My favourite thing about the Brighton Fishing Museum had to be the sign located on a hut opposite it, reading “Brighton Fishing Museum, Admission Free, ‘Just Opposite this Sign.'” I love that “Just Opposite this Sign” is in quotation marks, and enjoyed trying to figure out why. Is that the museum’s slogan? Did there used to be someone who actually stood inside the hut, directing traffic across to the museum, and it is quoting them? Do they just not know how to use quotation marks? Whatever the explanation, the sign is delightful.
I was apprehensive about visiting the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft after learning about Eric Gill, who was an incestuous paedophile, at the Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place last year. Gill was part of the Ditchling group of artists, so I knew there was a good chance this museum would have some of his work, but I was hoping that because the Ditchling Museum hosts a number of temporary exhibitions, Gill’s work wouldn’t make up a significant part of what was on display. I eventually just reckoned that because National Art Pass holders get free admission (normally £6.50), at least I wouldn’t be contributing any money to it if it was Gill-centric (other than what they get from the National Art Fund I guess), so on a recent trip to Brighton, we stopped off there on the way.
I’ve been to Brighton quite a few times over the years, and except for the Old Police Cells Museum, which I’m never around at the right time of day to visit (it’s by pre-booked guided tour only, and the only tour time is 10:30 in the morning), I feel I’ve pretty well exhausted its limited museum options at this point. So on this trip to the coast (which turned out to be much colder than London, so not a good seaside day after all), I turned to its smaller neighbouring town of Hove, and the Hove Museum and Art Gallery, which was rumoured to have a nice collection of magic lantern slides.
The Hove Museum falls under the authority of Brighton Museums, which makes sense, because it is very similar in feel to the larger Brighton Museum. Fortunately, admission to the Hove Museum is free to all, and not just residents of Brighton and Hove, like the Brighton Museum is. At the time of my visit, there was a special exhibit about puppets on the ground floor, so that’s where I began.
I’d be the first to admit that a lot of puppets are kind of menacing, but most of these ones were actually quite charming. I particularly liked the ones of Miss Fox and Miss Cat (above previous paragraph), and of Bluebeard, Bluebeard’s wife, and the ghost of one of his previous wives (not pictured, because I don’t have a photo for some reason). There was a woman in there at the same time as me who was apparently one of the creators of a Rikki-Tikki-Tavi puppet theatre, and she was explaining how she made it to some other woman, but I was too distracted by her pronunciation of “Tavi” to pay attention. I’ve always said “taa-vee,” but this woman kept saying “tah-vee.” I guess it’s one of those British/American English divides…I just asked Marcus how to phonetically spell the “aaa” noise I make in “Tavi” and “apple” and he couldn’t do it because it’s not even a noise English people make. Just picture a sort of annoying nasally “a” noise.
The bulk of the museum was located on the first floor, and as I was keen to see the magic lantern stuff (Professor Heard from that Brompton Cemetery event last year fired up my enthusiasm for the medium), I headed to the film gallery first. This turned out to be two small rooms, plus a neat little cinema (I loved the wall decor) where you could watch short films starring puppets (dunno if this was connected to the puppet exhibit, or if they show them all the time).
The slides turned out to be all mounted together in a large panel that you could press a switch to illuminate. I think my favourites are the dog and cat in the fourth row from the bottom (they’re a little hard to see, but they’re dressed in people clothes, and the cat is reading a book), but there were enough entertaining slides that I stood there studying them for a good long while (longer than the light stayed on for anyway, I had to press it again). There were also a few thaumatrope and flipbook type things to play with, and some early silent films of the Brighton area to enjoy.
Next was a small room devoted to the history of Hove, which segued into an equally pint-sized art gallery. I didn’t spend too much time in the local history section, which was a bit wordy, even for me (plus I’m just not that interested in the history of Hove), but it seems like Hove was built up during the Regency period, same as Brighton. Also, Edward VII apparently liked to hang out in Hove when he was still the Prince of Wales. The art gallery had a few paintings in it that I quite liked (which is impressive, given that there were only about ten paintings in there), including a whole wall with a giant monkey painting.
The “Wizard’s Attic,” which was presumably aimed at children (though they’d have to be fairly brave children, as you’ll see once you get a look at some of the toys there), was without question my favourite gallery in the museum. The premise was that a wizard (pictured above) lived there (you had to be quiet so as not to wake him up), and he liked to collect and repair old toys. So the room was chock-full of Pollock’s Toy Museum style cases of antique toys of varying degrees of disturbing. I have to admit that I quite liked those George V, Queen Mary, and young Edward VIII (in his pre-Nazi sympathiser days) dolls, even if they were a bit creepy.
But their creepiness was nothing compared to those clown dolls pictured above. I’m positive if you let them into your house, they would kill everyone you cared about in the night, and wait until you woke up and saw what they had done before they killed you too. It’s a good thing the sensible Wizard has them contained behind glass. Tricycle boy there is a bit unsettling too…to be honest, there were a lot of shit-scary toys here. I’m not sure how much children would actually like this terrifying collection, but I loved it. It was like being in an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or something (god, I used to love that show, but I had no idea it ran until 2000! I must have stopped watching at some point in the mid-’90s).
The final gallery was devoted to different crafts and how they were produced – I’m not terribly interested in crafts, but a few objects did catch my eye, like the figure of Lucretia stabbing herself, above, a pumpkin teapot (which you may be able to spot in the photo on the above left), and some cute little monster dolls (below left).
