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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rye, East Sussex: Rye Castle Museum and Ypres Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basingstoke, Hampshire: The Vyne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Broadstairs, Kent: Dickens House Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brussels, Belgium: The Parlamentarium and Cantillon Brewery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ieper (Ypres), Belgium: Kattenstoet (Cat Festival)!

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Finally(!), we come to the reason I had to visit Belgium on the second weekend of May in 2015.  Kattenstoet!  This cat themed festival is held in Ieper (Ypres) every three years, and evolved from the much darker tradition of throwing cats from the top of the Cloth Hall’s bell tower (which in itself came about because Ieper is historically a cloth-manufacturing town (mentioned in The Canterbury Tales as one of the towns the Wife of Bath could best in cloth-making); people needed something to keep rats out of the cloth, so they brought in cats, but the cats quickly multiplied and overran the town, so the citizens of Ieper then needed some way to get rid of the excess cats. This being an age before humane treatment of animals was a thing).

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They stopped throwing live cats in 1817, and the festival went dormant until after WWI, when the people of Ieper (I’d call them Yperites, but that’s what the French called mustard gas, so they must have a different demonym) wanted a new image for the city, after the horrors of war, and revived the cat tradition in the form of a parade.  Unfortunately, they picked 1938 as the year to reinstate the festival, so for obvious reasons, it went on hiatus again until 1946, when they REALLY needed something to cheer them up (a more detailed history is available on the official website I linked to in the first paragraph).  Kattenstoet happily continues to this day, in the form of a three-hour parade, followed by a “fool” throwing toy cats from the tower, and the burning of witches in effigy (another reference to the darker origins of the parade).

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After reading about the parade (and seeing postcards of some of the floats) in the gift shop of the In Flanders Fields Museum a couple of years ago, I knew I HAD to attend the next event, and so it was I found myself staking out a spot amongst the crowds on the pavement on a sunny Sunday afternoon a couple months ago (with my long-suffering boyfriend).  A cat festival is perhaps an odd choice for someone who is allergic to cats, and thus has never owned one, but like most other people in this internet age, I enjoy looking at amusing pictures of them online, and happily stop to pet the cats that live on my street (I just immediately wash my hands afterwards).  Besides, this festival was just too bizarre to miss.  They had me at “cat-themed tableaux.”

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I was a little worried about getting a good spot at all because the advertising caravan was due to kick off at 2, at which point we were just getting into Ieper, and we ended up having to park at a strip mall a couple miles outside of town because all the spaces closer were filled up.  (You can book a seat on one of the grandstands in advance for a modest fee (if you consider 15 euros modest), but we opted to go the cheapo route and just find somewhere to stand.)  However, plenty of Belgians were walking into the centre of town at the same time we were, so clearly not everyone shows up hours early to get a spot.  And we ended up finding somewhere near the end of the parade route, so even though it was well after 2:30 when we finally got there, the advertising caravan was just starting to pass through.  Fortunately for not-very-tall me, we managed to get a place on a raised walkway in front of some shops, so I could actually see most of what was going on (I’m 5’4″, which I guess is technically average height, but it sure doesn’t feel like it when you’re in the back of a crowd).  This being Belgium, there was also a beer stand just around the corner, selling delicious kriek, but due to the complete lack of public toilets in Belgium (and those gross exposed urinal things do not count), I opted not to partake (unlike most of the crowd, who had no such qualms about getting progressively drunker over the course of the afternoon.  I’m genuinely impressed by the capacity of their bladders).

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The advertising caravan, whilst pretty much just consisting of vehicles driven by local shops and car dealerships, proved to be surprisingly entertaining because they were throwing out candy to the crowds, just like at the American parades of my youth (I took baton for a bit in elementary school, and I was in marching band in high school, so I marched in quite a few of the things.  Not so fun when it’s 90+ degrees on the Fourth of July, and you have to march uphill in a wool uniform whilst pretending to play a saxophone (we were meant to be playing for real, but I was terrible at it and never bothered to memorise the music)).  Unlike American parades, where most people just let the children grab the candy (or maybe that was just because my mother was there glaring them all down so I could get my share), this was a complete free-for-all.  If I wanted that damn candy, I had to scuffle for it with a bunch of old people (like proper old; one lady was using her Zimmer frame to guard the candy until her equally elderly friend could grab it), and I’m not ashamed to say that scuffle I did.  (What, I was standing there for ages, and I hadn’t had lunch.  I needed those oddly flavoured Euro-taffies!) They were also handing out fairly nice freebies, like tote bags, but you had to be near the front of the crowd to get those, like one inebriated woman who chased people down the street until they handed them over.

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After the caravan had passed through, there was a fairly lengthy wait until the cat parade started up, which most people filled by drinking even more, and smoking profusely (which was not so great to have to breathe in for hours, but when in Belgium…).  My feet had already started to hurt at this point (since I wear shoes with no arch support whatsoever), but when the cat parade started up, I forgot all about my aches and pains.  It was brilliant!

