history

Glasgow: The Riverside Museum

One of our good friends moved to Glasgow in September, so Marcus and I went up to visit him in late November, which is usually when we’d go somewhere for a long weekend for our anniversary. Since this is the same friend that has basically invited himself along on our honeymoon road trip (should we ever get to take one), it seemed fitting to just visit him in lieu of a more romantic holiday (I’ve known him as long as I’ve known Marcus since I met them both when they were advertising for a new housemate and I ended up being the top contender due to our shared love of Bruce Campbell. He’s more like a brother than a friend at this point). Said friend’s priorities tend to be more aimed towards drinking than culture, but since you can only start drinking so early, he’s amenable to visiting museums in the hours before pubs open. Marcus and I had managed to visit quite a few museums on our trip to Glasgow a few years ago, but one of the places we hadn’t been was the Riverside Museum, and since our friend is a bit of a train spotter, this seemed a solid pick for all of us.

 

The building is famously designed by Zaha Hadid, so you’d think we would have gotten a photo of it, but nope. I guess we were so cold we just rushed inside without thinking (it didn’t really get properly cold down south until the week after we got home, so Glasgow was a bit of a shock to the system). The museum is free to enter, and I’m guessing pretty popular with families, but we were there fairly early in the morning, so didn’t encounter many people until mid-way through our visit.

 

I was drawn to the carnival themed area and the creepy fellatio-ready clown I had spotted from outside, so we headed there first. We spotted the dinosaur immediately after, and from reading his sign, we learned that there were ten dinosaurs hidden in the museum that we had to spot. This first dinosaur was man-sized, so we stupidly assumed they would all be that big and totally forgot to look for them until we had walked through most of the museum, which meant we ended up doing some backtracking, but we also started looking at things really intensely once we realised that most of the dinosaurs were action figure-sized, which was probably the point of the activity.

 

I loved the street of yesteryear, though I feel it was perhaps a bit less interactive than it could have been both due to Covid (Scotland was still much stricter than England at the time of our visit with Covid restrictions, which is fair enough. Don’t know why we got rid of the mask mandate for a few months!) and to people hogging the inside of the antique subway car so we couldn’t go in (which also meant we missed the second dinosaur until we circled back around at the end of our visit). I was also slightly disappointed there weren’t authentic smells, though it is possible I could have just missed them through my mask.

 

After leaving ye olde Glasgow (or a very quaint, sanitised version thereof), we entered the large open transport section that makes up most of the museum, which had a series of smaller rooms on one side devoted to different subjects, such as children’s clothing, model trains, the cinema, and many more. I will never be a car person, so the main part of the transport gallery didn’t do much for me apart from the enjoyment I got from climbing aboard old buses and trains, because who doesn’t like that?! No one, I’m guessing, which is why we usually had to wait our turn despite the museum being fairly empty.

 

The museum is also home to the Tall Ship Glenlee, which is moored just outside the back entrance. We did go out and have a look at it, but it looked like you had to pay to enter, and it was also insanely freezing out, so we ended up hurrying back inside the warmth of the museum and skipping the ship time, which means I can’t tell you anything more about it.

 

Riverside Museum has an upstairs gallery as well, much of which taken up by a busy cafe, but there were also a few interesting displays, including one on the American Civil War because blockade runners used to run their ships full of cotton through to Glasgow (the city was pretty much built on slavery, so it wasn’t a huge surprise to learn that many residents supported the Confederacy); what may have been the world’s oldest bicycle (this is disputed, but it is at least the world’s oldest surviving bicycle); and a moving display of model ships, which is where we found another dinosaur (who wasn’t technically a dinosaur, as the two geologists I was with made sure to point out, but the museum clearly intended for us to count it as one, so we let it slide).

 

I ended up enjoying this museum more than I thought I would, largely because of the fun of the dinosaur finding game, but I also liked the street of yesteryear and the carnival display, and definitely appreciated being able to walk around a warm place for an hour or so before venturing back into the cold for our next destination. Transport nerds would love this place, as would children, or adults like us who enjoy games intended for children. 3/5.

 

This ended up being the only museum we saw in Glasgow on this trip (apart from a brief stop in the Hunterian to meet up with our friend after his morning lecture the next day), but we did a lot of walking around, visited way too many pubs, had mulled Buckfast at the Christmas Market, got a photo in front of the Tunnocks Factory (the tearoom was sadly closed, but we did buy some of the Tunnocks products that are hard to find in England (hello elusive but delicious Caramel Logs and Wafer Creams) in the bakery, which was staffed by some scarily surly ladies), visited a tearoom with very cute china in the Hidden Lane to make up for the lack of tea at Tunnocks (and at our friend’s house, because he doesn’t drink tea. We knew this, but had forgotten to bring our own teabags, possibly because we still can’t comprehend the idea of an Englishman that doesn’t like tea), and most excitingly, ate a family-sized five foot dosa between the three of us, which is something I have always wanted to do (#lifegoals), so it was a good trip despite the cold and more drinking than I find ideal. My friend just had his contract renewed, so I imagine I’ll be back to Glasgow again at some point next year to visit any museums I’ve missed on my previous two trips!

