London: Kew Gardens

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Before I proceed with more WWI sites, here’s a post I’ve had sitting around for a few months now (as you may be able to tell from the tulips in bloom) on Kew Gardens.  I was kind of planning on going back at some point and expanding on what I’d originally written, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon, and I just need to publish the damn thing already, so enjoy!

How does a person live in London for well over six years without visiting Kew Gardens once?  Well, quite easily, if you’re me, evidently.  But my boyfriend received a year’s membership to Kew as one of his birthday presents, so now all that has changed, and I have experienced said gardens.  And now I have the problem of figuring out what to say about them, because really, how much is there to say about some gardens (quite a lot if you go off on tangents like I do, as it turns out).

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Well, because we had only activated our membership that morning, we hadn’t received official membership cards yet, so we printed off a confirmation email to flash at the guards, who herded us through so quickly we weren’t even given a chance to grab a map, so I was wandering blindly most of the visit.  One of the reasons I was hesitant about visiting Kew was because their website referred vaguely to butterflies flying around one of the greenhouses, and having a raging case of lepidopterophobia (I actually just wrote a story based on my phobia for National Flash Fiction day, you can find it here if you’re interested in reading some of my fiction for a change (and bear in mind that this is some of the first creative writing I’ve done in about a decade, and the title is crap because I was under a time crunch)), that was something I was anxious to avoid at all costs, so it was not without trepidation that I entered the Palm House (the only thing that calmed me was the absence of those chain things that are usually outside a butterfly house to prevent those vile little creatures from escaping and wreaking havoc).  Fortunately, there wasn’t a single butterfly to be found at Kew (not even outside), despite some worrying pictures of moths in the orchid house, so at least I was ok on that score.

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However, I was cheated out of seeing a statue of the ever-dishy Joseph Banks, who played an instrumental role in creating the gardens that would become Kew, because they don’t have one.  As my boyfriend had gotten me to visit Kew by promising that such a thing existed, I was understandably annoyed, though that was my own fault for believing him (well, I didn’t believe that it would be a nude statue, as he tried to claim, but I thought they might have something.  Upon searching now, it seems that Canberra has a statue of Joseph Banks, but it’s only a bust, which in itself is kind of a bust).  Anyway, the Palm House was fine, if you like palms (it made me crave a pineapple fruit shake like I had in Thailand to a ridiculous extent, and I think it’s a shame they don’t sell them in the cafe.  I even went so far as to buy a sad Sainsbury’s pineapple after leaving, which I’m quite sure will be disappointing, and not at all delicious like a Thai pineapple (update: it was extremely disappointing)), albeit unbearably hot, even on a gently warm spring day.  There was a rather pathetic aquarium in the basement, with a definite air of neglect, being perused by a few Russian women clad in leather mini-dresses and high-heeled ankle boots, because I guess that’s a sensible thing to wear when walking around muddy gardens?!

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I was more impressed with the tulips in bloom outside, as they were reminiscent of a Keukenhof in miniature (which I was fortunate enough to see about six years ago; now THOSE are some tulips), and I just like tulips (they’re one of the few flowers I can reliably name, those and Gerbera daisies, which I’m partial to because they come in such bright colours).  In fact, they even had them arranged to grow in the shape of intertwined British and Dutch flags.  Sadly, unlike the Keukenhof, there were no clog-wearing, sea shanty singing choirs, or more importantly, poffertjes.

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Although the greenhouses are undeniably the centrepieces, most of Kew is just taken up by parkland, with a few gardens (like the rock garden shown above) scattered around in it.  I was not particularly impressed by this, as it just meant a lot of walking, and I can visit most of London’s other parks for free, so I don’t know, I think they could have filled all the in-between spaces with more flowers or something.  I was especially annoyed when I realised that Kew’s main greenhouse is currently under construction, and won’t be open again until 2018(!).  However, the Princess of Wales Conservatory is open, at least, with its “ten climatic zones.”

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One of which was obviously desert.  And, er, orchids, carnivorous plants (maybe, not sure if that was a separate zone), tropical, and I’m not sure what else.  To be honest, I was more concerned with the gaseous mist spraying down from the ceiling, as it smelled funny and I wasn’t convinced that it wasn’t toxic.  The only comfort was that I supposed butterflies couldn’t survive in that kind of environment, so I felt secure in walking around without being accosted by winged hell-spawn.

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Speaking of things that scare me, Kew is also home to a tree walk, wherein you have to climb this awful shaky metal structure with a million steps and then look down on the trees below, whilst the structure sways with you on it, and the metal grating below your feet bounces and feels as though it might give way any minute.  As you might imagine, I am no great fan of heights (well, I’m ok with them when I feel like I have a reasonable chance of not dying.  So tall buildings are ok, zip lines and tree walks are not, apparently), so my main goal was getting around the tree walk as quickly as possible so I could climb back down again, which was a challenge because the thing was swaying so much it made me dizzy.

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And on the continued subject of tall structures, there is rather famously a large pagoda in Kew, but the doors were very firmly closed on the day we visited, so I’m not sure if you’re allowed to climb up there at all (according to my own logic, I’d be ok with climbing it as it is an actual building, and not just some shaky-ass metal thing with thin girders).

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We were getting tired after all this excitement (and walking) at this point, so we just made one last detour to Queen Charlotte’s cottage (wife of George III).  George III owned the area that would become Kew, and so the grounds are home to Kew Palace (which is part of HRP, meaning we weren’t sure whether we had to pay extra admission or not; upon studying the website, it appears you don’t), some royal kitchens, and the cottage.  Aside from the print room, which contains copies of many of Hogarth’s prints, it is fairly unremarkable, and had people standing around in Georgian clothes outside; rather like Emmett’s fear of having Hyacinth sing at him on Keeping up Appearances, I was terrified they were going to talk at me in character; fortunately, the woman just told us what to see in the house, and that was the end of it (damn, this post is reading like a catalogue of my phobias).

