London: Ham House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Balcombe, West Sussex: The Wings Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Westerham, Kent: Quebec House

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Living in England has made me unusually keen on American history.  I think I’m just a contrary person, because when I lived in America, British history was always my favourite (this is also inconvenient, because as you can imagine, the American history section at my local library is extremely limited, so I end up having to buy most of the titles I want to read, leading to a disproportionately large American section in my bookcase).  I suspect it’s maybe an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” kind of thing (in addition to the contrariness), but at any rate, learning that a site I’m thinking about visiting has vague American connections is often enough to tip the balance in its favour.  This week’s adventure took me to Quebec House in Kent, right down the road from Churchill’s home Chartwell (which just may come up on here in the near future as well…ok, very near future, as in next week).

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Quebec House was the childhood home of General James Wolfe, who won the Battle of Quebec for the British, though he ended up dying for his pains.  The house was subsequently renamed Quebec House to commemorate his achievement (and death).  It is currently owned by the National Trust, who charge an admission fee of £5.20 for entrance to the house and tiny museum.

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At this point you may be wondering what the connection to the USA is, as Quebec is obviously in Canada.  Well, as the museum explains, the Battle of Quebec was part of the Seven Years’ War with France (more commonly known in America as the French and Indian War; at least, that’s what I was taught in school), which was fought in part on what would become American soil (partially in the Ohio Valley), and was famously where George Washington began his military career.  It also indirectly led to the formation of America by securing the continent for the British (save for the culturally French area of Quebec, which was allowed to keep its language and customs in the aftermath of the battle, and of course, Mexico), thus giving the colonists something to rebel against in years to come (it’s also said that the British pissed off Washington at this point by not granting him a commission in the British Army, which may well have been a factor that contributed to America winning the Revolutionary War).

Unfortunately, the museum irritated me from the start due to the complete lack of proofreading on their signs.  In the sign pictured on the left, above, note the completely unnecessary possessive use of “Wolfe’s” in the section on Quebec House (the second possessive use is correct, but the first one should merely be a plural).  Also, does anyone else think the first section is written in a really bizarre tense? (Use of “chooses” in the first sentence, when the rest of the sentence was written in the past tense.)  Maybe I’m just a stickler for these things, but I notice an increasingly sloppy use of grammar and spelling amongst companies and organisations who should know better (for example, there’s a hotel/spa down the road from me that proudly advertises “masages” and hyponotherapy”), and I have to wonder what happened to all the proofreaders. I mean, we all make mistakes, myself included, but if you’re having a sign professionally made to hang in a museum, why wouldn’t you get someone to look it over first?! (If any interested parties are reading this, I’m available for freelance editing/proofreading!)

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Moving on, because I could dwell on grammatical annoyances all day, as I said, the museum is not large, and consists mainly of informational posters and maps, with a couple of rather boring videos thrown in for good measure (the videos basically just repeated verbatim what was written on the posters).  We finished making our way through in a matter of minutes, and moved on to the house.

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The house was a little better.  It was certainly an attractive property from the outside, and the inside contained a number of objects that drew my attention.  We were given a rather sparse room guide to carry around (at least this one didn’t have any glaring grammatical errors), and a few of the artefacts had additional captions on them, but as with most National Trust properties, it just wasn’t as much information as I would have liked.  Due to listening in on a conversation between a couple of visitors and one of the room guides (they started talking about Americans, and I was curious to hear what insulting things they would have to say), I learned that James Wolfe died when he was 32, having never married, and that there is only one picture of him as an adult that was actually drawn from life: a crude sketch done by a friend that is located inside the house.  There was a bust of him made after his death (in addition to the famous painting of his death scene done by Benjamin West) that was modeled on one of the family’s servants who was thought to have a resemblance to Wolfe.  He was also very tall for the time (6’2″) and thin, with a pale complexion (upon hearing this, my boyfriend gave me a look, because Wolfe sounded exactly like my type; pity the sketch of him led me to think he wasn’t terribly attractive (and had bright orange hair to boot)); some contemporaries thought he may have been suffering from tuberculosis, and wouldn’t have had long to live anyway, even if he hadn’t been killed in battle.

