UK

London: The Havering Hoard @ Museum of Docklands

Much as I’ve missed visiting museums, I have to admit that I am primarily a food-driven individual, and I have missed visiting markets even more. One of the places I’ve been dying to go back to is Greenwich Market, solely for the sake of getting a Brazilian churro, surely one of the most delicious foods ever invented. But Greenwich is an awfully long way to travel just for the sake of a churro (though I have been known to do it in the past), and so I tried to tie a museum visit into the experience. The National Maritime Museum is usually a prime candidate, but their special exhibition is currently just portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, and I frankly don’t see why I should pay to see that when I can just wait until the NPG reopens and see it for free. But the Museum of London Docklands is not terribly far from Greenwich (I tend to think of everything on the DLR as being close together, even though it’s actually not, but it’s fun to ride, and where else can you find places named Mudchute and Island Gardens right next to each other? (Spoiler: Island Gardens is not any nicer than Mudchute. The names are meaningless)), and they currently have a temporary exhibition on the Havering Hoard, which is on until 22 August and is free – you just need to pre-book a free general admission ticket to see it.

  

My interest in hoards is admittedly pretty minimal, but Marcus was interested in seeing it, and when a friend wanted to meet up that day, I suggested he join us as well. Even though it was a Sunday, the museum wasn’t all that busy, especially the Havering Hoard gallery. I guess we should have researched what the Havering Hoard actually was before turning up, because we were all envisioning a collection of precious objects in silver and gold, maybe some coins and jewellery, you know, nice stuff that someone would keep hidden away for a reason. Well, the Havering Hoard is not that. Instead, it is a collection of late Bronze Age pottery shards (sherds) and other practical items, like axe handles, found in the London Borough of Havering (that I had really only heard of because they were one of the few London boroughs that voted for Brexit, which pretty much automatically put them on my shit list) in 2018. It is apparently the third largest Bronze Age hoard found in the UK, consisting of 453 separate objects, though if most of those objects are broken pieces of pottery, is it really that exciting?

 

Well, maybe to archaeologists, but not really to me or Marcus or our friend. The exhibition wasn’t very large because only a selection of the objects were on display (either because all sherds basically look the same, or because they just didn’t want to excite us too much), but we did take the time to read all the signage, which mainly consisted of descriptions of how the objects in the hoard would have been made, and theories as to why they may have been buried (personally, I would say it was because it all looked like garbage, and that was actually one of the theories! The others were to keep it safe, as an offering to the gods, or as a symbol of status, though I can’t see how the last one could be true. How could you show your power by hiding everything away where no one could see it?). In my opinion, the best part of the exhibition was the foot pedals that illuminated x-rays of the hoard on one of the walls. Covid safe and fun! My friend had somehow never been to the Museum of Docklands before, so we went for a stroll through the permanent galleries, which looked the same as the last time I visited, except for a cool treadwheel thing I had somehow never noticed before (maybe because it was always full of children in the past), so Covid be damned, we had to give it a go (there was a hand sanitiser dispenser nearby, so we just sanitised before and after) and it proved to be super fun but also kind of dangerous, because it was very easy to fall over once it got going.

   

Having finished with Museum of Docklands, we finally headed over to Greenwich to grab that sweet, sweet dulce de leche filled churro, and god was it worth travelling for. I just wish they’d get another stall somewhere closer to me (if I ever have a belated wedding reception, I’m going to ask them to cater it). And more delights awaited us when we walked over to Deptford to see the Peter the Great statue. I don’t know how I’ve lived in London as long as I have without laying eyes on this masterpiece, but it is seriously one of the most hilarious statues I have ever seen, and so inexplicable. Why is Peter’s head so small? Why does the little person have flies on his coat? Why does the throne have what is either Pan or a demon head on the back (I assume the eyes and ears are to show that Peter was all-seeing and all-hearing)? Why are there random dishes of food on the back of the sculpture? So many questions.

 

The plaque on the sculpture wasn’t massively helpful, telling us that it was here because Peter visited Deptford in 1698 to learn more about shipbuilding, and the statue was a gift from the Russian people to commemorate this, though it wasn’t built until 2000. I did a bit of research online, and the stories about Peter’s time in London are frankly as insane as the sculpture. He visited London under an assumed name, though as he was almost seven feet tall and the ruler of Russia, this probably wasn’t all that effective in disguising his identity. He was trying to modernise Russia, and learning about shipbuilding in London was part of this effort. He rented the diarist John Evelyn’s house, and by all accounts, completely destroyed it with his drunken carousing. His entourage included a little person (Peter was known for his fascination with genetic abnormalities, and he had a retinue of people with dwarfism as well as an army of extremely tall people) who he allegedly pushed on a wheelbarrow through Evelyn’s famous gardens, thus wrecking them. His head was a normal size in real life, but the sculptor who made this (Mihail Chemiakin, who was forced to leave the USSR in the 1970s for being too controversial) seems to only be able to sculpt tiny heads, so I guess that explains that one. The rest of it is still a mystery, but it is glorious (Prince Michael of Kent did the unveiling, and I would have killed to be there. How could you not die laughing when the cloth got pulled off to reveal this?), and we spent a good hour sitting on a bench nearby, chatting and basking in the weirdness of this statue (and watching the reactions of other passersby also seeing it for the first time), and I decided that if I ever become emperor of the world, I will have a throne just like this one. Highly recommended, much more so than the Havering Hoard exhibition!

London: “Epic Iran” @ the V&A

With a name like “Epic Iran”, you’d expect something, well, epic, right? Did the V&A’s new exhibition live up to expectations? Read on to find out (with a lot of waffle in between, though sadly not actual waffles).

I had not been to the V&A in a very long time indeed, considering how regularly I used to go. My last visit was in the last of the pre-Covid days, back in February 2020. I did try to see the “Bags Inside Out” exhibition last December when they were briefly open, but it was sold out on all the days I could visit (it’s still on, so I will hopefully make it there eventually). So when they opened slots for pre-booking in April, I hedged my bets (since we still weren’t 100% sure museums would be able to open on the “Covid road map” schedule at that point) and booked a ticket to “Epic Iran” for early June, because it looked more appealing than the Alice in Wonderland exhibition (which I’ll probably see too eventually, but I’ve never liked the book, and it looks like it will be a case of style over substance).

On a very hot day, we queued up outside the Exhibition Road entrance of the V&A (the main entrance is currently exit only) and got processed more quickly than the people who had just booked a free ticket to the permanent collections. Admission to “Epic Iran” is £18, or £9 with Art Pass, and it runs until September. It wasn’t super clear where we had to go when we first entered the building, as staff seemed mainly focussed on directing people to Alice, but we soon caught sight of some signs and made our own way there. The exhibition aims to explore “5000 years of art, design, and culture” which is quite a big ask for an exhibition space that isn’t even the V&A’s largest, but they certainly took a stab at it.