I ended up spending less than an hour at this museum, which is fine because it was free, but it definitely felt like Brighton Museum’s less impressive little sister (which is kind of funny, because apparently Hove likes to think of itself as being posher than Brighton). It matched Brighton Museum’s eclecticism, just on a reduced scale (there was even a pavilion-y structure outside the museum that I think was some sort of war memorial). I really enjoyed the magic lantern slides, and the toy gallery, but the rest was a little hit-and-miss. I think it’s worth a visit if, like me, you’ve been to the area a lot and want something new to see, but if you’re only in this part of Sussex for a day or two, I’d just stay in Brighton and see the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museum instead (and eat some ice cream! Scoop and Crumb or Boho Gelato are both good options), or maybe go for a walk at Devil’s Dyke (and then get ice cream!). I’d even recommend the Booth Museum over this one (if you’re into taxidermy), just because it’s so gloriously old fashioned. 2.5/5 for the Hove Museum.
The Royal Pavilion shares the Pavilion Gardens with the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, so it made sense to pop over there directly after visiting the Royal Pavilion, especially as it is another National Art Fund friendly property, so we got free entry (£5.20 otherwise, but it is free for Brighton and Hove residents with proof of address). Although it may appear that the Brighton Museum was originally part of the Royal Pavilion (because of the similarity in architectural styles), it was actually purpose-built in the 1870s, presumably to match the Eastern-influenced appearance of the Pavilion. I’ve been to the museum a few times over the years, so this was a slightly speedy visit where I basically just passed through to snap some photos (or point to things so my boyfriend takes a photo of them, as is usually the way) and make sure things were more or less as I remembered them.
Like many local museums, the Brighton Museum is an eclectic mix of galleries, but it’s larger than your typical local museum, and pulls off the strange mix more skillfully than others, perhaps because it’s in keeping with the character of Brighton itself. The museum opens with a hall of interior design, which features, among other things, a baseball mitt couch inspired by Joe DiMaggio, one of the famous (THE famous? Is there more than one?) Mae West Lips sofas, by Salvador Dali, and one of Grayson Perry’s vases.
Carrying on from the design gallery, you’ll come upon the Ancient Egyptian nook (this is the kind of eclecticism I was talking about). It’s got your usual Egyptian stuff: some canopic jars, a few sarcophagi, etc, and also a mildly entertaining computer game (aimed at children) where you get to choose the tools needed to embalm a body, and then stuff the organs in their appropriate jars (harder than it should have been).
Because it is the Brighton Museum, there are of course a couple galleries devoted to local history, detailing how Brighton became a fashionable seaside resort town, info about life in Brighton during the war years, and also how Brighton came to be one of the most LGBT friendly places in the UK. There were some nice seasidey touches in here, like one of those boards you stick your head through so it looks like you have the body of an Edwardian bather, and a couple penny arcade machines, though it was unclear whether you could actually use them or not (my guess is no, since they probably took old school pennies, but they were just kind of sitting out, practically begging you to try them).
I am kind of a nerd about old ceramics, so the “Willett’s Popular Pottery” gallery is definitely my favourite. There are so many wonderful things in here, but the best had to be the “Red Barn Murder” figurines (I’ve tried to get my hands on a set before, but these are super rare and mega expensive. This is the first set I’ve seen in person), featuring Maria Marten and her murderer William Corder, both as a smiling, newlywed couple, and then in front of the infamous barn, with William luring the innocent Maria inside to her horrible demise. With a cow complacently chewing cud off to one side, which really makes it perfect. This was just one small part of the crime-related pottery section (told you it’s an excellent gallery!), which also had figurines of Dick Turpin and one of his less-famous highwayman friends, among others.
I want to show you all the things, but I realise that others probably don’t share my level of interest in historical ceramic figurines. But there was lots of great stuff here; not only slightly misshapen animals, but those Georgian mugs with cartoons printed right on them, and some of those old-school royalty mugs (before official photographs or portraits were used, and somebody just crappily hand-painted a generic looking bewigged man on them).
Although this was not my first visit to the museum, I think I’d somehow missed going upstairs in the past, because I did not remember these galleries at all (and I definitely would have if I’ve seen them). The first was the Performance Gallery, which contained puppets and costumes from all over the world. My two favourites are pictured above. Poor George IV. The guy just can’t catch a break.
Then there was the Ocean Blues Gallery, which I have to mention just so I can show you pictures of that sad shark and albatross chick (the chick was bigger than the adults they had on display, not sure how that works, especially when you look at the size of the egg it came out of. Maybe there’s just a lot of downy fluff involved?). I want to take that shark home and give him a hug, the poor thing. This gallery mainly discussed pollution and its impact on the oceans, so it’s probably appropriate that the shark looked so lonely and upset.
The fashion gallery contained one of Fatboy Slim’s shirts, which my boyfriend was kind of excited about for some reason (I could never get into Fatboy Slim, maybe it’s one of those inexplicable British things? I’m not even that sure who he actually is, since his videos seemed to only have other people in them (I’m thinking of that “Praise You” song that was big in the late ’90s, which come to think of it, is the only Fatboy Slim song I know of)). It also had a cool naval coat, and some adorable albeit probably uncomfortable bathing costumes, but the strangest part was the collection of clothing associated with ’80s movements, like punk, skinhead, and goth outfits (fair enough), but also a queer-fetish-techno-punk outfit from 1998, which I didn’t even realise was a subgenre. Where I come from, we just called them ravers.
Unfortunately, that amazing doorway no longer leads into a zoology gallery, but rather, the art galleries. Since it’s mainly modern art in here, I would have preferred zoology (especially because that probably means taxidermy), but what can you do. One of the canvases in here was literally just beige, and some guy was admiring it like it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I will never understand that kind of modern art.
Back downstairs, I found another gallery I’d missed previously hiding in the corner, which was about different cultures from around the world, containing some cool objects from each of them (I liked all the Inuit stuff, though I don’t have a picture; I guess I didn’t point to it vigorously enough), and for some inexplicable reason, a foosball table (some family was already using it, but I didn’t mind so much because I am extremely terrible at foosball. Give me an air hockey table or Skeeball over it any day).
