history

Malton, North Yorkshire: Eden Camp

The final stop on our brief tour of the North before I mercifully got to go home and sleep in my own bed was Eden Camp, located just outside Malton. Eden Camp was the reason we had to stay in that horrible hotel in Malton (well, we could have stayed somewhere nicer if everywhere else hadn’t been booked up), but I won’t hold that against it. Though booking in advance was no longer strictly required at the time of our visit, I did so anyway to ensure we could get in without any difficulty. Tickets are £12, and you just book a pass for the day you want to visit, no need to pick a specific time slot.

  

Eden Camp is a WWII POW camp built in 1942 for Italian prisoners who had been captured in North Africa, but it held German POWs as well from 1944 until 1948 when the last prisoners were finally released. The huts where the prisoners lived had become completely derelict by the 1980s, when they were purchased by a man named Stan Johnson (not Boris Johnson’s father. A quick glance at his photo was more than enough to confirm that) who eventually converted them into the museum that exists today. Although most of the employees were in costume, it’s not really a living history museum; rather, each of the huts has been converted into its own little museum, covering topics ranging from World Wars I and II (of course) and the role of the British Army in various 20th century wars, to 1940s fashion and entertainment.

  

We were greeted by a very friendly lady in a guard hut just outside the entrance who handed us a map of the site, and a guy dressed as a British WWII soldier showed us where to park. There are about thirty huts on the site, in addition to a children’s playground and café, and the map instructed us to start at Hut No 1, so we did. We assumed we were meant to see the huts in numerical order, but after getting stuck in a queue behind slow moving people for ages in Hut 1, we were itching to go off piste, but hesitated for fear of getting yelled at by one of the soldier staff members. However, as more people arrived (for once, we came very early in the day, just after opening) and the queuing situation got even worse, one of the “soldiers” approached us and let us know we could see them in any order, and you didn’t have to tell us twice! We’d probably still be stuck there waiting otherwise! However, if you do see the huts out of sequence, it might be useful to cross them off on the map as you visit each one. We didn’t do this and totally lost track of what we’d seen and what we hadn’t, and I think we may have ended up skipping a hut or two.

 

The first thing I noticed about the huts (other than how cold they were on the day we visited – the huts are neither heated nor air conditioned, so do dress accordingly depending on the weather) were the fabulous mannequins. Nearly every hut had numerous groupings of mannequins arranged into tableaux, and I could not have loved them more. Some of the huts were also quite atmospheric, like one that was meant to be the inside of a submarine, complete with sound effects, fog, and a moving floor. Another told the story of the Great Escape, and had tunnelling mannequins that rather hilariously rode back and forth along the floor on little train tracks. The huts even included another one of my loves – authentic smells! Some of them were so bad I was grateful for my mask (masks did not seem to be required, and only about half the visitors were wearing them, but some of the huts were quite crowded and I felt much more comfortable with it on), but they nonetheless enhanced the experience.

 

Much as I loved the special effects of the themed huts, my favourite hut was probably the one that told the stories of the POWs that lived at the camp, including toys and other things the men had made whilst staying there. Apparently, one of the German prisoners was a blacksmith, and he was asked to make a pair of “fire dogs” by one of the guards. Not understanding what they were, he literally made a pair of iron dachshunds (the signage made sure to point out that they were dachshunds) and these were utterly charming (other than the fact that they were made by a Nazi, of course). Another prisoner had drawn a series of cartoons about life at the camp, which were also quite funny. The German POWs in particular were generally accepted by the local community, probably helped by them being white Europeans from a similar culture. Local families would invite some of the men over for dinner, and some of them ended up marrying local women and staying in the area. However, although conditions at the camp weren’t anywhere near as bad as those at some of the camps in other countries, the barracks the men stayed in looked fairly grim and had to be absolutely freezing in winter (given how cold it was in summer there) so I’m sure it wasn’t all a bed of roses (but do Nazi prisoners deserve a bed of roses? Nope).

 

I also really enjoyed the 1940s fashion street scene and some of the displays in the entertainment hut. Anything that was a break from the military was a relief, as there were a LOT of army-related huts, and they got a little samey after a while, particularly the ones about wars later in the 20th century. In terms of the non-museum huts, I was a bit disappointed to see that the café just seemed to have not particularly appealing looking standard British café fayre. Not that I particularly wanted to eat marg and potato scones with carrot jam or anything, but it would have been nice if they had something a bit more authentic to match the rest of the experience. However, the toilets, despite also being located in a hut, were surprisingly nice!

 

On the whole, I actually really enjoyed my experience at Eden Camp. I will say that there was far too much text to even attempt to try to read it all, and like many WWII museums, it erred a bit on the side of excusing the behaviour of the Nazis who stayed at the camp (a “just following orders” mentality). Also, despite having a section on the Holocaust, they still had a Hitler mannequin that veered a bit too far into comedy territory, and I’m not keen on glorification of the military in general, which was a major theme throughout. However, even with the caveats, Eden Camp was still probably the highlight of the trip apart from the ice cream in Ripley, though that perhaps says more about the rest of the holiday than the quality of Eden Camp. 3.5/5.

North Yorkshire: The Good, the Bad, and the Meh; A Tale of Three Captain Cook Museums

I know that Captain Cook is problematic for a number of reasons, not least for the negative impact his “discoveries” had on pretty much every indigenous population he encountered, but I have to admit that I find his voyages absolutely fascinating. Ever since reading Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes, I have wanted to visit the Cook museums in North Yorkshire, which include the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Marton, the Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre in (you guessed it) Staithes, and the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby (there’s also the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum in Ayton, but that wasn’t open at the time of our visit). Because we are gluttons for punishment, we decided to do all of these museums in one day (along with Durham Town Hall, which we visited that morning). Fortunately, all the museums had eliminated their pre-booking requirement by then, which made the logistics of the day a lot easier. I’m not going to give very much background on Cook’s voyages in this post, since I’ve done that in various earlier posts, but will instead focus on the content of the museums.

  

The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum was the closest to Durham, so that’s where we started. There may be parking closer to the museum that we didn’t see, but we followed the signs and were directed into a carpark in a field next to a funfair. We ended up having to walk about half a mile across the field to reach the museum (Tony Horwitz also describes a trek across a “soggy field” so I suppose that was the closest carpark. We were lucky to be visiting in July, because the field was refreshingly green and dewy rather than soggy), where we were greeted by the large moai statue perched in front of the museum. I felt a bit apprehensive about entering because of all the noise coming from inside the building as we approached the admissions desk to pay our £4 entry fee, but it transpired that it was only the museum café that was busy – we were the only visitors in the museum, which made for a very pleasant experience indeed.

  

There isn’t much to tell about James Cook’s childhood in Marton, mainly because it’s not well-documented historically, but that didn’t stop the museum from putting together a tableau of a young Cook and his mother in their cottage kitchen, complete with pre-recorded dialogue in amusingly strong Yorkshire accents, and a dish of some truly disgusting looking fake stew. The cottage where he was born no longer stands, having been destroyed in the 1780s due to its already derelict state. The family only lived in the cottage until Cook was eight; they moved to Ayton in 1736, which was where Cook was educated in the village school.

  

Since the information on Cook’s early life is so limited, the museum quickly moved on to his later life, from his move to Whitby, early career in the Navy, and finally, to his three voyages of exploration, with a different room devoted to each. Despite the many typos I uncovered on the museum signs (especially with dates – at one point they claimed the house where Cook lived in Whitby was built in 1865, nearly a century after he died! I think they meant 1685, and someone had neglected to proofread thoroughly before printing), this was by far the most interesting of the three museums. They didn’t have many original artefacts (most of the objects in the museum were facsimiles), but they had a lot of objects generally, not to mention a healthy supply of mannequins. They even had a video showing you how to do a Yorkshire-themed haka, which was fun, if a bit too long.

