Halloween

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.

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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.

London: Delicious Decay at St. Bart’s and Halloween Late at the Hunterian

dsc09012_stitchHappy belated Halloween everybody!  I probably should have mentioned Halloween last week, but even though I try to live in a state of readiness for Halloween year-round, it still has a way of sneaking up on me!  Now that my favourite holiday has come and gone, I have two recent Halloween-themed events I attended to tell you about, but first, I have some exciting personal news I’d like to share with you: I am now a British citizen, having attended the official ceremony last week!  I can’t pretend I’m as happy about it as I would have been pre-Brexit, but this is still a fairly big deal for me, because I’ve been living here for eight years, and it’s nice to finally feel like I can’t be suddenly booted out on the whims of the Home Office, not to mention the joy of never having to wait in the non-EU passport queue at the airport again!  And now, on to the Halloweening (or should I say Hallowienering?  You’ll see what I mean further into the post)!

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The first event was “Delicious Decay: The Edible Body Farm,” held at St. Bart’s Pathology Museum.  I’ve attended a number of lectures there over the years, some of which I thought were really pretty good, and others…not so much.  I think this last event might be the last straw for me and St. Bart’s though, as it was a real damp squib.  One of my (many) pet hates is having to pay to attend a market or festival where you then have to pay for everything inside said market, which is exactly what this was.  It’s not quite so galling if the entry fee is fairly modest, but if I’ve parted with £10.99 (which is essentially the same price as one of their lectures, where you’re at least given a drink + hear a lecture, of course), I expect to get something for my money.

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I admit being initially enticed in by the promise that we’d be able to view the second floor of the museum, which is not normally open to the public, and also by the opportunity to “excavate edible soil for as many consumable body parts as you can eat.”  Well, I’ll get to the second floor in a minute, but first I’d like to talk about those consumable body parts, because it was one of the most irritating parts of the whole experience.  If you promise me all-you-can-eat cake, you had damn well better deliver, and this certainly did not.  I think perhaps the cake wasn’t exactly what they were envisioning when they wrote the event description, because instead of being body parts that you had to excavate, it was just a big decomposing corpse cake, surrounded by some rocks, soil, and white chocolate maggots, as shown in the picture on the right.  So there was really nothing to excavate as such, but I was perfectly fine with just shoving my gob full of body cake.  We were told we could only eat from the legs, which was a bit annoying (especially because the girl ahead of me licked her spoon before sticking it in the cake, eurgh), but I could understand that they wanted something left for the later sessions to look at, so fair enough.  However, I was then told we could only have one spoonful of cake each, so there would be enough for everyone, even though the edibles were meant to be “replenished” throughout the day.  Now, I don’t know about you, but one small spoonful of cake is certainly not “all” the cake I can eat.  I mean, jeez, at least give me a whole piece (obviously I can eat more than one piece of cake, but I would have felt better about it if I’d had a whole piece)!  The woman working there did say we could have as much of the soil and chocolate rocks as we wanted, but when I grabbed a second small handful of rocks (literally three rocks, and they were only the size of Minstrels), she gave me a dirty look, so apparently I was only supposed to want one spoon’s worth.  I REALLY don’t like it when people toy with me where food is concerned, so this event was already off to a bad start.

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A quick wander around the museum floor confirmed that all the other stalls there were full of items you had to pay for (some of the cakes and stuff were cool looking, but I cannot justify spending £7.50 on a single biscuit.  Especially as it was more than likely a case of style over substance), and some of the sellers were fairly aggressive (some guy kept trying to sell us candy made from honeyed pig, even after I said I was a vegetarian), so we headed up to the second floor to escape.  The ground floor of the pathology museum is somewhere I’ve looked around many times, and it is full of many cool specimens, so I was eager to get a look at the second floor.  Unfortunately, though there were undoubtedly many interesting body parts up there, none of them had labels yet, so it was hard to tell what some of them were (I think knowing what the person died from is half the fun).  Also, only half the second floor was actually open, the rest being blocked off with various carts and other curatorial tools.  I can see why it’s not normally open to the public, is my point.