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In addition to paintings of Wolfe, various cannonballs from the battle, and medals and things, there was a copy of a book that was said to have Wolfe’s bloodstains on it, as he pricked his finger when reading it as a child.  There was also a re-creation of his bed, that we were apparently welcome to try out (though neither one of us did), and a room with lots of activities, including historical games for visitors to play, and a chance to practise writing with a quill.  If you visit on a Sunday, as we did, you can also try some of Mrs. Wolfe’s (James’s mother) family recipes, which volunteers make in the kitchen.  There’s something about old-timey food that turns my stomach (I threw up as a child after watching an 18th century cooking demonstration on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood because it looked so gross, and I quit an internship at a living history museum because they expected me to work in one of the kitchens, even after I told them I couldn’t because of my weird food issues), so there was no way I was going near something called “potato pudding,” especially as there seemed to be a bit of a communal spoon situation, but the seed cake, that old favourite of Victorian children’s literature, seemed safe enough, and it was reasonably pleasant.  Reminiscent of rye bread, probably because of the caraway seeds.

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Upon leaving the house, if you venture into the village green, there’s a statue of James Wolfe brandishing a sword (right next to one of Churchill I couldn’t get a picture of because children were climbing on it and refused to move, even after I gave them my angriest stare), which is probably worth seeing if you’ve come that far. If you do visit Quebec House, be forewarned that it doesn’t have its own carpark; you have to use the pay and display one that appears to be the sole village carpark as well, so you might well have to sit in your car for a while waiting for someone to leave, as we did.

Quebec House was certainly not without its faults, but as we have National Trust membership, I wasn’t too put out by them (except those signs, obviously).  If I’d had to pay I’d definitely have felt differently, but it still may be worth a stop on the way to Chartwell if you like American history as much as I do, and have a National Trust card, since there were a few decent artefacts to be seen inside.  Otherwise, you can probably give Quebec House a miss, unless you’re REALLY keen on seed cake or obscure military history.  2.5/5.

Two Year Blogging Anniversary and New Maps Page!

Well, it’s that time of year again!  I guess this is a chance to reflect on where I’ve been with the blog this year,  and share with you some stats and future plans.  To be honest, I keep double-checking the date of my first post because it feels like I’ve been blogging for longer than two years. Not in the sense that it’s a chore, more that I can’t remember what I did with all my free time before I had Diverting Journeys (other than reading, of course).

But before I get down to that, I’d like to direct your attention to the newest feature on my blog, a maps page! I’ve been wanting to include maps of all the places I’ve visited for a while, as I think it will make it easier for readers to access those posts, and plan their own trips, but I’ve been too lazy to get it done (and I’m not always the most tech savvy person).  However, my boyfriend was kind enough to spend most of last Sunday going through all my posts and inserting them onto Google Maps for your viewing pleasure (and with 173 posts(!), some of them covering 2 or 3 places in one, this was no small feat!).  You’ll see they’re currently divided up into London, Britain and Ireland, Europe (the Continent), and the World (to include the USA and Thailand, and hopefully other countries eventually), although London locations appear on both London and Britain; this is because I hate when you go to look at a map of England and London is just a blobby blur because there’s so much crap crammed into a small area, so I wanted to include a magnified version where all the place markers weren’t on top of each other.  If you click on a place marker, you’ll see a link to that relevant post on my blog, so I think this will be a better way to find things for everyone who prefers visuals to text.  I’m open to suggestions (I’m thinking of colour-coding by destination type and/or ranking), so please check it out and let me know what you think!