 

In addition to Cook, the museum also had a small gallery on other adventurers from the local area, including Gertrude Bell, Katherine Maria Pease Routledge, and most interestingly to me, Frank Wild, who was a veteran of multiple Shackleton Antarctic expeditions. In another nearby field, there is an urn marking the probable location of Cook’s birthplace, and you can buy a DIY cardboard replica of the cottage in the shop (we got it mainly because it said Cleveland on it). Although it may not have gone far enough in discussing the devastating effect Cook’s voyages would ultimately have on the people he encountered, this was by far the best of the three museums, so it’s a bit of a shame we started the day with it, as I’m a great believer in saving the best for last.

 

Although we were both already a little museumed-out after taking the time to thoroughly peruse our first two museums of the day (counting Durham Town Hall), and we did discuss skipping Staithes and heading straight to Whitby, I was stupidly won over by the hyperbole on northyorkmoors.org.uk, which insisted “You really should seek out this fantastic visitor attraction.” OK! We eventually found a space in the carpark in Staithes, which was crowded because no cars are allowed in the village proper, which is located at the bottom of an exceedingly steep cobblestone hill.

  

The Staithes Heritage Centre is fortunately free, because I would have been even more annoyed by the experience if we’d actually paid for it – as it was, I was pissed off enough that I had to walk up and down a giant steep hill for this. Tony Horwitz mentioned the re-creation of William Sanderson’s shop, where Cook worked for a whole eight months as a shop assistant after leaving Ayton at the age of 17, which is partially what sold me on visiting, but the “1745 life-size street scene of Cook’s time in Staithes” is right at the start of the museum (and holds an actual shop – this small museum has not one, but two gift shops, which should tell you something about their priorities) and when I stopped outside it to wait for the man in front of me to finish reading the sign so I could have a better look, the woman at the front desk rather testily asked me if I needed help with something, so I felt like I was being moved along, and gave up on the “street scene” to head upstairs to see the “huge collection of exhibits from Cook’s life”.

  

I won’t deny that it is a “huge collection” relative to the amount of space that contained it, but my god was it just a load of crap. Picture a room crammed with the most worthless ephemera, including newspaper clippings related to Staithes, model ships, prints, 20th century Cook memorabilia, and terrible paintings by local artists. If there were any original artefacts, they would have been impossible to spot amongst the piles of tat. Even the allegedly “artisan gift shop” didn’t contain any products that I would consider living up to that description, so after reluctantly walking a bit further down the hill to see the sea (grey and depressing), we laboriously climbed back up the giant hill and headed straight for Whitby.

 

We had been to Whitby about eleven years ago, but neglected to visit any museums on that visit, possibly on account of the awful weather. Unfortunately, this visit had even more awful weather. It was lovely and sunny in Marton, but by the time we got to Whitby, the wind had picked up and it started absolutely pissing it down, so we made a run for the Captain Cook Memorial Museum. This was by far the most expensive museum of the day, at £7 (though they also have the fanciest website, so at least you can see where the money is going I guess), and unfortunately also the most crowded, as two other groups who were presumably also attempting to shelter from the storm came in right behind us, and we found several more groups ahead of us. The museum didn’t appear to have any particular rules about Covid safety, as we were all just crammed into this relatively small house (some of the groups not wearing masks), and one of the volunteers proudly announced that he had just closed the windows since it was raining in, which goes against all the rules at the museum where I work (we are required to have ventilation, to the extent of sitting freezing in my office with open windows in the winter, and just letting it rain in all over the listed woodwork when it’s storming (we go around sopping up the water with rags at the end of the day)), so I wasn’t feeling particularly comfortable in here.

  

This house (which was indeed built in 1685) was owned by Cook’s master, Quaker shipowner James Walker, and was where Cook lived from 1746 until 1755, when he went off to sea, so this is the only one of the buildings we saw that day where Cook had actually lived. The family were quite fond of him, to the point where the maid forgot her formal Quaker ways and referred to him as “James, honey” when he returned to visit after one of his voyages. This museum focused more on the scientific aspects of his voyages (the first one was meant to be recording the transit of Venus), and did contain some original artefacts, though the bits of Cook’s correspondence on view were only facsimiles. They still made for interesting reading, but my favourite part was the special exhibition in the attic on that dishy Joseph Banks, which we sadly weren’t allowed to photograph.

  

Had I not seen the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, or been crammed into a stuffy house with so many maskless people, I think I might have enjoyed the Cook Museum in Whitby a bit more, but as it was, I was not particularly impressed, especially with the £7 admission fee, as the Birthplace Museum had easily three times the amount of content and much more pleasant surroundings. I also think (as you may have guessed from the “Memorial Museum” part of the name) that they glorified Cook even more than the Birthplace Museum did, the Birthplace Museum at least having made a significant effort to describe the cultures of the indigenous people Cook encountered. There is also meant to be a Cook collection in the Whitby Museum (and a hand of glory!), but we were so sick of museums and getting rained on by this point that we just huddled in a doorway eating some chips before heading off on what was probably my most important expedition of the day: procuring Bram(ble) Stoker ice cream.

 

As you may know, Whitby is the setting for Dracula, and a meeting place for goths. The only part of my visit eleven years ago that I really enjoyed was eating a scoop of Bram(ble ) Stoker ice cream (blackberry ice cream with white chocolate chips. The flavour is delicious, but I’m really in it for the name). Marcus had taken a picture of me eating my ice cream outside the shop, which made it easy to spot, and though the exterior has changed, the shop is still there, and I was thrilled(!) to see they still had Bram(ble) Stoker ice cream, so you better believe I stood out in the freezing rain and ate it (I also may have died at this point, because I appear to be a ghost in all the remaining photographs of that day). Having completed my mission, we ran back to the car and headed straight for our (incredibly grim) hotel in Malton (not to be confused with Marton). I am glad to have finally seen these museums after reading about them years ago, but the only one I think was worth the effort was the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum. Definitely skip Staithes, and only bother with Whitby’s Cook Museum if you’re hiding from the weather (which is apparently always awful there, because if it’s not warm at the end of July, when is it warm? I can see why James Cook got the hell out as soon as he could).

Beamish, County Durham: Beamish Museum

I know I said in my last post that I didn’t really know why we settled on Durham as the destination of our first holiday since 2019, but actually, Jozef Boruwlaski was obviously a factor, as was Beamish Museum. Based on lots of past experience, I know that living history museums are very hit or miss. When they’re good (Blists Hill), they’re so much fun, but when they’re bad (Hale Farm, where I did a short-lived internship many years ago), they’re dismal. Beamish bills itself as “the living museum of the North” and is one of the largest open air museums in England, as well as the first regional open air museum (meaning that it focuses on the history and culture of the North East rather than having buildings from all over the country).

 

At the time we visited, you had to pre-book a timed arrival slot in advance, so I booked a couple of weeks in advance to ensure we didn’t miss out. Tickets are £19.50, and the booking procedure is slightly complicated, as you have to book both a timed slot and a pass as separate entities, but I figured it out in the end. I was a bit annoyed with the weather forecast for this trip, because it was meant to be cold and rainy, and I had packed accordingly, but our first two days up north were actually super warm and sunny, and you know I would have worn a cute 1940s dress to waltz around in the 1940s town if I’d have known. As it was, I had to settle for an overall style jumpsuit and t-shirt ensemble that probably made me look more equipped to work in the pit town, but whatever.

