Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween everyone! I wanted to get a post out on actual Halloween this year instead of waiting til Wednesday, but that means it’s going to mainly be a picture post of two spooky(ish) events I attended recently: Halloween at Chiswick House, and Mexico at Kew Gardens. Halloween at Chiswick House appeared to be aimed mainly at families, but I’m quite used to being the only person/couple without kids at these sorts of things, so I didn’t really care. And it was actually surprisingly spooky, though not actually scary (no one jumping out at you or anything), hence the child-friendliness. The light installations were done by the same people who do Christmas at Kew, so they were very high quality, and I loved the experience (and my spooky Halloween waffle), though I do wish the signage outside had been better, as it took us quite a while to find the correct entrance gate.

We also went to Mexico at Kew Gardens, which was an installation based mainly in the Temperate House that ran through October. Since Day of the Dead is this week, I thought I might as well post a few photos from that too. My favourite things were definitely the sloths, but the giant ofrenda was also pretty cool – it contained photos of famous people who had died since Covid (but not necessarily of Covid) – the juxtaposition of the Queen and Meat Loaf made me chuckle, and I loved the adorable skeleton pan de muerto. It was also nice seeing some of the autumn colour in the gardens, especially on the bonsai (so cute!), though I was very disappointed in the cakes from the café, which were dry and overpriced. Still a nice day overall though!

Hope you all have a very spooky Halloween! 🎃🎃🎃🎃

London: “Executions” @ Museum of London Docklands

I’ve been waiting for this exhibition for a loooonnnnngggg time – it was originally scheduled for October 2020, then obviously Covid happened – but as luck would have it, it finally opened just in time for Halloween 2022. Because let’s face it, as much as I love ghosts and monsters and all things folkloric and supernatural, there’s nothing quite so scary as actual historical events, especially horrific state-sanctioned ones. Those of a more delicate disposition can at least take comfort in the fact that once English methods of execution became standardised in the early modern period, although none of them were particularly pleasant ways to die, at least we weren’t using some of the even more brutal methods that were popular on the Continent (if you are curious about those, I recommend checking out The Faithful Executioner, which is a fascinating book, but I read it once and that was enough. It is fairly nightmare-inducing).

Because I was so excited about seeing this exhibition, I booked tickets as soon as they were released at the start of August, which I realised upon arriving was definitely not necessary, as there were only about five other visitors in the whole exhibit (which I’m certainly not complaining about). “Executions” runs until the 16th of April, so you’ve got plenty of time to see it if you’re not a keen bean early booker like me. Admission is £15 or £7.50 with Art Pass.

 

Most special exhibitions at the Museum of London Docklands are free (as are the permanent collections), so I was expecting quite a lot for my admission fee, and as you’ll see, I think the museum delivered. I think the last (and first) time I saw a paid exhibition here was about fourteen years ago, shortly after I moved to the UK. It was on Jack the Ripper, and it was really excellently done, so much so that I’ve thought of it often in the years since, and this exhibition felt poised to be more of the same from the atmospheric configuration of their galleries. Normally their free exhibitions are confined to one half of their gallery space, but for this they’d opened the entire gallery and built various walls and other scenery to guide us through the exhibition on a journey that felt like we were heading to be executed ourselves, or at least to be spectators at an execution, which really was an excellently creepy effect.

Apart from the opening section, which talked about the different methods of execution in England in some detail (the most horrible by far was boiling, though only a handful of people suffered this fate – Henry VIII, lover of cruel and unusual punishments, made this the punishment for poisoners during his reign, but his son Edward VI rescinded it as soon as he took the throne), I wouldn’t say this was a particularly graphic exhibition – it dealt more with how the justice system worked, the people who were being executed, and the role executions played in society at large – so you’d probably be ok seeing this even if you’re a little bit squeamish. I was initially most excited to see some of the artefacts that I knew would be on display here, like the shirt and gloves that Charles I allegedly wore to his execution (though the museum pointed out that this cannot be verified, only that the clothing is from the correct time period and sufficiently sumptuous to have belonged to royalty), and the bell that was rung before every execution at Newgate (below), but I ended up getting sucked into the atmosphere of the exhibition and just enjoying the progression.

 

“Executions” primarily focused on the early modern period through to the mid-19th century, when public executions were banned, so much of the time period they covered was during the infamous Georgian “Bloody Code” when over 200 offences, most of them relatively minor, were punishable by death. Because of this, many of the people being executed were highly sympathetic figures – there were lots of poor people found guilty of petty theft who were just trying to make ends meet – which made reading their stories even sadder. Due to so many people being condemned to death in this era, reprieves were also fairly common (though not common enough); like so much else in life, they were mainly a result of a person being well-connected or at least able to get a decent number of signatures on their petition, and the results of their petitions would be announced to everyone in the condemned cell at any given time, which seems especially cruel. Those whose petitions failed would have to watch the lucky few rejoicing; or, in one case where thirty-eight women were reprieved but two men were condemned to hang, the lucky majority.

