local history

London: Gunnersbury Park Museum

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The Gunnersbury Park Museum in West London is unusually large for a free, local museum; upon arriving at the museum gates, it looked so grand that I wasn’t even sure we were in the right place.  It’s actually nearest to Acton Town on the Piccadilly line, though we drove and managed to park just outside the massive stone columns that mark the entrance.  The museum is housed in an old mansion that belonged to the Rothschilds, and the grounds are quite extensive; there’s a bit of a walk before you reach its imposing exterior.

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Like any local museum, the Gunnersbury Park Museum’s collections are eclectic and varied, and encompass objects from the Boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow.  The first room was devoted to manufacturers in the area, and their product ranges.

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I was initially dismayed because based upon the museum’s website, I thought we had just missed a special exhibit on some of the museum’s best (and most random) artefacts, but I was pleasantly surprised to see it was still there.  It was everything promised in the description, with a penny farthing, maid’s dress, punch bowl, and most excitingly of all, a Victorian flowered toilet bowl, a freaky Robot of Death mask from ’70s era Doctor Who, and the “L” and “Z” from the original famous giant Lucozade sign in Brentford (you’ve probably seen it if you’ve driven into London on the M4, though the current version is a replica).  My boyfriend was really excited about this, though a bit upset that the whole sign wasn’t on display, but they just don’t have room to put all of it out; in addition, some of the letters apparently aren’t as “robust” as the “L” and “Z.” (My default is to say “zee,” as “zed” sounds silly to me, unless I’m spelling things out for a British person.)

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Another gallery featured an exhibit about the local shops of yesteryear, with cases full of merchandise that various retailers would have sold, divided up by type (haberdashery, toy shop, stationers, etc.).  Though I’m probably spoiled by the museums that go all-out, and actually re-create the entire street (see my William McKinley Museum post for a good example of this), I always like looking at old packaging, clothes, and photographs, so I enjoyed this.  I particularly liked the quotes they had from people who had visited the various local shops back in the day, and I’m sorry Mylo’s ice cream parlour isn’t still around in Chiswick (it appears to have been turned into an Adecco, grim), though I would imagine a British ice cream parlour of yore probably only had about three flavours (I’m basing this off the children’s bewilderment in Good Omens at the concept of Baskin Robbins, so blame Terry Pratchett (or Neil Gaiman), not me. (It’s an excellent book, incidentally, highly recommended if you fancy some light, amusing fiction)).

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Because the home was built by the Rothschild family, there was an underlying narrative about servants and Victorian family life running through the displays.  Each room contained a sign with a description of the room’s original purpose, and there’s an entire room about the duties of the servants (improved foot warmer, anyone?  I’d take just a normal foot warmer!), which I liked, since I’ve always been interested in the history of domesticity.  There were also some pictures to colour and a giant game of Snakes and Ladders for the children to play, though I probably would have played it myself if we’d had more time.

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The final room contained an excellent carriage collection (there weren’t that many, but as you’d expect, the Rothschilds had top-of-the-line, super snazzy carriages, so it was a case of quality over quantity), and a small display on the history of the house and the Rothschild family.  They were all bankers, and the British branch of the family helped fund the British government, famously loaning Disraeli money to purchase shares in the Suez Canal, and Lionel was the first Jewish MP.  I think only Lionel and Leopold lived in the house, but they all had similar names, so I could be mistaken.

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There’s a plan to renovate the museum, with completion aimed at 2026, and whilst I fully support that, and hope they can open up other areas of the house to display more of their vast collection, I suspect I’d probably prefer it in its current state; a dark, crumbing mansion full of echoing rooms with only a hint of ornamentation here and there to hint at its opulent past.  Nonetheless, good luck to them, and I hope they manage to retain the qualities that make it such a charming museum to visit.  Make sure to drop some change in the slot in the shop to make the “gentleman” raise his hat (it really does work!) and pick up some of their bargain postcards (5p!?  Yes please!) on the way out.  3.5/5.

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Hastings, East Sussex: A Brief Tour of Three Local Museums

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I’m finally done with the long run of Denmark posts, and back in Britain (at least for now, hint hint).  I’m sure everyone knows by now that I love a day at the English seaside, mainly so I have an excuse to eat cheesy chips and ice cream.  When the weather was starting to turn a few weeks ago, we thought it would be an auspicious time to head to Hastings, as it would probably be the last good seaside weekend of the year.  Besides, Hastings seemed to abound with quirky free local museums, so I imagined I’d come back with plenty to write about.