  

We were slightly dismayed when we arrived to find ourselves standing in a massive queue directly under a hot sun broiling down on us in defiance of the weather report, but at least there were amusing signs written in “Northern” (Geordie maybe? I don’t know what a Durham accent is officially called, but it sounds fairly Geordie to me, and Beamish is located about halfway between Newcastle and Durham) to entertain us whilst we waited, to say nothing of the various dogs accompanying our fellow visitors. Fortunately, the line moved fairly quickly, and we soon found ourselves inside the massive expanse of Beamish.

 

There is a Routemaster bus that will take you between the various historical villages, but there was a huge queue at every single bus stop, so we opted to walk (plus a Routemaster isn’t exactly Northern. According to its sign, it stops in Aldwych, so I joked that we should hop in it and go back to London). It’s not all that far from one village to another, but you will end up doing a lot of walking by the end of the day, so make sure to wear comfy shoes (I actually was, for once, since I thought it might be too muddy for sandals with all the rain we were meant to get. Of course everything was bone dry, so I had hot, sweaty feet for no reason). We started with the first village chronologically which was an 1820s one whose main attraction was “Puffing Billy”, a replica of the earliest surviving steam locomotive. Of course, like everything else at Beamish, we were faced with a big ol’ queue to ride it, and since they were only allowing four groups on the train at a time, we really could not be bothered to wait. It only rode a short way down the tracks and back again anyway, so it was probably almost as fun just watching (i.e. not very).

  

This village had a few other buildings, including a church and a manor house that you could enter. Because of Covid, the site still wasn’t fully operational, so there weren’t many interpreters about (not a problem for me, since I find interacting with them super awkward anyway), though there was a man sitting at a table in the manor house whittling a spoon. He didn’t really explain why, but then again, we didn’t ask. All along the path up to the house (which was up a steep hill), we had seen fake historical posters advertising a really big pig, and the only thing that convinced me to climb the hill was the promise of a big pig at the top, so of course I was going to be very annoyed if I didn’t see one. Actually, there were two pigs, though they were more of the ugly hog variety than the cute pink curly tailed kind, and they weren’t unusually large. After those posters, I was expecting more of a Wilbur situation, with a “Some Pig” spiderweb above his head (oh god, now I’m going to end up crying if I think about poor Charlotte).

  

En route to the Victorian town, which is apparently actually a 1900s town, and was clearly meant to be the highlight of the whole affair, we passed a 1950s town that was under construction, which will include some ugly pre-fab houses and a chippy once it is completed. The 1900s town was the most town-like in terms of the experience, as they had a working bakery and sweetshop you could go into. Again, the queues were very long, so we just went into the bakery, because you can get boiled sweets anywhere. The bakery had a surprisingly large variety of old-timey things, and even more surprisingly, only a few of them contained loathsome raisins, so I had a nice raisin-free selection to choose from. I ended up with a jam and coconut sponge (because I felt like it was more old-timey than the lemon drizzle Marcus got) and a Victoria cream biscuit. The sponge tasted nice, but it was very dry (and nowhere near as delicious as the bakery from Blists Hill), and I was absolutely dying for a cup of tea, which, oddly for a British attraction, was absolutely nowhere in sight, so I just had to choke it down. I saved the biscuit for later, and it was also nice, but so greasy it had made the bag it was in completely see-through, which was a bit off-putting (I’m not on Dr. Nick’s weight-gain diet).

 

Because some of the shops were still closed, they had set up a series of tents outside where you could buy Edwardian merchandise, and having finally spied a suffragette sash for a reasonable price (£13.50. They used to have some at the Museum of London, but they were almost £100!) you better believe I bought one, and put it on and marched around singing “Votes for Women, step in time” as soon as I got back home. There was also a drugstore and photography shop, but unlike Blists Hill, you couldn’t dress up in Victorian clothes and have your photo taken, so we skipped those too due to the wait. We did go in a couple of the terraced houses at the end of the village, but they were underwhelming, and I was put off by the maskless, shirtless, beet-fleshed teenagers who were in there with us. We did finally discover a tearoom down this end, but having long since swallowed all my cake by this point, I wasn’t inclined to queue for hours for a tea. There was also a pub, but guess what? Yep, massive queue.

  

Just outside 1900s town was a funfair, but it seemed to be aimed pretty squarely at children, so we didn’t even bother walking in, other than to get a picture of the creepy clowns on the helter skelter (I always forget what British people call them and end up calling them “Curly Wurlys” or “Topsy Turvys” before I think of the right term, though the former is of course a chocolate bar, and not even one I particularly like). I really needed a wee by this point (despite not drinking any tea), but having passed the “Ladies Waiting Room” in the train station because I didn’t think you could actually go inside, I was forced to use a busy one near some heavy machinery up a hill, and it was dis-gus-ting. I still shudder thinking about it, especially the cherry pit someone had thoughtfully spit out in the sink that was just bobbing around in there.

 

Having survived the horrors of the modern but gross toilet, we walked up the hill to the 1940s wartime farm. The most entertaining thing about the farm was the chickens, one of whom had escaped her pen and was just wandering around pecking at stuff. Otherwise, it was just a collection of smelly barns with not much in them, and a grim stone-floored cottage whose toilet still looked more pleasant than the one I had just used.

  

Finally, we headed to the 1900s pit village and colliery. Like much of the North, this region was once home to many coal mines and the small museum of coal mining in one of the buildings here was one of the more interesting parts of Beamish, as there wasn’t a whole lot of signage elsewhere. There were also a few more houses, a church, and a school where loads of noisy children were playing the stick and hoop game out back. I was initially excited by the coal-fired chippy, but again, the apparently hour-long queue (according to the sign outside) was enough to stop me from even considering being a bad vegetarian and eating dripping-cooked chips. I was pleasantly surprised that we could actually go into what I think were the winding engine house and heapstead, which had excellent views of the pit village, though disappointed to learn that they normally have a mine that wasn’t open to the public yet when we visited. I’m always up for putting on a hard hat and crawling into a dark pit.

  

By this point we were fairly tired from all the walking and we’d seen everything that didn’t involve a massive queue, so we decided to head up to Hartlepool (home of the “Monkey Hangers” because they literally hanged a poor monkey during the Napoleonic wars, which is not something I’d be bragging about. They have a monkey trail dotted around the coastal path with little monkey statues on the markers) so we could have an ice cream and chips that weren’t cooked in dripping. As you can probably tell, I was definitely disappointed by Beamish, both because it wasn’t fully reopened yet, and because of the giant queues at anything of interest. They were allegedly limiting numbers at the time of our visit, so I hate to think what it’s like normally (though in fairness, we were there during the first week of summer holidays, which I’m sure is busier than most other times). It wasn’t quite as bad as our Black Country Living Museum experience, but it was certainly no Blists Hill. 3/5, mainly because I like my sash and I’m a sucker for a ye olde bakery, even though the cake was (probably authentically) dry.

Durham: Durham Cathedral and Town Hall

Like many people, I had not been anywhere on holiday since December 2019 (and even then, it was just visiting my family in Cleveland for Christmas, which I wouldn’t really call a holiday). With rules and requirements changing by the day back in July, Marcus and I were still uneasy about travelling outside the country, but with us both fully vaccinated, a trip within Britain certainly seemed doable. Inexplicably, we somehow decided that Durham would be the site of our first overnight trip in over a year and a half (maybe we just had Barnard Castle on the brain, which is not all that far away from Durham), and with train travel providing (what felt like to me) an unacceptable amount of exposure to other people, we set out on a six hour car journey early one morning in late July.

