Yorkshire

Malton, North Yorkshire: Eden Camp

The final stop on our brief tour of the North before I mercifully got to go home and sleep in my own bed was Eden Camp, located just outside Malton. Eden Camp was the reason we had to stay in that horrible hotel in Malton (well, we could have stayed somewhere nicer if everywhere else hadn’t been booked up), but I won’t hold that against it. Though booking in advance was no longer strictly required at the time of our visit, I did so anyway to ensure we could get in without any difficulty. Tickets are £12, and you just book a pass for the day you want to visit, no need to pick a specific time slot.

  

Eden Camp is a WWII POW camp built in 1942 for Italian prisoners who had been captured in North Africa, but it held German POWs as well from 1944 until 1948 when the last prisoners were finally released. The huts where the prisoners lived had become completely derelict by the 1980s, when they were purchased by a man named Stan Johnson (not Boris Johnson’s father. A quick glance at his photo was more than enough to confirm that) who eventually converted them into the museum that exists today. Although most of the employees were in costume, it’s not really a living history museum; rather, each of the huts has been converted into its own little museum, covering topics ranging from World Wars I and II (of course) and the role of the British Army in various 20th century wars, to 1940s fashion and entertainment.

  

We were greeted by a very friendly lady in a guard hut just outside the entrance who handed us a map of the site, and a guy dressed as a British WWII soldier showed us where to park. There are about thirty huts on the site, in addition to a children’s playground and café, and the map instructed us to start at Hut No 1, so we did. We assumed we were meant to see the huts in numerical order, but after getting stuck in a queue behind slow moving people for ages in Hut 1, we were itching to go off piste, but hesitated for fear of getting yelled at by one of the soldier staff members. However, as more people arrived (for once, we came very early in the day, just after opening) and the queuing situation got even worse, one of the “soldiers” approached us and let us know we could see them in any order, and you didn’t have to tell us twice! We’d probably still be stuck there waiting otherwise! However, if you do see the huts out of sequence, it might be useful to cross them off on the map as you visit each one. We didn’t do this and totally lost track of what we’d seen and what we hadn’t, and I think we may have ended up skipping a hut or two.

 

The first thing I noticed about the huts (other than how cold they were on the day we visited – the huts are neither heated nor air conditioned, so do dress accordingly depending on the weather) were the fabulous mannequins. Nearly every hut had numerous groupings of mannequins arranged into tableaux, and I could not have loved them more. Some of the huts were also quite atmospheric, like one that was meant to be the inside of a submarine, complete with sound effects, fog, and a moving floor. Another told the story of the Great Escape, and had tunnelling mannequins that rather hilariously rode back and forth along the floor on little train tracks. The huts even included another one of my loves – authentic smells! Some of them were so bad I was grateful for my mask (masks did not seem to be required, and only about half the visitors were wearing them, but some of the huts were quite crowded and I felt much more comfortable with it on), but they nonetheless enhanced the experience.

 

Much as I loved the special effects of the themed huts, my favourite hut was probably the one that told the stories of the POWs that lived at the camp, including toys and other things the men had made whilst staying there. Apparently, one of the German prisoners was a blacksmith, and he was asked to make a pair of “fire dogs” by one of the guards. Not understanding what they were, he literally made a pair of iron dachshunds (the signage made sure to point out that they were dachshunds) and these were utterly charming (other than the fact that they were made by a Nazi, of course). Another prisoner had drawn a series of cartoons about life at the camp, which were also quite funny. The German POWs in particular were generally accepted by the local community, probably helped by them being white Europeans from a similar culture. Local families would invite some of the men over for dinner, and some of them ended up marrying local women and staying in the area. However, although conditions at the camp weren’t anywhere near as bad as those at some of the camps in other countries, the barracks the men stayed in looked fairly grim and had to be absolutely freezing in winter (given how cold it was in summer there) so I’m sure it wasn’t all a bed of roses (but do Nazi prisoners deserve a bed of roses? Nope).

 

I also really enjoyed the 1940s fashion street scene and some of the displays in the entertainment hut. Anything that was a break from the military was a relief, as there were a LOT of army-related huts, and they got a little samey after a while, particularly the ones about wars later in the 20th century. In terms of the non-museum huts, I was a bit disappointed to see that the café just seemed to have not particularly appealing looking standard British café fayre. Not that I particularly wanted to eat marg and potato scones with carrot jam or anything, but it would have been nice if they had something a bit more authentic to match the rest of the experience. However, the toilets, despite also being located in a hut, were surprisingly nice!

 

On the whole, I actually really enjoyed my experience at Eden Camp. I will say that there was far too much text to even attempt to try to read it all, and like many WWII museums, it erred a bit on the side of excusing the behaviour of the Nazis who stayed at the camp (a “just following orders” mentality). Also, despite having a section on the Holocaust, they still had a Hitler mannequin that veered a bit too far into comedy territory, and I’m not keen on glorification of the military in general, which was a major theme throughout. However, even with the caveats, Eden Camp was still probably the highlight of the trip apart from the ice cream in Ripley, though that perhaps says more about the rest of the holiday than the quality of Eden Camp. 3.5/5.

North Yorkshire: The Good, the Bad, and the Meh; A Tale of Three Captain Cook Museums

I know that Captain Cook is problematic for a number of reasons, not least for the negative impact his “discoveries” had on pretty much every indigenous population he encountered, but I have to admit that I find his voyages absolutely fascinating. Ever since reading Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes, I have wanted to visit the Cook museums in North Yorkshire, which include the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Marton, the Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre in (you guessed it) Staithes, and the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby (there’s also the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum in Ayton, but that wasn’t open at the time of our visit). Because we are gluttons for punishment, we decided to do all of these museums in one day (along with Durham Town Hall, which we visited that morning). Fortunately, all the museums had eliminated their pre-booking requirement by then, which made the logistics of the day a lot easier. I’m not going to give very much background on Cook’s voyages in this post, since I’ve done that in various earlier posts, but will instead focus on the content of the museums.

