Burwash, East Sussex: Bateman’s (Rudyard Kipling’s Home)

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I know I’ve mentioned this on here before, but “How the Camel Got His Hump” from Just So Stories was my absolute favourite story when I was little, and I forced my grandpa to read it to me every time I saw him (which was at least 3 times a week, since my grandparents babysat me whilst my mom was at work) because he did such an excellent grumpy camel voice.  So I’ve always harboured a fondness for Mr. Kipling (Rudyard, not the cake manufacturer, although you won’t catch me turning down a French Fancy. Especially those orange ones they put out for Halloween), and when I spotted Bateman’s in the (sigh) National Trust handbook, I marked it down for a future visit.  However, it had to wait for a day when it was warm enough to also walk around nearby Battle, because I kind of doubted it would merit a special trip of its own.

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Bateman’s was built in 1634, but the Kiplings obviously came to own the property a few centuries on, from 1902 until the deaths of Rudyard and his wife Carrie in the 1930s.  There’s quite a lot of land surrounding the house, including a variety of gardens and a watermill (of which more later), but I’m not sure it’s enough to merit the tenner non-members have to pay to enter (I’m convinced by now that the National Trust expects everyone to become members, so they just slap any old admission price on their properties because they assume almost no one is going to pay it).

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As for the house, well, we didn’t really get any pictures inside because we weren’t 100% sure whether we were allowed to take them, and it was crowded in there so it felt awkward whipping out a camera, but the typical National Trust rather scanty single-sheet guide did have its moments.  For instance, there was an ugly painting hanging in the dining room that was a gift to the family, so they felt like they had to display it, but they got around this by sitting with their backs to it, except Rudyard, who was too short sighted to be able to see it from his side of the table anyway. There were also some carvings (I think made by Kipling’s father) depicting scenes from The Jungle Book.  As is usual though, Bateman’s appeared to assume that everyone visiting was already a huge Rudyard Kipling fan and was familiar with all his works, and focused instead on family life, especially his son John, who was killed in the First World War.  I understand that they have limited space, so they have to choose an aspect of Kipling’s life to focus on, but I do think there must be some way to provide more background information at these places whilst still telling the story they want to tell.

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The one thing we did get a picture of in the house was the alphabet necklace featured in Just So Stories.  I strongly suspect the copy I had was an abridged version (considering it was one of my grandpa’s garage sale finds, it’s not completely surprising), because I do not remember any stories about the alphabet, only animal ones, so I didn’t feel the proper sense of awe at seeing it.  I think I would have been more impressed with a stuffed camel.  This was in the “exhibition room,” which was really the only place in the house that gave a significant amount of space to Kipling’s writing, with copies of some of his books, and his Nobel Prize for Literature.  Even here, half the space was devoted to John Kipling, and his war experiences; I’m not sure if this is a special feature for the centenary, or an all-the-time thing (I’m not knocking it, as John’s death was obviously a huge life-defining blow to Kipling, but it seemed a little odd to have so much emphasis on John relative to Rudyard).

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Back outside, we stole a quick peek at Kipling’s gorgeous blue 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom I (I’m not a car person, but if I was going to have a car, damn, now THAT’S a car!) and headed down the river, past the gardens to the watermill.  Despite the handbook claiming that we could purchase flour ground in the mill, the mill is currently non-operational, so that was off the table.  You’re still allowed to look around inside, but a mill is a mill (yes, I know about all the different styles, but it’s hard to get excited about the differences if you’re not a mill enthusiast), and once you’ve seen a fair few, as I have, they get a bit dull.

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However, I am not so world-weary and dead inside that I can’t appreciate some chickens.  They had a crapload of chickens!  There were even some roosting in a tree!  (I bought a chocolate chicken from Lidl for Easter this year, because I’ve wanted a chocolate chicken since I saw them advertised on a German Lindt commercial last year, and this was the first time I’ve been able to find one.  I made the mistake of naming her Mrs. Cluckley, and now I can’t bring myself to eat her, even though Easter has long since come and gone.)

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On the subject of chocolate, I should mention that the tearoom had an unusually wide selection of cakes, which I did not partake of because Battle was supposed to have baked goods made with their own honey, but after seeing the disappointing offerings at Battle (spoiler alert?), I sorely wished I had grabbed some chocolate fudge cake at Bateman’s (don’t be like me, is what I’m saying).  In the end, I think the gardens (and chickens) may have been better than the actual house, which needed to have more signage.  I sound like a broken record with these National Trust properties, and I’m not sure why I go in expecting things to be different, but there you have it.  3/5.

 

Montacute, Somerset: TV Radio Toy Museum

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Just down the road from Montacute House (it’s not a very big village), is the TV Radio Toy Museum (no punctuation or “and” in there according to their website, despite what the sign on the actual museum says, so you get the fun of trying to say it all in one breath).  If you’re visiting the museum and Montacute House, the sensible thing to do would be to leave your car at Montacute House, as there’s not that much parking available in the village itself.  Cheapskate that I am, I was apprehensive about paying 8 quid to visit what I imagined would not be a very large museum, but the pictures of terrible looking mannequins and dioramas on their website were enough to lure me in (since I am the same person who paid 8 euro to see the spectacularly awful Museo delle Cere in Rome.  What can I say, I have a weakness for shitty waxworks!).

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Though I was correct in assuming that the museum was not large, it was packed absolutely full to the gills with crap.  Unlike the Bakelite Museum, there were plenty of captions as well (almost too many, when it came to the items I didn’t care about; i.e. most of them).  It is billed as the TV Radio Toy Museum, but I’d say 90% of the stuff there was TV related, as the toys were all promotional items relating to TV shows, which was OK by me, since I’m not really familiar with old radio shows anyway.  Unfortunately, although there was a good mix of British and American TV programmes represented (though obviously more British ones), the vast majority of them were Westerns or cop shows, which are also genres I care very little about.

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But then again, I somehow suspect I’m not their target audience; though they bill themselves as “a wonderful experience for all the family,” judging from the Trip Advisor reviews, it’s apparent that the museum is primarily used as an outing for middle aged people and their elderly parents, so the older people can have the “fun” of reminiscing (which seems a bit patronising, but whatever).  I wouldn’t say I did much reminiscing (because it wasn’t aimed at people in my age range) but I did have fun admiring the pictures (and mannequin) of a young Roger Moore.

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And tickling a scary monkey head under the chin, of course, although he never laughed or talked or whatever it was he was meant to do (which I was admittedly relieved about, since he freaked me out).  Now, I’m not sure how busy it ever gets in the museum, but you’d definitely want to aim for a slow day, because it is narrow in there.  Awkwardly narrow, to the point where you have to smoosh yourself against the exhibits if someone wants to pass you, or else everyone has to shuffle single file behind the slowest people in the museum, which is what happened near the end of the museum with the Whovians (more on them in a minute).

