Surrey

Guildford, Surrey: Clandon Park

DSC00582   DSC00596_stitch

Well, we joined English Heritage last year, and have moved on to the National Trust this year, what’s happening to me?! (other than becoming more middle class, apparently). Yes, I’ve been known to talk some crap on them (and this post is no exception), but it when it comes right down to it, I still visit their properties and walking trails enough that a membership makes more sense than paying for everything individually (since they seem to own the whole of the North and South Downs).  Plus, although they do have the annoying policy of closing the houses yet leaving the grounds of their properties open in the winter (Because that’s what people want to do in the winter; walk around in the cold and look at dead gardens.  This literally makes no sense to me.  I understand they need to do conservation work, but why not just close off a room or two at a time, and leave the rest of the house open? Just add this to the long list of things I don’t understand about the world), it still seems like a higher proportion of National Trust houses are open relative to English Heritage ones.  So, my boyfriend and I broke in our shiny new (albeit flimsy…they couldn’t spring for plastic?  But I probably shouldn’t bitch too much since they sent us free binoculars) membership cards with a visit to Clandon Park, near Guildford.

DSC00519   DSC00521

Clandon Park is one of the many slightly generic stately homes owned by the National Trust (that all start to blur together after a while).  The only reason we selected Clandon Park over other similar houses was its easy driving distance, and the fact that it had both an old operating theatre and a museum on the premises. But beware, if you’re not a National Trust member, it’s about a tenner to see the property, and it’s just not worth that much.

DSC00526  DSC00528  DSC00530

Anyway, we started with the military museum (covering the Queen’s Royal Regiment and the East Surrey Regiment), because on their website it looked very much like the old-school military museums I had so enjoyed in Winchester.  Unfortunately, although it had some suitably amusing mannequins, it wasn’t half as good as the Winchester museums.  Part of this was because there was a sign outside advertising the dress-up box, so the place was filled with unruly children and their weary parents, who just seemed to let them run amok (and meant there was no chance that I was going to be able to try on a hat).  But it also just wasn’t as good; it seemed like there wasn’t really that much in there, and the signs weren’t written in the same charming old-fashioned style as in Winchester.  I don’t know, it didn’t really do it for me, for whatever reason, but I feel kind of bad saying that because the man working there was nice enough, and it’s not his fault that so many damn children were running around.

DSC00542   DSC00548  DSC00550

The museum and restaurant and everything were all technically within the house building, but you had to go upstairs to see the decorated rooms that the family used to use.  The house was owned by the Onslows, which means nothing to me (they were nobility, but unmemorable nobility), and was built in the 1720s, in a Palladian style, to replace an earlier Jacobean house that sat on the property.  The family crest included six birds, and they obviously took that to heart, because there was a bird motif going on throughout the house.  The main room on the first floor was the Marble Hall, which, being all marble and unheated, was freezing cold.

DSC00543_stitch   DSC00549

However, it contained some interesting decorative details, from the large bird paintings, to the arm shaped lamp holders on the walls, and the elaborate Greek mythology themed ceiling.  The Marble Hall is where you can sign up for guided tours, and then wait around for said tours to start, so it’s lucky there was plenty of stuff to look at, since we spent a bit of time milling around in here.  I know, I know, I don’t like guided tours, but they were free, and the only way you got to see some of the rooms, so we signed up for the attic tour.

DSC00554_stitch   DSC00557

While we waited for it to start, we checked out some of the other rooms, including the operating theatre, which was there because the house was used as a hospital during the First World War.

 

DSC00561   DSC00562

There was also an attractive library, and a dining room where we had the “privilege” of watching them do conservation work, which I personally think is a ploy to be able to charge people full admission price during the winter months when some of the rooms are closed (because seriously, conservation work is not exciting to watch), but I digress…  I was keenest on the display cases full of random crap, including a lock of George III’s hair, and depressingly, a pistol that was used to put dogs down at an early “humane” shelter.

