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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 northyorkmoors.org.uk, 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!

London: Chintz @ the Fashion and Textile Museum

Last week’s post was my 500th! I didn’t actually realise until WordPress told me after it was posted, or I would have picked a better topic than the disappointing Watts Gallery, but it’s still exciting that I’ve finally made it to 500, especially with struggling a bit with getting back on a regular schedule after my sporadic posting earlier this year. And now, on with post number 501!

I went to the Fashion and Textile Museum once back in 2015, and I was rather underwhelmed by the experience, so I haven’t made it much of a priority to go back. However, I’ve been very museum keen the past couple of months since things have reopened, especially since getting my second jab back in July, and having seen most of the major exhibitions in London and wanting to go to Borough Market that day anyway, I turned back to the Fashion and Textile Museum, which is located a shortish walk away from London Bridge Station, and decided to see their chintz exhibition. The museum (which I believe is where or near to where they used to film The Great British Sewing Bee), does not have a permanent collection, just temporary displays, and “Chintz: Cotton in Bloom”, which runs until 12 September, was the only thing there at the time of my visit. Tickets are a rather expensive £12.50, or a mere £6.25 with Art Pass, which seemed much more reasonable, and I was able to book tickets the day of the exhibition (Marcus and I were pretty much the only people in there).

  

We headed in to explore the world of chintz, a type of colourful printed cotton that was invented in India in the 16th century, and first imported into Europe in the 17th. It was initially super expensive, but as more of it flooded the market, it became so popular that England and France actually banned its import for fear it would take business away from their own cloth factories, which did not know how to make chintz until the mid-18th century. However, it remained consistently popular in the Netherlands throughout this period, and the collection on display at the Fashion and Textile Museum is actually borrowed from a Dutch museum, the Fries Museum, which I’m sure is pronounced more like “freeze” but my brain absolutely wants to say “fries”, as in chips. (There is actually a frites museum in Belgium that I visited some years ago, but I’m always down to hear more about (and eat) chips.)

 

The clothing on display was mostly 18th century, and it’s amazing that it survived in such good condition, though as the exhibition pointed out, it was a well-made, hard-wearing cloth, and the pieces on display belonged mainly to rich families who wouldn’t have put too much wear and tear on the clothing in the first place. There was a video inside showing how chintz is traditionally made in India, and it is a very lengthy ten-step process that begins with washing the starch out of the cotton so it will hold the ink (I initially wondered why they didn’t just order unstarched cloth, as they seemed to be getting it direct from the factories, but they explained they needed to treat it anyway to help the fabric retain colours better, so I guess it doesn’t really matter if they have to wash it regardless). They then have to make wooden stamps by hand with their chosen design, and the colouring process itself also involves a number of steps, including hand painting, which looks fun if you only had to do a small amount, but incredibly tedious in bulk.

  

I think my main complaint about the Fashion and Textile Museum last time was that they didn’t provide enough information about most of the pieces on display, and that held true in this exhibition as well. They did explain the history of chintz and how it was made, but most of the pieces on display had labels simply stating the year they were made and the materials they were made from, which was not that helpful. I mean, obviously I can see if it was a dress or a jacket or a hat, but I want to know more about who it was made for, the occasions where it was worn, etc. The exhibition did a slightly better job of this in the upstairs gallery, but the downstairs one was pretty sparse in terms of signage.

 

I’ve definitely mentioned in another post how those life-size wooden panels painted to look like people freak me out a bit ever since I read Silent Companions, so I was not super thrilled to find one greeting me in the exhibition, but it is Dutch, of the time period, and wearing chintz, so I understand why it was there (I wouldn’t want to be alone with it at night though). In addition to the freaky silent companion, there were also some unsettling dolls here, though I would have killed for the handmade wardrobe of the one pictured here (she had a killer hat collection just out of shot) to stick on my Felicity American Girl doll when I was a kid (I also had Samantha and one of the custom ones that was meant to look like me, because my grandma spoiled me rotten, but Felicity would be the most era-appropriate). The dresses here were undoubtedly beautiful, but due to the nature of chintz, which tends to feature floral prints, fairly samey.

  

I was way more interested in the upper floor, which was about fashions in chintz in different parts of the Netherlands. In Friesland, women traditionally wore flat straw hats when they went outside to protect themselves from the sun, which is reasonable enough, but over the years, the hats grew to such epic proportions (as seen above) that women were forced to hold on to a ribbon to steady their ridiculous hats, meaning they never had their hands free, which sounds incredibly annoying and restrictive. Just wear a smaller damn hat! There was also a tradition in the city of Hindeloopen of wearing different coloured chintz for different occasions, e.g. blue and white chintz for mourning, red and white chintz for brides, and multicoloured chintz for festive occasions. So, it might have been a mourning outfit, but I think the blue and white coat (above right) was the prettiest one on display. I think I’d defy tradition and wear it to my wedding (which I guess is sort of what I did in real life, since I got married in a black dress).