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I can’t help but feel that these photos don’t even start to do it justice, because it was everything the website promised, and more.  Picture hundreds of people in hilarious cat costumes dancing through the streets, singing (what sounded like) cat themed songs, and huge cat themed floats.  And historically themed tableaux.  Every time you thought it might be winding down, more amazing floats would appear around the corner, and the fun would start all over again.

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As you can see, they started with the Ancient Egyptians, moved on to pre-medieval Europe (the Belgian equivalent of Anglo-Saxons, whatever that is), then the Middle Ages, and then…who knows?!  I completely lost track of what the hell was going on about halfway through the parade, and it really didn’t matter.  I’m not sure what pole-dancing girls in cat makeup, or unicycles, or people breathing fire have to do with the history of cats, but it all worked.  It was completely bonkers, and I loved every minute.

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Oh yeah, and some of the floats blew out smoke, which appeared to be talcum powder or something, because it gently dusted our clothes.  But I didn’t care, because they were handing out cat masks and cat flags (I made my boyfriend reach out with his long gangly arms and grab me one of each, jackpot!).

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Another local tradition is the Ypres Giants, who always make an appearance in the parade.  There is a legend surrounding each one of them (again, explained in more detail on their website), but their origins date back to medieval and early modern traditions in the city (though the giant figures used in the parade obviously haven’t been around that long).  They’re about 5 metres high (15 feet?), and they can be made to spin around if you yell loudly enough at the people handling them (as I found out thanks to the rather tipsy guy in front of me).  I like how sassy the fellow on the left is, and I’m intrigued by what appears to be a tattoo of Fidel Castro on Goliath’s arm.  Or is it a tattoo of himself?  Either way, it’s weird.

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I also thought it was sweet that they had a section of the parade dedicated to remembrance, with ladies in white dresses dancing with poppy umbrellas, and a poppy band.  It’s probably good we weren’t able to stay late enough to go to the ceremony at Menin Gate, as this part of the parade had me choked up enough as it was.

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They also had some strange thing going on with rats celebrating the death of a cat king (?!).  Actually, I can probably stop searching for synonyms for weird at this point, and you can just take it as a given that all of it was weird, but that’s what makes it so good.

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Some band came by on a float playing Sweet Caroline at one point, which was one of the best parts, because not only were they surprisingly good, it amused me to hear a crowd of people who were previously all speaking Flemish (obviously) start singing along in English.

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And of course there was Garfield, but the stars of the parade were undoubtedly Cieper, and his wife Minneke Poes (pictured at the very start of the post).  Cieper has been around since 1955, although he caught fire after hitting some electrical wires in 1960, the year of Minneke Poes’s birth, and had to be rebuilt.  I imagined these giant cats would close out the parade, much like Santa Claus at the Macy’s Parade (which is nowhere near as good as Kattenstoet, by the way; too much filler with all those boring Broadway numbers), but I was wrong, because a float of fools was on the horizon.

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Although the big ceremonial throwing of cats was yet to come, apparently the fool hurls a few stuffed cats off the float during the parade…and this turned out to be Jessica’s time to shine!  I honestly wasn’t even trying to catch a cat, since I was near the back of the crowd, but as I was looking down at my phone, something hit my arm, and I whipped my head up to discover a small stuffed cat resting on me!  I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so thrilled!  The people near me gathered around (I assume to congratulate me, though as they were speaking Flemish, perhaps they wanted my cat and were making rude comments), and I just smiled and nodded at them whilst clutching Cieper Jr.  Maybe it’s a sign my luck is changing?

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If you’re not lucky enough to catch a cat in the parade, never fear, as you’ll have another opportunity at the Cloth Hall, where the fool finally emerged after a lengthy wait, and capered around on a flimsy looking platform before hurling each toy cat off the edge (I was relieved to see he was wearing a bungee cord, because that platform seriously looked like it might collapse).  I was glad I’d already managed to get a cat though, because people were going nuts for these ones.  Like actually brawling over them, and crawling over each other to grab one.  If after all that, you still haven’t managed to procure a cat, never fear, as there are some for sale in the town square (though obviously it’s best if you manage to get one for free).

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There were also other cat-themed products for sale, including (vaguely) cat-shaped bread, and cat chocolates, but I was actually kind of disappointed there were no t-shirts or anything.  I definitely would have worn a stupid cat t-shirt if there was one going.  Because we were tired after standing around all afternoon, and exploring museums all morning, we opted not to stay to see the burning of the witches, and walked back to our car to beat the crowds getting out of Ieper, but if it was anything like the rest of the festival, I’m sure it was great.


Clutching all my sweet sweet cat parade booty.

