seaside

Weston-super-Mare, Somerset: Dismaland

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I’m interrupting my regularly scheduled posts to share my experience at the most bemusing place on Earth with you…that’s right kids, it’s Dismaland!  As soon as I heard about Dismaland, I knew I’d have to go, if only for the sake of this blog.  It’s a five week event (and I think there’s only about a week left, at time of posting), and tickets do regularly go up for sale on the Dismaland website for a reasonable fiver a ticket, but judging by the prices some of them are going for on Ebay, they are not easy to get.  Fortunately, I was lucky enough to receive a pair for my birthday, so I didn’t have to worry about all that!  Thus, my boyfriend and I made the long drive out to Weston-super-Mare last Saturday to investigate.

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If you’re not in the UK, you may not have heard of Dismaland (or Banksy for that matter, in which case just click his name, because I don’t feel like explaining (and seriously, not being into modern art, I’d never heard of Banksy before moving to London, so don’t feel bad about it if you haven’t)); basically, Weston-super-Mare is a typical English seaside town (meaning it’s slightly seedy and run-down, but there’s ice cream and chips, which are really the main reasons for going to the seaside, for me anyway), where Banksy took over an abandoned amusement park/fun fair deal with some other artists to create a limited-time-only “bemusement park.”  If nothing else, it’s been brilliant for Weston tourism-wise, as thousands of extra people have been flooding in for the past month to visit it.

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We got there about an hour and a half early, because even with timed tickets, we weren’t entirely sure what the queuing situation would be like.  (Also, rather than pay to park in the Dismaland lot, we parked on a random residential street for free, so we had a bit of a walk.)  It took us probably another ten minutes to walk through the insane amount of barriers set up around Dismaland, even though there was no one waiting in the online ticket line (there were just that many barriers).  The line for people without tickets was another story…throughout the entire four hours we spent around Weston, it looked like the queue didn’t move at all, so I would NOT recommend showing up without a ticket, unless maybe you live nearby and can get there really super early in the morning or something.  Anyway, when we got to the front, the woman there told us there was no point queuing for that long, and to come back at 1:30 for 2 o’clock entry (even though the employees were all meant to be deliberately unhelpful, she was actually quite nice), so we left to get an ice cream (there’s a place nearby that will swirl your choice of like 28 different flavours in your Mr. Whippy…pretty good, for Britain at least (whenever I think of British ice cream, I think of that scene in Good Omens where Adam and his friends can’t think of more than three flavours of ice cream. Brilliant)).  Note: MAJOR spoilers ahead, so don’t read on if you’re going to Dismaland and want to be surprised.

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When we returned at 1:30 as directed, there was already a sizeable queue of people waiting, so we ended up having about fifty people ahead of us instead of being first in line. Oh well, once 2 rolled around, at least they were pretty quick about checking tickets and letting people in.  You have to go through a real security check before entering, followed by a fake security room where everything is made of cardboard, and “security staff” constantly yell at you not to smile.  Then, someone half-assedly hands you a map of the park (he drops most of them on the ground), and you’re off.  We’d heard it was best to see the inside things first, as queues form fast, so we duly headed to the tent immediately on our left, which was meant to hold an array of art exhibitions.  And a stage featuring the “Dance of Death,” which turned out to be a figure dressed as the Grim Reaper (that may or may not have had an actual person inside, we couldn’t decide) who comes out in a bumper car and spins around to “Stayin’ Alive.”

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I decided, it being Dismaland, that I should enter into the spirit of things by not appearing to have fun at any point, which is why you’re going to see a lot of pictures of me deliberately looking grumpy (though I’ve been known to do a pretty spectacular grump face with no encouragement whatsoever).  The art in here was ok, nothing particularly memorable, except for maybe the beach ball hovering about blades, and that big mushroom cloud thing.

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There was also a room dedicated to this big, dystopian model village, which had annoying people leaning all over it trying to take pictures.  Surprisingly, the guards weren’t actually yelling at them, but were rather nicely just asking them to stop.  If it had been me, and I was being encouraged to be unpleasant, I would have taken out the stress of all the years I worked in customer service and screamed at the lot of them, but that’s just me.