And now, onto the year-in-review type stuff.  WordPress informs me that my top posts for the year are still ones I wrote in my first year of blogging, so maybe I need to work on going to more interesting destinations in the year to come!  The Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum still leads the way, which I suspect will always be the case, because it’s Ah-nold, followed by the Police Museum in Copenhagen, and Samuel Pepys’s church, St. Olave’s, confirming that I’m not the only weirdo out there, as the internet seems to share my interest in the grisly and gory, and Samuel Pepys.  I get the most visitors from Britain, followed closely by America, which is not a huge surprise, and Germany is in a distant third place (which I suspect is largely due to a certain picture involving Wellington boots…it’s a long story, and reinforces my argument that the internet is full of weirdos).

I’ll admit that the growth of this blog seems to have stagnated somewhat in the past year, which is disheartening, but I’m not a huge Twitter or social media person (though saying that, I have both a Facebook page and an Instagram account), plus I can’t afford to buy out my domain name or get a custom design or any of that junk, so unless something I write goes viral somehow, this seems likely how things are going to stay.  Which is not to say that I don’t appreciate all the readers I do have, because I really really do!  I’m grateful for everyone who takes the time to read my posts, especially if they leave a comment, and I certainly wouldn’t be keeping this blog going if I didn’t feel like I was at least reaching some people, so thanks!  (And a special shout-out to Misadventures with Michael for letting me guest post on his blog last year, and writing a post for Diverting Journeys in return!)

Travel-wise, however, last year was a pretty busy year for me, and I made my first trip to Asia, as well as a couple trips to the Continent.  Thus, I’ve been able to blog about places in Thailand, Berlin, Rome, Scotland, the north of England, New York City, Pittsburgh, and good old Cleveland, in addition to my usual travels around London and the southeast of England.  I’ve afraid the budget probably won’t allow for as many elaborate trips this year, but I’m going to Belgium in a couple of months, will definitely be going to the States to visit my family at some point, and I’m sure there’ll be a few long weekends here and there (I have some vouchers from East Coast Trains to use up after all), so there will be some variety ahead!  And I’m (yikes!) turning 30 in August, so fingers crossed I’ll be able to go on some sort of trip to commemorate that milestone/try to forgot how old I am.

I’ve also started a new blog this year, about my grandpa’s letters home during WWII, which I don’t think is ever going to attract the kind of attention a travel blog will, but I’m just glad my grandpa’s letters are being preserved in some form, and that maybe a few other people will enjoy reading them as much as I did.  On a personal level, I’ve been volunteering on a couple local history projects this past year, and will be starting as a museum volunteer as well next week (behind the scenes stuff); while it would be nice if someone was willing to hire me and pay me an actual salary, I do really enjoy spending most of my days immersed in history (though sometimes squinting at microfilm for hours can be a bit much), and hopefully all this will lead to an amazing career someday (or I can get some self-confidence and contact people about freelancing for them, but we all know that’s never going to happen).

I think I’ve bored you all enough with my reflections, so I just want to thank everyone again for reading (and my boyfriend for doing most of the photography for this blog, financing all of our holidays (and being far better than I am at planning them, as I tend to just find museums and ice cream shops and ignore the practical stuff), putting together the maps page, and accompanying me to some random museum or another pretty much every weekend – Diverting Journeys would be a lot duller without him, but he’s pretty shy so mentioning this is probably going to embarrass him)!  I started this blog back when I was in the middle of a real funk, in the hope that having something constructive to do would help, and it honestly has, so all your support means so much!  Here’s to the next year of blogging!

London: “Forensics” at the Wellcome Collection

In keeping with my new-found habit of visiting things right after they open to the public (so I can blog about them in a timely enough fashion that other people might still have the chance to visit them), I made my way up to Euston to see the new Forensics exhibit at the Wellcome less than a week after it opened (…but still waited a couple weeks to post about it.  Oh well, one step at a time, right?).  Not only is the exhibit new, but it marks the relaunch of the Wellcome’s ground floor exhibit space, which had been closed for years whilst they were revamping the museum.  I’ve missed the days when they had room to have more than one exhibition at once, so it’s good to see them fully up and running again!  Now, they have temporary exhibition space on both the ground and first floors, and the permanent collection up on the second floor (plus the same old cafe and excellent bookshop.  I could seriously spend hours in there browsing medical history books (or could do if they got some comfy seats, which is maybe why there are none)).

