military history

Dorchester, Dorset: The Keep Military Museum

Of course, Dorset wasn’t all just knobs. I also found time to visit some museums. The glorious, castle-like Keep Military Museum is situated rather incongruously in the middle of Dorchester, sandwiched between the much less attractive modern barracks, and a large pay-and-display car park (and a note on the car park; there is a small, free car park behind the museum for visitors, so you don’t need to pay to park unless there’s no space in the museum lot). When I was looking for museums to visit in Dorchester (which is where the Knob Festival took place), the two that stood out to me were the Keep and the Dorset County Museum; sorely tempted though I was by the Crystal Palace style gallery at the Dorset County Museum, the promise of mannequins (and bizarrely, Hitler’s desk) won me over to the Keep in the end (and with each museum charging £7 for admission, I certainly wasn’t going to visit both!).

  

So, after parting with £7 each, and undergoing a brief interrogation from the admissions desk guy about how I’d heard of the place (he was perfectly nice about it, he was just very anxious to know EXACTLY where I’d heard of them, and apparently “Uh, I just googled ‘museums in Dorchester,’ and you popped up,” wasn’t specific enough) Marcus and I were ready to enter the Keep. However, we’d arrived at exactly the same time as a group of elderly military enthusiasts (I think they may have been veterans) who were being given a tour of the museum, so one of the volunteers suggested that we start with one of the upper floors first so we didn’t get stuck behind them, which was much appreciated. Thus, we began the ascent up one of the spiral staircases running through the Keep, and emerged on the first floor.

  

This floor contained a chronological history of the Devon and Dorset Regiments, which are the regiments that the museum is dedicated to (being located in Dorset and all). Most of the local regiments were formed in the 17th and 18th centuries, so some of the earliest artefacts were from the American Revolution. As I mentioned in the National Army Museum post, I read Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition, about Benedict Arnold, not too long ago, so I was in the perfect position to appreciate all the John Andre stuff in their collection. John Andre was a British Army officer who was sent to collect maps from Benedict Arnold after Arnold decided to turn traitor; however, he was captured by American militiamen on his way back to British lines, and because General Clinton had promised to protect Arnold, he couldn’t exchange Arnold for Andre, so Andre was executed in Arnold’s stead. There’s actually a rather horrible story about how Andre was executed…because he was technically an officer, he was hoping to be executed by firing squad, but because he wasn’t in uniform when he was caught, Washington decided to make an example of him by treating him as a spy, thus executing him by hanging. Andre wasn’t told this until the day of his execution, when he was marched from his cell, and led to the purpose-built gallows. Upon seeing them, his knees buckled, because he thought he was getting the firing squad (hangings back then were still by short drop, so you died of strangulation, which took ages. It was much more prolonged and horrible than firing squad). I felt pretty sick reading this story in Philbrick’s book, and helpfully, the museum provided a small diorama of his hanging (so now I can REALLY visualise it). There was also a lock of Andre’s hair, given by him to Peggy Shippen (Benedict Arnold’s wife, but she and Andre had had a flirtation going before she married Arnold…it’s a long story), and a few more of his possessions.

   

But let’s leave the depressing story of Andre there (lest you feel too bad for him, you should know that he was super snobby, although that doesn’t mean he deserved hanging), and talk about something more cheerful. Like all the dressing up opportunities this museum provides!  As is pretty much a requirement for any museum that talks about WWI, they had a mock-up of some trenches, and one of the rooms had some clothes hanging on a hook, so even though I’m not 100% sure if I should have done so, I obviously put them on and posed (it was a lovely coat too. So big and warm). I also grabbed a helmet and gun in the WWII display (I’ve trimmed my bangs since then! I was in the middle of an attempt to grow them out at the time, but I just couldn’t deal with them covering half my face anymore).

  

We found “Hitler’s desk” up here. It might not even have actually been Hitler’s desk, though it was apparently retrieved from the bunker where Hitler was holed up at the end of the war, so it was certainly at least a Nazi desk (not that that’s really something to brag about). To be honest, I found the information about British rationing way more interesting…I was initially somewhat perturbed to see the tiny amount of cheese I would have been allocated, so was relieved to see that vegetarians were given extra cheese.  I just hope it was a nice mature cheddar or something, rather than the horrible government-grade cheese that I suspect it probably was.

  

The next floor was the medals floor, and really all that can be said about this is “wow, that’s a lot of medals!” In fact, that’s exactly what I said when I saw it, and I had to laugh when another couple came up a minute after we did, and the guy immediately exclaimed, “wow, that’s a lot of medals!”

  

The third floor carried on with the history of the regiments in post-WWII engagements, though there was also a splendid matchstick model of the Keep hidden in the corner. I should mention that most of the labels throughout the museum were written on wooden paddles hanging from the side of each case. There weren’t enough visitors that there was an issue with having to wait to read them, but I do think it might have been easier if labels had actually been put on the cases, rather than having to keep looking back and forth to figure out what each number was. At least there was additional information about everything though, unlike at the NAM.

  

We finally made our way up to the top of the Keep (all the floors of the museum are lift-accessible, but you can only get up to the roof by stairs, unfortunately. Also, if you can’t take the stairs, you sadly miss out on all the military cartoons they have posted on the way up), and its panoramic views of Dorchester. Despite the Keep’s Norman appearance, it was actually only completed in 1879, and rather boringly served as an administrative centre for the Dorsetshire Regiment before being turned into a museum (although soldiers were de-loused in the room inside the turret you can see in the photo on the left, which is kind of interesting). From the top of the Keep, you can see the Little Keep, which was the home of the old militia barracks, completed in 1866, and is still more attractive than the new barracks, but probably wouldn’t meet the modern army’s needs.

  

Since we’d missed the ground floor initially to give the tour group time to pass through, we headed back down there last, and honestly, I’m glad we saw it at the end of our visit, because it was the best part! The mannequins were just fantastic, and there was some pretty cool stuff down here, like a prison cell that soldiers were kept in to await court martial.

  

There was also some fascinating, albeit depressing information about the soldiers who were executed for desertion in WWI (three of them were from the Dorsetshire Regiment, and their stories were told here), traditional army punishments (each more horrible than the last, these included flogging, being made to sit on some kind of wooden “horse” torture device, having your heels somehow forced up to your chin, and a form of water torture that was so painful it made even the toughest men faint. Makes branding seem almost pleasant by comparison), and the difference in the quality of life between 19th century soldiers, and their farmer counterparts (hint: it was much better being a farmer).

  

To end on a more positive note, there was another dressing-up box in a room at the back of the museum, and since no one else was there, I indulged myself again! (I know the hat doesn’t go with the first jacket (and my salute’s a bit crap in the second jacket), but they didn’t have one that did, and I didn’t want to go hat-less. And god, I really need one of those WWI overcoats for myself. SO GOOD.)

Before we went, I read some reviews comparing the Keep to the NAM in London, and they said the two were of similar quality (intended as a compliment). Since these were written before the new NAM opened, it gives me some insight into what the old museum must have been like, and validates my position in my NAM post that the old museum must have been better than the new one in terms of artefact display, because the Keep was pretty damn good about displaying their artefacts, despite the wooden paddle labels that made me feel like I was a pupil in a ye olde one room schoolhouse. Although I didn’t really find much of interest in the medals floor, I get that they’re understandably proud of them and want to display them somewhere (it would help if they explained how the medals were earned, because they only did that in a couple of instances, and I’m sure the stories would be interesting), and on the whole, it was definitely the biggest, as well as one of the better regimental museums I’ve seen, especially the ground and first floors. 3.5/5 for the museum, and they deserve another medal in their massive collection for providing so many superb dressing-up opportunities.

 

 

London: The National Army Museum

After being closed for several years for a complete revamp, the National Army Museum has recently re-opened. Having never visited the old museum, I can’t say how this new version compares, but I can at least give you my thoughts (of which there are many) on the new museum.

  

I should confess that I have a bit of a history with the National Army Museum. I very briefly volunteered there a couple of years ago, but compared to the work I did on the local history project I also volunteered on, it felt like the stuff they were giving me to do was simply busywork, and I couldn’t stand working in an open plan office. So I quit after about three weeks, but in my short time there, I had gotten to look at a plan of the new museum, so I had some idea of what to expect.

