UK

Stockport, Greater Manchester: Hat Works

How could I not visit the “UK’s only museum dedicated to the hatting industry, hats, and headwear”?! So after leaving Manchester, we headed straight for Stockport to see Hat Works (passing a McVitie’s factory en route, though I sadly couldn’t find evidence of a factory shop. I was hoping to obtain a sack of defective caramel digestives that had been rejected due to having too much caramel or something). Apparently there is parking right around the corner from Hat Works, which we noticed belatedly after parking in a garage halfway across town. But no harm done, we needed the exercise anyway (including the hike up a giant set of steps, because Stockport is hilly) after eating grilled cheese for breakfast for the second day in a row.

  

I’m a bit confused as to what Hat Works’ official admission policy is, because the website states that admission is £5, but the woman at the desk didn’t charge us anything. They do offer guided tours, so perhaps the admission fee only applies to those? Anyway, I’d just assume you have to pay the fiver, and then you’ll be pleasantly surprised like we were if you don’t. We had to drive back to London before rush hour, so we did not have time for a 90 minute tour, and opted to just wander by ourselves instead. The museum is spread out over two levels (both located below the floor that you enter on), and is much bigger than I was expecting based on some of the reviews.

  

The exhibition level is where all the hats are, and it was a delightful array of headgear indeed (though seriously, why would a clown have a hat with a skeleton inside? Clowns are creeps). The lighting was pretty dim for conservation reasons, but as promised, our eyes did eventually adjust, so it was easier to see all the splendid hats, which even included some worn by celebrities (if you consider Fred Dibnah and Ainsley Harriott celebrities, that is (in fairness, they did have one of Judi Dench’s hats too, I’m just not a big Judi Dench fan.)). I quite liked the ones shaped like things, like cauliflowers and cakes, though I’m not sure how they’d look on.

  

Happily, I did get to see how I would look in a variety of other hats, because they had an amazing hat dress-up corner. I confess that a large factor in my deciding to visit the museum was my love for trying on hats, since I figured they’d have to have at least a couple out for that purpose. It was way more than a couple – there was a whole shelved wall full of hats, probably thirty different ones! I’m sure they were intended for children, but we were the only people visiting the museum, and frankly, some of the hats were on shelves that a child would have struggled to reach (even I struggled with the topmost ones), so I think they really wanted me to be able to take full advantage. Best hat corner ever!

  

I also really enjoyed the displays curated by various staff members at their partner museums, and I loved the one guest curator’s idea of having a “hats and cats” museum instead (the sample stuffed cat wearing a hat was pretty great, though I strongly suspect real cats would be not so enthused about hats). All the vintage hat ads were cool too, and may have inspired me to start wearing the cloche I acquired a few years back, but have never worn out of the house because I fear unruly youths will mock me and snatch it off my head.

  

The floor underneath the hatstravaganza contained old hat factory machinery (the building is housed in an old factory, though I wasn’t real clear on whether it was actually a hat factory. I think it may have just been a cotton mill). This is where the guided tour would have paid off, because tour groups are allowed access into a couple special areas that we weren’t, and got way more information about the machinery than what was provided on the signs (judging by the group that was going through while we were there), but to be honest, my interest in hat manufacturing is nowhere near as great as my interest in looking at and trying on unusual hats, so I was content with just reading the signage.

  

There was also a mock-up of an old hatter’s cottage, which was pretty depressing, and perhaps authentically cold, as well as some information about the history of hat makers (not enough info about them going mad from mercury poisoning, but there was a bit). Basically, like everyone else who was working class in Victorian Britain, they had grim lives, with the added benefit of potential insanity, and male hatters were incredibly resentful of female hatters because they drove wages down. By this point it was already cutting it close for us getting back home at a reasonable hour, so I didn’t spend as much time in here as I probably should have, but the hat exhibition floor was definitely my preferred floor anyway, and I had ample time to look at that.

  

The gift shop sells, as you might expect, a variety of hats for men and women, though I declined to purchase one on this occasion, since I already own that cloche that I’m not wearing. I did get a postcard of what was allegedly the Duke of Wellington’s hat from Waterloo (the big feathery thing) which is also on display inside the museum (see below). I was pleasantly surprised that the museum was so much larger and hattier than I was expecting, and even if I had to pay £5, I would have been quite content with what I got to see in return, because it really was an excellent hat museum (as well it might be, if it’s the only one in Britain). 4/5 for the Hat Works, and it’s not the only museum in Stockport – I might have to go back some day to tour the old air raid shelter (and investigate the biscuit factory further – I want those defective extra caramelly digestives that may or may not exist)!

  

Advertisements

Manchester: John Rylands Library + General Manchesteriness

I want you to think those are the creepy kind of adult twins who still dress identically, but really it’s one woman accidentally transformed through the  “magic” of Photoshop.

The John Rylands Library was recommended to me on the strength of its historic toilets, which is a pretty good way to get my attention. It is an excellent-looking building (and I don’t have a decent looking picture of the front of it both because of how it is situated on the street, and because it was sleeting and incredibly windy, so we did hurry inside), so interesting toilets were just the icing on the cake. The library is free to visit (and to join, though it’s a reference library, so you have to do all your reading there), and is so much more chill than your typical archives or reference library. We merrily wandered in with our bags, and no one approached us at any time to yell at us for touching things or just breathing the wrong way (which is what it sometimes seems happens at the National Archives).

  

The interior of the old building is very Gothic, as you can probably see (it also has a modern extension, which is where you enter). It was founded by the uniquely named Enriqueta Rylands, widow of John, in her husband’s memory (she was 42 years younger than him, so spent quite a long time in widowhood). It was designed in 1889, and construction was finished in 1900. It is now part of the University of Manchester, serving as its official library, and even though I actually think the Maughan Library at KCL was the best damn part of that school (which isn’t saying much, because I hated it there, but the library is admittedly awesome), I think John Rylands may well have it beat (because of the historic toilets, though that said, the Wetherspoons across the street from Maughan Library has fantastic toilets too).

 

John Rylands has a couple of exhibition spaces, and one of them was hosting an exhibition on the Reformation which I have to admit I didn’t find terribly interesting, so I didn’t spend much time there. The other exhibition showcasing some of the highlights of the collection was much cooler, especially the medical stuff, including a pair of forceps invented by a Manchester physician (the Chamberlen family of London are credited with inventing the first forceps, but like jerks, they kept the invention to themselves, causing thousands of women to needlessly die until their secret was revealed. So other physicians had to independently come up with the concept of forceps, made to their own different designs), and some drawings he made of a deformed pelvis (the mother eventually died in childbirth as a result, though not until after her seventh baby). They also have the world’s oldest surviving fragment of the New Testament, dating to the 2nd or 3rd century (CE, obviously), for which fragment is an apt term, but it’s still cool to see something that old.

  

The historic reading room was also pretty rad. There were people actually using the space to work in, but there were also a bunch of signs down the middle of the room talking about the history of the building, and an opportunity to put on a silly hat and take photos. My favourite thing was the automaton outside the reading room of Enriqueta Rylands taking tea with a dragon.

  

And I’m not gonna lie, the historic toilets were pretty great too (they also have modern ones, for people who don’t like to pee in historic surroundings). They have these giant wooden seats, and the old fashioned pull chains, which I just love. I always feel like I’m really accomplishing something when I yank down one of those chains. They were a bit draughty, but that was part of the charm.  The library gets an enthusiastic 4/5 from me, not least because of the loos.

Because there isn’t a lot else to say about the library, this gives me a chance to talk about some of the other, non-museum stuff we did in Manchester (and also gives me an excuse to show you what I think is a rather hilarious photo collage of me eating a brownie sundae at Ginger’s Comfort Emporium). Manchester is fairly well known for its Christmas markets, which are scattered throughout the city, and I do enjoy a Christmas market when I’m in the right sort of mood, so I was keen to check them out.

  

The main, central market was only a couple of blocks from our hotel, so we ended up stopping by three or four times (creepy Santa made it even better). The first time was around 10 am on a Monday, right when the market opened for the day, which was great because there were no crowds at all. I decided a giant stroopwafel and a grilled cheese would be a perfectly acceptable breakfast, and enjoyed the grilled cheese so much that I came back for another the next morning before we left.

