Guildford, Surrey: Clandon Park

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Well, we joined English Heritage last year, and have moved on to the National Trust this year, what’s happening to me?! (other than becoming more middle class, apparently). Yes, I’ve been known to talk some crap on them (and this post is no exception), but it when it comes right down to it, I still visit their properties and walking trails enough that a membership makes more sense than paying for everything individually (since they seem to own the whole of the North and South Downs).  Plus, although they do have the annoying policy of closing the houses yet leaving the grounds of their properties open in the winter (Because that’s what people want to do in the winter; walk around in the cold and look at dead gardens.  This literally makes no sense to me.  I understand they need to do conservation work, but why not just close off a room or two at a time, and leave the rest of the house open? Just add this to the long list of things I don’t understand about the world), it still seems like a higher proportion of National Trust houses are open relative to English Heritage ones.  So, my boyfriend and I broke in our shiny new (albeit flimsy…they couldn’t spring for plastic?  But I probably shouldn’t bitch too much since they sent us free binoculars) membership cards with a visit to Clandon Park, near Guildford.

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Clandon Park is one of the many slightly generic stately homes owned by the National Trust (that all start to blur together after a while).  The only reason we selected Clandon Park over other similar houses was its easy driving distance, and the fact that it had both an old operating theatre and a museum on the premises. But beware, if you’re not a National Trust member, it’s about a tenner to see the property, and it’s just not worth that much.

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Anyway, we started with the military museum (covering the Queen’s Royal Regiment and the East Surrey Regiment), because on their website it looked very much like the old-school military museums I had so enjoyed in Winchester.  Unfortunately, although it had some suitably amusing mannequins, it wasn’t half as good as the Winchester museums.  Part of this was because there was a sign outside advertising the dress-up box, so the place was filled with unruly children and their weary parents, who just seemed to let them run amok (and meant there was no chance that I was going to be able to try on a hat).  But it also just wasn’t as good; it seemed like there wasn’t really that much in there, and the signs weren’t written in the same charming old-fashioned style as in Winchester.  I don’t know, it didn’t really do it for me, for whatever reason, but I feel kind of bad saying that because the man working there was nice enough, and it’s not his fault that so many damn children were running around.

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The museum and restaurant and everything were all technically within the house building, but you had to go upstairs to see the decorated rooms that the family used to use.  The house was owned by the Onslows, which means nothing to me (they were nobility, but unmemorable nobility), and was built in the 1720s, in a Palladian style, to replace an earlier Jacobean house that sat on the property.  The family crest included six birds, and they obviously took that to heart, because there was a bird motif going on throughout the house.  The main room on the first floor was the Marble Hall, which, being all marble and unheated, was freezing cold.

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However, it contained some interesting decorative details, from the large bird paintings, to the arm shaped lamp holders on the walls, and the elaborate Greek mythology themed ceiling.  The Marble Hall is where you can sign up for guided tours, and then wait around for said tours to start, so it’s lucky there was plenty of stuff to look at, since we spent a bit of time milling around in here.  I know, I know, I don’t like guided tours, but they were free, and the only way you got to see some of the rooms, so we signed up for the attic tour.

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While we waited for it to start, we checked out some of the other rooms, including the operating theatre, which was there because the house was used as a hospital during the First World War.

 

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There was also an attractive library, and a dining room where we had the “privilege” of watching them do conservation work, which I personally think is a ploy to be able to charge people full admission price during the winter months when some of the rooms are closed (because seriously, conservation work is not exciting to watch), but I digress…  I was keenest on the display cases full of random crap, including a lock of George III’s hair, and depressingly, a pistol that was used to put dogs down at an early “humane” shelter.

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It was at this point that an old lady sitting in the corner of the room yelled at us for taking pictures (we half-suspect she may have been an Onslow hanging about to make sure people didn’t disrespect the property, since she seemed pretty intensely concerned), so all the photos of the interior are from rooms on the first floor, before we knew it was an issue.  It’s fine if they don’t allow pictures, but the sign at the entrance said (and I quote), “we welcome amateur photographers,” so I think if photography was only allowed in certain areas of the home, there really should have been another sign saying so.  I don’t need to be made to feel like a jerk when we genuinely didn’t know any better (I feel like a jerk most of the time anyway).

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Anyway, though I have no pictures of the second floor, it was mainly devoted to the pottery collection of a Mrs. Gubbay (who I guess lived in the house, or was an Onslow descendant, but this was never explained).  I think I mentioned a long time ago how I once wanted a set of these stupid Georgian looking musician frog figurines, until I realised they cost thousands of pounds.  Well, old Mrs. Gubbay had a similar set, only with monkeys (though obviously frogs are better than monkeys, but some people have more money than taste), and a bunch of creepy harlequin figurines.  The ceramic birds were alright though, I like birds.

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At this point, it was time to go see the attic, so we dutifully trooped off with the group up a few staircases.  The attic is primarily used today as storerooms for various National Trust properties, so it’s full of cool old crap we only got a brief glance of (like a room full of extremely creepy torso mannequins belonging to the military museum), but at one point the family was living up there, and renting out the rooms downstairs to boarders, so there was lots of neat Victorian wallpaper.  And there was one room with three toilets!  One of them was an actual private stall; a snazzy Victorian toilet added by one of the gentlemen of the house so he and his friends wouldn’t have to go downstairs when playing billiards, but the other two were just sitting out on the floor, right next to each other.  Apparently the room was used as lodging quarters for the nurses when the house was a military hospital, so maybe the toilets dated to then…I just hope there was some kind of partition around them when the poor nurses had to use them!

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We then headed out to explore the grounds.  The Onslows own hundreds of acres of land, but only seven of them were given to the National Trust, so all they have is the ground the house sits on, and a bit around it that seems to include some sort of folly.  Or maybe it was an ice house?  Or wine cave?  It was cool looking, whatever it was, but a sign explaining it sure would have been nice.

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The other main object of interest on the grounds was the Maori meeting house.  One of the Onslows was a bigwig in New Zealand (presumably a colonial governor or some such), and he was evidently popular enough that the Maori allowed him to ship one of their meeting houses back to England.  It remains the only meeting house outside New Zealand, serves as a religious place for the Maori, and tends to be visited by Kiwis when they’re in the UK for sporting events and the like.  You’re not allowed to go inside, except on special occasions, but I was able to get a pretty good look at the Tiki interior through the window.

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All in all, I wasn’t super thrilled with the house, but it wasn’t the most horrible National Trust property I’ve visited either.  It could be improved vastly by better signage, and maybe more helpful staff…there was a point where I was admiring some miniatures in a corner, and mused out loud what the one piece could be used for; the woman working in the room just stared at me blankly while I leafed through the brief descriptions in the room’s informational binder in search of an explanation.  I mean, I don’t like it when people are too aggressively helpful, but on this occasion I actually had a question, and was just ignored, so some happy medium would be nice. This review sounds more bitchy than I had intended, which I suppose means I really didn’t enjoy Clandon Park very much at all. So, 2/5, and here’s hoping I can enjoy this National Trust membership more when all their properties are open in the spring.

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London: The Petrie Museum

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If I’m honest, when I walked in to the Petrie, and saw a huge case full of flint blades and pottery shards, I imagined this museum would be unbearably dull.  Rubbly old ancient artefacts are not my cup of tea, and I imagined I’d quickly shuffle around the museum and then get out, so at least I could say I’d been.  But, I pressed on and gave it a chance, and turned out to be pleasantly surprised by the many highlights of this extensive collection.  If you manage to stick with this post, I hope you’ll be similarly persuaded that the Petrie is worth visiting!

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The Petrie Museum is free, located in the middle of UCL’s campus, and is apparently one of the “greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archeology in the world” (per their website).  The museum is housed in only two rooms and a stairwell, but because most of the objects are quite small, there’s a hell of a lot of them (over 80,000 apparently, though I very much doubt they’re all on display).  I guess that means there’s something for everyone, especially if you like pottery.

