London: Hampton Court Palace

dsc08740Even though Hampton Court Palace has been languishing in my sadly neglected Favourite Places page for years, and I wrote about my visit to some of its outbuildings during Open London weekend a couple years ago, I’ve never actually done a whole post about it.  Until now, of course.  Since I was doing all things touristy when my ‘rents were here, I thought I might as well take them to Hampton Court, it being one of my “favourite places” and all.

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As always when visiting Hampton Court, I took advantage of the National Rail 2 for 1 offer (vouchers available at all London train stations), which is easier to do at there than at some other London attractions, because the easiest way to get there is genuinely the train that runs twice hourly from Waterloo to Hampton Court (conveniently for me, via Wimbledon).  I recommend you do the same, if at all possible, because £21 is a lot of money.  I mean, you could buy like 5 ice creams for that, even at London prices.  But you do get a fair amount for your money, because Hampton Court is big, to the extent that you’ll get sick of walking around before you run out of things to see.  This is why, even though I’ve been there at least 5 times, I discover something new every time I go.

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Though in some instances, this is because they actually change the exhibits.  Case in point: Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, which was definitely not there the last time I visited.  These 15th century paintings were acquired by Charles I in 1629, so I’m not quite sure why they only seem to have gone on display in the last few years, but I’m not the greatest fan of Italian Renaissance art, so I can’t honestly say I was missing out on anything on previous visits by not seeing them.

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So despite our odd detour into Mantegna land, I suppose the logical place to start is with “Young Henry VIII’s Story,” which has been a fixture here for at least as long as I’ve been visiting Hampton Court.  It gives people who haven’t watched Wolf Hall (but seriously, Damian Lewis in a codpiece!  How could you not?  Even though the codpieces were too disappointingly small to be historically accurate…) or read as many Alison Weir books as I did as a teenager (I was a weird kid) a good grounding in what Henry VIII was like before he became an obese tyrant. Hampton Court was built by Cardinal Wolsey, but it was pretty promptly stolen by Henry when he saw how much ass it kicked compared to his own palaces (ok, technically it was “gifted” to Henry by Wolsey when he realised he was falling from favour, but I suspect that was in response to Henry dropping very pointed hints about what a great palace it was, and how fantastic it would look with a big ol’ throne in it).

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Then of course, there are Henry VIII’s actual apartments, which I’ll talk about now, even though we didn’t actually see them next because Hampton Court is like a big maze (it has a hedge maze, but the palace itself is basically a maze too).  Only about half the original palace exists, because William III and Mary II hired Christopher Wren to do some major construction work in the late 17th century, but the Great Hall and a few other cool rooms remain, including a gallery, appropriately called the “Haunted Gallery,” which is meant to be haunted by the ghost of Catherine Howard.  Though I’ve personally never sensed any supernatural presences there.

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Other Tudor attractions here include Henry VIII’s kitchens and wine cellar (always a big hit with children, which is why I don’t have any pictures of the kitchens: there were about three large school groups passing through whilst we were there, so I pretty much ran through them to avoid all the commotion) and the Royal Tennis Court, which is now a members’ club where people can still play real tennis (different from lawn tennis…it’s like a combo of tennis and squash I think.  Not sure how much it costs to become a member, but I bet it’s a lot, judging by how much it costs to just enter the palace once and not play tennis).  The Tennis Court has been completely redone since the last time I was there, and now contains museum-style displays about monarchs and their tennis skills, which I enjoyed.

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I should also mention Henry VIII’s superb astronomical clock, and the wine fountain in the courtyard (it can be seen in the second picture in this post), which is a re-creation of one used at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the famous meeting in 1520 between Henry and Francis I of France.  They actually fill the fountain with wine on special occasions, none of which I’ve managed to attend (not that I like wine anyway, but I would drink it from a fountain!).  Also, there is the fine topiary version of Henry, pictured above.

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But enough about the Tudors; even though Henry was the most famous monarch to inhabit Hampton Court, he certainly wasn’t the only one.  There were also William III and Mary II, who, as I mentioned earlier, did a fair bit of remodeling. William and Mary each have their own set of apartments here, but Mary never lived in hers as she died of smallpox before they were completed.  And they appear to be undergoing restoration work, because they’re not currently open to the public (they were even wiped from the map, but I definitely remember visiting them on previous occasions, and the internet confirms that I’m not just imagining them).  But William’s are open, even though they’re rather dull because not much information is provided inside them (there is a free audio guide, but I have never ever used it, so I can’t tell you what it’s like).

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I do have to quickly show you his loo though (on the left, the other room is just some sort of study, not a weird communal pooping room), because who doesn’t want to poo whilst sitting on a comfy velvet-lined seat (oh, just me then?)?!

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Another section of the palace I had absolutely no past recollection of was the Cumberland Art Gallery.  (No photos were allowed in the gallery, so these are from the hall outside.)  Unfortunately, most of the art seemed to be Italian Renaissance stuff, so I quickly lost interest and wandered outside to the row of Lely paintings (many of which were of Charles II’s various mistresses) leading the way to the Cartoon Gallery (another disappointment, as it wasn’t the Hogarthian type of cartoons I was hoping for, but rather some paintings Raphael did.  Snoozefest).

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Although Mary II’s younger sister Anne (pictured above), who was also queen, lived here too, Hampton Court nowadays skips right from William III to the Georgians (and I guess as well they might, if it leads to napkins that fabulous, but Anne’s personal life is fairly interesting in its own right).  The Georgian rooms also seemed to have been changed since my last visit, and redone more in the style of the Georgian stuff at Kensington Palace, which I guess makes sense since they’re all part of Historic Royal Palaces (but still, for that kind of money, I expect more individuality!).

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Georges I and II seem to have been a thoroughly unpleasant pair, always fighting with each other, and George II carried on the feud with his own child, Frederick (who died before becoming king, thus the crown passed to his son, who became George III).  Still, bickering makes for entertaining reading, and I was especially interested to learn about Caroline of Ansbach’s (George II’s wife) hernia, from which her bowels apparently eventually protruded (I assume through a layer of skin, not that her bowels were literally hanging out of her body, because I’m pretty sure that would kill you), making her extra cranky (understandably enough, though she never seemed particularly pleasant).

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And so let’s move on this fairly brief tour of the palace itself to the gardens, which are numerous and enormous.  In fact, you can buy admission to just the gardens (which I’ve never really seen the point of, but whatever); they include the privy garden, kitchen garden, orangery garden, and Tudor garden, amongst others.

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The gardens also include the Great Vine.  It is certified as the largest vine in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records, and I can confirm that it is indeed a really big vine, though not quite the tourist attraction it apparently was in the 19th century, when Victoria first opened the palace to visitors, and people queued for hours just to see the vine (which I find kind of charming, in a way.  They lived in an age that saw the creation of railroads, telephones, photography, electric lights, etc. and yet people would still patiently wait half a day to look at a damn vine).  We were the only people looking at it when I was there, but it is fairly tucked away, which is probably why this was my first time seeing it.

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Despite not really being a garden person, I have to concede that the ones here are pretty cool (not least because of that drawing of Henry VIII, which, no joke, is probably my favourite thing in the palace, tied only with the Henry topiary (I have a reprint of an old Hampton Court tram poster in my living room with a very similar looking Henry on it, only without him being angered by a fish).

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But of course the best part of the gardens is the hedge maze.  I won’t go for the obvious pun and call it a-maze-ing, because frankly, I’ve been to better (the one at Leeds Castle, which has a grotto at the centre, springs to mind), but it’s still pretty fun, especially relative to the other attractions available at the palace (don’t get me wrong, I enjoy looking at old palace rooms, but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a barrel of laughs most of the time).  There is also a “magic garden,” but that appears to be some sort of playground for small children, so I didn’t investigate further.

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So concludes what is by necessity (so I don’t bore you all to pieces) an abbreviated tour of this very large palace.  It is expensive, yes, but you can easily spend half a day or more here and still not see everything, and I still think it is the best (by far) of all the Historic Royal Palaces (these include Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, et al), so I firmly believe that if you’re doing the whole tourist thing in London, it is well worth a visit.  Even for Londoners, it’s worth coming here every few years or so, because exhibits do change, and you’ll probably discover something new.  Also, the palace just looks really cool, and I think we’re all a little fascinated by Henry VIII, even though he was one of the biggest jerks ever.  4/5.

