cemeteries

London: “The Joy of Bees” and “Through a Glass Darkly”

dsc07797This week, I wanted to tell you guys about two events I recently attended (despite always feeling kind of bad for reporting on events that were a one-off, because what’s the point if no one else can go?! Oh well), and given that it’s October, I couldn’t resist opening the post with a creepy blurry picture of Brompton Cemetery at night, even though I’m going to talk about the Joy of Bees first.

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So, the Joy of Bees.  I’ve attended a few of Bompas and Parr’s events over the years, with mixed results (I blogged about “Sensed Presence” a couple years ago), and at some point ended up on their mailing list, which means that if they mention anything interesting, I’m more inclined to go than I perhaps otherwise would be (especially because hearing about it before the general public means I’ve actually got a shot at booking tickets to most things).  I like bees, I like honey, and their description of the event, though pretentious (“an experiential art installation and gastronomic tasting of some of the rarest honeys in the world”), was nonetheless sufficiently intriguing for me to book tickets, despite the hefty £9 price tag.

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Knowing what I now know, I wish I’d kept that £9 and just bought a couple jars of nice honey.  I think the best way I can review this is by going through their descriptions of each level of the townhouse (it was in some random narrow building (maybe a former brothel?) in Soho), so you can see that although I can’t technically accuse them of lying, the grandiose promises didn’t quite match up to what was delivered.  First up, the “Observation Colony, containing 20,000 live bees” (seen in the picture on the left, above).  I didn’t count them, but I do believe that it contained that many bees.  The problem is that 20,000 bees don’t actually take up all that much room, so it wasn’t any more impressive than the bee display at the Geauga County Fair, and the Geauga County fair does free honey tastings free of pompous trappings.

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The 1st Floor contained “Hive Mind, an exposition of cultural contributions from artists for whom bees, hives, honey, and the visual language of beekeeping have provided a source of information.”  I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “exposition,” I think of it as being more than three things.  Because that’s how many pieces of “art” were there.  3.  You’ve already seen two of them (the log looking things and the vase thing) and the other was much the same, just another thing made of honeycomb.  When I heard “honeycomb inspired modern art,” for some reason I was picturing maybe like a giant honeycombed hive you could walk through or something, not some unremarkable little vase in a glass case.  Anyway, this was lame, and the resident beekeeper who was allegedly on hand to answer questions was none too friendly either.

The 2nd Floor, shown on the left above (I’m running out of pictures here because there wasn’t much worth photographing), was “Pollenesia, a botanical paradise where you’ll meet the enigmatic, steely and magnificent Mellifera, Queen of Honey.”  Mellifera was quite clearly an aspiring actress who didn’t seem particularly interested in “bee-ing” there.  Her whole shtick consisted of asking us to smell the wildflowers and then do a shot of malic acid, which was meant to cleanse our palates for the honey tasting.  And man, that was not what I’d call a “botanical paradise.”  When I think of botanical paradise, I think of something like the inside of the big greenhouses in Kew, where you’re actually surrounded by plants.  Not some clumps of dirt on the floor with wildflowers stuck in them (and rather hilariously, the wildflowers were arranged in exactly the way the honey tasting ladies told us not to plant them; i.e. you should plant flowers of one type all together, so bees don’t have to exert themselves too much gathering pollen.  These were all mixed together).

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Finally, there was the honey tasting itself, or should I say the “Salon of Honey, a honeycombed haven where you’ll be guided through a taste of some of the rarest honeys in the world.”  This was by far the best part of the installation, because it’s hard to go wrong with tasting honey, though I was annoyed that they had a map posted everywhere showing the “29 honeys featured at the Joy of Bees,” yet we only tasted 5 honeys.  I realise it wouldn’t have been practical to taste THAT many honeys, but why advertise them then?  Because of that map, I’m not sure which honeys we actually tasted, as there was nothing to distinguish the tasting honeys from the 24 other featured honeys, and many of them were from the same countries as the ones we tasted.  But the honey was delicious, no complaints there, and I actually quite liked the apple chunks soaked in super-tart malic acid that we were given to cleanse our palates.  I also enjoyed the honey mocktail we were given afterwards, and the bonus honey on bread.  But really, none of it was worth £9.  I’m not much of a drinker, but if they would have dumped some booze in that “mocktail” at least I would have felt like I was getting my money’s worth.  The other main complaint, in addition to the general vibe of half-assedness that pervaded, was that the whole thing was sponsored by some hotel chain I’d never heard of, and the honey came from their hives, as we kept being reminded, to the extent that the whole thing felt like a big advert that they should have been paying us to listen to.  Very disappointing overall, and I think it’s going to be a long time before I risk another Bompas and Parr event, unless it’s something free.