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I know there are many things I missed seeing, most notably Kew Palace and the Royal Kitchens, but since we have membership all year, I reckoned we could come back and see those; I was tired and I wanted to go home.  Now, I’m sure Kew is a wonderful institution and all that, and they have an important plant collection, but the £16.50 they charge for non-members is insanity.  The greenhouses are nice and all, but having already been to the (also overpriced) Eden Project and various other botanically things over the years (not Cleveland Botanical Gardens though, no way I’m going in there until they get rid of the damn butterflies), they were really nothing special, and the rest of the property, save for the tulips, was just like walking through Richmond park (sans deer), which I could do for free anytime.  It’s hard to see how they justify such a steep admission fee, and though I don’t feel a pressing need to return, I’m sure we will, just to get our money’s worth out of the membership.  I think someone who is more into nature than I am would be more impressed, but for me, meh, 3/5.

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Zonnebeke, Belgium: Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

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I don’t think a visit to Belgium can really be complete without seeing something related to WWI (or more than one thing; I’ll be devoting a couple of posts to it this time around).  It played such a huge role in the history of this little country, as so much of Flanders was virtually decimated in the fight over a relatively tiny area of land, and many of the Belgian people were forced to flee to avoid the war and destruction.  On my last trip to Belgium, I made it to a few WWI sites, visiting the Ijzer Tower, In Flanders Fields Museum, and Tyne Cot cemetery.  However, I did not get to see the Passchendaele Museum, which is very near Tyne Cot, as it had already closed for the day by the time I got there. Clearly, it was time to remedy this.

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With the cat festival in Ieper planned for that afternoon (yeah, you read that correctly…just you wait!), it left the morning free for exploring nearby Great War sites, starting with Passchendaele (admission 7.5 euros).  As you can probably guess from the museum’s full name, it commemorates the Battle of Passchendaele, fought in 1917.  Like so much of the war, Passchendaele was tragically almost pointless in terms of the human life lost relative to what was actually accomplished (at least half a million casualties over a fight for 5 miles of territory).  If you need a visual aid for this, then visit Tyne Cot to see it all starkly laid out in front of you, in the form of row upon row upon row of identical tombstones for the soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient (and really, please do visit Tyne Cot, as there’s nothing else quite so effective at driving home the futility of war).  However, perhaps because the museum recognises that many of its visitors will also have just been to Tyne Cot, and doesn’t wish to immediately depress them further, the museum isn’t all doom and gloom.  In fact, a lot of it is rather fun.

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The museum obviously took children into consideration when planning out the galleries, as there are lots of activities.  Fortunately for me, there were no children in sight, so I was free to ignore the fact that the mirrors had been intentionally been placed at a child’s eye-level, and indulge my love of dressing up (and I do recommend visiting early in the morning as we did, because the tour bus circuit seems to come through later in the day).  I learned that I look surprisingly good in a helmet, which is probably not what the museum was going for, but still.  The museum is split up into five different sections, beginning with a general history of the war, which is the most like a traditional museum, and then, similar to the Ijzer Tower, goes off piste a bit by including the re-creation of a dugout, which leads into an underground area about the history of the battle itself, then into a re-creation of some trenches, and finally, to a memorial section.

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In the first part, the museum tells the story of the war through uniforms, soldiers’ kit and their personal possessions, and a few interactive things, like smelling stations where you could get a whiff of various poison gasses and bully beef (which turned out to smell worse than the poison gas).  My only complaint would be that the item captions are written directly on the glass cases in white ink, so they can be a bit tricky to read in places, and I think I missed a few of them entirely as they were hard to even see against some of the objects.

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Next came the British dugouts, which we entered via a wooden staircase (I sent my boyfriend down first, just in case).  I don’t know if they wanted their attempt to re-create these dugouts to include the actual fear and nervous anticipation that real soldiers would have felt, but it worked on me!  Usually these things have some kind of explosion noise that’s triggered when you walk into them, and because I’m terrified of sudden loud noises (I hate balloons for this very reason), I was extremely tense the entire time, just waiting for the explosion to happen (I won’t ruin it for you by telling you what actually happens, so you can experience real fear too!), and though exploring the maze of tunnels was fun, I was quite relieved to finally emerge blinking into the next area.

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This “bunker” section was a curious mix of the heavy-duty machinery of war, with huge guns and collections of shells and things; and of more intimate portraits of some of the soldiers involved.  There was a section for each of the countries who’d sent men to fight at Passchendaele, with insignia of the units involved, the total number of casualties each sustained, and video interviews with some of the veterans of the battle (presumably taped in the 1970s or ’80s, since there are no veterans left today, and the men looked old in them, but not in their 100s type old, more like they were in their seventies and eighties), which were alternately amusing and sad.

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I wouldn’t generally consider myself a big weaponry person, but some of the facts about the WWI weapons were fascinating…unfortunately, I’m hard-pressed to repeat any of them here, as I initially wrote this a week and a half after my visit, and after going to a number of other museums, so my retention is not as good as it normally is.  Thanks to the pictorial evidence, I can tell you that I tried on yet another helmet before heading out to the trenches (seriously, I’m sure it’s cost-prohibitive, but it would be awesome if they gave you a helmet to borrow when walking through the trenches.  It would really add to the experience).

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The trenches are, appropriately enough, actually outside (when we first showed up, the lady at the admissions desk said something about going outside, but we didn’t quite catch it and were worried there was some kind of additional walk we were meant to go on that we wouldn’t have had time for, so we were relieved when we realised she had probably meant the trench section). Definitely don’t wear shoes with any kind of a heel, as there are big gaps between the boards on the bottom of the trench, and you will probably fall through.  I liked how different sections of the trench were constructed out of different materials, to illustrate the difference between British and German trenches.  In fact,  I think the whole museum set-up was very nicely done, with the sections smoothly segueing into each other, and covering so many war-time environments.