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London: Fuller’s Brewery Tour

dsc08083-copyAs I’m sure I’ve said before, I’m really not much of a drinker.  I’ll have a gin and tonic once every few months, or the occasional cider or perry, but my extremely low alcohol tolerance coupled with some fierce gastric reflux has pretty much put a stop to any kind of more serious/regular drinking (not that I was ever a serious imbiber, but I did go out to the pub quite often when I first moved here in an ill-fated effort to be more sociable.  Ill-fated because I am not naturally sociable, and spending most of my free time with people eventually made my introversion rear up in a big way.  And didn’t win me any friends).  So a tour of Fuller’s Brewery in Chiswick wasn’t a natural choice for me, but my parents were still in town, and they are both interested in beer, plus the limited amount of people allowed on each tour meant there wouldn’t be any crowds.  Fuller’s it was then!

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Actually, it was a good chance to go, because Marcus has wanted to take the tour for years, and we were clearly unlikely to do it on our own, so my parents’ visit provided the perfect excuse.  Happily, Fuller’s participates in the National Rail 2-for-1 scheme, so I was able to get us all half price tickets by booking online using the 2-for-1 discount code (advanced booking highly recommended, perhaps even required).  £6 for a tour + generous tastings seemed like a pretty good deal, even to a light drinker like me, considering a pint in London will set you back at least £4.  (However, shortly after our visit, Fuller’s closed down many parts of the brewery for refurbishment, and will re-open in December, with a new brewing museum as part of the tour, so it will then cost £20 instead of £12, without the 2-for-1.  Basically, you should DEFINITELY get the 2-for-1 if you visit after they re-open, because £20 is a ridiculous price.)

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We all met at the Mawson Arms, the pub next to the brewery, about 15 minutes before our tour time. We were then led into the brewery, and given sexy high vis jackets to wear on the tour (probably necessary, because people kept whipping around the corner of the road that runs through the brewery on forklifts and things). Our guide was called Martin, and though he repeated himself a lot, he still did a good job of being entertaining/amusingly “Lahndahn” enough for the American tourists (my parents weren’t the only ones. There was also a group from Chicago…since my parents are from Cleveland, this didn’t go over too well as the World Series was imminent at the time of our visit.  I hate all sports, so I didn’t care either way, but my father promptly took against the man in the Cubs hat).

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Even though I’m not a beer fan, I have been on brewery tours before (Cantillon, Heineken, De Halve Maan), and although Fuller’s is a fairly large operation, the tour was more in the same vein as a medium sized brewery like De Halve Maan than something as high-tech and glitzy as Heineken, where you don’t actually get to see the brewing facilities.  Fuller’s was founded in 1845 when John Bird Fuller inherited the brewery upon his father’s death and joined with investors Henry Smith and John Turner, who provided the capital and contacts that allowed operations to expand.  But the site has been used as a brewery since at least the 1600s, operating under a number of different owners. Some equipment from the 1800s is still hanging around (I think the oldest stuff just pre-dated Fuller’s), and a few old pieces are still used in the modern brewing process.

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Unfortunately, the photos are about as exciting as the tour was (i.e. not very), because breweries are intrinsically not that exciting to look at.  There’s big tanks, some of which you could peer into and see beer being sloshed around, and more big tanks with other stages of the beer-making process in them (like wort and junk), and lots of hoppy smells (to be honest, some of them smelled more yeasty to me, but Martin claimed it wasn’t the yeast we were smelling).  Martin told us a little about the history of brewing, but it was fairly basic stuff (anyone who had watched one of that Ivan Day guy’s culinary history presentations at some point or another (and he seems to pop up a lot on the BBC…if you watch British cookery programmes, you’ve probably encountered Ivan) or one of Ruth Goodman’s various (Insert Historical Era Here) Farm shows would probably already know what Martin told us; basically, before hops came to England, beer was just a sweet barley-based liquid that would start to spoil within a day.  Hops act as a preservative, but of course the downside is that they taste like bitter crap).  The tour in general didn’t go into the sort of depth that craft/home brewing types would require, and some people asked technical questions that didn’t really get answered, but I wasn’t bothered by this because I’m not a beer nerd.

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Really I think we were just killing time until the group before us left the tasting room, because I’m convinced that the “tasting” was the only reason most people went on the tour.  The tour fee included what was essentially all you could drink beer; well, all you could drink in 45 minutes or so anyway, which is how long we were given before Martin rang the last call bell (still a much better deal than that “all you can eat cake” that wasn’t, from a few weeks ago).  Fortunately for me, because I only really like fruit beers and some sours (which are definitely not part of the current Fuller’s range), Fuller’s also owns a cider manufacturer, so there were a few ciders available, and the blush cider was surprisingly very tasty.  I do find most English beers drinkable though, even if I don’t really enjoy them, which is more than I can say for those super strong and disgusting American IPAs that seem to be all the rage these days.  Sadly, my parents, who are big fans of IPAs, decided they didn’t really like real ale because it was “too warm.”  But I managed to get tipsy in the tasting time allotted (not hard for me to do, given that a pint is pretty much enough), so at least the tour had some benefit!  Still, for the normal admission price (not the discounted rate I got), I think there are better tours around (Marcus recommends Sambrook’s), so this is probably only worth doing for the hardcore Fuller’s fan.  I guess it remains to be seen what their new museum will be like, though I don’t think I’ll be rushing off to visit it.  2.5/5.

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London: Maps and the 20th Century @ the British Library, and “Intrigue” @ the Royal Academy

dsc09077_stitchLast week, when some certain election news meant I needed something to distract myself/cheer myself up, I decided to spend the afternoon visiting two new-ish temporary exhibits in London I’d been wanting to see. (Unfortunately, neither museum allows photography in the exhibition spaces, so I can’t really show you anything, which is a shame.) The first was “Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line,” at the British Library, which opened on 4 November and runs til 1 March 2017.  I hadn’t attended anything at the British Library since “Terror and Wonder,” the Gothic Imagination exhibit two years ago, which I really enjoyed, so I was hoping this would be as impressive.

Admission is £12, and they offer half price admission for National Art Pass holders, so I managed to get in for £6.  “Maps” was located in the same exhibition space as “Terror and Wonder” was, which I was pleased with because it’s such a nice large area, so visitors can spread out a bit.  Actually, seeing something else there made me appreciate how they must have gone out of their way to create a wonderfully creepy atmosphere there for the goth thing, because it’s a fairly characterless space without all the gloomy lighting and fabric hanging down.  Anyway, as you can probably guess from the name, this exhibit was all about maps of the 20th century, and how maps reflect the social and political changes that occurred over the course of the century.

The start of the exhibit was pretty cool, in that it was mapping us, the visitors, as we moved around the exhibit, with a “live” map that used different coloured dots to represent each person (the dots moved with us, which of course I had to test by running back and forth like an idiot whilst staring at the map).  Other than that, the exhibit was divided up into five main sections: Mapping a New World, which was about mapmakers and how map making technology changed over time (this section included a few pre-20th century maps to demonstrate this); Mapping War, which was mainly about WWI and WWII, Mapping Peace, which showed what happened during the negotiations following the World Wars; Mapping the Market, which was about world economies; and finally Mapping Movement, which showed how both populations and individuals moved over the century.

Because it was a Wednesday afternoon, there weren’t very many people in the exhibit, which delighted me because maps are the kind of thing that you really have to get close to and study for a while to appreciate, so it can be annoying if there’s too many people in there, because they’re likely to block a map for some minutes whilst looking at it.  Without having photographs of the maps to remind myself what was there, it’s hard to do a detailed recap, so I’ll just tell you some of the memorable highlights.  There was a beautiful, post-WWI map of a fairy tale world, hilarious maps depicting the ways Reagan and Thatcher allegedly viewed the world (though it was a bit sobering to think that Trump probably thinks in much the same way, if not even worse), and of course, early versions of some iconic maps, such as Harry Beck’s tube map.  There were also some funny cartoony anti-Nazi WWII maps (the “Adolfin Sea” made me laugh more than it should have), and an impressive map of the trenches in WWI that was handmade, with thin sheets of paper carefully layered up to depict the terrain.  This being the BL, they also had some famous maps from books, like AA Milne’s original map of Hundred-Acre Wood (I would definitely be relegated to Eeyore Land, which is all boggy and gloomy), and Tolkien’s map of the Shire, though I’m not the right kind of nerd to have properly appreciated that (I’m a nerd alright, but not a Lord of the Rings type one).

