Halloween

London: Pollock’s Toy Museum Redux

I originally blogged about Pollock’s Toy Museum way back in 2013 when Diverting Journeys was new, and I have to say, I don’t think anything has changed in the museum since then. However, because there are few things more unsettling than a room full of antique dolls, I thought Halloween would be a great time to revisit and do a new post (also, I wanted to freak out Marcus, who hadn’t come with me on my initial visit, as payback for when he’d stuck Tapping Trump (this scary Trump head thing that taps his finger when the motion sensor gets triggered. We normally put it in our front window for Halloween) in the shower the night before, and I almost had a heart attack when I unsuspectingly sat on the toilet and he tapped on the glass right next to my head). Because very few people read my blog in the early days, I thought I might as well save myself some effort and reuse my original text since it’s unlikely you will have seen it before, but because my original photos were taken on a really crappy phone camera (I think I had finally moved on from my flip phone by then, but I was just using one of Marcus’s old phones at that point, so it was still well out of date even in 2013), you get brand new photos to really appreciate the horror of those creepy doll faces (though some admittedly still have bad glare because everything here was behind glass). Everything in italics is part of my original post, updates are not italicised.

 

Given how often I head to Goodge Street for an extremely cheap and studenty yet strangely delicious pizza from ICCO, it’s odd that Pollock’s Toy Museum has escaped my attention until now. Oh sure, I knew it existed, but I think I’ve sometimes confused it with the Museum of Childhood, which I think is more child-centric. It wasn’t until I saw Professor Hutton visit it on Professor Hutton’s Curiosities (which was disappointingly London-centric (and this is coming from someone who lives in London), and I’m sorry, but Professor Hutton kind of freaks me out. Something about his long, unkempt witch-like hair – he looks like the type of man who would have long, yellow, dirty nails) that I realised both where it was, and that it looked a bit creepy, and therefore awesome.

 

Scala Street is sandwiched roughly between Charlotte Street and Tottenham Court Road, quite near to Goodge Street Station. The museum space spans two narrow buildings; one Victorian, the other Georgian, which already made it cool in my book. Walking into the gift shop/admissions, I found myself in a room that had the aura of an old-fashioned magic shop – full of shelves crammed with overhanging toys/ephemera and curio cabinets bulging with miniatures, which were lent atmosphere by the dimly lit interior. The place was completely deserted, and I was kind of afraid someone would emerge from a back room and offer to sell me a gremlin/evil Krusty doll/frogurt with toppings containing potassium benzoate, but after waiting around for a couple minutes, and nervously calling, “Hello?” a man casually strolled through the front door with the glass of coke he’d been getting from the pub next door. At last, I was able to pay my £6 admission fee (now £9), and enter through the heavy door. On this visit, two people were sitting behind the counter, and we were promptly greeted and given an introduction to the museum, but that’s much less spooky. And in case you were wondering, yes, I’m pretty sure that is a Hitler puppet holding a string of sausages in the image above left. No explanation was provided.

  

I was greeted by a winding staircase and a case full of American toys, including a bank shaped like Boss Tweed. You should know that the staircases are quite narrow and steep, and they all have toys exhibited along them, so you’ll often find yourself twisting into awkward positions to get a good look at things, whilst trying to not fall down the stairs. This was further complicated by the fact that I was holding a large shopping bag in addition to my purse, and trying to take pictures with my crappy phone, which requires two hands; honestly I was probably lucky I didn’t break a leg or something. I would imagine this would be a nightmare if the place was crowded; fortunately, I was the only visitor at the time. We were the only visitors on this occasion too, so I can see why they had to raise the admission fee.

 

After successfully getting a peek at the board games on the stairs of death (I did a year-long research project on board games when I was in third grade, and I still love playing them, on the rare occasions I can find enough people to play with), I emerged onto the first floor, which was devoted to boys’ toys (that just sounds stupid and/or pervy, sorry), although some of them were unisex, like the rocking horses and zoetropes (when I was little, my grandpa bought me a rocking horse that I named Buckles, and spent hours riding whilst singing “Home, Home, on the Range” over and over again. I must have driven my grandparents mad). I was actually quite tomboyish when I was a kid, and I loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but my mother would never buy me any of the action figures because they were for boys, apparently. I had to resort to hand-me-downs from one of my friends, which mainly consisted of the crappier characters (I probably had five Raphaels). This stuff was far more “vintage” though; I think the newest things there were some robot and space toys from the ’60s, and a few GI Joes. I must have not clocked this on my first visit, but there is a really creepy mannequin sitting in one of the display cases down here. I’m not at all one to be freaked out by mannequins normally, but this one 100% looked like he was about to turn his head and wink at me. I didn’t want to look, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to tear my eyes away until I left the room. He’s in the photo above left. Also, I hate Punch. Oh yeah, and one of the rocking horses kept creaking back and forth the whole time we were in here, so that was fun.

 

On the second floor, I checked out the collection of toy theatres, and then progressed into the Georgian part of the museum, which was unashamedly girly (I probably wouldn’t use quite that language if I was writing this today, as “girly” sticks in my feminist craw a bit, but I’ll leave it). There were some rather creepy wax dolls (particularly so if you’ve seen that episode of Doctor Who where Amy and Rory are trapped in that dollhouse with the faceless peg dolls), and I was the only person in there, completely surrounded by their dead staring eyes, in a room with creaky 18th century floorboards and the distant tortured cry of a pigeon from the ledge outside. Before fleeing (I’m being melodramatic here, I wasn’t really that freaked out), I did note the English doll who was owned by an American pioneer girl, but eventually made it back to England to rest in the museum.

  

The next room was full of dollhouses, which I definitely have a fondness for. I played with Barbies and stuff when I was little, and I had some American Girl dolls (Samantha and Felicity), but I never had a dollhouse, which is a shame, because I loved making up stories for them, and I also love miniature things. These examples weren’t quite as ornate as some I’ve seen, but I still would have loved to own them when I was a kid, and I spent some time poring over the decorations and wee furniture. Around the corner were some teddies arranged in trees, and naturally, in a teddy bear picnic tableux, though my favourite was a poor WWI soldier bear who had been injured, and was resting his bandaged leg. Just thinking about it makes me go “awwwww” inside my head. (See, I do have a soft side!) No matter how battered the teddies were, I still found them sweet rather than creepy, unlike the dolls, which are nothing but creepy, I guess because humans are predisposed to be frightened of things that look human, but aren’t human.

  

The next room though, well, that was another doll room, mainly of the china sort. I was never into baby dolls; I guess I’ve never had any kind of maternal instinct, so these didn’t do much for me, though the homemade Pearly King and Queen dolls were kind of cool. The collections finished on the staircase back down with some war related games, and foreign toys. That room full of dolls had a padlock on the door, which is really kind of worrisome. Is that to keep me out or them in? I particularly hate the one with the pageboy haircut sitting on the bed, though I wouldn’t say that within its hearing.

 

Even though this is a toy museum, I don’t think children would actually like it, as you can’t touch anything. There were two young boys behind me as I left, as they had rushed through the entire museum in the time it took me to look at one room, and they seemed pretty uninterested. However, nostalgic adults would love it, as you can probably tell from the way I’ve bored you with personal reminiscences throughout. I mean, I was born well after any of the eras most of these toys were from, but I still found them delightful. Dusty cases full of Victorian toys arranged in strange tableaux in a dark, quiet museum of warren-like rooms is EXACTLY the kind of thing I love. That said, I do think £6 is kind of steep (haha. 2021 Jessica doesn’t even blink at spending £9, but 2021 Jessica has a job, unlike 2013 Jessica), but it is in central London, and doesn’t seem to be terribly popular, so I’m sure they need the help paying the rent. If you like Victoriana and/or old-fashioned museums, then I think it’s definitely worth checking out. 4/5. I stand by this. It’s still just as creepy and old-fashioned – like a breath of stale air. Love it. Happy Halloween everyone!

 

London: Chiswick Old Cemetery and Barnes Old Cemetery

Barnes Old Cemetery

Cemeteries have become a bit of a standby on Diverting Journeys around Halloween, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a post this year too. Not that I think cemeteries should intrinsically be viewed as creepy (death shouldn’t be taboo), but I have to admit that I enjoy them all the more if they are a bit overgrown and atmospheric. I recently visited two cemeteries in West London that I hadn’t been to before (both of which were much harder to get to than they should have been considering their proximity to where I live, but that’s really a beef with TfL) that I think are worth sharing here.