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However, all was not lost, because later that evening we attended “Through a Glass Darkly” at Brompton Cemetery, part of London Month of the Dead. London Month of the Dead offer some of the few non-clubbing related Halloween events in London, and for this I am grateful.  It was £12 (and did come with an actual cocktail, although I didn’t drink it due to an unfortunate incident at a different Month of the Dead event last year where I desperately had to pee for the entire lecture after having the cocktail, and then had to frantically run to the men’s room at the back of the chapel, because the women’s toilet wasn’t unlocked), which I didn’t object that much to paying because it was a Halloween event (the things I’ll do for my favourite holiday), and also a chance to enter an awesome Victorian cemetery at night (and because some of the ticket price went to cemetery upkeep, of course).

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Anyway, after a bit of waiting around in the cold for someone to open the gates (I think every goth in town was there, and we all know I’m a goth at heart…), we all headed up to the chapel, which is a fair walk up the path between the graves, and the cemetery was good and dark, though the chapel was atmospherically illuminated with candlelight.  I realise I still haven’t explained what the event actually was (if you didn’t click the link and find out); it was advertised as a phantasmagoria, in other words, a creepy magic lantern show.  Ever since reading about a similar event held in a cemetery in Paris in the 19th century, I’ve been dying (not literally, though I guess it’s a pun) to attend one, so I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw this event on the Month of the Dead website.  Hence the need to snap up tickets.  It turned out to not exactly be a straightforward phantasmagoria, but it was so good that I didn’t mind.  What actually happened was that Professor Mervyn Heard, operator of the gloriously steampunk-looking magic lantern (it ran on electricity, but apparently they were originally powered by a volatile mix of gasses that blew up and killed several magic lantern operators), gave us a history of magic lantern shows, accompanied by some of his favourite slides, many of which were gothic in nature, although he provided amusing sound effects (he did comedy accents and everything), so not really scary.  There were a few ghost stories thrown in, and Professor Heard was extremely engaging, and infectiously passionate about magic lanterns (to the extent that I kind of want one of my own).  He was also very knowledgeable, which was nice after recently attending a couple of lectures where the speakers didn’t really seem to know their subject matter.

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My only problems with the event were that the people behind us talked through the whole damn thing (not Month of the Dead’s fault), and that it was hard to see the screen from where we were sitting because of all the heads in front of me (I had to lean to the side and got a crick in my neck), but I’m not really sure what could be done about that, other to let fewer people in, but then I might not have gotten to attend at all, and I would have rather had a sore neck than not seen it.  Professor Heard was fantastic; surprisingly funny, and he had an excellent collection of slides.  The second best part of the evening came when we left the cemetery; as the gates had been re-locked during the show, we had to all exit together so they could let us out.  After impatiently waiting for everyone to leave, we were rewarded when one of the event organisers strapped on a wind-up gramophone, and led us out of the cemetery whilst cranking out spooky music (I’ve got a video up on my Instagram, if you want to hear it).  It was hilarious, and the perfect end to the evening.  London Month of the Dead have got a few more events this month, though I think most of them are sold out (and I’d avoid the one about the architecture of cemeteries; we went last year and it was pretty lame), but I’d definitely recommend the magic lantern show if they do it again next year!  It even made up for the disappointment that was the Joy of Bees!

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Open House London 2016, Or; Endless Queues and the Perils of not Pre-Booking

img_20160917_152106444_hdrNow that Open House London has come and gone, it’s time for my yearly reflections/rant on the weekend. Or, if you’re not in the mood for relentless negativity, skip to the end of the post where I talk about Kilmorey Mausoleum.