  

I was very much hoping to stop at Betty’s Tea Rooms in Harrogate on the way, but we got there around lunchtime, and when we drove past in search of parking, we could see that the queue wrapped around the block, so we didn’t even bother to stop the car. However, just outside Harrogate, a sign reading “World Famous Ripley Ice Cream” caught my eye. If you want to know how to get my attention, just combine the words “world famous” and “ice cream”. Despite their claims, I had never actually heard of Ripley or their ice cream before in my life, but we stopped in this quaint village for a much needed toilet break and some of that famous ice cream from a small, but busy shop. I’m still not sure about the “world famous”, but it was very good ice cream (they even had three flavours of soft serve you could swirl together, in addition to hard ice cream) and I would definitely stop again (I regret not stopping on the way home, but we went a different route and it wasn’t on our way). Thus satiated, we headed straight up to Durham, and got there much earlier than anticipated, thanks to not stopping in Harrogate. We had been planning to see the cathedral the following morning, but as they were still open for a few hours when we arrived, we decided instead to head straight there and check into our hotel afterwards.

 

A lot of the North is very damn hilly, and Durham was no exception. We huffed and puffed up multiple flights of stairs when leaving the carpark, followed by a climb up a hill to reach the cathedral. Durham Cathedral is apparently the first “stone-roofed cathedral in Europe”. Construction started in 1093, and was mostly finished by 1133, so it is pretty damn old. It is mainly notable for being home to the prince-bishops, bishops who, due to Durham being a difficult-to-control buffer zone between England and Scotland, were given the right in 1075 to rule over the surrounding region, including the ability to raise an army, levy taxes, and mint coins. Perhaps most excitingly, the cathedral is also the place where the Venerable Bede and St Cuthbert are buried, and I’d certainly heard plenty about the former in the Anglo-Saxon history classes I took as an undergrad (hands up if you initially thought his first name was “Venerable”. Yep, me too). The cathedral is still an active place of worship, and entrance is technically free, though they will hit you up hard for donations once you get inside (it’s difficult to resist when you’re forced to speak to someone at an admissions desk who practically nudges the card reader towards you).

 

Bede’s tomb is one of the first tombs you’ll see. It’s located in a little chapel that was the only place women were allowed to visit when the cathedral was a monastery (pre-Henry VIII). This chapel was hosting a “sound and light installation” when we visited that basically just made it hard to see Bede’s tomb and hard to hear the volunteer who was trying to give us information about the chapel, so I certainly wouldn’t rush there on account of it. Following that, we had to pass the stern admissions/donations lady who mentioned that there was a “tour” of the cathedral about to begin that included the chance to climb up 325 steps to the tower for only £5.50. I don’t know why we never seem to learn our lesson when it comes to climbing steps, but Marcus was obviously keen, and though I knew we would regret it, I didn’t want to deprive him of the opportunity, so I agreed.

  

And so we found ourselves climbing 325 slippery and winding stone steps. Climbing up wearing a mask was bad enough, since as soon as I started breathing heavily it sucked the mask into my mouth so that I couldn’t breathe, but I was loath to pull it down after the old man behind us removed his mask and started hacking up a lung the entire way to the top. I’m sure it was just from the exertion of climbing (and I’m not sure why he didn’t turn back after the first hundred steps when he was very obviously struggling. We were genuinely concerned he was going to drop dead, but he was with his teenage granddaughter, and she didn’t seem overly concerned, so maybe he does it all the time) but it was still not pleasant, so I ended up rushing to the top much faster than I would have liked to get away from him. The views were fine and all, but in my opinion not worth how sick I felt after practically running up the steps whilst not really being able to breathe, or worth paying £5.50. If anything, the way down was almost worse, because I have what is apparently a selective fear of heights that only really activates on stairs or ladders, and I had this horrible mental picture the whole way down of me tripping and smashing my head on 325 stone steps all the way to the bottom. It was not a fun time, but I made it without falling.

 

Now, since the woman who sold us the tickets had mentioned a “tour”, I assumed we were supposed to meet up with a tour guide at some point, but the admissions woman didn’t give us any specific instructions, nor was there anyone waiting to meet us when we came down the steps (and she was very clear that we had to climb the steps at exactly the time we climbed them, I guess to make sure traffic was one-way, so we couldn’t have missed them), so we just pressed on and explored the rest of the cathedral on our own. We did, however, encounter a tour group walking around about fifteen minutes later, so maybe that’s the one we were meant to join? Frankly, given my history with guided tours, I would have paid £5.50 NOT to have to go on it, so I wasn’t at all bothered, but you might want to ask more follow-up questions of the admissions woman than we did if you would like to go. As it was, we visited St. Cuthbert’s chapel, where I lit some candles for my grandparents (I don’t believe in it, but they did, so I do it for them) and checked out some of the tombs and weird contemporary sculpture – my favourite feature of the cathedral was the giant clock pictured a few paragraphs above this one. I did try to find the grave of Jozef Boruwlaski, who is buried here (more on him later) but had no luck.

  

The cathedral is meant to be home to a museum, currently accessible by guided tour only, but no one mentioned it to us (I only knew about it from their website), so I assume there weren’t any tours available, unless that was the tour we were meant to go on. So, we just visited the shop to get a few postcards and headed back down the hill to get the bags from our car and then back up the hill to get to our hotel. On the way, we encountered a man who rudely stuck his arm out when we apparently got too close and yelled at us to “stay away” (we do generally give people a wide berth in these Covid times, but he and his wife were walking really far apart and taking up the whole pavement, so the only way around was through. Also, he was not even wearing a mask, so maybe that should be his first step if he’s really that worried about it, instead of being a dick to strangers). This, plus the hills and the fact that the restaurant I wanted to visit was closed on a Monday (which was not mentioned on their website) and the only restaurants that were open on a Monday were super gross, so I had to eat horrible unsalted soggy chips for dinner, soured me pretty quickly on Durham, but we were spending two nights there, so I did end up seeing a bit more of the city in the form of the Town Hall.

 

The Town Hall is actually one of the reasons Durham has been on our must-visit list for a while. Way back in 2009, I wrote my master’s thesis on constructions of dwarfism in 18th century England (yeah, that served me well in the jobs market) based on the writings of William Hay, Alexander Pope, and Jozef Boruwlaski. Jozef was born with a form of dwarfism in Poland in 1739, and his small stature quickly attracted the attention of the Polish aristocracy. Various aristocrats “adopted” him (definitely not as nice as that makes it sound) and Jozef travelled with them around Europe. He eventually married and had his patronage from the King of Poland withdrawn for earning money by performing music whilst in England (the King heard exaggerated reports of how much money Jozef was making and decided he didn’t need the King’s money anymore, which wasn’t true), so, forced to find another source of income, he ended up settling in Durham, where he composed his memoirs in 1820. He died in 1837, and as I mentioned earlier, is buried in the cathedral, though good luck finding his grave. However, all was not lost, because the Town Hall is home to his violin, one of his suits, a life-size statue of him, and a handful of other personal possessions.

  

The Town Hall is currently only open Wednesday-Saturday, so we headed there on a rainy morning just before leaving Durham (and believe me, I could not wait to leave). Entrance is free, and they’re not real pushy about donations like the cathedral are. They are seemingly really proud of Jozef Boruwlaski being a Durham resident, with a ten minute introductory video on him featuring a song about him written by a local band, and of course the display case holding his suit and violin, and his statue. After spending so much time studying him years ago, it was nice to finally see some of his artefacts in person, though I do feel bad that it still felt a bit like gawking, given how much he hated being forced to exhibit himself for money when he was alive.

  

Durham Town Hall also features a cool medieval hall lined with the names and portraits of its mayors and honorary mayors (the ubiquitous Bill Bryson is one of those) and some cracking stained glass, and a council meeting room with a crest from a Durham warship hanging on the wall that features “a gruesome severed leg…a reference to the ship’s namesake Richard Witherington” who fought in a local battle against the Scots. Apparently his lower legs were chopped off and he carried on fighting on his knees. There was also a small room full of portraits by a local artist. The best one was of a cat.

