London: “Sneakers Unboxed” and Margaret Calvert @ the Design Museum

That’s right, I’m back to visiting museums again! Unfortunately, my first time in a museum as a visitor since December was a bit of a letdown, but it was my own fault for choosing the exhibition poorly. I pre-booked “Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street” way back in March in hopes that museums would actually be able to open in May, and there weren’t a lot of exhibitions available for booking that far in advance, so I chose something that I would have probably not bothered with otherwise.

 

When the day in May finally arrived, we turned up to the Design Museum at the appointed time and were let straight into the museum after scanning the Test and Trace QR code. The Design Museum gives you a bit more freedom than some other museums in that once you’re in, you’re in, and you’re welcome to look at the free exhibitions as well without booking a separate ticket (unlike at the British Museum, for example). Admission to Sneakers is normally £12.50, but we only paid £6 with Art Pass. The exhibition is located in the basement exhibition gallery where we’ve seen quite a few other things here, and we were the only people in the first room when we walked in; though we were quickly joined by others, it was definitely much less crowded than other exhibitions I’ve been to recently, possibly because we were there on a Monday afternoon.

    

When I booked tickets, I was anticipating that the exhibition would be about the history of sneakers, with maybe some fashion elements thrown in, but it ended up being more like a shrine to the cult of expensive kicks. Honestly, I’m not even super into sneakers – I wear a lot of dresses and jumpsuits and things, so I tend to opt for slightly dressier shoes most of the time, and sandals 100% of the time as soon as it’s warm enough (I hate socks), so I only own a few pairs of sneakers that I wear regularly, which are black Vans slip-ons (I’m wearing them in the photo at the start of this post, but I was still breaking them in and they tore up the backs of my heels so bad that blood started gushing out and pooling in the bottom of my shoes on the way to the museum. Fun!), black Converse high-tops, and black Ash high-tops, which are like a more comfortable version of Converse with buckles instead of laces – so I am probably too boring sneaker-wise to have been the target audience. This was more for the Air Jordan/other overpriced sneakers crowd. Most of the shoes here were the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in my life, especially those white ones, above left, with the giant gross treads. They seriously remind me of the bottom of a horseshoe crab or something else disgusting.

  

Because most of the signage just consisted of a label under each pair of sneakers with their name and date of production, we ended up going through this pretty quickly. The most interesting parts were the section on Converse, because I liked looking at all the old advertising posters and the early models of the shoes from the 1910s and ’20s, and a short video at the end about the evolution of sneaker shapes, which was the only bit of the exhibition with the history I was looking for (and I think the video was part of an advert for a sneaker brand, rather than something the Design Museum had created). There was also a small section about the sustainability of the materials used in sneaker production, and some great photos of various subcultures that placed an emphasis on specific types of sneakers, like hip-hop culture in the 1980s, and intriguingly, a Latin American subculture where teenagers wear clothing featuring religious iconography and elaborately decorated Converse. I would have loved to learn more about these subcultures, particularly the latter group, but I forgot to take a picture of the sign with their name, and Google has gotten me nowhere (I’m not even sure which country these teens are from – I thought it was Mexico, but I could be wrong). The rest of it was decidedly meh, and I was glad we only paid £6. If they had spent more time focusing on the evolution of fashion and the development of the aforementioned subcultures, rather than just displaying loads and loads of sneakers, I think this exhibition could have had some real potential, but as it is, unless you’re really into sneaker collecting, I’d give this a miss. 1.5/5.

 

However, the trip wasn’t a total loss (it wouldn’t have been a total loss anyway, because it gave me an excuse to go to High Street Ken and get reunited with two of my loves – Ben’s Cookies, and chocolate chip muffins from Whole Foods – after an absence of more than a year), because the museum also had a free temporary exhibition on typography, specifically the work of the designer Margaret Calvert, who developed some of the most iconic signs and typefaces in Britain, including a new font for National Rail, the pictograms for British road signs that have been in use since the 1960s, and the typefaces for British airports, British Rail, and the gov.uk website. It’s pretty crazy to think that one person designed so many fonts, especially a woman who started her career in mid-century Britain, and I was completely fascinated by this exhibition. It detailed Calvert’s design process, which involves hand-drawing so she can have more control of design; her desk space, with many quirky signs; and the research that goes into the design process to determine how big fonts have to be, whether they should be all upper case or if upper case and lower case letters should be used, and where signs should be positioned in a train station or airport.

  

I honestly wish this could have been the main special exhibition instead of Sneakers so it could have had a larger space devoted to it and we could have learned even more, because words and fonts are so much more my jam than elaborate sneakers, but I’m glad it was here at all so we could learn about Margaret Calvert (who is still alive – she starred in a short video in the exhibition). Definitely recommend seeing this – it runs until August, and I think you can book a free ticket to see this and the small temporary display on artificial intelligence without having to pay to see Sneakers, which I would advise doing if your footwear preferences are the same as mine.

 

London: Highgate Cemetery

I’ve been to Highgate’s East Cemetery quite a few times over the years, since Marcus’s grandmother and great-grandmother are buried there, but neither of us had ever been to the West Cemetery. The guided tour only policy coupled with a £14 entry fee had put us off a bit, not to mention that the tours typically booked up in advance, and visiting the cemetery is usually more of an impromptu affair for us. However, Highgate have recently opened the West Cemetery for pre-booked, self-guided visits, and I was definitely keen to take advantage, especially as museums hadn’t reopened yet at that point, so I booked us a couple of slots on a day in May that looked to be slightly less crappy than the rest (still kind of crappy though. What awful weather for May!). Admission for a self-guided visit is £10, which galls me a bit, since I feel that cemeteries should be free, but if this meant that they’d be able to do more upkeep than the other Magnificent Seven, I wasn’t going to begrudge them the money (too much).

  

We turned up at around the same time a guided tour was getting started, so we set off pretty quickly to avoid getting stuck behind them. You must keep to the footpaths, as the grassy areas are pretty unkempt and apparently have random sinkholes (and you can probably guess what’s at the bottom of those sinkholes), but they’ve put gravel paths in to lead you to famous graves that aren’t on the main paths, so you won’t miss anything major. And with Highgate being probably the most famous cemetery in London and located in an extremely wealthy area, there’s quite a lot of famous people buried here. They don’t advertise the graves of more recent burials, so your guess where George Michael is buried is as good as mine, but there are plenty of historical ones to look out for. Like Michael Faraday, Lucian Freud, and the Rossetti family grave where Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously buried his unpublished poems with Lizzie Siddal and then later changed his mind and had the poems dug up again (this would seem to imply that Lizzie Siddal is buried there too, but her name isn’t listed anywhere that I could see. Poor Lizzie doesn’t even merit an entry, unless she went full zombie when they dug up the poems and just wandered off somewhere to eat brains, in which case I can understand why Highgate would want to keep that quiet).

