Buckinghamshire

High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: Hughenden Manor

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So, Benjamin Disraeli: two-time Conservative prime minister, dandy, and favourite of Queen Victoria.  Well, that’s what I knew about him going in to Hughenden Manor, and unfortunately, that’s about all I knew after leaving Hughenden as well (the biographical details mentioned in this post that don’t involve actual artefacts come from reading his Wikipedia entry).  I realise most of my National Trust posts start in roughly this way, so I really should have learned by now that if you want to learn more about a person, odds are against you being able to do it somewhere they actually lived – if it’s owned by the National Trust.  Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, Red House and Coleridge Cottage among them, but for the most part, you’d be better off just reading a book (actually, I’d almost always be happier staying home and reading a book than leaving my flat, but I do have this blog to maintain).  Still, I made the effort to go up to Wycombe, so I should at least tell you something about the place, right?

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Well, for starters, it’s got the usual jacked-up National Trust prices.  £11.50, including Gift Aid, to be exact.  The reason I had to visit in the less-than-ideal time of winter is because our membership expires at the end of February, so I’m trying to get some “last hurrah” properties in whilst I can (which is harder than it should be because so many of them close for the winter.  So I STILL didn’t get to see Waddesdon Manor, which is only about half an hour away from Hughenden, because it was closed.  I’m never going to get to taste their damn honey fudge).

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I’m used to the information they provide in these properties being pretty lame, but this was notably REALLY lame.  To the point where even my boyfriend was commenting on its lameness, and he’s normally MUCH more easygoing than I am about these things (not hard to do).  It was just one of those stupid laminated map things, with like one sentence on each room.  I did find a few informational binders here and there, but they were more about the paintings in the rooms than anything to do with the history of the house or the Disraeli family (except in the one room where I actually wanted to know more about the paintings, because there was a portrait of some dishy guy who definitely wasn’t Disraeli or any other obvious Victorian, and there was of course no binder to be found).  And the volunteers just stared at me blankly every time I walked in a room, so they were no help.

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The house consisted of three floors (I was kind of amazed we were allowed on all of them, what with “winter housekeeping” and all), plus a basement, of which more later.  It was a standard Victorian house I guess, but it is probably technically more “Victorian” than most, since Victoria actually visited it and gave Disraeli signed mementos of her and Albert and junk.  She ate in his dining room one time, so Disraeli had the legs of one of his chairs cut off so her feet could touch the floor (you may be able to see it in the picture above.  It’s the chair on the left), which seems to me a bit counterproductive, because then how would she reach the table?  Wouldn’t it have been better to give her a higher chair than normal, and some kind of footstool?  But what do I know, I was never prime minister (twice).

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There was also this ceremonial robe there that kind of proved what a petty jerk Disraeli was (though I probably am too, so…).  It originally belonged to Pitt the Younger, and was passed down through each successive Lord Chancellor, right up until Disraeli.  However, he was pretty salty about Gladstone taking office, especially because Gladstone refused to pay him for some furniture he’d had installed in 11 Downing Street, so he just hung on to it, and Gladstone had to have a new one made, which is apparently the one still used today.  But Disraeli’s spite robe is right here, in Hughenden, where you can attempt to peer at it inside a very dark room (ok, so I may have picked up a couple of pieces of trivia, but not really enough to justify the drive).

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The third floor was surprisingly more spacious than it looked at first glance, with nice views over Disraeli’s estate, and a collection of objects belonging to him arranged in a couple of “museum rooms” that discussed his rise from somewhat humble beginnings (I mean, not really, his father was a historian and he was sent to good schools, but he wasn’t actually nobility or anything) to becoming BFFs with crabby ol’ Victoria.  This floor also showed how egocentric Disraeli must have been; when he first ran for office in Wycombe, he had a special chair made (because that’s what Wycombe is known for) in his colours of pink and white, so his supporters could carry him on their shoulders after he won.  He lost, and the chair ended up here.

