England

Knaresborough, North Yorkshire: Mother Shipton’s Cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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London: The Geffrye Museum

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After years of hearing about how great the Geffrye Museum was, I finally broke down and went.  I wasn’t doubting the quality of the museum, it was far more to do with the location, as I typically avoid East London like the plague, especially the hipster-centric Hoxton.  However, I found a friend willing to brave the mean streets of Shoreditch with me, so off we went.

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Even though the grounds are quite extensive, we somehow managed to walk right past the museum entirely, as we were on the opposite side of the road, and the directional signs that are usually on hand to point out attractions of note in London were absent (I guess they don’t fit in with the cool vibe).  Fortunately for my very limited budget, the Geffrye is a free museum, and except for a crowd of schoolchildren listening to a talk in the Victorian room, it was relatively quiet.

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Although the Geffrye is located inside a former Almshouse, it is devoted pretty much entirely to the living spaces of the “middling sorts,” (with the exception of the portion of the former almshouse that has been restored, which is only open to the public on the first Saturday of each month) which does rather ignore the fact that the former inhabitants of the building were themselves quite poor.  That said, I can see that most people probably don’t want to look round the sparse furnishings of an historically accurate lower class home, and it does at least mark a change from the emphasis on the rich and powerful in most historic homes.  The general setup in the pre-20th century galleries is a museum style room with cases of everyday objects and a sign showing the layout of a typical house from a particular era interspersed with a parlour done up in the furnishings of said era.  The rooms started in the 1600’s and progressed through the Victorian era, usually with two rooms taken from either end of a century.  Since I do love the odd bit of hands-on entertainment, I appreciated the cloth samples for touchin’ and the antique chairs for sittin’.  (I didn’t expect horsehair fabric to be so nice and smooth, though since Almanzo and Alice were able to slide off the horsehair upholstered chairs in their parlour in Farmer Boy, I guess that makes sense.)

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As the Geffrye is a museum of the home, I found the aforementioned diagrams showing the layout of the average home useful, as well as the descriptions of objects that would have helped to fill it, however, I think I could have done with more explanation on how each room was actually used.  Everything had been arranged beautifully, but a human touch felt oddly absent, and didn’t allow me to feel any sort of connection with the people who would have inhabited the rooms (assuming the rooms were in an actual house, and not inside a museum, of course).  For a museum of the home, it was oddly lacking in domesticity, and had a sterility that felt distinctly un-homely.  That being said, if you’d come simply to admire interiors, and document the changes in furnishings over the years, you’d be very happy indeed.

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In fact, the Geffrye seemed to actively encourage students, with an attractive garden reading room complete with mural wrapping around the rear of the building, and another well-appointed reading room next to it (which even included a book that I had been looking for when writing my dissertation years ago; nothing to do with the home, it was just with their general books on London).  Personally, I’d have rather sat and read in the early Victorian parlour, with its handsome blue couch.  The small former chapel of the almshouse was located in this section, and it was probably one of my favourite parts simply for its feeling of authenticity (the skull and crossbones bedecked memorial to Sir Robert Geffrye didn’t hurt either).

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The 20th century collections were in another gallery, and with the exception of the Edwardian room, which seemed very cozy indeed (this despite the heavy Arts & Crafts influence, which is definitely not my favourite aesthetic movement), these rooms reflected styles that are not really my cup of tea.  I know I’m probably a minority opinion, but I HATE mid-century architecture and furniture.  Clean lines and weird blocky furniture are just not my style.  Give me Victorian ostentation any day over some Swedish-inspired straight legged-tables (I will admit that most of my furniture is from IKEA, but this is only because half of it comes with my flat, so I can’t get rid of it, and the rest of it was the only stuff I could afford.  Believe me, if I ever come into money, my horrible, hideous, uncomfortable, blocky faux-leather couch is going to be the first thing to go.  I swear it’s doing my back in).

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That said, the ’60s-’70s room amusingly reminded me and my friend of the Brady Bunch house (I think it was the staircase), and the ’90s room was a little touch of nostalgia, what with its big, thick TV, and the nice collection of VHS.  If anything, these rooms felt more homey than the earlier ones, but that could be simply because they reflected a mode of living that I’m familiar with, so I could more easily picture how the rooms would be used.