  

Sadly, the grand vision I had viewed didn’t seem to reflect the reality. First of all, there was the museum building itself. It is not attractive, but under ordinary circumstances, this might have gone unnoticed. However, the museum is located right next door to the stately Royal Hospital Chelsea (see above images), which in addition to being huge, is also very easy on the eyes (and contains a number of intriguing sights that are visible from outside the gates, including a statue of a Chelsea pensioner raising his cane in the air, as though he’s about to go Andrew Jackson on somebody’s ass, a cemetery with a tombstone featuring a carving of a helmet from a suit of medieval armour, a bench with a sculpture of a Chelsea pensioner dozing on it, an adorable statue of an elephant dressed as a Chelsea pensioner, and of course the pensioners themselves, who still wear those distinctive long red coats when they’re out and about), so the museum’s ugly modern boxiness is glaring in comparison. Clearly, any renovations only took place on the museum’s interior.

  

And unfortunately, the interior didn’t immediately catch the eye either. While I did enjoy the statue of a desert rat that I spotted on the lower level, and there are bright colours in some of the upstairs galleries, the thing directly in my eye line upon entering was the museum’s shop, which was small and drab (the museum is free, so you would think they’d make more of an effort in the shop to try to bring in some revenue). The museum is spread out over 3-5 floors (depends whether you count sub-floors as their own floors, or whether the cafe, which was on its own level, counts as a floor), but the only actual gallery on the ground floor is the “Soldier Gallery.” This is one of the galleries I vaguely recalled reading about when I was a volunteer, the conceit behind it being that people enter through one of two gates, based on whether or not they think they could be a soldier, learn more about the life of a soldier in the gallery, and then have to go through the same gates at the end of the gallery, so they can see if their answers changed.

  

I think this probably worked better in concept than in execution, because I was not overly impressed with this gallery. The most immediately obvious problem was with the appearance of the space itself. There was very dim lighting in here, which gave everything in the gallery a weird and unpleasant yellowish-brown tinge.  The other problem was what I perceived as the dumbing-down of the museum. Most of the text in here was fairly limited, and included quotes from soldiers on these huge, large-print signs. Which I suppose is nice for people with visual impairments, but it made me feel like I was walking through the museum equivalent of a picture-book (not knocking picture-books (especially Frog and Toad, who are the subjects of my latest tattoo), I just expect a little more text in a museum that wants to attract adults as well as children). They had clearly tried to introduce a fair number of interactive elements, but the trouble was that most of them were being repaired, or were in use by the many, many children also visiting that day.

  

The other issue was that though this section had a number of fascinating objects, the museum appeared to be doing their best to hide them!  Instead of being an artefact-driven exhibit, this was image driven, and all of the actual artefacts were shunted off into ill-lit cases around the gallery, so photographs, computer screens, and those huge text bubbles could take centre-stage.

  

This was a real shame, because among the object cases, I found stuff like a penny that had saved a soldier’s life by taking the impact of a bullet during the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington’s shaving mirror, the actual frost-bitten fingers and toes of a soldier who’d lost them whilst climbing Everest, the taxidermied body of Crimean Tom (a cat from the Crimean War), and the leg bones of a soldier who’d had his leg amputated and saved the bones so he could be buried with them when he died (so I have no idea why they’re in this museum). Unfortunately, all these awesome things were accompanied by the bare minimum of text, and in many instances, I had to hunt to find even that, because all the information was placed to the sides of the cases, with no numbering put on the objects, so you had to squint at the pictures to match things up. Not an easy feat given the poor lighting, and objects like the leg bones and bullet, for example, were hidden away in a hallway so dark that I’m pretty sure they didn’t want visitors to actually notice them at all.

  

Progressing upstairs, we entered the art gallery, which despite also being very dark (perhaps more understandable in this case to preserve the paintings, though most art museums manage to have brighter lights than this), was probably the best gallery in the museum, because it felt the most like a traditional museum gallery. Also, there were a lot of really cool paintings, including many from the First World War, and even a couple from the American Revolution, which I was even more interested to see than usual, because I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent Valiant Ambition at the time. No complaints about this gallery!

  

However, it segued into a gallery about the history of the British Army, and there were more issues here. For something that was meant to tell us the history of the army, it was remarkably light on actual history. There was a timeline at the start, but it petered out somewhere around James II, and I never really learned how the army evolved into what it is today (and all the difficult-to-decipher pie charts on the wall (they used too many damn colours!) didn’t really help matters). Most of the exhibit was dominated by these cases full of mannequins wearing various regimental uniforms (a small child was terrified by them, and refused to approach them, which I am mean enough to have found funny), but only the type of uniform was listed on the case; for additional information, you had to turn to a computer screen.

  

The same applied to the artefact cases on the back wall, only they were even worse. These didn’t have an object label of any kind, it was ALL on the computer screens. This is the same issue I had with the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, but I’ll repeat myself, because that was a while ago. While trying to boost interactivity with touchscreens is great in theory, the problem is that if you only have one screen for each display, only one person can look at it at a time, and if they hog it, as people are wont to do, you won’t get to learn anything. Also, the contents of each case were divided between a couple of different touchscreens, and it wasn’t always clear which screen you needed to scroll through to get the information you wanted. I can’t help but feel that a much more sensible solution would be to put basic information right on the cases, like a normal, old-school museum, and have additional information available on touchscreens, for those who want it. That way everyone will at least have some idea of what they’re looking at, and will have the option of learning more if they choose to do so.

  

There were two galleries on the top floor, “Society and the Army,” and “Battle.” I preferred “Society”, because it was the only space in the museum that was well-lit (you could actually read all the labels, and everything had a label! Brilliant!), and I have to confess that getting to try on a royal guard outfit, and looking at that hilarious Sgt. Potato poster didn’t hurt either. I’m not quite sure if they did enough to show how the army impacts the rest of society when there’s not a war on, but it was a better attempt than most of the other galleries.

 

“Battle,” I feel, was mostly aimed at people who really like looking at heavy-duty weaponry and already know a fair bit about how those weapons work, because the labels were fairly basic and left me in the dark (literally, because we were back to the poorly lit galleries again), and that’s what 70% of the cases in here contained, but there was some cool stuff in the pre-WWI sections, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars case, because it contained not only the amputation saw used to hack off the leg of the Earl of Uxbridge (he of the famous (possibly apocryphal) anecdote whereupon he remarked to Wellington after being shot, “By God sir, I’ve lost my leg,” and Wellington replied, “By God sir, so you have.” Uxbridge also apparently remained “composed” throughout the anaesthetic-less operation, only remarking that the saw seemed rather blunt) and a bloody glove used to staunch the flow during his amputation, but also the skeleton of one of Napoleon’s actual horses! And, this was one place where there was a brief mention of British atrocities committed during various imperial wars (which otherwise pretty much went unmentioned). There were also a number of activities that looked really fun here, such as a drum where you could practice various cadences, a cut-out tank to crawl into that appeared to have some kind of video game inside, and some muskets where you could see how fast you could reload and shoot ten bullets, but yet again, these were all being monopolised by children, or, in the case of the guns, not even working.

  

The final gallery was “Insight,” located in the lower ground floor. If it hadn’t been for the desert rat sculpture also down there, I’d say don’t waste your time – it was pretty lame (I don’t even have any photos from it, the ones below are from “Battle”). It mainly just consisted of maps on the walls showing where British Army bases are located around the world (I didn’t even realise this at first, because it wasn’t explained until halfway through the exhibit) and a handful of objects, and again, very crappy lighting (the museum’s main decorative scheme, I guess).

  

Because I hadn’t visited the National Army Museum in its previous form, I can’t say for sure if it’s actually worse now than it was before, but I strongly suspect that may be the case, given how much I enjoy an old-fashioned military museum (see the Winchester museums, the Army Medical Services Museum, et al, for evidence of this). I think it would have been so much nicer if they had a couple highly interactive, child-friendly galleries, but then kept a couple old-fashioned galleries, with decent lighting and labels, for all the amazing objects in their collection, so that people who wanted to could actually admire and learn something about these objects in peace. While I understand that interactivity is what packs in the crowds these days, having interactive elements at the expense of actual history not only dumbs down a museum – it also makes it lose part of its essence.  If the National Army Museum is an example of where most museums are headed, then that is truly a depressing thought, since I learned remarkably little here. 4/5 solely for the awesomeness of the objects in their collection, but only 2/5 for how they were presented, so I guess 3/5 overall. With the army’s fascinating history (which you wouldn’t know from visiting this museum), and all the money undoubtedly poured into this, this museum should be so, so much better than it is.

