UK

London: Ritual Britain @ the Crypt Gallery

I went to see the “Ritual Britain” exhibition, a collaboration between artist Ben Edge and the Museum of British Folklore, at the Crypt in Euston a few weeks ago, and though the exhibition ended on the 4th of July, I still wanted to post about it so people who didn’t get the chance to go can at least see some photos and read about what it was like.

I’m interested in folklore generally, maybe because America hasn’t really been around long enough to have developed folk traditions in the way they exist in Europe (though I guess we have urban legends that are gradually becoming folklore – it’s been a while since I’ve read Ghostland, but I seem to recall Colin Dickey addressing this very subject more extensively than I can do here), so I’m trying to fill the void with other countries’ traditions. Given all the super weird and highly regional British customs and practices (straw bears, Burry Men, cheese rolling, shin kicking, etc), I think it’s a bit odd that there isn’t a permanent folklore museum here, since I’ve certainly been to ones in other European countries, though maybe it has something to do with the legacy of imperialism and some British traditions being a bit controversial (burning Catholics in effigy springs immediately to mind). At any rate, the Museum of British Folklore normally only exists online, with occasional temporary exhibitions hosted in various galleries and museums around the UK. This was the first one I’d heard of taking place in London, so I was excited to attend.

The exhibition was free and there no pre-booking required, which is a bit novel in itself these days, but I was worried that it would get crowded on the weekends, so I took a Friday off to go (I mean, it wasn’t just for this. I also wanted to hit Borough Market, because it’s too busy on weekends and I never get to go anymore since I changed jobs and thus my working days last November, and I had to use the leave up soon anyway), and there was only a handful of people inside, so this was obviously a good plan. I’d been to St. Pancras Old Church (my computer wants me to change Pancras to pancreas so badly) before to see their awesome tombstone tree, but never St. Pancras New Church (which was built in 1819, so isn’t really that new anymore), and the Crypt is an awesome and creepy venue, as you can see from the photo at the start, which made it perfect for this exhibition, as I tend to think a lot of British folklore is vaguely sinister in a Wicker Man sort of way.

The exhibition consisted of Ben Edge’s “Frontline Folklore” series of paintings interspersed with objects from the museum’s collection. Now, I LOVE Ben Edge’s paintings (I just ordered a print of that Clown Church one for my house to go with the clown eggs Marcus made – I have a real obsession with creepy-ass clowns lately, maybe because of the clown episode of Wellington Paranormal, which literally made me laugh until I cried), but the real stuff is even scarier, and an old crypt that was full of actual stacks of tombstones was an excellent way to showcase it.

Just look at the unsettling stares of those Morris dancer dolls (designed to showcase the costumes of different troupes) or that giant corn dolly (those always make me think of that Jeffrey Ford “Word Doll” story, which I recommend if you haven’t read it). I actually took a Morris dancing class once, and it is a LOT harder than it looks, so I’m impressed by anyone that can actually do it, but I have to admit that there is something a bit off-putting about the whole thing to anyone who is a bit of an outsider, especially the sides (fortunately not many, these days) that still insist on using black face (when I went to the Morris class, I deliberately picked an all-female side with more progressive views (they dance at Pride and stuff), but I was still scared they’d hear my accent and tell me to get lost or something, and I really had to work up my courage to actually attend. They turned out to be perfectly nice, but it was still a blindingly white affair, and I can see why, if I felt intimidated about going just on account of an American accent), and I would say that Morris is actually one of the more accessible British traditions. Some of the hyper-localised customs give me Tubbs and Edward from The League of Gentlemen vibes (“this is a local shop, for local people; there’s nothing for you here.”), I guess because they seem designed to make outsiders feel like outsiders, but I suppose that’s also how places develop an identity for themselves, so maybe I’m interpreting things in an overly negative way due to my lack of exposure to these customs until moving to the UK as an adult. With all that being said, I think it is the fact that a lot of these practices are contained to one specific village or area that makes them so strange and fascinating to me.

There was a video at the end of the exhibition, made by Ben Edge, where he had filmed some of these practices in action back in 2019, including the Mari Lwyd, which is basically a skeleton ‘obby ‘oss (hobby horse) used in Wales in a sort of caroling tradition, where men carry it from house to house demanding food and drink and singing a special song in Welsh, and if you aren’t expecting it, it has to be way freakier than any carolers at your door (though I would hide from them too). He had also filmed himself in 2020 talking about the way that the pandemic and the BLM movement were changing British folk traditions, such as the elimination of black face from Morris dancing (except for the resistant troupes I mentioned earlier). It seemed really interesting, but it was also very long, and I wasn’t inclined to sit there for an hour and a half in a tiny room with strangers watching a video, so I only caught about ten minutes of it, but maybe it’s available somewhere online. They did have an events programme tied in with the exhibition that included some film screenings and Morris dancing, but I’m still not super keen on the idea of standing in a big crowd, even outside, so I deliberately didn’t visit on one of those days.