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I am being slightly facetious here though, because there’s so much more to the Petrie than that.  As I said, it might not look like much at first glance, but if you really take the time to peruse the cases, you’ll discover so many wonderful things hidden amongst the pottery shards.

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Like limestone and glass eyeballs (I am a total sucker for eyeball stuff – I used to have an eyeball lamp and eye lights hanging from my bedroom wall, and really wanted an eyeball tattoo at one point in time, but fortunately was sensible enough not to follow through on the tattoo.  (I wish the same could be said of the stupid tattoo designs I did end up getting)).  And a tiny gold cat with a humanesque face, because why not?  (There were also a bunch of cat figurines, including one with kittens, shown a few pictures up.)

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How about some ancient socks, or a tiny baboon amulet?

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Or clay garlic?  And I think anyone with a sense of humour as juvenile as mine will be impressed by the carving of some Egyptian god with an enormous erection.  See what I mean about there being something for everyone?

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The museum exists due to the combined efforts of Amelia Edwards and Professor William Petrie.  Amelia Edwards was a writer and adventurer who collected hundreds of antiquities (she seems to have been unusually adventurous for a Victorian lady, and I’d love to learn more about her), and donated her collection to start the museum, in addition to providing a bequest to found a department of Egyptian Archeology at UCL.  The Petrie grew to the size it is today due to the early 20th century (the boom time for Egyptology) excavations of its namesake, William “Flinders” Petrie, the first chair of Egyptology in the whole of Britain.

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I know the export of ancient artefacts is a controversial subject, but as I’m unlikely to go to Egypt any time in the foreseeable future, I’m glad collections like this exist so people like me have a chance to see these incredible objects (and obviously nothing new has been added to the collection in decades, since the export of antiquities from Egypt has been illegal for quite some time).  I think the artefacts in the Petrie collection offer a much better view of Egyptian daily life than the usual sort of sarcophagi and opulent funeral accessories, and prove that the Egyptians must have had a sense of humour.  You don’t often think of ancient history as being whimsical, but that really is the best way to describe some of these objects.

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For instance, this tile of a woman having her nose scratched by a monkey (because who doesn’t want a nose scratching monkey?! Well, me, because that’s probably a good way to contract ebola and other horrible diseases, but in theory it’s a nice idea).  I will take a rather adorable hat-wearing falcon though.

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Of course, there are a few objects relating to Egyptian funerary practices, as this was such a large part of the culture, but there’s only a handful of sarcophagi, and I found the giant clay pots that some people were buried in more interesting than those anyway. Even better still were the Greek-influenced face covers, as shown at the start of the post.  I initially discovered covers in this style (I don’t know what the exact term for them is) when I made my first visit to the British Museum (many years ago now), because although I loved the Egyptian section at the Cleveland Museum of Art, their collection wasn’t anywhere near as extensive as the BM’s, and they didn’t have anything like them.  I’ve loved them ever since, and they were some of my favourite things in the Petrie.

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Although the pictures haven’t come out that well, I also think some of the textiles were really incredible.  It was just plain neat to see a shirt that’s thousands of years old, and has somehow survived the centuries and looks a great deal like a shirt someone would wear today.  Amazing.

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Most of the objects have a very terse, factual label attached, and there’s a larger description of the time period, region of Egypt, or types of artefacts, attached to the sides of the cases, but there’s not much detail on individual items (though I think there is a guide available if you want to take the time to read it).  For the most part, I didn’t mind this, both because I would have been there all night if each of the thousands of artefacts had a lengthy description, but also because it’s fun to speculate on how things might have been used, though it might have been nice to learn more about the really cool stuff.  Of course, what I think is cool might not be what everyone is drawn towards; I guess they really would have to expand on everything rather than picking and choosing, so I can see why they’ve gone with the current system (but if you don’t think a humanoid cat is cool, I don’t understand you).

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I think I’ve probably sufficiently conveyed my enthusiasm for the Petrie.  I’m glad I stuck with it, because I do genuinely prefer it to the Egyptian section at the BM.  That said, if it’s your first time in London, and you want to see big, grand Egyptian artefacts (and don’t mind the crowds) then the British Museum is probably the place to go, but if you’ve already been and want something a bit different, come to the Petrie, especially if you want to better appreciate the quirky side of Egyptian culture, and want a stress-free, uncrowded museum experience.  This truly is a hidden gem of a museum, and I definitely recommend checking it out, even if, like me, you’re not normally all that keen on ancient history.  4/5.

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Presidents’ Day Compilation

Presidential history is one of my favourite topics, so in honour of Presidents’ Day, and in case anyone is interested in learning about a few presidential sites for the holiday, I thought I’d throw an updated version of this post up again!

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FDR is one of my favourites, and visiting Hyde Park made for one of the best days I’ve had since I started blogging. The museum is huge, and you get to see the actual office FDR worked in when he was back home (not to mention three of his custom wheelchairs). Highly recommended!

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Not far from FDR’s home and museum, you’ll find Lindenwald, former home of the often-overlooked Martin Van Buren.  Though his presidency wasn’t particularly memorable, his house was lovely, and I’ll always treasure the picture I took with his statue.

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My parents live less than an hour away from Canton, Ohio, so I’ve spent a lot of time visiting the presidential sites around there.  There’s the William McKinley museum with an animatronic William and Ida, and even the Canton Classic Car Museum has a large display case devoted to this famous former local.

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And, the National First Ladies Museum is also in Canton, in Ida Saxton McKinley’s old mansion. Though the guided tour wasn’t my favourite, the museum itself has some interesting objects.

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Also quite near to my parents’ home (though in the opposite direction) is Lawnfield, James A Garfield’s former home, which I visited for the first time last year.  I think Garfield’s story is one of the most poignant of all the presidents, and this National Parks site is definitely worth a visit.

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Though FDR will always be my favourite Roosevelt, I know there are those who are partial to TR.  If you’re looking for a presidential site smack in the middle of New York City, then the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum is a good bet.  The entire house is a reconstruction, but it contains many of the Roosevelt’s original furnishings, and the museum has the shirt Teddy was shot in whilst giving a campaign speech, amongst many other treasures.

 

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Hope this inspires you to visit some presidential sites yourself (I know I’m planning on seeing more the next time I’m back in America!).  Of course, if you happen to be in London, like I am, never fear, as you can visit the excellent statue of FDR and Churchill on Bond Street (though you might not want to get quite as flirty with FDR as I did)! There’s a couple more presidential statues scattered throughout the British capital, so you could make a scavenger hunt of it and try to find them all, or head out to the Kennedy Memorial in Runnymede, which is technically American soil, if you’re really feeling homesick!  Happy Presidents’ Day!

 

 

An Afternoon in Winchester

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My boyfriend finally got a car again, which is exciting to a non-driver like me mainly because it means we can recommence our day trips (and easily go to the German bakery in Ham to get pretzels of a weekend).  The first longish drive we decided to take was to Winchester, in Hampshire.  Although the Round Table was one draw, I think my main reason for going was that Winchester’s Hospital of St. Cross was the closest filming location of Wolf Hall, but we got so caught up in visiting the military museums that I forgot all about it when we were there, so we never even saw the Hospital.  (Ok, I do not like Hilary Mantel, so have never read her books, and I know the whole thing is historically inaccurate, but I’m kind of hooked on the TV series.  It’s boring and confusing simultaneously, and yet I keep watching (though part of that may have something to do with Damian Lewis’s codpiece…I have problems).)

