Ireland

Special October Post: Spooky Suggestions for Halloween!

I don’t like to play favourites (actually, I don’t know why I said that, because I totally do), but Halloween is probably my most beloved holiday…at least in terms of atmosphere and decor.  With that in mind, I do write about a lot of weird/creepy places on here, so I thought I’d link you to some of them in one central location, in case you’re looking for places to visit in October.  Like the content of the blog itself, most of the places are in the UK or Ohio, but there are some options for Continental Europeans as well!

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Mansfield Reformatory in Ohio is the subject of one of my most popular posts (right after the Arnold Museum, of course), and it is a really cool place – it’s so dilapidated and dark inside, you feel as though you’re trespassing, even though you’re not.  In the month of October they are open for special ghost events and their haunted house, but I do think it’s also well worth visiting during their summer season, when you’re left on your own to explore.

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On the subject of jails (or gaols), the Cork County Gaol in Ireland is another cool one.  They not only have audio tours on Walkmans (in the colour of your choosing!) but also have wax figures, and re-created cells.  The whole building is damp and cold, as if you can still feel the misery of the prisoners held here.

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Kelvedon Hatch in Essex is creepy in a nuclear apocalypse sense – we were the only visitors on the day we went, and there’s not even an admissions desk, so we were really able to get the experience of being the last survivors of a nuclear holocaust.  Plus, you’re trapped underground, and you’ve no idea what might be waiting at the other end of the tunnel!

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Eyam, in Derbyshire, is a village that was completely decimated by the 1665 plague, carried here from London via fleas in a box of cloth.  Most of the original plague houses remain, and the village is home to a nice little museum all about the epidemic.  It’s also quite near to Bakewell, so you can stop for a seasonally appropriate tea afterwards.

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The Dr. Guislain Museum in Gent, Belgium, is housed in a still working mental institution.  Need I say more?  Well, the extremely excellent museum includes art done by the mentally ill, and horrible torture devices used to “treat” mental patients of yore.  A must-see if you’re in Belgium!

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I also adore the Royal London Hospital Museum in Whitechapel.  I’m really interested in Joseph Merrick’s life, and the museum is THE place to see his skeleton and some of his possessions.  Lots of other medical stuff too, and the museum is free!

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If you’re creeped out by dolls, then Pollock’s Toy Museum in London is not the place for you (unless you’re trying to scare yourself, which I guess is pretty much the point of this whole post, so never mind).  Split between a Victorian and a Georgian house, which are side by side, Pollock’s involves a journey up narrow, winding staircases to view cases crammed with sad-eyed Victorian toys.   Just watch out for the doll room!

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Even though almost nothing is in English, the Police Museum of Copenhagen is still incredible (and incredibly gory).  The wall of murder weapons is not to be missed, even if it raises more questions than it answers (what IS the deal with that meat grinder?!).

Finally, here’s some other places I LOVE (some of which can be found in my Favourite Places page), but haven’t got around to blogging about yet:

Mutter Museum, Philadelphia: The best medical museum I’ve seen yet (and I’ve seen a lot, as you’ve probably gathered).  There’s a giant colon, a lady whose fat turned to soap, and the liver from the original Siamese twins.

Thackray Museum, Leeds: Love the Thackray! They are the gold standard in authentic smells, and wax figures, and what I’ve compared every “street of yesteryear” to since (most of the other ones have been found lacking).  Oh yeah, did I mention it’s a medical museum?

Hunterian Museum, London: Yet another medical museum (sorry, I know I have a problem), this one excels at stuff in jars.  And has some cool war medicine stuff.

Museum Vrolik, Amsterdam: This is the last medical museum (for now), I promise!  Museum Vrolik specialises in weird fetuses, including cyclopes, all manner of conjoined twins, and genetic abnormalities you never knew existed.

Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle: I probably shouldn’t be putting this museum in a Halloween roundup, because they aim to distance themselves from old stereotypes of witches, but this place is awesome, and I wanted to give it a mention.  Lots of witchy paraphernalia in a very picturesque village.

