historic homes

Akron, OH: Perkins Stone Mansion and John Brown House

Despite attending the University of Akron for four years, there are still a surprising amount of museums in Akron that I haven’t visited until recently, and the Perkins Stone Mansion is one of them.  It’s usually closed for the season by the time I’m home for Christmas, so I wanted to make sure and squeeze in a visit while I was there in September. It is a stone house (as you may have guessed from the name) built in the 1830s by Colonel Simon Perkins, the son of the founder of Akron. The area was once known as Mutton Hill because Perkins kept sheep, which is where John Brown (of Harpers Ferry/Bleeding Kansas fame) comes into the picture, as he was hired to manage the flocks and was given the house across the street to live in while he did so, from 1844 to the early 1850s. Both houses are included on the tour, but let’s begin with the Perkins Mansion, shown above.

  

Just like at Sherman House, we arrived just as a tour was starting, so we simply paid our $6 admission and joined the tour, without having time to watch the introductory video. We ended up watching it at the end of the tour instead, but I kind of wish we’d gotten to watch it beforehand, because the tour might have made more sense. My mother has been there a few times before, and commented that the quality of the tour varied dramatically depending on what tour guide you get. Unfortunately, I don’t think we ended up with one of the better ones. She was perfectly nice, but said off the bat that her degree was in architecture, not history, so she couldn’t tell us much about the history of the house, and she wasn’t joking. She made some pretty glaring errors both about the type of furnishings that would have been common in a house at that time, and just general historical ones; for example, she stated that John Brown was captured by the Confederate Army, which is odd, since the raid on Harpers Ferry took place two years before the Confederacy was founded (he was actually captured by U.S. Marines, though many officers who would later become prominent in the Confederacy were involved, like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart). I didn’t say anything about it at the time, so as not to embarrass her, but I’m mentioning it here because it would be one thing if she was new, but she said she had been working there for over a year, and I would hope that the historical society equips its employees/volunteers with at least a basic grasp of the historical facts relating to the property in the future.

 

But I digress…we did indeed begin with the Perkins Stone Mansion, and she did at least give us some background on the architecture, including the unusual inclusion of the widow’s walk, which is far more common in New England, where, you know, you can actually look out to sea (I guess in Cleveland you could at least look out over Lake Erie, but you’d be hard-pressed to see it 40 miles away in Akron). It was probably there because the Perkins family was originally from Connecticut, which, like I mentioned in the Sherman House post, was pretty common, because NE Ohio was originally part of the Western Reserve given to Connecticut after the Revolutionary War.

   

Also like Sherman House, it was a fairly standard historic home tour, with even less to distinguish it, because unlike William Tecumseh Sherman, the Perkins family isn’t particularly well-known, even locally (hell, I studied history at U of Akron, and except for a few things named after them on campus, I’d barely heard of them either). Unfortunately, most of the furnishings aren’t original to the house, so except for a few portraits and things, we were mostly looking at random Victorian (or American equivalent) crap (well, not crap maybe, but nothing terribly memorable aside from that clock above the previous paragraph). Once again, we played the “guess the ye olde implement” game in the kitchen, and I was kind of shocked when our guide couldn’t identify wool carders, given that they were prominently displayed and labelled over in the John Brown House (they weren’t part of the game, but the other people on our tour spotted them and asked what they were).

 

To be fair to our guide, she was giving us information about the Perkins family the whole time, but because I hadn’t watched the video, I had no idea who the hell the various family members were that she kept referencing (but I’d like to know who the guy in that middle portrait above is. He almost looks like Andrew Jackson, but with a ridiculous expression). Not only did they found Akron, but the Perkins family also had a lot to do with its growth. Apparently one of the women founded a children’s home that later became the Akron Children’s Hospital, and one of the men (maybe Simon?) convinced BF Goodrich to come to Akron, which is part of the reason why Akron became such a big rubber town (there’s also Goodyear and Firestone there).  The guide also told us some story about how one of the daughters came back to live in the house after she was married because her father didn’t want to lose her “feminine touch,” so he gave her and her husband a couple of rooms there, but it confused me because I thought she mentioned that one of the other daughters remained unmarried and lived in the house her whole life, so there would have already been a woman living there. She did kind of blur successive generations of the family together, so maybe I’m mistaken about who was actually living there at any given time.

  

After we finished with the Perkins house, we headed over to John Brown House, which is located across a busy street. To get there, we passed the field where sheep are kept in the summer, to stay true to the house’s heritage (though sadly, they were already gone at the time of my visit), and a nice wooded area on the grounds (which used to include most of Akron, but are now limited to a few acres), including the tree shown above left, which she said was planted by the Perkins family, and might be a poplar. I don’t know much about trees, but I’m not convinced by poplar. If anyone can identify it, please let me know! The house also has a couple of outbuildings, namely an office and a laundry/pool house, but they weren’t open to the public when we visited, so we couldn’t see inside either.  There was also once a pool on the grounds (hence the pool house), but the Summit County Historical Society decided to cover it up when they took over so they didn’t have to pay for upkeep, so instead of a lovely pool area there is just a grassy rectangle.

  

John Brown House was more interesting, both because of the John Brown connection (he actually lived in Ohio for 35 years, spending time in Kent, Richfield, and Hudson) and because there was actual signage in here to tell us about John Brown’s life (I love the cartoon version of him, above). I didn’t know that he had travelled to London whilst working for Simon Perkins to attempt to sell their wool, and although Perkins wasn’t publicly involved with abolitionism, there is evidence that he may have donated money to Brown at some point to help his cause. Although Brown comes across as kind of a flake about everything except abolition, he was actually a pretty diligent shepherd, even staying up all night with the sheep during lambing season. Unfortunately, his business sense didn’t match his shepherding skills, and he was eventually fired when the business failed, and they got kicked out of the house, which was a pity for his family because his long-suffering wife (2nd wife, actually) said it was the nicest house she’d ever lived in (they moved up to North Elba in New York, to the cabin that I blogged about some years ago with the incredibly nice and knowledgeable ranger working there who really put this tour guide to shame).

  

We watched the video when we returned to the visitors’ centre, which did clear up some of the confusion I had about the Perkins family, and told me a lot more about their sheep business. I also appreciated all the sheep themed merchandise in the museum shop, because I’m kind of a sucker for farm animals (we went there right after visiting the Howe Meadow Farmers’ Market, which is very nice and was where I was able to procure an excellent shirt with Ohio turned into a chicken on the front). Although the Perkins House isn’t terribly interesting in and of itself, John Brown House does have a fascinating history (mainly because of John Brown), and I was glad to see it at last. However, I think they really need to do something about the training of their guides, because the quality is evidently vastly inconsistent (my mother says she once had a guy who was actually from the area, and he was awesome, but the others have not been from around there and don’t seem to know much about Akron or the house). I’m not blaming the guides themselves so much as whoever is training them (or not, as the case may be)…if it was free, it’d be one thing, but a paid attraction should aim to provide a consistent experience. So I’ll give them 2/5, and hope that they improve in the future. I’d be willing to try it again with a different guide just to see how the experience changes.

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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.

 

 

Lancaster, OH: Sherman House Museum

I’ve been dying to see more presidential sites in Ohio, but none of them are anywhere near where my parents live. So, knowing we’d be in Columbus, I was googling attractions down there, hoping to find some previously overlooked presidential site (Taft’s house is the dream, but it’s all the way in Cincinnati), and I found what I guess is the next best thing: the childhood home of another famous Ohioan, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, which contained furniture once owned by the Grant family (as in Ulysses S). Granted, it was in Lancaster, which is about 30 miles south of Columbus, but 30 miles is nothing in America, and if we’d come that far south, why not go a bit farther?