  

I also couldn’t resist trying a hot Vimto, which seems to be a local (or at least a Northern) specialty, along with something called “Hot Blobs,” which I wasn’t brave enough to sample (it’s apparently hot white wine with sugar and lemon). The hot Vimto was surprisingly tasty though, kind of like hot Slushpuppie syrup, and I did not reclaim the deposit on my souvenir mug, because that Santa-adorned beauty was going straight home with me.  Avoid the “hot” cinnamon rolls though: when we bought them they were freezing cold, and at least a day or two old. I still ate them, because cinnamon rolls, but I wouldn’t have wasted money on them if I’d known.

  

Manchester is also where Alan Turing lived and worked after the war, and was sadly where he was arrested in 1952 for “gross indecency” (which was simply having consensual sex with another man, because homosexuality was still illegal at the time). This set in motion the chain of events that would lead to him committing suicide just two years later. He has since been formally pardoned (fat lot of good that does him now), and Manchester has tried to make amends by commemorating Turing on a number of buildings, and with this excellent statue on a bench in Sackville Gardens, right in Manchester’s gay village. A passing lady was nice enough to take a picture for us, and we also grabbed a picture of this nearby mural, which features an…interesting interpretation of Turing.

  

The last thing I need to tell you about is this “memorial to Vimto” which is very probably my favourite thing in Manchester. Vimto doesn’t seem to be big in Southern England, but I’d actually been drinking it before I moved here because it is apparently very popular in the Middle East, and I used to buy it from the hummus stall in the West Side Market (yes, they have a hummus stall AND a falafel stall. Is it any wonder I love that place?). Despite hating blackcurrant, I actually quite like a Vimto on occasion (though it will never replace orange or cherry soda in my affections) – I reckon the raspberry helps to hide the ickiness of the blackcurrant – so I was pretty excited to see this statue, and it doesn’t disappoint. Just look at all those giant fruits! The other statue is of a constipated-looking Archimedes who we found right near Vimto for no apparent reason.  Manchester is a pretty rad city, and I’d definitely like to go back someday, though preferably during less awful weather (if that’s ever actually the case…I kind of suspect the weather is awful year-round, but I’d go back anyway).

 

Manchester: The People’s History Museum

Manchester wasn’t only at the forefront of the movement for women’s suffrage; it was also a hotbed for labour movements due to its position as “Cottonopolis,” home to the milling industry, and thus one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution, along with all the abuses of workers’ rights that went along with it. Manchester still seems like a pretty progressive place (a bee is the symbol of the city because it represents industriousness and working towards the collective good,) and it is home to the People’s History Museum, which is about “Britain’s struggle for democracy over two centuries.”

  

The museum is located inside a former pump house that was fully restored in 2010, complete with a modern four story addition that looks out over the river Irwell. The permanent galleries are located on the first and second floors, and there’s a gallery for temporary displays on the ground floor. Even though it was only a ten minute walk away from our hotel, by the time we reached the museum, I was so grateful to get out of the sleet and wind (flagpoles were actually bending) that I probably would have paid whatever they were asking, but happily, admission is free, though donations are encouraged.

  

We began our journey through the museum by punching into an old-fashioned time clock, just like mill workers would have done (and me, for most of my working life, having only had salaried jobs in the past year or so), and entered the gallery on people’s history from the late 1700s until 1945. The opening section was all about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, where 15 people were killed and hundreds injured when cavalry charged the crowd during a protest for voting reform. It then segued into famous Georgian supporters of reform, like Thomas Paine (they had his desk, and a lock of his hair!) and John Wilkes, who was apparently notoriously ugly (he was cross-eyed in the portrait they had of him).

  

There were actually a fair few interactive elements, like doors and bundles you could open that sometimes produced sound effects, and some opportunities for dressing-up (as you’ll see), which I was grateful for, because I have to admit that I have never been the biggest fan of labour history. I mean, sure, I appreciate the fact that people fought and died for the rights we enjoy today, but whenever I had to study it in school, it just seemed like an endless list of names, dates, and worst of all, obscure acronyms, which is exactly the kind of history I hate. As a former punk, I actually feel kind of guilty about this, but I’m primarily interested in how people lived (and died! Especially how they died, if I’m being honest), and I don’t want to just memorise lists or numbers (for someone with two history degrees, I’m actually pretty bad with dates). So I was glad the museum tried to dress up labour history a bit, but there were still sure a lot of names and dates and strikes that I’d never heard of.

  

But it wasn’t all labour history at the museum, fortunately. There was also information about political and social movements (though I’m admittedly not overly interested in those either), like the suffragettes; the socialist movement, the communist movement, and the effect WWI had on society. There was also a small section on British fascism, and I was struck by how stupid their leader, Oswald Mosley looked. The guy wore black turtlenecks and waist belts, like he was trying to look like he came from the future or something. Even without the appalling beliefs, how could anyone follow an idiot like that?  Now I really see what P.G. Wodehouse was getting at with Roderick Spode and his “Black Shorts”.

  

And there were some fantastic posters and political cartoons in here (and even more cartoons in the temporary display, as you’ll see later).  I don’t think Churchill would have particularly agreed with being “comrades in arms” with Stalin though…

  

I especially enjoyed the section relating to the formation of the Labour Party, mainly because it contained this amusing cartoon of a young flapper being wooed by the hip Ramsay MacDonald (with his superb moustache) who was apparently down with the kids, while David Lloyd George and Stanley Baldwin lurk awkwardly in the background, looking like old fuddy-duddies (or the Monopoly man). There was also, rather randomly, Clement Attlee’s pipe on its own special wall, which I thought was kind of hilarious.

  

The gallery upstairs covered the years from 1945-the present(ish, it seemed to stop around the 1980s or ’90s), and contained a lot of splendid stuff too, though I do find late 20th century labour history even more boring than early 20th century labour history (I guess because the changes were less dramatic?). I liked the puppets, and you could actually move around Thatcher and whoever the guy next to her was meant to be (Marcus thinks it’s Neil Kinnock, but I have no idea), but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to open and close their mouths, much to my dismay (it’s hard to put on a puppet show if you can’t make the puppets talk).

  

This gallery also contained some of the museum’s collection of political banners, which they restore on site (you could peer in on the conservators hard at work in their glass-walled office, which made me feel really bad for them. It’s bad enough my office is on the way to the public toilets and I have to keep my door open, so I often have museum visitors gawping at me or sometimes randomly stopping to chat with me even though I try to give the impression of being hard at work, but I couldn’t deal with people staring at me all day every day). At the end, there was a re-creation of an early Co-op supermarket, and a room with a free-play jukebox so you could listen to protest songs (and a few greatest hits) from the last few decades.

   

And then there was the temporary exhibit, which was my absolute favourite part of the museum. It was called “Savage Ink,” which I initially hoped was about tattoos, until I found out it was actually about political cartoons, which was probably even better. I love political cartoons, when done well, and there were some real gems in here. I actually tend to prefer British cartoonists (Peter Brookes is my favourite); I think they capture the absurdity of Trump better than many American cartoonists, and this was no exception – the two delightful pieces featured below are both by British artists.

  

The “shart” in the one on the left makes me lose it every time. There were also older cartoons, including pieces by Gillray, Hogarth, the Cruikshanks (Isaac and George), et al, and cartoons from throughout the 20th century, though I have to admit that I was more familiar with the figures depicted in Georgian cartoons than I was with ones in British political cartoons from the 1980s (which is why I didn’t know who the other puppet was meant to be).

  

They also offered visitors to chance to contribute to a collaborative comic strip, and though I declined to take part due to my total lack of drawing ability, I did enjoy looking at the efforts of previous visitors.

  

The final section of the museum, located in what I imagined was a restored part of the pump house, due to the large industrial looking space with impressively high ceilings, contained photographs of ordinary people in Manchester in the 1950s, some of their identities presumably unknown, since there was a request to get in touch with the museum if you recognised any of the people in the photos.

 

I was kind of excited for the shop, hoping it would be rather like the one at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, with lots of political t-shirts and badges and things (since I’d noticed a Tolpuddle Martyrs tea towel on the way in), but it was a little disappointing. I didn’t see a single t-shirt, and the only badges were ones with the name of the museum on them (which you can make yourself on the badge-making machine in the upstairs gallery, for a £1 fee). We did manage to get a couple of good postcards, and I noticed some nice greetings cards too, but it wasn’t quite what I’d been hoping for. Still, I found the museum enjoyable for the most part, particularly “Savage Ink,” but I have to admit that some of the material inside the permanent galleries was a little boring for my tastes, mainly because some of the displays seemed to assume a level of knowledge that I didn’t possess, due to not being particularly interested in this facet of British history (and not growing up in this country, when I would presumably have been forced to cover some of this material at school). I did appreciate their attempts to make the museum fun and interactive (the inclusion of so many cartoons meant that I learned something just from looking at those, even when I skipped the museum’s signage) – the artefacts on display were generally excellent – and it’s not their fault that my eyes glaze over when I try to read about labour movements. 3.5/5 for the museum.

