Prague: Czech Police Museum (Muzeum Policie CR)

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The Danish Police Museum and the Criminology Museum in Rome remain two of my most popular posts, so I wanted to carry on the tradition by visiting the Czech Police Museum, despite reading beforehand that virtually nothing was in English.  Perhaps surprisingly, given the subject matter, the museum is housed in a prettily painted building that used to be a monastery (and sick house), in a secluded spot at the end of a residential street.  Admission is a mere 30 CZK (about 80p), so I figured even if I couldn’t read anything, at least I wasn’t wasting very much money on it.

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Well, I may have not been able to read any of the captions, but I definitely got my money’s worth, because the museum is massive!  A lot of the main portion of the ground floor wasn’t terribly interesting, as it just consisted of photos with a lot of Czech text, so I didn’t really know what was going on.  But there were smaller rooms off the main gallery (which wrapped all the way around the building), and these were more promising.

One of the highlights of the museum used to be the preserved body of a police dog called Brek, who apparently was used to “sniff out” dissidents during the Communist era (sounds a bit grim really), but I think he’s now buried in the grave out back.  However, there’s still a stuffed dog in there, so he presumably either isn’t real, or is the body of some other German Shepherd.  I didn’t touch it or anything, but the fact that it was just sitting out on the floor and not in a glass case or anything makes me suspect it was probably not a real taxidermied dog.

As always, I was excited to see the murder section, which contained some death masks of executed criminals, a suitcase that once held a dismembered torso of a woman (bloodstains intact), and a mysterious plank with a box attached that I couldn’t quite figure out the purpose of.  Lo and behold, I found a video player in the next room with English translations available, and learning more about the plank/box was one of the options.  To be honest, I really wish I hadn’t pressed that button, because I was a lot happier not knowing what it was.  I’ll spare you the details; they made me feel sick to my stomach (and this is coming from someone who reads a lot of historical crime nonfiction) but suffice it to say it was a torture box designed by a serial killer.  So yeah, you may want to skip the videos unless you don’t mind learning more than you bargained for.  I should also say that there were a lot of very graphic photos of murder victims who’d literally been hacked to bits, so if you have a weak stomach (I generally don’t, except where torture is concerned I guess), I’d maybe skip this section of the museum (it’s pretty much all concentrated in two rooms, so it would be easy enough to skip).

The only other English part was another video player in the forensics section, which was safe enough for those of a less macabre bent, but kind of boring as it was all basic info about the history of forensics that I already knew from visiting a number of these types of museums.  I think there was meant to be some interactive stuff in the forensics section, but none of it seemed to be working properly, and it was all in Czech besides.

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I was already satisfied I’d gotten my 80p’s worth after seeing the ground floor, but there was still a whole other floor above us, so we went to check it out.  You weren’t supposed to take pictures in the museum, but we couldn’t resist snapping a few shots in the black light room (in my defence, it didn’t contain any sensitive information or anything, but I probably still shouldn’t have done it).  I think this was supposed to show the effects of taking hallucinogens, presumably to deter visitors from using them; however, I gotta say that this room was awesome, so they may want to rethink their anti-drug campaign if this is it.  Same thing with a different room warning about the effects of partying too hard, with its thumping bass and unintentionally funny tableaux.  I was glad these things were there though, since a good chuckle was much needed after learning about that awful torture box.

Alas, there were still some depressing stuff up here, namely a guillotine room/shrine with mournful music.  As far as I could work out, it was dedicated to victims of the Nazis who had been executed on the guillotine (I’m not sure if the one there was the actual one used…I kind of hope it wasn’t, but it may well have been).

In what I think was another attempt to brighten things up, the last room was completely full of children’s art.  I don’t know why, unless it was, as I said, just to cheer visitors up before they left, because most of it was very cute (especially the elephants), but it did seem oddly out of place.  I feel like at many points in the museum some English would have been an enormous help; that said, I’m probably not their target audience, so maybe the demand for it just isn’t there.  But really, even just a guidebook with a basic description of all the rooms, like they gave us at the Police Museum in Denmark, would have been tremendously useful, and might attract more visitors.  As it stands, I think this was the most depressing police museum yet (based on subject matter, not the lack of English).

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After leaving the museum, we headed out the back way, which seemed to be set up like some kind of driving obstacle course.  There was also the grave of Brek, that police dog.  I’m not sure why he’s shown such reverence if he was actually used to harm dissidents…not that it’s the dog’s fault, but strange nonetheless.

Due to the complete lack of English inside the museum (except for those videos), I left with far more questions than answers, but to be fair, I knew what to expect language-wise coming in, so that was my own fault.  Still, for 80p, I think it was alright, as there was plenty to look at, and I did enjoy the anti-drug displays (though perhaps not in the way they intended).  So I’ll give it 3/5, but reiterate my warning that much of it is pretty gruesome, and you won’t understand most of what is in the museum unless you read Czech, so it certainly isn’t for everyone.  And on a slightly cheerier note (I suppose…), I’m turning thirty tomorrow, so in addition to a few more Prague posts, if all goes to plan, I’ll have a few more awesome-looking museums to tell you about when I return from my birthday trip!

Prague: Death Exhibition at the National Museum

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Remember that death series happening around Prague that I mentioned in my last post? (You can just scroll on down to it if you don’t, not that it really matters.)  Well, to carry on with that, here’s the exhibition at the new building of the National Museum, which is right next to the old building, at the end of Wenceslas Square.  As far as I can tell, the old building is currently under construction, so only the new building has exhibitions in it, and even then, it appeared to be limited to two temporary ones.  It’s 160 CZK if you want to see both of them, but the Noah’s Ark exhibit seemed like it was aimed at children, so I opted to pay 100 CZK (around 3 quid) to see just the death exhibit.  Until now, I couldn’t figure out why it was called SMRT; because it was all caps with no vowels, I assumed it was some kind of acronym (or a Simpsons joke), but it turns out that smrt means death in most Slavic languages.  No idea how you say it with no vowels though! Smert?

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The death exhibition is on the ground floor of the building, and turned out to be divided into three separate sections.  The first was called “Life and Death in the History of the Earth” and was more like a natural history exhibit, with lots of taxidermied animals and facts about death in the animal kingdom.  Fortunately, this being a major museum, everything was translated into English.  However, rather oddly for a new exhibition, the signs had a dated look to them.  I don’t know, the whole exhibition felt rather old-fashioned, which is no bad thing, but not what you’d expect from a large national institution in this day and age.  So there was plenty to read, but not really anything interactive, which was ok as at least it meant there weren’t many children in attendance (well, because of that and the subject matter, I suppose).

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My favourite aspect of the exhibition was the creative manner in which some of the things were translated into English.  For example, the description of that vulturey type bird above as “bad-looking.”  Delightful.  After a few rooms discussing various types of predators and poisonous (and venomous) plants and animals, the exhibit segued into ancient burial practices, with a display of some mummies and skeletons.  There were also some items found in the burial ground of a medieval monastery.