Like the more famous Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Lancaster, Ohio appears to be mostly a farming community (judging by all the cornfields), but going by the lack of buggies, I don’t think the farmers here are Amish (Ohio’s Amish communities mostly live further north). I did guess that Lancaster’s downtown would be historic and adorable, and I was not wrong. This included Sherman’s house, easily identifiable by the cannon mounted out front.

  

Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures to show you because when we walked in, there was a tour already in progress (with only one other couple on it), which we joined immediately after paying ($6, or $10 if you want to see the nearby Georgian Museum (which was confusingly built in 1832) too, but we only had time for the Sherman House), so we weren’t sure whether you could take pictures or not until we got to the museum space upstairs, so we didn’t (but as we were leaving, I spotted a sign that said non-flash photography was fine, so turns out we could have after all). The house is only viewable via guided tour, which I was initially fine with despite our tight schedule (we had to meet my uncle for happy hour in Columbus that afternoon), because I didn’t possibly think it could take more than an hour. How wrong I was.

  

Anyway, our tour guide was affable enough, showing us around and pointing out any special features of the rooms, but it felt more like any generic historic home tour until we got to the Sherman Museum upstairs. He did talk a bit about Sherman’s family, but because I didn’t know a whole lot about Sherman’s background, I didn’t really know who he was talking about until I saw the family tree quilt in the museum. But apparently, like most families who emigrated to Ohio when it was still the Western Reserve, Cump’s parents (Cump was Sherman’s childhood nickname, apparently derived from the Tecumseh bit of his name (itself taken from the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who Cump’s father admired), and I like it, so I’m going to use it) came out from Connecticut in the 1810s and lived a pioneer lifestyle for a while until Ohio began to develop and grow, and they were able to double the size of their house. However, with eleven children, it would still have been quite a small house, and after Cump’s father died middle-aged and in debt (he was a lawyer who served on the Ohio Supreme Court, but had apparently loaned out money to tax collectors who worked for him who had yet to repay him), his mother was forced to allow most of her children to be raised by family and friends, including Cump, who was taken in by wealthy neighbour Thomas Ewing, as Cump was reputedly the most intelligent child.

  

Cump grew up to attend West Point Academy, where he excelled but had a lax attitude towards the rules, which prevented him from graduating at the top of his class. He married Ewing’s daughter Ellen, his foster sister, and they seem to have had a somewhat acrimonious marriage as all Ellen wanted to do was move back to her hometown of Lancaster, whereas it seemed Sherman couldn’t get the hell away from the place quickly enough. After serving in the Second Seminole War, he was denied the chance to see active duty in the Mexican-American War, which left him so salty that he resigned his commission and became a banker in San Francisco instead. The bank failed in the financial panic of 1857, and he subsequently became the head of a military academy in Louisiana, which he was happy enough doing, but then the Civil War happened.

This is where the story of Cump gets kind of shady (if fighting in “Indian Wars” wasn’t shady enough). He wasn’t actually opposed to slavery at all; in fact, he offered to buy Ellen slaves when they moved to Louisiana, but she refused because she didn’t think it was a good business transaction, bringing her white servants from the North with her instead. He only fought on the side of the North because he believed so damn much (to hear our tour guide tell it) in the Union, and he didn’t think the South had the right to secede. So yeah, he would have totally been a slave owner if his wife hadn’t opposed it on financial grounds. He’s not exactly an abolitionist hero or anything. His whole famous Union Army career followed, including the March to the Sea, etc. etc. – it’s all detailed here in the small museum, right down to the replica of his army tent, which included a writing desk and chest that actually belonged to him.

  

The most interesting thing in the museum, for me, was the picture of Sherman with Father Pierre De Smet, because I am a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder nerd, and the town she lived in in Dakota Territory was named De Smet for this priest. Cump met him in his post-war career, which included more “Indian Wars” out west (of course, because I guess being named after a Native American means you should kill as many of them as possible. One of his “brilliant” ideas was to kill all the buffalo so that the tribes would starve. Ugh). After he’d had his fill of killin’ he moved to New York, and was the person responsible for deciding that the Statue of Liberty should be placed on what became Liberty Island. This was also where he acquired the Grant’s parlour furniture, which is indeed in Sherman House’s parlour – probably the most interesting room in the house itself, containing as it does photographs of the family using the furniture, the last portrait of Sherman painted from life, and a partial set of Shakespeare themed chairs that Sherman had made for his home in New York (it sounded pretty swanky). The rest of the house was fairly standard historic home, as I said, with the obligatory “guess what this old-timey object was” game in the kitchen, and stenciled walls in one of the bedrooms upstairs in which a mistake had deliberately been made in the print, to show that “no one is perfect except God.” Our guide was fine (except for a few odd, slightly sexist jokes, like when he said I should cover my ears so I wouldn’t be shocked when I “learned” that poor people in the 1800s only owned one pair of shoes), but very talkative, especially at the end of the tour, when he talked for about half an hour to give us the entire rundown of Cump’s life story (which is probably the same thing I’ve done in the post, sorry about that), which meant we were late meeting my uncle, but it wasn’t really the guide’s fault since we didn’t say we were in a hurry or anything, and he was just trying to be informative, which he certainly was…just a little TOO informative.

  

So I basically learned that Sherman was a fairly terrible human being who only fought on the side of the North because he loved the Union more than practically anything, but I guess by the standards of the time, he was fairly normal, and certainly better than some, because despite his personal views on slavery, he did help win the Civil War (but then killed a bunch of Native Americans…OK, he was mostly terrible). Despite his many, many flaws, it was neat getting to see the house he grew up in, because I am quite interested in the American Civil War from a social history perspective, though it did seem like all his personal possessions were in the museum rooms or the front parlour, and everything else was either stuff owned by his parents (which was fine) or just items from the right time period that had been donated. Surprisingly, for a town this size, Lancaster does have a genuine museum “district” which in addition to Sherman House and the aforementioned Georgian House also includes the Ohio Glass Museum and the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio, which was free and hosting an exhibition on Victorian photography that I would have loved to visit if we hadn’t already been running extremely late, so I think this town is well worth a visit (via my uncle’s partner, I also found out that they have a very tasty looking doughnut shop, which I unfortunately didn’t learn until it was too late). Sherman House was an interesting experience, albeit not quite what I was expecting….just make sure you leave yourself plenty of time if you’re planning a visit. Lancaster is quite near to Hocking Hills, which I still haven’t been to (and wasn’t visiting on this trip, hiking in 90+ degrees Fahrenheit?! No thanks!), but it’s an area pretty well known for being gorgeous, so you can probably do an extended trip and see all this stuff if you fancy it. 3/5 for Sherman House.

 

Bournemouth, Dorset: The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

The Russell-Cotes House is exactly the kind of house I’d like to live in…if it wasn’t a museum, and also wasn’t in Bournemouth (not knocking the town, because it’s the first time I’ve ever been there and I didn’t really go anywhere except Russell-Cotes House, but it looked kind of seedy as we were driving through, like most English seaside towns. The beach did look quite nice though, if it hadn’t been freezing cold. In May).

  

It is a gloriously quirky Victorian mansion (completed in 1901, shortly before Queen Victoria died, it is also technically one of the last Victorian mansions ever built, as the museum kept reminding us) perched on a side of a hill overlooking the sea. Apparently it is built in an “Art Nouveau” style, but the turrets, bold colours, and big wrap-around front porch reminded me of Victorian houses in America, rather than the more boring sedate brick Victorian buildings that are much more common in England (like the one I live in, which has been divided into flats and stripped of any character it might have had, save for the fireplace and high ceilings), which is why I probably loved it so much.