Manchester: Manchester Museum: A Visit Interrupted

Truth be told, I wasn’t all that enthused about visiting the Manchester Museum. From the name, I initially assumed it was a local history museum, and was amenable enough, but then Marcus told me that actually, it was a natural history and ethnographic museum, and I became much less keen. Nothing against ethnography or natural history (my love of taxidermy is well known), but I could see that stuff anywhere, and Manchester had so many unique and interesting sounding museums that it seemed a shame to waste time on this one. But after leaving the Pankhurst Centre, we found ourselves with an hour to kill before we could check into our hotel (and put our car in the lot), so we needed to go somewhere with parking to kill time, which pretty much ruled out anywhere in the city centre. Since Manchester Museum is on the university campus, there was a parking garage right around the corner, and the museum was free, so that sold us.

  

The Manchester Museum was bigger than I expected, and our visit time was going to be limited no matter what, because we were due to meet friends later that afternoon, but it turns out that it was more limited than even I expected (as the title gives away), so this will by necessity be a partial review (but I still wanted to blog about it, because Marcus took lots of photos).  We opted to start with the permanent galleries rather than the temporary exhibitions, so headed upstairs to see the ethnographic collections. I loved their sign about the statue of Ganesha, because it explained that he is holding a bowl of his favourite sweets, which made me feel a real affinity with him.  In addition to religious artefacts from various world cultures, there was also a small section on weaponry, particularly archery equipment, in the back of the gallery.

  

And there was also an ancient Egypt section, which is pretty much de rigueur for this kind of museum. One thing I did like was that one of the sarcophagi was open over glass, so that you could see the mummy inside (the mummy had apparently been a victim of a Victorian unwrapping – the kind that was the inspiration for the performance I witnessed at the National Archives’ Halloween event).

  

But after muddling through all the uninspiring stuff, at last we got to natural history, and that’s where the museum started to shine. Because there was so damn much taxidermy, two whole floors of it, to be exact! And we all know that I love taxidermied animals way more than any vegetarian has a right to.

  

Though the animals, on a whole, seemed to be pretty well done (and nothing like the gems in the National Museum of Ireland), which, given my love for bad taxidermy, was admittedly something of a disappointment, I did of course manage to find a few derpy examples, which I present here for your enjoyment.

  

OK, the baby elephant was more adorable than derpy, but he was such a cutie that I had to include him (though I felt really bad that he was in there. I sincerely hope he died of natural causes). Other highlights included a couple of plaster casts from a man and dog who died in Pompeii, and the skull of “Old Billy,” an allegedly 62 year old horse. I mean, I don’t know exactly how long horses normally live, but I thought it was more in the 30 year range, so this seemed far-fetched, but it seems to be verified in various places, so maybe Old Billy was just an extremely ancient horse. Of course, he lived from 1760-1822, when it presumably would have been easier to run an old horse scam without anyone checking up on it, but he was just an old barge horse, so I’m not sure if anyone was actually exploiting his age for monetary gain or not.

  

The upper hall of taxidermy eventually led into the “Vivarium,” which holds the museum’s collections of living animals, primarily reptiles, amphibians, and insects. This area was pretty crowded with parents and children (it was a Sunday when we visited, and Manchester Museum seems like the go-to weekend place, probably because it’s free, and most kids like looking at animals), so it was hard to get a peek at most of the cases, but I did spot this excellently lazy lizard.

  

And sadly, that is where my experience of Manchester Museum comes to an end, because as I was about to pass from the Vivarium into the next gallery, a fire alarm started going off really, really loudly (as they do, I guess, but this really seemed close to a permanently damaging level of sound).   So we were all directed down the nearest staircase, where people got to the bottom and then just sort of milled around confusedly in front of the fire door, instead of, you know, going out it, so Marcus and I had to take the lead and push our way outside. In fairness to the people just standing about, the exit wasn’t particularly well marked, and there were more stairs leading into the basement from where we were, so it wasn’t completely obvious what we were supposed to do. Also, because we were in the first group down, there wasn’t a staff member by the door yet to direct people out.

  

After evacuating the building, we stood around the front for a while, but the alarms didn’t show any sign of letting up, and they really were hurting my ears, so we gave up and headed back to the car (it was nearly time to check into the hotel by then anyway). I’m pretty sure it was just a drill, because I didn’t hear anything more about it, so I assume the museum is still fully intact.  But as a result of the alarm, I missed the rest of the permanent galleries, and the temporary exhibitions, one featuring art by Reena Saini Kallat, and also one on memories of Partition, about the creation of India and Pakistan. So I guess I can’t fairly score this one, because I didn’t see the whole museum. I will say that the natural history section was enjoyable, and it’s certainly much bigger than other museums of this type, but it’s not really anything you couldn’t see in any other major city (except maybe Old Billy), there’s just more of it. Good for killing time, but not worth a special trip if your time in Manchester is limited, at least as far as the permanent collections go, though I can’t comment on the temporary stuff, since I didn’t see it.

Manchester: The Pankhurst Centre

It’d been a few years since Marcus and I had managed to go somewhere on our anniversary, so I thought it would be nice if we could swing a short break somewhere this year. I initially wanted to go somewhere picturesque, but then thought about the reality of England in late November: terrible weather + loads of places that close for the season, and decided it would be best to do a city break instead. Manchester seemed a likely candidate, since I’d never been, and in addition to Christmas markets (which I can often be Grinchy about, but I secretly enjoy them if they’re not too crowded), it also had a lot of museums that sounded really interesting. Inspired by Joy’s post, one of the museums I wanted to make sure to visit was the Pankhurst Centre, which I thought might be tricky due to their limited opening hours, but fortunately, they are open from 1-4 on the fourth Sunday of each month, which just happened to be when we’d arrive, so we were able to head straight there on our way into Manchester, and arrived just as they were opening.

Because the Pankhurst Centre is right next to a hospital, we were able to find parking in their car park and headed swiftly over to the museum in the midst of horrible windy sleety weather (that would plague us throughout our stay, but I’ve come to understand that that’s just what Manchester weather is like). We were the first people to arrive that day, so the woman working there gave us a nice little introduction to the house, and turned on the film for us in the middle room of the museum (the whole thing is only three rooms, but it is free). This was a 13 minute film about the suffragette movement, including an initially rather amusing anti-suffragette filmstrip from the 1910s about all the evils of the suffragette movement and the kinds of punishments that the husband of a suffragette thought they deserved.  However, it did get a lot less hilarious when the film moved on to the perils that befell the actual suffragette movement, including force-feeding, because of course the “punishments” in the amusing filmstrip weren’t so amusing when you consider that even worse punishments than the ones depicted in the propaganda filmstrip happened in real life (the ones in the anti-suffragette film were mostly about public shaming, rather than torture, because including the ways that suffragettes were actually treated might have generated public sympathy for them).

This room also contained a lot of signage about the history of women’s suffrage, and though it was pretty wordy, I stuck with it, because it was interesting stuff. I learned a lot about the Pankhurst family (maybe I’m just being dumb, but for some reason I always thought that Emmeline and Christabel were sisters, and Sylvia was Emmeline’s daughter. So it was nice to finally get the relationships straight – Emmeline was the mother, and Christabel, Sylvia, and the lesser known Adela were all her children, as well as two boys that died fairly young), and the history of the Women’s Social and Political Union, or WSPU (from putting together an audio tour of Wimbledon, I knew that we had a WSPU shop, and that during WWI, they decided to focus on the war effort and temporarily put suffrage on the back burner, but I didn’t know much else about it. Turns out that they sold all manner of amazing suffragette merchandise including a board game, these rad Christmas cards, and of course those “Votes for Women” sashes, plus other goods, like soap, to finance their activities).  There was a whole informational poster devoted just to Sylvia, and her typewriter was there too.