I think the Brighton Museum is one of those rare places that I actually wouldn’t have minded paying for (though I’m not complaining that I got in free!). I remember really liking it the first time I went (many years ago, before I even moved to the UK; it was the summer when I was backpacking through Europe and I spent a day in Brighton because I decided I hated London and I needed to get away. It’s funny how life turns out sometimes), and I still like it. It’s not enormous or anything, but it’s big enough to kill a couple hours in, and varied enough that there’s something for everyone, especially if you like ceramic cats (don’t miss the giant one in the cafe!). 3.5/5.
The Royal Pavilion is an amazing, confused conglomeration of excess, built for the notoriously dissipated Prince Regent (who became George IV) in the 1810s. It’s probably the most recognisable building in Brighton, with its distinctive Indian-inspired exterior, and its even crazier Chinese-influenced interior. And despite having visited Brighton a fair number of times over the years, the first time I ventured inside this behemoth was just a few short weeks ago.
For you see, admission to the Royal Pavilion is normally a princely £12.30, but it is a National Art Fund partner, so members get free access (even though they don’t advertise it anywhere in the building or online, which gave me a bit of a scare, but they honour it in person with no trouble), so this is the first time myself and my wallet were inclined to venture within. Also, I was a bit worried it would be excessively touristy, but even on a Sunday, it wasn’t too terribly crowded. I mean, we walked right in, and had no trouble strolling around the place relatively unimpeded (though it was unseasonably cold on the day of our visit, meaning most people wouldn’t choose to visit a seaside town, so your mileage may vary in nicer weather).
Now, although the Royal Pavilion has one of the most incredible interiors I’ve ever seen, and I’m anxious to share it with you all, they do not allow photography inside. I get that they’ve done a lot of restoration work over the years, but I still feel like they could let you snap a few shots in the most impressive downstairs rooms without doing any damage, but eurgh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s to encourage you to tell your friends to come see it for themselves, since you’ll have no pictures to show off (actually, after poking about on their website, apparently it’s the Queen’s fault. I knew I was opposed to the monarchy for a reason). An amble around the internet didn’t reveal any good photographs available for free use (just some drawings and copies of old postcards), so please click this link to the Royal Pavilion’s website where you can click room by room to check them all out, making sure to focus on the Music Room and Banqueting Room, which I will talk about below, because they are the best.
They offered us an audio guide when we entered, but I’m so used to declining things that I just said no, without even asking if it cost extra. Judging by the number of people who had audio guides (i.e. everyone except us), it might not, but you still all know what my position on audio guides usually is. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a tonne to read on the ground floor of the house, generally just a small sign per room, so I probably missed out on learning about the interior. Fortunately, this was remedied to some extent with the help of the video room, wherein I learned that the Pavilion was built by Henry Holland on something of a budget, as George was still just a prince at the time, and his daddy had his finger on the purse strings. However, once George III descended into madness for the final time, and Georgie Jr was made Prince Regent, he decided to expand and embellish with the help of John Nash, and went for this totally crazy British-Empire-meets-the-Orient design, inspired by his love of the Far East. Later (skipping over William IV, who wasn’t around for long anyway), the staid Victoria rejected the palace as too louche for family living, and had everything stripped out of it and mostly transferred to Buckingham Palace, while she was busy lording it up at Osborne House. When Brighton later decided to open the palace to the public, Victoria (to her credit) returned most of the furnishings, and sort-of-shoddy reconstructions were done to make up the rest of the interiors (they had some examples in there, they were pretty craptastic). During WWI, the Pavilion went on to serve as a hospital for Indian soldiers and later, soldiers missing limbs, and then was finally properly restored after the war years, save for some minor setbacks in the 1970s and ’80s when there was an arson attack, and then one of the minarets collapsed, which destroyed the Music Room, but it is now back in all its glory.
And the Music Room was probably the best damn room in the whole place, save for maybe the Banqueting Room (actually, I did prefer the Music Room, because snakes). Oh man, it was incredible. Snakes and dragons all over the damn place (not real ones, obviously), crawling up the wallpaper, serving as curtain rods, and just generally awesomely slithering around. The Banqueting Room was pretty baller too though, especially the chandelier, which weighs a tonne (literally), and is suspended from a large winged dragon. Also of note was the Great Kitchen, which had fake palm tree columns, and a menu from one of the Careme catered banquets George hosted (also available on their website, but it’s too small to read on there), featuring an epic 68 dishes, plus 8 edible confectionery centrepieces (all the meaty stuff sounded pretty foul (sometimes fowl), but I would definitely tuck into a “great nougat, in the French style.” Bring one to me now).
Even the Long Gallery, which we got to pass through several times on the way upstairs and downstairs, and back through George’s personal apartments (the whole thing was quite maze-like, and we only went the right way with the help of the ropes stretched all over the place), was neat. It was full of creepily lifelike Chinese figurines and (guess what?) more dragons.
I realise it’s probably not possible with the way the place is set up, but they should probably make you see the downstairs rooms last, because I felt a little bit like Homer when he was given a tour of Mr. Burns’s house that ended in the basement (Homer: “Gee, it’s not as nice as the other rooms.” Mr. Burns: “Yes, I really should stop ending the tour with it.”). The upstairs rooms fairly paled in comparison to the splendours downstairs, but I did enjoy the museum-y rooms where I learned more about the restoration of the palace, and its time as a war hospital, and there was also a room full of caricatures of George IV, which were brilliant. Victoria’s boringly restrained apartments were up here too, and according to their website, there was also a special bed with a tipping mechanism made for George when he was at his morbidly obese/gouty stage so he could get up more easily, but I somehow missed that detail when we were there (actually, that bed was downstairs, because if George could barely get out of bed, he certainly couldn’t climb stairs, but I still don’t remember seeing it). Guess I paid the price for not taking the audio guide.