  

Admission to this fabulous building (its official name is East Cliff Hall) is £6 (or £5.45 if you decline the Gift Aid), and the self-guided tour starts with a short film about the history of the house. Built by Merton Russell-Cotes for his wife Annie, it was their dream home and a place for them to display the many, many objects they had collected on their travels through the years. They seem to have been a rather sweet and devoted couple, what with travelling the world together, and dying within a year of each other (don’t worry, they were able to enjoy their house for about twenty years first). They were also clearly extraordinarily wealthy and well-connected, though where their money came from is a mystery, at least to me, because it wasn’t discussed anywhere in the museum (I suspect there’s a dark secret somewhere in their past, albeit with absolutely no evidence to support this theory).

  

The house is meant to be set up pretty much as Merton and Annie would have had it (except for a few of the more museum-y rooms), and you’re free to wander through and pretend you’re visiting them, I guess. So nothing is really roped off (though obviously you’re expected to not touch things) and there aren’t signs on anything, just a a large informational guide on a stand in each room (we came right after they opened, so there were only a handful of visitors, but I suspect this gets annoying at busier times, because those books were seriously like twenty pages each, and based on my experiences in way too many National Trust properties, I can imagine that some people stand there for ages reading every page). We got a taste of their enviable lifestyle right off the bat, when we walked into the dining room and were greeted with an octagonal table and a wine cooler (above right) once owned by Napoleon that they managed to snap up whilst they were visiting St. Helena (as you do…oh wait, you haven’t been to one of the most isolated islands in the world?! Me either). I also immediately learned that Merton really liked birds (as do I, admittedly. Well, some birds. Not those white ibis in Australia. Or emus or cassowaries (also in Australia)), and had chosen to decorate the room with a splendid peacock border.

  

There was a collection of busts in the conservatory, my favourite being good ol’ Wellington (looking rather dashing), though his rival (archnemesis?) Napoleon was there too.  However, the conservatory was locked, so we just had to peer out at them from the dining room.

 

Napoleon’s table wasn’t the only famous person’s furniture that the Russell-Cotes’s owned. They also had a sofa and chairs that were Queen Victoria’s (I don’t think she ever visited this home, since she died shortly after it was completed, but I believe she did visit them in a previous residence, and her daughter, Princess Beatrice, took tea here with Annie), and a cabinet belonging to Empress Eugenie of France, who they knew personally. Actually, the story behind the cabinet is that Eugenie didn’t realise it had been sold, and got a nasty shock when she went to East Cliff Hall for a visit and saw it in pride of place in the drawing room.  The dress in the picture above is a re-creation of Annie’s wedding dress, based off of a photograph taken on her wedding day.

  

The main hall of the house was similarly extravagant, and contained even more busts, paintings by Rossetti et al, and a fountain inspired by the Moorish room at Leighton House (which was one of the only parts of Leighton House that I didn’t complain about).  The ornamentation even carried on into the public restrooms…I strongly recommend that you use the ones in the actual house rather than the ones in the gift shop or cafe, because they are worth seeing, in particular the ladies’ loo (I peeped into the men’s and it was nice, but not as elaborate as the women’s toilet).

  

There was an extension added on to the house for art galleries (done whilst the Russell-Cotes’s were still alive, as they had always planned to donate the building to Bournemouth after they died (they had children, by the way, they probably just reckoned they didn’t need the house), and had some of the house open to the public once a month whilst they were still living in it), though unfortunately only a couple of the galleries were open, because they were in the process of putting together a new exhibit.

  

Merton and Annie definitely seemed to be partial to statues and busts (though apparently Merton collected most of the art; Annie was more into natural history), and my favourite piece here was a bust of George Bernard Shaw (above right) done, oddly enough, by Kathleen Scott, widow of Robert Falcon Scott of polar fame (bust on the left is Nelson, no idea who the sculptor was).

  

Now, I want to talk about the stained glass on the cupola over the main hall, because that is what convinced me that I needed to visit the house in the first place. As you can hopefully tell from the picture above (click to enlarge), it has bats and owls on it, flying through a night sky. If I could only have one element from this house in my imaginary dream home, this is what I’m taking, no doubt about it.

 

Though the upstairs rooms admittedly weren’t as grand as the ones downstairs, they were nonetheless my favourite section of the house, because they were more straightforward museum rooms, with actual labels, and I got to learn more about Merton and Annie’s travels and the things they collected. One room had objects ranging from a decorative band that was on the outside of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake (Merton and Annie were both born in 1835, so I imagine they were too young to have actually attended her wedding), to an instrument made from a crocodile’s head, and, in keeping with the crocodile theme, some child-sized ankle bracelets found in the stomach of a crocodile in India, meaning some unlucky little girl got eaten.

  

There was also a “Mikado Room” built to house Merton’s Asian artefacts, and another room with souvenirs from their trip to Russia and Scandinavia, including a child’s sled embellished with some scary toothed geese. The signage in here included extracts from Annie’s diary entries during the Russia trip, which were pretty interesting. They visited about twenty years before the Revolution, but apparently could already see signs of unrest.

  

Lest you think that the things poor Annie collected had been left out, never fear! There was also a whole room full of natural history stuff, like a case full of stuffed kiwis that she acquired in New Zealand (obviously). The bedroom she was forced to move to shortly before she died was also up here; she had to move because it was near the only room that could accommodate her nurse (I guess because all the other rooms were too nice?).

  

My favourite decorative border in the house was in what I’m going to call the “Crow Room” (unless those are blackbirds? I like birds, but I’m not great at identifying them). I especially love the golden moon that’s been added in. (Many of the rooms also had beautiful gold stars painted up near the ceiling. This was really my kind of house.)

  

The strangest room had to be the Henry Irving Room, which was like a bizarre shrine to the actor Henry Irving. Apparently he was a good friend of Merton and Annie, and they loved his acting, so were devastated when he died, and set a whole room aside for Irving artefacts. I know Irving was a famous actor, but I don’t really know all that much about him, so I couldn’t fully appreciate the Irvingness of this room, though I did admire the weirdness.

  

More stained glass of note (because those damn Victorians really excelled at stained glass); the piece over the centre of the upstairs hallway. It’s a little hard to see, but the corners of each larger square are the signs of the zodiac. I was particularly partial to Taurus, who you might just be able to spot (and I’ve just noticed that Aquarius looks rather like the Mannequin Pis).

  

There were so many more fabulous details in the house that I’d love to show you, but we’d be here all day, so let me move on to the gardens. Apparently, the gardens once stretched for quite a ways around the house, but they’ve all been swallowed up by real estate, so all that’s left now is the grotto area, and a small Japanese garden. Unusually, the Russell-Cotes’s didn’t have any live-in servants, instead relying on staff from the hotel next door to keep their house running, so there was a secret gate in the garden that they could cut through on their way over. (Merton and Annie did own the hotel too at one point, though I’m not sure if it was while they were living in East Cliff House. I do hope that the staff were properly compensated for their work, and not just expected to do two jobs for the same pay, but knowing Victorians, my hopes aren’t high.)

  

I certainly enjoyed pretty much every aspect of this house’s appearance, inside and out, though I’m still not sure how I feel about Merton and Annie – they were definitely a fascinating couple who had amazing experiences, but I feel like them using the hotel’s staff is probably a bit shady, and I’m still bothered that I don’t know the source of their wealth. But, they are long-dead, and the house as it stands today is magnificent, and worth the relatively modest price of admission (I mean, can you imagine what the National Trust or English Heritage would charge to see something like this? Probably at least 15 quid, if not more!).  I do love labels, so I would have liked to see some in the actual house, but I can understand that it would detract from the experience they’re going for. Perhaps if they put a couple smaller guides in each room in place of the big books, it would be better, because some of the books contained stuff like a list of restoration expenses, or a lengthy history of some of the artistic styles represented in the paintings, and it was way more than I cared to read and came at the expense of information about some of the smaller, but more intriguing looking objects. Because of that, I’ll give it 4/5, but it is a most excellent looking house, and I think Merton would be happy to see all the birds that still frequent the garden.