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If I had to guess, I’d say one of the main draws in the museum is the Horror/Sci-Fi section in the back, which is remarkable mainly for the sheer crappiness of the dummies.  Just look at that Spock, Data, and Picard up there!  I’d be hard-pressed to say which one looks the worst, though I’m leaning towards Spock.  They weren’t the only comically distorted television characters, as we stepped into the TARDIS to find…

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The whole range of Doctor mannequins, which were every bit as awful as the Star Trek ones.  We also came across some real live people dressed as four of the Doctors.  Initially, I assumed they worked there, and thought it was kind of a nice, albeit odd touch.  Soon however, reality set in, and it dawned on me that they didn’t work there at all; they were just nerds!  I mean, not knocking anyone’s lifestyle choices; if you’re brave enough to walk around in public like that then more power to you, but they were a bit much, especially as I was forced to trail slowly behind them and listen to their detailed discussions of every Doctor Who object in the museum (and one of them did not put much effort into his costume.  I think he was meant to be Christopher Eccleston, but you couldn’t really tell; it was a poor showing compared to the other three).  I only mention this so you’re aware that it appears to be some kind of pilgrimage site for people of a certain nerdly persuasion.

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I wasn’t big on the fact that aside from the mannequins and toys, most of the museum was made up of comic books.  I suppose a wall of comic book covers is a bold graphic statement, but it doesn’t really do much for me.  I mean, you quickly scan it, and move on.  It’s not very interesting or informative, is all.

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I guess I was slightly more impressed with the actual Crystal Maze jumpsuit (it’s not something I grew up watching, just something I’ve caught in reruns in recent years on Challenge (though as game shows go, I much prefer Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, and classic Stars in Their Eyes…that Harry Hill reboot is beyond awful)), and jeez, how about all those weather-themed board games?  I love board games, but even I have my limits, and I think The Met Office Weather Game might be one of them (admittedly, my boyfriend was intrigued enough to try to track it down).  He also couldn’t believe that they had a referee figurine from that Gladiators show, because apparently no one in their right mind would want an action figure of a referee (the only action figures I had were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ones, so I don’t have a strong opinion on this either way).

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Suffice it to say that I wasn’t overly impressed with the TV Radio Toy Museum, though this is in large part because I am not British, a baby boomer, or the right type of nerd.  I tend to nerd out more on history, and books, and cool museums (obviously); not so much TV, and my favourite show (Seinfeld) wasn’t even represented, nor were The Golden Girls or Frasier (I love Frasier but I hate Cheers.  Weird?), and the early years of The Simpsons and I Love Lucy were only given a passing mention.  Even the British programmes I like, such as Peep Show and Father Ted (and Keeping Up Appearances, thanks to my grandma) were too relatively recent to feature here.  The museum has a tearoom attached, and a shop selling all manner of vintage toys and games, but I felt I’d spent enough money at the place (too much, really, it shouldn’t have been more than about 3 quid), so I gave those a miss.  The mannequins were great (in the sense of being hilarious), but the rest of it could do with more organisation and a larger display space, and would benefit from incorporating more actual memorabilia, rather than just comic books and promotional materials.  2.5/5.

 

 

 

Montacute, Somerset: Montacute House

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Another stately home, and more Damian Lewis connections.  Same old, same old, in other words.  (I’m not even THAT into Damian Lewis.  I mean, sure I like the guy (and he’s foxy in glasses) but not as much as the frequency with which I post about him would have you believe.)  Montacute House, in Somerset, is another one of the many places where Wolf Hall was filmed, even though the house was built well after Henry’s reign.  (But you can probably see why they used it; it’s magnificent looking.)

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And yes, it’s another National Trust property, but for once that was a good thing, since it meant it was open on Easter.  As we’re not religious, and there’s only so much time you can spend eating chocolate (and that’s coming from someone with an extreme sweet tooth, I think it’s because I gobble all the chocolate down in seconds, so although I can consume a vast quantity, it doesn’t take me long!), my boyfriend and I needed something to fill our time on Easter Sunday, so this fit the bill nicely.  We got there pretty soon after the grounds opened, and found out the house wasn’t due to open for another hour, so we spent more time wandering around the gardens than we normally would have.  (Admission is £11.20 sans Gift Aid for non-members, or more realistically (because I know I usually get guilted into these things), £12.40 with it.)

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At least all the daffodils and tulips were in bloom.  I’m not a huge flower person, in that I don’t know much about all the different types (and I certainly wouldn’t ever dare try to grow any), but I can appreciate a nice garden (as long as I don’t have to spend too long looking at it), and I’m especially partial to those daffodils with the yellow centres that kind of look like eggs.

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However, I’m much more the type to explore secret passageways and outbuildings, so I spent most of my time wandering into mysterious hedge tunnels, peering down the hole in the ice house (which was full of empty Tango bottles, like every other ice house.  Who are all these litterbug Tango drinkers?  I don’t think I’ve ever even had the stuff), and venturing into pavilions that stank of rotting flesh.  Upon discovering an animal skull that still had maggots crawling on it on one of the window ledges, I realised why they smelled so bad (honestly, I think they were probably just old and a bit mouldy, as the skull was picked pretty clean – I’m using artistic licence here).

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The house finally opened, so we ran inside before it got filled up with children on the Easter Egg Hunt.  I feel like at this point I should just have a National Trust disclaimer or something I can direct people to, but I’ll say it again anyway: like the vast majority of National Trust properties, Montacute House did not have a great deal of information inside about the past owners.  As usual, the little fact sheets that were available were mainly concerned with the furnishings.  And it was pretty clear from the start that Montacute was a very art-focused property, portraiture in particular.

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Well, portraiture, and that fabulous bas-relief on the right (I have no idea if bas-relief is the accurate term, as I’m not good with art, but I just spent ten minutes trying to find out what that thing is called, and bas-relief is the closest I can find.  If anyone knows what the correct term is, please let me know!) depicting a woman hitting her drunken husband with a shoe, and the husband subsequently taken off to be publicly shamed for being drunk whilst watching a baby.

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In addition to Wolf Hall being filmed on the grounds, there’s also been some productions filmed inside the house; the room pictured on the left was still in disarray after being used for some unspecified BBC production, and they filmed that terrible Johnny Depp film The Libertine using that bed on the right (not knocking the Earl of Rochester, his poetry is lewdly amazing, but that film really did not do him justice).  And I swear one of the volunteers mentioned something Jane Austeny being filmed there as well.  A range of historical eras are represented through the furnishings of the rooms, so I guess it all works.

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The top floor was the glorious Great Hall (apparently the longest surviving one in England, as in, literally the longest in terms of length, not that it’s the oldest surviving one), and it was devoted entirely to a joint National Portrait Gallery/Montacute House exhibition depicting famous figures from the time the house was built, so lots of Tudors and Stuarts.  This exhibit did have extensive signage by each painting, and larger fact sheets about the fashions of the time (the kind of thing you’d expect from the National Portrait Gallery), so that was a nice change from the rest of the house.

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I did notice that there were little scavenger hunt sheets located in each room, where you were meant to find various animals hidden in the furniture or paintings; since I got cheated out of the Easter Egg Hunt by virtue of being old, I freely indulged in trying to find all the animals, though it was harder than expected.