London: Peru – A Journey in Time @ the BM

I can’t say I’d given a great deal of thought to Peru before, other than it being where potatoes and the Inca come from, so I was hoping to learn more in the British Museum’s new exhibition Peru: a journey in time, which runs until 20th February 2022. Tickets are £15 or £7.50 with Art Pass. The exhibition is located in the round tower in the middle of the museum (a relief after the trek up to Room 90 last time, though there are still a not-insignificant number of stairs involved if you don’t take the lift), and although the BM always attracts a good crowd, this was definitely a bit emptier than other recent exhibitions I’ve seen there. This was perhaps helped by the arrangement of the cases, which really utilised the space effectively (maybe they should be taking notes for their own Room 90?).

 

As I said at the start, I really knew very little about Peru, despite having taken a course in Latin American Civ as an undergrad, so hadn’t really heard of the civilisations that came before the Inca, even though Andean culture was flourishing for a good 5000 years before Europeans arrived on the scene. Although the Inca get the most press, presumably because they were there when the Spanish invaded, they were able to build such a powerful empire only by drawing on all that had come before them. Earlier civilisations included the Paracas, Nasca (relatively famous because of the Nasca lines), Moche, and Wari, all of which were represented here, and I preferred these earlier artefacts to the Incan ones; firstly, because they were new to me; secondly, because I think it’s incredible that objects so old have survived in such great condition (helped by the fact that many of them were retrieved from grave sites of mummified bodies. If conditions are good for mummification, odds are they’re decent for artefacts too); and finally, and most importantly, because they were awesome!

  

Each civilisation had its own specialty, though there was obviously some overlap between them. For example, the Moche were known for their erotic pottery, of which there is apparently an entire museum in Peru (mentally added to my must-see list!), and the Wari were known for their weaving skills. And all of the cultures depicted people and animals in some form or another. There was also a running theme of severed heads, which doesn’t sound terribly appealing, but these were honestly some of the cutest severed heads I’ve ever seen, mainly because they were stylised rather than gory, and their facial expressions indicated they were fairly happy with being severed heads (even though I’m sure the victims wouldn’t have actually been that chill whilst their heads were being harvested).

 

You can see the sophistication of these cultures through the quality of the art they produced. Some of the more realistic depictions of people looked as though they could have been made yesterday instead of hundreds or even thousands of years ago. But these civilisations had also developed complex agricultural systems and roads superior to anything in Europe that came after the Romans before the modern era, so it’s not really surprising that they could also turn their hands to art. Of course, they also practiced a lot of human sacrifice (as you might have guessed from the severed heads), so it’s not like everything was a bed of roses, but all things considered, it’s still appalling that the Spanish just marched in and destroyed thousands of years of amazing, vibrant culture without giving a damn for what was lost.

  

I think you can probably tell by now that I really loved the objects in this exhibition. These artefacts are incredible, and absolutely something you should see for yourself if you can (some are part of the BM’s collections, but many of them are on loan from Peru, so take advantage whilst they’re here!). The exhibition isn’t a large one, and I feel it could have benefited from more information about each of these civilisations (it was a bit of a rushed history because they were trying to fit so much in) but it’s still well worth your time. 4/5. And a shout-out to the BM’s retail manager/buyer for finally giving the people what they want merch-wise! I am now the proud owner of a new mug printed with the design from the severed head blanket pictured below, and it’s made my evening tea and biscuits time even more delightful.

London: Hogarth and Europe @ Tate Britain

Here’s another one of those early modern exhibitions I was talking about in my previous post, and this one is firmly in my wheelhouse: Hogarth and Europe: Uncovering City Life at Tate Britain (which runs until 20th March 2022 and costs £18 to enter, or £9 with Art Pass). I absolutely love William Hogarth. I took a course on Restoration and 18th century literature as an undergrad, which was my first real exposure to the long 18th century from a non-biased perspective (the American 18th century history that you learn in school tends to be mainly about the American Revolution and the evils of the British), and I completely fell in love with the Georgians. They were just so fun compared to the boring Puritans of the 17th century (and the dour Victorians, but their obsession with death is what I love about them, so I’m not going to rag too much on that), and the cartoonists of the 18th century, including Hogarth, were a huge part of what makes them fun, so I was pretty excited to see this exhibition and enjoy something a bit lighter than the predictable but sad end to the Elizabeth and Mary exhibition at the BL I’d seen the week before.

