Bristol: The SS Great Britain

I finally (as of October – it’s taken me a while to get this post up) made it to the SS Great Britain, which I had been meaning to visit for YEARS. And oh man, was it ever worth the wait. The most important thing you need to know is that they have a giant Brunel head, and it is AMAZING. Literally an Isambard Kingdom Brunel the height of the entire Brunel Museum building. On a lesser note, I guess you need to know that admission is £19.50, which might seem a little steep, but the site includes two museums, the ship itself, the dry dock, and your ticket is an annual pass, so you can come back as many times as you like within a year (not so convenient for someone who doesn’t live in Bristol, like me, but I’m going to try to go at least once more, maybe in nicer weather). I was gutted to miss the Halloween turnip trail, because carved turnips are creepy af, but considering our first visit was at the start of October, October half-term seemed a little too soon to make a return visit. (I did go back to Bristol in late November for the last day of the Cary Comes Home Festival, which was great (anyone who knows me knows how much I love Cary Grant), but I didn’t have time to visit the SS Great Britain since I was in the cinema all day.)


Anyway, to get back to the subject of Brunel, we’d unfortunately picked a very gloomy day to visit, with the wind and rain both picking up when we got out of the car, so we were very glad to head directly into the dry dock, which the ship is sitting in. They trick you into thinking it’s in a proper dock with a little fountain thing surrounding the ship, but it’s very shallow and you actually end up standing underneath it when you’re in the dry dock, which is fun. Makes you feel like you’re underwater. So you are essentially just walking around the base of a ship, but it’s so toasty and warm down there thanks to a massive dehumidifier. I seriously need this thing for my house, which is hella damp and humid and prone to black mould. And there’s bits to read about the history of the preservation of the ship, so it’s moderately interesting too.


We then went into the Dockyard Museum, which was about the history of the ship. They’d taken the decision to lay out the museum in reverse chronological order, which I’m not entirely convinced worked, as I would have preferred to learn where and why the ship was built before learning where it eventually ended up, and I felt a bit disorientated throughout. To give you a brief synopsis, the SS Great Britain was designed by Brunel as a luxurious passenger liner for the trans-Atlantic crossing – at the time it was completed, in 1845, it was the largest passenger ship in the world. However, it was beset with a lot of problems, most related to its screw propeller technology, and also wasn’t particularly fast, so was soon readapted for use for emigrants travelling to Australia for the Gold Rush, with much less luxurious accommodation. It served this purpose from 1852 until 1874, when it collided with another ship, so this was more successful than the luxury liner phase, despite the lengthy two month time it took to make the voyage, which must have seemed like an eternity for those in third class. This was probably the most interesting section of the museum for me due to the discussion of the disappearance of SS Great Britain’s most popular and longest serving captain, John Gray. He wasn’t known to be in poor mental health, though he did have some physical ailments. He was seen walking on the deck at midnight one night, and was gone the next morning, so must have gone overboard, though whether it was intentional or accidental remains a mystery.


Finally, the ship was used to transport coal before being stranded on the Falkland Islands during WWII. It was salvaged in the 1970s and returned to Bristol, where it opened as a museum in 2005 (conservation of wet things is not a fast process, as we learned on the Mary Rose. This was all interesting enough, but my favourite part was the Flash Bang Wallop photo room, where we could put on Victorian clothes and pose for photos. There was an actual old timey camera in there, and it wasn’t totally clear if a staff member was meant to come take our photos, so I just settled for sticking on Brunel’s iconic stovepipe hat in lieu of full Victorian attire and letting Marcus take a picture with his phone. At the end of the museum, there were two large leaflet racks with cards you could choose representing different passengers, who were all referenced somewhere on the ship, so tracking them down was a bit of a scavenger hunt. Unless you were like me, and opted for the ship’s rat, who was seemingly everywhere on board and very easy to find!


We stepped outside into yet more rain, and onto the ship itself. After getting a quick photo at the helm, and appreciating the sound effects of the (fake) cows, chickens, and pigs on the deck, we ducked down the stairs to the promenade deck pretty damn quickly. I love the Warrior at the Historic Royal Dockyards in Portsmouth, but this was so much better. Authentic smells, loads of interesting fake food and old packaging in the galley and pantry, and plenty of sound effects made this such a fun experience. You could go into almost every room, many of which had “passengers” being seasick in them, and my chosen identity (of the rat) even made a cameo appearance in a few rooms.


They also had fake toilets with an angry voice shouting out when you tried to open them. But even better, they had actual public toilets on the ship that may have been original (or a very good restoration), with the old Crapper pull chain toilets that I LOVE and beautiful Victorian tiles everywhere. The ship was so great, and even the group of noisy schoolchildren passing through couldn’t ruin it for me, as it was a big ship and they were easy enough to mostly avoid.


Finally, we went to Being Brunel, and thanks to the giant Brunel head I mentioned at the start, I’m hard pressed to decide whether this or the ship was my favourite part. We first walked in to a room full of cubbyholes filled with more copies of Brunel’s iconic hat and a wall of chains for the perfect Brunel photo op, before progressing into a recreation of the Brunels’ dining room. I then spotted the giant Brunel and that’s when I decided I was completely in love with this museum! There were multiple fun games in this gallery, including a slot machine where you had to try to gain funding for Brunel’s projects, and moving train carriages where you had to try to draw a perfect circle, something Brunel made job applicants do (though I don’t think they had to sit in a moving carriage). Given my lack of artistic ability, I was surprised that I was way better at this than Marcus, achieving 79% accuracy, though he may have been distracted by the woman sitting opposite him who was slowly running a nit comb through her hair (she carried on doing this the entire time we were in this gallery).


The timeline showcasing Brunel’s many accomplishments made me feel a bit bad about myself. By the time Brunel was my age, he’d already built the Thames Tunnel, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Western Railway, and the Great Western (SS Great Britain‘s sister ship). Granted, he did die at 53, and I hope to make it a bit longer than that, but it’s still hard to not feel inferior next to his staggering career.


There was also what I think was a film with some additional light and sound effects called Brunel’s Mind, which was literally inside Brunel’s head, but there was a wait for the next showing, and we’d already spent quite a bit of time there, so we’ll have to save that treat for the next visit. I’ve been to a lot of historic ships, and though this doesn’t quite surpass the glory of the Fram in Oslo, I do think this is my new favourite ship museum in Britain. It was such a fun, interactive day out, with quirky design elements throughout, right down to the stovepipe-hatted stick figure in the Slippery When Wet signs on the deck of the ship. Highly recommend visiting this one if you can. 4/5.

Bath, Somerset: The American Museum

I don’t think the house is this wonky in person, it’s just a weird angle!

I have wanted to visit the American Museum in Bath for ages, not least because as an American, I’m always intrigued to see how the British interpret American history and culture, but it was closed the last time I want to Bath a few years back (I can’t remember if they close for the winter, or if it was because they were closed for renovations or something). But it’s open now, so I definitely wanted to work it into our visit. However, they are (sensibly enough) limiting numbers, but (annoyingly enough) do not offer any kind of online prebooking – tickets are strictly sold on the day on a first come first served basis, and since we had a long drive down from London, I wasn’t entirely confident that we would be able to get there early enough to get some. We headed over as soon as we arrived in Bath, and this is definitely the kind of museum where it’s better to have a car, because it is in a secluded estate outside the city, though maybe there’s a bus route that can get you close. I was pleased enough with the free parking!


We arrived just after 12, and made our way down the short trail to the ticket office. I knew they offered tours of the museum at 11, 1, and 3, so I was hoping we were early enough to make the 1pm tour, which would give us plenty of time to visit the Holburne after, but tickets were already sold out, and we could only get a 3pm slot, with a 2:30 slot to see their temporary exhibition, which was better than nothing! Tickets are £10, or £5 with a National Art Pass, though they don’t advertise the discount at the admissions desk, so you have to ask (fortunately, I had checked the website beforehand and seen it listed there, so I whipped our cards right out and asked for the discount that I knew was available). Since the 3pm tour wasn’t scheduled to finish until 4:30, which would not give us time to get over to the Holburne after, we decided to immediately leave the American Museum to see the Holburne’s Grayson Perry exhibition and return to the American Museum later, even though the ticket desk guy seemed skeptical that we’d have time. I’m a speedy museum visitor, and I knew I’d make it work, so happily proved him wrong when we returned later that afternoon with time to spare (even with all the queuing at the Holburne). To be fair, he was nice about it and asked how the exhibition was – he apparently recognised my hair even with my mask on.


