Kent

Hever, Kent: Hever Castle

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

   

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

  

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

 

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

 

 

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Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery


Instead of opening this post with a photo of the outside of the museum like I normally would, I decided to cut to the chase and show you the best and weirdest thing in the museum right at the start (also the front of the museum is pretty boring, because it’s just in the town hall, whereas Minnie the dog (I’ll explain more later) is hilarious and awesome).

   

We were able to borrow a car for a day a few weeks ago, and though the air felt like autumn and my first thought was to drive out to the countryside to see some foliage, it was only the start of September, and all the trees in London were still green (not that they change to a colour more exciting than brown anyway, but still) so I had to concede that it was unlikely that trees outside the city would be much different. So a plan B then, but one that would still allow me to acquire cloudy apple juice and cider from my favourite orchard shop in East Sussex, because I’m always ready for fall, even if the trees aren’t cooperating. Unfortunately, I’ve been to pretty much everything nearby the cider shop worth blogging about over the years (except Hever Castle, which I’ve been to but haven’t blogged about…I’ll have to go back!), so I turned my search to obscure local museums, most of which I had to immediately eliminate because they’re not open on Sundays. Enter the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. Though they’re not normally open on a Sunday, their website claimed their “summer hours” (til October 8) did include Sunday opening, so I thought we should risk it, especially once I got a look at the photo of Minnie the Lu Lu Terrier on their website.

   

Happily, the Tunbridge Wells Museum was indeed open (as you may have guessed by this point) and also free to visit. We were able to find parking along the side of the building since it was a Sunday; otherwise I think you’d probably have to head for one of the nearby car parks. We were welcomed by an extremely nice and helpful woman at the front desk, who was very eager to make sure we saw all the highlights of the collection, and she immediately disposed me towards liking the museum.

   

We began with the toy alcove, and there were so many gems in here I can’t even show you them all, but I’ve included photos of some of the highlights, including a teeny model butcher shop (not that I patronise real butcher shops, but this one even had a little cat in it. A pet cat that is, not a cut of meat). I also really loved the poor derpy Felix the Cat doll, but, as you can probably tell from the opening photo, he wasn’t even the derpiest thing in this museum.

   

The showpieces of this first room were undoubtedly the massive dollhouse (I think it was Georgian, or at least the house it is based on was), which apparently lit up (the woman working there directed me to a button on the wall, but I pressed it twice and nothing happened, and I was too embarrassed to try again), but since I couldn’t get it to work, I contented myself with peering in through the darkened windows, and could still see enough to know that I would have killed for that dollhouse as a kid (even though I wasn’t particularly into dolls, elaborate old dollhouses are cool. I’d still love to have one, even if it turns out to be haunted); and the old rocking horse, who was nothing like my beloved childhood rocking horse Buckles, but was still a lovely horse (“running through the fields…”).

   

Most of the rest of the first gallery was taken up by extraordinarily wordy (but not uninteresting) displays about local industries, including cricket balls and much more to my tastes, biscuits (although the company seems to have made mostly water biscuits rather than anything actually delicious). There was a back wall lined with cases filled with everything from flasks to farming implements, accompanied by very old-school captions that were rather charming, but a bit of updating wouldn’t go amiss on some of the labels.

   

I was very taken with the sheep boots (shown above), but I was most excited about the Biddenden Maids cakes. I’m sure everyone knows by now how fascinated I am by the strange and unusual (and that Beetlejuice is one of my favourite movies), and when I was looking for something odd to write my MA thesis about some years ago, I happened upon the Biddenden Maids. I ended up not using them, because historical fact is kind of thin on the ground where they’re concerned, plus if they actually lived when the legend says they lived, they would have fallen well outside of the Early Modern era, but the story goes that in the 1100s there were wealthy conjoined twins living in Biddenden, a village in Kent, and they donated their lands to the village when they died with the proviso that income from the lands would be used to provide the poor with alms every year at Easter. The tradition continues to this day, and in addition to providing food to widows and pensioners on Easter Monday, Biddenden also gives out Biddenden Maids cakes bearing the image of the twins (I’m not gonna lie, I’ve debated going out to Biddenden at Easter to get one, as it’s rumoured that they also make some to sell to tourists as souvenirs), and a few recipients over the years have donated these to the museum, so I finally got to have a look at them. They were just as splendid as I’d hoped!

   

The next gallery was dedicated almost entirely to “Tunbridge Ware,”and that’s where Minnie comes in. Tunbridge Ware is a kind of highly decorative painted wood developed for the tourist trade in Tunbridge Wells (as you might be able to guess from the name, Tunbridge Wells is home to a natural spring, and thus became a spa town in the Restoration, like so many other towns with healing waters, so there were plenty of tourists coming through), and there were many, many examples on show in this gallery, but the box used to house Minnie is the most notable of all. Minnie was a Lu Lu Terrier, apparently an unusual (and unfortunate-looking) Chinese breed, and when she died, her owner decided to preserve her in high style by placing her taxidermied body inside a huge and elaborate Tunbridge Ware box. The photo on the right is of what was probably my favourite Tunbridge Ware design in this gallery, and shows a gentleman encountering a sweep and his donkey in the night, which he took to be the devil, hence his fright.

   

I also enjoyed these charming, rather primitive collages by George Smart, one of which was blown up and featured on a large banner outside the museum, as it was evidently a heritage weekend when we visited. Which probably makes not seeing the famous Pantiles (the other main thing Tunbridge Wells is famous for, being, as far as I can tell, simply a tiled shopping district that has been given a fancy name) whilst we were there even more of an oversight, but we were worried about getting a ticket if we left the car parked where it was for much longer, so we high-tailed it out of Tunbridge pretty sharpish after leaving the museum.

   

But I’m not finished with the museum yet! There was also a small room with a few paintings in it, as well as a letter from Nelson (written after he lost his arm, to judge by the handwriting, though it still looked better than what I can achieve with my dominant hand), but the taxidermy is really what I need to show you. The final room of the museum contained the obligatory geological exhibits, but also a small taxidermy collection, the wildcat and squirrel shown here being highlights. There was also a splendidly derpy fox cub. I also liked that they thoughtfully kept the butterfly cases covered (probably to protect them, since I’m guessing they didn’t know about my lepidopterophobia), as it meant that I didn’t have to look at them.