 

However, Hogarth, though he included comic touches in many of his works, was more than just a satirist. He was also a moraliser, and this exhibition dwelt on not only his political and ethical views, but also the relationship between Britain, Europe, and the transatlantic slave trade. When looking up the exhibition to refresh my memory in order to write this post, I stumbled upon some newspaper reviews, and man, they were not happy at all about the slave trade angle. Part of me can kind of see their point, since Hogarth, as far as I know, had no direct involvement in the slave trade, other than enjoying a higher standard of living as a result of the increased range of products and wealth available because of forced labour in the colonies, which was true of basically everyone in Britain at that point, but another part of me absolutely gets what the Tate is trying to do. If you’re talking about an artist and how he fits into the wider world of the 18th century, it only makes sense to mention the slave trade, since it played such an integral part in shaping society. And you do see the physical marks of slavery in Hogarth’s paintings in a very direct way. He often depicts Black servants with a silver collar around their neck, which was a direct mark of ownership, and deeply disturbing once you start noticing it. Honestly, I thought the commentary on slavery was interesting and it was not anywhere near as distracting or obtrusive as many of the professional reviewers seemed to find it, but I do write purely for my own enjoyment rather than to push a specific angle, so I can be as honest as I like. I can’t say the same for journalists working for right-leaning publications.

 

I also don’t think it detracts from Hogarth’s work to point out examples of his hypocrisy. Yes, he was flawed, but who isn’t, and learning about his personal beliefs adds even more dimension to his work. I think Hogarth is fascinating because of these contradictions. He called out the ills of society and the class system whilst being firmly Establishment, particularly in his later years. He seemed to be somewhat pro-women’s rights, through his pointing out the evils of forced prostitution and arranged marriages, but he also painted pictures that played into horrible Georgian ideas of women enjoying rape, particularly his racist portrayal of a Black sex worker “luring” men into an orgy. He seemed to have an affinity for the lower classes, often portraying them sympathetically, and fostering a number of foundling children with his wife, but also mocked people he saw as members of the non-deserving poor, i.e. alcoholics or the “idle”.

 

But that’s enough about the politics, let’s get down to the paintings and the engravings! The main reason to love Hogarth is for his work, and there were some great pieces on display here. You can view most of his famous engravings at various museums in London in print form, and of course I’ve seen them many times before, but I always enjoy an opportunity to look at them again because the level of detail means I’ll pick up things I’ve missed in the past. Usually, it’s whatever is going on with the background figures, which pretty much always includes a dog or cat (or more depressingly, an enslaved person), like the dog in the picture above left, who is dressed up like a human and standing on his hind legs. I also love Trump, Hogarth’s pug, who was a pug back before pugs had been bred into the completely flat faced things that struggle to breathe that they are today. He’s also probably the only thing named Trump that you will ever hear me speaking affectionately towards. Trump appears in one of Hogarth’s most famous self-portraits, but you’ll also spy dogs that look very much like him hidden in the corners of some of Hogarth’s other works.

 

Hogarth was also known for the deliberately uncomplimentary way he approached portraiture of the rich and famous, and it was trendy amongst the upper classes to have their portraits painted by Hogarth just to see how unflatteringly realistic he would make them. I particularly like the reverend with devil horns and an ass’s ears. His most famous moralising works were here too, including Gin Lane and Beer Street, Marriage a-la-Mode, The Rake’s Progress, The Harlot’s Progress, and many more. These are all great, but I actually prefer some of the lesser known (and less moralising ones) like The Enraged Musician (I wrote a paper on it for my MA), which was here too (the print, not my paper, obviously).

 

I was clearly very keen on the Hogarth parts of the exhibition, but I was less enthused by the Europe bits. These were meant to show how Hogarth influenced and was influenced by various European painters (to make him seem less of a John Bull type, which I guess can happen when you spend a lot of your career painting offensive caricatures of the French), but most of the other artists didn’t do a whole lot for me, save for the Dutch guy (whose name I can’t remember) who painted a bared buttocks with a face on it being hung out of a window (so my type of low-brow humour!). I did like the giant maps in the section on various European cities, including Amsterdam, Venice, Paris, and London, though London is really the only one of those cities I know well enough to have been able to make comparisons between the 18th century layout and the present day. Overall though, I don’t think the “Europe” part of the title added much value to the exhibition, and I would have preferred if it had been on Hogarth alone with a more in-depth look at 18th century British society, which would also have made the role of slavery in the British Empire a more natural inclusion.