Aldershot, Hampshire: Army Medical Services Museum

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Wow. I knew the Army Medical Services Museum was at Keogh Barracks in Aldershot (despite having no idea how to pronounce “Keogh”), but somehow I wasn’t expecting it to be so scary official.  I found out about this place a long time ago, but its opening hours (9:30-3:30 on weekdays, closed weekends) and inaccessibility by public transport kept me from visiting it until now.  I wouldn’t recommend unemployment, but it sure has freed up a lot of time for me and my boyfriend to do stuff like this (too bad most of it has to be free.  There’s always a catch, isn’t there?).  Well, the museum is free, but clearly I didn’t read their website thoroughly enough, because I didn’t realise I’d have to go through a full-on ID-flashing security check in order to get in.

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The museum building is actually IN the barracks, as in, it’s part of this big military compound, so you have to go past a checkpoint staffed by a number of armed soldiers to visit it.  And I don’t generally carry a picture ID on me (because I don’t drive and I’m hella old, so there’s usually no need, at least in the UK), so I was frantically riffling through my wallet to find something to give the unsmiling guard.  All I came up with was a bank card, which he fortunately accepted, since we’d driven almost an hour to get there.  A few questions later (dunno why he asked my boyfriend what his job was but not me…sexist much?), we were deemed no danger and granted passes to see the museum.  After all that, I was pleasantly surprised that the museum staff seemed pretty laid-back (and not bothered about us taking pictures).  We were the only visitors, other than some people doing research in the library (open to anyone if you make an appointment first).

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The building didn’t look all that big from the outside, but the galleries wrapped around in such a way that they managed to fit a whole lot in there (and plenty of delightful mannequin-filled dioramas).  It covered the history of army medicine from the English Civil War to the present day, although the largest displays were devoted to the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars 1 and 2.  And oh man, did they have some cool stuff in here.

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An English doctor tended to Napoleon when he was in exile on St. Helena (I have a weird desire to visit St. Helena; something about isolated places appeals to me enormously, though I could not actually live somewhere without a steady supply of Belgian milk chocolate, pecorino cheese, and books), and he brought back a razor used on Ol’ Boney, and a dental kit used to remove a couple of his wisdom teeth.  (Apparently Napoleon insisted on having his teeth pulled whilst he was seated on the floor, which made an already difficult job even tougher.  I’m just glad I got knocked out when I had my wisdom teeth out.  The thought of someone cracking my teeth in half while I was conscious gives me the creeps.)

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If a soldier deserted back in the day (during peacetime, I would assume, since usually they just executed you in wartime), he would be branded with a letter “D,” so everyone would know and thus punish him more harshly for any future infractions.  They also had a “B” and a “C” for bad conduct (which I would probably have ended up with; not sure if they gave you the “B” and the “C” or just one or the other).  Rather than an actual brand, or a proper tattoo though (which wouldn’t have been so bad, the tattoo anyway), they would use this device with a bunch of thick needles in the shape of the needed letter, jam that into your skin all at once, and then rub India ink into the wound.  In addition to the needles they used, they had an actual piece of skin here taken from a (dead) soldier, so you could see what it looked like.  I don’t know how long the soldier lived with that tattoo for, but that ink sure stayed black (being located under the armpit probably helped, since it wouldn’t see much sun).

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Around the time of the Boer Wars, soldiers would swallow half pennies (ha’pennies) to try to get out of active duty (not sure how that would get you out of anything anyway, I would think shooting off a toe would be more effective), so the army doctors devised a hook device to reach down the throat and fish them out.  Having once had a singularly unpleasant nasal scope (and that was with a soft flexible tube that only went down my throat, rather than a metal hook to the stomach), I think I would have rather just taken my chances on the front lines.

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Oh, they had a bunch of Florence Nightingale stuff here too, including sketches of the hospital in Scutari, and the medal the nurses that served with her were given (at her insistence, Victoria was all for awarding only Florence).

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There was a whole separate gallery for the WWI artefacts, which I was pretty keen on after spending so much time researching various soldiers for the Carved in Stone project I volunteer on (not a medic among my bunch, unfortunately, though I do have some pretty interesting guys nonetheless), but there wasn’t a whole lot in here.

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More promising was the WWI section in the main gallery, and the whole wall about facial reconstruction in the last gallery.  There were any number of poignant objects on display, including a violin covered with the signatures of a soldier’s dead comrades, and a soldier doll + letter that were rescued from an incinerator.

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WWII got its own gallery (well, corridor) as well, and it was surprisingly full of teeth, thanks to the Royal Army Dental Corps collection being in here too. (The RADC didn’t form until 1921, although there was obviously a need for it well beforehand, and dental officers began to be commissioned during WWI).  Rudolf Hess was originally held prisoner in a house nearby before being shipped off to Spandau Prison, so they had some of his dentures, as well as a mould taken of his teeth (they were nasty looking specimens too).  Also, in one of the Japanese prison camps, they apparently went along the line of POWs knocking out the front teeth of each soldier with a rifle butt, so the poor men had to fashion dentures from whatever was lying around the camps, and those were in here too (this museum is not for the faint-hearted, in case you haven’t figured that out by now).

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And I musn’t forget about the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, whose collections are also included here.  The museum had a huge case full of medals (lots of Victoria crosses, which I learned are all made from the same lump of metal. They even had the first one, which was given to Queen Victoria herself), which included medals given to army dogs for their valuable service in bomb detection.  And there was a pretty cool shoe intended for a camel (not sure how well putting it on him would have gone down.  Camels are feisty).

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The galleries finished with some cases about army medicine in modern conflicts (the Falklands, Afghanistan, etc), and a cool display about tropical diseases which included a giant tsetse fly.  I have to say, I was very impressed with the offerings here.  I wasn’t expecting much, going by their website, but they had legitimately fascinating and important historical objects in here, and lots of them at that!  Their opening hours and the whole entry procedure is kind of a pain, but it’s worth the effort (the guard when we were leaving was much friendlier (perhaps because we were no longer seen as a potential threat), and pointed out the rough location of the Rudolf Hess house out to us).  I love medical history, and though I usually prefer medical museums with jarred specimens, there’s just something about army medicine that captures my interest (probably the sheer severity of the injuries, which is why I have a particular fascination with the pioneering reconstructive surgeries done during WWI), and this place does a great job of showing the evolution of the AMS from the 1600s to the present day.  4/5.

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Zonnebeke, Belgium: Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

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I don’t think a visit to Belgium can really be complete without seeing something related to WWI (or more than one thing; I’ll be devoting a couple of posts to it this time around).  It played such a huge role in the history of this little country, as so much of Flanders was virtually decimated in the fight over a relatively tiny area of land, and many of the Belgian people were forced to flee to avoid the war and destruction.  On my last trip to Belgium, I made it to a few WWI sites, visiting the Ijzer Tower, In Flanders Fields Museum, and Tyne Cot cemetery.  However, I did not get to see the Passchendaele Museum, which is very near Tyne Cot, as it had already closed for the day by the time I got there. Clearly, it was time to remedy this.

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With the cat festival in Ieper planned for that afternoon (yeah, you read that correctly…just you wait!), it left the morning free for exploring nearby Great War sites, starting with Passchendaele (admission 7.5 euros).  As you can probably guess from the museum’s full name, it commemorates the Battle of Passchendaele, fought in 1917.  Like so much of the war, Passchendaele was tragically almost pointless in terms of the human life lost relative to what was actually accomplished (at least half a million casualties over a fight for 5 miles of territory).  If you need a visual aid for this, then visit Tyne Cot to see it all starkly laid out in front of you, in the form of row upon row upon row of identical tombstones for the soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient (and really, please do visit Tyne Cot, as there’s nothing else quite so effective at driving home the futility of war).  However, perhaps because the museum recognises that many of its visitors will also have just been to Tyne Cot, and doesn’t wish to immediately depress them further, the museum isn’t all doom and gloom.  In fact, a lot of it is rather fun.

