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Burwash, East Sussex: Bateman’s (Rudyard Kipling’s Home)

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I know I’ve mentioned this on here before, but “How the Camel Got His Hump” from Just So Stories was my absolute favourite story when I was little, and I forced my grandpa to read it to me every time I saw him (which was at least 3 times a week, since my grandparents babysat me whilst my mom was at work) because he did such an excellent grumpy camel voice.  So I’ve always harboured a fondness for Mr. Kipling (Rudyard, not the cake manufacturer, although you won’t catch me turning down a French Fancy. Especially those orange ones they put out for Halloween), and when I spotted Bateman’s in the (sigh) National Trust handbook, I marked it down for a future visit.  However, it had to wait for a day when it was warm enough to also walk around nearby Battle, because I kind of doubted it would merit a special trip of its own.

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Bateman’s was built in 1634, but the Kiplings obviously came to own the property a few centuries on, from 1902 until the deaths of Rudyard and his wife Carrie in the 1930s.  There’s quite a lot of land surrounding the house, including a variety of gardens and a watermill (of which more later), but I’m not sure it’s enough to merit the tenner non-members have to pay to enter (I’m convinced by now that the National Trust expects everyone to become members, so they just slap any old admission price on their properties because they assume almost no one is going to pay it).

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As for the house, well, we didn’t really get any pictures inside because we weren’t 100% sure whether we were allowed to take them, and it was crowded in there so it felt awkward whipping out a camera, but the typical National Trust rather scanty single-sheet guide did have its moments.  For instance, there was an ugly painting hanging in the dining room that was a gift to the family, so they felt like they had to display it, but they got around this by sitting with their backs to it, except Rudyard, who was too short sighted to be able to see it from his side of the table anyway. There were also some carvings (I think made by Kipling’s father) depicting scenes from The Jungle Book.  As is usual though, Bateman’s appeared to assume that everyone visiting was already a huge Rudyard Kipling fan and was familiar with all his works, and focused instead on family life, especially his son John, who was killed in the First World War.  I understand that they have limited space, so they have to choose an aspect of Kipling’s life to focus on, but I do think there must be some way to provide more background information at these places whilst still telling the story they want to tell.

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The one thing we did get a picture of in the house was the alphabet necklace featured in Just So Stories.  I strongly suspect the copy I had was an abridged version (considering it was one of my grandpa’s garage sale finds, it’s not completely surprising), because I do not remember any stories about the alphabet, only animal ones, so I didn’t feel the proper sense of awe at seeing it.  I think I would have been more impressed with a stuffed camel.  This was in the “exhibition room,” which was really the only place in the house that gave a significant amount of space to Kipling’s writing, with copies of some of his books, and his Nobel Prize for Literature.  Even here, half the space was devoted to John Kipling, and his war experiences; I’m not sure if this is a special feature for the centenary, or an all-the-time thing (I’m not knocking it, as John’s death was obviously a huge life-defining blow to Kipling, but it seemed a little odd to have so much emphasis on John relative to Rudyard).

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Back outside, we stole a quick peek at Kipling’s gorgeous blue 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom I (I’m not a car person, but if I was going to have a car, damn, now THAT’S a car!) and headed down the river, past the gardens to the watermill.  Despite the handbook claiming that we could purchase flour ground in the mill, the mill is currently non-operational, so that was off the table.  You’re still allowed to look around inside, but a mill is a mill (yes, I know about all the different styles, but it’s hard to get excited about the differences if you’re not a mill enthusiast), and once you’ve seen a fair few, as I have, they get a bit dull.

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However, I am not so world-weary and dead inside that I can’t appreciate some chickens.  They had a crapload of chickens!  There were even some roosting in a tree!  (I bought a chocolate chicken from Lidl for Easter this year, because I’ve wanted a chocolate chicken since I saw them advertised on a German Lindt commercial last year, and this was the first time I’ve been able to find one.  I made the mistake of naming her Mrs. Cluckley, and now I can’t bring myself to eat her, even though Easter has long since come and gone.)

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On the subject of chocolate, I should mention that the tearoom had an unusually wide selection of cakes, which I did not partake of because Battle was supposed to have baked goods made with their own honey, but after seeing the disappointing offerings at Battle (spoiler alert?), I sorely wished I had grabbed some chocolate fudge cake at Bateman’s (don’t be like me, is what I’m saying).  In the end, I think the gardens (and chickens) may have been better than the actual house, which needed to have more signage.  I sound like a broken record with these National Trust properties, and I’m not sure why I go in expecting things to be different, but there you have it.  3/5.

 

London: Charles Dickens Museum

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I have a confession.  I normally always refer to Charles Dickens as “Dahl’s Chickens.”  Perhaps you’ll think me terribly uncultured for admitting I far prefer The BFG to anything Dickens wrote, but at least you’ll know where I stand on ol’ Charles.   I’m not questioning his influence, particularly on modern Christmas traditions, I’m just saying his novels have never really grabbed me. If anything, rather than just favouring Dahl over Dickens, I actively disliked the man after learning about how mean he was to poor, gawky Hans Christian Andersen.   So, did a trip to his London home change my opinion of him?  Read on to find out. (and on an unrelated note, my postcard giveaway is open until tomorrow (20 February), so there’s still time to enter!)