  

The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum was the closest to Durham, so that’s where we started. There may be parking closer to the museum that we didn’t see, but we followed the signs and were directed into a carpark in a field next to a funfair. We ended up having to walk about half a mile across the field to reach the museum (Tony Horwitz also describes a trek across a “soggy field” so I suppose that was the closest carpark. We were lucky to be visiting in July, because the field was refreshingly green and dewy rather than soggy), where we were greeted by the large moai statue perched in front of the museum. I felt a bit apprehensive about entering because of all the noise coming from inside the building as we approached the admissions desk to pay our £4 entry fee, but it transpired that it was only the museum café that was busy – we were the only visitors in the museum, which made for a very pleasant experience indeed.

  

There isn’t much to tell about James Cook’s childhood in Marton, mainly because it’s not well-documented historically, but that didn’t stop the museum from putting together a tableau of a young Cook and his mother in their cottage kitchen, complete with pre-recorded dialogue in amusingly strong Yorkshire accents, and a dish of some truly disgusting looking fake stew. The cottage where he was born no longer stands, having been destroyed in the 1780s due to its already derelict state. The family only lived in the cottage until Cook was eight; they moved to Ayton in 1736, which was where Cook was educated in the village school.

  

Since the information on Cook’s early life is so limited, the museum quickly moved on to his later life, from his move to Whitby, early career in the Navy, and finally, to his three voyages of exploration, with a different room devoted to each. Despite the many typos I uncovered on the museum signs (especially with dates – at one point they claimed the house where Cook lived in Whitby was built in 1865, nearly a century after he died! I think they meant 1685, and someone had neglected to proofread thoroughly before printing), this was by far the most interesting of the three museums. They didn’t have many original artefacts (most of the objects in the museum were facsimiles), but they had a lot of objects generally, not to mention a healthy supply of mannequins. They even had a video showing you how to do a Yorkshire-themed haka, which was fun, if a bit too long.

 

In addition to Cook, the museum also had a small gallery on other adventurers from the local area, including Gertrude Bell, Katherine Maria Pease Routledge, and most interestingly to me, Frank Wild, who was a veteran of multiple Shackleton Antarctic expeditions. In another nearby field, there is an urn marking the probable location of Cook’s birthplace, and you can buy a DIY cardboard replica of the cottage in the shop (we got it mainly because it said Cleveland on it). Although it may not have gone far enough in discussing the devastating effect Cook’s voyages would ultimately have on the people he encountered, this was by far the best of the three museums, so it’s a bit of a shame we started the day with it, as I’m a great believer in saving the best for last.

 

Although we were both already a little museumed-out after taking the time to thoroughly peruse our first two museums of the day (counting Durham Town Hall), and we did discuss skipping Staithes and heading straight to Whitby, I was stupidly won over by the hyperbole on northyorkmoors.org.uk, which insisted “You really should seek out this fantastic visitor attraction.” OK! We eventually found a space in the carpark in Staithes, which was crowded because no cars are allowed in the village proper, which is located at the bottom of an exceedingly steep cobblestone hill.

  

The Staithes Heritage Centre is fortunately free, because I would have been even more annoyed by the experience if we’d actually paid for it – as it was, I was pissed off enough that I had to walk up and down a giant steep hill for this. Tony Horwitz mentioned the re-creation of William Sanderson’s shop, where Cook worked for a whole eight months as a shop assistant after leaving Ayton at the age of 17, which is partially what sold me on visiting, but the “1745 life-size street scene of Cook’s time in Staithes” is right at the start of the museum (and holds an actual shop – this small museum has not one, but two gift shops, which should tell you something about their priorities) and when I stopped outside it to wait for the man in front of me to finish reading the sign so I could have a better look, the woman at the front desk rather testily asked me if I needed help with something, so I felt like I was being moved along, and gave up on the “street scene” to head upstairs to see the “huge collection of exhibits from Cook’s life”.

  

I won’t deny that it is a “huge collection” relative to the amount of space that contained it, but my god was it just a load of crap. Picture a room crammed with the most worthless ephemera, including newspaper clippings related to Staithes, model ships, prints, 20th century Cook memorabilia, and terrible paintings by local artists. If there were any original artefacts, they would have been impossible to spot amongst the piles of tat. Even the allegedly “artisan gift shop” didn’t contain any products that I would consider living up to that description, so after reluctantly walking a bit further down the hill to see the sea (grey and depressing), we laboriously climbed back up the giant hill and headed straight for Whitby.

 

We had been to Whitby about eleven years ago, but neglected to visit any museums on that visit, possibly on account of the awful weather. Unfortunately, this visit had even more awful weather. It was lovely and sunny in Marton, but by the time we got to Whitby, the wind had picked up and it started absolutely pissing it down, so we made a run for the Captain Cook Memorial Museum. This was by far the most expensive museum of the day, at £7 (though they also have the fanciest website, so at least you can see where the money is going I guess), and unfortunately also the most crowded, as two other groups who were presumably also attempting to shelter from the storm came in right behind us, and we found several more groups ahead of us. The museum didn’t appear to have any particular rules about Covid safety, as we were all just crammed into this relatively small house (some of the groups not wearing masks), and one of the volunteers proudly announced that he had just closed the windows since it was raining in, which goes against all the rules at the museum where I work (we are required to have ventilation, to the extent of sitting freezing in my office with open windows in the winter, and just letting it rain in all over the listed woodwork when it’s storming (we go around sopping up the water with rags at the end of the day)), so I wasn’t feeling particularly comfortable in here.