I was happy to see that this exhibit was just as big and thoughtfully put-together as the Gothic Imagination, despite not being quite as atmospheric. There was also a free exhibit about Victorian entertainment when I was there, located at the back of the main hall, which contained some excellent old posters for magic shows and clairvoyants, as well as an early film of the “egg-laying man” magic trick, which was pretty amusing.  Definitely worth walking to the back of the hall for!  I have to admit, I was definitely happier about paying £6 than £12, because I am cheap, but I think this exhibit was actually worth the money either way, because there was so much to see, and it was very well done.  Definitely 4/5 (not quite as high as “Terror and Wonder” because I just like monsters and stuff better, but still very good and interesting).

dsc09074The second exhibition I visited that day was “Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans” at the Royal Academy of Arts (it runs til 29 January 2017).  I’m still not real sure who Luc Tuymans is, but I don’t really care because I am a huge James Ensor fan, and he was the focus of this exhibition.  I’d never been to the Royal Academy before, mostly because I balk at spending £9 and up for art, but I had to make an exception for James Ensor (I think it was actually £10, but I got a whole pound off for being a National Art Pass holder.  Dunno why they couldn’t offer half-price or free admission like almost every other museum in London, but whatever).

Anyway, I included links to a few James Ensor paintings when I went to his house last year, and there’s more on the exhibition page if you click the Intrigue link in the previous paragraph, but I get the impression that his work is of a type where you either love it or hate it.  I am definitely in the former camp…anyone who painted as many skeletons and fart clouds as he did is going to be pretty damn high on my list.  Having really only been familiar with his paintings previously, I was delighted to discover some of his etchings at this exhibit, because I think I might like them even better than his paintings, particularly the Seven Deadly Sins series (LOTS of skeletons!).  However, although Ensor’s art was all delightful, and I was very happy to see so much of it in one place, I was less pleased with the picture captions, which only provided the name of the piece and the year it was created, without any additional information whatsoever.  The free booklet they gave me was pretty informative, but it didn’t talk about every single painting, and it also didn’t discuss them in the order in which they were displayed, so I really would have preferred that the information been next to each painting, as it would be in a normal art museum.  There were audio guides available, but they cost an extra £3.50, which I thought was a bit excessive after already having to part with a tenner just to see the (fairly small) exhibition.  So although Ensor’s art did make the experience worthwhile for me (many of his pictures made me actually laugh out loud, which was what I needed that day), I’m really not thrilled about how much I paid to see it, and how little time it took to see, because there was literally nothing to do besides look at the pictures.  So although Ensor himself is for sure a 5/5 for me, this exhibit only gets 3/5 as a whole, because of the Royal Academy’s lacklustre effort.

 

Beaulieu, Hampshire: National Motor Museum, Beaulieu Abbey, Etc.

dsc08294I chose to open this post with the above picture because I think my ambivalent expression in it perfectly encapsulates my initial feelings about Beaulieu (I don’t really want to get into politics on here, but I feel like I can’t let an event this horrifying pass without comment, so I have to say that if I had to pick a facial expression to sum up my feelings on the results of the US election, it would be more like this, but maybe with even more grump. Feeling very angry today).  I’m not interested in actual cars, or in paying an absolute buttload of money to see said cars, but I sure do like sitting in fake cars whilst pretending to drive them (it has to be pretend since I never learned how to drive a real car), and dressing up in old-timey outfits, and actual Disney World style pod rides!  All of which are part of the Beaulieu experience.

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“Alright Jessica, you don’t like cars, so what are you doing paying £19 [and that’s the cheaper advance online rate; it’s £24 at the door if you don’t book ahead] to see the National Motor Museum?” you may ask, and with good reason.  Well, my parents visited me back in October and unfortunately, my father is the sort of person who doesn’t really like doing things, as far as I can tell.  But he does like cars, so in a vain attempt to do something (anything!) with him that he might enjoy, we decided to take him to Beaulieu, since it was the biggest car-related site we could think of (plus they have other attractions too!).  I’m still not sure if he actually enjoyed himself, but the rest of us tried to make the best of the day, given that we’d driven a good couple of hours to get there.

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So, we began with the main attraction: the National Motor Museum.  Well, it certainly has a lot of cars in it!  Fortunately, the collection included quite a few early automobiles, which I could at least appreciate on a historical level, including two cars used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (I actually find the movie kind of a disappointment, given that some of my favourite people (Roald Dahl and Dick Van Dyke) were involved with it, so it really should be better than it is, but nonetheless…); Truly Scrumptious’s car, and old Chitty himself (herself?  Was Chitty assigned a gender?).

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I also appreciated the street of yesteryear, half-assed though it was (you couldn’t actually go in any of the shops, being that the focus was all on the cars), and the many interactive displays (the talking crash test dummy scared me a little); even though learning more about how cars worked wasn’t really all that interesting to me, pressing buttons and turning dials is still kinda fun.  But the best part of the Motor Museum, by far, was yet to come.

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Yes, it was that aforementioned pod ride, simply called “Wheels.”  It came as a complete surprise to me, to the extent that I wandered into a dark hallway marked “this way to Wheels,” just thinking it was some kind of exhibit, and was shocked when a man approached and directed me into a moving pod (I think Marcus and I were the only ones on the ride; no queues, brilliant!).  Oh man, this ride was great too, rather reminiscent of the one at Jorvik Viking Centre (though minus the pooping Viking, more’s the pity), with really cheesy tableaux that clearly hadn’t been updated in decades (a Linley Sambourne cartoon provided the backdrop for one of the scenes, remember him?).

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In fact, I liked it so much that I would have ridden it again had it not been for the fact that it spun around just slightly too much, and left me feeling a bit ill for an hour or so afterwards (nothing severe though, and I am extremely prone to motion sickness, so most people would probably be fine), so I wandered around and looked at some of the excellent mannequins in the museum instead.

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After a quick break for lunch (after reading some of the Trip Advisor reviews of the cafe the night before, I decided to bring a peanut butter sandwich from home, which turned out to be wise, because the food in the cafe did indeed look and smell disgusting (normally when we’re out somewhere for the day, we just grab a baguette and hummus from the nearest supermarket if none of the local eateries look appealing, but Beaulieu is fairly isolated (in the New Forest, hello wild ponies!), so you’re kind of at the mercy of their catering facilities once you get inside)), we headed to “On Screen Cars,” a rather small tent shared with a children’s play area that was meant to hold famous cars used in TV and movies.  There were only about eight cars in there, and most of them were from old British sitcoms that I didn’t watch or care about, but I did enjoy seeing Mr. Bean’s car and the car that the Anti-Pesto car in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was modeled on, because I adore Wallace and Gromit (not that ass-penguin from The Wrong Trousers though.  He can rot in that zoo).

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Beaulieu is also home to the “World of Top Gear.” I’m not a Top Gear fan, so this meant very little to me, but I’m sure some people would enjoy it.  The object captions certainly tried very hard to be funny in that xenophobic Top Gear way, so there’s that.

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But, as Beaulieu’s tagline goes, it is “much more than a motor museum,” so we hopped aboard the monorail to discover the rest of it (the monorail isn’t strictly necessary, as the abbey and stuff are close enough to easily walk to, but after spending all day going, “monorail, monorail” as a prelude to breaking into the monorail song from The Simpsons, there was no way I wasn’t riding the damn monorail), starting with a garden filled with pretty kick-ass topiaries (the ones shown above are part of the tea party from Alice in Wonderland.  Ignore my weird face; I was squinting because of the sun and I don’t have another picture that shows the topiaries without me).

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One of the outbuildings to the manor house contained the “Secret Army Exhibition.”  Like many large estates during WWII, Beaulieu was partially taken over by the military, and was converted into a secret training school for Special Operations Executives.  So there were a lot of cool Bond-esque props on display that were once given to spies, and some stuff about coding, including a tribute to a pretty awesome-sounding woman named Noor Inayat Khan, who was descended from Indian nobility.  Despite her pacifist inclinations, she wanted to help the war effort, so she joined the WAAFs, trained as a wireless operator, and eventually became the first female radio operator dropped behind enemy lines.  Sadly, she was captured by the Gestapo after being betrayed by a fellow agent, and taken to Dachau and executed after undergoing months of  solitary confinement whilst chained.  There is apparently a heritage trail of sites related to her life that people can follow; maps of the trail were provided in the exhibition.

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And now, on a slightly cheerier note, on to the country house, known as “Palace House,” which was a fine example of its type.  This is what made me feel slightly better about paying £19, because let’s face it, a National Trust property would have charged at least 11 or 12 quid for the house and gardens alone.