  

 

London: Hampton Court Palace

dsc08740Even though Hampton Court Palace has been languishing in my sadly neglected Favourite Places page for years, and I wrote about my visit to some of its outbuildings during Open London weekend a couple years ago, I’ve never actually done a whole post about it.  Until now, of course.  Since I was doing all things touristy when my ‘rents were here, I thought I might as well take them to Hampton Court, it being one of my “favourite places” and all.

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As always when visiting Hampton Court, I took advantage of the National Rail 2 for 1 offer (vouchers available at all London train stations), which is easier to do at there than at some other London attractions, because the easiest way to get there is genuinely the train that runs twice hourly from Waterloo to Hampton Court (conveniently for me, via Wimbledon).  I recommend you do the same, if at all possible, because £21 is a lot of money.  I mean, you could buy like 5 ice creams for that, even at London prices.  But you do get a fair amount for your money, because Hampton Court is big, to the extent that you’ll get sick of walking around before you run out of things to see.  This is why, even though I’ve been there at least 5 times, I discover something new every time I go.

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Though in some instances, this is because they actually change the exhibits.  Case in point: Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, which was definitely not there the last time I visited.  These 15th century paintings were acquired by Charles I in 1629, so I’m not quite sure why they only seem to have gone on display in the last few years, but I’m not the greatest fan of Italian Renaissance art, so I can’t honestly say I was missing out on anything on previous visits by not seeing them.

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So despite our odd detour into Mantegna land, I suppose the logical place to start is with “Young Henry VIII’s Story,” which has been a fixture here for at least as long as I’ve been visiting Hampton Court.  It gives people who haven’t watched Wolf Hall (but seriously, Damian Lewis in a codpiece!  How could you not?  Even though the codpieces were too disappointingly small to be historically accurate…) or read as many Alison Weir books as I did as a teenager (I was a weird kid) a good grounding in what Henry VIII was like before he became an obese tyrant. Hampton Court was built by Cardinal Wolsey, but it was pretty promptly stolen by Henry when he saw how much ass it kicked compared to his own palaces (ok, technically it was “gifted” to Henry by Wolsey when he realised he was falling from favour, but I suspect that was in response to Henry dropping very pointed hints about what a great palace it was, and how fantastic it would look with a big ol’ throne in it).

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Then of course, there are Henry VIII’s actual apartments, which I’ll talk about now, even though we didn’t actually see them next because Hampton Court is like a big maze (it has a hedge maze, but the palace itself is basically a maze too).  Only about half the original palace exists, because William III and Mary II hired Christopher Wren to do some major construction work in the late 17th century, but the Great Hall and a few other cool rooms remain, including a gallery, appropriately called the “Haunted Gallery,” which is meant to be haunted by the ghost of Catherine Howard.  Though I’ve personally never sensed any supernatural presences there.

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Other Tudor attractions here include Henry VIII’s kitchens and wine cellar (always a big hit with children, which is why I don’t have any pictures of the kitchens: there were about three large school groups passing through whilst we were there, so I pretty much ran through them to avoid all the commotion) and the Royal Tennis Court, which is now a members’ club where people can still play real tennis (different from lawn tennis…it’s like a combo of tennis and squash I think.  Not sure how much it costs to become a member, but I bet it’s a lot, judging by how much it costs to just enter the palace once and not play tennis).  The Tennis Court has been completely redone since the last time I was there, and now contains museum-style displays about monarchs and their tennis skills, which I enjoyed.

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I should also mention Henry VIII’s superb astronomical clock, and the wine fountain in the courtyard (it can be seen in the second picture in this post), which is a re-creation of one used at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the famous meeting in 1520 between Henry and Francis I of France.  They actually fill the fountain with wine on special occasions, none of which I’ve managed to attend (not that I like wine anyway, but I would drink it from a fountain!).  Also, there is the fine topiary version of Henry, pictured above.

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But enough about the Tudors; even though Henry was the most famous monarch to inhabit Hampton Court, he certainly wasn’t the only one.  There were also William III and Mary II, who, as I mentioned earlier, did a fair bit of remodeling. William and Mary each have their own set of apartments here, but Mary never lived in hers as she died of smallpox before they were completed.  And they appear to be undergoing restoration work, because they’re not currently open to the public (they were even wiped from the map, but I definitely remember visiting them on previous occasions, and the internet confirms that I’m not just imagining them).  But William’s are open, even though they’re rather dull because not much information is provided inside them (there is a free audio guide, but I have never ever used it, so I can’t tell you what it’s like).

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I do have to quickly show you his loo though (on the left, the other room is just some sort of study, not a weird communal pooping room), because who doesn’t want to poo whilst sitting on a comfy velvet-lined seat (oh, just me then?)?!

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Another section of the palace I had absolutely no past recollection of was the Cumberland Art Gallery.  (No photos were allowed in the gallery, so these are from the hall outside.)  Unfortunately, most of the art seemed to be Italian Renaissance stuff, so I quickly lost interest and wandered outside to the row of Lely paintings (many of which were of Charles II’s various mistresses) leading the way to the Cartoon Gallery (another disappointment, as it wasn’t the Hogarthian type of cartoons I was hoping for, but rather some paintings Raphael did.  Snoozefest).

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Although Mary II’s younger sister Anne (pictured above), who was also queen, lived here too, Hampton Court nowadays skips right from William III to the Georgians (and I guess as well they might, if it leads to napkins that fabulous, but Anne’s personal life is fairly interesting in its own right).  The Georgian rooms also seemed to have been changed since my last visit, and redone more in the style of the Georgian stuff at Kensington Palace, which I guess makes sense since they’re all part of Historic Royal Palaces (but still, for that kind of money, I expect more individuality!).

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Georges I and II seem to have been a thoroughly unpleasant pair, always fighting with each other, and George II carried on the feud with his own child, Frederick (who died before becoming king, thus the crown passed to his son, who became George III).  Still, bickering makes for entertaining reading, and I was especially interested to learn about Caroline of Ansbach’s (George II’s wife) hernia, from which her bowels apparently eventually protruded (I assume through a layer of skin, not that her bowels were literally hanging out of her body, because I’m pretty sure that would kill you), making her extra cranky (understandably enough, though she never seemed particularly pleasant).

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And so let’s move on this fairly brief tour of the palace itself to the gardens, which are numerous and enormous.  In fact, you can buy admission to just the gardens (which I’ve never really seen the point of, but whatever); they include the privy garden, kitchen garden, orangery garden, and Tudor garden, amongst others.

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The gardens also include the Great Vine.  It is certified as the largest vine in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records, and I can confirm that it is indeed a really big vine, though not quite the tourist attraction it apparently was in the 19th century, when Victoria first opened the palace to visitors, and people queued for hours just to see the vine (which I find kind of charming, in a way.  They lived in an age that saw the creation of railroads, telephones, photography, electric lights, etc. and yet people would still patiently wait half a day to look at a damn vine).  We were the only people looking at it when I was there, but it is fairly tucked away, which is probably why this was my first time seeing it.

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Despite not really being a garden person, I have to concede that the ones here are pretty cool (not least because of that drawing of Henry VIII, which, no joke, is probably my favourite thing in the palace, tied only with the Henry topiary (I have a reprint of an old Hampton Court tram poster in my living room with a very similar looking Henry on it, only without him being angered by a fish).