 

The first is Chiswick Old Cemetery/St Nicholas’ Churchyard (they’re in the same location, but they’re divided by a fence), which is in (you guessed it) Chiswick. We visited on the day of Chiswick’s monthly cheese market (also known as Cheesewick, which is apparently what Chiswick was originally called), which is about a mile away from the cemetery, and I was envisioning this lovely crisp autumn stroll through the graveyard followed by some leisurely cheese sampling, which was completely hampered by the absolute pissing rain we encountered as soon as we got off the train. I was completely soaked through after two minutes of walking and very cranky as a result, so it was a shame we had miles more to get through that day. However, after spending all that time getting there, I still wanted to see the burial ground, which is the final resting place of not only William Hogarth (and you know I love a Hogarth print) but also James Whistler, of Whistler’s Mother fame. Whistler, having died about a century and a half after Hogarth, is buried in the Old Cemetery, which is actually newer than the churchyard (but I guess still older than Chiswick’s current cemetery). He shares a tomb (above right) with his wife, who was also an artist, though much overlooked compared to her husband.

 

Most of the other graves in the Old Cemetery are fairly nondescript, so we quickly headed over to St Nicholas’ Churchyard, where the rain finally showed signs of stopping. There are actually two wonderful tombs here (and a number of so-so ones), and I would personally say Richard Wright’s (above) is actually better than Hogarth’s, given my love of skulls. He was a bricklayer, but he must have been a pretty fancy bricklayer, judging by his impressive tomb. And then of course there is Hogarth’s tomb (below), which was restored in 2009. I assume they mean just the carving rather than the inscription, as that was impossible to read – fortunately, they had a transcription written on a nearby sign, so at least I could figure it out that way. It didn’t take a lot of time to look around, but I think it was worth coming for the three tombs I’ve mentioned above, plus we got some delicious cheese at the market and of course bakery from Outsider Tart, a must when I’m in Chiswick.

 

We visited Barnes Old Cemetery about a week later, which is in, yep, Barnes! You’re good at this guessing game. Barnes Old Cemetery opened in 1854 and closed a century later, as it was already full and too expensive to maintain without the revenue from new burials. Rather than even attempt to maintain it, Barnes Council apparently just thought, “screw this, let’s turn it into a park. Then it can be super overgrown and no one can complain!” And that’s what they did.

 

In reality, it wasn’t much worse than many still technically active cemeteries I’ve been to in London, as there were trails to walk on and you could still read a lot of the tombstones. The only even sort of famous person buried here (by modern standards) is Julia Martha Thomas, and she’s only famous on account of her being a murder victim. She was killed by her maid Kate Webster in 1879, and it was apparently an incredibly notorious and well-publicised murder (I guess because a lot of rich and middle class people secretly lived in fear of being killed by their servants and this confirmed their worst fears, and also because there were rumours of Webster trying to sell the corpse fat to a pub (she boiled all the flesh off the body and hid the bones), and people love a lurid cannibalism story). Her skull was only discovered about ten years ago during building works at a property owned by David Attenborough. However, when time came to bury the skull, they couldn’t find her body anywhere in the cemetery, so they had to bury the skull in a different cemetery. If the professionals couldn’t track down her plot, that doesn’t bode well for the chances of a member of the general public finding her grave either, as indeed we didn’t.

 

Still, this occasion was a proper dry, crisp autumn day like I’d been hoping for in Chiswick, and it was a great time to walk around picking up horse chestnuts to take home to scare off spiders (I’ve no idea if it works, but it can’t hurt) and exploring the cemetery. The many headless angels added extra ambience and I had to laugh at the obnoxiously large tomb of William Hedgman (above left) off in its own little clearing, which was so much bigger than anything else in this modest cemetery that you know he was just trying to show everyone his superiority over the rest of the plebs here (a sentiment I would like to communicate with my own tomb). It probably won’t take more than half an hour to look around Barnes Old Cemetery, but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially in autumn!

 

Nottingham: The Haunted Museum

As promised, I’ve got something full spooky for you today: The Haunted Museum! This is what sold me on visiting Nottingham – even though it sounded like kind of a tourist trap, I still very much wanted to go. I suspect The Haunted Museum is a relatively new museum, and it is meant to be a home for various “haunted” objects, as well as some horror film props. I don’t really believe in ghosts, but I love the idea of them, so I was completely on board.

 

Admission to the museum is £7, and there is no prebooking required, probably because it’s not that busy; we were the only visitors the whole time we were inside. Despite this, there were about five members of staff hanging around the entrance area (which is a lot for a museum this size, especially on a Sunday!), most of them not wearing face coverings, which was frankly one of the scariest parts, though we were careful to avoid coming too close. I think at one point the museum was doing guided tours only, on which you could not take photos, but it is now self-guided and you are welcome to take all the photos you wish, and I wished to take a lot, because it was creepy in there!

 

If you are afraid of clowns, you will not like this museum. Ditto if you are afraid of dolls, because there are a lot of both, including clown dolls, which I guess is the worst of both worlds. I’m not overly keen on clowns, but they’re pleasingly creepy, a level of creep I can handle, rather than downright terrifying, so I was enjoying myself. The museum was basically a random collection of crap, some of it grouped into tableaux, with a laminated (and often poorly spelled) fact sheet accompanying each object/scene to tell you where it was from and why and/or how it was haunted. So there were some dolls from a Haunted Doll Island in Mexico, a bunch of “crying child” paintings allegedly taken from houses that had burned down whilst the paintings themselves remained untouched, and some other painting of creepy children that was meant to suck the viewer into the painting somehow.

 

One of the freakiest areas was “Hattie’s Room”, which you can see at the start of the post. This was filled with clown dolls that moved and played music, and the story of the ghost they belonged to, which was roughly that she was happy as long as she could play with her toys, but if she couldn’t, bad shit happened (which basically serves as a synopsis of every ghost story here). I honestly could have sworn that there was nothing written on that “Play with Me” wall when I was standing in front of it, but I could have just missed it in the poor lighting…

 

The smaller upstairs rooms were definitely my favourite part, since they felt a bit like walking through a haunted house (though we had been assured beforehand that nothing jumps out at you, maybe because Marcus looked a bit nervous – he HATES haunted houses), but most of the objects were concentrated in the auditorium area, which had little exhibition spaces coming off either side of the staircase leading into it. I liked the collection of Ouija boards along with the descriptions of the “spirits” that had been contacted with them – my favourite was the story about how a bunch of kids were playing around with a board and getting a kick out of spelling words like “poop” and “fart” (totally something I would have done) until things took a more sinister turn.

 

There were also a lot of film props in here, and I could have done without those, to be honest. Not that any of it was real, but something about them seemed to detract from the alleged realness of the “haunted” objects, which were much eerier, mainly because so bloody many of them were dolls! I guess the real message of the museum is don’t have dolls in your house if you don’t want paranormal activity to happen.

 

Being from Cleveland, the most interesting item to me was the “dybbuk box” from Franklin Castle, otherwise known as the most haunted building in Ohio (they refer to it as Franklin House in the museum, but everyone in Cleveland calls it Franklin Castle). Dybbuk box was a term that popped up a lot here, and it apparently originally comes from a box auctioned on eBay in 2009 by a writer who had cleverly crafted a story about the ghost that haunted it to go along with it (which is a brilliant idea – I’d love to do something similar!), but The Haunted Museum appeared to use it as a general term for any box meant to contain some sort of evil spirit. I talked a little bit about Franklin Castle in an October post last year, along with a photo, so I’ll link you to that if you want to see it, but long story short, it was a house built by a German immigrant who had various family members die young in unpleasant ways, and it was said to be haunted by subsequent owners. There are rumours that the guy who built it was involved in more sinister goings-on, like murders, which is why the house is supposedly haunted, but I don’t think there’s any actual proof of that. Anyway, it was neat to see something from Cleveland in a random museum in Nottingham!

 

The museum has been used to film several of those lame ghost hunter type reality shows (in fact, I think the owners appear in one of those shows) that I hate watching because they’re so phony and badly acted, and these were playing on a screen in the back of the auditorium. The museum also hosts ghost hunting evenings of its own, although I assume any ghosts are attached to the objects themselves rather than the actual building (again, I don’t think ghosts are real (though I would describe myself as more of an agnostic where ghosts are concerned, but an atheist where religion is concerned), I’m just going along with the vibe of the museum here with my ghosty musings), since it was what would otherwise have been a rather nondescript building in a random shopping parade just outside of Nottingham if it hadn’t been tarted up to look a bit gothy on the exterior (I read it was originally a cinema, but I don’t think it was a haunted cinema).

 

After experiencing everything the museum had to offer, I genuinely have to say that the scariest aspect of the visit for me was actually these creepy-ass bollards around the corner from the museum, on a random residential street, pictured above right. Seriously, this is what nightmares are made of. They were so unsettling, especially because they weren’t supposed to be. I think the museum could take a lesson from that – the scariest things are often organic, and not trying too hard, like this museum was. I do love a bit of cheese, and I did genuinely enjoy the upstairs rooms with their haunted house-esque atmosphere, since they were just good fun. But the auditorium part seemed to be taking itself a bit too seriously, and I did have a bit of an issue with the death mask of Joseph Merrick exhibited here – I’m super interested in Joseph Merrick, but I think displaying something relating to him in this context, with a bunch of “haunted” or otherwise creepy items, seemed to imply that he was something to fear, instead of just being a man suffering from an awful genetic condition outside his control. I also definitely wasn’t impressed by the lack of face coverings amongst staff; at least make an effort when visitors are in the building! Although I did enjoy my experience overall, and was really happy I got to do something at least a little bit spooky this year, since most Halloween events were cancelled, I think I have to downgrade it because of some of the issues, so I’ll give it 3/5. Happy Halloween – hope you can all still find a way to enjoy the best holiday of the year! I’ll be spending it inside watching Hocus Pocus surrounded by the warm glow of multiple jack o’lanterns, undoubtedly with some kind of Halloween themed cake, which isn’t any different from what I do every year!

