travel

8 Years of Blogging + A 2011 Coastal Tour of England

Last Saturday marked eight years since I began blogging, so I thought it was probably time for me to emerge from hibernation and do a post again. I wanted to celebrate by doing a throwback post to just before I started blogging in 2013; however, I was so desperate to try to populate my blog with content at the start that I was posting nearly every day and working my way through every museum I had visited even semi-recently. This means I had to go all the way back to 2011 to find a trip that I hadn’t already blogged about, so here we are! Back in April 2011, Marcus and I embarked on a coastal tour of the Isle of Wight and southwest England – I seem to recollect that this was because Will and Kate got married then and everybody got an extra bank holiday, so we decided to spend ours heading to some parts of England I hadn’t yet been to at that point in time. Because it was so long ago and we didn’t take nearly as many photos as we would on a trip now, some of my memories are vague, so I’ve decided to do it more as a pictorial tour with captions rather than my usual lengthy review. Not to worry, as the bad bits are vividly seared into my mind!

We started by driving to Portsmouth to catch a ferry to the Isle of Wight so we’d be able to take our car with us. Based on subsequent experiences with the Isle of Wight, I would say this was definitely the way to do it, as their public transport system is unreliable at best, and downright terrifying at worst (the bus driver on the Osborne House route was a complete maniac).

The first stop of the Isle of Wight was the surprisingly excellent Donald McGill Museum. McGill was an illustrator who created many of the iconic saucy British seaside postcards, which lined the walls of this small museum. I was clearly quite taken with his novelty scales, which showed me to be somewhere between the weight of a sickly old man and a bathing beauty.

Here is me and my terrible hair at the time (reminder to self: this is why you should NOT cut bangs again) at the Garlic Farm, one of the many “must see destinations” on the Isle of Wight (said only semi-sarcastically). This is basically a glorified farm shop selling garlic-related products, and we never even got to try their “world’s best” garlic bread, since it was the take and bake kind and what with being on holiday and all, we didn’t have access to an oven until after it expired. The rhubarb, pear, and garlic ice cream was actually quite alright though.

We stayed in Shanklin, where you can see me doing what is clearly my standard “grimacing whilst holding up food” pose with some seaside treats (Mr. Whippy and a “green” flavoured slushy). This was memorable solely because of how revolting our hotel was. It was a particularly grim traditional British seaside hotel with ancient floral coverings on everything and dubious cleanliness – Marcus had to pull out a clump of some previous guest’s hair clogging up our sink that was so large I still gag thinking about him touching it with his bare hands. It was enough to put me off seaside “resorts” for life, and I genuinely think I have not stayed in another such hotel since this trip, though I have stayed in many awful British non-seaside hotels.

After that charming hotel experience, we headed up to the Donkey Sanctuary, which is THE place to see big donkey dicks (if you’re into that kind of thing) as we found out. I decided to spare you by not including the photo of the giant black erect donkey penises (they were so obscene I was legitimately worried my post would get reported), but it was essentially just us walking around and being annoyed that you couldn’t feed or pet the donkeys, though we admittedly didn’t much want to once we noticed their visible arousal (in retrospect, considering the degrees of tumescence on show, this may have been more for our protection than the donkeys’).

Then there was Alum Bay and the Needles, where I was freshly annoyed by the inability of everyone on the boat except us to follow basic instructions designed to keep them from falling overboard. Oh, and we made a sand bell (which involves filling a glass bell with layers of different coloured sand, though they also had more modern (ugly) designs like teddy bears), which is apparently an Alum Bay tradition dating back to Victorian times. We still have the bell, so that’s something.

We spent the night in Weymouth after this, I think because they had some sort of artisan bakery where we could get breakfast (Marcus knows me well) but I seem to remember it being underwhelming. However, this statue of George III is nothing short of fabulous. I’m not sure what he did for Weymouth to deserve this honour, but it must have been amazing!

I swear this trip gets much less phallic after this, but here is a cock rock from the incredible Museum of Witchcraft in beautiful Boscastle. This place was dark, creepy, old school, and all about witchcraft, so what’s not to love? I very much want to go back here when they reopen and do a proper post about it, because this place deserves one.