However, before just outright leaving (we’d only been there for 15 minutes, even though our session was for an hour), there was a mini lecture to attend. Only one, as far as I could tell, even though the event description said, “there will also be mini lectures to educate on what each of the unusual consumables represents and how they relate to decomposition.”  Perhaps the fact that there weren’t really many unusual consumables free to eat put the kibosh on that. But there was a lecture on the chemicals used to train cadaver dogs, and I never pass up a chance to experience authentic smells, even gross ones.  The talk was basically fine, albeit brief and a bit hard to hear, but because of the large number of people in the audience who apparently didn’t understand the concept of passing something on to the next person once they’d finished, not everyone got to sniff every chemical.  Anyway, it certainly wasn’t good enough to justify that outrageous entry fee, and this is definitely the last time I’ll be attending this sort of event at St. Bart’s.  I get that they need money to preserve the museum, but they either could have offered more free activities (there was a face painter doing corpse makeup, but I really hate having my face painted, plus there was a big queue for it.  That was it, activity-wise though) or charged a more modest entry fee to reflect what was actually available.

weinerAnd then there’s the Hunterian Museum, one of my favourite museums in London. The Hunterian is a free museum, and this event was also free, though you had to pre-book (for once I was on the ball, and booked it in August, so I’m not sure if/when it sold out).  Therefore, after the disappointment of Bart’s, I reckoned that if this event also sucked, at least I hadn’t wasted any money.  Fortunately, it did not suck.

The Halloween Late not only offered the chance to explore the museum after-hours, which in itself I probably wouldn’t have bothered attending, because it’s much less crowded during normal opening hours, but there was also a pickle your own part activity, and a short lecture on the anatomy of a hanging.  Not being the kind of person who enjoys waiting, I ran straight into the “pickling” room for my chance, though the set-up seemed fairly good in that they’d chosen a large room with long tables, and had lots of materials out, so quite a few people could work at the same time.  Basically, you got to model a body part of your choosing out of clay, and then stick it in a “specimen jar” for preserving.  All materials were provided, except the jar, which we were asked to bring from home, though there were a few jars there for people who forgot.  Marcus made a fetus, as you can see above, and you can also probably guess what I made…it certainly attracted a lot of attention (see, I told you Hallowiener would make sense)!

The lecture was also pretty good; it was given by a retired surgeon, and he discussed what happened to the body during various methods of execution, including a hanging, beheading, and hanging, drawing, and quartering.  A bit grisly (especially the latter method), but thoroughly enjoyable!  I should emphasise again that this was all free!  There was a cash bar (though I didn’t imbibe), and they had five special creepy pins available for a donation of a pound (I got two, a skull and a glass eye), but it certainly wasn’t anything like the shake-down we were given at Bart’s, plus I’m happy to donate a bit to a museum that is always free and always excellent.  Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed at the Hunterian, due to the medical nature of the specimens, which is the main reason why I’ve never done a full post on it previously, and why I’m not really doing one now, but I do urge you to visit it if you’re ever in London.  Their specimen jars are exquisite, they have some excellent skeletons and paintings of medical oddities, and though their WWI section is small, I’ve always been a fan of it (the story of one of the men who had a pioneering facial reconstruction operation is really sweet, and makes me tear up a little).

Well, that more or less covers what I did for Halloween this year, other than baking far too much cake (to make up for all the cake I didn’t get to eat at the first event), and of course watching Hocus Pocus, The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror I-VII, and a few other select cheesy horror films (starring Bruce Campbell), so I’ll leave you with pictures of the pumpkins we carved (the elaborate headless horseman one is Marcus’s).  Hope you all had a suitably spooky day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Houston, TX: The National Museum of Funeral History

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It seems like late summer/early fall is always such a travel whirlwind for me (and the blog).  First Italy, and now the US, specifically, Houston (which I’m always tempted to mispronounce Hoos-ton in Matthew Kelly style, since I’ve watched far too many old-ass episodes of Stars in Their Eyes).  My boyfriend had to travel there for work, and as soon as I found out, my first thoughts were of the National Museum of Funeral History, which, as readers of my Places I’d Like to Visit page will know, I’ve wanted to go to pretty much forever.  Fortunately, my boyfriend agreed that it and many other things in Texas were worth seeing, so we arranged to meet there for a few days after he was done with work stuff, before flying up to Cleveland for a bit to see my family ‘n’ junk.  The Funeral Museum was my top (only?) priority in Houston, so that’s where we headed my first morning there.  Which is convenient, because in lieu of anything spookier, it’ll have to serve as my Halloween post this year.

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The museum was not that easy to find, being located in a nondescript building on the outskirts of town, but I’m happy to say that it was both massive and deserted when we got there.  Admission is $10, which seems kind of steep until you see the size of this place.  The main gallery is dominated by a splendid collection of hearses, including some that pre-date the automobile.  Numerous other smaller galleries split off from there, focusing on funerals of celebrities, the popes, and the presidents, among others.