Even thought the exhibition was fairly small, I really loved it. The venue was ideal, and the stories behind Ben’s paintings were fascinating (they’re all available to read on his website if you click on the individual paintings), as were the objects selected from the Museum of British Folklore’s collection. I do wish the museum had a more permanent home, because I’d love to see more of their collection as well as learn more about the history behind the traditions. I also think a larger space would give them room to address the ways that some of these traditions have become problematic, and the ways that other customs have evolved to stay alive to the present day. I’m sorry I’m blogging about this too late for you to see this exhibition for yourself, but if it sounded appealing, at least now you’ll know to keep an eye out for any future Museum of British Folklore/Ben Edge exhibitions popping up near you! 4/5.

Surrey and London: HG Wells in Woking and God’s Own Junkyard @ Leadenhall Market

Short post this week on a couple of non-museum things I saw recently. First of all, whilst we still had a car last month, we decided to go out to Woking to see some of the HG Wells sites there. HG Wells moved to Woking in 1895, and only lived there for about a year and a half, but he began writing some of his most iconic stories there, including The War of the Worlds. Now, I have never actually read The War of the Worlds, nor seen any of the films, but I am of course aware of the general idea of the book just by absorbing bits of pop culture for 35 years, and I like HG Wells mainly because of my love of the 2016 stage version of Half a Sixpence (in large part because of adorable Charlie Stemp, who was Kipps in the West End version I saw. I do not like the Tommy Steele film version. Tommy Steele’s teeth creep me out), which is based on his novel Kipps, so even though aliens are not really my thing in that way that proper monsters are (aliens seem to attract weird conspiracy theorists who creep me out more than Tommy Steele’s teeth), I was still down to see The War of the Worlds mosaic and other sites.

  

There is a Wells in Woking walk map available online (link leads to pdf) that will lead you from the train station, through the town, out to the sandpit, and back to the station again for a three and a half mile walk, but it was hot, we were both tired, and we had come by car, so we opted to just park by the sandpit, walk out to see it, and then get back into the car and drive into town. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of parking in a horrible giant shopping centre in town where we literally had to ask someone for directions out because there appeared to be no exits, and the whole experience has given me a probably undeserved distaste for Woking and its shopping centre.

  

Anyway, the sandpit, where the Martians landed, is pretty cool. It is just a big sandy pit in the middle of some trees, with a water-filled depression at the bottom that is meant to be the landing spot, but sand is intrinsically fun, and I bet I would have loved playing in it as a kid. In Woking proper, there are a few different sites to see if you manage to find your way out of the shopping centre. There is the town gate, which has the outline of a Tripod on it, a big Tripod sculpture, which has gross tentacle things hanging off the bottom, a statue of HG Wells himself, and a really cool mosaic in a subway (at start of post), which was probably my favourite thing. There is also Lynton, the house where Wells lived, but Google told us it was a mile walk away, and you can’t go in it or anything, so we didn’t bother. It’s probably more fun if you actually do the trail properly and don’t park in the shopping centre car park, but at least now I’ve seen it and I don’t have to go back to Woking.

 

Slightly more fun was the God’s Own Junkyard takeover at Leadenhall Market, in the City of London, which is there until the end of July. God’s Own Junkyard is a neon sign museum in Walthamstow, which I really should go to one of these days, but Walthamstow is a pain to get to and not particularly nice once you’re there, so when I read about the pop-up in Leadenhall Market, I definitely wanted to see it. I love the weird old bits of the City, and I hadn’t been since before Covid (and I also wanted to visit Eataly, the super expensive Italian food market that has finally come to London. So pricey but so good). The installations are open all the time, but if you want to go inside the shop space, you have to visit between Wednesday and Sunday.

 

I love neon. I think it’s pleasingly retro and super fun to look at, so I was excited to see this, and they do have some great signs. The pop-up shop had the most in it, but there were also two shop windows elsewhere in the market displaying signs that the family business had made for Judge Dredd and Eyes Wide Shut – I have never seen either of those movies, but I enjoyed the signs on their own merit. I honestly expected it to be a bit underwhelming, as these things usually are, but I was pretty solidly whelmed. The guy working in the shop was very enthusiastic and told us a lot about how the signs are created (he was a little hard to hear because there was loud music blasting in there, but the loud music was Hall and Oates, so I can’t really complain) and the lido sign was particularly cool (I have a skirt with very similar looking diving ladies on it, which sadly was not the one I was wearing that day). It’s definitely worth a look if you’re in the area or need an excuse to grab some focaccia and fresh scamorza at Eataly (and have deep pockets. For Eataly, that is, not the neon pop-up, which is free).