  

This house (which was indeed built in 1685) was owned by Cook’s master, Quaker shipowner James Walker, and was where Cook lived from 1746 until 1755, when he went off to sea, so this is the only one of the buildings we saw that day where Cook had actually lived. The family were quite fond of him, to the point where the maid forgot her formal Quaker ways and referred to him as “James, honey” when he returned to visit after one of his voyages. This museum focused more on the scientific aspects of his voyages (the first one was meant to be recording the transit of Venus), and did contain some original artefacts, though the bits of Cook’s correspondence on view were only facsimiles. They still made for interesting reading, but my favourite part was the special exhibition in the attic on that dishy Joseph Banks, which we sadly weren’t allowed to photograph.

  

Had I not seen the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, or been crammed into a stuffy house with so many maskless people, I think I might have enjoyed the Cook Museum in Whitby a bit more, but as it was, I was not particularly impressed, especially with the £7 admission fee, as the Birthplace Museum had easily three times the amount of content and much more pleasant surroundings. I also think (as you may have guessed from the “Memorial Museum” part of the name) that they glorified Cook even more than the Birthplace Museum did, the Birthplace Museum at least having made a significant effort to describe the cultures of the indigenous people Cook encountered. There is also meant to be a Cook collection in the Whitby Museum (and a hand of glory!), but we were so sick of museums and getting rained on by this point that we just huddled in a doorway eating some chips before heading off on what was probably my most important expedition of the day: procuring Bram(ble) Stoker ice cream.

 

As you may know, Whitby is the setting for Dracula, and a meeting place for goths. The only part of my visit eleven years ago that I really enjoyed was eating a scoop of Bram(ble ) Stoker ice cream (blackberry ice cream with white chocolate chips. The flavour is delicious, but I’m really in it for the name). Marcus had taken a picture of me eating my ice cream outside the shop, which made it easy to spot, and though the exterior has changed, the shop is still there, and I was thrilled(!) to see they still had Bram(ble) Stoker ice cream, so you better believe I stood out in the freezing rain and ate it (I also may have died at this point, because I appear to be a ghost in all the remaining photographs of that day). Having completed my mission, we ran back to the car and headed straight for our (incredibly grim) hotel in Malton (not to be confused with Marton). I am glad to have finally seen these museums after reading about them years ago, but the only one I think was worth the effort was the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum. Definitely skip Staithes, and only bother with Whitby’s Cook Museum if you’re hiding from the weather (which is apparently always awful there, because if it’s not warm at the end of July, when is it warm? I can see why James Cook got the hell out as soon as he could).

York: Yorkshire Museum

The Yorkshire Museum wasn’t on my must-visit list, but we ended up going to see it anyway because we had to kill some time before our train on our last day in York. Along with York Castle Museum and York Art Gallery it is part of the York Museums Trust, so if you plan on visiting all three, it is probably worth getting the YMT card to save a bit of money, but we got free admission to the Yorkshire Museum with our National Art Pass anyway, so we didn’t bother (admission is otherwise £8).

 

The Yorkshire Museum has three main sections: Jurassic World, Roman York, and Medieval York (I guess you need to visit the York Castle Museum and Jorvik Viking Centre as well to get a more comprehensive version of York’s history), and we started with Jurassic World, which was a fairly standard dinosaur gallery with a few touchy bits, as you can see above. This is apparently a temporary but “long-term” exhibition, and we had seen it advertised all over town, with the tagline, “Now Open!” but aside from a VR dinosaur-feeding game (I desperately wanted to play, but it wasn’t clear whether we could without staff supervision, and there was no staff to be found), nothing here felt particularly state of the art. It was more the kind of thing you’d find in any local history museum with a decent-sized prehistoric section.

 

We quickly moved on to Roman York, which was a more extensive series of galleries that took up the rest of the ground floor. I was initially apprehensive about entering the museum because of the large group of school children just outside armed with wooden swords and shields who seemed to be making an awful lot of noise, and it was in Roman York that we encountered them. The museum I work at only has school groups in on days the museum is closed to the public to avoid situations like this one, and larger museums with dedicated education rooms tend to steer school groups mainly to those, but I guess in a museum that is open to the public every weekday but without extensive special facilities, they have no choice but to stick school kids in with the general public. Honestly, it would have been fine if they hadn’t been so damn loud, but they were! They also just barged in front of us as we were trying to look at things, including the skeleton above. Some kid kept telling his friends it was the skeleton of a gladiator despite the case clearly stating it was a woman. You’d think eight year olds would be able to at least read the word “woman,” but apparently not these ones, and no one was bothering to correct them.

 

In an effort to get away from them, we basically skipped the last room of Roman York, and headed downstairs for Medieval York (where we were granted an all too brief reprieve before they followed, but at least it was a reprieve). This was definitely the best of the main galleries, and was a bit more Viking and early medieval than late Middle Ages (which is the period I know more about), so it was nice to see some unusual artefacts and learn more about this period in York’s history.

 

Even though there were some lovely things on display, like the York Helmet, one of only three intact Anglian helmets found in Britain, and lots of hilarious stained glass cross-eyed kings, my favourite things were definitely the signs for children containing historical facts illustrated with funny cartoons, like the one above (I think it’s probably just a coincidence that he looks a bit like a thin Trump, though the bumbling idiocy and complete lack of consideration for other people seems to fit)!

 

I also liked the fun game (one of the few interactive things in this museum not solely aimed at children) where you could determine how Viking you were based on your interests. The Viking in the game actually looked a bit like Marcus, so I wasn’t surprised that he was 30% more Viking than I am (in terms of actual ancestry, I don’t think either of us are particularly Viking, since neither of us has any Scandinavian ancestry. At least none we know about).

 

The final section of the museum that we saw was probably Marcus’s favourite part, as it contained “The Map that Changed the World,” a 200 year old geological map drawn by the “father of English geology” William “Strata” Smith (good nickname). The label said that the map was covered by a roller blind, but as you can see, it was just sitting out in the open during our visit, though there was another map with a cloth over the top that you were allowed to lift to look at it. Not being a geology enthusiast, my favourite part was the poor taxidermed bear in one corner of the library.

