Bakewell, Derbyshire: Christmas at Chatsworth House

Merry Christmas everyone! I’ve posted about Christmas at Kew the past couple of years, which we did visit this year as well, but I thought it might be nice to change it up a bit and make this year’s Christmas post about Chatsworth, located just outside Bakewell (birthplace of delicious Bakewell Tart, though I have to say that Buxton Pudding is also not without its charms, having now tried both), which we visited on our anniversary back in late November (we spent a few days in the Peak District – it wasn’t a special trip just for Chatsworth!). I’d never been to Chatsworth House before, so I can’t say what it’s normally like, but I was surprised how little of it seemed to be open to the public during the Christmas event, given what a massive house it is. Chatsworth is the home of the Devonshire family, so maybe they still live in the rest? This year’s theme was Nordic Christmas, though it didn’t feel particularly Nordic, just generically Christmassy (unlike Stan Hywet, which really sticks to a theme and goes ALL OUT with decorations). The garden (designed by good ol’ Capability Brown) also had lights, though they weren’t anything like as elaborate as the ones at Kew. I’m probably making this sound like I didn’t enjoy it very much, but I did like it, and some of the rooms were beautiful, I’m just not sure it was worth £29.50. Anyway, here are some photos so you can judge for yourself.

Hope you enjoyed this brief photographic tour of Chatsworth. Wishing everyone a very happy Christmas and New Year!

London: “Executions” @ Museum of London Docklands

I’ve been waiting for this exhibition for a loooonnnnngggg time – it was originally scheduled for October 2020, then obviously Covid happened – but as luck would have it, it finally opened just in time for Halloween 2022. Because let’s face it, as much as I love ghosts and monsters and all things folkloric and supernatural, there’s nothing quite so scary as actual historical events, especially horrific state-sanctioned ones. Those of a more delicate disposition can at least take comfort in the fact that once English methods of execution became standardised in the early modern period, although none of them were particularly pleasant ways to die, at least we weren’t using some of the even more brutal methods that were popular on the Continent (if you are curious about those, I recommend checking out The Faithful Executioner, which is a fascinating book, but I read it once and that was enough. It is fairly nightmare-inducing).

Because I was so excited about seeing this exhibition, I booked tickets as soon as they were released at the start of August, which I realised upon arriving was definitely not necessary, as there were only about five other visitors in the whole exhibit (which I’m certainly not complaining about). “Executions” runs until the 16th of April, so you’ve got plenty of time to see it if you’re not a keen bean early booker like me. Admission is £15 or £7.50 with Art Pass.


Most special exhibitions at the Museum of London Docklands are free (as are the permanent collections), so I was expecting quite a lot for my admission fee, and as you’ll see, I think the museum delivered. I think the last (and first) time I saw a paid exhibition here was about fourteen years ago, shortly after I moved to the UK. It was on Jack the Ripper, and it was really excellently done, so much so that I’ve thought of it often in the years since, and this exhibition felt poised to be more of the same from the atmospheric configuration of their galleries. Normally their free exhibitions are confined to one half of their gallery space, but for this they’d opened the entire gallery and built various walls and other scenery to guide us through the exhibition on a journey that felt like we were heading to be executed ourselves, or at least to be spectators at an execution, which really was an excellently creepy effect.

Apart from the opening section, which talked about the different methods of execution in England in some detail (the most horrible by far was boiling, though only a handful of people suffered this fate – Henry VIII, lover of cruel and unusual punishments, made this the punishment for poisoners during his reign, but his son Edward VI rescinded it as soon as he took the throne), I wouldn’t say this was a particularly graphic exhibition – it dealt more with how the justice system worked, the people who were being executed, and the role executions played in society at large – so you’d probably be ok seeing this even if you’re a little bit squeamish. I was initially most excited to see some of the artefacts that I knew would be on display here, like the shirt and gloves that Charles I allegedly wore to his execution (though the museum pointed out that this cannot be verified, only that the clothing is from the correct time period and sufficiently sumptuous to have belonged to royalty), and the bell that was rung before every execution at Newgate (below), but I ended up getting sucked into the atmosphere of the exhibition and just enjoying the progression.


“Executions” primarily focused on the early modern period through to the mid-19th century, when public executions were banned, so much of the time period they covered was during the infamous Georgian “Bloody Code” when over 200 offences, most of them relatively minor, were punishable by death. Because of this, many of the people being executed were highly sympathetic figures – there were lots of poor people found guilty of petty theft who were just trying to make ends meet – which made reading their stories even sadder. Due to so many people being condemned to death in this era, reprieves were also fairly common (though not common enough); like so much else in life, they were mainly a result of a person being well-connected or at least able to get a decent number of signatures on their petition, and the results of their petitions would be announced to everyone in the condemned cell at any given time, which seems especially cruel. Those whose petitions failed would have to watch the lucky few rejoicing; or, in one case where thirty-eight women were reprieved but two men were condemned to hang, the lucky majority.


We walked through all the stages a prisoner would have gone through leading up to their execution (which in the Georgian period often took place only two days after their trial, so they didn’t have much time to prepare their souls), from their sentencing, failed petitions, last letters to their families, final church service (where they were forced to stare at a coffin to contemplate their soon-to-be fate, though I highly doubt they needed a reminder), to their chains being removed and replaced with a cord pinioning their arms in place, leaving their hands free to pray (this was later replaced by a belt that held everything down, as leaving a prisoner’s arms free led to some unpleasant struggles with the executioner on the scaffold), and finally the last cart-ride to the gallows. The “execution room”, which I was honestly dreading a little bit after the build-up (dreading in the sense that the gloomy environs had me thinking I might actually be walking towards my death), was very immersive, containing a grass and dirt floor, the sounds of women singing a ballad that would have been sung by the crowds at executions, and screens showing little animations of people on the scaffold reading out their last words. Apparently they worked with a dialogue coach to make sure the last words were spoken with accents that would have been found in London in the 16th and 17th centuries, and those were some interesting accents, which was maybe not the part I was meant to be focusing on, but fascinating nonetheless.

Once we’d managed to survive our time on the scaffold, we passed into a room containing broadsheets about some of the more notorious criminals, which I spent quite a bit of time reading. These were usually printed the night before the executions, which meant they were often inaccurate, including the very much invented “last words” of the person being executed, and since last minute reprieves were quite common (so last minute in one case that the man had already been hanging for five minutes when it got there, so had to be hastily cut down and revived. Fortunately, this was in the days of short drop hangings, when it could take up to twenty minutes to die, because if it was a long drop hanging, it would have been much too late for the poor man), sometimes broadsheets were made describing an execution that never even happened! I also loved (if that’s the right word), the sketches done of the faces of dissected criminals, which described their crime and the results of the post-mortem in very neat handwriting.

The exhibition continued with talking about the toll executions took not only on the condemned themselves (obviously), but on the people who were left behind, and included stories of grieving family members, the love tokens prisoners made to give to their friends and families, and the memento mori the bereaved created. It also spoke about the way ordinary people would have been affected simply by walking through London, which would have had many grisly adornments in the 17th and 18th centuries, like heads on spikes, bodies on gibbets, and sometimes even quartered limbs sticking up from the tops of bridges and buildings, which can’t have been a pleasant sight. “Executions” concluded on a slightly more positive note by discussing how the increase in transportation led to a decrease in executions, followed by the end of public executions, and finally the end of the death penalty altogether (in the UK at least).


In case you couldn’t tell, despite the grim and grisly subject matter (or knowing me, maybe because of it), I absolutely adored this exhibition. It was so interesting, and I hope I’m not doing it a disservice by lumping it in with spooky season, because even though it certainly was creepy, it was also quite affecting and highly informative. Highly recommend seeing this one if you have a chance! 4.5./5.



Surrey: Mother Ludlam and the Devil

This is going to end up a very witch-orientated series of Halloween posts, which wasn’t entirely intentional (I was hoping to focus more on different aspects of the weird and creepy), but I do love witchy stuff, and this is what I’ve been up to lately, so here we are. Today’s post is about Mother Ludlam and the Devil, and our day gallivanting around Surrey to retrace their steps.