 

We walked through all the stages a prisoner would have gone through leading up to their execution (which in the Georgian period often took place only two days after their trial, so they didn’t have much time to prepare their souls), from their sentencing, failed petitions, last letters to their families, final church service (where they were forced to stare at a coffin to contemplate their soon-to-be fate, though I highly doubt they needed a reminder), to their chains being removed and replaced with a cord pinioning their arms in place, leaving their hands free to pray (this was later replaced by a belt that held everything down, as leaving a prisoner’s arms free led to some unpleasant struggles with the executioner on the scaffold), and finally the last cart-ride to the gallows. The “execution room”, which I was honestly dreading a little bit after the build-up (dreading in the sense that the gloomy environs had me thinking I might actually be walking towards my death), was very immersive, containing a grass and dirt floor, the sounds of women singing a ballad that would have been sung by the crowds at executions, and screens showing little animations of people on the scaffold reading out their last words. Apparently they worked with a dialogue coach to make sure the last words were spoken with accents that would have been found in London in the 16th and 17th centuries, and those were some interesting accents, which was maybe not the part I was meant to be focusing on, but fascinating nonetheless.

Once we’d managed to survive our time on the scaffold, we passed into a room containing broadsheets about some of the more notorious criminals, which I spent quite a bit of time reading. These were usually printed the night before the executions, which meant they were often inaccurate, including the very much invented “last words” of the person being executed, and since last minute reprieves were quite common (so last minute in one case that the man had already been hanging for five minutes when it got there, so had to be hastily cut down and revived. Fortunately, this was in the days of short drop hangings, when it could take up to twenty minutes to die, because if it was a long drop hanging, it would have been much too late for the poor man), sometimes broadsheets were made describing an execution that never even happened! I also loved (if that’s the right word), the sketches done of the faces of dissected criminals, which described their crime and the results of the post-mortem in very neat handwriting.

The exhibition continued with talking about the toll executions took not only on the condemned themselves (obviously), but on the people who were left behind, and included stories of grieving family members, the love tokens prisoners made to give to their friends and families, and the memento mori the bereaved created. It also spoke about the way ordinary people would have been affected simply by walking through London, which would have had many grisly adornments in the 17th and 18th centuries, like heads on spikes, bodies on gibbets, and sometimes even quartered limbs sticking up from the tops of bridges and buildings, which can’t have been a pleasant sight. “Executions” concluded on a slightly more positive note by discussing how the increase in transportation led to a decrease in executions, followed by the end of public executions, and finally the end of the death penalty altogether (in the UK at least).

 

In case you couldn’t tell, despite the grim and grisly subject matter (or knowing me, maybe because of it), I absolutely adored this exhibition. It was so interesting, and I hope I’m not doing it a disservice by lumping it in with spooky season, because even though it certainly was creepy, it was also quite affecting and highly informative. Highly recommend seeing this one if you have a chance! 4.5./5.

 

 

Colchester and Mistley: “Wicked Spirits” and Old Knobbley

Another week, another witchy post! I’ve been wanting to see “Wicked Spirits? Witchcraft + Magic at Colchester Castle” since it opened back in July, so we rented a car a couple of weeks ago to make it happen. Whilst there (since Essex is a pretty significant drive from SW London), we also stopped by a couple more sites relating to the incredibly evil Matthew Hopkins and some of his victims. Essex has the dubious honour of being the county with the most witchcraft trials and executions in Britain, largely due to the zealousness of Hopkins, the self-styled “Witchfinder General,” who was responsible for the deaths of at least one hundred people, and possibly as many as three hundred, all in just a short two-year period.

 

We hadn’t been to Colchester Castle before, and we were pleasantly surprised to find it in the middle of a large park with lots of beautiful flowerbeds, including a rose garden containing a memorial to the victims of the witch trials. The Castle itself costs £11.25 to enter, which includes the exhibition. The museum is mainly about the Roman history of the area (“chester” in a British place name is usually a clue to Roman origins) through to the medieval period, with a small display in the dungeons about the Castle being used as a jail in the early modern era by that awful Matthew Hopkins. There is even a shadowy video projection with accompanying audio in one of the cells showing a teenage girl who was accused of witchcraft and was forced to implicate other witches, including her own mother, to save herself. It’s a horrible story, and listening to her sobbing and pleading was actually quite distressing.

The witchcraft exhibition was fairly small, but had been done in conjunction with the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, so had the quality of interpretation I would expect. It provided some background to the Essex witch trials (most of which were held during the turmoil of the English Civil War) and highlighted a few of the victims, including the very sad case of the unfortunately nicknamed “Dummy”, an elderly deaf and mute man who was accused of witchcraft in 1863(!) by the incredibly nasty-sounding Emma Smith, who decided to do her own “ordeal by water” on him by throwing him in a nearby freezing river with the help of her equally unpleasant friend Samuel Stammers, and beating him with sticks. He later died of pneumonia brought on by this trauma and Smith and Stammers were sentenced to six months of hard labour as a result, which doesn’t really feel like enough punishment.

On a less-depressing note, the exhibition also included impressive paper cuts showing different superstitions as well as cases full of items traditionally used in magical practices, like a mummified cat and some very cool witch bottles. Had to include a photo of the magpies too, since I love them so much!

But back to the depressing stuff, because that is the nature of early modern witchcraft (or at least of the witch trials), there was a list of names of everyone who died in Essex as a result of being accused of witchcraft, mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries, but as we have seen, one poor man in the 19th century as well, which filled an entire side of a display case in not terribly large writing. There were also displays of the torture implements used to extract confessions – the use of most of these was not legal by Matthew Hopkins’s time, but that didn’t stop him from using other methods, such as sleep deprivation, to get the confessions he needed.

