Beaulieu, Hampshire: National Motor Museum, Beaulieu Abbey, Etc.

dsc08294I chose to open this post with the above picture because I think my ambivalent expression in it perfectly encapsulates my initial feelings about Beaulieu (I don’t really want to get into politics on here, but I feel like I can’t let an event this horrifying pass without comment, so I have to say that if I had to pick a facial expression to sum up my feelings on the results of the US election, it would be more like this, but maybe with even more grump. Feeling very angry today).  I’m not interested in actual cars, or in paying an absolute buttload of money to see said cars, but I sure do like sitting in fake cars whilst pretending to drive them (it has to be pretend since I never learned how to drive a real car), and dressing up in old-timey outfits, and actual Disney World style pod rides!  All of which are part of the Beaulieu experience.

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“Alright Jessica, you don’t like cars, so what are you doing paying £19 [and that’s the cheaper advance online rate; it’s £24 at the door if you don’t book ahead] to see the National Motor Museum?” you may ask, and with good reason.  Well, my parents visited me back in October and unfortunately, my father is the sort of person who doesn’t really like doing things, as far as I can tell.  But he does like cars, so in a vain attempt to do something (anything!) with him that he might enjoy, we decided to take him to Beaulieu, since it was the biggest car-related site we could think of (plus they have other attractions too!).  I’m still not sure if he actually enjoyed himself, but the rest of us tried to make the best of the day, given that we’d driven a good couple of hours to get there.

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So, we began with the main attraction: the National Motor Museum.  Well, it certainly has a lot of cars in it!  Fortunately, the collection included quite a few early automobiles, which I could at least appreciate on a historical level, including two cars used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (I actually find the movie kind of a disappointment, given that some of my favourite people (Roald Dahl and Dick Van Dyke) were involved with it, so it really should be better than it is, but nonetheless…); Truly Scrumptious’s car, and old Chitty himself (herself?  Was Chitty assigned a gender?).

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I also appreciated the street of yesteryear, half-assed though it was (you couldn’t actually go in any of the shops, being that the focus was all on the cars), and the many interactive displays (the talking crash test dummy scared me a little); even though learning more about how cars worked wasn’t really all that interesting to me, pressing buttons and turning dials is still kinda fun.  But the best part of the Motor Museum, by far, was yet to come.

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Yes, it was that aforementioned pod ride, simply called “Wheels.”  It came as a complete surprise to me, to the extent that I wandered into a dark hallway marked “this way to Wheels,” just thinking it was some kind of exhibit, and was shocked when a man approached and directed me into a moving pod (I think Marcus and I were the only ones on the ride; no queues, brilliant!).  Oh man, this ride was great too, rather reminiscent of the one at Jorvik Viking Centre (though minus the pooping Viking, more’s the pity), with really cheesy tableaux that clearly hadn’t been updated in decades (a Linley Sambourne cartoon provided the backdrop for one of the scenes, remember him?).

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In fact, I liked it so much that I would have ridden it again had it not been for the fact that it spun around just slightly too much, and left me feeling a bit ill for an hour or so afterwards (nothing severe though, and I am extremely prone to motion sickness, so most people would probably be fine), so I wandered around and looked at some of the excellent mannequins in the museum instead.

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After a quick break for lunch (after reading some of the Trip Advisor reviews of the cafe the night before, I decided to bring a peanut butter sandwich from home, which turned out to be wise, because the food in the cafe did indeed look and smell disgusting (normally when we’re out somewhere for the day, we just grab a baguette and hummus from the nearest supermarket if none of the local eateries look appealing, but Beaulieu is fairly isolated (in the New Forest, hello wild ponies!), so you’re kind of at the mercy of their catering facilities once you get inside)), we headed to “On Screen Cars,” a rather small tent shared with a children’s play area that was meant to hold famous cars used in TV and movies.  There were only about eight cars in there, and most of them were from old British sitcoms that I didn’t watch or care about, but I did enjoy seeing Mr. Bean’s car and the car that the Anti-Pesto car in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was modeled on, because I adore Wallace and Gromit (not that ass-penguin from The Wrong Trousers though.  He can rot in that zoo).

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Beaulieu is also home to the “World of Top Gear.” I’m not a Top Gear fan, so this meant very little to me, but I’m sure some people would enjoy it.  The object captions certainly tried very hard to be funny in that xenophobic Top Gear way, so there’s that.

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But, as Beaulieu’s tagline goes, it is “much more than a motor museum,” so we hopped aboard the monorail to discover the rest of it (the monorail isn’t strictly necessary, as the abbey and stuff are close enough to easily walk to, but after spending all day going, “monorail, monorail” as a prelude to breaking into the monorail song from The Simpsons, there was no way I wasn’t riding the damn monorail), starting with a garden filled with pretty kick-ass topiaries (the ones shown above are part of the tea party from Alice in Wonderland.  Ignore my weird face; I was squinting because of the sun and I don’t have another picture that shows the topiaries without me).

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One of the outbuildings to the manor house contained the “Secret Army Exhibition.”  Like many large estates during WWII, Beaulieu was partially taken over by the military, and was converted into a secret training school for Special Operations Executives.  So there were a lot of cool Bond-esque props on display that were once given to spies, and some stuff about coding, including a tribute to a pretty awesome-sounding woman named Noor Inayat Khan, who was descended from Indian nobility.  Despite her pacifist inclinations, she wanted to help the war effort, so she joined the WAAFs, trained as a wireless operator, and eventually became the first female radio operator dropped behind enemy lines.  Sadly, she was captured by the Gestapo after being betrayed by a fellow agent, and taken to Dachau and executed after undergoing months of  solitary confinement whilst chained.  There is apparently a heritage trail of sites related to her life that people can follow; maps of the trail were provided in the exhibition.

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And now, on a slightly cheerier note, on to the country house, known as “Palace House,” which was a fine example of its type.  This is what made me feel slightly better about paying £19, because let’s face it, a National Trust property would have charged at least 11 or 12 quid for the house and gardens alone.