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The house was fairly sizeable, even though I’m sure we weren’t allowed to see the whole thing, and the paintings and objects all had captions apparently fondly written by the 3rd Baron of Montagu, I guess to show us how intimately his family was connected to the house (he talked about people who died a few centuries ago as if he knew them) and what a neat guy he was (it actually did sort of work, because I felt a bit sad when I discovered that he died in 2015, and his son is the current Baron.  I especially love the caption on that little velvet suit, which the 3rd Baron wore to George VI’s coronation.  He mentions that the velvet bag contained sandwiches to sustain him through the long ceremony!).  I guess I should have mentioned this earlier, but Edward, the 3rd Baron, is the whole reason that all the cars are here today: his father, John, was a keen early adopter of the motorcar (he used to take Edward VII for drives), so Edward (Montagu, just to clarify) started the museum in his father’s memory.

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The house is decorated roughly as it would have been in the Victorian era, and although I was a bit worried about interacting with the costumed “servants” who were meant to tell us about life belowstairs, it turned out they didn’t even acknowledge our presence (I didn’t want a whole awkward conversation with someone in character, but a simple hello or even a nod would have been nice).  It was a lovely home, with some taxidermy and secret stairs, as you’d want from an old manor house.

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There was also some very good bird wallpaper, a detailed exhibit about two feisty sounding ladies (stepmother and stepdaughter) who lived in the house for practically the whole of the 20th century (they had long lives), a random collection of Soviet art, and some really excellent modern family portraits that cracked me right up.  I wish I could afford to have my portrait painted in a similar fashion.

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Finally, there’s Beaulieu Abbey, which was a thriving monastic community until Henry VIII came along and broke with Catholicism, and much of the old abbey was destroyed.  But some of it is still there, along with some examples of cool sarcophagi that were made to hold people’s hearts. Apparently, wealthy medieval people would often have their hearts and bones removed from their bodies after they died, and have their flesh buried in one place, bones in another, and their hearts in some place that was especially meaningful to them. It was done mainly so more people would pray over them (because the congregation of each church they were buried in would then have an obligation to do so), but symbolically speaking, I think it’s kind of a nice idea to have your heart put someplace special, even though I feel sorry for the person who has to remove it.  The double coffin was so husbands and wives could put their hearts together (aww, in a grisly way).

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The upstairs hall had some modern tapestries showing medieval life at the abbey (the tapestries were made in the 1990s) that contained lots of adorable farm animals, so I was a fan.  Wandering the grounds of the Abbey, I came across the 3rd Baron’s grave (which is how I learned he was dead; a bit of a shock after his chatty tone in all those captions in the house).  More importantly though, I also came across the ice cream cottage, wherein a delightful man gave me an enormous scoop of mint chocolate ripple ice cream for only £2 (the main cafeteria may have been gross, but I have no complaints about the ice cream cottage, or the ice cream man’s scooping technique, which was excellent.  As someone who worked at an ice cream shop for five years, I am definitely qualified to judge this).

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I fear I’ve already run on for too long, and only the very dedicated will have made it this far, so time to sum up!  Though I am indeed, very much not a car person, I can’t argue with an actual ride inside a museum (also the monorail passes right through the museum, so it’s really like it has two rides!), and the rest of the estate was pretty damn entertaining as well.  Was it worth £19?  Actually, maybe it was (though initially ambivalent, I guess I came around in the end!).  We did spend practically the whole day there, and I had a surprising amount of fun.  I mean, you can’t go wrong with dressing up and posing in an old-fashioned car. 4/5.

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London: Delicious Decay at St. Bart’s and Halloween Late at the Hunterian

dsc09012_stitchHappy belated Halloween everybody!  I probably should have mentioned Halloween last week, but even though I try to live in a state of readiness for Halloween year-round, it still has a way of sneaking up on me!  Now that my favourite holiday has come and gone, I have two recent Halloween-themed events I attended to tell you about, but first, I have some exciting personal news I’d like to share with you: I am now a British citizen, having attended the official ceremony last week!  I can’t pretend I’m as happy about it as I would have been pre-Brexit, but this is still a fairly big deal for me, because I’ve been living here for eight years, and it’s nice to finally feel like I can’t be suddenly booted out on the whims of the Home Office, not to mention the joy of never having to wait in the non-EU passport queue at the airport again!  And now, on to the Halloweening (or should I say Hallowienering?  You’ll see what I mean further into the post)!

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The first event was “Delicious Decay: The Edible Body Farm,” held at St. Bart’s Pathology Museum.  I’ve attended a number of lectures there over the years, some of which I thought were really pretty good, and others…not so much.  I think this last event might be the last straw for me and St. Bart’s though, as it was a real damp squib.  One of my (many) pet hates is having to pay to attend a market or festival where you then have to pay for everything inside said market, which is exactly what this was.  It’s not quite so galling if the entry fee is fairly modest, but if I’ve parted with £10.99 (which is essentially the same price as one of their lectures, where you’re at least given a drink + hear a lecture, of course), I expect to get something for my money.

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I admit being initially enticed in by the promise that we’d be able to view the second floor of the museum, which is not normally open to the public, and also by the opportunity to “excavate edible soil for as many consumable body parts as you can eat.”  Well, I’ll get to the second floor in a minute, but first I’d like to talk about those consumable body parts, because it was one of the most irritating parts of the whole experience.  If you promise me all-you-can-eat cake, you had damn well better deliver, and this certainly did not.  I think perhaps the cake wasn’t exactly what they were envisioning when they wrote the event description, because instead of being body parts that you had to excavate, it was just a big decomposing corpse cake, surrounded by some rocks, soil, and white chocolate maggots, as shown in the picture on the right.  So there was really nothing to excavate as such, but I was perfectly fine with just shoving my gob full of body cake.  We were told we could only eat from the legs, which was a bit annoying (especially because the girl ahead of me licked her spoon before sticking it in the cake, eurgh), but I could understand that they wanted something left for the later sessions to look at, so fair enough.  However, I was then told we could only have one spoonful of cake each, so there would be enough for everyone, even though the edibles were meant to be “replenished” throughout the day.  Now, I don’t know about you, but one small spoonful of cake is certainly not “all” the cake I can eat.  I mean, jeez, at least give me a whole piece (obviously I can eat more than one piece of cake, but I would have felt better about it if I’d had a whole piece)!  The woman working there did say we could have as much of the soil and chocolate rocks as we wanted, but when I grabbed a second small handful of rocks (literally three rocks, and they were only the size of Minstrels), she gave me a dirty look, so apparently I was only supposed to want one spoon’s worth.  I REALLY don’t like it when people toy with me where food is concerned, so this event was already off to a bad start.

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A quick wander around the museum floor confirmed that all the other stalls there were full of items you had to pay for (some of the cakes and stuff were cool looking, but I cannot justify spending £7.50 on a single biscuit.  Especially as it was more than likely a case of style over substance), and some of the sellers were fairly aggressive (some guy kept trying to sell us candy made from honeyed pig, even after I said I was a vegetarian), so we headed up to the second floor to escape.  The ground floor of the pathology museum is somewhere I’ve looked around many times, and it is full of many cool specimens, so I was eager to get a look at the second floor.  Unfortunately, though there were undoubtedly many interesting body parts up there, none of them had labels yet, so it was hard to tell what some of them were (I think knowing what the person died from is half the fun).  Also, only half the second floor was actually open, the rest being blocked off with various carts and other curatorial tools.  I can see why it’s not normally open to the public, is my point.

However, before just outright leaving (we’d only been there for 15 minutes, even though our session was for an hour), there was a mini lecture to attend. Only one, as far as I could tell, even though the event description said, “there will also be mini lectures to educate on what each of the unusual consumables represents and how they relate to decomposition.”  Perhaps the fact that there weren’t really many unusual consumables free to eat put the kibosh on that. But there was a lecture on the chemicals used to train cadaver dogs, and I never pass up a chance to experience authentic smells, even gross ones.  The talk was basically fine, albeit brief and a bit hard to hear, but because of the large number of people in the audience who apparently didn’t understand the concept of passing something on to the next person once they’d finished, not everyone got to sniff every chemical.  Anyway, it certainly wasn’t good enough to justify that outrageous entry fee, and this is definitely the last time I’ll be attending this sort of event at St. Bart’s.  I get that they need money to preserve the museum, but they either could have offered more free activities (there was a face painter doing corpse makeup, but I really hate having my face painted, plus there was a big queue for it.  That was it, activity-wise though) or charged a more modest entry fee to reflect what was actually available.

weinerAnd then there’s the Hunterian Museum, one of my favourite museums in London. The Hunterian is a free museum, and this event was also free, though you had to pre-book (for once I was on the ball, and booked it in August, so I’m not sure if/when it sold out).  Therefore, after the disappointment of Bart’s, I reckoned that if this event also sucked, at least I hadn’t wasted any money.  Fortunately, it did not suck.