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Even though I was dying (pun intended) to see the presidential gallery, I thought I’d restrain myself and save that for last, so I started in the opposite corner of the museum with celebrity funerals.  There was a large display about the Wizard of Oz, primarily about the recently deceased actors who portrayed various Munchkins, with a replica of the Coroner’s outfit, as well as an old video of the actor who played him explaining why he was given the role (he could competently deliver a few lines, basically, having had some experience in show business.  He had previously worked for Oscar Mayer, travelling around the country in the Wienermobile as the “World’s Smallest Chef,” which is a story in its own right).  There was also a Walt Disney corner, but most of the space in this gallery was devoted to some guy’s collection of funeral memorial booklets.  You know, those little pamphlets they give out at a memorial service, usually with a picture of the deceased on the front and some information about their life inside (actually, I’ve never been to a funeral where those were handed out, since Catholics tend to favour those little prayer cards, but I’ve seen them before).

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These were worth remarking on mainly because many of them belonged to people who I thought were kind of cool, such as Jack LaLanne and Al Lewis.  There was also a quiz on the epitaphs of various famous people, which I should have known since they were also actors I liked, including Leslie Nielsen and Walter Matthau, but I did not excel at it.  (I also love Jack Lemmon and Burgess Meredith, primarily from Grumpy Old Men, but I can’t watch the sequel without crying when Burgess Meredith dies.  I also get weepy at that one Twilight Zone, because all the poor guy wanted to do was be left alone to read.  I can sympathise.)

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We accidentally went through the funeral history section backwards, getting to the Egyptians last, but that didn’t matter, because I was most interested in all the Victorian mourning paraphernalia anyway.  I’m already very well acquainted with hair art and mourning jewellery, but the mourning clock was a new one.  I actually think it’s a lovely idea, though obviously I don’t want any of my friends or family to die anytime soon, so perhaps acquiring an antique one would be best (or I could have one made in honour of my grandparents maybe?).  I am definitely goth enough to hang something like that in my house (it helps that the picture on the one on display was Edward Gorey-esque).

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The Egyptian stuff was fine; they had a very blinged-out sarcophagus (I’m a pretty good speller, but I always have to try that one a few times before I get it right), but it was mostly just laminated print-outs hanging from the walls, and not quite up to the standard of the other galleries.

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Especially the Papal Funerals.  Oh my gott.  This was much much larger than I was expecting; every time we thought we were done, we turned a corner and it kept going.  I am, as I’ve mentioned before, an EXTREMELY lapsed Catholic (lapsed all the way into atheism), so I can’t pretend I’ve any particular interest in the popes or their funerals (other than the fun of saying Papa Francesco with an Italian accent), but I was surprised by how much I learned in here.

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From what the colours of the hats mean about the various ranks of clergy, to what happens to the pope’s ring after he dies, and how the whole red shoe thing got started, it was unexpectedly fascinating stuff.  Did you know the pope is buried in not one, not two, but THREE coffins?!  It’s like they’re scared he’s going to turn into a vampire and escape or something.

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My boyfriend was probably most keen on the Ghanaian coffins, which were kept in a slightly hidden-away room about funeral customs world-wide.  Basically, some guy in Ghana started making coffins in shapes that reflected either the dead person’s personality, or something the dead person loved when they were alive, and it caught on and became a whole craze for anyone who could afford one.  On an episode of An Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington had a giant Twix made, which we both agreed is the best one we’ve seen (it helps that Twix is probably the best candy bar, tied with Snickers), but the ones here were pretty good too, especially the big ol’ crab (let’s face it, if it’s meant to represent one’s personality, that’s probably what I should be buried in).  There was also some stuff about Japanese and Mexican funerals.

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It’s time to talk about some of the displays in the main gallery; the coolest thing (in my opinion) being a funeral bus (above right).  It was built in 1916, and meant to be a solution to the problem of extended funeral processions tying up roads, since it could hold the coffin, up to twenty mourners, and the pallbearers.  Unfortunately, when they tried it out, it proved to be unbalanced, and flipped; the coffin opened up, the mourners all fell out, and the whole thing was a bit of a disaster, so it was never used again. But apparently some guy lived in it for a while; if you have to live in a bus, I think a funeral bus is probably the way to go.

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Other noteworthy objects included a 1921 hearse with beautiful wood carvings made to resemble drapes on the side, hearses used to carry the bodies of Grace Kelly and Ronald Reagan, and a money casket, with slots on the side to donate coins (I guess in theory to help pay for funeral costs, although it’s just used for fundraising events, and not to actually hold bodies).  Personally, I’m a fan of the old-school body shaped coffins, which weren’t really well represented here, but no matter; the depressing story of the coffin built for three (it was meant for a couple who planned to kill themselves after their child died, so they could all be buried together, but apparently changed their minds, as it was never used) made up for it.

