arcades

The Rest o’ Rye: Lamb House and the Rye Heritage Centre

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What kind of a quaint English town would Rye be without a National Trust property on one of its famed cobbled streets? (I still can’t quite get over the idea of cobblestones being a tourist attraction, I guess because I really hate walking on them.)  Fortunately, Henry James, author of The Portrait of a Lady, The Innocents, etc. was once in residence here, in a fine red-brick Georgian house.  Despite owning a copy of The Turn of the Screw that I got free in The Times some years ago, I have still never gotten around to reading any of James’s books (shame on me, I should be more interested in fellow American expats I guess).  In fact, I probably know more about his brother William, a psychologist, due to Deborah Blum’s fascinating book Ghost Hunters, but that National Trust card has made me more adventurous, as all I have to waste is my time, so I figured why the hell not see Lamb House?!

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Although if you’re not a National Trust member, I can think of six very good reasons not to see Lamb House.  As in, that’s how many pounds you’ll be wasting to look inside this ridiculously tiny property.  Well, the property itself actually seems fairly substantial, the problem is more that you’re not allowed in three quarters of the building, including the entire upstairs.  Only three rooms on the ground level of the house are open, plus a garden/cafe, which seems like a lovely place to have a tea, but if you’re not partaking, then it just means all the tea-drinkers stare at you as you try to look ’round the place.

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To be fair, they did hand over three long fact sheets when we walked in, which is more than many larger National Trust properties have, so I left knowing more about Henry James than I did when I walked in, which can’t be a bad thing.  And about E.F. Benson, who was another writer who lived in the house after James.  Benson I knew virtually nothing about, other than his name sounding vaguely familiar.  Apparently he wrote Mapp and Lucia novels, though I’m still in the dark as to what those involve.  One of the rooms had about a million binders on the table (many of them duplicates) with more information about the property, so I suppose that was a plus too.

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We discovered what appeared to be a pet graveyard outside; perhaps it was mentioned in one of those binders, and I missed it.  However, that pretty much concludes the list of interesting features of Lamb House.  It was way, way too small for the price, and unmemorable.  I’d definitely skip this one unless you’re a big Henry James fan AND a National Trust member (I don’t think James fans alone would be too pleased with the admission charge either).  It also seems like they have very limited opening hours, so odds are good it might be shut anyway. 1.5/5.

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Rye is one of those historic towns that’s meant to be super haunted and all that jazz, with some inn called the Mermaid being a major stop for German tour groups (as far as I could tell); I saw the Mermaid featured on Great British Ghosts a while back, and much as I like Michaela et al on Springwatch, even she couldn’t sell me on what was sure to be a tourist trap.  But I am not immune to tourist traps, as proved by my visit to the Rye Heritage Centre.  At first glance, the Heritage Centre was nothing more than a glorified souvenir shop, with some kind of (undoubtedly overpriced) “Sound and Light Show” about the history of Rye housed inside, but their website drew me in with the promise of an old-fashioned penny arcade.  I LOVE penny arcades, as you may remember from my visit to Tim Hunkin’s superb Under the Pier Show a couple years back.

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Though this was nothing like the glorious whimsy of the Under the Pier Show, being a pretty standard collection of old penny machines, it was free, and you got seven plays for a pound (which you have to exchange for giant pre-1971 pennies in a machine in order to play the games).  It was the usual mix of fortune telling devices, not-very-exciting games involving variations on dropping marbles through slots, and old mechanical models, but they did have a few machines that were listed as one-offs, including a machine from 1905!

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What can I say?  It was cheesy, and a bit lame, but I enjoyed myself, and the place was absolutely deserted, which was a bonus (the weird thing about Rye is that it has the feel of a seaside town, without actually being on the sea (though it once was, as I learned at Ypres Tower), which does help to cut down on the crowds a bit.  Just wish they’d get some decent ice cream somewhere.  Movenpick doesn’t cut it, sorry).  Rye was a bit of a mixed bag, but it was fine overall.  Not somewhere I’d rush to return to, but if I ended up back here at some point in the future, I wouldn’t mind too much.  Anywhere that has a penny arcade can’t be all bad.

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Great Yarmouth, Norfolk: The Nelson Museum and the “Golden Mile”

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Although I’m more of a Wellington girl myself (a thin, aloof aristocrat beats out a short, sickly seaman.  Sorry, Horatio), the Nelson Museum still seemed worthy of consideration, especially as I was already in Great Yarmouth.  Appropriately enough, the museum is housed in a Georgian merchant’s house that overlooks the sea, much as Nelson probably gazed out over the horizon as a child.  Admission to this compact, volunteer-run collection is a mere £3.50.  The main gallery takes up the ground floor of the house, and is devoted to Nelson’s life-story, mainly accompanied by portraits and some commemorative china, although there were a few interactive things, like ropes for knot-tying practice, and paper and pens for trying out signing your name with your non-dominant hand (in case you ever lose an arm in battle!).  I may suck at tying knots, but my left-handed signature was surprisingly good, perhaps because it looks so crap in the first place.  It’s not hard to replicate a scribble.