 

Although it contained some interesting things, I don’t think I would have bothered seeing this museum if hadn’t got in for free. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary from the average local history museum (though it is undoubtedly bigger than many, including the one I work at), and although I fully understand the importance of museum visits for the younger generations, the school children were quite loud and disruptive and I think they probably could have been encouraged to walk through the museum in a more orderly manner. 2.5/5 for the Yorkshire Museum, but our visit to York overall (intruder in our hotel room notwithstanding) was lovely. I’m definitely a fan of the potato scallop, which we don’t see down south (just a battered slice of potato – the veggie alternative to fish, at least at places too old school to have battered halloumi or tofu) and the cheap cheap Northern prices (60p for a giant potato scallop and free scraps? Yes please!) so I will undoubtedly return!

York: York Castle Museum

I have a tendency to overdo it on holiday and visit way too many museums to the point where I end up completely exhausted. I was trying very hard not to do that this time and instead limit myself to one museum per day, but we seriously only spent half an hour at the Jorvik Viking Centre (and that was with riding the ride twice!), so I thought another museum wouldn’t hurt, particularly a fun one. And York Castle Museum seemed like it definitely fit the bill. A museum with a street of yesteryear, Victorian prison, and an exhibition from the Museum of Broken Relationships?! Yes, please!

 

But all that fun comes at a price. £12 to be exact, or £10.90 without Gift Aid. Actually, because we visited on a weekend during their Dickensian Christmas event, we paid even more than that – £13.90. Though if you’re not visiting with kids who want to see Santa, I think you can safely skip the weekends. I didn’t see anything magically Christmassy enough to justify the higher price (the decorations stay up for the whole Christmas season, it’s just the Dickens characters and Santa that are only there on a weekend). But this is probably making me seem a bit down on the museum, which was far from the case.

 

Contrary to what you might think from the name (naturally enough), the museum is not actually built in a castle, but is located in an old gaol on the site of what once was York Castle (there is still a castle-looking structure, called Clifford’s Tower, nearby). It was built by a Dr. John Kirk who sounded like a typical eccentric Victorian(ish) collector and wanted somewhere to house his collection and showcase the traditional ways of Yorkshire life. Apparently the museum was the first of its kind in Britain with everything designed to best showcase the objects in his collection, including the creation of a Victorian street named Kirkgate after its founder. I mean, frankly, the man sounds like a delight (except for the whole preserving traditional ways thing, which sounds a bit UKIPy for my tastes, though maybe he didn’t mean it in that way), and his museum still basically is.

 

We started by going up a walkway that had a brief timeline of York history and then looked at a few mock-ups of rooms throughout history, and an excellent collection of Staffordshire Dick Turpin figurines. This led into the “Toy Stories” gallery, which contained old, creepy, and sadly, even racist (blackface performing dolls) toys. Fortunately, I saw this gallery shortly before we saw the stage version of Mary Poppins in the West End (I’m like a super fan of Charlie Stemp, who plays Bert), because the musical has these giant creepy toys that come to life, and I would definitely had been more freaked out by these toys had I seen the play first. The toys segued into “Shaping the Body”, which was a collection of historic clothing arranged roughly chronologically. Most notable were the pieces of clothing belonging to corpulent monarchs. Above you can see Victoria’s dress, and George IV’s shirt. Everyone mocks George IV for being fat, of course, particularly cartoonists like Gillray, but jeez, judging by that dress, Victoria was even bigger! The woman was practically a cube (I know fat-shaming isn’t nice, but Victoria was so horrible she has it coming)! They also had a few dress-up stations, and I was dying to do it, but the clothes were very definitely child-sized, and there were too many people about, so I chickened out.

 

Next was Kirkgate, the ye olde street. And it was a good one! The Dickensian Christmas element seemed to be people dressed up as characters from his novels, though I’m not familiar enough with most of Dickens’ oeuvre to have recognised them by sight. There was also a magician, but I think he probably sensed my distaste for activities that involve audience participation, because he kept his magic to himself. There was even a sweet shop where you could actually buy sweets, but as the prices were quite high and they didn’t have soor plums (no reason they would, they’re a Scottish thing. I just really like them) we gave it a miss. I did, of course, pretend to try out the outhouse though, and managed a particularly unpleasant fake pooping face.

 

After Kirkgate, we ended up back where we came in and had to cut through the shop to see the other half of the museum (kind of like the Museum of Oslo). This was just as large as the first half of the museum, and began with a WWI gallery. Similar to other museums I know and love (Thackray Museum), York Castle Museum gives you a list of real people who were alive at the time, and has you pick one to follow through the war and find out at the end whether you had survived. I picked a guy called Albert, both because I like the name, and his symbol was a plane, so I figured I would get to do some flying, though I think he was primarily a aircraft mechanic.

 

I don’t think there was enough follow-up with this because I only caught a few updates on Albert throughout the display (he did survive the war, but not for terribly long after) but the rest of the exhibition was pretty good. I liked the fake head on a stick that resembled the actual ones stuck over the parapet of the trenches to try to trick the enemy into firing to reveal their position. Like so many other WWI projects, this was HLF funded, and so it had a similar feel to other exhibitions I’ve seen in terms of interactivity and concept.

 

Next came the exhibition by the Museum of Broken Relationships, which I’ve been meaning to see if I ever make it to Croatia. I assume this was only a sampling of what’s there because there were only maybe 50 objects on show. If you’re not familiar with the concept, people who have been in relationships that have ended have donated objects representing those relationships and written a short piece on the relationship and how it ended. These could be terribly poignant (the one written by a man whose wife had died from cancer), but also quite funny (a fake penis with piercings that represented the piercings of a guy who got them without asking his partner). There were objects that had been donated specially for this exhibition by people from Yorkshire, and a display on Brexit to represent the breakdown of Britain’s relationship with the EU. Based on what I saw here, I don’t know if I would schedule a trip to Zagreb solely for this museum, but it was interesting to read people’s stories of heartbreak.