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Outside the house, there was a tearoom with the usual National Trust offerings (sadly no special chocolate cornflake nests or anything for Easter, so I just had a boring old shortbread) and of course a shop, but that’s pretty much all I have to say about that.  Montacute House is undeniably handsome, and the gardens were quite nice as well, but save for the National Portrait Gallery space, and that thing that is probably a bas-relief, it was all just a little dull really (after seeing Longleat just a couple days before, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of whimsy at Montacute). Maybe I’ve just been to too many stately homes in the past few months but I’m kind of over them.  Still, it’s probably quite nice if you’re not as house-weary as me.  3/5.

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Williton, Somerset: The Bakelite Museum

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This is one of those cases where I took one for the team, so to speak.  Do I care about Bakelite enough to spend £5 visiting a Bakelite Museum?  No, absolutely not, but it seemed like an unusual museum you guys would enjoy hearing about (though I could well be wrong about that).  If I wasn’t particularly excited about Bakelite in the first place, I was even less excited when we pulled into a parking lot full of abandoned-looking vehicles (I think they’re actually part of museum-guy’s collection), one with a poor dog left inside of it (at least the windows were open), and awkwardly milled around the front of what looked like someone’s house, waiting for a sign of life. After not too long, an elaborately mustachioed man emerged and collected our money.  He informed us there was a power outage, so we’d have to look around the museum in the dark (to be fair, he told us about the power outage before he took our money, but you’d think he could have reduced the price a little bit since it was difficult to see anything).

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Things didn’t improve when my allergies started flaring up immediately after setting foot in the place. It was a health hazard on so many levels – I suspect that would have been the case even if the lights had been on.  Everything (as far as I could see) was coated in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, and the creaky wooden floors felt like they might collapse under me, especially on the top level of what used to be a watermill; plus stumbling over rusty farm equipment in a blackened room was probably a recipe for tetanus (I’m very glad I’m up to date on all my vaccinations).  I say all this not because I’m particularly concerned about health and safety (on the contrary, I rather enjoy jumbled-up, rickety old places), more because there was absolutely no degree of upkeep evident in the museum, so I’m not exactly sure what our admission fee was paying for, besides possibly so the owner could pay rent and expand his collection (by contrast, the Museum of Everyday Life and the Bread and Puppet Theatre Museum in Vermont are two of my favourite places, and they also have an air of benign neglect – the difference is that they are free to visit, and have cool stuff inside them).

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So I’m sure you all know that Bakelite is an early plastic that they used to make into pretty much anything in the early-to-mid 20th century, so there was a varied array of crap on show, but sad to say, crap is what most of it was.  More than anything else, it was reminiscent of my grandpa’s basement, barn and garage.  My grandpa was a bit of a pack rat (I wouldn’t say hoarder, because he was capable of throwing some things out, and his living space was kept clear and tidy (though much of that may have been my grandma’s influence)), and in over half a century of living in the same home, he’d acquired quite an impressive collection of junk (though surprisingly well-organised junk, he was a great one for neatly labelling boxes), so I used to love wandering through his basement as a kid, as it was kind of a treasure trove of vintage toys, both leftover from my mother and aunts, and acquired from garage sales for my and my brother’s enjoyment.  After seeing the Bakelite Museum, I’m thinking we shouldn’t have cleaned out his house after he died, but left everything as it was, and charged people to look around like moustache man is doing.

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Some of it was vaguely sorted by type, and I suppose there is some satisfaction to be had in looking at a wide range of similar items arranged by colour, but I would have been a lot more satisfied if someone had taken a dust rag to the place at some point in the last decade.

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The first two floors were given over to Bakelite, but the top floor was meant to be some sort of Rural Life Museum, and contained the aforementioned collection of mouldering farm implements, including what I like to refer to as the “wall of animal mutilation devices,” with various castrating and branding appliances.  I suppose I was lucky that I could see any of it at all, because even with all the doors and windows open, most of the light didn’t penetrate the interior, so I was reliant on the small flashlight I keep in my purse for emergencies, to prevent me from tripping over something and killing myself.  Because of the flash on the camera, it may appear lighter in some of the pictures than it actually was.

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The only area I really liked in the museum was the last room (before exiting down a rickety staircase), which featured delightfully morbid articles like a Bakelite coffin, and some Edwardian mourning jewellery; as far as the rest of it was concerned, labelling was sparse at best (and nearly impossible to read anyway, between the hand-lettering and of course, the lack of artificial lighting), and I really didn’t need to pay to see a bunch of vintage radios or telephones shoved in a corner.  There’s apparently some sort of cafe, but we were the only people there, besides some friends of the owner who appeared near the end of our visit, so I would have felt really weird sitting there (I had to use the bathroom, which was located behind the guy’s house, and walking down a long dank alley by myself past more rusting machinery freaked me out enough).

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While in theory, this should have been exactly the sort of place I like – quirky, independently run, unusual subject matter – in practice, it fell totally flat for me.  I know the power outage was outside their control, but the owner should have at least offered a discount or a flashlight that was more powerful than the little one I just happened to have on me, as it was nearly impossible to even make out half of the collection (I’m assuming he was the owner because there was a large portrait of him hanging inside the museum, which I only noticed later when looking through the photographs, as it was too dark to see it at the time).  Even if the lights had been on, I still would have thought the place was kind of a rip-off, considering not much of an attempt had been made to curate anything.  My expectations were not high going into the museum, but it failed to meet even that low bar.  1.5/5.

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Nether Stowey, Somerset: Coleridge Cottage

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Alright, yes, it is ANOTHER National Trust property, and it won’t be the last one this year by a long shot, but I am trying to space them out as promised.  Besides, it’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge we’re talking about here.  I named my now deceased Madagascar Dragon Tree after him (one of the “easiest indoor plants to grow and maintain” my ass), and I would have gone to see his house even if it wasn’t covered by my National Trust membership, so I think I deserve a break on this one.  There’s actually a whole “Coleridge Way” walk that runs through the Quantocks, but that seemed overly ambitious considering the changeable state of the weather and my lack of hiking attire.  Coleridge Cottage is located in the amusingly named village (one of many in Somerset; I’m partial to Goathurst and Queen Camel myself) of Nether Stowey (naturally, there is also an Over Stowey, which is actually south of Nether Stowey, so not quite sure how it’s “Over”), and admission is £5.60 sans Gift Aid (which I admit is a bit steep for how long it takes to see the property).  The house is not particularly large; it initially only consisted of four rooms, and has since had a kitchen and a couple other rooms added on for use as museum space, but is still rather small.

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Although Coleridge and his family only lived in the cottage for a three year period (it was rented out to him by his friend, Thomas Poole), it was one of the most productive periods of his working life, so his most famous poems, including “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan,” and “The Nightingale” were written here.  I am not, generally speaking, a big poetry person, but I first read Coleridge back in high school, and I’ve always liked him (I think the whole opium thing made me think he was cool when I was a teenager), so I was interested to learn how some of his poems evolved (other than in a drug-induced haze, of course).  Helpfully, those stories were provided within the house (and the garden); for example, “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison” was written after his wife accidentally spilled scalding milk on his leg, and he was forced to stay home and sit under a lime tree whilst his wife went for a walk with the Wordworths and Charles Lamb (personally, I’d take sitting under a lime tree and reading over going on a walk any day, assuming there weren’t too many bugs about.  I’d even whip up a key lime pie for my guests to enjoy upon their return, but I guess that wasn’t a thing in Coleridge’s day).