Anyway, back to “Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime.”  I have long had a complete fascination with the macabre, including historical serial killers (perhaps oddly, because of my complete inability to sit through a horror film without having nightmares for weeks – I blame my overactive imagination), so this exhibit was pretty perfect for me.  What was less perfect were the crowds that always seem to amass at the Wellcome; despite visiting at 11:30 on a Tuesday morning, the galleries were still uncomfortably full at points (though they hadn’t yet resorted to timed tickets).

This being the Wellcome, the same standard policies as always apply, so no photographs are allowed, and the exhibit is free, but they might have timed tickets in effect at busy times (as I’ve said, it’s busy all the time, but they probably save them for when it’s really horrendous, like weekends.  Seriously, don’t visit on a weekend unless there’s no way around it, and if you do, get there early).  I remember the old galleries as consisting of a few large spaces, while these newer ones seem to be divided into smaller rooms, but there’s more of them (of course, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the old galleries, so I could be wrong).  I’m not sure how this will affect traffic flow when things are really crowded, because it wasn’t a great system on a moderately busy day, but I guess time will tell.

This particular exhibit is divided up into various “rooms” dealing with the various aspects of solving a murder, so the sections included: the Crime Scene, the Morgue, the Laboratory, the Search, and the Courtroom (there is a very nicely put together accompanying free booklet available, which is really helping refresh my memory for this post).  Although many of the rooms had little grisly bits and pieces, the Crime Scene may have had the most graphic ones; crime scene photographs of people who’d had their brains battered out and smeared across the floor.  My favourite displays in this room were the (incongruously) rather cute “Nutshell Studies,” which are basically dollhouses for goths, in that they re-create crime scenes in miniature with the use of dolls.  I want one!

The Morgue was probably the most crowded room, as it was fairly small and had cases arrayed in rows up the room, without much space to manoeuvre, which led to having to step back awkwardly to let people pass when they’d finished looking at a case.  This section had some nice cross-sections of organs, as well as copies of old textbooks that described various injuries (including the famous “wound man” that I’ve seen in numerous old medical books, without knowing the official terminology for him.  Now I know it’s simply “wound man”).

The Laboratory got into the techniques that have been adopted to identify criminals and determine the cause of death, including Galton’s fingerprinting, Bertillon’s extensive work with classification, and Mathieu Orfila’s techniques for the detection of poisons (which are discussed at some length in Deborah Blum’s excellent Poisoner’s Handbook.  Just one of many disturbingly-titled books on my shelves, see below).  Speaking of my bookshelves, I was familiar with many of the crimes discussed here thanks to my copy of Murders of the Black Museum, a must-have for anyone with an interest in British crime (you’d probably be surprised/disturbed by how often I use it for reference), which goes into far more detail about them than the displays here did (although they were trying to cover so many different murders that it would have been difficult to provide more than an overview with the museum space available).

The Search was a very dark room (literally; there wasn’t much light.  Just thought I’d clarify given the subject matter) housing a number of videos, and a special exhibit within the exhibit; an art installation by Sejla Kameric that covered the Bosnian War (1992-1995), and seemed to involve a filmstrip playing inside a working mortuary fridge.  It was already full of people, so I didn’t have a chance to experience it, but I don’t think this would be your cup of tea if you’re at all claustrophobic, as that door really seemed to shut tightly.

The final room, the Courtroom, seemed to dwell mainly on Dr. Crippen (he of the extremely creepy eyes; so much so that I had to Sharpie in sunglasses over his picture in that Black Museum book, because it freaked me out to look at him, even though his crime wasn’t even that extreme, as far as murders go).