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I finally made it over to the Presidential Funeral section, which was not as big nor as extensive as I’d been hoping (especially compared to the papal one), and focused mainly on Lincoln, I guess because he had the most public and extravagant funeral.  Because he was the first to be assassinated AND he was president during such a pivotal time in American history, the American people really went all out for his funeral, arranging for his body to be embalmed (which really began to become more mainstream because of the American Civil War) and carried on a special funeral train throughout major Northern American cities on the way home to Springfield, Illinois, where he would be buried.  One of the stops was Cleveland, and I definitely would have turned up to see it, you know, had I been born 150 years earlier or so, but since I don’t own a TARDIS or other time machine, I enjoyed looking at the miniature model of the train.

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You all know how much I love FDR, and I confess I was hoping for more on his funeral than the brief treatment it got, but alas, that was the fate of most of the presidents, save for the assassinated ones and Ronald Reagan.  A brief blurb if they were lucky (and maybe only ten of them even got that much), and maybe a newspaper article relating to their death.

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The final section was a tribute to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the soldiers from all the various wars who have been buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  There didn’t appear to be a special exhibit at the time we visited, although future ones on the myths and legends of the graveyard and the history of cremation in America look pretty interesting, and I’m sorry to have missed them.

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I was a little disappointed in the shop (they could have had a better selection of souvenirs relating to the museum, like postcards and books, instead of generic skeleton stuff), and I do wish the presidential section could have been more comprehensive, but overall, the museum more than lived up to my expectations (which were admittedly pretty damn high).  I’m fascinated by morbid stuff like this, so I loved it, especially the Victorian funeral history section and the casket and hearse collection.  In fact, I think there could have been even more funeral history, since that gallery seemed to skip over most of the advances in preservation between the Egyptians and the Victorians, which is a big time period to exclude.  For example, I think the work of early modern anatomists and preservationists like Frederik Ruysch (there he is again), was revolutionary, and well-worth a mention.  Those things aside though, the National Museum of Funeral History really delivered, and I’m thrilled I can finally cross this one off the list, since I’ve been waiting to see it for so damn long.  4/5.  And because I won’t have another post out until next week, and I can’t neglect my favourite holiday, I’ll use this as an opportunity to wish you all a happy (scary?) Halloween!

An Eerie Afternoon in Edinburgh

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Being stuck in the UK this year (normally not a problem, but I do miss fall), where Halloween-type events don’t tend to happen until on Halloween (or at least the week of), means I haven’t been able to do the run-up of creepy destinations that I featured last year.  However, I couldn’t let the holiday pass completely unremarked upon, so I can offer reviews of a ghost tour and an art exhibition that featured a few drawings of Death.  But no pictures of either, sorry.

My boyfriend and I took a train to and from Edinburgh for a long weekend, and then rented a car to drive up to the Highlands (more on that in future posts), which means we didn’t spend a lot of time in the city, but we arranged to drop our rental car off a few hours before our train left for London so we would at least have an afternoon in Edinburgh.  We went there for our anniversary two years ago, so we’d already seen a fair bit of the city; therefore, this time I wanted to explore some of “hidden” Edinburgh.

I’d wanted to go to Mary King’s Close on our first visit, but by the time we rocked up they were already booked up for the day, so I looked into booking advance tickets this time.  However, once I realised how much it cost, I decided to look up some reviews to see if it was really worth it, and the general consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t (a lot of the reviews mentioned how most of the experience was just watching videos projected on the walls, which made it sound very similar to the Dover Castle Tunnel experience that I didn’t really enjoy, so I was put off going).  I thought we could at least go on some sort of ghost tour, even though we were slightly limited in our choices by not being there in the evening.  I picked Auld Reekie’s Original Underground tour solely because theirs was the only one early enough to allow us adequate time to catch our train home.

It turned out we were the only people taking the 2 o’clock tour that day, which on one hand is a scenario I dread because we are not very talkative people and we never ask any questions at the end, but on the other hand, it was kind of nice to not have to listen to other people’s stupid questions.  After awkwardly hanging around the front of Tron Kirk for a while as our guide tried in vain to attract more customers, we set off, heading for the famous South Bridge Vaults.  Basically, there’s a bridge with multiple levels of vaults under it that were built in the late 1700s to serve as storage space for the businesses above.  However, because they were so unpleasant and damp, they were soon abandoned and inhabited instead by the homeless of Edinburgh; even they couldn’t take the grimness for long, and eventually the vaults were filled with rubble to make them inaccessible..that is, until modern tour companies got their hands on them.  Nowadays, it seems like access to the vaults is divided between the city’s tour companies, meaning you pretty much have to pay to see them.  Most of the companies charge between £8-£12 for 45 minutes-an hour and a half tour