Brighton, East Sussex: The Tomb Trail

Although I’ve been to Brighton many, many times over the years, and I would definitely say I’m a taphophile (NOT to be confused with necrophile. Ewww!), for whatever reason, I can’t say I had ever given much thought to its cemeteries. However, I wanted an excuse to go to the seaside and have a Boho Gelato back in early May, before museums had reopened, so I found myself researching outdoor attractions, and Brighton’s “Tomb Trail” popped up. With a name like that, how could I not instantly be won over?

 

Brighton and Hove are actually home to seven cemeteries, three of them clustered around Lewes Road, and the Tomb Trail is located within Extra-Mural Cemetery (which feels like an odd name to me, even though I know it just means the cemetery is located outside the city – in middle school we used to call what was essentially recess “intramurals”, I guess because it made it sound a bit more grown up. I used them as an opportunity to hang out in the library with my friends and get kicked out for laughing too hard at the lame “confessions” in YM Magazine, especially if they involved farts). As seemed to be happening in much of the UK around the 1840s, Brighton’s cemeteries were becoming overcrowded, so new cemeteries were established outside of the city centre to try to help cope with the problem. Extra-Mural Cemetery was the first of these in Brighton, built in 1850, followed shortly by the adjoining Woodvale Cemetery. In the 1880s, Downs Cemetery was built on another plot of adjoining land to form the massive cemetery complex that exists today, though since I had never been to this end of Brighton before, I had no idea it was here.

 

The layout of the cemeteries is super confusing if you arrive by car, and we accidentally drove into the wrong cemetery and had to leave and circle around a few times before we found the entrance to the right one – we ended up having to stop and find directions from someone else’s blog post about it because Google Maps took us in a very wrong direction indeed (in case someone else is in the same boat as us, I’ll pass along the favour by telling you the vehicle entrance is opposite a petrol station with an M&S Simply Food). But once we got to the right place, we spotted signs for the Tomb Trail immediately.

 

There didn’t seem to be a dedicated parking area, so we just parked on the side of the path near some other cars, as is standard in cemeteries that allow cars. I think there are meant to be Tomb Trail leaflets available somewhere, though it might be the sort of convoluted process where you have to email the council and wait for them to send you one, so we just went without. There are directional arrows designed to keep you on track, but man, is it easy to get off-piste! At one point, an arrow appeared to be pointing directly into a clump of bushes, so we thought the sign must have gotten bumped by a car or something, because there was no way that could possibly be right, and just continued on up the main path. However, we seemed to be going an awfully long time without seeing another arrow, and once we started to get to an area of new graves (all the others on the Tomb Trail had been very old), we realised we must have gone wrong and retraced our steps. Yep, turns out we were supposed to walk through an actual clump of bushes. After struggling through and ducking under a very low-hanging tree branch, we did meet up with the arrows again, so I can only assume the area was less overgrown when they first put the signs up.

 

Like much of Brighton, the cemetery is built on a hill, so you will find yourself climbing up and down a lot, but the cemetery itself is lovely. Definitely overgrown in spots, like every British cemetery I’ve ever been to (in case you couldn’t tell from my description of the shrubbery section of the trail), but also full of lots of attractive old Victorian tombstones and statuary. It was still bluebell season when we visited, so there were lots of those out (and we found a beautiful display of tulips in the middle of Brighton after leaving the cemetery – I guess I’ve never actually been to Brighton in late spring before to have seen them). There aren’t any really famous people buried in this cemetery, but there’s a few Victorians who were prominent in Brighton, like John Urpeth Rastrick, who was the engineer that laid out the Brighton Main Line, and who is now laid out himself in the heaviest tomb in the cemetery (above right), which had to be pulled by twenty horses (poor horses); a circus performer (horse tomb above left), and a VC holder or two. Nonetheless, there were still plenty of interesting tombstones to look at, and some mildly creepy Stations of the Cross style statue tableaux on the chapel (I thought that was more of a Catholic thing, but I’ve never actually been to a C of E service, so I wouldn’t really know). There was however, no toilet, at least not one I could find, so after we walked the Tomb Trail, which took about an hour, I beat a hasty retreat to the Sainsbury’s across the road because I really needed a wee.

 

You are of course welcome to venture outside of the Tomb Trail, and walk through the other cemeteries as well, but because of the situation with my bladder, we did not end up doing that on this visit. But the Tomb Trail was certainly a nice walk, though maybe not quite as gloriously creepy as the name suggests (perhaps it’s better in the autumn?), and I would definitely like to check out the other Lewes Road cemeteries when I have a chance, because they looked similarly ornate and intriguing. Recommended if you’re visiting Brighton and want to do something away from all the crowds of the pier and the Lanes. And yes, of course I got my Boho Gelato afterwards, which was just as good as it always is, even though they didn’t have any of my usual favourite flavours in stock (I “settled” for raspberry ripple, salted caramel, and honeycomb mint chocolate chip, and was pleasantly surprised by how delicious the honeycomb mint chip was, as I don’t usually like honeycomb and wouldn’t have thought it went well with mint). Really, any time I can finish an ice cream in Brighton without a jerk seagull stealing it out of my hand half-eaten, it’s a win!