   

As you may have guessed from the post title, the museum is also an art gallery, which is located just across the hall from the main museum. The exhibition when we visited was called “Springlines” and was meant to be an exploration of “hidden and mysterious bodies of water.” It wasn’t quite as exciting as the title promised, being a collection of fairly ordinary landscapes, but I did like how the pictures were accompanied by poetry, which did at least add something evocative to the paintings.

   

Considering my past experiences with local museums hadn’t led me to expect much out of Tunbridge Wells, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Having very friendly staff probably helped, but I was also impressed by the sheer array and eclecticism of objects on show, and thought the captions were generally quite informative, for all that a few of them could use an update. 3.5/5, it definitely exceeded my expectations, and was worth coming to for poor ridiculous Minnie alone.

   

While we were (sort of) in the area (well, it is very close indeed to the aforementioned cider shop (with limitless free samples) anyway), we decided to go for a walk around the bit of Ashdown Forest that was introduced to the world by A.A. Milne as Hundred Acre Wood. I’m sure I read the Pooh books at some point, but I don’t really remember them very well as most of my Pooh memories are dominated by the cartoon, which I loved as a kid. There isn’t much to the walks; you can opt for either a “Short Pooh” or a “Long Pooh” walk (obviously I was making endless poo jokes), and the short Pooh is very short indeed, so we went for the Long Pooh, which primarily involved walking up and down two miles of hills (and stepping in lots of actual poo, due to it also being a horse trail) around a heath which was supposed to be Eeyore’s Gloomy Place (poor Eeyore. I think I’m a cross between him and Rabbit), but we also took in Roo’s Sandy Place, the North Pole, the Heffalump Trap, the Enchanted Forest (really more of a heath, like the rest of it), and the A.A. Milne memorial along the way. It is literally is just a walk in the country, but I think it’s kind of nice in a way that it’s not all commercialised (much as I would like to see some statues of Pooh and friends to help bring it to life, the fact that you have to use your imagination means that it’s not very busy. There is a tearoom down the road called “The Shop at Pooh Corner” or something like that, but that’s really only the concession to capitalism here). Just mentioning it as something else to do if you find yourself in the Sussex/western edge of Kent countryside.

Sevenoaks, Kent: Ightham Mote

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Firstly, pronunciation.  On the way there, my boyfriend and I kept calling it “Ick-thum” Mote, as that was the best we could do with that spelling, but going by the people working there, it’s apparently more like “Item” Mote.  Just so you know, although I don’t think we attempted to pronounce it whilst we were actually there, so at least we didn’t publicly embarrass ourselves.

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Anyway, Ightham Mote is another National Trust property that we chose to visit primarily as it would give us an excuse to cruise the back roads of Kent, looking for local cherries (happy to say we found some, and bought two large bags, which were gone in a day.  The people at Ightham Mote may well have thought I was a vampire, with my pasty skin and blood-red, cherry-juice stained mouth and fingers).  Admission for non-members will set you back 12 quid, plus whatever they charge for the pay and display lot, in which case I’d probably just skip the property and retreat home to gobble down cherries in a darkened room.  But as we are members, we pressed on.

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As usual, information about the history of the home was somewhat lacking, but it was clearly Tudor (going by the exterior alone, not to mention the chapel ceiling commemorating the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon), though it turns out the original house was even older than that (14th century), and the exposed beams that give the house its character today are part of the Tudor extension.  It was evidently owned by a Victoria Cross holder (since there was a VC on display in the chapel), and latterly, a wealthy American businessman (he owned some kind of paper company in Maine, and was a WWI veteran) who left the house to the National Trust upon his death.

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Also, it is home to the only Grade I listed dog kennel in the country (which can be seen in the picture of the courtyard a few paragraphs up), though the only dog I spotted on the premises was an adorable old yellow lab (or maybe golden retriever, it was hard to say since I only saw his head) who likes to hide behind the counter in the gift shop.  I think his name was Frank.

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For the house, they only handed you a laminated map, not even one of those big fact sheets, although there were some in a couple of the rooms.  I was assured that the volunteers would only be too happy to proffer information, though that really only happened in the drawing room, the American dude’s bedroom (I just looked up his name, it’s Charles Henry Robinson), and the billiards room.  So, much of it was just blindly wandering, and there isn’t much to distinguish one stately home from another with no context.

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That said, the Drawing Room is decorated with rare hand-painted late 18th century wallpaper, with a bird design.  My favourite bird is pictured above (that expression!).  And there was also some kind of rare 18th century Chinese cabinet as well, which didn’t look terribly different from newer imitations.

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And there was that aforementioned Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon ceiling in the New Chapel (there was also an Old Chapel, but it was no longer used or decorated as a chapel, hence the “old” bit I guess), though I didn’t quite get how it related to Henry and Catherine, as I could only make out some castles and what was maybe a Tudor Rose.  Maybe there were some intertwined initials or something up there, but it was pretty faded so it was hard to tell.

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Also of note, though you wouldn’t have thought so from looking at it, was the exceptionally hideous yellowish carpeting in Charles Henry Robinson’s bedroom.  It is the same carpet that was used at the Queen’s coronation in 1953; they only laid down carpet in Westminster Abbey for the day, and then sold it off after they no longer needed it, so Charles Robinson snagged himself a big ol’ piece.  It is a particularly awful colour because red would have appeared black on black and white TV, and the BBC deemed that puke yellow would actually show up best, so there you have it.  The whole point of this is that you may well be walking on the same carpet the young Queen walked on, if that sort of thing is exciting to you.

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You have to leave the house and walk through the courtyard to get to the Billiards Room, but as I said, the guy working in there was the most helpful one in the whole property, so I wouldn’t skip it.  The Victorian billiards table weighs a tonne (literally), so this room had to be purpose-built with reinforced floors to accommodate it.  The volunteer offered to let us try it out, but I cannot successfully manage a cue for the life of me (I don’t understand what goes wrong, but whenever I try to play pool, there’s absolutely no force behind my shot, and the cue ball doesn’t even move.  It’s just embarrassing), so I went to look at the witches’ jars in the next room instead, which were found on the property filled with hair and things to try to keep witches out (though making a protection charm seems like a rather “witchy” thing to do for people who were anti-witchcraft).

