history

Brighton, East Sussex: The Tomb Trail

Although I’ve been to Brighton many, many times over the years, and I would definitely say I’m a taphophile (NOT to be confused with necrophile. Ewww!), for whatever reason, I can’t say I had ever given much thought to its cemeteries. However, I wanted an excuse to go to the seaside and have a Boho Gelato back in early May, before museums had reopened, so I found myself researching outdoor attractions, and Brighton’s “Tomb Trail” popped up. With a name like that, how could I not instantly be won over?

 

Brighton and Hove are actually home to seven cemeteries, three of them clustered around Lewes Road, and the Tomb Trail is located within Extra-Mural Cemetery (which feels like an odd name to me, even though I know it just means the cemetery is located outside the city – in middle school we used to call what was essentially recess “intramurals”, I guess because it made it sound a bit more grown up. I used them as an opportunity to hang out in the library with my friends and get kicked out for laughing too hard at the lame “confessions” in YM Magazine, especially if they involved farts). As seemed to be happening in much of the UK around the 1840s, Brighton’s cemeteries were becoming overcrowded, so new cemeteries were established outside of the city centre to try to help cope with the problem. Extra-Mural Cemetery was the first of these in Brighton, built in 1850, followed shortly by the adjoining Woodvale Cemetery. In the 1880s, Downs Cemetery was built on another plot of adjoining land to form the massive cemetery complex that exists today, though since I had never been to this end of Brighton before, I had no idea it was here.

 

The layout of the cemeteries is super confusing if you arrive by car, and we accidentally drove into the wrong cemetery and had to leave and circle around a few times before we found the entrance to the right one – we ended up having to stop and find directions from someone else’s blog post about it because Google Maps took us in a very wrong direction indeed (in case someone else is in the same boat as us, I’ll pass along the favour by telling you the vehicle entrance is opposite a petrol station with an M&S Simply Food). But once we got to the right place, we spotted signs for the Tomb Trail immediately.

 

There didn’t seem to be a dedicated parking area, so we just parked on the side of the path near some other cars, as is standard in cemeteries that allow cars. I think there are meant to be Tomb Trail leaflets available somewhere, though it might be the sort of convoluted process where you have to email the council and wait for them to send you one, so we just went without. There are directional arrows designed to keep you on track, but man, is it easy to get off-piste! At one point, an arrow appeared to be pointing directly into a clump of bushes, so we thought the sign must have gotten bumped by a car or something, because there was no way that could possibly be right, and just continued on up the main path. However, we seemed to be going an awfully long time without seeing another arrow, and once we started to get to an area of new graves (all the others on the Tomb Trail had been very old), we realised we must have gone wrong and retraced our steps. Yep, turns out we were supposed to walk through an actual clump of bushes. After struggling through and ducking under a very low-hanging tree branch, we did meet up with the arrows again, so I can only assume the area was less overgrown when they first put the signs up.

 

Like much of Brighton, the cemetery is built on a hill, so you will find yourself climbing up and down a lot, but the cemetery itself is lovely. Definitely overgrown in spots, like every British cemetery I’ve ever been to (in case you couldn’t tell from my description of the shrubbery section of the trail), but also full of lots of attractive old Victorian tombstones and statuary. It was still bluebell season when we visited, so there were lots of those out (and we found a beautiful display of tulips in the middle of Brighton after leaving the cemetery – I guess I’ve never actually been to Brighton in late spring before to have seen them). There aren’t any really famous people buried in this cemetery, but there’s a few Victorians who were prominent in Brighton, like John Urpeth Rastrick, who was the engineer that laid out the Brighton Main Line, and who is now laid out himself in the heaviest tomb in the cemetery (above right), which had to be pulled by twenty horses (poor horses); a circus performer (horse tomb above left), and a VC holder or two. Nonetheless, there were still plenty of interesting tombstones to look at, and some mildly creepy Stations of the Cross style statue tableaux on the chapel (I thought that was more of a Catholic thing, but I’ve never actually been to a C of E service, so I wouldn’t really know). There was however, no toilet, at least not one I could find, so after we walked the Tomb Trail, which took about an hour, I beat a hasty retreat to the Sainsbury’s across the road because I really needed a wee.

 

You are of course welcome to venture outside of the Tomb Trail, and walk through the other cemeteries as well, but because of the situation with my bladder, we did not end up doing that on this visit. But the Tomb Trail was certainly a nice walk, though maybe not quite as gloriously creepy as the name suggests (perhaps it’s better in the autumn?), and I would definitely like to check out the other Lewes Road cemeteries when I have a chance, because they looked similarly ornate and intriguing. Recommended if you’re visiting Brighton and want to do something away from all the crowds of the pier and the Lanes. And yes, of course I got my Boho Gelato afterwards, which was just as good as it always is, even though they didn’t have any of my usual favourite flavours in stock (I “settled” for raspberry ripple, salted caramel, and honeycomb mint chocolate chip, and was pleasantly surprised by how delicious the honeycomb mint chip was, as I don’t usually like honeycomb and wouldn’t have thought it went well with mint). Really, any time I can finish an ice cream in Brighton without a jerk seagull stealing it out of my hand half-eaten, it’s a win!

London: Nero @ the British Museum

Regular readers will know that I generally avoid Roman history like the Antonine Plague – I’ve just never been a fan of classical history, and the Romans in particular bore me. However, one of my friends wanted to visit a museum with me (a rare occurrence, since he normally just wants to go to the pub), and I know his tastes are quite different to mine, so I suggested a few things that I thought might appeal, and we settled on Nero: the man behind the myth, which runs at the British Museum until October 2021 (and honestly, I was quite happy to look at Roman artefacts if it meant avoiding the pub, though of course we ended up doing that too). Admission is an extremely pricey £20, or £10 with Art Pass.

 

We went on a bank holiday Monday, and though I had no problem booking tickets the day before, the exhibition was dispiritingly crowded when we entered, which seems to be a recurring issue at the British Museum (this was definitely less crowded than the Arctic exhibition though). We politely joined the end of the queue for a while, but it was creeping along so bloody slowly, particularly the man and his daughter in front of us – he was taking about fifteen minutes to read and explain each caption to her, even though she was probably nine or ten and clearly more than capable of reading the captions herself, since she seemed to know more about Roman history than her dad did – it was sweet that he was taking his daughter to a museum, I guess, but I just don’t have the patience to stand behind someone reading at such a leisurely pace, so I ended up doing my usual thing of zipping ahead to whatever case was empty and then doubling back to read the things I’d missed once the people in front of them cleared out, which was possible here since there didn’t seem to be a one-way system in place.

 

As you can probably guess from my lack of enthusiasm about the Romans, my knowledge of Roman history is definitely patchy at best, and I didn’t even know that Nero was the adopted son of Claudius. The whole premise of the exhibition is to provide an objective perspective of Nero so that you can use the facts presented here to decide if he actually was as evil as history has led us to believe, or if he’s just gotten a bad rap over the centuries. Therefore, the exhibition started with information about Nero’s childhood and a sculpture of him as a child, I guess to show us how innocent he once was. Unfortunately, it then progressed into an entire wall showing the genealogy of various Roman rulers, and I rapidly started losing the will to live.