London: Nero @ the British Museum

Regular readers will know that I generally avoid Roman history like the Antonine Plague – I’ve just never been a fan of classical history, and the Romans in particular bore me. However, one of my friends wanted to visit a museum with me (a rare occurrence, since he normally just wants to go to the pub), and I know his tastes are quite different to mine, so I suggested a few things that I thought might appeal, and we settled on Nero: the man behind the myth, which runs at the British Museum until October 2021 (and honestly, I was quite happy to look at Roman artefacts if it meant avoiding the pub, though of course we ended up doing that too). Admission is an extremely pricey £20, or £10 with Art Pass.

 

We went on a bank holiday Monday, and though I had no problem booking tickets the day before, the exhibition was dispiritingly crowded when we entered, which seems to be a recurring issue at the British Museum (this was definitely less crowded than the Arctic exhibition though). We politely joined the end of the queue for a while, but it was creeping along so bloody slowly, particularly the man and his daughter in front of us – he was taking about fifteen minutes to read and explain each caption to her, even though she was probably nine or ten and clearly more than capable of reading the captions herself, since she seemed to know more about Roman history than her dad did – it was sweet that he was taking his daughter to a museum, I guess, but I just don’t have the patience to stand behind someone reading at such a leisurely pace, so I ended up doing my usual thing of zipping ahead to whatever case was empty and then doubling back to read the things I’d missed once the people in front of them cleared out, which was possible here since there didn’t seem to be a one-way system in place.

 

As you can probably guess from my lack of enthusiasm about the Romans, my knowledge of Roman history is definitely patchy at best, and I didn’t even know that Nero was the adopted son of Claudius. The whole premise of the exhibition is to provide an objective perspective of Nero so that you can use the facts presented here to decide if he actually was as evil as history has led us to believe, or if he’s just gotten a bad rap over the centuries. Therefore, the exhibition started with information about Nero’s childhood and a sculpture of him as a child, I guess to show us how innocent he once was. Unfortunately, it then progressed into an entire wall showing the genealogy of various Roman rulers, and I rapidly started losing the will to live.

 

But I perked up a bit when I got to the section on Roman Britain, because there was some interesting stuff here, particularly the slave chain worn by native Britons enslaved by Romans. Other than Boudica, I don’t think anything especially significant took place in Britain during Nero’s fairly brief reign, so this was probably an excuse for the British Museum to give some of their collection that is normally in storage an airing, but I’m OK with that.

 

In an attempt to show a more human side to Nero, there was also a section on his family life, including the above sculpture of what his daughter Claudia Augusta might have looked like if she hadn’t died in infancy. She’s holding a butterfly, which, much as I hate the things, I can admire the skill it must have taken to carve something so delicate yet sturdy enough that it’s still intact millennia later. There were also sculptures of his wives – I think the one above might be Octavia – but it’s hard to see Nero as much of a family man when you realise he had her executed. And of course he had his mother, Agrippina, killed as well, even though they were once close. Oh, and allegedly kicked another one of his wives to death. What a charmer!

 

We also learned more about Nero’s interests. In addition to murdering and the traditional Roman blood sports, he was also fond of music and acting, apparently to an extent that his fellow upper class Romans found strange. He even appeared on stage when he was emperor, and apparently wasn’t that bad of an actor, though really, what are you going to say about an actor who has the power to kill you and isn’t afraid to use it? I picture him forcing his way on stage despite the protests of the other actors and gleefully ruining the play with hammy overacting just because he could.

  

The thing Nero is probably best known for is starting the Great Fire of Rome and then merrily playing his fiddle whilst Rome burned, but this is wrong for several reasons, the first being that his instrument of choice was a lyre, not a fiddle. Seriously though, he wasn’t even in Rome at the time of the fire, and he later organised a relief fund for victims of the fire and allegedly even let some of them stay in his palaces. However, the fire conveniently cleared space for him to build a new massive palace in Rome, which may have fueled some of the later claims that he played a role in starting it. On the plus side, his new palace looked fabulous – I loved the frescoes of sea monsters and the collection of tiny arms and heads taken from mosaics. They were so small and perfect! I was also fascinated by the giant decapitated statue of Nero with his awful hairstyle that must have looked hilariously derpy when intact, if the sketch here (below right) was anything to go by!