The palace also featured an enormous gift shop (not really anything in it I wanted to buy, but it was for sure big), and not one, but TWO cafes (probably technically a cafe and a tea room), but I didn’t see any millionaire’s shortbread (Brighton’s got too many good bakeries for me to want to eat in a museum cafe anyway), plus my stomach was already all set for some ice cream from Scoop and Crumb (it was a bit icier than usual, probably because it was still the off-season, but it didn’t stop me from eating three large scoops and promptly getting a stomachache). I don’t know if I’d still be as keen if I’d paid £12.30 for the Royal Pavilion (maybe if I’d had the audio guide. If I’d paid, I’d definitely have taken the audio guide), since we walked through in under an hour, but for free, this was a fabulous outing. I think this probably had my favourite interior out of any palace I’ve visited (which probably means I’m as gaudy and tasteless as George IV, but so be it), at least where the main downstairs rooms were concerned, and it was definitely worth seeing, at long last. Still salty about my inability to photograph it (I should say Marcus’s inability to photograph it, because I never voluntarily take pictures) though. 4/5.
What kind of a quaint English town would Rye be without a National Trust property on one of its famed cobbled streets? (I still can’t quite get over the idea of cobblestones being a tourist attraction, I guess because I really hate walking on them.) Fortunately, Henry James, author of The Portrait of a Lady, The Innocents, etc. was once in residence here, in a fine red-brick Georgian house. Despite owning a copy of The Turn of the Screw that I got free in The Times some years ago, I have still never gotten around to reading any of James’s books (shame on me, I should be more interested in fellow American expats I guess). In fact, I probably know more about his brother William, a psychologist, due to Deborah Blum’s fascinating book Ghost Hunters, but that National Trust card has made me more adventurous, as all I have to waste is my time, so I figured why the hell not see Lamb House?!
Although if you’re not a National Trust member, I can think of six very good reasons not to see Lamb House. As in, that’s how many pounds you’ll be wasting to look inside this ridiculously tiny property. Well, the property itself actually seems fairly substantial, the problem is more that you’re not allowed in three quarters of the building, including the entire upstairs. Only three rooms on the ground level of the house are open, plus a garden/cafe, which seems like a lovely place to have a tea, but if you’re not partaking, then it just means all the tea-drinkers stare at you as you try to look ’round the place.
To be fair, they did hand over three long fact sheets when we walked in, which is more than many larger National Trust properties have, so I left knowing more about Henry James than I did when I walked in, which can’t be a bad thing. And about E.F. Benson, who was another writer who lived in the house after James. Benson I knew virtually nothing about, other than his name sounding vaguely familiar. Apparently he wrote Mapp and Lucia novels, though I’m still in the dark as to what those involve. One of the rooms had about a million binders on the table (many of them duplicates) with more information about the property, so I suppose that was a plus too.
We discovered what appeared to be a pet graveyard outside; perhaps it was mentioned in one of those binders, and I missed it. However, that pretty much concludes the list of interesting features of Lamb House. It was way, way too small for the price, and unmemorable. I’d definitely skip this one unless you’re a big Henry James fan AND a National Trust member (I don’t think James fans alone would be too pleased with the admission charge either). It also seems like they have very limited opening hours, so odds are good it might be shut anyway. 1.5/5.
Rye is one of those historic towns that’s meant to be super haunted and all that jazz, with some inn called the Mermaid being a major stop for German tour groups (as far as I could tell); I saw the Mermaid featured on Great British Ghosts a while back, and much as I like Michaela et al on Springwatch, even she couldn’t sell me on what was sure to be a tourist trap. But I am not immune to tourist traps, as proved by my visit to the Rye Heritage Centre. At first glance, the Heritage Centre was nothing more than a glorified souvenir shop, with some kind of (undoubtedly overpriced) “Sound and Light Show” about the history of Rye housed inside, but their website drew me in with the promise of an old-fashioned penny arcade. I LOVE penny arcades, as you may remember from my visit to Tim Hunkin’s superb Under the Pier Show a couple years back.
Though this was nothing like the glorious whimsy of the Under the Pier Show, being a pretty standard collection of old penny machines, it was free, and you got seven plays for a pound (which you have to exchange for giant pre-1971 pennies in a machine in order to play the games). It was the usual mix of fortune telling devices, not-very-exciting games involving variations on dropping marbles through slots, and old mechanical models, but they did have a few machines that were listed as one-offs, including a machine from 1905!
What can I say? It was cheesy, and a bit lame, but I enjoyed myself, and the place was absolutely deserted, which was a bonus (the weird thing about Rye is that it has the feel of a seaside town, without actually being on the sea (though it once was, as I learned at Ypres Tower), which does help to cut down on the crowds a bit. Just wish they’d get some decent ice cream somewhere. Movenpick doesn’t cut it, sorry). Rye was a bit of a mixed bag, but it was fine overall. Not somewhere I’d rush to return to, but if I ended up back here at some point in the future, I wouldn’t mind too much. Anywhere that has a penny arcade can’t be all bad.
Why Rye? Well, it’s near the seaside, and is within day trip distance from SW London (and takes you right through what I like to call the cherry belt: that glorious part of Kent and East Sussex littered with roadside stands selling bags of Kentish cherries far superior to anything you’ll find in the supermarket). And, I miss American-style rye bread with caraway seeds; I especially like it toasted, with cinnamon and sugar, because it’s got kind of a sweet-savoury thing going on, so the name may have made me a bit hungry. But it’s not as though the town of Rye is particularly known for its bread (in fact, I didn’t see a single artisan bakery, just “traditional” British ones producing some awful looking mushy white crap, basically a hot dog bun in loaf form). What they do have is a castle, known as Ypres Tower.