This came about thanks to my new book, Cloven Country: the Devil and the English Landscape by Jeremy Harte, which discusses the many, many sites named after the Devil around England, and the stories behind them. Being of a spooky persuasion, I’d already seen most of the ones within an easy driving distance, including the Devil’s Punch Bowl and the Devil’s Dyke, but the Devil’s Jumps were a new one to me, as was the legend of Mother Ludlam (and don’t worry, for once we have a story that doesn’t end in tragedy for the witch).


The story goes that Mother Ludlam was an old woman of a witchy persuasion who lived in a cave near the ruins of Waverley Abbey (there are no dates assigned to Mother Ludlam, so this may or may not have been when the Abbey was still active, not that any of this is historically accurate) and would grant the unspoken wishes of visitors who threw a coin in the cauldron she kept outside the cave. One day, she had a visitor who left some suspicious footprints in the sand, ones that looked like goat footprints, so Mother Ludlam was able to quickly twig that it was in fact the Devil. This not being a time when witches were said to be in league with the Devil, Mother Ludlam was not best pleased, particularly when Satan picked up the cauldron and made off with it.


Mother Ludlam immediately gave chase, and apparently had the power of flight, so the Devil was forced to jump from the nearby Devil’s Jumps to try to get away. However, the cauldron was just too heavy, so he had to drop it in a field in order to escape. To stop him from stealing it in case he ever tried to come back, the cauldron was moved to a nearby church, as the Devil obviously wouldn’t be able to enter holy ground. Now, I can’t say how true this story is, but the fact remains that there is a cave you can visit (called Mother Ludlam’s Cave), as well as a church that contains a large cauldron said to belong to Mother Ludlam, and there are also Devil’s Jumps that you can hike up.


You’ve been seeing pictures of our journey throughout the post, but we began by parking in the Waverley Abbey carpark, as Mother Ludlam’s Cave is a short walk away, down a public trail. The cave is barred off to protect the bats that live inside, but you can walk up and peer through the gate to get an idea of the inside. We did also visit Waverley Abbey, where I was hit pretty hard on the ankle on the way in by their stupid gate, but it’s not Halloweeny (unless it’s haunted, but I don’t know if it is) and is just some ruins in a field, so I’m not going to talk about it now. We then headed to St Mary the Virgin, near Frensham Little Pond, where we went into the church to see the cauldron. I’m not a church person, but c’mon, any church that has a witch’s cauldron inside is pretty cool. They also had very neat handmade cushions/kneelers, many depicting beloved pets and other animals, and a nice little churchyard with a few interesting old tombstones.

We then drove to one of the Devil’s Jumps, which is right next to the Sculpture Park that we visited last year, though we somehow missed the devilish aspects at the time. It was an unpleasant slog up a bramble filled path, followed by a clamber up some rocks, though we did discover a much easier, gently sloping path not through brambles on the way down, and I enjoyed eating a pretzel at the top whilst sitting on a bench dedicated to what I think was a deceased dog (judging by the paw prints on the back). There is a sign up here that tells you more about the legend of the Devil’s Jumps, and there are two more jumps that you can hike, but after bashing my ankle on that stupid gate and stabbing myself with brambles, I wasn’t much inclined to do it, so we headed back to the car. Apart from the brambles, however, it was a good day out! I love discovering new bits of folklore, and Mother Ludlam’s story is a good one, not least because there’s actually a cauldron to visit. Will definitely be visiting more Devil-related sites when I can.

Pendle, Lancashire: Pendle Witch Trial Sites

Hi! Sorry I went MIA again for a while – no particular reason, I was simply kind of tired of blogging and of (gasp) visiting museums, mostly because it was just too damn hot for most of this summer, and there ain’t no way I’m hopping on public transport when it’s a million degrees outside. But the break has made me realise that I’m not inclined to blog as frequently as I used to going forward – for one thing, I’ve exhausted most of the museums in London, and I’m sick of paying to go to exhibitions I don’t care about just for the sake of blogging about them, and for another, I’m still getting a lot of headaches and eye strain so I’d prefer to limit the time I spend on computers when I’m not at work (but I am sorry that I haven’t been able to comment on my blogger friends’ posts as much as I used to. Miss seeing what everyone is up to, and hope to catch up with you all one of these days!). However, although blogging here will be more sporadic going forward, I don’t plan to stop entirely, and there is absolutely no way I could let the spooky season go by without my usual series of posts on creepy locations, so you’ll see a lot of me this month! 🎃

This is one I’ve been saving up for a while (which I guess is not a surprise given how long I went without blogging). At the end of July, we spent a week up in Lancashire, which included a visit to the “Best Show Caves in Britain” (their words, not mine), a surprisingly fun day at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, a stop at the Potteries on the way home, and a couple days pootling around Pendle Witch Trial related-sites, which is what I’ll be talking about today.


The Pendle Witch Trials are one of the most notorious witch trials in English history. In 1612, twelve people from the villages around Pendle Hill in Lancashire were accused of witchcraft. Eleven of them – nine women and two men – were taken to trial in the county town of Lancaster, and ten of them were found guilty and executed (one woman was acquitted). This was an unusually large number of people to have been executed at one time for witchcraft, which is why Pendle is one of the most famous witchcraft trials, much like Salem is in the US. I should also note, because this is one of my biggest pet peeves when people talk about witchcraft trials, is that just like at Salem (apart from Giles Corey in Salem, who was pressed to death), everyone was executed by hanging, NOT by burning at the stake. I see people talk all the time about being witches being burned at Salem, and it drives me absolutely nuts. Yes, they were often burned in Scotland and on the Continent, but not in Salem and not in England either. Plenty of women were burned at the stake for petty treason (i.e. killing their husbands) and heresy, but not for witchcraft, at least, not in the early modern era, which is when the bulk of witchcraft trials took place. So now that we’ve got that straight, let’s move on.

I don’t really have the space to go into the whole of the Pendle trials here, and there’s plenty about them elsewhere on the internet if you’re interested, but to summarise, they started when the local JP was required to produce a list of people who refused to attend church or take communion, which triggered local people to make complaints about alleged witches in their area. The spurious accusations were pursued by judges looking to further their careers and hoping that James I’s fondness for a good witch hunt would lead him into giving them a promotion. The first to be accused was Alizon Device, on the basis of her asking a peddler for some pins, which were commonly used in magic (but also have about a million other prosaic uses that we’ll just ignore, I guess), and after he refused to give them to her, he tripped and fell over, so obviously she must have been a witch. The accusations spread from there, fueled by various feuds between local families who finally saw a chance to get even, and culminated in a farce of a trial at Lancaster Castle followed by the executions of almost all the unfortunate accused.

One of the most appalling things about Pendle, other than the executions, obviously, is that the convictions stand to this day! Most other people accused of witchcraft have had their convictions overturned in the modern era (not that it does them any good now, but at least the government eventually did the right thing), but not the Pendle witches. Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, was petitioned to pardon them in 1998 and refused to do so. However, that hasn’t stopped people from taking matters into their own hands and creating memorials to the accused, so there is now a statue of Alice Nutter standing alongside the road outside Roughlee, which was her home village. If you’re a fellow Good Omens fan (of the book, not so much the TV series, though I do of course totally ship Aziraphale and Crowley, because how can you not?), the name may sound familiar, as the witch whose prophecies are unveiled throughout the book is called Agnes Nutter. This was very much intentional, as was Anathema Device, another character, who was named after the Device family, three of whom were accused in the Pendle trials. Anyway, the statue of Alice is suitably solemn and austere – there wasn’t really anywhere to park nearby, so we just pulled into a layby for a minute so I could get out and snap a photo.

Another site you can see in the area is Samlesbury Hall, which as far as I can work out is only tangentially connected at best to the witchcraft trials, but as you can see it is a cool building. I was anticipating there would be quite a lot to see here, so was somewhat disappointed to come across a fairly empty building with limited signage. On the upside, admission was free, so I couldn’t be too upset. There was a sign here telling the story of the Samlesbury Witch Trials, in which three women were accused, but anti-Catholic sentiment outweighed anti-witch sentiment – the accuser was thought to have been coached by a Catholic priest in what to say, so the women were all acquitted. However, other than the women being from Samlesbury, I don’t think there is any real connection to the hall. Their trial took place in Lancaster, not here.