 

Simply because I love Hogarth and his work so much, I did slightly prefer this to the Elizabeth and Mary exhibition at the BL, though speaking as someone who is well-versed in the period, and contrary to the opinions of the professional critics mentioned earlier, I think they could have dug even deeper below the surface with their analysis of many of the pieces on display here. There are many details in Hogarth’s works that would have been obvious to his contemporary viewers, but aren’t easily apparent to modern ones, and I think the exhibition could have done a better job of pointing these out. Some of the works didn’t have any real interpretation at all other than commentary from a modern artist saying what they thought of the painting, which isn’t massively useful when it comes to understanding Hogarth’s work. The work itself though: *chef’s kiss*. Great selection, and I could absolutely have looked at this stuff all day if there had been fewer people waiting their turn (still nowhere near as crowded as Paula Rego though). 4/5.

 

London: Elizabeth and Mary @ the BL

Very cheery of me to open this post with a funeral cortege, but it gives you an idea of what to expect. Also note that this is Elizabeth’s funeral. Mary did not get a cortege. In fact, Elizabeth would have basically had her murdered and shoved in a ditch if she could have gotten away with it.

There’s so many early modern history related exhibitions on in London at the moment that seeing them all is making me feel a bit like I’m doing my Master’s again, which is maybe why it’s taken me so long to write up some of these posts – it’s too much like doing schoolwork! I’ll get around to a couple of the other exhibitions in future posts, but for now, let’s talk about “Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins Rival Queens” at the British Library. Admission is £16 or £8 with Art Pass, and the exhibition runs until 20th February 2022.

 

I’ve been over the Tudors for quite a while now (they’re just so overdone), and I feel kind of bad saying this because it’s not very feminist of me, but even when I was into the Tudors, I was always much more interested in Henry VIII than Elizabeth I. There was just so much more drama! But I would still say I know quite a lot more about Elizabeth than I do her Scottish contemporary. Most of my knowledge of Mary, Queen of Scots actually comes from works of fiction. I used to be obsessed with Judith Merkle Riley’s books (I only just saw she passed away in 2010 when I was looking her up for this post), and though The Oracle Glass was always my favourite (because witches), I also loved The Master of all Desires, which was about Catherine de Medici and Nostradamus, and featured Mary, Queen of Scots as a secondary character, a teenager who was engaged to the sickly dauphin. I also have always remembered the vivid description of the murder of David Rizzio, one of Mary’s closest advisors, in The House with the Clock in its Walls, where Rizzio is described as spurting blood like a plum spurting juice.

All of this is to say that the sections on Mary were definitely more eye opening than the sections on Elizabeth. For example, I didn’t realise that Mary was only 44 when she was executed. I knew she had been imprisoned for a couple decades before she died, so I just assumed she was a tad more elderly (I don’t know why, because I’ve definitely read descriptions of her execution that must have mentioned it, but only the part about her wig falling off her decapitated head and her dog emerging from her skirts after she died only to have its face shoved in her blood by the executioner stuck in my mind, and I guess the wig aspect had me picturing an older woman), but nope, she was just did a whole lot of living, including two failed marriages (three, counting the dauphin) in the brief period of relative freedom between her childhood in the French court and being dethroned at the age of only 24.

 

The exhibition was divided up into roughly chronological sections taking us through Elizabeth and Mary’s lives (Elizabeth was nine years older), and although we encountered the usual slow-moving crowd at the start of the exhibition (why does the British Library seem to attract almost exclusively older people? Not that it’s a problem, but I think it’s odd that it’s rare to see someone under the age of 70 in their exhibitions) that meant a bit of queuing, the crowds completely thinned out after the first couple of sections, so we could move about fairly freely, which I always appreciate.

 

As with most exhibitions at the BL, the strong point here was without a doubt the vast array of original documents, many of them written in the respective hands of Elizabeth and Mary themselves, including one where Mary apologises for her poor English, as she had never written anything in the language before. Spending her childhood in France had not equipped her well for ruling Scotland, not least because her staunch Catholicism did not endear her either to Protestant Elizabeth or the majority of her subjects. There were also a number of hand-drawn maps, including the one, above left, that shows a bird’s eye view of Lord Darnley’s murder scene. Darnley was Mary’s second husband and was murdered under mysterious circumstances that left Mary herself under suspicion. He was a real jerk though, and Mary would have been well rid of him had she not immediately married the Earl of Bothwell, who very likely had been the one to murder Darnley, and also probably raped Mary, which is why she was forced to marry him so suddenly in the first place (she mentioned being “ill-used” by him or words to that effect in one of her letters). This marriage was also what led to Mary’s downfall. Bothwell was a controversial figure, hated by many nobles, and the marriage divided the country, triggering a rebellion that forced Mary to flee to England, where she was taken into custody on the orders of Elizabeth, who saw her as a potential threat.

  

She was also ill-used (in a different way, I hasten to add) by her jerk of a son James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) who was eager to take Elizabeth’s side if it meant she would make him her heir. I might just be prejudiced by what I know of the adult man, but he comes across as a slimy little toad, albeit one fairly accomplished in languages, judging by some of his beautifully lettered schoolboy work (above right). Although, since he had never really known his mother, who was imprisoned when he was still a baby, I guess it’s understandable that he wouldn’t have felt any particular loyalty to her.