First, I should clarify a couple potentially confusing things about the castle. Coming off the back of so many posts about Belgium, you might be thinking that with a name like Ypres, the castle has some connection to WWI or Belgium. It turns out it was once owned by a man called John de Ypres, and has nothing to do with Belgium at all. Also, the actual castle is not the castle museum (as we thought at first); the castle is Ypres Tower; the castle museum is down the road in a nondescript building. Also, though they’re all part of the same museum, the Rye Castle Museum (the nondescript thing) is free, but Ypres Tower is £3. Now that I’ve cleared all that up, let’s crack on!
I could tell almost immediately upon entering Ypres Tower and having a peek around the ground floor, that it was going to be the kind of museum I like. Old-fashioned, almost exhaustively educational in places (while still playing fast and loose with history, to include legend as “fact”), and above all, charming. The castle had a number of uses over the years, from private residence, to defence, and finally as a prison, which were all reflected in the museum. I was greeted by the alleged skeleton of John Breads (great name, especially coming from Rye), who famously murdered a local man in a case of mistaken identity (he was trying to kill someone he had a grudge against, but it was dark and he got the wrong man, which just seems careless), and was executed, then had his corpse hung from a gibbet. There was also a delightful tapestry thing, made by local women, showing the history of the castle – my favourite bit was the distraught looking prisoner pictured above. In addition, there was an herb room hidden in the corner, with some explanation given of various medicinal herbs.
The steps leading to the first floor of the tower (and slightly beyond, to a garderobe, as I discovered to my delight) were uneven and a real tripping hazard, as we were warned by the man at the admissions desk (I did stumble on the edges of two of them, so he wasn’t lying), but led up to a room with cases of uniforms, pottery tiles, and some knitting done by those craftsy local women, as well as a large display about the history of smuggling in Rye.
Yeah, you can see what I mean from that picture about some of the history being exhausting to read. Anyway, although Rye is now a couple of miles inland, for many centuries it was almost an island, surrounded by the English Channel, as I learned from the old-school lighted relief map in the centre of the room. So it was a major port throughout the Middle Ages: even after silting occurred and one of the rivers Rye sat on changed course, meaning it was no longer on the sea, it continued to function curiously like a port town, and its economy depended heavily on smuggling, because it no longer had an influx of ships to depend on. (Rye still has a definite seaside feel to it, as I’ll discuss further in my next post.)
There were some nice views out the side of the tower, even though we weren’t actually all that high up (as far as towers go, since there were levels above us), because Rye is built on a hill, and Ypres Tower is at the top of it. After having a good look out the side, it was time to brave those uneven steps again (not as bad on the way down), and head down to see the basement gallery.
The basement was clearly the child-friendly area; as always, I was overjoyed that none were there, so I could try on ALL the armour. And play with medieval weapons.
I clearly rock at firing a longbow (actually, I couldn’t have been an archer, going by the test at the museum. I think you probably had to start practicing while your bones were still malleable, so your shoulders deformed in a useful way). Anyway, I enjoyed this overview of medieval history; any time there is stuff to try on, I get way too excited about it.
Heading back outside, we turned right to walk through the garden, and reached the former women’s prison. All prisoners were initially held within the tower itself in appalling conditions, but Elizabeth Fry, famed Quaker prison reform campaigner, visited the prison and convinced Rye to open a separate women’s prison, where the women had actual beds, fireplaces, and chamberpots. It was still pretty grim, and involved eating a gruel-based diet, as the short projection inside the prison shows (keep your eyes peeled for the animated rat), but better than having to sleep in a pool of your own excrement!
Once we figured out that we hadn’t yet seen the Rye Castle Museum, which to be honest, didn’t happen until after we left Ypres Tower and consulted the free map we grabbed off the admissions desk, we headed down the hill to East Street, to see t’other museum. This was pretty small, all one room, but hey, it was free. There was a bit about WWI, and then just loads of glass cases with objects relating to Rye’s history. I liked the pottery pigs, which are apparently a local thing (though no one seemed to have any for sale, not even a pottery shop we passed that had an array of other animals in the window; although there may have been some inside, they weren’t prominently displayed), because people from Sussex are apparently stubborn and “Wun’t be Druv,” which is to say they won’t be driven where they don’t want to go.
This was a fairly standard local history museum, and apart from finding some of the objects amusing, nothing particularly stood out to me, but if you’re looking to kill some time, you may as well stop in as it’s free. I liked Ypres Tower a lot better, and though it was indeed very old-school, that’s kind of what I liked about it, and I don’t think 3 quid was a bad price (especially relative to what the National Trust are charging for their Rye property, more on that coming soon). 3/5 for Ypres Tower. I wouldn’t make a special trip to Rye for it, but if you’re already here on account of the cobblestones (seriously, why are cobblestones a tourist attraction?!) or all the supposedly haunted stuff (or just because you hadn’t ever been to Rye and are running out of things to blog about, like me), it’s one of the better attractions the town has to offer (though that’s not really saying much), so is worth a look.
I’m feeling quite proud of myself this week (well, a month ago by the time I got around to publishing this), because I managed to get a record six (!) posts written (hopefully with no effect on the quality). I know you can’t tell as much, because I stagger them out to make up for the lean weeks, but just picture me furiously typing away all week, trying to get my entire Somerset trip written up, followed by this day trip to Sussex (actually, maybe don’t picture me writing, since I’m usually wearing pajamas and my ratty old bathrobe, and my hair is a wreck). It’s a Friday as I write this, so I am taking some satisfaction in finishing up my backlog with this post on Battle.
The Battle of Hastings is something of a misnomer, as the fighting actually took place a good few miles inland, in what is now the town of Battle (which was obviously named post-battle; it sure would have been weirdly coincidental otherwise). Lest you think they just found a random field and labelled it as the battle site in a money-making endeavour (as the cynic in me would be inclined to believe), there is a sort of proof (despite the fact that no relics of the battle have ever been found here) in the fact that William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, to give him his other, funnier title) founded an abbey here only 5 years after the battle took place, and ordered the altar of the church to be placed right over the spot where Harold died. Nowadays, the Abbey is in ruins, and the entire area has been turned into a fenced-in, bona-fide (said in Phil Hartman’s voice, as Lyle Lanley trying to sell Springfield on a monorail) tourist attraction courtesy of English Heritage (hey, at least it makes a change from the National Trust).