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Because of the bonus museum rooms, Coleridge Cottage actually had quite a bit more information than the average National Trust property (I overheard one of the volunteers saying that they’re officially National Trust, but they’re left alone for the most part, which could well be why it was more homely and charming than a lot of National Trust stuff).  I learned a lot about Coleridge’s childhood, including that Coleridge once threatened his brother with a knife in a fight over a cheese toastie, ran outside and hid all night in the cold, and was consequently ill with a fever for weeks.  Now, I’m not generally a violent person, but I am VERY possessive of my food, so if anything was going to drive me to violence, it probably would be someone stealing a delicious grilled cheese (or other tasty food) from me (made with a nice mature cheddar though, not that awful American “cheese” gloop; since Coleridge’s incident took place in Devon, not far from Somerset, cheddar seems a likely choice for him too).  I also learned that Coleridge enlisted in the army under a fake name – Silas Tomkyn Comberbache (that surname sounds a lot like that of a certain British actor when you say it out loud), but Coleridge couldn’t hack it and begged his brothers to get him out; they managed to have him declared insane and discharged.

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Since the house was infested with mice (since we were just talking about cheese…) whilst Coleridge lived there, there was also a special mouse trail throughout the house, with adorable little stuffed mice hidden in each room along with facts about Coleridge’s battle with them (they annoyed the piss out of him, basically, but he felt bad about laying traps.  As someone who lived in a house with a bad mouse infestation, but still left out cake for the mouse in my room (who I named Sammy, another accidental Coleridge connection) because I liked him, even though his rustling around at night was super irritating; again, I can relate).  In addition, there was a station upstairs where you could practice writing with a quill pen and ink (total failure, as always), and a nice cushy reading room stocked with plenty of books.

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The cafe was located outside, and was oddly confined by a fenced enclosure thingy, so we had to go through various little doors to see the well and garden, with all the people in the cafe staring at us as we walked back and forth, but the garden was unexpectedly quite large and pleasant.  There were benches scattered throughout with little speakers attached to tell you more about Coleridge’s poems, and some cute fake ducks and pigs made from metal.  We also found a random shed that was apparently used for games and demonstrations, which had a big trunk full of old-timey toys (ball in a cup, anyone?).

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Although it was not an outwardly impressive property, I still left feeling reasonably impressed with Coleridge Cottage, having learned a fair bit about Coleridge’s personal life (particularly his troubled relationship with his wife), and having enjoyed the various diversions around the house.  If you’re fond of Coleridge, I do think this is well worth the stop, even if, like me, you’re not keen on walking the “Coleridge Way.” 3.5/5. I should mention (since I have a photo of Yankee Jack all ready to go) that there are more Coleridge themed attractions in the vicinity that don’t involve much walking.  Most notably, in the seaside town of Watchet, there is a statue of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and a couple small museums that mention Coleridge.  However, the statue I’m pictured with here is actually one that shares the promenade with the Ancient Mariner – Yankee Jack. He was not American, but ran the blockades during the American Civil War, thus acquiring his nickname.  I have to say that his statue was more appealing to me than the emaciated old mariner, but either way, Watchet is a good place for statues, despite its small size and extremely mucky harbour, so it may be worth a gander as well on a Coleridgey day out.

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Street, Somerset: The Shoe Museum

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Much like editing this post (seriously, I am just not feeling it today.  This has taken me the best part of the afternoon to proofread, and I dozed off at one point and suddenly woke up with drool all down my face), our second day in the West Country didn’t get off to the best start either, as we made the mistake of trying to go to Glastonbury (the town, not the festival, since I know damn well festivals are not my scene).  Multiple people, including the proprietress of our B&B, had told me about the “special atmosphere” there; being the skeptic that I am, I predicted that meant there would be a lot of shops selling crystals.  I wasn’t wrong.  Still, we wanted to at least hike up to Glastonbury Tor, but couldn’t find parking anywhere within a few miles of the hill (it was a Bank Holiday weekend after all, and there were a bunch of special events on at Glastonbury Abbey) and didn’t fancy hiking all that way back, but the glimpse of the town I got whilst we were circling around trying to park somewhere was enough for me.  Far too many hippies wearing silly clothing, the pervading stench of incense, and yes, the extremely high quota of crystal and astrology shops meant the place was not for me (for real, how do those shops stay in business?  I could see maybe one or two of them staying afloat, but not twenty!).  However, I perked up considerably when we gave up and headed onward to the nearby village of Street. Not that the village itself was anything so much to look at, having been turned mainly into an outlet mall, but I was excited for the Shoe Museum!

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Street is where Clarks Shoes got their start, and where the headquarters are still based (that’s why Glastonbury Tor is part of their logo), so it’s only natural that a Shoe Museum grew out of this (I feel weird not putting an apostrophe in “Clarks,” but there isn’t one in their official trademarked name, so I guess they don’t want one in there).  Be forewarned that a few things may stand in the way of seeing this museum, though.  Firstly, they are normally only open Monday-Friday, though obviously with an odd Saturday thrown in here and there (as we visited on a Saturday), so it may be best to check their website before attempting a visit.  You also have to park at and then brave the outlet mall, and try to resist its alleged low prices (ok, I did cave in and buy a much-needed new pair of sneakers, because a tenner for Vans is not a bad price, but the Cadbury’s “outlet” was selling Creme Eggs for twice as much as they cost at any supermarket, so I fail to see how those were bargain prices).  The next challenge was finding the place, which is theory should have been easy as it is right on the high street, but in practice we were thrown by one of those brown “places of interest” signs directing us up another street entirely (I feel like every time I type street, it is on the verge of being a pun, since the village is called Street); we eventually had to go in the library and ask directions, where they looked at us as though we were a bit dim.  However, having gotten through those hurdles, we finally found the Shoe Museum, with its delightfully free admission, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was much larger than I had been led to believe.

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I have never bought a pair of Clarks in my life, as they tend to be on the pricy side and I think are maybe a case of comfort over style, but I needed have feared not, as the main gallery of the museum is devoted to non-Clarks brand shoes from a number of historical eras (as they were mostly made by random cobblers, I’d say most of them aren’t a brand-name at all!).  And, best of all, the shoes were accompanied by a number of “Shoe-perstitions,” including tales of local ghosts that incorporated shoes somewhere in the legend (I am aware that I just pooh-poohed the supposed “mystical” nature of Glastonbury a few paragraphs up but I like hearing about folklore and hauntings, even if I don’t believe in them.  Call me a hypocrite if you like, but to me, there is a big difference between a free museum sharing a few entertaining ghost stories with its visitors, and a shopkeeper exploiting the gullible for financial gain.  Plus I like puns).  These included the story of some shoes that couldn’t be removed from a house without misfortune befalling the owners, and some superstitions I’d never heard of; for example, apparently it is (was?) a custom in England to put a penny in your shoe on your wedding day, in addition to the whole old/new/borrowed/blue thing.