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Although I did visit a number of museums there, rather than break them up into separate posts, I’m just going to give a general overview of everything in one (I’m feeling lazy today) and speak a bit about the city…it has a cathedral, so it technically is a city I think, according to the bizarre rules of the English.  Historically speaking, Winchester was the capital of Wessex, so was a pretty big deal in the Anglo-Saxon world.  One thing I can definitely say about modern Winchester is that they have some interesting sculptures.  They have a buttercross, which is apparently a common thing in English market towns, and is just a large statue in the centre of the town (city?), where people would come to buy butter and eggs and such in olden times.  There’s still a market in the square on Saturdays, though nothing very exciting was for sale (unless you think mystery brand pillows are exciting).  Winchester also boasts some other eclectic statues, including Alfred the Great (in the middle of a busy road), a pig, and a naked man on a horse.  And they have some artistically painted bollards.

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There’s also a rather poignant WWI memorial just outside the Great Hall, and another elaborate commemorative affair next to some nearby castle ruins.  As for the Great Hall itself, it holds the supposed Round Table of King Arthur, as pictured at the start of the post.  Obviously, it did not belong to Arthur (who probably didn’t even exist, and certainly not in the form of the Arthur of legend, even if he was an historical figure), and was instead created for Edward I in the late 13th century.  It was subsequently re-discovered later on, after Malory had popularised the Arthurian legend, and thought to be the mythological Arthur’s table, so Henry VIII had it painted with a Tudor rose and a portrait of Arthur that looked suspiciously like a grey-haired version of Henry (and nothing like Damian Lewis, because even when Henry was young and not yet morbidly obese and disgusting, he still wasn’t anywhere near as attractive as the actors they usually get to play him).

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The Great Hall is free to visit, and also contains a pretty kick-ass sculpture of Queen Victoria, some random gargoyley bits, and a “long gallery” with more information about the history of the Great Hall and Winchester generally (and there’s one of those penny flattening machines in the gift shop, with some excellent choices of design).

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Not far from the Great Hall, you’ll find the old military barracks, which are now split up into five different museums.  An old sign outside the information centre tells you that they’re free, but don’t believe it, as they all charge a relatively modest admission fee (2-5 pounds), which is fine, but can add up if you want to see all of them.  So we just chose the two that sounded the most interesting, and conveniently enough, considering how cold it was that day, were in the same building: The Gurkha Museum, and Horsepower, the Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars (I chose the latter because their brochure specifically promised authentic smells).

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Now, these were proper old school museums, so don’t go in expecting frills and interactive crap, but as old school is exactly the kind of thing I love, I was in heaven.  The Gurkhas were not soldiers I knew a whole lot about (honestly, I didn’t even know they were Nepalese before visiting…I knew they were Asian, but didn’t know from where exactly, which is probably a shameful display of ignorance), so I learned a lot, despite the museum’s rather, er, paternalistic tone.  It was like a flashback to the days of Empire, and was sort of geared to make you feel that colonialism was a great thing, glossing neatly over the many, many, many problems with it, and the reasons why the Gurkhas were fighting in the first place.  Despite these issues, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, particularly liking the mannequin dioramas with motion sensors that triggered light and sound when you walked past. Like I said, proper old school.

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The Horsepower Museum was also lovely, and delivered completely on the brochure’s promises; namely authentic smells, and the chance to sit on a saddle and try on a busby (photographic evidence of this provided above).  Actually, the authentic smells permeated the whole museum, so you could smell them as soon as you walked in, but that just enhanced the experience.  The Royal Hussars took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, amongst many other wars and battles, so there was some interesting material here.  I also have to mention the volunteers working at both museums, who were very nice and welcoming, especially the gentleman at Horsepower.  If you like old-fashioned museums as much as I do, and can deal with a bit of historical whitewashing, I’d definitely recommending checking out a military museum or two in Winchester.

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Of course, Winchester is probably most famous for its cathedral (below, left).  After I found out Jane Austen was buried there, I was gung-ho to visit…until I realised you had to pay £7.50 to get in.  I’m not sure why I was surprised by this, since Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s charge admission, but most cathedrals I’ve been to operate on a recommended donation basis – as I felt it was too close to closing time to get my money’s worth, I decided we could skip it this time around.  Instead, we headed over to the Winchester City Museum, which was right next door to the cathedral, and was free.

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It was also very close to closing time for the Winchester City Museum, so I opted to skip the top floor, which was just Roman stuff (since I am not that big on the Romans), and head to the Anglo-Saxon one below it.  They had an intriguing selection of medieval face jugs, and a super creepy stone angel that my boyfriend jerkishly claimed had moved, so I had to spend most of my time keeping an eye on it, just in case (anyone else still traumatised by those damn Weeping Angels?!).

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Weirdly, the floor below it seemed to jump from the early Middle Ages to Edwardian Winchester.  Ok, there was a little sign about the 18th century, but no late Middle Ages, or Tudors, or Civil War or anything.  Granted, Winchester was on the decline after the Anglo-Saxon period, but the buttercross and the Round Table and everything date from that missing era, so you’d think they could have said something about it.

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But, they did have a re-creation of a tobaccanist’s shop, and an apothecary, so I can’t complain too much, because that was rad.  Overall, this museum wasn’t overly impressive, but it was free, and was something to do (when I should have been seeing the Hospital of St. Cross if I hadn’t been busy being a total airhead that day). There’s another local museum that’s supposed to have historic weights and measures, but I don’t think it was open for the season yet when we visited.  There’s also a National Trust watermill on the hilariously named River Itchen that looks intriguing, though we missed that as well.  However, I did make a point of eating some cheese straws in Winchester, from a bakery I found recommended online.  It’s a chain with locations throughout Wiltshire and Hampshire called Reeve the Baker, and their cheese straws were still-warm and amazing (and only 50p each!), so if you like cheesy bready things as much as I do, get over to their charming Tudor-esque high street and have yourself one of the little grease-bombs.

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Windsor turned out to be quite a good outing.  I’m surprised I hadn’t been there before, since it’s not really that far away, but now I think I will definitely be back at some point, as I still have to see the Hospital of St. Cross and Winchester Cathedral (and get some more of those cheese straws).  Also, I have never seen so many small dogs wearing hilarious sweaters in my life.  The high street was full of them (and some adorable sweater-less big dogs) and it was great, so I may need to return just to be entertained by the fashionable canine population.   Therefore, I can certainly recommend Winchester to anyone who likes history, cheese-based pastries, statues, and be-clothed dogs.

Oh, and in other news, you may have noticed from the sidebar that I finally got an Instagram account (I had to wait until I got a new phone, because my old one was too old to support it)!  You can follow me @jsajovie and get occasional glimpses of museums I’m going to blog about in the future, books I like to read, and all the other miscellaneous heavily-filtered junk that everyone posts on Instagram.  (And I promise I will be super thrilled if someone actually does follow me, because I only have 12 followers right now and it looks sad.)

 

London: The Fashion and Textile Museum

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A few Fridays ago, my boyfriend and I went to see the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory, near London Bridge (despite the name, and to my disappointment, it is no longer a working chocolate factory.  Good thing I swung by Konditor and Cook to stock up on brownies beforehand).  Because it has reached the point where I feel like a lousy blogger if I go into Central and don’t visit a museum, I decided I might as well head into town early and find somewhere new to check out, but that was easier said than done. Even though London has a crapload of museums, I’ve worked my way through most of them since starting Diverting Journeys.  However, thanks to Google maps, I was reminded that there is a Fashion and Textile Museum, also near London Bridge, that I had never been to, with exhibitions on knitwear and wallpaper, both of which were ending that weekend.  Being a fan of quirky jumpers and Victorian wallpaper, it seemed like the perfect time to check it out (though not really the perfect time to blog about it, since neither of these exhibits are there now.  Oh well, just think of this blog as a sort of time capsule).