 

But I perked up a bit when I got to the section on Roman Britain, because there was some interesting stuff here, particularly the slave chain worn by native Britons enslaved by Romans. Other than Boudica, I don’t think anything especially significant took place in Britain during Nero’s fairly brief reign, so this was probably an excuse for the British Museum to give some of their collection that is normally in storage an airing, but I’m OK with that.

 

In an attempt to show a more human side to Nero, there was also a section on his family life, including the above sculpture of what his daughter Claudia Augusta might have looked like if she hadn’t died in infancy. She’s holding a butterfly, which, much as I hate the things, I can admire the skill it must have taken to carve something so delicate yet sturdy enough that it’s still intact millennia later. There were also sculptures of his wives – I think the one above might be Octavia – but it’s hard to see Nero as much of a family man when you realise he had her executed. And of course he had his mother, Agrippina, killed as well, even though they were once close. Oh, and allegedly kicked another one of his wives to death. What a charmer!

 

We also learned more about Nero’s interests. In addition to murdering and the traditional Roman blood sports, he was also fond of music and acting, apparently to an extent that his fellow upper class Romans found strange. He even appeared on stage when he was emperor, and apparently wasn’t that bad of an actor, though really, what are you going to say about an actor who has the power to kill you and isn’t afraid to use it? I picture him forcing his way on stage despite the protests of the other actors and gleefully ruining the play with hammy overacting just because he could.

  

The thing Nero is probably best known for is starting the Great Fire of Rome and then merrily playing his fiddle whilst Rome burned, but this is wrong for several reasons, the first being that his instrument of choice was a lyre, not a fiddle. Seriously though, he wasn’t even in Rome at the time of the fire, and he later organised a relief fund for victims of the fire and allegedly even let some of them stay in his palaces. However, the fire conveniently cleared space for him to build a new massive palace in Rome, which may have fueled some of the later claims that he played a role in starting it. On the plus side, his new palace looked fabulous – I loved the frescoes of sea monsters and the collection of tiny arms and heads taken from mosaics. They were so small and perfect! I was also fascinated by the giant decapitated statue of Nero with his awful hairstyle that must have looked hilariously derpy when intact, if the sketch here (below right) was anything to go by!

  

Because Nero died when he was only 30, the exhibition soon ran out of things to say about his life and moved on to his downfall, which basically happened because he pissed off the wrong people with his tax policies, and his governors started rebelling. Eventually, his guards deserted him, and he decided to kill himself rather than wait around to be killed, but he of course had to exercise his imperial powers one last time and force one of his servants to help him commit suicide. Some guy called Galba took over the Roman Empire after Nero died, but people didn’t like him either, so he was killed after a few months, followed by three other randoms who all only ruled for a few months before either killing themselves or being killed. Eventually, Vespasian stepped up to seize the reins of power, and he proceeded to pay various historians to trash Nero’s memory, which is allegedly why people think ill of him today, but honestly, it sounds like he brought a lot of it on himself by being a terrible person, though I guess not significantly worse than any other Roman emperor. They all sounded like assholes, at least according to (the famously historically inaccurate) Horrible Histories.

 

Since I didn’t know all that much about Nero going on, I did learn a thing or two, but my friend, who is much keener on the Romans than I am, was not impressed. Weird though it sounds, based on the inclusion of special signs aimed at children, I suspect they were attempting to make this exhibition somewhat child-friendly. Perhaps because of this, they left out some of the juicier rumours about Nero, like the one where after killing his second wife, he had a boy who resembled his dead wife castrated, married him, and anally raped him. Even if that particular rumour isn’t true though, I think it’s pretty clear that this exhibition did nothing to win me over to the idea that Nero wasn’t a shit – he may not have been completely evil 100% of the time, but he was still a despicable human who was responsible for a lot of deaths. For £10, I probably got my money’s worth, but this was certainly not big enough for a £20 exhibition, and based on my friend’s experience, if you like Roman history, you probably won’t learn anything new, but you might enjoy looking at the artefacts. If you can get a half-price ticket, I think it is worth going to see some of the objects on display, which are better than the normal Roman crap they dig up, but I don’t think I’d pay full price for this one. 3/5.

 

London: “Sneakers Unboxed” and Margaret Calvert @ the Design Museum

That’s right, I’m back to visiting museums again! Unfortunately, my first time in a museum as a visitor since December was a bit of a letdown, but it was my own fault for choosing the exhibition poorly. I pre-booked “Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street” way back in March in hopes that museums would actually be able to open in May, and there weren’t a lot of exhibitions available for booking that far in advance, so I chose something that I would have probably not bothered with otherwise.

 

When the day in May finally arrived, we turned up to the Design Museum at the appointed time and were let straight into the museum after scanning the Test and Trace QR code. The Design Museum gives you a bit more freedom than some other museums in that once you’re in, you’re in, and you’re welcome to look at the free exhibitions as well without booking a separate ticket (unlike at the British Museum, for example). Admission to Sneakers is normally £12.50, but we only paid £6 with Art Pass. The exhibition is located in the basement exhibition gallery where we’ve seen quite a few other things here, and we were the only people in the first room when we walked in; though we were quickly joined by others, it was definitely much less crowded than other exhibitions I’ve been to recently, possibly because we were there on a Monday afternoon.

    

When I booked tickets, I was anticipating that the exhibition would be about the history of sneakers, with maybe some fashion elements thrown in, but it ended up being more like a shrine to the cult of expensive kicks. Honestly, I’m not even super into sneakers – I wear a lot of dresses and jumpsuits and things, so I tend to opt for slightly dressier shoes most of the time, and sandals 100% of the time as soon as it’s warm enough (I hate socks), so I only own a few pairs of sneakers that I wear regularly, which are black Vans slip-ons (I’m wearing them in the photo at the start of this post, but I was still breaking them in and they tore up the backs of my heels so bad that blood started gushing out and pooling in the bottom of my shoes on the way to the museum. Fun!), black Converse high-tops, and black Ash high-tops, which are like a more comfortable version of Converse with buckles instead of laces – so I am probably too boring sneaker-wise to have been the target audience. This was more for the Air Jordan/other overpriced sneakers crowd. Most of the shoes here were the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in my life, especially those white ones, above left, with the giant gross treads. They seriously remind me of the bottom of a horseshoe crab or something else disgusting.

  

Because most of the signage just consisted of a label under each pair of sneakers with their name and date of production, we ended up going through this pretty quickly. The most interesting parts were the section on Converse, because I liked looking at all the old advertising posters and the early models of the shoes from the 1910s and ’20s, and a short video at the end about the evolution of sneaker shapes, which was the only bit of the exhibition with the history I was looking for (and I think the video was part of an advert for a sneaker brand, rather than something the Design Museum had created). There was also a small section about the sustainability of the materials used in sneaker production, and some great photos of various subcultures that placed an emphasis on specific types of sneakers, like hip-hop culture in the 1980s, and intriguingly, a Latin American subculture where teenagers wear clothing featuring religious iconography and elaborately decorated Converse. I would have loved to learn more about these subcultures, particularly the latter group, but I forgot to take a picture of the sign with their name, and Google has gotten me nowhere (I’m not even sure which country these teens are from – I thought it was Mexico, but I could be wrong). The rest of it was decidedly meh, and I was glad we only paid £6. If they had spent more time focusing on the evolution of fashion and the development of the aforementioned subcultures, rather than just displaying loads and loads of sneakers, I think this exhibition could have had some real potential, but as it is, unless you’re really into sneaker collecting, I’d give this a miss. 1.5/5.