The Persian Empire got its start in the sixth century BC under Cyrus the Great, who conquered what was once Babylonia and united the region. At its height, the Persian Empire was massive and went well beyond the boundaries of modern day Iran, stretching over much of Asia, to the Balkans in Europe, and parts of Libya and Egypt in Africa. Early Persia was firmly Zoroastrian, which I remember learning about in a World Religions class I took as an undergrad. I found the religion memorable mainly for its practice of ritual exposure or “sky burial”, the idea being that to bury a corpse would be to pollute the earth, so better to leave it out to be picked at by vultures. Other than that, it seems to be your standard good vs. evil mostly monotheistic religion that Christianity and Islam both borrowed from. If you like little clay pots with animals on them, and vases of men with erect penises holding water jugs, you’ll like Zoroastrian art.

There were an awful lot of objects in this exhibition, objects that, to be fair, probably shouldn’t even be in British collections, including the Cyrus Cylinder, made in about 539 BC, which tells the story of how Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire, and normally lives at the British Museum. Also some bad-ass animal horns and various things made from gold.

There were also some pages from a manuscript of the Shahnameh, an epic poem that tells the story of the Persian Empire through the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Like most epic poems, it involves a lot of killing, so those made for some fun illustrations. There were also early Islamic manuscripts with illustrations of various monsters and demons, which of course I loved. And brutal looking armour with pointy kneecaps, I guess so you could poke someone’s eyes out with your knees. Fun!

The little lion incense burner on the left reminds me of the robot devil from Futurama. He was in the section on poetry, which also featured a recording of someone reading out poems in Farsi. There were of course some Persian rugs here, but honestly they were probably the least interesting things in the exhibition. Who wants to look at rugs when you could be looking at paintings of people with aggressive eyebrows, women included? If I relinquished my tweezers, I think I would fit right in.

Obviously, most of history is male-centric, but the exhibition did have a section of the role of women in Persia. Women went from having some rights to having no rights, back to some, and then finally back to no rights again after the Iranian Revolution. In much of recent-ish (the last few centuries) history, women lived in harem-type arrangements where they were sequestered from men, and couldn’t leave the house without being heavily veiled; however, from the Victorian era onward, fashions within the harem setting changed greatly depending on the whims of the ruler at the time. I was interested to learn that skirts gradually got shorter, inspired by Nasir al Din Shah’s love of ballet, until the women in his harem were basically wearing miniskirts (in the 1870s!). Women eventually got to modernise and reclaim some rights, just in time for the Islamist Revolution to send them right back (actually quite a bit further back than) where they started.

The exhibition, having taken us on an accelerated ride throughout history, got to contemporary art by the end, and I really loved some of the pieces here, especially the photograph by Azadeh Akhlaghi recreating the 1974 shooting of activist Marzieh Ahmadi Oskuie, the photographs of modern Iranian women done in a Victorian style, and a shrine style collage piece with dancing blue lights. This was also the part of the exhibition where we encountered a pair of exceptionally annoying school-aged children who had borrowed a pair of those fold out chairs intended for people who struggle to stand for long periods and were proceeding to smash them repeatedly into the floor, much to the consternation of the gallery attendant, so it was fortunate we were spared them for most of the exhibition (it was half-term, but maybe a more child-friendly exhibition would have been a better choice for them). So this is maybe not one to bring the kids to, but as an adult, I really loved it. I thought the art was fabulous, and I enjoyed learning a bit more about Iran’s history, though obviously a seven or eight room exhibition about 5000 years of history is never going to be comprehensive. Maybe not quite “epic”, but it was certainly a good attempt. 4/5.

Mainly including this photo so you can see my apricot dress, because I ❤ it.

London: Ritual Britain @ the Crypt Gallery

I went to see the “Ritual Britain” exhibition, a collaboration between artist Ben Edge and the Museum of British Folklore, at the Crypt in Euston a few weeks ago, and though the exhibition ended on the 4th of July, I still wanted to post about it so people who didn’t get the chance to go can at least see some photos and read about what it was like.

I’m interested in folklore generally, maybe because America hasn’t really been around long enough to have developed folk traditions in the way they exist in Europe (though I guess we have urban legends that are gradually becoming folklore – it’s been a while since I’ve read Ghostland, but I seem to recall Colin Dickey addressing this very subject more extensively than I can do here), so I’m trying to fill the void with other countries’ traditions. Given all the super weird and highly regional British customs and practices (straw bears, Burry Men, cheese rolling, shin kicking, etc), I think it’s a bit odd that there isn’t a permanent folklore museum here, since I’ve certainly been to ones in other European countries, though maybe it has something to do with the legacy of imperialism and some British traditions being a bit controversial (burning Catholics in effigy springs immediately to mind). At any rate, the Museum of British Folklore normally only exists online, with occasional temporary exhibitions hosted in various galleries and museums around the UK. This was the first one I’d heard of taking place in London, so I was excited to attend.

The exhibition was free and there no pre-booking required, which is a bit novel in itself these days, but I was worried that it would get crowded on the weekends, so I took a Friday off to go (I mean, it wasn’t just for this. I also wanted to hit Borough Market, because it’s too busy on weekends and I never get to go anymore since I changed jobs and thus my working days last November, and I had to use the leave up soon anyway), and there was only a handful of people inside, so this was obviously a good plan. I’d been to St. Pancras Old Church (my computer wants me to change Pancras to pancreas so badly) before to see their awesome tombstone tree, but never St. Pancras New Church (which was built in 1819, so isn’t really that new anymore), and the Crypt is an awesome and creepy venue, as you can see from the photo at the start, which made it perfect for this exhibition, as I tend to think a lot of British folklore is vaguely sinister in a Wicker Man sort of way.

The exhibition consisted of Ben Edge’s “Frontline Folklore” series of paintings interspersed with objects from the museum’s collection. Now, I LOVE Ben Edge’s paintings (I just ordered a print of that Clown Church one for my house to go with the clown eggs Marcus made – I have a real obsession with creepy-ass clowns lately, maybe because of the clown episode of Wellington Paranormal, which literally made me laugh until I cried), but the real stuff is even scarier, and an old crypt that was full of actual stacks of tombstones was an excellent way to showcase it.

Just look at the unsettling stares of those Morris dancer dolls (designed to showcase the costumes of different troupes) or that giant corn dolly (those always make me think of that Jeffrey Ford “Word Doll” story, which I recommend if you haven’t read it). I actually took a Morris dancing class once, and it is a LOT harder than it looks, so I’m impressed by anyone that can actually do it, but I have to admit that there is something a bit off-putting about the whole thing to anyone who is a bit of an outsider, especially the sides (fortunately not many, these days) that still insist on using black face (when I went to the Morris class, I deliberately picked an all-female side with more progressive views (they dance at Pride and stuff), but I was still scared they’d hear my accent and tell me to get lost or something, and I really had to work up my courage to actually attend. They turned out to be perfectly nice, but it was still a blindingly white affair, and I can see why, if I felt intimidated about going just on account of an American accent), and I would say that Morris is actually one of the more accessible British traditions. Some of the hyper-localised customs give me Tubbs and Edward from The League of Gentlemen vibes (“this is a local shop, for local people; there’s nothing for you here.”), I guess because they seem designed to make outsiders feel like outsiders, but I suppose that’s also how places develop an identity for themselves, so maybe I’m interpreting things in an overly negative way due to my lack of exposure to these customs until moving to the UK as an adult. With all that being said, I think it is the fact that a lot of these practices are contained to one specific village or area that makes them so strange and fascinating to me.