Speaking of Lancaster, you can visit Lancaster Castle, where the trials took place, however, entry is by guided tour only and we arrived too late in the day to catch one, so had to settle for just snapping a pic out front. It is suitably imposing though, as you can see, and may still be used as a prison today (there were signs on it implying as much, but it seems a bit weird that you can just walk right up to it if that’s the case).


But I saved the best Pendle witch site for last – the Pendle Sculpture Trail! The trail is located about a mile and a half walk outside of the village of Barley (and you do have to walk from Barley; there’s nowhere closer to park), but you get to pass shops with witch-themed signage (alas, none of the shops actually sell witchy paraphernalia), including a pub (expected) and a auto repair shop (much less expected). Once you get outside the village, the scenery is incredibly picturesque, but also inevitably overcast and rainy, because you are in the north of England.


We followed the guide found here, and I was particularly excited to see the boggart, which was meant to be the first sculpture on the trail, so I was quite disappointed to find there was no boggart to be seen. We even backtracked and walked a fair way back to the start of the trail, but nope, still no boggart. We eventually found an empty concrete base where he presumably once stood, and the plaque telling his story, but no boggart. Clearly quite a few things have weathered and even straight-up disappeared since the trail opened in 2012. We also found a hell hound with a poor bashed-in nose, and quite a lot of plaques with entire words worn off, which elevated one of the trail’s challenges, where you were meant to find the missing words in each poem and put them together to find the solution, from challenging to nigh on impossible.


But never mind. Apart from when one of my feet slipped off the branch it was precariously balanced on and right into the middle of a giant mud puddle (wet wipes could only do so much, so I had to walk around with an extremely muddy foot until we got to the hotel, and my shoe hasn’t been the same since), this was a very enjoyable walk. We were the only people on it (possibly on account of all the rain earlier that day and the, you know, mud puddles), and it was fun walking through the slightly creepy forest to discover the sculptures. Although the boggart was missing, there was still the aforementioned hellhound, a unicorn, a dryad/fairy, and a very creepy Witchfinder, in addition to some more abstract shapes and a cool monstery chair carved out of a stump. And of course the tribute to the Pendle “witches” themselves, which was a sculpture showing the silhouettes of a group of women in chains. I know those silhouettery metal sculptures seem to be all the rage lately (like all the WWI ones they made for the centenery), but I’m not crazy about them. If they’re in front of a varied landscape, as these were, it’s quite hard to see what you’re looking at.


In addition to the poems containing clues, the trail was also lined with stones, each with a different symbol on them. It was clear these had a meaning, but due to the non-existent 4G in the countryside, I wasn’t able to look it up until we got to our hotel. Turns out that each stone represented one of the accused, and you were supposed to work out which belonged to who based on the symbols, which were related to their alleged familiars or specific witchy interests. I would have enjoyed doing this if I’d be able to access the internet, but I’m afraid I simply didn’t know enough about the trials off the top of my head to have worked it out then and there. Maybe there could be a pamphlet of some sort in the nearest carpark? Just a thought. However, I can’t really hate on a free trail, and to that effect, I’d suggest maybe having a donation box somewhere so they could afford to replace the boggart and repair the other damaged sculptures. I have subsequently learned that there is an addition to the trail, in the form of another smaller sculpture park located in a nearby village, but I didn’t find out about it until I was researching this post, so I guess that’s one for another trip.

Although I can’t say I learned a huge amount about the trials themselves at the sites we visited, I did very much enjoy visiting them just the same, particularly the trail (and if I’ve managed to go this whole post without typing trial when I meant trail and vice versa, I think I’ve done quite well!). Since it’s the North, everything is appropriately cold and gloomy even at the height of summer, so you can get an idea of how difficult the lives of the people who lived here must have been, and why they were so eager to pin the blame for any misfortunes on anyone they could, but it is still a very beautiful part of England, and well-worth seeing!

Bristol: Grayson Perry’s Art Club @ Bristol Museum

You may remember that I visited Bristol Museum and Art Gallery about six years ago to see their death exhibition, and though I was slightly underwhelmed by the permanent collections and disturbed by the glass walled Victorian toilets that meant you got a prime view of your neighbour’s pooping face, I liked the general vibe of the museum and their “pay what you can afford” policy for exhibitions. So, when we were planning on driving down to Bristol to visit my sister-in-law and were looking for something to do until she finished work, I decided to check out what Bristol Museum had on. Imagine my delight when I discovered that the museum is currently hosting the exhibition for Grayson’s Art Club’s second series (I think the first series’ exhibition was in Manchester last year).


If you’re British and you watch TV, you’re probably already familiar with Grayson Perry’s Art Club, but for all my overseas readers, Grayson Perry is a British artist who began hosting a TV programme during the first lockdown in 2020 where he encouraged viewers to submit their own art and short videos explaining the pieces they created. He was joined over Zoom by a different celebrity guest and artist each week who would produce their own art, and they would select a few pieces from the public submissions to ultimately go on view in an exhibition. The first series was so popular that they came back for a second series last year, which is what this exhibition is based on. It runs until 4th September, and pre-booking is strongly encouraged. It is a “pay what you can afford” exhibition, with a minimum suggested donation of £4, but you can absolutely see this exhibition for free if you wish.


Upon arrival, we were handed an exhibition trail map, which was super useful because of the way the exhibition was set up. There were larger displays inside three of the museum’s galleries, but there were also pieces spread out throughout the museum, mixed in with the permanent collections, which made this really fun to explore, a bit like a scavenger hunt. We went the opposite way the numbering system wanted us to and started downstairs, with the gallery dedicated to family and food, two of the themes from the programme (there was a different theme each week).

The art on display was a mix of pieces by Grayson and his wife Philippa (I would argue there were too many pieces by Philippa, but I guess those are the benefits of being married to the person doing the programme), celebrity pieces, and pieces by members of the public, which did seem to make up the bulk of the exhibition. The family theme was one of the most emotional of the exhibition, particularly the pieces by Becky Tyler, who I remembered from the TV show. Becky is disabled, and relies on a computer to communicate. However, she has a special computer programme that allows her to paint pictures with her eyes based on where she looks at the screen, and they’re really incredible. She did the picture above left, which “depicts the dreams and opportunities waiting beyond the gates of [her] disability”, and she also did the portrait of Grayson Perry under the first paragraph of this post, which is also the picture used on all the exhibition publicity. I also loved the joke alphabet (next to Becky’s portrait of Grayson), done by a pair of siblings whose father was known for knowing a joke for every letter of the alphabet (their father passed away last year). If you zoom in on the picture, you’ll probably be able to read a few, but they were classic dad jokes.


On the celebrity side of things, we regularly watch Taskmaster, so we were excited to see pieces by a lot of the artier participants, including Johnny Vegas, Noel Fielding, and even Alex Horne. We both really liked the chicken shop painting that Mawaan Rizwan submitted for one of the prize tasks, so we were glad to see another one here in the food section, with another hilarious name (I love an unintentionally funny restaurant name, and my friend and I keep an running list. One of our current favourites is Aftertaste, a Chinese restaurant in Elephant and Castle). I also loved the hospital room made from felted objects (sadly, I forgot to get a photo of the artist’s name). Yes, all those pill boxes were made from felt! Really incredible.

And you know I love a good mannequin, so I had to throw in a photo of the first date scene made by an Italian restaurant when they were closed during lockdown, complete with fake pizzas. The painting on the left is of the artist’s husband falling asleep over breakfast in bed (the caption didn’t say that he was ill or anything, just sleepy).

There was another small gallery upstairs dedicated to the theme of work, which included some tiles by Philippa, mock Staffordshire figurines by Grayson depicting a Deliveroo driver and a home worker (with her cat), a creepy Morris man outfit made from a Hazmat suit, and the above two pieces, Sisyphus Works the Night Shift and the heads of a group of rather frightening looking schoolkids (the artist said the bully character exploded in the kiln, but most of the other ones still look like bullies to me. I’d run if I saw them coming, let’s put it that way).