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The house was fairly sizeable, even though I’m sure we weren’t allowed to see the whole thing, and the paintings and objects all had captions apparently fondly written by the 3rd Baron of Montagu, I guess to show us how intimately his family was connected to the house (he talked about people who died a few centuries ago as if he knew them) and what a neat guy he was (it actually did sort of work, because I felt a bit sad when I discovered that he died in 2015, and his son is the current Baron.  I especially love the caption on that little velvet suit, which the 3rd Baron wore to George VI’s coronation.  He mentions that the velvet bag contained sandwiches to sustain him through the long ceremony!).  I guess I should have mentioned this earlier, but Edward, the 3rd Baron, is the whole reason that all the cars are here today: his father, John, was a keen early adopter of the motorcar (he used to take Edward VII for drives), so Edward (Montagu, just to clarify) started the museum in his father’s memory.

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The house is decorated roughly as it would have been in the Victorian era, and although I was a bit worried about interacting with the costumed “servants” who were meant to tell us about life belowstairs, it turned out they didn’t even acknowledge our presence (I didn’t want a whole awkward conversation with someone in character, but a simple hello or even a nod would have been nice).  It was a lovely home, with some taxidermy and secret stairs, as you’d want from an old manor house.

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There was also some very good bird wallpaper, a detailed exhibit about two feisty sounding ladies (stepmother and stepdaughter) who lived in the house for practically the whole of the 20th century (they had long lives), a random collection of Soviet art, and some really excellent modern family portraits that cracked me right up.  I wish I could afford to have my portrait painted in a similar fashion.

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Finally, there’s Beaulieu Abbey, which was a thriving monastic community until Henry VIII came along and broke with Catholicism, and much of the old abbey was destroyed.  But some of it is still there, along with some examples of cool sarcophagi that were made to hold people’s hearts. Apparently, wealthy medieval people would often have their hearts and bones removed from their bodies after they died, and have their flesh buried in one place, bones in another, and their hearts in some place that was especially meaningful to them. It was done mainly so more people would pray over them (because the congregation of each church they were buried in would then have an obligation to do so), but symbolically speaking, I think it’s kind of a nice idea to have your heart put someplace special, even though I feel sorry for the person who has to remove it.  The double coffin was so husbands and wives could put their hearts together (aww, in a grisly way).

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The upstairs hall had some modern tapestries showing medieval life at the abbey (the tapestries were made in the 1990s) that contained lots of adorable farm animals, so I was a fan.  Wandering the grounds of the Abbey, I came across the 3rd Baron’s grave (which is how I learned he was dead; a bit of a shock after his chatty tone in all those captions in the house).  More importantly though, I also came across the ice cream cottage, wherein a delightful man gave me an enormous scoop of mint chocolate ripple ice cream for only £2 (the main cafeteria may have been gross, but I have no complaints about the ice cream cottage, or the ice cream man’s scooping technique, which was excellent.  As someone who worked at an ice cream shop for five years, I am definitely qualified to judge this).

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I fear I’ve already run on for too long, and only the very dedicated will have made it this far, so time to sum up!  Though I am indeed, very much not a car person, I can’t argue with an actual ride inside a museum (also the monorail passes right through the museum, so it’s really like it has two rides!), and the rest of the estate was pretty damn entertaining as well.  Was it worth £19?  Actually, maybe it was (though initially ambivalent, I guess I came around in the end!).  We did spend practically the whole day there, and I had a surprising amount of fun.  I mean, you can’t go wrong with dressing up and posing in an old-fashioned car. 4/5.



Aldershot, Hampshire: Army Medical Services Museum

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Wow. I knew the Army Medical Services Museum was at Keogh Barracks in Aldershot (despite having no idea how to pronounce “Keogh”), but somehow I wasn’t expecting it to be so scary official.  I found out about this place a long time ago, but its opening hours (9:30-3:30 on weekdays, closed weekends) and inaccessibility by public transport kept me from visiting it until now.  I wouldn’t recommend unemployment, but it sure has freed up a lot of time for me and my boyfriend to do stuff like this (too bad most of it has to be free.  There’s always a catch, isn’t there?).  Well, the museum is free, but clearly I didn’t read their website thoroughly enough, because I didn’t realise I’d have to go through a full-on ID-flashing security check in order to get in.

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The museum building is actually IN the barracks, as in, it’s part of this big military compound, so you have to go past a checkpoint staffed by a number of armed soldiers to visit it.  And I don’t generally carry a picture ID on me (because I don’t drive and I’m hella old, so there’s usually no need, at least in the UK), so I was frantically riffling through my wallet to find something to give the unsmiling guard.  All I came up with was a bank card, which he fortunately accepted, since we’d driven almost an hour to get there.  A few questions later (dunno why he asked my boyfriend what his job was but not me…sexist much?), we were deemed no danger and granted passes to see the museum.  After all that, I was pleasantly surprised that the museum staff seemed pretty laid-back (and not bothered about us taking pictures).  We were the only visitors, other than some people doing research in the library (open to anyone if you make an appointment first).

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The building didn’t look all that big from the outside, but the galleries wrapped around in such a way that they managed to fit a whole lot in there (and plenty of delightful mannequin-filled dioramas).  It covered the history of army medicine from the English Civil War to the present day, although the largest displays were devoted to the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars 1 and 2.  And oh man, did they have some cool stuff in here.

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An English doctor tended to Napoleon when he was in exile on St. Helena (I have a weird desire to visit St. Helena; something about isolated places appeals to me enormously, though I could not actually live somewhere without a steady supply of Belgian milk chocolate, pecorino cheese, and books), and he brought back a razor used on Ol’ Boney, and a dental kit used to remove a couple of his wisdom teeth.  (Apparently Napoleon insisted on having his teeth pulled whilst he was seated on the floor, which made an already difficult job even tougher.  I’m just glad I got knocked out when I had my wisdom teeth out.  The thought of someone cracking my teeth in half while I was conscious gives me the creeps.)

