historic homes

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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London: Osterley Park

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Many of you will no doubt be relieved to learn that Osterley Park was the “last hurrah” for my National Trust membership (at least until I travel to a different part of England that is rich enough in National Trust properties to justify the price of membership, because I’ve been to nearly every one in the Southeast).  And I think it was a good one, if for no other reason than because it’s so bloody expensive without a National Trust card.  Not only do they shake you down for £11.50 per adult, they demand an extra £6 for parking from non-members, which, for all that Osterley is part of Greater London, is difficult to avoid, since it’s a good mile and a half from Isleworth Station, which is longer than I wanted to walk on a day as cold as the one we visited, plus we would have ended up paying way more for train fare than gas. (And what’s up with Isleworth being pronounced “Eyes-el worth?”  I’ve learned to just not attempt to say any British place names unless I’ve heard a Brit pronounce them first, so I don’t sound like a moron).  And they check your pass not one, but THREE times.  They’re clearly super worried about people looking at their smelly duck pond without a ticket.

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It’s lucky then, that Osterley looks suitably impressive enough from the outside to sort of justify all the hassle.  Oh, speaking of hassle, this place has the wonkiest arrow signs I’ve ever seen.  The one directing you to the toilets would have cut across an open field to nowhere if you followed it, and the one to the house entrance was equally askew and confusing (oh, and speaking of the toilets…my heart sank when I saw the row of portapotties, but never fear, there are proper toilets just a short walk from those. Which were bizarrely off-puttingly missing soap, but at least they were warm and had running water). Disregarding the sign, we headed up the steps to the most logical house entrance, which fortunately turned out to be the correct one as well.

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And the entrance hall was pretty swanky, all Georgian grandeur and grisaille paintings (I made a special point to remember that term, because usually my knowledge of artistic styles is pretty limited).  The house was designed by Robert Adam, who I think is going to become one of my favourites, because it was very iconically Georgian, right down to the frequent use of arsenical green paint (presumably sans arsenic.  Actually, the green in here is closer to Paris Green than Scheele’s Green, which is more yellowy, but Paris Green was a regency invention, so I’m not sure what this shade is meant to be replicating.  I’m not really a colour expert, so I can’t say.  I just know what I like, and what I like is green paint in a Georgian interior).

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Anyway, Robert Adam was unusual for his time in that he planned out every element of a house, including the furniture, meaning the complete “Adam’s look” was incredibly expensive.  And if the furniture in here was selected by him, and is mostly original, he was big on Chinese chests and screens.  Lots o’ lacquer.  The upstairs rooms actually weren’t much to look at, as they were all undergoing “winter cleaning,” but it got better downstairs.

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We were offered the option of a free audio guide upon entry, but decided to take our chances with those much derided (by me) National Trust binders instead. We’d also read a couple reviews online that mentioned that the house volunteers here were overly chatty, but I didn’t get that at all.  Certainly they were less taciturn than at many other National Trust properties, but that was welcome after the usual awkward silences I encounter in them.  If anything, a few of them could have volunteered more information, especially after they watched me reading the room binders, but maybe it’s not fair of me to expect that, especially when my demeanor often doesn’t invite conversation (I can’t say “demeanor” without picturing Uncle Leo in Seinfeld with his painted-on eyebrows all askew).

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But yeah, the interiors were pretty swell, even if I don’t share the Child family’s love for Oriental art (aside from that urn-dog, below.  He rocks).  The pink and the green of several of the rooms was kind of a weird combination, but I think it worked.  There was also a big emphasis on symmetry, to the extent that the house included false doors in places to balance things out.

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And I am super envious of the Long Gallery.  I work out a lot, always at home, both because I can’t afford a gym, and I have a complex about working out in front of people even if I could, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I could do if I had all that space.  I mean, I could Prancercise in my very own home without strangers laughing at me (yes, it does look stupid, but I’ve tried it a couple times when there was no one in sight, and it is really fun).