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This section of the exhibition was by far the largest, and I particularly liked the skull-lined room in the narrow hallway leading out of it.  However, the next section, called “Dealing with Death,” was probably the most interesting, at least to my morbid sensibilities.  It began with a discussion of anatomy, and some early modern anatomists like (my favourite) Frederik Ruysch (love his work), and then progressed into the various ways people die.  So there were some exciting stories of famous Czech murder cases, a re-creation of a crime scene, and a whole room full of execution devices, most of which appeared to have actually been used. The wheel, used for smashing people’s bones systematically until they eventually died, was probably the most horrible (they’d smash your vital organs first if they liked you, otherwise you had to wait until after your limbs and stuff got broken), but the scaffold creeped me out a bit too, as that had definitely been used at some point. (For more on historical methods of execution, The Faithful Executioner is worth a read, although all the conjecture gets a little annoying.)

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There was also an educational room about suicide, which broke down the methods people use by gender, as well as the suicide rates of various professions.  And some posters discussing famous people who had committed suicide.  Most moving of all was the part on end-of-life care, which carried on into the main hall of the museum with a film about an older gentleman who’d moved into hospice.  I watched a few minutes of it, and it seemed sad, yet honest and informative (I didn’t want it to turn into another Up ordeal where I started crying in public, so I wasn’t going to watch the whole thing in case the guy died at the end).

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The final section, entitled “Dealing with Death and Funeral Rituals” was by far the smallest and was again mostly an overview of ancient funeral customs, with some Greek and Roman objects found in grave sites, but also included things like funeral music (with headphones for listening), and some of the items used in modern embalming techniques.  This was probably the least enjoyable section, for me, as a lot of it was on religion and anthropology, which admittedly aren’t my favourite topics.

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I guess this exhibition wasn’t quite what I was hoping for (I think I had something less natural history related, and more goth in mind, maybe), but it wasn’t bad, for all that it felt rather dated.  I really did like the second section on “Dealing with Death” quite a lot, and for three pounds, it was a decent way to spend an hour. I’m happy that something like this was offered, as I think death is a fascinating topic, even if some of the content wasn’t necessarily what I would have preferred.  3/5.

 

Prague: National Memorial on the Vitkov Hill

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A few weeks ago, I went on a VERY spur of the moment trip to Prague (as in, we found a really good deal late on a Monday night, and left on a Wednesday morning).  Therefore, I didn’t have quite as much time to plan things out as I normally would, but with a little help from Atlas Obscura and my trusty (albeit outdated) Weird Europe book, I think I found enough off-the-beaten-path stuff to do.  Actually, I discovered a special death themed series of exhibitions taking place throughout the city thanks to an article that appeared in The Times a couple weeks before we were even thinking of booking the trip (which might have helped tip things in Prague’s favour, though frankly the flight + hotel prices were enough to do the trick).  The National Memorial on Vitkov Hill was one of the locations hosting this exhibition.

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Truthfully, the whole reason I wanted to go to this part of town at all (because it’s quite far from the centre) was because I had to try the strudel from Susta Strudl, and getting strudel AND going to a museum seemed marginally less ridiculous than going half an hour out of the way just for dessert (well, breakfast, technically).  Before I’d ever been to Europe, Passport to Europe with Samantha Brown was one of my favourite shows, and I remembered that she visited this little hole-in-the-wall (literally) strudel shop on one of the episodes, and walked off with this massive pastry for a stupidly low price.  I knew that if I ever went to Prague, I’d have to do the same, even though I’m not that big of a strudel fan normally (because why have fruit when you can have cake?).  Fortunately, there’s a tram that runs nearby (and you probably should take the trams whilst in Prague: they’re cheap, an easy way to see a lot of the city, and they really bez it along those tracks, which is pretty fun), at least, nearby if you don’t accidentally miss the stop and get out four stops later like we did.  So we (eventually) procured a good foot of still-warm apple strudel for something like 42 CZK (about £1.15), and I can safely say it lives up to the hype.  It was probably lucky we ate a huge quantity of pastry, as we needed the energy to walk up the massive Vitkov Hill.

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Upon reaching the top, we were greeted with the sight of a rather bleak Soviet-era structure complete with a gargantuan man-on-horseback statue.  Admission to everything inside the monument is 120 CZK (just over 3 quid, I loved the exchange rate), including the current temporary exhibition, Famous Funerals (part of the SMRT Death series), which runs through March 2016.

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Getting around the National Memorial is slightly confusing, as it involves a lot of back-tracking and it wasn’t immediately clear how we got to the roof-top viewing area (more on that later), but almost everything was translated into English, so at least we could read the posters and labels.  The main room on the ground floor contained a brief history of communism in the Czech Republic (here’s a tip, you can save yourself the climb up the stairs hidden on the sides of the main display, because there’s nothing up there), and led into a number of ante-chambers, one of which was a WWI memorial.  At the other end, we found a mausoleum that was intended to hold some high ranking Communist officials, though I’m not sure how many people actually ended up being interred there.

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The Famous Funerals exhibit was also on the ground floor, and was devoted solely to famous Czech funerals (obviously, I guess), so I’d never heard of any of the people mentioned in it, but it was still interesting.  There were some fabulous death masks, and a mourning brooch made from Bozena Nemcova’s hair (I’m still not entirely sure who she was (Wikipedia just says she was a writer during the Czech National Revival movement), but I noticed she was on the 500 CZK note, so she must have been important).  I also learned about the sad case of Jan Palach, a Czech student who immolated himself to protest the crushing of the Prague Spring movement.

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The next room was also a mausoleum of sorts, and it contained some gorgeous mosaics that I think were meant to honour various Soviet professions (sorry the pictures haven’t come out better; the lighting wasn’t great).  Really, the mosaics throughout the entire building were just fantastic; there’s something I really like about the style of a lot of communist propaganda…it manages to be wholesome and sinister at the same time.  I believe this room originally held the corpse of Klement Gottwald, leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the 1940s and ’50s, who was preserved Lenin-style and put on display until the decision was made to cremate and bury him in 1962.  I think he currently lies under a memorial in a corner of the mausoleum basement, but I’m not 100% sure about that.

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We’d been encouraged to go up to the roof-top viewing area by the admissions desk lady, but initially had some trouble finding it as the stairs only led up to the second floor and then kind of petered out.  We did find a small lift at the end of some hall, and a woman working there noticed us lingering, came over and gestured “up,” so we realised she would take us upstairs in the lift.  There were stairs that we took to go back down, although they came out in some different part of the building we hadn’t seen before, so I’m not sure if you can actually walk up that way, or you have to take the lift, but I’d probably recommend taking it up anyway, because there were a lot of stairs.