After this, we drove out to Penzance to spend a couple of nights there in what was probably the only nice B&B I have ever stayed in (very plush carpets and one of those really high comfy beds). Unfortunately, the niceness of our room was marred somewhat by the literal crappiness of Penzance. We happened to be staying there at the time of the 2011 MasterChef final, which I was very invested in, so we set out that night for an earlyish dinner in town to be sure to be back in time to watch it. Our B&B was a couple of miles from the centre of town, so it was quite a walk. As we were walking down the road in the middle of town, nearly at the pizza place we had decided to dine at, I obviously strayed too near the overhang of a building, and the world’s largest, nastiest plop of bird crap fell on my head. I say bird, but part of me thinks it might have been someone doing a “Gardez l’eau” with a chamberpot, because this shit looked human. I have never seen brown bird crap before, and this most definitely was, but maybe it was just from an unusually large seagull who is a fellow IBS sufferer. The poop was everywhere – in my hair, in the hood of my hoodie, down the side of my face, everywhere. Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I am not unfamiliar with being covered in crap on the streets of a city, but it’s normally my own and in my pants, where it (sort of) belongs. However, there was no shitting way (pun intended) I was walking two bloody miles back to the B&B and then two miles back into town again, so we pressed on, figuring I could at least rinse out my hair in the restaurant sink. Only guess what? This establishment didn’t have a bathroom, and they directed me into the exceptionally disgusting public toilets down the road, which had a sharps bin, but not a proper sink. It was one of those wall mounted dealies with the integrated extremely weak water pressure sink, thin watered-down hand soap, and an ineffectual hand dryer. I couldn’t even stick my damn head in this thing, not that I much wanted to from the looks of it. I did my best, but in the end, I confess that I 100% ate a pizza pie with poop crusted bangs (another reason not to get bangs!) and a smelly jacket with a turd in the hood, had as long of a shower as I could manage without missing MasterChef when we returned to the B&B, and never went into Penzance again (this photo was pre-poop, obviously).

This is the Lizard, and the photo at the start of the post was at Lands End, respectively the most southerly and westerly points of Great Britain (as in, the big island, not all the little ones like the Isle of Wight and the Scilly Isles and junk). We went there the day of the pooping incident I think, and were too cheap to pay for a photo with our specific hometown in, as you can see at the start of the post. We did hang around for a bit hoping some fellow Londoners would show up and we could sneakily grab a picture of the sign once it was changed over, but no dice. They have pasties at the Lizard (because Cornwall) and not much else, but I hate pie pastry, especially in savoury applications, with the exception of empanadas, particularly my homemade seitan empanadas, because the masa does something to the dough that is *chef’s kiss* (fact: the only kind of sweet pies I ever make are cream or ice cream pies with crusts made from ground up biscuits and butter, because Oreo and digestive biscuit/graham cracker crusts are eight million times more delicious than crappy normal pie crust), so the lack of non-pasty food did nothing for me or my mood.

This is the seal sanctuary in Gweek, which we presumably chose to visit because the town was called Gweek (hilarious, obviously), because I don’t even like seals. I find them to be gross amorphous blobs (see exhibit A, above). Given a choice between this and the donkey sanctuary, I’d pick the donkey sanctuary, because donkeys are at least cute, even with huge disturbing erections.

The Eden Project! I remember this being mega expensive, even ten years ago, but we undoubtedly had some sort of 2 for 1 deal or we wouldn’t have gone.

The tropical biome was the hottest place I’ve ever been within Britain, so I was thrilled when I spotted a baobab smoothie stand. Unfortunately, said stand was cash only, so we had to make a very long trek back to the front entrance to obtain some whilst I was dying of thirst the whole time, just to get my hands on a refreshing smoothie. I would hope they would have changed this policy by now. We also made garlic breadsticks in the Mediterranean biome (also cash only) which were undoubtedly the highlights of the whole experience. I’d go back sometime though and blog about it properly.

We spent an awful night at a Travelodge in Torquay where some louts were yelling up and down the hallway all night long and kept rattling the lock on our door, so I was terrified they were going to break in and spent the night creeping on them through the peephole armed with whatever weaponesque thing I could find (god knows what that was in somewhere as bare bones as Travelodge. Even the hair dryers are attached to the wall). I did complain to the front desk the next morning, and they completely ignored me so I later sent a strongly worded email to Travelodge, only it turns out I accidentally sent it to the US chain which is apparently not affiliated with the British one, so that got me nowhere. At any rate, I have not stayed in a Travelodge since, in either country. Cheesy chips were the only good part of the whole Torquay experience. North Devon is lovely, but I am really not a fan of South Devon.