After the rather heavy subject matter, I was almost ridiculously pleased to see the fun display of witchy merchandise in the shop, which I absolutely cannot resist. I ended up getting a moon-adorned travel cup and a postcard of Matthew Hopkins and some demons (though obviously he’s the only real demon).

 

We didn’t linger in Colchester, since we knew we had a long drive home and we definitely wanted to visit Old Knobbley before we went. There is a three mile “Walking with Witches” walk from the village of Manningtree (Hopkins’s base, so not a good place to be living in the mid-1600s) to Mistley that you can do if you’re so inclined, which includes QR codes to scan in order to view online art pieces, but we were feeling a bit too lazy for that, so we headed directly to the Village Hall carpark in Mistley to see the sites we were most excited about, namely Old Knobbley. Old Knobbley is a lovely eight hundred year old oak tree that may have sheltered some of the accused “witches” as they hid out in the woods from Hopkins and his gang. If you wander through the trails at the back of the playing field, you’ll encounter him eventually – everything we saw online said you’ll know him when you see him, and that is indeed the case, as he is the biggest and knobbliest one. There is also a pond nearby that is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Matthew Hopkins in full witch-hunting regalia, and I am glad to say we didn’t see him, as I probably would have crapped my pants, but I did get spooky vibes down there, and also tripped over and twisted my ankle a bit, which I’m totally blaming Hopkins for (I would DEFINITELY have been one of his targets). If you do the full walk, you can see the pub in Manningtree where Hopkins was meant to have plotted against his victims, as well as a bridge where the accused were thrown for their “swimming trials” (i.e. drowning, since they were tied to a chair), in addition to a few other sites.

There are plenty more witch-related sites to see in this area, because it was such a prominent and dark part of Essex’s history, but this was all we had time for on a day trip in order to get back home at a reasonable hour. The countryside bits of Essex are surprisingly lovely (I spent a month in Romford back in 2008, shortly before I officially moved to London, which is…not so much), so I’d definitely like to come back and explore more, especially with all the autumnal colour out. The exhibition at Colchester Castle runs until 6th January, so there’s still time to see it if you’re interested, and make sure you visit Old Knobbley too – he’s worth the trip!

Surrey: Mother Ludlam and the Devil

This is going to end up a very witch-orientated series of Halloween posts, which wasn’t entirely intentional (I was hoping to focus more on different aspects of the weird and creepy), but I do love witchy stuff, and this is what I’ve been up to lately, so here we are. Today’s post is about Mother Ludlam and the Devil, and our day gallivanting around Surrey to retrace their steps.

This came about thanks to my new book, Cloven Country: the Devil and the English Landscape by Jeremy Harte, which discusses the many, many sites named after the Devil around England, and the stories behind them. Being of a spooky persuasion, I’d already seen most of the ones within an easy driving distance, including the Devil’s Punch Bowl and the Devil’s Dyke, but the Devil’s Jumps were a new one to me, as was the legend of Mother Ludlam (and don’t worry, for once we have a story that doesn’t end in tragedy for the witch).

 

The story goes that Mother Ludlam was an old woman of a witchy persuasion who lived in a cave near the ruins of Waverley Abbey (there are no dates assigned to Mother Ludlam, so this may or may not have been when the Abbey was still active, not that any of this is historically accurate) and would grant the unspoken wishes of visitors who threw a coin in the cauldron she kept outside the cave. One day, she had a visitor who left some suspicious footprints in the sand, ones that looked like goat footprints, so Mother Ludlam was able to quickly twig that it was in fact the Devil. This not being a time when witches were said to be in league with the Devil, Mother Ludlam was not best pleased, particularly when Satan picked up the cauldron and made off with it.

 

Mother Ludlam immediately gave chase, and apparently had the power of flight, so the Devil was forced to jump from the nearby Devil’s Jumps to try to get away. However, the cauldron was just too heavy, so he had to drop it in a field in order to escape. To stop him from stealing it in case he ever tried to come back, the cauldron was moved to a nearby church, as the Devil obviously wouldn’t be able to enter holy ground. Now, I can’t say how true this story is, but the fact remains that there is a cave you can visit (called Mother Ludlam’s Cave), as well as a church that contains a large cauldron said to belong to Mother Ludlam, and there are also Devil’s Jumps that you can hike up.

 

You’ve been seeing pictures of our journey throughout the post, but we began by parking in the Waverley Abbey carpark, as Mother Ludlam’s Cave is a short walk away, down a public trail. The cave is barred off to protect the bats that live inside, but you can walk up and peer through the gate to get an idea of the inside. We did also visit Waverley Abbey, where I was hit pretty hard on the ankle on the way in by their stupid gate, but it’s not Halloweeny (unless it’s haunted, but I don’t know if it is) and is just some ruins in a field, so I’m not going to talk about it now. We then headed to St Mary the Virgin, near Frensham Little Pond, where we went into the church to see the cauldron. I’m not a church person, but c’mon, any church that has a witch’s cauldron inside is pretty cool. They also had very neat handmade cushions/kneelers, many depicting beloved pets and other animals, and a nice little churchyard with a few interesting old tombstones.