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Interestingly, Hastings isn’t where the famous 1066 battle took place – that would be a few miles up the road, in the aptly named Battle.  But, they have made the most of their coastal location with a variety of maritime themed attractions.  We skipped the expensive ones, like the “Smugglers Adventure” and instead headed straight for the Shipwreck Heritage Centre.

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It was not very big, and unfortunately, not that good either.  Most of it was devoted to the Shipwreck of the Amsterdam, but I think I would have rather just gone to see the ruins.  There was a mildly amusing computer game where you had to make decisions as a sea captain; unfortunately, I based my decisions on what would have been historically accurate, and not on what was best for my crew, so I didn’t do very well.  You can see the highlights in the pictures I’ve posted – a chunk of the original London Bridge, and Captain Jazz Hands up there.  Amusing mannequins aside, it was nothing special.

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So we moved next door to the Fishermen’s Museum, with cholera-ridden Dick van Dyke.  He’s not a Pearly King, as it might appear at first glance, but is wearing a suit decorated with shells.  Although the Fishermen’s Museum was similarly petite, the collection was far more eclectic, and thus, more appealing.  The room was dominated by a replica ship that you were welcome to climb aboard, and the walls were absolutely crammed full of paintings, giving it the air of a Victorian parlour gone mad (carrying on with the Mary Poppins theme, I’m picturing the interior of the home of that admiral who spends all his time on the roof firing off his cannon (which is for once not a euphemism)).

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There was even a fish-themed stained glass window, and a taxidermy collection including an albatross, and a giant lobster that gave me the creeps.  I have a definite phobia of crustaceans and arthropods.  Arthrophobia?  Is that a thing?  Anyway, I loved learning about local characters like Biddy Stonham, the Tub Man, and admiring the winkle trophy.  I also enjoyed the collection of photographs of 1890s Hastings.

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If you have to choose between the Shipwreck Heritage Centre and the Fishermen’s Museum, I definitely think the Fishermen’s Museum is the way to go, but they are both free, so there’s really no reason you should have to limit yourself.  After finishing there, I wanted to go to the Flower Maker’s Museum, as flower makers came down with some pretty horrible diseases as a result of the arsenic used to colour the leaves green, but I didn’t write down the address before we left, and it wasn’t in the main stretch of Old Town with everything else.  So, we popped into the Old Town Hall Museum of Local History instead, which we had passed during our search.

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The Town Hall was spread over two floors, though it was still only two rooms.  It was mainly full of posters that tracked the history of Hastings, though there were a few wax figures, figureheads, and other random objects. The set-up was a little odd, as there appeared to be no way to progress chronologically through the collection, no matter which end you started from upstairs, but I suppose it didn’t matter a great deal.  I did learn a few interesting titbits, but it didn’t take much time to look around here either – I’d say we didn’t spend more than half an hour at any of the three museums, and probably less in some cases, so I’m glad we didn’t have to pay for any of them (though I did leave a donation at the Fishermen’s Museum, as I think they’ve got a good thing going).

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When it comes to rating them, I’d give the Shipwreck Heritage Centre 2/5, Fishermen’s Museum 3.5/5, and the Town Hall Museum 2/5.  None of them are anything I’d go out of my way for, but they’re not a terrible way to pass an afternoon in Hastings whilst you’re building up an appetite for chips.  Speaking of chips, I was dismayed to see that cheesy chips did not feature on any of the local menus (why is it some places in Britain have cheesy chips everywhere, but they’re as hard to track down as Bigfoot in other towns?) though we did have a large portion of the non-cheesy variety that were surprisingly tasty. I still don’t know what is so difficult about keeping cheddar cheese on hand though, as the combination of greasy chips and cheap cheddar slightly melted by the heat of the chips is magical. Excitingly, Hastings had one of my favourite American treats for sale: Hawaiian Shave Ice, but the shaver they were using wasn’t quite right and it came out more like a snow cone.

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Hastings has a number of other attractions, from the cliff railway to arcades, and even a waterfall, but other than a stroll along the pebble beach, we didn’t partake of any of them (it was already late afternoon after visiting the museums).  I’m glad I finally went to Hastings, as it’s another seaside town to add to the list, even if they need to get some cheese for their bloody chips!

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Amersham, Buckinghamshire: Amersham Museum

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Some of you may best know Amersham as the place where the Metropolitan Line ends, all the way out in Zone 9!  Exciting though it would have been to have taken the Underground all the way out there, we actually drove so as to maximise the number of local museums around Buckinghamshire we could visit (3, as it turns out, due to awkward opening hours).  It’s quite strange to think of the Tube stretching so far out into the country, as Amersham appeared to be a rather quaint little village, full of Tudor buildings, including the museum itself, which is housed in a half-timbered Tudor hall house.