 

At the end of this gallery, there were some contemporary chintz fabrics made by various designers, and I loved these, especially the one with a hand holding a pen (prints with hands in them always feel vaguely fortune tellery to me, which I’m into). There also appeared to be a small gallery off to one side with more contemporary fabrics, but it was closed for a workshop, even though no one was in there during our visit.

 

The final section, back downstairs, was on the revival of chintz by British manufacturers in the Victorian era, when basically all interiors were absolutely coated in chintz. Even though chintz had gone out of fashion a bit when it started to be produced domestically and could be bought cheaply, it exploded again in the 19th century, primarily the more expensive hand-blocked variety for those who could afford it. There was a photo of the dressing room in Osborne House decorated for Alexandra after her wedding to the future Edward VII, and it was definitely busy (maybe the poor woman needed some distraction from the obese old lech, though he wasn’t actually that obese or old as a newlywed. Still a lech though). Because it was so common in stately homes of the era, when the houses started to get sold off and become museums in the mid-20th century, fabric companies had to start making chintz again so that these houses could be restored, leading to another surge in its popularity in the 1980s when National Trust memberships increased and going to stately homes became a regular middle class weekend activity.

 

After seeing the exhibition and learning about chintz, I agree that its history is interesting, and some of the 18th century pieces were certainly attractive, but unless I can get my hands on some of that rad hand and pen print, I’m unlikely to suddenly start wearing loads of it myself. I tend to be a bit more quirky in my choice of prints – I suppose I do own a couple of dresses with chintz inspired prints, though definitely not made in the time-consuming traditional way, judging by what I paid for them. As I said earlier, if there had been more information about the individual pieces, I think I would have gotten more out of the exhibition. As it was, we only spent about half an hour there, but since I only paid half price, I was more satisfied with my second visit than my first. 3/5.

Compton, Surrey: The Watts Gallery Artists’ Village

Even though I tend to think I’ve covered London and its surrounds pretty well on this blog, every once in a while I manage to track down a museum that has previously escaped my radar (sometimes simply because I dismissed it years ago due to it looking tiny or boring). The Watts Gallery Artists’ Village is one of those. Although I haven’t been out to Surrey as much in recent years as I had back when we owned a car, I have managed occasional excursions when we’ve borrowed Marcus’s brother’s car, and we recently had access to it for a couple of months, hence some of the recent-ish posts on non-London locales. Knowing we would have to return the car soon, I was searching for one last place to visit that we hadn’t already been that was also open on a Monday (a tricky task these days when a lot of museums are open weekends only or Wednesday-Sunday) and found the Watts Gallery. Assuming I had seen it advertised it somewhere before, I know why I would have instantly dismissed it. It absolutely looks boring, and I suspect something about it reminded me of other, creepier art collectives, like Eric Gill’s incestuous paedo group in Sussex. But then I read they had a tea room, and whilst in pre-Covid times that wouldn’t have been enough to get me to make a special trip, in this corona-world, I had not been to a tea room in bloody ages, and the idea of a pot of tea, a piece of cake, and their supposedly famous Welsh rarebit sounded absolutely delightful, especially as the weather had abruptly taken a turn for the cold again (in June).

 

I booked tickets the night before, and there were still plenty of time slots available, though it being a Monday probably helped somewhat with that. Admission is £12.50, though the main house, where the Wattses lived, is currently shut. I can’t say if it is normally more expensive, or if we were just being ripped off by paying full price and not being able to see half the property. But since we were only paying £6.25 with Art Pass, I decided I didn’t care all that much and just went ahead and booked. We arrived a bit early, as the website stated that we only needed to check in to see the gallery at our appointed time, and were free to explore the rest of the property until then. Upon pulling up, I noticed we were at least thirty years younger than any of the other visitors, and though this of course could have been because it was a Monday, I typically see at least some other people my age when visiting exhibitions in London during the week, so I suspect we simply aren’t Watts Gallery’s target audience, which was pretty much confirmed by our experience there.

 

With half an hour to kill before our admission time, we headed down the road to see the cemetery and Watts Chapel, which is meant to be one of the most important Arts and Crafts buildings in Britain designed by Mary Watts (much more impressive until you get to the disclaimer “designed by Mary Watts”). The chapel is a terracotta affair, and does look pretty cool from the outside, but unfortunately my view of the inside was initially hampered by a man with a tripod set up in the middle of the chapel. He appeared to be a professional photographer accompanied by a member of staff, and I get that sometimes photographers make special arrangements to come photograph things, so I was fine with waiting a few minutes for him to finish. But then, as he was finally packing up his equipment, an older lady who had also been waiting marched over and stood directly in front of me so she could take a few photos. The entranceway is pretty small, so I backed up to give her some room, but she just kept backing up into me, and backed me right out of the door without an apology. Then, she just stood there for about five minutes holding her phone up but not actually taking any photos with it, so that she was blocking off the chapel for everyone for no real reason. Eventually I just got super irritated and stalked off angrily to explore the rest of the cemetery. Marcus did come back after she’d finally left to grab some pictures, but I was so irritated and afraid of running into her again that I just stuck my head in for a quick peek and returned to the cemetery, which did have some interesting graves in it, though I was disappointed I couldn’t find any pet ones, as I recalled reading about a pet cemetery on their website. Maybe they were in another part of the estate? Apparently Aldous Huxley is buried in the cemetery (non-pet one, obviously), but I totally missed his grave.

