Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery


Instead of opening this post with a photo of the outside of the museum like I normally would, I decided to cut to the chase and show you the best and weirdest thing in the museum right at the start (also the front of the museum is pretty boring, because it’s just in the town hall, whereas Minnie the dog (I’ll explain more later) is hilarious and awesome).

   

We were able to borrow a car for a day a few weeks ago, and though the air felt like autumn and my first thought was to drive out to the countryside to see some foliage, it was only the start of September, and all the trees in London were still green (not that they change to a colour more exciting than brown anyway, but still) so I had to concede that it was unlikely that trees outside the city would be much different. So a plan B then, but one that would still allow me to acquire cloudy apple juice and cider from my favourite orchard shop in East Sussex, because I’m always ready for fall, even if the trees aren’t cooperating. Unfortunately, I’ve been to pretty much everything nearby the cider shop worth blogging about over the years (except Hever Castle, which I’ve been to but haven’t blogged about…I’ll have to go back!), so I turned my search to obscure local museums, most of which I had to immediately eliminate because they’re not open on Sundays. Enter the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. Though they’re not normally open on a Sunday, their website claimed their “summer hours” (til October 8) did include Sunday opening, so I thought we should risk it, especially once I got a look at the photo of Minnie the Lu Lu Terrier on their website.

   

Happily, the Tunbridge Wells Museum was indeed open (as you may have guessed by this point) and also free to visit. We were able to find parking along the side of the building since it was a Sunday; otherwise I think you’d probably have to head for one of the nearby car parks. We were welcomed by an extremely nice and helpful woman at the front desk, who was very eager to make sure we saw all the highlights of the collection, and she immediately disposed me towards liking the museum.

   

We began with the toy alcove, and there were so many gems in here I can’t even show you them all, but I’ve included photos of some of the highlights, including a teeny model butcher shop (not that I patronise real butcher shops, but this one even had a little cat in it. A pet cat that is, not a cut of meat). I also really loved the poor derpy Felix the Cat doll, but, as you can probably tell from the opening photo, he wasn’t even the derpiest thing in this museum.

   

The showpieces of this first room were undoubtedly the massive dollhouse (I think it was Georgian, or at least the house it is based on was), which apparently lit up (the woman working there directed me to a button on the wall, but I pressed it twice and nothing happened, and I was too embarrassed to try again), but since I couldn’t get it to work, I contented myself with peering in through the darkened windows, and could still see enough to know that I would have killed for that dollhouse as a kid (even though I wasn’t particularly into dolls, elaborate old dollhouses are cool. I’d still love to have one, even if it turns out to be haunted); and the old rocking horse, who was nothing like my beloved childhood rocking horse Buckles, but was still a lovely horse (“running through the fields…”).

   

Most of the rest of the first gallery was taken up by extraordinarily wordy (but not uninteresting) displays about local industries, including cricket balls and much more to my tastes, biscuits (although the company seems to have made mostly water biscuits rather than anything actually delicious). There was a back wall lined with cases filled with everything from flasks to farming implements, accompanied by very old-school captions that were rather charming, but a bit of updating wouldn’t go amiss on some of the labels.

   

I was very taken with the sheep boots (shown above), but I was most excited about the Biddenden Maids cakes. I’m sure everyone knows by now how fascinated I am by the strange and unusual (and that Beetlejuice is one of my favourite movies), and when I was looking for something odd to write my MA thesis about some years ago, I happened upon the Biddenden Maids. I ended up not using them, because historical fact is kind of thin on the ground where they’re concerned, plus if they actually lived when the legend says they lived, they would have fallen well outside of the Early Modern era, but the story goes that in the 1100s there were wealthy conjoined twins living in Biddenden, a village in Kent, and they donated their lands to the village when they died with the proviso that income from the lands would be used to provide the poor with alms every year at Easter. The tradition continues to this day, and in addition to providing food to widows and pensioners on Easter Monday, Biddenden also gives out Biddenden Maids cakes bearing the image of the twins (I’m not gonna lie, I’ve debated going out to Biddenden at Easter to get one, as it’s rumoured that they also make some to sell to tourists as souvenirs), and a few recipients over the years have donated these to the museum, so I finally got to have a look at them. They were just as splendid as I’d hoped!