  

Because Nero died when he was only 30, the exhibition soon ran out of things to say about his life and moved on to his downfall, which basically happened because he pissed off the wrong people with his tax policies, and his governors started rebelling. Eventually, his guards deserted him, and he decided to kill himself rather than wait around to be killed, but he of course had to exercise his imperial powers one last time and force one of his servants to help him commit suicide. Some guy called Galba took over the Roman Empire after Nero died, but people didn’t like him either, so he was killed after a few months, followed by three other randoms who all only ruled for a few months before either killing themselves or being killed. Eventually, Vespasian stepped up to seize the reins of power, and he proceeded to pay various historians to trash Nero’s memory, which is allegedly why people think ill of him today, but honestly, it sounds like he brought a lot of it on himself by being a terrible person, though I guess not significantly worse than any other Roman emperor. They all sounded like assholes, at least according to (the famously historically inaccurate) Horrible Histories.

 

Since I didn’t know all that much about Nero going on, I did learn a thing or two, but my friend, who is much keener on the Romans than I am, was not impressed. Weird though it sounds, based on the inclusion of special signs aimed at children, I suspect they were attempting to make this exhibition somewhat child-friendly. Perhaps because of this, they left out some of the juicier rumours about Nero, like the one where after killing his second wife, he had a boy who resembled his dead wife castrated, married him, and anally raped him. Even if that particular rumour isn’t true though, I think it’s pretty clear that this exhibition did nothing to win me over to the idea that Nero wasn’t a shit – he may not have been completely evil 100% of the time, but he was still a despicable human who was responsible for a lot of deaths. For £10, I probably got my money’s worth, but this was certainly not big enough for a £20 exhibition, and based on my friend’s experience, if you like Roman history, you probably won’t learn anything new, but you might enjoy looking at the artefacts. If you can get a half-price ticket, I think it is worth going to see some of the objects on display, which are better than the normal Roman crap they dig up, but I don’t think I’d pay full price for this one. 3/5.

 

Chilworth, Surrey: Chilworth Gunpowder Mills

Faced with the problem of what to do on an excursion with a friend I hadn’t seen since November on a Saturday when every ticketed outdoor attraction was already booked up, after a lengthy search to find an interesting looking walk in Surrey that I hadn’t already been on (i.e. one with actual sites to see other than gorse), I discovered the Chilworth Gunpowder Mills. Set in the idyllic countryside near Guildford, these are the ruins of what was once the sole legal producer of gunpowder in England, and since they’re part of a public walking trail, you can just rock up and visit any time you like, no booking required.

 

Unfortunately, the day we picked for our excursion was full of intermittent downpours (like basically all of May this year), so the terrain was pretty damn muddy, and we were being pelted with rain on and off, but armed with waterproof jackets, we set off undaunted. The websites I found about the mills didn’t initially make it super clear where we had to go, but you want to aim for the Percy Arms Pub in Chilworth. You can park for free on the main road if the pub carpark is full, and the entrance to the trail is just a little ways down the road, next to a primary school. I ended up downloading the 4.5km walk guide from this website, which is what we used to navigate, though you will encounter some leaflets on site that will direct you on a 2km walk just around the mills if you don’t fancy climbing up a hill (I didn’t really, but 2km isn’t a very long walk, so we had to extend it somehow).

  

Gunpowder was manufactured in the Tillingbourne valley from 1626, when the East India Company established the first mill, until 1920, when all the mills closed, although people continued to reside in buildings on the site until 1963 (it was known as “tin town”). Guildford Council’s website claims that there are 100 buildings on the site, but my friend, being skeptical of this claim, went out of his way to count them all, and even being generous and including things like the remains of bridges as “buildings” he only counted 24. Maybe the rest are on private land so we couldn’t actually see them on the walk. And don’t ask me why this site was specifically chosen for gunpowder, as this was never explained. My best guess would be that it was close enough to London to be relatively easy to reach, but still far enough away from the city and other major towns that any explosions would have left them unaffected, and it is surrounded by a couple of rivers, so it would be easy to transport materials in and out.

  

Following the walk took us through the right side of the site first, which included the largest building still standing. The map in the leaflet didn’t seem to match up with what the online map was telling me, but I think this was the expense magazine, which was used to store materials in between stages of manufacturing. You can actually still go inside (very much at your own risk) and a set of concrete steps has been built at some stage in the recent past to aid this, though it was still quite wet and slippery inside, so we had to walk with care. Carrying on along the river, on the route of what was once a tramway around the site, we passed the ruins of a few other buildings nowhere near as well preserved as the magazines. You can carry on along this path, or do as we did and pass through a gate and through a couple of fields to reach Postford Pond.