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But of course the best part of the gardens is the hedge maze.  I won’t go for the obvious pun and call it a-maze-ing, because frankly, I’ve been to better (the one at Leeds Castle, which has a grotto at the centre, springs to mind), but it’s still pretty fun, especially relative to the other attractions available at the palace (don’t get me wrong, I enjoy looking at old palace rooms, but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a barrel of laughs most of the time).  There is also a “magic garden,” but that appears to be some sort of playground for small children, so I didn’t investigate further.

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So concludes what is by necessity (so I don’t bore you all to pieces) an abbreviated tour of this very large palace.  It is expensive, yes, but you can easily spend half a day or more here and still not see everything, and I still think it is the best (by far) of all the Historic Royal Palaces (these include Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, et al), so I firmly believe that if you’re doing the whole tourist thing in London, it is well worth a visit.  Even for Londoners, it’s worth coming here every few years or so, because exhibits do change, and you’ll probably discover something new.  Also, the palace just looks really cool, and I think we’re all a little fascinated by Henry VIII, even though he was one of the biggest jerks ever.  4/5.

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Beaulieu, Hampshire: National Motor Museum, Beaulieu Abbey, Etc.

dsc08294I chose to open this post with the above picture because I think my ambivalent expression in it perfectly encapsulates my initial feelings about Beaulieu (I don’t really want to get into politics on here, but I feel like I can’t let an event this horrifying pass without comment, so I have to say that if I had to pick a facial expression to sum up my feelings on the results of the US election, it would be more like this, but maybe with even more grump. Feeling very angry today).  I’m not interested in actual cars, or in paying an absolute buttload of money to see said cars, but I sure do like sitting in fake cars whilst pretending to drive them (it has to be pretend since I never learned how to drive a real car), and dressing up in old-timey outfits, and actual Disney World style pod rides!  All of which are part of the Beaulieu experience.

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“Alright Jessica, you don’t like cars, so what are you doing paying £19 [and that’s the cheaper advance online rate; it’s £24 at the door if you don’t book ahead] to see the National Motor Museum?” you may ask, and with good reason.  Well, my parents visited me back in October and unfortunately, my father is the sort of person who doesn’t really like doing things, as far as I can tell.  But he does like cars, so in a vain attempt to do something (anything!) with him that he might enjoy, we decided to take him to Beaulieu, since it was the biggest car-related site we could think of (plus they have other attractions too!).  I’m still not sure if he actually enjoyed himself, but the rest of us tried to make the best of the day, given that we’d driven a good couple of hours to get there.

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So, we began with the main attraction: the National Motor Museum.  Well, it certainly has a lot of cars in it!  Fortunately, the collection included quite a few early automobiles, which I could at least appreciate on a historical level, including two cars used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (I actually find the movie kind of a disappointment, given that some of my favourite people (Roald Dahl and Dick Van Dyke) were involved with it, so it really should be better than it is, but nonetheless…); Truly Scrumptious’s car, and old Chitty himself (herself?  Was Chitty assigned a gender?).

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I also appreciated the street of yesteryear, half-assed though it was (you couldn’t actually go in any of the shops, being that the focus was all on the cars), and the many interactive displays (the talking crash test dummy scared me a little); even though learning more about how cars worked wasn’t really all that interesting to me, pressing buttons and turning dials is still kinda fun.  But the best part of the Motor Museum, by far, was yet to come.

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Yes, it was that aforementioned pod ride, simply called “Wheels.”  It came as a complete surprise to me, to the extent that I wandered into a dark hallway marked “this way to Wheels,” just thinking it was some kind of exhibit, and was shocked when a man approached and directed me into a moving pod (I think Marcus and I were the only ones on the ride; no queues, brilliant!).  Oh man, this ride was great too, rather reminiscent of the one at Jorvik Viking Centre (though minus the pooping Viking, more’s the pity), with really cheesy tableaux that clearly hadn’t been updated in decades (a Linley Sambourne cartoon provided the backdrop for one of the scenes, remember him?).

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In fact, I liked it so much that I would have ridden it again had it not been for the fact that it spun around just slightly too much, and left me feeling a bit ill for an hour or so afterwards (nothing severe though, and I am extremely prone to motion sickness, so most people would probably be fine), so I wandered around and looked at some of the excellent mannequins in the museum instead.

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After a quick break for lunch (after reading some of the Trip Advisor reviews of the cafe the night before, I decided to bring a peanut butter sandwich from home, which turned out to be wise, because the food in the cafe did indeed look and smell disgusting (normally when we’re out somewhere for the day, we just grab a baguette and hummus from the nearest supermarket if none of the local eateries look appealing, but Beaulieu is fairly isolated (in the New Forest, hello wild ponies!), so you’re kind of at the mercy of their catering facilities once you get inside)), we headed to “On Screen Cars,” a rather small tent shared with a children’s play area that was meant to hold famous cars used in TV and movies.  There were only about eight cars in there, and most of them were from old British sitcoms that I didn’t watch or care about, but I did enjoy seeing Mr. Bean’s car and the car that the Anti-Pesto car in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was modeled on, because I adore Wallace and Gromit (not that ass-penguin from The Wrong Trousers though.  He can rot in that zoo).

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Beaulieu is also home to the “World of Top Gear.” I’m not a Top Gear fan, so this meant very little to me, but I’m sure some people would enjoy it.  The object captions certainly tried very hard to be funny in that xenophobic Top Gear way, so there’s that.

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But, as Beaulieu’s tagline goes, it is “much more than a motor museum,” so we hopped aboard the monorail to discover the rest of it (the monorail isn’t strictly necessary, as the abbey and stuff are close enough to easily walk to, but after spending all day going, “monorail, monorail” as a prelude to breaking into the monorail song from The Simpsons, there was no way I wasn’t riding the damn monorail), starting with a garden filled with pretty kick-ass topiaries (the ones shown above are part of the tea party from Alice in Wonderland.  Ignore my weird face; I was squinting because of the sun and I don’t have another picture that shows the topiaries without me).

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One of the outbuildings to the manor house contained the “Secret Army Exhibition.”  Like many large estates during WWII, Beaulieu was partially taken over by the military, and was converted into a secret training school for Special Operations Executives.  So there were a lot of cool Bond-esque props on display that were once given to spies, and some stuff about coding, including a tribute to a pretty awesome-sounding woman named Noor Inayat Khan, who was descended from Indian nobility.  Despite her pacifist inclinations, she wanted to help the war effort, so she joined the WAAFs, trained as a wireless operator, and eventually became the first female radio operator dropped behind enemy lines.  Sadly, she was captured by the Gestapo after being betrayed by a fellow agent, and taken to Dachau and executed after undergoing months of  solitary confinement whilst chained.  There is apparently a heritage trail of sites related to her life that people can follow; maps of the trail were provided in the exhibition.

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And now, on a slightly cheerier note, on to the country house, known as “Palace House,” which was a fine example of its type.  This is what made me feel slightly better about paying £19, because let’s face it, a National Trust property would have charged at least 11 or 12 quid for the house and gardens alone.

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The house was fairly sizeable, even though I’m sure we weren’t allowed to see the whole thing, and the paintings and objects all had captions apparently fondly written by the 3rd Baron of Montagu, I guess to show us how intimately his family was connected to the house (he talked about people who died a few centuries ago as if he knew them) and what a neat guy he was (it actually did sort of work, because I felt a bit sad when I discovered that he died in 2015, and his son is the current Baron.  I especially love the caption on that little velvet suit, which the 3rd Baron wore to George VI’s coronation.  He mentions that the velvet bag contained sandwiches to sustain him through the long ceremony!).  I guess I should have mentioned this earlier, but Edward, the 3rd Baron, is the whole reason that all the cars are here today: his father, John, was a keen early adopter of the motorcar (he used to take Edward VII for drives), so Edward (Montagu, just to clarify) started the museum in his father’s memory.