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And now to the basement.  One of the reasons I was keen to visit Hughenden (other than Disraeli being a dandy) was because during the Second World War, the house was used as a secret map making headquarters.  The National Trust website made it sound really good, promising me I could “discover more about their secret wartime past” in their “immersive” cellars.  Yeah, well, about that…

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My god, but this was poorly put-together.  I’m still honestly not sure whether the house was used by British Intelligence, or American soldiers, or both, because there was some mention of the US Army, but also something about local artists being brought in.  It was just a display of cheaply laminated pictures with short, vague captions spread out over the hallway and a couple of rooms, with no actual narrative connecting them.  They had some of the cartoons produced by the mapmakers, but there was no good explanation for any of it.  Maybe some things are still classified?!

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The only reason I’m glad I came down here was because that Hitler dartboard inside a facsimile bunker was probably the funniest/best thing in the whole house. There also appeared to be a recreation of a 1940s living room, which may or may not have had authentic smells (it stunk, but I’m not sure if that was intentional, or just basement funk).  I think this part of the house really needs some new signage and re-organisation.

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There are quite a few trails around the property (or so I’m told), and a tea room AND cafe (no millionaire’s shortbread in either though, boo), but it was quite cold when we were there, so we didn’t fancy much walking.  We did check out the “parterre” (a back garden, only pretentious), which was attractive enough, and apparently was designed by Mrs. Disraeli and installed by a crew of navvies that she enjoyed bossing around.  Disraeli had some pet peacocks; his favourite pined itself to death a few days after he died. And there was a very cute fat old lab hanging around one of the trails when we arrived; I kind of wanted to steal her.

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But yeah, the experience in general was not great.  The house was perfectly nice, and I’m assuming must have had some quite interesting stories behind it, but no one shared them with us.  The bits of information that were available, frankly, just made Disraeli seem like an asshole (and they managed that while barely mentioning his politics; his personality was enough to do it).  And the war stuff in the basement also has potential, if they could be bothered to tell us what actually happened here (their website is also incredibly vague, so no help there).  As it stands now, Hughenden is lucky to get a 2.5/5, and that’s really only because the interior was attractive, and there were nice views.  This place needs a lot of work, especially if they actually expect people to pay 11+ quid to see it.

 

 

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Bletchley, Milton Keynes: Bletchley Park

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If you’re British, odds are good you’re already familiar with the story of Bletchley Park.  If you’re not, however, you might not know about it (I’d certainly never heard of it until I moved to Britain, and I love history), so perhaps a bit of background is in order.  Shortly after WWI, a German engineer invented the Enigma machine – a device that could be used to encode messages, which was basically a typewriter with up to four rotors attached; the code could be changed by changing the setting of the rotors, and the person receiving the message would have to know how to position their rotors to decode it ( I apologise if I’m describing this incorrectly, but I know almost nothing about engineering).  Although this device was initially conceived of for fairly innocuous purposes (its inventor thought that perhaps banks could have a use for it), it was adopted by the German military in the years leading up to WWII.  Obviously, in 1939, when the British entered the war, having the ability to crack the German codes would be extremely useful.  Enter Bletchley Park.

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Although Bletchley is now quite near to Milton Keynes (the famous “planned city” that was built in the 1960s), during the war, it was kind of in the middle of nowhere, which was one of its virtues.  Far enough from major cities to be an unlikely target of the Blitz, yet near enough to London to allow messages to be carried back and forth, the old country estate seemed an ideal location for MI6 to set up headquarters.  It had to be built in a hurry, so most of the staff had to work in crude huts that were boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter, yet it still attracted some of the greatest minds of the day, including Alan Turing.  (Benedict is set to play him in a film later this year, can’t wait!)  Turing improved a Polish invention, the Bombe machine (named after the pudding, rather than an incendiary device) to help with the decoding process, but it still involved a lot of quick-thinking on the part of the staff, particularly as the German codes changed every day (it helped that a lot of the messages contained standard phrases, like Heil Hitler, which was useful in sussing things out)!