I am neither stupid nor optimistic, so I can’t really explain why a part of me continues to get excited about Open House London every year.  I’ve experienced this event enough times to know precisely what it entails (and if you’re a long-time reader, probably so do you, because I repeat the same thing every year, but bear with me!).  Firstly, “Open House” isn’t exactly open.  About half the properties (and nearly all the really cool ones, or so it would seem) require pre-booking.  Which would be fine if there weren’t 8 million other people in London who always seem to manage to book before you do, even though you tried to make your bookings over a month before Open House.  By the time I remembered to look at the Open House website (in early August, mind, for mid-September), the only building I had even the vaguest interest in seeing that was still taking bookings was the London Library, so I hastily snagged a pair of tickets to that, but everything else we visited would have to accept visitors on the day. Which brings me to the problem of queues.

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To reiterate, London is a city of something like 8.6 million people, and to quote E.L. Konigsburg (who was talking about New York, but it also applies to London), if you’re thinking of doing something in London, “you can be certain that at least two thousand other people have the same thought.  And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be standing in line waiting to do it.”  Open House London is no exception to this rule.  I opened the post with a picture of a queue in central London, and you might think, “well, duh, of course there are loads of people in central London.”  But even well outside the centre, things were busy.  The first place we attempted to visit was the Southwark Integrated Waste Management Plant.  Yep, a dump.  And a dump kind of in the middle of nowhere at that (or as middle of nowhere as it gets in Zone 2 anyway, i.e. an industrial estate).  We arrived around noon and waited in a massive queue for a while, until word reached us that the tours were fully booked up until 4.  As we were due to tour the London Library at 2 (and there was no way I was coming back to Peckham after; it’s a bitch to get to!), we couldn’t do the tour, so now I guess I’ll never know how waste is turned into energy.

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So, we made our way up to Piccadilly (ish) to do the London Library tour, which was lovely, even though it made me saltier than ever that I’ll probably never be able to afford their £500-a-year subscription and have access to their amazing shelves full of one million delightfully musty-smelling books and absolutely pristine old newspapers (seriously, I don’t understand how they keep them so nice.  We have a bunch of old newspapers at the library where I volunteer, and even the ones from the 1970s are all crumbling and horrible, so I don’t understand how ones from 100 years ago were like new at the London Library.  I guess that’s what your £500 pays for).

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After our tour, I did sort of want to just wander around Westminster and see what other buildings were open, but of course the pre-booking/queues put a stop to that (I fully admit that a lot of my problems could be solved if I wasn’t so damn impatient, but that’s not going to change any time soon).  So we went to the Banqueting House, which could accommodate enough people at a time so that there was no queue.  Banqueting House is normally open to the public, but you have to pay when it’s not Open Weekend, which is why I had never been.  It was Charles I’s favourite palace (and, rather cruelly, where he was executed), and was where Inigo Jones put on his famous masques.  Only part of the palace survives, including the fabulous ceiling upstairs, but man, I was glad I did not pay £6 to visit it, because the whole palace nowadays consists of two halls that take all of ten minutes to see (nice toilets though!).  So I suppose that is one good thing about Open House London, but only for those properties where you don’t have to queue for an hour just to get inside.

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Our last stop on Saturday was the “Roman” Bath on the Strand, which is not Roman at all, nor was it initially a bath.  It was only built in the 1600s, and actually fed a grotto inside the old Somerset House and was eventually turned into a small bathhouse that Dahl’s Chickens, I mean Charles Dickens, wrote about in David Copperfield.  The annoying thing about the bath (well, really more about King’s) is that it is basically part of King’s College London’s campus; I got my Master’s at King’s, in Early Modern History (yeah, the exact period the bath was built), and not one person at the university thought to mention to me that this bath was located there.  So this was my first time seeing it, and it was neat, but again, I’m glad we only waited for about two minutes, because you are just looking at a stagnant pool of water with Dutch style tiles.