We found a gallery on yet another floor (the museum has a surprising number of floors and subfloors, which again, really added to the scavenger hunt feel) with art that seemed to be primarily travel inspired, though it also contained the adorable Norman by comedian and occasional potter Johnny Vegas (above right), his depiction of a boy he used to see in a park who seemed to be having a tough time, and reminded Johnny of himself when he was young.

The rest of the pieces were far more scattered and mingled with the permanent collections. The trail map guides you to roughly the right location, but you still have to keep your eyes peeled! I loved the monster hidden in a display case full of taxidermy, and he was apparently hidden in real life as well – the artist created him as part of a monster hunt for children, where a load of monsters were hidden in a local wood (I would have loved to take part in that!). There was also the crocheted hamburger hidden in a case full of pottery, and the tiger at the start of the post sitting at the foot of a dinosaur.


Fun as the Grayson Perry exhibition was, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the netsuke exhibition also at the museum, which runs until June and is free to visit. I honestly mainly know about netsuke from Bob’s Burgers (of course I’ve seen pieces at museums over the years, but I didn’t give them much thought until that episode of Bob’s), and I love anything miniature, so I was pretty excited to check them out. As is fitting, given their diminutive size, the display is also tiny, but they crammed quite a few pieces in with information about the mythology behind each. It was very interesting and I enjoyed studying them all, helped by the fact that the museum was fairly empty. Something like this would have been a nightmare at somewhere like the V&A!


As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed my visit to Bristol Museum this time around. I honestly even got a kick out of the toilets – I’d been thinking a lot about how weird they were in the intervening years, and was bizarrely excited to see them again. Highly recommend going to see the Grayson Perry exhibition before it finishes if you can. 4/5. I’d also advise walking down about half a mile from the museum to Harbourside to see Mr. Cary Grant, in statue form, which I finally did on this visit. And if you’re into falafel, I can also wholeheartedly recommend Baba Ghanoush Jerusalem Falafel. Super cheap and amazing food! I feel like we’ll be back to Bristol sooner rather than later.

Chiddingstone, Kent: Chiddingstone Castle and Village

After years of visiting Perryhill Orchards Farmshop every autumn to stock up on their russet cloudy apple juice (still not as good as apple cider, but the closest I can manage to find ’round these parts), I thought I had already seen almost every attraction the surrounding area had to offer, but I was wrong. Chiddingstone Castle and Chiddingstone Village were just hiding away, silently chiding me for not visiting (this is a bit of a pun, as you’ll see).


Chiddingstone Castle is located in west Kent, and apparently has been there in some form or another since Tudor times, but the current building is mainly Victorian. It was the home of the Streatfeild family (looks like it’s spelled wrong, but it’s not) until they could no longer afford the property taxes/upkeep, and it was purchased in 1955 by the eccentric Denys Eyre Bower, who was a collector and attempted murderer, but I’ll get to that later on. The house is owned by a trust, since the National Trust didn’t want it (they rejected the museum I work at too – maybe if they weren’t so picky they’d have a more varied portfolio of properties), and costs £9.50 to enter (no Art Pass discount here).


Bower seemingly had a wide range of interests, but most of the pieces he collected were Japanese, Ancient Egyptian, Tudor, or Stuart, and he was a practicing Buddhist (except for the attempted murder bit, which doesn’t feel very in keeping with Buddhist ideals), so also collected some Buddhist objects. The collections are mainly segregated into their own rooms now, though apparently when Bower lived there it was more of a crazy mishmash with stuff everywhere (also very much like the museum I work at – I wonder if the owners knew each other, since they were roughly contemporaries).


We started with the Japanese room, which ended up being one of my favourite sections. I love Japanese armour (and medieval armour for that matter – I think I just like armour!) and the cool demon masks, though I have to say the most interesting and creepiest things here were the fully articulated models of various insects and animals. The dragon and peacock were really cool. The rest creeped me out, especially assuming they moved like their insect counterparts when you picked them up (that centipede – ugh!), but I have to admit that the craftsmanship was absolutely incredible.


The Stuart collection was where some of Denys’s, shall we say, eccentricities started to come through. The reason he was interested in the Stuarts was because he believed he was a reincarnation of Bonnie Prince Charlie (I’ve seen photos, and bonny Bower was not), and so he was obsessed with James II and his spawn. He even had actual relics of James II, including a box that contained a segment of his heart, as well as a locket with some blood and hair.


The Ancient Egyptian collection was probably the most extensive, but I do fear much of it was obtained through unethical means, as was common practice at the time. I can’t deny that it would be cool to have a sarcophagus in one’s home, but it sure wouldn’t feel great morally. However, Bower did get swindled into buying reproduction pieces on some occasions (which the signage pointed out), so I guess there was a small degree of comeuppance.


The house itself was fairly unremarkable in décor, basically your standard Victorian slightly shabby country home, though I sense upkeep wasn’t particularly high on Bower’s list of priorities, especially after he got sent to Wormwood Scrubs. Yes, finally time to talk about the murder! Various interpretation panels scattered throughout the house vaguely alluded to Bower having spent time in prison, but didn’t get down to brass tacks until we were nearly through the house, when we came across a small room devoted solely to Bower and his life and finally learned some of the juicy bits. When Bower was in his fifties, he was dating a woman in her twenties, and he threatened to kill himself if she ever left him (I’ve been in a relationship like that, and it was no picnic). To drive the point home, he brought a gun to her house, where it “accidentally” went off (or so he claimed) and shot his girlfriend, who was luckily only injured, and he then tried to kill himself but failed at that too. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and attempted suicide, but an influential lawyer took on his case and got him released after he served only five years, and I have to say that even when he was in prison, he seemed to have a fairly cushy time of it, as he was able to expand his book collection by a couple hundred volumes sent directly to him in prison.


I could have dealt with his other eccentricities (the reincarnation thing is harmless enough), but hearing the story of his attempted murder put me right off him. He absolutely sounds like an abusive creep. He was also married twice (before the whole murder thing) and there were photos of his wives in the museum (above the previous paragraph). I have to say they both looked much too good for him – very pretty and much younger than he was from the looks of it – so I’m glad they eventually wised up and left him. Even though I have taken strongly against Bower the man, I do admit that I definitely liked elements of his collection and the house, particularly the women’s toilet, which had a lovely wide wooden seated Victorian pullchain model that made me feel like I was sitting on a throne. I love a good toilet.


On the day we visited (which also happened to be one of their last open days this year. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until spring if you want to visit), they were closing early for a wedding, so we had to give the café a miss, even though I was most enticed by the toasted crumpets with honey. Love tea and crumpets. However, we did give ourselves enough time to explore the “Fields of Eternity” Ancient Egyptian grass maze, which I absolutely loved the sound of, but it was sadly underwhelming. The description made it sound like a maze that would lead you through various parts of a pyramid and the Egyptian underworld, but all it turned out to be was some overgrown grass that was so mashed down it didn’t look like much of anything. It was essentially just walking through a field with some signs in it. The grounds as a whole are nothing spectacular; there’s a wooded bit, and a grassy bit, but no formal gardens to speak of. There is an orangery, but we couldn’t go in it as it was full of people standing around the edges blocking the entrances who just stared at us when we attempted to approach, so we gave up. For the price, I do think the house is worth seeing, because I really liked the Japanese and Stuart collections and Bower was certainly an unusual man, if not a particularly nice one. 3/5.


Very near Chiddingstone Castle (you can walk there if you don’t have to vacate the carpark for an event like we did) is Chiddingstone Village, home to a Tudor shopping street with what claims to be the oldest working shop in Britain (est. 1453, but I have seen other places attempt to claim that title, so I don’t know if it’s actually the oldest). The whole street is owned by the National Trust (apparently that was good enough for them but not the castle), who I presume rent out the buildings to other businesses, as the café certainly wasn’t National Trust. Because we didn’t have time to have tea at the castle, and because it had started pissing it down, we decided to have tea here, but it was a bit of an experience. They were quite busy, so just ignored us for a while when we walked in before telling us to sit anywhere. There wasn’t room inside, so we went out to the covered patio, but every open table was absolutely covered in other people’s dishes and food detritus. I’m not just talking cups, but actual gross bits of food and liquid spilt everywhere. Staff members came out at various times to grab chairs or see to the other tables, but no one ever came to bus our table, so we ended up just moving everything ourselves and wiping it off as best we could with a Kleenex I found in my purse, which wasn’t ideal. I have to say that the cake was actually delicious (though I was disappointed they only had coffee and walnut (blech) and Victoria sponge (acceptable, but certainly not my first choice) after seeing the large variety advertised on their website) and they had cute crockery, but the service definitely left something to be desired.