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The museum obviously took children into consideration when planning out the galleries, as there are lots of activities.  Fortunately for me, there were no children in sight, so I was free to ignore the fact that the mirrors had been intentionally been placed at a child’s eye-level, and indulge my love of dressing up (and I do recommend visiting early in the morning as we did, because the tour bus circuit seems to come through later in the day).  I learned that I look surprisingly good in a helmet, which is probably not what the museum was going for, but still.  The museum is split up into five different sections, beginning with a general history of the war, which is the most like a traditional museum, and then, similar to the Ijzer Tower, goes off piste a bit by including the re-creation of a dugout, which leads into an underground area about the history of the battle itself, then into a re-creation of some trenches, and finally, to a memorial section.

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In the first part, the museum tells the story of the war through uniforms, soldiers’ kit and their personal possessions, and a few interactive things, like smelling stations where you could get a whiff of various poison gasses and bully beef (which turned out to smell worse than the poison gas).  My only complaint would be that the item captions are written directly on the glass cases in white ink, so they can be a bit tricky to read in places, and I think I missed a few of them entirely as they were hard to even see against some of the objects.

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Next came the British dugouts, which we entered via a wooden staircase (I sent my boyfriend down first, just in case).  I don’t know if they wanted their attempt to re-create these dugouts to include the actual fear and nervous anticipation that real soldiers would have felt, but it worked on me!  Usually these things have some kind of explosion noise that’s triggered when you walk into them, and because I’m terrified of sudden loud noises (I hate balloons for this very reason), I was extremely tense the entire time, just waiting for the explosion to happen (I won’t ruin it for you by telling you what actually happens, so you can experience real fear too!), and though exploring the maze of tunnels was fun, I was quite relieved to finally emerge blinking into the next area.

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This “bunker” section was a curious mix of the heavy-duty machinery of war, with huge guns and collections of shells and things; and of more intimate portraits of some of the soldiers involved.  There was a section for each of the countries who’d sent men to fight at Passchendaele, with insignia of the units involved, the total number of casualties each sustained, and video interviews with some of the veterans of the battle (presumably taped in the 1970s or ’80s, since there are no veterans left today, and the men looked old in them, but not in their 100s type old, more like they were in their seventies and eighties), which were alternately amusing and sad.

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I wouldn’t generally consider myself a big weaponry person, but some of the facts about the WWI weapons were fascinating…unfortunately, I’m hard-pressed to repeat any of them here, as I initially wrote this a week and a half after my visit, and after going to a number of other museums, so my retention is not as good as it normally is.  Thanks to the pictorial evidence, I can tell you that I tried on yet another helmet before heading out to the trenches (seriously, I’m sure it’s cost-prohibitive, but it would be awesome if they gave you a helmet to borrow when walking through the trenches.  It would really add to the experience).

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The trenches are, appropriately enough, actually outside (when we first showed up, the lady at the admissions desk said something about going outside, but we didn’t quite catch it and were worried there was some kind of additional walk we were meant to go on that we wouldn’t have had time for, so we were relieved when we realised she had probably meant the trench section). Definitely don’t wear shoes with any kind of a heel, as there are big gaps between the boards on the bottom of the trench, and you will probably fall through.  I liked how different sections of the trench were constructed out of different materials, to illustrate the difference between British and German trenches.  In fact,  I think the whole museum set-up was very nicely done, with the sections smoothly segueing into each other, and covering so many war-time environments.

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At the end of the trenches, there was an American relief house, provided to some of the Belgians who had lost their homes in the war; it definitely appears to be American in design, as Belgian houses have a very distinct look, and this house isn’t it, but it did provide some information on the American role in the war (ignore me on the porch with a stupid expression on my face).  Finally, we reached the Hall of Reflection, which was quite extensive and solemn, but also contained an array of interesting facts (concealed under panels featuring various cartoon characters), about the wartime experiences of people like AA Milne and Walt Disney.  There was quite a moving sculpture at the end, made of arms floating on a watery surface (which sounds weird without an explanation, but was meant to represent the many men who died from drowning in the trenches, especially after they were wounded and couldn’t escape, due to dreadful weather during Passchendaele that led to flooding).

I have to say that the Passchendaele Museum was right up there with the best war museums I’ve seen.  It fully conveyed the horrors of war, but also offered opportunities to get a taste of (dramatically toned-down) wartime experiences yourself, making for an enjoyable and educational experience.  If you have to pick one museum in the Ieper area to visit, I think this would be an excellent choice.  4.5/5.

 

 

 

Balcombe, West Sussex: The Wings Museum

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I seem to keep bringing up Damian Lewis on the blog these days (I mean c’mon, codpieces!), but yeah, one of the main reasons I checked out the Wings Museum (“where history comes alive”) was because part of Band of Brothers was filmed inside the C-47 Dakota in the museum, and I welcomed the opportunity to sit in the same place Damian Lewis did (or, as I more crudely put it at the time, “My ass has touched where Damian Lewis’s ass touched!”).  But Wings advertised more attractions than simply plonking your butt down on the same seats as famous people.  They also promised recovered airframes set up into crash site dioramas, a real Anderson shelter to explore, the opportunity to own a small piece of downed aircraft of your very own, and many other displays inside the draughty hangar-style building.

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The Wings Museum seemed to assume a certain degree of enthusiasm for military history (the volunteer at the admissions desk even asked my boyfriend if he was an “enthusiast,” which led to a rather awkward silence.  Also, why did he just assume that I wasn’t the enthusiast?  I mean, I’m not, but he didn’t know that), as I guess most people aren’t willing to drive out to a hangar in the middle of nowhere and part with 8 quid if they’re not really into this stuff.  Truthfully, as I am not really into this stuff (nor is my boyfriend, obviously), some of the very lengthy descriptions of missions and all the names and numbers of various aircraft were lost on me, but it was a large building with a lot of crap in it, so there was still plenty to enjoy.

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The museum contains quite a few salvaged Nazi aircraft parts (as those were a large proportion of what was crashing on British soil) and some uniforms and things; I definitely understand the importance of making sure both the Allied and Axis Powers were represented (including some things from the Pacific Theatre), since despite the focus on aviation, one of the museum’s stated goals is to tell the story of World War II.  However, the process of the actual “telling” could use some work, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many spelling and grammatical errors in one place.  I get that they are volunteer run (and only open on weekends), but you’d think one of the volunteers could spell properly.  The use of the contraction “it’s” instead of the possessive “its” is a personal pet peeve, but a common enough mistake, I suppose.  But given that they’re dealing with military history, they should at least know how to spell “bail.”  You “bail out” of an aircraft, you “bale” hay, got it?  Same thing with “hale” and “hail.”  Homophones: learn how to use them! (And for that matter, the building the museum is housed in is called a hangar; not a “hanger” as their website would have you believe.) ETA: I’ve been doing a bit of research since writing this, and while it seems that “bail out” is the correct American usage, apparently in other English speaking countries, both variants are accepted spellings, so I’ll give them a pass on that.  However, my point about the spelling errors still stands, as there’s really no excuse for the incorrect “it’s” or their misspelling of hangar.

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Now that I’ve gotten that rant out of the way, in fairness to the museum, some of the stories were very interesting, if you took the time to persevere through the errors.  There was one about a man diffusing some notoriously tricky type of German bomb in a tunnel that ended with him emerging from this tunnel “looking and smelling worse than the dirtiest London tramp,” and an extremely lengthy, but fascinating account of a man in a Japanese POW camp being fed on a few lumps of rice a day.

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And there were some hand-painted bomber jackets belonging to various pilots.  I remember seeing a really large display of these at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Museum many years ago, and I’ve always liked them (they may have played a small part in my becoming a punk as a teenager, since punks like to paint their leather jackets too, but because I was never any good at painting I just ended up wearing an old one that my high school boyfriend’s friend had painted with an Exploited skull.  It was well done, perhaps too much so, since it ended up getting stolen out of a car when I was at a punk show, with all my money and IDs in the pockets).

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On a more serious note, they had a small hut devoted to the Holocaust (that we didn’t take pictures of, as it seemed disrespectful), which covered a camp called DORA, where prisoners were forced to manufacture airplane parts and other things for the Nazis.  It came complete with moving illustrations done by what I believe was one of the survivors (though I’m not quite positive about that, and the information isn’t on their website so I can’t check).  There were also memorials throughout the museum to the pilots who lost their lives in the war.