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Now, as for Sunday…I actually have something positive to say!  This was the first year that I was able to volunteer for Open House weekend, as I wasn’t sure if I would be in London on the last one, and prior to that, I had attempted to volunteer, only to be told I wasn’t needed at the last minute (grrr).  However, this year I successfully volunteered at the Kilmorey Mausoleum.  I picked it because I love cemeteries and tombs and all things gothy, and also because I had always wanted to see it but could never be bothered to make the trip to St. Margaret’s (across the river from Richmond), so I knew that if I volunteered there, I would have no choice but to trek out.

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The mausoleum is only open to the public on Open House Weekend (although this year, they are trying to open it on a few other days; December 11 is the next one), and it is freakin’ awesome.  It is hidden behind a wall with a low door in the middle; you cautiously creak it open to find yourself in the middle of a picturesquely overgrown (though not too overgrown, I hasten to add, having met the gardener) quiet garden, with a big ol’ tomb plunked down in the middle.  The 2nd Earl of Kilmorey was one of those fantastic Victorian eccentrics with more money than sense, and when he realised that his mistress Priscilla was dying from a heart condition (she was his ward, and he ran off with her when she was 20 and he was in his late 50s, ick), he commissioned a tomb for her in a fashionable Ancient Egyptian style, which cost £30,000 (and that’s in 1850s money).  It was originally in Brompton Cemetery, but he had it moved to his house in Chertsey, and then finally to this garden in St. Margaret’s, which was connected to his nearby house by a secret tunnel (sometimes the Earl would dress up in a shroud and sit in a coffin, and have his servants push him down the tunnel).  It has lots of pseudo-Egyptian symbols on the outside, and the inside has their crumbling coffins just sitting there; a carving of dead Priscilla being mourned by the Earl and their son, and these awesome yellow star-shaped skylights that shine bright to illuminate the tomb even even when the door is closed.  It is seriously the coolest mausoleum I’ve ever seen, and the volunteer giving the tours did a great job of making them both creepy AND full of salacious detail (I only had to count visitors and hand out leaflets, so I had plenty of time to talk to my fellow volunteers and learn more about the tomb.  And the Earl’s great-grandson, who lives in Australia, made a surprise visit, so that was pretty cool too!).

So you can see that my Open House Weekend was a very mixed bag (is the expression mixed bag referring to pick’n’mix sweets?  I feel like it should be, if it’s not. Let’s say there were some delicious strawberry fruit gums and soor plooms, and lots and lots of disgusting blackcurrant pastilles and horrible licorice allsorts).  Part of me feels bad for complaining every year about a free event, but a bigger part of me is angry enough about it to complain away, guilt-free.  Sure, I could just not attend, but then I’d risk missing out on a gem like the Kilmorey Mausoleum.  Properties like Kilmorey are the whole reason why I do still look forward to Open House weekend, despite its many flaws.  But central London on Open Weekend is just a mess, and I’m not even sure what could be done about it, except maybe to stop so many places from only taking pre-bookings, and perhaps institute a system everywhere else where you can show up, collect a ticket for a scheduled time, and come back later without queuing (I just really really hate queuing.  It’s the American in me).  Anyway, thus ends my annual rant, but I would definitely urge you to visit Kilmorey Mausoleum if you can on one of their open days, because there were no queues there, and it is rad.

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Kinderhook, New York: Lindenwald – It’s More than O.K.

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Marty and Me. Statue can be found on the main street of Kinderhook, in the village square.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I love presidential history. It probably has something to do with being given The Buck Stops Here by Alice Provensen as a child, which appealed enormously to my love of memorisation, catchy rhymes, and history (highly recommended if you have kids, by the way, though unless they’ve issued a new edition, it might be a bit out of date.  My copy concluded with Bush Sr.).  At any rate, I particularly love the obscure presidents, and picking up trivia on them that I can trot out at parties (hmmm, perhaps this is why I never get invited to parties).  I suppose being in New York, I should have been aiming for Millard Fillmore, but his house was more towards Buffalo, and not at all on our way.  So the Little Magician it was, as we headed for Martin Van Buren‘s lovely home, Lindenwald.