Hever Castle, Kent: This was Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, and even though the interior hasn’t been done any favours by the owners since, the exterior is still lovely, as are the gardens,  They have a yew maze, and do some autumnal decorating, but I am pretty much including it here because I spotted ghost cupcakes in their tearoom, and cheesy Halloween touches like that are hard to find in England.

Hampton Court, Surrey: This is meant to be one of the most haunted places in Britain, if not in the world.  I’ve never seen any ghosts, but that hasn’t stopped me from making many return visits to gawk at the rooms Henry VIII (and his many wives) inhabited.

Hellfire Caves, Buckinghamshire: These man-made caves are where members of the Georgian Hellfire club met, and, if the rumours are to be believed, took part in orgies and/or satanic rituals.  Even if the stories aren’t true, the caves are full of mannequins and spooky sound effects, and make an excellent day trip from London.

Lakeview Cemetery, Cleveland: I couldn’t end this list without including a place from my hometown, and Lakeview is probably my favourite cemetery in the world.  Splendid Victorian monuments abound, including Garfield’s tomb (you can see his and his wife’s coffins in the crypt), and the Haserot angel, which is guaranteed to give nightmares to Doctor Who fans. Cleveland’s Little Italy, which is just a street over, grew up around it because so many Italian stonemasons were hired to help build it, which should give you an idea of its size.  And that means you can get cavatelli and strawberry cassata cake after your visit.  What more excuse do you need?

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Cork, and Kerry County, Ireland: Cork City Gaol, Cork Butter Museum, and the Kerry County Museum

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Part 2 of our Ireland trip brought us to Cork.  It’s a fairly small city, so there wasn’t a ton of stuff to do, but it was home to two attractions I wanted to visit: Cork City Gaol and the Cork Butter Museum.

Cork City Gaol was up a winding, hilly road, and we weren’t sure about the parking situation, so we ended up leaving the car on a side street some distance away, which meant we had to walk up a narrow, yet trafficked road in the ever-present pouring rain, which was not really the safest thing to do.  After struggling to the top, even the imposing Georgian edifice looming above us was a welcome sight.  Upon paying our admission fees (8 euros), we were presented with Walkmans for the audio tour (with choice of headphone colour!).  It was a perfect example of something so outdated that it’s become trendy again, and with my massive pink headphones, and DIY saddle shoes on my feet, I like to think I looked quite hipster chic.

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The jail was constructed from stone slabs, which gave it a chilled, oppressive atmosphere that was perfectly in keeping with its depressing history, of which the audio tour gave a good overview. Like all audio tours, it was long-winded (which is why I usually skip them), so you ended up having to hang around bits of the jail you had finished looking at waiting for the tape to finish.  In this particular case, since there was barely any signage, it was best to use the audio tour, otherwise I don’t think you’d get much out of the experience.  Admittedly, it was unusually absorbing, and some of the cells had period furnishings (if a really grim, rock-hard grey mattress-thing can be called a furnishing), so at least you didn’t have to risk piles by sitting on a cold stone floor whilst the tape was running.  It smelled slightly of mould in there, though I don’t know if I’d technically call that authentic smells, since it wasn’t contrived, but there were plenty of wax figures!  Ones with amazing facial expressions!

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Obviously, I don’t want to make it out to be too lighthearted of a place-it was a jail after all, and life for the prisoners was obviously terrible, especially as some of them were children.  The jailors devised mindless repetitive tasks to break the prisoners down, like walking around a pointless treadwheel contraption, and lots of jobs involving flax, and it seemed like they were fed on a steady diet of gruel.  They also did executions there, which is exceptionally horrible, though to be expected from a Georgian prison.  A film at the end of the tour talks about the political prisoners kept there during the various civil wars and uprisings, which seems to be requisite for any Irish attraction, though I can understand why, as it is a huge part of their history.  It wasn’t perhaps the most “fun” day out, but it was engrossing, and well worth a visit.P1060687