Object Focus: Crafty Creations

Although I do enjoy visiting museums, I honestly just like staying home best (which is why, unlike many people, I am in no hurry for things to open back up), and one of my dreams has always been to acquire enough weird stuff to have my own museum (though I would have to severely restrict access, since I do not like visitors!). My very talented partner Marcus has assisted in this ambition by creating many marvellous things for me over the years (he’s very good at crafts, and I’m definitely not), and this week, I thought I’d do a mini tour of my own “home museum” (such as it is) and show you some of them (I also wanted to give myself a little break with something a bit lighter after finishing that EuroTrip series. I found writing about some of that surprisingly emotionally draining). If you follow me on Instagram, you might have seen some of these things already, but I hope you don’t mind seeing them again!

I’m starting with Martha the magpie, who you can see at the start of the post. I love all birds in the crow family, but I’m especially partial to magpies. Those iridescent blue-green feathers are just so pretty! Although I’m certainly not averse to buying antique or ethically sourced taxidermy (in fact, I have a taxidermy jackdaw), and I’m not normally superstitious, something about buying a dead magpie just felt wrong and probably unlucky, so Marcus got around the problem by making me one out of paper and card, and I love her.

These are our clown eggs, which I feel require a bit of explanation. There is a thing called the Clown Egg Register at a church in Dalston, where professional clowns are represented by ceramic eggs showcasing their unique clown makeup designs, thereby trademarking their clown persona in the clown community. Even though they are undeniably creepy (as is the very idea of a clown community, if I’m honest), I’m fascinated by them, and I’ve always wanted to go see them but haven’t quite managed it yet, in part because their collection was temporarily on loan to a circus exhibition in Newcastle that Marcus visited without me when I was in the US visiting my family a few years back, which I’m still mildly salty about. To make amends, he bought me the Clown Egg Register book, which inspired us to sketch out clown personas for each other. Marcus’s is named Lembo (a play on his surname) and is a sad clown, hence the droopy flower in his hat, and my clown persona is named Waffles, because everybody likes waffles (which Waffles often says menacingly whilst performing), and I LOVE waffles (the food). I actually put on Waffles clown makeup one day to freak out Marcus, but I won’t show you here because I genuinely looked shit scary. Anyway, this whole thing led to Marcus creating clown eggs for us out of real eggshells, which is what you see above. Mine has my actual hair on it, which makes it even more creepy/amazing. When we moved house last year, I held the box on my lap the whole time in the moving van because I was so worried about breaking them, but they survived intact.

 

I also love Indiana Jones, as regular readers will know, so for our anniversary a few years ago, Marcus made me a replica of the Indiana Jones voodoo doll from Temple of Doom, as well as (most excitingly), doll versions of the two of us, with hand-carved wooden heads. He made the doll bodies and clothing as well – I’m wearing a chicken dress, and holding a book of ghost stories. He was secretly working on them for ages whilst I was at work, and I kept coming home to find him with all these cuts on his hands and couldn’t figure out what he was up to. He’s had to update mine every time I get a new tattoo, unless they’ve just been appearing on their own… I don’t think they actually work (I had to jab a pin through the hand of the Marcus doll to hold his phone on until I could sew it, since the thread had come loose, and he didn’t show any reaction (the actual Marcus, that is)), but that’s probably a good thing.

We discovered Bernard Moss pottery whilst watching Antiques Roadshow one night a while back, and I thought it was super charming, but also incredibly expensive. Marcus managed to find the bathtub from Good Clean Fun on eBay for a reasonable price because it was missing the little man and woman figures that are supposed to sit inside the tub. So he bought it, and made his own figures that look like us, which is better than the originals would have been anyway!

 

The piece de resistance is definitely my witch cabinet. I always wanted an arsenic green room (without the actual arsenic), so when we bought a house and could decorate any way we wanted to (after years of living in rented accommodation), Marcus painted one of the rooms arsenic green for me, and I sort of turned it into the goth room/library (well, all the rooms have gothy touches, but this is where it’s the most concentrated), and I definitely wanted a witch cabinet for it to display some of my weird stuff. He managed to find a used china hutch online that was already delightfully black and gothy looking (I think it might be haunted, or else just our house generally is), and I filled it up with some of my best stuff, including the skeleton rag doll he made me (named Roger), the glass pumpkin I made at the Corning Glass Museum, and some specimens in jars. We already had preserved pig hearts that we made at a workshop at St. Bart’s many years ago, and we also had our fake specimens from a Halloween late at the Hunterian Museum (you can see Marcus’s fetus above). Marcus also made me a jar full of moles, which you can also (murkily) see above.

 

As if this wasn’t enough, for Valentine’s Day this year, he surprised me by transforming the inside of the cabinet (the door at the front opens up, and I never bothered to look inside because I hadn’t put anything in there, so he was able to work on it when I wasn’t home without my noticing) into a truly witchy delight. He stenciled on a Ouija board, and filled the shelves with all kinds of good stuff like charms, protection kits against werewolves and vampires (all homemade), and my personal favourite, cryptozoological specimens that reference some of my favourite films, like a werewolf paw print from the Yorkshire Moors (American Werewolf in London) and a Sumatran rat monkey ear (Braindead). It obviously couldn’t be more perfect, and I know I’m super lucky to have someone that lovingly creates all these things that cater to my strange interests.

I have many more unusual things in my house, but I thought it would be nice to specifically draw attention to all the lovely things Marcus has created this week (and probably inadvertently embarrass him a little), and maybe talk about some more of my non-homemade possessions in a future post, if you didn’t find this one too boring (since I don’t think I’ll be museuming in person for a while, at least I can show you some of my own artefacts!). Marcus’s next project is recreating Book from Hocus Pocus (which we’re meant to be working on together), so I’ll let you know how that goes when we finish. Hope you enjoyed a peek at some of my decor!

London: Abney Park Cemetery Tour

Happy almost Halloween everyone! I have more posts from the US coming up, but since I’ve managed to keep the spooky theme going for the whole of October, I couldn’t resist posting about a cemetery tour I went on recently first. Over the years, I have managed to visit almost all of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries (garden cemeteries built during the Victorian era in what were at the time suburban locations as a way to accommodate the growing number of London’s dead that could no longer fit in central London’s churchyards). The only ones I had yet to see were Abney Park and Kensal Green, so when I saw that Abney Park was offering a special Halloween tour, I jumped at the chance. Even though it meant going all the way out to Stoke Newington, which is quite a trek from Southwest London.

 

Our tour was due to start at 3, but we got to Stokey (as the cool people call it) a bit early so I could grab some cake from a local bakery and get a few photos of the cemetery before the tour started. The cemetery is quite near to Stoke Newington Overground station, so is easier to access than some of the Magnificent Seven (looking at you, Tower Hamlets). The tour cost around £13, which ended up being more like £15 once Eventbrite fees were added in, but the description did say we would have mulled apple juice, soul cakes, and bones of the dead to end the tour, which was honestly one of the main reasons I booked on. It also meant I had to miss a London Month of the Dead event that I had accidentally booked for the same day, but I’ve been to a few of those and they’re always slightly disappointing, so it wasn’t a major loss, though I wasn’t pleased that they refused to refund our money even though we contacted them more than two weeks ahead of time to say we couldn’t make it. It was a sold out event, and I’m sure they could have resold our tickets to someone on the waiting list rather than have them go to waste (but that’s a complaint for another time, I’ve got plenty of others for today!).

 

Initial impressions of the cemetery were good. Although obviously overgrown and in a state of disrepair, like all of the Magnificent Seven, it wasn’t as bad as Tower Hamlets (can you tell that is my least favourite of the seven?) – in fact, in terms of atmosphere, I’d rank it up there with Brompton and Highgate, though the condition was a bit worse than either of those. However, the tour itself seemed a little disorganised when we arrived. It wasn’t clear who would be leading it, and there were various staff members standing about, but only one had the guest list and she kept disappearing inside, so you had to catch her to get your name checked off. They also abruptly decided we would all walk to the chapel to begin the tour right after Marcus had gone in to find a toilet, so I had to awkwardly wait around for him to come back (fortunately, the group didn’t move very fast, so they were easy to find). Instead of having treats at the end, apparently we would start the tour with them, which was fine with me as I was starving (I got the aforementioned cake to take home, so I hadn’t eaten since breakfast).