I think the £8.80 admission fee had probably deterred me from visiting in the past, but sometimes these things are unavoidable, so I parted with the cash (I kind of hate myself for using the British pronunciation of adult when I buy tickets to things, but I do it anyway because I’m scared they’ll look at me funny otherwise.  I need to get over my social anxiety).  The museum was apparently started by Zandra Rhodes (who freaks me out a bit), and doesn’t have a permanent collection; rather, it is made up of ever-changing temporary exhibitions, in keeping with the transient nature of fashion (plus a shop and cafe).  “Visionary Knitwear” was the larger of the exhibits by far, filling almost all the gallery space, save one small room.  It contained items from the collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield (no idea who they are, the museum seemed to imply that I should already know), which covered the Edwardian era through the 1980s.

Weirdly, for something so artistically orientated, you weren’t allowed to take photographs (and they were really emphatic about it too, with slashed out camera signs hanging every few feet, just in case you forgot I guess), so I can’t actually show you any of these styles, but there were definitely some beautiful items of clothing there.  The Edwardian “golf sweaters” were gorgeous, and I really liked some of the folk and Fair Isle knits from the 1930s, plus the “novelty knits” from the ’60s and ’70s, especially the ice cream sundae and the eagle (I have a thing for stupid animal sweaters.  I only have an orangutan, fox, and puffin so far, but I’m always looking to add to the collection.  I’m not a hipster though, I swear!).  I was less happy with the signage, which seemed aimed at people familiar with the fashion industry and its terminology.  It was more about the construction of the garments than the history behind them (there was some history on the larger introductory signs, but not enough for my liking), and used a lot of terms I didn’t even really understand, not being a knitter or someone who works in fashion (I used to work in a department store, but Kohl’s is really not that fancy, and required no technical knowledge of the clothing industry).

The wallpaper exhibit, confined to the aforementioned back room, was possibly of more interest simply because they really did go into the history of the Watts firm and the many historic homes that contain their wallpapers.  The company was started by “Middle Scott” (son of George Gilbert Scott, who designed St. Pancras, and father of Giles Gilbert Scott, who was responsible for Battersea Power Station and the iconic red telephone booth) and several of his architect friends – because gentlemen weren’t supposed to sully their good names by being involved in trade in those times, they chose Watts as a sort of pun, as in, “What’s in a name?”  Because they were architects, rather than just designers, they took a different perspective on wallpaper design than their competitor William Morris, and thus made paper that took into consideration the exterior of the building as well as the interior (they also seemed to have a larger range of choices than William Morris, as you could have any of their designs made up in whatever colours you liked).

They certainly won me over with their papers, which tended to be two-tone, and were thus much less busy than William Morris’s papers (I think they might be my new choice for my hypothetical Victorian parlour, maybe the Sunflower or Pear Tree patterns, no offence to William Morris, but I get enough of him at the local history project I volunteer with).  Whilst the knitwear exhibit suffered from having too little text, I think the wallpaper one almost had too much, as I didn’t really need to hear what various posh people thought of their wallpapers, or a list of every stately home they appear in.  Still, too much is better than not enough, though in the words of Caroline Ingalls, “enough is as good as a feast.”

The shop sold some Zandra Rhodes designs, as well as a lot of random jewellery and other crap, but all I left with was a postcard of my favourite ice cream jumper.  I feel like admission was steep for what was actually there and how long it took me to see it (under an hour).  I’m glad I finally checked it out, but I don’t think I’m interested enough in 20th century fashion to go back, especially with the lack of historical detail for many of the pieces.  2.5/5.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about that play, it was very good (despite the predictable historical inaccuracies)!  I love presidential history, so I was really excited when I heard Assassins was coming back to London, and aside from the ever-annoying Catherine Tate, I thought the cast did a really nice job (highlights were Aaron Tveit as John Wilkes Booth and Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau.  Also the guy who played Franklin Delano Romanowski in Seinfeld was playing Samuel Byck, which is exciting if you’ve watched Seinfeld as many times as I have).  Two caveats, if you decide to go see it yourself: Seats F7 and F8 have a restricted view, something we were not informed of when we bought the tickets, which were the same price as tickets with an unrestricted view.  Unless you enjoy not being able to see a third of the stage, avoid those.  Also, the play is set in a carnival, so there are a lot of giant creepy-ass clown heads in there; depending on your degree of coulrophobia, that may be something else to avoid.  Like all sensible people, I hate clowns, but I managed fine even with its horrible light-up eyes staring at me the whole time, so you might be ok too…just thought I’d throw the warning out there!

 

Swansea, Wales: The Swansea Museum

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Well, I only have one post on Wales, and jet lag is to blame.  I went up to Swansea with my boyfriend a few weeks ago for a wedding, and though we were leaving in the early afternoon the next day, I planned on taking in a few different museums in the morning.  Unfortunately, we’d only flown back from America a couple of days before, which meant we ended up sleeping in so long we almost missed the noon checkout time; thus, I only ended up having time to visit the Swansea Museum, which was practically just across the street from our hotel, and had the added benefit of free admission.

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This was my first time in Wales, let alone in Swansea, but it seems like no matter which museum I chose, I would have gotten a chance to learn more about everyone’s favourite Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.  The Swansea Museum was no exception, as the first gallery featured Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” complete with Christmas decorations in a mock-up of Dylan’s favourite pub, and charming paintings illustrating his Christmas story (which were for sale, but were a couple hundred quid a pop.  If they’d had prints available for a more modest price, I definitely would have bought one. I especially like the one with the hippos).

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There were an array of Santas as well, including more delightful illustrations (seriously, why didn’t they have prints?  A sign mentioned that Christmas cards were available in the shop featuring some of the Santa pictures, but I visited at the start of January when they were presumably sold out…the man in the shop had no idea what I was talking about when I asked).  It wasn’t all Christmas cheer in this room, however, as a sign near the “pub” informed me that the area used to be home to a variety of brothels, and many of the prostitutes congregated outside the handsome museum building.

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The downstairs had a small gallery featuring Welsh pottery, which was evidently quite a thriving industry at one point.    Their output doesn’t seem to have been as adventurous and eclectic as of some of the Staffordshire figurines (still in love with my Daniel Lambert), but I did very much like the cats and the surprised-looking cow milk pitcher.

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The other gallery down there was apparently their main exhibition space, and was devoted entirely to WWI, just like so many other museum exhibits in this centenary year (well, last year now, but the war was still on in 1915 at any rate!).  This was my favourite section of the museum, and contained some select artefacts (note the neato snake, below) and a mock-up of a trench, but the best, and most poignant parts, were the posters on the walls that told the stories of various Welsh soldiers and other people involved in the war effort.

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For example, there was the story of a woman who narrowly escaped death in the munitions factory where she worked, as she was off having her tweezers sharpened when there was an explosion in her section.  Another woman wasn’t quite so lucky, and was killed in an explosion that occurred after her shift ended, because she had gone back in with a friend to grab her purse.  I guess it shows to go how survival is often a matter of sheer luck.  Lots of stories of soldiers and their families as well, including some letters sent home by the troops; I thought it was a really lovely display that helped put a face on the war.

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It was not without some dark humour as well – the sign on the patient above directs visitors to not touch him as he “is feeling very ill and may be contagious.”  After finishing up here, we headed to the top floor, which was divided into an archeology section and a “cabinet of curiosities.”  It doesn’t take a genius to work out which one I visited first.

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Yep, mention a Wunderkammer and I’m there!  In addition to a display of natural curiosities, there was an array of appliances of olde, including a tea-making device that was reminiscent of the Teamaster from “A Christmassy Ted.”  I also liked the elaborate memento mori hiding away in one case.  But, the winning display for me was something else altogether.  You may remember my fascination with polar exploration, and my long-ago trip to the Oates Collection.  So I was thrilled that another of Scott’s ill-fated explorers turned up here (of all places); Edgar Evans, a burly Welshman that was apparently the first of the men to die, because he was the largest man and needed the most food to keep him going.