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But the very best thing of all (does anyone else automatically fill in “there’s a counter on this ball” after that, or am I dating myself as a Skip-it owning child of the early ’90s?  I had the purple one, which was a total bitch to find, because I was am a spoiled brat) was this game in the Long Gallery, I think called Jesters and a Devil(?) (or something to that effect).  It was a table with wooden pegs lined up on it, and you launched a top (not as easy as it looked) and tried to knock down as many as possible, each peg being worth a different amount of points.  Fortunately, there were no children in sight, so I got to try it out, but only once, as all the other adults visiting were also queued up to use it.  It was that good.  I need to figure out what it was actually called, and if people still make them for a reasonable price, because I want one (even though I don’t have the space for it, not having a long gallery and all).

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My other favourite thing, at least in the upstairs part of the house, was the Etruscan Room, because I can’t get enough of that hand-stencilled wallpaper.  So gorgeous.  The Tapestry Room, as seen below, was also impressive, in a very busy kind of way, but I prefer the cleaner lines and sphinx-like figures of the Etruscan stuff.  They were both part of the wishfully made royal suite that none of the royals ever visited, both because George III was too busy wrestling with his sanity (and those pesky American colonies), and the royals didn’t really travel around the country leeching off the hospitality of their nobles as much as they used to by that point.

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We eventually made our way to the basement, and I was grateful it was much warmer than the rest of the house, as I was freezing my ass off in there (I put gloves on AFTER entering the house).  The basement also somehow seemed bigger than the rest of the house; it just kept going, and was very maze-like (and again suffered from those crappy directional arrows).

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There were quite a few kitcheny rooms, and some slightly swanky offices for the housekeeper, but after having seen the sign for the “Wig and Bum Shop,” I was just biding my time until we made it there.

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Now, the wigs are self-explanatory, but the “bums” are pads that were worn over the backside, so that your derriere puffed out attractively in dresses.  You can see me helpfully demonstrating one in the first picture, above.  There was also a delightful array of wigs to try on (if you don’t mind risking lice, though fingers crossed, my head seems fine so far), and I was waiting impatiently for a teenage girl to leave the room so I could try one on without her judgmental gaze (I do not need young people glaring at me.  I don’t care if I look like a dork, but her blank stare was unnerving).  Eventually I just picked one up, and my obvious uncoolness scared her off, so I was free to pose with wig and bum.  Does it suit me?

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We reluctantly left the relative warmth of the basement for a very quick stroll through the gardens (after having our cards scanned yet again, can’t have anyone sneaking in to see those half-dead winter plants, obviously).

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If the map was to be believed, there were any number of individual gardens out here, from a Tudor walled garden, to an “American garden” featuring American plants which weren’t in bloom in mid-winter, and the “winter garden” which was in bloom, though filled with cameras to catch potential plant thieves (why would you steal a plant, and what exactly would you do with it once you did?  Just walk out of there with a bunch of dirty old roots hanging out of your pocket?!).

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However, it was way too cold and muddy to take the long walk around, so I settled for peering inside this neat little building that turned out to be a kind of “temple” dedicated to Pan.  If anything, the garden could have benefited from more follies.  I mean, surely that’s what any Georgian garden needs to make it REALLY impressive.

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There were also some stables and things with shops in them, and that aforementioned duck pond with a variety of smelly ducks (not knocking water fowl in general, because swans are the only birds I actively dislike, but they really did stink), but the house was most definitely the highlight of the experience.  And it actually did offer up more information than many National Trust properties (plus I didn’t take the audio guide, so there might have been even more available), but I was genuinely too impressed with most of the glorious Georgian interiors to even care that much.  Give me that Jesters and Devil game, and a few wigs to try on, and I’m a happy camper (I have never literally been a happy camper though.  Camping is the worst).  3.5/5, but I have to say it, like I do for every National Trust property: it is way too expensive if you’re not a member, especially with the parking charge thrown in, so please bear that in mind.