  

Highgate is also the final resting place of people whose names aren’t well known today, but clearly had A LOT of money in the Victorian era. There are some huge tombs in here, particularly the one belonging to Julius Beer, who owned The Observer (above left). I would say that Highgate’s West Cemetery has more character than the East (it’s also older, having opened in 1839 vs. 1856), and is probably more atmospheric too. It is not quite as derelict as the other Magnificent Seven (so that entry fee is going somewhere) but is still significantly overgrown, and there’s a lot of trees and overhanging vegetation, which really makes it a good creepy Victorian cemetery experience.

 

The Egyptian Avenue and Circle of Lebanon are probably the most famous parts of the cemetery, and a volunteer was waiting nearby to tell us all about them if we wanted (she wasn’t at all pushy, which I appreciated). The Egyptian Avenue is a series of single-family vaults each containing twelve coffins, decorated with Ancient Egyptian motifs, which were very fashionable in the late Victorian era. It was originally roofed over, but people thought that made it too dark, so they removed the roof. There are a lot of overhanging trees, so it is pretty dark again today, and I personally think it’s lovely. The Circle of Lebanon is pretty fancy too (and impossible to photograph in its entirety at ground level), with steps leading out of the circular wall of tombs at various places to another layer of graves above.

  

My absolute favourite grave in the cemetery is hands down the sad/sleepy lion laying atop the grave of the owner of a menagerie (knowing what I know about Victorian circuses, I suspect the menagerie owner probably abused the crap out of a number of lions and other animals, so it’s no wonder the lion looks sad). A close second was the otherwise nondescript grave that contained the epitaph (amongst other, much nicer ones) “He meant well.” I interpreted that as a passive aggressive insult to someone they couldn’t really say anything nice about, and it genuinely made me laugh out loud for a perhaps inappropriate amount of time, considering where we were.

 

Having spent quite a lot of time exploring the West Cemetery, we headed over to the East Cemetery so Marcus could tidy up his grandma’s grave (as you can probably see, Highgate only does selective landscaping, so her grave ends up pretty overgrown every spring). Family members get a special card that allows them free entry, but if you are just visiting, you will need to pay. However, buying a ticket to the West Cemetery gives you free entry to the East Cemetery, so you should absolutely visit both! Although we’d been here many times, we’d never actually been given a map before (I guess because we hadn’t paid to get in), so it was nice to be able to hunt down some more famous graves.

 

Quite a few of them we’d already seen, particularly Karl Marx, since he’s practically staring us down when we visit Marcus’s grandma, and also Douglas Adams, Jeremy Beadle, and the iconic DEAD grave (see below), but this gave us an opportunity to wander down some pathways we hadn’t explored before and see Karl Marx’s original grave, which is a lot more subtle than the giant statue he has these days (and one would think more fitting for a communist, but I guess not, if Lenin’s tomb is anything to go by). There are also a weird number of other communists buried around Karl Marx (if having “comrade” written on their graves is anything to go by), which I have to think is intentional and shows a disturbing amount of dedication to the cause.

 

We spent about two and a half hours between the two cemeteries, and definitely could have spent longer, but rush hour was approaching and we wanted to get home. Having seen it, I do feel slightly better about the admission fee, because Highgate West Cemetery really is a special place, and has probably slightly edged out Brompton in my affections (though I do retain a soft spot for Brompton because of my brief period volunteering there with Arthur, the completely delightful former head of the Friends who sadly recently passed away) amongst the Magnificent Seven. Would definitely recommend visiting! The friendliness of the volunteers were encountered has given me some hope that the tours worth doing, but I’ve been on enough bad cemetery tours to have been scared off them a bit, so the self-guided visit was perfect for a first visit.

Chilworth, Surrey: Chilworth Gunpowder Mills

Faced with the problem of what to do on an excursion with a friend I hadn’t seen since November on a Saturday when every ticketed outdoor attraction was already booked up, after a lengthy search to find an interesting looking walk in Surrey that I hadn’t already been on (i.e. one with actual sites to see other than gorse), I discovered the Chilworth Gunpowder Mills. Set in the idyllic countryside near Guildford, these are the ruins of what was once the sole legal producer of gunpowder in England, and since they’re part of a public walking trail, you can just rock up and visit any time you like, no booking required.

 

Unfortunately, the day we picked for our excursion was full of intermittent downpours (like basically all of May this year), so the terrain was pretty damn muddy, and we were being pelted with rain on and off, but armed with waterproof jackets, we set off undaunted. The websites I found about the mills didn’t initially make it super clear where we had to go, but you want to aim for the Percy Arms Pub in Chilworth. You can park for free on the main road if the pub carpark is full, and the entrance to the trail is just a little ways down the road, next to a primary school. I ended up downloading the 4.5km walk guide from this website, which is what we used to navigate, though you will encounter some leaflets on site that will direct you on a 2km walk just around the mills if you don’t fancy climbing up a hill (I didn’t really, but 2km isn’t a very long walk, so we had to extend it somehow).

  

Gunpowder was manufactured in the Tillingbourne valley from 1626, when the East India Company established the first mill, until 1920, when all the mills closed, although people continued to reside in buildings on the site until 1963 (it was known as “tin town”). Guildford Council’s website claims that there are 100 buildings on the site, but my friend, being skeptical of this claim, went out of his way to count them all, and even being generous and including things like the remains of bridges as “buildings” he only counted 24. Maybe the rest are on private land so we couldn’t actually see them on the walk. And don’t ask me why this site was specifically chosen for gunpowder, as this was never explained. My best guess would be that it was close enough to London to be relatively easy to reach, but still far enough away from the city and other major towns that any explosions would have left them unaffected, and it is surrounded by a couple of rivers, so it would be easy to transport materials in and out.

  

Following the walk took us through the right side of the site first, which included the largest building still standing. The map in the leaflet didn’t seem to match up with what the online map was telling me, but I think this was the expense magazine, which was used to store materials in between stages of manufacturing. You can actually still go inside (very much at your own risk) and a set of concrete steps has been built at some stage in the recent past to aid this, though it was still quite wet and slippery inside, so we had to walk with care. Carrying on along the river, on the route of what was once a tramway around the site, we passed the ruins of a few other buildings nowhere near as well preserved as the magazines. You can carry on along this path, or do as we did and pass through a gate and through a couple of fields to reach Postford Pond.

  

You can see the roofs of the WWI cordite works from along this trail, and will also pass some horses, cows, and a couple of very hairy pigs. Postford Pond, and its neighbour Waterloo Pond, are positively bucolic. In fact, the whole area is incredibly lovely, disturbed only by our brief encounter with a group of students presumably doing DofE award related activities who were blaring extremely obnoxious and terrible music. There’s a housing development that you have to walk through after the ponds where you basically have to cut across someone’s garden, which feels a bit wrong, but it’s apparently a right of way (fortunately, no one was outside, so we didn’t have to make awkward eye contact whilst doing so).