 

Ultimately, Mary was a victim of her religion, poor choice in men, and her own poor judgement in plotting against her cousin Elizabeth (not a smart move when you’re in prison and all your letters are surveilled). At the start of her imprisonment, Mary was still trying to reach out to Elizabeth as a fellow queen and cousin to enlist her help in getting the Scottish throne back, but she quickly became disillusioned and attempted to ally with anyone who might be willing to help, including the governments of various Catholic countries and English noblemen with Catholic sympathies. It was her association with the Babington Plot, which aimed to have Elizabeth assassinated and Mary crowned in her place, that led Elizabeth to wash her hands of her cousin and consent to her execution (though Elizabeth apparently tried to have Mary quietly bumped off by one of her keepers so she wouldn’t have the shame of signing a fellow queen’s death warrant. Nice). The letter above right, shows the code used in the letter that implicated Mary in the plot, which was cracked by Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham. The left image is the quilt Mary made in her captivity, since twenty years of it meant she had a lot of time on her hands in between plotting.

Maybe it’s just because Mary seemed to have a more interesting life, so I paid more attention to the Mary content, but this exhibition seemed skewed towards Mary, focusing only on Elizabeth in relation to her interactions with Mary, which was fine with me. I might have watched too much Blackadder or just absorbed the misogyny of various history books, but Elizabeth has never struck me as a particularly charming individual, whereas Mary seemed to have too much charm and too little agency over her own life. I loved looking at all the hand-drawn maps and letters actually written by these monarchs – the British Library’s collections are indeed spectacular. If I had a complaint, it would have been that some of the text was fairly dry, and the story wasn’t always told in the most engaging way. For example, the story I told about Mary’s execution at the start wasn’t mentioned here, maybe because the story about the dog was only included in a later account, so may not be historically accurate, but the wig part did definitely happen (it was mentioned by various people present at the execution) and is the kind of grisly little fact I love. More interesting historical tidbits like that, as well as the inclusion of more types of artefacts, might have made this more broadly appealing to the general public, but for a history nerd like me, it was still pretty enjoyable. 3.5/5.

And Mary did have the last laugh, in a way. When James VI/I became king, he had both Mary and Elizabeth interred in Westminster Abbey. Guess who looks more attractive on their tomb? (Attractive being a relative term, because the styles of the time were not flattering.) That’s right, Mary.

 

London: Bags Inside Out @ the V&A

I love vintage fashion, and I will be the first to admit that I have way too many items of clothing, but I’ve never been a massive bag person. I mean, I do still have multiple purses, but they tend to be fairly utilitarian bags in different colours rather than anything expensive or weirdly shaped, so a bag-themed exhibition wasn’t a huge draw. However, Bags Inside Out has been at the V&A for what feels like years at this point (I actually think it literally will be years because of the Covid closures – it runs until January 2022, and had to have been there since 2020), and since it is the only fashion themed exhibition they’ve had for ages, I still reckoned I should go see it.

  

Tickets to Bags are £12, or £6 for Art Pass. The entry procedure at the V&A (in September, when I visited) was a lot less rigmarole than my previous visit in July. Someone basically just asked if we had a ticket and then waved us into the museum. No bag checks or scanning of tickets until we were actually at the exhibition entrance. I have a friend who works at the V&A who told me they’ve been having a lot of trouble with getting people to wear masks, as they can no longer require it, and on my visit, it was probably about fifty/fifty (we’ve had fewer issues where I work because our visitor numbers are minuscule compared to the V&A and they have to ring a doorbell to get inside the building, so we can monitor them more closely). The exhibition was being held in the usual smallish gallery where the fashion themed stuff is, so the downstairs bit was super crowded and we had to queue for a bit to see into some of the cases, which I wasn’t thrilled about.

 

Maybe it’s because I was rushing a bit to get past the crowded first section, but I only saw a bit of information about how bags eventually evolved from pockets (and what people did before pockets, I do not know. Carried crap in their hands I guess) before the exhibition quickly jumped right into the functionality of bags, and as someone who is generally more interested in history than design, it wasn’t a great sign. However, some of the bags here were quite interesting. The military ones didn’t particularly do anything for me, but I liked some of the gaming purses, and of course Emilie Busbey Grigsby’s fabulous trunk (one of nineteen she would typically take on transatlantic crossings. Oh, to be that rich).

 

There were also a selection of bags belonging to famous people. I loved Vivien Leigh’s attache case, which apparently went everywhere with her, and Gladstone and Churchill’s bags were also functional and attractive, but Margaret Thatcher’s handbag was about what you’d expect.