DSC00559_stitch   DSC00553

It was at this point that an old lady sitting in the corner of the room yelled at us for taking pictures (we half-suspect she may have been an Onslow hanging about to make sure people didn’t disrespect the property, since she seemed pretty intensely concerned), so all the photos of the interior are from rooms on the first floor, before we knew it was an issue.  It’s fine if they don’t allow pictures, but the sign at the entrance said (and I quote), “we welcome amateur photographers,” so I think if photography was only allowed in certain areas of the home, there really should have been another sign saying so.  I don’t need to be made to feel like a jerk when we genuinely didn’t know any better (I feel like a jerk most of the time anyway).

DSC00552   DSC00551

Anyway, though I have no pictures of the second floor, it was mainly devoted to the pottery collection of a Mrs. Gubbay (who I guess lived in the house, or was an Onslow descendant, but this was never explained).  I think I mentioned a long time ago how I once wanted a set of these stupid Georgian looking musician frog figurines, until I realised they cost thousands of pounds.  Well, old Mrs. Gubbay had a similar set, only with monkeys (though obviously frogs are better than monkeys, but some people have more money than taste), and a bunch of creepy harlequin figurines.  The ceramic birds were alright though, I like birds.

DSC00558   DSC00520

At this point, it was time to go see the attic, so we dutifully trooped off with the group up a few staircases.  The attic is primarily used today as storerooms for various National Trust properties, so it’s full of cool old crap we only got a brief glance of (like a room full of extremely creepy torso mannequins belonging to the military museum), but at one point the family was living up there, and renting out the rooms downstairs to boarders, so there was lots of neat Victorian wallpaper.  And there was one room with three toilets!  One of them was an actual private stall; a snazzy Victorian toilet added by one of the gentlemen of the house so he and his friends wouldn’t have to go downstairs when playing billiards, but the other two were just sitting out on the floor, right next to each other.  Apparently the room was used as lodging quarters for the nurses when the house was a military hospital, so maybe the toilets dated to then…I just hope there was some kind of partition around them when the poor nurses had to use them!

DSC00574   DSC00583

We then headed out to explore the grounds.  The Onslows own hundreds of acres of land, but only seven of them were given to the National Trust, so all they have is the ground the house sits on, and a bit around it that seems to include some sort of folly.  Or maybe it was an ice house?  Or wine cave?  It was cool looking, whatever it was, but a sign explaining it sure would have been nice.

DSC00586   DSC00589

The other main object of interest on the grounds was the Maori meeting house.  One of the Onslows was a bigwig in New Zealand (presumably a colonial governor or some such), and he was evidently popular enough that the Maori allowed him to ship one of their meeting houses back to England.  It remains the only meeting house outside New Zealand, serves as a religious place for the Maori, and tends to be visited by Kiwis when they’re in the UK for sporting events and the like.  You’re not allowed to go inside, except on special occasions, but I was able to get a pretty good look at the Tiki interior through the window.

DSC00569   DSC00588

All in all, I wasn’t super thrilled with the house, but it wasn’t the most horrible National Trust property I’ve visited either.  It could be improved vastly by better signage, and maybe more helpful staff…there was a point where I was admiring some miniatures in a corner, and mused out loud what the one piece could be used for; the woman working in the room just stared at me blankly while I leafed through the brief descriptions in the room’s informational binder in search of an explanation.  I mean, I don’t like it when people are too aggressively helpful, but on this occasion I actually had a question, and was just ignored, so some happy medium would be nice. This review sounds more bitchy than I had intended, which I suppose means I really didn’t enjoy Clandon Park very much at all. So, 2/5, and here’s hoping I can enjoy this National Trust membership more when all their properties are open in the spring.