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Anyway, there were lots of amazing inventions and innovations to come out of Bletchley Park, which I’m sure you can find more about elsewhere on the internet; suffice it to say that the work done here probably helped shorten the war by at least two years.  After the war, the whole Bletchley story remained classified until the ’70s, and the Park wasn’t decommissioned until the ’80s.  It was turned into a museum in the 1990s, which finally brings me to my visit here!

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It really is a whole complex, so you’ll want to set aside a good few hours for your visit.  Admission is £15 (though English Heritage members get £3 off, woot!), and they offer a number of free guided tours, though we didn’t partake of any.  You enter the park through a museum section with a short film, and an overview of the history of Bletchley (basically what I just did above, only in more detail).  It explained the whole process of breaking codes, which involved not only cracking the Enigma, but obviously required knowledge of German (and later, Japanese) to translate the messages!

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After that, they hand you an interactive tour device (a step up from the loathed audio guide, since it was a touch screen device, allowing you to skip around and only listen to the stuff you were really interested in, and they even had long and short versions of most clips for impatient people like me!), and you’re left to wander the property.

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The next building over was also a museum, but this one was deeply technical, about the exact working of the Enigma and the Bombe, and I really couldn’t follow most of what was going on, not being terribly technically minded myself (I’m the complete opposite of my brother, who’s currently getting a degree in mechanical engineering).  However, they also had information on Alan Turing, who I’ve always felt quite bad for (the British government basically stigmatised him for being gay, and effectively destroyed his career, which was certainly a major factor in his suicide a couple years later), including the statue of him, and even his adorable teddy (named Porgy).  They also had a 3D slideshow, which was again incomprehensibly technical, but hey, it was in 3D!

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The upper floor had some war memorabilia, and memories of life at Bletchley Park, which seemed to either involve delightful entertainments, like sport and films, or else just a crap-tonne of work, I suppose depending on one’s personality (I would have been one of the sad sacks who was miserable and unsociable).  We next headed around the “lake” (more of a pond, really) to the manor house, which looked really grand (and had an awesome griffin thing outside), but was pretty disappointing on the interior.  It smelled musty and was full of chairs, so I assume it’s normally just used as conference rooms and a banquet hall, as there weren’t really any displays inside.

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There were also a few huts to the left of the mansion, but they were either closed off, or just held small displays, like one on Ian Fleming that was actually fairly interesting (there was also another display on spies inside one of the museums).  There were a couple more huts behind the mansion, which were also closed off, though you could peer inside, and there was a small Polish war memorial hidden back here as well (and what appeared to be a cemetery behind a gate, though there wasn’t any information on that, so I’m not sure what the story is).

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The huts to the right of the mansion, however, were the ones that had already been restored, so those were pretty cool.  One of them had a bunch of interactive code breaking games, and the other ones were just decorated as they would have been during the war – they even had a re-creation of Alan Turing’s office!  Videos of actors playing the codebreakers were projected on the walls, and it’s worth noting that most of the workers here were women, recruited largely from the upper classes (like Baroness Trumpington) or the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service).  Indeed, the building housing the code-breaking machines was staffed entirely by women.

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A garage behind the manor house contained the vehicles used by the staff.  Though most of the code-breakers got around town by bicycle, due to rationing, there were quite a few other workers that weren’t involved in code-breaking, but played a crucial role in relaying the resulting messages to the government and military.  Many of these drivers were also women, who got to ride bad-ass motorcycles back and forth between London and Bletchley, often in the dead of night.  Obviously they had phones and telegrams and such back then, but then you ran the risk of your messages being intercepted (since the transmissions from the Germans were being intercepted by the British in the first place), so it was safer to just hand-deliver them.  They also had some Packards that were used by staff.