  

Although small, the Town Hall was probably my favourite part of Durham. The cathedral was undeniably beautiful, but despite my very Catholic childhood, my atheist adult self feels kind of uncomfortable in religious spaces, particularly as a vicar read the Lord’s Prayer over a loudspeaker twice when we were there and encouraged everyone to join her (years of being forced to attend church meant I followed along in my head against my will, though the Catholic version goes on for quite a bit longer than the Anglican one if you include the stuff the priest says at the end). The city itself is pretty, but there’s none of the things I consider essentials, i.e. artisan bakeries or ice cream shops, or much else apart from the same crappy chains you get in every English city. At least now that I’ve seen it, I never have to go back, so that’s a plus (we did skip the castle, but I can live with that). More on the rest of our trip in the weeks to come!

London: Grinling Gibbons 300 @ Bonhams

I’ve always been slightly intimidated by the big London auction houses, and have generally stayed away for fear that someone would shout “pleb!” as soon as I walked through the door and have me thrown out, so I honestly didn’t realise that they sometimes put on exhibitions. However, Bonhams had been advertising their free Grinling Gibbons exhibition so widely that I couldn’t help but take note, and I was intrigued enough by this display commemorating the tercentenary of the amazingly skilled wood carver’s death to brave New Bond Street (just off the once again dreadful Oxford Street, now that tourists have returned), where their showrooms are headquartered.

 

The exhibition only ran for a few weeks, and Marcus and I ended up not having a chance to see it until its last day open, which was last week and also happened to be my birthday, so we were planning on doing stuff in central London that day anyway. Despite my fears, Bonhams was actually super chill, much chiller than most museums! Instead of being subjected to a bag search and having to pre-book tickets, we just strolled in off the street completely unquestioned and were free to look around without anyone bothering us. We had a lunch reservation that afternoon, and we weren’t anticipating that the exhibition would be very large, so we had only budgeted about half an hour to look around. First impressions seemed to confirm our presuppositions, as there were only a handful of artworks in a corner of the ground floor showroom, most of which were pretty impressive (even the creepy lobster), but they were all new and thus obviously not carved by Gibbons. However, we quickly discovered that the exhibition proper was actually located on the second floor, and headed upstairs to check it out.

 

As soon as we entered, I questioned whether half an hour would be enough. The exhibition filled a large gallery, and featured more text and artefacts than some exhibitions I’ve paid to see, so I was instantly impressed. Grinling Gibbons was a sculptor and wood carver active in the late 17th and early 18th centuries who was best known for his incredibly intricate and lifelike carvings. He was born in the Netherlands to English parents (his unusual name is apparently a portmanteau of two family names, poor guy) in the mid 17th century, and there’s not much known about his early life, other than that he was educated in Holland and had moved to England by the time he was in his early 20s. He was basically “discovered” in his studio in Deptford by the diarist John Evelyn (who you may remember also lived in Deptford until Peter the Great trashed his house…it’s a long story) in 1671, and ended up working for the royal family. You can still see his carvings today in various churches, palaces, and stately homes, including Hampton Court, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Petworth House.

  

The highlight of the exhibition was definitely the cravat that belonged to the wonderfully flamboyant Horace Walpole, owner of Strawberry Hill House, who liked to trick his guests with it at parties. It was carved out of limewood, which is white when fresh, so it would have actually looked just like a lace cravat when Walpole wore it. There were also pieces by modern artists in this gallery, and I loved the prosthetic legs carved to resemble Victorian boots, though I can’t imagine they’re the most practical for walking.

  

I also really loved the heads of Charles I and Charles II, where you can see Gibbons’ skill for portraiture, particularly in Charles II, who has had his paint stripped off so you can appreciate the beauty of the carving. The exhibition had very detailed signage throughout, including large text panels on Gibbons’ life, which were very interesting and much appreciated. I’m certainly no expert in wood carving, and it was also nice to learn the provenance of the pieces – when you think about it, it’s not surprising an auction house would be skilled at this. I just wish all museums were this thorough with their labels!

 

Although I didn’t have quite as much time to look around as I would have liked, I still got to see everything and quickly read all of the text, and it ended up being a great way to spend a small chunk of my birthday. I also enjoyed having a quick peek at some of the high end items up for auction in the downstairs gallery, including some amazing terracotta lions (est. £20,000-30,000) and a gun that belonged to Tipu Sultan (I think of Tipu’s Tiger fame), estimated at £250,000-350,000. So I was right to suspect that actual auctions here are not for the likes of me, but as far as exhibitions go…if I hear of another one taking place, I will definitely not be scared to venture back! For a free exhibition, this was fabulous, and although it is no longer at Bonhams, the exhibition will be moving up to Compton Verney in Warwickshire, where it will be on display from 24th September until 30th January 2022, so you still have a chance to see it. And never fear; although it was hosted by an auction house, the items on display were all on loan from various historic houses and museums, where they will be returned when the exhibition in Compton Verney finishes, so you don’t have to worry about them being sold off to private collectors. 4/5.

 

London: Eel Pie Island Museum

I haven’t spent much time in Twickenham – the last time I was there was for a three day-long first aid/CPR class for work in 2019, and this is probably just because the course was held in an office building in the middle of a housing estate, well away from the nice riparian bits of Twickenham, but I wasn’t terribly impressed with the area and didn’t really see any reason to go back. But the partner venue of the museum I work for was offering tours of Eel Pie Island, which is really more of an ait located on the Thames right across from Twickenham, and since this was the first chance I’d had to attend one of their events (we weren’t allowed to visit the other venue whilst both museums were open because we were meant to stay bubbled with our colleagues, but my workplace had closed for the summer at the time), I thought I should probably go. I won’t say too much about the tour, since it does sort of involve my job, although the guide was just a volunteer who lives on the island and wasn’t affiliated with us at all, but I was disappointed we didn’t actually get to go on the island itself. We just had to stare at it from the Twickenham riverside like the plebs we apparently were (outsiders aren’t really even allowed on Eel Pie Island – it is primarily multi-millionaires that live there these days, along with a few people in houseboats moored outside the island who they “allow” to live there and use bathroom facilities on shore. However, there is a footbridge to the island that anyone can walk across, so I’m not sure how exactly they keep people out. Presumably there’s some sort of guard/bridge troll on t’other side). I also didn’t realise the tour was taking place on a rugby day, or I definitely wouldn’t have booked, because fighting through the crowds of scary drunk men around the station was far from pleasant.

However, the tour included free admission to the Eel Pie Island Museum (it normally costs £3), and I am free to blog in detail about that. The museum is open fairly limited hours and only opened in 2018, which explains why I hadn’t visited before. We were greeted at the door by a volunteer who was very friendly and gave us a bit of an introduction to the museum, which was once part of a cinema built in 1913 that went under when talkies became a thing fourteen short years later and they couldn’t afford to wire the building for sound. Because it would require them to let outsiders in, the museum is not located on the island; instead, it is on Richmond Road in Twickenham, near a park with a fountain adorned with naked ladies and the church where Alexander Pope is buried. The interior of the museum isn’t very big, consisting of a long entry corridor lined with signage and a back gallery that includes a little seating area with free fizzy water, which was much appreciated.