 

After passing the houses, we ended up in a forest scattered with bluebells, walking steadily uphill along a winding dirt path with the Tillingbourne “meandering” below. This would have been lovely were it not for the uphill aspects of it, and the fact that this was when the sun chose to come out, so I started overheating and had to hastily shed my outer layers, but still ended up drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top of the hill. This area was where charcoal was produced. At this point, we had to option to extend the walk by half a kilometre by walking up to St. Martha’s Church, but I was pretty hot and cranky and not in the mood to walk up any more hills, so we instead headed downhill back to the gunpowder mill, passing a vineyard and some alpacas (living in an “alpaca hotel”) en route. There’s also a WWII pillbox next to a farm. It’s on private land, but you can see it from the trail.

  

We then explored the other half of the mill site, including the spot where six people were killed in 1901 after someone’s hobnail boot gave off a spark (hobnail boots are probably not a great idea when you’re working with gunpowder), a number of mill stones from an incorporating mill (whatever that is), and a gate house where workers were checked for any explosive materials before they entered the mills (I guess someone was asleep on hobnail boot day). I was especially intrigued by the dragon notation on the map, which marked the “dragon stones” on the WWII home defence line protecting London from tank invasion (no idea how they worked though. They were just conical stones). It had started absolutely pissing it down again as soon as we got down to the mills, so my raincoat came back out, which was not a great combination with my now-sweaty long-sleeved shirt. Needless to say, I was tired and hungry by the end of this (not to mention wet), so I was relieved when we headed to a brewery that at least had seating under a marquee for pizzas and a refreshing St. Clements after our walk.

 

It’s nice that Guildford council provides free maps to the site, though as I indicated, I could have done with a LOT more information about the mills, which isn’t readily forthcoming online either (though there is apparently a book you can buy about them). Some signage on the site or at least QR codes you could scan for more info certainly wouldn’t go amiss! However, it is a free site, so I can’t really demand too much, and I am glad it hasn’t been taken over by the National Trust and cleaned up, as I think it would lose a large portion of its charm (and some of the thrill of discovery), not to mention that the National Trust would definitely charge for entry if they owned it. It is genuinely a really gorgeous place to walk (with riparian entertainments!), and not too crowded, even on a Saturday, though the rain probably helped with that somewhat. Highly recommended if you find yourself in Surrey and fancy a bit of industrial archaeology! In other news, I finally got my first jab last week (just in time to go back to work), so there will definitely be some museum visits coming up in the near future.

 

 

 

Churt, Surrey: The Sculpture Park

Well, it’s been a bit longer than I intended since my last post, and I see horrible things have happened to WordPress in the interim. Seriously, I hate it so much now (I could go on all day about the reasons why, but they include: that you now have no choice but to use Block Editor, that you can’t just buy extra storage space anymore but have to pay out the ass for a stupid plan, and that you can no longer view which photos are unattached, so you have to be really careful to only upload things you’re going to use so you don’t get screwed out of the now hard-to-come-by storage space) but I already have so many posts on this blog that I don’t really know if it’s worth the effort of changing to something else, which is probably just what they were hoping. Anyway, museums still aren’t reopening here until next week (which I have to admit I’m dreading more than anticipating, because as much as I like visiting museums, I hate working in the office more), but outdoor attractions are very much open, and since we are borrowing Marcus’s brother’s car at the moment, there was no reason we couldn’t drive out to the Sculpture Park, near Farnham in Surrey. I’ve been intrigued by this place for a while, especially after seeing all the photos of skeleton sculptures online, but with one thing or another (mainly Covid restrictions), we didn’t make it out there until now. The Sculpture Park costs £11.20 to visit, and you must book in advance through Eventbrite (having set up tonnes of Eventbrite events myself, I assume it’s normally £11, and they’re passing the Eventbrite fees onto the customer, hence the weird price). We visited on a weekday, and had no trouble booking a spot, but I think it gets a bit booked up on weekends.

The tiny car park was full when we drove up, so we had to park further up the road and walk down (a bit hazardous) but at least parking was free. Finding the admissions office was also a bit of an adventure – there were signs, but it felt like we walked through half of the sculpture park before getting there. This turned out to be wrong, because thanks to all the winding trails, the Sculpture Park is very big indeed. At the office, we were greeted by breast shaped birdhouses hanging from the wall (they are “tit” boxes, get it?) and a sign directing only one member of each party to enter, so I waited outside whilst Marcus got our names ticked off the list and collected a laminated map, which we were assured was cleaned between uses. You kind of need the map, because although the trails are marked with artsy arrows, it can get a bit confusing in places.

There are actually four different trails: red, yellow, green, and blue, and we started with the yellow one, which was one of the shorter trails (the red one goes on FOREVER). At this point, we had definitely not realised the extent of the place, so we started out taking pictures of every sculpture and walking at a leisurely pace. We put a stop to that real fast after discovering the length of the red trail.

I had never actually heard of any of the sculptors who made the pieces, but that’s not really saying much since I know very little about sculpture (said by someone who works at a sculpture museum, but in my defence, we only have the work of the sculptor who used to live there at our museum). However, that doesn’t stop them from commanding very high prices. We were told that all the sculptures here were for sale, and I was briefly intrigued, thinking that if we could pick something up for a couple hundred quid we could stick it in the garden, until I actually saw how much these things cost! There was minimal information provided on the signage (basically just the artist’s name and the name of the piece) but you could scan a QR code next to each sculpture to view more on the Sculpture Park’s website, including the price. The first one I scanned was £78,000 (the stags pictured below left)! Yikes. I gave up scanning after realising I couldn’t actually afford anything here except the £10 tit boxes (some of the sculptures were only a couple thousand, but that’s still way out of my price range. The most expensive one I saw was absolutely huge, and cost almost £500,000, which you can see below right, though it might be hard to get a sense of scale since I had to take a photo from far away to get it all in).

But we could still enjoy looking, and we very much did, at least until we got tired and hungry. As seems to be the nature of sculpture, a lot of these were very phallic, or bosomy, or bummy, so that was entertaining in itself (I also really loved the leaf man, below left, who was none of those things). The skeleton guy seemed especially prolific, and there were absolutely loads of skeletons here in various poses, but again, all out of my price range. The trails loop around a pond and through a bunch of woodland, so even though I don’t think the place is actually all that big, you go up and down hills and in and out of trees a lot, so it feels quite varied. Frankly, I’m not sure all of the walking uphill was strictly necessary, as we seemed to double back on ourselves a couple times, but it was all meant to be part of the one-way system, so maybe it’s not normally quite so long.

I really wish they had a café on site (maybe they do in non-Covid times, but I didn’t see one), because I was dying for tea and cake after the first two trails, but alas, it was not to be. They do have numerous picnic tables, so you could definitely take your own food, which I would probably advise doing, Other than the picnic tables, you’re not meant to touch anything, which was a shame, as there were quite a few sculptures that seemed as though they could have been interactive, like the giant piano and wind chimes. There also appears to be some kind of dark maze thing you can normally walk through that was closed because of Covid, which I’m disappointed to have missed out on. I do hope the sign outside about watching out for the scorpions and exotic spiders was meant as a joke!