We also popped in the oldest shop to buy beer from a local brewery and homemade fudge (because that’s what we do) and the woman complimented my coat, so she was OK by me. I loved the house next to the shop that was all decked out for Halloween, and the Georgian angel tombstones in the churchyard. Finally, we had to check out the “chiding stone”, which is meant to be how the village got its name. It is just a big stone where, according to legend, men would gather to “chide” their errant wives. It’s kind of a gross patriarchal legend, but I do love folklore, so I found it pretty interesting. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend popping down to check out the village, since it is quite cute and the churchyard has some good stones, but I would maybe advise getting your tea as a takeaway unless you like sitting at dirty tables.

Malton, North Yorkshire: Eden Camp

The final stop on our brief tour of the North before I mercifully got to go home and sleep in my own bed was Eden Camp, located just outside Malton. Eden Camp was the reason we had to stay in that horrible hotel in Malton (well, we could have stayed somewhere nicer if everywhere else hadn’t been booked up), but I won’t hold that against it. Though booking in advance was no longer strictly required at the time of our visit, I did so anyway to ensure we could get in without any difficulty. Tickets are £12, and you just book a pass for the day you want to visit, no need to pick a specific time slot.


Eden Camp is a WWII POW camp built in 1942 for Italian prisoners who had been captured in North Africa, but it held German POWs as well from 1944 until 1948 when the last prisoners were finally released. The huts where the prisoners lived had become completely derelict by the 1980s, when they were purchased by a man named Stan Johnson (not Boris Johnson’s father. A quick glance at his photo was more than enough to confirm that) who eventually converted them into the museum that exists today. Although most of the employees were in costume, it’s not really a living history museum; rather, each of the huts has been converted into its own little museum, covering topics ranging from World Wars I and II (of course) and the role of the British Army in various 20th century wars, to 1940s fashion and entertainment.


We were greeted by a very friendly lady in a guard hut just outside the entrance who handed us a map of the site, and a guy dressed as a British WWII soldier showed us where to park. There are about thirty huts on the site, in addition to a children’s playground and café, and the map instructed us to start at Hut No 1, so we did. We assumed we were meant to see the huts in numerical order, but after getting stuck in a queue behind slow moving people for ages in Hut 1, we were itching to go off piste, but hesitated for fear of getting yelled at by one of the soldier staff members. However, as more people arrived (for once, we came very early in the day, just after opening) and the queuing situation got even worse, one of the “soldiers” approached us and let us know we could see them in any order, and you didn’t have to tell us twice! We’d probably still be stuck there waiting otherwise! However, if you do see the huts out of sequence, it might be useful to cross them off on the map as you visit each one. We didn’t do this and totally lost track of what we’d seen and what we hadn’t, and I think we may have ended up skipping a hut or two.


The first thing I noticed about the huts (other than how cold they were on the day we visited – the huts are neither heated nor air conditioned, so do dress accordingly depending on the weather) were the fabulous mannequins. Nearly every hut had numerous groupings of mannequins arranged into tableaux, and I could not have loved them more. Some of the huts were also quite atmospheric, like one that was meant to be the inside of a submarine, complete with sound effects, fog, and a moving floor. Another told the story of the Great Escape, and had tunnelling mannequins that rather hilariously rode back and forth along the floor on little train tracks. The huts even included another one of my loves – authentic smells! Some of them were so bad I was grateful for my mask (masks did not seem to be required, and only about half the visitors were wearing them, but some of the huts were quite crowded and I felt much more comfortable with it on), but they nonetheless enhanced the experience.


Much as I loved the special effects of the themed huts, my favourite hut was probably the one that told the stories of the POWs that lived at the camp, including toys and other things the men had made whilst staying there. Apparently, one of the German prisoners was a blacksmith, and he was asked to make a pair of “fire dogs” by one of the guards. Not understanding what they were, he literally made a pair of iron dachshunds (the signage made sure to point out that they were dachshunds) and these were utterly charming (other than the fact that they were made by a Nazi, of course). Another prisoner had drawn a series of cartoons about life at the camp, which were also quite funny. The German POWs in particular were generally accepted by the local community, probably helped by them being white Europeans from a similar culture. Local families would invite some of the men over for dinner, and some of them ended up marrying local women and staying in the area. However, although conditions at the camp weren’t anywhere near as bad as those at some of the camps in other countries, the barracks the men stayed in looked fairly grim and had to be absolutely freezing in winter (given how cold it was in summer there) so I’m sure it wasn’t all a bed of roses (but do Nazi prisoners deserve a bed of roses? Nope).


I also really enjoyed the 1940s fashion street scene and some of the displays in the entertainment hut. Anything that was a break from the military was a relief, as there were a LOT of army-related huts, and they got a little samey after a while, particularly the ones about wars later in the 20th century. In terms of the non-museum huts, I was a bit disappointed to see that the café just seemed to have not particularly appealing looking standard British café fayre. Not that I particularly wanted to eat marg and potato scones with carrot jam or anything, but it would have been nice if they had something a bit more authentic to match the rest of the experience. However, the toilets, despite also being located in a hut, were surprisingly nice!


On the whole, I actually really enjoyed my experience at Eden Camp. I will say that there was far too much text to even attempt to try to read it all, and like many WWII museums, it erred a bit on the side of excusing the behaviour of the Nazis who stayed at the camp (a “just following orders” mentality). Also, despite having a section on the Holocaust, they still had a Hitler mannequin that veered a bit too far into comedy territory, and I’m not keen on glorification of the military in general, which was a major theme throughout. However, even with the caveats, Eden Camp was still probably the highlight of the trip apart from the ice cream in Ripley, though that perhaps says more about the rest of the holiday than the quality of Eden Camp. 3.5/5.

North Yorkshire: The Good, the Bad, and the Meh; A Tale of Three Captain Cook Museums

I know that Captain Cook is problematic for a number of reasons, not least for the negative impact his “discoveries” had on pretty much every indigenous population he encountered, but I have to admit that I find his voyages absolutely fascinating. Ever since reading Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes, I have wanted to visit the Cook museums in North Yorkshire, which include the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Marton, the Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre in (you guessed it) Staithes, and the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby (there’s also the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum in Ayton, but that wasn’t open at the time of our visit). Because we are gluttons for punishment, we decided to do all of these museums in one day (along with Durham Town Hall, which we visited that morning). Fortunately, all the museums had eliminated their pre-booking requirement by then, which made the logistics of the day a lot easier. I’m not going to give very much background on Cook’s voyages in this post, since I’ve done that in various earlier posts, but will instead focus on the content of the museums.


The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum was the closest to Durham, so that’s where we started. There may be parking closer to the museum that we didn’t see, but we followed the signs and were directed into a carpark in a field next to a funfair. We ended up having to walk about half a mile across the field to reach the museum (Tony Horwitz also describes a trek across a “soggy field” so I suppose that was the closest carpark. We were lucky to be visiting in July, because the field was refreshingly green and dewy rather than soggy), where we were greeted by the large moai statue perched in front of the museum. I felt a bit apprehensive about entering because of all the noise coming from inside the building as we approached the admissions desk to pay our £4 entry fee, but it transpired that it was only the museum café that was busy – we were the only visitors in the museum, which made for a very pleasant experience indeed.


There isn’t much to tell about James Cook’s childhood in Marton, mainly because it’s not well-documented historically, but that didn’t stop the museum from putting together a tableau of a young Cook and his mother in their cottage kitchen, complete with pre-recorded dialogue in amusingly strong Yorkshire accents, and a dish of some truly disgusting looking fake stew. The cottage where he was born no longer stands, having been destroyed in the 1780s due to its already derelict state. The family only lived in the cottage until Cook was eight; they moved to Ayton in 1736, which was where Cook was educated in the village school.