We couldn’t head home without detouring through Dorset to see Cerne Abbas (oh shit, I said there wasn’t anything else phallic on this trip. Totally forgot about this one, but who doesn’t like a chalk giant’s dingdong?!).

Also Buckfast Abbey, though I couldn’t tell you whether this was before or after Cerne Abbas as I’ve forgotten where they are in relation to each other and can’t be bothered to look it up. It was clearly undergoing some sort of restoration, but I seem to remember the shop full of monk-made products being quite good, and we picked up a bottle of the famous Buckfast Tonic Wine for a friend, though I certainly wouldn’t drink it myself. It’s caffeinated fortified wine. Deadly.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour through a small portion of England’s southern coast, since it’ll still be a while before we’ll be allowed to go see it in person (though remembering all those awful hotels has not made me particularly keen to spend a night away from home any time soon anyway). Museums aren’t due to reopen until at least 17th May (I am so not excited to go back to work in person, but I am excited to visit other museums! I’ve already booked tickets for two different exhibitions at the end of May, so fingers crossed they’ll be able to go ahead) so I think blogging will still be patchy around these parts for a while, though maybe I’ll surprise myself and find some other old, almost-forgotten trip to write about. Thanks for sticking around with me for eight years (or however long you’ve been reading)!

London: “Unfinished Business” @ the British Library

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

 

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

  

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Cobham, Surrey: Painshill Park

This post is slightly bittersweet for me to write, because if we had gotten married on 28th November as planned (our 12th anniversary), we would have also gone to Painshill Park on the 7th November for a pre-wedding photo shoot, and I was super excited to bust out my witch hat and take a bunch of fun Halloweeny pictures with all the foliage. But the reality is that lockdown happened, we had to move our wedding to the 4th of November (with only two days’ notice) so it didn’t get cancelled, and even though we technically could have still gone ahead with the Painshill photo shoot, it seemed a bit redundant to do a pre-wedding shoot after we were already married, not to mention the fact that we had just paid a photographer to photograph our wedding, and couldn’t really afford two photo shoots in the same week. Don’t get me wrong, I do really like most of the photos we ended up with, but a lot of the poses weren’t ones that I would have necessarily chosen, and it makes me a bit sad to look at these photos of Painshill and think what we could have done there. Oh well, I guess there’s nothing stopping us from doing it next autumn if we really want to, but it won’t be quite the same.

 

But I digress. This was actually the second time we’d been to Painshill Park, as it is quite close to us by car. The first time was about eight or nine years ago when Marcus dragged me there in the middle of the winter to get some fresh air, and I was not a happy camper. It was so long ago that I hadn’t even started blogging yet, which is why I never posted about it. But this visit was so much better, coming as it did on a warm day back in September, except for a bit of confusion on arrival.

  

Painshill’s website said that due to Covid, pre-booking was required unless you were a member, or had a Gardener’s World or Historic Houses card, or National Art Pass. Straightforward enough, except for when you went to the booking section of the website, it didn’t mention National Art Pass at all and said you had to pre-book unless you were a member or had one of the other two cards. We decided to take our chances and just turn up, but were even more uncertain when the signs in the carpark also failed to mention Art Pass. And when we reached the entrance and tried to explain that we hadn’t pre-booked because we had Art Pass, the woman standing there had no clue what we were talking about. Fortunately, another staff member overheard and swooped in to save the day, so we were able to buy tickets on the spot (£9 normally, Art Pass gets you a 25% discount). They seemed to have remedied this error on their website, so hopefully other visitors with Art Pass won’t have the same issue (the reason we didn’t pre-book just to be on the safe side was because they didn’t offer discounted tickets online). And since they’re a park, they remained open to the public during lockdown.