The Cork Butter Museum, on the other hand, whilst not exactly fun either, was at least less dark in nature.  Apparently, Cork was home to the largest butter market in the world during the 19th century, and they’ve filled this cute little museum with plenty of butter paraphernalia.  Though there was no actual butter on offer (selling butter in a butter museum?  That would be madness!  Though honestly, I was relieved there wasn’t any free samples.  Who would want to munch on a big chunk of plain butter?!), the museum could tell you anything else relating to butter you ever wanted to know (and plenty you didn’t!).  They had loads of churns and numerous old-timey videos of people making butter, and vintage Kerrygold adverts.  The upstairs bit told more about the proud history of butter in Ireland (“dairy culture” dates back to the time of the bog people).  I’m coming across as sarcastic again (which I absolutely am), but I did like it.  It just wasn’t terribly big, and I was disappointed that the cafe we were directed to across the street where we could purchase baked goods made with Irish butter wasn’t open on weekends.  Ah well, these things happen.

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I talk about my love for the Kerry County Museum in Tralee on my Favourite Places page, so I won’t go on about it too much here, but I had to share some of the pictures of the Oliver Cromwell mannequin, and the medieval village.  If you know anything about the geography of Ireland, you may be asking yourself, “what kind of person drives several hours out of the way to go to a local museum?”  Well, I do, if the museum in question promises a recreated medieval village complete with authentic smells.  Suffice it to say, the museum was everything I hoped it would be, and even the sections without smells or wax figures (mostly on the history of Kerry County, though there was an exhibit about the South Pole on when we were there) held my attention.  I have no regrets about going.

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3/5 for Cork County Gaol, 2/5 for the Butter Museum, and a big 4.5/5 for Kerry County Museum because it had three of my main criteria for optimal quirky museumness.

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Dublin, Ireland: National Museum of Ireland, Chester Beatty Library, and the National Wax Museum Plus

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Last June, my boyfriend had to travel to Ireland for work, so we reasoned that I might as well go over there a few days early with him, so we could make a weekend out of it.  For some inexplicable reason, we decided to divide our time between Dublin and Cork, which in retrospect, was a mistake.  We drove through a bit of the countryside, and it seemed lovely, but I found the cities to be remarkably unpleasant, which was probably not helped by the fact that we were there the weekend of some major Catholic conference, so our hotel in Dublin was primarily full of priests and nuns who gave me the hairy eyeball every time I passed them in the hall.  I was raised Catholic, and thus still have a healthy dose of residual guilt, so I’m not bashing the priests and nuns; it simply wasn’t the most welcoming environment. Anyway, the one saving grace of Dublin was its museums.

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We visited two branches of the National Museum of Ireland: Archeology, and Natural History. I’m not sure why we skipped Decorative Arts and History, but knowing me, I was probably cranky because it was raining, my feet hurt (a chronic problem on trips that involve a lot of walking, due to my not owning a single pair of comfortable walking shoes), or I was hungry.  But I digress; Natural History was first, and on the way there, we passed through Merrion Square Park, which I highly recommend doing, as it is home to an extremely excellent Oscar Wilde statue.  He’s sculpted in flamboyant colours, and is reclining on a rock with a “come hither” expression, which makes for fantastic photo opportunities.  The Natural History museum is also very Victorian, and Victorian taxidermy is always a winner in my book.  Even more delightfully, many of the animals wore distinctly “derpy” expressions on their faces.  The building, which took up two or three floors, was pretty much completely devoted to taxidermy (and I believe a few small fossils), so don’t come expecting a typical natural history museum, but if you like looking at dead animals with vacant expressions, this is your place.  As an added bonus, all the grossest creepy-crawly things were covered with flaps, so you didn’t have to look at them if you didn’t want to, which I thought was absolutely great, as I have lots of weird phobias (most embarrassingly, butterflies and moths, but also spiders, particularly gross beetles, and basically everything that lives in the ocean that isn’t a fish, mammal, or reptile (e.g. lobsters, crabs, and most especially giant isopods [shudder])).