Since the information on Cook’s early life is so limited, the museum quickly moved on to his later life, from his move to Whitby, early career in the Navy, and finally, to his three voyages of exploration, with a different room devoted to each. Despite the many typos I uncovered on the museum signs (especially with dates – at one point they claimed the house where Cook lived in Whitby was built in 1865, nearly a century after he died! I think they meant 1685, and someone had neglected to proofread thoroughly before printing), this was by far the most interesting of the three museums. They didn’t have many original artefacts (most of the objects in the museum were facsimiles), but they had a lot of objects generally, not to mention a healthy supply of mannequins. They even had a video showing you how to do a Yorkshire-themed haka, which was fun, if a bit too long.


In addition to Cook, the museum also had a small gallery on other adventurers from the local area, including Gertrude Bell, Katherine Maria Pease Routledge, and most interestingly to me, Frank Wild, who was a veteran of multiple Shackleton Antarctic expeditions. In another nearby field, there is an urn marking the probable location of Cook’s birthplace, and you can buy a DIY cardboard replica of the cottage in the shop (we got it mainly because it said Cleveland on it). Although it may not have gone far enough in discussing the devastating effect Cook’s voyages would ultimately have on the people he encountered, this was by far the best of the three museums, so it’s a bit of a shame we started the day with it, as I’m a great believer in saving the best for last.


Although we were both already a little museumed-out after taking the time to thoroughly peruse our first two museums of the day (counting Durham Town Hall), and we did discuss skipping Staithes and heading straight to Whitby, I was stupidly won over by the hyperbole on, which insisted “You really should seek out this fantastic visitor attraction.” OK! We eventually found a space in the carpark in Staithes, which was crowded because no cars are allowed in the village proper, which is located at the bottom of an exceedingly steep cobblestone hill.


The Staithes Heritage Centre is fortunately free, because I would have been even more annoyed by the experience if we’d actually paid for it – as it was, I was pissed off enough that I had to walk up and down a giant steep hill for this. Tony Horwitz mentioned the re-creation of William Sanderson’s shop, where Cook worked for a whole eight months as a shop assistant after leaving Ayton at the age of 17, which is partially what sold me on visiting, but the “1745 life-size street scene of Cook’s time in Staithes” is right at the start of the museum (and holds an actual shop – this small museum has not one, but two gift shops, which should tell you something about their priorities) and when I stopped outside it to wait for the man in front of me to finish reading the sign so I could have a better look, the woman at the front desk rather testily asked me if I needed help with something, so I felt like I was being moved along, and gave up on the “street scene” to head upstairs to see the “huge collection of exhibits from Cook’s life”.


I won’t deny that it is a “huge collection” relative to the amount of space that contained it, but my god was it just a load of crap. Picture a room crammed with the most worthless ephemera, including newspaper clippings related to Staithes, model ships, prints, 20th century Cook memorabilia, and terrible paintings by local artists. If there were any original artefacts, they would have been impossible to spot amongst the piles of tat. Even the allegedly “artisan gift shop” didn’t contain any products that I would consider living up to that description, so after reluctantly walking a bit further down the hill to see the sea (grey and depressing), we laboriously climbed back up the giant hill and headed straight for Whitby.


We had been to Whitby about eleven years ago, but neglected to visit any museums on that visit, possibly on account of the awful weather. Unfortunately, this visit had even more awful weather. It was lovely and sunny in Marton, but by the time we got to Whitby, the wind had picked up and it started absolutely pissing it down, so we made a run for the Captain Cook Memorial Museum. This was by far the most expensive museum of the day, at £7 (though they also have the fanciest website, so at least you can see where the money is going I guess), and unfortunately also the most crowded, as two other groups who were presumably also attempting to shelter from the storm came in right behind us, and we found several more groups ahead of us. The museum didn’t appear to have any particular rules about Covid safety, as we were all just crammed into this relatively small house (some of the groups not wearing masks), and one of the volunteers proudly announced that he had just closed the windows since it was raining in, which goes against all the rules at the museum where I work (we are required to have ventilation, to the extent of sitting freezing in my office with open windows in the winter, and just letting it rain in all over the listed woodwork when it’s storming (we go around sopping up the water with rags at the end of the day)), so I wasn’t feeling particularly comfortable in here.


This house (which was indeed built in 1685) was owned by Cook’s master, Quaker shipowner James Walker, and was where Cook lived from 1746 until 1755, when he went off to sea, so this is the only one of the buildings we saw that day where Cook had actually lived. The family were quite fond of him, to the point where the maid forgot her formal Quaker ways and referred to him as “James, honey” when he returned to visit after one of his voyages. This museum focused more on the scientific aspects of his voyages (the first one was meant to be recording the transit of Venus), and did contain some original artefacts, though the bits of Cook’s correspondence on view were only facsimiles. They still made for interesting reading, but my favourite part was the special exhibition in the attic on that dishy Joseph Banks, which we sadly weren’t allowed to photograph.


Had I not seen the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, or been crammed into a stuffy house with so many maskless people, I think I might have enjoyed the Cook Museum in Whitby a bit more, but as it was, I was not particularly impressed, especially with the £7 admission fee, as the Birthplace Museum had easily three times the amount of content and much more pleasant surroundings. I also think (as you may have guessed from the “Memorial Museum” part of the name) that they glorified Cook even more than the Birthplace Museum did, the Birthplace Museum at least having made a significant effort to describe the cultures of the indigenous people Cook encountered. There is also meant to be a Cook collection in the Whitby Museum (and a hand of glory!), but we were so sick of museums and getting rained on by this point that we just huddled in a doorway eating some chips before heading off on what was probably my most important expedition of the day: procuring Bram(ble) Stoker ice cream.


As you may know, Whitby is the setting for Dracula, and a meeting place for goths. The only part of my visit eleven years ago that I really enjoyed was eating a scoop of Bram(ble ) Stoker ice cream (blackberry ice cream with white chocolate chips. The flavour is delicious, but I’m really in it for the name). Marcus had taken a picture of me eating my ice cream outside the shop, which made it easy to spot, and though the exterior has changed, the shop is still there, and I was thrilled(!) to see they still had Bram(ble) Stoker ice cream, so you better believe I stood out in the freezing rain and ate it (I also may have died at this point, because I appear to be a ghost in all the remaining photographs of that day). Having completed my mission, we ran back to the car and headed straight for our (incredibly grim) hotel in Malton (not to be confused with Marton). I am glad to have finally seen these museums after reading about them years ago, but the only one I think was worth the effort was the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum. Definitely skip Staithes, and only bother with Whitby’s Cook Museum if you’re hiding from the weather (which is apparently always awful there, because if it’s not warm at the end of July, when is it warm? I can see why James Cook got the hell out as soon as he could).

Beamish, County Durham: Beamish Museum

I know I said in my last post that I didn’t really know why we settled on Durham as the destination of our first holiday since 2019, but actually, Jozef Boruwlaski was obviously a factor, as was Beamish Museum. Based on lots of past experience, I know that living history museums are very hit or miss. When they’re good (Blists Hill), they’re so much fun, but when they’re bad (Hale Farm, where I did a short-lived internship many years ago), they’re dismal. Beamish bills itself as “the living museum of the North” and is one of the largest open air museums in England, as well as the first regional open air museum (meaning that it focuses on the history and culture of the North East rather than having buildings from all over the country).


At the time we visited, you had to pre-book a timed arrival slot in advance, so I booked a couple of weeks in advance to ensure we didn’t miss out. Tickets are £19.50, and the booking procedure is slightly complicated, as you have to book both a timed slot and a pass as separate entities, but I figured it out in the end. I was a bit annoyed with the weather forecast for this trip, because it was meant to be cold and rainy, and I had packed accordingly, but our first two days up north were actually super warm and sunny, and you know I would have worn a cute 1940s dress to waltz around in the 1940s town if I’d have known. As it was, I had to settle for an overall style jumpsuit and t-shirt ensemble that probably made me look more equipped to work in the pit town, but whatever.