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There was something I had missed initially between the two galleries…a door that beckoned me to open it to view the mummy.  No pictures were allowed in the mummy nook, but there was indeed a couple of sarcophagi hiding behind the mysterious door in the dark little room within, which was another delightfully unexpected treat in this small museum.

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The final gallery was the aforementioned archeology one, which I admittedly didn’t have high hopes for because Roman ruins bore the piss out of me, but they did their best by including a couple Celtic dummies.  Actually, the whole upstairs was delightfully old-school, with those yellowing, really lengthy captions on everything (the kind that modern curators never use, more’s the pity, because standard wisdom nowadays seems to be that people have short attention spans, so you shouldn’t give them too much to read) and a general air of mustiness that I enjoyed.  I also loved the grandfather clocks hanging out on the stairwell on the way down – one featured a ship that presumably travels across the sea as the day progresses, and the other one was dog (maybe hunting?) themed.

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There was apparently a kind of annex to the museum that I wasn’t aware of at the time, but I happened to stumble across it a little while later when strolling by the harbour – it was a glass building containing a couple trams, but it didn’t look open when I walked past.  Might be worth checking out though.  Overall, though it was in many ways a typical local museum, I nonetheless found something really charming about it; it had a very homely air that is sometimes absent from other museums of this type.  I can’t compare it to any of the other museums in Swansea (damn jet lag), but I thought it was quite nice for what it was, especially the temporary exhibits on Christmas and the War.  3.5/5.

 

 

London: Kensington Palace

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Kensington Palace is honestly not somewhere that I was ever all that bothered about visiting.  Prior to this, I’d only been to two of the “historic royal palaces” (Hampton Court and the Tower of London), mainly because they’re so damn expensive unless you get a National Rail 2 for 1, which is only really useful: a.) if you’re going somewhere you’d take a train to anyway, and b.) if you have a friend to go with.  But I somehow found out (it might have been advertised on a poster in a tube station) that Kensington Palace and Hampton Court are offering half price admission throughout the month of January if you purchase your tickets online.  As I’ve been to Hampton Court loads of times already, it seemed like a good opportunity to check out Kensington Palace. After all, 15 quid feels kind of steep, but £7.50 is doable.

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It’s weird, but for all the times I’ve been to South Kensington and High Street Ken (I have a fierce Whole Foods/Ben’s Cookies addiction that drags me out there about every other week), I think I’ve only been in Hyde Park once, and never in the park that leads up to Kensington Palace (which I think is technically Kensington Gardens, and not Hyde Park at all.  Royal Parks confuse me).  Thankfully, the palace is smack-dab in the middle, so it’s pretty hard to miss (plus I was with my boyfriend, who unlike me, actually has a sense of direction).  Once inside the palace, you pass under a lace canopied room that they seemed quite proud of, and then into a central circular room, with various wings radiating out from it.  I began by heading up the stairs immediately past the entrance, to the “Victoria Revealed” section.

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Queen Victoria was born inside Kensington Palace, and spent her childhood there, away from what her mother deemed the excesses of George IV’s and William IV’s courts, and so she held her first Privy Council here after ascending to the throne in 1837.  The rooms throughout the palace were rather dark, presumably to preserve the artefacts, but it was most noticeable here because there was a sizable informational booklet for each room, and it could be kind of tricky to read it in the dim lighting (fortunately, I ignored my mother’s warnings as a child that reading in the dark would ruin my eyes, and so I’m pretty decent at it to this day…let’s just ignore the fact that I had to have LASIK on my left eye; maybe it’s given me crazy bionic vision?).

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Much like Osborne House, this exhibit painted a rather glowing portrait of Victoria and Albert’s domestic life, illustrated with clothing, jewellery, and paintings.  Albert’s wedding suit (uniform?) is shown above, along with one of Victoria’s pre-mourning dresses (not her wedding dress though).

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Much of the text was simply describing the objects in each room, without a tonne of background, so it was probably quite useful if you already had some knowledge of Victoria’s life and reign (for example, if I didn’t already know quite a bit about the Great Exhibition, I don’t think I would have gotten a good sense of its aims and importance from what they had to say about it).  It also jumped around a bit, from her marriage, to her childhood, and then up to the Great Exhibition (which was perhaps necessary because of the way the rooms flowed).  That said, I enjoyed seeing her very elaborate dollhouse, and her extensive collection of peg dolls, each of which she named and invented a back story for (I did a similar thing with my stuffed animals as a child, so I could relate.  Probably something to do with not having many friends/being an only child (I have a brother, but he’s seven years younger, so I was an only child for a while)).

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There were also a couple rooms devoted to Albert’s death and Victoria’s subsequent (life-long) mourning period, which is only appropriate given how much it shaped the rest of her reign.  I liked the collection of pictures of Victoria with various children and grandchildren, some of which I hadn’t seen before, and also the footage of her Diamond Jubilee that was being projected on one of the walls.

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There was a final room summing up her life, but this was the darkest room of all (literally, the room about Albert’s room was probably the darkest metaphorically speaking), so it was all but impossible to read about the objects as you came to them; rather, I had to huddle next to the only lamp and read about everything at once, but I did manage to find out that the charm bracelet shown above was a gift from Albert to Victoria upon the birth of her first child, and a heart in a different stone was added for each of her subsequent children (slim consolation given how grossed out she was by babies, but better than nothing I guess).  I can’t remember whose foot that is a cast of though.  Obviously one of the children, but I couldn’t say which one.

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The next place I ventured was the King’s State Apartments, which commemorate the “Glorious Georges.”  This section was especially exciting to me because I discovered a rack of scratch and sniff brochures next to the entrance, so even though there were no authentic smells piped in, you had your very own scratch and sniff booklet to take home and enjoy (it told you which scratch and sniff patch to use in each room, but honestly they all just stunk like “authentic smells” of varying degrees of intensity.  I still loved it).  Anytime I have a chance to put my big old schnoz to work, I take it.

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These rooms were very stately indeed, and had a fair bit of character thanks to the work of William Kent, and the eclectic artistic tastes of George II (basically, he liked chubby naked ladies).  Although they did feel very spartan with all the furniture pushed to the sides of the rooms, that is in keeping with the period; until the advent of electric lights, furniture was often placed at the sides of the room and pulled into the centre as needed, both to maximise space, and so people didn’t trip over things at night (at least according to Judith Flanders in The Making of Home).

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If you visit, be sure to read all the little signs hidden amongst the furnishings, because that’s how I found out some of the most interesting tid(t)bits.  For instance, George II’s wife, Caroline, moved the picture on the right above, known as the “Fat Venus,” when he was away (as she didn’t quite share his tastes for nude, Rubenesque women), but he threw a fit when he came home and discovered it was gone, so it had to be promptly returned to pride of place.

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Again, even with the additional information scattered throughout the rooms, I still feel that details were rather sparse, and I would have liked to learn more about this space, but that seems to be typical of all the “historic royal palaces.”  Maybe in addition to not using footnotes in her books, Lucy Worsley also has a distaste for decent signage?

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Moving back in time, to William and Mary, I next circled back to the main room again, and then headed off in the direction of the Queen’s State Apartments.  On the way, I passed a hallway full of embroidered cushions, which were delightful, so I had to share with you some of my favourites.  (You can really see where Victoria got her looks from (and lack of a chin) – her father, the Duke of Kent, on the right).  I forget to check if they sold any of these pillowcases in the shop, but they probably would have charged an exorbitant price for them anyhow.