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In addition to the main buildings, Bletchley Park contains a lot of smaller museums that aren’t managed by the Trust, but are still included in the price of admission; there’s a radio museum, a cinema museum, and a post office museum, but my favourite by far was the Toy Museum. This place was all kinds of awesome.  It reeked of mothballs (which I kind of like, it reminds me of how my great-aunt’s house smelled) and had so much crap crammed into just a couple of rooms, even old caricature puzzles that showed FDR perched on a stool (unlikely, but I guess a good compromise between standing or showing him in a wheelchair).

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In addition to old toys (some of which visiting children were allowed to play with), they also had a variety of clothing from the ’40s, with descriptions of the fabrics used and how things were made, which I thought was fascinating (and explained the presence of the mothballs, I have a moth problem myself, and those newfangled “good-smelling” moth repellants they have now simply don’t do the job). I loved all the old dresses, and would happily wear them myself, even if they were made from flour sacks and old parachutes.

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I also liked all the old cookery booklets designed to help you make the most of your rations, and could have easily spent much longer here looking at everything (I have a Betty Crocker cookbook of my grandma’s from 1950, and it has those same charming illustrations of anthropomorphic food in it, as well as little poems – the one about eggs is unintentionally hilarious).

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I should mention that there is also a National Museum of Computing right in one of the car parks, which has the Colossus and other early giant computers in it, but apparently they’re engaged in a long-running feud with Bletchley Park, and so it is not included in the admission, but is a separate attraction that costs 5 pounds extra.  For that reason, we did not visit, and I imagine many other people don’t either, but it is there if computers are your primary interest.

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We spent three hours in Bletchley, and could probably easily have spent more, especially if we’d taken one of the tours.  Although some of the museums were just too specialised for me (I’m still not completely sure how the machines worked, but the museum assured me that I probably wouldn’t unless my mind worked like Alan Turing’s, so I don’t feel so bad about that), and it would have been nice if more had been done with the manor house, as it seemed like a gorgeous building that just needed some attention, overall the day was very enjoyable.  I really liked learning more about the people who worked here, and the amazing work they did, and I think it was worth the long drive up from London (don’t miss the chance to get your picture with the concrete triceratops in Milton Keynes whilst you’re in the area, as seen below).  4/5

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High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: Wycombe Museum

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Now, I’ve visited Wycombe before to see the excellent Hellfire Caves (description under Favourite Places), but the destination this time was the much less thrilling sounding Wycombe Museum.  It attracted my attention primarily because I heard they had a chair gallery, and videos about bodgers, and bodger is a funny word that sounds slightly dirty, so that was good enough for me.  The museum is atop a hill (makes sense, as it is High Wycombe) with a parking lot behind it which we somehow managed to totally miss, instead paying for parking on the street below.

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Wycombe Museum is free, and is housed inside “Castle Hill House” and surrounded by extensive gardens. Parts of house date back to the 17th century, but there were extensive renovations throughout the 19th, and they’ve kept a 1920s kitchen/canteen inside the museum for self-service refreshment purposes.

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One of the galleries was devoted to the local football team, so aside from scoring an impressive goal (in flip flops yet!) in the net they had set up, I pretty much just skipped over this section, as I couldn’t give less of a crap about sports.  I did note that they seemed to have found a mascot even more offensive than Chief Wahoo, the Lucky Wycombe Comanche, which must have taken some doing, as they only acquired him in 1999.

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Never fear, the chair gallery was across the hall, and was exactly what I had come for.  I think I actually progressed backwards through the gallery, which is something I seem to do a lot, but I nonetheless enjoyed learning about the history of chair-making in Wycombe.  I was especially fascinated with the picture of the chair arch built for Queen Victoria’s visit; she even requested that her carriage be briefly stopped so she could look at it, so it must have been impressive indeed.

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Not only that, but I also got to the promised videos on bodgers.  You probably want to know what a bodger is, unless you looked it up when I first mentioned it at the beginning of the post, but in case you haven’t, it’s someone who makes chair legs out of wood.  I find videos of people engaging in specialised crafts to be quite mesmerising, so I was happy to sit and watch the vintage video of them shaping some legs.  I still think bodger sounds kind of dirty though.