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At the end of the trenches, there was an American relief house, provided to some of the Belgians who had lost their homes in the war; it definitely appears to be American in design, as Belgian houses have a very distinct look, and this house isn’t it, but it did provide some information on the American role in the war (ignore me on the porch with a stupid expression on my face).  Finally, we reached the Hall of Reflection, which was quite extensive and solemn, but also contained an array of interesting facts (concealed under panels featuring various cartoon characters), about the wartime experiences of people like AA Milne and Walt Disney.  There was quite a moving sculpture at the end, made of arms floating on a watery surface (which sounds weird without an explanation, but was meant to represent the many men who died from drowning in the trenches, especially after they were wounded and couldn’t escape, due to dreadful weather during Passchendaele that led to flooding).

I have to say that the Passchendaele Museum was right up there with the best war museums I’ve seen.  It fully conveyed the horrors of war, but also offered opportunities to get a taste of (dramatically toned-down) wartime experiences yourself, making for an enjoyable and educational experience.  If you have to pick one museum in the Ieper area to visit, I think this would be an excellent choice.  4.5/5.




London: Apsley House

And here’s another brief detour back to London, before I carry on with Belgium…

I’ve said before how I have a bit of a historical crush on the Duke of Wellington; I’m sure the man was an ass in real life, but he looks kinda hot in portraits (and having a real schnoz myself means I tend to like big noses on others; they add character – see my infatuation with Steve Perry circa 1979, in all his slightly androgynous shiny-haired glory).  And, having seen Walmer Castle and the chair Wellington died in, it was time at last to visit his London home, Apsley House (or 1 Hyde Park, as it used to be called, though it is now sadly officially at 149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner).  Time at last because Apsley House seems to close each winter for lengthy renovations, and it only just reopened on the 18 of April, which happened to be the day of my visit (yeah, sorry, it’s taken me a while to get this posted).

Perhaps because it was the first opening day of the season, the house was quite crowded, mostly with elderly English Heritage members with snazzy gold cards, which I think denotes lifetime membership (my card is only sad and grey), and we had to wait a little while for our audio guides, as they ran out of headphones.  These new “multimedia” audio guides are free, but admission to the house will set you back £9.20 if you’re not a member.  I don’t need to relay my hatred for audio guides again here, but I will say that these ones were probably worth waiting for, because there really wasn’t much information provided in the house: a binder per room (that in fairness, did cover a lot of the material in the guide, and there were enough copies set out for everyone to use), mostly providing an overview of the furnishings rather than background on Wellington himself.  And they were indeed multimedia guides, as they were touch screen things with video, and even a sort of “game” or two included (in quotation marks because it wasn’t that fun).  The guide basically gave you the option of three differently themed tours: highlights, art, and one other, might have been history(?).  Being impatient, I just went with the highlights, which meant you only had to listen to about a minute and a half of explanation per room, with three or four bonus segments included if you wanted to hear more, which surprisingly, I often did.  Another thing I liked was that all the rooms were numbered in the guide, with a picture of each so you knew where you were meant to be, AND a map was included, so for once, I managed to progress through the rooms in exactly the order intended.  Finally, there was a bonus section included just on Wellington himself, offering about a four minute biography, so I guess it’s fair to say that for once I was fairly impressed with the audio guide.

I was upset that no pictures were allowed, particularly when I got to the centrepiece of the house: an enormous nude statue of Napoleon that dominated the stairwell of the gorgeous spiral staircase.  You may be wondering why Wellington would own such a thing, but the truth is that he looked upon it as one of his many spoils of war (there are many, many more portraits of Napoleon scattered throughout the house), and he admired the sculptor who made it.  And it doesn’t look very much like Napoleon, particularly the physique (and the splendid buttocks, though his frontal bits are modestly covered with a fig leaf).

Wellington also had a museum room, housing his many pieces of silver and gold plate, and his splendid porcelain collection.  In pride of place was another “spoil;” the Egyptian themed dessert set originally made for Josephine, Napoleon’s ex-wife, which was nothing short of fabulous, although the campaign flags hidden up by the ceiling were probably of greater historical importance (they counted down to Napoleon’s eventual defeat).

Wellington purchased the house after he was already a national hero, so he had to immediately renovate it in order to entertain in appropriately grand style, including a couple of huge dining rooms with massive chandeliers hanging from the ceilings.  He had quite an impressive art collection; in addition to the many, many portraits of Napoleon, and a fair few of himself (mostly looking pretty foxy), he had some of other historical figures, like the Prince Regent, Admiral Nelson, and Alexander I of Russia, and also a surprising number of Velasquez’s paintings.  I think the sheer number of paintings to look at really helped with my enjoyment of the audio guide, as there was enough to keep me entertained in each room whilst I waited for the video to finish.

The house was impressive and all, but as usual, my favourite objects were on a more human scale.  A case in the final room contained some objects relating to an aged Wellington: a set of his false teeth, a preserved hoof from a beloved horse, and a combination cane/hearing aid that he took with him to Parliament in his later years, as all those bombs during Waterloo had permanently damaged his hearing.  My other favourite part of the house wasn’t even part of the official tour, and had no signs pointing towards it; we only stumbled upon it whilst looking for the toilets.  Downstairs from the gift shop, there was a basement room containing an array of caricatures of Wellington; these were delightful.  Also delightful was the powerful flush on the Victorian-looking pull chain toilets.

Again, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get pictures of that statue for you, and I don’t think the experience was worth 9 quid, but if you’re an English Heritage member, I’d add it to your list, as the audio guide was one of the best I’ve come across, and that nude Napoleon is worth seeing in person (can you tell I’m still slightly dazzled by it?).  I’m always glad to gaze at portraits of Wellington (however far removed they may have been from the reality), and learn a bit more about his life (apparently he was kind of the black sheep of the family until he joined the military, as his brothers were more successful and thought to be more handsome (must go investigate that now…)), so I enjoyed myself, even if I wouldn’t have been thrilled if I’d had to pay that admission price.  3/5.

Ostend, Belgium: Atlantikwall Museum

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Given what a windy day it was, with hints of rain on the horizon, after seeing James Ensorhuis and the kite festival, the only logical thing to do would be to visit an outdoor attraction, right?  Well, anyway, that’s what I did.  If you venture a few miles down the road from Ostend, you’ll find one of the best-preserved sections of the Atlantic Wall built by the Germans during WWII (the wall originally stretched all along the coast from France to Norway, which is pretty impressive, until you bear in mind that it did them a fat lot of good in the end, am I right?), which has now been turned into a whole museum complex that also includes a living history fishing village (knowing my penchant for fishing heritage centres, it may come as a bit of a surprise that I didn’t also visit that).