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There are gardens all around the moat (mote), and apparently some trails as well, so we had a bit of a wander, but there isn’t much to be said about them, save for the midges.  We were contemplating sitting in one of the deck chairs that had thoughtfully been set up by the pond, when we realised there was a virtual cloud of midges hovering above them.  So we didn’t linger for too long.

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I did check out the cafe on the way out, in the hopes of obtaining a delicious millionaire’s shortbread like the one at the Vyne, but alas, it was not to be.  There was a small museum near the exit, which I think was a fundraising attempt, as it mentioned all the conservation work that needed to be done on the house and how much it all cost, although if I had paid 12 quid to get in, plus parking, I certainly wouldn’t be in any hurry to donate even more.  As it was, I was once again thankful for that membership as there is no way I would have been happy with parting with that much cash to see Ightham Mote, especially when the most valuable thing I learned there was how to pronounce the name.  3/5, another middling, albeit photogenic property.

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Broadstairs, Kent: Dickens House Museum

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Dahl’s Chickens strikes again!  As soon as it starts to warm up, in addition to ditching socks as soon as possible (I hate when my feet are all hot and constrained), I want to go to the seaside.  This is obviously a relatively new phenomenon for me, as the lakeside was the closest I got as a kid, and if you’ve ever been swimming in Lake Erie, you will understand why it is not that thrilling (dead fish, insanely high bacteria counts, random floating garbage).  I certainly don’t swim in open water these days (in addition to being terrified of crabs and things, I am not a good swimmer and fear death), but I’ll happily go wading if there’s a nice sandy beach, and it’s even better if there’s somewhere to procure ice cream nearby.  Which brought me to Broadstairs.

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Broadstairs is a fair drive for a day trip (over two hours from SW London), so we saved it for a bank holiday weekend (yeah, this post has been sitting around for a while too).  It is in Thanet, so we were slightly apprehensive that it might be somehow “UKIPy,” (which I don’t know, it might well be), but to all appearances it is just a nice early Victorian seaside town built on cliffs, from which you descend some stairs to reach a beautiful sandy beach (with very cold water, but hey, it was still May).  Though I was freaked out to see some crab bits laying on the sand, it was otherwise very clean, and we strolled for quite a while before grabbing an ice cream from Morelli’s (the most expensive damn ice cream; this was beyond London pricing, and waaaayyyyy more than it should have been at a seaside town.  And there was no pistachio, which never bodes well).  Of course, it’d be remiss of me to not take in a museum as well, which brings me back to Dahl’s Chickens, er, Charles Dickens (yep, I’m still using that BFG joke).

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Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to Broadstairs from 1837-1859, and befriended a local lady there, a Miss Mary Pearson Strong, who became the inspiration for Betsy Trotwood in David CopperfieldI have never read David Copperfield, but apparently Betsy Trotwood had some sort of problem with donkeys using the street in front of her house, like the real life Miss Strong.  At any rate, her house has been turned into the Dickens House Museum (not to be confused with the Dickens Museum in London), complete with a parlour where Dickens once took tea with Miss Strong, and can be seen for £3.75.

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Neither the house nor the museum are particularly large, but there was a charming volunteer there on the day we visited who told us the history of the house and just generally made us feel welcome, which was much appreciated.  The main room downstairs holds a desk actually purchased by Dickens, a chest given to him on one of his trips to America, and a number of pictures of a rather dashing young Dickens (as we learned at the other Dickens Museum, he was something of a dandy, and favoured bold waistcoats even into his later years).

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There were also a couple small back rooms filled with maps of London and more pictures, but not a whole lot of information.  What was there was mostly written on the pictures themselves in prohibitively tiny text (my boyfriend remarked that he wished he brought his glasses, but my vision’s perfect (not to brag, it’s thanks to LASIK), so I did alright), and was really too lengthy to stand there and read the whole of it.  I do quite like old-fashioned museums with piles of text, but sometimes it could do with being broken up a bit more, and this was one of those times.

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The parlour in question was roped off, so you could only peer at it from the corner of the room, but it contained an unusually comfy looking chaise longue, and seemed like it would be a nice place to take tea (though I think it is a re-creation done with period furniture, and not the actual furnishings Dickens would have used).  There were a couple more rooms upstairs, but these were largely filled with random objects (I guess just common objects in a Victorian household, not sure if there was a specific Dickens connection), and this is where more signage would have definitely come in handy, as there was only a board listing the names of everything, but not what they were used for (and a very confused German lady kept asking her English travelling companion what each thing was, because it wasn’t obvious, even to native English speakers).

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I have to confess that the museum wasn’t terribly comprehensive or informative (a framed poster from a 1970 edition of the Sunday Times was the most helpful thing there, and though I enjoyed reading Dickens’s (largely negative) comments on America, the museum really shouldn’t be relying on a 45 year old newspaper insert), but it was quaint, and I feel bad being too harsh on it because the volunteers were so nice, which goes a long way with me (having encountered unpleasant or uninterested museum staff on far too many occasions).  Besides, it was fairly inexpensive (as were the postcards, when we asked the volunteer how much they cost, we thought he said 50p, and he was shocked when that’s what we tried to give him (“50p?!  No, of course not, they’re only 15p!”), when really I’ve paid 60p and up for postcards some places, so 50p would have not at all seemed out of line, though of course 15 is even better!), so I have no regrets about visiting, even if it wasn’t quite as informative as I would have liked.  2.5/5.

And I think Broadstairs is probably worth a visit in its own right if you manage to hit it on a warm day, as the beach is lovely, and there seemed to be quite a few independent bookshops and tearooms scattered around its narrow streets.  They also celebrate Dickens in the form of a festival every June, so it may be worth going for that if you’re keener than I am on Dickens (in which case you might get more out of the museum than I did as well).

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Westerham, Kent: Chartwell (Churchill’s Family Home)

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My love for FDR has been very well documented on this blog, but my feelings towards his buddy Churchill are far more mixed.  You could say he’s not exactly my flute of champagne (though I got to sample one of his favourite champagnes at this event last year, and it was delicious, so I’m not questioning his taste); yes, he saw Britain through WWII and all that, but in his personal life, it seems to me that he could be a bit of a demanding jerk.  However, as we were already in Westerham to see Quebec House, after we realised his home, Chartwell, was just down the road, it seemed just plain stupid not to visit both.