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There were a number of chairs on display, from the regal number shown above, to the plain Windsor chairs that the Chilterns are famed for producing.  I believe there was even a Victorian child’s potty seat (pot section removed).  I also learned about the differences between cane and rush seating, both of which were done by women, but rush seating was generally more lucrative because the rush had to be woven whilst damp, which made it messier and more unpleasant work.

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We then headed upstairs, which was full of a mixture of objects pertaining to local trades similar to the displays at the Amersham Museum; since the towns are mere miles apart, they were both involved in straw weaving and lace making.  Because I’d already seen most of the tools at Amersham, I wasn’t so keen this time around.  The place was totally deserted, which is normally exactly what I want in a museum, but here it made me feel rushed, like they were just waiting for us to leave so they could close for the day, which probably also affected the amount of time I spent looking around.

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There was a whole timeline of Wycombe history, with some relevant artefacts, but most of the signs were weirdly low to the ground, as if intended for children.  The majority of the captions were just normal museum signs, and not those child-friendly ones you see with pictures and bigger type, so I’m not sure why they arranged things in such an awkward manner.  I’m sure I must have learned some interesting facts about Wycombe, but I can’t recall any of them now, which is never a good sign.  The Amersham cockatoo stayed with me no problem.

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In the corner, there was a random art gallery of what I imagine was local art, though there was a dearth of captions, so I can’t provide much more detail.  There was also a photographic exhibition of local mills with adequate signage that I found more intriguing.  A fact of note that I did learn at the museum was that the windmill from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was relatively nearby, though privately owned.  I have an absurb fondness for Dick van Dyke, especially in Disney musicals, and whilst Chitty is nowhere near as impressive as his Cockney accent in Mary Poppins, I just had to stop at the windmill.  It turns out it is along a country road, behind hedgerows and a fence, so I really don’t think the owners want people stopping.  I’m certainly not recommending doing this, but we parked down the road and walked down a public trail in a nearby field, and took a harrowing trek through some brambles to snap a cheeky picture, which can be seen below.

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It was covered in scaffolding, which does spoil the effect somewhat.  But, back to Wycombe Museum; as you could probably tell, I wasn’t terribly impressed.  As we’d just visited Amersham Museum, I couldn’t help comparing the two, and whilst Amersham was smaller, I much preferred it (and I don’t think I’m the only one, as Amersham was relatively busy).  The chair gallery was fine, but I don’t think much thought went into arranging most of the other galleries.  Finally, on the subject of chairs, I should note that the Wycombe Museum is not the same as the chair-making museum in Wycombe, which appears to be more of a shop-cum-museum experience, and which I have yet to visit. Maybe for a future post…  2.5/5 for Wycombe Museum.

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Amersham, Buckinghamshire: Amersham Museum

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Some of you may best know Amersham as the place where the Metropolitan Line ends, all the way out in Zone 9!  Exciting though it would have been to have taken the Underground all the way out there, we actually drove so as to maximise the number of local museums around Buckinghamshire we could visit (3, as it turns out, due to awkward opening hours).  It’s quite strange to think of the Tube stretching so far out into the country, as Amersham appeared to be a rather quaint little village, full of Tudor buildings, including the museum itself, which is housed in a half-timbered Tudor hall house.

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The Amersham Museum is only open on weekend afternoons between 2-4:30 (and Bank Holiday Mondays), so we had to time our visit carefully.  Admission is only £2, and we received a good introduction to the museum from the volunteer.  We began our visit on the ground floor, which contained a Tudor fireplace, and a case full of objects that had been found buried locally, including some tiles (medieval, and from Penn, not Jackfield).  There’s a timeline of Amersham history hanging from a wall, complete with curious anecdotes, and a back room with a video playing on the history of the Underground in Amersham.