I wouldn’t say I’m the biggest sculpture fan, but a lot of the pieces here were just kind of kooky, and it was fun walking around and looking at everything (at least until about midway through the red trail. That red trail kind of broke me), even though I think I would have been happy if we’d finished about an hour sooner, since I was pretty tired by the end (they advise spending 2-3 hours here, and I think we spent around 2.5 hours). Fortunately, there is an ice cream place a few miles down the road, in Haslemere, called Dylan’s, which we had been to a few times years ago, but they seemed to have improved quite a lot since our last visit, when I remember being underwhelmed. They had birthday cake cookie dough ice cream, which was really delicious. So at least that’s an option if you find yourself famished after the Sculpture Park.

All in all, it was a good day out, and almost like visiting a museum, but made me feel a bit less icky than spending time inside with strangers does right now, especially since it wasn’t very busy and we only encountered other people a handful of times, so that’s definitely a plus. I’d pick a nice day to visit, if possible (especially with the crappy weather we’ve had lately), because I imagine it would be a lot less fun in the rain. 3.5/5.

London: Putney Vale Cemetery

With nearly two weeks off just before Easter, but nowhere to go since even outdoor attractions and non-essential shops aren’t reopening til mid-April, let alone museums (those aren’t opening until May), I was scrambling to find something to do with my leave other than my usual reading and watching TV, particularly as the weather was so nice for a couple of days. Fortunately, I happened to see a post on the fascinating Flickering Lamps blog on Putney Vale Cemetery, near the edge of Wimbledon Common, which I had somehow never heard of even though I lived in Wimbledon for over a decade and love visiting cemeteries. Putney Vale is about a three mile walk away from my house, and a return trip on foot would admittedly be pushing the upper limits of how far I am willing to walk in a day, especially since Marcus and I had walked to Bushy Park the day before and my feet still hurt from that, but because there was nowhere else to go locally that I hadn’t already been a thousand times before, I decided to just suck it up and go for it (Marcus is always game for a walk since he’s not a hater of the outdoors like me).

Putney Vale Cemetery really attracted my attention because of how many famous people are buried there, especially since it’s not even one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries where most of the famous Londoners seem to end up. And, unlike most of the Magnificent Seven, Putney Vale have put together an extremely helpful map marking out the most notable graves that I downloaded on my phone before we left to aid in navigation. And by the time we got there, I was certainly glad I did, because I didn’t want to have to walk one unnecessary step! It is admittedly a nice walk from where we live, as we pretty much went through Richmond Park the entire way (and got to see a road crossing for horses as we crossed over into Putney Vale, which amused me to no end) but I am lazy and prone to wearing uncomfortable shoes so it was still a bit of a trial.

Putney Vale Cemetery is right by a massive Asda that I’ve been to quite a few times over the years (it’s definitely not my supermarket of choice, but I like to look at their Halloween section in October, as they seem to have more than most other supermarkets here), which makes it even weirder I didn’t know it existed, but I guess I’ve only ever travelled to Asda by car or bus, so I’ve never had any reason to explore the area in more depth. One thing to keep in mind is that Putney Vale is still very much an active cemetery and crematorium – there was a funeral taking place there during our visit, so we gave that area of the cemetery a wide berth out of respect. Not that I would do anything inappropriate in a cemetery anyway, but most cemeteries I’ve been to here are so empty that I feel comfortable talking at a normal volume, and this was more of a whispering place, at least when near other visitors. There were also a number of family members visiting and leaving flowers on loved ones’ graves, so it was definitely not as neglected as most of the Magnificent Seven are. However, that said, many of the gravestones were clearly made out of softer rock than one would find ideal as so many of them were completely weathered beyond recognition, despite only being twenty years old in some cases!

Putney Vale is a newer cemetery than most of the others I’ve visited in London – it opened in 1891, and really seems to have expanded in the 1930s after the crematorium opened – but that didn’t stop icons of the Victorian era and early 20th century from being buried here, and those were the graves I was keenest to see. The walk marked out on the map doesn’t start until you pass a long, narrow, obviously much newer section of the cemetery, and enter the gates proper. Because of this, my initial impression was that the cemetery wasn’t all that big, and then we got inside the gates, and I quickly revised my initial estimate of its size. It is plenty big enough to still involve a lot of walking, though it’s certainly no Brookwood!

We skipped the first couple of graves on the map because I’d never heard of the people buried there (and like I said, wanted to avoid any extra walking), and headed straight for J. Bruce Ismay of Titanic fame/infamy. Ismay was the managing director of the White Star Line at the time of the Titanic disaster, and also happened to be on the ship itself, though he managed to escape, which brought horrible criticism from the public, given how many passengers weren’t as lucky (I assume they still would have criticised him if he’d died, he just wouldn’t have known about it). The incident basically destroyed his mental health and he died in 1937 after suffering from depression and ill health for a number of years. However, his grave is one of the most splendid ones in the whole cemetery. It features a large, ship-engraved stone sarcophagus, another stone in front of it with a ship-themed proverb, and then a bench at the back with another verse apparently designed to encourage reflection, though it was a little difficult to read thanks to weathering.

Vesta Tilley was next on the list, which is the stage name of Matilda de Frece (nee Powles), a vaudeville performer who was known for being a male impersonator. She is buried with her husband, and their grave isn’t as elaborate as Ismay’s, but I did like the bits of art deco detailing up the sides.

I’ve read enough about the Russian Revolution to have heard of Alexander Kerensky, so I also checked his out, though I actually spotted what I think was his son’s grave first, realised he wouldn’t have been old enough to have been the Alexander Kerensky I was looking for, carried on searching, and then eventually realised I’d overshot and found the correct Kerensky right next to the younger Kerensky. Anyway, he was president of the short-lived Russian Republic for a couple of months in the period after the February Revolution but before the October one, and ended up having to flee Russia for Paris once the Bolsheviks came to power. He moved to the US when WWII broke out and lived there for the rest of his life, but all the Russian Orthodox churches there refused to bury him because of his role in the Russian Revolution, so they ended up sending his body to London where Putney Vale Cemetery found a place for him.

I’m not at all a sports person, with one exception – I absolutely love World’s Strongest Man. I look forward to it all year, and watch pretty much any kind of strongman competition I can find, including all the qualifying rounds and weird WSM off-shoots. So naturally, my workout room (aka the spare bedroom I keep all my exercise stuff in) is strongman themed, with Victorian strongman wallpaper and a poster of Eugen Sandow, actual Victorian strongman, who is buried in Putney Vale! This was definitely the grave that completely sold me on visiting, if I wasn’t already sold, and it took us a minute to find it, because sadly, it didn’t have a statue of a flexing Sandow on it as I was hoping, but it is actually quite a striking stone, especially compared to the others around it. Apparently, he was originally buried in an unmarked grave by his wife, who was angry that he had cheated on her (fair enough!). He finally received a marker in 2002, after a fellow strongman fan bought him one (though obviously a fan with lots more money than I have), but it was replaced in 2009 by Sandow’s great-grandson, and that is the stone that currently stands here.