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Whipping out that National Trust membership for the second time that afternoon, we were able to stroll right in, but it’s £13 otherwise.  Although the house is self-guided, entry is by timed ticket only, so we found ourselves with an hour to kill before we could go see the house.  Fortunately, this wasn’t a problem, for Chartwell is a huge estate, with a woodland trail and lots of other stuff to explore.  Because Chartwell wasn’t a planned destination, I wasn’t really wearing the best shoes for walking, and when I saw all the mud on the woodland trail, I wasn’t inclined to wander all the way up it, so we missed out on the “sweet chestnut coppice” (there was also an epic amount of deer poop on the lawns, so don’t be like me in my thin soled shoes with no socks).

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However, I did make it far enough to see the bomb crater, where a bomb hit during the Blitz (not sure if Churchill was staying there at the time; I would have thought he’d probably have been in London, but at any rate it was far enough from the house that he wouldn’t have been hurt).  Other highlights of the walk include dormice dens, an old quarry, and a large number of mean and apparently aggressive black swans.  There were also some tree swings, but I’m always kind of leery of the sort of swings that are just a flat plank hanging from ropes, since I had one of those flip on me when I was a kid and ended up lying on my back with the breath knocked out of me, so I had but a brief and cautious swing.

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There was also an excellent statue of Churchill and his wife Clementine (which she bizarrely pronounced Clemen-teen) by the same sculptor that did the one in the centre of Westerham (the one I couldn’t get a picture with because of unruly children), so I had to stop and get a photo to mirror the one I took with the statue of FDR and Eleanor at Hyde Park.  It was surprisingly slippery to climb up, especially as my shoes had essentially no traction (they look cool though, that’s why I wear ’em), so take care if you do the same.

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Being something of an artist himself, Churchill had a painting studio on the property, which today holds the largest collection of Churchill’s paintings in the world.  We happened to arrive at the same time a brief talk was starting, so I learned far more about Churchill’s painting career than I needed to, but he basically started painting when he was 40, in an attempt to shake himself out of his deep depression following the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, where his decision making was partially to blame for over 50,000 Allied deaths.  He was never professionally trained in painting, though he did get advice from some artist friends, and honestly wasn’t half bad at it, though he tended to paint mostly landscapes which aren’t really to my taste.  The studio also contained an enormous globe that was a twin to one FDR was given, and a small gallery of other gifts given to Churchill over the years, including some American Civil War memorabilia.

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Naturally, there were some gardens as well, but it being the start of March when we visited, virtually nothing was in bloom, save for some snowdrops and crocuses that weren’t part of the walled garden.  There is a rose walk, which I’m sure is lovely when the roses are blooming, but not so much so when you’re walking past thorny, scraggly bushes with no blossoms.  The garden is also where the playhouse that Churchill built for his daughter Mary is located.  It’s still set up with child-size furniture that made me feel like a giant, so I can only imagine how the portly Churchill felt if he ever ventured in.

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I was excited to see the graves of the family pets (I kept saying, “let’s go to the pet cemetery” which is retrospect may have sounded a little creepy), which included the final resting places of Rufus and Rufus II (both poodles…why do men in power often have such lame dogs? Like FDR and that Scottish terrier Fala), and the handsome ginger cat Jock, who sat at Churchill’s bedside as Churchill was dying.  Because of Churchill’s fondness for Jock, there is a ginger cat in residence at Chartwell to this day…they’re currently up to Jock VI, although I didn’t spot him during our visit.

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By this point, it was time to enter the house.  Photography wasn’t allowed inside, but we were given a brief guide to the rooms, with highlights pointed out to us.  It was very homely feeling inside; much like Hyde Park, this was not a grand estate, but a family home.  I was thrilled to see there were many objects relating to FDR inside the house, like paintings, busts, and a letter he wrote to Winston, and it was obvious that Churchill treasured their friendship.  I enjoyed his library very much, but then I’m always drawn to rooms full of books, especially if they have comfy looking seats.  There were a couple more museum rooms located in the house; one was for gifts given to Churchill, which were mostly big silver things that weren’t terribly exciting, though it was interesting to see the honorary US citizenship granted to him by JFK (although as his mother was American, I would have thought he could have gotten American citizenship for himself anyway if he’d really wanted it, though maybe dual citizenship wasn’t allowed back then.  Or he just wanted to avoid the dual-taxation that the rest of us American expats have to deal with!).  There was, however, a collection of Churchill’s uniforms that contained a splendid array of his hats. Now, that was worth seeing!

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The final room downstairs was all about Churchill’s death and funeral, which was a bit sad, especially when they talked about Jock sitting beside him, but I’m just not as sentimental about his death as I was about FDR’s (I think I might be a little too obsessed with ol’ Franklin though.  Not quite as badly as I am with Steve Perry circa the late 1970s (seriously, that hair!  How was it so perfect?!), but I’m still probably quite a bit more into FDR than any normal person would be).  After the lengthy exploration of Churchill’s estate, we decided to have a heartening slice of cake in the cafe, which was mercifully empty at this point as it was the end of the day, and luckily for me, there was some lemon cake left (the only alternatives were fruitcake or coffee and walnut cake, both of which I detest).

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Perhaps because Chartwell was run by the National Trust, rather than the government-operated National Park Service like this type of site would be in America, it was nowhere near as impressive as Hyde Park, which had an excellent and comprehensive museum (I’m sorry I keep comparing Chartwell to Hyde Park, it’s just hard to avoid given the close connections between the two men), but it was still enjoyable, particularly as there was such a large estate to explore, which made the waiting time before we could tour the house fly by.  I’ll give it 3.5/5, as I think it’s well worth visiting if you find yourself in Kent.  Oh, and if you head back to London the same way we did, you may pass the little gem shown below.  Naturally, we turned the car around after we spotted it and drove back so we could get a picture, because I’m still juvenile like that.