We then drove to one of the Devil’s Jumps, which is right next to the Sculpture Park that we visited last year, though we somehow missed the devilish aspects at the time. It was an unpleasant slog up a bramble filled path, followed by a clamber up some rocks, though we did discover a much easier, gently sloping path not through brambles on the way down, and I enjoyed eating a pretzel at the top whilst sitting on a bench dedicated to what I think was a deceased dog (judging by the paw prints on the back). There is a sign up here that tells you more about the legend of the Devil’s Jumps, and there are two more jumps that you can hike, but after bashing my ankle on that stupid gate and stabbing myself with brambles, I wasn’t much inclined to do it, so we headed back to the car. Apart from the brambles, however, it was a good day out! I love discovering new bits of folklore, and Mother Ludlam’s story is a good one, not least because there’s actually a cauldron to visit. Will definitely be visiting more Devil-related sites when I can.

Pendle, Lancashire: Pendle Witch Trial Sites

Hi! Sorry I went MIA again for a while – no particular reason, I was simply kind of tired of blogging and of (gasp) visiting museums, mostly because it was just too damn hot for most of this summer, and there ain’t no way I’m hopping on public transport when it’s a million degrees outside. But the break has made me realise that I’m not inclined to blog as frequently as I used to going forward – for one thing, I’ve exhausted most of the museums in London, and I’m sick of paying to go to exhibitions I don’t care about just for the sake of blogging about them, and for another, I’m still getting a lot of headaches and eye strain so I’d prefer to limit the time I spend on computers when I’m not at work (but I am sorry that I haven’t been able to comment on my blogger friends’ posts as much as I used to. Miss seeing what everyone is up to, and hope to catch up with you all one of these days!). However, although blogging here will be more sporadic going forward, I don’t plan to stop entirely, and there is absolutely no way I could let the spooky season go by without my usual series of posts on creepy locations, so you’ll see a lot of me this month! 🎃

This is one I’ve been saving up for a while (which I guess is not a surprise given how long I went without blogging). At the end of July, we spent a week up in Lancashire, which included a visit to the “Best Show Caves in Britain” (their words, not mine), a surprisingly fun day at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, a stop at the Potteries on the way home, and a couple days pootling around Pendle Witch Trial related-sites, which is what I’ll be talking about today.

 

The Pendle Witch Trials are one of the most notorious witch trials in English history. In 1612, twelve people from the villages around Pendle Hill in Lancashire were accused of witchcraft. Eleven of them – nine women and two men – were taken to trial in the county town of Lancaster, and ten of them were found guilty and executed (one woman was acquitted). This was an unusually large number of people to have been executed at one time for witchcraft, which is why Pendle is one of the most famous witchcraft trials, much like Salem is in the US. I should also note, because this is one of my biggest pet peeves when people talk about witchcraft trials, is that just like at Salem (apart from Giles Corey in Salem, who was pressed to death), everyone was executed by hanging, NOT by burning at the stake. I see people talk all the time about being witches being burned at Salem, and it drives me absolutely nuts. Yes, they were often burned in Scotland and on the Continent, but not in Salem and not in England either. Plenty of women were burned at the stake for petty treason (i.e. killing their husbands) and heresy, but not for witchcraft, at least, not in the early modern era, which is when the bulk of witchcraft trials took place. So now that we’ve got that straight, let’s move on.

I don’t really have the space to go into the whole of the Pendle trials here, and there’s plenty about them elsewhere on the internet if you’re interested, but to summarise, they started when the local JP was required to produce a list of people who refused to attend church or take communion, which triggered local people to make complaints about alleged witches in their area. The spurious accusations were pursued by judges looking to further their careers and hoping that James I’s fondness for a good witch hunt would lead him into giving them a promotion. The first to be accused was Alizon Device, on the basis of her asking a peddler for some pins, which were commonly used in magic (but also have about a million other prosaic uses that we’ll just ignore, I guess), and after he refused to give them to her, he tripped and fell over, so obviously she must have been a witch. The accusations spread from there, fueled by various feuds between local families who finally saw a chance to get even, and culminated in a farce of a trial at Lancaster Castle followed by the executions of almost all the unfortunate accused.

One of the most appalling things about Pendle, other than the executions, obviously, is that the convictions stand to this day! Most other people accused of witchcraft have had their convictions overturned in the modern era (not that it does them any good now, but at least the government eventually did the right thing), but not the Pendle witches. Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, was petitioned to pardon them in 1998 and refused to do so. However, that hasn’t stopped people from taking matters into their own hands and creating memorials to the accused, so there is now a statue of Alice Nutter standing alongside the road outside Roughlee, which was her home village. If you’re a fellow Good Omens fan (of the book, not so much the TV series, though I do of course totally ship Aziraphale and Crowley, because how can you not?), the name may sound familiar, as the witch whose prophecies are unveiled throughout the book is called Agnes Nutter. This was very much intentional, as was Anathema Device, another character, who was named after the Device family, three of whom were accused in the Pendle trials. Anyway, the statue of Alice is suitably solemn and austere – there wasn’t really anywhere to park nearby, so we just pulled into a layby for a minute so I could get out and snap a photo.

Another site you can see in the area is Samlesbury Hall, which as far as I can work out is only tangentially connected at best to the witchcraft trials, but as you can see it is a cool building. I was anticipating there would be quite a lot to see here, so was somewhat disappointed to come across a fairly empty building with limited signage. On the upside, admission was free, so I couldn’t be too upset. There was a sign here telling the story of the Samlesbury Witch Trials, in which three women were accused, but anti-Catholic sentiment outweighed anti-witch sentiment – the accuser was thought to have been coached by a Catholic priest in what to say, so the women were all acquitted. However, other than the women being from Samlesbury, I don’t think there is any real connection to the hall. Their trial took place in Lancaster, not here.