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The house is decorated roughly as it would have been in the Victorian era, and although I was a bit worried about interacting with the costumed “servants” who were meant to tell us about life belowstairs, it turned out they didn’t even acknowledge our presence (I didn’t want a whole awkward conversation with someone in character, but a simple hello or even a nod would have been nice).  It was a lovely home, with some taxidermy and secret stairs, as you’d want from an old manor house.

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There was also some very good bird wallpaper, a detailed exhibit about two feisty sounding ladies (stepmother and stepdaughter) who lived in the house for practically the whole of the 20th century (they had long lives), a random collection of Soviet art, and some really excellent modern family portraits that cracked me right up.  I wish I could afford to have my portrait painted in a similar fashion.

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Finally, there’s Beaulieu Abbey, which was a thriving monastic community until Henry VIII came along and broke with Catholicism, and much of the old abbey was destroyed.  But some of it is still there, along with some examples of cool sarcophagi that were made to hold people’s hearts. Apparently, wealthy medieval people would often have their hearts and bones removed from their bodies after they died, and have their flesh buried in one place, bones in another, and their hearts in some place that was especially meaningful to them. It was done mainly so more people would pray over them (because the congregation of each church they were buried in would then have an obligation to do so), but symbolically speaking, I think it’s kind of a nice idea to have your heart put someplace special, even though I feel sorry for the person who has to remove it.  The double coffin was so husbands and wives could put their hearts together (aww, in a grisly way).

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The upstairs hall had some modern tapestries showing medieval life at the abbey (the tapestries were made in the 1990s) that contained lots of adorable farm animals, so I was a fan.  Wandering the grounds of the Abbey, I came across the 3rd Baron’s grave (which is how I learned he was dead; a bit of a shock after his chatty tone in all those captions in the house).  More importantly though, I also came across the ice cream cottage, wherein a delightful man gave me an enormous scoop of mint chocolate ripple ice cream for only £2 (the main cafeteria may have been gross, but I have no complaints about the ice cream cottage, or the ice cream man’s scooping technique, which was excellent.  As someone who worked at an ice cream shop for five years, I am definitely qualified to judge this).

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I fear I’ve already run on for too long, and only the very dedicated will have made it this far, so time to sum up!  Though I am indeed, very much not a car person, I can’t argue with an actual ride inside a museum (also the monorail passes right through the museum, so it’s really like it has two rides!), and the rest of the estate was pretty damn entertaining as well.  Was it worth £19?  Actually, maybe it was (though initially ambivalent, I guess I came around in the end!).  We did spend practically the whole day there, and I had a surprising amount of fun.  I mean, you can’t go wrong with dressing up and posing in an old-fashioned car. 4/5.

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London: 18 Stafford Terrace (Linley Sambourne House)

img_20161002_152655388_hdr_stitchI know I’ve mentioned before how I am, to some extent, always fishing for an excuse to go out to Kensington.  The lure of the giant Whole Foods there (mainly because they sell delicious chocolate chip muffins) + Ben’s Cookies simply proves irresistible.  Well, I found another excuse to gorge myself on bakery experience a fine cultural attraction in the form of 18 Stafford Terrace, otherwise known as the family home of the Sambournes.

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If you’ve never heard of the Sambournes, don’t feel bad; I hadn’t really either until I went to this house.  Linley Sambourne, patriarch of the Sambourne clan, was a cartoonist for Punch, a keen collector of Victoriana (which I suppose wasn’t really Victoriana at the time, just normal furnishings), and an avid photographer (which strayed into a “private” interest in photography, if you get my drift).  He and his wife Marion purchased this terraced house in 1875, when it was only a few years old, and lived there until they died, collecting crap all the while.  Their son and daughter did nothing to change it, as they had their own London residences, and eventually their granddaughter inherited it and was so inspired by its contents that she became one of the founders of the Victorian Society, and she transferred the lease of the house to them (it is currently owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington, who took over the lease in 2000), which is why it is now open to the public as a bit of a Victorian time capsule.

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The house offers both guided tours, which much be pre-booked, and self-guided tours, which you can just show up and do.  They were also offering a temporary 2-for-1 offer on self-guided tours at the time of our visit, which is what sold me on it at last! (Normally, admission is 7 pounds each, so I was quite pleased with 3.50.  They somewhat disingenuously don’t mention the offer in person (it’s advertised on their website, and ends on the 30th of October), and I had to specifically ask for the 2-for-1 deal to get it; the admissions lady tried to charge us full price until I said something!)  The “tour” began with a video, which explained how the house came to be a sort of museum, and told us the history of the Sambourne family.  Linley sounded like a real character, which is reflected to some extent in the house.

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Because although the house is a beautiful example of Victorian architecture and decor, the highlight by far is Linley’s photographic collection, which completely filled the walls of some of the rooms, in true Victorian style.  He first got into photography when he realised that he could make models pose in the positions he wanted, snap their photo, and then use the resulting image as a guide to draw his cartoons, without all the hassle of having a live model in the studio.  He also seemed to be a pioneer in the art of the selfie, as most of the pictures were of himself in various hilarious poses!

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And of course, there was his slightly more prurient interest in risque (for the time) photography.  As you can see, I was clearly delighted to spot the collection of sexy photos, which featured curvaceous nude women in various “artistic” poses, and was conveniently placed above the marble bathtub that he filled with developing solution for his own photographs.

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My other favourite thing in the house was probably Linley’s “fern case,” set inside a sunny projecting window at the front of the house, where he kept ferns (naturally) and a sort of glass terrarium full of rocks (if it were mine, I would fill it with some sort of unusual taxidermy, but it was still pretty perfect as is.  I think I’d probably grow strawberries in there too, with all the sun.  Wouldn’t that be appetising?  Strawberries and dead animals).

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The house was also liberally filled with Linley’s cartoons and illustrations, many of which were actually pretty damn funny.  There was a little laminated guide in each room (usually just a paragraph or two), but they didn’t go into a lot of detail about the illustrations, so I had to pause and lean real close to the cartoons to see what was going on (many of them were hung along the staircases, so you had to wait until no one was coming down.  And the house had a tonne of staircases, as it was very tall and narrow.  About five floors, but only a couple rooms per floor).

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I’ve reached the point where I don’t have a lot more to say, but there’s still loads of photos, so here you go (the kind of crappy looking room towards the bottom is the maid’s room, in case you were wondering why it’s so spartan compared to the others):

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Suffice it to say the house is amazing, especially if you appreciate Victoriana as much as I do (I could definitely live there!), but I’m still glad we only paid half price, as I don’t think it was 7 quid’s worth of stuff to see.  Linley Sambourne seemed like a pretty neat guy (and according to the video, he was very proud of his daughter’s artistic abilities, which is nice to see from a Victorian father), and his photography was definitely entertaining, but I feel like the house caters more for guided tours, so there wasn’t really enough information available on self-guided ones (though some of the volunteers were very helpful…others not so much), and the normal price is a little high for what you get.  Even still, it’s probably a must-see for lovers of all things Victorian.  3.5/5.

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Melbourne, Australia: Cooks’ Cottage

DSC07292And so this Antipodean Adventure at last comes to an end, with Cooks’ Cottage.  This is rather fitting because Cooks’ Cottage was built in England and shipped to Australia, so it’s a nice segue back to Britain.  Cooks’ Cottage is also, frankly, the most ridiculous attraction of the whole trip (a trip that included pancake rocks, Demolition World, a giant doughnut statue, a $59 Antarctic Centre, a steampunk themed art gallery, and a killer whale museum, so that’s really saying something).