Masks are required inside buildings at the American Museum, though you can wander the gardens without one if you so choose. We had a date with their special exhibition “Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs,” with items on loan from the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which sounded right up my alley, since I love vintage fashion. And I wasn’t wrong, though since they appeared to have removed the text from the exhibit, apart from a few larger signs that talked more about the era than the clothes themselves (I suspect they had the additional information written on either a laminated sheet or one of those little booklets you carry around with you and just thought the easiest course of action was to eliminate them entirely once Covid happened, rather than pay to have signage made) it didn’t take very long to look at. The most interesting part for me was actually the section at the back full of photographs of old film stars, since those did have labels. There was also a selection of 1930s fan magazines, and I was intrigued to read the gossip, since I love old movies and know a lot of the old stars better than modern celebs (though of course, with the tight control studios had over their actors in those days, there wasn’t anything really juicy)! The clothes were gorgeous though, especially the British seaside dresses, which I would totally wear, I just wish I could have learned more about the individual pieces! And the dressing up section was removed as well, for obvious reasons, but I kind of wished they had just removed the whole little station entirely (there was still a little dressing room set-up) so I didn’t have to be disappointed by realising what I was missing out on.


Since we still had about twenty minutes before our house visit started, we decided it would be a good time to check out the cafe, which I was excited to visit since they advertise the fact that they make American baked goods using American recipes, and though I’m usually disappointed when British people attempt American baking (the only American style bakery I like here is the one in Chiswick that’s actually run by Americans), I still wanted to give it a go! Although it was getting towards the end of the day, they still had a good selection of cookies and a few pieces of cake, but since the cookies were individually bagged, whereas the cake was just sitting out for people to cough and sneeze on, I opted for a snickerdoodle (basically a sugar cookie that gets rolled in cinnamon and sugar before it bakes, for those who aren’t familiar), and Marcus got a ranger cookie (I think they also had normal chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin, as well as a couple vegan and gf options). I wasn’t too impressed with the ranger cookie (though I’ve never been that into them since they tend to be oatier than I find ideal) but I actually quite liked my snickerdoodle, even though it was a bit drier than its American equivalent would have been. And I was able to get a tea with milk without people looking at me like I was insane, which I would not have been able to do in America, so winning, I guess? (I still think I should start selling my baking so people know what this stuff is supposed to taste like, but I doubt anyone is going to give my home kitchen a health certificate and I can’t afford commercial premises.)


At this point, it was time to see the main house (Claverton Manor), so we queued up outside along with ten other people (and if like me, you drink a tea right beforehand, be forewarned that there aren’t toilets inside the manor – they are only outside near the cafe and in the shop building where the temporary exhibition is also housed, so I had to make a fairly hasty sprint over to the shop once the tour finished. They were very clean, however!). We were greeted by the two elderly volunteers who were accompanying us throughout the manor, who each took a group of six. Marcus and I got stuck with a family of four, whose kids got progressively brattier as the tour progressed. Now, the American Museum’s website refers to the house visits as “chaperoned” rather than as guided tours, so what I had envisioned was the volunteers just leading us to each floor and making sure we stayed in the designated area, but letting us look around that area on our own. Instead, our guide launched into a full-on guided tour, and though he did give us a bit of time to look around after, he started rushing us through if he thought we were taking too long, which meant we were rushed through the basement, which had more text than anywhere else in the museum, but had way too much time on the upper floors. As a volunteer manager, I don’t take any particular pleasure in saying bad things about volunteers – sure, you do run across difficult ones, but most of them are nice people doing the best they can – but the history nerd in me feels the need to point out that he also had his history a bit muddled. At one point, he told us that Ben Franklin invented a particular type of stove in the early 1800s, which I found curious since I knew Franklin had died in 1790, but I didn’t want to correct him and embarrass him in front of the group (it was probably good I was wearing a mask, since I pulled a face when he said it). He also started directing most of the tour at me, I guess since I was the only one obviously paying attention, which was fine, but he kept moving closer and closer to me (definitely closer than 2 metres) and I kept stepping back to try to maintain the distance (we were both wearing masks, but still. I was genuinely more concerned for his safety than my own).


His explanation of how the American Museum came to be wasn’t the clearest (and I didn’t have time to read the text panel explaining it since I was rushed out of the room), but what I gathered was that a rich American named Pratt, whose father or grandfather had been one of the early directors of Standard Oil, moved to England and got the idea of establishing a museum dedicated to American arts and crafts, so he purchased a manor house with a few of his colleagues, and they set about moving over entire rooms from houses in America that were about to be demolished, as well as a selection of arts and crafts. When I heard American decorative arts mentioned, I was initially picturing folk art, which I love, so I was very keen; however, other than a selection of religious art in the basement of the museum, the bulk of the collection was much more boring than that, consisting of things like furniture and silver. The tavern in the basement was interesting, as were some of the rooms (like the Pennsylvania Dutch room), but they took up a lot of space, so even though the manor was big, there wasn’t actually all that much in it.


My favourite room in the house was by far the quilt room, which was just filled with loads of quilts set up in panels you could flip through (they asked you to put on a disposable glove before doing so, which was fine with me!). The best quilt without question was the one featuring little political cartoons, though there were a number of interesting ones, including several from Ohio. The mother from the family in our group was clearly interested as well, so we spent the most time in here of all the rooms in the house.


There were about four floors in the house, and by the time we left the quilt room (about halfway through the tour), the kids in the family were starting to get restless, which is understandable enough, since so was I, frankly, but instead of making an effort to keep them entertained, or at least watch them, the parents decided to let their kids run wild. So they started fighting right in front of the glass cases and touching things that you weren’t meant to touch, and the poor volunteer had to keep asking them not to touch things whilst the parents trailed behind, completely oblivious. I used to see stuff like this all the time in the museum where I work (like a kid riding her damn scooter through the museum whilst her dad just stood there and watched), and I hate it when parents don’t teach their children how to behave in a museum (and the kids in question were about 8, so definitely old enough to know better! I have a lot more sympathy where toddlers are concerned). Volunteers shouldn’t be forced to discipline someone else’s kids! I eventually told them to knock off fighting in front of the exhibits myself, but they just ignored me. So obnoxious.


Finally (mercifully) we reached the end of the tour, and had an opportunity to visit the folk art gallery, which was frankly the thing I was most excited to see. This was smaller than I was hoping, and completely lacking in signage, but there were some delightful pieces in here! I wish the whole house could have been like this.


Obviously there were some issues with the tour, and the bratty children in particular (which is of course in no way the museum’s fault), and I think I would have much preferred visiting the museum in normal times, when I could have looked around at my own pace. I did like the special exhibition (though again, I wanted more text), and the snickerdoodles, and the staff and volunteers all seemed very nice, if maybe a bit in need of a brush-up on American history in some cases. 3/5 for this visit, but I’d probably try it again if Covid times ever end, especially since we didn’t even have time to look around the gardens.


Bath, Somerset: “Grayson Perry: the Pre-Therapy Years” @ Holburne Museum

I finally visited a proper museum for the first time since March, and certainly not without trepidation. But in light of the fact that I thought I might have to return to the office in September anyway (which has fortunately been postponed til October), I reckoned I should take the plunge and see how other museums were handling opening in the age of Covid. Because I am still apprehensive about taking public transport, I was actually more comfortable with visiting a museum two and a half hours away in Bath than one in London, since at least we could drive there, and because Holburne Museum’s Grayson Perry exhibition was one of the places I was planning on visiting right before lockdown happened, I thought it was fitting that it was the first museum I visited after lockdown.