 

Some of the designer bags were ug-lee – I’d honestly rather have something from the wall of totes or one of the “humorous carrier bags,” especially the one advertising “Colon Care Co-op” (not a real place) – but I was relieved that unlike that awful shoe exhibition at the Design Museum, only a small portion of these bags were actually proper high fashion designer stuff, with the remainder being far more functional.

 

I preferred the upstairs section of the exhibition, which was much more spread out so we could look at things properly. It didn’t hurt that the first case I set eyes on was full of animal bags. How cute is that frog shaped sweet bag? When I first saw it, all I could think was that the bag certainly wouldn’t be able to hold enough sweets for my needs until I read that it wasn’t intended for sweets as in candy; rather, it would have held sweet smelling herbs or dried flowers.

 

Also loved the sugar skull bag, though I honestly just find clutches annoying, because I need to have my hands free. I got a cute one to shove my phone and stuff in when I got married but because we travelled there on foot and were carrying cookies and cupcakes to hand out to our guests after the ceremony since we couldn’t have a reception due to Covid, I just ended up putting everything in a giant tote that I set out of sight during photos. Same goes for the Dairy Milk and horse chestnut bags – cute idea, but an absolute pain to carry, and good luck getting a phone in there! I swear I’ve seen the Normandie bag before, maybe at the Ocean Liners exhibition, but I still enjoyed seeing it here because I love all things nautical.

 

The other main section up here was about the construction of bags, and I really would have preferred a section like this on history instead. This part of the exhibition was mainly just annoying, because it was bedecked with loads of different fabrics that I was just itching to touch, except there were “do not touch” signs everywhere and a steward giving me hairy eyeball, so I didn’t dare. Yes, I know I shouldn’t be touching things anyway because of Covid, but don’t make something look marvellously tactile and then tell me I can’t touch it, because that’s just cruel.

  

Honestly, the best part of the exhibition, other than the frog bag, was the fact that they had rerouted the exits to make the exhibition one way, so we emerged into the wrought iron section of the permanent collections, which I hadn’t visited in years (the V&A is huge and I normally just come for special exhibitions these days, so it’s easy to forget this stuff exists), and I’d forgotten how cool it was. This is not to say that the Bags exhibition was terrible, but it wasn’t all that big, and the bags were quite spaced out upstairs, so they weren’t necessarily utilising all the space they could have for displays, which meant the interpretation was definitely a bit lacking. Some of the bags were really neat, but I didn’t come out of this feeling I had really learned anything about bags, and I can’t say I’m any more interested in them as a fashion item than I was going in. 2.5/5.

Chiddingstone, Kent: Chiddingstone Castle and Village

After years of visiting Perryhill Orchards Farmshop every autumn to stock up on their russet cloudy apple juice (still not as good as apple cider, but the closest I can manage to find ’round these parts), I thought I had already seen almost every attraction the surrounding area had to offer, but I was wrong. Chiddingstone Castle and Chiddingstone Village were just hiding away, silently chiding me for not visiting (this is a bit of a pun, as you’ll see).

  

Chiddingstone Castle is located in west Kent, and apparently has been there in some form or another since Tudor times, but the current building is mainly Victorian. It was the home of the Streatfeild family (looks like it’s spelled wrong, but it’s not) until they could no longer afford the property taxes/upkeep, and it was purchased in 1955 by the eccentric Denys Eyre Bower, who was a collector and attempted murderer, but I’ll get to that later on. The house is owned by a trust, since the National Trust didn’t want it (they rejected the museum I work at too – maybe if they weren’t so picky they’d have a more varied portfolio of properties), and costs £9.50 to enter (no Art Pass discount here).

  

Bower seemingly had a wide range of interests, but most of the pieces he collected were Japanese, Ancient Egyptian, Tudor, or Stuart, and he was a practicing Buddhist (except for the attempted murder bit, which doesn’t feel very in keeping with Buddhist ideals), so also collected some Buddhist objects. The collections are mainly segregated into their own rooms now, though apparently when Bower lived there it was more of a crazy mishmash with stuff everywhere (also very much like the museum I work at – I wonder if the owners knew each other, since they were roughly contemporaries).

  

We started with the Japanese room, which ended up being one of my favourite sections. I love Japanese armour (and medieval armour for that matter – I think I just like armour!) and the cool demon masks, though I have to say the most interesting and creepiest things here were the fully articulated models of various insects and animals. The dragon and peacock were really cool. The rest creeped me out, especially assuming they moved like their insect counterparts when you picked them up (that centipede – ugh!), but I have to admit that the craftsmanship was absolutely incredible.

 

The Stuart collection was where some of Denys’s, shall we say, eccentricities started to come through. The reason he was interested in the Stuarts was because he believed he was a reincarnation of Bonnie Prince Charlie (I’ve seen photos, and bonny Bower was not), and so he was obsessed with James II and his spawn. He even had actual relics of James II, including a box that contained a segment of his heart, as well as a locket with some blood and hair.