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One of the reasons why Cooks’ Cottage is such a ludicrous tourist attraction is that Captain Cook never lived here.  The cottage was built in Great Ayton in Yorkshire in 1755, by Cook’s parents (which is why it is Cooks’ Cottage, rather than Cook’s Cottage).  Unfortunately, James Cook had left home ten years earlier at the age of 16, and never lived at home again, having joined the merchant navy after completing his schooling, followed by the Royal Navy.  I mean, he may have spent a night or two here during a visit, but it didn’t play any kind of important role in his life.  This didn’t stop the city of Melbourne from buying the cottage in 1934, and having it dissembled and shipped to this park, which rather hilariously makes it the oldest building in Australia (also, why Melbourne?  Cook never landed here.  It would have made more sense for Sydney to buy it, since he was along that coast).  The shitty thing about this (if Tony Horwitz is to be believed in Blue Latitudes) is that when a house that Cook actually DID live in was up for sale in the 1960s (the home in Wapping where he lived with his family during the brief stints when he wasn’t at sea), Melbourne, perhaps finally realising the bum deal they’d gotten with Cooks’ Cottage, declined to buy it, so it was demolished.  Though I guess that really reflects poorly on London for not valuing Cook more than the brewery that was built where the house once stood.

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Anyway, Cooks’ Cottage costs $6.20 to enter, which, whilst significantly cheaper than most Australian museums, I think anyone would agree is still a preposterous sum when they get a look at the cottage.  See those four pictures above?  Well, you’ve basically seen the entirety of the cottage.  It is all of two rooms (it used to be slightly bigger, but they had to chop it in half to accommodate a road, which just adds to the absurdity).  The only people visiting it were us, and a load of Chinese tourists.  But I had to do it, for Cook, and more importantly, for the statue of Cook outside that they cleverly placed behind the gates of the cottage so if you wanted a picture with it, you had to cough up the admission fee.

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No way was Cook that, er, sexily attired in real life, but I can roll with it (of course I felt up his thigh).  They also had a selection of Georgian-esque costumes you could dress up in; unfortunately, they were all being hogged by the other visitors, so I ended up with the dregs, hence my flood-skirt.

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There were also some Cook-related plants scattered around the garden, like scurvy grass and such, and a museum room at the back of the cottage (which we nearly missed) that talked about Cook’s voyages.  The cottage sort of lies by omission…it never explicitly states that Cook lived in the cottage, but it doesn’t mention that he didn’t, either.  I did, however, learn that Cook’s wife apparently moved to a house built on the site of Merton Priory for a little while after his death, which is interesting because I live not far from there, and it’s also quite near to where Nelson used to live with Emma Hamilton.

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So I think we can all agree that Cooks’ Cottage is quite lame, though the volunteers did try their best, and the only reason to see it is to snatch a picture with that well-endowed statue. 1/5. Fitzroy Gardens is also home to a random miniature Tudor Village (built by a Londoner, but meant to depict Stratford-upon-Avon, it was a gift from Lambeth because Melbourne sent food to Britain during WWII.  Because I’m sure a miniature Tudor village is just what they wanted) and a fairy tree, so there’s that too, as long as we’re seeing attractions that are faintly ridiculous.  Oh, and I’ve neglected to mention the ice cream in Australia (even though I ate some every day we were there), so I’ll tell you now that Gelato Messina was the best we had (handily, there are locations in Sydney and Australia, and their special flavours (which change weekly) are amazing).  And now I’ll leave you with what we wrote in the guest book at the cottage, because I’m really rather proud of my puns.

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Brighton, East Sussex: The Royal Pavilion

DSC01923_stitchThe Royal Pavilion is an amazing, confused conglomeration of excess, built for the notoriously dissipated Prince Regent (who became George IV) in the 1810s.  It’s probably the most recognisable building in Brighton, with its distinctive Indian-inspired exterior, and its even crazier Chinese-influenced interior.  And despite having visited Brighton a fair number of times over the years, the first time I ventured inside this behemoth was just a few short weeks ago.

For you see, admission to the Royal Pavilion is normally a princely £12.30, but it is a National Art Fund partner, so members get free access (even though they don’t advertise it anywhere in the building or online, which gave me a bit of a scare, but they honour it in person with no trouble), so this is the first time myself and my wallet were inclined to venture within.  Also, I was a bit worried it would be excessively touristy, but even on a Sunday, it wasn’t too terribly crowded.  I mean, we walked right in, and had no trouble strolling around the place relatively unimpeded (though it was unseasonably cold on the day of our visit, meaning most people wouldn’t choose to visit a seaside town, so your mileage may vary in nicer weather).

Now, although the Royal Pavilion has one of the most incredible interiors I’ve ever seen, and I’m anxious to share it with you all, they do not allow photography inside.  I get that they’ve done a lot of restoration work over the years, but I still feel like they could let you snap a few shots in the most impressive downstairs rooms without doing any damage, but eurgh, I don’t know.  Maybe it’s to encourage you to tell your friends to come see it for themselves, since you’ll have no pictures to show off (actually, after poking about on their website, apparently it’s the Queen’s fault.  I knew I was opposed to the monarchy for a reason).  An amble around the internet didn’t reveal any good photographs available for free use (just some drawings and copies of old postcards), so please click this link to the Royal Pavilion’s website where you can click room by room to check them all out, making sure to focus on the Music Room and Banqueting Room, which I will talk about below, because they are the best.

They offered us an audio guide when we entered, but I’m so used to declining things that I just said no, without even asking if it cost extra.  Judging by the number of people who had audio guides (i.e. everyone except us), it might not, but you still all know what my position on audio guides usually is.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a tonne to read on the ground floor of the house, generally just a small sign per room, so I probably missed out on learning about the interior.  Fortunately, this was remedied to some extent with the help of the video room, wherein I learned that the Pavilion was built by Henry Holland on something of a budget, as George was still just a prince at the time, and his daddy had his finger on the purse strings.  However, once George III descended into madness for the final time, and Georgie Jr was made Prince Regent, he decided to expand and embellish with the help of John Nash, and went for this totally crazy British-Empire-meets-the-Orient design, inspired by his love of the Far East.  Later (skipping over William IV, who wasn’t around for long anyway), the staid Victoria rejected the palace as too louche for family living, and had everything stripped out of it and mostly transferred to Buckingham Palace, while she was busy lording it up at Osborne House.  When Brighton later decided to open the palace to the public, Victoria (to her credit) returned most of the furnishings, and sort-of-shoddy reconstructions were done to make up the rest of the interiors (they had some examples in there, they were pretty craptastic).  During WWI, the Pavilion went on to serve as a hospital for Indian soldiers and later, soldiers missing limbs, and then was finally properly restored after the war years, save for some minor setbacks in the 1970s and ’80s when there was an arson attack, and then one of the minarets collapsed, which destroyed the Music Room, but it is now back in all its glory.

And the Music Room was probably the best damn room in the whole place, save for maybe the Banqueting Room (actually, I did prefer the Music Room, because snakes).  Oh man, it was incredible.  Snakes and dragons all over the damn place (not real ones, obviously), crawling up the wallpaper, serving as curtain rods, and just generally awesomely slithering around.  The Banqueting Room was pretty baller too though, especially the chandelier, which weighs a tonne (literally), and is suspended from a large winged dragon.  Also of note was the Great Kitchen, which had fake palm tree columns, and a menu from one of the Careme catered banquets George hosted (also available on their website, but it’s too small to read on there), featuring an epic 68 dishes, plus 8 edible confectionery centrepieces (all the meaty stuff sounded pretty foul (sometimes fowl), but I would definitely tuck into a “great nougat, in the French style.”  Bring one to me now).