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When we left the tent, we came out next to a big stage that apparently screens clips from various movies (didn’t watch it, so I don’t know what), and hosts bands on Friday nights, but honestly, the carnival games seemed more interesting.  There were a handful of them, including “Hook a Duck from the Muck,” shooting apparently weighted cans with a cork gun, and attempting to knock an anvil off a post with ping pong balls…as you can probably guess from those descriptions, they were all essentially unwinnable.  Well, hooking a duck from the muck (muddy water) initially looked doable, but the girl working there constantly slaps your pole away, or throws stuff at your duck if you get close to snatching it, so there is no way we were able to get the “fish finger in a bag” that was the prize (someone must of though, because there’s some for sale on Ebay).  There also appeared to be a portrait artist who drew the back of your head instead of your face, but when we got closer there was a sign saying it was for demonstration purposes only, and you couldn’t actually have it done, which was a real disappointment.  They were selling so much other art, so why not something personalised?

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We popped into a random circus tent that didn’t have too long of a line, and it turned out to be filled with taxidermied stuff (taxidermied always comes up as misspelled when I type it, but I feel like it should be a word, so I persist. You all know what I mean anyway), and a curious tea set made up of dishes with body parts attached.

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There were also some gross Alien-esque things hanging on the walls (that on closer inspection may just be snakes with weird headdresses, in which case they’re not really gross.  I love snakes), and an adorable bunbun with a moving head and twitching nose that apparently had killed his magician master, hence the heap of clothes on the ground.  Or perhaps the magician had turned himself into a rabbit?  I guess it’s fairly ambiguous.

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The centrepiece of the park is undoubtedly the burnt out castle in the middle of the lake; intrigued to see what was inside, we headed there next.  It turned out to be the opportunity to have a souvenir photo taken (5 quid, and they don’t tell you what you’re posing in front of until after the photo is taken), and to have a look at the wreckage of Cinderella’s coach, complete with paparazzi.

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There were a couple rides at the park: a Ferris wheel and a carousel.  I’m not sure what the gimmick was with these, except for the Ferris wheel seemed to go much faster than a normal one, which made me not want to go on it since spinning things make me hurl.  This being Banksy, there was some kind of political thing called a “Cruel Bus” in the back of the park that we did not go in because the queue was insane, though apparently it has pictures of torture devices from around the world in it, and a whole lot of boring-looking charts (I glimpsed them from the open door of the bus).

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As promised, there were many ways to waste your money, if you were so inclined, which naturally also involved queuing (which was one of my main beefs with this place).  The Pocket Money Loans was something of a mystery going in, but they turned out to sell postcards and prints, which we duly acquired.  There are also black balloons that say “I am an Imbecile” that sporadically emerge from somewhere near the toilets, a van selling programmes, run by a notably grumpy-faced girl (she was obviously really into her role), and a gift shop (which you exit through, natch) with t-shirts and posters.  Foodwise, there’s a pizza cart, and a stall selling Dismalafel, which was tempting because of the name (and because I love falafel), but I was saving my appetite for potato scallops from a local chippy (I’ve only just discovered them, and why are they not a thing everywhere?  Slice of potato dipped in batter and fried, hells yes!  Perfect vegetarian alternative (if you’re not averse to a bit of fish grease)) so I could not tell you how they are.

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The last tent we went into had a bunch more artwork that was more highly politicised than the other stuff, and it was right next to a bunch of stalls run by various anarcho-type organisations.  I don’t know, I kind of outgrew the whole “anarchism” thing when my teenage punk rocker days were over, and I’m not really into having politics shoved down my throat (even politics I agree with, it’s the principle of the thing), so this was my least favourite part, but with Banksy’s reputation, it’s to be expected.

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Lastly, there was a Punch and Judy show which was rumoured to be Jimmy Savile themed, and perhaps some of the shows are, but the one I saw had to do with wife and child beating (also cheery, and I guess what Punch does anyway), and turned out to be really really boring and hard to hear, so I didn’t watch it for long enough to see where they were going with it.  I mean, it went on for like fifteen minutes, who’s got time for that shit?