There was a video at the end of the exhibition, made by Ben Edge, where he had filmed some of these practices in action back in 2019, including the Mari Lwyd, which is basically a skeleton ‘obby ‘oss (hobby horse) used in Wales in a sort of caroling tradition, where men carry it from house to house demanding food and drink and singing a special song in Welsh, and if you aren’t expecting it, it has to be way freakier than any carolers at your door (though I would hide from them too). He had also filmed himself in 2020 talking about the way that the pandemic and the BLM movement were changing British folk traditions, such as the elimination of black face from Morris dancing (except for the resistant troupes I mentioned earlier). It seemed really interesting, but it was also very long, and I wasn’t inclined to sit there for an hour and a half in a tiny room with strangers watching a video, so I only caught about ten minutes of it, but maybe it’s available somewhere online. They did have an events programme tied in with the exhibition that included some film screenings and Morris dancing, but I’m still not super keen on the idea of standing in a big crowd, even outside, so I deliberately didn’t visit on one of those days.

Even thought the exhibition was fairly small, I really loved it. The venue was ideal, and the stories behind Ben’s paintings were fascinating (they’re all available to read on his website if you click on the individual paintings), as were the objects selected from the Museum of British Folklore’s collection. I do wish the museum had a more permanent home, because I’d love to see more of their collection as well as learn more about the history behind the traditions. I also think a larger space would give them room to address the ways that some of these traditions have become problematic, and the ways that other customs have evolved to stay alive to the present day. I’m sorry I’m blogging about this too late for you to see this exhibition for yourself, but if it sounded appealing, at least now you’ll know to keep an eye out for any future Museum of British Folklore/Ben Edge exhibitions popping up near you! 4/5.

Surrey and London: HG Wells in Woking and God’s Own Junkyard @ Leadenhall Market

Short post this week on a couple of non-museum things I saw recently. First of all, whilst we still had a car last month, we decided to go out to Woking to see some of the HG Wells sites there. HG Wells moved to Woking in 1895, and only lived there for about a year and a half, but he began writing some of his most iconic stories there, including The War of the Worlds. Now, I have never actually read The War of the Worlds, nor seen any of the films, but I am of course aware of the general idea of the book just by absorbing bits of pop culture for 35 years, and I like HG Wells mainly because of my love of the 2016 stage version of Half a Sixpence (in large part because of adorable Charlie Stemp, who was Kipps in the West End version I saw. I do not like the Tommy Steele film version. Tommy Steele’s teeth creep me out), which is based on his novel Kipps, so even though aliens are not really my thing in that way that proper monsters are (aliens seem to attract weird conspiracy theorists who creep me out more than Tommy Steele’s teeth), I was still down to see The War of the Worlds mosaic and other sites.

  

There is a Wells in Woking walk map available online (link leads to pdf) that will lead you from the train station, through the town, out to the sandpit, and back to the station again for a three and a half mile walk, but it was hot, we were both tired, and we had come by car, so we opted to just park by the sandpit, walk out to see it, and then get back into the car and drive into town. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of parking in a horrible giant shopping centre in town where we literally had to ask someone for directions out because there appeared to be no exits, and the whole experience has given me a probably undeserved distaste for Woking and its shopping centre.

  

Anyway, the sandpit, where the Martians landed, is pretty cool. It is just a big sandy pit in the middle of some trees, with a water-filled depression at the bottom that is meant to be the landing spot, but sand is intrinsically fun, and I bet I would have loved playing in it as a kid. In Woking proper, there are a few different sites to see if you manage to find your way out of the shopping centre. There is the town gate, which has the outline of a Tripod on it, a big Tripod sculpture, which has gross tentacle things hanging off the bottom, a statue of HG Wells himself, and a really cool mosaic in a subway (at start of post), which was probably my favourite thing. There is also Lynton, the house where Wells lived, but Google told us it was a mile walk away, and you can’t go in it or anything, so we didn’t bother. It’s probably more fun if you actually do the trail properly and don’t park in the shopping centre car park, but at least now I’ve seen it and I don’t have to go back to Woking.

 

Slightly more fun was the God’s Own Junkyard takeover at Leadenhall Market, in the City of London, which is there until the end of July. God’s Own Junkyard is a neon sign museum in Walthamstow, which I really should go to one of these days, but Walthamstow is a pain to get to and not particularly nice once you’re there, so when I read about the pop-up in Leadenhall Market, I definitely wanted to see it. I love the weird old bits of the City, and I hadn’t been since before Covid (and I also wanted to visit Eataly, the super expensive Italian food market that has finally come to London. So pricey but so good). The installations are open all the time, but if you want to go inside the shop space, you have to visit between Wednesday and Sunday.

 

I love neon. I think it’s pleasingly retro and super fun to look at, so I was excited to see this, and they do have some great signs. The pop-up shop had the most in it, but there were also two shop windows elsewhere in the market displaying signs that the family business had made for Judge Dredd and Eyes Wide Shut – I have never seen either of those movies, but I enjoyed the signs on their own merit. I honestly expected it to be a bit underwhelming, as these things usually are, but I was pretty solidly whelmed. The guy working in the shop was very enthusiastic and told us a lot about how the signs are created (he was a little hard to hear because there was loud music blasting in there, but the loud music was Hall and Oates, so I can’t really complain) and the lido sign was particularly cool (I have a skirt with very similar looking diving ladies on it, which sadly was not the one I was wearing that day). It’s definitely worth a look if you’re in the area or need an excuse to grab some focaccia and fresh scamorza at Eataly (and have deep pockets. For Eataly, that is, not the neon pop-up, which is free).

London: Thomas Becket @ the BM

Back at the British Museum again, and oh man, was this a spectacularly bad time, though it was not the fault of the exhibition…or was it? More on that in a minute. So, I’d booked Thomas Becket way back in April, and unlike, say, the Sneakers exhibition, this was something I was genuinely excited to see. I’ve always been more into early modern history than early medieval, but when I was in my late teens, I read The Book of Eleanor by Pamela Kaufman, which is about Eleanor of Aquitaine, and liked it so much that I re-read it three or four times in a two or three year period. It was basically a highly romanticised and fictionalised version of Eleanor’s life where she was secretly in love with one of her knights, and Henry II was a creepy rapist with paranoid delusions (based on what I know about medieval kings, that part is pretty believable). Anyway, Thomas Becket features in part of the book, and though I’m sure Kaufman’s account of his death was super historically inaccurate like the rest of the book, it definitely gave me an interest in his story (as did the The Canterbury Tales, though to a lesser extent, as I was more focused on Chaucer’s excellent gross-out details about the people on the pilgrimage than the pilgrimage itself), so I booked my tickets for this exhibition as soon as I saw it advertised.