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At any rate, we were well rewarded when we reached the roof, because there was absolutely no one else up there, and the views were incredible.  Vitkov Hill is quite high, which came in handy here as we were able to see the whole of the city spread all around us. And you do pretty much have a 360 view, thanks to the lack of safety fences (just be careful around the edges, though they are quite high so you can’t really accidentally fall off).

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On our way out, we encountered the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (which I believe is free to visit without museum admission), and got a view of that horse statue from the front (since we’d approached the monument from the back when we arrived).  I loved how overblown everything in this memorial was.  I also appreciated the excellent views, and the complete lack of the tourists that plague the rest of the city (perhaps because it’s not in the centre, and does involve climbing that hill).  Though I think I maybe didn’t pick up on all the nuances about the communist era the exhibits were trying to get across, I did very much enjoy myself, and recommend it if you like Soviet art and want to get away from all the tourist traps.  Just bear in mind that aside from the exhibits on the ground floor, it is pretty much a big empty building, which I normally might not have dug so much, but something about those mosaics made the whole thing work.  And you should definitely get yourself a strudel if you’re visiting on a weekday (oh, and the Army Museum is at the bottom of the hill, and it’s free, so that might be worth a visit as well)!  4/5.

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Sevenoaks, Kent: Ightham Mote

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Firstly, pronunciation.  On the way there, my boyfriend and I kept calling it “Ick-thum” Mote, as that was the best we could do with that spelling, but going by the people working there, it’s apparently more like “Item” Mote.  Just so you know, although I don’t think we attempted to pronounce it whilst we were actually there, so at least we didn’t publicly embarrass ourselves.

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Anyway, Ightham Mote is another National Trust property that we chose to visit primarily as it would give us an excuse to cruise the back roads of Kent, looking for local cherries (happy to say we found some, and bought two large bags, which were gone in a day.  The people at Ightham Mote may well have thought I was a vampire, with my pasty skin and blood-red, cherry-juice stained mouth and fingers).  Admission for non-members will set you back 12 quid, plus whatever they charge for the pay and display lot, in which case I’d probably just skip the property and retreat home to gobble down cherries in a darkened room.  But as we are members, we pressed on.

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As usual, information about the history of the home was somewhat lacking, but it was clearly Tudor (going by the exterior alone, not to mention the chapel ceiling commemorating the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon), though it turns out the original house was even older than that (14th century), and the exposed beams that give the house its character today are part of the Tudor extension.  It was evidently owned by a Victoria Cross holder (since there was a VC on display in the chapel), and latterly, a wealthy American businessman (he owned some kind of paper company in Maine, and was a WWI veteran) who left the house to the National Trust upon his death.

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Also, it is home to the only Grade I listed dog kennel in the country (which can be seen in the picture of the courtyard a few paragraphs up), though the only dog I spotted on the premises was an adorable old yellow lab (or maybe golden retriever, it was hard to say since I only saw his head) who likes to hide behind the counter in the gift shop.  I think his name was Frank.

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For the house, they only handed you a laminated map, not even one of those big fact sheets, although there were some in a couple of the rooms.  I was assured that the volunteers would only be too happy to proffer information, though that really only happened in the drawing room, the American dude’s bedroom (I just looked up his name, it’s Charles Henry Robinson), and the billiards room.  So, much of it was just blindly wandering, and there isn’t much to distinguish one stately home from another with no context.

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That said, the Drawing Room is decorated with rare hand-painted late 18th century wallpaper, with a bird design.  My favourite bird is pictured above (that expression!).  And there was also some kind of rare 18th century Chinese cabinet as well, which didn’t look terribly different from newer imitations.

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And there was that aforementioned Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon ceiling in the New Chapel (there was also an Old Chapel, but it was no longer used or decorated as a chapel, hence the “old” bit I guess), though I didn’t quite get how it related to Henry and Catherine, as I could only make out some castles and what was maybe a Tudor Rose.  Maybe there were some intertwined initials or something up there, but it was pretty faded so it was hard to tell.

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Also of note, though you wouldn’t have thought so from looking at it, was the exceptionally hideous yellowish carpeting in Charles Henry Robinson’s bedroom.  It is the same carpet that was used at the Queen’s coronation in 1953; they only laid down carpet in Westminster Abbey for the day, and then sold it off after they no longer needed it, so Charles Robinson snagged himself a big ol’ piece.  It is a particularly awful colour because red would have appeared black on black and white TV, and the BBC deemed that puke yellow would actually show up best, so there you have it.  The whole point of this is that you may well be walking on the same carpet the young Queen walked on, if that sort of thing is exciting to you.

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You have to leave the house and walk through the courtyard to get to the Billiards Room, but as I said, the guy working in there was the most helpful one in the whole property, so I wouldn’t skip it.  The Victorian billiards table weighs a tonne (literally), so this room had to be purpose-built with reinforced floors to accommodate it.  The volunteer offered to let us try it out, but I cannot successfully manage a cue for the life of me (I don’t understand what goes wrong, but whenever I try to play pool, there’s absolutely no force behind my shot, and the cue ball doesn’t even move.  It’s just embarrassing), so I went to look at the witches’ jars in the next room instead, which were found on the property filled with hair and things to try to keep witches out (though making a protection charm seems like a rather “witchy” thing to do for people who were anti-witchcraft).

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There are gardens all around the moat (mote), and apparently some trails as well, so we had a bit of a wander, but there isn’t much to be said about them, save for the midges.  We were contemplating sitting in one of the deck chairs that had thoughtfully been set up by the pond, when we realised there was a virtual cloud of midges hovering above them.  So we didn’t linger for too long.

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I did check out the cafe on the way out, in the hopes of obtaining a delicious millionaire’s shortbread like the one at the Vyne, but alas, it was not to be.  There was a small museum near the exit, which I think was a fundraising attempt, as it mentioned all the conservation work that needed to be done on the house and how much it all cost, although if I had paid 12 quid to get in, plus parking, I certainly wouldn’t be in any hurry to donate even more.  As it was, I was once again thankful for that membership as there is no way I would have been happy with parting with that much cash to see Ightham Mote, especially when the most valuable thing I learned there was how to pronounce the name.  3/5, another middling, albeit photogenic property.

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London: The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities

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This is my 200th post.  Woo-hoo?  I feel like I should be doing something celebratory, but to be honest it kind of snuck up on me, and I’ve been feeling too apathetic lately to think of anything fun.  So this is just a normal post, but the 200th one, in case anyone’s keeping track.  Anyway, Hackney is not really the sort of place that I voluntarily choose to spend my time, which is why it’s taken me so long to get around to visiting the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, even though you all know how I love weird shit.  However, I was planning on meeting my boyfriend later that day for drinks and pizza in Shoreditch (not a Shoreditch fan either, but Voodoo Ray’s is one of the few New York style pizza places I’ve found in London, and I will go out of my way for good (i.e. thin crust) pizza), so I reckoned I might as well head up early and see some curiosities, since the museum was only about a mile away from there.

