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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Presidents’ Day Compilation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

An Afternoon in Winchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London: The Fashion and Textile Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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