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After finishing our tour of the galleries, we headed outside, since I had seen a sign on the desk saying that the graveyard was open (the rest of the gardens don’t open until April, even though it felt like spring already on the day we visited!).  It was very very small, and tucked away into a corner by the entrance gate, but did contain the graves of Robert Geffrye and his wife (Geffrye, as you may have guessed from his name, was the man who donated money to start the original almshouse), and three or four others.

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Although the Geffrye didn’t really cover domesticity in the way I had been hoping, I suppose there are a lot of other museums that serve that purpose, so the Geffrye does fill a more unique niche in the museum world.  In the end, I was glad I trekked all the way out to East London to see it, and would recommend it to others, though I wasn’t quite so enamoured of it as many other bloggers seem to be.  3.5/5

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I was, nonetheless, super happy to be sitting in this chair, though I think the cushy Victorian armchair was the most comfortable one I sampled.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Part 2: The Mary Rose Museum (and all the rest)

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Here’s part 2 of my outing in Portsmouth, which mainly means the new Mary Rose Museum.  I was probably more excited to see this than the Victory, even though I generally prefer Georgians to Tudors, simply because I think the history behind it is pretty incredible.  (Do you have the first version of the Gilligan’s Island theme song  (before the Professor and Mary Anne rated a mention) stuck in your head from my post title?  Just thought it would go with the maritime theme!)

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For those of you unfamiliar with its story, the Mary Rose was a Tudor ship (Henry VIII’s flagship) that famously suddenly sank during a skirmish with a French ship in 1545, thereby drowning most of the crew (only 25-30 people survived out of a crew of over 400).  Contrary to popular belief, the Mary Rose was actually a perfectly capable ship for the 34 years prior to sinking, so the theories as to why it sank are numerous, and include being hit by a French cannonball, a mistake during battle, or being toppled by the wind after extra guns had been loaded on board.  At any rate, the ship sat at the bottom of Portsmouth Harbor until 1982, when it was hauled up and preserved.  Because the ship is understandably fragile after being underwater for over 400 years, and only half the ship survives (the half that was covered up by silt, which protected it from various hungry and probably disgusting looking sea creatures), unlike the other ships at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, it is kept inside the museum, with scaffolding to protect it.  The actual wood has been preserved by somehow replacing the water molecules inside it with wax, which is apparently quite a lengthy process (I’m not sure of all the science behind it, but it is briefly explained inside the museum).  The end result is amazing to behold, and the fact that half the ship is missing makes it into a convenient cross-section, so you can really admire the interior.

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Although the Mary Rose is undeniably the showpiece of the collection (and you can walk past it at multiple levels to give you the chance to admire every aspect, including a trip up a “viewing lift”), it is by no means the only incredible thing about this museum.  Because the ship sat undisturbed for so long, and many of the crew kept their possessions in heavy chests, it turned out to be a treasure trove of Tudor artefacts, most of which are on show in the museum’s galleries.  The museum has arranged them according to the type of people who would have been working on each deck of the ship, which makes for a trip through all the seafaring social classes. Common threads that united them all were the prevalence of fine combs, designed to remove lice, and the ubiquitous dagger (including my particular favourite, the “ballock” dagger, so named for its resemblance to a certain part of the male anatomy.  You can probably see what I mean from the example above).  So, you do see a lot of the same objects again and again, but there are enough tools that were unique to particular trades (I loved the section on the ship’s surgeon, with all his medical implements), and personal touches on the more common items, like carved pictures or initials, to keep things interesting.

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Of course, since most of the crew went down with the ship, there were also lots of skeletons in the wreckage, as well as jewellery and scraps of clothing.  They’ve analysed the skeletons to try to determine the age, health, and occupation of each man (aside from the captain, George Carew, we don’t really know the names of any of the crew members), and the results are fascinating.  Judging from the skulls on display, not a single man on board had a complete set of teeth in his head, and even the men who were still in their 20s already had a whole host of injuries (many of them caused by Henry’s law that required every able-bodied man to practice archery; using a longbow from an early age means that shoulder bones never fuse properly), and probably looked quite rough, judging from the facial reconstructions.  I love anything to do with medicine, so I was enthralled by their findings (and the display of bones with various types of injuries and conditions).