 

However, the trip wasn’t a total loss (it wouldn’t have been a total loss anyway, because it gave me an excuse to go to High Street Ken and get reunited with two of my loves – Ben’s Cookies, and chocolate chip muffins from Whole Foods – after an absence of more than a year), because the museum also had a free temporary exhibition on typography, specifically the work of the designer Margaret Calvert, who developed some of the most iconic signs and typefaces in Britain, including a new font for National Rail, the pictograms for British road signs that have been in use since the 1960s, and the typefaces for British airports, British Rail, and the gov.uk website. It’s pretty crazy to think that one person designed so many fonts, especially a woman who started her career in mid-century Britain, and I was completely fascinated by this exhibition. It detailed Calvert’s design process, which involves hand-drawing so she can have more control of design; her desk space, with many quirky signs; and the research that goes into the design process to determine how big fonts have to be, whether they should be all upper case or if upper case and lower case letters should be used, and where signs should be positioned in a train station or airport.

  

I honestly wish this could have been the main special exhibition instead of Sneakers so it could have had a larger space devoted to it and we could have learned even more, because words and fonts are so much more my jam than elaborate sneakers, but I’m glad it was here at all so we could learn about Margaret Calvert (who is still alive – she starred in a short video in the exhibition). Definitely recommend seeing this – it runs until August, and I think you can book a free ticket to see this and the small temporary display on artificial intelligence without having to pay to see Sneakers, which I would advise doing if your footwear preferences are the same as mine.

 

Chilworth, Surrey: Chilworth Gunpowder Mills

Faced with the problem of what to do on an excursion with a friend I hadn’t seen since November on a Saturday when every ticketed outdoor attraction was already booked up, after a lengthy search to find an interesting looking walk in Surrey that I hadn’t already been on (i.e. one with actual sites to see other than gorse), I discovered the Chilworth Gunpowder Mills. Set in the idyllic countryside near Guildford, these are the ruins of what was once the sole legal producer of gunpowder in England, and since they’re part of a public walking trail, you can just rock up and visit any time you like, no booking required.

 

Unfortunately, the day we picked for our excursion was full of intermittent downpours (like basically all of May this year), so the terrain was pretty damn muddy, and we were being pelted with rain on and off, but armed with waterproof jackets, we set off undaunted. The websites I found about the mills didn’t initially make it super clear where we had to go, but you want to aim for the Percy Arms Pub in Chilworth. You can park for free on the main road if the pub carpark is full, and the entrance to the trail is just a little ways down the road, next to a primary school. I ended up downloading the 4.5km walk guide from this website, which is what we used to navigate, though you will encounter some leaflets on site that will direct you on a 2km walk just around the mills if you don’t fancy climbing up a hill (I didn’t really, but 2km isn’t a very long walk, so we had to extend it somehow).

  

Gunpowder was manufactured in the Tillingbourne valley from 1626, when the East India Company established the first mill, until 1920, when all the mills closed, although people continued to reside in buildings on the site until 1963 (it was known as “tin town”). Guildford Council’s website claims that there are 100 buildings on the site, but my friend, being skeptical of this claim, went out of his way to count them all, and even being generous and including things like the remains of bridges as “buildings” he only counted 24. Maybe the rest are on private land so we couldn’t actually see them on the walk. And don’t ask me why this site was specifically chosen for gunpowder, as this was never explained. My best guess would be that it was close enough to London to be relatively easy to reach, but still far enough away from the city and other major towns that any explosions would have left them unaffected, and it is surrounded by a couple of rivers, so it would be easy to transport materials in and out.

  

Following the walk took us through the right side of the site first, which included the largest building still standing. The map in the leaflet didn’t seem to match up with what the online map was telling me, but I think this was the expense magazine, which was used to store materials in between stages of manufacturing. You can actually still go inside (very much at your own risk) and a set of concrete steps has been built at some stage in the recent past to aid this, though it was still quite wet and slippery inside, so we had to walk with care. Carrying on along the river, on the route of what was once a tramway around the site, we passed the ruins of a few other buildings nowhere near as well preserved as the magazines. You can carry on along this path, or do as we did and pass through a gate and through a couple of fields to reach Postford Pond.

  

You can see the roofs of the WWI cordite works from along this trail, and will also pass some horses, cows, and a couple of very hairy pigs. Postford Pond, and its neighbour Waterloo Pond, are positively bucolic. In fact, the whole area is incredibly lovely, disturbed only by our brief encounter with a group of students presumably doing DofE award related activities who were blaring extremely obnoxious and terrible music. There’s a housing development that you have to walk through after the ponds where you basically have to cut across someone’s garden, which feels a bit wrong, but it’s apparently a right of way (fortunately, no one was outside, so we didn’t have to make awkward eye contact whilst doing so).

 

After passing the houses, we ended up in a forest scattered with bluebells, walking steadily uphill along a winding dirt path with the Tillingbourne “meandering” below. This would have been lovely were it not for the uphill aspects of it, and the fact that this was when the sun chose to come out, so I started overheating and had to hastily shed my outer layers, but still ended up drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top of the hill. This area was where charcoal was produced. At this point, we had to option to extend the walk by half a kilometre by walking up to St. Martha’s Church, but I was pretty hot and cranky and not in the mood to walk up any more hills, so we instead headed downhill back to the gunpowder mill, passing a vineyard and some alpacas (living in an “alpaca hotel”) en route. There’s also a WWII pillbox next to a farm. It’s on private land, but you can see it from the trail.

  

We then explored the other half of the mill site, including the spot where six people were killed in 1901 after someone’s hobnail boot gave off a spark (hobnail boots are probably not a great idea when you’re working with gunpowder), a number of mill stones from an incorporating mill (whatever that is), and a gate house where workers were checked for any explosive materials before they entered the mills (I guess someone was asleep on hobnail boot day). I was especially intrigued by the dragon notation on the map, which marked the “dragon stones” on the WWII home defence line protecting London from tank invasion (no idea how they worked though. They were just conical stones). It had started absolutely pissing it down again as soon as we got down to the mills, so my raincoat came back out, which was not a great combination with my now-sweaty long-sleeved shirt. Needless to say, I was tired and hungry by the end of this (not to mention wet), so I was relieved when we headed to a brewery that at least had seating under a marquee for pizzas and a refreshing St. Clements after our walk.