The museum had signs up asking us to only take “general pictures” rather than close-ups of the displays, so I tried my best to do that, and I’m sorry if any of these photos inadvertently break their rules. Anyway, before Eel Pie Island became home to a bunch of Snobby McSnobbingtons (sorry, creatives and artists, according to our tour guide), it wasn’t even called Eel Pie Island, but was known as Parish Ait or Twickenham Ait. I get the impression there wasn’t much on it until an inn was built there in the 18th century, which became a stopping point for steamer excursions in the 19th century. There was a lady on the island who would serve eel pies to tourists (mmm, delicious Thames eels), which is how it got that name. Frankly, if that’s the best food they had to offer, I wouldn’t be stopping, but those Victorians loved it, and more hotels popped up, including a ballroom that later hosted jazz ensembles. The island is also home to one of England’s oldest rowing clubs, which didn’t allow working men to join until the 1960s, or women until the 1970s.

The hotel on the island had started to get a bit derelict by the 1960s (which I guess is why they finally relented and let working class men in the rowing club) because people weren’t really going to dance halls anymore, so a bunch of hippies moved in to squat in the hotel, and the island became a hippie commune and music venue, attracting major names in rock at the time, including The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, Black Sabbath and many other smaller bands I’d never heard of, even though I think I’m fairly well versed in classic rock. If you’ve ever heard of Eel Pie Island before, this is probably why, and it was the main focus of the museum, dominating the gallery in the back.

Because I’m not super interested in hippies (their wanton destruction of an historic hotel just kind of pissed me off) or most of the types of bands that played on the island, this probably wasn’t really the museum for me, but some of the information on the history of the island was interesting, and I loved the musical mural in the back that I sadly didn’t get a picture of in case it was considered a close-up (one of the volunteers (not the nice one who let us in) was standing by it and giving me hairy eyeball every time I pulled out my phone, so I was scared to risk it). I’ll give the museum 2/5, but you’ll probably get more out of it if you’re of the era that would have witnessed the island’s musical heyday or if you’re cooler than me and have at least heard of most of the bands that played there. And if you actually want to step foot on Eel Pie Island, it is permissible for outsiders to do so without fear of being eaten by a troll during their open studios in July, but if they don’t want me there the rest of the time, I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of turning up on their open days.

London: Chintz @ the Fashion and Textile Museum

Last week’s post was my 500th! I didn’t actually realise until WordPress told me after it was posted, or I would have picked a better topic than the disappointing Watts Gallery, but it’s still exciting that I’ve finally made it to 500, especially with struggling a bit with getting back on a regular schedule after my sporadic posting earlier this year. And now, on with post number 501!

I went to the Fashion and Textile Museum once back in 2015, and I was rather underwhelmed by the experience, so I haven’t made it much of a priority to go back. However, I’ve been very museum keen the past couple of months since things have reopened, especially since getting my second jab back in July, and having seen most of the major exhibitions in London and wanting to go to Borough Market that day anyway, I turned back to the Fashion and Textile Museum, which is located a shortish walk away from London Bridge Station, and decided to see their chintz exhibition. The museum (which I believe is where or near to where they used to film The Great British Sewing Bee), does not have a permanent collection, just temporary displays, and “Chintz: Cotton in Bloom”, which runs until 12 September, was the only thing there at the time of my visit. Tickets are a rather expensive £12.50, or a mere £6.25 with Art Pass, which seemed much more reasonable, and I was able to book tickets the day of the exhibition (Marcus and I were pretty much the only people in there).

  

We headed in to explore the world of chintz, a type of colourful printed cotton that was invented in India in the 16th century, and first imported into Europe in the 17th. It was initially super expensive, but as more of it flooded the market, it became so popular that England and France actually banned its import for fear it would take business away from their own cloth factories, which did not know how to make chintz until the mid-18th century. However, it remained consistently popular in the Netherlands throughout this period, and the collection on display at the Fashion and Textile Museum is actually borrowed from a Dutch museum, the Fries Museum, which I’m sure is pronounced more like “freeze” but my brain absolutely wants to say “fries”, as in chips. (There is actually a frites museum in Belgium that I visited some years ago, but I’m always down to hear more about (and eat) chips.)

 

The clothing on display was mostly 18th century, and it’s amazing that it survived in such good condition, though as the exhibition pointed out, it was a well-made, hard-wearing cloth, and the pieces on display belonged mainly to rich families who wouldn’t have put too much wear and tear on the clothing in the first place. There was a video inside showing how chintz is traditionally made in India, and it is a very lengthy ten-step process that begins with washing the starch out of the cotton so it will hold the ink (I initially wondered why they didn’t just order unstarched cloth, as they seemed to be getting it direct from the factories, but they explained they needed to treat it anyway to help the fabric retain colours better, so I guess it doesn’t really matter if they have to wash it regardless). They then have to make wooden stamps by hand with their chosen design, and the colouring process itself also involves a number of steps, including hand painting, which looks fun if you only had to do a small amount, but incredibly tedious in bulk.

  

I think my main complaint about the Fashion and Textile Museum last time was that they didn’t provide enough information about most of the pieces on display, and that held true in this exhibition as well. They did explain the history of chintz and how it was made, but most of the pieces on display had labels simply stating the year they were made and the materials they were made from, which was not that helpful. I mean, obviously I can see if it was a dress or a jacket or a hat, but I want to know more about who it was made for, the occasions where it was worn, etc. The exhibition did a slightly better job of this in the upstairs gallery, but the downstairs one was pretty sparse in terms of signage.

 

I’ve definitely mentioned in another post how those life-size wooden panels painted to look like people freak me out a bit ever since I read Silent Companions, so I was not super thrilled to find one greeting me in the exhibition, but it is Dutch, of the time period, and wearing chintz, so I understand why it was there (I wouldn’t want to be alone with it at night though). In addition to the freaky silent companion, there were also some unsettling dolls here, though I would have killed for the handmade wardrobe of the one pictured here (she had a killer hat collection just out of shot) to stick on my Felicity American Girl doll when I was a kid (I also had Samantha and one of the custom ones that was meant to look like me, because my grandma spoiled me rotten, but Felicity would be the most era-appropriate). The dresses here were undoubtedly beautiful, but due to the nature of chintz, which tends to feature floral prints, fairly samey.

  

I was way more interested in the upper floor, which was about fashions in chintz in different parts of the Netherlands. In Friesland, women traditionally wore flat straw hats when they went outside to protect themselves from the sun, which is reasonable enough, but over the years, the hats grew to such epic proportions (as seen above) that women were forced to hold on to a ribbon to steady their ridiculous hats, meaning they never had their hands free, which sounds incredibly annoying and restrictive. Just wear a smaller damn hat! There was also a tradition in the city of Hindeloopen of wearing different coloured chintz for different occasions, e.g. blue and white chintz for mourning, red and white chintz for brides, and multicoloured chintz for festive occasions. So, it might have been a mourning outfit, but I think the blue and white coat (above right) was the prettiest one on display. I think I’d defy tradition and wear it to my wedding (which I guess is sort of what I did in real life, since I got married in a black dress).

 

At the end of this gallery, there were some contemporary chintz fabrics made by various designers, and I loved these, especially the one with a hand holding a pen (prints with hands in them always feel vaguely fortune tellery to me, which I’m into). There also appeared to be a small gallery off to one side with more contemporary fabrics, but it was closed for a workshop, even though no one was in there during our visit.

 

The final section, back downstairs, was on the revival of chintz by British manufacturers in the Victorian era, when basically all interiors were absolutely coated in chintz. Even though chintz had gone out of fashion a bit when it started to be produced domestically and could be bought cheaply, it exploded again in the 19th century, primarily the more expensive hand-blocked variety for those who could afford it. There was a photo of the dressing room in Osborne House decorated for Alexandra after her wedding to the future Edward VII, and it was definitely busy (maybe the poor woman needed some distraction from the obese old lech, though he wasn’t actually that obese or old as a newlywed. Still a lech though). Because it was so common in stately homes of the era, when the houses started to get sold off and become museums in the mid-20th century, fabric companies had to start making chintz again so that these houses could be restored, leading to another surge in its popularity in the 1980s when National Trust memberships increased and going to stately homes became a regular middle class weekend activity.