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Atlantikwall costs 8 euros, with an included audio guide, or 10 euros if you want to visit the fishing village as well (a saving of 4 euros), but be forewarned that it involves a lot of walking.  Even just getting from the carpark to the museum entrance is a fair hike, and then the museum itself is spread out over a couple kilometres with lots of stairs (though nothing like the 366 in Belfort), and although there are a few bunkers and stuff you can go inside, the vast majority is outside, so pick a nice day for your visit.  I didn’t exactly follow my own advice, but fortunately the rain held off, so aside from it being windy and a bit chilly, it wasn’t too bad in the end.

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After my boyfriend and I picked up our audio guides, we were initially a bit confused, as a map near the entrance seemed to indicate we had a choice of two different routes: a green and a red, but the arrow signs were all yellow, so perhaps they’ve been consolidated into one route, since we definitely saw everything.  The interesting thing about this section of the Atlantikwall is that it also includes some ruins from WWI (the “ONLY preserved German coastal battery from WWI,” according to their website), so I guess you get more bang for your buck/euro.  You all know by now of my long-running feud with audio guides, but these ones were alright.  They only rambled on for a minute or so at each stopping point, usually the time it took to walk to the next one, so you weren’t left dawdling around for ages waiting for it to finish.

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This being Belgium, there were of course a fair amount of rather hilarious mannequins (though nothing on the level of my all-time favourite one from Ijzertoren; I still genuinely can’t believe how terrible he looks); I think the soldier on the right has something of Dr. Crippen about him, only with less creepy eyes.

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You are of course, right on the sea, as you’re reminded every time you step out onto a raised section of the wall and have a look towards the coast, and it really would be quite lovely without all the barbed wire and concrete bunkers.  The stark contrast really helps ram the war home and makes you feel as though you might well have been transported back in time, only with non-threatening mannequins instead of Nazis.

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I feel as though I should maybe be talking more about all the weaponry laying around, and military history generally, but munitions lie well outside my area of expertise, and the audio guides pretty much tell you all you need to know, being supplemented by actual signs here and there.  There was even a sample of the different horrible obstructions the Germans attempted to put in the way of the Allies, including Rommelspargel, pointy post things named for both Rommel and their resemblance to asparagus.  Rommel himself was actually transferred here for a bit to make improvements, so he was the one responsible for all the additional fortifications, at least until Hitler forced him to commit suicide.

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Atlantikwall was mercifully nearly deserted the majority of the time we were walking through, although we managed to catch up with some annoying Euro-hipsters near the end (not sure how that worked, because the audio guide should mean that everyone is moving around at roughly the same pace.  Maybe because they kept stopping to flap their jaws instead of just moving along to the next number), which was irritating because it was the one section that did have a lot indoors, and some videos to watch, which I skipped just to get away from all the people.  Instead, I lingered in the storeroom, with its display of tinned sausages and other hilarious yet disgusting German foodstuffs, and copies of the menu that the soldiers were served.

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In general, I liked Atlantikwall, and I learned a fair bit (how much I’ve retained is another matter entirely, as evidenced by the scarcity of war information in this post, though one thing I did find interesting is that some Eastern Europeans who were opposed to communism volunteered with the Nazis, in the hopes of taking down Stalin, but the Germans didn’t fully trust them, so they were generally given shitty jobs of no major importance to do).  I think it’s fantastic that these pieces of history have been preserved (Belgium in general seems to make a real effort to honour the past, probably because it’s been used as a battleground in so many major wars), and I think the set-up is generally quite good; while we weren’t sure about the yellow arrows at first, as sometimes it felt like we were bypassing stuff, it’s actually arranged in quite a clever way, and the path winds you back around in such a manner that you get to see everything without much backtracking.  I also liked how we were left free to wander and explore (save for the alarm we were warned about if you stray beyond the ropes, leaving me anxious about accidentally triggering it).  So yeah, I suppose it was a pretty worthwhile experience, and something a bit different from all the WWI stuff that dominates most of Belgium (though there’ll be some of that coming soon, don’t worry!).  Maybe I’ll have to return to see that fishing village someday, though if they’re speaking Flemish, perhaps not…  3.5/5.

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Ostend, Belgium: James Ensorhuis

Before you do anything else, if you’re not familiar with James Ensor, have a listen to this song: I don’t often foist my musical tastes on you (or everyone would know how many hours of my life I’ve wasted watching Journey concert footage from that brief but glorious era of Perry/Rolie overlap), but They Might be Giants have done an excellent job of condensing most of the pertinent background info on James Ensor into a minute and a half, so I’m letting them do the explanatory work for me.  I’ve been a TMBG fan since I was about 12, so after having listened to that song dozens of times over the years, you can see why I jumped at the opportunity to “meet James Ensor” when it presented itself.

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Ostend (or Oostende) is only about 13 miles from Brugge, so it was easy enough for us to cruise up there after procuring the world’s smallest rental car (ok, so it was a 4 door Smart Car, and I suppose the classic 2 door model would have technically been smaller, but believe me, there was no way more than two people would have fit in there.  The backseat barely held a backpack and my purse).  We’d chosen an exceptionally windy day for our visit, which coincidentally turned out to be the day of Ostend’s kite festival (we didn’t know about it in advance – I only spotted the posters advertising the festival when we approached the town, so it was a nice bonus), so after parking in an underground lot, and fighting through what felt like gale-force winds at street level, I was initially dismayed to find that the Ensor Museum appeared very much shut that day.  The museum is only open from 10-12 anyway, and then again in the afternoon after 2; we’d arrived just past 10, so we figured we’d go for a little walk (“against the wind” – Bob Seger this time) and then return, in case they were just a little late about opening that day.