I wasn't joking.  I also gave him an improved moustache/beard combo.

I wasn’t joking. I also gave him an improved moustache/beard combo.

They had samples of what was alleged to be Belle’s hair (Belle Elmore was the stage name of Cora Crippen, his overbearing and perpetually nagging wife), crime scene photographs, and best of all, courtroom sketches from the trial.  Since I have another opportunity to talk about my personal library (see what I mean about this being the perfect exhibit for me?), I also have a book about the pathologist Bernard Spilsbury (and the bath-tub murderer, George Smith, who was also discussed in this exhibit…the book is called The Magnificent Spilsbury), which made some mention of how handsome he was, and the courtroom sketches seem to confirm this.  (Another historical crush for Jessica?)

The exhibit closed with a profile of three men who were wrongfully accused and eventually released from prison, which provided a sobering reminder that despite all the advances in technology, and the hard work of pathologists, sometimes they do still get things wrong.

However, the overwhelming impression I was left with was simply awe at how fascinating forensics is (maybe I made a mistake by not studying that at school, as I’m sure there are far more employment opportunities in that field than in, um, Early Modern History.  Realistically speaking though, science was never my strongest subject).  Prior to this exhibit, the last few things I’d seen at the Wellcome hadn’t been quite up to their usual high standards (the Institute of Sexology, for example), so I’m pleased to see that with the revamped museum space, they seem to have hit their stride again.  I really loved this exhibit, and whilst I thought more detail could have been provided on some of the murders, overall they did an excellent job.  4/5.

London: Strawberry Hill House

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I’ve been wanting to visit Strawberry Hill House since seeing it profiled in the Gothic Imagination exhibit at the BL last fall, but as it was closed all winter, I’ve had to bide my time (admittedly not that much of a hardship, since I dislike venturing outside at the best of times, but especially in the cold (and the heat)).  But the proof of my eagerness to investigate Strawberry Hill can be seen in the date of my visit: the 1st of March, the very day that the house finally reopened to the public (especially impressive when you consider that I usually procrastinate and don’t make it to things until the week before they close).

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Strawberry Hill was built by Horace Walpole (son of Robert, the first Prime Minister) over a period of many years, roughly 1748-1790, as his summer villa, and is a prime (and wonderful) example of Gothic Revival architecture (there was a house already standing on the property when he bought it, but Walpole added on and completely transformed the building).  Horace Walpole is primarily known as the author of The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel, and as a man of letters, but old Horace also really seemed like a man after my own heart.  Not only did he build this amazing house, but he filled it with a splendid collection of curiosities that included things like Cardinal Wolsey’s hat, John Dee’s spirit summoning mirror, and Charles I’s death warrant, which has sadly since been dispersed thanks to his real piece of shit work distant relation George Waldegrave, who inherited and promptly sold off the collection to pay his personal debts (Waldegrave being a drunkard and spendthrift, and probably other unpleasant things as well).  (Seriously, have you ever wanted to go back in time and just punch somebody in the face?  That’s what I want to do to this George Waldegrave character.)

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Because I suppose there’s not much point having a collection of awesome things if no one is around to appreciate them (at least in a pre-internet age before you could just brag about them on Facebook or Instagram), Walpole allowed visitors into his home, and even wrote and published a guide for them, on his in-house printing press.  You’re given an abridged version of this guide today when you visit, and even though portions of it are no longer applicable thanks to George Waldegrave’s plundering, it is still a very nice touch indeed.

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But enough background, let’s get down to the house.  Strawberry Hill House is located in Twickenham, where all the cool Georgians lived (that’s what it seems like anyway, Alexander Pope’s house was just a few streets away, though he was dead by the time Walpole moved in), and stands incongruously fabulous at the end of a normal, boring residential street.  Entrance to the house is by self-guided tour, but they let in a rather limited amount of people for each time slot (I think only about 20, which is nice.  Nothing worse than trying to walk around a crowded house, especially when you’re as misanthropic as I am), so you may want to book ahead on their website before you visit, especially since there’s no booking fee.  And, that National Trust membership has paid off already, because National Trust members get half off the admission price (normal admission is £10.80), which definitely makes it worth visiting.