Holburne Museum advised pre-booking (admission is £11, or £5.50 with Art Pass, which you better believe I used after not getting the opportunity to for most of the year!), although they didn’t have timed slots available; you just had to book for the day you wanted to visit. Since I’m new to the socially distanced museum experience, I had thought that pre-booking would mean we could skip the ticket line and just go right in. Nope, there was a whole lot of queuing just to get in the door. Normally I wouldn’t care so much, but we were booked to see an exhibition at the American Museum at 2:30 and would have to leave the Holburne by 2:15 at the latest, and it was already after 12:30 when we arrived, so when we saw the sign saying it would be a half an hour wait from the point where we queued up, I was anxious we wouldn’t have time to see the exhibition before we had to leave. Once we got inside, the reason for the queue became clear – there was a one way system in place, and since only one set of staircases was open, they were sending everyone up in the lift, one group at a time, so you had to wait for the group ahead of you to go up before you were allowed into the ticket area. So there was absolutely no point in pre-booking since we had to pass through the ticket desk anyway, and they didn’t seem to be limiting numbers so much as just staggering entry. Considering I paid a £2 booking fee to book online, I think it’s worth knowing that it’s unnecessary!


At any rate, at least everyone was wearing masks, including all staff members (which made a nice change from some of the shops I’ve been in – looking at you M&S Food Hall), and people were practicing social distancing for the most part. There was one member of staff who was solely responsible for sending people up in the lift, and she was spraying down the lift buttons between each group, though I imagine there was still some risk just from breathing in the enclosed air in the lift if the group ahead of you had coughed or sneezed in it, but if I spent too much time dwelling on that thought, I’d never go anywhere, so best not to think about it really. Honestly, it felt safer to me than a supermarket since we weren’t touching anything and people were generally being respectful of the rules. And now (finally) to the exhibition itself!


I had never been to the Holburne before, but I get the impression from the reviews I had read of the exhibition before lockdown that it had been moved into a different area in the museum, as it was originally meant to have been in quite a small space, but the space it’s in now was reasonably open, with rope barriers set up to make sure traffic only flowed through one way. I also think only some of the museum was currently open to the public, and that the Grayson Perry exhibition was in what were normally permanent galleries. And honestly, I really liked some aspects of the new museuming experience, such as the fact that the staggered entry meant that there weren’t many people in the gallery, so we didn’t have to wait around to look at things like we normally would in a special exhibition; we could just flow through (at least until we worked our way up to the slow moving group in front of us, and had to wait for them to finish since we couldn’t go around them, but we were fortunately near the end of the gallery, so we didn’t have to wait for long).


I also liked Grayson’s art, which was in his typical irreverent style – in fact, probably even more irreverent than some of his later work, as there were penises (penii) and sacrilegious imagery aplenty in here (I especially like Charles I hunting with his dong out, above right)! The works on show were from early in Perry’s career, from the years 1982-1994, and this seems to have been before he started using tapestries and other media, since nearly everything here was pottery. These were also the years when Perry was beginning to explore cross-dressing and was in the process of developing his Claire persona (if you’re not familiar with Perry, he sometimes appears in drag as his alter ego Claire), so a lot of the works were explorations of masculinity or depictions of middle aged women that he was using as inspiration to develop Claire.


Some of these pieces were genuinely laugh out loud funny, and though I could have done with more text in some places (although conversely, I would say some of the pieces themselves had too much text. I think Perry got a little text-happy when he was churning out pieces quickly since it’s clearly easier to stamp text on than do an actual drawing, and he admitted himself that it was a period in his life when he was just trying to make money), I think there was a good balance in terms of providing a decent amount of background, but not giving people so much to read that they couldn’t pass through in a timely manner (except the people in front of us, of course, but that’s always the way). The exhibition filled one medium sized gallery and flowed across the museum into half of another permanent gallery, with seventy items in total to look at, including a short film. Although I was worried we wouldn’t have enough time, since we didn’t even enter the museum until 1, we actually managed to see the exhibition in good time and take a quick look around the rest of the museum because only a small amount of it (I’m assuming, since I don’t know how big it normally is, but there were definitely areas we couldn’t enter) was open.


The Grayson Perry exhibition was on the 2nd floor, and we were asked to make our way back down via the stairs (though I’m sure they will take you back down in the lift if needed) to make the one way system work. The other galleries contained a few portraits (seemingly mainly by Gainsborough) and a collection of ceramics (though no delightful Staffordshire murdery ones, I’m sad to say. These were much more boring than that) and I was speeding through them so we had time to see everything before I realised that’s all there was! Clearly the main focus right now is Grayson Perry, since the exhibition is only temporary, though it has been extended until January 2021 to give people time to visit.


Since it was a long drive from London, despite doing my best to avoid using public toilets, I didn’t really have a choice, so I did nip into the basement to avail myself of the Holburne’s facilities. And I was definitely impressed! I was the only person in there, and I could tell they had just been cleaned, since they were spotless and well stocked with plenty of soap and paper towels (and hand sanitizer, but that makes my hands feel a bit gross. I’d much rather use actual soap and water if it’s available!), and a cleaner popped in right after I had finished, so honestly, museum toilets (at least at this museum) are definitely preferable to those in a service station or something. On the whole, I enjoyed my visit to the Holburne, mainly because it was nice to visit a museum again after so long! Although it would have been nice if they’d made it clearer on their website that pre-booking really wasn’t necessary, once we got inside, I could tell they were doing everything possible to ensure a safe experience for their visitors. I do think £11 is a little expensive for the exhibition, but I was perfectly happy with my half-price admission, and I know they must be in need of money, so I really can’t begrudge them trying to get everything they can right now. Having seen both now, I can say that I prefer Perry’s later work to his earlier pieces, especially the excellent exhibition I saw at the Serpentine a few years ago, but if you like Grayson Perry’s style, you’ll like his early stuff too, just maybe not quite as much. 3/5.

Bath, Somerset: Herschel Museum of Astronomy

DSC01308_stitch   DSC01318_stitch

In all fairness, I probably shouldn’t have come here in the first place.  The Herschel Museum was most definitely a plan B, maybe even a plan C.  Initially, we were planning on seeing Glenside Museum and the death exhibit in Bristol, and then proceeding on to the SS Great Britain, until I found out it was £14, and I couldn’t find a 2-for-1 deal anywhere.  So then we decided to go to Bath after the other museums instead, and see the American Museum in Britain, mainly because I was intrigued by the actual Americanness of their “American style cookies and cakes” (I think I’m a pretty good baker, and I’m always skeptical about British attempts to re-create American baked goods.  They usually don’t put enough sugar in.  Or peanut butter.  Or oreos).  But that turned out to be closed until the middle of March (and was also quite expensive).  So we ended up settling on the Herschel Museum, in large part because I still find Uranus far funnier than I should.

DSC01294   DSC01296

The Herschel Museum also charged for admission, though it was only £6.50, which seemed reasonable relative to the SS Great Britain, but was not so great considering the size of the museum.  I guess I just expect more bang for my buck (pound) these days.  So William Herschel is best known as the discoverer of Uranus, which as I said above, was really my only reasoning behind going to this place (and I insist on pronouncing it Your-Anus, because why wouldn’t you?).  I took astronomy back in high school, and we had to make models of the planets, so me and my friend chose to do Uranus (of course).  There we were, attempting to spray paint styrofoam balls in her unventilated garage, only we didn’t realise that spray paint melts styrofoam.  And having accidentally inhaled a fair bit of paint fumes, we pretty much thought the melting “moons” were the funniest thing ever.  To this day, melting the moons of Uranus remains one of my fondest memories.  So I was extraordinarily pleased by some of the cartoons in this museum, which made ample use of similarly juvenile humour, as comets were consistently depicted as farts issuing from the rear of one or another prominent Georgian.

DSC01303   DSC01304_stitch

Unfortunately, they would prove to be the highlight.  The house was indeed on three levels, as we were promised, there just wasn’t a whole lot on any one of the levels.  We were directed to the basement first to watch an introductory video about the life of William Herschel and his sister Caroline.  William and Caroline were both German, and Caroline appears to have been kind of a Cinderella figure, in that her mother and other brother hated her, and whipped her and made her do all the housework.  She also had scarlet fever and smallpox when she was young, and only grew to about 4’3″. Despite these misfortunes, her life changed for the better when William moved to England to pursue a career in music, and he invited her to join him.  There, he taught her about science and mathematics, and she developed a passion for astronomy to match his, discovering a number of comets herself (she ended up living well into her 90s).  The video also talked about the special telescope he developed that allowed him to make these discoveries, though I wasn’t totally clear on why he switched to astronomy instead of music (the video was narrated by Sir Patrick Moore, and the audio was a little too quiet for me to understand everything he was saying.  He was kind of, um, jowly sounding).

