Christmas

Akron, OH: “Deck the Hall” at Stan Hywet

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I’ve had Stan Hywet listed as one of my Favourite Places since I’ve started this blog, but this is the first time I’ve written a whole post on it.  I’m not sure why, because I went last year and even had my brother there to take pictures with his fancy camera, but it slipped my mind, so you get to hear about it this year instead, accompanied by pictures from my extremely unfancy camera (and well after Christmas).  Stan Hywet is the former home of the Seiberling family (F.A. Seiberling, who built the house, founded Goodyear Tire along with his brother), and was built in the 1910s in a mock Tudor style.  The Seiberlings were clearly passionate Anglophiles, and they filled the inside of the home with loads of gen-u-ine antiques culled from various English castles and manor houses (there’s even a room painted with scenes from A Canterbury Tales!).  They do a number of events throughout the year, but Deck the Hall is definitely my favourite.

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The admission price is admittedly pretty steep ($18, though only $8 if you can rustle up a student ID), but it is only once a year, and I always enjoy myself, so I just suck it up and fork out the money (albeit not without grumbling).  Deck the Hall (I think the lack of a plural on hall is supposed to reference the original Welsh version of the song, as Stan Hywet is itself a Welsh phrase, roughly meaning “rock quarry”) runs on weekends throughout December until early January, which is nice since I often don’t get a chance to visit until after Christmas.  My boyfriend and I went on a Friday this year, which was probably a mistake since it was super insanely crowded.  In the past, we were always able to park in the main lot without a problem; well, this year, not only was the main lot full, so was the overflow lot, and we ended up having to park about a mile away in a second overflow lot (which I think was actually a church parking lot). Fortunately, because it was rather cold and Stan Hywet is on a busy road, shuttle buses were provided, and they were frequent enough that we didn’t have to stand outside very long.  The admissions line also moved surprisingly fast (considering how long it was), and I don’t think we ended up waiting for more than ten minutes, so they have efficiency going for them at least.

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In my experience, it’s best to head straight to the house first and get it out of the way, because it only gets more crowded as the night goes on.  I think a lot of people arrive, see the line, and think, “Oh, we’ll come back later,” but unfortunately people keep arriving all the time, so the wait only gets worse.  They generally let people into the house pretty quickly because it’s cold outside; it’s more that you end up having to move at a snail’s pace through the house because you’re caught up in a massive single file of people walking along the assigned pathways.  There’s no photography allowed inside the house, which is certainly understandable, because then it would take even longer, but it is a bit of a shame because the decorations are so nice.  They change the theme of the house every year; this one was “Christmas Around the World,” but I’ve also seen “Christmas through the Decades,” “A Dickens’ Christmas,” and a Christmas carols theme, and while I’m sure they reuse some of the lights and stuff, they also must buy some new decorations for each event, because it always looks different.

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This year, I remember there being a Britain room, Germany (with a scary looking Santa, but no Krampus, alas), USA, Mexico, Russia, Italy, Hungary, and some others I’m forgetting.  They also feature live performances in the Music Room, which change nightly, so you may hear an organist, a string quartet, a choir, or something else entirely, though odds are good they’ll all be playing Christmas carols.  For the first time this year, they had baskets out containing little fact sheets about the Seiberlings…they were all different colours, so it became a kind of “collect them all” scenario, which got annoying when the people ahead of us held up the line to riffle through each basket.  You’re not allowed to see as much of the house during the Christmas event as you can during normal self-guided tours; for example, there’s a pretty baller pool in the basement that’s closed off, but there’s still plenty to take in, from the random winged foot on the staircase, the many pictures of various stately homes in England, and the aforementioned Chaucer room.  Though I often get annoyed at the slowness of the other people trekking through, it’s still pretty damn delightful.

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Once you’ve finished with the house, you’ll want to be sure to check out the grounds, which are incredible (and not properly conveyed by my crap-tastic pictures).  They have a variety of gardens (English Garden, Japanese Garden, Rose Garden, etc), which are gorgeous in summer, and just as good in winter thanks to the awesome displays of coloured lights.  I really don’t know why there’s nothing comparable in Britain, but Americans definitely go all out with the lights – Stan Hywet’s have the added virtue of being tastefully done (relatively speaking).