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I don’t know, obviously the place is called Dismaland, but I was kind of hoping it would be more fun, or gothic or something (I think I want everything to be a haunted house, or otherwise spooky, and most things aren’t).  As I said to my boyfriend when we went in, I was hoping for/half-expecting something like the Valkenheiser salvage yard in Nothing but Trouble (you probably haven’t seen it because it’s the worst movie ever, so I won’t recommend it even though I love it (but there is a random cameo by Tupac, and the most disturbing hot dog eating scene ever), but basically the JP had this sprawling estate filled with junk heaps, abandoned giant mascots from various businesses, creepy music blaring from loudspeakers, and a roller coaster called “Mister Bonestripper” that literally stripped your bones at the end of it.  Well, maybe not that part, but I definitely was hoping it would be more creepy, rather than just intensely political), and it wasn’t that at all.  Just a lotta art and crap to buy, and not very much to actually do, other than queue.  So yes, in that sense, it did live up to its name, and I am very glad that my tickets were a gift (and that the person who gave them to me did get them for retail price, rather than having to pay something crazy on Ebay), because while it was definitely an experience to go, I don’t think it was worth more than a fiver (I mean, I went for free, but yeah, don’t spend more than a fiver if you’re the one buying them).  I can’t help but feel that the point of Dismaland was somewhat lost on someone like me. Perhaps people who really enjoy Banksy and underground art, or who are more politically active/less cynical/more participatory than I am will get more out of it, but I wasn’t super impressed by any of it.  It was something to see once, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to go, but I’m still not sure it was worth the seven hour round-trip drive from London to Weston. 3/5.

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Broadstairs, Kent: Dickens House Museum

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Dahl’s Chickens strikes again!  As soon as it starts to warm up, in addition to ditching socks as soon as possible (I hate when my feet are all hot and constrained), I want to go to the seaside.  This is obviously a relatively new phenomenon for me, as the lakeside was the closest I got as a kid, and if you’ve ever been swimming in Lake Erie, you will understand why it is not that thrilling (dead fish, insanely high bacteria counts, random floating garbage).  I certainly don’t swim in open water these days (in addition to being terrified of crabs and things, I am not a good swimmer and fear death), but I’ll happily go wading if there’s a nice sandy beach, and it’s even better if there’s somewhere to procure ice cream nearby.  Which brought me to Broadstairs.

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Broadstairs is a fair drive for a day trip (over two hours from SW London), so we saved it for a bank holiday weekend (yeah, this post has been sitting around for a while too).  It is in Thanet, so we were slightly apprehensive that it might be somehow “UKIPy,” (which I don’t know, it might well be), but to all appearances it is just a nice early Victorian seaside town built on cliffs, from which you descend some stairs to reach a beautiful sandy beach (with very cold water, but hey, it was still May).  Though I was freaked out to see some crab bits laying on the sand, it was otherwise very clean, and we strolled for quite a while before grabbing an ice cream from Morelli’s (the most expensive damn ice cream; this was beyond London pricing, and waaaayyyyy more than it should have been at a seaside town.  And there was no pistachio, which never bodes well).  Of course, it’d be remiss of me to not take in a museum as well, which brings me back to Dahl’s Chickens, er, Charles Dickens (yep, I’m still using that BFG joke).

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Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to Broadstairs from 1837-1859, and befriended a local lady there, a Miss Mary Pearson Strong, who became the inspiration for Betsy Trotwood in David CopperfieldI have never read David Copperfield, but apparently Betsy Trotwood had some sort of problem with donkeys using the street in front of her house, like the real life Miss Strong.  At any rate, her house has been turned into the Dickens House Museum (not to be confused with the Dickens Museum in London), complete with a parlour where Dickens once took tea with Miss Strong, and can be seen for £3.75.

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Neither the house nor the museum are particularly large, but there was a charming volunteer there on the day we visited who told us the history of the house and just generally made us feel welcome, which was much appreciated.  The main room downstairs holds a desk actually purchased by Dickens, a chest given to him on one of his trips to America, and a number of pictures of a rather dashing young Dickens (as we learned at the other Dickens Museum, he was something of a dandy, and favoured bold waistcoats even into his later years).

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There were also a couple small back rooms filled with maps of London and more pictures, but not a whole lot of information.  What was there was mostly written on the pictures themselves in prohibitively tiny text (my boyfriend remarked that he wished he brought his glasses, but my vision’s perfect (not to brag, it’s thanks to LASIK), so I did alright), and was really too lengthy to stand there and read the whole of it.  I do quite like old-fashioned museums with piles of text, but sometimes it could do with being broken up a bit more, and this was one of those times.

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The parlour in question was roped off, so you could only peer at it from the corner of the room, but it contained an unusually comfy looking chaise longue, and seemed like it would be a nice place to take tea (though I think it is a re-creation done with period furniture, and not the actual furnishings Dickens would have used).  There were a couple more rooms upstairs, but these were largely filled with random objects (I guess just common objects in a Victorian household, not sure if there was a specific Dickens connection), and this is where more signage would have definitely come in handy, as there was only a board listing the names of everything, but not what they were used for (and a very confused German lady kept asking her English travelling companion what each thing was, because it wasn’t obvious, even to native English speakers).