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However, when we returned, the window shutter was still down, and there was no sign of life (there was a sign on the door, but it was in Flemish, and just looked like a poster advertising an exhibition or something, not directions on what to do), so I sadly settled for just having a picture in front of the place and was about to leave when a Belgian couple turned up.  Unlike us, they were not too chickenshit to pound on the front door, and sure enough, a woman emerged and let them in, so we quickly followed behind them (despite my attempts to build up suspense, the photos of the interior probably gave away the fact that we eventually made it inside).  So the moral is: if you try to visit and the shutters are down, don’t give up until you’ve knocked on the door and rang the bell (I suspect the shutters may have been down to protect the windows, the wind being so terrible). The house is very small, but admission is just 2 euro, so that was ok.  Besides, I was getting to “meet James Ensor, Belgium’s famous painter” (which I sang about twenty times that day).  James Ensor spent almost his entire long life in Ostend, though he lived at his parents’ house for the first two-thirds of it (“he lived with his mother and the torments of Christ”); like James Ensorhuis, this also contained a souvenir shop.  The house where the Ensor Museum is based belonged to his aunt and uncle, but he inherited it after their death, and lived there from 1917 (when he was 57) until his own death in 1949.

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The main things to see within the house are the Blue Room and the dining room upstairs (there is also a documentary to watch, but it was in Flemish, so after looking at some of his paintings on the documentary, there wasn’t much point in watching the rest), which is where Ensor worked and entertained guests.  I feel like I keep using the phrase “fabulously weird” to describe Belgium, but that really is the best term for it.  I don’t know why after listening to that damn song so many times, I never bothered to look up Ensor’s paintings, because they are bizarre and amazing and I was missing out.  The house was kind of like a classier and slightly less creepy version of the house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original film, which scares the crap out of me, but is still better than that dreadful remake), with a dead bird in the corner, a skull wearing a hat on the mantle, and a mannequin clad in one of his aunt’s souvenir Carnival masks sitting at the table.  Although the paintings are reproductions, the brochure informs me that the furniture is authentic, so I’m going to choose to believe that James Ensor was this strange, and I love the guy for it.

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Like many artists, Ensor had different phases in his career, from his obsession with “the torments of Christ” resulting in a lot of creepy zombie-Jesus type pictures (even though Ensor was apparently an atheist, which makes me like him even more), to his many unusual self-portraits, and his fascination with the scatalogical (many of his paintings contain bare buttocks and fart clouds, which seems to indicate that we even have the same juvenile sense of humour), all of which are represented here.  He also had a thing for skulls (I’m particularly partial to this painting of two skulls fighting over a pickled herring).  His style seems to have been all over the place, and is hard to pin down, but maybe that’s what I like so much about him.  I think I can safely say that James Ensor is my new favourite painter (and he even comes with a nifty song.  So does Van Gogh, but that Don McLean song is so depressing.  I want to burst into tears every time I hear it). IMG_20150509_112046154   IMG_20150509_112219767

His aunt’s original souvenir shop has also been preserved (albeit with the addition of some new things for sale), and contains cases filled with Carnival masks (including a man with a goat head bursting out of his face) and some shells and things.  There’s also a large preserved turtle, and some other taxidermy, like a wall-case with several Feegee style mermaids inside of it (head of a monkey, body of a fish).

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Amongst the modern items for sale, we picked out a postcard and a most excellent print of Ensor’s The Baths at Ostend (or possibly The Baths of Ostend; I’ve seen it listed both ways).  In retrospect, hauling a four foot poster tube home probably wasn’t the smartest idea (though we took the Eurostar, so it was fine on the train, it was more transporting it from our hotel to the station, then to Brussels, into a locker for the day, and then through security and back to our house from King’s Cross), but I think it was worth it, as the piece is full of fart-based and other jokes that you only begin to appreciate when you’ve stared at the print for a while (the copy of it the museum had is pictured below).

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I loved James Ensorhuis.  It was teeny, but just so creepy and amazing.  And now I really “appreciate the man.” 4/5.

Still, that’s not all there is to Ostend.  We also found the old church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which was mostly destroyed by a fire in 1896 (James Ensor sketched out a rather mystical drawing showing his suggestions for the re-build, because of course he did), but a tower remains, and there is a spectacular scene hidden underneath the crucifix on the front – what appears to be some sinners burning in the flames of hell.  After exploring Ostend, I can begin to appreciate how spending his whole life in this town may have warped James Ensor’s mind in fantastic ways.

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There was also that kite festival I mentioned at the start.  Though it was almost TOO windy to be flying kites, they still had them whipping around on the beach, and there were some excellent kites out there.  I was partial to the alligator, though I think my boyfriend favoured the shark, and we both thought the witch and ghosts were neat.  But that’s still not all there is to Ostend, oh no.  In my next post, I’ll talk about the AtlantikWall museum, which is just a few miles down the road from the centre of Ostend.

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London: The William Morris Gallery

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Before I get into my ol’ buddy William Morris, I’d like to tell you all that I’ve just written a guest post for the ever-informative blog These Bones of Mine, on the Bethlem Museum of the Mind…so please go check it out, and hopefully stick around to learn something about human osteology while you’re there (from David’s posts, not mine!).  Now, William Morris.  I volunteer on a couple local history projects in Merton, and William Morris is one of our big names (the other being Nelson (and Jack Dimmer, if we’re talking WWI)).  Even though he isn’t really one of the subjects I’ve worked on, you can’t come out of there without knowing something about William Morris and his factories along the Wandle (which is now a rather sad little river that occasionally produces headless bodies, but it used to be a regular hub of industry, surrounded by lavender fields and distilleries, breweries, and even a fireworks factory).  The factory buildings are still there, and have become Merton Abbey Mills, a “craft village” that I have tried very hard to like, but I just can’t, because everything they sell is tat, and the festivals I’ve gone to there have been extremely lame.  But I digress…  This post has to do with the opposite end of London – Walthamstow, where Morris grew up, and where the William Morris Gallery is located.