I confess I am not at all interested in motor racing (see above comment on my lack of interest in sports), but I do have such a juvenile sense of humour that I had to see the grave of poor unfortunately named Dick Seaman, who died after crashing his car in the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix. Personally, if my last name was Seaman and my first name Richard, I think I’d probably go by Richard or Rich, but at least he must have had a sense of humour, and his grave was still well-tended, with a crop of blooming daffodils.

I also love cooking shows, and though I’m not the biggest fan of the Two Fat Ladies, mainly because their food always looked super meat-heavy and gross, and I didn’t care for Clarissa Dickson Wright’s antipathy towards vegetarians, love of hunting, and seemingly reactionary views, I did want to see the grave of Jennifer Paterson whilst we were here since at least I knew who she was, and she seemed less objectionable than Clarissa, though I could be wrong about that. Her grave is all the way in the back of the cemetery and is rather hard to find, because even though she only died in 1999, the writing on her tombstone is almost completely worn away (though you can just about make out the Paterson in person, so I’m pretty sure it’s the right one). Jennifer Paterson’s grave aside, the back part of the cemetery generally houses the more ornate Victorian style graves with angels and Jesuses (Jesii?) and stuff on them and a few mausoleums, so I would hazard a guess that this is the oldest part.

The final grave I was interested in seeing, and honestly the one I was most interested in, apart from Sandow, was that of Howard Carter, of Tutankhamun fame. I suspect his tombstone was replaced relatively recently, because he died in 1939 and his stone was in much better condition than those of a similar vintage. It proudly proclaimed that he was an Egyptologist, which made me think that I’d like a similarly prominently displayed title on my grave, though obviously not Egyptologist. I’ll have to come up with something appropriately descriptive of my eclectic interests!

There are certainly other famous people buried here (including an actor from Allo Allo but I’ve never watched the show so wasn’t bothered about seeing his grave), including some famous-adjacent people not on the official map, like one of Dahl’s Chickens’ (Charles Dickens’s) sons, and even more famous people have been cremated here, including Clement Attlee, Clementine Churchill, Donald Pleasance, Jon Pertwee and many others, but they don’t have memorials to look at or anything, so you wouldn’t know unless you’d had a look at the online guide. On the whole, I’m glad we did visit, since not only was it something new to see, it gave me something to blog about, plus the weather turned the next day, so at least I was able to feel that I made the most of the brief warm spell. Almost made it worth literally feeling like I was walking on needles the whole long three miles back!

 

 

8 Years of Blogging + A 2011 Coastal Tour of England

Last Saturday marked eight years since I began blogging, so I thought it was probably time for me to emerge from hibernation and do a post again. I wanted to celebrate by doing a throwback post to just before I started blogging in 2013; however, I was so desperate to try to populate my blog with content at the start that I was posting nearly every day and working my way through every museum I had visited even semi-recently. This means I had to go all the way back to 2011 to find a trip that I hadn’t already blogged about, so here we are! Back in April 2011, Marcus and I embarked on a coastal tour of the Isle of Wight and southwest England – I seem to recollect that this was because Will and Kate got married then and everybody got an extra bank holiday, so we decided to spend ours heading to some parts of England I hadn’t yet been to at that point in time. Because it was so long ago and we didn’t take nearly as many photos as we would on a trip now, some of my memories are vague, so I’ve decided to do it more as a pictorial tour with captions rather than my usual lengthy review. Not to worry, as the bad bits are vividly seared into my mind!

We started by driving to Portsmouth to catch a ferry to the Isle of Wight so we’d be able to take our car with us. Based on subsequent experiences with the Isle of Wight, I would say this was definitely the way to do it, as their public transport system is unreliable at best, and downright terrifying at worst (the bus driver on the Osborne House route was a complete maniac).

The first stop of the Isle of Wight was the surprisingly excellent Donald McGill Museum. McGill was an illustrator who created many of the iconic saucy British seaside postcards, which lined the walls of this small museum. I was clearly quite taken with his novelty scales, which showed me to be somewhere between the weight of a sickly old man and a bathing beauty.

Here is me and my terrible hair at the time (reminder to self: this is why you should NOT cut bangs again) at the Garlic Farm, one of the many “must see destinations” on the Isle of Wight (said only semi-sarcastically). This is basically a glorified farm shop selling garlic-related products, and we never even got to try their “world’s best” garlic bread, since it was the take and bake kind and what with being on holiday and all, we didn’t have access to an oven until after it expired. The rhubarb, pear, and garlic ice cream was actually quite alright though.

We stayed in Shanklin, where you can see me doing what is clearly my standard “grimacing whilst holding up food” pose with some seaside treats (Mr. Whippy and a “green” flavoured slushy). This was memorable solely because of how revolting our hotel was. It was a particularly grim traditional British seaside hotel with ancient floral coverings on everything and dubious cleanliness – Marcus had to pull out a clump of some previous guest’s hair clogging up our sink that was so large I still gag thinking about him touching it with his bare hands. It was enough to put me off seaside “resorts” for life, and I genuinely think I have not stayed in another such hotel since this trip, though I have stayed in many awful British non-seaside hotels.

After that charming hotel experience, we headed up to the Donkey Sanctuary, which is THE place to see big donkey dicks (if you’re into that kind of thing) as we found out. I decided to spare you by not including the photo of the giant black erect donkey penises (they were so obscene I was legitimately worried my post would get reported), but it was essentially just us walking around and being annoyed that you couldn’t feed or pet the donkeys, though we admittedly didn’t much want to once we noticed their visible arousal (in retrospect, considering the degrees of tumescence on show, this may have been more for our protection than the donkeys’).

Then there was Alum Bay and the Needles, where I was freshly annoyed by the inability of everyone on the boat except us to follow basic instructions designed to keep them from falling overboard. Oh, and we made a sand bell (which involves filling a glass bell with layers of different coloured sand, though they also had more modern (ugly) designs like teddy bears), which is apparently an Alum Bay tradition dating back to Victorian times. We still have the bell, so that’s something.

We spent the night in Weymouth after this, I think because they had some sort of artisan bakery where we could get breakfast (Marcus knows me well) but I seem to remember it being underwhelming. However, this statue of George III is nothing short of fabulous. I’m not sure what he did for Weymouth to deserve this honour, but it must have been amazing!

I swear this trip gets much less phallic after this, but here is a cock rock from the incredible Museum of Witchcraft in beautiful Boscastle. This place was dark, creepy, old school, and all about witchcraft, so what’s not to love? I very much want to go back here when they reopen and do a proper post about it, because this place deserves one.