Emmeline and her family lived in the house in the early 1900s, and in 1903, the WSPU was founded here. The house was nearly demolished in 1979, but was fortunately saved by protests from women’s groups, and turned into a museum and women’s centre. The back room of the museum is the only one decorated to look as it would have when the Pankhursts lived here – this is meant to be the parlour where the WSPU began (though there was a women’s suffrage movement active in Manchester since 1867 (supported by Emmeline’s husband, Richard) and suffrage groups active nationwide, most groups were more concerned with getting the vote for working class men. It was the WSPU that turned the focus exclusively to women, and started using more radical tactics, such as destruction of property, arson, and hunger strikes).

I was so charmed by this suffragette doll when I saw her in Joy’s post that I had to be sure to grab a photo of her when I was there, and I can report that she is just as delightful in person. The parlour also contains a really neat suffragette handkerchief, and a sign explaining that they have traditionally been able to pay rent on the house using a suffragette sash, so there were a few handmade examples of those in here too.

Naturally, I was hoping there’d be a “Votes for Women” sash available for purchase, because I’d love to have one to wear around the house so I can occasionally break into a Mary Poppins-inspired “Votes for Women, Step in Time” song and dance routine (plus who wouldn’t want a sash? Sashes are great!), but though they had a range of “Votes for Women” merchandise, including aprons and tea towels, alas, there was no sash, so I settled for an enamel pin, which I look forward to wearing. This house, though small, was really nice and informative, and I’m so glad it’s here, both for its history as the birthplace of the WSPU, and the work it does for modern women by serving as a women’s centre. It’s only open for a few hours on Thursdays, and the second and fourth Sundays of each month, but I would definitely recommend stopping by if you can, because I learned a lot about the Pankhursts and the WSPU, and the museum is clearly run by lovely people. I hope they eventually have the resources to expand it a bit, and perhaps acquire more modern signage, but it’s still a delight as is. 3.5/5.

London: “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” @ the British Library

“A phoenix rising from the ashes in a 13th-century bestiary” (c) British Library

Sometimes I feel like I’m too negative. Not often, mind, because I’m generally quite comfortable with being a pessimistic glass-half-empty kind of individual, but for the purposes of this blog, I feel like people get sick of my opening every post with, “I’m not really a such-and-such fan, but I went to this exhibition anyway.” But much like the apocryphal George Washington, I cannot tell a lie, and I am truly not the biggest fan of Harry Potter. I liked the books just fine, but I only read the series through once, maybe twice (unlike books I love, which I will happily reread on a yearly basis), and I never had any interest in the films. Some of this could be because I was just a bit too old when the books came out in the US to have gotten REALLY into them (I was far more into reading terrible romance novels when I was 13, so my best friend and I could laugh ourselves stupid at the sex scenes), but some of it is also probably just being contrary after they turned out to be so popular, because of course I’m far too “strange and unusual” (to channel Lydia Deetz) to have been into something so mainstream. Because let’s face it – witchcraft and magic are exactly the kind of things I normally like.  All of this is a roundabout way of explaining why I went to see the new Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library, despite knowing it would be the most annoyingly crowded and nerdy thing ever. You see, the description of it implied that it would not be solely about Harry Potter, but also about the historical magical texts that inspired JK Rowling, and I am definitely keen on historical magical texts. Also, from a blog traffic perspective, I thought it would be something that enough people are interested in reading about that it might drive a few more visitors my way.  (Photography was not allowed inside the exhibition, so the object photos are not mine, and are credited accordingly.)

“The snowy owl, in John James Audubon’s The Birds of America 1827-38” (c) British Library Board

“Harry Potter: A History of Magic” runs until 28 February 2018, and costs £16, though I was able to get half-price entry thanks to my National Art Pass. Though I typically just turn up to BL exhibitions, in this case I thought it would be wise to pre-book, and I’m glad I did, because there was a sold out sign hanging up by the time we arrived. I deliberately booked a weekday slot, hoping it would be less crowded, but obviously, because it was sold out, I wasn’t that lucky. We arrived early, so after killing some time in the free new “Sounds” exhibition (where you can use headphones or sit in these cozy pods to listen to various recordings from the BL’s extensive collection (I was surprised by Amelia Earhart’s voice – for some reason I had pictured her as sounding like Katherine Hepburn, but she was much more earnest and less posh than that)) we headed over to the Harry Potter exhibition, which evidently sometimes even has queues to enter judging by the rope barriers we had to wind our way around, despite entry being only via timed slots. Once our tickets were scanned and we were inside though, it instantly became much more atmospherically magical.

Gilded Bezoar Stone (stones that grow inside the stomach of the bezoar goat, once thought to be an effective antidote to poison) (c) The Board of the Trustees of the Science Museum, London

The exhibition consists of a number of small rooms, each one themed around one of the subjects taught at Hogwarts. So there was Herbology, Potions, Divination, Astronomy, Care of Magical Creatures, and a few more that weren’t instantly recognisable to someone who hasn’t read the books in a decade or so (the guidebook tells me they’re Alchemy, Charms, and Defense Against the Dark Arts, which I probably should have known). Potions was the first room, but we were encouraged to walk around the exhibition in any order we liked, and seeing as Potions was insanely crowded, I headed off to the other rooms instead. I know I’ve said this before, but I am totally the kind of annoying museum visitor who refuses to queue – if there’s a wait to look at something, I will just peer into the gaps and strain to see over people’s shoulders. This was no exception, and I’m sure I pissed off a few of the ardent Potterphiles, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend hours waiting inside an exhibition I paid to see.

The Celestial Globe in the Astronomy Room (c) British Library Board

Each room actually did an excellent job of carrying the theme forward – the BL is usually pretty good at providing atmosphere, but this was exceptional. Each theme was introduced with a giant spellbook opened to the relevant page, and there were objects suspended from the ceilings of each room: flower pots in Herbology, cauldrons in Potions, and most delightfully, teacups in Divination. The Astronomy room contained a glowing star map on the ceiling, and a giant interactive celestial globe in the centre of the room, and there was a Snitch noisily flitting along the walls of another room (Charms, maybe?). There were also a number of interactive elements, including a Potions game that I didn’t get to play, and computerised crystal ball and Tarot card readings in the Divination room (can you tell Divination was my favourite?).

The Ripley Scroll (which contains imagery relating to the Philosopher’s Stone) (c) British Library Board

I would say there was actually a good mix of Potter-specific items, and generic witchy ones. There were portraits of various Hogwarts professors hanging on the walls and some of JK Rowling’s preliminary sketches for the books in the display cases. I also liked the pencil (charcoal?) sketches by Jim Kay because they were actually based off the books rather than the films (the films really didn’t get much mention here, which I appreciated). Additionally, there was a video showing a claymation model of Dobby being brought to life, which I actually found quite charming, because despite Dobby being hideously annoying in the films (I’ve seen bits and pieces when they were on TV, but have never sat and watched one through), I actually really liked him in the books, so I was glad someone was making him likeable again. And Care of Magical Creatures contained some great illustrations of various monsters and dragons and things described in the books.

“A mandrake being pulled out by a dog, in Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal” (c) British Library Board

As far as specifically witchy artefacts went, there were quite a few awesome things in here. Gorgeously illustrated botany books lined the cases along the walls of the Herbology section (I particularly liked the ones showing the mandrake root, and the actual dried mandrake root on display as well, because I’ve often heard the legends about mandrakes looking like little men and screaming when you pull them out of the ground, but had never seen a real one), and Alchemy was dominated by a giant medieval scroll showing how to create a Philosopher’s Stone that would turn base metals into gold, and even grant immortality (of course some crucial steps were left out, so no one could come back and blame the author when their Philosopher’s Stone didn’t work). I thought the “Invisibility Cloak” on display was funny, if a bit cheeky, but the Divination section was by the far the best, as it included many items borrowed from the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle (which I have visited, but sadly never blogged about, as it was during my pre-blogging years, and I took barely any photos. It’s excellent though!) – most notably an awesome fortune telling tea cup (it explained how to read the tea leaves left in the cup), Tarot cards, Chinese fortune telling bones, and “Smelly Nelly’s” crystal ball (so-called because she wore strong perfume, not because she had B.O., though perhaps she wore the perfume to cover up the B.O….I hope she doesn’t somehow put a curse on me for saying that) and just generally the kind of stuff I think is neat, even though I don’t quite believe in it.