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The Amersham Museum is only open on weekend afternoons between 2-4:30 (and Bank Holiday Mondays), so we had to time our visit carefully.  Admission is only £2, and we received a good introduction to the museum from the volunteer.  We began our visit on the ground floor, which contained a Tudor fireplace, and a case full of objects that had been found buried locally, including some tiles (medieval, and from Penn, not Jackfield).  There’s a timeline of Amersham history hanging from a wall, complete with curious anecdotes, and a back room with a video playing on the history of the Underground in Amersham.

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The first floor provided us with a chance to carefully study the attractive beamed ceiling, and offered a good example of the kind of quirkiness I love to see in local museums.  The first room was fairly open to give you a chance to study the markings carved into the beams, and the fireplace (with lady-mannequin), but had a few children’s activities along one wall, where I learned the names of some Tudor colours.  Goose-turd green was surprisingly pretty, but the greyish beige colour next to it was too dull for my tastes, shame, as I’d quite like to try to order up a can of Dead Spaniard from Farrow and Ball (guess I’ll have to stick with my original plan of arsenic green).  Over by the windows, there was information on the Amersham Martyrs, Lollards who were burned during Henry VIII’s reign, so they pre-dated the Oxford Martyrs (including Cranmer and his self-immolated hand) of Actes and Monuments fame by a good 40 years.

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The next room was absolutely crammed full of glass cases covering every aspect of Amersham history, from pipe-making to chair-making (the most famous Buckinghamshire chairs actually come from Wycombe, of which more in the next post. I bet you can’t wait!) to locally produced toys.  Being the weird Laura Ingalls obsessive that I am, I immediately honed in on the straw hat braiding section, especially a cutter used to split the straws which Laura never mentioned, so I’m left wondering if she simply left it out, as modern machinery might have spoiled the (Rose-influenced) survivalist Libertarian agenda of the books, or if their hats were just really thick and lumpy.

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One of the real gems of the collection was the unnamed stuffed cockatoo pictured above, who became a local hero after alerting guests of the Crown Hotel about a fire which subsequently destroyed the building.  Because of his (her?) warning, everyone escaped unharmed, except for two cats (hmmm, I guess that whole cat/bird animosity thing is true).  The plaque claimed the bird lived to 118, which seems unlikely at best, but it was still a neat story.  My other favourite object was Roald Dahl‘s prescription for glasses.  He lived in Great Missenden, which is only a village or two over, and visited an optometrist in Amersham, who passed the prescription onto the museum.  Of course Roald Dahl’s house is itself a museum, but it always seemed very child-orientated, so I’ve never been willing to take the plunge.  Maybe if they ever host an adults-only evening with George’s Marvellous Medicine themed cocktails, garnished with Mrs. Twit’s glass eye, of course.  Hell, now I’m tempted to throw a Roald Dahl cocktail party myself…

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Back downstairs, there was another room with a case devoted to local industry, which ranged from not only cottage industries like lace and cloth making, but to the Amersham Brewery, Goya toiletries, and Brazil Sausages and Pies, all now defunct.  Make sure you pull open the drawers underneath the case, as you’ll find not only some lovely Victorian bodices, but some hilarious advertising posters for Brazil’s sausages.  There was a small collection of things donated by TFL in the corner – some of those moquette ottomans that cost a fortune, but which I totally want anyway, and a few vintage Tube posters for Amersham.

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There’s an herb garden out the back, which slopes down to the River Misbourne, full of Tudor medicinal and culinary herbs (and a lot of bees and wasps).  On a wall outside there’s a tiled mural made by local children to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first Amersham martyr.  And to think, the only tiles we got to make at my school were some ones that got hung up in the hall across from the gym.  Probably just as well; mine was rubbish anyway due to my complete lack of artistic ability.  Speaking of rubbish, there’s an outhouse at the end of the garden (actually, the toilets are outside as well, but they’re in a different building than the outhouse.  Don’t get them mixed up!).

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Though it was on the small side, I liked the Amersham Museum quite a lot.  Obviously children enjoy it too, judging from the great number of them rambunctiously participating in the many child-friendly activities, including the museum scavenger hunt (they were honestly much too noisy for my liking, but I’ve not yet reached the stage of crankiness where I feel like I can scream at random children, at least, not if their parents are standing right there).  I do think Amersham has made a good effort to appeal to people of all ages, with just enough quirk to pique my interest.  3.5/5.