still a horrible and senseless way to die, and is depressing to think about.

Emerging at last into the weak Scottish sunlight, we were definitely in need of some warming sustenance, so we headed over to the Baked Potato Shop, an all vegetarian establishment.  They had an array of intriguing toppings (ok, some of them were straight up gross, but I’m pretty sure a hummus potato would be delicious, since I love dipping chips in hummus), we were boring and just got cheddar on ours, but we had a couple of vegetarian haggis samosas on the side (they were just like normal samosas with a few oats in though, and way too spicy for me).  The tatties were massive and filling though, and much appreciated on the chilly day.  We still had an hour and a half before our train left, so we had a wander through the park, and ended up next to the Scottish National Gallery.

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Normally, I’m not much for art, but they had a free exhibit advertised outside that featured a neat drawing of a skull, so I was persuaded to check it out.  The Scottish National Gallery is nothing like the size of its English counterpart, though they did have very fancy albeit narrow bathrooms, and there were still some lovely and hilarious paintings, like the Sir Henry Raeburn picture of a man ice skating that they seem to use as one of their logos.  The special exhibit I was keen to see was in the basement, and featured the prints and drawings of William Strang, who I’d never heard of, but now I’m a bit of a fan.  A lot of them were fairly normal portraits of his friends, but there were a few featuring Death (as in the Grim Reaper), including one that I think was just called War, that I really liked.  It was definitely a worthwhile stop before heading back to the train station via the Edinburgh branch of Ben’s Cookies (I go up to the High Street Ken location every couple weeks…I think I have a problem).

I had a very pleasant afternoon in Edinburgh; it seems like the city has plenty of dark history to offer, and I always find something new to discover.  I think a ghost tour is a good way to go and I thought the Auld Reekie one was pretty decent; though I’ve no other Edinburgh tours to compare it to, I can’t imagine it makes all that much difference what company you pick.  I would also recommend the National Museum of Scotland, which we saw on our earlier trip; it is huge and amazing, and I also highly recommend the Surgeon’s Hall Museum, though I think it’s currently closed for repairs.

Anyway, I hope everyone has a happy Halloween!  I’m planning on just spending the evening at home, though I am still going to throw together a costume; eating Halloween funfetti cupcakes from the mix I smuggled back from America, and maybe watching my old favourites Hocus Pocus, Braindead (Dead/Alive), and of course some classic Simpsons Treehouses of Horror; but I’m going on another ghost tour over the weekend, so you can expect a write up of that in the near future. In the meantime, here’s a pumpkin version of me that my boyfriend carved!

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Maidstone, Kent: Leeds Castle

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Yes, you read that right.  Leeds Castle is not in Yorkshire, but in Kent (though maybe everyone else already knew that)!  I don’t actually know why it’s called Leeds Castle, and no explanation was forthcoming at the castle.  The relevant information here is that it bills itself as “the loveliest castle in the world,” complete with quotation marks, but no source for that quote (and if you’ve seen Father Ted, it is nigh on impossible to call something the “loveliest” without attempting an Irish accent), and that they charge a whopping £19 for admission (or £25 for an annual pass, but do people actually revisit this sort of place multiple times in a year?  I know I never get around to it (plus I have to always find new things to blog about, which puts me off repeat visits)).  Leeds Castle isn’t affiliated with the National Trust or English Heritage or anything either, so you’ve no hope of getting a discount unless you take a train out and get a National Rail 2 for 1.

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There was a pretty massive queue to buy tickets when we got there, as we’d unwittingly showed up in the middle of the “Festival of Flowers,” which meant that the rooms of the castle were decorated with autumnal arrangements, ostensibly in tribute to the poems of Kipling and Keats, but honestly, every arrangement looked identical, and more like they had taken tips from a generic fall Pinterest board (is that what they’re called, boards?  I could never really get into Pinterest.  It’s easier just to bookmark stuff) than poetry.  To get to the castle, you have to wander for quite a while through the landscaped grounds, which are crowded with waterfowl and peafowl (you can feed the birds, but it’s a lot bloody more than tuppence a bag).  Geese and swans make me uneasy (I don’t trust anything with the ability to peck my eyes out), so I kept my distance, but even I have to admit that the baby peacocks (peachicks? cocklets?) were adorable.