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If a soldier deserted back in the day (during peacetime, I would assume, since usually they just executed you in wartime), he would be branded with a letter “D,” so everyone would know and thus punish him more harshly for any future infractions.  They also had a “B” and a “C” for bad conduct (which I would probably have ended up with; not sure if they gave you the “B” and the “C” or just one or the other).  Rather than an actual brand, or a proper tattoo though (which wouldn’t have been so bad, the tattoo anyway), they would use this device with a bunch of thick needles in the shape of the needed letter, jam that into your skin all at once, and then rub India ink into the wound.  In addition to the needles they used, they had an actual piece of skin here taken from a (dead) soldier, so you could see what it looked like.  I don’t know how long the soldier lived with that tattoo for, but that ink sure stayed black (being located under the armpit probably helped, since it wouldn’t see much sun).

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Around the time of the Boer Wars, soldiers would swallow half pennies (ha’pennies) to try to get out of active duty (not sure how that would get you out of anything anyway, I would think shooting off a toe would be more effective), so the army doctors devised a hook device to reach down the throat and fish them out.  Having once had a singularly unpleasant nasal scope (and that was with a soft flexible tube that only went down my throat, rather than a metal hook to the stomach), I think I would have rather just taken my chances on the front lines.

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Oh, they had a bunch of Florence Nightingale stuff here too, including sketches of the hospital in Scutari, and the medal the nurses that served with her were given (at her insistence, Victoria was all for awarding only Florence).

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There was a whole separate gallery for the WWI artefacts, which I was pretty keen on after spending so much time researching various soldiers for the Carved in Stone project I volunteer on (not a medic among my bunch, unfortunately, though I do have some pretty interesting guys nonetheless), but there wasn’t a whole lot in here.

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More promising was the WWI section in the main gallery, and the whole wall about facial reconstruction in the last gallery.  There were any number of poignant objects on display, including a violin covered with the signatures of a soldier’s dead comrades, and a soldier doll + letter that were rescued from an incinerator.

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WWII got its own gallery (well, corridor) as well, and it was surprisingly full of teeth, thanks to the Royal Army Dental Corps collection being in here too. (The RADC didn’t form until 1921, although there was obviously a need for it well beforehand, and dental officers began to be commissioned during WWI).  Rudolf Hess was originally held prisoner in a house nearby before being shipped off to Spandau Prison, so they had some of his dentures, as well as a mould taken of his teeth (they were nasty looking specimens too).  Also, in one of the Japanese prison camps, they apparently went along the line of POWs knocking out the front teeth of each soldier with a rifle butt, so the poor men had to fashion dentures from whatever was lying around the camps, and those were in here too (this museum is not for the faint-hearted, in case you haven’t figured that out by now).

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And I musn’t forget about the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, whose collections are also included here.  The museum had a huge case full of medals (lots of Victoria crosses, which I learned are all made from the same lump of metal. They even had the first one, which was given to Queen Victoria herself), which included medals given to army dogs for their valuable service in bomb detection.  And there was a pretty cool shoe intended for a camel (not sure how well putting it on him would have gone down.  Camels are feisty).

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The galleries finished with some cases about army medicine in modern conflicts (the Falklands, Afghanistan, etc), and a cool display about tropical diseases which included a giant tsetse fly.  I have to say, I was very impressed with the offerings here.  I wasn’t expecting much, going by their website, but they had legitimately fascinating and important historical objects in here, and lots of them at that!  Their opening hours and the whole entry procedure is kind of a pain, but it’s worth the effort (the guard when we were leaving was much friendlier (perhaps because we were no longer seen as a potential threat), and pointed out the rough location of the Rudolf Hess house out to us).  I love medical history, and though I usually prefer medical museums with jarred specimens, there’s just something about army medicine that captures my interest (probably the sheer severity of the injuries, which is why I have a particular fascination with the pioneering reconstructive surgeries done during WWI), and this place does a great job of showing the evolution of the AMS from the 1600s to the present day.  4/5.

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Basingstoke, Hampshire: The Vyne

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It’s been a while since I featured a National Trust property on here, so I hope you’re ready for one again.  This week brings us to The Vyne, so named because this is allegedly where the first grape vines in Britain were planted, by the Emperor Probus (though if that’s true, I have no idea why it’s spelt with a “y”). The house was built in Tudor times by Lord Sandys, who wanted to make something impressive enough that Henry VIII would pay him a visit…it must have worked as Henry was here at least three times, and Elizabeth I may have possibly been conceived on one of those visits.  It eventually was sold to the Chute family, which is how a certain John Chute, friend of Horace Walpole (of Strawberry Hill fame) came to own it and make some fabulous “Gothick” improvements (unlike Horace Walpole, Chute does not appear to have any obvious ass-hat descendents, which is probably why the Gothic features are still there today).

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The National Trust membership allows me a certain degree of impunity when flashing that card around, so I genuinely did not even check to see how much visiting this property costs until now, when writing it up, and I am more than a little shocked to discover it will set you back 13 English pounds (if I had to hazard a guess at how it was priced, I would have put it more in the realm of a tenner, even considering that National Trust prices are always deliberately too high, to try to encourage membership).  So I can’t help but bear that in mind whilst writing the rest of this review.  Anyway, admission to the house on weekends appears to be by timed ticket (or at least it was when I was there); however, that shouldn’t be a problem as they seem to have plenty of tickets available for each time slot.  The man at the “desk” (picnic table) asked when we wanted to see the house – I said, “as soon as available,” imagining something perhaps half an hour hence.  Instead, he handed us tickets good until 2 o’clock.  As it was then 1:52, this meant a sprint straight to the house, which is down a fairly long wooded path (ten minutes is probably a more reasonable time to walk there in, but if you don’t want to rush, probably better to request tickets for the next time slot rather than the one currently in operation.  There’s other stuff to see whilst you wait).

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Anyway, we made it to the house in time (though I don’t think they were probably all that strict about it, at least, the volunteer collecting tickets was very friendly) to be greeted with a plaque dedicated to Probus, that aforementioned emperor who introduced wine to Britain.  Perhaps because it is a more expensive property, the Vyne is one of those that actually has a fact sheet in every room, rather than just one for the whole house (and battered indeed they were, they looked like they’ve seen a lot of use), and some additional signage that proved more interesting in some cases than the laminated fact sheets (this is how I learned that Elizabeth I may have been conceived here, and also about some Plantagenet descendent who was married in the house’s chapel after Henry VIII gave her the choice between marrying beneath her or lifetime imprisonment, in an attempt to neutralise her as a threat to the throne.  Obviously, she opted for the marriage).