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I certainly wasn’t won over when I was asked to part with £8 (!) for admission.  London prices and all, but this was still a bit rich for my blood.  At least the museum wasn’t very crowded, despite it being ideal museum weather that day (windy, cold, and rainy).  I was handed a little booklet with a paragraph about each room in it, and there were a few more booklets in each room next to objects of importance, but other than that, little description of the house’s contents.  I was annoyed by this right from the start, upon encountering the largest Victorian gown I’ve ever seen in one of the ground floor rooms.  I mean, this thing would have been big on Queen Victoria, and I don’t mean height-wise, as the owner must have been extremely short, but pretty much as wide as she was tall; cube-like, if you will.  Catherine Dickens appeared to have been quite slim, especially as a young woman, so I’m left wondering why the museum would include such a curious object with no explanation of why it was there.  Then again, the rooms seemed to contain a mix of period furnishings and curiosities, so in that sense it fit right in.

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The museum seemed to encourage lengthy stays, with copies of Dickens’s novels and some books that had inspired him strewn about the place, bearing “”Please read me” labels, but although I’m a fast reader who enjoys the odd bit of Smollett, I’m certainly not ambitious enough to contemplate reading Roderick Random in its entirety during a museum visit.  Leaving the lavishly decorated ground floor rooms, I headed into the basement, which was exactly like the basement of every other large Victorian household ever, with a scullery and kitchen, and a list of the servants’ responsibilities.  Dickens did have a nice little wine cellar though.

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The house was one of those delightful terraced Georgian numbers, the sort I’ve always wanted to live in; narrow, but with more floors than I was anticipating.  The upper floors were better than the lower ones, as they contained more of Dickens’s actual possessions, and some rather poignant objects that had been left by his grave, since he was obviously more beloved by the Victorians than by me.  Other than the reading table he’d had specially designed, and the descriptions by Thomas Carlyle of Dickens as a sort of dandy, with his many multi-coloured waistcoats, nothing was particularly standing out to me to distinguish it from other historic homes.

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I was relieved when I got up to the attic rooms, as these were more “museum-like” in content, and explained Dickens’s poverty-stricken childhood, and how it influenced his writing.  If there could have been more of this throughout the museum, I think I would have enjoyed it more, or at least felt like I was getting to know more about him and his personality.  I mean, anyone who is interested in the Victorians will already know tidbits about Dickens, but I didn’t get any profound sense of the man by being in his house, which makes sense, as the family only lived there for two years!

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I was impressed with the layout of the house, as people were directed upstairs via the front staircase, and back down via a hidden back staircase, which at least helped avoid awkwardly waiting in the stairwell for people to come up or down. This also meant there were more rooms I wasn’t expecting on the way out, though one of them was on the filming of the new Ralph Fiennes film The Invisible Woman; having not seen it, I didn’t really get or care what they were talking about.  The only mention of Hans Christan Andersen I could find was an entry on the timeline mentioning his visit, but there was nothing about how much they disliked him.  I reckon Andersen gets the last laugh though, as his museum is miles better than Dickens’s.

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In the end, there was nothing to particularly distinguish the Dahl’s Chickens…I mean, the Charles Dickens Museum from any other historic home.  I didn’t hate it, but I left not knowing much more about Dickens than when I started, and I definitely don’t think it was worth the admission price (though if anything was going to win me over to Dickens, it would be his stylish waistcoats; I only recall seeing two of them).  It was similar to Samuel Johnson’s house in the type of content, though I believe Dickens’s house may have been larger, but admission to Johnson’s house only cost half as much.  I can’t help but feel that the museum is just cashing in on the house’s limited connection to a huge name by keeping the admission price so high.  Like I said, it wasn’t terrible, but it was expensive for what it was, and a LOT more signage wouldn’t go amiss.   I think the fact that this review isn’t terribly descriptive is indicative of how unmemorable my visit was.  3/5

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Odense, Denmark: Hans Christian Andersen Museum

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Compared to the blocky ’70s architecture that dominates much of Copenhagen, the part of Odense where the Hans Christian Andersen Museum is located is downright lovely, full of cobblestone streets and low, colourful old homes closely packed together.  I was a great fan of fairy tales as a child, and though my particular favourite was Hansel and Gretel (as told by my grandmother), I also loved the works of Hans Christian Andersen, so I was keen to see his museum and childhood home.  In life, he was fairly peripatetic, and when he wasn’t travelling, tended to base himself in Copenhagen.  However, Odense is where he was born into poverty, and spent the first 14 years of his life, and it is thus home to his museum.