DSC00577_stitch

 

Advertisements

Surrey, UK: Polesden Lacey

P1090977  P1100011

I feel like I’ve been slightly lazy since I’ve been back in the UK.  I’ve been home for over a month, and haven’t managed to visit any museums in all that time.  In my defence, our America roadtrip was pretty tiring, and we went to loads of places, so I think I needed a little break, and I’ve also been busy trying to get stuff ready for the application for permanent settlement I have to make next month.  So, this is the only UK post before I’m back in America again for the holidays- sorry about that!  But today’s post is on somewhere in Britain – Polesden Lacey.  We’ve probably passed signs for it about a million times during our various wanderings around Surrey, but it is a National Trust property, so I was feeling meh about visiting until I read that they had some Christmas festivities on.  Funny how the promise of tinsel can be such a powerful motivator.

P1090969   P1090988

Polesden Lacey didn’t look all that Christmassy from the outside.  Although they’d made a show of serving up mince pies and mulled wine, and got a brass band in to play carols, the leaves have only just turned in Britain, so it felt far more autumnal than wintry (this is one of the reasons I go back to America every year during December.  I like to see snow at Christmastime).   But the house was meant to be decorated, so we parted with 11 quid each for the privilege of seeing it (the pricing was also a bit weird; there’s a £6.66 charge just to enter the grounds, but then an extra £4 for the house, which for some reason came out to £11 something, so I don’t know if they threw secret Gift Aid in somehow?  The normal price should have been £10.80 for both, so it was kind of odd).

P1100018    P1090970

The trees leading up to the house had one string of lights half-assedly strung up on them, honestly it probably would have been better if they hadn’t even bothered, so we wouldn’t have seen what a lame attempt it was.  There were no lights on the exterior of the manor, at least none that were visible by day, but upon entering the house, most of the rooms had Christmas trees in them.  It was a pretty standard National Trust property; one of my biggest problems with them is that because they are responsible for so many buildings, most of their houses feel pretty generic (as do the special events) and this was no exception.  It was a perfectly attractive house, but there was nothing special about it.  As is typical, only maybe a quarter of the rooms were open to the public, and in this case, it was probably even less than that, since we weren’t allowed upstairs.

P1090972   P1090973

Their Christmas theme was the “Three Kings,” a play on the three magi wherein the three British kings who had visited Polesden Lacey (Edward VII,George V, and George VI) would be portrayed by costumed actors.  Disappointingly, only Edward VII and George V were there that day; Edward was much too thin and George wasn’t quite beardy enough, but I didn’t really speak to either of them (aside from a nod of acknowledgement at Edward) so I can’t critique their acting skills.  That was another problem; the house was swarming with costumed employees, but only one of them took the time to talk to us.  The others basically ignored us and directed all their energy at the children, which annoys me.  Of course the Santa stuff is for kids, but I certainly think I would have appreciated the history of the house far more than most kids would.  Also, they were meant to have mulled wine and biscuits in the kitchen, but only mulled wine was there, and I had to push through a crowd of people to access it.  Promising me biscuits and then not having any is a sure-fire way to get on my bad side.

P1090975   P1090978

Anyway, the history of the house, as far as I could suss out for myself, was that it was owned by some Mrs. Greville woman in the Edwardian era, who clearly enjoyed entertaining royalty, including a number of Indian princes, in some overly gilded room (although there was no mention of the other sort of entertaining, which is odd, given Edward VII’s bawdy reputation).  She declared that George VI (just plain old Bertie at the time) would be her heir, but going by Wikipedia, that never happened, although this was never explained in the house.  Despite having iPads strewn about, there was a distinct lack of information available.

P1090980  P1090974

They did have some kind of treasure hunt thing for children, so perhaps they fared better.  There was also a Santa in the library, who I steered well clear of.  He freaked me out as a child, and I’m not particularly keen now (freaked out is perhaps an understatement; there was a Santa that rode around in a fire engine in my town, and I’d hide under my bed when I heard him coming, and would have to be dragged out kicking and screaming to go accept my candy cane.  And you could forget mall Santas entirely!).