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Upstate New York was in the full flush of autumn when we visited, so the “Careful Dutchman’s” estate was ringed with scarlet and copper foliage, setting off the house to full advantage.  My boyfriend remarked that it reminded him a bit of Osborne House, and in addition to the colour, it does have Italianate features that were added on around the same time Osborne was built.  However, this wasn’t the only connection with Queen Victoria, as you shall see later.  The house is run by the National Park Service, and you can only go inside via guided tour (ugh!) which costs around $5, and is offered every half an hour during the summer season.

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We wandered the grounds a bit whilst we waited for our tour to begin; there is a Martin Van Buren trail around the property which features about ten plaques with details of the Van Burens’ lives, and the operation of their 191 acre farm.  The gravel road that runs next to the modern road at the front of the property is the original Old Albany Post Road, which runs from New York City all the way up to Albany (and we did manage to drive up almost all of it!).

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Other highlights of the estate include a small visitor’s centre, and most importantly, Martin’s mounting block.  Disappointingly for the dirty-minded amongst us, he only used it to mount his horse (No, not like that!  Jeez), since he was only 5’6″, and apparently the ladies took advantage of it as well.  (heh heh)

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By this point, our tour guide had arrived, along with some other visitors, and the tour commenced.  The guide was a ranger, so I’m not sure if he didn’t normally work at the site, or just hadn’t been there very long, because he had a set of index cards to help him, although he did appear to have a good base of knowledge on Martin Van Buren, so maybe he just wasn’t fond of public speaking (I know I’m not).  He was very nice though, and made a point to welcome everyone and ask where they were from.  He explained each room as we passed through, but also threw in a few bonus details about the “Red Fox,” which I appreciated, as it helped elevate things above the standard Victorian home tour, and I even learned a few new facts!

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One of these facts concerned Martin’s son, John, who was given the nickname “Prince John” after attending Victoria’s coronation, and subsequently dancing with her.  There was a portrait of Victoria hanging on his bedroom wall, but I’m not sure if it was original, or added later. Martin himself met Victoria as well, on a trip to Europe after his presidency.  Another connection  (well, not really, as it involves only me) between Van Buren and Victoria is that Martin died in the house, like Victoria did in Osborne House, so I have now seen both their deathbeds!  Which is quite the accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned.  There was a cane lying across the bed, which was given to Martin Van Buren by none other than Old Hickory himself!  Jackson had even had his name written on the cane, so Martin would remember EXACTLY where it came from (as if one could forget being given a cane by Andrew Jackson)!

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Aside from the fun facts, the rest of the tour was fairly standard for an historic home (a bit of gossip about the servants, explaining the domestic details of the house, period furnishings, etc), although our guide managed to regale us with a few more stories specific to the Van Burens, including learning about Martin’s tubercular son and wife, and a detailed description of his political campaigns.

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In the entryway of the home, there was a small case containing some artefacts pertaining to Martin Van Ruin, as his opponents called him, in reference to the financial panic that occurred during his presidency, and the subsequent depression (poor Martin), like a delightful card of him drinking from a champagne goblet.  His opponents in the election of 1840 branded him as a champagne-swilling aristocrat, whilst portraying William Henry Harrison as a humble farmer, when in fact the opposite was nearer the truth.  Harrison got his though; dying a month after taking office from pneumonia brought on by a combination of being long-winded and too stupid to dress appropriately for the weather (I can totally relate).

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There was more to see in the nearby village of Kinderhook (Lindenwald is actually about two miles south of the village) – the best thing was obviously the statue of Old Kinderhook himself in the village square (see picture at start of post), so don’t miss the photo opp! (Side note, “Old Kinderhook” was abbreviated to O.K. on campaign materials, which is one possible explanation for the word, although even at the time, O.K. was also a “folksy” misspelled abbreviation of” all correct.”  The Whigs claimed that “oll korrect” was probably how Jackson would spell it, thus mocking his “down-home” Southern roots.  All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the post title is totally a pun!)  I have to say, the entire village was adorable; I’m adding it to my list of places I wouldn’t mind living.  Just down the road from the village is the cemetery that is Martin Van Buren’s final resting place; he didn’t go for an elaborate statue of himself there (as I probably would have), but a simple obelisk marking his and Hannah’s graves.