“Small black crystal ball, used by Paignton witch ‘Smelly Nelly'” (c) Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle

If only I’d be allowed to run riot in this exhibition by myself, I would have had the best time. As it was, my fun was severely hampered by the sheer number of fellow visitors, but I understood that it would be insanely busy coming into it, so I can’t say I wasn’t prepared (I was hopeful I’d be wrong, but I sensed I wouldn’t be). Other than the crowds, my main criticism is that although the exhibition did contain a good amount of historical witchy paraphernalia, it didn’t necessarily make the connection between Rowling’s books and said magical history. It was more, “here are some artefacts, here is some Potternalia,” with common themes between them, but no real connections drawn between the two. I don’t even know if Rowling personally consulted the texts that were on display, or if they were just examples of the sorts of things she might have studied whilst writing the books. Because the Harry Potter bit was the part of the exhibition that interested me least, I wasn’t that bothered by this, but it does make the exhibition description a little misleading, not that I think visitors will mind too terribly (most of them seemed to be in their “happy place,” which was really kind of sweet, albeit dorky (not that that’s a criticism, I’m plenty dorky myself, about other things)). I also hoped for more generically witchy things in the shop, but aside from a few pins and prints, it was pretty Potter-tastic, so I didn’t end up buying anything. Nevertheless, for atmosphere alone, and for the awesomeness of the things on display, even though the content was a bit lighter than other exhibitions at the BL (we were out of there in 45 minutes, even after backtracking to see things we’d missed on our first pass through due to queues, whereas I stayed in Maps and Terror and Wonder for a good hour and a half each), I think it deserves 4.5/5. Potterphiles (if that’s even the correct term – I can’t be bothered to look it up) will likely get more out of it than I did, what with all the original JK Rowling sketches and stuff, but even if, like me, you’re just into witches and fortune telling and stuff, I think it is still well worth seeing, and I’m glad I made the effort.

“A broomstick belonging to Olga Hunt” (c) Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle

London: “Living with Gods”@ the British Museum

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I am not religious in any way, shape, or form, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in religion from a cultural perspective (I took a World Religions class as an undergrad and really enjoyed it, though that may have been because it was taught by the nicest professor ever. Seriously. I only ever took the one class with him, and he still sent me a graduation card, which is something that none of my other professors did, even the ones I knew really well). So I was definitely intrigued by the British Museum’s latest exhibition, “Living with gods: peoples, places, and worlds beyond” (lack of capitalisation theirs). When I realised I had somehow gone about three years since last visiting the British Museum (I think I just take it for granted because it’s free and always there, and also, I’m rarely in central London anymore, so I can’t just pop in like I used to), I figured I might as well go check out “Living with gods,” even though you have to pay to see it. Fortunately, now that I find myself in steady employment, I finally got around to renewing my National Art Pass, which means I get to see half-price exhibits at pretty much every London museum again!

I picked a Wednesday to visit (fortunately, I have at least two weekdays off every week, so I still have plenty of time to visit other museums and avoid the worst of the crowds), and was a bit perplexed at first when we weren’t allowed to just enter the museum, but were instead funneled through some weird shed for a more in-depth bag check than was usual. I at first assumed these were just some new security measures, given the rise in terrorist attacks, but thought it was rather a shame that the shed and gates were marring the front of the otherwise grand and imposing museum. However, once I got inside, I heard some people excitedly talking amongst themselves about the Queen being there, and all became clear when I got back home and checked Instagram, and saw that yes, the Queen had indeed been there that day opening a new gallery. So fortunately, I think the time-consuming increased security checks will probably not be a permanent feature.

Wooden figure of Subhadra from the Hindu pantheon. Image copyright held by the Trustees of the British Museum.

The exhibition costs £15, so boy, was I glad I had the National Art Pass!  I knew the main special exhibition at the museum was about the Scythians, but I was still dismayed when directed to the small gallery upstairs, on account of the high price. And I was indeed right to be disappointed, because the exhibition simply wasn’t very good. I was really excited by part of the description given of it on the Art Fund website:  “Rather than concentrating on the enormous variety of what is believed, the focus is on the similarities of practice and expression which recur across millennia. As such, the neurological and psychological aspects are considered, as well as the external manifestations of the mystical within different societies,” which to me seemed to imply that it would explore the psychology of belief, and why different cultures often developed similar belief systems that were formed independently of each other. Instead, it was pretty much just a collection of religious objects from different cultures, with barely any attempt made to tie them all together.  (Photographs were not allowed inside, so all the high-quality photos of objects in the exhibition are not my own, and credited accordingly.)

Lion dog. Image copyright held by the Trustees of the British Museum.

I suppose every room did have a “theme” of sorts, but these were just written on the cloth panels that made up the “walls” of the exhibit, and weren’t really reflected in the objects chosen for each section in any noticeable way, with similar types of objects being found in all of the rooms. That said, there was some cool stuff here, most notably “Lion Man,” who opened the exhibit. He is a 40,000 year old carving found in Germany of a half-lion, half-man creature (who is actually rather cute), and is thought to be the oldest representation of an animal that doesn’t exist in nature. I think they probably should have left him for last, because he really was the high point.

Mexican Dia de los Muertos devil. Image copyright held by the Trustees of the British Museum.

But not the only object I really liked, obviously. I’m including photos of some of my favourites, including derpy lion dog, and this wonderful devil used in Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico (I’m partial to Dia de los Muertos imagery anyway, and he was really fantastic). They also had a big old carved cart from India, used in Hindu celebrations (which is where the word “juggernaut” comes from, because a giant version of the cart was pulled through Jaggannath during their yearly chariot procession, which was misinterpreted by British observers (they thought that worshipers were deliberately throwing themselves in front of the cart as a sacrifice, when really the crowd was just out of control, and some people inevitably got trampled) and the word “Jaggannath” also got corrupted in translation). I learned also that “Hinduism” as a term was a product of imperialism, because Hindus didn’t necessarily see themselves as part of one religion but rather worshiped their choice of a pantheon of gods, and people living in different areas had completely different forms of worship, but the British lumped them all together for census purposes.

Happy godless cosmonaut poster (not its official name, just what I’ve chosen to call it). Image from https://sites.williams.edu/engl-209-fall16/essay-3/our-authority-over-the-bible/.

There were some hilarious angel carvings in here too, but of course, me being me, I was most drawn to the Soviet art that promoted atheism, especially the goofily grinning cosmonaut, above, who is proclaiming, “There is no God!” and a big mural showing all the secular customs that Soviets could adopt to replace religious ceremonies. I was also interested in the artefacts relating to the cult of Chairman Mao, including some weird mango badges, because apparently he gave away mangoes to people at some point, and they practically treated them as holy objects (probably because they were starving, on account of Mao being a real piece of shit). Really, this exhibit was more like a very disjointed collection of the weird and wonderful than any kind of cohesive display or commentary on human psychology or the anthropology of religion.  I also found the advertised “immersive sound and light effects” to be quite lame. There was simply normal dim lighting and a few sound effects that remained the same throughout the exhibit, rather than an actual immersive experience. The cheap looking cloth panels that served as walls didn’t really bring any atmosphere to the table either. If this was a free, or reasonably cheap exhibition, I would have been satisfied with simply looking at interesting objects, but for £15 (or even the £7.50 I paid) I expected lots more. This definitely did not live up to its promise, and it was also a real let-down that the shop attached to the exhibition wasn’t even selling happy godless cosmonaut posters (or anything with the cosmonaut, for that matter. Not even a postcard). The British Museum is always worth a visit, but save your money by skipping this exhibition and just seeing the free stuff, as there’s plenty of weird artefacts to look at in the permanent galleries!  2.5/5.

London: Cabinet of Curiosities @ the National Archives

I should start by saying that me and the National Archives are not exactly friends. Though I like the idea of archives in principle – in practice, I’m not a great one for following the rules, and man, most archives have a LOT of rules. I’ve had to go to the National Archives a few times over the years to do historical research (for some reason, though the surviving attestation papers for servicemen in WWI have been digitised, the service records for officers have not, so you have to go there in person to look at them), and after my last experience there, when one of their employees literally snapped my pencil in half for the “crime” of having an eraser on it (instead of just, you know, telling me I couldn’t have an eraser, and letting me go find another pencil), I was quite happy to just let my reader’s pass lapse.  But then Halloween rolled around this year, and I saw that the National Archives was hosting a special late event as part of the Museums at Night series that takes place in London a couple of times a year. And the event was Edwardian themed, with promises of stories of spiritualism and Egyptology, so I sucked it up and parted with 20 quid for a ticket (which in itself is insane, even without my dislike of the National Archives). But I was unconvinced that ending my unofficial boycott of the National Archives would prove to be a wise decision.