 

The chapel itself was quite a neat design, although there were no modern conveniences like heat or light. In fact, there was nothing in the interior except a set of folding chairs and a whole lot of ladybugs flying around, which kept landing on people (I started thinking of them as death beetles, and was glad none landed on me). However, it is the only one of the Magnificent Seven to only have a non-denominational chapel (most of the others started with an Anglican one, and then added one for dissenters (anyone who wasn’t Anglican)), and it was cool in every sense of the word, so the mulled apple juice was much appreciated! I liked that the default drink was nonalcoholic, because they serve this revolting hot gin punch at London Month of the Dead events. There were no soul cakes, but there were cookie-esque things that were meant to be ossi dei morti, but according to the woman who baked them, they had all run together, so were just broken into chunks. No matter, as they tasted delicious, like the crunchy brown edges of sugar cookies.

Once we were all settled in, the woman giving the tour appeared, and this is where things started to get disappointing. Not because she was bad at public speaking or anything like that, but because my expectations for these events are clearly unrealistically high. Because I’m really fascinated by certain subjects (Halloween, crime and punishment, medical history, the macabre), I tend to know a lot about them, so if I attend a talk by someone who doesn’t really know their stuff, I end up disappointed, and that’s exactly what happened here. She had clearly done some research, but she was working towards a MA in Victorian history rather than anything directly related to Halloween, so these subjects were not necessarily her forte. Really it’s my own fault for booking on, because I know this will happen every time. She started off by drily reading some notes she had written on the history of Halloween, which was all pretty basic information. I suppose this may have been interesting for people who don’t know much about Halloween, but for me it had all the appeal of sitting in a particularly dreary lecture hall. I would so much have rather heard about the history of the cemetery, which seemed to have been much more the tour guide’s speciality, but she touched on it only briefly.

Once she’d finished with Halloween history, we headed out into the cemetery to visit the graves of five Victorians buried there who she thought fitted into the Halloween theme. This sounded much more promising, but unfortunately also turned out to be not what I was hoping for. For one thing, almost all the actual graves of the people were located in the overgrown inaccessible parts of the cemetery, so we didn’t even get to look at them! For another thing, some of the facts she was giving us contained glaring omissions, or were just plain wrong. She mentioned the Bloody Code, and described it as coming about because “people cared about property more than people”. Fair enough, but that’s painting an incomplete picture. It was also tied in to the lack of a police force and the need for punishments to be severe enough to act as a deterrent (not defending the Bloody Code, because it was a horrible thing, just saying it was more complex than she made it sound). The primary reason it was gradually revoked in the 19th century was because Britain had established an effective police force and alternative means of punishment, such as transportation, by that point, not because property had become any less important!

Anyway, the five people she discussed were William Calcroft, one of Britain’s most prolific and brutal executioners; a member of the Mather family who was distantly related to Cotton Mather, chosen for Cotton Mather’s role in the Salem Witchcraft Trials (the connection was tenuous at best, as was her grasp of medical history. She mentioned how Cotton Mather was interested in inoculation, which he was, but then went on to imply that he and Edward Jenner were contemporaries who were influenced by each other’s ideas, which was not the case at all! Mather died years before Jenner was born, and though Jenner was influenced by inoculation, Britain and America had independently adopted inoculation at almost exactly the same time, and the practice was popularised in Britain by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Can you tell I can go on about this sort of thing all day?); a famous aeronaut and astrologer named George Graham; and finally a father and daughter who practised stage magic. The father was known as the “Wizard of the South,” and there was another odd moment where she seemed to say that Houdini and the Wizard knew each other, even though Houdini was born 15 years after the Wizard died. There was a lot of jumbling of timelines). Even though I obviously had some issues with some of her research (or lack thereof), I am at least polite enough to keep my mouth shut whilst someone is delivering a talk. Not so her friend, a self-described historian, who stood in front and kept interrupting to add bits in (but not make necessary corrections). It was just obnoxious after a while.

Honestly, I did enjoy the overall experience more than I’m probably making it sound like I did. The mulled cloudy apple juice and cookies were delicious (and the very nice cemetery volunteers were waiting for us at the end of the tour with more mulled juice, which was much appreciated), and the cemetery itself was great, I just wish the tour guide had bothered to do a bit more research and maybe picked graves we could actually see! I hope I’m not coming down too harsh – I just get annoyed sometimes because this is exactly the sort of thing I would like to do, but have never really been given a chance to do so, so it irks me when I see people who have had the opportunity not use it to the fullest of their abilities! I also think that if someone is talking about a subject I know about myself, and saying things I know are wrong, it makes it difficult for me to trust what they say on subjects I know nothing about, like George Graham. I enjoyed getting to see Abney Park, but I would have liked more of the focus to be on the cemetery itself, which I think would have let our guide play to her strengths – I think she would have been great under the right circumstances, this just clearly wasn’t her choice of subject. Still, not a bad thing to do pre-Halloween, and certainly better than London Month of the Dead’s horrible hot lemon gin would have been. I’ll be spending Halloween night watching all of my favourite films (Hocus Pocus, Braindead, etc) and vintage Treehouses of Horror, and maybe I’ll even get some trick or treaters this year, now that we’ve moved into an actual house! Hope your Halloween is just as spooky as you want it to be (even if that’s not very)!

London: “Art and Spirit” @ the College of Psychic Studies

And so we happily come to October, best of months, in which all I want to do is breathe, eat, read, watch, and sleep Halloween (to be honest, I do that for most of the rest of the year too, but especially in October). Because I like to try to do Halloween related posts for as much of October as I can, and because appropriately spooky things rarely come my way in London, I’ve been hanging on to this one since August. So you will no longer be able to visit “Art and Spirit: Visions of Wonder,” as it only ran for one week in August, but how about I give you my thoughts on it anyway? (Rhetorical question, you’re getting my thoughts whether you like it or not.)

  

The first thing you need to know about me, if you’ve never read my blog before (hi!), is that as much as I would love to believe in ghosts, I am at heart a cold hard skeptic, and these people had no chance on selling me on any concept of an afterlife. So I was relieved that the exhibition was free, because I really did not want to give the College of Psychic Studies money (or any sort of religious organisation money, for that matter). The place was exactly what I was expecting (maybe I’m psychic?) – a big rambling terraced house in South Kensington that the College had presumably financed back in the late 19th/early 20th century during the Spiritualism craze when they were rolling in the dough. The College is open to the public for classes and things (that you have to pay for, of course), but I think the summer exhibition is the only time the whole building is open to the public, and it was hard to tell if they had actually put together an exhibition specially, or if this is the stuff that is always in here.

  

In all fairness, the people working there were very friendly, albeit a bit earnest. The same was true of most of our fellow visitors, who seemed to really believe in this stuff (a couple were questioning why you don’t get spirits on photographs anymore, and talking about how “powerful” all the images were), and I guess good for you if you’re able to embrace your spiritual side, but I am a terrible person, and earnestness makes me uncomfortable (I don’t really have a problem with people believing what they want to believe as long as they’re not pushing it on me or hurting anyone, but I do take issue with psychics and other people who exploit people’s vulnerability for financial gain, and it seems like there’s a lot of supposed “psychics” connected to this college). The people working there also seemed a little confused on whether we could take pictures – two different people told us it was fine, but then we spotted small signs in some of the rooms telling us not to take pictures. So I do have some photos, but not in places where we noticed a sign, so hopefully there won’t be an issue with posting these.

  

So as I’ve said, basically the entire building was open, and you could wander in all of the rooms, but some of them had barely anything in them which made me think that this is the way it normally looks. But the building was huge, and there was lots to see (lots of stairs too, though I think they had a lift). I would say the best bits by far were the spirit photography (as seen above), and the spirit paintings (as seen at the start of the post), which were just naive art, but done by people who claimed to have their hands guided by spirits (I had to laugh at the captions that basically said, “This person never drew before in their lives, and then they produced these [very primitive] paintings, so that’s proof that they must have been guided by a spirit.”).

 

There was sort of a shrine room to Arthur Conan Doyle, who was one of the College’s presidents, which was a bit odd, and then various supposedly haunted furniture, which in theory I love the sound of, but oh man, did they take it seriously. I was also cracking up at how they tried to dismiss the debunking of a seance that featured spirit writing by saying that the people who did the debunking weren’t properly familiar with how seances worked, so they didn’t understand that the writing on the board could occur at any time, even before the seance had begun (and not because the psychic had put it there themselves, of course). It was just all a bit too credulous for me. Still, I was interested to learn more about all the devices used in seances, and about the history of the Rider-Waite Tarot cards, since I do dabble in tarot (just for fun, not for serious).