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I have to confess that the museum wasn’t terribly comprehensive or informative (a framed poster from a 1970 edition of the Sunday Times was the most helpful thing there, and though I enjoyed reading Dickens’s (largely negative) comments on America, the museum really shouldn’t be relying on a 45 year old newspaper insert), but it was quaint, and I feel bad being too harsh on it because the volunteers were so nice, which goes a long way with me (having encountered unpleasant or uninterested museum staff on far too many occasions).  Besides, it was fairly inexpensive (as were the postcards, when we asked the volunteer how much they cost, we thought he said 50p, and he was shocked when that’s what we tried to give him (“50p?!  No, of course not, they’re only 15p!”), when really I’ve paid 60p and up for postcards some places, so 50p would have not at all seemed out of line, though of course 15 is even better!), so I have no regrets about visiting, even if it wasn’t quite as informative as I would have liked.  2.5/5.

And I think Broadstairs is probably worth a visit in its own right if you manage to hit it on a warm day, as the beach is lovely, and there seemed to be quite a few independent bookshops and tearooms scattered around its narrow streets.  They also celebrate Dickens in the form of a festival every June, so it may be worth going for that if you’re keener than I am on Dickens (in which case you might get more out of the museum than I did as well).

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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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Grenen, Denmark: The Place Betwixt Two Seas, and the Skagens Museum

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First of all, I’m excited to announce that I’ve written a guest post over on the Smitten by Britain blog on some of my favourite offbeat museums in London, so please go over and check it out (it has the added benefit of being much more concise than my usual posts)!  And now, Grenen.  Ever since I learned that there was somewhere I could stick my feet in two seas, I’ve wanted to do it.  I’m not at all a fan of swimming, but I love wading in ankle-deep water and letting my sore feet enjoy the soft sand and the gentle lap of waves, or in the case of English beaches, sharp, uneven pebbles and freezing cold water laced with rubbishy detritus (my feet are inevitably always sore because all my shoes are uncomfortable).  But Grenen was indeed the dream, with a perfect beach of fine white sand, and reasonably warmish water.

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Grenen is at the northernmost tip of mainland Denmark, and as such was a fair drive away from anything else we were visiting, though it is only 3 km down the road from the touristy seaside town of Skagen (of watch fame). There isn’t a lot there besides a tourist shack selling postcards and other tat, a cafe serving up the ever-present Danish hotdogs and ice cream (with flavoured sprinkles for the latter, woot!), and a few small museums.  So, ice creams in hand, we clambered over a rocky hill and found ourselves on the aforementioned sandy beach, taking that as our cue to promptly remove our shoes and head down to the edge of the water.

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The bit where the North and Baltic Seas meet is a long walk down the beach, which I undertook with rare pleasure, savouring the texture of the firm, moist grains underfoot, but for those less inclined to struggle through the shifting sands, there is Sandormen.  No, it’s not a Danish superhero (superheroes?), but the name of a tractor vehicle that tows tourists up to the edge of the sea.

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There’s not much to say about the actual experience, other than you have to queue for your turn to straddle Denmark, but once you get your moment in the spotlight, you stand there grinning like an idiot whilst the waves crash into your legs with surprising ferocity.  It was just a brilliant experience that I am uncharacteristically not going to be cynical about (as you can probably tell from my big shit-eating grin at the start of the post), though you do need to watch out for dead jellyfish on the walk along the coast, as stepping on one would spoil a good mood pretty quickly.  5/5, and probably one of the best times you can have whilst standing in four inches of water.

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And then there was the Skagens Museum.  For some reason, we didn’t realise it was an art museum until after we paid the DKK 90 admission, which I personally thought was a really high price considering the size and subject matter of the museum. Had I known it wasn’t a local history museum, I definitely would have spent the afternoon at the charmingly random Teddy Bear Museum (also in Skagen) instead.  It’s not that it was bad, I’m just disinclined to spend over a tenner to look at art, especially when there were other things I would have rather be doing.