   

The next gallery was dedicated almost entirely to “Tunbridge Ware,”and that’s where Minnie comes in. Tunbridge Ware is a kind of highly decorative painted wood developed for the tourist trade in Tunbridge Wells (as you might be able to guess from the name, Tunbridge Wells is home to a natural spring, and thus became a spa town in the Restoration, like so many other towns with healing waters, so there were plenty of tourists coming through), and there were many, many examples on show in this gallery, but the box used to house Minnie is the most notable of all. Minnie was a Lu Lu Terrier, apparently an unusual (and unfortunate-looking) Chinese breed, and when she died, her owner decided to preserve her in high style by placing her taxidermied body inside a huge and elaborate Tunbridge Ware box. The photo on the right is of what was probably my favourite Tunbridge Ware design in this gallery, and shows a gentleman encountering a sweep and his donkey in the night, which he took to be the devil, hence his fright.

   

I also enjoyed these charming, rather primitive collages by George Smart, one of which was blown up and featured on a large banner outside the museum, as it was evidently a heritage weekend when we visited. Which probably makes not seeing the famous Pantiles (the other main thing Tunbridge Wells is famous for, being, as far as I can tell, simply a tiled shopping district that has been given a fancy name) whilst we were there even more of an oversight, but we were worried about getting a ticket if we left the car parked where it was for much longer, so we high-tailed it out of Tunbridge pretty sharpish after leaving the museum.

   

But I’m not finished with the museum yet! There was also a small room with a few paintings in it, as well as a letter from Nelson (written after he lost his arm, to judge by the handwriting, though it still looked better than what I can achieve with my dominant hand), but the taxidermy is really what I need to show you. The final room of the museum contained the obligatory geological exhibits, but also a small taxidermy collection, the wildcat and squirrel shown here being highlights. There was also a splendidly derpy fox cub. I also liked that they thoughtfully kept the butterfly cases covered (probably to protect them, since I’m guessing they didn’t know about my lepidopterophobia), as it meant that I didn’t have to look at them.

   

As you may have guessed from the post title, the museum is also an art gallery, which is located just across the hall from the main museum. The exhibition when we visited was called “Springlines” and was meant to be an exploration of “hidden and mysterious bodies of water.” It wasn’t quite as exciting as the title promised, being a collection of fairly ordinary landscapes, but I did like how the pictures were accompanied by poetry, which did at least add something evocative to the paintings.

   

Considering my past experiences with local museums hadn’t led me to expect much out of Tunbridge Wells, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Having very friendly staff probably helped, but I was also impressed by the sheer array and eclecticism of objects on show, and thought the captions were generally quite informative, for all that a few of them could use an update. 3.5/5, it definitely exceeded my expectations, and was worth coming to for poor ridiculous Minnie alone.

   

While we were (sort of) in the area (well, it is very close indeed to the aforementioned cider shop (with limitless free samples) anyway), we decided to go for a walk around the bit of Ashdown Forest that was introduced to the world by A.A. Milne as Hundred Acre Wood. I’m sure I read the Pooh books at some point, but I don’t really remember them very well as most of my Pooh memories are dominated by the cartoon, which I loved as a kid. There isn’t much to the walks; you can opt for either a “Short Pooh” or a “Long Pooh” walk (obviously I was making endless poo jokes), and the short Pooh is very short indeed, so we went for the Long Pooh, which primarily involved walking up and down two miles of hills (and stepping in lots of actual poo, due to it also being a horse trail) around a heath which was supposed to be Eeyore’s Gloomy Place (poor Eeyore. I think I’m a cross between him and Rabbit), but we also took in Roo’s Sandy Place, the North Pole, the Heffalump Trap, the Enchanted Forest (really more of a heath, like the rest of it), and the A.A. Milne memorial along the way. It is literally is just a walk in the country, but I think it’s kind of nice in a way that it’s not all commercialised (much as I would like to see some statues of Pooh and friends to help bring it to life, the fact that you have to use your imagination means that it’s not very busy. There is a tearoom down the road called “The Shop at Pooh Corner” or something like that, but that’s really only the concession to capitalism here). Just mentioning it as something else to do if you find yourself in the Sussex/western edge of Kent countryside.

13 comments

  1. Yes! This was as much fun as I’d hoped. That dollhouse is perfect and totally looks like it could be haunted. I think I’d actually have been a bit nervous to look into its darkened windows. I’d keep expecting to see a blur streak past a doorway or a doll’s head to turn sharply or something.
    Funny, I thought “that almost looks like Felix the Cat as a dog” before I read your description. Definitely derpy – and adorable. As are the too-cute sheep shoes and sweet Minnie with hair like a wizard.
    It’s so cool that you had an actual rocking horse! I always wanted one but had to make do with a broomstick my sisters sewed a horse’s head on. (Somehow that sounds a bit Godfather-y, so I feel compelled to add that they made the horse head.)
    Ashdown Forest looks lovely. I’d no idea that Hundred Acre Wood was based on an actual spot – but then, like you, I really know Pooh best from the cartoon. And it cracked me up that you said you’re a combination of Eeyore and Rabbit. I think I’m probably a combination of Rabbit and Pooh. I can be toe-tapping and snide, but am also often preoccupied with my honey situation.
    You should get a tricorn hat – they really suit you!
    And now you’ve made me anxious to watch Beetlejuice again. It’s one of my favourites too. So glad Halloween is around the corner. Prime viewing time.