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We were there at the tail-end of Tudor month, so I’m not sure if all the Tudor information is normally there, or if some of it was added specifically for the event.  But I think the Tudor ladies leading dances outside, and the Henry VIII sat inside the house’s entrance hall were only there for Tudor month (missing out on them may or may not be a loss, depending on how you feel about people in costume.  I usually steer clear of them, especially Henry who seemed to really take being in character seriously, and was busy yelling the whole time).

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But yeah, the house has a chapel with some fabulous stained glass in it (there’s a green dragon and a goat.  And a few dogs), and the tomb of Chaloner Chute, MP.  The Chute family seemed into ridiculous names (at least until they got to John), as there were a couple Chaloners, and a girl with a name so stupid I can’t even remember exactly what it was.  Something in the vein of Chrysogea.  Definitely started with a “ch” to keep with that whole alliteration thing.  You may also note the Strawberry Hill influenced ceilings in some of the rooms, one of John’s Gothic touches.

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The ground floor also housed a number of unusual large maps (they didn’t photograph well, being very brown and faded) of London and England, and a small exhibition room going into more detail about the stained glass.  The Vyne was also bursting with books for some reason, there being a secondhand bookshop within the house, as well as another within the shop, and a shed right by the parking lot.  Unfortunately, none of them looked very interesting, or I would have scooped some up, as 50p is a good price (that’s like a library book sale price right there!).

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There was a Great Hall and some bedrooms upstairs, and everything was perfectly nice, but as usual, I enjoyed the touches of quirk more than anything else, like this bust with a half-missing nose and a really bizarre expression.  By the time we got back to the entrance hall, I was slightly relieved to see that Henry had disappeared (presumably off on a meal break) and his throne was empty.  We must have seemed slightly hesitant to sit on it (I was kind of afraid he would suddenly return and yell at me), because a volunteer encouraged us to pose for pictures, and we duly obliged (but I looked terrible, so you’re not going to see said pictures).  She also encouraged us to head up to the tea room for the cakes; being extremely hungry, we followed that suggestion too.

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The queue in the tea room was insane, but after ascertaining that everyone else was waiting to buy hot drinks, we edged to the front (I still think some of the people in front of us may have been wanting to form a lynch mob because of that (or British equivalent; I don’t think you’re meant to come between a Brit and their tea, if the Boston Tea Party is anything to go by), but it was my boyfriend’s idea, and we did ask) and took our slices out with us to explore the gardens (and escape the mob).  I ate an epic amount of millionaire’s shortbread, and promptly got a stomachache, but that was probably my own fault for greedily choosing the largest piece (it was so tasty though).   Anyway, the Vyne abuts a river, so there are riparian entertainments to be had if you’re so inclined (this is where the Tudor ladies were leading dances on the lawn).

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After checking out the famous “Hundred Guinea Oak,” (one of the owners of the house was offered 100 guineas for the tree’s wood (I think during the Napoleonic Wars, when ship-quality wood was in high demand), but he refused.  The tree’s about 600 years old), we headed for the walled garden, which had a small glasshouse with exotic citruses.  The property also has a number of trails if you’re inclined to go for a walk (and some kind of large children’s play area accessed via a “hidden” entrance in the Summer House, but I was too distracted by my shortbread-induced stomachache, and also chickens)!

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I don’t know what it is with the National Trust and chickens, but I’m not complaining, as these ones even had names.  (Lady Featherington von Cluckson is exactly the sort of thing I would name a chicken.  I mean, I did name my chocolate Easter chicken Mrs. Cluckley (which means I couldn’t bring myself to eat her; she’s still sitting atop a bookcase).)  I think once you’ve seen chickens (or any kind of farm animal), that’s pretty much going to be the highlight of the day, so we left soon afterwards, as there wasn’t really much else to do.  Now, before I knew the Vyne cost 13 quid, I thought it was really pretty alright, but it was nowhere near 13 quid’s worth of alright.  Again, this was one of the many places that is well worth visiting if you have membership, as the house was pretty nice and the cakes were indeed tasty, but I’d skip it otherwise, as there simply wasn’t enough to do to justify an admission fee that high.  3/5.


An Afternoon in Winchester

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My boyfriend finally got a car again, which is exciting to a non-driver like me mainly because it means we can recommence our day trips (and easily go to the German bakery in Ham to get pretzels of a weekend).  The first longish drive we decided to take was to Winchester, in Hampshire.  Although the Round Table was one draw, I think my main reason for going was that Winchester’s Hospital of St. Cross was the closest filming location of Wolf Hall, but we got so caught up in visiting the military museums that I forgot all about it when we were there, so we never even saw the Hospital.  (Ok, I do not like Hilary Mantel, so have never read her books, and I know the whole thing is historically inaccurate, but I’m kind of hooked on the TV series.  It’s boring and confusing simultaneously, and yet I keep watching (though part of that may have something to do with Damian Lewis’s codpiece…I have problems).)

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Although I did visit a number of museums there, rather than break them up into separate posts, I’m just going to give a general overview of everything in one (I’m feeling lazy today) and speak a bit about the city…it has a cathedral, so it technically is a city I think, according to the bizarre rules of the English.  Historically speaking, Winchester was the capital of Wessex, so was a pretty big deal in the Anglo-Saxon world.  One thing I can definitely say about modern Winchester is that they have some interesting sculptures.  They have a buttercross, which is apparently a common thing in English market towns, and is just a large statue in the centre of the town (city?), where people would come to buy butter and eggs and such in olden times.  There’s still a market in the square on Saturdays, though nothing very exciting was for sale (unless you think mystery brand pillows are exciting).  Winchester also boasts some other eclectic statues, including Alfred the Great (in the middle of a busy road), a pig, and a naked man on a horse.  And they have some artistically painted bollards.