 

The Ancient Egyptian collection was probably the most extensive, but I do fear much of it was obtained through unethical means, as was common practice at the time. I can’t deny that it would be cool to have a sarcophagus in one’s home, but it sure wouldn’t feel great morally. However, Bower did get swindled into buying reproduction pieces on some occasions (which the signage pointed out), so I guess there was a small degree of comeuppance.

 

The house itself was fairly unremarkable in décor, basically your standard Victorian slightly shabby country home, though I sense upkeep wasn’t particularly high on Bower’s list of priorities, especially after he got sent to Wormwood Scrubs. Yes, finally time to talk about the murder! Various interpretation panels scattered throughout the house vaguely alluded to Bower having spent time in prison, but didn’t get down to brass tacks until we were nearly through the house, when we came across a small room devoted solely to Bower and his life and finally learned some of the juicy bits. When Bower was in his fifties, he was dating a woman in her twenties, and he threatened to kill himself if she ever left him (I’ve been in a relationship like that, and it was no picnic). To drive the point home, he brought a gun to her house, where it “accidentally” went off (or so he claimed) and shot his girlfriend, who was luckily only injured, and he then tried to kill himself but failed at that too. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and attempted suicide, but an influential lawyer took on his case and got him released after he served only five years, and I have to say that even when he was in prison, he seemed to have a fairly cushy time of it, as he was able to expand his book collection by a couple hundred volumes sent directly to him in prison.

  

I could have dealt with his other eccentricities (the reincarnation thing is harmless enough), but hearing the story of his attempted murder put me right off him. He absolutely sounds like an abusive creep. He was also married twice (before the whole murder thing) and there were photos of his wives in the museum (above the previous paragraph). I have to say they both looked much too good for him – very pretty and much younger than he was from the looks of it – so I’m glad they eventually wised up and left him. Even though I have taken strongly against Bower the man, I do admit that I definitely liked elements of his collection and the house, particularly the women’s toilet, which had a lovely wide wooden seated Victorian pullchain model that made me feel like I was sitting on a throne. I love a good toilet.

  

On the day we visited (which also happened to be one of their last open days this year. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until spring if you want to visit), they were closing early for a wedding, so we had to give the café a miss, even though I was most enticed by the toasted crumpets with honey. Love tea and crumpets. However, we did give ourselves enough time to explore the “Fields of Eternity” Ancient Egyptian grass maze, which I absolutely loved the sound of, but it was sadly underwhelming. The description made it sound like a maze that would lead you through various parts of a pyramid and the Egyptian underworld, but all it turned out to be was some overgrown grass that was so mashed down it didn’t look like much of anything. It was essentially just walking through a field with some signs in it. The grounds as a whole are nothing spectacular; there’s a wooded bit, and a grassy bit, but no formal gardens to speak of. There is an orangery, but we couldn’t go in it as it was full of people standing around the edges blocking the entrances who just stared at us when we attempted to approach, so we gave up. For the price, I do think the house is worth seeing, because I really liked the Japanese and Stuart collections and Bower was certainly an unusual man, if not a particularly nice one. 3/5.

 

Very near Chiddingstone Castle (you can walk there if you don’t have to vacate the carpark for an event like we did) is Chiddingstone Village, home to a Tudor shopping street with what claims to be the oldest working shop in Britain (est. 1453, but I have seen other places attempt to claim that title, so I don’t know if it’s actually the oldest). The whole street is owned by the National Trust (apparently that was good enough for them but not the castle), who I presume rent out the buildings to other businesses, as the café certainly wasn’t National Trust. Because we didn’t have time to have tea at the castle, and because it had started pissing it down, we decided to have tea here, but it was a bit of an experience. They were quite busy, so just ignored us for a while when we walked in before telling us to sit anywhere. There wasn’t room inside, so we went out to the covered patio, but every open table was absolutely covered in other people’s dishes and food detritus. I’m not just talking cups, but actual gross bits of food and liquid spilt everywhere. Staff members came out at various times to grab chairs or see to the other tables, but no one ever came to bus our table, so we ended up just moving everything ourselves and wiping it off as best we could with a Kleenex I found in my purse, which wasn’t ideal. I have to say that the cake was actually delicious (though I was disappointed they only had coffee and walnut (blech) and Victoria sponge (acceptable, but certainly not my first choice) after seeing the large variety advertised on their website) and they had cute crockery, but the service definitely left something to be desired.