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High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: Hughenden Manor

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So, Benjamin Disraeli: two-time Conservative prime minister, dandy, and favourite of Queen Victoria.  Well, that’s what I knew about him going in to Hughenden Manor, and unfortunately, that’s about all I knew after leaving Hughenden as well (the biographical details mentioned in this post that don’t involve actual artefacts come from reading his Wikipedia entry).  I realise most of my National Trust posts start in roughly this way, so I really should have learned by now that if you want to learn more about a person, odds are against you being able to do it somewhere they actually lived – if it’s owned by the National Trust.  Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, Red House and Coleridge Cottage among them, but for the most part, you’d be better off just reading a book (actually, I’d almost always be happier staying home and reading a book than leaving my flat, but I do have this blog to maintain).  Still, I made the effort to go up to Wycombe, so I should at least tell you something about the place, right?

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Well, for starters, it’s got the usual jacked-up National Trust prices.  £11.50, including Gift Aid, to be exact.  The reason I had to visit in the less-than-ideal time of winter is because our membership expires at the end of February, so I’m trying to get some “last hurrah” properties in whilst I can (which is harder than it should be because so many of them close for the winter.  So I STILL didn’t get to see Waddesdon Manor, which is only about half an hour away from Hughenden, because it was closed.  I’m never going to get to taste their damn honey fudge).

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I’m used to the information they provide in these properties being pretty lame, but this was notably REALLY lame.  To the point where even my boyfriend was commenting on its lameness, and he’s normally MUCH more easygoing than I am about these things (not hard to do).  It was just one of those stupid laminated map things, with like one sentence on each room.  I did find a few informational binders here and there, but they were more about the paintings in the rooms than anything to do with the history of the house or the Disraeli family (except in the one room where I actually wanted to know more about the paintings, because there was a portrait of some dishy guy who definitely wasn’t Disraeli or any other obvious Victorian, and there was of course no binder to be found).  And the volunteers just stared at me blankly every time I walked in a room, so they were no help.

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The house consisted of three floors (I was kind of amazed we were allowed on all of them, what with “winter housekeeping” and all), plus a basement, of which more later.  It was a standard Victorian house I guess, but it is probably technically more “Victorian” than most, since Victoria actually visited it and gave Disraeli signed mementos of her and Albert and junk.  She ate in his dining room one time, so Disraeli had the legs of one of his chairs cut off so her feet could touch the floor (you may be able to see it in the picture above.  It’s the chair on the left), which seems to me a bit counterproductive, because then how would she reach the table?  Wouldn’t it have been better to give her a higher chair than normal, and some kind of footstool?  But what do I know, I was never prime minister (twice).

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There was also this ceremonial robe there that kind of proved what a petty jerk Disraeli was (though I probably am too, so…).  It originally belonged to Pitt the Younger, and was passed down through each successive Lord Chancellor, right up until Disraeli.  However, he was pretty salty about Gladstone taking office, especially because Gladstone refused to pay him for some furniture he’d had installed in 11 Downing Street, so he just hung on to it, and Gladstone had to have a new one made, which is apparently the one still used today.  But Disraeli’s spite robe is right here, in Hughenden, where you can attempt to peer at it inside a very dark room (ok, so I may have picked up a couple of pieces of trivia, but not really enough to justify the drive).

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The third floor was surprisingly more spacious than it looked at first glance, with nice views over Disraeli’s estate, and a collection of objects belonging to him arranged in a couple of “museum rooms” that discussed his rise from somewhat humble beginnings (I mean, not really, his father was a historian and he was sent to good schools, but he wasn’t actually nobility or anything) to becoming BFFs with crabby ol’ Victoria.  This floor also showed how egocentric Disraeli must have been; when he first ran for office in Wycombe, he had a special chair made (because that’s what Wycombe is known for) in his colours of pink and white, so his supporters could carry him on their shoulders after he won.  He lost, and the chair ended up here.