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There’s also a rather poignant WWI memorial just outside the Great Hall, and another elaborate commemorative affair next to some nearby castle ruins.  As for the Great Hall itself, it holds the supposed Round Table of King Arthur, as pictured at the start of the post.  Obviously, it did not belong to Arthur (who probably didn’t even exist, and certainly not in the form of the Arthur of legend, even if he was an historical figure), and was instead created for Edward I in the late 13th century.  It was subsequently re-discovered later on, after Malory had popularised the Arthurian legend, and thought to be the mythological Arthur’s table, so Henry VIII had it painted with a Tudor rose and a portrait of Arthur that looked suspiciously like a grey-haired version of Henry (and nothing like Damian Lewis, because even when Henry was young and not yet morbidly obese and disgusting, he still wasn’t anywhere near as attractive as the actors they usually get to play him).

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The Great Hall is free to visit, and also contains a pretty kick-ass sculpture of Queen Victoria, some random gargoyley bits, and a “long gallery” with more information about the history of the Great Hall and Winchester generally (and there’s one of those penny flattening machines in the gift shop, with some excellent choices of design).

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Not far from the Great Hall, you’ll find the old military barracks, which are now split up into five different museums.  An old sign outside the information centre tells you that they’re free, but don’t believe it, as they all charge a relatively modest admission fee (2-5 pounds), which is fine, but can add up if you want to see all of them.  So we just chose the two that sounded the most interesting, and conveniently enough, considering how cold it was that day, were in the same building: The Gurkha Museum, and Horsepower, the Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars (I chose the latter because their brochure specifically promised authentic smells).

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Now, these were proper old school museums, so don’t go in expecting frills and interactive crap, but as old school is exactly the kind of thing I love, I was in heaven.  The Gurkhas were not soldiers I knew a whole lot about (honestly, I didn’t even know they were Nepalese before visiting…I knew they were Asian, but didn’t know from where exactly, which is probably a shameful display of ignorance), so I learned a lot, despite the museum’s rather, er, paternalistic tone.  It was like a flashback to the days of Empire, and was sort of geared to make you feel that colonialism was a great thing, glossing neatly over the many, many, many problems with it, and the reasons why the Gurkhas were fighting in the first place.  Despite these issues, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, particularly liking the mannequin dioramas with motion sensors that triggered light and sound when you walked past. Like I said, proper old school.

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The Horsepower Museum was also lovely, and delivered completely on the brochure’s promises; namely authentic smells, and the chance to sit on a saddle and try on a busby (photographic evidence of this provided above).  Actually, the authentic smells permeated the whole museum, so you could smell them as soon as you walked in, but that just enhanced the experience.  The Royal Hussars took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, amongst many other wars and battles, so there was some interesting material here.  I also have to mention the volunteers working at both museums, who were very nice and welcoming, especially the gentleman at Horsepower.  If you like old-fashioned museums as much as I do, and can deal with a bit of historical whitewashing, I’d definitely recommending checking out a military museum or two in Winchester.

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Of course, Winchester is probably most famous for its cathedral (below, left).  After I found out Jane Austen was buried there, I was gung-ho to visit…until I realised you had to pay £7.50 to get in.  I’m not sure why I was surprised by this, since Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s charge admission, but most cathedrals I’ve been to operate on a recommended donation basis – as I felt it was too close to closing time to get my money’s worth, I decided we could skip it this time around.  Instead, we headed over to the Winchester City Museum, which was right next door to the cathedral, and was free.

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It was also very close to closing time for the Winchester City Museum, so I opted to skip the top floor, which was just Roman stuff (since I am not that big on the Romans), and head to the Anglo-Saxon one below it.  They had an intriguing selection of medieval face jugs, and a super creepy stone angel that my boyfriend jerkishly claimed had moved, so I had to spend most of my time keeping an eye on it, just in case (anyone else still traumatised by those damn Weeping Angels?!).

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Weirdly, the floor below it seemed to jump from the early Middle Ages to Edwardian Winchester.  Ok, there was a little sign about the 18th century, but no late Middle Ages, or Tudors, or Civil War or anything.  Granted, Winchester was on the decline after the Anglo-Saxon period, but the buttercross and the Round Table and everything date from that missing era, so you’d think they could have said something about it.

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But, they did have a re-creation of a tobaccanist’s shop, and an apothecary, so I can’t complain too much, because that was rad.  Overall, this museum wasn’t overly impressive, but it was free, and was something to do (when I should have been seeing the Hospital of St. Cross if I hadn’t been busy being a total airhead that day). There’s another local museum that’s supposed to have historic weights and measures, but I don’t think it was open for the season yet when we visited.  There’s also a National Trust watermill on the hilariously named River Itchen that looks intriguing, though we missed that as well.  However, I did make a point of eating some cheese straws in Winchester, from a bakery I found recommended online.  It’s a chain with locations throughout Wiltshire and Hampshire called Reeve the Baker, and their cheese straws were still-warm and amazing (and only 50p each!), so if you like cheesy bready things as much as I do, get over to their charming Tudor-esque high street and have yourself one of the little grease-bombs.

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Winchester turned out to be quite a good outing.  I’m surprised I hadn’t been there before, since it’s not really that far away, but now I think I will definitely be back at some point, as I still have to see the Hospital of St. Cross and Winchester Cathedral (and get some more of those cheese straws).  Also, I have never seen so many small dogs wearing hilarious sweaters in my life.  The high street was full of them (and some adorable sweater-less big dogs) and it was great, so I may need to return just to be entertained by the fashionable canine population.   Therefore, I can certainly recommend Winchester to anyone who likes history, cheese-based pastries, statues, and be-clothed dogs.

Oh, and in other news, you may have noticed from the sidebar that I finally got an Instagram account (I had to wait until I got a new phone, because my old one was too old to support it)!  You can follow me @jsajovie and get occasional glimpses of museums I’m going to blog about in the future, books I like to read, and all the other miscellaneous heavily-filtered junk that everyone posts on Instagram.  (And I promise I will be super thrilled if someone actually does follow me, because I only have 12 followers right now and it looks sad.)

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Part 2: The Mary Rose Museum (and all the rest)

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Here’s part 2 of my outing in Portsmouth, which mainly means the new Mary Rose Museum.  I was probably more excited to see this than the Victory, even though I generally prefer Georgians to Tudors, simply because I think the history behind it is pretty incredible.  (Do you have the first version of the Gilligan’s Island theme song  (before the Professor and Mary Anne rated a mention) stuck in your head from my post title?  Just thought it would go with the maritime theme!)