Because we were the only people on the tour, our guide gave us the option of the underground tour we had initially booked, the ghost tour, or a bit of both, so we of course went for a bit of both.  This consisted of a mix of rather basic history, and the usual sorts of ghost stories, but I was certainly entertained.  The vaults are pitch-black inside, the only illumination coming from a few candles and our guide’s flashlight, and there is constant moisture dripping from the limestone ceiling, so they don’t need much embellishment to make them scary, though some of the ghost stories didn’t hurt.  I was very interested in the history of the people who actually lived down there: they were crammed fifty-deep into smallish rooms, huddled together for warmth and safety, and it’s rumoured that Burke and Hare chose some of their victims from the wretchedly poor inhabitants of the vaults.

There’s a local Wiccan coven that has been given permission to use one of the vaults, which is rather swankily decorated with pentagram regalia (I used to dabble in Wicca as a teen, so I can identify witchy paraphernalia).  According to the guide, they had initially been allowed to use one of the other vaults, but quickly asked to change to further down the tunnel, as there was some bad mojo in the first vault.  Of course, we were taken inside that room, where there’s a stone circle in the centre that apparently trapped a malevolent spirit.  We were invited to step inside the circle, and though, as I’ve said, I only believe in ghosts sometimes, I wasn’t taking any chances and stayed on the edge of the room.  I’m sure it was just the atmosphere and anticipation, but I did have a distinctly creepy feeling inside the room, as though maybe something was watching me.  There’s also a poltergeist room, wherein the guide tells you a story about the scary things that have happened there (people feeling a ghostly touch, being dragged towards the walls, etc) and then abruptly flicks off her flashlight…my boyfriend admitted to being a little creeped out in there.

Since we were fairly quiet throughout and didn’t have any questions, our tour ended early, so our guide offered to show us the medieval torture room to make up for it.  It was the usual collection of nag’s bridles, thumbscrews, and various other implements that either weren’t actually used at all, or certainly not as often or in the ways that people think they were, but it’s to be expected really (at least there wasn’t an Iron Maiden).  Our guide also mentioned witches being burnt at the stake, which I was skeptical about since I know witches in England and America were hanged, not burned, but I’ve looked it up since and apparently they were occasionally burned at the stake in Scotland, though more commonly killed first by strangling, and then their bodies were burnt.  Either way, it’s still a horrible and senseless way to die, and is depressing to think about.

Emerging at last into the weak Scottish sunlight, we were definitely in need of some warming sustenance, so we headed over to the Baked Potato Shop, an all vegetarian establishment.  They had an array of intriguing toppings (ok, some of them were straight up gross, but I’m pretty sure a hummus potato would be delicious, since I love dipping chips in hummus), we were boring and just got cheddar on ours, but we had a couple of vegetarian haggis samosas on the side (they were just like normal samosas with a few oats in though, and way too spicy for me).  The tatties were massive and filling though, and much appreciated on the chilly day.  We still had an hour and a half before our train left, so we had a wander through the park, and ended up next to the Scottish National Gallery.

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Normally, I’m not much for art, but they had a free exhibit advertised outside that featured a neat drawing of a skull, so I was persuaded to check it out.  The Scottish National Gallery is nothing like the size of its English counterpart, though they did have very fancy albeit narrow bathrooms, and there were still some lovely and hilarious paintings, like the Sir Henry Raeburn picture of a man ice skating that they seem to use as one of their logos.  The special exhibit I was keen to see was in the basement, and featured the prints and drawings of William Strang, who I’d never heard of, but now I’m a bit of a fan.  A lot of them were fairly normal portraits of his friends, but there were a few featuring Death (as in the Grim Reaper), including one that I think was just called War, that I really liked.  It was definitely a worthwhile stop before heading back to the train station via the Edinburgh branch of Ben’s Cookies (I go up to the High Street Ken location every couple weeks…I think I have a problem).

I had a very pleasant afternoon in Edinburgh; it seems like the city has plenty of dark history to offer, and I always find something new to discover.  I think a ghost tour is a good way to go and I thought the Auld Reekie one was pretty decent; though I’ve no other Edinburgh tours to compare it to, I can’t imagine it makes all that much difference what company you pick.  I would also recommend the National Museum of Scotland, which we saw on our earlier trip; it is huge and amazing, and I also highly recommend the Surgeon’s Hall Museum, though I think it’s currently closed for repairs.