Obviously, an attraction of this magnitude is going to cost you (around 9 quid, depending on whether you Gift Aid or not), unless you just squeaked in before your English Heritage membership expired, like I did. I was offered a free audio guide, so I took it, but I have to confess that I didn’t listen to it at all, so for once I probably can’t bitch about the lack of signage, as it was my own fault for not taking advantage of the audio tour (but I still will, because I much prefer reading to listening).
My boyfriend and I first ventured over to the visitor centre, which despite being recently redone, was still quite meh. A few posters, and a film I didn’t watch because I didn’t want to commit to sitting there for fifteen minutes. There were a few weapons you could pick up, and a bit of information about the Normans and Anglo-Saxons (I’m intrigued by Charles the Simple), but that was about it. The building also holds the underwhelming tearoom (with no products made using Battle honey in sight, despite the website’s promises) and the only toilets on the property, as far as I can tell, so if you have to go even a little, best to take advantage before you find yourself at the far end of the battlefield (I feel like somebody’s mother saying that, but it’s a lesson I learned the hard way).
And onward to the battlefield, which offered the options of a short walk overlooking it, or a longer walk all the way around it, which maybe took twenty minutes, including stopping to read the signs and take pictures. The few signs scattered around had corresponding numbers you could enter into the dreaded audio guide, but the biggest attraction here was the sheep. Lots of sheep, and most importantly, lots of lambs; adorable lambs, which was nice, because the battlefield wasn’t so much to look at otherwise.
The ruins of the abbey, on the other hand, were quite impressive. There wasn’t anything left inside the abbey (save for the arches), and the first floor was missing, but the interior structures were still more or less intact, and you could climb your way through them. Because the abbey was built on a hill, there were steps between the successive levels, but the upper floor was still on a flat surface because they staggered the heights of the ceilings below. Pretty clever on the part of those medieval monks (there was also a drainage chute outside the abbey that I’d like to believe was a poo chute, but it probably wasn’t since they had a purpose-built “reredorter” and all).
The monastery was dissolved in the 16th century, of course, due to Henry VIII and his jerkish whims, so if you take that into consideration, it’s incredible how much of it is still intact. The altar was one of the casualties, although there is still a spot marking where it was (and by extension, where Harold was meant to have died), so you can simply stand on it, or if you want to be more morbid, you could probably lie down and pretend you’d been shot in the head with an arrow, a la Harold. (The building behind me in the picture is connected with the site, but it is now a school, and you are not allowed inside.)
The abbey site was turned into part of a country estate after the so-called “Suppression,” so there are some later additions installed by the wealthy owners (despite some jerk-heir akin to Horace Walpole’s ass-hat descendant selling a bunch of crap to pay off his gambling debts). That hobbit hole looking thing is actually an ice house, and looks cooler from the outside than in (does that count as a pun? Literally speaking, temperature-wise, of course it’s cooler on the inside, but it is just a dank hole that you have to duck your head to get near), and the other building is the dairy; sadly, sans cow leg table.
There was also a Victorian walled garden built by the Duchess of Cleveland, which looked pretty dead inside when I visited (in April, so something should have been in bloom), and some kind of monument, I guess to commemorate Harold’s death or maybe the battle? It was hard to tell as it was written in French (so maybe not marking Harold’s death after all). Speaking of walls, there is also a wall walk you can take back up to the main building – once used for defensive purposes, it now sadly only offers views of Battle without the opportunity to pour boiling oil on the townspeople’s heads.
Heading back up towards the entrance, which is based inside the gatehouse, we mounted the steep and uneven staircase up to one of the towers that houses the Gatehouse Museum, which had clearly not been renovated when the visitor’s centre had. This was probably a good thing, as the signs was pleasingly old-fashioned still, and I was slightly amused by the fact that most of it included a French translation (given what happened here and all, but then again, to the victor go the spoils, right?).
There were some neat hidey-holes you could poke your head into here, if you were so inclined (and were willing to squeeze through the narrow doorways). We discovered this garderobe hiding in one of them, with the toilet carefully roped off (probably because you might be tempted to use it rather than trek down to the visitor’s centre).
If you can get past the fact that you are essentially paying to look at a field exactly like ones that can be seen all over the English countryside for free, than I guess Battle isn’t too terrible. Honestly, I was glad we managed to get in on the membership card, as I don’t think it was worth 9 pounds. I really did like the ruins of the abbey, but the visitor’s centre was straight-up lame, and everything else was just ok (and the battlefield was just a field, although not having been to many battlefields in my day, aside from WWI sites in Belgium, I don’t have much to compare it to). I don’t know, I suppose it is a site of historic importance (since it did change the entire course of British history), which is really the main reason it might be worth seeing – not because of what it offers today. 2.5/5.
I know I’ve mentioned this on here before, but “How the Camel Got His Hump” from Just So Stories was my absolute favourite story when I was little, and I forced my grandpa to read it to me every time I saw him (which was at least 3 times a week, since my grandparents babysat me whilst my mom was at work) because he did such an excellent grumpy camel voice. So I’ve always harboured a fondness for Mr. Kipling (Rudyard, not the cake manufacturer, although you won’t catch me turning down a French Fancy. Especially those orange ones they put out for Halloween), and when I spotted Bateman’s in the (sigh) National Trust handbook, I marked it down for a future visit. However, it had to wait for a day when it was warm enough to also walk around nearby Battle, because I kind of doubted it would merit a special trip of its own.