  

I don’t think we had even walked the entire length of the park (probably due to my crankiness about the cold) when we visited years ago, because whilst I remembered some follies, I didn’t recall quite this many! Painshill Park was built between 1738 and 1773 by Charles Hamilton, the 14th child of an earl who clearly had lots of money to blow. The garden was inspired by his trips to Italy, and his goal was to create a “living painting” through landscaping and the creation of various follies. One would assume there was originally a manor house of some sort as well, but if there was, it’s not there now. Some of the original follies have disappeared too, but Painshill is gradually restoring them, which is probably why I don’t remember quite so many on our first visit, because some of them weren’t actually there then!

 

Be prepared for a lot of walking (they offered us a golf cart rental when I booked the photo shoot, which I probably would have taken them up on just to not have to hike in shiny silver heels), but you will be rewarded by discovering grand vistas and delightful follies at every turn, including a Turkish tent, Temple of Bacchus (this was only rebuilt recently), mausoleum, gothic temple, and more! My personal favourite thing is the Crystal Grotto, because I love a grotto; unfortunately, due to Covid, we weren’t allowed to go inside (nor could we climb the tower at the other end of the property), but I still enjoyed walking around the outside.

 

We also enjoyed discovering the hermit hut hidden in the woods, which we missed on our first visit (in the weird Georgian tradition popular in grand estates, Charles Hamilton tried to hire someone to live as a hermit in the hut and sit in quiet contemplation to add to the ambience for his visitors, but the hermit was apparently found in the local pub shortly after being hired, which put an end to the idea of a live-in hermit pretty quickly. However, assuming you could hook up some electricity, plumbing, and a supply of books, I think I’d be fine with holing up there for a while in the summer months, especially if I could visit the cafe for cake), and the waterwheel. Painshill is right next to a motorway, so you will be distracted by the roar of traffic if you’re at the outer limits of the property, but it’s so big that you can easily pretend to be in bucolic countryside for most of it, especially when you’re by the lake that runs alongside most of the property.

 

I have to confess that though I was of course keen on the idea of getting photos at Painshill because of all the follies and lovely fall foliage (I mean, I assume it has lovely foliage judging from some of the photos on their website, but I don’t actually know because it was still pretty summery when we were there), the thing that completely sold me was the cafe. We stopped to have a tea and cake after all that walking, and I selected the jaffa cake cake (not a typo). The woman working there immediately praised my choice, and I can see why. It was similar to the biscuit (or is it a cake?) but so much better, with a soft orange sponge, orange curd, and a dark chocolate glaze. I wanted more, and I thought if we had photos there, I could easily sneak in another piece (or two!).

 

It’s rare I enjoy a walk, but clearly follies (and nice weather and cake!) are the key, because I had a very nice time indeed on this visit. I’d definitely recommend if you fancy a walk and some cake, and I still think it would be a fab place for a photo shoot. 4/5.

London: Bruce Nauman @ Tate Modern

Was Bruce Nauman an artist whose work I could have identified before seeing this exhibition? No, but my quest back in October was to pack in as many exhibitions within walking distance of Waterloo on my two journeys into central London as I could (both to minimise my time on public transport and to build up a bank of posts, since by the middle of October, I strongly suspected we would go into lockdown again, and look, I was right!), I looked to see what was at Tate Modern, and here he was. Given a choice between what I could see of his work on Tate’s website, and the Andy Warhol exhibition, I chose Bruce, and after seeing the queue for Andy Warhol, I think I made the right decision.

 

You had to prebook to visit Tate Modern, even if you were just there to see the permanent collection (though those tickets were free), but there were still plenty of slots available for Bruce Nauman when I booked it the night before, which I suspect would not have been the case for Warhol. Tickets were £13, or £6.50 with Art Pass, and the procedure at Tate Modern was that you joined a queue upon entry for whatever you were there to see (Bruce had no queue, so we could breeze straight through, but Andy’s stretched the length of the Turbine Hall), someone scanned your ticket and told you where to go, and then someone checked your ticket again at the entrance to make sure you were there at the right time. There was also no queue at the entrance to the exhibition, and we could go straight in, but the queue for Andy was very long indeed (yes, I am quite smug about this, first of all because I don’t even really like Andy Warhol, and if I did, I know there’s a museum in Pittsburgh that I could easily visit any time I go to visit my family in Cleveland, though who knows when that will next be).