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The fact that I was even contemplating going to Walthamstow demonstrates the extent to which I’m running out of London museums to blog about, as this meant taking the Victoria Line to its end (a good five or six stops farther than I’d even been before, since King’s Cross is usually my limit), but nonetheless, I had a good book at the ready (I’ve been really into Willa Cather lately; don’t know why it took me so long to read her stuff considering how much I like pioneer fiction), and I was up for the adventure.  Of course, I immediately got lost upon leaving the station, because that’s what I do, and I swear there were no street signs about, but after walking around in circles for a bit, I eventually managed to locate the Goose pub that the museum’s website used as a directional marker, and I was ok from there (except for the area feeling a bit sketchy. I mean, I’m sure it’s fine, but I was still glad it was daytime).  Upon actually reaching the gallery, I was pleasantly surprised, as it is located within a quaint little park, and Water House, where the museum is housed, is a reasonably attractive Georgian dealy, if too plain for my tastes.

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Happily, the museum is free and consists of nine galleries plus a temporary exhibition space.  The first gallery pretty much just held a timeline of Morris’s life and provided some history of the house (Morris lived there with his family during his teenage years, after his father died).  I was more interested in the second and third galleries, which contained some early examples of his work, as well as a bit more background about his life.  For example, his wife, Jane, was from a poor family (in contrast to Morris’s wealthy upbringing), and served as an artist’s model for Morris and Rossetti (she appears in many Pre-Raphaelite paintings); she liked Rossetti better, but when Morris proposed marriage, she couldn’t turn down such an advantageous match, so just married him and had an affair with Rossetti later on.  I also enjoyed a story about Morris wearing ill-fitting boots on a trip to Italy (I think), and getting pissed off about his blisters, limping down the street loudly cursing all bootmakers.  I’ve been there, William.  So many times.

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The gallery I was most keen on seeing, however, was the fourth one, which talked about Morris’s factory at Merton Abbey.  Now would probably be a good time to add that this gallery seems like it would be fantastic for kids.  Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely relieved there weren’t any there, since I can’t stand children, but as I’m unlikely to return here any time in the foreseeable future, it seems safe to inform people who might be able to take advantage of the activities.  That whole middle workbench was full of creative projects that seemed really fun (basically steps of textile manufacturing, so weaving on a loom, enlarging a pattern, doing pencil rubbings, and lots of other stuff besides).  In addition to this, they had dress-up bins and blocks and things in many of the other rooms, so I could definitely see this being an entertaining place for people of all ages.

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Anyway, Merton Abbey.  They made all kinds of stuff there, like tapestries, wallpaper, carpets, fabric, and stained glass (another interesting fact is that William Morris fabrics were used to decorate the Titanic; I assume only the fancier rooms though).  Paradoxically for someone who considered himself a socialist, Morris didn’t treat his workers especially well, being a very demanding employer, albeit one with the ultimate goal of creating top quality merchandise (he also believed that everyone should be able to afford art, but priced most people right out of owning Morris & Co stuff).

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The next room was intended to be a mock-up of one of his shops – the rather exclusive Oxford Street showroom, where people could browse wallpaper samples (they even had a 2015 Morris & Co catalogue set out, you know, just in case, and I have to admit I was tempted by The Brook design, though I think it’d be a bit much for a whole room) and fabric swatches; there was even an option back in the day for craftsy people to create their own tapestries, using one of Morris’s patterns, though I personally think that’s taking things too far. I’m not going to pay someone to have to do all the work myself!

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Moving upstairs, I entered the section about Morris’s socialist leanings, which contained a short film (even though it was short, I of course didn’t watch all of it, what with my limited attention span and all) about his political activities.  He talked his daughters into becoming socialists as well, and used to give speeches at rallies, though he was very shy and apparently a lousy public speaker.  Despite his political leanings, it was in fact his upper class background and wealth that kept him from being thrown in prison on a number of occasions, which probably says something about the likelihood of socialism taking over the Victorian British government (not very).

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In his time, Morris was perhaps more well known as a writer than a designer or artist, and he started his own printing company to produce aesthetically pleasing copies of some of his esoteric favourites (including a book about monks that was so obscure it had to be scrapped due to lack of subscribers).  Morris was just as exacting about printing as he was about Merton Abbey, and he hated the greyish ink that was common in Victorian publications, so he ordered in a special pure black ink from Germany, despite it being very thick and difficult to use (I’m undecided on whether it was really black, or just a very very very very very very VERY dark blue).  His most famous publication was the complete works of Chaucer, which was admittedly a beautiful book, but due to his custom font, not the easiest thing to read.

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Morris wasn’t much of a traveller, but he did venture to Iceland in 1871 because he was fascinated by Icelandic life and sagas, and wanted to be inspired by the landscape there (his wife carried on having her affair with Rossetti whilst he was away, as they were sharing a house by this point). This trip produced my favourite picture in the entire museum, a sketch by one of his friends depicting Morris on horseback, seen above.  I also enjoyed seeing his special oversized teacup that his friends had to keep for him whenever he came over (better than being given a beaker because you always drop the Royal Doulton (with hand-painted periwinkles)).

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The eighth gallery just had some additional things inspired by Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement, including a cape made by his daughter May, who was an artist in her own right.  There was a small collection of various silver pieces; I liked the muffin dish in particular, because it seemed like an unusual shape to eat a muffin from, even if I do love muffins enough to justify giving them their own dish (I assume it was for the English variety rather than the American kind, but still, it was a weird dish).  And the owl tapestry, because I like owls.

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The final gallery contained some works by Frank Brangwyn, who briefly worked for William Morris, and was one of the founders of the gallery.  Brangwyn was around during WWI (unlike Morris, who died in 1896 at the age of 62, supposedly brought on by “overwork”), and was very keen on the plight of the Belgians, having been born in Belgium himself, so he produced a number of propaganda posters to encourage Britons to provide assistance.