Even the Long Gallery, which we got to pass through several times on the way upstairs and downstairs, and back through George’s personal apartments (the whole thing was quite maze-like, and we only went the right way with the help of the ropes stretched all over the place), was neat.  It was full of creepily lifelike Chinese figurines and (guess what?) more dragons.

I realise it’s probably not possible with the way the place is set up, but they should probably make you see the downstairs rooms last, because I felt a little bit like Homer when he was given a tour of Mr. Burns’s house that ended in the basement (Homer: “Gee, it’s not as nice as the other rooms.”  Mr. Burns: “Yes, I really should stop ending the tour with it.”).  The upstairs rooms fairly paled in comparison to the splendours downstairs, but I did enjoy the museum-y rooms where I learned more about the restoration of the palace, and its time as a war hospital, and there was also a room full of caricatures of George IV, which were brilliant.  Victoria’s boringly restrained apartments were up here too, and according to their website, there was also a special bed with a tipping mechanism made for George when he was at his morbidly obese/gouty stage so he could get up more easily, but I somehow missed that detail when we were there (actually, that bed was downstairs, because if George could barely get out of bed, he certainly couldn’t climb stairs, but I still don’t remember seeing it).  Guess I paid the price for not taking the audio guide.

The palace also featured an enormous gift shop (not really anything in it I wanted to buy, but it was for sure big), and not one, but TWO cafes (probably technically a cafe and a tea room), but I didn’t see any millionaire’s shortbread (Brighton’s got too many good bakeries for me to want to eat in a museum cafe anyway), plus my stomach was already all set for some ice cream from Scoop and Crumb (it was a bit icier than usual, probably because it was still the off-season, but it didn’t stop me from eating three large scoops and promptly getting a stomachache). I don’t know if I’d still be as keen if I’d paid £12.30 for the Royal Pavilion (maybe if I’d had the audio guide.  If I’d paid, I’d definitely have taken the audio guide), since we walked through in under an hour, but for free, this was a fabulous outing.  I think this probably had my favourite interior out of any palace I’ve visited (which probably means I’m as gaudy and tasteless as George IV, but so be it), at least where the main downstairs rooms were concerned, and it was definitely worth seeing, at long last.  Still salty about my inability to photograph it (I should say Marcus’s inability to photograph it, because I never voluntarily take pictures) though.  4/5.

London: Chiswick House

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Yes, I’m back to historic homes again, but it is in the blog’s tagline after all, so I suppose there’s no escaping it.  We actually parked at Chiswick House back when we visited Hogarth’s House some years ago, but we didn’t go in because it was winter and only the gardens were open. (Even in the summer, the house is only open from Sundays-Wednesdays; perhaps they rent it out at weekends?)  The gardens are free to enter, but the house’ll cost ya £6.30, unless you’re an English Heritage member, or have a National Art Pass, in which case it’s free (because why else would I be going, right?).

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The house was built for the third Earl of Burlington (I’d never heard of him either) in the first half of the 18th century by William Kent, and is supposed to be a good example of neo-Palladianism, which means very little to me, other than that it is symmetrical, Georgian-y, and has a classical revival thing going on.  And there’s a lot of sphinxes.  Unusually bosomy sphinxes, which may have been appreciated by the “bachelor” Duke who later lived here.

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The house was cold and damp feeling inside, and didn’t allow photography, hence all the exterior shots.  They enforced this by having a stern woman clomping around the upstairs rooms, “fixing” the room guides after we apparently didn’t place them back in their slots exactly right, and just generally glaring silently at us. I was afraid to put a foot wrong.  There was no one working in the downstairs section of the house (except the admissions desk guy), but there wasn’t much else down there either, save for a video and some posters about the house.  There were a lot of corridors that just kept going, with some crumbling statues at the end of one, and a wine cellar in the basement, but there wasn’t really a whole lot to see.

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Even the upstairs rooms (accessed by a uneven winding stone staircase), which were decorated, still felt rather sparse and chilly.  Despite the elaborately painted ceilings and velvet wallpaper in many of the rooms, they felt empty, probably because most of them didn’t have much furniture.  Standing under the rotunda was cool, simply because it reached so high up, and I enjoyed some of the creepier saint paintings (there was a St. Lucy who had her eyes gouged out, only for them to “miraculously” grow back, so she was painted with her eyeballs on a plate.  Apparently some squeamish person a century or two ago had them painted out, but they were restored when the painting was cleaned), but that’s pretty much it.

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Fortunately for us, the sudden torrential downpour that had started up when we were in the house had subsided by the time we were finished, so we were able to look around the gardens.  It was a good thing, too, because the gardens were the best part of the experience.  Georgians did love their follies, and though this place didn’t have anything really cool like a grotto or a hedge maze (I mentioned the lack of a hedge maze to my boyfriend when we were there and he went, “No hedge maze!  Well, you’ll probably only give this place one star now.”), it did have a Greek temple, a waterfall, a bridge, and a bunch of random obelisks, to say nothing of the many awesome crumbling statues and busts (seriously unfortunate looking busts, like the one shown above the previous two paragraphs.  I’m not sure who it was supposed to be, but I think we can assume he was famous for his mind, rather than his looks.  Or they just caught the poor guy on a really bad day, and now he has to bear centuries of mockery).

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Unfortunately, you’re apparently only allowed in the temple on special occasions, so we could only gaze at it from afar (to be honest, it was a little tricky even doing that, as there were a lot of fences in this place.  Presumably to keep dogs out, as there were also a lot of dogs (with their owners, not just random strays or anything).  One of them was even wearing red long johns (they went over all four legs, I’ve never seen that before!)).

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But Mr. Derps-a-lot the lion, and crumbly nose dude probably made up for that.  Plus, you know, all the bosomy sphinxes that were apparently re-creations of the originals, which were made of lead that flaked off.  There was an original just-as-top-heavy sphinx inside the house, so we could see the difference.

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They had signs up telling us how great the camellias inside the conservatory were, so we also went to check those out.  I think most of them were on the turn, though there were a few nice individual flowers that hadn’t yet turned to brown wiltiness.  There’s a camellia plant inside that only exists there and in one place in New Zealand (if that’s the kind of thing that impresses you), and apparently some other rare specimens as well.  The conservatory was bombed during the war, and the collection was subsequently so neglected that everything was half dead in the ’80s, though they managed to revive it in the years since (or so they say; like I said, they were past their prime when we were there, so it was hard to tell whether they’d been brought back from the brink of death or not).

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We also learned inside that the Beatles had shot a couple music videos at Chiswick House, including in front of the Italian garden just outside the conservatory.  I tried to get my boyfriend to do his best Beatles pose next to one of the urns in the garden, but he wasn’t having it.  I think he was afraid of looking like Ringo.

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As far as Chiswick House as a whole goes, I have to say that this was the rare property where I enjoyed the gardens much more than the house.  Not as much as I would have enjoyed them had there been a hedge maze, but I liked that there were so many statues and outbuildings to discover around the property, and also that there wasn’t an unsmiling woman trailing me to make sure I didn’t touch anything (seriously, the lack of volunteers or other friendly people in the house was bizarre and off-putting).  I wouldn’t pay for this one, but the gardens are probably worth walking around if you live nearby and want a bit of exercise (which is clearly what many people do), however, none of it is worth any kind of special trip, even if you can justify stopping at Outsider Tart for a Snickers blondie as part of the excursion.  I won’t quite give it as low of a score as my boyfriend suggested, but it won’t be particularly high either.  2/5.

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