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We spent more time in the Mary Rose museum than any other part of the Dockyard, and I think I could have lingered even longer if we didn’t have a tour of the Victory to catch.  I really think they did an excellent job displaying all the artefacts, and the amount of signage was just right.  Plenty of great information and special sections about the history behind each job or custom, but not so much that it felt overwhelming.  My only complaint was that some of the galleries were so crowded that it was difficult to see everything, and it’s only the start of March, so the crowds must be horrible during the summer.  Because of this, I’d definitely recommend going in the off-season or possibly on a weekday if you can (although I’d worry about schoolchildren being bussed in on a weekday).

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In addition to the ships I wrote about in my earlier post, there were some other attractions at the Historic Dockyard.  Since we were starving, my boyfriend and I queued for ages just to get a tea and some chocolate fudge cake from the small case in the museum (there were only like three people ahead of us, but service was so slow, though the cake was not bad); there are a few other cafes and a chippy, but I’d rather venture into Portsmouth and take my chances with a proper seaside chippy, personally.  But there were statues of famous people to have your photo taken with, which I love doing!  (Here’s another tip, some guy will offer to take your picture with the Henry VIII inside the Mary Rose Museum, which you can buy for 8 quid at the end.  But there’s another Henry VIII statue hidden in a corner across from the building where you buy your ticket, which you can photograph as much as you like for free.  Not that I think anyone would pay £8 for a hastily taken photo by a bored museum employee anyway, but just in case you really wanted a picture with Henry.)  I liked the giant Nelson the best, especially since they accurately made his one eye look all milky and weird (he lost most of the sight in it in the same accident that took his right arm.  Poor banged-up man).

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There’s also a figurehead of some Restoration era gent who was a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, and even looked a great deal like Pepys, but was not Pepys (though I think there should have been a Pepys figurehead, he was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty after all!).  Another building on the site holds some cheesy gift shop, and this weird “dockyard apprentice” exhibit that you can walk through in the back.  I did not have time to read all the text associated with it, but I guess if you do, you emerge a full-fledged worker at the other end (conveniently, they sell diplomas in the gift shop. I seriously wonder whether anyone has ever bought one).  However, it did contain two of my most favourite things; mannequins with amusing expressions, and authentic smells, so it’s worth walking through just for that.

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I guess because they were trying to give the place more of a “seaside” vibe, there were a handful of penny arcade games in there as well (I say penny, but they cost between 10-50p).  We had a couple 20ps to hand, so got suckered into the crappy ones showing some kind of tableaux that “comes to life” after you stick the money in (usually a ghost or something pops out).  Like others of their kind, these were pretty lame, and I refused to try the one where a “war criminal” was hanged, as he was a supporter of the Americans during the Revolutionary War, so I couldn’t really endorse his execution.

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I should mention that the National Museum of the Royal Navy is also part of the Dockyard, and it looked rather large and impressive, but I simply did not have time to go in (assuming we don’t lose our stupidly small and awkwardly sized tickets, we’ll probably head back to the Dockyard within the next few months), so I think it would be quite easy to spend two days at the Dockyard, particularly if you have children.  Though I felt the main ships (Victory and Warrior) were kind of a mixed-bag, though certainly historically significant, and worth seeing for that reason alone, I really loved the Mary Rose Museum, and it made me slightly less salty about the admission price (though only slightly, I mean £26!?).  I think the Dockyard as a whole should get a 3.5/5, though I’d probably rate Mary Rose as a 4/5, easily.  Not at all a bad day out, if you can stomach the price.

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London: Churchill War Rooms, Valentine’s Day Late

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I’m pretty sure there’s nothing more romantic than spending Valentine’s Day underground, in a WWII era bunker.  In all seriousness, it has to be up there (and I mean this in a non-sarcastic manner) with the Valentine’s Day when my boyfriend took me for afternoon tea and then to the London Dungeons (he knows me so well), so I was really glad we found out about the event before it was sold out!  It did cost £17.50 apiece, but that’s what admission to the Churchill War Rooms costs anyway (though really, £17.50?! I know I complain about admission prices on here a lot, mainly because I am broke, but the Churchill War Rooms admission is really over the top.  Definitely take advantage of the National Rail 2 for 1 offer if you decide to come here!), and I was hoping we’d have time to look around in between all the special activities.