I’m sure I just sound like I’m taking the piss, but I do think this was an interesting experience – if it hadn’t been a serious exhibition, but had been something more in the vein of the Harry Potter exhibition at the BL or even the Witchcraft Museum (who don’t seem to take themselves quite so seriously), I would have been really into it. As it was, I was just a little too weirded out by the earnestness to fully enjoy myself (I was sort of worried someone was going to try to convert us to spiritualism, though nothing like that happened. I know I said I didn’t want to give them money, but if they’d had that “Spirit Intercourse” poster for sale, I’d have bought it in a second). It was certainly a very unique experience, and perfect for this time of year (though I had no problem getting into the spirit in August, so to speak), and worth checking out if they open again next summer, but I certainly don’t think I’ll be joining the College any time soon. 2.5/5.

 

 

Oxford: Spellbound @ the Ashmolean

Wow, I look truly spellbound by “Spellbound.” Well, I look kind of witchy anyway, which isn’t a bad thing.

Here I am, back to the Ashmolean again, and sooner than I thought I would be. I did say when I posted about it previously that even though I was pretty annoyed with them for not having the dickhead plate there, or at least for not telling people that it was on loan, I was debating going back for the witchcraft exhibition in the fall. And that’s exactly what happened, the lure of witches being far too great to resist. Besides, Halloween events in London were pretty lacking this year – mostly just lectures, which I would normally have attended, but with my brother here the week most of them were on, I skipped them in favour of doing stuff with him (as you’ll see in future posts), since he’s not a big lecture person. And of course I had to have a Halloween post, so “Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft” fits the bill nicely.

  

But I didn’t travel all the way up to Oxford and only see “Spellbound.” Even though we were only visiting Oxford for about four hours on this trip, we still had time to return to the Weston Library. After the success of “Sappho to Suffrage” and “Designing English”, I was keen to see what else they were offering. Well, “Sappho to Suffrage” was still there, but they did have a new display in the foyer called “Unhealthy Times of Kings and Queens” which was right up my alley (I’ve only just realised that British people say “up my street” instead (after co-workers kept sending me links to various weird exhibitions with the subject line, “This looks up your street.” They weren’t wrong), which I can’t quite bring myself to do). This was only one small case, and I would have loved a whole exhibition’s worth, but what was here was pretty great, including little blurbs about various British monarchs and their ailments and plenty of artefacts to illustrate how those illnesses were viewed at the times these monarchs suffered from them. Daniel Lambert (Georgian Britain’s fattest man. I have a Staffordshire knockoff figurine of him) even made an appearance, and I absolutely love the description of him in the pamphlet on display: “a truly astounding prodigy of human dimensions.” It seems a rather nice way of calling someone fat.

  

Rather less excitingly, the main exhibition at the Weston (which has since ended) was on Tolkien. I think I’ve probably said this before, but I hate The Lord of the Rings books, I hate the movies, I hate all of it. A librarian recommended The Hobbit to me when I was a kid, and extremely keen reader though I was (and am), I only made it about a third of the way through before giving up from sheer boredom. I know that many people love Tolkien, and I’m glad that they’re passionate about books and all, but those particular books are just not for me. Nonetheless, we were there, it was free, and so we went.
Pictures were not allowed inside, but it was about what you would expect, both in terms of content, and the people visiting it. I sometimes make a half-assed effort not to say terrible things about people, but this exhibition was full of some real nerds (not that there’s anything wrong with being a nerd, but I just don’t quite get that type of nerd). It was really crowded, and everyone here looked like LotR fans, if you know what I mean. Balding men with long hair (which sounds like an oxymoron, but isn’t. It’s when they’re bald on top but grow the back part really long, kind of like Bill Bailey) and gamer t-shirts, women with hair down to their knees, elf ears, that whole sort of scene. Honestly, I barely looked at the first editions and Tolkien’s drawings of elf-land, or whatever the hell it’s called, because there were so many people crowded in front of them, and since I’ve never read the books, they didn’t mean anything to me. I was more interested in the story of Tolkien’s life, though the exhibit seemed to skip oddly from his student years, to him being a full on professor at Oxford (though I’ve been reading ghost stories all through October, which means a lot of M.R. James and E.F. Benson, and honestly that’s just how it seemed things worked back in the day. Graduate from Oxbridge, and we’ll hand you a professorship that you’ll hold until you die. Must be nice, at least if you ignore all the curses and hauntings in those stories). I did think the letters he used to write to his children, as Santa, were quite sweet, and those were probably the highlight of the exhibition for me.

Matthew Hopkins, self-proclaimed Witch Finder General. This guy was seriously the worst.

Having made it through the Tolkien exhibition in 15 minutes, we had time to head over to a street market for a quick snack (I got polenta fries with pesto, but in retrospect I think I should have gone with the Sri Lankan dhal and potato fry with roti or the vegetable momos) before going to the Ashmolean to see “Spellbound.” It normally costs £12, but we got half price tickets due to the National Art Pass, and I did pre-book, since we were making a special trip to see it. It runs until 6th January 2019. It was on the third floor, and also did not allow photography, more’s the pity, since of course there were some rad things in here (I’ve found a few images online, but not many).

Witches apprehended, examined and executed for notable villanies by them committed both by land and water. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While I liked the very beginning of the exhibition, which tested your belief in superstition by asking you to walk under a ladder, I was a little disappointed with the next gallery, because the focus was more on medieval magical practices, like sorcery, alchemy, the use of saints’ relics, and the like, which are interesting, but not really what I think of when I think of witchcraft, especially as these were usually practiced by men, and were mainly tolerated by the authorities. Nonetheless, there were some fabulous old texts in here, and one of the coolest objects in the entire exhibition: a human heart encased in lead. I also liked the witch quilt (which if I remember correctly, was sewn by female prisoners), and was kind of shocked by the size of the narwhal horns – I hadn’t realised quite how big they were, which made it even more perplexing that people would have thought they were unicorn horns.  How big did people think unicorns would have been?!

Disease of the eye caused by witchcraft.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
I know this shouldn’t make me laugh, but it does, every time.

The next gallery was about the objects that people had concealed in their houses throughout the early modern era to try to protect themselves from witches. Obviously I loved the mummified cat and rat, but all the witches’ bottles and random shoes and things were great too, and it was much more atmospheric in here, being a dimly lit gallery with little cubbyholes that you had to enter to view the artefacts. This was more like what I was expecting, especially Katharine Dowson’s installation at the end of the gallery, called “Concealed Shield.” It was a darkened room with a red-lit glass heart in the centre and red lights playing on the walls, with scrabbling sound effects that were meant to sound like demons. I loved it so much I went inside three times.

Helen Duncan producing ectoplasm and manifesting one of her spirit guides, who looks like he (she?) belongs in the Puppet Museum in Lyon.

The final, and fullest gallery, was more straightforwardly about witches, as in the women (and some men) who were wrongfully executed during the early modern witch craze, and how that formed our idea of what a witch is. There were fantastic prints here, some reminiscent of the ones I saw at the BM a few years ago; a lovely book showing a witch and her toad familiars (I would definitely have toad familiars), and some general witchy objects borrowed from the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, though none quite as cool as the stuff that had been at the Harry Potter exhibition at the BL. There was also a room where you could listen to the “confession” of a woman who was accused of witchcraft (and executed as a result), and another just filled with flames (though I feel I should reiterate this until society at large gets it: English and American witches were hanged, not burned, unless their alleged crime also included petty treason (for women, this meant the murder of their husband). Plenty of people were burned for witchcraft in Scotland and the Continent though, and the point stands that all of those people were wrongfully executed, regardless of how it was done). There was also a small section about mediums, in particular Helen Duncan, who, in the 1940s, was the last person convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 (still on the books until 1951, though the 1735 Act repealed earlier ones that called for executing witches. The 1735 Act merely carried penalties of a fine or prison term). Although Duncan was undoubtedly a fraud (firstly, because ghosts aren’t real (probably), and secondly, once you’ve seen the “ectoplasm,” which was just a piece of fabric, and the pictures of her manifesting it and her “spirit guides,” you have to wonder how anyone took her seriously in the first place), people were angered by the use of this clearly obsolete act in prosecuting Duncan, and it was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which prosecuted them for bilking the gullible out of money, rather than for the practice of witchcraft. I actually loved this section, because ghosts are possibly even more Halloweeny than witches, and having them both here was a nice surprise.
  
The shop had looked great before I went in it, since I spotted some cool looking pentagram candle holders from the door, but it turns out initial appearances were deceiving, as it was mostly full of non-witch related scarves and shawls (not even witch-looking ones, because I am totally down to buy a witch cloak if I can find a suitable (non-Harry Potter related) one). Still, I bought a skeleton pin badge and a couple postcards. I was a little disappointed in the exhibition, because it was too heavy on medieval magic for my taste, and some of the artefacts weren’t exactly what I was hoping for, but I still enjoyed it. It wasn’t as good as the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, or even the Harry Potter exhibition (though it was pleasanter to look around than the latter, being much less crowded), but it was still the kind of exhibition I love seeing in October. 3.5/5. Oh, and we went back through the Ashmolean to check for the dickhead plate, and guess what? It is finally back, and it is so worth seeing in person (actually, you probably already guessed that, due to the positioning of that photo). Happy Halloween everyone!