Bateman’s was built in 1634, but the Kiplings obviously came to own the property a few centuries on, from 1902 until the deaths of Rudyard and his wife Carrie in the 1930s. There’s quite a lot of land surrounding the house, including a variety of gardens and a watermill (of which more later), but I’m not sure it’s enough to merit the tenner non-members have to pay to enter (I’m convinced by now that the National Trust expects everyone to become members, so they just slap any old admission price on their properties because they assume almost no one is going to pay it).
As for the house, well, we didn’t really get any pictures inside because we weren’t 100% sure whether we were allowed to take them, and it was crowded in there so it felt awkward whipping out a camera, but the typical National Trust rather scanty single-sheet guide did have its moments. For instance, there was an ugly painting hanging in the dining room that was a gift to the family, so they felt like they had to display it, but they got around this by sitting with their backs to it, except Rudyard, who was too short sighted to be able to see it from his side of the table anyway. There were also some carvings (I think made by Kipling’s father) depicting scenes from The Jungle Book. As is usual though, Bateman’s appeared to assume that everyone visiting was already a huge Rudyard Kipling fan and was familiar with all his works, and focused instead on family life, especially his son John, who was killed in the First World War. I understand that they have limited space, so they have to choose an aspect of Kipling’s life to focus on, but I do think there must be some way to provide more background information at these places whilst still telling the story they want to tell.
The one thing we did get a picture of in the house was the alphabet necklace featured in Just So Stories. I strongly suspect the copy I had was an abridged version (considering it was one of my grandpa’s garage sale finds, it’s not completely surprising), because I do not remember any stories about the alphabet, only animal ones, so I didn’t feel the proper sense of awe at seeing it. I think I would have been more impressed with a stuffed camel. This was in the “exhibition room,” which was really the only place in the house that gave a significant amount of space to Kipling’s writing, with copies of some of his books, and his Nobel Prize for Literature. Even here, half the space was devoted to John Kipling, and his war experiences; I’m not sure if this is a special feature for the centenary, or an all-the-time thing (I’m not knocking it, as John’s death was obviously a huge life-defining blow to Kipling, but it seemed a little odd to have so much emphasis on John relative to Rudyard).
Back outside, we stole a quick peek at Kipling’s gorgeous blue 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom I (I’m not a car person, but if I was going to have a car, damn, now THAT’S a car!) and headed down the river, past the gardens to the watermill. Despite the handbook claiming that we could purchase flour ground in the mill, the mill is currently non-operational, so that was off the table. You’re still allowed to look around inside, but a mill is a mill (yes, I know about all the different styles, but it’s hard to get excited about the differences if you’re not a mill enthusiast), and once you’ve seen a fair few, as I have, they get a bit dull.
However, I am not so world-weary and dead inside that I can’t appreciate some chickens. They had a crapload of chickens! There were even some roosting in a tree! (I bought a chocolate chicken from Lidl for Easter this year, because I’ve wanted a chocolate chicken since I saw them advertised on a German Lindt commercial last year, and this was the first time I’ve been able to find one. I made the mistake of naming her Mrs. Cluckley, and now I can’t bring myself to eat her, even though Easter has long since come and gone.)
On the subject of chocolate, I should mention that the tearoom had an unusually wide selection of cakes, which I did not partake of because Battle was supposed to have baked goods made with their own honey, but after seeing the disappointing offerings at Battle (spoiler alert?), I sorely wished I had grabbed some chocolate fudge cake at Bateman’s (don’t be like me, is what I’m saying). In the end, I think the gardens (and chickens) may have been better than the actual house, which needed to have more signage. I sound like a broken record with these National Trust properties, and I’m not sure why I go in expecting things to be different, but there you have it. 3/5.
Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of the famously oft-married Henry VIII, and, in many ways, she was probably his luckiest wife. For one reason or another, although Henry was enchanted with this German princess’s portrait, when presented with the real article he found himself unable to perform (I’d be inclined to blame his extreme obesity, and revolting weeping leg ulcer, rather than poor old Anne – I also imagine Henry would have happily had me beheaded for my sass). He quickly had the marriage annulled (because the main point of marriage for him was to sire another legitimate male heir), and since Anne was smart enough to go along with this without putting up a fight, she was given a favoured position in court as Henry’s “sister,” and a number of properties, which brings us to Anne of Cleves House, in Lewes. For, although the house bears her name, she never actually lived here; she merely owned it and collected the rents.
It is quite a nice house nonetheless, all timber framed and Tudory, having been built primarily in the late 1400s. Admission to the house is £4.90, assuming you haven’t bought that combined ticket with Lewes Castle I was talking about in the last post, or don’t have English Heritage membership, as this is another property that gives you half-off (if you bring it up). We were advised to start our visit in the bedroom, which was very large indeed; probably bigger than my whole flat – this was some luxe Tudor living.
I was delighted to find an entire clothes-rail full of Tudor costumes, and since no one else was there, I grabbed the best dress for myself and pretended to be a hopefully sweeter-smelling version of Anne of Cleves, sans headdress, as I didn’t see any there. I actually went as Anne Boleyn for Halloween about 7 years ago (proof shown on right above), at least, Anne Boleyn if she had her head sewn back on after decapitation, and was wearing a not very historically accurate dress, so it was nice to pretend to be another of Henry’s wives (though in reality I wouldn’t have wanted to be any of them, though if I had to pick I’d go with either Anne of Cleves or Catherine of Aragon because then at least Henry would be young and semi-attractive, I just wouldn’t have put up a fight when he wanted to get with Anne Boleyn (and would have told my stupid nephew to keep his huge Hapsburg jaw out of it), and would probably have been treated reasonably well).