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I was initially dismayed at the size of the queue to get in, as waiting for entry to a ticketed event typically doesn’t bode well, but the crowds thinned out as we made our way into the bunker.  The special activities on offer included writing a letter to your sweetheart overseas (as the whole premise was obviously that this was during the War; most people made an effort to dress the part, which enhanced the atmosphere), swing dancing lessons in the auditorium, and a champagne bar that was meant to be serving up Churchill’s favourite champagne.  I’m not sure whether it actually was Churchill’s preferred label; it was certainly delicious, but then, it cost as much for a glass as it does for two bottles of the sort of swill we usually buy (only fit for making mimosas), so I wasn’t expecting anything less.

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Sufficiently emboldened by the champers, we took our places on the dance floor for the next swing dancing lesson, a circle dance called the “Big Apple.”  It was tremendous fun, and convinced me that I need to get over my fear of looking like an idiot and sign up for some swing dancing lessons, as it’s something I’ve always wanted to learn how to do.  Alas, since we were both out there dancing, I’ve no pictures to commemorate the experience, but I’m sure we didn’t look stupid or anything…

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People were either all starting to dance or head out for the night at this point, so I seized the opportunity to have a look ’round the relatively empty Churchill museum, which followed the timeline of Churchill’s life.  Though you all know I love FDR, I have to concede that Churchill was the master of witticisms, so I was thrilled that the museum had taken the trouble to compile the best ones on a handy touch screen.

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I really enjoyed looking at all the Churchill and war memorabilia, even though my lingering cold combined with the champagne meant that I wasn’t giving all the displays my usual full attention.  Oh well, I guess I’ll have an excuse to return some day (using my 50% off English Heritage discount of course).

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In addition to the museum displays, there was of course the bunker, which, whilst nowhere on the scale of Kelvedon Hatch (but then Kelvedon Hatch isn’t built under prime real estate in Westminster), was still enough of a maze to get us confused when trying to find Churchill’s bedroom.  He only spent three nights in the actual bunker, but he stayed fairly often in the aboveground rooms, which were apparently much plusher.   A volunteer regaled us with some amusing Churchill stories, like the time the bunker had to be evacuated because it was filling with smoke, only for the staff to realise that this was because Churchill was sitting on the chimney, smoking a cigar.

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Churchill’s bedroom contained an authentic cigar, and a chamberpot, so that was exciting too!  The other rooms that were part of the bunker, including the Map Room and various Communications rooms, all had delightful mannequins in them – bonus!  There was also a cafe serving up some tasty looking chips, but the queue was long and there was nowhere to sit, so we abandoned the idea of eating there.  The shop was offering a 10% discount on the night of the event, so I took advantage of the sale to snap up yet more postcards for my ever-expanding collection.

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This had to have been one of the better late museum openings I’ve attended (even at that price, and you all know I’m a cheapskate, so I must have liked it!), definitely helped along by the dancing and champagne, but I think the Churchill War Rooms are well worth visiting even without a special event on (though I was glad of an excuse to get all dressed up – I swear my hair looked much better before I had to brave 60 mph winds!).   4/5 for the event + museum.  (And for evidence of the extreme windiness that night, please see the picture on the bottom right.)

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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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London: Royal College of Physicians Museum

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George Cruikshank’s “The Gin Shop”

Before I begin, I wanted to announce that this is my 99th post, so the next will obviously be the 100th!  I’m planning a little giveaway of postcards and things (and it really is a very modest giveaway, so don’t be expecting any big exciting prizes, because my budget is VERY limited at the moment!) to mark such a momentous occasion, so please check back on Friday if you’re interested in winning a lovely and eclectic assortment of postcards from my collection.  Now, on with the post!