 

By the time we’d waited to get photos and looked around a bit, it was time to see the gallery, so we headed back down the road. We were not allowed to take photographs in the gallery, but it contained pieces by GF Watts, who was one of the founders of the Watts Artists’ Gallery along with his wife Mary, who built the aforementioned chapel. GF Watts was a painter and sculptor who was part of the “Symbolist” movement, whatever that means, but his stuff bore a resemblance to the pre-Raphaelites, and indeed, he seemed to be kind of in with that crowd. He married actress Ellen Terry when she was 16 and he was 46, which is super disgusting, though they soon divorced and he married Mary instead some time later, when he was 69 and she was 36, though the museum glossed over the huge age gaps (I only found out about them when doing research for this post). I found his art mostly pretty meh – didn’t hate it, didn’t love it. Fortunately, the museum is also home to a collection of art by the DeMorgans, William and Evelyn, who were frequent visitors, and I like their stuff a whole lot better, even though the display was rather small. William’s animal tiles and pots are excellent, and Evelyn’s paintings look weirdly modern and New Age-y for the 19th century, with rainbows and sparkles everywhere.

   

The gallery also hosts temporary exhibitions, and the one at the time of our visit was on Henry Scott Tuke, who is best known for painting a lot of nude boys and men. He liked to hang out in Cornwall where there were lots of private beaches where his models could pose nude. I don’t know if this was a special display for Pride, or if the two just happened to coincide, but it did discuss Tuke’s sexuality, and how his adoration of underage boys is problematic today, but was common amongst Victorian gay men. I don’t know why they didn’t similarly discuss this with Watts’s apparent fascination with much younger, sometimes underage women, but whatever, I’ll just always think of Watts as a gross old pervert in my head. After the Tuke section, there was a gallery of Watts’s sculptures, but they were even more boring than his paintings. The little railroad tracks he’d built to transport pieces a few metres forward so he could work on them outside was the best thing about this gallery. The gentleman working there was having a friendly and lengthy conversation with the visitors ahead of us when we walked in, but after they left, he settled back into his chair to silently glare at me from the corner, so I didn’t linger here, even though the woman at the front desk had told us we could photograph the sculptures if we wanted.

 

The property has quite a large shop full of products designed to appeal to people more in my mother’s age bracket (I definitely saw multiple things she would have liked), and there was also meant to be a “Contemporary Art Gallery” upstairs, but it was just a collection of fairly uninspiring prints all by one artist that they were trying to sell, with not much explanation about the pieces. We quickly left and headed over to the much-anticipated tea shop to settle down for that pot of tea. They hype up the rarebit quite a lot on the menu and their website, and it certainly looked good when it arrived, but unfortunately it tasted super strongly of mustard (it actually burned my throat, there was so much mustard) and not at all of cheese, and had a horrible claggy texture, possibly from the granary bread not being sufficiently toasted. I make rarebit at home a lot, and though I do have a bit of a heavy hand with the Colman’s mustard powder (though obviously not as heavy as theirs), I also put a TONNE of cheese in it so it tastes really cheesy and lovely. The cakes were a bit better, but Marcus said his coffee and walnut tasted really artificial. Mine was chocolate fudge, which is hard to go wrong with, and it was fine, but it did taste more like those little chocolate fudge “celebration cakes” you get at Sainsbury’s than something homemade, even though it allegedly was. The tea shop is also incredibly expensive – it was almost thirty quid for two small pots of tea with no refills offered, two orders of rarebit, and two small slices of cake. Them’s even higher than London prices!

Having finished our rather disappointing tea, we finally walked across the road to see Limnerslease, the Watts’s home. It’s a mock Tudor Arts and Crafts style home, which they thought of as a small country retreat, but of course it is practically a mansion by today’s standards. As I said earlier, it is not currently open to the public, so we just stood outside and looked at it for a bit, and also checked out the terracotta cross designed by Mary to mark the part of the Pilgrims’ Trail to Canterbury that runs through their estate (after my experience with Thomas Becket’s relics at the British Museum, I was scared to even look at it in case he cursed me again, but I fortunately escaped unscathed this time). I think the buildings of the “artists village” promised in the name of the place were also on this side, but they weren’t open, and we didn’t even see where they were, so I don’t really know anything about the village and who lived in it, since I assume they were keeping all the information in the village itself. This is also probably why we didn’t learn much about the Wattsespresumably all the info was in Limnerslease. As you can probably tell, I was not impressed by my experience of the Watts Gallery, and I highly doubt I’ll be returning, even when Limnerslease reopens. I’m relieved I only paid £6.25 for admission, because I would definitely have been annoyed about the £12.50 (spending all that money on tea was bad enough, but at least we got some food in exchange). The chapel and cemetery are the best things about the property, and you can see those for free, which I would advise doing and giving the gallery a miss. 2/5.

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.