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After a short introduction, we were let loose in the house, booklets in hand, to explore using Walpole’s own directions.  The only problem with this was that the instructions issued by the room stewards were rather confusing; they told us to head all the way up the staircase before we entered a room, so we mistakenly took that to mean we should go all the way up to the third floor, when in fact they meant to go into a room on the first floor, then go up, and then come back down to see the public rooms.  Basically, we were kind of lost and confused for the first few rooms because the information in the booklet didn’t seem to match up with the interiors, but we figured it out eventually. Clear signage saying what each room is would help with this immensely, and if done tastefully, shouldn’t detract from the atmosphere of the house.  This is only a minor quibble though, because the house was amazing.

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I loved everything, from the fireplaces to the stained glass windows (particularly one that Walpole himself described as “ridiculous”); he seemed to have a bit of an obsession with the Stuarts, as Charles I and II appeared in many of the windows, something I can definitely appreciate.

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And the man seemed to love really deep beautiful colours, especially blues, which is my own favourite colour (as I said, he was a man after my own heart), so yeah, it was magnificent.  Not everything in the rooms is original (again, thanks to Ass-wipe Magee, as I shall henceforth refer to George Waldegrave, who in addition to selling off Walpole’s collection, also left the interior in a sorry state), but they’ve been doing their best to reproduce and recover what they can, one example being the beautiful hand-stencilled Gothic arch wallpaper in the entrance hall.

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Rather like his American near-contemporary Thomas Jefferson, Walpole was a tinkerer and inventor, and came up with a number of neat innovations for his house, among them shutters that slid fully back into the wall when not in use, and the bookcases shown above, that swung open at the touch of a finger for easy access to all those books, because what’s the use of having a fabulous library full of them if you never actually read them?

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The house is a mix of public and private rooms, the private rooms having just reopened this year for the first time in centuries, which is pretty neat.  The public rooms were obviously far grander, with hand-flocked wallpaper, high ceilings, and interesting room shapes (octagons, hexagons, and round, amongst others), but it was nice being able to see all of them, especially as there was some nice painted glass in his private rooms.

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I feel like I’ve reached the point where I’ve prattled on all I can for the minute, so I’ll just leave you with some more pictures of the interior to enjoy (with me standing awkwardly in the middle of many of them) for a minute or two before I wrap up.

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The only really depressing part of this whole exercise was reading Walpole’s descriptions of things that should have been in the rooms, before Ass-wipe Magee ruined that for everyone, but I think I need to stop dwelling on that and focus on the house that remains, which is still brilliant.  I would live in the place in a heartbeat (assuming you could get modern heating in there), even at the risk of dreaming the strange Gothic dreams that Walpole was himself prone to (who knows, I could get inspired to write a novel just like Walpole was).  When we finished with the house, there was still a small museum to see downstairs.

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The most enlightening bits of that were learning that Walpole really hated Henry VII, which I found strangely hilarious for some reason (maybe because I take against historical figures with the same vehemence (as can be seen throughout this post)), and seeing how different he looked from his father.  Robert Walpole was this portly, florid man with a cocksure pose, whilst Horace was slim and bookish, and well, looked like the kind of person who would be into everything Gothic (not really an insult, as I tend to have a thing for thin, pasty men).

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We finished off with a peek at some medieval alabasters, and a random peacock paper mache creation (presumably created by children and not the university students who made a lot of the replicas of the original furniture in the house, since their work was generally excellent).  There are also a couple gardens surrounding the house, though nothing much was in bloom so early in the year save for herbs and snowdrops.  I’ve just now realised (reading the last couple pages of the guide, which I neglected to do when I was there), that Walpole’s personal chapel is still around, and you can see it if you walk back through the “woodland walk;” although it’s not normally open, you can at least check out the exterior.