The temporary gallery downstairs was a decent size, but it looked odd because it only contained three pictures, which left loads and loads of empty space.  The exhibit when I visited was about some guy who re-created photographs of Morris’s family, using modern sitters, which was fine, but why were there only three of them when they had all that space?  Aside from the temporary gallery, I was pretty impressed with the William Morris Gallery.  It was informative and varied, and offered plenty of activities for those who were so inclined.  I also think it did a good job capturing the captivating yet contradictory nature of William Morris (that’s so alliterative that reading all the “c”s kind of hurts my eyes).  The only bad part is that it’s all the way in Walthamstow, so I imagine only people who live out towards E17 or dedicated William Morris fans visit it (or bloggers running out of things to write about), which is a shame, because it’s a step up from many other smallish museums.  3.5/5.

Brugge, Belgium: Belfort

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Well, I’ve still got another English Heritage property and some Londony things to talk about, but I’m so excited to tell you about my latest trip to Belgium that I’ll spare you for now and just intersperse them with Belgian stuff later on.  In terms of European holiday destinations, I’ve been to Belgium a lot.  I think some people may perceive it as being a boring country, but something about it just keeps drawing me back.  It doesn’t hurt that the Belgians just seem so fabulously weird, in the best possible way.  There’s always unusual museums or strange festivals to visit (the latter being the main reason for my trip…you will hear much more about the wonder that is Kattenstoet in a future post), and three of the food groups that make up the bulk of my diet (chocolate, frites, and waffles – throw in cereal, cheese, and pasta and that’s 90% of what I eat) are very well represented, so why wouldn’t I keep coming back?  To ease you into my latest holiday (because really, shit gets weird at Kattenstoet, but in a good way), I’m starting out with a mainstream tourist attraction – the huge bell tower in the centre of Brugge (Bruges), otherwise known as Belfort.

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I’ve stayed in Brugge a couple times before this, but my position on Belfort has always been: why should I pay 8 euros to queue for ages and then climb a bunch of steps?  I can climb stairs for free if I want to!  However, my boyfriend was quite keen to see it, as it apparently features heavily in the film In Bruges, which I have never watched (not being much for films unless they feature a disturbingly sexy animated fox, the superb dancing and charmingly scarred cheek of Gene Kelly, Indiana Jones (except that fourth one, I don’t like to talk about that), or Chevy Chase being a jerk (his natural state, I’m told) at some point in the 1980s).  Because we arrived in the city on a Friday afternoon, and Belfort was relatively uncrowded (the line only stretched onto the balcony outside the ticket office, not down the steps, around the corner, and out to the street, like I have seen it in the past), after grabbing an ice cream from the always delectable Da Vinci Gelateria, we joined the queue (though we couldn’t let our guard down as Spanish people kept trying to cut in front of us.  I stared them down and tried to make myself look as wide as possible, like I was scaring off bears or something, and they eventually gave up and left.  Result!). Although the line really wasn’t very long, we still had to wait over half an hour to get in as they only allow 70 people inside the tower at any given time, so you have to wait for dawdlers to leave before you can climb up (so during peak times, you probably end up waiting for hours (and the archway leading into the courtyard reeks of poo, so you get the added fun of smelling that).  No thanks).

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To be honest, I wasn’t all that bothered about waiting, because I knew once I got inside the tower, I was going to have to walk up 366 steps.  The only saving grace was that I didn’t have to do it all in one go, as the tower has different floors with displays of bells and things set up where you can leave the staircase and rest for a minute.  Still, there was definitely a long stretch where we did about 120 steps in one go, and an even more awkward one when the stairs got really steep where I had to cram myself in a corner, bent almost double to let people by, and they just kept coming, ignoring my obvious discomfort.  I mean, I work out and stuff, I’m still a youngish person (just), and I consider myself to be in reasonably good shape, so it wasn’t really a problem getting to the top, but I was pretty out of breath by then.

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Upon finally reaching the top, we were rewarded with views of the city (and Brugge is inarguably a pretty place), albeit from behind some wire netting obviously meant to stop people from jumping off the tower (since the windows were pretty high up, there was no way you were just going to fall out), though it was flimsy stuff, so I have to think if you were really determined, it probably wouldn’t stop you. However, what we didn’t realise was that it was by this time 2 o’clock, and duh, we were in the top of a belfry.  What happens every hour in a bell tower?  Yep, deafening bells.  Bells that went on for about five minutes right above our heads when we were stuck in a corner with no way out, as everyone had frozen when the bells started ringing.  I wanted to put up a video my boyfriend took to really convey how noisy it was, but as I haven’t paid extra for a deluxe WordPress account, and I’m too lazy to start putting things on YouTube, you’ll just have to use your imagination (in lieu of a bell video, I’ll put up a picture of my delicious gelato).  It was loud.  I had my fingers stuck in my ears, and it was still loud.

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If I thought going up was bad, going down was even worse.  Narrow steps make me really really nervous, and watching my feet go down a spiral staircase made me dizzy, so I was super paranoid I was going to fall the whole time, and there was only a rope wrapped along the centre pole to hold on to. And an obnoxious child was running down the steps behind me, loudly counting off each one in French, so I had to zip along at a reasonable pace so he didn’t run into me (because I don’t know if I’d have been able to resist the temptation to trip him).  That’s not an experience I want to repeat any time soon.  After emerging from Belfort with great relief, I decided to poke my head into an open doorway right next to the exit, and discovered a free gallery.  I’m still not sure what this space is called, or what the featured exhibition was about, as it was mostly in Flemish, but it appeared to be something about communism, or perhaps postwar society in general.  All I know is they had some cool stuff in there, even if I can’t tell you exactly what it was.

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I wouldn’t recommend Belfort for people who are scared of heights (or falling down staircases, which is my main problem) or who dislike loud noises (also me), but I guess it is an iconic Brugge building.  I honestly still can’t believe I paid to walk up stairs and wait in line, but maybe that’s just me (and if you get the Brugge City Museum Pass thing, I believe it is included, so that might be worth doing if you’re going to a few museums – I didn’t as I had other things planned elsewhere, as you shall see).  But the gallery thing was pretty alright, though not worth a special trip.  2/5.