 

It’s nice that Guildford council provides free maps to the site, though as I indicated, I could have done with a LOT more information about the mills, which isn’t readily forthcoming online either (though there is apparently a book you can buy about them). Some signage on the site or at least QR codes you could scan for more info certainly wouldn’t go amiss! However, it is a free site, so I can’t really demand too much, and I am glad it hasn’t been taken over by the National Trust and cleaned up, as I think it would lose a large portion of its charm (and some of the thrill of discovery), not to mention that the National Trust would definitely charge for entry if they owned it. It is genuinely a really gorgeous place to walk (with riparian entertainments!), and not too crowded, even on a Saturday, though the rain probably helped with that somewhat. Highly recommended if you find yourself in Surrey and fancy a bit of industrial archaeology! In other news, I finally got my first jab last week (just in time to go back to work), so there will definitely be some museum visits coming up in the near future.

 

 

 

London: “Unfinished Business” @ the British Library

I had some unfinished business with “Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights”. I was originally booked in to see it the day before lockdown 2.0, but then I ended up getting married instead, which took priority. So I made sure that Unfinished Business was the first exhibition I visited after lockdown, and as it turns out, it was also the only exhibition I got to see during the brief period museums were allowed to re-open, since I got word the day after my visit that one of my colleagues had tested positive, so I had to leave work and immediately start self-isolating (I wasn’t able to get a test since I fortunately never developed symptoms (and my colleague had a very mild case, also fortunately), so I still don’t know if I’ve actually had Covid or not, or if I was infectious at the time I saw the exhibition, so I guess it’s good I had a mask on the entire time I was in central London, even when I was outside). I was hoping to get in one more museum visit when my self-isolation period ended on Wednesday, but then the government decided to move us into Tier 3 starting Wednesday (instead of just reassessing on Wednesday, which was what I thought they were meant to do), so there goes my one day of freedom!

 

But anyway, back when I was unaware that I was a potential Covid Jessica (I know I’m being a bit flippant, but I would honestly feel awful if I knew I got someone sick), I headed up to the British Library for the first time in well over a year to finally see this exhibition (time flies when you can’t leave your house…at least up to a point if you’re an introvert like me. I enjoyed working from home in my pajamas instead of having to go into the office (and I was only working from an office again for a month before having to self-isolate (and this is at a museum with a very small team), so that went well!), but I do miss visiting exhibitions every week). Tickets are £15, or £7.50 with Art Pass, and you must pre-book, though there were plenty of tickets still available on the day when we visited. It is meant to run until February 2021, though this may be extended now that they’ve had to close again.

  

We were already off to a better start than our recent experience at the British Museum as soon as we entered the exhibition, because it was pretty damn empty. There were maybe only ten visitors in the entirety of the large PACCAR Gallery, and the one way arrow stickers on the floor were huge, so there was absolutely no way you could miss them (and there was really only one natural path around most of the exhibition, so we wouldn’t have run into the same issues that we had at the BM anyway). The BL normally divides the space into a lot of smaller rooms, but in this case they had wisely decided to leave everything open, which made it a lot easier to social distance. No complaints about the appearance or configuration of this exhibition!

 

As for the content…I definitely consider myself a feminist, and am interested in the women’s rights movement, so I was really excited to see this exhibition, and it didn’t disappoint. Rather than being divided into individual galleries, the exhibition was divided into zones on Body, Mind, and Voice, though there was definitely a bit of overlap between the zones. As always, the BL presented fascinating historical documents alongside contemporary art and artefacts, and I absolutely loved the little cartoons on the side of each large interpretation panel, most of which contained wry observations on being a woman in male-dominated industries (totally my experience when I worked in brewing and people used to assume I was the head brewer’s girlfriend, though definitely not in heritage, which is heavily female-dominated, at least everywhere I’ve worked), though there was also a delightful cartoon about the Bronte sisters that made me laugh out loud (with any laughter particles safely contained within my mask) and a chart mocking the idea of an “ideal” body type with different food-based body shapes (I’m definitely a pierogi, not least because I eat a lot of pierogi when I can be bothered to make them).

 

“Body” contained sections on beauty pageants, cross-dressing female vaudeville entertainers, transwomen, menstruation, and more. I was fascinated to see the correspondence between American suffragist Caroline Kennard and Dahl’s Charwin, as I call him, aka Charles Darwin, about whether women were intellectually inferior to men. Darwin believed they were, and Kennard tried her best to set him straight by pointing out that women didn’t receive equal educational or employment opportunities, but Darwin presumably had none of it because he was kind of a jerk. There was also a small section on family planning, and the exhibition didn’t shy away from pointing out Marie Stopes’s racist views (similar to her American counterpart Margaret Sanger, she was a big believer in eugenics. It’s a shame all these early birth control advocates had such awful beliefs). I was also super interested to read Urania, an early 20th century gender studies publication written by feminist activists (definitely ahead of its time!), and see how badly I fail at dressing professionally for the office according to a 1970s guide for women on “power dressing” (I’ve been known to wear things close to that exact outfit, sans the slouchy hat).

 

I’m not sure exactly where “Mind” ended and “Voice” began, but I have to assume the education section was in “Mind”. Throughout the exhibition, there were charts showing the proportion of women represented in various fields, like politics, the workforce, etc. (and a really depressing one on domestic violence, which we all know has gotten worse during the pandemic as more women are trapped at home with their abusers), and the only chart where women were surpassing men was on higher education (though not when it comes to the make up of actual faculty, and the number of BAME female professors is particularly low). I was disturbed by the photograph of the 1897 protest by male students at Cambridge against granting degrees to women, which was full of boorish looking men throwing fireworks and suspending an effigy of a woman on a bicycle from a building, and was apparently successful, since the Queen Mother was the first woman to be granted an (honorary) degree at Cambridge, and that wasn’t until 1948!

 

“Voice” focused a lot on the suffragette movement, and made a point to mention the role women of colour played, and how they were basically ignored by white British suffragettes, who showed no concern whatsoever for the plight of women living under colonialism. In fact, during WWI, the Women’s Party put out a really revolting publication called Brittania, full of “patriotic” garbage extolling the “virtues” of Empire. Blech. I found the sections on solidarity movements by BAME women really interesting, and I loved all the protest art. Although much of the focus was still on white women, as that is still what makes up much of the BL’s collection, I do think they really tried to focus on women of colour as well and point out the many inequalities that still exist. This was really driven home in the case of Khadija Saye, one of the artists featured here, who tragically died aged only 24 in the Grenfell fire along with her mother due to the ultimately hideously unsafe conditions they were forced to live in.

 

As the exhibition guide said, although the exhibition tried to represent as many voices as they could, an exhibition of this size covering so much ground could never be comprehensive, and was really more of an overview, though I think it could be a great starting point to encourage visitors to learn more, and there was definitely a lot of interesting looking feminist literature available for purchase in the exhibition shop (along with some cool badges and stickers). The BL generally excels at including a range of interesting primary documents in their exhibits, and this was no exception, with poems written on toilet paper by suffragettes in prison (and my god, does it look like coarse, unpleasant toilet paper), to manuscripts of Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, and even a good range of artefacts from ordinary women, like a housemaid’s recipe for lemon ice cream and a rad uterus quilt.