The Halloween Late not only offered the chance to explore the museum after-hours, which in itself I probably wouldn’t have bothered attending, because it’s much less crowded during normal opening hours, but there was also a pickle your own part activity, and a short lecture on the anatomy of a hanging.  Not being the kind of person who enjoys waiting, I ran straight into the “pickling” room for my chance, though the set-up seemed fairly good in that they’d chosen a large room with long tables, and had lots of materials out, so quite a few people could work at the same time.  Basically, you got to model a body part of your choosing out of clay, and then stick it in a “specimen jar” for preserving.  All materials were provided, except the jar, which we were asked to bring from home, though there were a few jars there for people who forgot.  Marcus made a fetus, as you can see above, and you can also probably guess what I made…it certainly attracted a lot of attention (see, I told you Hallowiener would make sense)!

The lecture was also pretty good; it was given by a retired surgeon, and he discussed what happened to the body during various methods of execution, including a hanging, beheading, and hanging, drawing, and quartering.  A bit grisly (especially the latter method), but thoroughly enjoyable!  I should emphasise again that this was all free!  There was a cash bar (though I didn’t imbibe), and they had five special creepy pins available for a donation of a pound (I got two, a skull and a glass eye), but it certainly wasn’t anything like the shake-down we were given at Bart’s, plus I’m happy to donate a bit to a museum that is always free and always excellent.  Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed at the Hunterian, due to the medical nature of the specimens, which is the main reason why I’ve never done a full post on it previously, and why I’m not really doing one now, but I do urge you to visit it if you’re ever in London.  Their specimen jars are exquisite, they have some excellent skeletons and paintings of medical oddities, and though their WWI section is small, I’ve always been a fan of it (the story of one of the men who had a pioneering facial reconstruction operation is really sweet, and makes me tear up a little).

Well, that more or less covers what I did for Halloween this year, other than baking far too much cake (to make up for all the cake I didn’t get to eat at the first event), and of course watching Hocus Pocus, The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror I-VII, and a few other select cheesy horror films (starring Bruce Campbell), so I’ll leave you with pictures of the pumpkins we carved (the elaborate headless horseman one is Marcus’s).  Hope you all had a suitably spooky day!

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London: 18 Stafford Terrace (Linley Sambourne House)

img_20161002_152655388_hdr_stitchI know I’ve mentioned before how I am, to some extent, always fishing for an excuse to go out to Kensington.  The lure of the giant Whole Foods there (mainly because they sell delicious chocolate chip muffins) + Ben’s Cookies simply proves irresistible.  Well, I found another excuse to gorge myself on bakery experience a fine cultural attraction in the form of 18 Stafford Terrace, otherwise known as the family home of the Sambournes.

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If you’ve never heard of the Sambournes, don’t feel bad; I hadn’t really either until I went to this house.  Linley Sambourne, patriarch of the Sambourne clan, was a cartoonist for Punch, a keen collector of Victoriana (which I suppose wasn’t really Victoriana at the time, just normal furnishings), and an avid photographer (which strayed into a “private” interest in photography, if you get my drift).  He and his wife Marion purchased this terraced house in 1875, when it was only a few years old, and lived there until they died, collecting crap all the while.  Their son and daughter did nothing to change it, as they had their own London residences, and eventually their granddaughter inherited it and was so inspired by its contents that she became one of the founders of the Victorian Society, and she transferred the lease of the house to them (it is currently owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington, who took over the lease in 2000), which is why it is now open to the public as a bit of a Victorian time capsule.

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The house offers both guided tours, which much be pre-booked, and self-guided tours, which you can just show up and do.  They were also offering a temporary 2-for-1 offer on self-guided tours at the time of our visit, which is what sold me on it at last! (Normally, admission is 7 pounds each, so I was quite pleased with 3.50.  They somewhat disingenuously don’t mention the offer in person (it’s advertised on their website, and ends on the 30th of October), and I had to specifically ask for the 2-for-1 deal to get it; the admissions lady tried to charge us full price until I said something!)  The “tour” began with a video, which explained how the house came to be a sort of museum, and told us the history of the Sambourne family.  Linley sounded like a real character, which is reflected to some extent in the house.

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Because although the house is a beautiful example of Victorian architecture and decor, the highlight by far is Linley’s photographic collection, which completely filled the walls of some of the rooms, in true Victorian style.  He first got into photography when he realised that he could make models pose in the positions he wanted, snap their photo, and then use the resulting image as a guide to draw his cartoons, without all the hassle of having a live model in the studio.  He also seemed to be a pioneer in the art of the selfie, as most of the pictures were of himself in various hilarious poses!

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And of course, there was his slightly more prurient interest in risque (for the time) photography.  As you can see, I was clearly delighted to spot the collection of sexy photos, which featured curvaceous nude women in various “artistic” poses, and was conveniently placed above the marble bathtub that he filled with developing solution for his own photographs.

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My other favourite thing in the house was probably Linley’s “fern case,” set inside a sunny projecting window at the front of the house, where he kept ferns (naturally) and a sort of glass terrarium full of rocks (if it were mine, I would fill it with some sort of unusual taxidermy, but it was still pretty perfect as is.  I think I’d probably grow strawberries in there too, with all the sun.  Wouldn’t that be appetising?  Strawberries and dead animals).

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The house was also liberally filled with Linley’s cartoons and illustrations, many of which were actually pretty damn funny.  There was a little laminated guide in each room (usually just a paragraph or two), but they didn’t go into a lot of detail about the illustrations, so I had to pause and lean real close to the cartoons to see what was going on (many of them were hung along the staircases, so you had to wait until no one was coming down.  And the house had a tonne of staircases, as it was very tall and narrow.  About five floors, but only a couple rooms per floor).

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I’ve reached the point where I don’t have a lot more to say, but there’s still loads of photos, so here you go (the kind of crappy looking room towards the bottom is the maid’s room, in case you were wondering why it’s so spartan compared to the others):

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Suffice it to say the house is amazing, especially if you appreciate Victoriana as much as I do (I could definitely live there!), but I’m still glad we only paid half price, as I don’t think it was 7 quid’s worth of stuff to see.  Linley Sambourne seemed like a pretty neat guy (and according to the video, he was very proud of his daughter’s artistic abilities, which is nice to see from a Victorian father), and his photography was definitely entertaining, but I feel like the house caters more for guided tours, so there wasn’t really enough information available on self-guided ones (though some of the volunteers were very helpful…others not so much), and the normal price is a little high for what you get.  Even still, it’s probably a must-see for lovers of all things Victorian.  3.5/5.

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London: “The Joy of Bees” and “Through a Glass Darkly”

dsc07797This week, I wanted to tell you guys about two events I recently attended (despite always feeling kind of bad for reporting on events that were a one-off, because what’s the point if no one else can go?! Oh well), and given that it’s October, I couldn’t resist opening the post with a creepy blurry picture of Brompton Cemetery at night, even though I’m going to talk about the Joy of Bees first.

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So, the Joy of Bees.  I’ve attended a few of Bompas and Parr’s events over the years, with mixed results (I blogged about “Sensed Presence” a couple years ago), and at some point ended up on their mailing list, which means that if they mention anything interesting, I’m more inclined to go than I perhaps otherwise would be (especially because hearing about it before the general public means I’ve actually got a shot at booking tickets to most things).  I like bees, I like honey, and their description of the event, though pretentious (“an experiential art installation and gastronomic tasting of some of the rarest honeys in the world”), was nonetheless sufficiently intriguing for me to book tickets, despite the hefty £9 price tag.

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Knowing what I now know, I wish I’d kept that £9 and just bought a couple jars of nice honey.  I think the best way I can review this is by going through their descriptions of each level of the townhouse (it was in some random narrow building (maybe a former brothel?) in Soho), so you can see that although I can’t technically accuse them of lying, the grandiose promises didn’t quite match up to what was delivered.  First up, the “Observation Colony, containing 20,000 live bees” (seen in the picture on the left, above).  I didn’t count them, but I do believe that it contained that many bees.  The problem is that 20,000 bees don’t actually take up all that much room, so it wasn’t any more impressive than the bee display at the Geauga County Fair, and the Geauga County fair does free honey tastings free of pompous trappings.