After my experience at the Dental Museum, I’ve been somewhat reluctant to visit some of the smaller medical museums in London that I’m not already familiar with, for fear they’d be just as lame.  However, I was sufficiently intrigued by the current exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians to take a chance on a trip up to the east side of Regent’s Park.  “This Bewitching Poison,” which promised to “explore 300 years of drinking history through the work of artists, doctors, and satirists,” sounded just dandy, since I love both medical history and satire.  The rather ugly modern architecture of the building wasn’t quite was I was expecting, as I was hoping for something classical and imposing in the vein of the Royal College of Surgeons (teehee, vein), but I nonetheless collected my visitor’s pass from the reception desk, and made my way up to the first floor to the start of the special exhibit (I also missed the chance to walk up the famous “floating” staircase, as it was closed off, and had to settle for the unremarkable lift).

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Although there were no signs prohibiting photography, I was the only visitor, and security guards kept walking by, so I felt a little weird whipping out my phone to take pictures (and I’m not an enthusiastic photographer at the best of times, as most of you probably know by now); instead, I’ve chosen to illustrate this post with some of my favourite cartoons in the exhibition, because c’mon, satire!  The layout reminded me of the Warren Museum in Boston, in that there were a few cases in a “U” formation around a stairwell, and all the people who actually worked in the building kept briskly strolling past me, which made me feel slightly awkward, but I quickly turned my attention to the contents of the cases.

There was a short film about alcoholism in one corner playing on a loop; I only watched part of it as I was eager to check out the artefacts, which were in large part cartoons, including many by George Cruikshank, who became a temperance campaigner in his later years; he was influenced by both his father’s death from alcohol poisoning, and his own heavy drinking as a young man.  In addition to these, the RCP had compiled objects from various museums around London, some of which I’d seen before, but there were also some new things to check out.  I’d definitely noticed the Charles II mug at the Museum of London, but seeing the delightful Charles caricature is always a treat.  The most fascinating thing however, at least to me, was a mug made from antimony which doctors used to direct people to fill with wine and herbs and let soak overnight, as the resulting concoction was supposed to serve as a cure for various ailments. In reality, at least three people died after drinking from that particular mug, plus countless others from similar “cures.”

Plate VI from Cruikshank's "The Bottle."  Image from http://www.lostmuseum.cuny.edu/archives/cruikshank.htm

Plate VI from Cruikshank’s “The Bottle.” Image from http://www.lostmuseum.cuny.edu/archives/cruikshank.htm

The exhibit continued on the lower ground floor, in the “Treasures” room, which also housed most of the rest of the museum’s collections.  However, I was distracted from the conclusion of the special exhibit by the stunning silver collection which filled the bulk of this room.  Although many of the labels were missing, there was a handy booklet on a side table which provided descriptions of every item in there (honestly, I was probably happier not knowing what some of them did).  The tongue scrapers and tooth extractors were one thing, but the giant female catheter (which for some reason was at least four times the thickness of the male one, even though I really don’t think our urethras are any wider…what gives?!) made me cringe, as did some of the other gynaecological devices of yore.  It certainly wasn’t quite on the level of goriness as the Hunterian, as the only real “specimen” was a caul in a silver case, but many of the medical instruments were grim enough, especially as they allowed you to appreciate what having those procedures performed on you might have been like in a pre-anaesthetics world.

Outside the “Treasures” room, an impressive collection of apothecary jars lined the hallway. I keep saying that I want to start collecting these (but no one’s taken the hint and bought one for me yet, though in fairness, I already have so many knick-knacks that I probably need to move into a bigger flat or house first), so I loved this display!  According to the tourist brochure I was handed, there’s another room on the second floor that houses a collection of anatomy boards with preserved nervous systems and things on them, similar to the ones in the Hunterian, but I was unfortunately in a bit of a rush so I didn’t have a chance to go up and see them.  I bet they’re grand though.  There’s also a medicinal garden on the grounds, but I didn’t check whether it was open in winter or not as it was fairly chilly that day, and again, I was in a hurry after spending longer than I anticipated admiring the displays inside.