The rest of the bedroom was just random pieces of Tudor furniture, but a sign helpfully suggested that I might enjoy putting on the costumes and posing with various items of furniture (well yes, obviously I did enjoy that!). We then headed downstairs, which proved to be unexpectedly large, starting with the obligatory Tudor kitchen (wow, spits, and mortars and pestles, and a buncha iron pots, woot), but I actually shouldn’t badmouth the kitchen, because it held a “magic” table.
This table was mentioned at Lewes Castle, so I was very much looking forward to seeing it, and insisted on referring to it as a “magic table,” even though I think it was supposed to be more like a religious thing, so maybe “miraculous table” is more what they’re going for. At any rate, if you haven’t already read the caption above, the deal with the table is that after the knights killed Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, they rode back to a house near Lewes, and threw their swords on the table, but the table threw them back. I guess it’s impressive just that a table from the 12th century is still around, regardless of whether or not it possesses magical properties, but clearly I’m thrilled by the whole story.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had a small ironmongers’ museum in a back room, which was absolutely rife with authentic smells (for real authentic ones). In addition to some tools of the trade, it was mostly a collection of firebacks, basically, the things that go at the back of fireplaces (I might have my terminology wrong here because I was still too thrilled by the magic table to read things properly). I thought it was delightfully ironic that they had one with the image of the Lewes Martyrs burning at the stake on it, as I believe the job of the fireback was actually to keep the fire from spreading and burning down the house (and by extension, whoever was inside at the time).
There were also some cannons and things, and a lengthy description of the moulding process in the long-winded style of a very old-fashioned museum, which is obviously the sort of thing I love, even if I wasn’t quite in the mood to give it my full attention.
This was because I’d spotted a local history room upstairs, and my god do I love a bunch of dusty cases full of local history (I’m not sure if most visitors even come back there, as we didn’t see anyone else the entire time, and it kind of had an air of being undisturbed). One case in particular stood out, as it contained “relics” meant to be from Gundrada, the wife of William de Warenne, who died in childbirth (William de Warenne being the guy who built Lewes Castle, and many other fortresses), in the form of a couple nasty yellowed teeth, roots and all; a mummified rat and silver spoon that was apparently responsible for having a servant girl thrown out on the street (where she presumably starved to death; actually, I’m surprised she wasn’t just hanged, as I’d imagine a silver spoon is worth more than a couple shillings or whatever the cutoff was for a capital offence (6 shillings? 2 shillings? I can’t quite remember, even though I was just reading about it the other day)), when it was the rat that really took the spoon; and a bunch of toys carved by French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars, like the ones that were recently featured on Antiques Roadshow. All of this appealed very much to my inner nerd.
They had loads of other awesome things, like a “liberty cap,” which is really just a iron thing shaped like a hat on a stick, which I guess ties back to Thomas Paine and all that (who lived in Lewes, in case you missed my last post. Yep, still excited about Thomas Paine), and some stuff from Harvey’s Brewery back in the early days, when they had competition from other local breweries. I was kind of disturbed by the painting on the wall of an early Victorian Bonfire Night in Lewes, which validated my decision to not attend it, because it looked just as creepy as I’d imagined. There was also a painting of another disturbing event in Lewes, where a giant wall of snow collapsed and killed a handful of people because they refused to move even after they were warned that a huge snowbank was about to squish their homes (this happened in the Victorian era; I highly doubt Lewes gets that much snow in this day and age); there’s now a pub called the Snowdrop to commemorate it, which is perhaps a bit glib, but I can dig it (another pun?).
Also in regard to Bonfire Night (because they’re REALLY into it), there were a couple interesting advertisements about it; one from a year when it was going on in full force, with the schedule of events (which seemed to include much loud singing of “God Save the Queen,” the Queen at the time being Victoria), and then another year (1874) when it had to be cancelled due to disease in the town (typhoid, apparently, i.e. the same thing that allegedly killed Prince Albert 13 years earlier, assuming he didn’t actually die of stomach cancer as some medical historians have claimed).
There was one more room of the Tudor house, a parlour, which contained similar furniture to the bedroom, and was nowhere near as enthralling as the local history room, but was still quite nice. Our visit ended up taking much longer than we’d thought it would, since we didn’t know there would be so many extra history rooms, and we almost had to run out and buy another parking ticket. For the money, I think this was much more enjoyable than Lewes Castle (though Lewes Castle is still probably worth seeing, because it’s a castle, I just prefer the time periods covered in Anne of Cleves House, in case you couldn’t tell from all the historical tidbits I’ve been throwing in). 4/5.
In Anne of Cleves house, they had a few posters up about Lewes Priory (also built by William de Warenne, the guy got around); it’s now in ruins that have been turned into a park. It was just down the road from Anne of Cleves House, down the hilariously named Cockshut Road, so we decided to go quickly check it out. This too was much larger than I was expecting, and had lots of helpful informational signs up everywhere.
The best part for me, because I have the same sense of humour as a 12 year old boy, apparently, was the fact that most of the surviving bits were the monks’ toilets – not just one set of toilets, but toilets through the centuries, with three time periods represented. The priory had 59 toilets at one time, so that none of the monks had to queue in between the lengthy masses and prayer sessions, though there were of course, no doors or anything else for privacy.
They also had a sculpture thing that commemorated the Battle of Lewes (yet again) with scenes from the battle engraved in bronze along the sides of a big rock. I preferred the ruins themselves though. This was a lovely park, and I think it’s well worth popping over to see it on your visit to Anne of Cleves House – you can probably even have a picnic by the old toilets, as I would have done if I wasn’t so vehemently opposed to al fresco dining (I was attacked by an aggressive ladybug when wandering the ruins, and I don’t even mind ladybugs, so I’d hate to get on the bad side of bugs that freak me out, like butterflies and spiders). So I guess my conclusion is that Lewes makes for a varied and entertaining day out, I’d recommend it. Especially the raspberry friands from that bakery, they really were super delicious and I can’t stop thinking about them.