Speaking of Lancaster, you can visit Lancaster Castle, where the trials took place, however, entry is by guided tour only and we arrived too late in the day to catch one, so had to settle for just snapping a pic out front. It is suitably imposing though, as you can see, and may still be used as a prison today (there were signs on it implying as much, but it seems a bit weird that you can just walk right up to it if that’s the case).

 

But I saved the best Pendle witch site for last – the Pendle Sculpture Trail! The trail is located about a mile and a half walk outside of the village of Barley (and you do have to walk from Barley; there’s nowhere closer to park), but you get to pass shops with witch-themed signage (alas, none of the shops actually sell witchy paraphernalia), including a pub (expected) and a auto repair shop (much less expected). Once you get outside the village, the scenery is incredibly picturesque, but also inevitably overcast and rainy, because you are in the north of England.

 

We followed the guide found here, and I was particularly excited to see the boggart, which was meant to be the first sculpture on the trail, so I was quite disappointed to find there was no boggart to be seen. We even backtracked and walked a fair way back to the start of the trail, but nope, still no boggart. We eventually found an empty concrete base where he presumably once stood, and the plaque telling his story, but no boggart. Clearly quite a few things have weathered and even straight-up disappeared since the trail opened in 2012. We also found a hell hound with a poor bashed-in nose, and quite a lot of plaques with entire words worn off, which elevated one of the trail’s challenges, where you were meant to find the missing words in each poem and put them together to find the solution, from challenging to nigh on impossible.

 

But never mind. Apart from when one of my feet slipped off the branch it was precariously balanced on and right into the middle of a giant mud puddle (wet wipes could only do so much, so I had to walk around with an extremely muddy foot until we got to the hotel, and my shoe hasn’t been the same since), this was a very enjoyable walk. We were the only people on it (possibly on account of all the rain earlier that day and the, you know, mud puddles), and it was fun walking through the slightly creepy forest to discover the sculptures. Although the boggart was missing, there was still the aforementioned hellhound, a unicorn, a dryad/fairy, and a very creepy Witchfinder, in addition to some more abstract shapes and a cool monstery chair carved out of a stump. And of course the tribute to the Pendle “witches” themselves, which was a sculpture showing the silhouettes of a group of women in chains. I know those silhouettery metal sculptures seem to be all the rage lately (like all the WWI ones they made for the centenery), but I’m not crazy about them. If they’re in front of a varied landscape, as these were, it’s quite hard to see what you’re looking at.

 

In addition to the poems containing clues, the trail was also lined with stones, each with a different symbol on them. It was clear these had a meaning, but due to the non-existent 4G in the countryside, I wasn’t able to look it up until we got to our hotel. Turns out that each stone represented one of the accused, and you were supposed to work out which belonged to who based on the symbols, which were related to their alleged familiars or specific witchy interests. I would have enjoyed doing this if I’d be able to access the internet, but I’m afraid I simply didn’t know enough about the trials off the top of my head to have worked it out then and there. Maybe there could be a pamphlet of some sort in the nearest carpark? Just a thought. However, I can’t really hate on a free trail, and to that effect, I’d suggest maybe having a donation box somewhere so they could afford to replace the boggart and repair the other damaged sculptures. I have subsequently learned that there is an addition to the trail, in the form of another smaller sculpture park located in a nearby village, but I didn’t find out about it until I was researching this post, so I guess that’s one for another trip.

Although I can’t say I learned a huge amount about the trials themselves at the sites we visited, I did very much enjoy visiting them just the same, particularly the trail (and if I’ve managed to go this whole post without typing trial when I meant trail and vice versa, I think I’ve done quite well!). Since it’s the North, everything is appropriately cold and gloomy even at the height of summer, so you can get an idea of how difficult the lives of the people who lived here must have been, and why they were so eager to pin the blame for any misfortunes on anyone they could, but it is still a very beautiful part of England, and well-worth seeing!

London: Superbloom @ the Tower of London

Superbloom: come for the slide, stay for the flowers. I don’t think that’s actually their tagline, but it should be! The Tower of London seems to like to decorate its (dry) moat for various occasions, like the famous poppies a few years back to mark the centenary of WWI, and this year, it’s planted the moat with real flowers to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. I care very little about the Queen, but I do like slides, which, as you may have guessed, is what sold me on this. Yes, there is an actual super happy fun slide that anyone who goes to Superbloom can have a go on, and that is why I agreed to pay £10 to see this. I suppose flowers are nice too, but all I could think was, “slide, slide, slide”. It’s sad that as adults we don’t get many chances to go on slides, so I take advantage where I can!