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The castle does have a proper moat around it, and is thus impressive looking, even if to enter it you have to go through the wine cellars instead of the front doors, which made me feel like an invader at risk of having boiling oil dumped on my head.  All the pathways were roped off so there was a clear route through the castle;  it cut back somewhat on people congregating in one area, so navigating the rooms wasn’t too bad.  They are a mix of the medieval (the castle was built in the 12th century, but repeatedly renovated over the years; the last major reconstruction was in the 1820s) and the modern – Lady Baillie, an Anglo-American heiress, bought the castle in the 1920s and modernised some of the rooms to her standard of opulence.

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The “Festival of Flowers” arrangements didn’t really add or detract anything from the rooms; they were kind of just plunked down in them as an afterthought.  I enjoyed the medieval part of the castle more as Lady Baillie’s rooms just resembled those of many other stately homes bought up by Americans in the Jazz Age, when all the English aristocrats could no longer afford the upkeep.  Leeds Castle was home to six queens over the years, starting with Eleanor of Castile (wife of Edward I); Joan of Navarre was in fact held there under duress after her stepson Henry V accused her of witchcraft – fortunately, he later retracted the charges, and she was allowed to go free (and she was able to purchase a ring worth £40,000 in modern currency during her imprisonment, so conditions couldn’t have been that harsh).

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There were some awesome sculptures within the castle.  One of the owners requested busts made of Henry VIII and his children, which took pride of place in one of the rooms, and I also loved the statue of Edward III on horseback, which is the earliest surviving example of an English equestrian sculpture, made around 1580.

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There was a small museum outside the castle walls with information about some of its history, and some objects belonging to the six aforementioned queens, and Lady Baillie herself.  Lady Baillie appeared to have quite a few famous friends, particularly Errol Flynn (when he was still hot, and not a gross old pervert) as well as a real fondness for dogs, which brings me to the Dog Collar Museum.

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One of my main motivations for wanting to visit Leeds Castle was to see the Dog Collar Museum, because it obviously sounds weird and awesome.  Unfortunately for me, the museum closed last year for renovation, and isn’t due to open until 2015 sometime.  So, because I didn’t research this well enough, all there was to see was two small cases of dog collars shoved in a general exhibition gallery.  I mean, they were still unusual dog collars, but I was disappointed to miss the museum in all its glory.  The other half of the exhibition space was given over to Henry VIII and his armour.

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The castle also had a few formal gardens, in which a surprising amount of flowers were still in bloom (I visited in late September, it’s just taken me a while to get the post up).

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However, I find it hard to get excited about flowers when a castle has a maze!  This one wasn’t particularly difficult, or maybe it would have been if some little twerp ahead of us didn’t keep jumping up and sticking his head over the hedges to get directions from his friends who had reached the centre, but we were stuck behind him and it seemed stupid to go another way when he was clearly on the correct path.  Still, this maze had a grotto in the middle, in the vein of the Forbidden Corner.  Whilst not as awesome as the complete Forbidden Corner experience (and how could it be?), it appeared to be based on Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and had a cool sea monster thing inside, so gets a thumbs up from me.

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I have to give a big thumbs down to the facilities at Leeds Castle though (and I’m not just talking about the toilets, though those were gross too).  Throughout my travels to historic homes in Britain, I’ve come to expect, nay, eagerly anticipate the very British tearoom that is inevitably tacked on to these attractions.  I don’t always partake, but I like to know it’s there.  Well, it just so happens that I was madly craving a piece of chocolate fudge cake (which they didn’t have at Leeds Castle) and a cuppa that day, and if there’s one thing the National Trust and English Heritage reliably provide, despite their many failings, it is chocolate fudge cake, or at the very least, some lemon drizzle or Victoria sponge.  Not Leeds Castle! All their cafes are operated by Costa, so you can’t just get a pot of tea, it is overpriced Costa tea.  And there were definitely no homemade cakes.  I had to settle for “Kentish scoop ice cream” that was sub-par and not at all what I was in the mood for, so that part of the experience was upsetting.  If I pay £19 to get into a castle, I expect a decent tearoom!

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So I’d say Leeds Castle was a mixed bag.  The grounds were indeed lovely, but I very much doubt it is the” loveliest castle in the world,” as I’ve seen plenty of castles that were just as nice, and offered chocolate fudge cake to boot (sorry, but when Jessica gets denied cake, Jessica gets angry!).  Bonus points for the maze and grotto, but that still doesn’t justify the excessive admission cost, and I also didn’t like how the optional “donation” was automatically included in the ticket price.  It wasn’t terrible, but I’ve had better days out at other palaces, and the interior of the castle wasn’t anything special for the most part, so I feel the middling score is justified.  3/5.

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Maidstone, Kent: Teapot Island

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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(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.

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London: Alexander Pope’s Grotto and the Georgian House

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.