  

You can see the roofs of the WWI cordite works from along this trail, and will also pass some horses, cows, and a couple of very hairy pigs. Postford Pond, and its neighbour Waterloo Pond, are positively bucolic. In fact, the whole area is incredibly lovely, disturbed only by our brief encounter with a group of students presumably doing DofE award related activities who were blaring extremely obnoxious and terrible music. There’s a housing development that you have to walk through after the ponds where you basically have to cut across someone’s garden, which feels a bit wrong, but it’s apparently a right of way (fortunately, no one was outside, so we didn’t have to make awkward eye contact whilst doing so).

 

After passing the houses, we ended up in a forest scattered with bluebells, walking steadily uphill along a winding dirt path with the Tillingbourne “meandering” below. This would have been lovely were it not for the uphill aspects of it, and the fact that this was when the sun chose to come out, so I started overheating and had to hastily shed my outer layers, but still ended up drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top of the hill. This area was where charcoal was produced. At this point, we had to option to extend the walk by half a kilometre by walking up to St. Martha’s Church, but I was pretty hot and cranky and not in the mood to walk up any more hills, so we instead headed downhill back to the gunpowder mill, passing a vineyard and some alpacas (living in an “alpaca hotel”) en route. There’s also a WWII pillbox next to a farm. It’s on private land, but you can see it from the trail.

  

We then explored the other half of the mill site, including the spot where six people were killed in 1901 after someone’s hobnail boot gave off a spark (hobnail boots are probably not a great idea when you’re working with gunpowder), a number of mill stones from an incorporating mill (whatever that is), and a gate house where workers were checked for any explosive materials before they entered the mills (I guess someone was asleep on hobnail boot day). I was especially intrigued by the dragon notation on the map, which marked the “dragon stones” on the WWII home defence line protecting London from tank invasion (no idea how they worked though. They were just conical stones). It had started absolutely pissing it down again as soon as we got down to the mills, so my raincoat came back out, which was not a great combination with my now-sweaty long-sleeved shirt. Needless to say, I was tired and hungry by the end of this (not to mention wet), so I was relieved when we headed to a brewery that at least had seating under a marquee for pizzas and a refreshing St. Clements after our walk.

 

It’s nice that Guildford council provides free maps to the site, though as I indicated, I could have done with a LOT more information about the mills, which isn’t readily forthcoming online either (though there is apparently a book you can buy about them). Some signage on the site or at least QR codes you could scan for more info certainly wouldn’t go amiss! However, it is a free site, so I can’t really demand too much, and I am glad it hasn’t been taken over by the National Trust and cleaned up, as I think it would lose a large portion of its charm (and some of the thrill of discovery), not to mention that the National Trust would definitely charge for entry if they owned it. It is genuinely a really gorgeous place to walk (with riparian entertainments!), and not too crowded, even on a Saturday, though the rain probably helped with that somewhat. Highly recommended if you find yourself in Surrey and fancy a bit of industrial archaeology! In other news, I finally got my first jab last week (just in time to go back to work), so there will definitely be some museum visits coming up in the near future.

 

 

 

Churt, Surrey: The Sculpture Park

Well, it’s been a bit longer than I intended since my last post, and I see horrible things have happened to WordPress in the interim. Seriously, I hate it so much now (I could go on all day about the reasons why, but they include: that you now have no choice but to use Block Editor, that you can’t just buy extra storage space anymore but have to pay out the ass for a stupid plan, and that you can no longer view which photos are unattached, so you have to be really careful to only upload things you’re going to use so you don’t get screwed out of the now hard-to-come-by storage space) but I already have so many posts on this blog that I don’t really know if it’s worth the effort of changing to something else, which is probably just what they were hoping. Anyway, museums still aren’t reopening here until next week (which I have to admit I’m dreading more than anticipating, because as much as I like visiting museums, I hate working in the office more), but outdoor attractions are very much open, and since we are borrowing Marcus’s brother’s car at the moment, there was no reason we couldn’t drive out to the Sculpture Park, near Farnham in Surrey. I’ve been intrigued by this place for a while, especially after seeing all the photos of skeleton sculptures online, but with one thing or another (mainly Covid restrictions), we didn’t make it out there until now. The Sculpture Park costs £11.20 to visit, and you must book in advance through Eventbrite (having set up tonnes of Eventbrite events myself, I assume it’s normally £11, and they’re passing the Eventbrite fees onto the customer, hence the weird price). We visited on a weekday, and had no trouble booking a spot, but I think it gets a bit booked up on weekends.

The tiny car park was full when we drove up, so we had to park further up the road and walk down (a bit hazardous) but at least parking was free. Finding the admissions office was also a bit of an adventure – there were signs, but it felt like we walked through half of the sculpture park before getting there. This turned out to be wrong, because thanks to all the winding trails, the Sculpture Park is very big indeed. At the office, we were greeted by breast shaped birdhouses hanging from the wall (they are “tit” boxes, get it?) and a sign directing only one member of each party to enter, so I waited outside whilst Marcus got our names ticked off the list and collected a laminated map, which we were assured was cleaned between uses. You kind of need the map, because although the trails are marked with artsy arrows, it can get a bit confusing in places.