  

Thomas Becket: Murder and The Making of a Saint (the BM writes their exhibition titles in all lower case letters, but I just can’t do it) runs until 22 August (which frankly doesn’t seem like enough time in this Covid era of unanticipated sudden closures, but whatever) and admission is £17, or £8.50 with Art Pass. We turned up at the appointed time, and except for an overzealous security guard getting a bit snippy with me during the bag check, all was fine. We got into the exhibition and started looking at a reliquary (the very reliquary shown above, in fact, so avert your eyes if you don’t want to take chances), and then the bad time started.

 

You know how saints’ relics are supposed to cure ailments? Well, I must be pure evil or something, because Thomas Becket definitely cursed me with his mouldy old bone fragments and brown coagulated blood smears. Earlier that morning, I had gotten a bit of eye cream in my eye when doing my daily (probably excessive) moisturising routine. It burned for a bit, but I used some eye wash and put drops in and it felt better, no big deal, and I went into town without thinking anything more about it. But then, as soon as I got into the exhibition, my eye started burning with the fire of a thousand flames. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I normally carry a bottle of eye drops with me (I don’t wear contacts, but my eyes are pretty dry) but of course I had just switched purses that morning and neglected to transfer them over, so I had absolutely nothing to alleviate the pain, and as I had just entered the exhibition, I couldn’t very well leave again immediately, especially thanks to the Covid protocols. So I walked around the exhibition in absolute agony with one hand clamped over my right eye, tears streaming down the side of my face, barely able to see anything. My eye was turning redder and redder until I practically looked bionic, and people were definitely staring at me. It got to the point where I couldn’t read any of the captions or look at any of the artefacts anymore, so £8.50 be damned, I ran out of that exhibition and into the toilet to splash water on my throbbing eye, which just made it burn even worse (I didn’t think such a thing was even possible at that point). By this point, all I wanted to do was get home, so my plans for an early dinner in town were completely scuppered, and we headed for the train. Fortunately, Marcus was with me, because as soon as I got in the bright sunlight, my sensitive burning eye refused to open, even with sunglasses, and so I had to walk back to Waterloo with Marcus leading me by the hand because I was effectively blind. My eye finally started to feel better when I was almost home, after closing my eyes on the train for half an hour, and was back to normal a couple of days later, but my god, what a horrible experience. I was also having a flare up of TMD at the same time, so eating was causing me terrible jaw/inner ear pain. The gods were frowning on me that week.

 

Needless to say, I don’t feel that I really saw enough of the exhibition on the day to adequately review it, but I did ask Marcus to take a lot of photos there so I could look at them later and take a stab at writing something in this post that isn’t just about the stabbing pain in my eye. The exhibition opened with some information about Thomas as a boy, and I got the impression that there isn’t much known about his childhood, but he was very much a commoner, born in Cheapside in London around 1120 to French parents, Gilbert and Matilda. He attended Merton Priory as a child, but never completed the schooling that a clergyman would normally have – rather, he worked his way up from a position as a clerk to a trusted assistant to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, where he caught the attention of Henry II and was promoted to Lord Chancellor, and eventually to Archbishop of Canterbury himself. There weren’t really any artefacts from his childhood, just generic stuff from the time period, like bone ice skates, because boys in London enjoyed ice skating, and a jug, because his father would have used jugs. Yeah, you get the idea. Slightly more exciting was the only surviving impression of his seal.

 

So Thomas become Archbishop of Canterbury, and life was good…until he developed a will of his own. Henry only wanted him there as his puppet so Henry could exert control over the Church, and did not like it when Thomas started coming up with ideas that Henry disagreed with (that book I used to read made it sound like they were drinking buddies, but I don’t know how true that is). Henry wanted clergymen to be tried in normal courts, instead of ecclesiastical ones, and Thomas refused (although I think Henry was right). He also refused to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon, which Henry designed to weaken the authority of the Church, and this pissed off Henry so much that Thomas was forced to flee to France in fear of his life. After six years, Henry finally agreed to let Thomas return from exile, but as soon as he got back, Thomas really messed up by excommunicating some of Henry’s pals for crowning Henry’s son, Young Henry, joint king to ensure his line of succession (spoiler alert: Young Henry rebelled against his father and ended up dying before him, so he never actually became king, and the whole thing was a bit pointless really) without consulting Thomas first, and that was the last straw. Henry issued his (probably apocryphal) command, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights rushed to do his bidding, and rather stupidly, confronted Thomas inside actual Canterbury Cathedral, and proceeded to hack at his head until he died, bleeding all over the tiles of the cathedral, which is a pretty good way to ensure you’re martyring someone in a way that will come back to haunt you.

  

Of course, Thomas became a saint only two years after his death, Henry II was forced to do public penance in the cathedral, and the Plantagenet line basically became known as the killers of Saint Thomas Becket, which probably didn’t do John any favours (“Too late to be known as John the First, he’s sure to be known as John the Worst.” Much as I love Disney’s Robin Hood, I have never understood that lyric. He was John I, or would be if there had ever been a John II to make it necessary to call him something other than just John. Are we just supposed to pretend that he didn’t become king after Richard died?). As you might expect from the medieval church, who loved a good martyrdom, there were some excellently grisly illuminated manuscripts and such depicting Thomas’s unfortunate demise, and I really wished I could have seen them properly in the exhibition, because they look amazing.

  

Following a fire in Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, shortly after Thomas’s canonisation (I think that’s the appropriate term – hopefully all those years I was forced to go to Sunday School were good for something), Canterbury became THE Becket cathedral and Thomas got his own special shrine in the Trinity Chapel. Unfortunately, another jerk Henry, Henry VIII (probably a bigger jerk than Henry II, if I was rating them, because at least Henry II was capable of faking penitence. Henry VIII was a straight-up psychopath) saw Thomas’s dead body as a threat to his authority and had his shrine destroyed along with many others in the process of creating the Church of England. However, the exhibition had a video recreation of the shrine, based on drawings and descriptions, and it looked pretty fabulous.

  

The exhibition also had a lot of other bits and bobs saved from the cathedral, including wood carvings, chunks of carved marble, and some magnificent stained glass showing various miracles Thomas’s relics allegedly brought about (Thomas’s relics were interesting in that they were very blood-centric, perhaps because of the way he was killed. People allegedly sopped rags in his blood shortly after he was killed, which brought about miracles. It all feels a bit Elizabeth Bathory, frankly), including my particular favourite, a man who was castrated and blinded, and had his testicles and eyes magically regrown thanks to Thomas. Glad to know he can restore sight when he wants to (less bothered about the testicles).

 

There was also a small section on The Canterbury Tales, probably the most famous Thomas Becket related piece of literature, including an illustration of the Wife of Bath. My personal favourite Canterbury tale is the “Miller’s Tale”, for obvious reasons, though it sadly didn’t get a flatulent mention here, nor did the Cook’s weeping knee sore that flavoured the blancmange, another favourite detail, but I loved the display of the badges that pilgrims would collect from Canterbury Cathedral when they got there. Collectibles almost make a pilgrimage sound like fun!