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And now to the basement.  One of the reasons I was keen to visit Hughenden (other than Disraeli being a dandy) was because during the Second World War, the house was used as a secret map making headquarters.  The National Trust website made it sound really good, promising me I could “discover more about their secret wartime past” in their “immersive” cellars.  Yeah, well, about that…

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My god, but this was poorly put-together.  I’m still honestly not sure whether the house was used by British Intelligence, or American soldiers, or both, because there was some mention of the US Army, but also something about local artists being brought in.  It was just a display of cheaply laminated pictures with short, vague captions spread out over the hallway and a couple of rooms, with no actual narrative connecting them.  They had some of the cartoons produced by the mapmakers, but there was no good explanation for any of it.  Maybe some things are still classified?!

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The only reason I’m glad I came down here was because that Hitler dartboard inside a facsimile bunker was probably the funniest/best thing in the whole house. There also appeared to be a recreation of a 1940s living room, which may or may not have had authentic smells (it stunk, but I’m not sure if that was intentional, or just basement funk).  I think this part of the house really needs some new signage and re-organisation.

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There are quite a few trails around the property (or so I’m told), and a tea room AND cafe (no millionaire’s shortbread in either though, boo), but it was quite cold when we were there, so we didn’t fancy much walking.  We did check out the “parterre” (a back garden, only pretentious), which was attractive enough, and apparently was designed by Mrs. Disraeli and installed by a crew of navvies that she enjoyed bossing around.  Disraeli had some pet peacocks; his favourite pined itself to death a few days after he died. And there was a very cute fat old lab hanging around one of the trails when we arrived; I kind of wanted to steal her.

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But yeah, the experience in general was not great.  The house was perfectly nice, and I’m assuming must have had some quite interesting stories behind it, but no one shared them with us.  The bits of information that were available, frankly, just made Disraeli seem like an asshole (and they managed that while barely mentioning his politics; his personality was enough to do it).  And the war stuff in the basement also has potential, if they could be bothered to tell us what actually happened here (their website is also incredibly vague, so no help there).  As it stands now, Hughenden is lucky to get a 2.5/5, and that’s really only because the interior was attractive, and there were nice views.  This place needs a lot of work, especially if they actually expect people to pay 11+ quid to see it.

 

 

London: Beyond Beauty; Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt @ Two Temple Place

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I’m not sure how well known Two Temple Place is.  Maybe I’m just out of the loop, and everybody else (the cool kids) knows it’s there, but it somehow managed to escape my attention until just a few weeks ago, even though I used to go to King’s via Temple Station like three times a week.  I mean, it’s right there.  And it has awesome gargoyles all over the outside.  And a golden ship weather vane.  And a bulldog sign hanging out front.

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Two Temple Place was built by American millionaire/robber baron/hotel tycoon William Waldorf Astor in 1895, so it has this fab panelled wood/stained glass neo-Gothic interior, and it’s only open to the public from the end of January-April, when they put on their yearly exhibition.  But when it is open, it’s completely free, which is rad.  This year’s exhibition is all about ancient Egypt, which at first didn’t thrill me (I mean, I thought I’d already seen all there was to see on the subject at the Petrie), but once I got inside the place, I was won over.

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We were greeted at the door by a man who looked oddly familiar.  My boyfriend and I were both trying to place him the whole time we were there, and we didn’t realise that we both recognised him until after we left.  So I don’t know if he was famous, or we both just encountered him at some point in the past (isn’t it annoying when you can’t quite place someone?), but whatever, he took the time to explain the exhibit to us, and also lent us one of their programmes (otherwise I think they were £7.50, but they weren’t really necessary because the objects had fairly detailed captions).  The exhibit was spread out over two floors, with the main gallery in the big hall downstairs, and a couple smaller rooms + gift shop upstairs.