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I was pretty keen to get into that Band of Brothers plane, and we took plenty of pictures in there (though as usual, I look terrible in all of them).  There was a video of the relevant episode playing on a small TV, and you were free to explore the plane (and yes, plant your ass on all the seats), so I enjoyed myself.  It was nice that the museum wasn’t very crowded so I had plenty of time to sit everywhere without being interrupted.

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And there were all those promised dioramas of aircraft in various stages of disrepair, pleasingly made into scenes with the use of (often hilarious) mannequins (I hope this isn’t construed as being too flippant, since I am aware that some of the pilots may have died in these crashes, but the museum’s approach overall seemed to be an interesting mix of the sombre and lighthearted).  I think I may have actually enjoyed some of the more mundane objects in the museum more though, like the bell shown towards the start of the post with FDR, Churchill, and Stalin moulded on it, and the sake cup pictured below that somehow survived Hiroshima.  To me, artefacts like that tell more of a story than an enormous hunk of rusting metal (though I’m not knocking the hunks of metal, if that’s your thing).

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There’s also a vintage radio hut parked outside, which one of the volunteers led me into as I was obviously cold (it was not a warm day, and the building was unheated, so it was basically just as cold as outside), the radio hut being compact and heated, and a place to learn more about antique radios than I ever wanted to.  They had a radio in there from Bletchley Park that was used in the filming of The Imitation Game (which I still haven’t seen, so I can’t say for sure whether Benny touched it, but at any rate, the opportunity to touch it myself never presented itself, so my hand was not where his hand was).

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They did indeed have an array of aircraft parts for sale, for prices ranging from 50p up to about 50 quid, so we ended up with our own bit of twisted metal for a pound, which isn’t a bad deal.  I mean, it’s pretty clear the museum could use the money (maybe to re-do the signs after correcting them?), and I could see that the place was a labour of love, even if I’m not a military history buff.  Though I wasn’t completely captivated by the museum, there were plenty of things that caught my interest, and it was nice reading some of the stories of men who’d been there (including one pilot from Lakewood, Ohio!), so I have no regrets about going (especially venturing inside that neat plane).  My mother loves planes and stuff, and I spent a lot of time being dragged around various aviation museums as a kid, so I have some grounds for comparison; while Wings is obviously nowhere near the level of Wright-Patterson or even the International Women’s Air and Space Museum, for a small museum without much (any?) funding, I think they did a decent job.  But while I love the quirkiness, that shouldn’t come at the expense of correct spelling, so I’ll give it 3/5.

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Westerham, Kent: Quebec House

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Living in England has made me unusually keen on American history.  I think I’m just a contrary person, because when I lived in America, British history was always my favourite (this is also inconvenient, because as you can imagine, the American history section at my local library is extremely limited, so I end up having to buy most of the titles I want to read, leading to a disproportionately large American section in my bookcase).  I suspect it’s maybe an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” kind of thing (in addition to the contrariness), but at any rate, learning that a site I’m thinking about visiting has vague American connections is often enough to tip the balance in its favour.  This week’s adventure took me to Quebec House in Kent, right down the road from Churchill’s home Chartwell (which just may come up on here in the near future as well…ok, very near future, as in next week).

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Quebec House was the childhood home of General James Wolfe, who won the Battle of Quebec for the British, though he ended up dying for his pains.  The house was subsequently renamed Quebec House to commemorate his achievement (and death).  It is currently owned by the National Trust, who charge an admission fee of £5.20 for entrance to the house and tiny museum.

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At this point you may be wondering what the connection to the USA is, as Quebec is obviously in Canada.  Well, as the museum explains, the Battle of Quebec was part of the Seven Years’ War with France (more commonly known in America as the French and Indian War; at least, that’s what I was taught in school), which was fought in part on what would become American soil (partially in the Ohio Valley), and was famously where George Washington began his military career.  It also indirectly led to the formation of America by securing the continent for the British (save for the culturally French area of Quebec, which was allowed to keep its language and customs in the aftermath of the battle, and of course, Mexico), thus giving the colonists something to rebel against in years to come (it’s also said that the British pissed off Washington at this point by not granting him a commission in the British Army, which may well have been a factor that contributed to America winning the Revolutionary War).

Unfortunately, the museum irritated me from the start due to the complete lack of proofreading on their signs.  In the sign pictured on the left, above, note the completely unnecessary possessive use of “Wolfe’s” in the section on Quebec House (the second possessive use is correct, but the first one should merely be a plural).  Also, does anyone else think the first section is written in a really bizarre tense? (Use of “chooses” in the first sentence, when the rest of the sentence was written in the past tense.)  Maybe I’m just a stickler for these things, but I notice an increasingly sloppy use of grammar and spelling amongst companies and organisations who should know better (for example, there’s a hotel/spa down the road from me that proudly advertises “masages” and hyponotherapy”), and I have to wonder what happened to all the proofreaders. I mean, we all make mistakes, myself included, but if you’re having a sign professionally made to hang in a museum, why wouldn’t you get someone to look it over first?! (If any interested parties are reading this, I’m available for freelance editing/proofreading!)

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Moving on, because I could dwell on grammatical annoyances all day, as I said, the museum is not large, and consists mainly of informational posters and maps, with a couple of rather boring videos thrown in for good measure (the videos basically just repeated verbatim what was written on the posters).  We finished making our way through in a matter of minutes, and moved on to the house.

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The house was a little better.  It was certainly an attractive property from the outside, and the inside contained a number of objects that drew my attention.  We were given a rather sparse room guide to carry around (at least this one didn’t have any glaring grammatical errors), and a few of the artefacts had additional captions on them, but as with most National Trust properties, it just wasn’t as much information as I would have liked.  Due to listening in on a conversation between a couple of visitors and one of the room guides (they started talking about Americans, and I was curious to hear what insulting things they would have to say), I learned that James Wolfe died when he was 32, having never married, and that there is only one picture of him as an adult that was actually drawn from life: a crude sketch done by a friend that is located inside the house.  There was a bust of him made after his death (in addition to the famous painting of his death scene done by Benjamin West) that was modeled on one of the family’s servants who was thought to have a resemblance to Wolfe.  He was also very tall for the time (6’2″) and thin, with a pale complexion (upon hearing this, my boyfriend gave me a look, because Wolfe sounded exactly like my type; pity the sketch of him led me to think he wasn’t terribly attractive (and had bright orange hair to boot)); some contemporaries thought he may have been suffering from tuberculosis, and wouldn’t have had long to live anyway, even if he hadn’t been killed in battle.

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In addition to paintings of Wolfe, various cannonballs from the battle, and medals and things, there was a copy of a book that was said to have Wolfe’s bloodstains on it, as he pricked his finger when reading it as a child.  There was also a re-creation of his bed, that we were apparently welcome to try out (though neither one of us did), and a room with lots of activities, including historical games for visitors to play, and a chance to practise writing with a quill.  If you visit on a Sunday, as we did, you can also try some of Mrs. Wolfe’s (James’s mother) family recipes, which volunteers make in the kitchen.  There’s something about old-timey food that turns my stomach (I threw up as a child after watching an 18th century cooking demonstration on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood because it looked so gross, and I quit an internship at a living history museum because they expected me to work in one of the kitchens, even after I told them I couldn’t because of my weird food issues), so there was no way I was going near something called “potato pudding,” especially as there seemed to be a bit of a communal spoon situation, but the seed cake, that old favourite of Victorian children’s literature, seemed safe enough, and it was reasonably pleasant.  Reminiscent of rye bread, probably because of the caraway seeds.

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Upon leaving the house, if you venture into the village green, there’s a statue of James Wolfe brandishing a sword (right next to one of Churchill I couldn’t get a picture of because children were climbing on it and refused to move, even after I gave them my angriest stare), which is probably worth seeing if you’ve come that far. If you do visit Quebec House, be forewarned that it doesn’t have its own carpark; you have to use the pay and display one that appears to be the sole village carpark as well, so you might well have to sit in your car for a while waiting for someone to leave, as we did.