    1. Well, it wasn’t quite a rocking horse, to be technical. It was one of those ones that’s sort of suspended from metal posts on a frame, and it moved back and forth and was super fun, but it wasn’t actually “rocking” I suppose. He was at my grandparents’ house, and I suspect he was one of my grandpa’s garage sale finds, since he had a clumsily painted head that didn’t look much like a horse, but I loved him just the same. I’d spend hours on Buckles, singing “Home on the Range” over and over again at the top of my lungs. They also had horse shaped swings on my elementary school playground, and I named one of those Buckles too, and my parents would have to take me up there on weekends sometimes to swing on him because all the popular mean kids would hog the horse swings during recess, so I never got a turn. So I guess it’s kind of weird that I don’t like actual horses, given how much I liked fake ones. But I’m sure your broomstick was lovely too, in a totally non-Godfathery way.
      I can understand being preoccupied with honey! I’m frequently concerned with my honey supply as well, but I am nowhere near as good-natured as Pooh otherwise. I’m definitely way better at nagging and feeling sorry for myself than actually being sweet-as-honey like Pooh!
      Thanks, I do seem to wear a lot of the damn things! Maybe I’ve missed a career opportunity as an American Revolution re-enactor.
      I will definitely watch Beetlejuice soon, and Hocus Pocus of course (probably more than once). I’m actually in the US at the moment, and I was hoping for prime fall, but it has been 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Ohio every day for the past week and a half, and I’m dying! England has the perfect temps right now, but none of the apple cider or cider doughnuts!

      1. Aw, Buckles sounds pretty great – and I love that you sang “Home on the Range” all the while. You must’ve been quite a pip 🙂
        Can you believe how stinking hot it’s been? We’ve had the same ridiculous heat as Ohio. We finally got our first break from it yesterday, but now they say it’ll be ramping up again next week. Ugh…
        Cider doughnuts?! I’ve never heard of such a thing – but now I want some, just the same.

      2. I don’t know if I was a pip so much as just odd.
        Yes, it finally cooled down here yesterday too, and now it’s so nice, but I’m going back home on Sunday so I barely get to enjoy it. Not that it won’t be cool in London, but there’s not really fall activities to partake in there in the same manner as here.
        No cider doughnuts?!!!! Welp, there goes my dream of someday moving to Canada. Nah, it’ll be ok, you guys have other doughnuts, but yeah, cider doughnuts are pretty great. They’re just cake doughnuts where some of the liquid in the dough has been replaced with apple cider, and then they’re rolled in cinnamon sugar while they’re fresh out of the fryer and you eat them while they’re still warm. I can’t honestly say that you taste the cider all that much, but they’re good!

      3. Oh, they do sound good! But I’m sure we can rustle up something equally tasty to woo you here.
        Happy travels today!

  2. It’s definitely an eclectic collection! I think I like the sheep shoes best, they are so cute somehow. I can’t really take the name “Tunbridge Wells” seriously, it always makes me think of the mythical writer of complaining letters to newspapers Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. I’m guessing you didn’t meet him or her as the museum lady was so friendly.

    1. The sheep shoes are definitely adorable, though I feel bad for the poor sheep who had to wear them. I did not encounter any “Disgusteds;” all the staff were very nice, and we were pretty much the only visitors.

  3. Cider plus a museum? Sounds like a great day! I also love fall and am looking forward to devouring pumpkin and apple everything! Love the tricorn hat photo – I recall from my trip to the UK a few years ago how many fun dress up opportunities some museums had.

    1. It was a good day! I do wish fall wasn’t so short…I guess that makes it more special, but I feel like an extra month of fall wouldn’t take the specialness away.
      And thanks! I do like to take advantage of all opportunities for dressing-up.

    1. I think it’s a wildcat, of the kind that used to be in England, but now only exist in Scotland, which is why it’s so exceptionally evil looking. Well, that, and I don’t think the taxidermist was particularly skilled, but I personally enjoy bad taxidermy way more than competent taxidermy, so I’m not complaining!

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