London: Ghost Tour of Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum

I feel like I’ve been jumping around quite a lot on the blog lately, and though I will continue with the Scotland posts after this one, this is the promised write-up of the ghost tour I went on last Saturday night.

I’ve been to some Halloween events at London museums in the past, and while they’re usually reasonably fun, they’re all quite similar, so I wanted to try something a bit different this year.  I found a ghost tour being offered by the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich, and I knew my boyfriend could easily be convinced to go because they were offering a bangers and mash supper beforehand, so that pretty much decided it.  It was £15 a ticket, which included the dinner.

We showed up around 7, and were directed into the cafe, where a rather surly woman plopped down two plates of sausages in front of us without even asking if we wanted them (I’d ordered the vegetarian option, so she begrudgingly replaced my plate with an equally repulsive looking veggie version).  I’m super picky, and sausages disgust me, even the vegetarian version, and I also really really hate gravy, so there was absolutely no way I was going to enjoy this meal, meaning I’m not the best person to review the food portion of the evening.  However, my boyfriend, who thus got two plates to polish off, agreed that it was very bland and unappetizing.  However, the evening was mostly about the ghost tour, so after that ordeal, I couldn’t wait for the tour to begin.

The woman leading the tour gathered together the 25 or so people who had showed up, and proceeded to take us into the museum.  This portion of the tour simply consisted of her leading us to different points in the museum, and saying something like, “there’s the ghost of a soldier attached to this cannon.  No one told him to stand down, and so some people have seen him standing here.”  There was no real history or background given to most of the objects, let alone the history of the museum itself, and no sense of cohesiveness to the tour.  I’d never been in Firepower before, and it looked like quite an interesting museum, but you’d never know it from that tour.

After being led around the museum for a while, we moved outside to the various properties that are owned by the museum, situated around the attractive square.  Though the buildings themselves were interesting, once again, our tour guide’s stories were not, and some of them just straight up didn’t make any sense.  She told us one about the Crown Prince of France (son of Napoleon III), who died during the Zulu Wars, and this lieutenant who was supposed to guard him, and so felt responsible when the Prince was killed.  This Lietenant Carey was thus supposed to haunt the outside of a building where the Prince’s mother was waiting to hear the news about her son, and the tour guide referred to the ghost as pacing back and forth, speaking broken English and broken French.  This story made no sense to me (ghost aside, obviously); why would a British officer speak broken English?  So I looked it up when I got home, and the officer in question was indeed raised in Britain, went to school in Normandy, and was given the job of guarding the Prince specifically because he was fluent in French.  I guess she was trying to say that his speech might have been stuttering or something as he searched for the right words, but the broken English thing was just bizarre.

This wasn’t the only problem I had with the guide.  I mean, the stories were vague and boring, and I didn’t enjoy the tour as a whole, but she didn’t help by repeating the same expressions over and over.  For example, she kept referring to various ghosts as “a bit of a git.”  She literally used that phrase about ten times, and it really got on my nerves.  She also had a really foul mouth (so do I, as you can probably tell, even though I do tone it down quite a lot for the blog) and she kept dropping f-bombs all over the place.  Like I said, I swear a lot myself, so I’m not really one to be offended; I just thought it was kind of inappropriate in that sort of scenario, and I cringed and looked around every time she said it to see if anyone looked offended.  The woman herself was probably in her 50s, and had a son around my age who came along with the tour group, so she was certainly old enough to know better.  I’m not actually sure why she was giving the tour, since she never explained her background or connection to the museum (though she did mention that her son worked there).

In case you couldn’t tell, this tour really pissed me off (see, there’s my foul mouth kicking in again).  It’s such a shame, because the museum looked good, and the area surrounding it was lovely and so full of history, not that you could tell from the tour.  It didn’t even succeed as a ghost tour, as the stories were really lame, and the “hauntings” seemed to all take the form of dull ghosts who just stood there, or the supposed “cold spots” in rooms (because a draughty house in England is real unusual…right).  The sole highlight of the whole experience was that a cute soldier accompanied the tour group to unlock doors for us.  That was seriously the only enjoyable part for me (therefore I’m sure my boyfriend had an even worse time than I did), so it was pretty much a waste of fifteen quid (especially since admission to the museum is only a third of that, and then you’d actually get a chance to look at the exhibits (and any cute soldiers hanging around)). Not to mention that Woolwich is a total bitch to get to from where I live. I’d like to come back to see the museum some day, sans tour, but if they offer the ghost tours in future, I’d definitely give them a miss, unless they find a new, knowledgeable guide to lead them.  This was really the only Halloween activity I took part in this year (other than dressing up like Steve Perry, because Steve Perry is awesome and I always like to incorporate my schnoz into a costume if I can), so I guess I’m extra annoyed that it proved to be such a waste of time.

London: Bank of England Tour

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The Bank of England had an open day a few weeks ago (the museum is open every weekday, but the rest of the building is usually only open to the public for a few days a year, typically London Open Weekend in September), and was offering free tours of some of the offices that are normally off-limits to the public (and we found out about it in time to attend, which is an equally rare occurrence).  When we showed up, I was quite discouraged because the queue literally stretched halfway around the building, and being a typical impatient American, I can’t stand waiting in line.  But my boyfriend was really keen to see it, and I had a book in my purse I could read whilst we waited (otherwise I probably wouldn’t have agreed), so we ended up standing there for the forty minutes or so it took to get inside (they were only taking 30 people per tour, but it seemed like a new tour started every ten minutes).  A quick security scan later, we were in!