 

I really liked “Unfinished Business”, and was definitely impressed with the social distancing, easy flow around the exhibition, and friendliness of the staff. 3.5/5. If you have time to walk around the building (which takes a bit longer than it used to due to the one-way system), there is a free display of more of Khadija Saye’s art on the first floor. I’m also including a photo of the small case on the Glasgow Women’s Library because I thought Anabel might like to see it, and you get a bonus photo of the BL’s cat, who we encountered as we left. One of the security guards told us her name was Daisy, and she is very cute!

 

London: “Arctic: Culture and Climate”@ the British Museum

This was the last exhibition I managed to see before lockdown 2.0, and after visiting this, I could kind of see why we needed another lockdown, because this was a free-for-all (as I’m sure you’ll see from the photos). When I visited “Tantra” at the British Museum a few weeks before this, I had no issues. The exhibition was fairly empty, and the pre-booking only system seemed to be working well. For “Arctic,” however, I suppose in their keenness to get as many people as possible through a major exhibition, the British Museum had let far too many people in at a time, and it was impossible to socially distance in some areas of the exhibition, because they were as rammed as they would have been pre-corona. Even the permanent galleries seemed significantly busier – there were lots of families and what looked like school groups, and I had to queue for ages to get into the toilets, even though, like my previous visit, this was also on a Monday at the exact same time in the early afternoon. Lockdown hadn’t been announced at this point, so I can’t even say it was a last hurrah; just a general loosening up.

 

But let’s get down to the exhibition itself. Regular readers know about my fascination with polar exploration, so I was very excited to see this exhibition on the ways the people who live in the Arctic manage to survive in such a harsh environment, and how they were adapting to climate change. “Arctic: culture and climate,” was originally meant to run until February 2021, though this may now be extended. Admission was a hefty £18, or a more reasonable £9 with Art Pass. It was held in the Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery, which is on the ground floor in the back of the museum – I don’t think I’d been to an exhibition in this gallery before, or at least not for a while, as all of the ones I’ve seen lately have been in that tower thing in the middle of the Great Court.

 

The gallery space featured one big corridor lined with the larger eye-catching artefacts that ran the length of the gallery, with smaller rooms branching off from it, and it was these smaller rooms that were the biggest problem, particularly as a lot of our fellow visitors seemed to be big family groups with the maximum allowed six people, and if you were stuck in a room with just two of those groups, there was no way you could put two metres between you. There was apparently a one way system in place, with markings on the floor to show you where to go, but neither Marcus or I noticed these when we were in the exhibition – we only saw them when we were looking at some of the photos after we left, so they need to make this a lot clearer!

 

The exhibit opened with a collection of traditional clothing worn by various Arctic peoples, and moved on to both the art and more quotidian objects that they have used throughout history. There was a lot of art featuring animals, especially the seals, whales, walruses, and various birds that the indigenous people have traditionally been dependent on for food and clothing – obviously, I loved this (says the woman with whale wallpaper in her living room)!

 

I also thought the tools associated with whaling were fascinating (though whaling is never a nice thing), especially a sealskin suit from Greenland with a hole in the middle. The wearer could crawl into the suit through the hole, and pull the hole closed behind him to create a waterproof suit. The suit would then be inflated via a straw to provide extra insulation and buoyancy. The most remarkable thing about this suit is that it was made some time before 1834 (presumably the date it was acquired by some explorer or another), since we tend to assume waterproof clothing is a more modern technology (I get the impression that most people were walking around in wet wool all the time in 19th century America and Britain, or at least that’s what it seems like in the Little House books).

 

As you might expect, a lot of the artefacts here were related to hunting and fishing; although many parts of the Arctic have more plant life than people might think in the summer, which the people living there of course incorporated into their diets, for the rest of the year, they needed to hunt to survive. And even the non-edible parts of the animals were very much used, not only for clothing, but for various intricate carvings using bone and tusk, many of which were quite beautiful. I loved the wooden seal helmet – it was used for hunting purposes, but it just looks so cute!

 

There was also a section here on first contact, much of it with the various polar explorers that I’ve read so much about, who were of various degrees of jerkishness – some were keen to befriend and learn from the native people, but others just wanted to claim the areas for their respective countries, and saw the people living there as a nuisance (which was just dumb, because if you’re planning on exploring a fairly inhospitable land, wouldn’t it make sense to learn a thing or two from the people who have managed to survive there for centuries?). There were some fantastic drawings from these encounters from the perspective of both the native Greenlanders and the European explorers.

 

There was a lot of great contemporary art here too, but my favourite things were probably the historical artefacts, many of seemed surprisingly modern like the aforementioned whaling suit, such as the snow goggles used to protect the wearer’s eyes from the sun glare coming off the snow, and the waterproof fish skin bags used for storage, which are far more sustainable than most modern materials (though I don’t particularly want to carry around a fish skin bag!).

 

A small section at the end had information about climate change and how it might affect the people living in the Arctic going forward, but most of the exhibition seemed to be on traditional ways of life, which I admittedly found more interesting, though obviously climate change is a huge concern. I did have to skip a few of the cases because there were just too many people hanging around in front of them who wouldn’t move and I wasn’t comfortable standing near that many people for a prolonged period, but I did enjoy everything I saw – it was just too busy! There was a shop at the end that directed us to wait outside if there were more than 15 people in the shop, but as you couldn’t actually see into the shop from outside the doors, and there was no member of staff there to regulate numbers (like they have outside the toilets), I have no idea how you were meant to gauge that yourself. The shop was quite a big one, with various crafts and food from around the Arctic (mainly Scandinavia and Canada), but maybe they could have cut back on the amount of stock in the shop and limited the amount of people in the exhibition more, because now is not really the time to be going all out on a museum shop (says the person who used to run a museum shop and had their budget frozen for the entirety of this year, even before Covid).

 

Anyway, the exhibition itself was good, though not big enough to justify either £18 or the amount of people they were allowing in the space. 3.5/5. Hopefully when it reopens after lockdown, they’ll be a bit stricter about limiting numbers or making sure people leave within a designated span of time.

 

 

London: “Tantra” @ the British Museum

Note: I wrote this post back in mid-October before the second lockdown was announced, and god, I was so optimistic and so excited about getting back into London then. I’ll leave it as is so we can all reflect on the naivete of Jessica from just a few weeks ago.

After an absence of many months, I have finally ventured into central London again! I had a dentist appointment for which I had to take the train anyway (since I never changed dentist after I moved last year, and good luck trying to get into a new one now!), so I thought I might as well just hop back on the train in Wimbledon and go all the way into Waterloo and walk across the river from there (I’m not quite ready to brave the Tube. The train is bad enough). I hadn’t been into London since March, and I didn’t realise how much I’d missed it until I went back. And honestly, public transport was the worst part of the whole experience, because central London is still pretty damn empty. Kingston is 10 times busier and full of non-mask wearing assholes, and I much prefer the atmosphere of London, I just wish there was another way to get there! (And don’t suggest cycling, because I will die if I cycle on city streets. I’m not a confident cyclist AT ALL.)