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Once I got over my initial disappointment, I have to admit that it was a rather nice little museum, even though I’d never heard of any of the artists, who were all Danish.  An entire room was about to P.S. Krøyer and his relationship with his wife Marie, who was also a painter.  His former studio was inside a hut in the museum’s gardens, which you can visit.  Apparently Skagen had quite the art scene from the 1870s-1900s, with painters flocking in from all over Denmark to paint the beaches and other scenery. There was a special exhibition on them which detailed the character of each beach/region around Skagen, with a display of paintings of that area, which I quite enjoyed.

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The upstairs gallery was devoted to charcoal sketches, and broke down the composition of some famous seaside paintings by Krøyer.  We then wandered out to look round the garden, and to peek inside the painter’s huts, which were filled with interactive screens that appeared to only be in Danish.  The set-up of the museum was a little odd, because like every other Danish museum, they forced you to put your bags in a locker (which was something that annoyed me throughout the trip, am I really going to stuff a massive painting into my purse?), which was to the right of the admissions desk, but you had to exit through the gardens to the left and back of the museum, which meant walking back through part of the museum and a gift shop to leave, after picking up your bags (and rendered forcing people to store their bags pointless).  A minor quibble, I know, but I do like to air grievances when I can (actually, it’s probably 80% of the reason why I have a blog!).

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I did enjoy the statue of the manly men above though.  It looks as though it could be Lenin and Trotsky, but it was actually Krøyer and some other painter.  I wasn’t super keen on the Skagens Museum overall, but that’s mainly due to my lack of interest in landscapes and Danish art.  If you are an art fan, then I’m sure you’ll like it, as it did seem nicely put together, and there was quite a lot of information on the painters within. I’ll give it a 3/5 because my lack of artistic refinement is not the Skagens Museum’s fault, but I’m still slightly salty about skipping the Teddy Bear Museum.

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Blakeney Point, Norfolk: Seal Watching!

So, the deal with Blakeney Point is that it is a 3-mile long spit of sand and shingle in North Norfolk that protrudes into the sea.  The tip of it attracts both common and grey seals, which have pups at different times of the year, thereby maximising your chance of seeing cute baby seals that haven’t yet descended into the corpulent lethargy of adulthood.  The best way to see the seals is via one of the four boating companies that operate out of Morston Quay, though it’s advisable to book at least a day in advance, and collect your tickets on the day.  Blakeney Point is owned by the National Trust, which means there’s a £3 parking fee on top of the £10 per head boat ticket, so bring cash!

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We chose Temples Seal Trips (I was keen on Beans, after seeing Chris Packham featured on their website, but they were booked up), but they’re all the same price and offer similar trips, so I don’t think it really makes much difference who you pick.  Basically, you board the boat (ours had a 50-person capacity), which slowly putters to the end of the Point, and the boat circles around a few times so that everyone can get a good view of the seals.  Then, you have your choice of heading right back to shore, or getting out for half an hour on Blakeney Point for a look around.  We opted to disembark on the Point, as I was enticed by the adorable blue lifeboat house (circa 1898) that has been turned into a visitor’s centre (the information inside is mostly on the local flora and fauna).  There’s not much else on Blakeney Point, aside from some toilets (good news for the weak-bladdered among us) and a few huts owned by locals, but it’s fairly picturesque, offers coastal walking trails (if you have more time than we did), and the beach was quite pleasant.  The high point of the trip was probably spying Galton Blackiston (semi-famous chef) hauling his dinghy onto the shore, though obviously he’s no Chris Packham.  Still, it was a nice little outing, and something neat to do if you’re in the area (I suppose it isn’t every day you get to see seals in their natural habitat).  Now, I’ll shut up and leave you to enjoy the rest of the pictures. 🙂

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Great Yarmouth, Norfolk: The Nelson Museum and the “Golden Mile”

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Although I’m more of a Wellington girl myself (a thin, aloof aristocrat beats out a short, sickly seaman.  Sorry, Horatio), the Nelson Museum still seemed worthy of consideration, especially as I was already in Great Yarmouth.  Appropriately enough, the museum is housed in a Georgian merchant’s house that overlooks the sea, much as Nelson probably gazed out over the horizon as a child.  Admission to this compact, volunteer-run collection is a mere £3.50.  The main gallery takes up the ground floor of the house, and is devoted to Nelson’s life-story, mainly accompanied by portraits and some commemorative china, although there were a few interactive things, like ropes for knot-tying practice, and paper and pens for trying out signing your name with your non-dominant hand (in case you ever lose an arm in battle!).  I may suck at tying knots, but my left-handed signature was surprisingly good, perhaps because it looks so crap in the first place.  It’s not hard to replicate a scribble.