P1090982   P1090997

There were of course extensive grounds, but it was cold and all the gardens were dead, so we only walked through part of them.  There were a lot of random huts around the place, and some chickens clucking away in their pen.  I did enjoy the lawn chairs, which featured black and white pictures of famous visitors to the manor; my favourite was of George VI and Elizabeth in snazzy hats, pictured above (probably taken during their honeymoon, which they spent on the estate).

P1100007   P1090999

They’re meant to have one of the largest shops of any National Trust property, so we poked around that for a little while and bought some postcards, but it was just the standard National Trust stuff (though I am most intrigued by St Clements flavoured curd.  Get on that, Fortnum’s!).  We decided to have some tea and cake to warm us up after walking the grounds, but the cafe only had muffins and flapjacks, which I think you’ll agree are not cake, so I had to end up going home to bake a cake to satiate my cake-lust.  Don’t get me wrong, I love muffins, but not when I’m craving tea and cake specifically.

P1100013   P1100012

Basically, I left hungry and not knowing anything more about Polesden Lacey than I did before my visit, so I wasn’t a very happy camper.  It wasn’t terrible, but when I compare it to somewhere like Stan Hywet, which does a different theme every year, and has the grounds and each room of the mansion decorated to the nines, I can’t help but feel what a poor effort it was.  The decorations inside Polesden really just consisted of a tree here and there, and not much else.  In fact, I think it might be better to forget about the seasonal offerings altogether and visit in the summer, when at least you’d be able to see the flowers in bloom, and maybe view the first floor of the house.  2/5 – not Christmassy enough for my liking!

P1100017   P1100006

Reigate, Surrey: Reigate Caves

20130608_144222

Last Saturday began much like every other weekend – with my boyfriend and I sitting around eating waffles in our jimjams, and debating what to do whilst waiting for vintage episodes of The Simpsons to come on.  Excitingly, it soon became apparent that this wasn’t like every other weekend, as we had actually found a reason to leave the house!  I’m totally a list-maker, though unfortunately, not well-organised enough to keep them all in one location.  One of the many lists I have is on Google Maps, and includes various attractions around Britain I want to visit.  We’ve already been to most of the caves within an easy drive from London, but Reigate Caves were ones we hadn’t visited, due to them only being open 5 days a year.  I happened to check their website for the next open day, not really expecting it to be any time soon, only to find out it was that very Saturday!  With a destination sorted, we hopped in the car, Reigate bound.

20130608_135836

The Reigate Caves consist of three separate caves (which aren’t actually caves as such, but old sand mines, which is fairly typical of “caves” in the Weald): Baron’s Cave, which is under the old Castle grounds, and the Tunnel Road Caves, which are opposite each other under (appropriately enough) Tunnel Road.  It was £3 for Tunnel Road Caves, and another £2 for Baron’s Cave, both of which included a guided tour.  The whole enterprise is run by the Wealden Cave Society, who honestly seemed like delightful people.  We began with a tour of the Western Caverns, led by a guide who was seriously pretty great.

20130608_144042

He was very laid back, to the point where he would just start talking whenever he got to a point of interest in the cave, whether or not the group was with him.  I thought that was fantastic, because why should everyone have to wait for stragglers?  That way, if people with children wanted to hang back, and didn’t really care about the tour, the rest of us didn’t have to wait for them to catch up.  There was a second guide to bring up the rear, to ensure the stragglers didn’t get completely lost, and help answer questions.  The main guide also reminded me a bit of Chris Packham (they had the same w’s for r’s speech thing going on), which I think is part of why I liked him so much, since I adore Chris Packham, (and agree with him that pandas are completely overrated).  He was clearly very passionate and knowledgeable about the caves, which I always like to see (people with slightly eccentric interests, that is, as I have many of those myself).