 

The exhibition was spread out over 13 rooms, and since most of Nauman’s pieces were installation style, there were only one or two semi-immersive pieces per room, making it easy to socially distance (and of course, face coverings were required inside). Bruce Nauman is an American artist (from Indiana) who has been active since the 1960s, and is probably best known for his neon sculptures and video installations, though he has dabbled in a range of media, including more traditional sculpture and photography. He’s the type of artist whose work you have probably seen without realising it’s his work. (And yes, that is Nauman’s butt and face in the above pieces.)

 

I could definitely see some of the pieces here as being the reason some people hate modern art, like “Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square”, which is exactly what it sounds like – though we got the excitement here of looking at the square he had taped out on the floor and a plank of wood leaning against the wall, we couldn’t actually walk in an exaggerated manner ourselves, since it was behind a rope.

 

Nor could we go inside the “Double Steel Cage,” which is meant to provoke feelings of “anxiety and entrapment”, though since Nauman’s intention was that the door be left open so visitors could go inside and experience anxiety for themselves, I think this was probably a Covid-related decision made by the Tate. However, we could try out the “Going Around the Corner Piece” where we literally walked around a corner to try to catch a glimpse of our own backs on a TV monitor as we were being filmed on the opposite side of the wall, which was quite fun.

 

One of the reasons I decided to see this exhibition was because of Nauman’s clown pieces, since this visit took place in October when I was in full Halloween mode (as opposed to the partial but still enthusiastic Halloween mode I’m in the rest of the year), and I thought clowns were appropriately creepy and Halloweeny. This series of videos was called “Clown Torture” and filled the entire room, and was very creepy indeed. Nauman finds clowns very menacing, and this really came across here. There’s a clown screaming “no, no, no!” in one of the videos, and another where he keeps repeating the children’s rhyme, “Pete and Repeat sat on a fence. Pete fell off, who was left? Repeat. Pete and Repeat sat on a fence…” and so on, which I definitely remember reciting to irritate my mother when I was little (along with “The Song that Never Ends” from Lamb Chop. I was an annoying child), which made this installation very much an assault on the senses, as was “Anthro/Socio”, which is the piece pictured at the start of this post, with an actor shouting “Feed Me, Eat Me, Anthropology” and “Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology” again and again whilst his head spun around on a video monitor.

  

Nauman also finds many children’s games quite sinister, as reflected in his “Hanged Man” neon, which was my favourite piece here (I mean, he’s not wrong about Hang Man – what a weird children’s game!). This was definitely not child friendly, as the hanged man goes from being alive with a flaccid penis, to dead with a huge erection, as you can see above, based on the old myth about what happens to hanged men (which maybe isn’t a myth? I don’t even know).

 

I liked the neons here generally – the coolest one was probably “One Hundred Live or Die” which is a grid of one hundred different declarations that light up in turn, such as “Live and Piss” “Die and Shit” “Smell and Live” etc. Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of it because it was impossible to photograph, so you get to look at “Human Nature/Knows Doesn’t Know” and “Black Marble Under Yellow Light” instead, and it is probably self-explanatory which is which.

 

There were also a couple more video installations; one featuring a mime (also creepy), and another showing sleight of hand tricks close up and various people falling, all shown in the RGB colour spectrum. Honestly, one of the coolest parts of the exhibition was all the huge period video monitors and projectors, mostly from the ’80s and ’90s, which reminded me of the technology we had elementary school.

 

Tate had a couple more of his installations scattered throughout the museum, including one on the wall of the cafe, and a sound installation in the stairs we used to exit. I think they have a couple pieces of his on permanent display too, but we didn’t attempt to go in the permanent galleries. Considering I’m not usually the biggest fan of modern art, I surprised myself by enjoying this quite a bit, since it was quite immersive – my only complaint would be that it only took us about half an hour to see the exhibition, even with lingering in some of the rooms, which is a bit light for a £13 exhibition, but since we only paid £6.50, I didn’t mind so much. 3.5/5 for Bruce Nauman – definitely worth visiting after lockdown if you’re in the area and don’t feel like spending your day queuing for Andy Warhol! It’s currently meant to run until February, and they might extend it further depending on when museums are allowed to reopen.