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And half a mile away from Bethnal Green, which is where I walked up from (seriously, why is the tube so bloody scarce in East London?  I hate the Overground, and refuse to take it if there’s any kind of alternative.  Not that half a mile is a particularly far walk; it’s the principle of the thing).  It wasn’t a particularly pleasant walk, and the Victorian-esque storefront of the Viktor Wynd seemed distinctly out of place on such a utilitarian street; this certainly wasn’t the hipster heart of Hackney I’d been expecting.  I was the only visitor in the middle of the afternoon, so I had plenty of time to explore the small space unencumbered by the bodies of fellow museum visitors.

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The ground floor of the building is taken up by a bar/cafe (and your £4 admission fee includes a drink, of which more later), and the museum is accessed via a steep metal winding staircase to the basement.  The lighting was quite dim down there, and some of the captions seemed to have been deliberately made difficult to read; you really had to work to see everything here.  Though the gallery was not large, it was cram-jammed full of crap.

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As best as I could make out, from both seeing the museum and leafing through his book afterwards, Viktor Wynd is a modern day collector/artist/professional weirdo who has, through some unspecified means, been able to afford to acquire an impressive load of junk over the years.  Judging by the museum’s contents (and unfortunately for me, with all my phobias), he is partial to crabs, insects (including awful butterflies), erotica, books with stupid titles, and pieces of dead animals.  He also seems to have a scatalogical fascination that made me laugh out loud at several points when reading his book.  My description of him may sound like I wasn’t very impressed with his work (other than the poo-jokes), but I actually found his hand-written captions charming, and thought they were the best bit of the museum.

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For example, the label on a huge hairball removed from a cow’s stomach and a few smaller bezoars mentioned how these objects had brought him an “unfathomable amount of joy and pleasure,” which I could totally relate to, as I am inordinately proud of my two-headed taxidermied duckling (named Herman and Samson) and the pickled pig’s heart in a jar that I just made.  He is also attempting to start a collection of celebrity poo (though the only ones he appears to have so far are Kylie Minogue and Amy Winehouse’s, so they’ve obviously been sitting around for a while or, you know, the whole thing’s a bit tongue-in-cheek (ha); also there was a jar of disturbingly-coloured pee labelled as coming from “Russel Crow” (sic, or possibly it really it does from the non-famous “Russel Crow”)); apparently it’s a fiver for a smell, which he considers to be the best deal in the museum, as everyone else there will get a whiff for free.

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In fact, he appears to be downright obsessed with celebrity fluids (emissions?), with a jar full of condoms allegedly used by the Rolling Stones (and Viagra, we’re talking recently), Madonna’s used pantyliner, and some pubes that may have belonged to Russell Brand.  In case you haven’t figured it out, the museum is not for prudish people with weak stomachs; there’s also quite a lot of fairly graphic pornography hanging on the walls.

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I haven’t got any kind of problem with that, but all the crabs were a bit much.  There were crabs in nearly every case, and the worst of all was the giant spider crab that dominated the second part of the gallery.  Not to mention the cases and cases of dead butterflies that hung along several of the walls.  I had to just look down for that whole section, so I may well have missed something funny on the walls, but it was a risk I had to take.  Fellow lepidopteraphobes should bear that in mind,  and I’d also avoid the place on weekends if you’re arachnophobic, since they have a “petting zoo” with unusual animals including tarantulas and giant beetles (I love lizards and snakes, so I’d be totally down with handling them, but not at the risk that someone might stick a tarantula on my arm or something).

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Also quite prominent was the giant gold hippo head that allegedly formerly belonged to drug lord Pablo Escobar.  He ordered four hippos when he was building his drug palace, but one died in transit, so he had the skull gilded (the remaining hippos ended up breeding, and apparently there are like 30 hippos now running around Colombia somewhere).

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I don’t know, for as small as this museum was, there was something kind of trashy and fabulous about it (in a Liberace sense, I guess), and those captions really did crack me up, so even though it was pretty teeny and full of scary things, I quite enjoyed myself.  I get the impression that Viktor Wynd’s sense of humour is not unlike mine, so perhaps that’s why.

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When I returned upstairs, after my sojourn into the bowels of the building (in more than one sense), the bartender asked me what I wanted to drink, since the museum admission comes with a tea or coffee, as I mentioned before.  Because it was about a million degrees outside on the day I visited, and I am not sufficiently Anglicised to want to drink boiling hot tea in the summer, he was nice enough to offer me an icy cold cola from the hipster soda makers Square Root, which I enjoyed much more than a tea (though let’s face it, plain ol’ Cherry Coke is tastier than hipster soda, no matter what they try to infuse into it).  However, I noticed on their website that I was supposed to get a tea AND biscuit.  I’m not entirely sure I would have wanted to eat anything produced there (who am I kidding, I never turn down biscuits), but it would have been nice to have been offered one, though I guess I can’t complain too much as that soda probably cost more than the tea would have (I mean, it’s not like teabags are expensive).  Anyway, I retreated to a corner of the comfy red velvet sofa in the cafe to enjoy my soda with a copy of Viktor Wynd’s book that the bartender gave me to leaf through, and a delightful taxidermied lion head and torso (with crown) that was seated next to me.

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So I think reading his book might have helped me appreciate Mr. Wynd’s aesthetic a bit more.  Apparently this museum wasn’t his first project, as he’s done other stuff around Hackney, but as far as I can tell, none of it is around anymore, which makes me think this museum might also only be a temporary incarnation until he comes up with a new idea.  At any rate, the place was more or less what I was expecting, but I didn’t feel totally ripped off or anything, as I thought I might have (I was thinking about that awful Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York, which is along similar lines, but has nothing like as much stuff, and costs $10, which makes Viktor Wynd’s feel only mildly overpriced), perhaps getting the drink helped with that (though a biscuit would have helped even more! Seriously, just buy a damn packet of chocolate Hobnobs or something.  Everybody likes a chocolate Hobnob). I am a strange person, so this was right up my alley (except all those damn crabs, why so many crabs and butterflies?!), and might be worth a visit if you can manage it at an off-time like I did (because it is small, for real) and you can also appreciate weird shit and an idiosyncratic sense of humour.  3.5/5.

The Rest o’ Rye: Lamb House and the Rye Heritage Centre

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What kind of a quaint English town would Rye be without a National Trust property on one of its famed cobbled streets? (I still can’t quite get over the idea of cobblestones being a tourist attraction, I guess because I really hate walking on them.)  Fortunately, Henry James, author of The Portrait of a Lady, The Innocents, etc. was once in residence here, in a fine red-brick Georgian house.  Despite owning a copy of The Turn of the Screw that I got free in The Times some years ago, I have still never gotten around to reading any of James’s books (shame on me, I should be more interested in fellow American expats I guess).  In fact, I probably know more about his brother William, a psychologist, due to Deborah Blum’s fascinating book Ghost Hunters, but that National Trust card has made me more adventurous, as all I have to waste is my time, so I figured why the hell not see Lamb House?!