DSC01306  DSC01300_stitch

Also in the basement was an exit to the garden (which didn’t really have anything in it), a ye olde kitchen, and a little workshop showing the tools Herschel would have used to create his telescope.  He eventually built a massive one, which was apparently a big attraction for the royal family, who all came out to see it.

DSC01310   DSC01311

There were two small museum rooms upstairs, with re-created furnishings, and some objects that actually belonged to the Herschels, as well as various letters written amongst themselves and to various royals.  However, only some of the artefacts had captions on them, and there was no synopsis or transcription provided for the letters, so you actually had to stand there and read through them (Herschel’s handwriting was beautifully clear, and he wrote in English rather than his native German, so it wasn’t really a problem, they just weren’t that interesting, and I wish I didn’t have to read all the way through them to learn that).  For some reason, I thought there’d be more rooms up the other flight of stairs we saw, but it turned out those were roped off, and the “third” floor of the museum was actually the ground floor gift shop/dining room level we’d come in on, which I thought was slightly disingenuous.

DSC01315  DSC01316

The ground floor exhibits were just a small dining room, with some more cartoons, and a corner of the gift shop containing a replica of one of Herschel’s telescopes.  Lame.  There was a group of Americans looking around the museum whilst we were in there, and apparently one of them was famous (no one I recognised, though she was wearing a silly hat, so I guess she had to be famous.  It was a sillier hat than a normal person would wear anyway), because the admissions desk man was kind of fawning over her, and asked to take her picture in front of the replica telescope.  I am not famous, but I posed with the telescope too, just for the hell of it.  I don’t know why I’m mentioning this, other than I was sort of annoyed by how much more attention she got than us, and also because she said she’d been there before, and I can’t imagine why anyone would go back.  It wasn’t the sort of museum there would be any reason to return to, since it was tiny and had no temporary displays or anything.  Weird.

DSC01314  DSC01312

I think it’s obvious I was distinctly unimpressed with this museum.  If I’d only paid maybe 2-3 quid, I’d have been fine with it, but no way was it worth £6.50, and I feel that the museum slightly misrepresented its size on its website.  If I’d known how lame it would be, I’d have just sucked it up and paid the extra 7 quid to see Brunel’s Great Britain, because I like maritime history, and Brunel’s pretty cool, so I imagine I would have enjoyed myself quite a bit more there.  There wasn’t even anything funny about Uranus in the museum; honestly, there was far more about comets (thanks to the cartoons) than anything to do with Herschel discovering Uranus (which they sadly pronounced in the unfunny/correct(?) way anyway).  I think you can probably give this one a miss, unless you’re some kind of huge Herschel fan (do those exist?).  1.5/5.

Weston-super-Mare, Somerset: Dismaland

IMG_20150912_154741561   IMG_20150912_160524621

I’m interrupting my regularly scheduled posts to share my experience at the most bemusing place on Earth with you…that’s right kids, it’s Dismaland!  As soon as I heard about Dismaland, I knew I’d have to go, if only for the sake of this blog.  It’s a five week event (and I think there’s only about a week left, at time of posting), and tickets do regularly go up for sale on the Dismaland website for a reasonable fiver a ticket, but judging by the prices some of them are going for on Ebay, they are not easy to get.  Fortunately, I was lucky enough to receive a pair for my birthday, so I didn’t have to worry about all that!  Thus, my boyfriend and I made the long drive out to Weston-super-Mare last Saturday to investigate.

IMG_20150912_141100958   IMG_20150912_153616165

If you’re not in the UK, you may not have heard of Dismaland (or Banksy for that matter, in which case just click his name, because I don’t feel like explaining (and seriously, not being into modern art, I’d never heard of Banksy before moving to London, so don’t feel bad about it if you haven’t)); basically, Weston-super-Mare is a typical English seaside town (meaning it’s slightly seedy and run-down, but there’s ice cream and chips, which are really the main reasons for going to the seaside, for me anyway), where Banksy took over an abandoned amusement park/fun fair deal with some other artists to create a limited-time-only “bemusement park.”  If nothing else, it’s been brilliant for Weston tourism-wise, as thousands of extra people have been flooding in for the past month to visit it.

IMG_20150912_122225518   IMG_20150912_141343138

We got there about an hour and a half early, because even with timed tickets, we weren’t entirely sure what the queuing situation would be like.  (Also, rather than pay to park in the Dismaland lot, we parked on a random residential street for free, so we had a bit of a walk.)  It took us probably another ten minutes to walk through the insane amount of barriers set up around Dismaland, even though there was no one waiting in the online ticket line (there were just that many barriers).  The line for people without tickets was another story…throughout the entire four hours we spent around Weston, it looked like the queue didn’t move at all, so I would NOT recommend showing up without a ticket, unless maybe you live nearby and can get there really super early in the morning or something.  Anyway, when we got to the front, the woman there told us there was no point queuing for that long, and to come back at 1:30 for 2 o’clock entry (even though the employees were all meant to be deliberately unhelpful, she was actually quite nice), so we left to get an ice cream (there’s a place nearby that will swirl your choice of like 28 different flavours in your Mr. Whippy…pretty good, for Britain at least (whenever I think of British ice cream, I think of that scene in Good Omens where Adam and his friends can’t think of more than three flavours of ice cream. Brilliant)).  Note: MAJOR spoilers ahead, so don’t read on if you’re going to Dismaland and want to be surprised.

IMG_20150912_141511627   IMG_20150912_141729779

When we returned at 1:30 as directed, there was already a sizeable queue of people waiting, so we ended up having about fifty people ahead of us instead of being first in line. Oh well, once 2 rolled around, at least they were pretty quick about checking tickets and letting people in.  You have to go through a real security check before entering, followed by a fake security room where everything is made of cardboard, and “security staff” constantly yell at you not to smile.  Then, someone half-assedly hands you a map of the park (he drops most of them on the ground), and you’re off.  We’d heard it was best to see the inside things first, as queues form fast, so we duly headed to the tent immediately on our left, which was meant to hold an array of art exhibitions.  And a stage featuring the “Dance of Death,” which turned out to be a figure dressed as the Grim Reaper (that may or may not have had an actual person inside, we couldn’t decide) who comes out in a bumper car and spins around to “Stayin’ Alive.”

IMG_20150912_141827050   IMG_20150912_141845464

I decided, it being Dismaland, that I should enter into the spirit of things by not appearing to have fun at any point, which is why you’re going to see a lot of pictures of me deliberately looking grumpy (though I’ve been known to do a pretty spectacular grump face with no encouragement whatsoever).  The art in here was ok, nothing particularly memorable, except for maybe the beach ball hovering about blades, and that big mushroom cloud thing.

IMG_20150912_142014751   IMG_20150912_142258047_stitch

There was also a room dedicated to this big, dystopian model village, which had annoying people leaning all over it trying to take pictures.  Surprisingly, the guards weren’t actually yelling at them, but were rather nicely just asking them to stop.  If it had been me, and I was being encouraged to be unpleasant, I would have taken out the stress of all the years I worked in customer service and screamed at the lot of them, but that’s just me.

IMG_20150912_142724333_HDR   IMG_20150912_142830909

When we left the tent, we came out next to a big stage that apparently screens clips from various movies (didn’t watch it, so I don’t know what), and hosts bands on Friday nights, but honestly, the carnival games seemed more interesting.  There were a handful of them, including “Hook a Duck from the Muck,” shooting apparently weighted cans with a cork gun, and attempting to knock an anvil off a post with ping pong balls…as you can probably guess from those descriptions, they were all essentially unwinnable.  Well, hooking a duck from the muck (muddy water) initially looked doable, but the girl working there constantly slaps your pole away, or throws stuff at your duck if you get close to snatching it, so there is no way we were able to get the “fish finger in a bag” that was the prize (someone must of though, because there’s some for sale on Ebay).  There also appeared to be a portrait artist who drew the back of your head instead of your face, but when we got closer there was a sign saying it was for demonstration purposes only, and you couldn’t actually have it done, which was a real disappointment.  They were selling so much other art, so why not something personalised?

IMG_20150912_143322039   IMG_20150912_143342767

We popped into a random circus tent that didn’t have too long of a line, and it turned out to be filled with taxidermied stuff (taxidermied always comes up as misspelled when I type it, but I feel like it should be a word, so I persist. You all know what I mean anyway), and a curious tea set made up of dishes with body parts attached.