 

We were then directed outside where we saw the site of the old gallows (though you couldn’t climb them) and the stocks (these you could use, as you can see at the bottom of the post). There was a sign pointing to something called the Rainham Mill, but I wasn’t totally sure if it was part of the museum (and also it was cold and rainy) so we didn’t go. Turns out it is part of the museum, and is a Victorian watermill, so don’t be like me – check it out if you visit!

   

Finally, there was a gallery on the 1960s (disappointing because there were no dress-up opportunities), and the old prison cells! These were actually a bit scary because it was very dark, and there were video projections based on real prisoners that would only show up after you’d walked into the cell. The best one (and worst one, I guess) was a cell where nine people had suffocated one night, which was absolutely pitch black and had sounds of people struggling to breathe. After you had made your way all the way into the room, green writing suddenly popped up on one wall about the people who died. Scary but sad! There were also cells dedicated to famous prisoners, including Dick Turpin, and a room with an audio recording of poetry written by prisoners.

 

This museum was actually loads of fun, enough to probably justify the high entrance fee, as we spent ages here and could have spent even more time had we seen the mill. As it was, we were tired and hungry, so headed straight over to Betty’s for tea, which is basically obligatory for all visitors to York (I do wish they offered a non-fruited plain scone, but I did enjoy my fruit-free rarebit scone and my very buttery caramel and walnut tart with ice cream. And lots of Earl Grey. Probably too much in fact, as I was peeing every ten minutes for the rest of the night). 4/5 for York Castle Museum, I think. Pricey, but just about worth it (certainly more so than Jorvik Viking Centre)!

York: Jorvik Viking Centre

The Jorvik Viking Centre was the only museum in York that I remember seeing on my first trip there (frankly, I’m not sure what we did the rest of the time, other than eat fudge), and given that I had it listed as one of my Favourite Places for quite a while, I was keen to return. But also a bit apprehensive, as they had apparently undergone a major redevelopment since my first visit, and typically that means a change for the worse. Apologies for the poor photos throughout this post, as the whole bloody museum was too dark.

 

Admission is £12.50 for adults, and they recommend booking a Fast Pass in advance, which is an extra £1. We did this, but if you’re visiting at an off time, it really isn’t necessary. We were there on a Sunday morning, which was pretty dead, but weekdays look to be very busy, so it might be worth getting the Fast Pass if that’s the only time you can visit. All this talk of Fast Passes probably makes it sound a bit like an amusement park, and well, it does have a ride, which is the reason I loved it so much on my first visit. Upon entering, you go into a gallery that has the ruins of a Viking house under the floor, with a guy dressed as a Viking giving a short talk about it. The Vikings invaded York in 866 CE and renamed the city Jorvik, and then proceeded to settle and live there for over a century, though the people who settled there were not the warriors most people picture when they hear the word Viking, but were ordinary farmers and craftspeople (of which more shortly). This first gallery also had a fairly fun interactive game where you could virtually dig up an artefact and then choose the best way to clean and preserve it.

 

After playing the game, we headed straight for the thing I was most looking forward to: the ride! Now, this is a very sedate ride, so if like me, you suffer from motion sickness, there’s no need to worry! I would say it’s most akin to one of the more boring rides in EPCOT where you sit in a vehicle of the future learning about the year 2000 from the perspective of people in 1970. You climb into a little car thing (they have two rows of seats, and you’ll be seated next to whomever you come with, so you don’t have to worry about sitting next to a random person (I assume if you come alone, you get a bench to yourself)). There might be strangers in the other row of seats, but because they are tiered, you won’t have to really see or interact with them throughout the ride. Then you select your language (there are different English audio guides for adults and children, and having listened to them both, I would say the children’s one is much more interesting and informative), and the tour will play from speakers next to your head (I was told to mind my head on the speakers on the way in, so of course I immediately whacked my head against them. Maybe padded headrests would be a better idea?).

 

The car is then propelled through the Viking town of Jorvik, where you’ll meet some of its inhabitants. The children’s tour actually tells you their names and gives more of a back story, as it is told from the perspective of a child living in the town. The adult one is just a commentary describing the village, and is rather boring. The guy drones on and on and won’t shut up. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Jorvik, who are animatronic figures, are moving around doing whatever their assigned task is (trying to pull a slave off a boat, making cups (the street the museum is on is named Coppergate because of all the cup makers. I assume cop meant cup), pooping – there’s a wide range!) and speaking Norse, which you can really only hear on the children’s tour, because the dry boring adult tour guide just blathers on without pause.

 

Obviously, I am all about these animatronic figures, especially the animals (there’s a dog, cats, pigs, and even rats), particularly my favourite, the pooping man (you don’t actually see him poop, you just see his upper half as he sits in an outhouse). Now, here is an example of where the tour has changed for the worse. I’m pretty sure that the first time we visited, the audio tour actually translated whatever the townspeople were saying, and when it got to the pooping man, it said something like, “Leave me alone! Can’t you see I am pooping?” Clearly this was the best thing ever, and I was dying to get to the pooper to hear it. But now, you either get boring man just talking right through it and basically ignoring pooping man, or the little kid going, “oh, he seems busy, so let’s leave him alone.” Lame! Why would you get rid of a poop joke?