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Although if you’re not a National Trust member, I can think of six very good reasons not to see Lamb House.  As in, that’s how many pounds you’ll be wasting to look inside this ridiculously tiny property.  Well, the property itself actually seems fairly substantial, the problem is more that you’re not allowed in three quarters of the building, including the entire upstairs.  Only three rooms on the ground level of the house are open, plus a garden/cafe, which seems like a lovely place to have a tea, but if you’re not partaking, then it just means all the tea-drinkers stare at you as you try to look ’round the place.

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To be fair, they did hand over three long fact sheets when we walked in, which is more than many larger National Trust properties have, so I left knowing more about Henry James than I did when I walked in, which can’t be a bad thing.  And about E.F. Benson, who was another writer who lived in the house after James.  Benson I knew virtually nothing about, other than his name sounding vaguely familiar.  Apparently he wrote Mapp and Lucia novels, though I’m still in the dark as to what those involve.  One of the rooms had about a million binders on the table (many of them duplicates) with more information about the property, so I suppose that was a plus too.

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We discovered what appeared to be a pet graveyard outside; perhaps it was mentioned in one of those binders, and I missed it.  However, that pretty much concludes the list of interesting features of Lamb House.  It was way, way too small for the price, and unmemorable.  I’d definitely skip this one unless you’re a big Henry James fan AND a National Trust member (I don’t think James fans alone would be too pleased with the admission charge either).  It also seems like they have very limited opening hours, so odds are good it might be shut anyway. 1.5/5.

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Rye is one of those historic towns that’s meant to be super haunted and all that jazz, with some inn called the Mermaid being a major stop for German tour groups (as far as I could tell); I saw the Mermaid featured on Great British Ghosts a while back, and much as I like Michaela et al on Springwatch, even she couldn’t sell me on what was sure to be a tourist trap.  But I am not immune to tourist traps, as proved by my visit to the Rye Heritage Centre.  At first glance, the Heritage Centre was nothing more than a glorified souvenir shop, with some kind of (undoubtedly overpriced) “Sound and Light Show” about the history of Rye housed inside, but their website drew me in with the promise of an old-fashioned penny arcade.  I LOVE penny arcades, as you may remember from my visit to Tim Hunkin’s superb Under the Pier Show a couple years back.

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Though this was nothing like the glorious whimsy of the Under the Pier Show, being a pretty standard collection of old penny machines, it was free, and you got seven plays for a pound (which you have to exchange for giant pre-1971 pennies in a machine in order to play the games).  It was the usual mix of fortune telling devices, not-very-exciting games involving variations on dropping marbles through slots, and old mechanical models, but they did have a few machines that were listed as one-offs, including a machine from 1905!

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What can I say?  It was cheesy, and a bit lame, but I enjoyed myself, and the place was absolutely deserted, which was a bonus (the weird thing about Rye is that it has the feel of a seaside town, without actually being on the sea (though it once was, as I learned at Ypres Tower), which does help to cut down on the crowds a bit.  Just wish they’d get some decent ice cream somewhere.  Movenpick doesn’t cut it, sorry).  Rye was a bit of a mixed bag, but it was fine overall.  Not somewhere I’d rush to return to, but if I ended up back here at some point in the future, I wouldn’t mind too much.  Anywhere that has a penny arcade can’t be all bad.

Rye, East Sussex: Rye Castle Museum and Ypres Tower

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Why Rye?  Well, it’s near the seaside, and is within day trip distance from SW London (and takes you right through what I like to call the cherry belt: that glorious part of Kent and East Sussex littered with roadside stands selling bags of Kentish cherries far superior to anything you’ll find in the supermarket).  And, I miss American-style rye bread with caraway seeds; I especially like it toasted, with cinnamon and sugar, because it’s got kind of a sweet-savoury thing going on, so the name may have made me a bit hungry.  But it’s not as though the town of Rye is particularly known for its bread (in fact, I didn’t see a single artisan bakery, just “traditional” British ones producing some awful looking mushy white crap, basically a hot dog bun in loaf form).  What they do have is a castle, known as Ypres Tower.

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First, I should clarify a couple potentially confusing things about the castle.  Coming off the back of so many posts about Belgium, you might be thinking that with a name like Ypres, the castle has some connection to WWI or Belgium.  It turns out it was once owned by a man called John de Ypres, and has nothing to do with Belgium at all.  Also, the actual castle is not the castle museum (as we thought at first); the castle is Ypres Tower; the castle museum is down the road in a nondescript building.  Also, though they’re all part of the same museum, the Rye Castle Museum (the nondescript thing) is free, but Ypres Tower is £3.  Now that I’ve cleared all that up, let’s crack on!

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I could tell almost immediately upon entering Ypres Tower and having a peek around the ground floor, that it was going to be the kind of museum I like.  Old-fashioned, almost exhaustively educational in places (while still playing fast and loose with history, to include legend as “fact”), and above all, charming.  The castle had a number of uses over the years, from private residence, to defence, and finally as a prison, which were all reflected in the museum.  I was greeted by the alleged skeleton of John Breads (great name, especially coming from Rye), who famously murdered a local man in a case of mistaken identity (he was trying to kill someone he had a grudge against, but it was dark and he got the wrong man, which just seems careless), and was executed, then had his corpse hung from a gibbet.  There was also a delightful tapestry thing, made by local women, showing the history of the castle – my favourite bit was the distraught looking prisoner pictured above. In addition, there was an herb room hidden in the corner, with some explanation given of various medicinal herbs.

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The steps leading to the first floor of the tower (and slightly beyond, to a garderobe, as I discovered to my delight) were uneven and a real tripping hazard, as we were warned by the man at the admissions desk (I did stumble on the edges of two of them, so he wasn’t lying), but led up to a room with cases of uniforms, pottery tiles, and some knitting done by those craftsy local women, as well as a large display about the history of smuggling in Rye.

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Yeah, you can see what I mean from that picture about some of the history being exhausting to read.  Anyway, although Rye is now a couple of miles inland, for many centuries it was almost an island, surrounded by the English Channel, as I learned from the old-school lighted relief map in the centre of the room.  So it was a major port throughout the Middle Ages: even after silting occurred and one of the rivers Rye sat on changed course, meaning it was no longer on the sea, it continued to function curiously like a port town, and its economy depended heavily on smuggling, because it no longer had an influx of ships to depend on.  (Rye still has a definite seaside feel to it, as I’ll discuss further in my next post.)