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That birch tunnel doesn’t look like much in the picture, but the bases of all the trees are wrapped with white lights, which is impressive when you walk through it, and the little grapevine trellis even has grape lights on it.  There’s also a light show off to one side synced with music, and giant flowers made of lights.

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New this year was a “Gingerbread Village,” next to the conservatory, which was a little over the top, but in the best possible way.  There’s a tradition of giving out gingerbread at Stan Hywet (well, I say giving out, but these days you have to pay for it.  I’ve never bought any because I don’t like gingerbread enough to wait in line for some, but it certainly smells good), so I guess the village is in keeping with that.  There was a giant gingerbread house in the middle (not actually made of gingerbread) and lots of lighted gingerbread men all over the place.

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I adore the conservatory (not least because it’s warm), and they really outdo themselves in here.  They grow and sell a variety of poinsettias ($5 each, not a bad price because they’re huge and come in colours you don’t often see), and always have a tree made of the flowers.  This year, the back room was done all in blue lights, which looked cool from the outside, and was even neater to walk through.

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They also do some stuff for children, like a tree lighting ceremony and a Santa Claus, but I’m not sure if younger children would really enjoy the house, since it takes so long to get through it.  It seems like most parents just take them to see the grounds until they get older, which is sensible.  Plan to spend a couple of hours here, especially if it’s busy.  Even if the house is quite busy though, the grounds are spacious enough to remain fairly empty, and the walk from the house to the conservatory is reasonably romantic, especially if you’re lucky enough to get snow (the grounds do get icy though, so wear sensible shoes).  I don’t know, it’s hard for me to be too cynical about Stan Hywet, even though I hate crowds and spending money, because I think they do such a nice job, and it’s become something of a holiday tradition, so I hope if you go, you’ll enjoy it too. 4/5.

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Cleveland, Ohio: West Side Market

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Merry Christmas Everyone!  I’m going to use the holiday as an excuse to highlight one of my favourite places in the world ( at least, one of my favourite places that is neither a museum nor a library): The West Side Market.  Growing up in Cleveland, no Christmas was complete without at least one visit to the West Side Market to stock up on essentials; from the special farmers’ cheese for pierogies (though I was always partial to potato and cheddar, which I also make every year), the holiday ham or roast (I always gave that one a miss too!), delicious breads, and of course, lots of veg for the side dishes!  My grandma would throw on her Russian style fur hat (which we all laughed at, but she was probably much warmer than the rest of us) and my grandpa donned his adorable flat cap, and off we’d go for an afternoon of leisurely shopping!  Although my grandparents are now sadly deceased, and I no longer live in Ohio, I still come home for Christmas every year, and a trip to Cleveland’s most famous market is always a must.

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The West Side Market just celebrated its centennial last year, and the market building itself dates back that far as well.  I always love spotting its distinctive tower in the distance when driving over the Hope Bridge (which is another piece of architecture I’m very fond of), and as a result of a (small, fortunately) fire this past year, they’ve given the interior an extensive cleaning, so it’s currently less grimy than in the past, though it has managed to retain its distinctive musk (an interesting combination of raw meat, stinky cheese, coffee, and an occasional whiff of something delicious, depending on where you’re standing).  The produce vendors are all in an unheated tent-like structure outside, but the actual market hall is where all the good stuff is at!  (You may notice the much better than normal photos in this post, which are courtesy of my brother and his fancy camera!  Don’t get used to hipstery bokeh or decent picture quality around here though!)

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The interior of the market is a jumble of stalls selling things as varied as Cambodian curries, Chinese meets hipster steamed buns, crepes, gyros, and both traditional and unusually filled pierogies, reflecting the unique ethnic makeup of the city, though the floor space is dominated by the abundance of traditional butchers hawking all manner of beef and pig parts (and lamb, and chicken, etc, etc).  Although I don’t eat meat myself, I’m not especially squeamish about looking at pig and sheep heads, which is probably necessary for surviving the market experience (could definitely do without all the gross meaty smells, but you can always linger by the coffee stall when it gets too much!).