After this, we drove out to Penzance to spend a couple of nights there in what was probably the only nice B&B I have ever stayed in (very plush carpets and one of those really high comfy beds). Unfortunately, the niceness of our room was marred somewhat by the literal crappiness of Penzance. We happened to be staying there at the time of the 2011 MasterChef final, which I was very invested in, so we set out that night for an earlyish dinner in town to be sure to be back in time to watch it. Our B&B was a couple of miles from the centre of town, so it was quite a walk. As we were walking down the road in the middle of town, nearly at the pizza place we had decided to dine at, I obviously strayed too near the overhang of a building, and the world’s largest, nastiest plop of bird crap fell on my head. I say bird, but part of me thinks it might have been someone doing a “Gardez l’eau” with a chamberpot, because this shit looked human. I have never seen brown bird crap before, and this most definitely was, but maybe it was just from an unusually large seagull who is a fellow IBS sufferer. The poop was everywhere – in my hair, in the hood of my hoodie, down the side of my face, everywhere. Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I am not unfamiliar with being covered in crap on the streets of a city, but it’s normally my own and in my pants, where it (sort of) belongs. However, there was no shitting way (pun intended) I was walking two bloody miles back to the B&B and then two miles back into town again, so we pressed on, figuring I could at least rinse out my hair in the restaurant sink. Only guess what? This establishment didn’t have a bathroom, and they directed me into the exceptionally disgusting public toilets down the road, which had a sharps bin, but not a proper sink. It was one of those wall mounted dealies with the integrated extremely weak water pressure sink, thin watered-down hand soap, and an ineffectual hand dryer. I couldn’t even stick my damn head in this thing, not that I much wanted to from the looks of it. I did my best, but in the end, I confess that I 100% ate a pizza pie with poop crusted bangs (another reason not to get bangs!) and a smelly jacket with a turd in the hood, had as long of a shower as I could manage without missing MasterChef when we returned to the B&B, and never went into Penzance again (this photo was pre-poop, obviously).

This is the Lizard, and the photo at the start of the post was at Lands End, respectively the most southerly and westerly points of Great Britain (as in, the big island, not all the little ones like the Isle of Wight and the Scilly Isles and junk). We went there the day of the pooping incident I think, and were too cheap to pay for a photo with our specific hometown in, as you can see at the start of the post. We did hang around for a bit hoping some fellow Londoners would show up and we could sneakily grab a picture of the sign once it was changed over, but no dice. They have pasties at the Lizard (because Cornwall) and not much else, but I hate pie pastry, especially in savoury applications, with the exception of empanadas, particularly my homemade seitan empanadas, because the masa does something to the dough that is *chef’s kiss* (fact: the only kind of sweet pies I ever make are cream or ice cream pies with crusts made from ground up biscuits and butter, because Oreo and digestive biscuit/graham cracker crusts are eight million times more delicious than crappy normal pie crust), so the lack of non-pasty food did nothing for me or my mood.

This is the seal sanctuary in Gweek, which we presumably chose to visit because the town was called Gweek (hilarious, obviously), because I don’t even like seals. I find them to be gross amorphous blobs (see exhibit A, above). Given a choice between this and the donkey sanctuary, I’d pick the donkey sanctuary, because donkeys are at least cute, even with huge disturbing erections.

The Eden Project! I remember this being mega expensive, even ten years ago, but we undoubtedly had some sort of 2 for 1 deal or we wouldn’t have gone.

The tropical biome was the hottest place I’ve ever been within Britain, so I was thrilled when I spotted a baobab smoothie stand. Unfortunately, said stand was cash only, so we had to make a very long trek back to the front entrance to obtain some whilst I was dying of thirst the whole time, just to get my hands on a refreshing smoothie. I would hope they would have changed this policy by now. We also made garlic breadsticks in the Mediterranean biome (also cash only) which were undoubtedly the highlights of the whole experience. I’d go back sometime though and blog about it properly.

We spent an awful night at a Travelodge in Torquay where some louts were yelling up and down the hallway all night long and kept rattling the lock on our door, so I was terrified they were going to break in and spent the night creeping on them through the peephole armed with whatever weaponesque thing I could find (god knows what that was in somewhere as bare bones as Travelodge. Even the hair dryers are attached to the wall). I did complain to the front desk the next morning, and they completely ignored me so I later sent a strongly worded email to Travelodge, only it turns out I accidentally sent it to the US chain which is apparently not affiliated with the British one, so that got me nowhere. At any rate, I have not stayed in a Travelodge since, in either country. Cheesy chips were the only good part of the whole Torquay experience. North Devon is lovely, but I am really not a fan of South Devon.

We couldn’t head home without detouring through Dorset to see Cerne Abbas (oh shit, I said there wasn’t anything else phallic on this trip. Totally forgot about this one, but who doesn’t like a chalk giant’s dingdong?!).

Also Buckfast Abbey, though I couldn’t tell you whether this was before or after Cerne Abbas as I’ve forgotten where they are in relation to each other and can’t be bothered to look it up. It was clearly undergoing some sort of restoration, but I seem to remember the shop full of monk-made products being quite good, and we picked up a bottle of the famous Buckfast Tonic Wine for a friend, though I certainly wouldn’t drink it myself. It’s caffeinated fortified wine. Deadly.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour through a small portion of England’s southern coast, since it’ll still be a while before we’ll be allowed to go see it in person (though remembering all those awful hotels has not made me particularly keen to spend a night away from home any time soon anyway). Museums aren’t due to reopen until at least 17th May (I am so not excited to go back to work in person, but I am excited to visit other museums! I’ve already booked tickets for two different exhibitions at the end of May, so fingers crossed they’ll be able to go ahead) so I think blogging will still be patchy around these parts for a while, though maybe I’ll surprise myself and find some other old, almost-forgotten trip to write about. Thanks for sticking around with me for eight years (or however long you’ve been reading)!

February Update

Here’s a (not particularly flattering) photo of Marcus and me in a cold and rainy Richmond Park, which is really the only place I’ve been in the past couple of months.

Well, February’s almost over, we’re still in lockdown, and I have been exceptionally boring this past month, so I really have nothing of interest to blog about (and my brain is feeling too blah to come up with anything creative), but I thought I should throw up a quick post just so you don’t think I’ve dropped off the face of the earth! I’ve been pretty busy with work (from home still) – I’m finishing up with getting the rest of our NLHF project research online and we’re hosting a day-long conference over Zoom next month, so I imagine I will spend most of March trying to work out the logistics of 16 different speakers from all over the world who haven’t all used Zoom before joining the webinar and delivering their presentations as seamlessly as possible (fun times…). Other than that, I’ve mainly just been watching TV, reading, and baking a lot, and Marcus has taken up knitting (he’s really good at it!) so I’m the proud owner of a lot of new handmade knitwear, including a sweater, a pair of Bernie mittens, and a beret (ugh, sorry this reads like an exceptionally boring Christmas letter). I doubt I’ll have anything much more exciting to talk about in March, but I’m hoping to take a couple of weeks off right before Easter, so maybe I will have the inclination to do more writing then since travel will still be off the cards at that point (not that I’m desperate to hop on a plane or stay in a hotel any time soon (I miss exploring new places, but I really really DON’T miss flying or staying in hotels. Just thinking about that strange bedding of questionable cleanliness and those times you’d find a clump of someone else’s hair in the shower drain makes me gag a little), but it would at least be nice to do a day trip to another part of England or something). Stay safe, and see you in March!