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The Queen’s Apartments had a similar, albeit less grand setup to the King’s Apartments, but with facts about Mary and Anne instead of the Georges.  That’s Peter the Great of Russia looking rather foxy in that portrait above, but the most interesting thing in this section was undoubtedly the four poster bed shown on the right.  This is the bed where the alleged “warming pan” incident took place, when Mary of Modena, wife of James II, gave birth to her son, and people claimed that the baby was actually smuggled in a warming pan.  That wasn’t really the case, but Mary and James were forced to leave the country anyway, and it’s pretty cool to see the bed where such a famous historical incident happened (almost as good as seeing the deathbed of an historical figure).

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The final exhibit was “Fashion Rules,” showcasing dresses owned by the Queen, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana.  The Queen had some nice dresses in the ’50s, when she was still a young woman, but they definitely frumped out over time.  By contrast, Margaret stayed quite stylish (she was described as a “groovy chick”), and some of her dresses were things I would wear myself.  And then there’s Diana.  I know it was the ’80s and early ’90s, but some of those dropped waist gowns are just unforgivably ugly.  ’80s fashion has a lot to answer for.  Not being a royalist (at least, not in the modern sense.  I’m definitely interested in historical royalty (because why else would I have bothered going to Kensington Palace?), but I don’t care about the current royal family), my primary interest in this section was the clothes themselves, and not the people who wore them, so this was kind of a meh exhibit for me due to the fugliness of most of the dresses.

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(They tried to make you feel royal when you used the toilets.  To be fair, they were quite nice).  The fashion gallery was the last public section of the palace, but to get out, you have to pass through the shop and a cafe.  Because we left near to closing, we weren’t allowed in the sunken garden, but had to walk the long way around to get out again (I think they try to confuse people so you have to stay in the cafe as long as possible, and buy their cakes so you don’t starve to death).  We did manage to get a couple pictures of the gardens generally though.

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To sum up, though I wasn’t super impressed with Kensington Palace (I’d rank it well below Hampton Court and the Tower of London (assuming you skip that awful Beefeater tour) in terms of history that took place here, and the amount of stuff there was to do and see), I do think it was probably worth paying half-price admission for, so take advantage of that deal whilst you can (I think it extends through part of February).  I did really like the scratch and sniff experience, but there just needed to be more information on everything overall, and improved lighting in the Victoria section (even if they have to keep the lighting low, maybe they could add more small lamps, so everyone doesn’t have to gather around the same one).  Worth a visit if you’re a Victoria or George II fan, but I think there’s more to be found on William and Mary in Hampton Court.  Still, I’m glad I saw it once, and for the most part, I enjoyed myself.  3/5.

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Akron, OH: “Deck the Hall” at Stan Hywet

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I’ve had Stan Hywet listed as one of my Favourite Places since I’ve started this blog, but this is the first time I’ve written a whole post on it.  I’m not sure why, because I went last year and even had my brother there to take pictures with his fancy camera, but it slipped my mind, so you get to hear about it this year instead, accompanied by pictures from my extremely unfancy camera (and well after Christmas).  Stan Hywet is the former home of the Seiberling family (F.A. Seiberling, who built the house, founded Goodyear Tire along with his brother), and was built in the 1910s in a mock Tudor style.  The Seiberlings were clearly passionate Anglophiles, and they filled the inside of the home with loads of gen-u-ine antiques culled from various English castles and manor houses (there’s even a room painted with scenes from A Canterbury Tales!).  They do a number of events throughout the year, but Deck the Hall is definitely my favourite.

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The admission price is admittedly pretty steep ($18, though only $8 if you can rustle up a student ID), but it is only once a year, and I always enjoy myself, so I just suck it up and fork out the money (albeit not without grumbling).  Deck the Hall (I think the lack of a plural on hall is supposed to reference the original Welsh version of the song, as Stan Hywet is itself a Welsh phrase, roughly meaning “rock quarry”) runs on weekends throughout December until early January, which is nice since I often don’t get a chance to visit until after Christmas.  My boyfriend and I went on a Friday this year, which was probably a mistake since it was super insanely crowded.  In the past, we were always able to park in the main lot without a problem; well, this year, not only was the main lot full, so was the overflow lot, and we ended up having to park about a mile away in a second overflow lot (which I think was actually a church parking lot). Fortunately, because it was rather cold and Stan Hywet is on a busy road, shuttle buses were provided, and they were frequent enough that we didn’t have to stand outside very long.  The admissions line also moved surprisingly fast (considering how long it was), and I don’t think we ended up waiting for more than ten minutes, so they have efficiency going for them at least.

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In my experience, it’s best to head straight to the house first and get it out of the way, because it only gets more crowded as the night goes on.  I think a lot of people arrive, see the line, and think, “Oh, we’ll come back later,” but unfortunately people keep arriving all the time, so the wait only gets worse.  They generally let people into the house pretty quickly because it’s cold outside; it’s more that you end up having to move at a snail’s pace through the house because you’re caught up in a massive single file of people walking along the assigned pathways.  There’s no photography allowed inside the house, which is certainly understandable, because then it would take even longer, but it is a bit of a shame because the decorations are so nice.  They change the theme of the house every year; this one was “Christmas Around the World,” but I’ve also seen “Christmas through the Decades,” “A Dickens’ Christmas,” and a Christmas carols theme, and while I’m sure they reuse some of the lights and stuff, they also must buy some new decorations for each event, because it always looks different.

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This year, I remember there being a Britain room, Germany (with a scary looking Santa, but no Krampus, alas), USA, Mexico, Russia, Italy, Hungary, and some others I’m forgetting.  They also feature live performances in the Music Room, which change nightly, so you may hear an organist, a string quartet, a choir, or something else entirely, though odds are good they’ll all be playing Christmas carols.  For the first time this year, they had baskets out containing little fact sheets about the Seiberlings…they were all different colours, so it became a kind of “collect them all” scenario, which got annoying when the people ahead of us held up the line to riffle through each basket.  You’re not allowed to see as much of the house during the Christmas event as you can during normal self-guided tours; for example, there’s a pretty baller pool in the basement that’s closed off, but there’s still plenty to take in, from the random winged foot on the staircase, the many pictures of various stately homes in England, and the aforementioned Chaucer room.  Though I often get annoyed at the slowness of the other people trekking through, it’s still pretty damn delightful.

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Once you’ve finished with the house, you’ll want to be sure to check out the grounds, which are incredible (and not properly conveyed by my crap-tastic pictures).  They have a variety of gardens (English Garden, Japanese Garden, Rose Garden, etc), which are gorgeous in summer, and just as good in winter thanks to the awesome displays of coloured lights.  I really don’t know why there’s nothing comparable in Britain, but Americans definitely go all out with the lights – Stan Hywet’s have the added virtue of being tastefully done (relatively speaking).

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That birch tunnel doesn’t look like much in the picture, but the bases of all the trees are wrapped with white lights, which is impressive when you walk through it, and the little grapevine trellis even has grape lights on it.  There’s also a light show off to one side synced with music, and giant flowers made of lights.

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New this year was a “Gingerbread Village,” next to the conservatory, which was a little over the top, but in the best possible way.  There’s a tradition of giving out gingerbread at Stan Hywet (well, I say giving out, but these days you have to pay for it.  I’ve never bought any because I don’t like gingerbread enough to wait in line for some, but it certainly smells good), so I guess the village is in keeping with that.  There was a giant gingerbread house in the middle (not actually made of gingerbread) and lots of lighted gingerbread men all over the place.

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I adore the conservatory (not least because it’s warm), and they really outdo themselves in here.  They grow and sell a variety of poinsettias ($5 each, not a bad price because they’re huge and come in colours you don’t often see), and always have a tree made of the flowers.  This year, the back room was done all in blue lights, which looked cool from the outside, and was even neater to walk through.