Quebec House was certainly not without its faults, but as we have National Trust membership, I wasn’t too put out by them (except those signs, obviously).  If I’d had to pay I’d definitely have felt differently, but it still may be worth a stop on the way to Chartwell if you like American history as much as I do, and have a National Trust card, since there were a few decent artefacts to be seen inside.  Otherwise, you can probably give Quebec House a miss, unless you’re REALLY keen on seed cake or obscure military history.  2.5/5.

Guildford, Surrey: Clandon Park

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Well, we joined English Heritage last year, and have moved on to the National Trust this year, what’s happening to me?! (other than becoming more middle class, apparently). Yes, I’ve been known to talk some crap on them (and this post is no exception), but it when it comes right down to it, I still visit their properties and walking trails enough that a membership makes more sense than paying for everything individually (since they seem to own the whole of the North and South Downs).  Plus, although they do have the annoying policy of closing the houses yet leaving the grounds of their properties open in the winter (Because that’s what people want to do in the winter; walk around in the cold and look at dead gardens.  This literally makes no sense to me.  I understand they need to do conservation work, but why not just close off a room or two at a time, and leave the rest of the house open? Just add this to the long list of things I don’t understand about the world), it still seems like a higher proportion of National Trust houses are open relative to English Heritage ones.  So, my boyfriend and I broke in our shiny new (albeit flimsy…they couldn’t spring for plastic?  But I probably shouldn’t bitch too much since they sent us free binoculars) membership cards with a visit to Clandon Park, near Guildford.

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Clandon Park is one of the many slightly generic stately homes owned by the National Trust (that all start to blur together after a while).  The only reason we selected Clandon Park over other similar houses was its easy driving distance, and the fact that it had both an old operating theatre and a museum on the premises. But beware, if you’re not a National Trust member, it’s about a tenner to see the property, and it’s just not worth that much.

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Anyway, we started with the military museum (covering the Queen’s Royal Regiment and the East Surrey Regiment), because on their website it looked very much like the old-school military museums I had so enjoyed in Winchester.  Unfortunately, although it had some suitably amusing mannequins, it wasn’t half as good as the Winchester museums.  Part of this was because there was a sign outside advertising the dress-up box, so the place was filled with unruly children and their weary parents, who just seemed to let them run amok (and meant there was no chance that I was going to be able to try on a hat).  But it also just wasn’t as good; it seemed like there wasn’t really that much in there, and the signs weren’t written in the same charming old-fashioned style as in Winchester.  I don’t know, it didn’t really do it for me, for whatever reason, but I feel kind of bad saying that because the man working there was nice enough, and it’s not his fault that so many damn children were running around.

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The museum and restaurant and everything were all technically within the house building, but you had to go upstairs to see the decorated rooms that the family used to use.  The house was owned by the Onslows, which means nothing to me (they were nobility, but unmemorable nobility), and was built in the 1720s, in a Palladian style, to replace an earlier Jacobean house that sat on the property.  The family crest included six birds, and they obviously took that to heart, because there was a bird motif going on throughout the house.  The main room on the first floor was the Marble Hall, which, being all marble and unheated, was freezing cold.

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However, it contained some interesting decorative details, from the large bird paintings, to the arm shaped lamp holders on the walls, and the elaborate Greek mythology themed ceiling.  The Marble Hall is where you can sign up for guided tours, and then wait around for said tours to start, so it’s lucky there was plenty of stuff to look at, since we spent a bit of time milling around in here.  I know, I know, I don’t like guided tours, but they were free, and the only way you got to see some of the rooms, so we signed up for the attic tour.

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While we waited for it to start, we checked out some of the other rooms, including the operating theatre, which was there because the house was used as a hospital during the First World War.

 

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There was also an attractive library, and a dining room where we had the “privilege” of watching them do conservation work, which I personally think is a ploy to be able to charge people full admission price during the winter months when some of the rooms are closed (because seriously, conservation work is not exciting to watch), but I digress…  I was keenest on the display cases full of random crap, including a lock of George III’s hair, and depressingly, a pistol that was used to put dogs down at an early “humane” shelter.

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It was at this point that an old lady sitting in the corner of the room yelled at us for taking pictures (we half-suspect she may have been an Onslow hanging about to make sure people didn’t disrespect the property, since she seemed pretty intensely concerned), so all the photos of the interior are from rooms on the first floor, before we knew it was an issue.  It’s fine if they don’t allow pictures, but the sign at the entrance said (and I quote), “we welcome amateur photographers,” so I think if photography was only allowed in certain areas of the home, there really should have been another sign saying so.  I don’t need to be made to feel like a jerk when we genuinely didn’t know any better (I feel like a jerk most of the time anyway).

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Anyway, though I have no pictures of the second floor, it was mainly devoted to the pottery collection of a Mrs. Gubbay (who I guess lived in the house, or was an Onslow descendant, but this was never explained).  I think I mentioned a long time ago how I once wanted a set of these stupid Georgian looking musician frog figurines, until I realised they cost thousands of pounds.  Well, old Mrs. Gubbay had a similar set, only with monkeys (though obviously frogs are better than monkeys, but some people have more money than taste), and a bunch of creepy harlequin figurines.  The ceramic birds were alright though, I like birds.

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At this point, it was time to go see the attic, so we dutifully trooped off with the group up a few staircases.  The attic is primarily used today as storerooms for various National Trust properties, so it’s full of cool old crap we only got a brief glance of (like a room full of extremely creepy torso mannequins belonging to the military museum), but at one point the family was living up there, and renting out the rooms downstairs to boarders, so there was lots of neat Victorian wallpaper.  And there was one room with three toilets!  One of them was an actual private stall; a snazzy Victorian toilet added by one of the gentlemen of the house so he and his friends wouldn’t have to go downstairs when playing billiards, but the other two were just sitting out on the floor, right next to each other.  Apparently the room was used as lodging quarters for the nurses when the house was a military hospital, so maybe the toilets dated to then…I just hope there was some kind of partition around them when the poor nurses had to use them!

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We then headed out to explore the grounds.  The Onslows own hundreds of acres of land, but only seven of them were given to the National Trust, so all they have is the ground the house sits on, and a bit around it that seems to include some sort of folly.  Or maybe it was an ice house?  Or wine cave?  It was cool looking, whatever it was, but a sign explaining it sure would have been nice.

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The other main object of interest on the grounds was the Maori meeting house.  One of the Onslows was a bigwig in New Zealand (presumably a colonial governor or some such), and he was evidently popular enough that the Maori allowed him to ship one of their meeting houses back to England.  It remains the only meeting house outside New Zealand, serves as a religious place for the Maori, and tends to be visited by Kiwis when they’re in the UK for sporting events and the like.  You’re not allowed to go inside, except on special occasions, but I was able to get a pretty good look at the Tiki interior through the window.

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All in all, I wasn’t super thrilled with the house, but it wasn’t the most horrible National Trust property I’ve visited either.  It could be improved vastly by better signage, and maybe more helpful staff…there was a point where I was admiring some miniatures in a corner, and mused out loud what the one piece could be used for; the woman working in the room just stared at me blankly while I leafed through the brief descriptions in the room’s informational binder in search of an explanation.  I mean, I don’t like it when people are too aggressively helpful, but on this occasion I actually had a question, and was just ignored, so some happy medium would be nice. This review sounds more bitchy than I had intended, which I suppose means I really didn’t enjoy Clandon Park very much at all. So, 2/5, and here’s hoping I can enjoy this National Trust membership more when all their properties are open in the spring.

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An Afternoon in Winchester

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My boyfriend finally got a car again, which is exciting to a non-driver like me mainly because it means we can recommence our day trips (and easily go to the German bakery in Ham to get pretzels of a weekend).  The first longish drive we decided to take was to Winchester, in Hampshire.  Although the Round Table was one draw, I think my main reason for going was that Winchester’s Hospital of St. Cross was the closest filming location of Wolf Hall, but we got so caught up in visiting the military museums that I forgot all about it when we were there, so we never even saw the Hospital.  (Ok, I do not like Hilary Mantel, so have never read her books, and I know the whole thing is historically inaccurate, but I’m kind of hooked on the TV series.  It’s boring and confusing simultaneously, and yet I keep watching (though part of that may have something to do with Damian Lewis’s codpiece…I have problems).)