 

It was a grand day strolling around Bloomsbury and Covent Garden, getting cinnamon buns and excellent sugared brioche pretzels from my favourite Swedish bakery (Bageriet, much nicer than the more well known Fabrique, in my opinion), an ice cream from Udderlicious, and going into an actual bookshop and buying a book that I could look through first. Glorious! I also of course got in a museum visit, which proved to be a bit tricky since everywhere now requires pre-booking (rightly so) and many of the exhibitions I wanted to see were already booked up, but there were still plenty of tickets left to “Tantra: enlightenment to revolution” at the British Museum, which runs until January, so that’s what I opted for (you can book online on the day if there are still openings, but they will only let you book for a time at least two hours in advance, so you do need to plan a little bit ahead). Admission is £15, or £7.50 with Art Pass.

 

The British Museum still has its queuing system set up that ultimately leads you through a little security hut for a bag search, but unlike the last time I visited, there was no queue whatsoever, and we (Marcus came too) went straight into the hut. We had to get a picture in front of the museum, because I’ve never seen it without fifty million tourists crawling all over it before! The tranquility extended to the interior of the museum, and it felt good to be back in that familiar grand entrance hall. I certainly didn’t have a problem with the lack of people, though I recognise it’s not great for the museum itself.

 

You also need to book a ticket to visit the permanent collections, though those tickets are free. Currently, only the ground floor is open, and they have planned a one hour route to take you through it, but we skipped that and headed straight for Tantra. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this exhibition, because like many people, I associate the term tantra with weird sexual practices, like the days-long sex Sting claims to have, which just sounds unpleasant, frankly. But it turns out that Tantra, like many things, was perverted by the British occupation of India, and it actually started out as a practice of worship of female goddesses.

 

Tantra was developed in the 6th century CE in Southeast Asia as an offshoot of Hinduism amongst followers of Shiva, god of destruction, and Shakti, goddess of creation, and involved the worship of Shakti as mother of all things, as well as a series of rituals people could follow to invoke these deities. The word tantra literally means “loom” or “weave” in Sanskrit, and Tantra was a weaving together of new ideas from existing practices. There was a period of political turbulence in India in the medieval era that caused the philosophy to become popular with those searching for something new, especially as there was no caste system in Tantra and women were welcome to join. Tantra also led to the creation of Hatha yoga, which, whilst not a sexual practice, did involve strange contortions of the body, and some of the diagrams showing these postures may have led to outsiders construing it as somehow sexual.

 

Things carried on happily enough for centuries, but when the British took over India, they saw it as a challenge to their authority, particularly as some practitioners used it as a form of rebellion by trying to use the goddess Kali (you’ve probably seen images of her standing on a corpse and wearing a necklace of skulls, as in the above photos) as a figure of anti-colonial resistance, and fair enough, because Kali looks absolutely baller (I want a skull necklace!). This led to the British trying to paint its followers as sexually depraved and practitioners of black magic, which is why when many people think of Kali (I’m including myself in this number, since my love for Indiana Jones is well-documented on this blog), they think of the cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but these depictions came about solely because of British attempts to quash the religion. (There was a pretty excellent little set of figurines depicting the supposed Thug cult of bandits who practiced Tantra, which again, was just part of the smear campaign by the British.)

 

So Tantra is actually pretty interesting, and though I’m not into the hippy dippy Western interpretations of Tantra that become popular from the 1960s onward (which is where the weird Sting-esque sexual practices come from), I am definitely into all these awesome rebellious interpretations of Kali, and the attempts to use Tantra to drive the British out of India. This is honestly probably not an exhibition I would have chosen to see had there not been literally nothing else I could get tickets to that day, but honestly, I’m really glad I did, because I learned a lot, and there were some fascinating objects here.

 

As always when visiting exhibitions, I did encounter some annoyingly slow moving people (not the fact that they walked slowly, just that they paused in front of each exhibition for what felt like ten minutes), and unfortunately, in Covid times, I can’t exactly lean over their shoulder as I used to do in the old days, so I ended up doing a lot of skipping around and just coming back to areas when they cleared out. It wasn’t super busy, since it was ticketed, and it was fairly easy to social distance in all but the busiest areas, and then I just moved to another area until it was less busy (and of course everyone was wearing face coverings). Although for £15 I would have expected more content, I was happy enough with my half-price admission, plus the excitement of being in the British Museum again probably enhanced my enjoyment. 3/5.

 

Singleton, West Sussex: The Weald and Downland Museum

Remember Amberley Museum, which feels like a very long time ago now, even though it was just in late August? Well, Weald and Downland Museum is also an open air museum, and is also in West Sussex, though they’re not quite the same sort of museum. I went here back in September with Marcus and the same friend I went to Amberley with, since we were still allowed to be inside with people from outside our household at that point, and I thought it was a better option for spending time in close proximity to someone I don’t live with than a traditional museum, though we had chosen a day with absolutely awful weather and ended up having to shelter inside at various points to get away from the driving rain.

 

The Weald and Downland Museum is set on a forty acre site in the South Downs, and contains buildings from various eras in the last thousand years, the idea being that they all showcase the culture of the Weald, an area of South East England including the North and South Downs (basically chalky ridges through the countryside where middle class people like to go walking, if you’re not familiar). Similar to Amberley, I had to pre-book tickets for a timed slot and we had to turn up at some point within that slot, but we were welcome to stay as long as we liked once we were inside. Tickets are £14 – no Art Pass discount.

 

Once we entered, we were free to wander as we liked, though we often had to queue if we wanted to go inside the buildings, as only one group was allowed in at a time, which led to a lot of awkward conversations with staff/volunteers to try to pass the time whilst we waited (awkward only because I hate thinking up questions to ask, so it’s lucky my friend is a lot more talkative than I am). As you can probably see, there were a good assortment of historical eras represented here, though my issue with most of the houses is that there wasn’t much inside them, and since I’m far more into period furnishings than architecture, it kind of negated the point of waiting to get in, so we did start skipping some of them if there was a queue.

 

However, we were absolutely cracking up when we spotted the “workers’ cottages” above left, built in the 1860s, because we were essentially going inside my and Marcus’s house, which was built in 1864, and is made of brick, but is otherwise very similar indeed to the house above. When we got inside, we realised the layout was the same too (although my house has a small extension on the back, and the upstairs has been divided up a bit differently over the years from the traditional two up two down (we’re more of a four up three down if you count the bathroom and the tiny depressing box room that I never go in as rooms)) right down to the beams overhead, which looked exactly like the ones in our loft. I don’t know, there was just something amusing about going to the trouble of visiting a museum and ending up basically walking through your own house.

 

The Weald and Downland Museum is also where The Repair Shop is filmed, and though I haven’t watched the show in ages (I get why people like it, but it’s just too boring for me), Marcus was quite keen to get a picture with the building where they film it. As you can see, you aren’t allowed anywhere near it, but I think they might have been filming that day, as we could see people waiting to get in way off in the distance.