 

London: “Tantra” @ the British Museum

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Nottingham: The Haunted Museum

As promised, I’ve got something full spooky for you today: The Haunted Museum! This is what sold me on visiting Nottingham – even though it sounded like kind of a tourist trap, I still very much wanted to go. I suspect The Haunted Museum is a relatively new museum, and it is meant to be a home for various “haunted” objects, as well as some horror film props. I don’t really believe in ghosts, but I love the idea of them, so I was completely on board.

 

Admission to the museum is £7, and there is no prebooking required, probably because it’s not that busy; we were the only visitors the whole time we were inside. Despite this, there were about five members of staff hanging around the entrance area (which is a lot for a museum this size, especially on a Sunday!), most of them not wearing face coverings, which was frankly one of the scariest parts, though we were careful to avoid coming too close. I think at one point the museum was doing guided tours only, on which you could not take photos, but it is now self-guided and you are welcome to take all the photos you wish, and I wished to take a lot, because it was creepy in there!

 

If you are afraid of clowns, you will not like this museum. Ditto if you are afraid of dolls, because there are a lot of both, including clown dolls, which I guess is the worst of both worlds. I’m not overly keen on clowns, but they’re pleasingly creepy, a level of creep I can handle, rather than downright terrifying, so I was enjoying myself. The museum was basically a random collection of crap, some of it grouped into tableaux, with a laminated (and often poorly spelled) fact sheet accompanying each object/scene to tell you where it was from and why and/or how it was haunted. So there were some dolls from a Haunted Doll Island in Mexico, a bunch of “crying child” paintings allegedly taken from houses that had burned down whilst the paintings themselves remained untouched, and some other painting of creepy children that was meant to suck the viewer into the painting somehow.

 

One of the freakiest areas was “Hattie’s Room”, which you can see at the start of the post. This was filled with clown dolls that moved and played music, and the story of the ghost they belonged to, which was roughly that she was happy as long as she could play with her toys, but if she couldn’t, bad shit happened (which basically serves as a synopsis of every ghost story here). I honestly could have sworn that there was nothing written on that “Play with Me” wall when I was standing in front of it, but I could have just missed it in the poor lighting…

 

The smaller upstairs rooms were definitely my favourite part, since they felt a bit like walking through a haunted house (though we had been assured beforehand that nothing jumps out at you, maybe because Marcus looked a bit nervous – he HATES haunted houses), but most of the objects were concentrated in the auditorium area, which had little exhibition spaces coming off either side of the staircase leading into it. I liked the collection of Ouija boards along with the descriptions of the “spirits” that had been contacted with them – my favourite was the story about how a bunch of kids were playing around with a board and getting a kick out of spelling words like “poop” and “fart” (totally something I would have done) until things took a more sinister turn.

 

There were also a lot of film props in here, and I could have done without those, to be honest. Not that any of it was real, but something about them seemed to detract from the alleged realness of the “haunted” objects, which were much eerier, mainly because so bloody many of them were dolls! I guess the real message of the museum is don’t have dolls in your house if you don’t want paranormal activity to happen.

 

Being from Cleveland, the most interesting item to me was the “dybbuk box” from Franklin Castle, otherwise known as the most haunted building in Ohio (they refer to it as Franklin House in the museum, but everyone in Cleveland calls it Franklin Castle). Dybbuk box was a term that popped up a lot here, and it apparently originally comes from a box auctioned on eBay in 2009 by a writer who had cleverly crafted a story about the ghost that haunted it to go along with it (which is a brilliant idea – I’d love to do something similar!), but The Haunted Museum appeared to use it as a general term for any box meant to contain some sort of evil spirit. I talked a little bit about Franklin Castle in an October post last year, along with a photo, so I’ll link you to that if you want to see it, but long story short, it was a house built by a German immigrant who had various family members die young in unpleasant ways, and it was said to be haunted by subsequent owners. There are rumours that the guy who built it was involved in more sinister goings-on, like murders, which is why the house is supposedly haunted, but I don’t think there’s any actual proof of that. Anyway, it was neat to see something from Cleveland in a random museum in Nottingham!