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Although I did visit a number of museums there, rather than break them up into separate posts, I’m just going to give a general overview of everything in one (I’m feeling lazy today) and speak a bit about the city…it has a cathedral, so it technically is a city I think, according to the bizarre rules of the English.  Historically speaking, Winchester was the capital of Wessex, so was a pretty big deal in the Anglo-Saxon world.  One thing I can definitely say about modern Winchester is that they have some interesting sculptures.  They have a buttercross, which is apparently a common thing in English market towns, and is just a large statue in the centre of the town (city?), where people would come to buy butter and eggs and such in olden times.  There’s still a market in the square on Saturdays, though nothing very exciting was for sale (unless you think mystery brand pillows are exciting).  Winchester also boasts some other eclectic statues, including Alfred the Great (in the middle of a busy road), a pig, and a naked man on a horse.  And they have some artistically painted bollards.

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There’s also a rather poignant WWI memorial just outside the Great Hall, and another elaborate commemorative affair next to some nearby castle ruins.  As for the Great Hall itself, it holds the supposed Round Table of King Arthur, as pictured at the start of the post.  Obviously, it did not belong to Arthur (who probably didn’t even exist, and certainly not in the form of the Arthur of legend, even if he was an historical figure), and was instead created for Edward I in the late 13th century.  It was subsequently re-discovered later on, after Malory had popularised the Arthurian legend, and thought to be the mythological Arthur’s table, so Henry VIII had it painted with a Tudor rose and a portrait of Arthur that looked suspiciously like a grey-haired version of Henry (and nothing like Damian Lewis, because even when Henry was young and not yet morbidly obese and disgusting, he still wasn’t anywhere near as attractive as the actors they usually get to play him).

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The Great Hall is free to visit, and also contains a pretty kick-ass sculpture of Queen Victoria, some random gargoyley bits, and a “long gallery” with more information about the history of the Great Hall and Winchester generally (and there’s one of those penny flattening machines in the gift shop, with some excellent choices of design).

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Not far from the Great Hall, you’ll find the old military barracks, which are now split up into five different museums.  An old sign outside the information centre tells you that they’re free, but don’t believe it, as they all charge a relatively modest admission fee (2-5 pounds), which is fine, but can add up if you want to see all of them.  So we just chose the two that sounded the most interesting, and conveniently enough, considering how cold it was that day, were in the same building: The Gurkha Museum, and Horsepower, the Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars (I chose the latter because their brochure specifically promised authentic smells).

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Now, these were proper old school museums, so don’t go in expecting frills and interactive crap, but as old school is exactly the kind of thing I love, I was in heaven.  The Gurkhas were not soldiers I knew a whole lot about (honestly, I didn’t even know they were Nepalese before visiting…I knew they were Asian, but didn’t know from where exactly, which is probably a shameful display of ignorance), so I learned a lot, despite the museum’s rather, er, paternalistic tone.  It was like a flashback to the days of Empire, and was sort of geared to make you feel that colonialism was a great thing, glossing neatly over the many, many, many problems with it, and the reasons why the Gurkhas were fighting in the first place.  Despite these issues, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, particularly liking the mannequin dioramas with motion sensors that triggered light and sound when you walked past. Like I said, proper old school.

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The Horsepower Museum was also lovely, and delivered completely on the brochure’s promises; namely authentic smells, and the chance to sit on a saddle and try on a busby (photographic evidence of this provided above).  Actually, the authentic smells permeated the whole museum, so you could smell them as soon as you walked in, but that just enhanced the experience.  The Royal Hussars took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, amongst many other wars and battles, so there was some interesting material here.  I also have to mention the volunteers working at both museums, who were very nice and welcoming, especially the gentleman at Horsepower.  If you like old-fashioned museums as much as I do, and can deal with a bit of historical whitewashing, I’d definitely recommending checking out a military museum or two in Winchester.

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Of course, Winchester is probably most famous for its cathedral (below, left).  After I found out Jane Austen was buried there, I was gung-ho to visit…until I realised you had to pay £7.50 to get in.  I’m not sure why I was surprised by this, since Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s charge admission, but most cathedrals I’ve been to operate on a recommended donation basis – as I felt it was too close to closing time to get my money’s worth, I decided we could skip it this time around.  Instead, we headed over to the Winchester City Museum, which was right next door to the cathedral, and was free.

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It was also very close to closing time for the Winchester City Museum, so I opted to skip the top floor, which was just Roman stuff (since I am not that big on the Romans), and head to the Anglo-Saxon one below it.  They had an intriguing selection of medieval face jugs, and a super creepy stone angel that my boyfriend jerkishly claimed had moved, so I had to spend most of my time keeping an eye on it, just in case (anyone else still traumatised by those damn Weeping Angels?!).

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Weirdly, the floor below it seemed to jump from the early Middle Ages to Edwardian Winchester.  Ok, there was a little sign about the 18th century, but no late Middle Ages, or Tudors, or Civil War or anything.  Granted, Winchester was on the decline after the Anglo-Saxon period, but the buttercross and the Round Table and everything date from that missing era, so you’d think they could have said something about it.

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But, they did have a re-creation of a tobaccanist’s shop, and an apothecary, so I can’t complain too much, because that was rad.  Overall, this museum wasn’t overly impressive, but it was free, and was something to do (when I should have been seeing the Hospital of St. Cross if I hadn’t been busy being a total airhead that day). There’s another local museum that’s supposed to have historic weights and measures, but I don’t think it was open for the season yet when we visited.  There’s also a National Trust watermill on the hilariously named River Itchen that looks intriguing, though we missed that as well.  However, I did make a point of eating some cheese straws in Winchester, from a bakery I found recommended online.  It’s a chain with locations throughout Wiltshire and Hampshire called Reeve the Baker, and their cheese straws were still-warm and amazing (and only 50p each!), so if you like cheesy bready things as much as I do, get over to their charming Tudor-esque high street and have yourself one of the little grease-bombs.

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Winchester turned out to be quite a good outing.  I’m surprised I hadn’t been there before, since it’s not really that far away, but now I think I will definitely be back at some point, as I still have to see the Hospital of St. Cross and Winchester Cathedral (and get some more of those cheese straws).  Also, I have never seen so many small dogs wearing hilarious sweaters in my life.  The high street was full of them (and some adorable sweater-less big dogs) and it was great, so I may need to return just to be entertained by the fashionable canine population.   Therefore, I can certainly recommend Winchester to anyone who likes history, cheese-based pastries, statues, and be-clothed dogs.

Oh, and in other news, you may have noticed from the sidebar that I finally got an Instagram account (I had to wait until I got a new phone, because my old one was too old to support it)!  You can follow me @jsajovie and get occasional glimpses of museums I’m going to blog about in the future, books I like to read, and all the other miscellaneous heavily-filtered junk that everyone posts on Instagram.  (And I promise I will be super thrilled if someone actually does follow me, because I only have 12 followers right now and it looks sad.)

London: WWI Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

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I’m actually kind of embarrassed to admit that this was my first visit to the Imperial War Museum, especially because I used to live within walking distance of it (in the old E&C, boy am I glad not to be living there anymore!). In fairness to me, it had been closed for a long time whilst they were revamping it, but I think it’s been open again since the summer, so no more excuses!  Actually, I do have one more excuse…by the time I made it there last week, after a long day spent running errands, it was already well after 4 (as you may be able to tell from the nighttime photograph, although I suppose it could have been about 3 and that dark these days) and there was absolutely no earthly way I’d have time to see everything (I think the museum has about 5 floors; just look at it, it’s huge!) so I decided to zero on one of the areas I knew they’d put a special focus on redoing, the First World War Galleries.

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The WWI stuff is in the basement, which was quite convenient as I just happened to wander down there in search of the toilets.  From the outside, it didn’t look like much, and I thought I’d be able to zip through and maybe move onto the Second World War.  I was wrong, because everything is hidden in galleries that snake through the interior of the museum, and it is huge and awesome in there.

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Now, I have been to a lot of WWI museums in the past couple of years (the Ijzer Tower, and the In Flanders Fields museums spring instantly to mind, but there’s been plenty more that touch on it, most recently the Wellington Arch), and though I do still think the Ijzer Tower rocked because of its sheer size, the Imperial War Museum blew the rest of them out of the water.  It was just very comprehensive, and took you through each stage of the war (and the home front, in Britain and Europe) in chronological order, which I really appreciated.