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In the back, there was a re-creation of the bedchamber at Merton Place, Nelson’s Wimbledon residence that he shared with his mistress, Lady Hamilton.  I honestly had no idea that Nelson had lived in Wimbledon, even though I’ve pored over a copy of Wimbledon’s Cultural Heritage map, and was momentarily excited about the prospect of somewhere new to visit, but after looking it up, discovered Merton Place has been converted into council estates, so I guess I can cross that one off the list.  Anyway, the walls were full of quotes describing Nelson, most of them unflattering (Wellington himself wasn’t especially keen), but then again, I suppose he was more a “man of the people” than anything.  The first floor held the temporary exhibition space, currently on Nelson’s ships, with a painting and description of each.  It was actually more interesting than I’m making it sound, since Nelson anecdote was included for each one.  Some Nelson memorabilia sat in a case at the end, including a miniature replica of his coffin, similar to the one that can be found in a diorama at the back of the Painted Hall in Greenwich (I seem to be doing quite a lot of maritimey things lately for some reason).

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“Life Below Decks” is the museum’s child-orientated section.  Pushing in the ship’s biscuit (hmmm, that sounds a bit dirty, have I invented a new euphemism?) triggered a recording of a long, long conversation between two sailors, culminating in a naval battle.  I had to duck outside before the cannon effects started going off; they were loud!  They had a few touchy-feely boxes in here, some with disturbing things hidden inside, and a small below-decks area to explore.

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The back garden was surprisingly spacious, and offered yet more activities.  Here was where you could try out some games popular on ship, such as giant-sized dominoes, skittles, and a Ring-Around-the-Nelson rope throwing game, which I am demonstrating above.  Back indoors, the gift shop was offering an unbelievably low price on postcards, so I now own quite an impressive range of Nelson cards.  The museum was not terribly large, but I think that was reflected in the price, and the volunteers were certainly very friendly.  I think I’d like to see more biographical information on Nelson; even though that was the main focus of the museum, it still felt like it was lacking something somehow, like I could never really get my head around the man.  Or perhaps that was the result of his supposedly complex personality, and I just needed more background on naval practices and sailing?  Either way, I think it was good, but not great.  3/5

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The “Golden Mile” is the term used to describe the long strip of funfairs, arcades, restaurants, and adventure golf courses bordering the seafront, and I can never resist the tacky, yet alluring blend of the weird and wonderful that is the British seaside, so of course, we had to explore it.  Besides that, Great Yarmouth is the Pleasure Beach that the Buckets visit in Keeping up Appearances, as I mentioned in my last post, so I had to walk in Hyacinth’s footsteps.  The Ghost Train was the only ride we partook of, and I’m not one for swimming, especially on a slightly chilly day, so most of the time was spent wandering around and eating.

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I love a good arcade, and the ones at the Pleasure Beach were decent, offering a mix of old and new games (though sadly, no Galaga, which is my favourite game and the one I’m most skilled at).  The disturbing clown machines shown above were eerily ubiquitous, and I had to keep an eye on them so the clowns couldn’t eat my soul when I wasn’t paying attention.  However, I let my guard down to play the early 90s Simpsons arcade game which I remembered fondly from my youth.  I’m not any better at it now than I was back then.

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Further along the beach, we espied the Merrivale Penny Arcade, whereupon we foolishly exchanged a pound for 15 antique pennies so we could use the coin-operated machines.  After the Under the Pier Show in Southwold, they were bound to be unsatisfying, but these ones were real duds.  Some hilariously so, like the “haunted house” where a lame plastic ghost dangled precariously from a chain in the background, and some were just crap, like the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Victorian peep show.

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And of course, one of the delights of the seaside is eating yourself stupid on greasy food, so I was happy to oblige, managing to down a portion of cheesy chips, an extraordinarily oil-laden doughnut, a stick of rock, a strawberry swirl Mr Whippy (two-flavour Mr Whippy thrills me more than is warranted by the actual taste, but damned if I don’t miss good old American twist, where the chocolate side actually tastes of chocolate), and a Slush Puppy that was advertised as mix-your-own, but which the surly vendor insisted on mixing for me, and she skimped on the cherry.  At least there was plenty of blue!