What else can I say about the cat festival?  I think Kattenstoet is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events (although I would definitely go back at some point in the future, it is only every three years after all), and I’m so glad I got to experience the madness.  It was completely insane, in the best of ways.  How many towns would really be willing to go to all this trouble, just for the sake of cats?  (Seriously, Ieper is only home to about 35,000 people, and there must have been a few thousand marching in the parade, let alone involved with organising it and everything else, so most people must get involved in some way.)  This is just one of the many reasons why I love Belgium.  It’s always going to be one of my favourite countries to visit, and Kattenstoet has confirmed that.  5/5.  Perfect.



Hooge and Poperinge, Belgium: Hooge Crater Museum and Poperinge Death Cell

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After finishing with the excellent Passchendaele Museum, we still had some time to kill before the cat-festivities kicked off, so we headed down the road to Hooge, for the Hooge Crater Museum, which bills itself as the “best private museum in Flanders Fields.”  The advertising must work, because a massive tour bus pulled in at the same time we did, much to my dismay.  Fortunately, they headed straight for the bar at the front of the museum, so the museum itself remained empty.

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I must confess that due to the advertising and the rather hefty 5 euro admission fee (for such a small museum), my expectations were high.  Sadly, they were in no way met by the museum’s contents.  The museum first directs you into a room to watch a filmstrip, which only held my attention for a couple of minutes, and then into the main gallery of the museum itself, which has a lot of cases, but most of them are taken up by life-size dioramas.  I do love life-size dioramas with hilarious mannequins, there’s no denying that, but the museum wasn’t big enough to support multiple dioramas AND a decent amount of actual artefacts, so it only took about ten minutes to make my way around the room.

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I mean, yes, the mannequins were excellent (meaning, they made me laugh my ass off), and the replica of the Red Baron’s plane was pretty awesome as well, but it just wasn’t enough to overcome the general lack of content.  I don’t feel like there was much in there about the Battle of Hooge Crater, or the actual crater in question (which is apparently nearby, in front of the Hooge Crater Cemetery), unless you were willing to squint at some yellowing sheets of paper with tiny font.  I’m still not even sure how you pronounce Hooge.  I’m going with a phonetic “hooooge” like who and huge combined, but it might have some weird Flemish pronunciation, who knows.

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There was another gallery in a back room with a rather interesting story about a soldier who found a crucifix lying on the battlefield, and took it home with him with the intention of someday returning it to the appropriate place, but he died shortly after the war, so his family ended up hanging onto it for the best part of a century until they discovered this museum and donated it to them.  In fact, that was probably the most interesting part of the whole museum.  I’m not sure what constitutes a “private museum” in Belgium exactly; as in, I don’t know how the Passchendaele Museum, In Flanders Fields Museum, and others are classified, but rather than being the “best,” I have to say that Hooge Crater is probably the worst WWI museum I’ve been to, especially for the price.  If it was only a euro or two, I wouldn’t have been so bothered, but 5 euro is a lot for a very small museum without much to offer.  2/5.

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On a much more sombre note, I also visited Poperinge, as I really wanted to see the Poperinge Death Cell and Execution Spot.  Poperinge is right in the middle of Belgium’s hops growing region, so it is also home to a Hop Museum where you can apparently sniff a bewildering variety of hops, which I would have loved to do if I wasn’t so pressed for time (in spite of my dislike of hoppy beers, just because I like smelling stuff), but I was determined to get to Kattenstoet on time, so it fell by the wayside in favour of something far more historically important.

On a side street right next to Poperinge’s Town Hall, you’ll find a red door simply marked “death cell.”  Upon entering, you’re faced with a prison cell where soldiers were held during the war…some of them simply overnight for drunkenness or staying out past curfew – but for some poor men, it was where they spent their last night alive, before being executed for desertion in the morning.  Because many of these men were suffering from shell shock, their executions were nothing short of tragic, and the cell serves as a grim reminder of these young men who had their lives cut short.  It’s not really the most pleasant atmosphere to be in, but I’m glad it’s something I saw and experienced, just to reflect on the many horrors of war.  Some of the men carved their names on the wall of the cell, and these inscriptions have been preserved, with some of the more legible ones highlighted.

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If you want to feel even more mournful, never fear, as there is a re-creation of the execution site where the men were killed by firing squad out the back of the cells.  I don’t know what else I can really say about it, other than that it is powerful and chilling and terribly sad.


To end on something more upbeat, so the extreme joy of Kattenstoet in the next post (and it WILL be the next post, I promise!) doesn’t seem too jarring, Poperinge is also where Talbot House was located.  This famous institution was started by two British Army chaplains as a place for soldiers to come when they could get away from the front lines, just to relax and engage in wholesome entertainments (basically stuff other than prostitutes or heavy drinking).  It was unique because it wasn’t only an officer’s club, but welcomed soldiers of all ranks.  It is now a museum/hotel, but I didn’t have a chance to go in, simply admiring it/posing for a picture on the outside, but you can definitely add it to your list if you need a jolt of relative positivity after the Death Cell.  I know I’d like to return someday to see the interior for myself!

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.