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I believe that the IWM is run by a different organisation than the one that manages the Royal Armouries in Leeds, but that’s kind of what it reminded me of, only more in depth.  There were tonnes of strategy games and other interactive things that really made it fun; I got to play a game where I removed broken Huntley and Palmer biscuits from the production line (which brought on flashbacks to one of my earliest posts on the biscuit tin gallery at the Reading Museum).  Regular readers will know that I’m no great fan of children, and I think part of what made my experience so nice was that there were none of them in there (maybe because it was past school hours, and not a weekend) so the adults actually got a chance to play all the games, which was great.  They also had a dress-up bit, and a display where you could check to see if you were fit to be a soldier by measuring your height and girth and such (I was too short to have made the grade initially, but would have passed muster after they lowered their standards…and if I was a man of course).

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Speaking of flashbacks and such, I knew there would be something about Edith Cavell in there, she pops up everywhere else, even when you’re not expecting her!  I wasn’t disappointed as they had one of her nursing caps.  This was in addition to a splendid collection of uniforms, including one of Kaiser Wilhelm’s with a shortened sleeve for his withered arm.

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Actually, there were lots of very cool artefacts.  You may be able to tell from the pictures I took that I’m kind of partial to the recruitment posters, but they also had figurines representing Churchill, David Lloyd George, Philippe Petain, and Woodrow Wilson (I couldn’t get a good photo of Wilson because of the awkward lighting though), and plenty of things that the troops actually took into battle, including the creepy ventriloquist’s dummy shown above that one soldier apparently used to “entertain” his fellow soldiers.  Getting shot at, sprayed with poison gas, and being forced to listen to a ventriloquist…damn, war really is hell.

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I thought I was pretty well versed in the war generally after having been to all these museums, reading a book about it here and there, and watching Paxman’s series on it last spring, but there was so much information here that I managed to learn some things.  For instance, did you know that the French 75 cocktail was named after a type of cannon (shown above)?  I love French 75s, as they’re a mix of champagne, gin, lemon juice, and sugar, which is pretty much what I’m looking for in an alcoholic beverage, but I wasn’t aware of the Great War connection until the helpful placard pointed it out to me.

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I know that America, due to their isolationist policies, entered the war very late, but I liked that the galleries also gave some space to the Doughboys, and some of Wilson’s post-war plans, because sometimes I do feel a bit left out of things at other European war museums.   I also liked that there was some information on German civilians and how difficult life was with food shortages (the dishes below are ones they were encouraged to use to conserve food, and they’re about the size of a child’s tea set.  Britain also had rationing dishes, but they were at least three times the size of the German ones), not to mention the weird substitutions that were encouraged (I think the text on that poster with the gnome on it translated to something like, “Need oil?  Use mushrooms!”  How does that even work?  They’re so watery and horrible!).

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Skipping ahead to the end of the war, there was of course the obligatory poignant section about the horrific injuries of some of the survivors, as well as a recognition of the many dead soldiers and civilians, but being the Imperial War Museum, and not a war memorial, it wasn’t dwelt upon as much as at some other places.  The quote on a wall from Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier from WWI (who is now deceased) was simple, and yet stuck with me, “I’ve tried for 80 years to forget it.  But I can’t.”  I think that does sum up the impact the war had on Britain, even to this day, and why exhibits like these are still so important.

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I really do think there was something for everyone here, with attention given to the roles of women, children, and pacifists in the war, as well as plenty of weaponry and artillery for people who are into that stuff (they even had a mock trench, though it wasn’t anywhere near as elaborate as the ones at Ijzer Tower).  It wasn’t quite as specialist as some exhibits I’ve seen, so hardcore military historians might not find much for them (though I think the quality of the artefacts is excellent, and quite varied) but for the average person who just loves history generally, they’re perfect. I think you can tell that I loved the WWI Galleries, and I spent a fantastic hour exploring them.  I will definitely now make a point to return to the IWM (though I may or may not blog about it, I don’t want to bore everyone, but there might be some other really cool exhibits), and I advise others to do the same.  I can’t compare the galleries to what they had before, since I never saw the earlier ones, but they are really spectacular now.  4.5/5

 

 

 

London: The Wellington Arch

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If you’ve ever been to Hyde Park Corner, you’ve probably noticed the Wellington Arch looming nearby.  What you might not have known (unless you noticed people standing on the balcony) is that you can actually go inside the Arch.  It’s owned by English Heritage, and as such there is a fee (£4.20), but my membership doesn’t expire until the spring, so I put that card to good use once again.

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It’s four flights of stairs up to the top, or you can use the lift, but I like the sense of accomplishment I get from taking the stairs, so up we went.  There are museum displays on three of the levels, but they recommend you head straight up to the top first and then make your way back down.  The balcony is a bit odd because it’s split in two by the museum floor, so you have to go back in and then out the opposite door to see around the entire Arch.

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As you can see, it was quite overcast when we visited (no surprises there) but that meant there were barely any other visitors, and didn’t stop us from getting tourist-esque shots of the London Eye and the Shard (and the back garden of Buckingham Palace, where the BFG is meant to live).

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Back inside the Arch (which smells pleasantly like a crypt…or maybe I’m the only one who enjoys the smell of damp limestone?), the small museum space on the fourth floor is dedicated to WWI memorials, with pictures of a number of interesting designs (I was most intrigued by the soldier pictured below – his original head was vandalised, which is terrible and not funny, but they replaced it with what was meant to be a temporary head, and it seriously looked like something I could have sculpted.  I mean, really, could they not find a single artist or sculptor to do something decent?  I believe the hilarious head has finally been replaced with something suitably dignified and solemn).  This display included some information on the Royal Artillery Memorial that sits directly opposite the Arch (it can be seen at the bottom of this post).

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The Great War theme carried on to the gallery below, which had an excellent collection of postcards produced by different countries in the War; Germany took the glorification of soldiers’ deaths to an art form…looking at the postcards, you could really see how they were setting themselves up for the dark path they’d go down in the decades to come, as they clearly portrayed how wronged Germany felt by the rest of Europe, and how they saw themselves as martyrs.

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Speaking of martyrs, there was also a small section dedicated to the ever-present Edith Cavell (I’ve encountered exhibits about her in Belgium, Norwich, and the London Hospital Museum, not to mention her statue next to the National Portrait Gallery), and how her death spurred on the British war effort and various other war related bits and pieces, including an excellent death mask of General Haig.

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Finally, we made our way down to the first floor gallery on the history of the Wellington Arch itself (there’s nothing on the second floor).  Initially, the Arch was meant to serve as part of a grand entrance to Buckingham Palace, but that ultimately wasn’t deemed practical, so it was erected at Hyde Park Corner instead, and originally did not have a statue on top.  However, it was decided that Wellington should have a memorial to match Nelson’s Column (Wellington was still alive at the time, and played a role in spurring things along).  So, they plopped a huge equestrian statue of Wellington on top the Arch (which is very near Apsley House, Wellington’s home, which we did not have a chance to visit that day because it was already quite late in the afternoon), which totally dwarfed the Arch; basically, everyone but Wellington hated it, but because ol’ Arthur threw a temper tantrum and threatened to resign all his posts when they tried to take it down, it remained in place until well after his death.

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It doesn’t end there, as the Arch had to be moved in the 1880s, since (horse-drawn) traffic in the area was becoming a real problem.  As the Duke was long dead at this point, his statue was finally removed and given a new home in Aldershot, and the current statue that tops the Arch was commissioned – called Triumph, it’s of a four-horse carriage.  Anyway, in addition to all this history, the room contained some of the casts of Triumph; the boy head was especially creepy.

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The Arch also used to serve as Britain’s smallest police station, to keep tabs on nearby Hyde Park, and even had a resident cat, called Snook, living inside it, as well as up to 8 officers at any given time.  This was all surprisingly interesting, and it’s always nice to get a new perspective on a London landmark (I suppose literally, since we got to see the inside).  I don’t know if I would have wanted to pay 4 quid for this, as I am pretty cheap, but I did really enjoy it, and I’m glad I finally got to see the top of the Arch.  Now I just need to visit Apsley House before my membership expires!  3/5.

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