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There were some nice views out the side of the tower, even though we weren’t actually all that high up (as far as towers go, since there were levels above us), because Rye is built on a hill, and Ypres Tower is at the top of it.  After having a good look out the side, it was time to brave those uneven steps again (not as bad on the way down), and head down to see the basement gallery.

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The basement was clearly the child-friendly area; as always, I was overjoyed that none were there, so I could try on ALL the armour.  And play with medieval weapons.

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I clearly rock at firing a longbow (actually, I couldn’t have been an archer, going by the test at the museum.  I think you probably had to start practicing while your bones were still malleable, so your shoulders deformed in a useful way).  Anyway, I enjoyed this overview of medieval history; any time there is stuff to try on, I get way too excited about it.

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Heading back outside, we turned right to walk through the garden, and reached the former women’s prison.  All prisoners were initially held within the tower itself in appalling conditions, but Elizabeth Fry, famed Quaker prison reform campaigner, visited the prison and convinced Rye to open a separate women’s prison, where the women had actual beds, fireplaces, and chamberpots.  It was still pretty grim, and involved eating a gruel-based diet, as the short projection inside the prison shows (keep your eyes peeled for the animated rat), but better than having to sleep in a pool of your own excrement!

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Once we figured out that we hadn’t yet seen the Rye Castle Museum, which to be honest, didn’t happen until after we left Ypres Tower and consulted the free map we grabbed off the admissions desk, we headed down the hill to East Street, to see t’other museum.  This was pretty small, all one room, but hey, it was free.  There was a bit about WWI, and then just loads of glass cases with objects relating to Rye’s history.  I liked the pottery pigs, which are apparently a local thing (though no one seemed to have any for sale, not even a pottery shop we passed that had an array of other animals in the window; although there may have been some inside, they weren’t prominently displayed), because people from Sussex are apparently stubborn and “Wun’t be Druv,” which is to say they won’t be driven where they don’t want to go.

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This was a fairly standard local history museum, and apart from finding some of the objects amusing, nothing particularly stood out to me, but if you’re looking to kill some time, you may as well stop in as it’s free.  I liked Ypres Tower a lot better, and though it was indeed very old-school, that’s kind of what I liked about it, and I don’t think 3 quid was a bad price (especially relative to what the National Trust are charging for their Rye property, more on that coming soon).  3/5 for Ypres Tower.  I wouldn’t make a special trip to Rye for it, but if you’re already here on account of the cobblestones (seriously, why are cobblestones a tourist attraction?!) or all the supposedly haunted stuff (or just because you hadn’t ever been to Rye and are running out of things to blog about, like me), it’s one of the better attractions the town has to offer (though that’s not really saying much), so is worth a look.

Basingstoke, Hampshire: The Vyne

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It’s been a while since I featured a National Trust property on here, so I hope you’re ready for one again.  This week brings us to The Vyne, so named because this is allegedly where the first grape vines in Britain were planted, by the Emperor Probus (though if that’s true, I have no idea why it’s spelt with a “y”). The house was built in Tudor times by Lord Sandys, who wanted to make something impressive enough that Henry VIII would pay him a visit…it must have worked as Henry was here at least three times, and Elizabeth I may have possibly been conceived on one of those visits.  It eventually was sold to the Chute family, which is how a certain John Chute, friend of Horace Walpole (of Strawberry Hill fame) came to own it and make some fabulous “Gothick” improvements (unlike Horace Walpole, Chute does not appear to have any obvious ass-hat descendents, which is probably why the Gothic features are still there today).

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The National Trust membership allows me a certain degree of impunity when flashing that card around, so I genuinely did not even check to see how much visiting this property costs until now, when writing it up, and I am more than a little shocked to discover it will set you back 13 English pounds (if I had to hazard a guess at how it was priced, I would have put it more in the realm of a tenner, even considering that National Trust prices are always deliberately too high, to try to encourage membership).  So I can’t help but bear that in mind whilst writing the rest of this review.  Anyway, admission to the house on weekends appears to be by timed ticket (or at least it was when I was there); however, that shouldn’t be a problem as they seem to have plenty of tickets available for each time slot.  The man at the “desk” (picnic table) asked when we wanted to see the house – I said, “as soon as available,” imagining something perhaps half an hour hence.  Instead, he handed us tickets good until 2 o’clock.  As it was then 1:52, this meant a sprint straight to the house, which is down a fairly long wooded path (ten minutes is probably a more reasonable time to walk there in, but if you don’t want to rush, probably better to request tickets for the next time slot rather than the one currently in operation.  There’s other stuff to see whilst you wait).

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Anyway, we made it to the house in time (though I don’t think they were probably all that strict about it, at least, the volunteer collecting tickets was very friendly) to be greeted with a plaque dedicated to Probus, that aforementioned emperor who introduced wine to Britain.  Perhaps because it is a more expensive property, the Vyne is one of those that actually has a fact sheet in every room, rather than just one for the whole house (and battered indeed they were, they looked like they’ve seen a lot of use), and some additional signage that proved more interesting in some cases than the laminated fact sheets (this is how I learned that Elizabeth I may have been conceived here, and also about some Plantagenet descendent who was married in the house’s chapel after Henry VIII gave her the choice between marrying beneath her or lifetime imprisonment, in an attempt to neutralise her as a threat to the throne.  Obviously, she opted for the marriage).

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We were there at the tail-end of Tudor month, so I’m not sure if all the Tudor information is normally there, or if some of it was added specifically for the event.  But I think the Tudor ladies leading dances outside, and the Henry VIII sat inside the house’s entrance hall were only there for Tudor month (missing out on them may or may not be a loss, depending on how you feel about people in costume.  I usually steer clear of them, especially Henry who seemed to really take being in character seriously, and was busy yelling the whole time).

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But yeah, the house has a chapel with some fabulous stained glass in it (there’s a green dragon and a goat.  And a few dogs), and the tomb of Chaloner Chute, MP.  The Chute family seemed into ridiculous names (at least until they got to John), as there were a couple Chaloners, and a girl with a name so stupid I can’t even remember exactly what it was.  Something in the vein of Chrysogea.  Definitely started with a “ch” to keep with that whole alliteration thing.  You may also note the Strawberry Hill influenced ceilings in some of the rooms, one of John’s Gothic touches.

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The ground floor also housed a number of unusual large maps (they didn’t photograph well, being very brown and faded) of London and England, and a small exhibition room going into more detail about the stained glass.  The Vyne was also bursting with books for some reason, there being a secondhand bookshop within the house, as well as another within the shop, and a shed right by the parking lot.  Unfortunately, none of them looked very interesting, or I would have scooped some up, as 50p is a good price (that’s like a library book sale price right there!).