 

We ended up having to hang out inside a building full of tools of various local trades for quite a while to avoid a torrential downpour (fortunately, no one else was waiting to get in, though I kept running to the door to check since I didn’t want to be a jerk), and by the time we emerged (after spending far more time studying bricks than I find ideal), I was ready for a tea and a snack, so we headed over to the cafe/shop area so I could grab a tea and a slice of lemon drizzle cake, as well as a bag of flour from the on-site mill (it’s a fairly coarse wholemeal, but I mixed it with strong flour to make some wholewheat pita to go with hummus and fried halloumi with sesame seeds and honey, and it was very delicious), and ended up buying a bag of duck feed as well for the ducks that had been following us around throughout our visit. As you can see, I did not socially distance from those ducks, but fed them right out of my hand, and I have no regrets (other than the awful face I’m making in the photo. It’s not a good angle for me). It was easily the highlight of my visit (I felt terrible for this one duck with a twisted leg who was being bullied by the other ducks, so I was basically feeding him directly by the end).

 

My other favourite part was in a building we stumbled upon when looking for the toilets (which I had entirely to myself, as I was advised to lock the main door when inside (it was what would normally be a multi-stall, multi-occupancy deal), and there was a women waiting outside to clean as soon as I left, which was a bit awkward but impressively proactive), that contained a temporary exhibition full of the objects collected by various volunteers and other people associated with the museum. The woman working in here was very friendly and told us all about them, plus I just enjoy seeing what other people collect (I have a lot of crap, but I wouldn’t say I’m a collector of anything specific per se, other than Presidential Pez dispensers).

 

Prior to this, all the houses had been relatively close together in a village type formation, but after we left the collections building, we were just wandering through the woods looking for the other properties, including a re-creation of a Saxon long house (most of the other buildings were original, albeit moved from their original locations to this museum). This was quite nice, actually, since no one else was back here, so we didn’t have to worry about avoiding other people, apart from a man we encountered wearing the very unaesthetically pleasing combination of long shorts and wellies.

 

The final couple of properties we found were also the best ones, even though we had to wait for ages to go inside, since they actually had furniture in them, and, in the case of the medieval hall, had a garderobe so I could make my pooping face (my favourite pose of all). I did worry somewhat about the structural integrity of standing on something that was just jutting out the side of the house, but I guess if it’s stood for this long…

 

I also enjoyed the chickens we encountered at the end of our visit, though I was sad I had given all my food to the ducks, so I didn’t have any left for them! I did feed myself, however, with another piece of lemon drizzle (to match the ongoing drizzle outside), since Marcus had eaten half of my first one, and I was still hungry. Although I wish that more of the properties had furniture and other things inside to look at, I think I liked the variety of buildings here better than the ones at Amberley, which tended to be from the same era and more industrial in nature, but I did really enjoy all the excellent quirky museums of Amberley that didn’t exist at Weald and Downland, so they’re ending up with the same score in the end. 3/5.

London: Kensal Green Cemetery

Visiting Kensal Green means that I have finally seen all of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries! I’d of course been meaning to visit for a while, pre-pandemic, but it’s a long, convoluted route there on public transport from where I live, so it was actually much quicker and easier (not to mention safer), for Marcus and me to drive there whilst we had a hire car.

 

Kensal Green is London’s largest cemetery, which I was not at all surprised to learn after visiting, because it seems to go on for miles! It was built in 1833 as a sort of English equivalent to Pere Lachaise, and is the oldest of the Magnificent Seven. As you might expect from a cemetery with over 250,000 burials, there are also a lot of famous people buried here, from Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Lady Jane Franklin, Thackeray to Trollope, and hundreds of other names of varying degrees of (mostly Victorian) fame. However, because there is no cemetery map pointing out where these graves are, the only way you’re likely to find any of them is by stumbling on them accidentally.

 

I can’t understand why their Friends haven’t noticed this glaring oversight and produced a map to sell. A digital download would be great, and low effort for them once they’ve produced it, but even a stand holding photocopies with an honesty box attached to it within the cemetery would do the job, because surely some income is better than none (assuming some people would just grab a map without paying, because people suck), but they haven’t, so you’re on your own. We did look up some of the graves we were keen on seeing on Find a Grave, but there were no directions there either, so although we knew what the graves should look like, in a cemetery with a quarter of a million burials, finding them was still highly unlikely.

 

We did manage to stumble upon the Brunel grave somehow, which was surprisingly plain. Given my interest in polar exploration, I was also keen to find Lady Jane Franklin’s (even though she sucked as a person. She tried to discredit John Rae because she couldn’t handle the truth about her husband’s fate, and was pretty damn racist) but as it was apparently just a nondescript cross like the thousands of others in the cemetery, we struck out.

  

However, I serendipitously found George Cruikshank by the side of one of the paths we walked down, which I was thrilled about, since I adore his George IV cartoons. His body was actually moved to St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1878, but his headstone was left behind. We also encountered various obscure Dickens relations, but I’m not the biggest Dahl’s Chickens fan, and am really clueless about his extended family.

 

Kensal Green is home to four chapels, two of which we didn’t really look at as they’re located in the crematorium (where Freddie Mercury et al were cremated, but not buried). Of the two in the cemetery proper, the massive Anglican Chapel had fencing set up all around it, so we couldn’t get very close, though we did investigate the exterior of the much smaller Noncomformist Chapel.

 

Kensal Green suffers from the same neglect as the other Magnificent Seven – it is more open than some, and not quite as overgrown as places like Abney Park, where you can’t even access half the graves, but it is still very obviously in decline, despite being a working cemetery.  I would also say that because of its size, its location, and the lack of visitors/staff, other than a few workmen we encountered, it does feel a bit unsafe in places. I would be hesitant to venture to the farthest reaches by myself, because there would be absolutely no one there to help you if a mugger or rapist jumped out. I hope I’m wrong about that, and I was just being paranoid, but I genuinely did feel a bit uneasy when I wandered off on my own.

 

Despite this uneasy feeling, or maybe because of it, something about the sheer scale of it also made it feel a bit magical in places. For example, I stumbled across a beautiful tree-lined path at one point in our visit, and when I wanted to return to walk down it, I couldn’t manage to find it again. There’s lots of twists and turns and an abundance of horse chestnut trees. There is also a giant, somewhat mysterious structure that looks like a garden surrounded by columns. I didn’t try to go inside, because I didn’t realise that you could, but I happened to read Peter Ross’s excellent A Tomb with a View shortly after visiting (recommended by the always informative Kev), and learned it was a garden memorial built by a grieving father to honour his deceased son, and there is a statue of the son inside. People are welcome to enter and sit in contemplation. I honestly hadn’t realised it was a privately built memorial because it was so huge – I just thought it was part of the cemetery complex, like the chapels, but knowing this makes it much more poignant.

 

I would absolutely recommend visiting, because it is a fabulous crumbling old Grand Dame of a cemetery, but maybe bring a friend and don’t come too close to dusk. Our visit was actually on an unseasonably hot September day, but I would have definitely enjoyed it more with an autumnal chill in the air. I think Brompton Cemetery is still my favourite of the Magnificent Seven, but Kensal Green is probably third on that list, behind Highgate.