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I didn’t have strong feelings towards Horace Walpole either way when I began my visit, but I came out of the tour with a real affection for Walpole, his vision, and his house.  Although there were a few minor problems with unfriendly staff (most of them were lovely, but there’s always one or two bad apples) and being confused by the lack of signage, I think Walpole’s own guide (plus the supplementary materials provided in the rooms) is really sufficient to appreciate the house as Walpole would have wanted his visitors to.  I certainly hope they can recover more of Walpole’s lost collection with time, but even without it, the house is definitely a must-see for anyone with an interest in architecture, the Gothic, or history.  Smashing place.  4/5.

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London: The Garden Museum

 

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Did you ever write a post on something, and then it just let it sit around for months without getting used because you end up blogging about things that are more pressing/interesting?  That’s exactly what happened with this one on the Garden Museum, based inside the former St-Mary-at-Lambeth (vaguely between Waterloo and Vauxhall).  The Garden Museum is another one of those plaves that’s been on my radar for a while, but much like publishing this post on it, visiting it was something I kept postponing, because frankly, I couldn’t give less of a crap about gardening.

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However, flying back home from America after Christmas, and completely unable to sleep on the plane, as usual, I read Caroline Alexander’s The Bounty and learned that William Bligh was buried in the churchyard of the former St. Mary’s.  As my interest in Georgian seafaring is a hell of a lot greater than my interest in gardening, this was enough to convince me to check the place out.  (Technically, I’m pretty sure I could have just visited the cafe and had a poke around the Knot Garden/churchyard, but I thought the fiver might be better spent on a museum visit than a piece of vegetable cake (ick) and a cuppa, especially as I was alone and dislike drinking a pot of tea without someone to share it with (because I’m not British).)

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I’m still not entirely sure how the admission prices to the Garden Museum are determined, because on their website, it says it is £7.50 when they have a temporary exhibition, and £5 otherwise, yet they appeared to have two temporary exhibits when I visited, and it was only £5.  Maybe because they weren’t quite full-scale exhibitions? (Even the staff seemed unconvinced by the merit of one of them.)  Most of the ground floor space is taken up by a cafe and shop, and there was a temporary exhibit thrown in almost as an afterthought in one corner.  Seriously, there were bits of tape and discarded sheets of paper all over the floor, as though people were in the middle of working on a craft project and then never cleaned up after themselves, and there was a door open to one side so you could see the unfinished space behind the exhibit.  It seemed quite odd, and I felt that it showed a lack of pride in the museum.  That said, the photographs in question, “Faded Glory” by Rachel Warne, were really lovely.  They were black and white shots of gardens that had fallen into disrepair over the years, but the way she photographed them made them look appealingly creepy and mysterious, better than most of them had in their prime (there were also photographs of the gardens in their prime for comparison); it’s a shame the museum couldn’t tidy up and show more respect for this collection (the rubbish remained there for the entirety of my visit, and there were plenty of staff about.  In fact, I had to wait for a couple minutes whilst the women behind the admissions desk finished their conversation before I could even buy a ticket, so it’s not like they were busy doing anything other than talking amongst themselves).

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I also had a look at the other temporary exhibition, entitled “Connect and Grow,” and sponsored/created(?) by a dance company.  As I said, the women at the desk didn’t really seem to care for it when they described it to me, and it was underwhelming, to be fair.  I guess they were going for a multi-sensory experience of some sort; basically you walked into a dark room that had some leaves projected on the walls, and then a video of a car driving past a garden with sound effects.  I mean, it wasn’t the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen, but if that’s the reason why they weren’t charging people the full admission fee, it was probably a good call (if you visit, bear in mind that this post is old, and neither of these temporary exhibits are there anymore).