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There was a Great Hall and some bedrooms upstairs, and everything was perfectly nice, but as usual, I enjoyed the touches of quirk more than anything else, like this bust with a half-missing nose and a really bizarre expression.  By the time we got back to the entrance hall, I was slightly relieved to see that Henry had disappeared (presumably off on a meal break) and his throne was empty.  We must have seemed slightly hesitant to sit on it (I was kind of afraid he would suddenly return and yell at me), because a volunteer encouraged us to pose for pictures, and we duly obliged (but I looked terrible, so you’re not going to see said pictures).  She also encouraged us to head up to the tea room for the cakes; being extremely hungry, we followed that suggestion too.

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The queue in the tea room was insane, but after ascertaining that everyone else was waiting to buy hot drinks, we edged to the front (I still think some of the people in front of us may have been wanting to form a lynch mob because of that (or British equivalent; I don’t think you’re meant to come between a Brit and their tea, if the Boston Tea Party is anything to go by), but it was my boyfriend’s idea, and we did ask) and took our slices out with us to explore the gardens (and escape the mob).  I ate an epic amount of millionaire’s shortbread, and promptly got a stomachache, but that was probably my own fault for greedily choosing the largest piece (it was so tasty though).   Anyway, the Vyne abuts a river, so there are riparian entertainments to be had if you’re so inclined (this is where the Tudor ladies were leading dances on the lawn).

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After checking out the famous “Hundred Guinea Oak,” (one of the owners of the house was offered 100 guineas for the tree’s wood (I think during the Napoleonic Wars, when ship-quality wood was in high demand), but he refused.  The tree’s about 600 years old), we headed for the walled garden, which had a small glasshouse with exotic citruses.  The property also has a number of trails if you’re inclined to go for a walk (and some kind of large children’s play area accessed via a “hidden” entrance in the Summer House, but I was too distracted by my shortbread-induced stomachache, and also chickens)!

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I don’t know what it is with the National Trust and chickens, but I’m not complaining, as these ones even had names.  (Lady Featherington von Cluckson is exactly the sort of thing I would name a chicken.  I mean, I did name my chocolate Easter chicken Mrs. Cluckley (which means I couldn’t bring myself to eat her; she’s still sitting atop a bookcase).)  I think once you’ve seen chickens (or any kind of farm animal), that’s pretty much going to be the highlight of the day, so we left soon afterwards, as there wasn’t really much else to do.  Now, before I knew the Vyne cost 13 quid, I thought it was really pretty alright, but it was nowhere near 13 quid’s worth of alright.  Again, this was one of the many places that is well worth visiting if you have membership, as the house was pretty nice and the cakes were indeed tasty, but I’d skip it otherwise, as there simply wasn’t enough to do to justify an admission fee that high.  3/5.

 

Broadstairs, Kent: Dickens House Museum

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Dahl’s Chickens strikes again!  As soon as it starts to warm up, in addition to ditching socks as soon as possible (I hate when my feet are all hot and constrained), I want to go to the seaside.  This is obviously a relatively new phenomenon for me, as the lakeside was the closest I got as a kid, and if you’ve ever been swimming in Lake Erie, you will understand why it is not that thrilling (dead fish, insanely high bacteria counts, random floating garbage).  I certainly don’t swim in open water these days (in addition to being terrified of crabs and things, I am not a good swimmer and fear death), but I’ll happily go wading if there’s a nice sandy beach, and it’s even better if there’s somewhere to procure ice cream nearby.  Which brought me to Broadstairs.

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Broadstairs is a fair drive for a day trip (over two hours from SW London), so we saved it for a bank holiday weekend (yeah, this post has been sitting around for a while too).  It is in Thanet, so we were slightly apprehensive that it might be somehow “UKIPy,” (which I don’t know, it might well be), but to all appearances it is just a nice early Victorian seaside town built on cliffs, from which you descend some stairs to reach a beautiful sandy beach (with very cold water, but hey, it was still May).  Though I was freaked out to see some crab bits laying on the sand, it was otherwise very clean, and we strolled for quite a while before grabbing an ice cream from Morelli’s (the most expensive damn ice cream; this was beyond London pricing, and waaaayyyyy more than it should have been at a seaside town.  And there was no pistachio, which never bodes well).  Of course, it’d be remiss of me to not take in a museum as well, which brings me back to Dahl’s Chickens, er, Charles Dickens (yep, I’m still using that BFG joke).

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Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to Broadstairs from 1837-1859, and befriended a local lady there, a Miss Mary Pearson Strong, who became the inspiration for Betsy Trotwood in David CopperfieldI have never read David Copperfield, but apparently Betsy Trotwood had some sort of problem with donkeys using the street in front of her house, like the real life Miss Strong.  At any rate, her house has been turned into the Dickens House Museum (not to be confused with the Dickens Museum in London), complete with a parlour where Dickens once took tea with Miss Strong, and can be seen for £3.75.

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Neither the house nor the museum are particularly large, but there was a charming volunteer there on the day we visited who told us the history of the house and just generally made us feel welcome, which was much appreciated.  The main room downstairs holds a desk actually purchased by Dickens, a chest given to him on one of his trips to America, and a number of pictures of a rather dashing young Dickens (as we learned at the other Dickens Museum, he was something of a dandy, and favoured bold waistcoats even into his later years).

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There were also a couple small back rooms filled with maps of London and more pictures, but not a whole lot of information.  What was there was mostly written on the pictures themselves in prohibitively tiny text (my boyfriend remarked that he wished he brought his glasses, but my vision’s perfect (not to brag, it’s thanks to LASIK), so I did alright), and was really too lengthy to stand there and read the whole of it.  I do quite like old-fashioned museums with piles of text, but sometimes it could do with being broken up a bit more, and this was one of those times.

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The parlour in question was roped off, so you could only peer at it from the corner of the room, but it contained an unusually comfy looking chaise longue, and seemed like it would be a nice place to take tea (though I think it is a re-creation done with period furniture, and not the actual furnishings Dickens would have used).  There were a couple more rooms upstairs, but these were largely filled with random objects (I guess just common objects in a Victorian household, not sure if there was a specific Dickens connection), and this is where more signage would have definitely come in handy, as there was only a board listing the names of everything, but not what they were used for (and a very confused German lady kept asking her English travelling companion what each thing was, because it wasn’t obvious, even to native English speakers).

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I have to confess that the museum wasn’t terribly comprehensive or informative (a framed poster from a 1970 edition of the Sunday Times was the most helpful thing there, and though I enjoyed reading Dickens’s (largely negative) comments on America, the museum really shouldn’t be relying on a 45 year old newspaper insert), but it was quaint, and I feel bad being too harsh on it because the volunteers were so nice, which goes a long way with me (having encountered unpleasant or uninterested museum staff on far too many occasions).  Besides, it was fairly inexpensive (as were the postcards, when we asked the volunteer how much they cost, we thought he said 50p, and he was shocked when that’s what we tried to give him (“50p?!  No, of course not, they’re only 15p!”), when really I’ve paid 60p and up for postcards some places, so 50p would have not at all seemed out of line, though of course 15 is even better!), so I have no regrets about visiting, even if it wasn’t quite as informative as I would have liked.  2.5/5.