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For those of you unfamiliar with its story, the Mary Rose was a Tudor ship (Henry VIII’s flagship) that famously suddenly sank during a skirmish with a French ship in 1545, thereby drowning most of the crew (only 25-30 people survived out of a crew of over 400).  Contrary to popular belief, the Mary Rose was actually a perfectly capable ship for the 34 years prior to sinking, so the theories as to why it sank are numerous, and include being hit by a French cannonball, a mistake during battle, or being toppled by the wind after extra guns had been loaded on board.  At any rate, the ship sat at the bottom of Portsmouth Harbor until 1982, when it was hauled up and preserved.  Because the ship is understandably fragile after being underwater for over 400 years, and only half the ship survives (the half that was covered up by silt, which protected it from various hungry and probably disgusting looking sea creatures), unlike the other ships at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, it is kept inside the museum, with scaffolding to protect it.  The actual wood has been preserved by somehow replacing the water molecules inside it with wax, which is apparently quite a lengthy process (I’m not sure of all the science behind it, but it is briefly explained inside the museum).  The end result is amazing to behold, and the fact that half the ship is missing makes it into a convenient cross-section, so you can really admire the interior.

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Although the Mary Rose is undeniably the showpiece of the collection (and you can walk past it at multiple levels to give you the chance to admire every aspect, including a trip up a “viewing lift”), it is by no means the only incredible thing about this museum.  Because the ship sat undisturbed for so long, and many of the crew kept their possessions in heavy chests, it turned out to be a treasure trove of Tudor artefacts, most of which are on show in the museum’s galleries.  The museum has arranged them according to the type of people who would have been working on each deck of the ship, which makes for a trip through all the seafaring social classes. Common threads that united them all were the prevalence of fine combs, designed to remove lice, and the ubiquitous dagger (including my particular favourite, the “ballock” dagger, so named for its resemblance to a certain part of the male anatomy.  You can probably see what I mean from the example above).  So, you do see a lot of the same objects again and again, but there are enough tools that were unique to particular trades (I loved the section on the ship’s surgeon, with all his medical implements), and personal touches on the more common items, like carved pictures or initials, to keep things interesting.

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Of course, since most of the crew went down with the ship, there were also lots of skeletons in the wreckage, as well as jewellery and scraps of clothing.  They’ve analysed the skeletons to try to determine the age, health, and occupation of each man (aside from the captain, George Carew, we don’t really know the names of any of the crew members), and the results are fascinating.  Judging from the skulls on display, not a single man on board had a complete set of teeth in his head, and even the men who were still in their 20s already had a whole host of injuries (many of them caused by Henry’s law that required every able-bodied man to practice archery; using a longbow from an early age means that shoulder bones never fuse properly), and probably looked quite rough, judging from the facial reconstructions.  I love anything to do with medicine, so I was enthralled by their findings (and the display of bones with various types of injuries and conditions).

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We spent more time in the Mary Rose museum than any other part of the Dockyard, and I think I could have lingered even longer if we didn’t have a tour of the Victory to catch.  I really think they did an excellent job displaying all the artefacts, and the amount of signage was just right.  Plenty of great information and special sections about the history behind each job or custom, but not so much that it felt overwhelming.  My only complaint was that some of the galleries were so crowded that it was difficult to see everything, and it’s only the start of March, so the crowds must be horrible during the summer.  Because of this, I’d definitely recommend going in the off-season or possibly on a weekday if you can (although I’d worry about schoolchildren being bussed in on a weekday).

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In addition to the ships I wrote about in my earlier post, there were some other attractions at the Historic Dockyard.  Since we were starving, my boyfriend and I queued for ages just to get a tea and some chocolate fudge cake from the small case in the museum (there were only like three people ahead of us, but service was so slow, though the cake was not bad); there are a few other cafes and a chippy, but I’d rather venture into Portsmouth and take my chances with a proper seaside chippy, personally.  But there were statues of famous people to have your photo taken with, which I love doing!  (Here’s another tip, some guy will offer to take your picture with the Henry VIII inside the Mary Rose Museum, which you can buy for 8 quid at the end.  But there’s another Henry VIII statue hidden in a corner across from the building where you buy your ticket, which you can photograph as much as you like for free.  Not that I think anyone would pay £8 for a hastily taken photo by a bored museum employee anyway, but just in case you really wanted a picture with Henry.)  I liked the giant Nelson the best, especially since they accurately made his one eye look all milky and weird (he lost most of the sight in it in the same accident that took his right arm.  Poor banged-up man).

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There’s also a figurehead of some Restoration era gent who was a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, and even looked a great deal like Pepys, but was not Pepys (though I think there should have been a Pepys figurehead, he was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty after all!).  Another building on the site holds some cheesy gift shop, and this weird “dockyard apprentice” exhibit that you can walk through in the back.  I did not have time to read all the text associated with it, but I guess if you do, you emerge a full-fledged worker at the other end (conveniently, they sell diplomas in the gift shop. I seriously wonder whether anyone has ever bought one).  However, it did contain two of my most favourite things; mannequins with amusing expressions, and authentic smells, so it’s worth walking through just for that.

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I guess because they were trying to give the place more of a “seaside” vibe, there were a handful of penny arcade games in there as well (I say penny, but they cost between 10-50p).  We had a couple 20ps to hand, so got suckered into the crappy ones showing some kind of tableaux that “comes to life” after you stick the money in (usually a ghost or something pops out).  Like others of their kind, these were pretty lame, and I refused to try the one where a “war criminal” was hanged, as he was a supporter of the Americans during the Revolutionary War, so I couldn’t really endorse his execution.

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I should mention that the National Museum of the Royal Navy is also part of the Dockyard, and it looked rather large and impressive, but I simply did not have time to go in (assuming we don’t lose our stupidly small and awkwardly sized tickets, we’ll probably head back to the Dockyard within the next few months), so I think it would be quite easy to spend two days at the Dockyard, particularly if you have children.  Though I felt the main ships (Victory and Warrior) were kind of a mixed-bag, though certainly historically significant, and worth seeing for that reason alone, I really loved the Mary Rose Museum, and it made me slightly less salty about the admission price (though only slightly, I mean £26!?).  I think the Dockyard as a whole should get a 3.5/5, though I’d probably rate Mary Rose as a 4/5, easily.  Not at all a bad day out, if you can stomach the price.