 

Other than that disappointment, the figures seemed more or less the same, and I still enjoyed myself, so much so that after we got off the ride, we got right back on and did it again! I’m not sure if this is officially allowed, but if you follow the signs through the museum to the toilets, it takes you back to the start of the ride, and the people ahead of us also rode twice and the guy working there recognised them and seemed totally OK with it, so if they’re not busy, I don’t think they really care. This is how I was able to listen to both tours, and learned I preferred the children’s version. I would also recommend sitting in a different tier of seats if you ride twice, because we were able to see things from the front row of seats that we couldn’t from the back, and vice versa.

 

Having got the ride out of my system, we then proceeded through the museum, which seemed a bit more high tech than our first visit, and with a different layout, but otherwise more or less the same as I remembered. Since you’re probably not sick of hearing about poop yet, you should know that there is an actual Viking turd in the museum, and that is fortunately still proudly on show! There are also various other Viking artefacts and some skeletons, along with a brief explanation of Viking culture, but it all seems rather bland compared to the ride. I think this is their attempt to make it a serious historical attraction, but it feels half-assed at best (also all staff members have to wear Viking clothing, which makes me feel a bit bad for them. It would be fun to do it once in a while, but not every day!).

 

So I’m sorry to report that the ride is no longer quite the hilarious experience I fondly remembered, but it is still entertaining…as long as you opt for the children’s audio guide! I think they should give up on selling a museum that is essentially a ride with a gallery tacked on as serious history, and go back to a more whimsical audio tour, as more befits the animatronics. On my first visit, I would definitely have given it 4/5 (had I had a blog with a ratings system at the time) but now I think it’s at best 3/5. Just embrace the cheese, Jorvik!

 

York: National Railway Museum

Happy New Year, everyone! To carry on our anniversary tradition of going somewhere even greyer and rainier than London, Marcus and I headed up to York for a few days at the end of November. We had been there together once before in 2010, back in the dark days before I had a blog, so I thought it was well worth doing a return trip, this time with more museum visits and a nicer hotel (or so we thought, at least until the night a drunk man wandered into our room whilst we were asleep. We still don’t know how he got in, and let me tell you, suddenly waking up from a sound sleep to see a strange man in your room is no picnic, even if he came in by accident and not with malicious intent). We started with the National Railway Museum immediately after arriving, before we had even checked into our hotel, because the museum is only about a two minute walk from the train station, but it was a twenty minute walk from our hotel, and I am lazy. Fortunately, they had lockers at the museum for our bags, though be forewarned you need £3 in the exact denominations of a £2 coin and a £1 coin to use them (though the museum will give change if needed), and you won’t be getting that money back.

 

Bags safely stowed, we headed into the museum proper, which is free to visit (it’s part of the Science Museum group). As you might expect from a museum that houses actual trains, the building is huge. It actually straddles two halves of a road, and is split between a Great Hall, Station Hall, North Shed, South Yard, and a few other little nooks and crannies (just like an English muffin, or a toasting muffin, as I like to call them in England). Because it was nearest the lockers, we started with the Station Hall, which meant we saw the thing I most wanted to see first: Laddie, the dog who used to collect money for charity inside Waterloo Station. He is long dead, though he remained in the station for decades after he died, having been taxidermied and enclosed inside a box into which you can drop coins (I would love it if they had actually rigged up some kind of motor so he barked or something when you did, but he just stands there, inanimate), before being moved to the museum, where you can still drop coins into him. However, I preferred to save my coins for one of those machines that flattens a penny that I always end up laboriously describing because I don’t know their technical name. Well, guess what? Thanks to the machine here, now I do! It’s a Pennymangle! This is how I shall refer to these machines henceforth, and I naturally had to mangle myself a Laddie penny in their machine.

 

The Station Hall is also where the trains of the rich and famous are kept…well, the trains of British royalty anyway. One of my dreams is to have my own private carriage so I can travel where I need to go without having to interact with the plebs, and of course for the royal family, deeply undeserved though it is, that fantasy is a reality. Only some of them had a whole damn train’s worth of carriages rather than just one. Like Victoria, for instance, who pootled around in a very fancy set of coaches, whilst her aunt, Queen Adelaide (I kind of love the term dowager queen, even though it’s a bit insulting to queens who weren’t actually elderly when they were widowed), was only given one small carriage of her own to trail behind Victoria’s train (I assume Victoria kept the door between the cars locked so she didn’t have to associate with Adelaide). Don’t get me wrong, honestly I’d be happy with my own compartment (with private bathroom of course), but it seems a bit crap for a queen compared to what the rest of them got. Sorry about the poor picture quality of these trains, but the Station Hall was very dark.

 

In addition to the royal trains (Adelaide-Elizabeth II), this hall also contained historic carriages from trains for us normies, and my god, even the third class carriages were nicer than what you get nowadays in first class, at least from what I’ve seen from the outside looking in (except for maybe the lack of lights unless you brought your own with you. No wonder so many people were murdered in trains). OK, so the earliest trains sucked because you’d just have to ride in an open carriage with wooden benches, but later on you’d be riding in style, with even a third class dining car in some trains that looked well fancier than anything you’d see on the average modern train.

 

After we finished reliving the glory days of rail, we headed outside to the South Yard, though on a day as gloomy as the one we visited, there wasn’t much to see. There are steam train and miniature railway rides available for a fee, and there is a shed containing the Workshop, where in theory you can see museum staff working on trains, though nobody was in on a Saturday so it was just some trains with no signage. We headed back in pretty quickly and made tracks (ha) for the Great Hall.

 

I thought the Station Hall was pretty big, but the aptly named Great Hall was even bigger, and was also full of trains, this time arranged around a vintage turntable. You could even climb aboard some of these trains, like the Japanese Shinkansen, apparently the only one outside of Japan. I think it’s probably time I said it – apart from us, visitors seemed to fall into two categories: families with young children, and well, anoraks. Definitely a lot of trainspotting types, some of whom were actively taking notes in little notebooks. So we felt a little out of place, and had difficulty looking inside some of the trains, as the viewing platforms were dominated by small children who refused to move. It’s nice to see children enjoying a museum, but I could have done with some of them being a little less bratty. The trainspotters, however, were relatively inoffensive.