I am happy to report that the slide did not disappoint (it was very fast indeed and actually made me feel a little sick, but in a good way, like a roller coaster), and indeed, neither did the flowers. Though at first glance I was admittedly a little underwhelmed by what appeared to be mainly wildflowers (I guess I was expecting something a bit more groomed, like the Keukenhof), there’s just so many of them and they wrap pretty much all the way around the Tower, with different areas set up with different types of flowers, a soundscape, and even some sculptures. It runs until September, so I’d definitely recommend checking it out if you don’t mind a slightly touristy day in London – and if you live in London, you’ll probably already have seen the Tower at some point, so you can just buy the cheapo Superbloom only tickets like we did and skip seeing inside the Tower altogether (nothing against it, it’s just expensive). But in case you won’t find yourself in London before then, here’s some photos so you can get a feeling of the experience. And sorry for the short post after disappearing for a bit – just haven’t massively felt like blogging lately between some shit going on at work with my contract (I may or may not be leaving in August, tbd in the next couple of weeks), unusually bad seasonal allergies that have left me feeling pretty run down (not Covid, I’ve been testing), and, you know, the general terrible state of the world at the moment, but wanted to show you this one while it is still, well, blooming.

The slide! It definitely looks a lot higher and scarier when you’re at the top, as the screaming children I saw on it could probably attest to.

 

London: Beatrix Potter @ the V&A

Though I definitely owned a paperback set of Beatrix Potter’s books as a child, I don’t remember them being amongst my favourites. Yet, for some reason, when we had to do a year-long project on an author in 3rd or 4th grade, I picked Beatrix Potter. Not, you know, Laura Ingalls Wilder, who I’m still obsessed with, or John Bellairs or Roald Dahl or Judy Blume or any of the other children’s authors I still enjoy as an adult, but Beatrix bloody Potter. I have to imagine my mother somehow talked me into it because she liked the books, because it doesn’t feel like a choice I would have made myself. Still, because of that project, I always feel like I have to show an interest when something involving Beatrix Potter is happening (like that TV documentary with Patricia Routledge a few years back, though admittedly I watched that more because of my love for Keeping up Appearances than Beatrix Potter), and this exhibition was no exception.

This exhibition books up pretty quickly, so I struck out the first few times I wanted to see it on short notice, but I eventually got my act together and managed to book a ticket a couple weeks in advance. Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature runs at the V&A until January 2023, and costs £14 (£7 with Art Pass). It’s located in the gallery at the front of the museum that I think is normally used for free temporary exhibitions, so it’s not super large, which is perhaps reflected in the relatively inexpensive (for the V&A) ticket price.

As you might expect from something devoted to Beatrix Potter, this is a “family friendly” exhibition, which translates to some simplified signage aimed at children and a few, not terribly fun interactives, like some microscopes to look through and a few little doors to open. There was not a single child in sight during my visit, though that was perhaps because I deliberately waited until half-term had ended so as to avoid as many of them as possible.

The exhibition provided a fairly basic synopsis of Beatrix Potter’s life and career, with a few insights that might have been disturbing to those that didn’t know much about her. Beatrix had a fairly idyllic childhood growing up in a wealthy family in London. They frequently vacationed in the Lake District, which is when she developed her passion for the countryside. She was very close to her brother, and seemed to spend much of her youth absolutely terrorising her poor governesses (including pushing one down the stairs!). She also exhibited serial killer tendencies in the way she would stuff her dead pets, in some cases “helping them along” if they appeared to be sickly. I’m all for taxidermy if something is dead anyway, but I would never kill something just for the fun of dissecting it! Puts all those cute little animal illustrations in a different perspective.

Beatrix remained single until relatively late in life (she was engaged to her publisher, but he died before they could marry), possibly due to the unhealthy weight of her snobby parents’ expectations, who disapproved of all her suitors for being “in trade”, so she was able to hang on to the proceeds from her books and sink the money into her own property in the Lake District (I personally would have gotten as far away from those parents as possible too, so I don’t blame her), which was her true passion. She was really more of a hobby farmer, but played the part a la Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon, with ugly practical shoes and a farming outfit including a walking stick carved with the names of her dogs that she would pose in for newspaper articles.

The exhibition was mainly notable for the extensive range of her drawings, including many from her childhood that I hadn’t seen before (love the turtle a few paragraphs up, though knowing her she probably killed the poor thing!), some early drafts of her books, and items of her personal property, including an array of knickknacks from her Lake District home. I particularly loved her childhood drawings and the range of Edwardian to mid-century merchandise inspired by her works (much of which canny Beatrix designed herself, and thus kept all the profits) that was located in a case in the last room of the exhibition.

Because it was a smaller exhibition space, it didn’t take us too much time to make our way through, but at least it wasn’t overly crowded. I think the V&A deliberately took a light, child-friendly approach here (except for the pet killing) and thus there was no mention of some of the controversies associated with her in later life (she and her husband bought some of their land in the Lake District in a slightly underhanded way, and the local farmers weren’t terribly happy about her work with the National Trust), making this feel very much felt like an overview rather than an in-depth analysis, but I guessed that going in based on the description on the website. I did really enjoy looking at her illustrations, many of which were absolutely charming (if you look past the taxidermied pets angle of course), so if you don’t mind a rather superficial look at her life, it’s worth a visit to see her work and childhood mementos. 3/5.

London: “Inspiring Walt Disney” @ the Wallace Collection

Let me preface this by stating that I am not a big Disney person. OK, I do still love Disney’s Robin Hood and the songs from The Little Mermaid, and I did go to Disneyland Paris like ten years ago when we got a cheap deal on a day pass in January and I rode Phantom Manor about twenty times in a row because the weather was terrible and there were no queues, but I’m not one of those adults who still watch every Disney movie and take all of their vacations at Disneyworld with special themed outfits for each day and decorate their houses with Disney merchandise. You know the ones (I certainly know the ones, since I’m basically describing someone I went to high school with who seems to always be popping up in my Facebook feed with Disney crap). I liked the films when I was a kid, but most of them just don’t hold up well when you watch them as an adult, in my opinion. My point in saying all this is that I wasn’t inclined to like this exhibition just based on the Disney connection – they were actually going to have to work to impress me!

“Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts” runs until October and costs £14 (£7 with Art Pass). I booked in advance because that seemed to be the thing to do, but when we got there, the exhibition was almost completely empty. (The rest of the Wallace Collection, which is free to enter, was fairly crowded.) The man at the desk handed us each an audio guide, and we were off. I know I’ve set myself up as a Disney cynic in the opening paragraph, but I have to admit that I was tickled right at the start when the audio guide turned out to have a surprise guest narrator who was none other than Angela Lansbury, aka Mrs. Potts. Fortunately, as far as pacing was concerned, most of it was narrated by someone with a faster speaking voice, so we weren’t standing around all day, which I hate. It was still a bit long-winded in places for my tastes, but at least it was easy to skip around.

Apologies that there’s not photos of everything I would have liked to take a picture of, but we were told conflicting things by different staff members regarding photography, so we were only able to photograph some of the exhibition. Anyway, in 1935, Walt Disney travelled to Europe with his brother Roy and their wives, in part to source ideas for future films, and whilst there he fell in love with French castles and 18th century French decorative arts. And because the Wallace Collection’s, er, collection features French decorative arts (amongst many other things), this exhibition contained objects from their collection that may have inspired Disney’s animators, particularly when they were making Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, which were the main focus here, since they both feature inanimate objects coming to life and are both set in roughly the same historical era (not that Disney is exactly known for its historical accuracy).

Fortunately, apart from the two films I mentioned at the start, Beauty and the Beast is probably the Disney film I’m most familiar with. I was 6 when it came out, which I think is a pretty ideal age for Disney, and I could relate to Belle because she had brown hair and loved reading, just like me, so I watched it a lot, even though the part where they put Belle’s father in the caged madhouse cart thing freaked me out. So I loved the sketches showing how the drawings of each anthropomorphic character evolved. Mrs. Potts was particularly cute – she was originally wearing a tartan tea cosy, but they changed her to be a more elegant fine china. The original Cogsworth was shit scary though. You can see him on the Wallace Collection’s website if you scroll down.

Of the French decorative art pieces on display here, the best were probably the pair of Sevres vases pictured above (which were on loan from American museums, so weren’t even part of the Wallace Collection), which were made to look like adorable castles, and inspired many Disney castles, but there was also furniture (some with animal feet, which may have been what inspired Disney to give life to inanimate objects in the first place), clocks and candlesticks (aka Cogsworth and Lumiere) and paintings.

Apparently, The Swing by Fragonard, which is the painting above left, was a particular favourite of Disney animators, and appeared in a number of different guises, from a flashback scene in Beauty and the Beast showing Belle’s childhood, to a background painting in Frozen. I’ve watched Frozen exactly once and was distinctly underwhelmed, so I hadn’t noticed it (and I haven’t seen Beauty and the Beast since I was 13 and spent a summer babysitting a little girl who was OBSESSED with it, so don’t particularly remember it in that either), but I suppose it is interesting the way they hide these “Easter eggs” in different films.

I feel like my general lack of enthusiasm for Disney is probably making it sound like I didn’t enjoy this very much, but the opposite is actually the case. After dealing with crowds at most London museums, the fact that we were practically the only visitors was a delight, and I really enjoyed looking at some of the original sketches and the objects from the Wallace’s collections. Disney fans would love the “behind the scenes” look, I think, and the decorative art pieces made it appealing to even cranky people like me. 3.5/5.

Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum incl. Iron Men

The Kunsthistorisches Museum is the final location in Vienna I’ll be blogging about. I wanted to visit primarily to see the Kunstkammer, because Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer are music to my ears (Wunderkammer admittedly more so, because wonder!) – I love a cabinet of curiosities. However, when we bought tickets, the ticket man tried to upsell us into seeing their Iron Men exhibition, which runs until 26 June, and because it was only €3 extra (on top of the hefty €21 base admission) and because I love armour, I gave in, so that was where we headed first.

And I’m so glad we did, because this was probably my favourite thing that we saw in the whole of Vienna. It was such an amazing exhibition. Not only were the objects on display excellent and unusual, the interpretation was fantastic as well. They told us the things we really want to know about armour, like how do you move in it, and how does it stay on your body? The only thing missing was how you poop when wearing it, though they actually might have covered that somewhere and I’ve just forgotten.

To illustrate my first two questions (don’t worry, not the third), they had a series of videos showing a modern man doing stuff in armour, my favourite of which featured him climbing up ladders, doing a somersault, and a “bonus move” of doing the little side jump and heel-click that I can’t master even in normal clothes. He also put on the armour to show how it was held together by leather linings and straps, which is what fitted it to the body, but because the leather has deteriorated so much in most surviving armour, all we can usually see is the steel that was left behind. Happily, they did have a few pieces here that still had straps intact so we could get a better idea of how it worked.