I was admittedly not in the best mood to start with, having not gotten home from work until 11:30 the night before after offering to help with a spooky walk given by my museum’s young persons’ group (I won’t be reviewing it for obvious reasons), so I wasn’t particularly keen on going out yet again after work when all I wanted to do was go home, eat, and go to bed, but it was really my own fault for booking tickets, so I ignored my grumbling stomach and caught a bus out to Kew.  The staff were all dressed in Edwardian outfits for the event with big roses pinned to their lapels so you could identify them, and though they had encouraged attendees to dress up, very few had (I wasn’t strictly speaking specially dressed up, since I just wore what I’d been wearing all day at work, but I have kind of an office-goth vibe going on most days anyway, so it did sort of look as though I’d made an effort). Though Eventbrite (with whom I’d booked the tickets) had promised to send over a schedule of events earlier in the week, they never did, so I only got a look at the programme after arriving. When I initially booked, I had to choose a time slot to watch the “mummy unwrapping,” and opted for the earlier slot in case the event was so lame that I didn’t want to hang around til the late one, which meant we were handed a colour coded sticker when we arrived to gain entrance to the earlier showing. Unfortunately, it also served as a kind of beacon for certain staff members to try to dictate to us how we should spend our time.

Since we had about half an hour before the unwrapping, we first tried to view the Keeper’s Gallery, as the programme promised it held special oddities, only to be turned away at the door because I was still carrying my purse (I was evidently going to steal something, despite everything in the exhibit being behind glass). So I duly stowed it away in a locker, and returned, only to realise it was just the same crap in the Keeper’s Gallery that’s always there, and in fact nothing special had been put out for this event. So we instead headed for the Case Studies room, which was meant to have materials relating to spiritualism, only to be turned away there too, because apparently “we might not be able to get upstairs to the mummy unveiling in time.” I realise they were probably just trying to be helpful, but c’mon – I’m a grown-ass woman, and I really dislike being bossed around at an event that I paid a bundle to attend. I had plenty of time to see the handful of ephemera in that room and get upstairs when I needed to, and I’m perfectly capable of doing my own time-keeping, thanks. I mean, it wasn’t like you were only allowed in once – if I didn’t have time to see everything then, I could have come back later. And it turned out that the mummy unwrapping ended up starting late, so we definitely would have had plenty of time to look around the Case Studies room beforehand. As it was, we just stood around the outside of the room where the mummy unwrapping was due to take place like idiots for twenty minutes. I guess the only positive was that it gave me time to take a stupid photo in their Egyptian background with one of the straw boaters that were provided for some reason.

So, the mummy unwrapping then. Though my expectations at this point were not high, it was actually better than expected. It was a presentation by Odette Toilette, who does various scent-themed immersive experiences around London, and some man who professed to be an Egyptologist (it wasn’t really clear if he actually was one in real life, or was just an actor, since he did seem to know a lot about mummies). It was based on actual mummy unwrappings that took place in Victorian England, where people would gather to watch an archaeologist basically desecrate a mummy (after they were unwrapped, they were either sold to be turned into medicine or made into paint, mummy brown apparently being a popular colour with the Pre-Raphaelites), though obviously this event did not involve a real mummy. They took us through the process of unwrapping a “mummy” by removing a few layers of bandages and describing the scents that would have arisen during the process, and we were duly given scent cards for each one, so we could smell along. These were not as gross as you might have expected, and included things like juniper, pine resin, beeswax, and myrrh. They actually gave quite a good performance; especially the poor “mummy” who came very close to having his skull cracked open (I was really impressed that he managed to lay perfectly still for so long, especially with people touching his hands and feet!), and I left feeling slightly less pissy at the National Archives.

Because of the way the talks were scheduled, you really only had time to attend two lectures in addition to the mummy unwrapping. Despite the Edwardian theme, we actually had a choice of talks on medieval witchcraft, the second Pendle witch craze (17th century), female Egyptologists, and the alleged curse of Tutankamun (1920s), which was fine, because those are all things I’m interested in, but I feel like there was enough spooky stuff going on in Edwardian Britain for them to have stuck to the theme, especially since they were the ones who chose it, and it was all people working for the National Archives who gave the lectures. I believe there were also lectures by the Cemetery Club, as noted on a sign inside the archives, but for some reason they weren’t listed on the programme, so I’m not sure if they actually took place.

We had about forty minutes to kill before the first lecture started (having missed the first round of lectures during the mummy unwrapping) so we headed back to the stupid Case Studies room that we were initially denied access to, and surprise surprise, it only took about five minutes to see it (not that I’m salty or anything). It was just a collection of documents relating primarily to prosecutions of Edwardian fortune tellers (for fraud) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in spiritualism and many letters in defense of it. And if you dared to try to turn one of the pages, someone came up and yelled at you and made a show of doing it for you with gloves (I didn’t dare touch anything after my pencil experience, but I saw someone else being shamed). I understand wanting to protect the documents, but then either have them behind glass, or have a sign out saying not to touch them, because scolding people for showing an interest is not a good way to change people’s perceptions of archives, and the documents were just sitting out on tables like normal books, so it wasn’t obvious that you weren’t allowed to turn the pages if you weren’t familiar with the ways of archives. Since we finished with that so quickly, we went to claim our free drinks (fortunately, the choices included semi-fancy soda, because I would have fallen asleep on the spot if I’d had alcohol), and then kind of just milled about listening to some Cockney old-timey style band (who complimented my tights, so they were alright with me!), and attempting to play a ball throwing game that was harder than it looked.

We chose to attend the lectures on medieval witchcraft and Tutankamun’s curse, and they were actually pretty good, especially the witchcraft one. I took an online course on medieval witchcraft a couple of months ago, so I wasn’t expecting to learn much here, but the lecturer told us about specific trials for witchcraft that I hadn’t heard of before (one involved a hand of glory, and the man’s “confession” is thought to be the first short story written in modern English), most of which involved trying to kill the king, which is why the people were prosecuted in the first place (witchcraft wasn’t necessarily frowned upon in the Middle Ages if you weren’t actually trying to harm anyone; for example, some men allegedly summoned a spirit and used it to find the location of some treasure, and the authorities were angry not on account of the necromancy, but because they didn’t declare the treasure once they’d found it. Their penalty was only a fine, rather than execution or something as you’d expect in the early modern period). He also chose some pretty good images to illustrate his talk, and I left feeling pleased with it.

The Tutankamun talk was somewhat less successful, mainly because the lecturer spent the talk trying to debunk the notion of a curse, which isn’t much fun around Halloween (I’d much rather hear about using the parts of a dead man to work magic). She was interesting enough, it just wasn’t really what I wanted to hear, I guess. But still, after my experience at that awful robot event last year, I’m glad I got to attend both talks, because the programme warned us that the lecture theatres had limited capacities and I was worried enough about it to show up early to both lecture rooms (I suppose the 20 quid entry fee helped keep numbers down, but it is London, and tickets had sold out, so I think the National Archives actually did place a reasonable limit on the number of tickets sold instead of being greedy). The witchcraft talk was completely full, but the Tutankamun one had lots of empty seats, probably because it was at the end of the night, and a lot of people had already gone home.

Even though the staff weren’t overly welcoming when we arrived, they seemed to mellow out a bit as the night went on, and I was pleased with the quality of the talks and presentations overall, though I really don’t think it was 20 pound’s worth of entertainment, and I definitely think they could have done a much better job of sticking with an Edwardian theme if they were going to bother to give it a theme at all. Why not some talks on spiritualism (as there was clearly material in the archives relating to this), or Edwardian murder cases (like creepy Crippen)? I also think there could have been more entertainment provided between talks, because the Cockney performers were more just background noise than something you’d actually sit there and watch, and though there was a magician, he was kind of hidden over in a corner rather than front and centre putting on a show. It just wasn’t enough considering how much we’d paid. If it had only been a tenner, I’d have left feeling reasonably satisfied with the evening, but it sure wasn’t worth twice that. I also think they could have had better props in the “photo booths” and maybe got a professional photographer in to offer actual prints for a reasonable fee, because I love that kind of thing, and it would have been better than relying on my own poor efforts. And it was completely freezing in there the whole time, like they had the air conditioning on or something (I get that archival materials probably have to be kept in a specific environment, but they could have at least turned to heat on in the lecture rooms) so I had to cling desperately to my jacket the entire night, which I was only able to get away with because it was a hoodie, as they apparently frown on jackets as well for security purposes (turn the heat on then!).  3/5 for the event overall, but I wish it could have been Halloweenier, better themed, and that some (though not all, one of the stewards was really nice) of the staff could have been friendlier.