 

Marcus, whilst not a trainspotter, was quite excited to see the Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive. As it’s not actually moving anywhere inside the museum, I’m not sure I see the appeal. Still, there were plenty of interesting things in here, even for the likes of me, especially the WWI hospital train. I’ve read about them, but had never actually gotten to go inside one, so that was definitely a neat experience. I also liked all the vintage railway posters scattered throughout the museum, even the crab one, below.

  

The Great Hall leads into the North Shed, which contains a section on the Flying Scotsman, and is also basically an open collections store that you can walk around. Everything is just stacked on top of everything else all higgledy-piggledy, and there was no real organisation to the collection and minimal signage, but it was worth walking around to spot some of the odder artefacts, like a vintage roll of coarse brown LNER toilet paper (we took a LNER train up, but I didn’t actually use the toilet (I avoid train toilets whenever possible, and it was only a two hour journey) so I can’t comment on the softness of its modern equivalent). And then I discovered there was a whole gallery upstairs as well, full of the detailed information about railways that had been somewhat lacking in other parts of the museum (aside from an exhibition on National Rail, the focus was mainly on the individual trains on display), including, excitingly, railway disasters! There was also a viewing platform up here where you could watch trains pulling into York Station (despite the rain, it was disturbingly crowded with keen train beans), but platform aside, this area felt a little forlorn, and wasn’t quite as dynamic and modern as the rest of the museum.

 

Finally, we checked out a temporary display of some of the Railway Museum’s choice memorabilia, including Stephenson’s (of Rocket fame) actual draught board and a miniature replica of a train where someone had been murdered that was used as evidence in the trial, and picked up a few postcards from the main shop (they have two shops). We didn’t visit the other temporary exhibition entitled “Brass, Steel, and Fire”, which was also free, but you had to book a ticket, and we just couldn’t be bothered (we were there for hours anyway, and we were ready to chill at the hotel for a bit), and I’m sorry to report that all of the ice cream huts at the museum were closed (probably because of the horrible weather), though there was an antique carriage that had been converted into a tea room that was open (we were waiting for Betty’s). Despite seemingly not being the museum’s target audience, and not much of a train enthusiast (I vastly prefer train travel to plane travel, but I’m not terribly interested in the trains themselves), I still managed to have a very enjoyable day, and I definitely recommend this museum to anyone visiting York, especially as it is one of the few museums here that is free (York apparently gets the most tourists in the UK outside of London, and it can be a bit of a tourist trap, though their high prices are still low compared to London). 4/5.

  

Leyburn, North Yorkshire: The Forbidden Corner

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The Forbidden Corner is one of my new favourite places (and I mean that literally, I’ve added it to the Favourite Places list and everything!)  Sure, there were too many children there for my taste (to be fair, I am a crab-ass, and any children is too many as far as I’m concerned), and the weather was extremely terrible, but I still had a blast, which means it must have been good.  The Forbidden Corner is hard to describe; it’s kind of like a maze combined with lots of whimsical follies and just random crap, with a slightly sinister haunted house/funhouse vibe, and with some bawdy touches thrown in for good measure – the goal is meant to be to find the exit, but really it’s all about exploring this crazy place.

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It’s in the middle of the lovely Yorkshire countryside, and is easy enough to find if you follow the signs from Leyburn, but the signs do perplexingly allude to a “ticket office” that apparently no longer exists.  Basically, you’re meant to book tickets in advance, which we were totally unaware of, as the website fails to clearly indicate this (sure, they have a button you can click to buy tickets, but so does pretty much every museum – it doesn’t usually mean that you MUST buy advance tickets).  Fortunately, since we visited on such a cold and rainy day, they had room to let us in (I think it helped that we were pretty much the only people there without kids, so they probably figured we wouldn’t take that long), but you may not be as lucky, so do book to guarantee that you won’t end up sad and disappointed.  It’s £11 per person, not sure if they offer any kind of discount for booking online.

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Now, this is a bit of a tricky one to write about, since most of the fun is in being surprised, and experiencing the place for yourself, so I’m going to try to give a very generic overview, and only show pictures that don’t give too much away.  First of all, even if it’s not raining, wellies and some sort of waterproof jacket might not be a bad idea, because you WILL get wet.  There are lots of fountains and other things that unexpectedly squirt you throughout, and you won’t manage to avoid all of them.  Since I don’t actually own a waterproof jacket myself (yes, I do live in Britain), I had to borrow my boyfriend’s, which was probably good as it provided extra coverage.

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Even from the start, you’re faced with choices, as there are three different doors you can enter the maze from, and each will lead you down a different path.  When I say maze, I don’t mean that in the traditional labyrinth sense, though there actually is a hedge maze within the larger maze, but this is far more involved, as the paths all cross each other, and you traverse through various buildings and passageways on your journey.  I’m fairly sure we ended up going through things backwards, though I’m not convinced there’s necessarily a right way to take (I’m only going by the fact that we found the grotto near the beginning, when I think you’re not meant to find it til near the end).

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They give you a brochure when you enter that has objects you’re meant to check off as you find them (though as they didn’t provide pencils or pens, we had to mentally check them); I think in theory finding everything will mean you’ve seen the whole Forbidden Corner, and there were at least two that we never managed to locate.  There’s also very cryptic clues along the way that I kept forgetting to read, which is a shame as they might have been of some use in finding the exit.

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I’m really struggling not to give too much away, because I feel like I can’t properly convey how awesome this place was without describing it a bit.  I have to say that my favourite parts were probably the aforementioned grotto, and the mausoleum; we were the only visitors in there at the time, I guess because it was probably too scary for most children (it was super “haunted,” as the gate warned us, kind of a Yorkshire take on Disneyworld’s Haunted Mansion, so yeah, awesome).