Anyway, I hope everyone has a happy Halloween!  I’m planning on just spending the evening at home, though I am still going to throw together a costume; eating Halloween funfetti cupcakes from the mix I smuggled back from America, and maybe watching my old favourites Hocus Pocus, Braindead (Dead/Alive), and of course some classic Simpsons Treehouses of Horror; but I’m going on another ghost tour over the weekend, so you can expect a write up of that in the near future. In the meantime, here’s a pumpkin version of me that my boyfriend carved!

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Adventures Around Ohio: A Post of Odds and Ends

There are a few places in Ohio I visited that for one reason or another don’t merit their own write-up, but I’d still like to mention them, so this post will serve as a kind of dumping ground for the odd ones out (I’m so eloquent, aren’t I?).

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First up, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Cleveland’s Public Square.  I’ve admired it from the exterior many, many times before, but had never been inside.  I’m glad I was finally able to check out the interior as well, because it was pretty awesome.  The man inside gave us a brief history of the monument, which was built in 1894 by architect Levi Scofield as a memorial to deceased Civil War soldiers from Cuyahoga County.  The interior holds a few glass cases with various Civil War memorabilia, , as well as some information about African American and Jewish soldiers.

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It also features some gorgeous decorations, like delightful stained glass windows commemorating different divisions of the military, and the most special thing of all – four bronze relief sculptures that dramatically depict events from the Civil War (with great artistic licence taken, mind), including the emancipation of the slaves, the ladies of the Soldier’s Aid Society (with Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes), and the beginning and end of the war.  Lincoln is superbly rendered.  The walls are lined with the names of all the fallen soldiers, and a bust of Scofield hangs above the door.  Obviously, the exterior is very attractive as well, and the lady at the top was modelled after Scofield’s wife.  Going inside is free, and only takes a couple of minutes, so I definitely recommend doing so if you visit Public Square on a weekday.

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Secondly, I paid a visit to the International Women’s Air and Space Museum inside Burke Lakefront Airport.  It’s also free to visit, as it is located just inside the airport’s entryway.  It consists of a few display cases around the centre of the room, and some more lining the hall, with information and objects belonging to famous female astronauts and aviatrixes.  Everyone knows about Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride, but there were many lesser-known women featured here as well, like Bessie Coleman, and Katharine Wright (sister to the Wright brothers, and owner of a gorgeous lace dress that she wore to meet President Taft, or T-fat, as I call him).

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There were even a couple of planes, including the “Purple Puddy Tat,” and a stumpy little plane used for training exercises.  The NASA section had a few interactive bits, so you could practice exercising in space, though sadly, there was no practice astronaut toilet.  This museum is quite small, but it was better than I was expecting, and it’s always nice to learn more about women who were pioneers in their field, so I hope by posting about it, I can bring some attention to it, as it seems somewhat overlooked.  They even have a shop, so again, please consider stopping in if you are downtown and have some time to kill.

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Next, there’s the Canton Art Museum, which I only popped into briefly during a “First Night” event (basically a kind of arty open house thing).  It seemed pretty small, only three rooms, but there were craft stalls set up around the place for the special event, so some parts of the museum may not have been open, I’m not sure.  The parts I did see featured all 20th-21st century artists, including a special exhibit on environmental themed art, which was actually quite cool.  Those polar bears above are made from plastic utensils, and there were lots of other naturey type paintings.  And they seemed to have detailed explanations on a lot of the pieces, which I appreciate, as I’m definitely more of a reader than an observer when it comes to art.

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Then, there’s Farnam Manor.  I was reluctant to even post about Farnam at all, because despite appearances to the contrary, I really don’t like to say only bad things about a place, especially somewhere historical, but this place was seriously awful.  I went for one of the “lantern tours” for Halloween, which they stress is not a typical haunted house experience.  What it is, in fact, is parting with $20 for the privilege of waiting in an unheated carriage house filled with creepy dolls for an hour, because although I called in advance and was told I could show up any time, the people running the house were incredibly disorganised and didn’t employ enough staff.

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I knew I was in trouble when a group of incredibly earnest and overenthusiastic preteens showed up who had evidently been on the tour before, and were avid “ghost hunters.”  This meant they took pictures with flash every two seconds throughout the tour, hunting for “orbs,” so I was basically blinded the entire time.  The only other people on the tour seemed to be ones who actually believed in ghosts.  Now, I like visiting “haunted” stuff, and I won’t say I’m entirely disbelieving when I’m left alone in a dark room at night, but I am generally a skeptic, and these people were just over-the-top gullible.  The tour ended with them asking yes or no questions of a candle, which appeared to be responding because the woman leading the tour just happened to open the window.  The entire tour was really lame, contained almost no history (and the few “facts” she did spit out were incorrect), and had weird “historical actors” in several of the room, one of whom was so enthusiastic that he almost crushed me with a door.