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Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Part 1: HMS Victory and HMS Warrior 1860

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I’ve been feeling very tired of London lately (not necessarily tired of life though, sorry Dr. Johnson), so I was glad to get down to Portsmouth for a day to check out the Historic Dockyard.  Though it wasn’t quite the usual seaside excursion, it’s still a bit cold to go promenading with an ice cream (I will happily eat ice cream year round, but prefer to enjoy it indoors in the wintertime), so this was a marginally warmer alternative.

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I’ve done a lot of complaining about prices of late, but really and truly, the Historic Dockyard is not cheap.  They charge £17 per attraction, so the only sensible option is to get an all-in-one pass for £26, which is valid for one year (another pet peeve of mine: places that offer an annual membership with the admission price, but require you to hang onto a small ticket that you present for subsequent visits, with no replacements offered.  If you’re just issuing someone with a cheap paper ticket, odds are pretty good they’re going to lose it or accidentally throw it out and have to buy a new ticket if they come back, which I suspect is exactly what these museums want to happen.  I’d be a lot happier if they could at least humour me by giving me a membership card to stick in my wallet or something, so I’d have some chance of hanging onto the thing.), but paying £52 for the two of us to spend a day somewhere is not the kind of outing we can afford often.  Anyway, the pass gives you access to all the ships and museums on the property; I’ll be talking about the HMS Victory and the HMS Warrior today, and cover the rest in the next post.

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The HMS Victory was most famously Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar, and although I can see its colour scheme not being ideal for stealth, it certainly is a beautiful ship.  You can see the Victory through guided tours only (they give you a time slot when you buy your ticket), so we joined up with the large group (30 or so people, more than I find ideal) outside and waited for our guide.  After “boarding” the ship, we received a brief introduction, and then were taken on an overly fast-paced tour that required trekking up and down very steep steps, and ducking under narrow entries (I’m only 5’4″, and I had a sore neck after leaving from bowing my head so often, so just a heads up (ha) for the tall people out there).

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Following a brief tour of Nelson’s surprisingly plush and spacious living quarters (almost everything in the ship is a replica), we were herded up on deck to see the spot where Nelson was fatally wounded (the shot passed through his lungs and lodged in his back; he was immediately carried belowdecks where he died three hours later), and then back down again to see the low-ceilinged and depressingly dark decks where the common sailors lived and worked.

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The tour guide did a very good job of engaging the children on the tour, but unfortunately, this meant that the rest of us had to stand in the back, and it was difficult to hear him at times, or see anything, for that matter.  As expected, he went through the origins of many common phrases which have their basis in nautical terms (there’s not enough room to swing a cat, pull the cat out of the bag, etc. etc.), but he also did provide some interesting facts about the ship and its crew.  It was launched in 1765, so it was already 40 years old by the time of the Battle of Trafalgar (making it a near-contemporary of the Endeavour, Captain Cook’s ship; sadly the original Endeavour was wrecked, so I’ll never get to see that dishy Joseph Banks‘s quarters), and the aforementioned distinctive yellow and black colour scheme was Nelson’s favourite, called “checkerboard” as that’s what it resembled when the black gunports were closed.

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I did very much enjoy getting to see the interior of Nelson’s gorgeous ship, and picture it in action, but I wish the tour had been more comprehensive (perhaps if they offered separate tours for families and adults?), as the whole thing felt quite rushed, and half the time was spent waiting for everyone to finish climbing up or down the scarily narrow steps.

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There was a small HMS Victory museum nearby, so we popped in to see if it could flesh out the scant details provided on the tour (although even with my limited knowledge, I managed to get 9/10 on the computerised quiz inside, go me!).  I felt bad for not experiencing the film and light show on offer, as the man working there seemed slightly disappointed when I turned it down, but I really was in a hurry. There wasn’t a tonne of content in the actual museum, although I did pick up a few more tidbits, but I was ultimately distracted by a glimpse of the flamboyant figureheads perched upstairs.

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I do love a good figurehead, and these were brilliant, with lovely eye-popping paint, and nipples galore!  Quite a few of them were based off royalty or Roman/Greek gods, although there were a few Victorian (meaning, slightly racist) depictions of various foreigners.  On the whole, however, I loved this display, and it was probably one of the highlights of the Dockyard.

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I know I’m already running on, but I still want to mention the HMS Warrior, which is seemingly there in large part to show the advances in technology in the century between the building of the Victory and the Warrior, though it is an interesting ship in its own right.  When it was built, in 1860, it was the “largest, fastest, and most powerful warship in the world” (according to the pamphlet we were given), but it was never actually used in battle (I know I’m meant to refer to ships as “she,” but having no naval background myself, it just feels kind of awkward doing so).

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The Warrior is viewable by self-guided tour, so we saved it til last, figuring we could always rush through if we ran out of time, though it turned out we were easily able to see everything in 45 minutes.  There were steps all over the place, so our route was a little confused, but I’m confident we saw everything in the end.

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Like the Victory, the Warrior also had very swanky Captain’s Quarters, though they lacked a little of the Victory‘s charm.  There wasn’t much information posted inside the ship, so I was fairly reliant on the free pamphlet, which quite frankly wasn’t detailed enough for my liking (I guess I could have paid extra for the official Historic Dockyard guidebook, but that would be completely out of character for me).

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By studying the map, we did manage to work out the locations of the jail cells, for seamen guilty of serious crimes, and some pens for the sheep and other livestock that were kept for meat.  Like any ship, things got grimmer the further you travelled down into its aptly-named bowels, and the engine rooms were the grimmest yet.

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The mood lighting did help me appreciate how hellish things must have been, and it was a comfortable temperature (instead of 120 F +) and not full of sweaty men when I was down there, so I can only imagine how bad things were when the ship was at sea.  No wonder they were paid more than normal sailors, though whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.