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Westerham, Kent: Quebec House

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Living in England has made me unusually keen on American history.  I think I’m just a contrary person, because when I lived in America, British history was always my favourite (this is also inconvenient, because as you can imagine, the American history section at my local library is extremely limited, so I end up having to buy most of the titles I want to read, leading to a disproportionately large American section in my bookcase).  I suspect it’s maybe an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” kind of thing (in addition to the contrariness), but at any rate, learning that a site I’m thinking about visiting has vague American connections is often enough to tip the balance in its favour.  This week’s adventure took me to Quebec House in Kent, right down the road from Churchill’s home Chartwell (which just may come up on here in the near future as well…ok, very near future, as in next week).

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Quebec House was the childhood home of General James Wolfe, who won the Battle of Quebec for the British, though he ended up dying for his pains.  The house was subsequently renamed Quebec House to commemorate his achievement (and death).  It is currently owned by the National Trust, who charge an admission fee of £5.20 for entrance to the house and tiny museum.

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At this point you may be wondering what the connection to the USA is, as Quebec is obviously in Canada.  Well, as the museum explains, the Battle of Quebec was part of the Seven Years’ War with France (more commonly known in America as the French and Indian War; at least, that’s what I was taught in school), which was fought in part on what would become American soil (partially in the Ohio Valley), and was famously where George Washington began his military career.  It also indirectly led to the formation of America by securing the continent for the British (save for the culturally French area of Quebec, which was allowed to keep its language and customs in the aftermath of the battle, and of course, Mexico), thus giving the colonists something to rebel against in years to come (it’s also said that the British pissed off Washington at this point by not granting him a commission in the British Army, which may well have been a factor that contributed to America winning the Revolutionary War).

Unfortunately, the museum irritated me from the start due to the complete lack of proofreading on their signs.  In the sign pictured on the left, above, note the completely unnecessary possessive use of “Wolfe’s” in the section on Quebec House (the second possessive use is correct, but the first one should merely be a plural).  Also, does anyone else think the first section is written in a really bizarre tense? (Use of “chooses” in the first sentence, when the rest of the sentence was written in the past tense.)  Maybe I’m just a stickler for these things, but I notice an increasingly sloppy use of grammar and spelling amongst companies and organisations who should know better (for example, there’s a hotel/spa down the road from me that proudly advertises “masages” and hyponotherapy”), and I have to wonder what happened to all the proofreaders. I mean, we all make mistakes, myself included, but if you’re having a sign professionally made to hang in a museum, why wouldn’t you get someone to look it over first?! (If any interested parties are reading this, I’m available for freelance editing/proofreading!)

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Moving on, because I could dwell on grammatical annoyances all day, as I said, the museum is not large, and consists mainly of informational posters and maps, with a couple of rather boring videos thrown in for good measure (the videos basically just repeated verbatim what was written on the posters).  We finished making our way through in a matter of minutes, and moved on to the house.

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The house was a little better.  It was certainly an attractive property from the outside, and the inside contained a number of objects that drew my attention.  We were given a rather sparse room guide to carry around (at least this one didn’t have any glaring grammatical errors), and a few of the artefacts had additional captions on them, but as with most National Trust properties, it just wasn’t as much information as I would have liked.  Due to listening in on a conversation between a couple of visitors and one of the room guides (they started talking about Americans, and I was curious to hear what insulting things they would have to say), I learned that James Wolfe died when he was 32, having never married, and that there is only one picture of him as an adult that was actually drawn from life: a crude sketch done by a friend that is located inside the house.  There was a bust of him made after his death (in addition to the famous painting of his death scene done by Benjamin West) that was modeled on one of the family’s servants who was thought to have a resemblance to Wolfe.  He was also very tall for the time (6’2″) and thin, with a pale complexion (upon hearing this, my boyfriend gave me a look, because Wolfe sounded exactly like my type; pity the sketch of him led me to think he wasn’t terribly attractive (and had bright orange hair to boot)); some contemporaries thought he may have been suffering from tuberculosis, and wouldn’t have had long to live anyway, even if he hadn’t been killed in battle.

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In addition to paintings of Wolfe, various cannonballs from the battle, and medals and things, there was a copy of a book that was said to have Wolfe’s bloodstains on it, as he pricked his finger when reading it as a child.  There was also a re-creation of his bed, that we were apparently welcome to try out (though neither one of us did), and a room with lots of activities, including historical games for visitors to play, and a chance to practise writing with a quill.  If you visit on a Sunday, as we did, you can also try some of Mrs. Wolfe’s (James’s mother) family recipes, which volunteers make in the kitchen.  There’s something about old-timey food that turns my stomach (I threw up as a child after watching an 18th century cooking demonstration on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood because it looked so gross, and I quit an internship at a living history museum because they expected me to work in one of the kitchens, even after I told them I couldn’t because of my weird food issues), so there was no way I was going near something called “potato pudding,” especially as there seemed to be a bit of a communal spoon situation, but the seed cake, that old favourite of Victorian children’s literature, seemed safe enough, and it was reasonably pleasant.  Reminiscent of rye bread, probably because of the caraway seeds.

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Upon leaving the house, if you venture into the village green, there’s a statue of James Wolfe brandishing a sword (right next to one of Churchill I couldn’t get a picture of because children were climbing on it and refused to move, even after I gave them my angriest stare), which is probably worth seeing if you’ve come that far. If you do visit Quebec House, be forewarned that it doesn’t have its own carpark; you have to use the pay and display one that appears to be the sole village carpark as well, so you might well have to sit in your car for a while waiting for someone to leave, as we did.

Quebec House was certainly not without its faults, but as we have National Trust membership, I wasn’t too put out by them (except those signs, obviously).  If I’d had to pay I’d definitely have felt differently, but it still may be worth a stop on the way to Chartwell if you like American history as much as I do, and have a National Trust card, since there were a few decent artefacts to be seen inside.  Otherwise, you can probably give Quebec House a miss, unless you’re REALLY keen on seed cake or obscure military history.  2.5/5.

Maidstone, Kent: Leeds Castle

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Yes, you read that right.  Leeds Castle is not in Yorkshire, but in Kent (though maybe everyone else already knew that)!  I don’t actually know why it’s called Leeds Castle, and no explanation was forthcoming at the castle.  The relevant information here is that it bills itself as “the loveliest castle in the world,” complete with quotation marks, but no source for that quote (and if you’ve seen Father Ted, it is nigh on impossible to call something the “loveliest” without attempting an Irish accent), and that they charge a whopping £19 for admission (or £25 for an annual pass, but do people actually revisit this sort of place multiple times in a year?  I know I never get around to it (plus I have to always find new things to blog about, which puts me off repeat visits)).  Leeds Castle isn’t affiliated with the National Trust or English Heritage or anything either, so you’ve no hope of getting a discount unless you take a train out and get a National Rail 2 for 1.