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And there were some fabulous shoes here, something for every taste really (even some men’s shoes and boots, though these were by far in the minority).  I’ve always been partial to a two-tone shoe, so I loved all the oxfords and those gorgeous high laced boots, even if most of them looked way too narrow to even attempt cramming my toes into (I have narrow heels, but kind of wide toes (am I over-sharing here?) so it’s really hard for me to find shoes that fit properly. Which is why my feet are usually a hideous blistery mess).

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I’m not much of a heel girl, since I like being able to walk without falling over, but those were certainly very well-represented here too, along with a variety of more comfy-looking slippers.  They even had a slipper belonging to a Pope (I think it was one of the Leos, it’s shown below)!

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Off of the main gallery, there was a small annex that led to a re-creation of the original Clarks Office (spacious, yet cozy.  Much better than those dreadful open plan offices they expect people to work in today (says the introvert who couldn’t hack it in one, even as a volunteer)), and on the other end was the Clarks gallery, beginning with a brief history of the business (I say brief, but it was definitely written in the verbose style of all the best old-school museums) and a workbench belonging to one of their original craftsmen.

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After looking at Clarks shoes through the ages, I was surprised to see that Clarks weren’t always as, erm, ugly as they are today.  It seems the change happened gradually, and had a lot to do with mechanisation and trying to keep costs down and the like.

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There was a further small gallery downstairs (near the entrance) that told about Clarks during the World Wars, as the traditionally Quaker owners tried to reconcile their pacifist beliefs with capitalism and the very real need for shoes for the Allied soldiers (spoiler, some of the Clark family went to prison as conscientious objectors, and others tried to support the war effort in non-combative ways, like employing Belgian war refugees and making boots for the troops (as a side note to an aside, I’ve been learning a bit about the Belgian war refugee community in Wimbledon in the course of my research for a WWI project I volunteer with, and it is fascinating stuff)). They also had one of those old shoe measuring machines that you’re meant to stick your whole foot in, though it was behind a rope and not for use (I never experienced them as a child, as they’d moved onto those slidey metal things by then, but they have a working one in the Clarks shop in the outlet mall; shame the queue was too long for me to try it out).

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Say what you will about their shoes (I certainly have) and the fact that they are no longer made in England, but the Clarks Shoe Museum, is, unlike their footwear, still a very homespun affair, and a charming example of an extremely specialised local museum.  I really liked the homeliness of the museum, and was certainly impressed by the huge and unexpected variety of shoes on display; it was nice seeing something this old-fashioned in the middle of the otherwise crass outlet-shopping commercialism that has overtaken the village.  It certainly set the tone for a much-improved rest of the day (for the most part, as you’ll see in an upcoming post) after the New-Age nightmare that is Glastonbury.  3.5/5.

 

Warminster, Wiltshire: Longleat

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And so begins my account of the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, the first of many posts (I may have to start posting twice weekly again at some point to get them all in). As usual, we left the planning of the weekend until the very last minute (almost literally; we booked hotels on Wednesday night for the Friday) which meant we weren’t going any further afield than England.  As it turns out, we began our weekend much like the one two years ago – in Wiltshire, but this time, instead of venturing north, we eventually headed west, into Somerset.  The trip didn’t start off particularly well, as not only was the weather notably terrible (very cold and rainy), we somehow drove over a large bolt, and spent a sizeable portion of the first day trying to find a tyre shop that was open on a bank holiday, and then waiting to have the tyre plugged.  However, we still made it to Longleat, albeit quite a bit later than we originally planned, meaning we missed our chance to see Lord Bath’s erotic murals (which was obviously extremely disappointing).

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As we do not have children, we reckoned we could safely skip the whole adventure park/safari thing and just go see the house (though sadly, as I just mentioned, not the murals), as it was about half the price that way (still over 15 quid), though we did get a glimpse of the safari park whilst driving through the massive estate, and it looked more like a farm park to me, quite frankly, unless all the exotic animals were hiding somewhere (all I saw were some deer and sheep).   The house is a real Tudor pile, and in good stately home tradition, is reputed to be quite haunted.  Because the Marquess of Bath clearly doesn’t like to disappoint his visitors, he has guaranteed that you will see a “ghost” through the use of special effects throughout (I don’t want to ruin it for you, but keep your eyes and ears peeled)!

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If you’ve heard of the current Marquess of Bath (the 7th), you will probably know that he is something of an eccentric who is known for his womanising (hence the erotic murals), and his flamboyant dress sense (that’s him dressed like a lion on the left, though presumably that was to advertise the safari park, and is not part of his normal attire).  Being odd myself (though not wealthy enough to fully pursue that oddness), I very much appreciated the special touches his idiosyncrasies lent to the house.  There was a much greater array of fascinating objects than in the average stately home, chief among them one of the coats Charles I was alleged to have worn to his execution (I say alleged, since there seems to be quite a few of these floating around, and even if he wore multiple shirts (according to the legend, to keep a shiver from the cold being mistaken for fear), they still can’t all be real), complete with bloodstains.

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I also liked the way modern portraits of Lord Bath and his family were intermingled with his large collection of antique art, which made for an eye-pleasing mix.

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And fortunately, even though we didn’t get to see the murals of Lord Bath’s many lady friends, there was some of his artwork in the house, including a few slightly erotic pictures.  In fact, the room holding his paintings was probably my favourite in the house, especially that piece on the left.

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I was, however, slightly dismayed to find that children were encouraged to dress up to tour the house, being pulled into a special room upon arrival to do so, but there was no such provision for adults (it was bad enough missing out on the Easter egg hunt).  I mean, to be honest, some of the “children” were quite large, and the costumes they were wearing definitely would have fitted me, so I felt like they could have offered something for adults, even just an amusing hat of some sort (since Lord Bath himself seems partial to amusing hats and robes).

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But no matter, I guess, because his house was interesting enough even without the aid of costumes.  There was some sort of WWI exhibit taking place, which seemed largely to consist of a fact sheet in each room saying how it was used during the war, but one room had a specific WWI display case containing some artefacts from John Alexander Thynne, who would have become the 6th Marquess of Bath had he not been killed in the War (and nicely mustachioed he was, too, poor lad).

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I already mentioned the “hauntings” but there were a few other secret touches throughout the house, most notably a former privy on one of the upper floors, which played hilarious sound effects if you dared to crack the door, and a holographic “spirit” near the site where some human remains had been discovered (holograms do not photograph well).

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Our admission included the gardens as well, and we were excited to see the Lunar and Celestial mazes, but unfortunately they weren’t open to the public as labyrinths until the hedges grew in a bit more (there is what is apparently one of the largest hedge mazes in Britain in the Adventure Park, though it’s meant to take a good 45 minutes to find your way out, which is more time than I would have wanted to spend being lost).

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However, we did venture into the “Secret Garden,” which was apparently secret because it contained so many strange multi-breasted statues (seriously, the one has like twenty baps).  Almost made up for not seeing the murals, in a way.