There are actually four different trails: red, yellow, green, and blue, and we started with the yellow one, which was one of the shorter trails (the red one goes on FOREVER). At this point, we had definitely not realised the extent of the place, so we started out taking pictures of every sculpture and walking at a leisurely pace. We put a stop to that real fast after discovering the length of the red trail.

I had never actually heard of any of the sculptors who made the pieces, but that’s not really saying much since I know very little about sculpture (said by someone who works at a sculpture museum, but in my defence, we only have the work of the sculptor who used to live there at our museum). However, that doesn’t stop them from commanding very high prices. We were told that all the sculptures here were for sale, and I was briefly intrigued, thinking that if we could pick something up for a couple hundred quid we could stick it in the garden, until I actually saw how much these things cost! There was minimal information provided on the signage (basically just the artist’s name and the name of the piece) but you could scan a QR code next to each sculpture to view more on the Sculpture Park’s website, including the price. The first one I scanned was £78,000 (the stags pictured below left)! Yikes. I gave up scanning after realising I couldn’t actually afford anything here except the £10 tit boxes (some of the sculptures were only a couple thousand, but that’s still way out of my price range. The most expensive one I saw was absolutely huge, and cost almost £500,000, which you can see below right, though it might be hard to get a sense of scale since I had to take a photo from far away to get it all in).

But we could still enjoy looking, and we very much did, at least until we got tired and hungry. As seems to be the nature of sculpture, a lot of these were very phallic, or bosomy, or bummy, so that was entertaining in itself (I also really loved the leaf man, below left, who was none of those things). The skeleton guy seemed especially prolific, and there were absolutely loads of skeletons here in various poses, but again, all out of my price range. The trails loop around a pond and through a bunch of woodland, so even though I don’t think the place is actually all that big, you go up and down hills and in and out of trees a lot, so it feels quite varied. Frankly, I’m not sure all of the walking uphill was strictly necessary, as we seemed to double back on ourselves a couple times, but it was all meant to be part of the one-way system, so maybe it’s not normally quite so long.

I really wish they had a café on site (maybe they do in non-Covid times, but I didn’t see one), because I was dying for tea and cake after the first two trails, but alas, it was not to be. They do have numerous picnic tables, so you could definitely take your own food, which I would probably advise doing, Other than the picnic tables, you’re not meant to touch anything, which was a shame, as there were quite a few sculptures that seemed as though they could have been interactive, like the giant piano and wind chimes. There also appears to be some kind of dark maze thing you can normally walk through that was closed because of Covid, which I’m disappointed to have missed out on. I do hope the sign outside about watching out for the scorpions and exotic spiders was meant as a joke!

I wouldn’t say I’m the biggest sculpture fan, but a lot of the pieces here were just kind of kooky, and it was fun walking around and looking at everything (at least until about midway through the red trail. That red trail kind of broke me), even though I think I would have been happy if we’d finished about an hour sooner, since I was pretty tired by the end (they advise spending 2-3 hours here, and I think we spent around 2.5 hours). Fortunately, there is an ice cream place a few miles down the road, in Haslemere, called Dylan’s, which we had been to a few times years ago, but they seemed to have improved quite a lot since our last visit, when I remember being underwhelmed. They had birthday cake cookie dough ice cream, which was really delicious. So at least that’s an option if you find yourself famished after the Sculpture Park.

All in all, it was a good day out, and almost like visiting a museum, but made me feel a bit less icky than spending time inside with strangers does right now, especially since it wasn’t very busy and we only encountered other people a handful of times, so that’s definitely a plus. I’d pick a nice day to visit, if possible (especially with the crappy weather we’ve had lately), because I imagine it would be a lot less fun in the rain. 3.5/5.

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.

Singleton, West Sussex: The Weald and Downland Museum

Remember Amberley Museum, which feels like a very long time ago now, even though it was just in late August? Well, Weald and Downland Museum is also an open air museum, and is also in West Sussex, though they’re not quite the same sort of museum. I went here back in September with Marcus and the same friend I went to Amberley with, since we were still allowed to be inside with people from outside our household at that point, and I thought it was a better option for spending time in close proximity to someone I don’t live with than a traditional museum, though we had chosen a day with absolutely awful weather and ended up having to shelter inside at various points to get away from the driving rain.