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In the back, there was a re-creation of the bedchamber at Merton Place, Nelson’s Wimbledon residence that he shared with his mistress, Lady Hamilton.  I honestly had no idea that Nelson had lived in Wimbledon, even though I’ve pored over a copy of Wimbledon’s Cultural Heritage map, and was momentarily excited about the prospect of somewhere new to visit, but after looking it up, discovered Merton Place has been converted into council estates, so I guess I can cross that one off the list.  Anyway, the walls were full of quotes describing Nelson, most of them unflattering (Wellington himself wasn’t especially keen), but then again, I suppose he was more a “man of the people” than anything.  The first floor held the temporary exhibition space, currently on Nelson’s ships, with a painting and description of each.  It was actually more interesting than I’m making it sound, since Nelson anecdote was included for each one.  Some Nelson memorabilia sat in a case at the end, including a miniature replica of his coffin, similar to the one that can be found in a diorama at the back of the Painted Hall in Greenwich (I seem to be doing quite a lot of maritimey things lately for some reason).

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“Life Below Decks” is the museum’s child-orientated section.  Pushing in the ship’s biscuit (hmmm, that sounds a bit dirty, have I invented a new euphemism?) triggered a recording of a long, long conversation between two sailors, culminating in a naval battle.  I had to duck outside before the cannon effects started going off; they were loud!  They had a few touchy-feely boxes in here, some with disturbing things hidden inside, and a small below-decks area to explore.

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The back garden was surprisingly spacious, and offered yet more activities.  Here was where you could try out some games popular on ship, such as giant-sized dominoes, skittles, and a Ring-Around-the-Nelson rope throwing game, which I am demonstrating above.  Back indoors, the gift shop was offering an unbelievably low price on postcards, so I now own quite an impressive range of Nelson cards.  The museum was not terribly large, but I think that was reflected in the price, and the volunteers were certainly very friendly.  I think I’d like to see more biographical information on Nelson; even though that was the main focus of the museum, it still felt like it was lacking something somehow, like I could never really get my head around the man.  Or perhaps that was the result of his supposedly complex personality, and I just needed more background on naval practices and sailing?  Either way, I think it was good, but not great.  3/5

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The “Golden Mile” is the term used to describe the long strip of funfairs, arcades, restaurants, and adventure golf courses bordering the seafront, and I can never resist the tacky, yet alluring blend of the weird and wonderful that is the British seaside, so of course, we had to explore it.  Besides that, Great Yarmouth is the Pleasure Beach that the Buckets visit in Keeping up Appearances, as I mentioned in my last post, so I had to walk in Hyacinth’s footsteps.  The Ghost Train was the only ride we partook of, and I’m not one for swimming, especially on a slightly chilly day, so most of the time was spent wandering around and eating.

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I love a good arcade, and the ones at the Pleasure Beach were decent, offering a mix of old and new games (though sadly, no Galaga, which is my favourite game and the one I’m most skilled at).  The disturbing clown machines shown above were eerily ubiquitous, and I had to keep an eye on them so the clowns couldn’t eat my soul when I wasn’t paying attention.  However, I let my guard down to play the early 90s Simpsons arcade game which I remembered fondly from my youth.  I’m not any better at it now than I was back then.

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Further along the beach, we espied the Merrivale Penny Arcade, whereupon we foolishly exchanged a pound for 15 antique pennies so we could use the coin-operated machines.  After the Under the Pier Show in Southwold, they were bound to be unsatisfying, but these ones were real duds.  Some hilariously so, like the “haunted house” where a lame plastic ghost dangled precariously from a chain in the background, and some were just crap, like the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Victorian peep show.

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And of course, one of the delights of the seaside is eating yourself stupid on greasy food, so I was happy to oblige, managing to down a portion of cheesy chips, an extraordinarily oil-laden doughnut, a stick of rock, a strawberry swirl Mr Whippy (two-flavour Mr Whippy thrills me more than is warranted by the actual taste, but damned if I don’t miss good old American twist, where the chocolate side actually tastes of chocolate), and a Slush Puppy that was advertised as mix-your-own, but which the surly vendor insisted on mixing for me, and she skimped on the cherry.  At least there was plenty of blue!