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The 1st Floor contained “Hive Mind, an exposition of cultural contributions from artists for whom bees, hives, honey, and the visual language of beekeeping have provided a source of information.”  I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “exposition,” I think of it as being more than three things.  Because that’s how many pieces of “art” were there.  3.  You’ve already seen two of them (the log looking things and the vase thing) and the other was much the same, just another thing made of honeycomb.  When I heard “honeycomb inspired modern art,” for some reason I was picturing maybe like a giant honeycombed hive you could walk through or something, not some unremarkable little vase in a glass case.  Anyway, this was lame, and the resident beekeeper who was allegedly on hand to answer questions was none too friendly either.

The 2nd Floor, shown on the left above (I’m running out of pictures here because there wasn’t much worth photographing), was “Pollenesia, a botanical paradise where you’ll meet the enigmatic, steely and magnificent Mellifera, Queen of Honey.”  Mellifera was quite clearly an aspiring actress who didn’t seem particularly interested in “bee-ing” there.  Her whole shtick consisted of asking us to smell the wildflowers and then do a shot of malic acid, which was meant to cleanse our palates for the honey tasting.  And man, that was not what I’d call a “botanical paradise.”  When I think of botanical paradise, I think of something like the inside of the big greenhouses in Kew, where you’re actually surrounded by plants.  Not some clumps of dirt on the floor with wildflowers stuck in them (and rather hilariously, the wildflowers were arranged in exactly the way the honey tasting ladies told us not to plant them; i.e. you should plant flowers of one type all together, so bees don’t have to exert themselves too much gathering pollen.  These were all mixed together).

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Finally, there was the honey tasting itself, or should I say the “Salon of Honey, a honeycombed haven where you’ll be guided through a taste of some of the rarest honeys in the world.”  This was by far the best part of the installation, because it’s hard to go wrong with tasting honey, though I was annoyed that they had a map posted everywhere showing the “29 honeys featured at the Joy of Bees,” yet we only tasted 5 honeys.  I realise it wouldn’t have been practical to taste THAT many honeys, but why advertise them then?  Because of that map, I’m not sure which honeys we actually tasted, as there was nothing to distinguish the tasting honeys from the 24 other featured honeys, and many of them were from the same countries as the ones we tasted.  But the honey was delicious, no complaints there, and I actually quite liked the apple chunks soaked in super-tart malic acid that we were given to cleanse our palates.  I also enjoyed the honey mocktail we were given afterwards, and the bonus honey on bread.  But really, none of it was worth £9.  I’m not much of a drinker, but if they would have dumped some booze in that “mocktail” at least I would have felt like I was getting my money’s worth.  The other main complaint, in addition to the general vibe of half-assedness that pervaded, was that the whole thing was sponsored by some hotel chain I’d never heard of, and the honey came from their hives, as we kept being reminded, to the extent that the whole thing felt like a big advert that they should have been paying us to listen to.  Very disappointing overall, and I think it’s going to be a long time before I risk another Bompas and Parr event, unless it’s something free.

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However, all was not lost, because later that evening we attended “Through a Glass Darkly” at Brompton Cemetery, part of London Month of the Dead. London Month of the Dead offer some of the few non-clubbing related Halloween events in London, and for this I am grateful.  It was £12 (and did come with an actual cocktail, although I didn’t drink it due to an unfortunate incident at a different Month of the Dead event last year where I desperately had to pee for the entire lecture after having the cocktail, and then had to frantically run to the men’s room at the back of the chapel, because the women’s toilet wasn’t unlocked), which I didn’t object that much to paying because it was a Halloween event (the things I’ll do for my favourite holiday), and also a chance to enter an awesome Victorian cemetery at night (and because some of the ticket price went to cemetery upkeep, of course).

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Anyway, after a bit of waiting around in the cold for someone to open the gates (I think every goth in town was there, and we all know I’m a goth at heart…), we all headed up to the chapel, which is a fair walk up the path between the graves, and the cemetery was good and dark, though the chapel was atmospherically illuminated with candlelight.  I realise I still haven’t explained what the event actually was (if you didn’t click the link and find out); it was advertised as a phantasmagoria, in other words, a creepy magic lantern show.  Ever since reading about a similar event held in a cemetery in Paris in the 19th century, I’ve been dying (not literally, though I guess it’s a pun) to attend one, so I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw this event on the Month of the Dead website.  Hence the need to snap up tickets.  It turned out to not exactly be a straightforward phantasmagoria, but it was so good that I didn’t mind.  What actually happened was that Professor Mervyn Heard, operator of the gloriously steampunk-looking magic lantern (it ran on electricity, but apparently they were originally powered by a volatile mix of gasses that blew up and killed several magic lantern operators), gave us a history of magic lantern shows, accompanied by some of his favourite slides, many of which were gothic in nature, although he provided amusing sound effects (he did comedy accents and everything), so not really scary.  There were a few ghost stories thrown in, and Professor Heard was extremely engaging, and infectiously passionate about magic lanterns (to the extent that I kind of want one of my own).  He was also very knowledgeable, which was nice after recently attending a couple of lectures where the speakers didn’t really seem to know their subject matter.

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My only problems with the event were that the people behind us talked through the whole damn thing (not Month of the Dead’s fault), and that it was hard to see the screen from where we were sitting because of all the heads in front of me (I had to lean to the side and got a crick in my neck), but I’m not really sure what could be done about that, other to let fewer people in, but then I might not have gotten to attend at all, and I would have rather had a sore neck than not seen it.  Professor Heard was fantastic; surprisingly funny, and he had an excellent collection of slides.  The second best part of the evening came when we left the cemetery; as the gates had been re-locked during the show, we had to all exit together so they could let us out.  After impatiently waiting for everyone to leave, we were rewarded when one of the event organisers strapped on a wind-up gramophone, and led us out of the cemetery whilst cranking out spooky music (I’ve got a video up on my Instagram, if you want to hear it).  It was hilarious, and the perfect end to the evening.  London Month of the Dead have got a few more events this month, though I think most of them are sold out (and I’d avoid the one about the architecture of cemeteries; we went last year and it was pretty lame), but I’d definitely recommend the magic lantern show if they do it again next year!  It even made up for the disappointment that was the Joy of Bees!

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London: Keats House

DSC07487Do you remember that post from a couple of years ago where I went to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome?  Well, I suppose it was about damn time that I finally got around to visiting Keats House in London (though frankly, if it wasn’t for the nightmare that is the Italian immigration “queue,” it almost seems like less hassle to get to Rome than to Hampstead from where I live.  Plus Rome has better pizza).  (As you can probably tell from my attire, I’ve been hanging on to this post for a while…pretty sure my arms would fall off if I tried walking around outside in a tank top now.)

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, this visit was not spurred on by a sudden interest in Keats, or in going to Hampstead, but by the fact that Keats House is a National Art Pass property, so I could get in for free. Keats House is normally £6.50 though, which is more expensive than its 5 euro counterpart in Rome, even with the current lamentable exchange rate.  It is most easily accessed from Hampstead Heath Overground Station, though it’s quite easy to miss the little sign directing you to turn down the road it’s on if you don’t really know where you’re going.

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Although we were given a map of the house that told us what order to walk around in, I didn’t actually open the map until we were down in the basement watching the video on Keats’s life, so I had already screwed things up by not immediately looking around the ground floor.  I don’t think it really mattered that much though, especially as the video provided more background information on John Keats’s life than was available in the rest of the house, so it was quite useful to watch it first.  The basement also held the house’s kitchen, and a few little interactive things, like a dress-up box (hello tricorn hat!) and a station where you could draw a picture of a food you loved or hated and write a little poem.  I did one on how much I hate mayonnaise, but it was a poor effort mostly stolen from the excellent “Please No Mayonnaise” song from Shooting Stars, so I won’t show it to you.

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And so back to the ground floor.  The whole deal with Keats and this house is that before the tuberculosis and the fame, Keats was a young surgeon training at Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge, who had a passion for poetry. There was a community of fellow poets living in Hampstead at that time (we’re talking Regency here) who Keats befriended, and they encouraged him in his writing.  He eventually realised he didn’t have time for both surgery and poetry, so gave up his surgical career to move to Hampstead with his brothers and pursue poetry full time.  Unfortunately, his older brother decided to move to America, and his younger brother died of TB soon after, so with nowhere better to go, Keats moved into this house (Wentworth Place) with his friend, Charles Brown, and the Dilke family, who were already living there, meaning Keats only had a study and a bedroom to himself.  The Brawne family later moved into the other side of the house, which is how  Keats met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne, and they got engaged.  However, Keats had by then begun to manifest serious symptoms of the tuberculosis that had killed his mother and brother, so only ended up living in the house for about 18 months before moving to Italy in hope that the climate there would help his condition.  It didn’t, and he died shortly after arriving, in the house that is now the Keats-Shelley Museum that I blogged about in 2014.