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Of course, though the fun of the market is in exploring all the wonderful things for yourself, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the things I like the most.  The best falafel in the world, as far as I’m concerned (and I’ve eaten LOTS of falafel) can be found at Maha’s Falafil, located in the outer left corner of the market over by the fishmongers.  Get the jumbo, you won’t regret it!  I like the enchiladas verde from Orale (though their prices are kind of steep, in my opinion) for a quick snack, and my brother never leaves without sampling a crepe from Crepes De Luxe.  The sourdough bread from Christopher’s is excellent for French toast, and I can put away a loaf of their asiago bread all too easily just by itself.  As far as sweets go (and you all know I have a real sweet tooth), I love the elaborate chocolate covered pretzel creations from Campbell’s, even though I always feel slightly ill after eating a whole one, and Vera’s bakery does proper old school coconut squares.  There’s loads of other bakeries too, so shop around and get whatever looks best that day; it’s probably all delicious!

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The market is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, but mid-day Wednesday or Friday are usually the best times to shop, as all the vendors are open, but it’s not super crowded.  If you ever find yourself in Cleveland, please try to come experience it; most Clevelanders are extremely proud of it (and rightly so), and I don’t think anyone will leave disappointed! I hope everyone is having a marvellous Christmas, and I’ll be back with another Ohio post next week!

Canton, Ohio: Canton Classic Car Museum

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If you think I typically enjoy car museums, you’d be wrong; however, if you think the Classic Car Museum in Canton is anything like a normal car museum, you’d also be wrong.  I’ve been to a lot of museums in Canton, and they all seem to share a delightful sense of quirkiness; looking at the above photos, you can quickly see their car museum is no exception.  I was greeted at the door by Norm, who I later found out was having his 86th birthday that day.  He was just an exceptionally sweet and lovely guy who was eager to help with any questions (plus I have a total soft spot for old people because of my awesome (now deceased) grandparents).  Admission was $7.50, which I initially thought (anticipating the museum would be quite small) was a bit spendy, however, after actually experiencing all the museum had to offer, I think it was a fair price.

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Now, I’ve been to a lot of museums in my time that were essentially just random collections of crap, but right from the start, this was one of the most extensive and eclectic (and in a nicer building than most).  On their website, they essentially promise something for everyone, and they weren’t lying.  The first room was large and open, but the walls were covered in old signs, and there were cases everywhere filled with old toys, hood ornaments, and pretty much every other kind of old, random junk you could think of (in fact, they had a case of “mystery items,”of which you were supposed to guess their use).  There’s even a scavenger hunt that you can do, which was surprisingly hard given the number of objects to be found.

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Since it is close to Christmas, they’d put up a few trees, and draped boas and Santa hats over their collection of cardboard cutouts of old movie stars.  I jumped a little when a mini-Bruce the Talking Spruce who was evidently motion activated starting suddenly singing at me (is Bruce the Talking Spruce just a Cleveland thing, or do other cities have similar anthropomorphic trees?  I’m not counting that creepy-ass talking oak tree In London’s Winter Wonderland because Bruce was adorable but that oak tree freaks me out).  Speaking of creepy things, there was a clown who looked like his face was melting stood in one corner, amongst other, slightly less frightening clowns.  Coulrophobes beware!

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The next room was the “Canton History Room,” with the usual sorts of things about local businesses and local history, but of course, William McKinley lived in Canton, and you must all know by now how much I adore presidential history.  (Also, everyone please take note of the McKinley and Hanna political cartoon above, apparently drawn by a William Jennings Bryan supporter.)  Thus, the McKinley display case was an absorbing find.

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It was only one small case, but there was a lot crammed into it.  You can see his top hat above, but I’m including a few more highlights below…

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The picture on the left is of Katie McKinley’s baby bracelet.  Both the McKinley daughters died in childhood; little Ida as an infant, and Katie at the age of 4, from typhoid fever, thus the bracelet was probably a poignant reminder for Ida (Sr.) and William.  In the back of the photo on the right, you can see a sort of assemble-it-yourself paper doll of President McKinley.  That’s the kind of paper doll I would have loved as a child (though those historical American Girl ones weren’t too bad either!).

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Above you’ll see some kind of odd attempt to make the largest flag in the world, which appears to have taken place outside the McKinley memorial, and finally, a memorial plaque made for McKinley.  I was already super excited about all of this, but the next room had a hat rack full of old fashioned hats that you could put on for a photo op.  I’d just watched the film Laura, with Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb, and so my choice was inspired by one of the chapeaux Laura donned in the film, though I am sadly nowhere near as attractive as Gene Tierney, especially with my chin wodged on a wooden cutout and making a stupid face.