IMG_20150912_143456061  IMG_20150912_143519031

There were also some gross Alien-esque things hanging on the walls (that on closer inspection may just be snakes with weird headdresses, in which case they’re not really gross.  I love snakes), and an adorable bunbun with a moving head and twitching nose that apparently had killed his magician master, hence the heap of clothes on the ground.  Or perhaps the magician had turned himself into a rabbit?  I guess it’s fairly ambiguous.

IMG_20150912_144247575_stitch   IMG_20150912_144805550

The centrepiece of the park is undoubtedly the burnt out castle in the middle of the lake; intrigued to see what was inside, we headed there next.  It turned out to be the opportunity to have a souvenir photo taken (5 quid, and they don’t tell you what you’re posing in front of until after the photo is taken), and to have a look at the wreckage of Cinderella’s coach, complete with paparazzi.

IMG_20150912_145245631_stitch   IMG_20150912_145450057

There were a couple rides at the park: a Ferris wheel and a carousel.  I’m not sure what the gimmick was with these, except for the Ferris wheel seemed to go much faster than a normal one, which made me not want to go on it since spinning things make me hurl.  This being Banksy, there was some kind of political thing called a “Cruel Bus” in the back of the park that we did not go in because the queue was insane, though apparently it has pictures of torture devices from around the world in it, and a whole lot of boring-looking charts (I glimpsed them from the open door of the bus).

IMG_20150912_145547975   IMG_20150912_145815336_HDR

As promised, there were many ways to waste your money, if you were so inclined, which naturally also involved queuing (which was one of my main beefs with this place).  The Pocket Money Loans was something of a mystery going in, but they turned out to sell postcards and prints, which we duly acquired.  There are also black balloons that say “I am an Imbecile” that sporadically emerge from somewhere near the toilets, a van selling programmes, run by a notably grumpy-faced girl (she was obviously really into her role), and a gift shop (which you exit through, natch) with t-shirts and posters.  Foodwise, there’s a pizza cart, and a stall selling Dismalafel, which was tempting because of the name (and because I love falafel), but I was saving my appetite for potato scallops from a local chippy (I’ve only just discovered them, and why are they not a thing everywhere?  Slice of potato dipped in batter and fried, hells yes!  Perfect vegetarian alternative (if you’re not averse to a bit of fish grease)) so I could not tell you how they are.

IMG_20150912_151251542_HDR   IMG_20150912_151337145

The last tent we went into had a bunch more artwork that was more highly politicised than the other stuff, and it was right next to a bunch of stalls run by various anarcho-type organisations.  I don’t know, I kind of outgrew the whole “anarchism” thing when my teenage punk rocker days were over, and I’m not really into having politics shoved down my throat (even politics I agree with, it’s the principle of the thing), so this was my least favourite part, but with Banksy’s reputation, it’s to be expected.

IMG_20150912_151657177_HDR_stitch   IMG_20150912_151136790_HDR

Lastly, there was a Punch and Judy show which was rumoured to be Jimmy Savile themed, and perhaps some of the shows are, but the one I saw had to do with wife and child beating (also cheery, and I guess what Punch does anyway), and turned out to be really really boring and hard to hear, so I didn’t watch it for long enough to see where they were going with it.  I mean, it went on for like fifteen minutes, who’s got time for that shit?

IMG_20150912_141756702   IMG_20150912_142201446_HDR

I don’t know, obviously the place is called Dismaland, but I was kind of hoping it would be more fun, or gothic or something (I think I want everything to be a haunted house, or otherwise spooky, and most things aren’t).  As I said to my boyfriend when we went in, I was hoping for/half-expecting something like the Valkenheiser salvage yard in Nothing but Trouble (you probably haven’t seen it because it’s the worst movie ever, so I won’t recommend it even though I love it (but there is a random cameo by Tupac, and the most disturbing hot dog eating scene ever), but basically the JP had this sprawling estate filled with junk heaps, abandoned giant mascots from various businesses, creepy music blaring from loudspeakers, and a roller coaster called “Mister Bonestripper” that literally stripped your bones at the end of it.  Well, maybe not that part, but I definitely was hoping it would be more creepy, rather than just intensely political), and it wasn’t that at all.  Just a lotta art and crap to buy, and not very much to actually do, other than queue.  So yes, in that sense, it did live up to its name, and I am very glad that my tickets were a gift (and that the person who gave them to me did get them for retail price, rather than having to pay something crazy on Ebay), because while it was definitely an experience to go, I don’t think it was worth more than a fiver (I mean, I went for free, but yeah, don’t spend more than a fiver if you’re the one buying them).  I can’t help but feel that the point of Dismaland was somewhat lost on someone like me. Perhaps people who really enjoy Banksy and underground art, or who are more politically active/less cynical/more participatory than I am will get more out of it, but I wasn’t super impressed by any of it.  It was something to see once, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to go, but I’m still not sure it was worth the seven hour round-trip drive from London to Weston. 3/5.

IMG_20150912_152828347   IMG_20150912_154625000



Montacute, Somerset: TV Radio Toy Museum

Montacute Toy Museum   DSC02009

Just down the road from Montacute House (it’s not a very big village), is the TV Radio Toy Museum (no punctuation or “and” in there according to their website, despite what the sign on the actual museum says, so you get the fun of trying to say it all in one breath).  If you’re visiting the museum and Montacute House, the sensible thing to do would be to leave your car at Montacute House, as there’s not that much parking available in the village itself.  Cheapskate that I am, I was apprehensive about paying 8 quid to visit what I imagined would not be a very large museum, but the pictures of terrible looking mannequins and dioramas on their website were enough to lure me in (since I am the same person who paid 8 euro to see the spectacularly awful Museo delle Cere in Rome.  What can I say, I have a weakness for shitty waxworks!).

DSC01938  DSC01939

Though I was correct in assuming that the museum was not large, it was packed absolutely full to the gills with crap.  Unlike the Bakelite Museum, there were plenty of captions as well (almost too many, when it came to the items I didn’t care about; i.e. most of them).  It is billed as the TV Radio Toy Museum, but I’d say 90% of the stuff there was TV related, as the toys were all promotional items relating to TV shows, which was OK by me, since I’m not really familiar with old radio shows anyway.  Unfortunately, although there was a good mix of British and American TV programmes represented (though obviously more British ones), the vast majority of them were Westerns or cop shows, which are also genres I care very little about.

DSC01941   DSC01943

But then again, I somehow suspect I’m not their target audience; though they bill themselves as “a wonderful experience for all the family,” judging from the Trip Advisor reviews, it’s apparent that the museum is primarily used as an outing for middle aged people and their elderly parents, so the older people can have the “fun” of reminiscing (which seems a bit patronising, but whatever).  I wouldn’t say I did much reminiscing (because it wasn’t aimed at people in my age range) but I did have fun admiring the pictures (and mannequin) of a young Roger Moore.

DSC01951   DSC01952

And tickling a scary monkey head under the chin, of course, although he never laughed or talked or whatever it was he was meant to do (which I was admittedly relieved about, since he freaked me out).  Now, I’m not sure how busy it ever gets in the museum, but you’d definitely want to aim for a slow day, because it is narrow in there.  Awkwardly narrow, to the point where you have to smoosh yourself against the exhibits if someone wants to pass you, or else everyone has to shuffle single file behind the slowest people in the museum, which is what happened near the end of the museum with the Whovians (more on them in a minute).

DSC01964  DSC01970 (2)

If I had to guess, I’d say one of the main draws in the museum is the Horror/Sci-Fi section in the back, which is remarkable mainly for the sheer crappiness of the dummies.  Just look at that Spock, Data, and Picard up there!  I’d be hard-pressed to say which one looks the worst, though I’m leaning towards Spock.  They weren’t the only comically distorted television characters, as we stepped into the TARDIS to find…

DSC01991  DSC01974  DSC01980

The whole range of Doctor mannequins, which were every bit as awful as the Star Trek ones.  We also came across some real live people dressed as four of the Doctors.  Initially, I assumed they worked there, and thought it was kind of a nice, albeit odd touch.  Soon however, reality set in, and it dawned on me that they didn’t work there at all; they were just nerds!  I mean, not knocking anyone’s lifestyle choices; if you’re brave enough to walk around in public like that then more power to you, but they were a bit much, especially as I was forced to trail slowly behind them and listen to their detailed discussions of every Doctor Who object in the museum (and one of them did not put much effort into his costume.  I think he was meant to be Christopher Eccleston, but you couldn’t really tell; it was a poor showing compared to the other three).  I only mention this so you’re aware that it appears to be some kind of pilgrimage site for people of a certain nerdly persuasion.

an actual suit used on the Crystal Maze  DSC01982  DSC01986

I wasn’t big on the fact that aside from the mannequins and toys, most of the museum was made up of comic books.  I suppose a wall of comic book covers is a bold graphic statement, but it doesn’t really do much for me.  I mean, you quickly scan it, and move on.  It’s not very interesting or informative, is all.