I spotted this cake in an Oxford bakery, and I kind of wish I’d commissioned one with my face on the decapitated head, though I suppose the one already on it looks a bit like me.

London: Cabinet of Curiosities @ the National Archives

I should start by saying that me and the National Archives are not exactly friends. Though I like the idea of archives in principle – in practice, I’m not a great one for following the rules, and man, most archives have a LOT of rules. I’ve had to go to the National Archives a few times over the years to do historical research (for some reason, though the surviving attestation papers for servicemen in WWI have been digitised, the service records for officers have not, so you have to go there in person to look at them), and after my last experience there, when one of their employees literally snapped my pencil in half for the “crime” of having an eraser on it (instead of just, you know, telling me I couldn’t have an eraser, and letting me go find another pencil), I was quite happy to just let my reader’s pass lapse.  But then Halloween rolled around this year, and I saw that the National Archives was hosting a special late event as part of the Museums at Night series that takes place in London a couple of times a year. And the event was Edwardian themed, with promises of stories of spiritualism and Egyptology, so I sucked it up and parted with 20 quid for a ticket (which in itself is insane, even without my dislike of the National Archives). But I was unconvinced that ending my unofficial boycott of the National Archives would prove to be a wise decision.

I was admittedly not in the best mood to start with, having not gotten home from work until 11:30 the night before after offering to help with a spooky walk given by my museum’s young persons’ group (I won’t be reviewing it for obvious reasons), so I wasn’t particularly keen on going out yet again after work when all I wanted to do was go home, eat, and go to bed, but it was really my own fault for booking tickets, so I ignored my grumbling stomach and caught a bus out to Kew.  The staff were all dressed in Edwardian outfits for the event with big roses pinned to their lapels so you could identify them, and though they had encouraged attendees to dress up, very few had (I wasn’t strictly speaking specially dressed up, since I just wore what I’d been wearing all day at work, but I have kind of an office-goth vibe going on most days anyway, so it did sort of look as though I’d made an effort). Though Eventbrite (with whom I’d booked the tickets) had promised to send over a schedule of events earlier in the week, they never did, so I only got a look at the programme after arriving. When I initially booked, I had to choose a time slot to watch the “mummy unwrapping,” and opted for the earlier slot in case the event was so lame that I didn’t want to hang around til the late one, which meant we were handed a colour coded sticker when we arrived to gain entrance to the earlier showing. Unfortunately, it also served as a kind of beacon for certain staff members to try to dictate to us how we should spend our time.

Since we had about half an hour before the unwrapping, we first tried to view the Keeper’s Gallery, as the programme promised it held special oddities, only to be turned away at the door because I was still carrying my purse (I was evidently going to steal something, despite everything in the exhibit being behind glass). So I duly stowed it away in a locker, and returned, only to realise it was just the same crap in the Keeper’s Gallery that’s always there, and in fact nothing special had been put out for this event. So we instead headed for the Case Studies room, which was meant to have materials relating to spiritualism, only to be turned away there too, because apparently “we might not be able to get upstairs to the mummy unveiling in time.” I realise they were probably just trying to be helpful, but c’mon – I’m a grown-ass woman, and I really dislike being bossed around at an event that I paid a bundle to attend. I had plenty of time to see the handful of ephemera in that room and get upstairs when I needed to, and I’m perfectly capable of doing my own time-keeping, thanks. I mean, it wasn’t like you were only allowed in once – if I didn’t have time to see everything then, I could have come back later. And it turned out that the mummy unwrapping ended up starting late, so we definitely would have had plenty of time to look around the Case Studies room beforehand. As it was, we just stood around the outside of the room where the mummy unwrapping was due to take place like idiots for twenty minutes. I guess the only positive was that it gave me time to take a stupid photo in their Egyptian background with one of the straw boaters that were provided for some reason.

So, the mummy unwrapping then. Though my expectations at this point were not high, it was actually better than expected. It was a presentation by Odette Toilette, who does various scent-themed immersive experiences around London, and some man who professed to be an Egyptologist (it wasn’t really clear if he actually was one in real life, or was just an actor, since he did seem to know a lot about mummies). It was based on actual mummy unwrappings that took place in Victorian England, where people would gather to watch an archaeologist basically desecrate a mummy (after they were unwrapped, they were either sold to be turned into medicine or made into paint, mummy brown apparently being a popular colour with the Pre-Raphaelites), though obviously this event did not involve a real mummy. They took us through the process of unwrapping a “mummy” by removing a few layers of bandages and describing the scents that would have arisen during the process, and we were duly given scent cards for each one, so we could smell along. These were not as gross as you might have expected, and included things like juniper, pine resin, beeswax, and myrrh. They actually gave quite a good performance; especially the poor “mummy” who came very close to having his skull cracked open (I was really impressed that he managed to lay perfectly still for so long, especially with people touching his hands and feet!), and I left feeling slightly less pissy at the National Archives.

Because of the way the talks were scheduled, you really only had time to attend two lectures in addition to the mummy unwrapping. Despite the Edwardian theme, we actually had a choice of talks on medieval witchcraft, the second Pendle witch craze (17th century), female Egyptologists, and the alleged curse of Tutankamun (1920s), which was fine, because those are all things I’m interested in, but I feel like there was enough spooky stuff going on in Edwardian Britain for them to have stuck to the theme, especially since they were the ones who chose it, and it was all people working for the National Archives who gave the lectures. I believe there were also lectures by the Cemetery Club, as noted on a sign inside the archives, but for some reason they weren’t listed on the programme, so I’m not sure if they actually took place.

We had about forty minutes to kill before the first lecture started (having missed the first round of lectures during the mummy unwrapping) so we headed back to the stupid Case Studies room that we were initially denied access to, and surprise surprise, it only took about five minutes to see it (not that I’m salty or anything). It was just a collection of documents relating primarily to prosecutions of Edwardian fortune tellers (for fraud) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in spiritualism and many letters in defense of it. And if you dared to try to turn one of the pages, someone came up and yelled at you and made a show of doing it for you with gloves (I didn’t dare touch anything after my pencil experience, but I saw someone else being shamed). I understand wanting to protect the documents, but then either have them behind glass, or have a sign out saying not to touch them, because scolding people for showing an interest is not a good way to change people’s perceptions of archives, and the documents were just sitting out on tables like normal books, so it wasn’t obvious that you weren’t allowed to turn the pages if you weren’t familiar with the ways of archives. Since we finished with that so quickly, we went to claim our free drinks (fortunately, the choices included semi-fancy soda, because I would have fallen asleep on the spot if I’d had alcohol), and then kind of just milled about listening to some Cockney old-timey style band (who complimented my tights, so they were alright with me!), and attempting to play a ball throwing game that was harder than it looked.

We chose to attend the lectures on medieval witchcraft and Tutankamun’s curse, and they were actually pretty good, especially the witchcraft one. I took an online course on medieval witchcraft a couple of months ago, so I wasn’t expecting to learn much here, but the lecturer told us about specific trials for witchcraft that I hadn’t heard of before (one involved a hand of glory, and the man’s “confession” is thought to be the first short story written in modern English), most of which involved trying to kill the king, which is why the people were prosecuted in the first place (witchcraft wasn’t necessarily frowned upon in the Middle Ages if you weren’t actually trying to harm anyone; for example, some men allegedly summoned a spirit and used it to find the location of some treasure, and the authorities were angry not on account of the necromancy, but because they didn’t declare the treasure once they’d found it. Their penalty was only a fine, rather than execution or something as you’d expect in the early modern period). He also chose some pretty good images to illustrate his talk, and I left feeling pleased with it.

The Tutankamun talk was somewhat less successful, mainly because the lecturer spent the talk trying to debunk the notion of a curse, which isn’t much fun around Halloween (I’d much rather hear about using the parts of a dead man to work magic). She was interesting enough, it just wasn’t really what I wanted to hear, I guess. But still, after my experience at that awful robot event last year, I’m glad I got to attend both talks, because the programme warned us that the lecture theatres had limited capacities and I was worried enough about it to show up early to both lecture rooms (I suppose the 20 quid entry fee helped keep numbers down, but it is London, and tickets had sold out, so I think the National Archives actually did place a reasonable limit on the number of tickets sold instead of being greedy). The witchcraft talk was completely full, but the Tutankamun one had lots of empty seats, probably because it was at the end of the night, and a lot of people had already gone home.