 

After seeing the exhibition and learning about chintz, I agree that its history is interesting, and some of the 18th century pieces were certainly attractive, but unless I can get my hands on some of that rad hand and pen print, I’m unlikely to suddenly start wearing loads of it myself. I tend to be a bit more quirky in my choice of prints – I suppose I do own a couple of dresses with chintz inspired prints, though definitely not made in the time-consuming traditional way, judging by what I paid for them. As I said earlier, if there had been more information about the individual pieces, I think I would have gotten more out of the exhibition. As it was, we only spent about half an hour there, but since I only paid half price, I was more satisfied with my second visit than my first. 3/5.

London: The Havering Hoard @ Museum of Docklands

Much as I’ve missed visiting museums, I have to admit that I am primarily a food-driven individual, and I have missed visiting markets even more. One of the places I’ve been dying to go back to is Greenwich Market, solely for the sake of getting a Brazilian churro, surely one of the most delicious foods ever invented. But Greenwich is an awfully long way to travel just for the sake of a churro (though I have been known to do it in the past), and so I tried to tie a museum visit into the experience. The National Maritime Museum is usually a prime candidate, but their special exhibition is currently just portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, and I frankly don’t see why I should pay to see that when I can just wait until the NPG reopens and see it for free. But the Museum of London Docklands is not terribly far from Greenwich (I tend to think of everything on the DLR as being close together, even though it’s actually not, but it’s fun to ride, and where else can you find places named Mudchute and Island Gardens right next to each other? (Spoiler: Island Gardens is not any nicer than Mudchute. The names are meaningless)), and they currently have a temporary exhibition on the Havering Hoard, which is on until 22 August and is free – you just need to pre-book a free general admission ticket to see it.

  

My interest in hoards is admittedly pretty minimal, but Marcus was interested in seeing it, and when a friend wanted to meet up that day, I suggested he join us as well. Even though it was a Sunday, the museum wasn’t all that busy, especially the Havering Hoard gallery. I guess we should have researched what the Havering Hoard actually was before turning up, because we were all envisioning a collection of precious objects in silver and gold, maybe some coins and jewellery, you know, nice stuff that someone would keep hidden away for a reason. Well, the Havering Hoard is not that. Instead, it is a collection of late Bronze Age pottery shards (sherds) and other practical items, like axe handles, found in the London Borough of Havering (that I had really only heard of because they were one of the few London boroughs that voted for Brexit, which pretty much automatically put them on my shit list) in 2018. It is apparently the third largest Bronze Age hoard found in the UK, consisting of 453 separate objects, though if most of those objects are broken pieces of pottery, is it really that exciting?

 

Well, maybe to archaeologists, but not really to me or Marcus or our friend. The exhibition wasn’t very large because only a selection of the objects were on display (either because all sherds basically look the same, or because they just didn’t want to excite us too much), but we did take the time to read all the signage, which mainly consisted of descriptions of how the objects in the hoard would have been made, and theories as to why they may have been buried (personally, I would say it was because it all looked like garbage, and that was actually one of the theories! The others were to keep it safe, as an offering to the gods, or as a symbol of status, though I can’t see how the last one could be true. How could you show your power by hiding everything away where no one could see it?). In my opinion, the best part of the exhibition was the foot pedals that illuminated x-rays of the hoard on one of the walls. Covid safe and fun! My friend had somehow never been to the Museum of Docklands before, so we went for a stroll through the permanent galleries, which looked the same as the last time I visited, except for a cool treadwheel thing I had somehow never noticed before (maybe because it was always full of children in the past), so Covid be damned, we had to give it a go (there was a hand sanitiser dispenser nearby, so we just sanitised before and after) and it proved to be super fun but also kind of dangerous, because it was very easy to fall over once it got going.

   

Having finished with Museum of Docklands, we finally headed over to Greenwich to grab that sweet, sweet dulce de leche filled churro, and god was it worth travelling for. I just wish they’d get another stall somewhere closer to me (if I ever have a belated wedding reception, I’m going to ask them to cater it). And more delights awaited us when we walked over to Deptford to see the Peter the Great statue. I don’t know how I’ve lived in London as long as I have without laying eyes on this masterpiece, but it is seriously one of the most hilarious statues I have ever seen, and so inexplicable. Why is Peter’s head so small? Why does the little person have flies on his coat? Why does the throne have what is either Pan or a demon head on the back (I assume the eyes and ears are to show that Peter was all-seeing and all-hearing)? Why are there random dishes of food on the back of the sculpture? So many questions.

 

The plaque on the sculpture wasn’t massively helpful, telling us that it was here because Peter visited Deptford in 1698 to learn more about shipbuilding, and the statue was a gift from the Russian people to commemorate this, though it wasn’t built until 2000. I did a bit of research online, and the stories about Peter’s time in London are frankly as insane as the sculpture. He visited London under an assumed name, though as he was almost seven feet tall and the ruler of Russia, this probably wasn’t all that effective in disguising his identity. He was trying to modernise Russia, and learning about shipbuilding in London was part of this effort. He rented the diarist John Evelyn’s house, and by all accounts, completely destroyed it with his drunken carousing. His entourage included a little person (Peter was known for his fascination with genetic abnormalities, and he had a retinue of people with dwarfism as well as an army of extremely tall people) who he allegedly pushed on a wheelbarrow through Evelyn’s famous gardens, thus wrecking them. His head was a normal size in real life, but the sculptor who made this (Mihail Chemiakin, who was forced to leave the USSR in the 1970s for being too controversial) seems to only be able to sculpt tiny heads, so I guess that explains that one. The rest of it is still a mystery, but it is glorious (Prince Michael of Kent did the unveiling, and I would have killed to be there. How could you not die laughing when the cloth got pulled off to reveal this?), and we spent a good hour sitting on a bench nearby, chatting and basking in the weirdness of this statue (and watching the reactions of other passersby also seeing it for the first time), and I decided that if I ever become emperor of the world, I will have a throne just like this one. Highly recommended, much more so than the Havering Hoard exhibition!

London: “Epic Iran” @ the V&A

With a name like “Epic Iran”, you’d expect something, well, epic, right? Did the V&A’s new exhibition live up to expectations? Read on to find out (with a lot of waffle in between, though sadly not actual waffles).

I had not been to the V&A in a very long time indeed, considering how regularly I used to go. My last visit was in the last of the pre-Covid days, back in February 2020. I did try to see the “Bags Inside Out” exhibition last December when they were briefly open, but it was sold out on all the days I could visit (it’s still on, so I will hopefully make it there eventually). So when they opened slots for pre-booking in April, I hedged my bets (since we still weren’t 100% sure museums would be able to open on the “Covid road map” schedule at that point) and booked a ticket to “Epic Iran” for early June, because it looked more appealing than the Alice in Wonderland exhibition (which I’ll probably see too eventually, but I’ve never liked the book, and it looks like it will be a case of style over substance).

On a very hot day, we queued up outside the Exhibition Road entrance of the V&A (the main entrance is currently exit only) and got processed more quickly than the people who had just booked a free ticket to the permanent collections. Admission to “Epic Iran” is £18, or £9 with Art Pass, and it runs until September. It wasn’t super clear where we had to go when we first entered the building, as staff seemed mainly focussed on directing people to Alice, but we soon caught sight of some signs and made our own way there. The exhibition aims to explore “5000 years of art, design, and culture” which is quite a big ask for an exhibition space that isn’t even the V&A’s largest, but they certainly took a stab at it.