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Although I don’t see how “Mr. Wobbles” on the right there would not scar children for life, Great Yarmouth was otherwise a pretty good seaside.  Lots to do, and plenty quirky, but not so crowded that you couldn’t actually enjoy yourself, which is my main gripe with Brighton (well that, and the horrible rocky beach. I do like a sandy beach).  Of course, it’s all terribly cheesy and overpriced, but I think that’s kind of the point.

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In closing, I leave you with two seafood huts, which didn’t have punny names (though on retrospect, I suppose Rod’s does, sort of), but at least gave it a go with their taglines.  Due to my insistence at getting chips from the chippy with the best name, we ended up at “Frydays,” which I thought was a bit of a poor effort, but it was the only place that even attempted a pun (besides, they had cheesy chips!). Step up your pun game, Yarmouth!

Southwold, Suffolk: The Under the Pier Show

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In honour of the unusually warm weather we’re having in London at the moment, I’ll postpone my last couple of posts on Belgium in favour of a few on unconventional British seaside attractions. I spent the weekend in East Anglia at various coastal destinations, but my favourite had to be the brilliant “Under the Pier Show” on Southwold Pier.  I’d been dying to visit it ever since I first read about it last spring, and I can safely say it lived up to the hype.

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At first glance, Southwold seems like a perfectly nice, yet unassuming seaside town, with the usual complement of ice cream parlours, souvenir shops, a traditional arcade, and a beachside cafe.  Upon venturing down the pier, however, you will be rewarded with the sight of a shed crammed full of the most incredible arcade games you’ve ever seen.  This is the Under the Pier Show; created by the marvellous Tim Hunkin, arcade machine inventor extraordinaire.

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For the history of the Under the Pier show, which opened in 2001, I’d like to direct you to their website, which features a biography of Mr. Hunkin, and a short video well worth watching. I’d rather just talk about his amazing machines!  First of all, I’d advise you to bring cash (although they will give cash back with a purchase at the cafe, but that can be a bit of a bother), and plenty of it, because although the games range in price from a modest 40p up to £2, you will want to play almost everything.  There is a change machine though, so you needn’t arriving with pockets jingling.  Secondly, it’d probably be better to arrive early in the day during the summer, as it seems like the kind of place that gets quite crowded.  We got there around 10:30, and it was fairly empty, but was starting to fill up by the time we left an hour or so later, and it’s more fun if you don’t have to queue! (I get enough of that at the bloody post office).  Now, onto the games!

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Dotty was the cutest!

There were about twenty machines in total, and between my boyfriend and I, we tried most of them.  We began with the “Expressive Photobooth,” which is very much like a traditional photobooth, but with a humorous twist (a common theme amongst the machines).  Unexpected things happen inside, like a blowing fan, and a moving seat, which cause you to pose with expressions ranging from distracted to thrilled, and even weightless!  The “Bathyscape” offered a journey to the sea floor (I was drawn in by the promise of being disgusted by raw sewage, thanks to my affinity for authentic smells) , which was hilariously narrated, and culminated in us being swallowed by a fish (mind the stomach acid!).

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Some other favourites were the “Fly Drive,” where you ride on a fly’s proboscis, and land on food for as long as you can without being spotted (watch out for the swatter! I mean it!), “Pirate Practice” which involves bouncing vigorously on a stool to propel a boat to the top of the screen (to the amusement of onlookers), and “Rent-A-Dog,” where one can take the adorable Dotty for a walk.

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Other highlights included the “Mobility Masterclass,” which allows you to experience crossing the street as an elderly person, and “Autofrisk,” a pat-down with an extra “bonus” for the lads.  There were also a few slightly less-involved machines, like Crankenstein and the Doctor, and some unique spins on the traditional fortune telling booth (“Gene Forecaster,” anyone?).  There were several other machines I would have loved to try, especially “Microbreak” and “Quickfit,” which looked like a riot, but we were running out of cash.  I guess that means a return trip is in order!

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Tim Hunkin’s genius isn’t limited to the confines of the arcade building.  He’s been allowed to gradually expand along the pier, so that one can take advantage of his “Quantum Tunneling Telescope” (an improvement over the usual sea views), or have a peek at his water-powered clock.  Along with my penchant for postcards (which are also available courtesy of a coin-operated machine), I am a complete sucker for those machines whereby you convert a pound and a penny into a useless penny with a squashed design on it.  “Decoration Direct” was the most truthful version of what actually happens once you part with your money and turn the crank that I’ve ever seen, and I will forever treasure my Stupid Award, which will remind me “This used to be worth something until I squashed it” every time I find myself in need of 10p.

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I can’t speak highly enough of Tim Hunkin and his fantastically amazing machines.  My descriptions of them really don’t do them justice; they’re something you need to experience for yourself to appreciate the humour and love that’s gone into making them, not to mention the fact that they’re jolly fun!  5/5; and one of the best days out I’ve had in a long time.

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