Hever, Kent: Hever Castle

I promised more Halloween posts, and at first glance, Hever Castle might not seem to fit that category, but hear me out. First of all, it bills itself as the “childhood home of Anne Boleyn” and we all know what happened to Anne Boleyn, as well as various other members of the Boleyn clan, so it has a very high potential for being haunted (if ghosts were real, of course). Secondly, it is also home to “700 years of history,” including a room full of torture implements (I suspect they’re not original to the house, but still, they might have souls attached to them or something), so lots more opportunities for ghosts there. Finally, every year during October half-term (it’s just a week-long break from school, but because pretty much all schools do it, it’s like an actual thing here that even people without kids (like me) notice on account of the resulting lack of traffic which means I can catch the bus to work twenty minutes later than normal that week), they do a special Halloween event, and I braved the hordes of children (and their parents) this year to check it out.

  

This was actually more of an undertaking than just dealing with crowds, as we had to rent a car to get down there, and then pay £15.90 each to get inside (we saved a whole measly pound by booking online the night before), but I was a woman on a mission. You see, I went to Hever Castle some years ago, well before I had this blog, and while we were sitting in the tearoom, having just enjoyed a slice of cake, a man emerged from the kitchen bearing a tray of ghost cupcakes, which he grandly set down on the cake table. I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t end up with a ghost cupcake that day (certainly not because I’d already had cake – there’s always room for more cake!); I think at the time the cafe may have been cash only, and we’d spent all we had on the non-ghost cake and tea. At any rate, the memory of the ghost cupcake that got away has haunted me (ha) through the intervening years, and I reckoned that visiting during Halloween half-term was the best chance I had of putting it right.

  

I could leave you in suspense until the end of the post, but I’m telling this visit like it was, and the truth is that I made a beeline for the cafe as soon as we got inside the grounds. And was rewarded, as you can probably see, with not only a ghost cupcake, but a tombstone one as well. Unfortunately, it was very much not worth the wait. The cake was a bit heavy, and the stuff underneath the fondant ghost was not frosting, as I’d assumed (and hoped), but a marshmallow!  I’m not keen on marshmallow at the best of times, and certainly not when I was anticipating frosting. I mean, I ate it, because I pretty much had to after making such a stink about the damn ghost cupcakes, but it was cloyingly sweet (even for me), and would have greatly benefited from actual buttercream and maybe some jam to cut the sweetness (I guess they were intended for children, but I honestly think I was looking forward to that ghost cupcake way more than any child was). I probably should have gone for the tombstone one, as Marcus tells me the tombstone was an After Eight.  Anyway, with that disappointment out of the way early, we headed off to explore the gardens.

  

The gardens were not as disappointing as the ghost cupcakes, at least not the Italianate one, which was bestrewn with Halloween decorations (lame, half-assed British ones, but still), but there was still some measure of disappointment because there was some kind of scavenger hunt for children where if they spotted all the terracotta pumpkins, they could collect candy at the end, and of course there was no equivalent scavenger hunt for adults. Frankly, they didn’t even have to give me candy or anything, I just would have enjoyed the hunt, though if one of the terracotta pumpkins was on offer as a prize, I certainly wouldn’t have turned it down. (I was upset that the terracotta pumpkins weren’t even for sale in any of the many, many gift shops, as I was quite taken with them.)

  

I guess now is a good time to cantankerously say a word about the way the British celebrate Halloween, which I still find perplexing after living here for the best part of a decade. Halloween is becoming more of a thing here, which is good, because it was still pretty low-key when I first moved here, but I have to say that in my opinion, something just ain’t right with Halloween in England. It is really strange to me that children get dressed up to go wander around a stately home – where I come from, your costume was special – something you spent months planning and really put some effort into (admittedly, I was a vampire like three years in a row because I REALLY liked vampires, but I had a different vampire look each year, and I did genuinely stress about picking a costume. I’d have nightmares where it was Halloween night, and I didn’t have a costume, so I couldn’t go trick or treating), and you pretty much saved it just for Halloween itself, unless you got invited to a costume party or something. Here, it seems like people slap on “fancy dress,” as they call it (confusingly), for any old occasion, and there’s a complete lack of effort with their Halloween costumes. Every kid just wears these awful generic costumes that came direct from Tesco or something, and there’s no creativity on show at all.  And the most annoying thing is that aside from Halloween dance parties at clubs (big old nope from me) and a few late night events at museums (and that very unspooky pet cemetery walk), pretty much everything is aimed at children, which is why I had to awkwardly show up to Hever Castle during half-term when we were basically the only childless couple there aside from a couple of groups of foreign tourists. Trick or treating may just be for children (though I actually do quite like passing out candy, not that I’ve gotten to do it in years), but Halloween is for everyone, and I wish Halloween events in Britain would reflect that.

  

OK, rant over (at least that rant, there may be more). So, despite my displeasure at being excluded from Halloween fun, at least I could enjoy the decorations and all the unintentionally creepy statues that lived in the garden (like Pan there, yikes!). And Hever Castle is also home to a couple mazes. I did not get to go in the water one, which I remembered from my earlier visit, because it was entirely full of children running around while their parents looked on, and I would have felt like a creep going in there (and not in the Halloween sense, but in the weird pervert sense), but I did go in the yew maze, which was just a bit too easy. I wasn’t even sick of wandering around yet when I inadvertently found my way out.

  

The gardens were also home to some children’s activities that looked like a lot of fun (archery aiming at targets with headless knights painted on them and a repel your own vampire kit that involved planting a bulb of garlic in a pot that you then sprinkled with “holy water”) that were yet again a no-go for adults, so I gave up and we made our way over to the castle itself.

  

Though I didn’t remember being particularly impressed by the castle on my first visit, this time it ended up being the best part of the day, mainly on account of the vampire questions and answers that someone had placed in each room of the house. I’m still not sure exactly how vampires relate to Hever Castle (ghosts would have made more sense, for the reasons stated at the start of the post), but I’m not complaining, because these were delightful, and full of lame little jokes and puns that I just loved.

  

I suppose the interiors weren’t half bad either, even without the vampire facts. Though the house was owned by the Boleyn family in the Tudor period, by the early 20th century, it had been purchased by the Astors (of Waldorf Hotel fame), namely William Waldorf Astor, who also owned the splendid Two Temple Place in London, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times. I’d say that the man had taste, except that the rooms he decorated in Hever Castle were my overriding memory of the house on my first visit, and the reason that I wasn’t particularly impressed by it. They would have been fine in an Edwardian mansion, but the style of the Astor rooms just doesn’t seem to fit inside a 13th century castle (with Tudor additions).

  

But I did love the more Tudory rooms, especially the ones that told the story of Anne’s life, illustrated by wax figure tableaux.

   

I dressed up like Anne Boleyn for Halloween some years ago, and I’ve always felt bad for her, because she might have been ambitious or even calculating (though it’s hard to say if she actually was, given the way women were treated at the time, and the slurs thrown at her after her death), but really, once Henry took an interest, what was she supposed to do? She had to essentially choose whether to prostitute herself, or hold out for what seemed like the better option of marriage, and she definitely didn’t deserve to be beheaded. The castle holds a few of Anne’s personal possessions, like a Book of Hours she wrote in, and copies of letters sent between her and Henry, the last letter she ever wrote him being especially sad (she basically offered to sacrifice herself so that her brother’s and friends’ lives would be spared, but of course Henry, being an enormous asshole, executed the lot of them).

  

The room full of torture implements that I mentioned earlier is also depressing, and kind of scary (I like creepy stuff, but the scolds’ masks are a bridge too far even for me. For some reason those freak me out more than actual maiming devices), but never fear, the castle also contains stuff like a random case full of derpy dog figurines to lighten the mood. There’s also a few rooms about the Astor family and their ownership of the house, including the almost obligatory room about life “belowstairs,” which was actually not completely uninteresting, especially, for some reason, the room assignment charts for when the Astors had parties – maybe because I couldn’t imagine having that many house guests every weekend (but then, I’ve never lived in a house that had actual separate wings and I also hate having guests, unless I know them well enough that I don’t have to change out of jimjams).