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There was a pretty massive queue to buy tickets when we got there, as we’d unwittingly showed up in the middle of the “Festival of Flowers,” which meant that the rooms of the castle were decorated with autumnal arrangements, ostensibly in tribute to the poems of Kipling and Keats, but honestly, every arrangement looked identical, and more like they had taken tips from a generic fall Pinterest board (is that what they’re called, boards?  I could never really get into Pinterest.  It’s easier just to bookmark stuff) than poetry.  To get to the castle, you have to wander for quite a while through the landscaped grounds, which are crowded with waterfowl and peafowl (you can feed the birds, but it’s a lot bloody more than tuppence a bag).  Geese and swans make me uneasy (I don’t trust anything with the ability to peck my eyes out), so I kept my distance, but even I have to admit that the baby peacocks (peachicks? cocklets?) were adorable.

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The castle does have a proper moat around it, and is thus impressive looking, even if to enter it you have to go through the wine cellars instead of the front doors, which made me feel like an invader at risk of having boiling oil dumped on my head.  All the pathways were roped off so there was a clear route through the castle;  it cut back somewhat on people congregating in one area, so navigating the rooms wasn’t too bad.  They are a mix of the medieval (the castle was built in the 12th century, but repeatedly renovated over the years; the last major reconstruction was in the 1820s) and the modern – Lady Baillie, an Anglo-American heiress, bought the castle in the 1920s and modernised some of the rooms to her standard of opulence.

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The “Festival of Flowers” arrangements didn’t really add or detract anything from the rooms; they were kind of just plunked down in them as an afterthought.  I enjoyed the medieval part of the castle more as Lady Baillie’s rooms just resembled those of many other stately homes bought up by Americans in the Jazz Age, when all the English aristocrats could no longer afford the upkeep.  Leeds Castle was home to six queens over the years, starting with Eleanor of Castile (wife of Edward I); Joan of Navarre was in fact held there under duress after her stepson Henry V accused her of witchcraft – fortunately, he later retracted the charges, and she was allowed to go free (and she was able to purchase a ring worth £40,000 in modern currency during her imprisonment, so conditions couldn’t have been that harsh).

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There were some awesome sculptures within the castle.  One of the owners requested busts made of Henry VIII and his children, which took pride of place in one of the rooms, and I also loved the statue of Edward III on horseback, which is the earliest surviving example of an English equestrian sculpture, made around 1580.

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There was a small museum outside the castle walls with information about some of its history, and some objects belonging to the six aforementioned queens, and Lady Baillie herself.  Lady Baillie appeared to have quite a few famous friends, particularly Errol Flynn (when he was still hot, and not a gross old pervert) as well as a real fondness for dogs, which brings me to the Dog Collar Museum.

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One of my main motivations for wanting to visit Leeds Castle was to see the Dog Collar Museum, because it obviously sounds weird and awesome.  Unfortunately for me, the museum closed last year for renovation, and isn’t due to open until 2015 sometime.  So, because I didn’t research this well enough, all there was to see was two small cases of dog collars shoved in a general exhibition gallery.  I mean, they were still unusual dog collars, but I was disappointed to miss the museum in all its glory.  The other half of the exhibition space was given over to Henry VIII and his armour.

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The castle also had a few formal gardens, in which a surprising amount of flowers were still in bloom (I visited in late September, it’s just taken me a while to get the post up).

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However, I find it hard to get excited about flowers when a castle has a maze!  This one wasn’t particularly difficult, or maybe it would have been if some little twerp ahead of us didn’t keep jumping up and sticking his head over the hedges to get directions from his friends who had reached the centre, but we were stuck behind him and it seemed stupid to go another way when he was clearly on the correct path.  Still, this maze had a grotto in the middle, in the vein of the Forbidden Corner.  Whilst not as awesome as the complete Forbidden Corner experience (and how could it be?), it appeared to be based on Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and had a cool sea monster thing inside, so gets a thumbs up from me.

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I have to give a big thumbs down to the facilities at Leeds Castle though (and I’m not just talking about the toilets, though those were gross too).  Throughout my travels to historic homes in Britain, I’ve come to expect, nay, eagerly anticipate the very British tearoom that is inevitably tacked on to these attractions.  I don’t always partake, but I like to know it’s there.  Well, it just so happens that I was madly craving a piece of chocolate fudge cake (which they didn’t have at Leeds Castle) and a cuppa that day, and if there’s one thing the National Trust and English Heritage reliably provide, despite their many failings, it is chocolate fudge cake, or at the very least, some lemon drizzle or Victoria sponge.  Not Leeds Castle! All their cafes are operated by Costa, so you can’t just get a pot of tea, it is overpriced Costa tea.  And there were definitely no homemade cakes.  I had to settle for “Kentish scoop ice cream” that was sub-par and not at all what I was in the mood for, so that part of the experience was upsetting.  If I pay £19 to get into a castle, I expect a decent tearoom!

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So I’d say Leeds Castle was a mixed bag.  The grounds were indeed lovely, but I very much doubt it is the” loveliest castle in the world,” as I’ve seen plenty of castles that were just as nice, and offered chocolate fudge cake to boot (sorry, but when Jessica gets denied cake, Jessica gets angry!).  Bonus points for the maze and grotto, but that still doesn’t justify the excessive admission cost, and I also didn’t like how the optional “donation” was automatically included in the ticket price.  It wasn’t terrible, but I’ve had better days out at other palaces, and the interior of the castle wasn’t anything special for the most part, so I feel the middling score is justified.  3/5.

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Maidstone, Kent: Teapot Island

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Sometimes I worry that Britain is lacking in the sort of cheesy roadside tourist traps that America does so well.  And then I find a place like Teapot Island.  Boasting over 7000 novelty teapots, Teapot Island seemed like a must-visit attraction on the way to Leeds Castle (which is not actually in Leeds, but in Kent).  I gleefully pictured an island shaped like a teapot with teapots hanging from trees and piled on every available surface, though I strongly doubted this was actually the case.  Indeed, like all true tourist traps, the reality is more prosaic.  Teapot Island isn’t even technically an island, it’s just next to a weir.  And the teapots, except for the oversized one shown above, are kept inside the rather dreary looking building on the right.