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I’ve posted some pictures I took around the house so you can look for orbs or mist too…although I suspect my camera lens wasn’t dirty enough.  There was also an outdoor “Trail of Terror” that had crappy lighting, and wound through a forest, which I ended up leaving early because it was so lame and I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Seriously, avoid this place.  It is NOT a good time.

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Finally, to end on a more positive note, I visited the annual Apple Butter festival/Oxtoberfest (that’s not a typo, they roast an ox) in Burton.  I went to this quite a few times as a kid, and mostly just remember eating apple fritters whilst freezing my ass off, but I was pleasantly surprised by my visit this year.  It helped that it was still really warm outside, but I also think more buildings were open than in the past.  The festival is held in the historic village of Burton, and so many of the old buildings are open to the public, some with costumed interpreters practicing various trades, but the apple butter is also a key attraction, with people taking turns stirring massive cauldrons full of it over an open fire, and then canning it, so you can buy a still-warm jar.

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Of course, it is a festival, so expect lots of other carnival type (i.e. fried) foods.  The apple fritters are still there, and definitely a treat, as are caramel apples, freshly cut fries, and funnel cakes.  You’ll also find a variety of craft stalls.  It’s held during the peak of leaf season in Ohio, and Burton is fairly rural, with cute shops on the main street, so it’s a good chance to take in the scenery and indulge your greasy food cravings.  I definitely appreciate the fact that there’s some history on offer as well, and people-watching at these sorts of events is a must!

Well, I think that about does it for now as far as NE Ohio is concerned, though you can expect more Ohio posts when I go back again next month for the holidays!

A Bewitching Day in Salem

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Sorry, but a pun was unavoidable.  Happy Halloween everybody!  Today I’m writing about one of the Halloweeniest places on Earth; Salem, MA.  Salem is somewhere I’ve always really wanted to visit; in fact, it was on my “Places I want to Visit” page until I finally remembered to remove it.  Before this trip, I’d never even been to New England, but I felt sure it would be as atmospheric as Hocus Pocus had led me to believe.  Although some parts of the trip were kind of a bust, I’m happy to say that Salem wasn’t one of them, although it was EXTREMELY touristy, as I was anticipating.

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Salem is not terribly big, and is primarily composed of the following: shops and restaurants, most of with a witch theme, or spooky-sounding name; overpriced museums and haunted houses, again sticking to the witch theme; and some of the most adorable 19th century houses I’ve ever seen.  Some of Hocus Pocus was indeed filmed in Salem, and the overhanging trees perched in the tree-lawns of some of the streets, coupled with the old houses made it feel as though it would be a great place to do some trick-or-treating (although, as the houses lacked the ample front yards and pumpkin-strewn porches of suburban Ohio, it didn’t exactly take me back to my own childhood memories of Halloween night.  Oh, nostalgia).

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Obviously, Salem is famous for the Salem Witch Trials, which is up there on the list of disturbing events in American history, and it’s thus a bit odd that it is a hotspot for modern Wiccans, but then again, Whitby is a goth hangout, and the Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel wasn’t even real, so maybe not so weird after all.  Although Salem has a long and rich history outside of the witch trials, the whole witch thing really came front and centre sometime around the ’60s, when a few episodes of Bewitched were filmed in Salem (and there’s a Samantha statue in the middle of town), and it was only exacerbated by Hocus Pocus, until it really became the main focus of the town.  There’s lots of opportunities at the local witchcraft shops to have your fortune told, which is not really my cup of tea, mainly because I’m cheap and tend to laugh at inappropriate times in those kinds of situations.  To be honest, I was really into Wicca and “magick” when I was a teenager, so I know perfectly well how to “read” Tarot cards, and sometimes I do, just for fun, but I’m certainly not going to pay for a reading.  Anyway, because museums are really my thing, I went to three of them whilst in Salem, as I wanted to get a mix of the cheesy and serious.

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The first was the Salem Witch Museum, the one in Washington Square (because there are a LOT of witch museums, and they all have similar names).  Because I studied the trials pretty extensively in high school and beyond, I didn’t really want to do a walking tour that would just focus on basic history; I wanted something over-the-top, and this was the place the proprietor of our B&B recommended (she sold me on it when she said it was like the Hall of Presidents in Disneyworld, although there were sadly no animatronics to be found).  You’re not allowed to take pictures, presumably so you can’t show people how lame it is, so we parted with $9.50 and joined the massive queue of people for the next showing.  We were ushered into a large theatre, with manneuquins arranged in various tableaux along the walls.  There’s a recorded narrator, which sounds like it was done in the 1960’s, that tells the basic story of the witch trials, and a spotlight shines on each scene as he discusses it.  There’s a devil with red eyes that glow intermittently, which is the only bit that could even sort of be construed as scary.  Following about half an hour of blathering, we were then directed into a smaller room, and given a tour by a staff member who discussed modern witch hunts and Paganism with us.  I would have probably enjoyed it more if it wasn’t packed with obnoxious teenagers on some sort of field trip (and if the staff didn’t keep asking me if I was with said teenagers).  The whole thing was extremely lame, and very overpriced, but I do like outdated attractions, so I didn’t hate it or anything.  2.5/5.