I was also delighted to see that (one of) my ancestral homeland(s) of Slovenia was responsible for some of the finest pieces in here, like the eagle helmet above the preceding paragraph. I hadn’t seen much armour from there before, nor did I really know what was going on there in the medieval era, so it was nice to get some idea from the descriptions of armour and tournaments. The most interesting part was probably the section on jousts of peace, which were were done purely for fun, and for which competitors wore amusing masks, like devils, birds, the excellent lion shown above, and creepiest of all, ones painted to look like people, which you can see below.

There was so much here that was absolutely fascinating, from the techniques used to make different colours of armour (peep that gorgeous blue armour at the start of the post), to the clothes they were wearing under the armour, and the way fashions changed over time. Particularly loved the pointy toed boots with the removable tips so the wearer could enter a room in style but take them off for battle, and the suit of armour with removable ruffles on the sleeves. Honestly, they spent so much time on the construction and style trends of armour that this felt almost like a fashion exhibition, and that is certainly not a complaint coming from me!

I think it’s pretty clear that I think this exhibition is a must-see if you’re in Vienna, and I could go on about it a lot longer, but in the interest of time, and as I had to in real life (since we were flying back home that afternoon and had an airport to get to), I’ll cut things short and move on to my original reason for visiting, the Kunstkammer.

 

The Kunstkammer takes up almost an entire floor of the museum and contains the accumulated treasures of a number of Habsburg rulers, mainly those who ruled in the 16th and 17th centuries. We made the mistake of walking in at the wrong end and deciding to walk back to the entrance so we could see everything in order. This was…not a short journey. I think it’s impossible to visit, walk through that endless parade of rooms stuffed with exquisite objects, and not conclude that the Habsburgs were both far too wealthy and in power for far too long. Not saying that most of their collection wasn’t gorgeous and worth preserving, but it was far more stuff than any one family needs.

 

Because our time was so limited and there was so much here, I decided to focus primarily on the things that interested me most, which means automata! The ones here were unbelievably intricate and fabulous and included a ship that moved across a table whilst musicians played on board, with the ship’s cannon firing as a finale; a spectacularly creepy archer that also moved forward whilst his eyes rolled around in his head and he fired a bow with a real miniature arrow; a moving musical carriage with a rearing horse; a few different clocks with moving figures, and more! Though I wished we could have seen them live in action, I suppose it wouldn’t be great conservation-wise if they had them constantly up and running, but they did have the next best thing in the form of videos showing them in motion, available to watch on tablets in each room. They are happily also available on the museum’s website, so you can watch them too.

There were also lots of exceptionally detailed figurines and much less exciting silverware and glassware, save for a glass dragon that shot water in the face of the unsuspecting user if they pressed the wrong button when dispensing their drink (below left). You would need to spend hours here to be able to read all the signage and take everything in properly; as we had less than an hour in the Kunstkammer before we needed to leave, it was only ever going to be a whistle-stop tour. Still, I think I did manage to see all the best bits!

Lest you think this is all there was, let me assure you that the museum did have a number of other galleries. We quickly walked through the Roman and Egyptian collections (the Egyptian galleries, as you can see, had beautifully decorated themed interiors, as did the rest of the museum). There is also a picture gallery, which most famously contains a number of Bruegels, including The Tower of Babel. Although we were trying to hurry, we ended up walking through the whole of the picture gallery as well, because there was only one entrance/exit so we had to circle through all the rooms to leave. Consequently, we had to skip the entire top floor of the museum, which contained the coin collection and possibly another gallery, but I’m not that invested (ha) in coins anyway, so no major loss.

 

Basically, the moral of the story is don’t be like us, and allow yourself a whole day here if you want to see everything properly, because three hours was nowhere near enough time. I would also advise not using the toilets in the basement – there was a massive queue for the ladies’ because there were only two stalls (I thought the British Museum was bad at peak times, but at least they have about twenty stalls, so you’re in with a chance) and some woman jumped the queue just as I got to the front, which I was definitely not happy about (I did express my displeasure in English, which she clearly felt free to ignore). It’s an expensive museum that would almost certainly be free if it were in London, but at least we got our money’s worth out of the Iron Men exhibition, which I could not have loved more. 5/5 for Iron Men, 3.5/5 for the rest of the museum.

Vienna: The Wurstelprater

There are few things I love more than a creepy European amusement park, and Wurstelprater, or simply Prater as it’s more commonly known (though there are no shortages of sausages inside the park, which is how I’m going to assume it got its name), is no exception. This is one of the few places we came on our last visit to Vienna, and remembering how many creepy clowns there were, I definitely wanted to come back. The park is free to enter (you only pay if you want to actually ride anything), and though we didn’t do much other than wander around and eat some cotton candy and ice cream, I wanted to do a (admittedly half-assed) picture post to share some of the creepiness with you. Enjoy!

This whole block of toilets was creepy clown themed.

Why does this man have a coin coming out of his butt? Can anyone explain this to me?

Possibly the scariest clown here, and there was some stiff competition.

Not as scary as the clowns.

We did not go in there.

I can’t decide if the hot dog or the clown bin is weirder.

I loved this gorilla. He delivered a whole speech in German, but I’ve no idea what he was saying.

I don’t remember this looking quite so unsettling in person, but yikes!

My German isn’t great, but I’m choosing to translate this as “Shit Hall”.

Don’t think I’ll be boarding that train.

There’s even a mural in the Prater U Bahn station featuring creepy bench clown!