 

If I had been able to see properly, I think I would really have enjoyed this exhibition (certainly more so than Nero). Grisly martyrdom paintings and The Canterbury Tales are totally in my wheelhouse, and though I didn’t learn that much about Thomas himself, it was interesting to read more about the role his sainthood played in the development of the medieval English church and monarchy (could definitely be a good dissertation topic, though I’m sure someone has already done it). I’ll downgrade him a bit for temporarily blinding me in his exhibition, but it’s still a solid 3.5/5.

Brighton, East Sussex: The Tomb Trail

Although I’ve been to Brighton many, many times over the years, and I would definitely say I’m a taphophile (NOT to be confused with necrophile. Ewww!), for whatever reason, I can’t say I had ever given much thought to its cemeteries. However, I wanted an excuse to go to the seaside and have a Boho Gelato back in early May, before museums had reopened, so I found myself researching outdoor attractions, and Brighton’s “Tomb Trail” popped up. With a name like that, how could I not instantly be won over?

 

Brighton and Hove are actually home to seven cemeteries, three of them clustered around Lewes Road, and the Tomb Trail is located within Extra-Mural Cemetery (which feels like an odd name to me, even though I know it just means the cemetery is located outside the city – in middle school we used to call what was essentially recess “intramurals”, I guess because it made it sound a bit more grown up. I used them as an opportunity to hang out in the library with my friends and get kicked out for laughing too hard at the lame “confessions” in YM Magazine, especially if they involved farts). As seemed to be happening in much of the UK around the 1840s, Brighton’s cemeteries were becoming overcrowded, so new cemeteries were established outside of the city centre to try to help cope with the problem. Extra-Mural Cemetery was the first of these in Brighton, built in 1850, followed shortly by the adjoining Woodvale Cemetery. In the 1880s, Downs Cemetery was built on another plot of adjoining land to form the massive cemetery complex that exists today, though since I had never been to this end of Brighton before, I had no idea it was here.

 

The layout of the cemeteries is super confusing if you arrive by car, and we accidentally drove into the wrong cemetery and had to leave and circle around a few times before we found the entrance to the right one – we ended up having to stop and find directions from someone else’s blog post about it because Google Maps took us in a very wrong direction indeed (in case someone else is in the same boat as us, I’ll pass along the favour by telling you the vehicle entrance is opposite a petrol station with an M&S Simply Food). But once we got to the right place, we spotted signs for the Tomb Trail immediately.

 

There didn’t seem to be a dedicated parking area, so we just parked on the side of the path near some other cars, as is standard in cemeteries that allow cars. I think there are meant to be Tomb Trail leaflets available somewhere, though it might be the sort of convoluted process where you have to email the council and wait for them to send you one, so we just went without. There are directional arrows designed to keep you on track, but man, is it easy to get off-piste! At one point, an arrow appeared to be pointing directly into a clump of bushes, so we thought the sign must have gotten bumped by a car or something, because there was no way that could possibly be right, and just continued on up the main path. However, we seemed to be going an awfully long time without seeing another arrow, and once we started to get to an area of new graves (all the others on the Tomb Trail had been very old), we realised we must have gone wrong and retraced our steps. Yep, turns out we were supposed to walk through an actual clump of bushes. After struggling through and ducking under a very low-hanging tree branch, we did meet up with the arrows again, so I can only assume the area was less overgrown when they first put the signs up.

 

Like much of Brighton, the cemetery is built on a hill, so you will find yourself climbing up and down a lot, but the cemetery itself is lovely. Definitely overgrown in spots, like every British cemetery I’ve ever been to (in case you couldn’t tell from my description of the shrubbery section of the trail), but also full of lots of attractive old Victorian tombstones and statuary. It was still bluebell season when we visited, so there were lots of those out (and we found a beautiful display of tulips in the middle of Brighton after leaving the cemetery – I guess I’ve never actually been to Brighton in late spring before to have seen them). There aren’t any really famous people buried in this cemetery, but there’s a few Victorians who were prominent in Brighton, like John Urpeth Rastrick, who was the engineer that laid out the Brighton Main Line, and who is now laid out himself in the heaviest tomb in the cemetery (above right), which had to be pulled by twenty horses (poor horses); a circus performer (horse tomb above left), and a VC holder or two. Nonetheless, there were still plenty of interesting tombstones to look at, and some mildly creepy Stations of the Cross style statue tableaux on the chapel (I thought that was more of a Catholic thing, but I’ve never actually been to a C of E service, so I wouldn’t really know). There was however, no toilet, at least not one I could find, so after we walked the Tomb Trail, which took about an hour, I beat a hasty retreat to the Sainsbury’s across the road because I really needed a wee.

 

You are of course welcome to venture outside of the Tomb Trail, and walk through the other cemeteries as well, but because of the situation with my bladder, we did not end up doing that on this visit. But the Tomb Trail was certainly a nice walk, though maybe not quite as gloriously creepy as the name suggests (perhaps it’s better in the autumn?), and I would definitely like to check out the other Lewes Road cemeteries when I have a chance, because they looked similarly ornate and intriguing. Recommended if you’re visiting Brighton and want to do something away from all the crowds of the pier and the Lanes. And yes, of course I got my Boho Gelato afterwards, which was just as good as it always is, even though they didn’t have any of my usual favourite flavours in stock (I “settled” for raspberry ripple, salted caramel, and honeycomb mint chocolate chip, and was pleasantly surprised by how delicious the honeycomb mint chip was, as I don’t usually like honeycomb and wouldn’t have thought it went well with mint). Really, any time I can finish an ice cream in Brighton without a jerk seagull stealing it out of my hand half-eaten, it’s a win!

London: Nero @ the British Museum

Regular readers will know that I generally avoid Roman history like the Antonine Plague – I’ve just never been a fan of classical history, and the Romans in particular bore me. However, one of my friends wanted to visit a museum with me (a rare occurrence, since he normally just wants to go to the pub), and I know his tastes are quite different to mine, so I suggested a few things that I thought might appeal, and we settled on Nero: the man behind the myth, which runs at the British Museum until October 2021 (and honestly, I was quite happy to look at Roman artefacts if it meant avoiding the pub, though of course we ended up doing that too). Admission is an extremely pricey £20, or £10 with Art Pass.

 

We went on a bank holiday Monday, and though I had no problem booking tickets the day before, the exhibition was dispiritingly crowded when we entered, which seems to be a recurring issue at the British Museum (this was definitely less crowded than the Arctic exhibition though). We politely joined the end of the queue for a while, but it was creeping along so bloody slowly, particularly the man and his daughter in front of us – he was taking about fifteen minutes to read and explain each caption to her, even though she was probably nine or ten and clearly more than capable of reading the captions herself, since she seemed to know more about Roman history than her dad did – it was sweet that he was taking his daughter to a museum, I guess, but I just don’t have the patience to stand behind someone reading at such a leisurely pace, so I ended up doing my usual thing of zipping ahead to whatever case was empty and then doubling back to read the things I’d missed once the people in front of them cleared out, which was possible here since there didn’t seem to be a one-way system in place.