DSC01996  DSC01961

I guess I was slightly more impressed with the actual Crystal Maze jumpsuit (it’s not something I grew up watching, just something I’ve caught in reruns in recent years on Challenge (though as game shows go, I much prefer Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, and classic Stars in Their Eyes…that Harry Hill reboot is beyond awful)), and jeez, how about all those weather-themed board games?  I love board games, but even I have my limits, and I think The Met Office Weather Game might be one of them (admittedly, my boyfriend was intrigued enough to try to track it down).  He also couldn’t believe that they had a referee figurine from that Gladiators show, because apparently no one in their right mind would want an action figure of a referee (the only action figures I had were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ones, so I don’t have a strong opinion on this either way).

DSC01942  DSC02005

Suffice it to say that I wasn’t overly impressed with the TV Radio Toy Museum, though this is in large part because I am not British, a baby boomer, or the right type of nerd.  I tend to nerd out more on history, and books, and cool museums (obviously); not so much TV, and my favourite show (Seinfeld) wasn’t even represented, nor were The Golden Girls or Frasier (I love Frasier but I hate Cheers.  Weird?), and the early years of The Simpsons and I Love Lucy were only given a passing mention.  Even the British programmes I like, such as Peep Show and Father Ted (and Keeping Up Appearances, thanks to my grandma) were too relatively recent to feature here.  The museum has a tearoom attached, and a shop selling all manner of vintage toys and games, but I felt I’d spent enough money at the place (too much, really, it shouldn’t have been more than about 3 quid), so I gave those a miss.  The mannequins were great (in the sense of being hilarious), but the rest of it could do with more organisation and a larger display space, and would benefit from incorporating more actual memorabilia, rather than just comic books and promotional materials.  2.5/5.




Montacute, Somerset: Montacute House

DSC01754   DSC01756_stitch

Another stately home, and more Damian Lewis connections.  Same old, same old, in other words.  (I’m not even THAT into Damian Lewis.  I mean, sure I like the guy (and he’s foxy in glasses) but not as much as the frequency with which I post about him would have you believe.)  Montacute House, in Somerset, is another one of the many places where Wolf Hall was filmed, even though the house was built well after Henry’s reign.  (But you can probably see why they used it; it’s magnificent looking.)

DSC01766_stitch   DSC01791

And yes, it’s another National Trust property, but for once that was a good thing, since it meant it was open on Easter.  As we’re not religious, and there’s only so much time you can spend eating chocolate (and that’s coming from someone with an extreme sweet tooth, I think it’s because I gobble all the chocolate down in seconds, so although I can consume a vast quantity, it doesn’t take me long!), my boyfriend and I needed something to fill our time on Easter Sunday, so this fit the bill nicely.  We got there pretty soon after the grounds opened, and found out the house wasn’t due to open for another hour, so we spent more time wandering around the gardens than we normally would have.  (Admission is £11.20 sans Gift Aid for non-members, or more realistically (because I know I usually get guilted into these things), £12.40 with it.)

DSC01778   DSC01850

At least all the daffodils and tulips were in bloom.  I’m not a huge flower person, in that I don’t know much about all the different types (and I certainly wouldn’t ever dare try to grow any), but I can appreciate a nice garden (as long as I don’t have to spend too long looking at it), and I’m especially partial to those daffodils with the yellow centres that kind of look like eggs.

DSC01787 DSC01792 DSC01773

However, I’m much more the type to explore secret passageways and outbuildings, so I spent most of my time wandering into mysterious hedge tunnels, peering down the hole in the ice house (which was full of empty Tango bottles, like every other ice house.  Who are all these litterbug Tango drinkers?  I don’t think I’ve ever even had the stuff), and venturing into pavilions that stank of rotting flesh.  Upon discovering an animal skull that still had maggots crawling on it on one of the window ledges, I realised why they smelled so bad (honestly, I think they were probably just old and a bit mouldy, as the skull was picked pretty clean – I’m using artistic licence here).

DSC01829  DSC01848

The house finally opened, so we ran inside before it got filled up with children on the Easter Egg Hunt.  I feel like at this point I should just have a National Trust disclaimer or something I can direct people to, but I’ll say it again anyway: like the vast majority of National Trust properties, Montacute House did not have a great deal of information inside about the past owners.  As usual, the little fact sheets that were available were mainly concerned with the furnishings.  And it was pretty clear from the start that Montacute was a very art-focused property, portraiture in particular.

DSC01866_stitch   DSC01868_stitch

Well, portraiture, and that fabulous bas-relief on the right (I have no idea if bas-relief is the accurate term, as I’m not good with art, but I just spent ten minutes trying to find out what that thing is called, and bas-relief is the closest I can find.  If anyone knows what the correct term is, please let me know!) depicting a woman hitting her drunken husband with a shoe, and the husband subsequently taken off to be publicly shamed for being drunk whilst watching a baby.

Room used during the filming of wolf hall - no idea which episode though  

In addition to Wolf Hall being filmed on the grounds, there’s also been some productions filmed inside the house; the room pictured on the left was still in disarray after being used for some unspecified BBC production, and they filmed that terrible Johnny Depp film The Libertine using that bed on the right (not knocking the Earl of Rochester, his poetry is lewdly amazing, but that film really did not do him justice).  And I swear one of the volunteers mentioned something Jane Austeny being filmed there as well.  A range of historical eras are represented through the furnishings of the rooms, so I guess it all works.

Elizabethan Gallery used for exercise and holding court  James 1st  DSC01893

The top floor was the glorious Great Hall (apparently the longest surviving one in England, as in, literally the longest in terms of length, not that it’s the oldest surviving one), and it was devoted entirely to a joint National Portrait Gallery/Montacute House exhibition depicting famous figures from the time the house was built, so lots of Tudors and Stuarts.  This exhibit did have extensive signage by each painting, and larger fact sheets about the fashions of the time (the kind of thing you’d expect from the National Portrait Gallery), so that was a nice change from the rest of the house.

DSC01929  DSC01936

I did notice that there were little scavenger hunt sheets located in each room, where you were meant to find various animals hidden in the furniture or paintings; since I got cheated out of the Easter Egg Hunt by virtue of being old, I freely indulged in trying to find all the animals, though it was harder than expected.

DSC01803 DSC01834 DSC01856

Outside the house, there was a tearoom with the usual National Trust offerings (sadly no special chocolate cornflake nests or anything for Easter, so I just had a boring old shortbread) and of course a shop, but that’s pretty much all I have to say about that.  Montacute House is undeniably handsome, and the gardens were quite nice as well, but save for the National Portrait Gallery space, and that thing that is probably a bas-relief, it was all just a little dull really (after seeing Longleat just a couple days before, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of whimsy at Montacute). Maybe I’ve just been to too many stately homes in the past few months but I’m kind of over them.  Still, it’s probably quite nice if you’re not as house-weary as me.  3/5.

DSC01762_stitch  DSC01807_stitch

Williton, Somerset: The Bakelite Museum

DSC01721   DSC01654

This is one of those cases where I took one for the team, so to speak.  Do I care about Bakelite enough to spend £5 visiting a Bakelite Museum?  No, absolutely not, but it seemed like an unusual museum you guys would enjoy hearing about (though I could well be wrong about that).  If I wasn’t particularly excited about Bakelite in the first place, I was even less excited when we pulled into a parking lot full of abandoned-looking vehicles (I think they’re actually part of museum-guy’s collection), one with a poor dog left inside of it (at least the windows were open), and awkwardly milled around the front of what looked like someone’s house, waiting for a sign of life. After not too long, an elaborately mustachioed man emerged and collected our money.  He informed us there was a power outage, so we’d have to look around the museum in the dark (to be fair, he told us about the power outage before he took our money, but you’d think he could have reduced the price a little bit since it was difficult to see anything).