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And thus, onward to the permanent museum space.  As you can probably tell from the photographs, the museum building/former church is absolutely lovely, and whoever converted it into a museum did a really nice job of combining the old and modern.  The permanent gallery is located upstairs, up a long, lone staircase, which gives a good view of the whole interior, and allows you to get close to some of the old stained glass.  The gallery is only one small room, but I had the place to myself, and could wander around at leisure.  It opened with a tribute to the garden gnome (see also the Gnome Reserve in Devon), and had a large display of various gardening tools.  As I’ve said, I have zero interest in gardening (and just managed to kill my poor houseplants, RIP Coleridge and Edgar), so I initially found it hard to get excited about this stuff.

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But then I laid eyes on the scare-cat and cucumber straightener.  I mean, how awesome and hilarious are those things?!  An actual cucumber straightener, and the eyes on that scare-cat!  Classic.

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I also fell in love with this book about the Potato Man (you can see him lurking sinisterly in the far right corner of the illustration) and feel like I’m probably going to have to try to hunt this one down on Amazon.  (I have a weird obsession with potatoes.  Besides the obvious (they’re delicious!) I had to submit a portfolio at the end of a creative writing class I took in high school, and I wrote every single piece about potatoes.  I’m not even sure why, I just thought it would be funny probably.)

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Don’t get me wrong, this was by no means a large space, and I still don’t care about gardening, but damned if I didn’t get a kick out of many of the quirkier objects I found there.  And yes, I might have learned a thing or two about gardens, but certainly not enough for me to go out and attempt it myself.

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And now I’ve come to the whole reason I was newly inspired to visit the Garden Museum; Bligh’s grave.  I was at first a little confused, because there was a sign at the back of the cafe pointing to the garden, but the door to access it went through an area that was kind of forbidding and seemed like it might be staff only, so I went back out the front of the museum, thinking I could access it by walking around the building.  It turns out you can’t, so don’t make my mistake and have to walk back in and through the museum and have the staff look at you like you’re an idiot.  Anyway, Bligh is buried in the Knot Garden, along with John Tradescant, who is apparently some kind of famous gardener and the whole reason the museum exists in the first place (looking now at his Wikipedia entry, there is apparently an elder and a younger John Tradescant, but they were both gardeners and I’m not sure which was the inspiration for the museum.  No matter, as they’re both buried there).

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I have to admit that John Tradescant’s tomb was pretty awesome, covered in a carving of some sort of fantastical garden (I think I can spot a crocodile in there), but Bligh’s was what I was really excited for.  I loved that it specifically mentioned that he transported breadfruit trees to the West Indies (which was the whole original mission of the Bounty before Fletcher Christian took over, and poor Bligh had to complete the mission on a subsequent voyage, both voyages being sponsored by none other than the foxy Joseph Banks), and that it referred to “Otaheite,” which was the old spelling/pronunciation of Tahiti (say it out loud, it works, kind of).  Bligh is much-maligned, but no matter what the truth of the mutiny was (and seriously, if you’re interested in this at all, read that Caroline Alexander book, it is extremely comprehensive, though I think she dwelt too much on the trials of the mutineers, and not enough on what happened to Bligh and his comrades in the boat they were sent adrift in), no one can deny that he was an incredible navigator, and it was nice to finally be able to see his tomb.

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I think my mixed feelings for the Garden Museum have probably come across.  On one hand, the church is beautiful, and I’m happy that it, and the churchyard, have been preserved (there’s quite a few other graves out there and in the building itself; I had to really watch where I was walking to avoid stepping on someone’s grave).  On the other hand, I think the building has a lot of potential that is simply not being utilised.  The museum was small and not particularly impressive (save for the odd amusing object), and the rubbish lying on the floor really annoyed me, especially because it was sitting right over someone’s grave marker.  I’m going to have to give it a mere 2/5.  At least I can cross it off the old list at last, and move onto other things.

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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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