 

As you can probably guess from my lack of enthusiasm about the Romans, my knowledge of Roman history is definitely patchy at best, and I didn’t even know that Nero was the adopted son of Claudius. The whole premise of the exhibition is to provide an objective perspective of Nero so that you can use the facts presented here to decide if he actually was as evil as history has led us to believe, or if he’s just gotten a bad rap over the centuries. Therefore, the exhibition started with information about Nero’s childhood and a sculpture of him as a child, I guess to show us how innocent he once was. Unfortunately, it then progressed into an entire wall showing the genealogy of various Roman rulers, and I rapidly started losing the will to live.

 

But I perked up a bit when I got to the section on Roman Britain, because there was some interesting stuff here, particularly the slave chain worn by native Britons enslaved by Romans. Other than Boudica, I don’t think anything especially significant took place in Britain during Nero’s fairly brief reign, so this was probably an excuse for the British Museum to give some of their collection that is normally in storage an airing, but I’m OK with that.

 

In an attempt to show a more human side to Nero, there was also a section on his family life, including the above sculpture of what his daughter Claudia Augusta might have looked like if she hadn’t died in infancy. She’s holding a butterfly, which, much as I hate the things, I can admire the skill it must have taken to carve something so delicate yet sturdy enough that it’s still intact millennia later. There were also sculptures of his wives – I think the one above might be Octavia – but it’s hard to see Nero as much of a family man when you realise he had her executed. And of course he had his mother, Agrippina, killed as well, even though they were once close. Oh, and allegedly kicked another one of his wives to death. What a charmer!

 

We also learned more about Nero’s interests. In addition to murdering and the traditional Roman blood sports, he was also fond of music and acting, apparently to an extent that his fellow upper class Romans found strange. He even appeared on stage when he was emperor, and apparently wasn’t that bad of an actor, though really, what are you going to say about an actor who has the power to kill you and isn’t afraid to use it? I picture him forcing his way on stage despite the protests of the other actors and gleefully ruining the play with hammy overacting just because he could.

  

The thing Nero is probably best known for is starting the Great Fire of Rome and then merrily playing his fiddle whilst Rome burned, but this is wrong for several reasons, the first being that his instrument of choice was a lyre, not a fiddle. Seriously though, he wasn’t even in Rome at the time of the fire, and he later organised a relief fund for victims of the fire and allegedly even let some of them stay in his palaces. However, the fire conveniently cleared space for him to build a new massive palace in Rome, which may have fueled some of the later claims that he played a role in starting it. On the plus side, his new palace looked fabulous – I loved the frescoes of sea monsters and the collection of tiny arms and heads taken from mosaics. They were so small and perfect! I was also fascinated by the giant decapitated statue of Nero with his awful hairstyle that must have looked hilariously derpy when intact, if the sketch here (below right) was anything to go by!

  

Because Nero died when he was only 30, the exhibition soon ran out of things to say about his life and moved on to his downfall, which basically happened because he pissed off the wrong people with his tax policies, and his governors started rebelling. Eventually, his guards deserted him, and he decided to kill himself rather than wait around to be killed, but he of course had to exercise his imperial powers one last time and force one of his servants to help him commit suicide. Some guy called Galba took over the Roman Empire after Nero died, but people didn’t like him either, so he was killed after a few months, followed by three other randoms who all only ruled for a few months before either killing themselves or being killed. Eventually, Vespasian stepped up to seize the reins of power, and he proceeded to pay various historians to trash Nero’s memory, which is allegedly why people think ill of him today, but honestly, it sounds like he brought a lot of it on himself by being a terrible person, though I guess not significantly worse than any other Roman emperor. They all sounded like assholes, at least according to (the famously historically inaccurate) Horrible Histories.

 

Since I didn’t know all that much about Nero going on, I did learn a thing or two, but my friend, who is much keener on the Romans than I am, was not impressed. Weird though it sounds, based on the inclusion of special signs aimed at children, I suspect they were attempting to make this exhibition somewhat child-friendly. Perhaps because of this, they left out some of the juicier rumours about Nero, like the one where after killing his second wife, he had a boy who resembled his dead wife castrated, married him, and anally raped him. Even if that particular rumour isn’t true though, I think it’s pretty clear that this exhibition did nothing to win me over to the idea that Nero wasn’t a shit – he may not have been completely evil 100% of the time, but he was still a despicable human who was responsible for a lot of deaths. For £10, I probably got my money’s worth, but this was certainly not big enough for a £20 exhibition, and based on my friend’s experience, if you like Roman history, you probably won’t learn anything new, but you might enjoy looking at the artefacts. If you can get a half-price ticket, I think it is worth going to see some of the objects on display, which are better than the normal Roman crap they dig up, but I don’t think I’d pay full price for this one. 3/5.

 

London: “Sneakers Unboxed” and Margaret Calvert @ the Design Museum

That’s right, I’m back to visiting museums again! Unfortunately, my first time in a museum as a visitor since December was a bit of a letdown, but it was my own fault for choosing the exhibition poorly. I pre-booked “Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street” way back in March in hopes that museums would actually be able to open in May, and there weren’t a lot of exhibitions available for booking that far in advance, so I chose something that I would have probably not bothered with otherwise.

 

When the day in May finally arrived, we turned up to the Design Museum at the appointed time and were let straight into the museum after scanning the Test and Trace QR code. The Design Museum gives you a bit more freedom than some other museums in that once you’re in, you’re in, and you’re welcome to look at the free exhibitions as well without booking a separate ticket (unlike at the British Museum, for example). Admission to Sneakers is normally £12.50, but we only paid £6 with Art Pass. The exhibition is located in the basement exhibition gallery where we’ve seen quite a few other things here, and we were the only people in the first room when we walked in; though we were quickly joined by others, it was definitely much less crowded than other exhibitions I’ve been to recently, possibly because we were there on a Monday afternoon.

    

When I booked tickets, I was anticipating that the exhibition would be about the history of sneakers, with maybe some fashion elements thrown in, but it ended up being more like a shrine to the cult of expensive kicks. Honestly, I’m not even super into sneakers – I wear a lot of dresses and jumpsuits and things, so I tend to opt for slightly dressier shoes most of the time, and sandals 100% of the time as soon as it’s warm enough (I hate socks), so I only own a few pairs of sneakers that I wear regularly, which are black Vans slip-ons (I’m wearing them in the photo at the start of this post, but I was still breaking them in and they tore up the backs of my heels so bad that blood started gushing out and pooling in the bottom of my shoes on the way to the museum. Fun!), black Converse high-tops, and black Ash high-tops, which are like a more comfortable version of Converse with buckles instead of laces – so I am probably too boring sneaker-wise to have been the target audience. This was more for the Air Jordan/other overpriced sneakers crowd. Most of the shoes here were the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in my life, especially those white ones, above left, with the giant gross treads. They seriously remind me of the bottom of a horseshoe crab or something else disgusting.