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I’m not entirely sure where the gardens end and the Adventure Park technically begins, because there were no gates between them and no one taking tickets, so I worry we may have inadvertently strayed into the Adventure Park, though as no one seemed to officially care, I guess it didn’t matter that much.  This meant we got to experience a mirror maze, Lady Bath’s old-ass miscellany room (I honestly don’t remember what this section was called, it was just a bunch of antique-ish crap in glass cases), and most excitingly, the Bat Cave, where bats were just freely flying around, and you could watch them munching on apples inches away from your face.  I love bats, and these ones were particularly adorable (I didn’t even mind dodging the guano).

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I was mainly lured into the Adventure Park type area by the intoxicating aroma of hot, sweet deep-fat frying, but upon finding it was only those standard grease-bomb doughnuts (I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, since I knew damn well I wouldn’t find funnel cakes or elephant ears in Britain), settled for the largest “regular” 99 Flake I’ve ever seen (actually, my boyfriend got that, and I ordered some malty surprise ice cream, but upon seeing how much bigger his cone was, promptly claimed it for myself).  It gave me a terrible stomachache though, so I guess I got what was coming to me for stealing my boyfriend’s ice cream.

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Anyway, aside from the ice cream stomachache, and not getting to see the murals, Longleat was a pretty good outing.  It certainly wasn’t quite as big of a tourist trap as I was expecting (at least if you stick to the house; the Adventure Park is another story), and Lord Bath’s quirkiness really added a lot to the experience.  (By the way, if you do want to see those murals, get there around 10:45 for the tour of the private wing.)  I’m not sure if it was worth 15 quid, but it was definitely one of the more interesting stately homes I’ve seen.  4/5.

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London: Ham House

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Can you guys let me know when you get sick of hearing about National Trust properties?  Because I’m on a roll with that membership card, and I’m not likely to stop until I feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth (although technically speaking, that probably happened a few properties ago), but I don’t want to become the “National Trust” blog (that goes against my whole aim of introducing you to quirky or lesser-known destinations).  Unfortunately (or I guess fortunately if you like these posts), I’ve already got three more National Trust posts lined up, but I will do my best to intersperse them with actual museums so it’s not too much all at once.  Anyway, today’s property is Ham House, in Ham (near Richmond).  The very name disgusts me slightly because I’m really picky and have an aversion to meats, ham in particular (just thinking about it makes me imagine the revolting smell), but as fate would have it, I’m actually out in Ham on a semi-frequent basis, because Hansel and Pretzel, a German bakery, is about half a mile down the road from Ham House, and hot-from-the-oven pretzeled bread trumps any of my weird food issues.

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Ham House is of interest primarily because it was built by Charles I’s whipping boy, and is reputed to be one of the most haunted houses in England.  I guess because of these features, and because it’s in London, they charge a whole tenner for non-members to get in, which is exactly why I’d never been before, despite frequenting the area.  The day we visited was unusually cold, coming off a week of warm spring-like weather; not anticipating that, I was only wearing a light jacket, so I was pretty eager to get inside the house.

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Unfortunately, there wasn’t much warmth to be found inside either, as despite the presence of a few Victorian-era looking radiators, the house was completely unheated, and as draughty as you’d expect a high-ceilinged 17th century building to be.  The room booklets made some reference to this, as several of the past owners apparently had double glazing installed on the windows in various rooms in a vain attempt to insulate them.

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And speaking of the room booklets…unlike other National Trust properties I’ve visited recently, there was no large fact sheet provided, but there were little binders in each of the rooms with information about the purpose of the room and the furnishings.  Unfortunately, there was only one, or at most two of those binders per room, and Ham House gets crowded on the weekends, so I often had to wait for a while to get my hands on one.  Normally this wasn’t an issue, as most people see someone waiting, quickly scan the information, and put it back, but this one girl…man, I was pointedly staring at her for a good five minutes, and she just kept on reading every last fact in that damn book.  Sometimes I really wish I could vaporise people with my glare.

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Because of this, there were a few rooms where I was unable to find out anything at all about them, and other than the introductory speech we got about the house being built by Charles’s whipping boy, information about the owners only came in dribs and drabs, so I was left with an incomplete picture of the house’s history (reading Ham House’s website was far more useful than actually visiting the place in that regard).  Some of the things I DID manage to glean from those booklets are that there’s meant to be about three ghosts haunting the chapel, and that cabinet pictured above has creepy dolphin faces on the doors, but I don’t know why (the booklet only pointed them out, it didn’t explain them).

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There was a lot of Stuart art, and what I believe are Inigo Jones styled ceilings, but again, apart from the small odd detail, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you more.  A volunteer told us about the history of the teapot in one room, which were apparently a very rare 17th century example, plus a table that had legs added to it so Westerners didn’t have to take tea on the floor, but no one else really talked to us (I find this to be a common thing in historic homes…volunteers ignore me, but then some older people will walk in and they’ll start spouting out facts.  Maybe part of this is my own fault because I don’t like to initiate conversation, but I also don’t like people assuming that I’m not interested in history because I’m young(ish).  Why would I come to see these properties at all if I wasn’t interested?).

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Most of the rooms were pretty firmly set in the 1600s, but there were a few Victorian touches on the ground floor, including a Victorian loo hidden under the stairs (though only one in that massive house wouldn’t have been enough!), and a homemade wheelchair that was literally a wheeled chair, belonging to one of the (relatively) more recent Earls.  There was also a neat collection of fire-buckets hanging from the hallway ceiling; apparently they were always kept filled and ready to go, and were hung at that height to prevent servants using the convenient sand and/or water in them for more mundane tasks.

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Having finished with the interior, and still freezing my ass off, we headed around to the back of the house to the “below-stairs” area to learn how the servants lived.  This was probably my favourite part of the whole experience because it was delightfully warm in there (almost made you think the servants had the better deal, even if most of them only made the equivalent of about 300 quid a year in modern currency, besides room and board of course).

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This was in general the more child-friendly area, with lots of signs telling you to touch things, and a whole colouring room/dress-up area set up for them, but there were still plenty for child-free adults too.  They had a beer cellar that apparently does tastings, as there were beers and glasses all lined up, but no one there to pour them out, more’s the pity (I’m not the biggest beer fan, save for fruit beers, but if it was free, I would have drank it.  I managed to chug a couple down at the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam, and I don’t even like Heineken).  My boyfriend was quite taken with the leather tankards on show, and the absurdly heavy leather pitcher (seriously, my arm was struggling to hold it up, and it was empty), and I think he’s still on the hunt for a set on ebay.

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One of the former ladies of the house had a charming bathhouse built in one of the below-stairs rooms (probably a wise choice, it being so much warmer than the big house), which still had an overpowering smell of vinegary feet wafting through the air.  It also had a hobbit-sized door, which was perfect for me, but my boyfriend’s head rather hilariously reached well above the door frame (but he’s very used to ducking in these historic homes by now, so no biggie).

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After a quick exploration of the gardens (cause you know, it was still fecking cold), which were beautifully manicured with delightful topiaries, we thought we were done, but a hunt for the gift shop to buy a postcard revealed a number of outbuildings that weren’t obviously apparent or clearly marked, so make sure you go around the hedge to the far right of the house before you leave so you don’t miss anything, like we almost did.