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Although I don’t see how “Mr. Wobbles” on the right there would not scar children for life, Great Yarmouth was otherwise a pretty good seaside.  Lots to do, and plenty quirky, but not so crowded that you couldn’t actually enjoy yourself, which is my main gripe with Brighton (well that, and the horrible rocky beach. I do like a sandy beach).  Of course, it’s all terribly cheesy and overpriced, but I think that’s kind of the point.

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In closing, I leave you with two seafood huts, which didn’t have punny names (though on retrospect, I suppose Rod’s does, sort of), but at least gave it a go with their taglines.  Due to my insistence at getting chips from the chippy with the best name, we ended up at “Frydays,” which I thought was a bit of a poor effort, but it was the only place that even attempted a pun (besides, they had cheesy chips!). Step up your pun game, Yarmouth!

Great Yarmouth, Norfolk: Time and Tide Museum

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Holy authentic smells, Batman!  Now, I’ve been to a LOT of places with “authentic smells” but I suspect the Time and Tide Museum is the first to have authentic “authentic smells,” if you know what I mean. This is because the museum is housed in a Victorian herring curing works, and the smoky aroma of kippers still hangs in the air and between the cracks of the cobblestone floor.  Odours aren’t the only attraction of the Time and Tide Museum, however.

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Great Yarmouth was best known to me as the place where that seaside episode of Keeping up Appearances was filmed (and you better believe I rode that laff-in-the-dark ride, magnificently unchanged after 20-odd years), but among the less nerdy, it is famed for its herring, although the industry has almost completely disappeared in recent years.  The Time and Tide Museum strives to tell the story of the herring industry, and its role in the growth of Great Yarmouth.  (Thus, it is now the second fishing heritage centre I’ve been to, though I’ve still not seen Grimsby).  The museum is located a few blocks away from the seaside, with only a small sign alerting you to its presence down an alleyway.  Admission is £5.20, and was collected by a friendly woman at the front desk who seemed quite proud of this local museum, and rightly so.

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The adventure begins with a stroll down “Kittywitches Row,” so named for the supposed witch and her “demon cats” who once lived there.  The re-created street was mainly made up of shops and their waxen proprietors, although there were a few cats lurking around for the eagle-eyed to spot.  Crossing through a small garden full of model ships, we then entered the former processing works, and the fishy scents that lingered therein.  The main display was devoted to the fishing industry, whilst the dark rooms branching out from the main hall explained the curing process.  Watching a video about smoked herrings in an old processing room whilst our noses were gently caressed with that familiar sooty smell was a multi-sensory experience on par with “Wonka-vision.” (And sans the creepy Oompa Loompas, even better!)  It was in this section of the museum that I learned the difference between bloaters and kippers (length of smoking time); I’ve no doubt I’ll have need of that knowledge someday, perhaps in a pub quiz?

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Heading upstairs past the wooden herring, former mascot of the “Bloater Depot” chippy, dangling from the wall, (Quick question, who in their right mind would rename a chippy called Bloater Depot?  And also, what’s the best chippy name you’ve ever seen?  My current favourite is “Chip-in-Dales” which I spotted a few weeks ago in Otley.  Genius) we came upon a local history gallery.  I enjoyed the life-size cutout of Robert Hales, the “Norfolk Giant” who was 7’8″, and the cabinet of curiosities, which was a relic from Great Yarmouth’s first museum, (which sounded like a veritable wonderland of oddities, all of which were for sale)!

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At the end of the hall, we first walked down the narrow, sobering section on lifeboats and the many lives lost aboard fishing vessels, and then headed into the room on seaside amusements, complete with myriad entertainments, which ranged from an early 10p moving pictures machine to a mechanical miniaturised pier that played “Rule Brittania!” (though only the chorus.  I’ve still no idea how the verses go).  In addition to these rooms, there was the obligatory wartime gallery, which actually had some interesting information on the zeppelin attacks in WWI, and a replica 1940s bedroom.