We were slightly dismayed when we arrived to find ourselves standing in a massive queue directly under a hot sun broiling down on us in defiance of the weather report, but at least there were amusing signs written in “Northern” (Geordie maybe? I don’t know what a Durham accent is officially called, but it sounds fairly Geordie to me, and Beamish is located about halfway between Newcastle and Durham) to entertain us whilst we waited, to say nothing of the various dogs accompanying our fellow visitors. Fortunately, the line moved fairly quickly, and we soon found ourselves inside the massive expanse of Beamish.


There is a Routemaster bus that will take you between the various historical villages, but there was a huge queue at every single bus stop, so we opted to walk (plus a Routemaster isn’t exactly Northern. According to its sign, it stops in Aldwych, so I joked that we should hop in it and go back to London). It’s not all that far from one village to another, but you will end up doing a lot of walking by the end of the day, so make sure to wear comfy shoes (I actually was, for once, since I thought it might be too muddy for sandals with all the rain we were meant to get. Of course everything was bone dry, so I had hot, sweaty feet for no reason). We started with the first village chronologically which was an 1820s one whose main attraction was “Puffing Billy”, a replica of the earliest surviving steam locomotive. Of course, like everything else at Beamish, we were faced with a big ol’ queue to ride it, and since they were only allowing four groups on the train at a time, we really could not be bothered to wait. It only rode a short way down the tracks and back again anyway, so it was probably almost as fun just watching (i.e. not very).


This village had a few other buildings, including a church and a manor house that you could enter. Because of Covid, the site still wasn’t fully operational, so there weren’t many interpreters about (not a problem for me, since I find interacting with them super awkward anyway), though there was a man sitting at a table in the manor house whittling a spoon. He didn’t really explain why, but then again, we didn’t ask. All along the path up to the house (which was up a steep hill), we had seen fake historical posters advertising a really big pig, and the only thing that convinced me to climb the hill was the promise of a big pig at the top, so of course I was going to be very annoyed if I didn’t see one. Actually, there were two pigs, though they were more of the ugly hog variety than the cute pink curly tailed kind, and they weren’t unusually large. After those posters, I was expecting more of a Wilbur situation, with a “Some Pig” spiderweb above his head (oh god, now I’m going to end up crying if I think about poor Charlotte).


En route to the Victorian town, which is apparently actually a 1900s town, and was clearly meant to be the highlight of the whole affair, we passed a 1950s town that was under construction, which will include some ugly pre-fab houses and a chippy once it is completed. The 1900s town was the most town-like in terms of the experience, as they had a working bakery and sweetshop you could go into. Again, the queues were very long, so we just went into the bakery, because you can get boiled sweets anywhere. The bakery had a surprisingly large variety of old-timey things, and even more surprisingly, only a few of them contained loathsome raisins, so I had a nice raisin-free selection to choose from. I ended up with a jam and coconut sponge (because I felt like it was more old-timey than the lemon drizzle Marcus got) and a Victoria cream biscuit. The sponge tasted nice, but it was very dry (and nowhere near as delicious as the bakery from Blists Hill), and I was absolutely dying for a cup of tea, which, oddly for a British attraction, was absolutely nowhere in sight, so I just had to choke it down. I saved the biscuit for later, and it was also nice, but so greasy it had made the bag it was in completely see-through, which was a bit off-putting (I’m not on Dr. Nick’s weight-gain diet).


Because some of the shops were still closed, they had set up a series of tents outside where you could buy Edwardian merchandise, and having finally spied a suffragette sash for a reasonable price (£13.50. They used to have some at the Museum of London, but they were almost £100!) you better believe I bought one, and put it on and marched around singing “Votes for Women, step in time” as soon as I got back home. There was also a drugstore and photography shop, but unlike Blists Hill, you couldn’t dress up in Victorian clothes and have your photo taken, so we skipped those too due to the wait. We did go in a couple of the terraced houses at the end of the village, but they were underwhelming, and I was put off by the maskless, shirtless, beet-fleshed teenagers who were in there with us. We did finally discover a tearoom down this end, but having long since swallowed all my cake by this point, I wasn’t inclined to queue for hours for a tea. There was also a pub, but guess what? Yep, massive queue.


Just outside 1900s town was a funfair, but it seemed to be aimed pretty squarely at children, so we didn’t even bother walking in, other than to get a picture of the creepy clowns on the helter skelter (I always forget what British people call them and end up calling them “Curly Wurlys” or “Topsy Turvys” before I think of the right term, though the former is of course a chocolate bar, and not even one I particularly like). I really needed a wee by this point (despite not drinking any tea), but having passed the “Ladies Waiting Room” in the train station because I didn’t think you could actually go inside, I was forced to use a busy one near some heavy machinery up a hill, and it was dis-gus-ting. I still shudder thinking about it, especially the cherry pit someone had thoughtfully spit out in the sink that was just bobbing around in there.


Having survived the horrors of the modern but gross toilet, we walked up the hill to the 1940s wartime farm. The most entertaining thing about the farm was the chickens, one of whom had escaped her pen and was just wandering around pecking at stuff. Otherwise, it was just a collection of smelly barns with not much in them, and a grim stone-floored cottage whose toilet still looked more pleasant than the one I had just used.


Finally, we headed to the 1900s pit village and colliery. Like much of the North, this region was once home to many coal mines and the small museum of coal mining in one of the buildings here was one of the more interesting parts of Beamish, as there wasn’t a whole lot of signage elsewhere. There were also a few more houses, a church, and a school where loads of noisy children were playing the stick and hoop game out back. I was initially excited by the coal-fired chippy, but again, the apparently hour-long queue (according to the sign outside) was enough to stop me from even considering being a bad vegetarian and eating dripping-cooked chips. I was pleasantly surprised that we could actually go into what I think were the winding engine house and heapstead, which had excellent views of the pit village, though disappointed to learn that they normally have a mine that wasn’t open to the public yet when we visited. I’m always up for putting on a hard hat and crawling into a dark pit.


By this point we were fairly tired from all the walking and we’d seen everything that didn’t involve a massive queue, so we decided to head up to Hartlepool (home of the “Monkey Hangers” because they literally hanged a poor monkey during the Napoleonic wars, which is not something I’d be bragging about. They have a monkey trail dotted around the coastal path with little monkey statues on the markers) so we could have an ice cream and chips that weren’t cooked in dripping. As you can probably tell, I was definitely disappointed by Beamish, both because it wasn’t fully reopened yet, and because of the giant queues at anything of interest. They were allegedly limiting numbers at the time of our visit, so I hate to think what it’s like normally (though in fairness, we were there during the first week of summer holidays, which I’m sure is busier than most other times). It wasn’t quite as bad as our Black Country Living Museum experience, but it was certainly no Blists Hill. 3/5, mainly because I like my sash and I’m a sucker for a ye olde bakery, even though the cake was (probably authentically) dry.

Durham: Durham Cathedral and Town Hall

Like many people, I had not been anywhere on holiday since December 2019 (and even then, it was just visiting my family in Cleveland for Christmas, which I wouldn’t really call a holiday). With rules and requirements changing by the day back in July, Marcus and I were still uneasy about travelling outside the country, but with us both fully vaccinated, a trip within Britain certainly seemed doable. Inexplicably, we somehow decided that Durham would be the site of our first overnight trip in over a year and a half (maybe we just had Barnard Castle on the brain, which is not all that far away from Durham), and with train travel providing (what felt like to me) an unacceptable amount of exposure to other people, we set out on a six hour car journey early one morning in late July.


I was very much hoping to stop at Betty’s Tea Rooms in Harrogate on the way, but we got there around lunchtime, and when we drove past in search of parking, we could see that the queue wrapped around the block, so we didn’t even bother to stop the car. However, just outside Harrogate, a sign reading “World Famous Ripley Ice Cream” caught my eye. If you want to know how to get my attention, just combine the words “world famous” and “ice cream”. Despite their claims, I had never actually heard of Ripley or their ice cream before in my life, but we stopped in this quaint village for a much needed toilet break and some of that famous ice cream from a small, but busy shop. I’m still not sure about the “world famous”, but it was very good ice cream (they even had three flavours of soft serve you could swirl together, in addition to hard ice cream) and I would definitely stop again (I regret not stopping on the way home, but we went a different route and it wasn’t on our way). Thus satiated, we headed straight up to Durham, and got there much earlier than anticipated, thanks to not stopping in Harrogate. We had been planning to see the cathedral the following morning, but as they were still open for a few hours when we arrived, we decided instead to head straight there and check into our hotel afterwards.