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I was glad we made our way around, because the dairy held my favourite object of the whole estate; that amazing cow leg table pictured above, which only dates back to the 19th century, but I love it (it’s ruined me for dairies that don’t have cow leg tables).  There was also an old ice house (basically a big hole with some rubbish in it you could peer into), and an orangery/cafe, in addition to a couple shops.

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In the end, visiting Ham House wasn’t an entirely bad thing to do, because it was free + warm pretzels down the road, but the house was much too crowded on a weekend (the grounds were fine though), so it might be another place to visit on a weekday or early on a weekend day.  The house suffered most from the distinct lack of signage/shortage of booklets; really, I don’t think it would kill them to put a little sign on a stand in each of the rooms with basic information on it, like you see in other stately homes, and would make the place much more visitor friendly.  As it stands, I’ll give it 3/5, keeping in mind I found the below-stairs area and the gardens and outbuildings more interesting than the house itself, which is not often the case, since I’m not a big garden person.  Do I think it’s worth a tenner?  Well, no, but I don’t think much is (besides the 11 pretzels you could get at the German bakery for a tenner; that’s a lot of pretzels!).  Maybe if I’d seen a ghost…if you tell me a house is haunted, you should deliver (at least some sound effects, or make the lights flicker or something)!

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Balcombe, West Sussex: The Wings Museum

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I seem to keep bringing up Damian Lewis on the blog these days (I mean c’mon, codpieces!), but yeah, one of the main reasons I checked out the Wings Museum (“where history comes alive”) was because part of Band of Brothers was filmed inside the C-47 Dakota in the museum, and I welcomed the opportunity to sit in the same place Damian Lewis did (or, as I more crudely put it at the time, “My ass has touched where Damian Lewis’s ass touched!”).  But Wings advertised more attractions than simply plonking your butt down on the same seats as famous people.  They also promised recovered airframes set up into crash site dioramas, a real Anderson shelter to explore, the opportunity to own a small piece of downed aircraft of your very own, and many other displays inside the draughty hangar-style building.

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The Wings Museum seemed to assume a certain degree of enthusiasm for military history (the volunteer at the admissions desk even asked my boyfriend if he was an “enthusiast,” which led to a rather awkward silence.  Also, why did he just assume that I wasn’t the enthusiast?  I mean, I’m not, but he didn’t know that), as I guess most people aren’t willing to drive out to a hangar in the middle of nowhere and part with 8 quid if they’re not really into this stuff.  Truthfully, as I am not really into this stuff (nor is my boyfriend, obviously), some of the very lengthy descriptions of missions and all the names and numbers of various aircraft were lost on me, but it was a large building with a lot of crap in it, so there was still plenty to enjoy.

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The museum contains quite a few salvaged Nazi aircraft parts (as those were a large proportion of what was crashing on British soil) and some uniforms and things; I definitely understand the importance of making sure both the Allied and Axis Powers were represented (including some things from the Pacific Theatre), since despite the focus on aviation, one of the museum’s stated goals is to tell the story of World War II.  However, the process of the actual “telling” could use some work, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many spelling and grammatical errors in one place.  I get that they are volunteer run (and only open on weekends), but you’d think one of the volunteers could spell properly.  The use of the contraction “it’s” instead of the possessive “its” is a personal pet peeve, but a common enough mistake, I suppose.  But given that they’re dealing with military history, they should at least know how to spell “bail.”  You “bail out” of an aircraft, you “bale” hay, got it?  Same thing with “hale” and “hail.”  Homophones: learn how to use them! (And for that matter, the building the museum is housed in is called a hangar; not a “hanger” as their website would have you believe.) ETA: I’ve been doing a bit of research since writing this, and while it seems that “bail out” is the correct American usage, apparently in other English speaking countries, both variants are accepted spellings, so I’ll give them a pass on that.  However, my point about the spelling errors still stands, as there’s really no excuse for the incorrect “it’s” or their misspelling of hangar.

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Now that I’ve gotten that rant out of the way, in fairness to the museum, some of the stories were very interesting, if you took the time to persevere through the errors.  There was one about a man diffusing some notoriously tricky type of German bomb in a tunnel that ended with him emerging from this tunnel “looking and smelling worse than the dirtiest London tramp,” and an extremely lengthy, but fascinating account of a man in a Japanese POW camp being fed on a few lumps of rice a day.

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And there were some hand-painted bomber jackets belonging to various pilots.  I remember seeing a really large display of these at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Museum many years ago, and I’ve always liked them (they may have played a small part in my becoming a punk as a teenager, since punks like to paint their leather jackets too, but because I was never any good at painting I just ended up wearing an old one that my high school boyfriend’s friend had painted with an Exploited skull.  It was well done, perhaps too much so, since it ended up getting stolen out of a car when I was at a punk show, with all my money and IDs in the pockets).

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On a more serious note, they had a small hut devoted to the Holocaust (that we didn’t take pictures of, as it seemed disrespectful), which covered a camp called DORA, where prisoners were forced to manufacture airplane parts and other things for the Nazis.  It came complete with moving illustrations done by what I believe was one of the survivors (though I’m not quite positive about that, and the information isn’t on their website so I can’t check).  There were also memorials throughout the museum to the pilots who lost their lives in the war.

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I was pretty keen to get into that Band of Brothers plane, and we took plenty of pictures in there (though as usual, I look terrible in all of them).  There was a video of the relevant episode playing on a small TV, and you were free to explore the plane (and yes, plant your ass on all the seats), so I enjoyed myself.  It was nice that the museum wasn’t very crowded so I had plenty of time to sit everywhere without being interrupted.

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And there were all those promised dioramas of aircraft in various stages of disrepair, pleasingly made into scenes with the use of (often hilarious) mannequins (I hope this isn’t construed as being too flippant, since I am aware that some of the pilots may have died in these crashes, but the museum’s approach overall seemed to be an interesting mix of the sombre and lighthearted).  I think I may have actually enjoyed some of the more mundane objects in the museum more though, like the bell shown towards the start of the post with FDR, Churchill, and Stalin moulded on it, and the sake cup pictured below that somehow survived Hiroshima.  To me, artefacts like that tell more of a story than an enormous hunk of rusting metal (though I’m not knocking the hunks of metal, if that’s your thing).

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There’s also a vintage radio hut parked outside, which one of the volunteers led me into as I was obviously cold (it was not a warm day, and the building was unheated, so it was basically just as cold as outside), the radio hut being compact and heated, and a place to learn more about antique radios than I ever wanted to.  They had a radio in there from Bletchley Park that was used in the filming of The Imitation Game (which I still haven’t seen, so I can’t say for sure whether Benny touched it, but at any rate, the opportunity to touch it myself never presented itself, so my hand was not where his hand was).