 

The museum has been used to film several of those lame ghost hunter type reality shows (in fact, I think the owners appear in one of those shows) that I hate watching because they’re so phony and badly acted, and these were playing on a screen in the back of the auditorium. The museum also hosts ghost hunting evenings of its own, although I assume any ghosts are attached to the objects themselves rather than the actual building (again, I don’t think ghosts are real (though I would describe myself as more of an agnostic where ghosts are concerned, but an atheist where religion is concerned), I’m just going along with the vibe of the museum here with my ghosty musings), since it was what would otherwise have been a rather nondescript building in a random shopping parade just outside of Nottingham if it hadn’t been tarted up to look a bit gothy on the exterior (I read it was originally a cinema, but I don’t think it was a haunted cinema).

 

After experiencing everything the museum had to offer, I genuinely have to say that the scariest aspect of the visit for me was actually these creepy-ass bollards around the corner from the museum, on a random residential street, pictured above right. Seriously, this is what nightmares are made of. They were so unsettling, especially because they weren’t supposed to be. I think the museum could take a lesson from that – the scariest things are often organic, and not trying too hard, like this museum was. I do love a bit of cheese, and I did genuinely enjoy the upstairs rooms with their haunted house-esque atmosphere, since they were just good fun. But the auditorium part seemed to be taking itself a bit too seriously, and I did have a bit of an issue with the death mask of Joseph Merrick exhibited here – I’m super interested in Joseph Merrick, but I think displaying something relating to him in this context, with a bunch of “haunted” or otherwise creepy items, seemed to imply that he was something to fear, instead of just being a man suffering from an awful genetic condition outside his control. I also definitely wasn’t impressed by the lack of face coverings amongst staff; at least make an effort when visitors are in the building! Although I did enjoy my experience overall, and was really happy I got to do something at least a little bit spooky this year, since most Halloween events were cancelled, I think I have to downgrade it because of some of the issues, so I’ll give it 3/5. Happy Halloween – hope you can all still find a way to enjoy the best holiday of the year! I’ll be spending it inside watching Hocus Pocus surrounded by the warm glow of multiple jack o’lanterns, undoubtedly with some kind of Halloween themed cake, which isn’t any different from what I do every year!

London: Kensal Green Cemetery

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

  

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Nottingham: The National Justice Museum

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

  

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

 

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

Nottingham: City of Caves

It’s October again, and you know what that means! Let’s get spooky! Or as spooky as I can get, given that there aren’t really any Halloween events this year due to Covid (well, I guess there’s some virtual ones, but I’m not really sold on those). I do have one properly spooky post that I’m saving for closer to Halloween, so you just get some vaguely creepy ones the rest of the month. And I’m starting with City of Caves, which, (spoiler alert) I kind of hated!

I’d only been to Nottingham once before, when I went on a training course last year, and hadn’t had time to see anything other than the gallery where the training was held (Nottingham Contemporary, and it was pretty meh). So when I was looking for spooky places to visit, and City of Caves, the National Justice Museum, AND the Haunted Museum came up as possible destinations, revisiting Nottingham seemed like a pretty good bet (this was in September, before restrictions were tightened again, though these museums are all still open as far as I know), especially as we could easily get there and back in a day with our rented car.

 

City of Caves and the National Justice Museum both ask you to book a timed slot for entry (they’re under the same ownership), and because the website said that the City of Caves audio tour would take 40 minutes, and the National Justice Museum is only a short walk away, I stupidly booked a 12:40 slot for City of Caves (admission is £8.75 – you get a small discount if you book tickets for both museums together, but you can only get an Art Pass discount at the National Justice Museum, so I was forced to book them separately, as the Art Pass discount + full priced caves admission was still cheaper than the combined attraction discount), and a 1:30 slot for the National Justice Museum. We ended up arriving early, so we popped into town to get a doughnut for a late breakfast, and still made it to City of Caves with a bit of time to spare. Based on my experience with the Holburne Museum, I did realise that queuing was a possibility in these Covid times, but because we had a timed slot for City of Caves, unlike at the Holburne Museum, I did think the process would be a bit quicker. Silly me.