A lot of the North is very damn hilly, and Durham was no exception. We huffed and puffed up multiple flights of stairs when leaving the carpark, followed by a climb up a hill to reach the cathedral. Durham Cathedral is apparently the first “stone-roofed cathedral in Europe”. Construction started in 1093, and was mostly finished by 1133, so it is pretty damn old. It is mainly notable for being home to the prince-bishops, bishops who, due to Durham being a difficult-to-control buffer zone between England and Scotland, were given the right in 1075 to rule over the surrounding region, including the ability to raise an army, levy taxes, and mint coins. Perhaps most excitingly, the cathedral is also the place where the Venerable Bede and St Cuthbert are buried, and I’d certainly heard plenty about the former in the Anglo-Saxon history classes I took as an undergrad (hands up if you initially thought his first name was “Venerable”. Yep, me too). The cathedral is still an active place of worship, and entrance is technically free, though they will hit you up hard for donations once you get inside (it’s difficult to resist when you’re forced to speak to someone at an admissions desk who practically nudges the card reader towards you).


Bede’s tomb is one of the first tombs you’ll see. It’s located in a little chapel that was the only place women were allowed to visit when the cathedral was a monastery (pre-Henry VIII). This chapel was hosting a “sound and light installation” when we visited that basically just made it hard to see Bede’s tomb and hard to hear the volunteer who was trying to give us information about the chapel, so I certainly wouldn’t rush there on account of it. Following that, we had to pass the stern admissions/donations lady who mentioned that there was a “tour” of the cathedral about to begin that included the chance to climb up 325 steps to the tower for only £5.50. I don’t know why we never seem to learn our lesson when it comes to climbing steps, but Marcus was obviously keen, and though I knew we would regret it, I didn’t want to deprive him of the opportunity, so I agreed.


And so we found ourselves climbing 325 slippery and winding stone steps. Climbing up wearing a mask was bad enough, since as soon as I started breathing heavily it sucked the mask into my mouth so that I couldn’t breathe, but I was loath to pull it down after the old man behind us removed his mask and started hacking up a lung the entire way to the top. I’m sure it was just from the exertion of climbing (and I’m not sure why he didn’t turn back after the first hundred steps when he was very obviously struggling. We were genuinely concerned he was going to drop dead, but he was with his teenage granddaughter, and she didn’t seem overly concerned, so maybe he does it all the time) but it was still not pleasant, so I ended up rushing to the top much faster than I would have liked to get away from him. The views were fine and all, but in my opinion not worth how sick I felt after practically running up the steps whilst not really being able to breathe, or worth paying £5.50. If anything, the way down was almost worse, because I have what is apparently a selective fear of heights that only really activates on stairs or ladders, and I had this horrible mental picture the whole way down of me tripping and smashing my head on 325 stone steps all the way to the bottom. It was not a fun time, but I made it without falling.


Now, since the woman who sold us the tickets had mentioned a “tour”, I assumed we were supposed to meet up with a tour guide at some point, but the admissions woman didn’t give us any specific instructions, nor was there anyone waiting to meet us when we came down the steps (and she was very clear that we had to climb the steps at exactly the time we climbed them, I guess to make sure traffic was one-way, so we couldn’t have missed them), so we just pressed on and explored the rest of the cathedral on our own. We did, however, encounter a tour group walking around about fifteen minutes later, so maybe that’s the one we were meant to join? Frankly, given my history with guided tours, I would have paid £5.50 NOT to have to go on it, so I wasn’t at all bothered, but you might want to ask more follow-up questions of the admissions woman than we did if you would like to go. As it was, we visited St. Cuthbert’s chapel, where I lit some candles for my grandparents (I don’t believe in it, but they did, so I do it for them) and checked out some of the tombs and weird contemporary sculpture – my favourite feature of the cathedral was the giant clock pictured a few paragraphs above this one. I did try to find the grave of Jozef Boruwlaski, who is buried here (more on him later) but had no luck.


The cathedral is meant to be home to a museum, currently accessible by guided tour only, but no one mentioned it to us (I only knew about it from their website), so I assume there weren’t any tours available, unless that was the tour we were meant to go on. So, we just visited the shop to get a few postcards and headed back down the hill to get the bags from our car and then back up the hill to get to our hotel. On the way, we encountered a man who rudely stuck his arm out when we apparently got too close and yelled at us to “stay away” (we do generally give people a wide berth in these Covid times, but he and his wife were walking really far apart and taking up the whole pavement, so the only way around was through. Also, he was not even wearing a mask, so maybe that should be his first step if he’s really that worried about it, instead of being a dick to strangers). This, plus the hills and the fact that the restaurant I wanted to visit was closed on a Monday (which was not mentioned on their website) and the only restaurants that were open on a Monday were super gross, so I had to eat horrible unsalted soggy chips for dinner, soured me pretty quickly on Durham, but we were spending two nights there, so I did end up seeing a bit more of the city in the form of the Town Hall.


The Town Hall is actually one of the reasons Durham has been on our must-visit list for a while. Way back in 2009, I wrote my master’s thesis on constructions of dwarfism in 18th century England (yeah, that served me well in the jobs market) based on the writings of William Hay, Alexander Pope, and Jozef Boruwlaski. Jozef was born with a form of dwarfism in Poland in 1739, and his small stature quickly attracted the attention of the Polish aristocracy. Various aristocrats “adopted” him (definitely not as nice as that makes it sound) and Jozef travelled with them around Europe. He eventually married and had his patronage from the King of Poland withdrawn for earning money by performing music whilst in England (the King heard exaggerated reports of how much money Jozef was making and decided he didn’t need the King’s money anymore, which wasn’t true), so, forced to find another source of income, he ended up settling in Durham, where he composed his memoirs in 1820. He died in 1837, and as I mentioned earlier, is buried in the cathedral, though good luck finding his grave. However, all was not lost, because the Town Hall is home to his violin, one of his suits, a life-size statue of him, and a handful of other personal possessions.


The Town Hall is currently only open Wednesday-Saturday, so we headed there on a rainy morning just before leaving Durham (and believe me, I could not wait to leave). Entrance is free, and they’re not real pushy about donations like the cathedral are. They are seemingly really proud of Jozef Boruwlaski being a Durham resident, with a ten minute introductory video on him featuring a song about him written by a local band, and of course the display case holding his suit and violin, and his statue. After spending so much time studying him years ago, it was nice to finally see some of his artefacts in person, though I do feel bad that it still felt a bit like gawking, given how much he hated being forced to exhibit himself for money when he was alive.


Durham Town Hall also features a cool medieval hall lined with the names and portraits of its mayors and honorary mayors (the ubiquitous Bill Bryson is one of those) and some cracking stained glass, and a council meeting room with a crest from a Durham warship hanging on the wall that features “a gruesome severed leg…a reference to the ship’s namesake Richard Witherington” who fought in a local battle against the Scots. Apparently his lower legs were chopped off and he carried on fighting on his knees. There was also a small room full of portraits by a local artist. The best one was of a cat.


Although small, the Town Hall was probably my favourite part of Durham. The cathedral was undeniably beautiful, but despite my very Catholic childhood, my atheist adult self feels kind of uncomfortable in religious spaces, particularly as a vicar read the Lord’s Prayer over a loudspeaker twice when we were there and encouraged everyone to join her (years of being forced to attend church meant I followed along in my head against my will, though the Catholic version goes on for quite a bit longer than the Anglican one if you include the stuff the priest says at the end). The city itself is pretty, but there’s none of the things I consider essentials, i.e. artisan bakeries or ice cream shops, or much else apart from the same crappy chains you get in every English city. At least now that I’ve seen it, I never have to go back, so that’s a plus (we did skip the castle, but I can live with that). More on the rest of our trip in the weeks to come!