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Quick note: we weren’t allowed to take pictures on the tour, so all the ones in this post are of the Bank of England Museum (of which more later). Our tour guide was a woman who worked at the bank (though obviously not one of the higher-ups), and she began by drawing our attention to the Roman style mosaics on the floor, which apparently took over ten years to lay when the Bank was rebuilt between the World Wars.  The Bank of England as an institution dates back to 1694; it moved to its current site on Threadneedle Street in 1734, and was redesigned in the later Georgian period by the famed architect John Soane (of the John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields), but by the early 20th century the Bank had become too small, so the entire interior was demolished and rebuilt (save for two rooms), meaning the only Soane structures remaining are the outer walls, which are eight feet thick!  Anyway, although the Bank is relatively new, it still retains a sense of grandeur and opulence, as emphasized by the aforementioned mosaics, which are coinage themed; the grand columns in the front hall; and the cantilevered staircase, which has an authentic Roman mosaic at its base (it was one of two found during the rebuilding; the other is kept at the Museum of London (or was it the British Museum?  I can’t quite remember, and both have Roman stuff, so either would be logical)).

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We progressed out to the garden, which apparently no one, not even bank employees, is normally allowed in.  The garden used to be the churchyard of St-Christopher-le-Stocks, but the church was eventually demolished as the bank grew around it, leaving only the burial ground intact.  It is now a remembrance garden, dedicated to bank staff who died in the First and Second World Wars, and features the ubiquitous (in historic homes in England, at any rate) mulberry tree for two reasons – one, paper money in Ancient China was printed on mulberry bark; and two, mulberry roots grow horizontally rather than vertically, which is handy as the vaults are underneath the garden (which we naturally didn’t get to see, though our guide kept tantalizingly referring to them).

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We then got to check out the Governor’s office, a position that currently belongs to the Canadian Mark Carney, and is just as large as you’d expect, with a carpet we weren’t allowed to step on because it’s very valuable, a beautiful grandfather clock, some old paintings of London, antique furniture, and of course modern computer screens and such.  It actually wasn’t that over-the-top compared to the rooms that followed it – a hoity toity waiting room framed with the portraits of former governors (these portraits spanned the past 150 years, and yet someone on the tour actually asked if they had all been painted by the same artist (after the tour guide finished telling us that they sat for the portraits, so it’s not like they could have been copies of photographs or something) – I just can’t even deal with people anymore) and an anteroom.

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The rooms above this were even more crazy-extravagant, with a huge anteroom where they sometimes hold banquets that was decorated to look like a gentleman’s club.  Maybe it was the gorgeous hand-flocked wallpaper lining the walls, or musty old carpets or something, but this room smelled pretty bad.  Still, I would have happily hung out in the malodorous room longer to admire the ornate chimney piece, and the globe from 1806 (especially the globe, as it had corrections pasted over the original globe as new territories were discovered; the outline of Australia kept changing).  The Committee Room was next door, with a chandelier so ostentatious that it takes days to clean it.  Like all the rooms, it had double doors (double as in a door built behind another door, not two side-by-side), which is meant to prevent eavesdropping.  It also had a portrait of Montagu Norman, pictured above, which the tour guide told us he hated because he thought it made him look like a cantankerous old goat, so they only hung it up after his death (which is a bit obnoxious), however, when we saw his photograph in the museum, we realised that it was actually very true to life – he might well have been a lovely man, but he did look like an old goat!

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The Committee Room and the Court Room, which was next to it, are the two rooms I mentioned earlier that were saved from the old building, although it wasn’t as simple as it sounds, as they were originally on the ground floor, so the rooms had to be reconstructed on the floor above.  They did retain many splendid Georgian accents, including the colourfully painted walls that are one of my favourite features of Georgian homes.  The Dining Room, however, was more recently constructed (mid 20th century), and had yellow walls, as it was Herbert Baker’s favourite colour (he was the Governor at the time, but I think he chose poorly as far as colours are concerned; I hate yellow), and collections of silverware, Polish glassware, and German china, all of which were given by their respective governments as tokens of appreciation for the aid England provided in various wars.  The tour ended with a peek at one of the old super-sensitive scales, on which they used to weigh each and every gold bar, and we were then directed into the museum to have a look around.

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Now, the museum is normally open on weekdays, so you don’t have to come at a special time like you do for the tour, which is fortunate because I’m going to have to go back and investigate ore thoroughly.  By the time we finished with the tour, it was only about a half an hour before the Bank shut (we got there late in the day, and the queuing didn’t help either), which at first looked like it would be enough time, as the museum only appeared to consist of a round central gallery, and a smaller currency gallery.  However, we realised that there were actually loads of other galleries out the opposite door, and there was no way I was going to have time to see them all, so I’ll do a proper review once I’ve seen everything.  What I saw of it was quite good – I especially liked the Wellington notes, and I’m eager to see some of the original banknotes from the 17th century that are kept in the outer galleries.  I did get to try to pick up a gold bar, but it weighs something like 28 pounds, which was a little tricky with just one hand (which was all you could stick in to the case, I guess for obvious reasons, and there was still a security guard stood there keeping his eye on me).  Anyway, the museum looks great, and was much larger than I was expecting, so I’ll definitely return for that, and let you know how it goes.  As far as the tour goes – if you manage to catch the Bank on one of its opening days, I think it’s worth going (just get there early so you don’t have to wait so long), even though you don’t get to see the vaults – you get a good sense of all the money floating around this place from the decor alone!

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