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Next, I visited a more serious museum, in the form of the Salem Museum.  This is housed in the old town hall, and is more of a historical society, with free admission.  The walls were hung with informational posters, and there were a few cases with objects from Salem’s history, but there wasn’t a lot in there, and pretty much served as an overview of Salem’s history.  They did make the bold claim (ok, via a quote) that Nathaniel Hawthorne was handsomer than Lord Byron, which I have to dispute, though I suppose Hawthorne had the advantage of not being a drunken, syphilitic libertine.  I do feel guilty about skipping the House of the Seven Gables, but I’ve never read the book, nor The Scarlet Letter, so I felt I wouldn’t be able to appreciate it properly (it is a glaring omission, considering I was an English major, (I’ll get round to it eventually!), but I do remember being creeped out by “The Minister’s Black Veil,” if that’s any help!).

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Salem was also where Parker Brothers was founded, so the museum had a room at the back devoted to the history of the company, which was by far the best part.  I LOVE board games, and I’d really like to start collecting antique ones if I ever have any sort of income, so I enjoyed looking at all the Victorian morality games, and the various versions of Monopoly manufactured over the years.  I should also mention that there is a man dressed as a pirate who runs the gift shop/greets people (I mean, he does work there, he’s not just a random weirdo or something), and that part of a witch-hunt play thing takes place in the attic of the museum building, so you may suddenly see an angry mob coming towards you, screaming “Witch, witch!” so be prepared for that.  2.5/5

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Thirdly, there’s Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, commonly agreed to be the best waxworks in town, and you know I love a good wax museum.  Unfortunately, Count Orlok’s kind of defeats the purpose of visiting a wax museum by not allowing photography.  I mean, why go through the trouble of making replicas of famous movie characters if you’re not allowed to get your picture taken with them?  What’s the point?  Still, I did pony up $8 for it, and in fairness, they were very good waxworks (note: zombie above was not done by Count Orlok’s), which made the no-photo thing even more galling.  My favourite was of course Winifred Sanderson, but there was also Beetlejuice, lots of characters from Hammer horror, life masks of Bela Lugosi et al, and lots of other modern monsters.  They only had a few of the Universal monsters, and Dracula and Frankenstein were not among them, and they didn’t have anything from the Evil Dead series, which is my favourite horror trilogy (really, all I can handle is over-the-top cheesy horror, anything actually scary just gives me horrible nightmares), but that might be for the best as I think I might have cried if I couldn’t get a photo with Ash.  During October, they run a haunted house in the afternoons where people jump out at you, but it’s pretty small in there, and I wanted to be able to actually look at stuff uninterrupted, so keep in mind that you have to visit before 2:30 if you feel the same.  3/5, I would have rated it higher but for the stupid photography rule.

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There’s lots of other stuff to do around town; I hear the Witches and Seafarers Wax Museum is hilariously crap, but I didn’t feel like blowing more money, and I was scared they wouldn’t allow photos either.  There is an old-timey photo studio that does witch portraits; obviously, I couldn’t resist, but they have my boyfriend in them too, and he’d be extremely embarrassed if I posted them on here.  I had really good pizza and ice cream from Flying Saucer Pizza and the Salem Screamery, respectively.  Of course, I also paid a visit to the cemetery, which is a lovely, if sadly unkempt New England style graveyard with verse and death’s heads on many of the old stones.  Simon Bradstreet, husband of the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet is buried here, as is John Hathorne, great-great-grandfather of Nathaniel, and one of the douchiest judges in the witch trials, which is probably the reason why Nathaniel changed the spelling of his surname.

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Next to the cemetery is the witch memorial, so you can pay solemn tribute to the victims of the hysteria. It’s probably one of the few sites relatively untainted by modern tourism left in Salem, although that said, I didn’t go in the Witch House, the only remaining site directly connected to the trials.  But, when in Salem, it’s best to just give in to the touristy madness, and take advantage of all the activities around town in October.  I’m glad I finally got the chance to visit, even though Binx never turned up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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