We arrived to find quite a few groups of people milling around the entrance – not obviously queuing, but waiting for something. We soon found out that this was because the “audio tour” mentioned on the website was one you would have to download yourself onto your own device. I had naively assumed that the audio guides and headphones would be provided to us and cleaned after each use, though if I’d really thought about it, I guess I’d have to concede that downloading a tour onto your own device (if you have one) is probably the safer and easier option. However, because they neglected to tell us this on the website, I was totally unprepared. I had my phone, of course, but I hate earbuds and never use them (I only ever listen to music inside my house or in a car, so I don’t need them), so I don’t even own a pair, and it seemed rude to all the other visitors to just have the tour blaring out of my phone. Also, if they had let us know in advance, I could have had the tour already downloaded, instead of standing about blocking the entrance with everyone else and having to use my data. This was the first sign of poor organisation.

The second was when we had downloaded the tour much faster than the people who had arrived before us, who were still sitting on a bench trying to figure it out, but we were just left standing there, completely ignored by the woman working at the entrance, who was clearly flustered and going from group to group attempting to help, whilst her colleague sat doing nothing behind a desk inside the entrance. I don’t mind waiting, but I at least like some acknowledgement as to why I’m just left standing somewhere! She ended up taking the group in front of us inside to get them audio equipment (which apparently is available if you are unable to download the tour and get real cranky about it) and left us waiting there whilst I was getting more and more impatient because the minutes were ticking away, and we had a schedule to keep. Finally we were allowed in (even though it said we had to pre-book, I’m pretty sure the people in front of us bought their tickets on the spot since I heard the till go) and ended up just sharing Marcus’s earbuds, which made walking around awkward to say the least. We also had to play the audio guide at a sped up rate so that we would finish in time, because the fifteen minute wait to enter meant we wouldn’t have gotten to the National Justice Museum in time otherwise.

Leaving the entrance fiasco behind us, we descended down some steps into the caves proper. I know a lot of the caves were dug out by hand, especially in their more recent history, but I still don’t know if the original set of caves were man made or were naturally occurring, since it was never explained in the audio guide (or we missed it by playing it at warp speed). At any rate, they were recorded as far back as 900 AD by the hilariously named Asser, and people were living in them from at least the 11th century onward, in addition to using them for smelly industries like tanning, as a shelter during the Blitz, and as cellars/storage space for the houses above the caves. I wouldn’t say they were particularly creepy (or no more so than any other caves), unless you had to live there, especially the slum housing in the Victorian era. They are also quite dark, being caves (there is some lighting, but not a lot), and I tripped over things a couple of times, at one point falling into a bench, which kind of hurt (even though I was wearing sensible shoes for once!) so caution is advised! The darkness is also why the photos in this post are so poor (well that and because they were caves, so there wasn’t a lot to look at).

The tour (insofar as I was able to listen to it with the earbud popping out of my ear every time Marcus moved) seemed to focus primarily on the industry that took place inside the caves, like the aforementioned tanning; the poor living conditions, and a few notable people who spent time in the caves, like a group of Luddites who used to have clandestine meetings down there to try to escape being caught by the authorities (the Luddite movement started amongst the textile workers in Nottingham), though I believe some of them ultimately ended up being executed, so I guess their attempt to hide wasn’t all that successful.

My main issue with the caves was the lack of, well, anything in them. Apart from the one mannequin that you can probably barely see in one of the Victorian rooms, and a few posters in the air raid shelter, there wasn’t really anything to look at in here, and only a few signs to read, so we were very dependent on the audio guide, and as I found it quite dull and difficult to listen to (for the reasons discussed above), I didn’t end up learning very much. I think more artefacts or mannequins, or even some authentic smells (particularly in the tanning section, which was a notoriously stinky industry due to utilising human urine) would have helped bring things to life a bit more. I’m not suggesting a full Disneyfication of the caves, just using artefacts and more signage to make it more of a museum!

I think it’s fairly obvious, even if I hadn’t come right out and said it at the start, that I really did not enjoy my visit of City of Caves. I was already in a bad mood from not being told about the audio guide situation on the website and being made to wait for ages whilst being ignored by the staff, and the caves themselves did nothing to improve it. I disliked the audio guide (what I could hear of it, anyway) since it skipped around various historical eras in a disconcerting way (to the point where we had to rewind it because we thought we’d missed a segue somewhere, not nope, there was just no transition) yet still managed to drone on for far too long (I’m not sure how that was possible, but it was). I’m sorry this didn’t end up being a creepier post (sadly, no ghosts are meant to haunt the caves, as far as I know), as I was hoping it would, but things can only get better, right? 1.5/5 for City of Caves.