 

We also popped in the oldest shop to buy beer from a local brewery and homemade fudge (because that’s what we do) and the woman complimented my coat, so she was OK by me. I loved the house next to the shop that was all decked out for Halloween, and the Georgian angel tombstones in the churchyard. Finally, we had to check out the “chiding stone”, which is meant to be how the village got its name. It is just a big stone where, according to legend, men would gather to “chide” their errant wives. It’s kind of a gross patriarchal legend, but I do love folklore, so I found it pretty interesting. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend popping down to check out the village, since it is quite cute and the churchyard has some good stones, but I would maybe advise getting your tea as a takeaway unless you like sitting at dirty tables.

London: Van Gogh House

I had learned quite a lot about Vincent Van Gogh’s time in London after visiting the Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate a few years ago, but one thing I didn’t learn was that you can visit one of the houses where he lived. Actually, you probably couldn’t at the time of that exhibition, because they’ve only just opened to the public following a “major conservation project”, but I spotted them on Art Fund’s website right after their reopening (due to Durham and Halloween, this is a very delayed post – I visited in early September when we were having a mini heatwave, hence my summery outfit) and booked Marcus and myself in for a visit.

Van Gogh House is located about a ten minute walk from Stockwell Underground Station, in a surprisingly nice leafy part of Stockwell that feels more like Hampstead. Due to a train mishap, we arrived about ten minutes late, which I was mildly panicking about since I hate being late, but it turned out that we were the only people visiting, so it was fine. Tickets are £5 or £2.50 with Art Pass, and they’re requesting that you book in advance, though based on our experience, you might well get lucky if you just show up. There was an exhibition at the time of our visit called “Life and its most trivial particulars.” This rather pretentiously named photographic installation by Brian Griffiths and Frank Kent runs until 18th December, and basically just means there’s a photograph in each of the rooms, so I wouldn’t rush to the house on account of it.

At the time Van Gogh lived in this three storey Georgian terrace, from 1873-74, it was a boarding house run by Ursula Layer and her daughter Eugenie, the latter of whom Vincent seems to have promptly fallen in love with, but it was unrequited. His sister Anna also moved in for a bit before they got a house together in Kennington in August 1874. So Van Gogh didn’t spend a tonne of time in the house, but at least he actually did live there, which is more than you can say for Cooks’ Cottage in Melbourne.

The house itself is quite cool, with original timbers in the floor, a lovely sunny room filled with houseplants much healthier than mine, and not one, but two toilets (even though one of them was a proper old Victorian pull-chain toilet, which I love, neither of them would have actually been here at the time Van Gogh was living here. They only had an outdoor privy back then, presumably supplemented with chamber pots). However, because Van Gogh didn’t become a huge name until quite a long time after leaving here, and researchers only discovered about fifty years ago that this was the house he had stayed in, quite a lot had been done to the house in the intervening years, so it’s not as it would have been in the 1870s. Considering the fate of the houses of many other historical figures, I suppose we’re lucky that it’s still standing at all!

Though I of course wanted to know every detail of Van Gogh’s time here, unfortunately, there’s not a great deal of information in the house. There was a small fact sheet laid out in each room containing a bit more information about the room and what Van Gogh was doing in London at that time, but that’s pretty much it. The photographic exhibition had virtually no information other than the names of the pieces. I know they were meant to be inspired by Van Gogh’s work, so if you’re familiar with his paintings, it’s not that hard to make a connection between, say, the photograph of potatoes growing and The Potato Eaters, but the connections were often tenuous at best, and it would have been nice to know more about what Van Gogh meant to the photographers, or how the photos were composed. I think they do occasionally offer guided tours, so it might be worth going on one of those to learn more about the history of the house, because you won’t get it from the current signage.

There was another installation where a modern artist had tried to recreate the paints used in Van Gogh’s paintings, but it literally was just a bunch of stripes painted on a wall, as seen above. Again, more information than just the names of the colours would have been appreciated. I feel like I’m being quite down on the house, but I do think the house itself was nice, and I loved being able to walk in the footsteps of Van Gogh, I just wanted to know more! I think the £2.50 we paid was reasonable, but a fiver is a bit steep for what you get. 2.5/5.

If you find yourself wanting more Van Gogh after you leave, you’re in luck, because there is a lovely little “Van Gogh Walk” about a minute away from the house. Most of this area was built up towards the end of the 19th century – at the time Van Gogh lived here, he was still surrounded by patches of nature and loved going for strolls to look at the flora and fauna, so this walk was in homage to that. You can stroll this plant-filled little passage down to the bust of Van Gogh at the end, on which someone had rested a disgusting sunflower head. Yes, I love Van Gogh, but I absolutely loathe sunflowers. I find their big heads revolting, don’t ask me why, and I honestly can’t even look closely at them without wanting to gag. I also hate the thickness of their stems and they way they loom over you in a sinister way, but I’ve probably already said too much. Regardless of my issues with sunflowers, I enjoyed the Van Gogh Walk, and the plaque and quotations in it probably contained more information than his whole damn house did, so I’d definitely stop and see it whilst you’re there.

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.