 

After seeing the inside of the castle, we still weren’t done, because the estate is vast. We wandered past some splendid animal topiaries, and were en route to a regimental museum when I got side-tracked by an ice cream hut (not the first one I’d seen that day, but the first one that was actually open).  After wolfing down a few scoops (much better than the cupcake, though I have to admit that I was surprised that chocolate chip turned out to be chocolate ice cream, because chocolate chip is normally vanilla with chocolate chips in it. I guess that explains why I’ve never had chocolate chip in Britain before) we resumed the search for the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Museum, which is rather well hidden. I didn’t even realise it existed on our first visit, and wouldn’t have this time either if I hadn’t seen it mentioned on the website when we booked the tickets. There are no signs pointing to it once you’re in the grounds, though it is marked on the map they hand you when you walk in, but you really have to be looking for it.

  

After visiting it, I can kind of see why they don’t publicise it more. It’s not awful, but it’s not particularly impressive, being one long hut where you wind your way through reading posters (or mainly skipping them in my case, as they were overly wordy and not that interesting) with a few display cases. The only real object of note, other than a couple wax figures, was the ceramic figure of the regiment’s desert fox mascot, who is very cute. I do feel bad that no one seems to visit the museum though – at least, we were the only people inside, even though everywhere else on the estate was rammed.

  

After the KSY Museum, we headed over to one of the gift shops that also housed a collection of miniature houses, which I adore. They had Tudor, Stuart, and Georgian houses, as well as a few scenes from a Victorian household at Christmas, and they were all pretty charming, especially the Georgian one, which I would totally live in if it were real. Apparently one of the sons was a redcoat home from fighting those pesky Americans, and you could see him telling his parents all about it in the drawing room (yes, they were that detailed).

  

Aside from some fruitless searching for those terracotta jack o’lanterns in the shops, that was pretty much it for our visit, and we strolled back to the carpark (on the other side of the estate) through the water garden, which was very soothing (especially after having my nerves jangled by children running about and shrieking all day). There wasn’t really anything else Halloweeny of note, though I guess I should be grateful that there was even as much as there was, albeit not even aimed at adults, because the vampire facts + activities (that I couldn’t participate in) + Halloween decorations in the garden + ghost cupcakes is about as festive as England ever gets for Halloween.

  

Hever Castle is undoubtedly really, really expensive, but you do get more or less a full day out for your money, so that’s something. If you’re not bothered about Halloween decorations, I highly recommend coming when it’s not half-term, unless you have kids. The estate itself is pretty nice (and obviously quite photogenic), but I just can’t get over my disappointment at British Halloween events (and I’ll be blogging about another next week), even though I really should know better by now, and Hever Castle admittedly makes more of an effort than most. 3.5/5.

 

 

London: The Secret Pet Cemetery of Hyde Park

 

How’s that for a good October post title?!  I have a couple more Ohio posts coming eventually, but you all know that I pretty much live for Halloween, so I can’t resist sharing a couple creepy posts while it’s still October. I have wanted to visit this Victorian pet cemetery ever since I found out about its existence during London Month of the Dead a few years ago, but the tour offered that year was already booked up by the time I saw it (I’ve since learned my lesson and book all my Halloween events in August. Stupid populous London). Last year, I was ready and waiting, but the pet cemetery tours never appeared on the London Month of the Dead website. But this year, this year, I got in. Seems like the Royal Parks finally got smart, and now offer about a dozen tours over the course of October, instead of just one (at the time of writing this post, it looked like one of them even still had some availability).

  

Since the tour is run by the Royal Parks (or their Friends, perhaps) it wasn’t simply a tour of the pet cemetery, but of Hyde Park more generally, so we had to meet by Speakers’ Corner. Good thing there was a guy with a Royal Parks jacket and a clipboard standing there, because otherwise I don’t think I would have spotted our fellow walkers. Unlike most London Month of the Dead events, where most of the attendees are, well, like me, if not much more overtly gothy, because this one was primarily a Royal Parks event, almost everyone else there were older “Friends of the Royal Parks” looking types, all ready to go in their waterproof autumn walking gear. Which probably also explains why the walk wasn’t quite as creepy as I was hoping it would be.

  

We began our tour with the nearby “Animals in War” memorial, which I had somehow never seen before, but it is absolutely lovely. We heard more about the role of animals in WWI, including the guide’s wife’s grandfather’s story, as he had worked with pack animals transporting ammunition to the Front, and this was all very well and good – I like animals and WWI, but it was far more poignant than scary.

  

We proceeded to the area where Tyburn used to be (now Marble Arch), and as he started telling us that over 100,000 people were executed in the seven centuries it was in operation (which, if true, is an absolutely appalling number, but I haven’t found that figure listed anywhere else in my admittedly limited research for this post), I thought, “now this is more like it!” Unfortunately, apart from a brief mention of the “Tyburn Tree,” a triangular gallows that could hang twenty-four people at a time (this was before the long-drop, mind, so it could take up to 20 minutes of slow strangulation for a person to die, with their limbs jerking ghoulishly all the while), the grisliness ended there. Instead, he told us the story of Jack Sheppard, which is interesting, but like anyone who is fascinated by the macabre, I’d heard it about twenty times before, so I do wish he could have shared a less well-known story with us (though perhaps it was new to the respectable types who were on the tour with us).

  

Thenceforth to the monument to the Reformers’ Tree, which was burnt down in 1866 during the Reform League protests. I’d never seen this monument either (I don’t come to Hyde Park much, as I mentioned in the Grayson Perry at the Serpentine post), and I was interested in hearing more about this plaque and what it symbolised, but apart from telling us why they were protesting (men’s voting rights, or rather, the lack thereof for working class men), the guide didn’t say much about it. We then went on to a more wooded area of Hyde Park and heard about stag beetles and their life cycle, which I suppose was rather creepy only because I think stag beetles are gross, but not in a Halloweeny kind of way.

 

But then, we finally came to the part I’d been waiting for. Hiding behind a secret gate next to a very unassuming looking maintenance building, was the pet cemetery. It was started in 1881 by the gatekeeper at the time, a Mr. Winbridge, who allowed some of his friends to bury their beloved dog “Cherry” in his garden (I hope he lived in the most excellent “lodge” (which actually looks like it could be an amazing witch’s cottage) a short distance away which I’ll show you a picture of at the end of the post, but if the graves were in his backyard, it’s more likely that there was some other building there before the ugly maintenance one), and it grew from there to include over 300 graves, including the Duke of Cambridge’s dog, who was run over by a carriage (the Victorian Duke of Cambridge that is, who was a cousin of Queen Victoria. Not the current one). Which is kind of amazing given how small it is (I know pet bodies aren’t as big as human ones, but still. I also think it’s kind of obnoxious that poor Mr. Winbridge had to give up the whole of his tiny garden to accommodate animal bodies, what with the rest of Hyde Park just sitting right there, but maybe he was into that kind of thing. Having a cemetery in his garden, that is, not necrophiliac bestiality).

  

It’s not a scary kind of Pet Sematary pet cemetery, but is actually rather sweet and quaint, and I enjoyed reading the heartfelt epitaphs on many of the tiny graves. The guide made sure to point out the “murder victim” to us, poor Balu, who was “poisoned by a cruel Swiss.” I think the grave inscriptions are pretty interesting, so I’ll include some here so you can read them for yourselves (see my Instagram for even more!). I have to wonder if poor “Tubby” actually was overweight, because he seems to be buried all by himself, even though space was at a premium.  They’re not all dogs or cats either; see if you can spot the monkey and crocodile!

  

  

  

  

So did the pet cemetery live up to expectations? Absolutely! I thought it was fantastic, though I’m still not sure if it was worth the 15 quid it cost to go on the tour. Perhaps if the rest of the walk had measured up to it, I would have felt that it was better value, but though our guide was certainly competent, the content of the walk was utterly lacking the scare factor I would have liked from a cemetery tour. What with Tyburn being right there, and with the park itself dating back to Henry VIII’s reign, I’m sure there must be plenty of murders and ghost stories associated with it that the guide could have told us, instead of the not at all spooky subject matter he offered us. I might have been reasonably satisfied with it at another time of year (actually, that’s a lie; for me, eerieness never goes out of season), but not as an October walk!  I suppose it was worth doing just to see the cemetery, but I think the price is high for what you actually get (though I suspect the majority of the other people on our tour were probably perfectly satisfied with the tour’s lack of creepiness).  3/5 for the walk, but the cemetery itself is practically perfect. Oh, and here’s the “witch cottage” I mentioned earlier; I’d be very happy to move in and tend the pet cemetery and scare children away if they need someone to do that kind of thing.