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Battle, East Sussex: 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield

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I’m feeling quite proud of myself this week (well, a month ago by the time I got around to publishing this), because I managed to get a record six (!) posts written (hopefully with no effect on the quality).  I know you can’t tell as much, because I stagger them out to make up for the lean weeks, but just picture me furiously typing away all week, trying to get my entire Somerset trip written up, followed by this day trip to Sussex (actually, maybe don’t picture me writing, since I’m usually wearing pajamas and my ratty old bathrobe, and my hair is a wreck).  It’s a Friday as I write this, so I am taking some satisfaction in finishing up my backlog with this post on Battle.

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The Battle of Hastings is something of a misnomer, as the fighting actually took place a good few miles inland, in what is now the town of Battle (which was obviously named post-battle; it sure would have been weirdly coincidental otherwise).  Lest you think they just found a random field and labelled it as the battle site in a money-making endeavour (as the cynic in me would be inclined to believe), there is a sort of proof (despite the fact that no relics of the battle have ever been found here) in the fact that William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, to give him his other, funnier title) founded an abbey here only 5 years after the battle took place, and ordered the altar of the church to be placed right over the spot where Harold died.  Nowadays, the Abbey is in ruins, and the entire area has been turned into a fenced-in, bona-fide (said in Phil Hartman’s voice, as Lyle Lanley trying to sell Springfield on a monorail) tourist attraction courtesy of English Heritage (hey, at least it makes a change from the National Trust).

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Obviously, an attraction of this magnitude is going to cost you (around 9 quid, depending on whether you Gift Aid or not), unless you just squeaked in before your English Heritage membership expired, like I did.  I was offered a free audio guide, so I took it, but I have to confess that I didn’t listen to it at all, so for once I probably can’t bitch about the lack of signage, as it was my own fault for not taking advantage of the audio tour (but I still will, because I much prefer reading to listening).

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My boyfriend and I first ventured over to the visitor centre, which despite being recently redone, was still quite meh.  A few posters, and a film I didn’t watch because I didn’t want to commit to sitting there for fifteen minutes.  There were a few weapons you could pick up, and a bit of information about the Normans and Anglo-Saxons (I’m intrigued by Charles the Simple), but that was about it.  The building also holds the underwhelming tearoom (with no products made using Battle honey in sight, despite the website’s promises) and the only toilets on the property, as far as I can tell, so if you have to go even a little, best to take advantage before you find yourself at the far end of the battlefield (I feel like somebody’s mother saying that, but it’s a lesson I learned the hard way).

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And onward to the battlefield, which offered the options of a short walk overlooking it, or a longer walk all the way around it, which maybe took twenty minutes, including stopping to read the signs and take pictures.  The few signs scattered around had corresponding numbers you could enter into the dreaded audio guide, but the biggest attraction here was the sheep.  Lots of sheep, and most importantly, lots of lambs; adorable lambs, which was nice, because the battlefield wasn’t so much to look at otherwise.

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The ruins of the abbey, on the other hand, were quite impressive. There wasn’t anything left inside the abbey (save for the arches), and the first floor was missing, but the interior structures were still more or less intact, and you could climb your way through them.  Because the abbey was built on a hill, there were steps between the successive levels, but the upper floor was still on a flat surface because they staggered the heights of the ceilings below. Pretty clever on the part of those medieval monks (there was also a drainage chute outside the abbey that I’d like to believe was a poo chute, but it probably wasn’t since they had a purpose-built “reredorter” and all).

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The monastery was dissolved in the 16th century, of course, due to Henry VIII and his jerkish whims, so if you take that into consideration, it’s incredible how much of it is still intact.  The altar was one of the casualties, although there is still a spot marking where it was (and by extension, where Harold was meant to have died), so you can simply stand on it, or if you want to be more morbid, you could probably lie down and pretend you’d been shot in the head with an arrow, a la Harold. (The building behind me in the picture is connected with the site, but it is now a school, and you are not allowed inside.)

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The abbey site was turned into part of a country estate after the so-called “Suppression,” so there are some later additions installed by the wealthy owners (despite some jerk-heir akin to Horace Walpole’s ass-hat descendant selling a bunch of crap to pay off his gambling debts).  That hobbit hole looking thing is actually an ice house, and looks cooler from the outside than in (does that count as a pun? Literally speaking, temperature-wise, of course it’s cooler on the inside, but it is just a dank hole that you have to duck your head to get near), and the other building is the dairy; sadly, sans cow leg table.

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There was also a Victorian walled garden built by the Duchess of Cleveland, which looked pretty dead inside when I visited (in April, so something should have been in bloom), and some kind of monument, I guess to commemorate Harold’s death or maybe the battle?  It was hard to tell as it was written in French (so maybe not marking Harold’s death after all).  Speaking of walls, there is also a wall walk you can take back up to the main building – once used for defensive purposes, it now sadly only offers views of Battle without the opportunity to pour boiling oil on the townspeople’s heads.

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Heading back up towards the entrance, which is based inside the gatehouse, we mounted the steep and uneven staircase up to one of the towers that houses the Gatehouse Museum, which had clearly not been renovated when the visitor’s centre had.  This was probably a good thing, as the signs was pleasingly old-fashioned still, and I was slightly amused by the fact that most of it included a French translation (given what happened here and all, but then again, to the victor go the spoils, right?).

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There were some neat hidey-holes you could poke your head into here, if you were so inclined (and were willing to squeeze through the narrow doorways).  We discovered this garderobe hiding in one of them, with the toilet carefully roped off (probably because you might be tempted to use it rather than trek down to the visitor’s centre).

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If you can get past the fact that you are essentially paying to look at a field exactly like ones that can be seen all over the English countryside for free, than I guess Battle isn’t too terrible.  Honestly, I was glad we managed to get in on the membership card, as I don’t think it was worth 9 pounds.  I really did like the ruins of the abbey, but the visitor’s centre was straight-up lame, and everything else was just ok (and the battlefield was just a field, although not having been to many battlefields in my day, aside from WWI sites in Belgium, I don’t have much to compare it to).  I don’t know, I suppose it is a site of historic importance (since it did change the entire course of British history), which is really the main reason it might be worth seeing –  not because of what it offers today.  2.5/5.


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.