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They also do some stuff for children, like a tree lighting ceremony and a Santa Claus, but I’m not sure if younger children would really enjoy the house, since it takes so long to get through it.  It seems like most parents just take them to see the grounds until they get older, which is sensible.  Plan to spend a couple of hours here, especially if it’s busy.  Even if the house is quite busy though, the grounds are spacious enough to remain fairly empty, and the walk from the house to the conservatory is reasonably romantic, especially if you’re lucky enough to get snow (the grounds do get icy though, so wear sensible shoes).  I don’t know, it’s hard for me to be too cynical about Stan Hywet, even though I hate crowds and spending money, because I think they do such a nice job, and it’s become something of a holiday tradition, so I hope if you go, you’ll enjoy it too. 4/5.

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Cleveland, OH: The Western Reserve Historical Society

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So it’s come to this.  I wanted to visit all sorts of places I haven’t been yet in Ohio when I was back home this holiday season, particularly the Dittrick Medical Museum, but with decorating, and shopping, and making pierogi and cookies, and other Christmas related activities, I just ran out of time, and only managed two museum/historic home visits.  One of these was the Western Reserve Historical Society.  I have talked quite a lot of crap on the old WRHS in this blog, mainly because of the really really terrible internship I did at Hale Farm, and yet here I am visiting their “history center.”  Surprisingly, I have mostly nice things to say about the revamped museum.  So let’s get stuck in, shall we?

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Residents of Northeast Ohio will know that the “Western Reserve” part of the name refers to some of the land that would become Ohio; just after the American Revolution, before it became a state, it was officially part of the western lands reserved for Connecticut because they were upset at having to cede part of their original territory to Pennsylvania.  Well, obviously that didn’t quite pan out – Ohio became its own entity, but there were a lot of settlers from Connecticut there initially, and the term Western Reserve is mainly used nowadays for historical institutions or to give some of the hoity toitier suburbs around these parts, like Hudson, a sense of history and that New England connection.  But I digress…the museum building doesn’t only house the Society’s historical collections; it also features the Crawford Automobile Collection, which is nationally renowned for the range and quality of its cars.  This is the main reason why I came here quite often with my family when I was younger; clinging stubbornly to gender stereotypes, my grandpa, father, and brother would go look at the cars whilst we ladies admired the dresses in the Chisholm-Halle costume wing (though I was quite tomboyish in many ways as a child, cars didn’t interest me in the least).

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The WRHS is located in Cleveland’s University Circle, which is sort of the museum district, as it’s also home to the Natural History Museum, the Art Museum, the Botanical Gardens, and Case-Western Reserve University.  Admission is currently $10, and includes two rides on the carousel (of which more later) and the option to take a free tour of the Hay-McKinney Mansion.  The entrance hall of the museum is essentially unchanged from how I remember it, and includes a giant glowing Chief Wahoo (the undeniably racist mascot of the Cleveland Indians.  There is a sign next to him that mentions how controversial he is, and like it or not, he is admittedly a pretty big part of Cleveland history, so I get why he’s there) and a large horse-based mural that covers one of the walls in its entirety.  Because I visited just before Christmas, they also had a couple displays from the old department stores downtown, wherein some of the creepiest elves I’ve ever seen moved their heads around and made toys (to be fair, Higbee’s was still around when I was very young, and I do remember going shopping downtown with my grandma and peering excitedly in their windows, exactly like Ralphie does in A Christmas Story (which was filmed in Higbee’s), so they can’t have been all that traumatising).

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The museum also had a temporary exhibit up about the LGBT community in Cleveland, which included a lovely dress by a transgender designer, and some disturbing articles about hate crimes against LGBT individuals back in the ’80s (I mean, the fact that the articles were there wasn’t disturbing, but the crimes described in them sure were).  Moving on from there, I headed into the old section of the museum (I believe that entire section of the building was once part of the Hay-McKinney mansion, but most of it now serves as galleries, which means they have a lovely Gilded Age atmosphere, abounding with huge vases and interesting portraits) to check out the good old Chisholm-Halle costume wing.  They had an exhibition on called “In Grand Style: Fashions from the 1870s-1930s,” which I guess is meant to showcase Cleveland’s golden age, before all the industrialists packed up and left town.  To that effect, it had dresses relating to two of Ohio’s presidents – the blue one, above, belonged to Lucretia Garfield, wife of the ill-fated James, and the tan/peachy one was worn by a guest to the equally ill-fated McKinley’s inaugural ball.

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As always, the Edwardian fashions were probably my favourite since I like the more tailored, menswear inspired look that was popular at the time, but there was also a dress I liked (shown right, above) produced by a fashion society of which Eleanor Roosevelt (surprisingly) was a founding member, I guess because their primary goal was to make attractive fashion available and affordable to people of all classes.

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The room next to it was full of random bits and bobs, including magazine advertisements for various local clothing companies, a promotional spinning top from the Taft presidential campaign, and bizarrely, one of those basins that they use to wash people’s hair in hospitals, but I was most drawn to the sketches of the old industrial side of Cleveland.  I love pictures that relate to Cleveland’s past, especially if they include the Terminal Tower, which remains my favourite skyscraper ever.  There was also more Garfield memorabilia in the form of a safe that once held papers relating to farm business at Lawnfield (which sounds like a must-see object, doesn’t it?).

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I inwardly groaned when I saw that the next room was all about the 1964 Browns, because I couldn’t care less about sports, and particularly about football.  I guess maybe it was commemorating the only season in which the Browns may have actually performed semi-decently, but I didn’t really look at enough of the stuff in here to find out.

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It didn’t much matter in the end, because the next display was all about Cleveland design, like the groovy retro dishes seen above (I swear one of the sets was called the Brookpark or something equally Clevelandy, but I forgot to grab a picture of that one so I can’t remember exactly what it was), and was thus more to my liking.  I found out that the Tow Motor company, where my grandpa used to work, was founded in the year he was born, 1915, which was kind of neat.

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There was also a display relating to the Taylor Chair company, which used to be based in Bedford, apparently by this railroad trestle that I used to hide out under and drink with my friends as a teenager, which was not something I was aware of on those occasions when I was chugging down Woodchuck (and subsequently puking in the bushes, because Woodchuck is way too damn sweet).  I made sure to relay to anyone who would listen (meaning my mother, basically), that people who make chair legs are called bodgers, which I learned a long time ago courtesy of the Wycombe Museum.

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I kind of feel like at this point I’m just naming individual objects in there (which is what I normally do anyway though), which might make it sound like they have more stuff in the museum than they actually do.  But yeah, there’s a room with miniature trains in it, and a pretty baller portrait of Lincoln, as you can see.  And an equally impressive statue of the excellently named Oliver Hazard Perry, who was the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812 (shown at start of post).

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I’m rambling on so much that it’s probably for the best that I didn’t have time to visit the Hay-McKinney House, but I’ve been in there plenty of times before, so I can tell you that it’s a fairly standard Edwardian home tour, wherein they whip out old-timey cooking and cleaning devices so you can marvel at how huge and inefficient they were.  Fine, but nothing special, although I believe they do make some effort to decorate for the holidays and such.  They also have a new children’s area in the rooms next to the mansion with lots of interactive crap, which again, I didn’t bother with.  However, I will take the trouble to tell you about the picture on the right, which is the earliest known painting of Public Square, dating to 1837, when everything was all green and looked like a quaint village (shame they couldn’t have preserved any of the buildings from that time, though as I’ve said before, I am very partial to the Terminal Tower and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument that surround the modern Public Square).

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Alright, finally on to the Crawford Auto/Aviation section.  As much as I dislike long flights, I think antique planes are kind of cool, and Cleveland has a pretty illustrious history in that field, as the National Air Races were held here throughout the 30s and 40s, so they had a couple of the old racing planes, as well as lots of cool banners and other promotional materials from the Air Races.