DSC01655   DSC01657

Things didn’t improve when my allergies started flaring up immediately after setting foot in the place. It was a health hazard on so many levels – I suspect that would have been the case even if the lights had been on.  Everything (as far as I could see) was coated in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, and the creaky wooden floors felt like they might collapse under me, especially on the top level of what used to be a watermill; plus stumbling over rusty farm equipment in a blackened room was probably a recipe for tetanus (I’m very glad I’m up to date on all my vaccinations).  I say all this not because I’m particularly concerned about health and safety (on the contrary, I rather enjoy jumbled-up, rickety old places), more because there was absolutely no degree of upkeep evident in the museum, so I’m not exactly sure what our admission fee was paying for, besides possibly so the owner could pay rent and expand his collection (by contrast, the Museum of Everyday Life and the Bread and Puppet Theatre Museum in Vermont are two of my favourite places, and they also have an air of benign neglect – the difference is that they are free to visit, and have cool stuff inside them).

DSC01662   DSC01669

So I’m sure you all know that Bakelite is an early plastic that they used to make into pretty much anything in the early-to-mid 20th century, so there was a varied array of crap on show, but sad to say, crap is what most of it was.  More than anything else, it was reminiscent of my grandpa’s basement, barn and garage.  My grandpa was a bit of a pack rat (I wouldn’t say hoarder, because he was capable of throwing some things out, and his living space was kept clear and tidy (though much of that may have been my grandma’s influence)), and in over half a century of living in the same home, he’d acquired quite an impressive collection of junk (though surprisingly well-organised junk, he was a great one for neatly labelling boxes), so I used to love wandering through his basement as a kid, as it was kind of a treasure trove of vintage toys, both leftover from my mother and aunts, and acquired from garage sales for my and my brother’s enjoyment.  After seeing the Bakelite Museum, I’m thinking we shouldn’t have cleaned out his house after he died, but left everything as it was, and charged people to look around like moustache man is doing.

DSC01674_stitch   DSC01682

Some of it was vaguely sorted by type, and I suppose there is some satisfaction to be had in looking at a wide range of similar items arranged by colour, but I would have been a lot more satisfied if someone had taken a dust rag to the place at some point in the last decade.

DSC01693 DSC01702 These were all tools to hack various parts off animals

The first two floors were given over to Bakelite, but the top floor was meant to be some sort of Rural Life Museum, and contained the aforementioned collection of mouldering farm implements, including what I like to refer to as the “wall of animal mutilation devices,” with various castrating and branding appliances.  I suppose I was lucky that I could see any of it at all, because even with all the doors and windows open, most of the light didn’t penetrate the interior, so I was reliant on the small flashlight I keep in my purse for emergencies, to prevent me from tripping over something and killing myself.  Because of the flash on the camera, it may appear lighter in some of the pictures than it actually was.

DSC01698   Yes that's a Bakelite coffin

The only area I really liked in the museum was the last room (before exiting down a rickety staircase), which featured delightfully morbid articles like a Bakelite coffin, and some Edwardian mourning jewellery; as far as the rest of it was concerned, labelling was sparse at best (and nearly impossible to read anyway, between the hand-lettering and of course, the lack of artificial lighting), and I really didn’t need to pay to see a bunch of vintage radios or telephones shoved in a corner.  There’s apparently some sort of cafe, but we were the only people there, besides some friends of the owner who appeared near the end of our visit, so I would have felt really weird sitting there (I had to use the bathroom, which was located behind the guy’s house, and walking down a long dank alley by myself past more rusting machinery freaked me out enough).

DSC01687 DSC01688  DSC01705

While in theory, this should have been exactly the sort of place I like – quirky, independently run, unusual subject matter – in practice, it fell totally flat for me.  I know the power outage was outside their control, but the owner should have at least offered a discount or a flashlight that was more powerful than the little one I just happened to have on me, as it was nearly impossible to even make out half of the collection (I’m assuming he was the owner because there was a large portrait of him hanging inside the museum, which I only noticed later when looking through the photographs, as it was too dark to see it at the time).  Even if the lights had been on, I still would have thought the place was kind of a rip-off, considering not much of an attempt had been made to curate anything.  My expectations were not high going into the museum, but it failed to meet even that low bar.  1.5/5.

DSC01722   DSC01723


Nether Stowey, Somerset: Coleridge Cottage

Coleridge Cottage  DSC01609_stitch

Alright, yes, it is ANOTHER National Trust property, and it won’t be the last one this year by a long shot, but I am trying to space them out as promised.  Besides, it’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge we’re talking about here.  I named my now deceased Madagascar Dragon Tree after him (one of the “easiest indoor plants to grow and maintain” my ass), and I would have gone to see his house even if it wasn’t covered by my National Trust membership, so I think I deserve a break on this one.  There’s actually a whole “Coleridge Way” walk that runs through the Quantocks, but that seemed overly ambitious considering the changeable state of the weather and my lack of hiking attire.  Coleridge Cottage is located in the amusingly named village (one of many in Somerset; I’m partial to Goathurst and Queen Camel myself) of Nether Stowey (naturally, there is also an Over Stowey, which is actually south of Nether Stowey, so not quite sure how it’s “Over”), and admission is £5.60 sans Gift Aid (which I admit is a bit steep for how long it takes to see the property).  The house is not particularly large; it initially only consisted of four rooms, and has since had a kitchen and a couple other rooms added on for use as museum space, but is still rather small.

DSC01611_stitch_2  DSC01613

Although Coleridge and his family only lived in the cottage for a three year period (it was rented out to him by his friend, Thomas Poole), it was one of the most productive periods of his working life, so his most famous poems, including “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan,” and “The Nightingale” were written here.  I am not, generally speaking, a big poetry person, but I first read Coleridge back in high school, and I’ve always liked him (I think the whole opium thing made me think he was cool when I was a teenager), so I was interested to learn how some of his poems evolved (other than in a drug-induced haze, of course).  Helpfully, those stories were provided within the house (and the garden); for example, “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison” was written after his wife accidentally spilled scalding milk on his leg, and he was forced to stay home and sit under a lime tree whilst his wife went for a walk with the Wordsworths and Charles Lamb (personally, I’d take sitting under a lime tree and reading over going on a walk any day, assuming there weren’t too many bugs about.  I’d even whip up a key lime pie for my guests to enjoy upon their return, but I guess that wasn’t a thing in Coleridge’s day).

DSC01615  DSC01614

Because of the bonus museum rooms, Coleridge Cottage actually had quite a bit more information than the average National Trust property (I overheard one of the volunteers saying that they’re officially National Trust, but they’re left alone for the most part, which could well be why it was more homely and charming than a lot of National Trust stuff).  I learned a lot about Coleridge’s childhood, including that Coleridge once threatened his brother with a knife in a fight over a cheese toastie, ran outside and hid all night in the cold, and was consequently ill with a fever for weeks.  Now, I’m not generally a violent person, but I am VERY possessive of my food, so if anything was going to drive me to violence, it probably would be someone stealing a delicious grilled cheese (or other tasty food) from me (made with a nice mature cheddar though, not that awful American “cheese” gloop; since Coleridge’s incident took place in Devon, not far from Somerset, cheddar seems a likely choice for him too).  I also learned that Coleridge enlisted in the army under a fake name – Silas Tomkyn Comberbache (that surname sounds a lot like that of a certain British actor when you say it out loud), but Coleridge couldn’t hack it and begged his brothers to get him out; they managed to have him declared insane and discharged.

DSC01622_stitch_stitch  DSC01620

Since the house was infested with mice (since we were just talking about cheese…) whilst Coleridge lived there, there was also a special mouse trail throughout the house, with adorable little stuffed mice hidden in each room along with facts about Coleridge’s battle with them (they annoyed the piss out of him, basically, but he felt bad about laying traps.  As someone who lived in a house with a bad mouse infestation, but still left out cake for the mouse in my room (who I named Sammy, another accidental Coleridge connection) because I liked him, even though his rustling around at night was super irritating; again, I can relate).  In addition, there was a station upstairs where you could practice writing with a quill pen and ink (total failure, as always), and a nice cushy reading room stocked with plenty of books.