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The Egyptian stuff on the lower level was fine, mostly jewellery and makeup devices (contraptions? accessories? I don’t even know) given that the theme was (beyond) beauty and all, but I found it hard to summon much enthusiasm for it (though I liked the statue of the tattooed lady, and the ship of death).  However, the minute we stepped into the stairwell to head upstairs, I was transfixed by the stained glass roof.  I’m not sure how that survived the Blitz (even if it wasn’t directly hit, you’d think any impact nearby would have shattered it), but jeez.  I wish I was a robber baron and I could build myself shit like this (can I go back in time with the 200 quid in my account and buy a railroad or something?).  I also noticed all the excellent wooden figures on the staircase (apparently characters from The Three Musketeers), and the bulldog statue above the fireplace.  He was so sad (but perhaps that’s just the nature of bulldogs), and reminded me of Garth Williams’s illustrations of Jack the brindle bulldog, from the Little House books.  (I am such a Laura Ingalls Wilder nerd.)

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The best part of the exhibition was actually upstairs, which was useful, as it was also where all the stained glass windows were located.  I love sarcophagi, but I barely ever bother to look at the ones at the British Museum, because you can’t get near them on account of the hordes of tourists.  This is what made me suspect that Two Temple Place is perhaps not particularly well known (granted, it was also about 2 pm on a Monday, but that doesn’t matter to a tourist), because there were only about ten other people there, so I could look at everything for as long as I liked (and take pictures, mummy’s curse be damned (which is perhaps the whole point of a mummy’s curse)).  I gather what they were trying to do with the whole Beyond Beauty concept was to show a different perspective on ancient Egyptian civilisation that wasn’t all about death rituals, but of course the stuff that was directly about death was more interesting than all the beauty accessories (at least to me, but I don’t wear makeup or any of that junk, so I don’t really care about it.  Learning about the tattooed ladies who worshipped Hathor was cool, but then I like tattoos.  And it doesn’t hurt that Hafthor is my favourite competitor in the World’s Strongest Man, and his name sounds a lot like Hathor.  I like to yell it whilst pumping my fist in the air. HAFTHOR!!!!).

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There were a lot of cool artefacts, but I have to make a special point to tell you about Titus, because he was my favourite.  See that gold mask on the right, just above this paragraph?  That was made for a Roman citizen named Titus (surname not Andronicus, sadly enough) living in Egypt, who decided he wanted to be buried in the traditional Egyptian fashion (even though the Egyptians had adopted some artistic styles from the Greeks and Romans by then, so more realistic portraiture was available).  Please zoom in on his face if you can, because he has the most amazing/hilarious expression, and his eyelashes are pretty cool (I’m not sure what they were made of, but it was a different material than the rest of the mask.  Papyrus?).  I was quite taken with him, and I bought a postcard of him from the gift shop.

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I was also very taken with the cows in the stained glass window, but I have a special love for slightly derpy farm animals that has withstood being snubbed by baby goats at the Texas State Fair.

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And that foot covering that actually looks like feet?!  How awesome is that?!  I don’t know, I was obviously quite impressed with the stuff they’d dug up/borrowed from other museums for this exhibit.  I’m running out of things to say about it really, but I want you to see how neat this stuff was, so here’s some more pictures.

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And also the house itself was stupidly attractive (if you’re into lots of wood).  They apparently host events like weddings, as some woman and her mother were being taken around by a staff member, which was rather annoying as they just stood there talking loudly about the facilities available right in front of one of the cases I was trying to look at.

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Annoying future bride aside, I really enjoyed this place.  It’s worth popping in just to have a look at the house, and the free exhibition is a nice bonus.  I guess it’s lucky that the exhibit happens to be quite cool as well (Titus!); I learned some stuff, and I’d definitely recommend it if you’re going to be in London at some point before May (but not on a Tuesday, it’s closed then).  I know people call places “hidden gems” or whatever all the time, and then you go there and everyone else in London is there too, but they really do seem to manage to keep this place on the down-low, and good for them (and I definitely don’t have a big enough audience to risk spoiling that).  Check it out, you’ll like it, especially if you like the ancient Egyptians.  Or late Victorian architecture.   4/5.

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