Paula Rego's "O Vinho-playtime"  Image from http://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/o-vinho-playtime-lithograph-paula-rego-2007

Paula Rego’s “O Vinho-playtime” Image from http://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/o-vinho-playtime-lithograph-paula-rego-2007

In the end, I was glad I took the chance, as the RCP was quite good.  Though the “Bewitching Poison” exhibit was on the small side, as I was expecting, I think they did a good job of explaining the medical and social uses of alcohol, and I loved all the antiquarian books in their collection which were open to pages featuring old remedies and “cures.”  My only wish is that the exhibit could have been larger, but I think they did a great job curating what they had, and were probably working with limited space.  The alcohol exhibition runs until 27th of June, so get in before then if you want to check it out.  4/5.

All images were taken from Wikimedia Commons, except where otherwise stated.

London: Gunnersbury Park Museum

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The Gunnersbury Park Museum in West London is unusually large for a free, local museum; upon arriving at the museum gates, it looked so grand that I wasn’t even sure we were in the right place.  It’s actually nearest to Acton Town on the Piccadilly line, though we drove and managed to park just outside the massive stone columns that mark the entrance.  The museum is housed in an old mansion that belonged to the Rothschilds, and the grounds are quite extensive; there’s a bit of a walk before you reach its imposing exterior.

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Like any local museum, the Gunnersbury Park Museum’s collections are eclectic and varied, and encompass objects from the Boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow.  The first room was devoted to manufacturers in the area, and their product ranges.

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I was initially dismayed because based upon the museum’s website, I thought we had just missed a special exhibit on some of the museum’s best (and most random) artefacts, but I was pleasantly surprised to see it was still there.  It was everything promised in the description, with a penny farthing, maid’s dress, punch bowl, and most excitingly of all, a Victorian flowered toilet bowl, a freaky Robot of Death mask from ’70s era Doctor Who, and the “L” and “Z” from the original famous giant Lucozade sign in Brentford (you’ve probably seen it if you’ve driven into London on the M4, though the current version is a replica).  My boyfriend was really excited about this, though a bit upset that the whole sign wasn’t on display, but they just don’t have room to put all of it out; in addition, some of the letters apparently aren’t as “robust” as the “L” and “Z.” (My default is to say “zee,” as “zed” sounds silly to me, unless I’m spelling things out for a British person.)

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Another gallery featured an exhibit about the local shops of yesteryear, with cases full of merchandise that various retailers would have sold, divided up by type (haberdashery, toy shop, stationers, etc.).  Though I’m probably spoiled by the museums that go all-out, and actually re-create the entire street (see my William McKinley Museum post for a good example of this), I always like looking at old packaging, clothes, and photographs, so I enjoyed this.  I particularly liked the quotes they had from people who had visited the various local shops back in the day, and I’m sorry Mylo’s ice cream parlour isn’t still around in Chiswick (it appears to have been turned into an Adecco, grim), though I would imagine a British ice cream parlour of yore probably only had about three flavours (I’m basing this off the children’s bewilderment in Good Omens at the concept of Baskin Robbins, so blame Terry Pratchett (or Neil Gaiman), not me. (It’s an excellent book, incidentally, highly recommended if you fancy some light, amusing fiction)).

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Because the home was built by the Rothschild family, there was an underlying narrative about servants and Victorian family life running through the displays.  Each room contained a sign with a description of the room’s original purpose, and there’s an entire room about the duties of the servants (improved foot warmer, anyone?  I’d take just a normal foot warmer!), which I liked, since I’ve always been interested in the history of domesticity.  There were also some pictures to colour and a giant game of Snakes and Ladders for the children to play, though I probably would have played it myself if we’d had more time.

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The final room contained an excellent carriage collection (there weren’t that many, but as you’d expect, the Rothschilds had top-of-the-line, super snazzy carriages, so it was a case of quality over quantity), and a small display on the history of the house and the Rothschild family.  They were all bankers, and the British branch of the family helped fund the British government, famously loaning Disraeli money to purchase shares in the Suez Canal, and Lionel was the first Jewish MP.  I think only Lionel and Leopold lived in the house, but they all had similar names, so I could be mistaken.