London: Christmas at Kew

And I’m back (for now), with a long overdue Christmas post, though the belatedness is not entirely my fault. I couldn’t possibly have written this before Christmas, since I didn’t visit Kew until the 4th of January. This past month has certainly been interesting, and not in a good way, but I’m glad Biden at least managed to get inaugurated without further incident from Trump’s idiotic minions (though I was super weirded out to see people hugging and kissing at the inauguration, even with masks on). Here in England, we’re in lockdown again until at least the middle of February, so I’ve barely been leaving the house. It was lovely having a break over Christmas to sit on my couch and watch nonstop Christmas and Cary Grant movies (The Bishop’s Wife is both!), but going back to work (remotely, of course) has just made me a giant ball of stress. I’ve been asked to help finish up our NLHF project, which means getting out a TONNE of content in the next month, so I’m working an extra day a week to stay on top of it (with pay, but still), and since I’m mainly working with our WordPress-based website where I have to use stupid Block Editor and the formatting gives me migraines, I’m not feeling especially inclined to be regularly blogging in my free time. So I think that for the next couple of months or whenever things might start to open up a little bit again, I will probably just be posting once a month or so to give myself a break from WordPress (because spending like 30 hours a week on it for work is enough!) and not give myself the added stress of trying to develop posts when there’s no museums to visit (ironically, I took this job because I thought it would be less stressful than my old one and I’d have the mental energy to write more…).

 

But enough with the complaining (at least in the introduction), and let’s get to Christmas at Kew. I’ve been trying to visit this festive light installation at Kew Gardens for a number of years, but it always sold out before I could book tickets (they offer it to members first, and those jerks seem to book it all up). So when I saw last September that they were still hoping to go ahead with it this year, and there were still tickets available, I took a chance and snapped up two tickets for early December at the hefty price (off-peak, no less!) of £19.50 per ticket. And then, of course, the November lockdown was announced, which not only spoiled my intended wedding date, but also my Christmas at Kew visit. Fortunately, rather than cancelling, Kew added in more dates in January, and re-booked us for the 4th. Not as good as going before Christmas, but better than not going at all!

 

Marcus and I did have some concerns, since we knew Covid rates were on the rise pretty badly in London (though we hadn’t realised quite how badly until the lockdown was announced), but Kew is only a few miles away from us, and the event was entirely outside, required masks, and had limited numbers attending, so we decided it was worth the relatively small risk, and set out in early evening to check it out. Since we’d never been to Christmas at Kew before, I don’t know how it compares to what they normally offer, but it was pretty magical. Kew Village itself still had some nice lights up as we walked to Kew Gardens, and all the staff when we arrived were friendly and helpful. Because of Covid, they had three entrances open this year to space out traffic – you chose the entrance when you booked based on your intended method of transport, so we used Victoria Gate because we came by train, which didn’t have anyone else going into it when we arrived.

  

As you can see, all the paths were bedecked with lights, and it was easy to social distance on the pathways, but perhaps a bit less so in front of the larger light show installations where people tended to congregate, but I guess at least we were all outside, so it felt safer than some of the museums (looking at you, BM) I’d been to back when that sort of thing was allowed. Although eating maybe wasn’t the smartest thing to do, as it involved removing our masks for a bit, I was excited that Kew was still having food stalls this year. I visited Southbank Christmas Market in 2019 more times than I can count for the toasted cheese stall there (and considering what happened in 2020, I have no regrets whatsoever), so I do totally love a hipstery Christmas market, and since the delivery options are pretty poor where I live (nearly all chain restaurants except for a handful of Indian places and a falafel/hummus bar that is delicious but is only open until 4, so I have to be in the mood for a really late lunch or early dinner to eat it. Not gonna lie, I do love the occasional Domino’s (but only in the UK – the American version is gross), but not a fan of fast food or chains otherwise) I was thrilled just to eat some nice food that I didn’t have to cook myself. And the stalls we tried were actually surprisingly high quality. The chip “shack” had literally the best cheesy chips I’ve eaten in the twelve years I’ve lived in the UK – the guy even blowtorched the cheese on top so it got all gooey and delicious – and the waffle topped with peanut butter cremeux, banana, chocolate sauce, and honeycomb crumble that I had from Utter Waffle was amazing (and this is coming from a waffle purist who usually just likes syrup) and gluten free to boot (not that I care, because I love gluten, but it made the tastiness of the waffle even more impressive), so I was excitedly messaging my gf friend who lives in Kew whilst I was eating it and telling her she had to go there. I also may have had two hot chocolates, because fuck it, I was treating myself.

  

And the lights were pretty great too, though I confess I was more distracted by the food for some of the time. I especially loved the tree shown above left, the animal sculptures, and the dandelion pod things that were suspended over our heads. I’m team coloured lights all the way (white lights are just so boring), so I was glad the installations were mostly pretty colourful and the white lights were at least in interesting shapes. There was Christmas music piped in throughout, and a final large display projected on the fountains in front of one of the glasshouses, which was particularly cool but fairly crowded, so we didn’t hang around for long. Kew had made an attempt to accommodate this by clearing a large standing space in front of the fountains, but people gonna be jerks if given any opportunity, so they did still pack themselves in, albeit not as tightly as they would have done in pre-Covid times. I would imagine the whole thing was much less crowded than it would have been before Covid, and probably so much the better for it, as we could explore with ease, and staff members at least kept people moving along on the pathways.

 

I actually really loved Christmas at Kew, perhaps partly because it was the only Christmas activity I got to do this year, but I would definitely go back in a “normal” year too to check it out again (if such a thing as a normal year exists anymore). And it turned out to be the only activity we got to do at all for who knows how long, because whilst we were there, my friend who I messaged about the waffles messaged me back and said that it looked like they were about to announce another lockdown, which happened as we were on our way back home (luckily, the trains were super empty that day, and we were the only people in our carriage), so I guess Kew rescheduled our visit for the perfect time, as we wouldn’t have been able to go if it was even a day later. 1 in 30 people in London with Covid is a pretty terrifying figure, so I understand why it had to be done, but I am still happy we got to squeeze Christmas at Kew in first, because it was a much needed treat! 4/5.

  

See you again at some point in February, and really hope things have improved a bit by then, though I’m not counting on it!

 

Merry Christmas!

Me in a mask next to the underwhelming Christmas display in Coal Drops Yard, which sums up the experience of Christmas 2020 rather nicely, I think.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone! Wishing you all a much better 2021 than 2020!

Due to Tier 3 coming just as I got out of self-isolation (and now Tier 4, which seems to just be lockdown by another name), which put a stop to any more museum visits in 2020, and me just needing a little break, frankly, I will not be posting next week (which will be the first time since I’ve started blogging that I’ve skipped a week), but I will be back at some point in January. I promise this is not the end of Diverting Journeys, just a little blogging holiday since I can’t take a proper holiday right now (though I do have two and a half weeks off of work thanks to my new employer giving us an extra four days of leave over Christmas, which is the longest break I’ve had since last Christmas, and much needed it is too, even though I can’t go anywhere)! See you soon!