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Anyway, that’s the quick(ish) version of Keats’s relationship with Hampstead, and the study that he rented is on the ground floor, where you can still see it today (and replicate Keats’s pose in this portrait), though I don’t think most of the furniture is original to the house.  There were only labels on a few things in each room, and no binder full of additional information like you’ll find in other historic homes, so there wasn’t a lot to go on.  I did think the label on the couch was quite sad though…I can picture Keats just wasting away (in between violent coughing fits) whilst gazing upon his lady love in the garden (though I guess it would be creepy if his feelings weren’t reciprocated).

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There’s a “Shakespeare Trail” currently in the house to commemorate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, which mainly just consisted of an additional insert in the map they gave us, and copies of Shakespeare’s plays with little labels saying how much Keats loved them (the whole Shakespeare thing seemed a bit forced, to be honest), but there was also this rather hideous inkwell featuring the Bard that apparently belonged to Keats’s older brother.  I tend to like gaudy things, but that inkwell was a bit much, even for me.

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The house seemed to be a mix of rooms decorated roughly as they would have been when Keats lived there (I suppose so anyway, like I said, there wasn’t much explanation of anything) and museum style cases holding artefacts relating to Keats’s life.  There were an inordinate amount of life and death masks in here. Honestly, it looked like the guy must have spent half his short life with his head encased in plaster (which probably didn’t help with the TB either; I can’t imagine plaster dust is great for the lungs).  There was even a case with Keats’s life and death masks side by side, and you had to guess which was which (they never actually told you, but I’d seen the death mask in Rome, so I had a pretty good idea).

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Upstairs, there was a small gallery about a walking trip from the Lakes District to Scotland that Keats took with his friend Charles Brown, and Brown reckoned they’d walked over 600 miles, which is damned impressive for someone in the early stages of TB.  I mean, I’m healthy, and there is no way I would walk that much in a summer without an epic amount of complaining, and probably my hips and my knees aching (seriously, I never thought I’d have this many aches and pains in my early 30s.  Aging sucks).  There was also a sketch made of Keats in Rome by his friend Joseph Severn, who accompanied him on that last, ill-fated trip…I sort of alluded to this in the other Keats post, but he looks damn fine in that sketch.  Far better than he did when he was healthy (first Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, now consumptive Keats…I think I have a problem).

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Another room held items relating to Fanny Brawne, Keats’s fiancee.  There was a photograph of her when she was in her early 50s, and she was a very nice looking woman, not to mention well-preserved!  She could have easily passed for someone in their 30s.  There was also her engagement ring, which I actually quite liked (Laura Ingalls Wilder also had a garnet engagement ring, so maybe I just like garnet in a historical context.  Personally though, I’m not a big red person), and a pretty cool dress with no label on it at all (a re-creation of one of Fanny’s dresses?  Just a random Keats-themed dress?  No idea).

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Aside from Keats’s bedroom, which was on the first floor (climbing those stairs must have been a real effort after he got sick) and was where he coughed up the arterial blood after a coach trip that made him realise he was dying (thanks to his experience with TB and his training as a surgeon, he was under no illusions about his condition), that was more or less it for the house.  Though I enjoyed the dress-up and colouring opportunities (yes, I know they were probably aimed at children, but none were there), I think the rest of the house could have been improved with more information about Keats.  There was a fair amount about his poetry, and plenty of chances to read or listen to his poems at audio stations set up at several points throughout the house, but I still feel there could have been more details provided about the furniture and Keats’s life, short though it was.  So I’ll give it 3/5, because I don’t think it was anywhere near as informative, or as good of a value as the Keats-Shelley House in Rome.  Of course, if I was escaping into the house from crowded, hot, touristy Rome, instead of quiet, shady Hampstead, perhaps I would have liked it better.

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Open House London 2016, Or; Endless Queues and the Perils of not Pre-Booking

img_20160917_152106444_hdrNow that Open House London has come and gone, it’s time for my yearly reflections/rant on the weekend. Or, if you’re not in the mood for relentless negativity, skip to the end of the post where I talk about Kilmorey Mausoleum.

I am neither stupid nor optimistic, so I can’t really explain why a part of me continues to get excited about Open House London every year.  I’ve experienced this event enough times to know precisely what it entails (and if you’re a long-time reader, probably so do you, because I repeat the same thing every year, but bear with me!).  Firstly, “Open House” isn’t exactly open.  About half the properties (and nearly all the really cool ones, or so it would seem) require pre-booking.  Which would be fine if there weren’t 8 million other people in London who always seem to manage to book before you do, even though you tried to make your bookings over a month before Open House.  By the time I remembered to look at the Open House website (in early August, mind, for mid-September), the only building I had even the vaguest interest in seeing that was still taking bookings was the London Library, so I hastily snagged a pair of tickets to that, but everything else we visited would have to accept visitors on the day. Which brings me to the problem of queues.

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To reiterate, London is a city of something like 8.6 million people, and to quote E.L. Konigsburg (who was talking about New York, but it also applies to London), if you’re thinking of doing something in London, “you can be certain that at least two thousand other people have the same thought.  And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be standing in line waiting to do it.”  Open House London is no exception to this rule.  I opened the post with a picture of a queue in central London, and you might think, “well, duh, of course there are loads of people in central London.”  But even well outside the centre, things were busy.  The first place we attempted to visit was the Southwark Integrated Waste Management Plant.  Yep, a dump.  And a dump kind of in the middle of nowhere at that (or as middle of nowhere as it gets in Zone 2 anyway, i.e. an industrial estate).  We arrived around noon and waited in a massive queue for a while, until word reached us that the tours were fully booked up until 4.  As we were due to tour the London Library at 2 (and there was no way I was coming back to Peckham after; it’s a bitch to get to!), we couldn’t do the tour, so now I guess I’ll never know how waste is turned into energy.

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So, we made our way up to Piccadilly (ish) to do the London Library tour, which was lovely, even though it made me saltier than ever that I’ll probably never be able to afford their £500-a-year subscription and have access to their amazing shelves full of one million delightfully musty-smelling books and absolutely pristine old newspapers (seriously, I don’t understand how they keep them so nice.  We have a bunch of old newspapers at the library where I volunteer, and even the ones from the 1970s are all crumbling and horrible, so I don’t understand how ones from 100 years ago were like new at the London Library.  I guess that’s what your £500 pays for).

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After our tour, I did sort of want to just wander around Westminster and see what other buildings were open, but of course the pre-booking/queues put a stop to that (I fully admit that a lot of my problems could be solved if I wasn’t so damn impatient, but that’s not going to change any time soon).  So we went to the Banqueting House, which could accommodate enough people at a time so that there was no queue.  Banqueting House is normally open to the public, but you have to pay when it’s not Open Weekend, which is why I had never been.  It was Charles I’s favourite palace (and, rather cruelly, where he was executed), and was where Inigo Jones put on his famous masques.  Only part of the palace survives, including the fabulous ceiling upstairs, but man, I was glad I did not pay £6 to visit it, because the whole palace nowadays consists of two halls that take all of ten minutes to see (nice toilets though!).  So I suppose that is one good thing about Open House London, but only for those properties where you don’t have to queue for an hour just to get inside.

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Our last stop on Saturday was the “Roman” Bath on the Strand, which is not Roman at all, nor was it initially a bath.  It was only built in the 1600s, and actually fed a grotto inside the old Somerset House and was eventually turned into a small bathhouse that Dahl’s Chickens, I mean Charles Dickens, wrote about in David Copperfield.  The annoying thing about the bath (well, really more about King’s) is that it is basically part of King’s College London’s campus; I got my Master’s at King’s, in Early Modern History (yeah, the exact period the bath was built), and not one person at the university thought to mention to me that this bath was located there.  So this was my first time seeing it, and it was neat, but again, I’m glad we only waited for about two minutes, because you are just looking at a stagnant pool of water with Dutch style tiles.

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Now, as for Sunday…I actually have something positive to say!  This was the first year that I was able to volunteer for Open House weekend, as I wasn’t sure if I would be in London on the last one, and prior to that, I had attempted to volunteer, only to be told I wasn’t needed at the last minute (grrr).  However, this year I successfully volunteered at the Kilmorey Mausoleum.  I picked it because I love cemeteries and tombs and all things gothy, and also because I had always wanted to see it but could never be bothered to make the trip to St. Margaret’s (across the river from Richmond), so I knew that if I volunteered there, I would have no choice but to trek out.