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I’ve never learned how to drive, despite living in a very non-public transport friendly area until I was 23, so as I’ve said before, cars hold no particular interest for me.  However, although I couldn’t tell you what kind they are, I do like the ones from the 1910s and 20s that were big enough to be homes away from home (none of which are pictured here because my phone is crap and I couldn’t zoom out enough to get a whole car in frame, that’s how big they are (but I got a new phone for Christmas, so I might be able to produce slightly better pics in the future!)); some of them even had full-size lanterns stuck on the outside and those nice plush leather interiors (note to self: if I ever get married, I totally want to cruise up to my wedding in one of those).

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For those who may be interested in that sort of thing, they have some stainless steel cars, including the DeLorean shown above.  What they do not have, at least at the moment, is the Street of Yesteryear, which used to be the only way I could survive the car section without dying of boredom.  As Streets of Yesteryear go, it was a fairly modest affair, but I still loved it, especially as most of the other people in there were solely concerned with the cars, and I had free run of those cobblestone streets.  I could still see it just sitting there, all alone and unloved, for all they tried to hide it behind posters, but a sign claimed that they will restore and re-open it, so I just have to hope that happens sooner rather than later, and that they don’t destroy too much of its charm.

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Last, but certainly not least, is that carousel (or carrousel, as they curiously spell it) that I mentioned at the start.  Euclid Beach was a famous Cleveland amusement park of yore, and the WRHS has gotten their hands on the 1910 carousel, which they’ve beautifully restored.  As I said, you get two free rides with admission, but I unfortunately didn’t use either of them because I am very prone to motion sickness, and I was feeling rather poorly that day anyway, having been up all night with stomach issues, so I didn’t want to risk it, especially as I was going out to lunch right after.  It looked like a blast though, so I’d like to revisit on a day when I’m feeling normalish and just hope I don’t hurl.

Overall, I think I have to say I was impressed with the most part with the renovation of this museum.  Though they still have too many posters, which made some of the displays kind of confusing, at least they have some actual artefacts in there now, instead of just all posters in some of the galleries, as it was in the recent past.  None of the exhibits were up to the calibre of the ones I saw there in their heyday (Eliot Ness and the Torso Murders, for example), but they weren’t terrible either, especially if you don’t hate football as much as I do. And the Chisholm-Halle wing is always very nicely laid out, so I can’t complain at all about that.  3.5/5, which I’m willing to bump up half a point when they bring back the Street of Yesteryear, definitely not anywhere near as bad as I was expecting!  Maybe this is the beginning of a new and improved relationship between me and the WRHS?  (I stand strong in my distaste for Hale Farm though!)

 

 

 

London: The Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum

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For once, I’m writing about somewhere right after I got home from visiting it, so hopefully it will remain fresh in my mind even without the aid of pictures.  Today’s post is centred around Alexander Fleming’s laboratory, which is based inside St. Mary’s Hospital near Paddington.  I got a bit lost trying to find it, which is not really surprising since I have no sense of direction and hospitals are kind of confusing, but once I was inside the hospital complex, there were signs to follow, so I managed.  It’s only open Monday-Thursday from 10-1, so if you have a job with normal hours, you might be out of luck, but fortunately (or unfortunately, from a monetary perspective), I’ve had no such constraints for some time now.

They charge £4 for admission, but if you arrive alone, as I did, you get your very own volunteer guide to show you around the laboratory.  The museum is kind of spread out over four different floors in the very corner of the hospital, with many steps and no lift access, so if you have mobility issues, bear this in mind.  The museum shop is on the first floor, which is where you have to go to pay admission, and then the guide takes you up to the next floor to see the laboratory.

I always feel kind of awkward going on a tour by myself, since I never have any questions, and I feel awkward just standing there and nodding like an idiot the whole time, but this wasn’t so bad.  The guide put me at ease, and he didn’t really seem to expect much of a response from me (I hate when tours encourage audience participation), so it worked out fine.  In case you’re not aware of the work of Sir Alexander Fleming, he was the one who discovered penicillin (I used to work in the events department at Imperial College, and I spent an inordinate amount of time in the freezing foyer of the Sir Alexander Fleming building, acting as a glorified doorman and staring at the huge bust of him that is mounted next to the stairwell, so I feel like I know him on a weirdly intimate level), and the guide went over that story, from how the mould had a chance to grow (Fleming was messy, and left a lot of petri dishes lying around when he went on holiday back in 1928), how its antiseptic properties were discovered (there was bacteria in the dish, but none in the area around the mould), the subsequent medical trials (the first couple were a bit of a disaster, first when they ran out of penicillin, since they hadn’t discovered an efficient way of culturing it yet, and then it did clear up a boy’s eye infection, but unfortunately the infection had already weakened his carotid artery, which burst, but they obviously got the hang of it eventually), to how the mould got into the room in the first place. This latter story was particularly interesting, since no one knows exactly how the spores showed up; either something drifted in from the pub across the street (which remains there to this day, and lays claim to that story with a commemorative plaque, seen below), which seems unlikely since it would have had to cross a busy street, and gotten through sealed windows (since like me, Fleming hated fresh air), or more probably, someone tracked something in from the allergies lab a couple of floors below.  It is said that if Fleming wasn’t so untidy, penicillin might have never been discovered, so there are some perks to messiness!

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This wasn’t the only time he was untidy; he also discovered something he called lysozyme when some snot from his nose dripped onto another slide – this too had antibacterial properties, but just wasn’t as effective as penicillin promised to be.  Anyway, after hearing about all this, and examining a small case containing some of his writing and a microscope he used as a student, I was taken upstairs to watch a short video (judging from the graphics, made in the ’80s or early ’90s, but interesting nonetheless), and given free reign to explore the small museum, which consisted of a series of informative posters.  They fleshed out the story of Fleming’s life a bit more, and gave credit to all the other people who worked alongside and after Fleming to develop penicillin’s potential (Fleming got all the credit initially because he was the only scientist granting interviews, according to one of the articles in the museum).  Apparently, Fleming was just referring to his substance by the attractive name of “mould juice” until he came up with the catchier penicillin (also, it tastes like Stilton if you eat it straight apparently, which is kind of disgusting if you hate blue cheese as much as I do). There was even some neat comic strips of Fleming back when he was made out to be some sort of super-hero.  My only complaint with this section was that some of the text was written over a background picture, which made it a little tricky to read.

The whole complex wasn’t huge, and only took me about half an hour to see, including the tour and the ten minute video, but it was cool to learn some stuff I didn’t know about Fleming (I was already familiar with the history of antiseptics, and early attempts at antibiotics, like the horrible sounding salvarsan, used to treat syphilis, which was basically a form of chemotherapy (sort of an unnecessarily grueling procedure for something that’s easily cured with penicillin, see, there’s something to thank Fleming for right there!)).  The gift shop sold some postcards, though disappointingly, since no photography is allowed, none were of the laboratory itself.  However, all was not lost, as I was able to get a mouldy old postcard (literally.  It has a picture of the penicillin spores on it).

I can’t begrudge them the entrance fee, because it is all volunteer run and it seems very much a labour of love, with a rather homey atmosphere inside the slightly mouldering old building (a couple different people offered to take my coat.  I hung on to it, because it was cold in there, but it was nice of them to offer), and it’s clear they need all the money they can get.  Other than some of the hard to read signage, I think things were nicely set up, but it would be great if they could get more artefacts in there (apparently one of his microscopes is floating around Greece, and the original penicillin petri dish is kept behind lock and key in the British Library) to give visitors something more to look at (this definitely isn’t a child friendly place, since you can’t touch anything and it’s all just text).  But I learned a lot, and I think it’s amazing to have the chance to see the place where such a momentous discovery took place (even if the stuff in the room is a reconstruction).  In this age of scary superbugs, it can be easy to lose sight of how world-changing the discovery of penicillin was, and this museum definitely makes you reflect on that.  3/5.

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