Even though the staff weren’t overly welcoming when we arrived, they seemed to mellow out a bit as the night went on, and I was pleased with the quality of the talks and presentations overall, though I really don’t think it was 20 pound’s worth of entertainment, and I definitely think they could have done a much better job of sticking with an Edwardian theme if they were going to bother to give it a theme at all. Why not some talks on spiritualism (as there was clearly material in the archives relating to this), or Edwardian murder cases (like creepy Crippen)? I also think there could have been more entertainment provided between talks, because the Cockney performers were more just background noise than something you’d actually sit there and watch, and though there was a magician, he was kind of hidden over in a corner rather than front and centre putting on a show. It just wasn’t enough considering how much we’d paid. If it had only been a tenner, I’d have left feeling reasonably satisfied with the evening, but it sure wasn’t worth twice that. I also think they could have had better props in the “photo booths” and maybe got a professional photographer in to offer actual prints for a reasonable fee, because I love that kind of thing, and it would have been better than relying on my own poor efforts. And it was completely freezing in there the whole time, like they had the air conditioning on or something (I get that archival materials probably have to be kept in a specific environment, but they could have at least turned to heat on in the lecture rooms) so I had to cling desperately to my jacket the entire night, which I was only able to get away with because it was a hoodie, as they apparently frown on jackets as well for security purposes (turn the heat on then!).  3/5 for the event overall, but I wish it could have been Halloweenier, better themed, and that some (though not all, one of the stewards was really nice) of the staff could have been friendlier.

Hever, Kent: Hever Castle

I promised more Halloween posts, and at first glance, Hever Castle might not seem to fit that category, but hear me out. First of all, it bills itself as the “childhood home of Anne Boleyn” and we all know what happened to Anne Boleyn, as well as various other members of the Boleyn clan, so it has a very high potential for being haunted (if ghosts were real, of course). Secondly, it is also home to “700 years of history,” including a room full of torture implements (I suspect they’re not original to the house, but still, they might have souls attached to them or something), so lots more opportunities for ghosts there. Finally, every year during October half-term (it’s just a week-long break from school, but because pretty much all schools do it, it’s like an actual thing here that even people without kids (like me) notice on account of the resulting lack of traffic which means I can catch the bus to work twenty minutes later than normal that week), they do a special Halloween event, and I braved the hordes of children (and their parents) this year to check it out.

  

This was actually more of an undertaking than just dealing with crowds, as we had to rent a car to get down there, and then pay £15.90 each to get inside (we saved a whole measly pound by booking online the night before), but I was a woman on a mission. You see, I went to Hever Castle some years ago, well before I had this blog, and while we were sitting in the tearoom, having just enjoyed a slice of cake, a man emerged from the kitchen bearing a tray of ghost cupcakes, which he grandly set down on the cake table. I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t end up with a ghost cupcake that day (certainly not because I’d already had cake – there’s always room for more cake!); I think at the time the cafe may have been cash only, and we’d spent all we had on the non-ghost cake and tea. At any rate, the memory of the ghost cupcake that got away has haunted me (ha) through the intervening years, and I reckoned that visiting during Halloween half-term was the best chance I had of putting it right.

  

I could leave you in suspense until the end of the post, but I’m telling this visit like it was, and the truth is that I made a beeline for the cafe as soon as we got inside the grounds. And was rewarded, as you can probably see, with not only a ghost cupcake, but a tombstone one as well. Unfortunately, it was very much not worth the wait. The cake was a bit heavy, and the stuff underneath the fondant ghost was not frosting, as I’d assumed (and hoped), but a marshmallow!  I’m not keen on marshmallow at the best of times, and certainly not when I was anticipating frosting. I mean, I ate it, because I pretty much had to after making such a stink about the damn ghost cupcakes, but it was cloyingly sweet (even for me), and would have greatly benefited from actual buttercream and maybe some jam to cut the sweetness (I guess they were intended for children, but I honestly think I was looking forward to that ghost cupcake way more than any child was). I probably should have gone for the tombstone one, as Marcus tells me the tombstone was an After Eight.  Anyway, with that disappointment out of the way early, we headed off to explore the gardens.

  

The gardens were not as disappointing as the ghost cupcakes, at least not the Italianate one, which was bestrewn with Halloween decorations (lame, half-assed British ones, but still), but there was still some measure of disappointment because there was some kind of scavenger hunt for children where if they spotted all the terracotta pumpkins, they could collect candy at the end, and of course there was no equivalent scavenger hunt for adults. Frankly, they didn’t even have to give me candy or anything, I just would have enjoyed the hunt, though if one of the terracotta pumpkins was on offer as a prize, I certainly wouldn’t have turned it down. (I was upset that the terracotta pumpkins weren’t even for sale in any of the many, many gift shops, as I was quite taken with them.)

  

I guess now is a good time to cantankerously say a word about the way the British celebrate Halloween, which I still find perplexing after living here for the best part of a decade. Halloween is becoming more of a thing here, which is good, because it was still pretty low-key when I first moved here, but I have to say that in my opinion, something just ain’t right with Halloween in England. It is really strange to me that children get dressed up to go wander around a stately home – where I come from, your costume was special – something you spent months planning and really put some effort into (admittedly, I was a vampire like three years in a row because I REALLY liked vampires, but I had a different vampire look each year, and I did genuinely stress about picking a costume. I’d have nightmares where it was Halloween night, and I didn’t have a costume, so I couldn’t go trick or treating), and you pretty much saved it just for Halloween itself, unless you got invited to a costume party or something. Here, it seems like people slap on “fancy dress,” as they call it (confusingly), for any old occasion, and there’s a complete lack of effort with their Halloween costumes. Every kid just wears these awful generic costumes that came direct from Tesco or something, and there’s no creativity on show at all.  And the most annoying thing is that aside from Halloween dance parties at clubs (big old nope from me) and a few late night events at museums (and that very unspooky pet cemetery walk), pretty much everything is aimed at children, which is why I had to awkwardly show up to Hever Castle during half-term when we were basically the only childless couple there aside from a couple of groups of foreign tourists. Trick or treating may just be for children (though I actually do quite like passing out candy, not that I’ve gotten to do it in years), but Halloween is for everyone, and I wish Halloween events in Britain would reflect that.

  

OK, rant over (at least that rant, there may be more). So, despite my displeasure at being excluded from Halloween fun, at least I could enjoy the decorations and all the unintentionally creepy statues that lived in the garden (like Pan there, yikes!). And Hever Castle is also home to a couple mazes. I did not get to go in the water one, which I remembered from my earlier visit, because it was entirely full of children running around while their parents looked on, and I would have felt like a creep going in there (and not in the Halloween sense, but in the weird pervert sense), but I did go in the yew maze, which was just a bit too easy. I wasn’t even sick of wandering around yet when I inadvertently found my way out.

  

The gardens were also home to some children’s activities that looked like a lot of fun (archery aiming at targets with headless knights painted on them and a repel your own vampire kit that involved planting a bulb of garlic in a pot that you then sprinkled with “holy water”) that were yet again a no-go for adults, so I gave up and we made our way over to the castle itself.

  

Though I didn’t remember being particularly impressed by the castle on my first visit, this time it ended up being the best part of the day, mainly on account of the vampire questions and answers that someone had placed in each room of the house. I’m still not sure exactly how vampires relate to Hever Castle (ghosts would have made more sense, for the reasons stated at the start of the post), but I’m not complaining, because these were delightful, and full of lame little jokes and puns that I just loved.

  

I suppose the interiors weren’t half bad either, even without the vampire facts. Though the house was owned by the Boleyn family in the Tudor period, by the early 20th century, it had been purchased by the Astors (of Waldorf Hotel fame), namely William Waldorf Astor, who also owned the splendid Two Temple Place in London, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times. I’d say that the man had taste, except that the rooms he decorated in Hever Castle were my overriding memory of the house on my first visit, and the reason that I wasn’t particularly impressed by it. They would have been fine in an Edwardian mansion, but the style of the Astor rooms just doesn’t seem to fit inside a 13th century castle (with Tudor additions).

  

But I did love the more Tudory rooms, especially the ones that told the story of Anne’s life, illustrated by wax figure tableaux.

   

I dressed up like Anne Boleyn for Halloween some years ago, and I’ve always felt bad for her, because she might have been ambitious or even calculating (though it’s hard to say if she actually was, given the way women were treated at the time, and the slurs thrown at her after her death), but really, once Henry took an interest, what was she supposed to do? She had to essentially choose whether to prostitute herself, or hold out for what seemed like the better option of marriage, and she definitely didn’t deserve to be beheaded. The castle holds a few of Anne’s personal possessions, like a Book of Hours she wrote in, and copies of letters sent between her and Henry, the last letter she ever wrote him being especially sad (she basically offered to sacrifice herself so that her brother’s and friends’ lives would be spared, but of course Henry, being an enormous asshole, executed the lot of them).

  

The room full of torture implements that I mentioned earlier is also depressing, and kind of scary (I like creepy stuff, but the scolds’ masks are a bridge too far even for me. For some reason those freak me out more than actual maiming devices), but never fear, the castle also contains stuff like a random case full of derpy dog figurines to lighten the mood. There’s also a few rooms about the Astor family and their ownership of the house, including the almost obligatory room about life “belowstairs,” which was actually not completely uninteresting, especially, for some reason, the room assignment charts for when the Astors had parties – maybe because I couldn’t imagine having that many house guests every weekend (but then, I’ve never lived in a house that had actual separate wings and I also hate having guests, unless I know them well enough that I don’t have to change out of jimjams).