The Persian Empire got its start in the sixth century BC under Cyrus the Great, who conquered what was once Babylonia and united the region. At its height, the Persian Empire was massive and went well beyond the boundaries of modern day Iran, stretching over much of Asia, to the Balkans in Europe, and parts of Libya and Egypt in Africa. Early Persia was firmly Zoroastrian, which I remember learning about in a World Religions class I took as an undergrad. I found the religion memorable mainly for its practice of ritual exposure or “sky burial”, the idea being that to bury a corpse would be to pollute the earth, so better to leave it out to be picked at by vultures. Other than that, it seems to be your standard good vs. evil mostly monotheistic religion that Christianity and Islam both borrowed from. If you like little clay pots with animals on them, and vases of men with erect penises holding water jugs, you’ll like Zoroastrian art.

There were an awful lot of objects in this exhibition, objects that, to be fair, probably shouldn’t even be in British collections, including the Cyrus Cylinder, made in about 539 BC, which tells the story of how Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire, and normally lives at the British Museum. Also some bad-ass animal horns and various things made from gold.

There were also some pages from a manuscript of the Shahnameh, an epic poem that tells the story of the Persian Empire through the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Like most epic poems, it involves a lot of killing, so those made for some fun illustrations. There were also early Islamic manuscripts with illustrations of various monsters and demons, which of course I loved. And brutal looking armour with pointy kneecaps, I guess so you could poke someone’s eyes out with your knees. Fun!

The little lion incense burner on the left reminds me of the robot devil from Futurama. He was in the section on poetry, which also featured a recording of someone reading out poems in Farsi. There were of course some Persian rugs here, but honestly they were probably the least interesting things in the exhibition. Who wants to look at rugs when you could be looking at paintings of people with aggressive eyebrows, women included? If I relinquished my tweezers, I think I would fit right in.

Obviously, most of history is male-centric, but the exhibition did have a section of the role of women in Persia. Women went from having some rights to having no rights, back to some, and then finally back to no rights again after the Iranian Revolution. In much of recent-ish (the last few centuries) history, women lived in harem-type arrangements where they were sequestered from men, and couldn’t leave the house without being heavily veiled; however, from the Victorian era onward, fashions within the harem setting changed greatly depending on the whims of the ruler at the time. I was interested to learn that skirts gradually got shorter, inspired by Nasir al Din Shah’s love of ballet, until the women in his harem were basically wearing miniskirts (in the 1870s!). Women eventually got to modernise and reclaim some rights, just in time for the Islamist Revolution to send them right back (actually quite a bit further back than) where they started.

The exhibition, having taken us on an accelerated ride throughout history, got to contemporary art by the end, and I really loved some of the pieces here, especially the photograph by Azadeh Akhlaghi recreating the 1974 shooting of activist Marzieh Ahmadi Oskuie, the photographs of modern Iranian women done in a Victorian style, and a shrine style collage piece with dancing blue lights. This was also the part of the exhibition where we encountered a pair of exceptionally annoying school-aged children who had borrowed a pair of those fold out chairs intended for people who struggle to stand for long periods and were proceeding to smash them repeatedly into the floor, much to the consternation of the gallery attendant, so it was fortunate we were spared them for most of the exhibition (it was half-term, but maybe a more child-friendly exhibition would have been a better choice for them). So this is maybe not one to bring the kids to, but as an adult, I really loved it. I thought the art was fabulous, and I enjoyed learning a bit more about Iran’s history, though obviously a seven or eight room exhibition about 5000 years of history is never going to be comprehensive. Maybe not quite “epic”, but it was certainly a good attempt. 4/5.

Mainly including this photo so you can see my apricot dress, because I ❤ it.

Surrey and London: HG Wells in Woking and God’s Own Junkyard @ Leadenhall Market

Short post this week on a couple of non-museum things I saw recently. First of all, whilst we still had a car last month, we decided to go out to Woking to see some of the HG Wells sites there. HG Wells moved to Woking in 1895, and only lived there for about a year and a half, but he began writing some of his most iconic stories there, including The War of the Worlds. Now, I have never actually read The War of the Worlds, nor seen any of the films, but I am of course aware of the general idea of the book just by absorbing bits of pop culture for 35 years, and I like HG Wells mainly because of my love of the 2016 stage version of Half a Sixpence (in large part because of adorable Charlie Stemp, who was Kipps in the West End version I saw. I do not like the Tommy Steele film version. Tommy Steele’s teeth creep me out), which is based on his novel Kipps, so even though aliens are not really my thing in that way that proper monsters are (aliens seem to attract weird conspiracy theorists who creep me out more than Tommy Steele’s teeth), I was still down to see The War of the Worlds mosaic and other sites.

  

There is a Wells in Woking walk map available online (link leads to pdf) that will lead you from the train station, through the town, out to the sandpit, and back to the station again for a three and a half mile walk, but it was hot, we were both tired, and we had come by car, so we opted to just park by the sandpit, walk out to see it, and then get back into the car and drive into town. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of parking in a horrible giant shopping centre in town where we literally had to ask someone for directions out because there appeared to be no exits, and the whole experience has given me a probably undeserved distaste for Woking and its shopping centre.

  

Anyway, the sandpit, where the Martians landed, is pretty cool. It is just a big sandy pit in the middle of some trees, with a water-filled depression at the bottom that is meant to be the landing spot, but sand is intrinsically fun, and I bet I would have loved playing in it as a kid. In Woking proper, there are a few different sites to see if you manage to find your way out of the shopping centre. There is the town gate, which has the outline of a Tripod on it, a big Tripod sculpture, which has gross tentacle things hanging off the bottom, a statue of HG Wells himself, and a really cool mosaic in a subway (at start of post), which was probably my favourite thing. There is also Lynton, the house where Wells lived, but Google told us it was a mile walk away, and you can’t go in it or anything, so we didn’t bother. It’s probably more fun if you actually do the trail properly and don’t park in the shopping centre car park, but at least now I’ve seen it and I don’t have to go back to Woking.

 

Slightly more fun was the God’s Own Junkyard takeover at Leadenhall Market, in the City of London, which is there until the end of July. God’s Own Junkyard is a neon sign museum in Walthamstow, which I really should go to one of these days, but Walthamstow is a pain to get to and not particularly nice once you’re there, so when I read about the pop-up in Leadenhall Market, I definitely wanted to see it. I love the weird old bits of the City, and I hadn’t been since before Covid (and I also wanted to visit Eataly, the super expensive Italian food market that has finally come to London. So pricey but so good). The installations are open all the time, but if you want to go inside the shop space, you have to visit between Wednesday and Sunday.

 

I love neon. I think it’s pleasingly retro and super fun to look at, so I was excited to see this, and they do have some great signs. The pop-up shop had the most in it, but there were also two shop windows elsewhere in the market displaying signs that the family business had made for Judge Dredd and Eyes Wide Shut – I have never seen either of those movies, but I enjoyed the signs on their own merit. I honestly expected it to be a bit underwhelming, as these things usually are, but I was pretty solidly whelmed. The guy working in the shop was very enthusiastic and told us a lot about how the signs are created (he was a little hard to hear because there was loud music blasting in there, but the loud music was Hall and Oates, so I can’t really complain) and the lido sign was particularly cool (I have a skirt with very similar looking diving ladies on it, which sadly was not the one I was wearing that day). It’s definitely worth a look if you’re in the area or need an excuse to grab some focaccia and fresh scamorza at Eataly (and have deep pockets. For Eataly, that is, not the neon pop-up, which is free).