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There were some older people sitting around tables outside when we walked up, but no one inside the shop, so we awkwardly stood around for a while until one of the men outside who apparently worked there finally came in and took our money.  £2.50 each, which would have bought us one of the sale teapots in the gift shop, but in the grand scheme of things I can’t do too much bitching about the price.  And it is a shitload of teapots.  As you can see, rows of teapots behind glass lined the walls of the building, which was like some kind of teapot TARDIS (bigger than it looks on the inside).

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I’m not sure that there’s much to be said about the teapots.  They were certainly, erm, novel, and most interests were catered to just by the sheer volume of them on show, but there’s literally nothing else inside this place but teapots.  Teapot Island definitely knows how to specialise, if nothing else.  So, here are some of the highlights.  Excuse the glare in many of the pictures; it’s quite difficult to photograph through glass when there’s light coming in through the back of the cases.

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It took us maybe half an hour to survey the array of teapots on offer.  Naturally, there is a tearoom on the premises, but the atmosphere felt a bit grim and I wasn’t inclined to linger, so I couldn’t tell you how it was.  Going by the clientele, who were on average a good forty years older than us, and the fact that their specialty was bread pudding, which I consider one of the vilest substances known to man, I doubt I would have enjoyed it very much, but I’m maybe being a little harsh here; their bathrooms were very clean, so maybe I would have been pleasantly surprised by the tea as well.  The weir is reasonably pretty, but there’s really no reason to come to Yalding unless you want to see more teapots than you’ve ever seen in your life.  To be honest, this is about what I was expecting, so I wasn’t necessarily disappointed; it was just kind of meh.  2/5.

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Kent, UK: Dover Castle

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After a short drive down the coast from Walmer, we found ourselves at Dover Castle, another English Heritage property, hence another chance to get our money’s worth out of that membership.  If you don’t have a membership pass, Dover Castle is a fairly pricy outing at £17.50.  The castle dates back to the 1160s, during the reign of Henry II, but the oldest buildings on the property are the Roman lighthouse and Anglo-Saxon church.  There are also a series of tunnels; medieval ones under the castle, and a different set that  were constructed for defensive purposes during the Napoleonic Wars, but in more recent history served as the place where “Operation Dynamo,” also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was planned (over 300,000 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk during WWII by a fleet of ships launched from Dover, including many privately owned small craft).

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As directed by the girl working at the admissions desk, we first headed to those tunnels, since they only take groups of thirty people down at a time, to wait in the inevitable queue.  They also only do tours every half an hour, and the first one was already full, so we ended up having to wait about forty minutes for the “Secret Wartime Tunnels Tour.”  If the tour had been good, I wouldn’t have minded the wait, but it turned out to be incredibly lame.  After being shown a short newsreel, and an informational video about Dunkirk that mainly served to showcase some outdated technology, we were ushered down a long tunnel where graphics appeared on the wall to tell the story of Dunkirk; unfortunately, because we were at the back of the group, we couldn’t actually see what was going on.  We were then allowed to wander the last portion of the tunnels on our own, which included the communications rooms and some supposedly haunted messaging room.

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I’m not sure why they made such a fuss about it being a “guided” tour, as the guide’s only purpose seemed to be to hustle us along the tunnel; everything else was done by video.  I’m not really sure why they couldn’t just make the whole thing self-guided to avoid the waits altogether, but whatever, it was lame, and I wouldn’t advise waiting for it.  However, the Underground Hospital Tour didn’t have much of a queue when we were there, so if you want to see something underground, I’d probably go with that one – if it is as bad as the other tour, at least you won’t have wasted as much time, plus it’s a hospital, so might intrinsically be more interesting than some bare tunnels (I’m not knocking Operation Dynamo, I think it’s an incredible story, which is why it’s such a shame that it wasn’t told in a more engaging way).

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We emerged from the tunnels into a gift shop (naturally) and small museum that told the story of the tunnels in more detail, including a collection of British uniforms throughout history.  There were also some splendid views of the coast, and of the famous White Cliffs of Dover from this side.

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We’d passed an ice cream hut on the way down to the tunnels, and far be it from me to pass up an ice cream, so I grabbed a scoop of mint chocolate chip for the trek up to the castle proper (they do have a “land train” available for the elderly/infirm/just plain lazy, but I needed to burn off that ice cream, so we just walked everywhere.  It really wasn’t that far, and was probably faster than waiting for the land train to rock up).  The Great Tower is ringed by a number of small museums, and we decided to start with those first.

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The first museum offered an introduction to the Tower, and a video about the early Plantagenets (until I moved to Britain, I always pronounced Plantagenet with a silent “t,” which I suspect was far too French-leaning of me.  However, I still stubbornly persist in leaving off the “t” in filet, and don’t get me started on the pronunciation of “fete”).  The main reason this museum is noteworthy is because of the little sketches of “Roland the Farter,” the court jester.  Considering many of the visitors to Dover Castle are French (on account of all the ferries and the Channel Tunnel; Dover is so close to France that we could only get French radio stations as we neared the coast), I thought the first cartoon pictured above was delightfully cheeky (as is the second, in a more punny way).  Plus, he’s called Roland the Farter, which is hilarious.

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When we wandered into the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment Museum, I wasn’t expecting much more than a respite from the cold wind that had suddenly kicked up, especially because the first room was just full of boring plaques.  Happily, this small museum proved to be a treasure trove of terrible mannequins, authentic smells (at least, I think they were authentic smells, it is entirely possible that it might have just stank in there), and even one of those machines I inexplicably love that turns normal pennies into “souvenir” pennies.

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It was finally time to journey up the many stairs of the centrepiece of the castle, the Great Tower.  The Tower has been decorated to look as it would have during the reign of Henry II, and it is pretty fantastic.  There wasn’t much signage, so I didn’t have a clue where we were wandering to, but that was part of the experience.  Navigating the maze-like interior of the tower helped me understand how the layout would have helped deter would-be invaders, plus it gave the whole thing the air of a grand adventure.