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We saved the Archeology museum for the next day, when I was only fueled by a blueberry muffin due to my inability to find a breakfast anywhere that wasn’t a fry-up (I feel like my constant remarks about my feet hurting or being hungry make me sound quite a bit older than I actually am, really I’m just a complainer), so we didn’t spend as much time here as it deserved, but we still saw some neat stuff.  Much of it was devoted to the Romans, Egyptians, and Vikings, though there was obviously Irish artefacts there as well.  I was primarily there to see the bog people, of which they had several, and they were dessicated but incredible.  It was quite a dry, scholarly sort of museum, but sometimes that’s what you want, especially if the objects are meaningful enough to speak for themselves. I should mention that both branches of the National Museum of Ireland were housed in markedly attractive Classical style Victorian buildings, if that sort of thing is important to you.

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Bog person

Chester Beatty was one of those prodigious American collectors in the vein of Henry Wellcome, who came over to Europe and founded museums based on the immense piles of crap they’d managed to accumulate over the years.  As one of my goals in life is to acquire enough ephemera before I die to merit my own museum, I therefore needed to visit the Chester Beatty Library.  It was located in the historic section of town, right across from Dublin Castle, and is not simply a library (which is good, since I don’t think they just let any random off the street use their collections), but an art gallery as well, which showcases Beatty’s most beautiful books and manuscripts.  Aside from authentic smells, of course, there’s nothing I love more than books, and though I’ll quite happily make do with any old copies for myself, as long as they’re legible, I often find myself lingering in Hatchards in London, gazing at their gorgeous books, so I get exactly where Beatty was coming from.  Most of the texts were religious in nature, encompassing Eastern religions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, (though with some relating simply to the history of print) and they were simply a pleasure to look at.  In fact, we came back twice, since they closed before I had adequate time to look at everything the first time, which is a fair indication that I love a place.  Highly recommended.

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Me and Oscar Wilde

Our last Dublin museum was also the cheesiest, and least educational (and no, it sadly wasn’t the leprechaun museum, though I would have loved to have had the time to see that too), the National Wax Museum Plus.  I’m not sure what they did with the plain old National Wax Museum, or why this incarnation merited a plus, as like most wax museums, it was overpriced and underwhelming, with the only real joy to be taken from how terrible some of the wax figures looked.  I love to mock them, yet I still always visit them, since there’s something I find irresistible about arguably famous people rendered in the unforgiving medium of wax.  The National Wax Museum Plus started out well with a room of Irish writers, including Oscar Wilde (yet again) in a disgraceful wig, followed by various Irish politicians and world leaders from what I would guess was the 1990s who I’d never heard of.  They had the requisite hall of horrors, and even some wax popes.  So far, so good.  Now, along the way, I had been seeing posters tacked up on various walls, reading “Jedward, coming soon!” and showing a picture of what appeared to be a waxen Jedward (though it was admittedly hard to tell).  I know Jedward are awful, but I love Eurovision, and was super excited to get my picture taken with them.  The signs kept increasing in frequency the further we progressed through the museum, until I was sure they must be in the last section, which was devoted to entertainment figures.  No dice.  We duly walked around the entertainment hall, had our pictures taken with sub-par Irish singers, like Bob Geldof (and a leprechaun?!) but there was no Jedward in sight.  I finally went and asked a girl working in the gift shop, who informed me that coming soon meant “coming in some point in 2013,” not, “coming soon up ahead in the museum.”  I don’t know the last time I’ve been quite so disappointed, so the National Wax Museum Plus ultimately left a bitter taste in my mouth.  If you for some reason take less pleasure in Jedward’s rendition of “Waterline” than I do, you might have a better time there.

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So, onward to the scores. National Museum of Ireland deserves a solid 3 out of 5, and I loved the Charles Beatty Library, so 4.5 for it.  I probably would have given the National Wax Museum Plus a 3 because of the sheer irrelevance of most of the wax figures, which I found delightful, but I’m going to have to dock a point because of the cruel Jedward tease, so 2 out of 5.