And I think Broadstairs is probably worth a visit in its own right if you manage to hit it on a warm day, as the beach is lovely, and there seemed to be quite a few independent bookshops and tearooms scattered around its narrow streets.  They also celebrate Dickens in the form of a festival every June, so it may be worth going for that if you’re keener than I am on Dickens (in which case you might get more out of the museum than I did as well).

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Brussels, Belgium: The Parlamentarium and Cantillon Brewery

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On our last day in Belgium, still riding high on the thrills of Kattenstoet, we decided to head back to Brussels early to give ourselves some time to do stuff in the city before catching the Eurostar back home.  (If I mention how much I prefer the Eurostar to flying, will they give me free tickets?  No, I don’t think so either, but it’s worth a try.)  We went to Brussels a few years ago, and I wasn’t terribly impressed with it then, but I don’t remember visiting many museums the first time around, and I also think the frites there are better than most of the ones in Brugge (must be the ox fat), so it was worth it just to get that cardboard cone of fried potatoes.  Unfortunately, we were there on a Monday, which is the museum closing day in Belgium, so it initially looked like we wouldn’t be seeing any museums this time around either.  Enter the Parlamentarium.

Aside from its amazing name, the Parlamentarium also had free admission, and of course its Monday opening hours to recommend it.  It sounded perfect, at least, until we actually had to find our way there.  We’d gotten into the Grand Place from Brussels Zuid with little difficulty (where I gobbled down some frites), but the European Parliament is located outside the touristy centre of the city, in a district full of scary embassies with soldiers clutching machine guns out front (America, I’m looking at you).  Strangely, considering how Belgium is renowned for being a flat country, Brussels appears to be built on a hill, and we found ourselves climbing it the whole way.  And we took a wrong turn at some point, which extended the journey.  And it was about 80 degrees Fahrenheit that day, which was a hell of a lot hotter than we’d been used to, so we sweated the whole way there.

But we made it in the end, albeit about an hour later than I would have liked to, because last entry to Cantillon Brewery was at 4, and it was at the other end of the city.  This meant our visit to the Parlamentarium would have to be a short one.  To get in, you have to submit your bag and person to a security scan, and then store your bags in the lockers they provide (which are free, at least), and I don’t think they encourage photography (save for with the cardboard cutout of Martin Schulz before the entrance.  And if I told you I knew who Martin Schulz was before visiting the museum, I’d be lying).  Because everything in the museum must be translated into the 24 official languages of the EU, to avoid having a million different signs in the Parlamentarium, they rely on audio guides.  The idea is that you scan certain points in the museum, and a short video will play in your chosen language.  However, it didn’t seem to be working correctly when I was there, as it kept trying to play me videos in French, only switching to English after the opening gallery.

I think this museum is for people more patient than I am; because there were loads of scanning points with fairly lengthy videos (or audio) for each, you would have had to stand there for hours to listen to everything, so I just skipped ahead to the interactive bits.  They had a giant map of Europe, with little moveable stands, the idea being that you scanned different points on the map to learn more about that country.  They also had a mock-up of the European Parliament (comfy chairs), with interactive screens where you could play games trying to match MEPs up with their seats, or vote on issues.

To be honest, I felt kind of embarrassed the whole time I was there, thanks to the UK’s Euroskepticism (and the antics of Nigel Farage).  It’s pretty ridiculous when the people representing you (well, in a general sense; as I’m not a citizen yet, I guess I don’t technically get any kind of representation) don’t even believe in the body they’re meant to be working with; seriously, what is the point of them even being there, other than to make themselves as obnoxious as possible and impede progress?!  I don’t like to get political on here, but I would categorise myself as more pro-EU than not (and having had the freedom to move here myself (which would not have been the case had I enrolled in my Master’s programme just a year later than I did, “thanks” to Theresa May! (ugh)) it would be pretty hypocritical of me not to support that same right for others), so visiting the Parlamentarium was eye-opening in lots of ways, and not good ones.  I wish I would have had a bit more time to spend here, for all that I wasn’t crazy about the audio guides, but I think a lot of it was just too political-sciencey to have held my interest anyway.  I appreciate that it’s free and open to the public though.  3/5.

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Even though we didn’t spend much time at the Parlamentarium, by the time we found a train station and caught a train back to Brussels-Zuid, it was already after 4, and we still had to walk to Cantillon, so I was sure they weren’t going to let us in.  Fortunately, the gregarious man at the front desk didn’t seem too bothered by our arriving 15 minutes late, as there were still a few groups in front of us he was letting in.  I’d never tried Cantillon before visiting the brewery, but I like lambics very much (I really only like lambics and fruit beers; I’m into sour but not bitter), and one of my friends always raves about their stuff, so I thought it was worth investigating further.  7 euros gets you a self-guided brewery tour (what they refer to as a living museum of gueuze, which apparently is pronounced guuuuuuhhhhz, at least according to the woman in the shop) and two samples of their beer (about a half glass each, whatever that translates to in ounces, since I don’t think they were pint glasses).

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The brewery isn’t all that big, as they have a fairly small-scale production, but the booklet they give you is pretty lengthy, and fully covers all the stages of the brewing process.  Really it was more about smelling your way through, as everything had a yeasty cheesy aroma that I rather enjoyed, there not being that much to actually see, since they weren’t bottling anything up at this time of year.  Gueuze is a blended lambic, made from lambics of different vintages, so I think they always have something brewing away (their Grand Cru is made of three year old lambic), there just isn’t anything to look at while it sits in barrels I guess.

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I did kind of rush through the tour because I was eager to get to the sampling portion of the experience, which is handed out by a man with a grey ponytail who was mentioned on all the Trip Advisor reviews (I don’t know why, but after reading so much about him I would have been a little disappointed if he wasn’t there).  We got a sample of gueuze and one of kriek, both of which were delicious (though I am very partial to kriek).  They have more beers available to taste, but you have to pay extra for them, and as they were about to close, we didn’t want to linger too long.

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If the taster sells you on their beers (as they clearly hope it will), never fear, because they have a variety of merchandise for sale next to the bar area, including t-shirts, cheese, marmalade, and of course, a range of Cantillon beer (though only a small selection of the various types they make).  We picked up four 75cl bottles, which in retrospect was a mistake as it meant we had to haul them back home, but they were quite a bit cheaper than they are in the UK, so whatever.  I know sour beer isn’t to everyone’s taste, but these guys seemed really passionate about what they do, and I loved their beer, so I enjoyed myself (even though the tour really isn’t worth 7 euros, but after getting the samples, you’re not likely going to complain about it); just don’t count on an in-depth or guided tour, because this isn’t the brewery for that.  3.5/5.  Until next time, Belgium!

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