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After another section with a few more remaining curiosities, we reached the special exhibition at the end; a collection of artwork by Alfred Wallis (not Alfred Wallace, naturalist, as we initially thought before seeing the spelling).  As this Alfred Wallis was a fisherman, his paintings were all maritime themed, which isn’t really my thing.  They did have some Donald McGill-style saucy postcards in the first shop, so bonus points for that!  (That reminds me, I should probably write about my trip to the Donald McGill Museum one of these days…)

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I adored the authentic smells and Kittywitches Row, and the herring processing section was nicely informative, but the local history parts were a little hit or miss.  Nonetheless, for a local museum mainly about fishing, it was a good effort, and I’d recommend it if you need a break from the splendid tackiness of Great Yarmouth Pier (more on that in the next post).  3.5/5

Southwold, Suffolk: The Under the Pier Show

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In honour of the unusually warm weather we’re having in London at the moment, I’ll postpone my last couple of posts on Belgium in favour of a few on unconventional British seaside attractions. I spent the weekend in East Anglia at various coastal destinations, but my favourite had to be the brilliant “Under the Pier Show” on Southwold Pier.  I’d been dying to visit it ever since I first read about it last spring, and I can safely say it lived up to the hype.

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At first glance, Southwold seems like a perfectly nice, yet unassuming seaside town, with the usual complement of ice cream parlours, souvenir shops, a traditional arcade, and a beachside cafe.  Upon venturing down the pier, however, you will be rewarded with the sight of a shed crammed full of the most incredible arcade games you’ve ever seen.  This is the Under the Pier Show; created by the marvellous Tim Hunkin, arcade machine inventor extraordinaire.

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For the history of the Under the Pier show, which opened in 2001, I’d like to direct you to their website, which features a biography of Mr. Hunkin, and a short video well worth watching. I’d rather just talk about his amazing machines!  First of all, I’d advise you to bring cash (although they will give cash back with a purchase at the cafe, but that can be a bit of a bother), and plenty of it, because although the games range in price from a modest 40p up to £2, you will want to play almost everything.  There is a change machine though, so you needn’t arriving with pockets jingling.  Secondly, it’d probably be better to arrive early in the day during the summer, as it seems like the kind of place that gets quite crowded.  We got there around 10:30, and it was fairly empty, but was starting to fill up by the time we left an hour or so later, and it’s more fun if you don’t have to queue! (I get enough of that at the bloody post office).  Now, onto the games!

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Dotty was the cutest!

There were about twenty machines in total, and between my boyfriend and I, we tried most of them.  We began with the “Expressive Photobooth,” which is very much like a traditional photobooth, but with a humorous twist (a common theme amongst the machines).  Unexpected things happen inside, like a blowing fan, and a moving seat, which cause you to pose with expressions ranging from distracted to thrilled, and even weightless!  The “Bathyscape” offered a journey to the sea floor (I was drawn in by the promise of being disgusted by raw sewage, thanks to my affinity for authentic smells) , which was hilariously narrated, and culminated in us being swallowed by a fish (mind the stomach acid!).

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Some other favourites were the “Fly Drive,” where you ride on a fly’s proboscis, and land on food for as long as you can without being spotted (watch out for the swatter! I mean it!), “Pirate Practice” which involves bouncing vigorously on a stool to propel a boat to the top of the screen (to the amusement of onlookers), and “Rent-A-Dog,” where one can take the adorable Dotty for a walk.

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Other highlights included the “Mobility Masterclass,” which allows you to experience crossing the street as an elderly person, and “Autofrisk,” a pat-down with an extra “bonus” for the lads.  There were also a few slightly less-involved machines, like Crankenstein and the Doctor, and some unique spins on the traditional fortune telling booth (“Gene Forecaster,” anyone?).  There were several other machines I would have loved to try, especially “Microbreak” and “Quickfit,” which looked like a riot, but we were running out of cash.  I guess that means a return trip is in order!

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Tim Hunkin’s genius isn’t limited to the confines of the arcade building.  He’s been allowed to gradually expand along the pier, so that one can take advantage of his “Quantum Tunneling Telescope” (an improvement over the usual sea views), or have a peek at his water-powered clock.  Along with my penchant for postcards (which are also available courtesy of a coin-operated machine), I am a complete sucker for those machines whereby you convert a pound and a penny into a useless penny with a squashed design on it.  “Decoration Direct” was the most truthful version of what actually happens once you part with your money and turn the crank that I’ve ever seen, and I will forever treasure my Stupid Award, which will remind me “This used to be worth something until I squashed it” every time I find myself in need of 10p.

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I can’t speak highly enough of Tim Hunkin and his fantastically amazing machines.  My descriptions of them really don’t do them justice; they’re something you need to experience for yourself to appreciate the humour and love that’s gone into making them, not to mention the fact that they’re jolly fun!  5/5; and one of the best days out I’ve had in a long time.

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