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There’s a plan to renovate the museum, with completion aimed at 2026, and whilst I fully support that, and hope they can open up other areas of the house to display more of their vast collection, I suspect I’d probably prefer it in its current state; a dark, crumbing mansion full of echoing rooms with only a hint of ornamentation here and there to hint at its opulent past.  Nonetheless, good luck to them, and I hope they manage to retain the qualities that make it such a charming museum to visit.  Make sure to drop some change in the slot in the shop to make the “gentleman” raise his hat (it really does work!) and pick up some of their bargain postcards (5p!?  Yes please!) on the way out.  3.5/5.

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Devon, UK: The Gnome Reserve!

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First, please don’t be scared off by the very sinister gnome in the opening picture.  Most of the gnomes here are rather more jolly.  Now, this post is a total blast from the past.  I visited the Gnome Reserve about three and a half years ago, and haven’t managed to return since, so I can only hope it is still as amazing as it was when I was there.  If not, I’m sorry!  But I had all the pictures sitting around, so I thought it was high time to inject a bit of humour and whimsy into the greyness of winter. (Although the Reserve is only open from late March- October, so you’ll have to wait til then to visit!)

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The Gnome Reserve is tucked away into one of the prettiest corners of England I’ve yet had the privilege of visiting, in North Devon, quite near to Bude.  I mean, really, they could illustrate “idyllic” with a picture of these gently rolling hills.  Judging by the local attractions, which include a sheep-themed amusement park and a cryptozoological library, there’s a lot of eccentrics in these parts (my kind of place!), but Ann, owner of the Gnome Reserve, probably takes the idiosyncratic biscuit.

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She’s pretty much made the Reserve her life’s work, in addition to producing gnome and pixie themed art, which is for sale in the gift shop.  Sometimes it can be hard to tell how much of the experience is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but that’s part of the fun!  Admission is only £3.75, which is frankly a bargain relative to how much you will enjoy this place if you visit with an open mind and a willingness to laugh at yourself.  Visitors are required to wear a gnome hat from Ann’s extensive collection, so as to not “embarrass the gnomes,” but they look surprisingly fetching, as I can clearly attest to.

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Once properly attired, you are free to enter the woods where the gnomes dwell, and let me tell you, Ann has collected some real gems of garden gnomes from all over the world; the oldest ones are 19th century gnomes made in Germany.  Yes, you are just wandering around a forest looking at lawn ornaments, but these are gnomes as you’ve never seen them before! I’ve included some of the highlights below.

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There are also some larger gnome tableaux (and I do love a good tableaux, not least because it’s a fun word to say), from the standard gnome picnics to a  helicopter and a gnome rocket, operated by GNASA, obviously.  And some random Teletubbies, though I don’t think they count as gnomes.

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In addition to simply admiring the gnomes, and having your photos taken with them, there are a few activities scattered throughout the woods like fishing for lucky numbers on the bottoms of rocks, and a thinking stump, where I guess you’re supposed to think about becoming a tree.  My boyfriend claimed he later played his “lucky numbers” in the lottery, and won 5 quid, so perhaps there’s some real gnome magic at work.

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Once you’ve finished with the gnomes, there is still a pixie garden to explore.  Unfortunately for me and my raging lepidopterophobia, it was also a butterfly garden, so I spent most of the time fleeing in terror whenever one of the winged hell-spawn fluttered near me, and hiding amongst the trees. However, if you are a normal person who does not fear butterflies, there’s a scavenger hunt to complete in this section where you must find the hidden pixies, which seemed quite challenging.  Even if you didn’t spend most of the time running away.

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(I am totally hiding from the butterflies in that picture.)

Fortunately, there was a convenient shed to hide in along the path (it looks like I’m walking out of an outhouse in the below picture, but I can assure you it was a shed! However, the bathroom there did also share the gnome theme, and had a gnome’s (g)nose serving as a toilet paper holder, whilst the gnome himself stared at me in a most unnerving manner), where visitors were encouraged to sign the walls.  There were already lots of winning comments, but my particular favourite had to be, “I’m 42 years old and live with my parents, and I love gnomes.”  (I was going to stick an exclamation point at the end, but it’s more disturbing as a flat statement, which I think is how it was written).