20130608_144059

The caves are currently owned by a gun club, who normally have target practice in the caves, though obviously not when the tours are going on.  Therefore, the caves were littered with spent casings, and we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the target areas.  I’m no fan of guns (perhaps surprising coming from an American), so I felt slightly uneasy at the start, until it became apparent that no one was going to emerge from a hidey-hole and start shooting at us.  Otherwise, I’d say the dominant feature of the caves was sand, which was apparently also scattered with bits of broken glass, so it’s probably not the best place to wear open toed shoes.

20130608_144119

The caves have what is an extensive, yet strangely poorly documented history.  Obviously, their main use was as a source of sand, which was used for glass making, ink blotting, and to soak up spillage on local pub floors, which I’m told is what gave rise to the local saying, “happy as a sand boy,” (which I must start using) as the sand boys would get a free drink at each pub they delivered sand to, thus ending up plastered by the end of the day.  During WWI, they were used to store explosives, which likely would have resulted in the complete annihilation of Reigate had any of them actually gone off. During WWII, the townspeople used it as a bomb shelter, which I also have to question the efficacy of, as sand isn’t the sturdiest material, but thankfully, it was never put to the test.  It seems like mostly what people did in them was carve things into the walls, judging by the enormous amount of graffiti (which included an excellent war-era caricature of Hitler, which I was unable to get a picture of).

20130608_144519


Me and some face graffiti

Being man-made, the caves had reasonably high ceilings, so might have more appeal for claustrophobics than the average cave. Though there was a large skull carved into one of the walls, which might manage to freak someone out if the caves themselves hadn’t.  I reckon the tour lasted about 35-45 minutes, after which we entered the Eastern Caverns, which were self-guided (though naturally, required hard hats).

20130608_144406

HAA!

The Eastern Caverns detailed more of the history of the caves with the use of posters (though our guide had already covered most of it during the tour), and featured things like a recreation of a bomb shelter (complete with scary sound effects), a Cold War room, and a men’s urinal trough.  I think it was meant to be more of a “spooky” experience, as they had fake bats hanging throughout for children to count, and little signs with a ghost on them, which is of course exactly my cup of tea (Earl Grey, two sugars and a splash of milk).  It even had authentic smells (as did the stairs leading down to Tunnel Road, come to think of it) thanks to a paraffin lamp, which also had the effect of making the air authentically smoky.

20130608_145326(0)    20130608_145821

Finally (after procuring a cookie sandwich from a local bakery, as there was no ice creamery on the high street.  Get on that, Reigate!), we hiked up the hill to Baron’s Cave, following the directional bat signs.  We were given lamps this time, in lieu of hard hats, and caught up with a group who had just begun the guided tour.  This guide was rather dour compared to the first one, but he was still informative (and was quite stern with an exceptionally bratty child, which I appreciated).  Baron’s Cave was originally constructed in the 11th century as part of Reigate Castle, and was probably used primarily as a wine cellar, and alternate exit from the castle.  It is also rumoured to have been the meeting spot for the barons on their way to Runnymede to sign the Magna Carta (hence the name), which is pretty cool.

20130608_160716

As such, although it was much smaller than the other caves, it had even older graffiti, including carvings of a horse and cow.  Most of the stuff we saw was from the 18th century, although much of it goes back even further, but has been covered over by newer carvings.  Other than the graffiti, the main attractions were a staircase that once led to a pyramid on the castle grounds, but now leads to nothing (though the pyramid is still there, and you can go up and see it!), the wine cellar room, and a random T-Rex.

20130608_154531

You can just see him hiding in the back. Rawr!

I’m happy we discovered the open day in time to go, because the Reigate Caves were a very nice experience.  I’m rating them as 4/5, and certainly better than Chislehurst Caves.  I think the fact that the Cave Society run the tours help turn it into a quality experience, as they clearly have a vested interest in all things underground.  The only other open days this year are the 13th July, 10th August, and 14th September, so I’d definitely recommend heading down to Reigate on one of them to take in the cavey goodness.

20130608_155752