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We began in the medieval kitchen, because you have to, really, in these types of places, and ventured up to a banqueting room.

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And made our way through some tunnels to discover a throne room,with even more hidden rooms behind the throne.

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One of which was a small stone chapel, with lovely small stained glass windows.  There was also some rather plush bedrooms in the tower, and the day had gotten so chilly I would have happily curled up beneath the furs in one of the beds, had I been allowed.

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Finally reaching the top of the tower, we were rewarded with even more gorgeous views of the coastline, as well as a good peek into the yard below that contained a trebuchet.

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The trip back down led us into a few more rooms we hadn’t caught on the way up, many of them with costumed actors in who were patiently answering visitors’ questions (fortunately, they weren’t actually re-enacting anything, which I always find slightly cringy).

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Upon safely reaching the bottom, we decided to tackle yet more stairs by heading down into the medieval tunnels, which were certainly very tunnely, but didn’t have much else to recommend them, so if you’re pressed for time, you can probably give them a miss.

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I did want to see the Anglo Saxon church, so we popped into that on our way out.  The Roman lighthouse is right next door, so we were able to have a peek inside that as well – it is just a crumbling stone tower (it’s the structure to the right of the church, below).  The church had a little history display set up in the back, and quite a lot of photos of the Queen and various other Royals attending the services there.

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I very much enjoyed the Great Tower, but the rest of the castle was a mixed bag.  The Royal Regiment Museum was entertaining, the views were very good indeed, but the tunnels were disappointing, and most of the other attractions on the property weren’t terribly noteworthy.  I think Dover Castle has a fascinating history behind it, but I feel like that wasn’t always made as clear as it could have been, and many of the things could have benefited from more signage (but that would probably go against the English Heritage policy of trying to sell guidebooks to everyone, so there you are).  I feel that if I had to pay 17 quid for entrance I would have been kind of annoyed, but as it was, it was a decent outing that didn’t quite live up to the hype of the brochure.  3.5/5

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Kent, UK: Walmer Castle

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Before I get into Walmer Castle, I’d like to direct your attention to a guest post I wrote for the Misadventures with Michael blog; it’s my attempt at putting together a little city guide to London.  While you’re there, be sure to check out some of Michael’s other posts; he’s got lots of useful city guides and other travel posts, particularly for people in the US!

Now, regular readers will know I have a bit of a thing for Wellington, well, the young Arthur Wellesley, at any rate.  Not to the extent of my historical crush on young FDR (I finished reading No Ordinary Time last week, and I sobbed through the entirety of the last three chapters.  Is it normal to cry over historical nonfiction?), but enough that I was very keen to visit Walmer Castle, on the Kentish coast near Dover, where Wellington died (and spent much of his time in the latter part of his life).  Fortunately, Walmer Castle is an English Heritage property, so we finally got to put those annual memberships to use.  The downside was, like many English Heritage properties, photography was not allowed inside the house (hence all the garden pictures accompanying the post), and there was very little signage inside the house, leaving us reliant on the audio guides (which I hate).

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Walmer Castle has long been the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (though it was built in the 16th century as a coastal defence), so the residents have changed along with the Lord Wardens.  Wellington isn’t even the most famous one, as William Pitt the Younger, Winston Churchill, and the Queen Mother all lived here at various points in time, and Queen Victoria and Albert used to visit when Wellington was in residence.  Nonetheless, three of the rooms in the house are devoted entirely to Wellington, and it was these that I was most interested in seeing.

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The first contained a collection of coins bearing Wellington’s rather beaky visage (his nickname was “Old Nosey” which could probably be my nickname as well, since I’ve got a similarly sized schnoz myself.  Actually, kids in middle school used to call me Toucan Sam, so I think Old Nosey would probably be a step up), and a splendid array of Wellington Toby jugs.  The second of these Wellington rooms was the one he died in, which was arranged much as it would have been in 1852, with Wellington’s intriguing reading desk on display (he liked to read standing up), and the armchair he died in front and centre.  I dearly wish I could show you a picture of the armchair, which is understandably worse for the wear, but alas, the whole no photography thing.  The room next door to this had been turned into a miniature Wellington museum, with all sorts of great artefacts, like his death mask, the rag used to hold his jaw shut after he died, and a pair of the original Wellington boots.  There were a few cheeky touches, like a pair of pitchers proudly designed by Wellington that his friends apparently didn’t like using, because they “didn’t work very well,” and a picture of a villager in Walmer who bore a striking resemblance to the aged Duke and was often mistaken for him.

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Near the Wellington rooms was a small suite of rooms that Victoria and the Prince Consort would have stayed in, with some of the furniture they would have used still in them.  There was also a William Pitt the Younger room that had one of his chairs (alas, not one he died in, so my morbid curiosity was not satisfied in this case) and some other Pitt possessions, but the other rooms were fairly generic, and simply decorated as they would have been in various time periods.  One of the former ladies of the house (or, you know, an actress portraying her) voiced the gossipy audio tour, which offered more extensive detail, but she did ramble on for far longer than my attention span could take, so I cut her off early in most of the rooms, which means I’m probably missing some key details of the furnishings.

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The gardens were delightful, however, as you can probably tell from the pictures thus far.  I particularly liked the unusual hedges, which were left in lumpy, natural shapes (apparently Churchill liked them that way, and decided to just let them be).  There was a small walled garden for the Queen Mother, and a larger Woodland Walk, as well as a few fields that seemed ideal for picnicking (judging by the families using them for that purpose, I’m not big on al fresco dining myself as I dislike having to constantly swat bugs away from my food); some lovely tulip beds, and a few small greenhouses.  Walmer also had a tea shop, and a stunning view from the ramparts that were still accessorised with a few cannons.

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Because of all the neat Wellington stuff, I’d rate it slightly above the standard English Heritage property, and certainly above the average National Trust one.  Maybe 3.5/5?  Recommended for Wellington or Pitt the Younger fans, or people who like nice gardens; everyone else can probably skip it and either head to nearby Deal Castle for a similar experience, or Dover Castle for a more extensive one (which is the subject of my next post).  Personally, I think the Wellington death-chair made my trip worth the while, those with less macabre tastes might disagree.

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