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If you enjoy lesser-known presidents as much I do (cue the “Mediocre Presidents” song from The Simpsons “We are the adequate, forgettable, occasionally regrettable caretaker Presidents of the U-S-A!”… although, I couldn’t insult Martin by calling him mediocre after sharing a bench with him), then you should definitely factor in a trip to Lindenwald.  The house is quite pleasant, but I wasn’t going for the house so much as I was the Van Buren trivia (ok, and the statue.  Definitely the statue), and in that, I was richly rewarded.  3.5/5

Sleepy Hollow, New York: Cemetery Tour and the Old Dutch Church

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In the interest of keeping things as Halloweeny as possible around here, I’m going to go ahead and write about Sleepy Hollow, even though I didn’t visit any museums or historic houses there, so it’ll be a slight departure from my usual review/critique format.  Sleepy Hollow is of course famous for being the setting for Washington Irving‘s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, as well as for various films and a terrible-looking TV show.  Naturally, Sleepy Hollow chooses to capitalise on this; in fact, they only changed their name to Sleepy Hollow in 1996; the village was formerly known as North Tarrytown

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Although Sleepy Hollow doesn’t quite go all out for Halloween to the extent that Salem does (of which more in my next post), there’s certainly no shortage of Halloween-themed attractions in the surrounding area, from theJack O’Lantern Blaze, to Horseman’s Hollow, and Jay Ghoul’s House of Curiosities.  The village of Sleepy Hollow isn’t all that big, so the main things to see are the Old Dutch Church and the cemetery, which offers a load of different tours.  Because the “Murder and Mayhem”tour was already sold out when I tried to book some weeks ago, we ended up on the “Classic Lantern Tour,” from ten until midnight, which cost $25.

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I do love the rare opportunity to venture round a cemetery by night, and I adore the smell of oil lamps, which were handed out at the start of the tour, but I do think I would have preferred one of the specialised tours.  Our tour was more of a generic overview, with stops at the graves of some of the famous “residents,” like one of the Rockefellers (though not John D, he’s in Lake View!)  and of course Washington Irving, but much of it was devoted to architecture, which I would have found more interesting if I hadn’t already been to a variety of Victorian cemeteries.  Our guide told us a fascinating story about some guy whose wife died under mysterious circumstances, and mentioned that the “Murder and Mayhem” tour featured a lot more of that sort of thing, so I think that’s definitely the tour to take if it’s available!  I did enjoy the chance to see inside one of the vaults, which was obviously empty, but still delightfully claustrophobic.

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The only really scary part of the experience was when we were stopped in an area ringed by angel statues, as there were three of them, and I had to keep trying to stare in all directions so none of them sneaked up behind me.  Even creepier is the fact that there used to be four angels, but one of them was knocked over and is currently in storage, or so they claim…  Doctor Who has just made me completely freaked out by the things.

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We’d stopped by the village earlier in the day so we could check out the Old Dutch Church, which was having its annual “Old Dutch Fest,” which meant that there was a costumed guide in the church.  Unfortunately, the church is right by a main road, and there was a lot of traffic noise coming in the open doors, so I couldn’t hear much of what he was saying, but what I did catch, about the role of the church and village in the Revolutionary War, was very interesting.  The interior of the church is quite plain, as you might expect, and there’s no altar. 

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Sleepy Hollow does a nice job of decorating for the season around town, with the highlight being the scarecrows made by local schoolchildren, but there’s also a big Headless Horseman statue in the centre of town, and the local manor house, Philipsburg, also does its part.

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We snapped a few pictures from afar, but didn’t pay to enter because we were visiting the FDR Museum that afternoon, and I certainly wasn’t going to “tarry” around (ha!) with FDR a-waitin’ (which will also be the subject of a future post, don’t worry!).  Sleepy Hollow was the perfect thing to get me in the Halloween spirit (as if I needed help), and the cemetery was pretty excellent, sculpture and mausoleum-wise, and it’s only about 28 miles from New York City (see below), so well-worth investigating if you’re a New Yorker.  I’m really more of a town girl than a city girl at heart anyway, though Sleepy Hollow’s proximity to NYC gives it less of a village feel than I was expecting.  Still, it was nice to walk in the hoof prints of the Headless Horseman…

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