  

Because most of the signage just consisted of a label under each pair of sneakers with their name and date of production, we ended up going through this pretty quickly. The most interesting parts were the section on Converse, because I liked looking at all the old advertising posters and the early models of the shoes from the 1910s and ’20s, and a short video at the end about the evolution of sneaker shapes, which was the only bit of the exhibition with the history I was looking for (and I think the video was part of an advert for a sneaker brand, rather than something the Design Museum had created). There was also a small section about the sustainability of the materials used in sneaker production, and some great photos of various subcultures that placed an emphasis on specific types of sneakers, like hip-hop culture in the 1980s, and intriguingly, a Latin American subculture where teenagers wear clothing featuring religious iconography and elaborately decorated Converse. I would have loved to learn more about these subcultures, particularly the latter group, but I forgot to take a picture of the sign with their name, and Google has gotten me nowhere (I’m not even sure which country these teens are from – I thought it was Mexico, but I could be wrong). The rest of it was decidedly meh, and I was glad we only paid £6. If they had spent more time focusing on the evolution of fashion and the development of the aforementioned subcultures, rather than just displaying loads and loads of sneakers, I think this exhibition could have had some real potential, but as it is, unless you’re really into sneaker collecting, I’d give this a miss. 1.5/5.

 

However, the trip wasn’t a total loss (it wouldn’t have been a total loss anyway, because it gave me an excuse to go to High Street Ken and get reunited with two of my loves – Ben’s Cookies, and chocolate chip muffins from Whole Foods – after an absence of more than a year), because the museum also had a free temporary exhibition on typography, specifically the work of the designer Margaret Calvert, who developed some of the most iconic signs and typefaces in Britain, including a new font for National Rail, the pictograms for British road signs that have been in use since the 1960s, and the typefaces for British airports, British Rail, and the gov.uk website. It’s pretty crazy to think that one person designed so many fonts, especially a woman who started her career in mid-century Britain, and I was completely fascinated by this exhibition. It detailed Calvert’s design process, which involves hand-drawing so she can have more control of design; her desk space, with many quirky signs; and the research that goes into the design process to determine how big fonts have to be, whether they should be all upper case or if upper case and lower case letters should be used, and where signs should be positioned in a train station or airport.

  

I honestly wish this could have been the main special exhibition instead of Sneakers so it could have had a larger space devoted to it and we could have learned even more, because words and fonts are so much more my jam than elaborate sneakers, but I’m glad it was here at all so we could learn about Margaret Calvert (who is still alive – she starred in a short video in the exhibition). Definitely recommend seeing this – it runs until August, and I think you can book a free ticket to see this and the small temporary display on artificial intelligence without having to pay to see Sneakers, which I would advise doing if your footwear preferences are the same as mine.

 

London: Highgate Cemetery

I’ve been to Highgate’s East Cemetery quite a few times over the years, since Marcus’s grandmother and great-grandmother are buried there, but neither of us had ever been to the West Cemetery. The guided tour only policy coupled with a £14 entry fee had put us off a bit, not to mention that the tours typically booked up in advance, and visiting the cemetery is usually more of an impromptu affair for us. However, Highgate have recently opened the West Cemetery for pre-booked, self-guided visits, and I was definitely keen to take advantage, especially as museums hadn’t reopened yet at that point, so I booked us a couple of slots on a day in May that looked to be slightly less crappy than the rest (still kind of crappy though. What awful weather for May!). Admission for a self-guided visit is £10, which galls me a bit, since I feel that cemeteries should be free, but if this meant that they’d be able to do more upkeep than the other Magnificent Seven, I wasn’t going to begrudge them the money (too much).

  

We turned up at around the same time a guided tour was getting started, so we set off pretty quickly to avoid getting stuck behind them. You must keep to the footpaths, as the grassy areas are pretty unkempt and apparently have random sinkholes (and you can probably guess what’s at the bottom of those sinkholes), but they’ve put gravel paths in to lead you to famous graves that aren’t on the main paths, so you won’t miss anything major. And with Highgate being probably the most famous cemetery in London and located in an extremely wealthy area, there’s quite a lot of famous people buried here. They don’t advertise the graves of more recent burials, so your guess where George Michael is buried is as good as mine, but there are plenty of historical ones to look out for. Like Michael Faraday, Lucian Freud, and the Rossetti family grave where Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously buried his unpublished poems with Lizzie Siddal and then later changed his mind and had the poems dug up again (this would seem to imply that Lizzie Siddal is buried there too, but her name isn’t listed anywhere that I could see. Poor Lizzie doesn’t even merit an entry, unless she went full zombie when they dug up the poems and just wandered off somewhere to eat brains, in which case I can understand why Highgate would want to keep that quiet).

  

Highgate is also the final resting place of people whose names aren’t well known today, but clearly had A LOT of money in the Victorian era. There are some huge tombs in here, particularly the one belonging to Julius Beer, who owned The Observer (above left). I would say that Highgate’s West Cemetery has more character than the East (it’s also older, having opened in 1839 vs. 1856), and is probably more atmospheric too. It is not quite as derelict as the other Magnificent Seven (so that entry fee is going somewhere) but is still significantly overgrown, and there’s a lot of trees and overhanging vegetation, which really makes it a good creepy Victorian cemetery experience.

 

The Egyptian Avenue and Circle of Lebanon are probably the most famous parts of the cemetery, and a volunteer was waiting nearby to tell us all about them if we wanted (she wasn’t at all pushy, which I appreciated). The Egyptian Avenue is a series of single-family vaults each containing twelve coffins, decorated with Ancient Egyptian motifs, which were very fashionable in the late Victorian era. It was originally roofed over, but people thought that made it too dark, so they removed the roof. There are a lot of overhanging trees, so it is pretty dark again today, and I personally think it’s lovely. The Circle of Lebanon is pretty fancy too (and impossible to photograph in its entirety at ground level), with steps leading out of the circular wall of tombs at various places to another layer of graves above.

  

My absolute favourite grave in the cemetery is hands down the sad/sleepy lion laying atop the grave of the owner of a menagerie (knowing what I know about Victorian circuses, I suspect the menagerie owner probably abused the crap out of a number of lions and other animals, so it’s no wonder the lion looks sad). A close second was the otherwise nondescript grave that contained the epitaph (amongst other, much nicer ones) “He meant well.” I interpreted that as a passive aggressive insult to someone they couldn’t really say anything nice about, and it genuinely made me laugh out loud for a perhaps inappropriate amount of time, considering where we were.

 

Having spent quite a lot of time exploring the West Cemetery, we headed over to the East Cemetery so Marcus could tidy up his grandma’s grave (as you can probably see, Highgate only does selective landscaping, so her grave ends up pretty overgrown every spring). Family members get a special card that allows them free entry, but if you are just visiting, you will need to pay. However, buying a ticket to the West Cemetery gives you free entry to the East Cemetery, so you should absolutely visit both! Although we’d been here many times, we’d never actually been given a map before (I guess because we hadn’t paid to get in), so it was nice to be able to hunt down some more famous graves.