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The first floor provided us with a chance to carefully study the attractive beamed ceiling, and offered a good example of the kind of quirkiness I love to see in local museums.  The first room was fairly open to give you a chance to study the markings carved into the beams, and the fireplace (with lady-mannequin), but had a few children’s activities along one wall, where I learned the names of some Tudor colours.  Goose-turd green was surprisingly pretty, but the greyish beige colour next to it was too dull for my tastes, shame, as I’d quite like to try to order up a can of Dead Spaniard from Farrow and Ball (guess I’ll have to stick with my original plan of arsenic green).  Over by the windows, there was information on the Amersham Martyrs, Lollards who were burned during Henry VIII’s reign, so they pre-dated the Oxford Martyrs (including Cranmer and his self-immolated hand) of Actes and Monuments fame by a good 40 years.

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The next room was absolutely crammed full of glass cases covering every aspect of Amersham history, from pipe-making to chair-making (the most famous Buckinghamshire chairs actually come from Wycombe, of which more in the next post. I bet you can’t wait!) to locally produced toys.  Being the weird Laura Ingalls obsessive that I am, I immediately honed in on the straw hat braiding section, especially a cutter used to split the straws which Laura never mentioned, so I’m left wondering if she simply left it out, as modern machinery might have spoiled the (Rose-influenced) survivalist Libertarian agenda of the books, or if their hats were just really thick and lumpy.

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One of the real gems of the collection was the unnamed stuffed cockatoo pictured above, who became a local hero after alerting guests of the Crown Hotel about a fire which subsequently destroyed the building.  Because of his (her?) warning, everyone escaped unharmed, except for two cats (hmmm, I guess that whole cat/bird animosity thing is true).  The plaque claimed the bird lived to 118, which seems unlikely at best, but it was still a neat story.  My other favourite object was Roald Dahl‘s prescription for glasses.  He lived in Great Missenden, which is only a village or two over, and visited an optometrist in Amersham, who passed the prescription onto the museum.  Of course Roald Dahl’s house is itself a museum, but it always seemed very child-orientated, so I’ve never been willing to take the plunge.  Maybe if they ever host an adults-only evening with George’s Marvellous Medicine themed cocktails, garnished with Mrs. Twit’s glass eye, of course.  Hell, now I’m tempted to throw a Roald Dahl cocktail party myself…

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Back downstairs, there was another room with a case devoted to local industry, which ranged from not only cottage industries like lace and cloth making, but to the Amersham Brewery, Goya toiletries, and Brazil Sausages and Pies, all now defunct.  Make sure you pull open the drawers underneath the case, as you’ll find not only some lovely Victorian bodices, but some hilarious advertising posters for Brazil’s sausages.  There was a small collection of things donated by TFL in the corner – some of those moquette ottomans that cost a fortune, but which I totally want anyway, and a few vintage Tube posters for Amersham.

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There’s an herb garden out the back, which slopes down to the River Misbourne, full of Tudor medicinal and culinary herbs (and a lot of bees and wasps).  On a wall outside there’s a tiled mural made by local children to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first Amersham martyr.  And to think, the only tiles we got to make at my school were some ones that got hung up in the hall across from the gym.  Probably just as well; mine was rubbish anyway due to my complete lack of artistic ability.  Speaking of rubbish, there’s an outhouse at the end of the garden (actually, the toilets are outside as well, but they’re in a different building than the outhouse.  Don’t get them mixed up!).

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Though it was on the small side, I liked the Amersham Museum quite a lot.  Obviously children enjoy it too, judging from the great number of them rambunctiously participating in the many child-friendly activities, including the museum scavenger hunt (they were honestly much too noisy for my liking, but I’ve not yet reached the stage of crankiness where I feel like I can scream at random children, at least, not if their parents are standing right there).  I do think Amersham has made a good effort to appeal to people of all ages, with just enough quirk to pique my interest.  3.5/5.