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It’s meant to take a good few hours to make your way through; we left after about two hours because we were so cold and wet, but I could have easily spent most of the day there (as it is, I’ll have to go back to try to find the proper exit)!  It’s so bizarre, and I genuinely think adults will appreciate it just as much as (if not more than) children, as they’ll get all the little jokes and bawdy humour (speaking of, be sure to use the set of toilets in the parking lot…men will especially enjoy the murals above the urinals (not that I went in there myself of course…ok, maybe I peeked in after my boyfriend made sure there was no one inside)).  I don’t think it would be great for very young kids at any rate, as a lot of them seemed to be scared and crying, but I’m sure older kids would love it, even if they don’t “get” everything (it was originally built as a private maze for the owner’s friends and family, which I think explains a lot).  There is also a fair amount of walking, and some quite steep and slippery steps, so also take those things into consideration if you visit.

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But yeah, the Forbidden Corner is awesome, and I’m sorry I’m being so cryptic about it, but I hope if you visit, and you have an open mind and a sense of humour, you will really love it as much as I did.  It was so much fun to explore, and I hope I can go back someday to find all the things I missed.  5/5.

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Knaresborough, North Yorkshire: Mother Shipton’s Cave

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Mother Shipton’s Cave bills itself as the “England’s oldest visitor attraction,” and I am the most recent sucker in the centuries-long tradition of visiting this tourist trap – overpriced or not, I wanted the Mother Shipton’s experience.  The main draw of Mother Shipton’s (and I suspect the real reason why the area became a tourist attraction in the first place, since the story of Mother Shipton is heavily mythologised, if not outright made-up) is the petrifying well that turns objects to stone thanks to the extremely high mineral content of the water, but they’ve attempted to turn it into a whole complex with a small museum, wishing well, a few playgrounds, and a forest full of random wood carvings.

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Admission is £6 per person, with an additional £2 charge for parking, which I suppose isn’t really too extortionate, even though the well itself feels like the type of thing you should be able to see for free.  The area is extremely pretty, as is all the countryside in North Yorkshire, so at the very least you get a scenic walk out of the experience.  And it is a fair walk from the parking lot down to the well and cave area – be forewarned that the only toilets in the place are right near the chequerboard patterned entrance (many of the houses in the village seem to share this chequerboard motif, which I found rather charming).

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On the way, you’ll find lots of logs and stumps with faces carved into them – I guess to make the forest seem more darkly atmospheric.  It was of course raining during our visit, but the leaves were thick enough overhead to provide a protective canopy.  The forest includes unusually tall beech trees that thrive from growing on the banks of the Nidd (the river that feeds the well).

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The well itself is very, um, petrifying.  The lumps sticking out the side are apparently a top hat and bonnet belonging to a pair of Victorians, which have since grown into the stone.  You’ll notice there are things hanging from the side, mostly small teddy bears, which they sell online once petrified, though curiously, not in the shop, at least on the day I visited.  Celebrities (well, mostly very minor celebrities, like soap stars and the cast of Blue Peter) frequently are permitted to hang choice objects from the side, which end up in the small museum, but not so for us ordinary folk, which is where I think they’re missing a trick.  I’m sure that people would be thrilled to create their own petrified objects (the process takes about 3-6 months, so perhaps people could leave their address and have their stuff sent to them once petrified) for a small fee – I know I would!

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There’s a cave nearby with a Mother Shipton statue in the back – this is where Mother Shipton was supposedly born, as her teenage mother had fled to the cave to give birth, rather than be forced by the midwife to reveal the name of the baby’s father.  Again, this is all just based on local folklore, but they flesh out the story in some detail via a audio guide mounted in the cave.  Poor Mother Shipton just happened to look exactly like a fairytale witch, with a nose and chin so pointy that they almost touched.  The audio guide included some of Mother Shipton’s prophecies (which is her main claim to fame, though most of them seem to have been written centuries after she was meant to have lived) – she was allegedly visited by a few of Henry VIII’s cronies, and accurately predicted their deaths (though she doesn’t appear to have given them any information regarding that which might have been useful to their avoiding execution) and the 1665 plague, which really doesn’t seem like that much of a challenge, even if true.  I mean, Henry VIII obviously liked to turn against friends and wives and have them killed, and the plague was always reoccurring in England, so she really didn’t have to have any “powers” to come up with this crap.

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There’s a wishing well hidden round the side of the well, with very specific instructions.  You must dunk your right hand in the extremely cold water, and then let it dry naturally – my hand felt as though it was about to drop off from frostbite, which I guess would be my own stupid fault for buying into it.  My wish hasn’t come true yet, so I can’t say what I wished for, or whether the well works (yeah, I’m definitely not superstitious).

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And then there is the very small museum/gift shop, which had the Aladdin soundtrack playing when I was inside (bonus!).  It holds a few cases of petrified objects, mostly, as I said, from “celebs” I’d never heard of, but there was a shoe belonging to Queen Mary (wife of George V), Agatha Christie’s purse, and John Wayne’s hat.

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And there were a few life-size tableaux round the corner of notable locals; some random local politician, a very tall blind man who worked as a guide in Mother Shipton’s Cave (pictured above), and once again, Mother Shipton herself.

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Aside from the couple “adventure” playgrounds for children (which looked like very standard playgrounds to me), and a small cafe, that was pretty much all there was to Mother Shipton’s (and of course, those adorable ducklings in the river), so it really doesn’t take more than an hour to see, and that’s assuming you stand there and listen to all the audio information down by the well.  It’s not a terrible stop if you’re in the area, and want to see the original British tourist trap and some petrified crap (which is not necessarily an unworthy goal), but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.  Very lovely area though, I will give it that.  3/5

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