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Like the rooms that preceded it, this one was also full of curiosities.  Judging solely by the plaid “invalid style” blanket next to him, I believe there was a life sized cartoonish FDR mannequin, but he could have equally been George Bush the younger.  You’ll probably already have spotted the Frankenstein racer and the mummy at the start of the post, and there were a lot of hatters’ head mannequins modelling the styles of yesteryear congregated in one corner.

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Being a fan of the grim and morbid, I was pleasantly surprised to see a small mock-up of a funeral home set up, I suppose, because there was an antique hearse next to it (I should mention that there were cars throughout this whole gallery, but there was so much other stuff I could effectively just ignore them.  But if like a normal person, you have come to a car museum expecting cars, then don’t fear, you will see plenty of them!).

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I kind of love the picture on the right, a dark reminder to “Drive Carefully.” I almost hate to tell you, for fear of putting you off visiting, but there were more clowns in here, in the form of a puppet show that jangled around when you pressed a button.  I don’t like clowns myself, but I promise that except for the melting face one I described earlier, most of the ones here were really not that scary, and none of them are real, so please don’t let them deter you!

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I was amazed to find that there were still more rooms after this; like the TARDIS, the museum was bigger on the inside.  The next room was mostly cars, but I didn’t care because they had Neil Zurcher’s car.  For those of you who aren’t from Northeast Ohio (or over the age of 50, probably), Neil Zurcher was this old guy on a local news channel who drove around in a snazzy car on “One Tank Trips;” basically a segment on slightly offbeat places in the local area that you could get to and back from on one tank of gas.  I think largely because I spent a tonne of time over my grandparents’ house, and often watched TV with them or read whatever books they had laying around, I am very familiar with his work (and in fact, have discovered quite a lot of places around Ohio myself through his books), so it was kind of neat to see his car.

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(That picture on the right is of Bobby Kennedy, before and after airbrushing.  Just thought it was kind of interesting).

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I apologise for the even crappier than normal quality of the above photos, but seriously, aren’t those the ugliest Beatles dolls you’ve ever seen?  Paul is straight-up scary, not to mention Ringo, who wasn’t attractive under the best of circumstances!  And I have an FDR doll that I dearly love, but I think I’d also love to have the one on the right.  Still no wheelchair, but he is wearing a hat, and that is a splendid suit!

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(And yes, that is a guitar made out of a toilet seat behind Elvis’s antler-bedecked head).  As you can see, I had at last wandered into a gallery that was mostly cars, but still with touches of whimsy throughout.  A close-up of the balcony (and part of my finger) is below , and you might spot some familiar faces…

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I found a children’s mechanical reindeer ride, with dimes already laid out for my convenience, so I had to try it, but it felt unfortunately like riding some weird vibrating machine (if you get my drift), and left me with very itchy thighs.   It may have been part of the memorabilia from a long defunct local amusement park called Meyers Lake, along with some awesome-looking arcade machines and games that were sadly no longer working (or maybe they were, but they were blocked off by a rope).

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There was a small shop at the end of all this, from which I purchased a few postcards from lovely Norm (and “all this” meant wandering through about six huge rooms, plus lots of little nooks), but I capped off my visit with a stroll down a side hallway, where I finally espied a typed portrait of FDR made by an inmate that was mentioned on their website.

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I really, really enjoyed my time at this most unusual “car museum.” Sure, a lot of it probably was junk, but there were some gems hidden amongst the collections, particularly all the wonderful presidential artefacts, and I think most people would probably have a good reminisce over all the nostalgic old toys.  And of course, there are the cars too, I mustn’t forget those. Apparently, the collection was curated by both the late Marshall Belden Sr, and his wife, which explains why there is a mix of cars and well, everything else (so a big thanks to Florence Belden!).  I promised Norm I’d spread the word, so that’s what I’m doing here.  Please pay them a visit if you get the chance and you like old stuff arranged with an “old general store” aesthetic, as it really is more than just a car museum!  4/5

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Surrey, UK: Polesden Lacey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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