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I’ve got far more pictures than words at this point, so I’ll just start throwing the pictures up here with brief descriptions as I’m sure you’re sick of reading by now anyway.  There are the engine room and  the Officer’s Dining Hall.

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Wheels (your guess is as good as mine, probably better as I don’t know much about ships) plus washing bowl (not a toilet)

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The raisin bin, plus “special issues” of food, in addition to the normal menu of bread and meat.  Conditions had certainly improved since Nelson’s day, when common seamen mostly ate ship’s biscuit, porridgey things, and rancid meaty stews, but I loathe raisins, so I would not have been a happy camper even on the Warrior.

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Barrel, perhaps it contained rum, which would explain the spirit of generosity towards the Queen, and cannon.

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The Warrior had scantier information on offer than the Victory, but it’s still worth a look around as part of the combined ticket.  Although I think I was meant to be marvelling at how modern it was in comparison to the Victory, I couldn’t help but think about how some of the romance of sailing had been lost (though that “romance” included a crew mostly comprised of men who had been press-ganged into service, who were flogged for any infraction and had terrible living conditions, so it is possible any positive connotations of a Georgian sailor’s life are all in my mind).  Honestly, I’d probably rather be aboard a ship in the heat of battle than stuck in a horrible boiler room, as at least your suffering wouldn’t last as long.  The Warrior just seemed more utilitarian than the Victory (though it was a Victorian ship, so not THAT utilitarian), and in purely stylistic and romantic terms, I think the Victory unquestionably wins out, though I’m sure the Warrior could have easily blown it to bits with its advanced technology.  I’ll hold off giving a rating until I’ve written about the entire Dockyard, as I’ll grade it as a whole.   So, I’ll just throw in a couple more pictures of figureheads to finish off the posts, because damn, they’re cool!

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(Oh, and that’s Charles II’s royal barge that you can see in that picture, also awesome.)

A Day Out in Hampshire: Gilbert White’s House, the Oates Collection, and Jane Austen’s House

Gilbert White and I.  A fine small fellow.

Gilbert White and I. He was a fine small fellow.

As we’ve been quite tired of being cooped up inside all winter, when the weather seemed to warm up a bit a few weekends ago, my boyfriend and I decided to drive out to Hampshire to take in some local attractions.  First stop, Gilbert White’s House and the Oates Collection.

Now personally, I’m not terribly interested in nature, so it was perhaps no surprise that I had never heard of Gilbert White prior to our trip.  Evidently, he was a 18th century vicar and naturalist extraordinaire.  However, I knew a bit about Lawrence Oates, who took part in the disastrous Scott Expedition to the South Pole, as I have a fascination with isolated places, so hearing that some things related to the expedition were housed here was enough to persuade me to take the outing.  The house is located in the village of Selbourne, with a carpark located on the opposite end of the village, so we braved the muddy footpath and made our way to Gilbert White’s home.  There was an admission charge of  £8.50, but you get free admission for the rest of the year if you fill out a Gift Aid form, so perhaps not a bad deal if we decide to trek out there again.  Gilbert White’s House wasn’t terribly large, and consisted of an introductory room in case you were asking yourself, as we were, “So who the hell is Gilbert White?” which should answer most of your questions; and a few other rooms decorated as they were in White’s time, with appropriate fact sheets throughout.  It was pleasant enough, but just an ordinary Georgian house.  The highlight, as you can see, was the wax figure of Gilbert White shown above.  If it was life size, the poor man couldn’t have topped 5’2″.

Gilbert White's House and Garden

Gilbert White’s House and Garden

Upstairs, we at last found the Oates Collection, which was comprised of two sections: one on Frank Oates, African explorer in the vein of Livingstone et al, and his nephew, the aforementioned Lawrence Oates.  Although the Frank Oates section had some interesting maps and letters, and a splendid massive case of stuffed tropical birds, I think the Lawrence Oates half was superior by far!  Loads of information on the South Pole, some of the supplies the men took with them, photographs, and journal entries and letters home made it feel quite poignant, since none of the men actually made it home.  Essentially, Lawrence Oates sacrificed himself for no real reason at all, since they all died anyway, though perhaps death by freezing was preferable to the lingering death of starvation.  At any rate, it was really fascinating stuff.

We were warned by the woman working there that the gardens would be muddy, and she recommended that we return another time to see them, but quite frankly, this is England, and when the hell isn’t it muddy?  So we traipsed around what was basically a large field for a bit, and took turns sitting in a chair made out of a wine barrel, perched upon a small mound, which was created by Gilbert White so he could survey his property.  And that was all there was to see of Gilbert White’s House, with the exception of the Tea Council approved tea rooms, but although the seal of approval made it mighty tempting, as I’m sure the Tea Council doesn’t hand those out to just anyone, it was a bit early for teatime, so we left.  We stopped in at a newsagents on the way back to the car to get some postcards, since the gift shop didn’t have any, but it gave off the vibe of being a “local shop for local people,” so we didn’t even protest being given incorrect change, and just got out of there.

I’d seen that Jane Austen’s House was in the vicinity, and though I’m not completely obsessed with Austen, I do like her books, so figured it was worth driving about three miles down the road to visit it.  It was £7.50, which seemed a bit steep considering the size of the house, but judging from most of the other visitors there, I doubt they get many complaints.  The place was total Austen fan-girl central, and was packed with middle aged women who stopped to gaze lovingly at everything in the house.  Jane Austen only lived there during her adult years, so a lot of the collection was random stuff cobbled together from her various family members, and the arrangement of the rooms was pure speculation.  I realise I sound like I’m knocking it, but I’m not really; it was a perfectly nice house, with helpful captions on everything, and very nice staff, I just think I don’t know enough about the minutiae of Austen’s life to get the full experience.  Naturally, the gift shop was stuffed full of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy memorabilia, and I couldn’t resist picking up a bookmark and a pretty hilarious portrait of Firth-Darcy.  I mean, c’mon, it is Colin Firth after all, even if his head was rendered a bit lumpily.  That was enough excitement for one afternoon, so we headed back to London.

I’ve give both attractions about a 3 out of 5, though you might rate Jane Austen’s House higher if you REALLY like her.