 

I’ve realised that although I have visited all of the seven, I have only actually blogged about three of them: Abney Park, Brompton, and now Kensal Green (which I guess gives me something to do if we go back into lockdown again). I’m saving my spookiest October post for next week, so hope you’re ready! By the way, this is the first post that WordPress has forced me to write in the new Block Editor, at least until I figured out you could select Classic Editor from the drop down menu when you start a new post (I didn’t discover that until after writing most of this post though!). Does anyone hate it as much as I do? There’s not even a word count on the bottom (is there a word count at all? I haven’t found it yet!), which I usually rely on to know when to shut up.

 

Nottingham: The National Justice Museum

Given my dislike of City of Caves, you might be worried that my negative attitude extended to their sister site, the National Justice Museum. But fear not, I went in free of such restraints (ha) and ready to explore this former gaol. (I also love the traditional spelling of gaol so much more than jail, so I will be using it throughout.) As I mentioned in the City of Caves post, I had to pre-book our tickets for a timed slot, which cost £10.95 or £5.48 with National Art Pass. Unlike City of Caves, we were immediately greeted when we walked in the door, so we were already off to a better start.

 

Even with the delay in entering City of Caves, we had rushed through the tour so quickly that we still ended up being a bit early, so we were asked to wait in the lobby for the other people in our time slot to show up, which was fine with me, as I needed a wee anyway after that long drive, and City of Caves doesn’t have toilets. Much relieved, I rejoined Marcus just in time for our tour to start. Well, I say tour, but it was really a mix of guided and self-guided. We were first led into the old courtroom and seated within our bubbles on the benches, spaced at least the regulation two metres apart, in order to watch a short presentation on the history of the courtroom. A couple of us were then chosen to act as a defendant and witness, and even though I’m probably more the criminal type, I was chosen to be the witness, so I got to stand in the witness box and point a finger (literally) at the accused, which was pretty fun.

 

We were then assigned a number and told to keep an eye out for it in the museum, and then let loose to explore the punishment galleries on our own. We found our numbers next to the various punishment devices that were the fate of the person whose identity we’d assumed. I merely got an hour in the stocks (well, “merely” assuming I wasn’t brained with any heavy objects, as people often were), but Marcus was executed and put in the gibbet. We then headed down some stairs to the laundry of the former prison (which was actually used as such when the building served as the Shire Hall gaol (from 1449 until 1878, when it was shut down on account of the dreadful conditions)), where we were intercepted by another member of staff posing as a prisoner working in the laundry.

 

The idea was that we were meant to stay with the other people who had booked into our time slot (whilst maintaining social distancing, of course), but two of them had somehow wandered off (perhaps they had found somewhere more appropriate to eat their lunch, which they were consuming noisily in the courtroom whilst wearing masks, which was an interesting sight. It was a full on baguette sandwich and crisps lunch, so this would have almost been impressive if not so annoying and rude) so it ended up just being us and a family of four (who had teenage children, so were fortunately completely appropriately behaved, unlike the children at the American Museum). After being told about the laundry, we were allowed to look at the women’s “exercise yard” (a small patch of concrete) where they were allowed to take brief breaks from working in the laundry, breaks only having been introduced after too many women had fainted from the hard labour; and the women’s cell, which would normally hold ten women and was also pretty small for that many people.

 

The final “guided” portion was also the best. We went down yet more stairs into the gaol proper, and were immediately screamed at by the gaoler, who made us wait in a small room next to the “pit” before leading us outside and making us all stand against the wall right by the gallows whilst yelling at us to shut up. He told us about his job and life at the gaol under the horrible separate system whilst intimidatingly whacking a cat o’ nine tails against his palm, and insulted everyone’s mask except mine, which he called a “classic, quite attractive mask” (it had Victorian keys on it, which is probably why he liked it!), which I found hilarious. He then got out of character and told us about some of the features of the yard we were standing in, including a wall where prisoners had carved their names and a series of grave markers for prisoners who had died there. He was actually a lovely man, and definitely my favourite part of the experience, as he was quite scary when in character! He then “freed” us to explore the rest of the museum on our own, including the courtyard we were standing in, though when the group after us caught up with us and he got back into character, we hightailed it out of there pretty quickly in case he started on us again. (Some people from the other group tried to sneak by him and he caught them and made them stand by the wall, which was really funny when it wasn’t happening to us!)

 

We were allowed to enter some of the old cells, which were truly appalling. I sat in the dark cell, which doesn’t look that bad with the flash, but I genuinely couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face when I was sitting in there, and there was an even worse “hole” which we glimpsed through the bars from the floor above. The exercise yard was also grim – it was meant to serve up to 400 men, but was tiny. Apparently they would just grab hold of a rope whilst wearing a mask that covered their entire face, so they couldn’t see or communicate with anyone else, and walk round in circles for an hour. No wonder so many people went mad under the separate system!

 

There were some galleries on transportation, which, as we had seen when we went to Australia, was often actually a better option than being imprisoned in Britain, even though it was technically the harsher punishment (and often used in lieu of execution when the notorious Bloody Codes were revised). Sure, you would never see your family and friends again, but once your term was over, you had an opportunity to build a new life there, assuming you survived the journey over. In fact, one of the carvings on the wall outside was from a young prisoner who was transported to Australia and didn’t have the money to return after his sentence finished, so he married and had a family there, and sent a poem home to a British paper about his life, which was in the museum along with a photograph of him as an older man.

 

There was also a gallery on execution, which was a little creepy, considering people were actually executed at the gaol (on the steps originally, and then moved inside the gaol when public executions were banned, in the spot where you can see Marcus standing. Just thought I’d clarify in case you thought those were my hairy legs!). This contained things like the travelling execution kits from Wandworth Prison and a variety of unpleasant restraints and nooses.

  

Just when I thought we were done, we came upon what was actually quite a large and detailed gallery more generally on crime and punishment (much of the rest of it had been about the gaol specifically, which was also interesting!), with a special gallery devoted to Bernard Spilsbury, the famous early 20th century pathologist who served as an expert witness in so many famous cases, including Dr. Crippen, the “Brides in the Bath” murders (which I have a book about), and many more, although he unfortunately let his gut lead him more than the science sometimes, and likely condemned a number of innocent people. I couldn’t resist using the interactive screen about the forensics of murder cases, though I did thoroughly sanitise before and after with the convenient dispensers located throughout the museum near any possible touch points.

 

There was also a small exhibition of modern art at the end called Constraint Restraint, but we’d already spent quite a long time there and had another museum to visit that day, so we did rush through it a bit. Overall, I was really impressed with the National Justice Museum, and liked how they’d managed to safely keep some interactive elements without turning the whole experience into a guided tour (we didn’t encounter anyone outside of our time slot group apart from briefly in the courtyard after we finished with the gaoler, so the system does seem to work, and the other people in our time slot were conscientious and kept their distance, though I would imagine that’s not always the case). This was also creepier than the caves, just because people did genuinely die here, and were treated in all kinds of horrible ways (if the Victorians thought the prison conditions were horrifying, you know they must have been bad!). 3.5/5, downgraded a bit just because in a “National” Justice Museum, I would have liked the museum to have been a bit more comprehensive, but I definitely still enjoyed the experience!