 

Quite a few of them we’d already seen, particularly Karl Marx, since he’s practically staring us down when we visit Marcus’s grandma, and also Douglas Adams, Jeremy Beadle, and the iconic DEAD grave (see below), but this gave us an opportunity to wander down some pathways we hadn’t explored before and see Karl Marx’s original grave, which is a lot more subtle than the giant statue he has these days (and one would think more fitting for a communist, but I guess not, if Lenin’s tomb is anything to go by). There are also a weird number of other communists buried around Karl Marx (if having “comrade” written on their graves is anything to go by), which I have to think is intentional and shows a disturbing amount of dedication to the cause.

 

We spent about two and a half hours between the two cemeteries, and definitely could have spent longer, but rush hour was approaching and we wanted to get home. Having seen it, I do feel slightly better about the admission fee, because Highgate West Cemetery really is a special place, and has probably slightly edged out Brompton in my affections (though I do retain a soft spot for Brompton because of my brief period volunteering there with Arthur, the completely delightful former head of the Friends who sadly recently passed away) amongst the Magnificent Seven. Would definitely recommend visiting! The friendliness of the volunteers were encountered has given me some hope that the tours worth doing, but I’ve been on enough bad cemetery tours to have been scared off them a bit, so the self-guided visit was perfect for a first visit.

Chilworth, Surrey: Chilworth Gunpowder Mills

Faced with the problem of what to do on an excursion with a friend I hadn’t seen since November on a Saturday when every ticketed outdoor attraction was already booked up, after a lengthy search to find an interesting looking walk in Surrey that I hadn’t already been on (i.e. one with actual sites to see other than gorse), I discovered the Chilworth Gunpowder Mills. Set in the idyllic countryside near Guildford, these are the ruins of what was once the sole legal producer of gunpowder in England, and since they’re part of a public walking trail, you can just rock up and visit any time you like, no booking required.

 

Unfortunately, the day we picked for our excursion was full of intermittent downpours (like basically all of May this year), so the terrain was pretty damn muddy, and we were being pelted with rain on and off, but armed with waterproof jackets, we set off undaunted. The websites I found about the mills didn’t initially make it super clear where we had to go, but you want to aim for the Percy Arms Pub in Chilworth. You can park for free on the main road if the pub carpark is full, and the entrance to the trail is just a little ways down the road, next to a primary school. I ended up downloading the 4.5km walk guide from this website, which is what we used to navigate, though you will encounter some leaflets on site that will direct you on a 2km walk just around the mills if you don’t fancy climbing up a hill (I didn’t really, but 2km isn’t a very long walk, so we had to extend it somehow).

  

Gunpowder was manufactured in the Tillingbourne valley from 1626, when the East India Company established the first mill, until 1920, when all the mills closed, although people continued to reside in buildings on the site until 1963 (it was known as “tin town”). Guildford Council’s website claims that there are 100 buildings on the site, but my friend, being skeptical of this claim, went out of his way to count them all, and even being generous and including things like the remains of bridges as “buildings” he only counted 24. Maybe the rest are on private land so we couldn’t actually see them on the walk. And don’t ask me why this site was specifically chosen for gunpowder, as this was never explained. My best guess would be that it was close enough to London to be relatively easy to reach, but still far enough away from the city and other major towns that any explosions would have left them unaffected, and it is surrounded by a couple of rivers, so it would be easy to transport materials in and out.

  

Following the walk took us through the right side of the site first, which included the largest building still standing. The map in the leaflet didn’t seem to match up with what the online map was telling me, but I think this was the expense magazine, which was used to store materials in between stages of manufacturing. You can actually still go inside (very much at your own risk) and a set of concrete steps has been built at some stage in the recent past to aid this, though it was still quite wet and slippery inside, so we had to walk with care. Carrying on along the river, on the route of what was once a tramway around the site, we passed the ruins of a few other buildings nowhere near as well preserved as the magazines. You can carry on along this path, or do as we did and pass through a gate and through a couple of fields to reach Postford Pond.

  

You can see the roofs of the WWI cordite works from along this trail, and will also pass some horses, cows, and a couple of very hairy pigs. Postford Pond, and its neighbour Waterloo Pond, are positively bucolic. In fact, the whole area is incredibly lovely, disturbed only by our brief encounter with a group of students presumably doing DofE award related activities who were blaring extremely obnoxious and terrible music. There’s a housing development that you have to walk through after the ponds where you basically have to cut across someone’s garden, which feels a bit wrong, but it’s apparently a right of way (fortunately, no one was outside, so we didn’t have to make awkward eye contact whilst doing so).

 

After passing the houses, we ended up in a forest scattered with bluebells, walking steadily uphill along a winding dirt path with the Tillingbourne “meandering” below. This would have been lovely were it not for the uphill aspects of it, and the fact that this was when the sun chose to come out, so I started overheating and had to hastily shed my outer layers, but still ended up drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top of the hill. This area was where charcoal was produced. At this point, we had to option to extend the walk by half a kilometre by walking up to St. Martha’s Church, but I was pretty hot and cranky and not in the mood to walk up any more hills, so we instead headed downhill back to the gunpowder mill, passing a vineyard and some alpacas (living in an “alpaca hotel”) en route. There’s also a WWII pillbox next to a farm. It’s on private land, but you can see it from the trail.

  

We then explored the other half of the mill site, including the spot where six people were killed in 1901 after someone’s hobnail boot gave off a spark (hobnail boots are probably not a great idea when you’re working with gunpowder), a number of mill stones from an incorporating mill (whatever that is), and a gate house where workers were checked for any explosive materials before they entered the mills (I guess someone was asleep on hobnail boot day). I was especially intrigued by the dragon notation on the map, which marked the “dragon stones” on the WWII home defence line protecting London from tank invasion (no idea how they worked though. They were just conical stones). It had started absolutely pissing it down again as soon as we got down to the mills, so my raincoat came back out, which was not a great combination with my now-sweaty long-sleeved shirt. Needless to say, I was tired and hungry by the end of this (not to mention wet), so I was relieved when we headed to a brewery that at least had seating under a marquee for pizzas and a refreshing St. Clements after our walk.

 

It’s nice that Guildford council provides free maps to the site, though as I indicated, I could have done with a LOT more information about the mills, which isn’t readily forthcoming online either (though there is apparently a book you can buy about them). Some signage on the site or at least QR codes you could scan for more info certainly wouldn’t go amiss! However, it is a free site, so I can’t really demand too much, and I am glad it hasn’t been taken over by the National Trust and cleaned up, as I think it would lose a large portion of its charm (and some of the thrill of discovery), not to mention that the National Trust would definitely charge for entry if they owned it. It is genuinely a really gorgeous place to walk (with riparian entertainments!), and not too crowded, even on a Saturday, though the rain probably helped with that somewhat. Highly recommended if you find yourself in Surrey and fancy a bit of industrial archaeology! In other news, I finally got my first jab last week (just in time to go back to work), so there will definitely be some museum visits coming up in the near future.