DSC01621    DSC01642

The cafe was located outside, and was oddly confined by a fenced enclosure thingy, so we had to go through various little doors to see the well and garden, with all the people in the cafe staring at us as we walked back and forth, but the garden was unexpectedly quite large and pleasant.  There were benches scattered throughout with little speakers attached to tell you more about Coleridge’s poems, and some cute fake ducks and pigs made from metal.  We also found a random shed that was apparently used for games and demonstrations, which had a big trunk full of old-timey toys (ball in a cup, anyone?).

DSC01640   DSC01632_stitch

Although it was not an outwardly impressive property, I still left feeling reasonably impressed with Coleridge Cottage, having learned a fair bit about Coleridge’s personal life (particularly his troubled relationship with his wife), and having enjoyed the various diversions around the house.  If you’re fond of Coleridge, I do think this is well worth the stop, even if, like me, you’re not keen on walking the “Coleridge Way.” 3.5/5. I should mention (since I have a photo of Yankee Jack all ready to go) that there are more Coleridge themed attractions in the vicinity that don’t involve much walking.  Most notably, in the seaside town of Watchet, there is a statue of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and a couple small museums that mention Coleridge.  However, the statue I’m pictured with here is actually one that shares the promenade with the Ancient Mariner – Yankee Jack. He was not American, but ran the blockades during the American Civil War, thus acquiring his nickname.  I have to say that his statue was more appealing to me than the emaciated old mariner, but either way, Watchet is a good place for statues, despite its small size and extremely mucky harbour, so it may be worth a gander as well on a Coleridgey day out.

DSC01639   DSC01747

Street, Somerset: The Shoe Museum

a big boot (too high for Jessica to see)  DSC01547  DSC01549

Much like editing this post (seriously, I am just not feeling it today.  This has taken me the best part of the afternoon to proofread, and I dozed off at one point and suddenly woke up with drool all down my face), our second day in the West Country didn’t get off to the best start either, as we made the mistake of trying to go to Glastonbury (the town, not the festival, since I know damn well festivals are not my scene).  Multiple people, including the proprietress of our B&B, had told me about the “special atmosphere” there; being the skeptic that I am, I predicted that meant there would be a lot of shops selling crystals.  I wasn’t wrong.  Still, we wanted to at least hike up to Glastonbury Tor, but couldn’t find parking anywhere within a few miles of the hill (it was a Bank Holiday weekend after all, and there were a bunch of special events on at Glastonbury Abbey) and didn’t fancy hiking all that way back, but the glimpse of the town I got whilst we were circling around trying to park somewhere was enough for me.  Far too many hippies wearing silly clothing, the pervading stench of incense, and yes, the extremely high quota of crystal and astrology shops meant the place was not for me (for real, how do those shops stay in business?  I could see maybe one or two of them staying afloat, but not twenty!).  However, I perked up considerably when we gave up and headed onward to the nearby village of Street. Not that the village itself was anything so much to look at, having been turned mainly into an outlet mall, but I was excited for the Shoe Museum!

DSC01548   DSC01552

Street is where Clarks Shoes got their start, and where the headquarters are still based (that’s why Glastonbury Tor is part of their logo), so it’s only natural that a Shoe Museum grew out of this (I feel weird not putting an apostrophe in “Clarks,” but there isn’t one in their official trademarked name, so I guess they don’t want one in there).  Be forewarned that a few things may stand in the way of seeing this museum, though.  Firstly, they are normally only open Monday-Friday, though obviously with an odd Saturday thrown in here and there (as we visited on a Saturday), so it may be best to check their website before attempting a visit.  You also have to park at and then brave the outlet mall, and try to resist its alleged low prices (ok, I did cave in and buy a much-needed new pair of sneakers, because a tenner for Vans is not a bad price, but the Cadbury’s “outlet” was selling Creme Eggs for twice as much as they cost at any supermarket, so I fail to see how those were bargain prices).  The next challenge was finding the place, which is theory should have been easy as it is right on the high street, but in practice we were thrown by one of those brown “places of interest” signs directing us up another street entirely (I feel like every time I type street, it is on the verge of being a pun, since the village is called Street); we eventually had to go in the library and ask directions, where they looked at us as though we were a bit dim.  However, having gotten through those hurdles, we finally found the Shoe Museum, with its delightfully free admission, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was much larger than I had been led to believe.

DSC01567_stitch   DSC01586

I have never bought a pair of Clarks in my life, as they tend to be on the pricy side and I think are maybe a case of comfort over style, but I needed have feared not, as the main gallery of the museum is devoted to non-Clarks brand shoes from a number of historical eras (as they were mostly made by random cobblers, I’d say most of them aren’t a brand-name at all!).  And, best of all, the shoes were accompanied by a number of “Shoe-perstitions,” including tales of local ghosts that incorporated shoes somewhere in the legend (I am aware that I just pooh-poohed the supposed “mystical” nature of Glastonbury a few paragraphs up but I like hearing about folklore and hauntings, even if I don’t believe in them.  Call me a hypocrite if you like, but to me, there is a big difference between a free museum sharing a few entertaining ghost stories with its visitors, and a shopkeeper exploiting the gullible for financial gain.  Plus I like puns).  These included the story of some shoes that couldn’t be removed from a house without misfortune befalling the owners, and some superstitions I’d never heard of; for example, apparently it is (was?) a custom in England to put a penny in your shoe on your wedding day, in addition to the whole old/new/borrowed/blue thing.

DSC01583   DSC01595

And there were some fabulous shoes here, something for every taste really (even some men’s shoes and boots, though these were by far in the minority).  I’ve always been partial to a two-tone shoe, so I loved all the oxfords and those gorgeous high laced boots, even if most of them looked way too narrow to even attempt cramming my toes into (I have narrow heels, but kind of wide toes (am I over-sharing here?) so it’s really hard for me to find shoes that fit properly. Which is why my feet are usually a hideous blistery mess).

DSC01557   DSC01558

I’m not much of a heel girl, since I like being able to walk without falling over, but those were certainly very well-represented here too, along with a variety of more comfy-looking slippers.  They even had a slipper belonging to a Pope (I think it was one of the Leos, it’s shown below)!

Pope Slippers, oh my Gott! DSC01597  DSC01592

Off of the main gallery, there was a small annex that led to a re-creation of the original Clarks Office (spacious, yet cozy.  Much better than those dreadful open plan offices they expect people to work in today (says the introvert who couldn’t hack it in one, even as a volunteer)), and on the other end was the Clarks gallery, beginning with a brief history of the business (I say brief, but it was definitely written in the verbose style of all the best old-school museums) and a workbench belonging to one of their original craftsmen.

DSC01587   DSC01591

After looking at Clarks shoes through the ages, I was surprised to see that Clarks weren’t always as, erm, ugly as they are today.  It seems the change happened gradually, and had a lot to do with mechanisation and trying to keep costs down and the like.

DSC01589  DSC01554

There was a further small gallery downstairs (near the entrance) that told about Clarks during the World Wars, as the traditionally Quaker owners tried to reconcile their pacifist beliefs with capitalism and the very real need for shoes for the Allied soldiers (spoiler, some of the Clark family went to prison as conscientious objectors, and others tried to support the war effort in non-combative ways, like employing Belgian war refugees and making boots for the troops (as a side note to an aside, I’ve been learning a bit about the Belgian war refugee community in Wimbledon in the course of my research for a WWI project I volunteer with, and it is fascinating stuff)). They also had one of those old shoe measuring machines that you’re meant to stick your whole foot in, though it was behind a rope and not for use (I never experienced them as a child, as they’d moved onto those slidey metal things by then, but they have a working one in the Clarks shop in the outlet mall; shame the queue was too long for me to try it out).

Clarks Shoe Museum, Street   Clarks Shoe Factory

Say what you will about their shoes (I certainly have) and the fact that they are no longer made in England, but the Clarks Shoe Museum, is, unlike their footwear, still a very homespun affair, and a charming example of an extremely specialised local museum.  I really liked the homeliness of the museum, and was certainly impressed by the huge and unexpected variety of shoes on display; it was nice seeing something this old-fashioned in the middle of the otherwise crass outlet-shopping commercialism that has overtaken the village.  It certainly set the tone for a much-improved rest of the day (for the most part, as you’ll see in an upcoming post) after the New-Age nightmare that is Glastonbury.  3.5/5.