London: “Unfinished Business” @ the British Library

I had some unfinished business with “Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights”. I was originally booked in to see it the day before lockdown 2.0, but then I ended up getting married instead, which took priority. So I made sure that Unfinished Business was the first exhibition I visited after lockdown, and as it turns out, it was also the only exhibition I got to see during the brief period museums were allowed to re-open, since I got word the day after my visit that one of my colleagues had tested positive, so I had to leave work and immediately start self-isolating (I wasn’t able to get a test since I fortunately never developed symptoms (and my colleague had a very mild case, also fortunately), so I still don’t know if I’ve actually had Covid or not, or if I was infectious at the time I saw the exhibition, so I guess it’s good I had a mask on the entire time I was in central London, even when I was outside). I was hoping to get in one more museum visit when my self-isolation period ended on Wednesday, but then the government decided to move us into Tier 3 starting Wednesday (instead of just reassessing on Wednesday, which was what I thought they were meant to do), so there goes my one day of freedom!

 

But anyway, back when I was unaware that I was a potential Covid Jessica (I know I’m being a bit flippant, but I would honestly feel awful if I knew I got someone sick), I headed up to the British Library for the first time in well over a year to finally see this exhibition (time flies when you can’t leave your house…at least up to a point if you’re an introvert like me. I enjoyed working from home in my pajamas instead of having to go into the office (and I was only working from an office again for a month before having to self-isolate (and this is at a museum with a very small team), so that went well!), but I do miss visiting exhibitions every week). Tickets are £15, or £7.50 with Art Pass, and you must pre-book, though there were plenty of tickets still available on the day when we visited. It is meant to run until February 2021, though this may be extended now that they’ve had to close again.

  

We were already off to a better start than our recent experience at the British Museum as soon as we entered the exhibition, because it was pretty damn empty. There were maybe only ten visitors in the entirety of the large PACCAR Gallery, and the one way arrow stickers on the floor were huge, so there was absolutely no way you could miss them (and there was really only one natural path around most of the exhibition, so we wouldn’t have run into the same issues that we had at the BM anyway). The BL normally divides the space into a lot of smaller rooms, but in this case they had wisely decided to leave everything open, which made it a lot easier to social distance. No complaints about the appearance or configuration of this exhibition!

 

As for the content…I definitely consider myself a feminist, and am interested in the women’s rights movement, so I was really excited to see this exhibition, and it didn’t disappoint. Rather than being divided into individual galleries, the exhibition was divided into zones on Body, Mind, and Voice, though there was definitely a bit of overlap between the zones. As always, the BL presented fascinating historical documents alongside contemporary art and artefacts, and I absolutely loved the little cartoons on the side of each large interpretation panel, most of which contained wry observations on being a woman in male-dominated industries (totally my experience when I worked in brewing and people used to assume I was the head brewer’s girlfriend, though definitely not in heritage, which is heavily female-dominated, at least everywhere I’ve worked), though there was also a delightful cartoon about the Bronte sisters that made me laugh out loud (with any laughter particles safely contained within my mask) and a chart mocking the idea of an “ideal” body type with different food-based body shapes (I’m definitely a pierogi, not least because I eat a lot of pierogi when I can be bothered to make them).

 

“Body” contained sections on beauty pageants, cross-dressing female vaudeville entertainers, transwomen, menstruation, and more. I was fascinated to see the correspondence between American suffragist Caroline Kennard and Dahl’s Charwin, as I call him, aka Charles Darwin, about whether women were intellectually inferior to men. Darwin believed they were, and Kennard tried her best to set him straight by pointing out that women didn’t receive equal educational or employment opportunities, but Darwin presumably had none of it because he was kind of a jerk. There was also a small section on family planning, and the exhibition didn’t shy away from pointing out Marie Stopes’s racist views (similar to her American counterpart Margaret Sanger, she was a big believer in eugenics. It’s a shame all these early birth control advocates had such awful beliefs). I was also super interested to read Urania, an early 20th century gender studies publication written by feminist activists (definitely ahead of its time!), and see how badly I fail at dressing professionally for the office according to a 1970s guide for women on “power dressing” (I’ve been known to wear things close to that exact outfit, sans the slouchy hat).

 

I’m not sure exactly where “Mind” ended and “Voice” began, but I have to assume the education section was in “Mind”. Throughout the exhibition, there were charts showing the proportion of women represented in various fields, like politics, the workforce, etc. (and a really depressing one on domestic violence, which we all know has gotten worse during the pandemic as more women are trapped at home with their abusers), and the only chart where women were surpassing men was on higher education (though not when it comes to the make up of actual faculty, and the number of BAME female professors is particularly low). I was disturbed by the photograph of the 1897 protest by male students at Cambridge against granting degrees to women, which was full of boorish looking men throwing fireworks and suspending an effigy of a woman on a bicycle from a building, and was apparently successful, since the Queen Mother was the first woman to be granted an (honorary) degree at Cambridge, and that wasn’t until 1948!

 

“Voice” focused a lot on the suffragette movement, and made a point to mention the role women of colour played, and how they were basically ignored by white British suffragettes, who showed no concern whatsoever for the plight of women living under colonialism. In fact, during WWI, the Women’s Party put out a really revolting publication called Brittania, full of “patriotic” garbage extolling the “virtues” of Empire. Blech. I found the sections on solidarity movements by BAME women really interesting, and I loved all the protest art. Although much of the focus was still on white women, as that is still what makes up much of the BL’s collection, I do think they really tried to focus on women of colour as well and point out the many inequalities that still exist. This was really driven home in the case of Khadija Saye, one of the artists featured here, who tragically died aged only 24 in the Grenfell fire along with her mother due to the ultimately hideously unsafe conditions they were forced to live in.

 

As the exhibition guide said, although the exhibition tried to represent as many voices as they could, an exhibition of this size covering so much ground could never be comprehensive, and was really more of an overview, though I think it could be a great starting point to encourage visitors to learn more, and there was definitely a lot of interesting looking feminist literature available for purchase in the exhibition shop (along with some cool badges and stickers). The BL generally excels at including a range of interesting primary documents in their exhibits, and this was no exception, with poems written on toilet paper by suffragettes in prison (and my god, does it look like coarse, unpleasant toilet paper), to manuscripts of Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, and even a good range of artefacts from ordinary women, like a housemaid’s recipe for lemon ice cream and a rad uterus quilt.

 

I really liked “Unfinished Business”, and was definitely impressed with the social distancing, easy flow around the exhibition, and friendliness of the staff. 3.5/5. If you have time to walk around the building (which takes a bit longer than it used to due to the one-way system), there is a free display of more of Khadija Saye’s art on the first floor. I’m also including a photo of the small case on the Glasgow Women’s Library because I thought Anabel might like to see it, and you get a bonus photo of the BL’s cat, who we encountered as we left. One of the security guards told us her name was Daisy, and she is very cute!