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After leaving the garden, we had a cream tea on the lawn in front of the gnome cottage, which had a stunning view of the surrounding countryside, as I couldn’t bear to part with my gnome hat just yet!  Really, the only way you are not going to enjoy this place is if you are a humourless turd or are afraid of gnomes (the latter problem I can understand, as some of the specimens here were fairly creepy; see the first gnome of the post); everyone else will have a blast!  5/5; a practically perfect afternoon.  And for a summary of some other weird places I love around England, please see my guest post over at Smitten by Britain!

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London: Clockmakers’ Museum

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I quite like the City, (as in, the square mile that was the Roman city of London and is now mainly just known as a financial district) and I think that’s because I only ever visit it on weekends, when it’s deserted.  I enjoy wandering alone down the empty streets of a big city, and I love the City’s mix of history (and historical plaques, often featuring really random events or unexpectedly amusing names. I’m looking at you, Japneth Tickle!) and the bizarre (like the Cornhill Devils; super creepy, especially around dusk), which are best explored in the absence of weekday crowds.  Although most of the businesses in the area are closed on weekends, with a little hunting, I manage to find places to visit.  Like The Clockmakers’ Museum, which is open every day but Sunday.  It’s right by the Guildhall, and shares a building with the Guildhall Library.

I immediately liked it, because although it’s all in one large room, and there’s cases everywhere, they had the good sense to number the cases (assuming you know your Roman numerals), so instead of just wandering blindly around, I knew exactly where to go to view things in chronological order.  As you might expect, the museum details the history of clockmaking –  I won’t get into the whole of it here (partially because I can’t remember everything!), but one of the key events that led to the need for accurate timepieces was the age of exploration, since it was impossible to accurately determine one’s longitude without a clock (something that had far-reaching consequences for all kinds of explorers).  Although now we tend to think of Swiss watches as being the best in the world, at one time, London also had an excellent international reputation, and all reputable clockmakers were of course members of the Guild.  I’m not very mechanically minded, so even though they explained the basic principles behind clocks, the whole thing is still a bit of a mystery to me.  Even with my lack of technical knowledge, I nonetheless found plenty of interesting stuff to look at.  (Honestly, I’m probably most fascinated by how they managed to make such tiny, yet intricate watch parts.  No way could I master something that fiddly!)

My absolute favourite case in the museum was unsurprisingly the one devoted to curiosities, in this case unusual timepieces, or at least ones that had famous owners, like several owned by Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV (who died in childbirth), and various other Hanoverians.  There was a clock that worked by means of a metal marble running back and forth on a maze, which was fun to watch, and a variety of unusual clock keys. Most of the rest of the museum’s collections were magnificent pocket watches (I loved the one with a little smiling anthropomorphic moon on it) from the “Golden Age” of English clock-making (between 1600-1850). The walls were lined with long-case clocks (what I think of as grandfather clocks), most of which were still ticking away in a friendly manner; I’ve always had a soft spot for grandfather clocks, probably because of The Nutcracker.  Many of the items were originally donated and curated by a Victorian gentleman whose name escapes me, but they had included some of the original descriptions he’d written for the pieces in a little booklet under his portrait, and I wish they’d kept his rather droll labelling intact, historical accuracy be damned (which is probably the only time you’ll hear me say that)!

They had examples of the work of many famous clockmakers (I’d never heard of them, but then, I’m not a clock scholar), like Thomas Tompion, George Graham, and John Harrison, the latter of whom was the man who figured out how to make an accurate timepiece for use at sea, thus solving the whole longitude problem mentioned earlier on (for more on how calculating longitude works, click Harrison’s name for the Wikipedia explanation, because I am not about to get into science here). Of more popular interest, perhaps, was the watch Edmund Hillary wore whilst climbing Everest, holding centre stage in a case of other modern examples of the craft.

The museum had much more to offer than I was anticipating, and we spent about an hour there – admiring the many timepieces, and learning about the history of clocks (there was a fair bit of text, though those not in the industry can safely skip most of the captions on individual pieces, which typically just gave the maker and type of parts used).  It’s one of the few things open in the City on a Saturday, so take advantage if you find yourself on that side of town!  Since we weren’t allowed to take pictures, I don’t think I’ve managed to adequately capture the full array of timepieces on show, so you might well want to investigate for yourself.  3.5/5.

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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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