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Admission to the museum is DKK 85, which seemed positively modest after Egeskov (although apparently, if you also visited Egeskov, you can get a discount at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum and the toll bridge over from Zealand, which no one bothered to tell us, but I’ll be nice enough to give you the heads up).  The idea is that you follow footprints around the museum, which will take you chronologically through his life story.  The footprints were pretty big, so may have been based on Hans’ actual feet.

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The opening gallery offered a brief overview of Danish and world history during Andersen’s lifetime, which covered most of the 19th century (and the gallery dwelt a fair bit on the American Civil War).  After reading physical descriptions of Andersen given by his contemporaries, which were downright mean, and examining some of his clothes, we progressed into a temporary exhibition about his failures in love.  I was already beginning to feel quite sorry for Hans, what with everyone mocking his big nose and gawky frame (I can certainly relate to the former problem), and the unrequited love gallery only served to intensify my pity.

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In addition to two failed relationships with women in his youth (where each professed love, but ran off to marry another man), Andersen was infatuated in his later years with Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale.  I’d heard of Lind before, as I’ve read quite a bit about PT Barnum and the various acts who worked for him (he hired her to perform concerts in his museum), but I wasn’t aware of her relationship with Andersen.  Apparently, after he declared his love, she publicly announced that she thought of him as a brother.  Kind of harsh, Jenny.  Andersen also had a close friendship with a man (probably platonic, but maybe something more), but even that went awry when the other man refused to let Andersen address him as “du” instead of “de.” As far as I could tell, this is somewhat akin to the use of tu over vous in French, where tu would denote a closer relationship than vous, but the “du” relationship in Danish is even more intimate.  According to the museum, the main problem with Andersen was not so much his looks as his lack of prospects and poor income when he was a young man.  Andersen’s paper cuttings in this section attest to his mood at the time, one of them depicting lovers hanged from a love noose.

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We next carried on through an attractive rotunda full of mosaic scenes on Andersen’s life, and then to the biographical gallery that surrounds it.  Here, I learned more about his childhood with a cobbler father who died young and an alcoholic mother, and how he moved to Copenhagen on the strength of his singing voice.  After his voice broke, he turned to acting, and then ultimately, to writing, surviving some pretty horrible experiences along the way, like an abusive schoolmaster, who was also his landlord, and having to attend school in his 20s with a bunch of children, as he was too poor to receive a proper education as a child.  This section also talked more about his writing and adult life, right up until his death from liver cancer, which was all surprisingly interesting, though the museum did assume a working knowledge of most of his fairy tales on the part of the visitor (fair enough I suppose, as why else would you want to visit it in the first place?).  My favourite objects in all of this were the aforementioned paper cuttings, which he was incredibly skilled at, and frequently included in notes to friends.

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It was then time to head into the replica of his childhood home, which is inside a small yellow cottage that you pass on your way into the museum (I believe his actual childhood home is several blocks away, though I’m actually quite confused about this.  His home is listed as a separate museum with its own admission fee, but inside the replica, there was a plaque saying Andersen was born in that room, so I have no idea what was going on).  It was full of tools and simple furniture, as would befit the family of a cobbler.  Back in the museum, there was a re-creation of Andersen’s sitting room in Copenhagen, which was much nicer and packed with Victorian knickknacks.

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When I saw a sign directing me downstairs to the Cabinet of Curiosities, I HAD to venture in.  It was primarily a collection of Andersen’s possessions, ranging from his shaving set and hat to a rope he carried everywhere with him in case he had to escape from a fire via a hotel room window.  Now, that’s the kind of paranoia I can relate to!  Like Jane Carlyle, and pretty much every other Victorian with time on their hands, Andersen also made a decoupage screen, which was displayed here.  I really must take up decoupaging one of these days…

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Throughout the museum, we found anecdotes from people who knew him, most of which were pretty harsh.  Dickens hated him after Andersen came for a month-long visit, and one of Dickens’ daughters referred to him “that bony bore.” Someone else remarked that he was almost impossible to shave in his latter years as he’d lost all his teeth, and his mouth never stopped making chewing motions.  I just spent the whole time feeling sorrier and sorrier for Andersen, though I guess at least children liked him, which is probably more than I’ve got going for myself.

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The museum also housed a library full of his titles published in over a hundred different languages, many of which I’d never even heard of (the languages, that is).  The final hallway held a collection of illustrations to his fairy tales done by modern artists, some of which were quite good, though I was disappointed no one had tried their hand at the dog with eyes as big as tea cups (or the dog with eyes as big as towers, for that matter!).

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Aside from his fairy tales, and that terribly inaccurate film from the 1950s (with Danny Kaye,”I’m Hans Christian Andersen, Andersen that’s who,” which I still get stuck in my head now and again), I didn’t know much about Hans Christian Andersen prior to visiting his museum. I have to admit that I didn’t go in expecting much, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality, and definitely recommend it to anyone passing through Odense.  I’m glad I got the chance to learn about Andersen’s fascinating life, as I now see him as a very sympathetic character who even seemed to share some of my quirks (which will perhaps give a new dimension to his fairy tales). 4.5/5