 

After seeing the inside of the castle, we still weren’t done, because the estate is vast. We wandered past some splendid animal topiaries, and were en route to a regimental museum when I got side-tracked by an ice cream hut (not the first one I’d seen that day, but the first one that was actually open).  After wolfing down a few scoops (much better than the cupcake, though I have to admit that I was surprised that chocolate chip turned out to be chocolate ice cream, because chocolate chip is normally vanilla with chocolate chips in it. I guess that explains why I’ve never had chocolate chip in Britain before) we resumed the search for the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Museum, which is rather well hidden. I didn’t even realise it existed on our first visit, and wouldn’t have this time either if I hadn’t seen it mentioned on the website when we booked the tickets. There are no signs pointing to it once you’re in the grounds, though it is marked on the map they hand you when you walk in, but you really have to be looking for it.

  

After visiting it, I can kind of see why they don’t publicise it more. It’s not awful, but it’s not particularly impressive, being one long hut where you wind your way through reading posters (or mainly skipping them in my case, as they were overly wordy and not that interesting) with a few display cases. The only real object of note, other than a couple wax figures, was the ceramic figure of the regiment’s desert fox mascot, who is very cute. I do feel bad that no one seems to visit the museum though – at least, we were the only people inside, even though everywhere else on the estate was rammed.

  

After the KSY Museum, we headed over to one of the gift shops that also housed a collection of miniature houses, which I adore. They had Tudor, Stuart, and Georgian houses, as well as a few scenes from a Victorian household at Christmas, and they were all pretty charming, especially the Georgian one, which I would totally live in if it were real. Apparently one of the sons was a redcoat home from fighting those pesky Americans, and you could see him telling his parents all about it in the drawing room (yes, they were that detailed).

  

Aside from some fruitless searching for those terracotta jack o’lanterns in the shops, that was pretty much it for our visit, and we strolled back to the carpark (on the other side of the estate) through the water garden, which was very soothing (especially after having my nerves jangled by children running about and shrieking all day). There wasn’t really anything else Halloweeny of note, though I guess I should be grateful that there was even as much as there was, albeit not even aimed at adults, because the vampire facts + activities (that I couldn’t participate in) + Halloween decorations in the garden + ghost cupcakes is about as festive as England ever gets for Halloween.

  

Hever Castle is undoubtedly really, really expensive, but you do get more or less a full day out for your money, so that’s something. If you’re not bothered about Halloween decorations, I highly recommend coming when it’s not half-term, unless you have kids. The estate itself is pretty nice (and obviously quite photogenic), but I just can’t get over my disappointment at British Halloween events (and I’ll be blogging about another next week), even though I really should know better by now, and Hever Castle admittedly makes more of an effort than most. 3.5/5.

 

 

London: The Secret Pet Cemetery of Hyde Park

 

How’s that for a good October post title?!  I have a couple more Ohio posts coming eventually, but you all know that I pretty much live for Halloween, so I can’t resist sharing a couple creepy posts while it’s still October. I have wanted to visit this Victorian pet cemetery ever since I found out about its existence during London Month of the Dead a few years ago, but the tour offered that year was already booked up by the time I saw it (I’ve since learned my lesson and book all my Halloween events in August. Stupid populous London). Last year, I was ready and waiting, but the pet cemetery tours never appeared on the London Month of the Dead website. But this year, this year, I got in. Seems like the Royal Parks finally got smart, and now offer about a dozen tours over the course of October, instead of just one (at the time of writing this post, it looked like one of them even still had some availability).

  

Since the tour is run by the Royal Parks (or their Friends, perhaps) it wasn’t simply a tour of the pet cemetery, but of Hyde Park more generally, so we had to meet by Speakers’ Corner. Good thing there was a guy with a Royal Parks jacket and a clipboard standing there, because otherwise I don’t think I would have spotted our fellow walkers. Unlike most London Month of the Dead events, where most of the attendees are, well, like me, if not much more overtly gothy, because this one was primarily a Royal Parks event, almost everyone else there were older “Friends of the Royal Parks” looking types, all ready to go in their waterproof autumn walking gear. Which probably also explains why the walk wasn’t quite as creepy as I was hoping it would be.

  

We began our tour with the nearby “Animals in War” memorial, which I had somehow never seen before, but it is absolutely lovely. We heard more about the role of animals in WWI, including the guide’s wife’s grandfather’s story, as he had worked with pack animals transporting ammunition to the Front, and this was all very well and good – I like animals and WWI, but it was far more poignant than scary.

  

We proceeded to the area where Tyburn used to be (now Marble Arch), and as he started telling us that over 100,000 people were executed in the seven centuries it was in operation (which, if true, is an absolutely appalling number, but I haven’t found that figure listed anywhere else in my admittedly limited research for this post), I thought, “now this is more like it!” Unfortunately, apart from a brief mention of the “Tyburn Tree,” a triangular gallows that could hang twenty-four people at a time (this was before the long-drop, mind, so it could take up to 20 minutes of slow strangulation for a person to die, with their limbs jerking ghoulishly all the while), the grisliness ended there. Instead, he told us the story of Jack Sheppard, which is interesting, but like anyone who is fascinated by the macabre, I’d heard it about twenty times before, so I do wish he could have shared a less well-known story with us (though perhaps it was new to the respectable types who were on the tour with us).

  

Thenceforth to the monument to the Reformers’ Tree, which was burnt down in 1866 during the Reform League protests. I’d never seen this monument either (I don’t come to Hyde Park much, as I mentioned in the Grayson Perry at the Serpentine post), and I was interested in hearing more about this plaque and what it symbolised, but apart from telling us why they were protesting (men’s voting rights, or rather, the lack thereof for working class men), the guide didn’t say much about it. We then went on to a more wooded area of Hyde Park and heard about stag beetles and their life cycle, which I suppose was rather creepy only because I think stag beetles are gross, but not in a Halloweeny kind of way.

 

But then, we finally came to the part I’d been waiting for. Hiding behind a secret gate next to a very unassuming looking maintenance building, was the pet cemetery. It was started in 1881 by the gatekeeper at the time, a Mr. Winbridge, who allowed some of his friends to bury their beloved dog “Cherry” in his garden (I hope he lived in the most excellent “lodge” (which actually looks like it could be an amazing witch’s cottage) a short distance away which I’ll show you a picture of at the end of the post, but if the graves were in his backyard, it’s more likely that there was some other building there before the ugly maintenance one), and it grew from there to include over 300 graves, including the Duke of Cambridge’s dog, who was run over by a carriage (the Victorian Duke of Cambridge that is, who was a cousin of Queen Victoria. Not the current one). Which is kind of amazing given how small it is (I know pet bodies aren’t as big as human ones, but still. I also think it’s kind of obnoxious that poor Mr. Winbridge had to give up the whole of his tiny garden to accommodate animal bodies, what with the rest of Hyde Park just sitting right there, but maybe he was into that kind of thing. Having a cemetery in his garden, that is, not necrophiliac bestiality).

  

It’s not a scary kind of Pet Sematary pet cemetery, but is actually rather sweet and quaint, and I enjoyed reading the heartfelt epitaphs on many of the tiny graves. The guide made sure to point out the “murder victim” to us, poor Balu, who was “poisoned by a cruel Swiss.” I think the grave inscriptions are pretty interesting, so I’ll include some here so you can read them for yourselves (see my Instagram for even more!). I have to wonder if poor “Tubby” actually was overweight, because he seems to be buried all by himself, even though space was at a premium.  They’re not all dogs or cats either; see if you can spot the monkey and crocodile!

  

  

  

  

So did the pet cemetery live up to expectations? Absolutely! I thought it was fantastic, though I’m still not sure if it was worth the 15 quid it cost to go on the tour. Perhaps if the rest of the walk had measured up to it, I would have felt that it was better value, but though our guide was certainly competent, the content of the walk was utterly lacking the scare factor I would have liked from a cemetery tour. What with Tyburn being right there, and with the park itself dating back to Henry VIII’s reign, I’m sure there must be plenty of murders and ghost stories associated with it that the guide could have told us, instead of the not at all spooky subject matter he offered us. I might have been reasonably satisfied with it at another time of year (actually, that’s a lie; for me, eerieness never goes out of season), but not as an October walk!  I suppose it was worth doing just to see the cemetery, but I think the price is high for what you actually get (though I suspect the majority of the other people on our tour were probably perfectly satisfied with the tour’s lack of creepiness).  3/5 for the walk, but the cemetery itself is practically perfect. Oh, and here’s the “witch cottage” I mentioned earlier; I’d be very happy to move in and tend the pet cemetery and scare children away if they need someone to do that kind of thing.