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They did indeed have an array of aircraft parts for sale, for prices ranging from 50p up to about 50 quid, so we ended up with our own bit of twisted metal for a pound, which isn’t a bad deal.  I mean, it’s pretty clear the museum could use the money (maybe to re-do the signs after correcting them?), and I could see that the place was a labour of love, even if I’m not a military history buff.  Though I wasn’t completely captivated by the museum, there were plenty of things that caught my interest, and it was nice reading some of the stories of men who’d been there (including one pilot from Lakewood, Ohio!), so I have no regrets about going (especially venturing inside that neat plane).  My mother loves planes and stuff, and I spent a lot of time being dragged around various aviation museums as a kid, so I have some grounds for comparison; while Wings is obviously nowhere near the level of Wright-Patterson or even the International Women’s Air and Space Museum, for a small museum without much (any?) funding, I think they did a decent job.  But while I love the quirkiness, that shouldn’t come at the expense of correct spelling, so I’ll give it 3/5.

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Westerham, Kent: Chartwell (Churchill’s Family Home)

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My love for FDR has been very well documented on this blog, but my feelings towards his buddy Churchill are far more mixed.  You could say he’s not exactly my flute of champagne (though I got to sample one of his favourite champagnes at this event last year, and it was delicious, so I’m not questioning his taste); yes, he saw Britain through WWII and all that, but in his personal life, it seems to me that he could be a bit of a demanding jerk.  However, as we were already in Westerham to see Quebec House, after we realised his home, Chartwell, was just down the road, it seemed just plain stupid not to visit both.

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Whipping out that National Trust membership for the second time that afternoon, we were able to stroll right in, but it’s £13 otherwise.  Although the house is self-guided, entry is by timed ticket only, so we found ourselves with an hour to kill before we could go see the house.  Fortunately, this wasn’t a problem, for Chartwell is a huge estate, with a woodland trail and lots of other stuff to explore.  Because Chartwell wasn’t a planned destination, I wasn’t really wearing the best shoes for walking, and when I saw all the mud on the woodland trail, I wasn’t inclined to wander all the way up it, so we missed out on the “sweet chestnut coppice” (there was also an epic amount of deer poop on the lawns, so don’t be like me in my thin soled shoes with no socks).

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However, I did make it far enough to see the bomb crater, where a bomb hit during the Blitz (not sure if Churchill was staying there at the time; I would have thought he’d probably have been in London, but at any rate it was far enough from the house that he wouldn’t have been hurt).  Other highlights of the walk include dormice dens, an old quarry, and a large number of mean and apparently aggressive black swans.  There were also some tree swings, but I’m always kind of leery of the sort of swings that are just a flat plank hanging from ropes, since I had one of those flip on me when I was a kid and ended up lying on my back with the breath knocked out of me, so I had but a brief and cautious swing.

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There was also an excellent statue of Churchill and his wife Clementine (which she bizarrely pronounced Clemen-teen) by the same sculptor that did the one in the centre of Westerham (the one I couldn’t get a picture with because of unruly children), so I had to stop and get a photo to mirror the one I took with the statue of FDR and Eleanor at Hyde Park.  It was surprisingly slippery to climb up, especially as my shoes had essentially no traction (they look cool though, that’s why I wear ’em), so take care if you do the same.

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Being something of an artist himself, Churchill had a painting studio on the property, which today holds the largest collection of Churchill’s paintings in the world.  We happened to arrive at the same time a brief talk was starting, so I learned far more about Churchill’s painting career than I needed to, but he basically started painting when he was 40, in an attempt to shake himself out of his deep depression following the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, where his decision making was partially to blame for over 50,000 Allied deaths.  He was never professionally trained in painting, though he did get advice from some artist friends, and honestly wasn’t half bad at it, though he tended to paint mostly landscapes which aren’t really to my taste.  The studio also contained an enormous globe that was a twin to one FDR was given, and a small gallery of other gifts given to Churchill over the years, including some American Civil War memorabilia.

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Naturally, there were some gardens as well, but it being the start of March when we visited, virtually nothing was in bloom, save for some snowdrops and crocuses that weren’t part of the walled garden.  There is a rose walk, which I’m sure is lovely when the roses are blooming, but not so much so when you’re walking past thorny, scraggly bushes with no blossoms.  The garden is also where the playhouse that Churchill built for his daughter Mary is located.  It’s still set up with child-size furniture that made me feel like a giant, so I can only imagine how the portly Churchill felt if he ever ventured in.

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I was excited to see the graves of the family pets (I kept saying, “let’s go to the pet cemetery” which is retrospect may have sounded a little creepy), which included the final resting places of Rufus and Rufus II (both poodles…why do men in power often have such lame dogs? Like FDR and that Scottish terrier Fala), and the handsome ginger cat Jock, who sat at Churchill’s bedside as Churchill was dying.  Because of Churchill’s fondness for Jock, there is a ginger cat in residence at Chartwell to this day…they’re currently up to Jock VI, although I didn’t spot him during our visit.

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By this point, it was time to enter the house.  Photography wasn’t allowed inside, but we were given a brief guide to the rooms, with highlights pointed out to us.  It was very homely feeling inside; much like Hyde Park, this was not a grand estate, but a family home.  I was thrilled to see there were many objects relating to FDR inside the house, like paintings, busts, and a letter he wrote to Winston, and it was obvious that Churchill treasured their friendship.  I enjoyed his library very much, but then I’m always drawn to rooms full of books, especially if they have comfy looking seats.  There were a couple more museum rooms located in the house; one was for gifts given to Churchill, which were mostly big silver things that weren’t terribly exciting, though it was interesting to see the honorary US citizenship granted to him by JFK (although as his mother was American, I would have thought he could have gotten American citizenship for himself anyway if he’d really wanted it, though maybe dual citizenship wasn’t allowed back then.  Or he just wanted to avoid the dual-taxation that the rest of us American expats have to deal with!).  There was, however, a collection of Churchill’s uniforms that contained a splendid array of his hats. Now, that was worth seeing!

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The final room downstairs was all about Churchill’s death and funeral, which was a bit sad, especially when they talked about Jock sitting beside him, but I’m just not as sentimental about his death as I was about FDR’s (I think I might be a little too obsessed with ol’ Franklin though.  Not quite as badly as I am with Steve Perry circa the late 1970s (seriously, that hair!  How was it so perfect?!), but I’m still probably quite a bit more into FDR than any normal person would be).  After the lengthy exploration of Churchill’s estate, we decided to have a heartening slice of cake in the cafe, which was mercifully empty at this point as it was the end of the day, and luckily for me, there was some lemon cake left (the only alternatives were fruitcake or coffee and walnut cake, both of which I detest).

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Perhaps because Chartwell was run by the National Trust, rather than the government-operated National Parks Service like this type of site would be in America, it was nowhere near as impressive as Hyde Park, which had an excellent and comprehensive museum (I’m sorry I keep comparing Chartwell to Hyde Park, it’s just hard to avoid given the close connections between the two men), but it was still enjoyable, particularly as there was such a large estate to explore, which made the waiting time before we could tour the house fly by.  I’ll give it 3.5/5, as I think it’s well worth visiting if you find yourself in Kent.  Oh, and if you head back to London the same way we did, you may pass the little gem shown below.  Naturally, we turned the car around after we spotted it and drove back so we could get a picture, because I’m still juvenile like that.

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