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The mausoleum is only open to the public on Open House Weekend (although this year, they are trying to open it on a few other days; December 11 is the next one), and it is freakin’ awesome.  It is hidden behind a wall with a low door in the middle; you cautiously creak it open to find yourself in the middle of a picturesquely overgrown (though not too overgrown, I hasten to add, having met the gardener) quiet garden, with a big ol’ tomb plunked down in the middle.  The 2nd Earl of Kilmorey was one of those fantastic Victorian eccentrics with more money than sense, and when he realised that his mistress Priscilla was dying from a heart condition (she was his ward, and he ran off with her when she was 20 and he was in his late 50s, ick), he commissioned a tomb for her in a fashionable Ancient Egyptian style, which cost £30,000 (and that’s in 1850s money).  It was originally in Brompton Cemetery, but he had it moved to his house in Chertsey, and then finally to this garden in St. Margaret’s, which was connected to his nearby house by a secret tunnel (sometimes the Earl would dress up in a shroud and sit in a coffin, and have his servants push him down the tunnel).  It has lots of pseudo-Egyptian symbols on the outside, and the inside has their crumbling coffins just sitting there; a carving of dead Priscilla being mourned by the Earl and their son, and these awesome yellow star-shaped skylights that shine bright to illuminate the tomb even even when the door is closed.  It is seriously the coolest mausoleum I’ve ever seen, and the volunteer giving the tours did a great job of making them both creepy AND full of salacious detail (I only had to count visitors and hand out leaflets, so I had plenty of time to talk to my fellow volunteers and learn more about the tomb.  And the Earl’s great-grandson, who lives in Australia, made a surprise visit, so that was pretty cool too!).

So you can see that my Open House Weekend was a very mixed bag (is the expression mixed bag referring to pick’n’mix sweets?  I feel like it should be, if it’s not. Let’s say there were some delicious strawberry fruit gums and soor plooms, and lots and lots of disgusting blackcurrant pastilles and horrible licorice allsorts).  Part of me feels bad for complaining every year about a free event, but a bigger part of me is angry enough about it to complain away, guilt-free.  Sure, I could just not attend, but then I’d risk missing out on a gem like the Kilmorey Mausoleum.  Properties like Kilmorey are the whole reason why I do still look forward to Open House weekend, despite its many flaws.  But central London on Open Weekend is just a mess, and I’m not even sure what could be done about it, except maybe to stop so many places from only taking pre-bookings, and perhaps institute a system everywhere else where you can show up, collect a ticket for a scheduled time, and come back later without queuing (I just really really hate queuing.  It’s the American in me).  Anyway, thus ends my annual rant, but I would definitely urge you to visit Kilmorey Mausoleum if you can on one of their open days, because there were no queues there, and it is rad.

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London: House of Illustration

house of illustrationI wanted to blog about Open House London this week while it was still a relatively recent occurrence, but that post needs more editing than I’m in the mood to do today (I’ve been getting a lot of eye strain lately, might be time to get my eyes checked!) so it’ll have to wait for another week or two.  Instead, here’s one on the House of Illustration that I wrote a while ago (as you can probably tell, given that all the exhibits I talk about ended weeks ago). The House of Illustration is a fairly new museum (opened in 2014), and as far as I can tell, not terribly well publicised (the first I’d heard of it was when I was looking through the National Art Fund pass holders book for stuff to do around London).  It’s part of the whole King’s Cross regeneration deal (I don’t think I’d ever been in Granary Square before the regeneration, probably due to the reason why it needed to be “regenerated” in the first place, but it does seem pretty nice now), and was founded in part by Quentin Blake (illustrator extraordinaire, most memorably for many of Roald Dahl’s books).

Admission is normally £7; we only went because the National Art Pass got us half-price entry (and we hadn’t used the membership in a while, what with going to New Zealand and all). The House of Illustration did sort of seem like a work still-in-progress, as the Quentin Blake gallery had only just opened a few months ago, so they might be planning to add more to it, but as it stands now, there are two main galleries, with an extra little exhibition room off one of the galleries (the admission fee includes both galleries, which is not how it looks on their rather confusing website).  Oh, and they don’t allow photographs, so you’ll just have to use your imagination, which is frankly a bit crap when we’re talking about a “house of illustration” (that’s why I’ve inserted links to the illustrations I could find online. I know it’s a bit of a pain to click them, but I wasn’t sure of their copyright statuses, so I didn’t want to just copy them into the post).

I got the impression that all the exhibits here are temporary exhibits, but the main (largest) one on at the time of our visit (some months ago now, sorry, I was trying to finish up with Australia first) was “A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia” which was on until September 11.  I was intrigued by this, because as you all know, I quite like Soviet art.  Basically, when Russia first became the Soviet Union, there was a brief flourishing of creativity in the world of children’s books.  Fairy tales were out, but animals were still acceptable, as were stories about everyday Soviet life, and some wonderful things were produced, including, for the first time in Russia, many Jewish children’s books, some illustrated by big name modernist artists like Marc Chagall, and a Soviet version of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.  However, this period only lasted from the 1920s to the early 1930s, when Stalin cracked down on creativity; from then on, books could only be about boring state-approved topics, like methods of production, Soviet workers, and the might of the Soviet empire.  Snooze central.

However, I really loved some of the books from the heyday of Soviet art; there were lots of farm animals (I really like chickens, I don’t know why.  Actually, scratch that: I think it’s because of the Feather Town books I owned as a child.  I loved Fran and Emma!) and for some reason, elephants, and even a story about a family of fleas, including a grandma flea clad in a babushka, which was kind of adorable.  They had a few English translation copies of picture books set out at the end of the exhibit that you could look through, and I especially took to Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev’s Ice Cream, which appeared to use a “fat man” eating ice cream as a stand-in for capitalist pigs; he ate all the ice cream that an ice cream cart was selling, so no one else could have any, but at the end, he began turning blue from eating so much ice cream, and eventually exploded, a la Mr. Creosote, only instead of spewing out partially masticated food over disgusted restaurant patrons, he magically turned into snow that covered the streets, much to the delight of children (personally, I would think they’d be pissed, as not only would they not get any ice cream, they now had to have snow during Russia’s brief summer, but it was still a great, and charmingly illustrated story).

The other main gallery is the Quentin Blake wing, which, true to its name, is all about Quentin Blake.  When we visited, it housed both “7 Kinds of Magic,” which included drawings from 7 children’s books about magic that Blake has illustrated (including The Witches, delightful!), and, in the larger room, “The BFG in Pictures,” which included some never-before-seen BFG art (I assume this is in response to that absolutely dreadful looking new movie.  Please stop ruining my favourite children’s books by making horrible movies out of them!).  I absolutely love Quentin Blake’s drawings, and in particular the BFG, who reminds me very much of my grandpa (must be the big ears…I tear up every time I read The BFG), though I suppose that wouldn’t have been the case if they’d gone with the original cruder illustrations, where the BFG wasn’t quite as gaunt and wrinkly.  But yes, I loved seeing new and different illustrations that didn’t make it into the books, and it was also a delight to look at the colour version of pictures that did (the scene where the BFG dines at Buckingham Palace is one of my favourites!).  I mean, I can’t complain about a bunch of Quentin Blake art.

But that’s not going to stop me from complaining about the museum as a whole!  I think £7 is extremely steep for the size of this museum, and was very glad we only paid half price.  Just thinking of all the museums you can see for free in London, it seems ridiculous to have to pay that much for something this small and rather out of the way of the rest of London’s tourist destinations, so I’d be interested to see how many visitors this museum gets.  I also wasn’t super keen about the no photography rule (maybe for copyright reasons, because otherwise it didn’t make sense?), and the fact that you had to keep your ticket handy (which was just a receipt) because the set-up of the museum means that galleries are through separate doors, both off the gift shop, and someone checks your ticket inside each of them (there must be a better way of doing things that doesn’t require every visitor to frantically dig round their pockets when entering).  That said, the gift shop had a rather excellent little collection of postcards and greeting cards that I probably spent too long looking at, and I did really enjoy the exhibits that the museum had, I just think there wasn’t quite enough of them to justify the admission fee.  So I’ll give it 3/5; most enjoyable content, particularly for Quentin Blake fans, but downgraded for price, size of museum, and rather odd layout.