 

The Weald and Downland Museum is set on a forty acre site in the South Downs, and contains buildings from various eras in the last thousand years, the idea being that they all showcase the culture of the Weald, an area of South East England including the North and South Downs (basically chalky ridges through the countryside where middle class people like to go walking, if you’re not familiar). Similar to Amberley, I had to pre-book tickets for a timed slot and we had to turn up at some point within that slot, but we were welcome to stay as long as we liked once we were inside. Tickets are £14 – no Art Pass discount.

 

Once we entered, we were free to wander as we liked, though we often had to queue if we wanted to go inside the buildings, as only one group was allowed in at a time, which led to a lot of awkward conversations with staff/volunteers to try to pass the time whilst we waited (awkward only because I hate thinking up questions to ask, so it’s lucky my friend is a lot more talkative than I am). As you can probably see, there were a good assortment of historical eras represented here, though my issue with most of the houses is that there wasn’t much inside them, and since I’m far more into period furnishings than architecture, it kind of negated the point of waiting to get in, so we did start skipping some of them if there was a queue.

 

However, we were absolutely cracking up when we spotted the “workers’ cottages” above left, built in the 1860s, because we were essentially going inside my and Marcus’s house, which was built in 1864, and is made of brick, but is otherwise very similar indeed to the house above. When we got inside, we realised the layout was the same too (although my house has a small extension on the back, and the upstairs has been divided up a bit differently over the years from the traditional two up two down (we’re more of a four up three down if you count the bathroom and the tiny depressing box room that I never go in as rooms)) right down to the beams overhead, which looked exactly like the ones in our loft. I don’t know, there was just something amusing about going to the trouble of visiting a museum and ending up basically walking through your own house.

 

The Weald and Downland Museum is also where The Repair Shop is filmed, and though I haven’t watched the show in ages (I get why people like it, but it’s just too boring for me), Marcus was quite keen to get a picture with the building where they film it. As you can see, you aren’t allowed anywhere near it, but I think they might have been filming that day, as we could see people waiting to get in way off in the distance.

 

We ended up having to hang out inside a building full of tools of various local trades for quite a while to avoid a torrential downpour (fortunately, no one else was waiting to get in, though I kept running to the door to check since I didn’t want to be a jerk), and by the time we emerged (after spending far more time studying bricks than I find ideal), I was ready for a tea and a snack, so we headed over to the cafe/shop area so I could grab a tea and a slice of lemon drizzle cake, as well as a bag of flour from the on-site mill (it’s a fairly coarse wholemeal, but I mixed it with strong flour to make some wholewheat pita to go with hummus and fried halloumi with sesame seeds and honey, and it was very delicious), and ended up buying a bag of duck feed as well for the ducks that had been following us around throughout our visit. As you can see, I did not socially distance from those ducks, but fed them right out of my hand, and I have no regrets (other than the awful face I’m making in the photo. It’s not a good angle for me). It was easily the highlight of my visit (I felt terrible for this one duck with a twisted leg who was being bullied by the other ducks, so I was basically feeding him directly by the end).

 

My other favourite part was in a building we stumbled upon when looking for the toilets (which I had entirely to myself, as I was advised to lock the main door when inside (it was what would normally be a multi-stall, multi-occupancy deal), and there was a women waiting outside to clean as soon as I left, which was a bit awkward but impressively proactive), that contained a temporary exhibition full of the objects collected by various volunteers and other people associated with the museum. The woman working in here was very friendly and told us all about them, plus I just enjoy seeing what other people collect (I have a lot of crap, but I wouldn’t say I’m a collector of anything specific per se, other than Presidential Pez dispensers).

 

Prior to this, all the houses had been relatively close together in a village type formation, but after we left the collections building, we were just wandering through the woods looking for the other properties, including a re-creation of a Saxon long house (most of the other buildings were original, albeit moved from their original locations to this museum). This was quite nice, actually, since no one else was back here, so we didn’t have to worry about avoiding other people, apart from a man we encountered wearing the very unaesthetically pleasing combination of long shorts and wellies.

 

The final couple of properties we found were also the best ones, even though we had to wait for ages to go inside, since they actually had furniture in them, and, in the case of the medieval hall, had a garderobe so I could make my pooping face (my favourite pose of all). I did worry somewhat about the structural integrity of standing on something that was just jutting out the side of the house, but I guess if it’s stood for this long…

 

I also enjoyed the chickens we encountered at the end of our visit, though I was sad I had given all my food to the ducks, so I didn’t have any left for them! I did feed myself, however, with another piece of lemon drizzle (to match the ongoing drizzle outside), since Marcus had eaten half of my first one, and I was still hungry. Although I wish that more of the properties had furniture and other things inside to look at, I think I liked the variety of buildings here better than the ones at Amberley, which tended to be from the same era and more industrial in nature, but I did really enjoy all the excellent quirky museums of Amberley that didn’t exist at Weald and Downland, so they’re ending up with the same score in the end. 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!

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!