UK

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!

Nottingham: City of Caves

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amberley, West Sussex: Amberley Museum

My visit to Amberley came about when a friend suggested a cultural outing, which we hadn’t had together (for obvious reasons) since the Postal Museum at the end of February. Though I know he’s been taking public transport, I’m still not comfortable with it (though I have a dentist appointment on the day this post is being published that I’m going to have to take a train to, so I’m going to have to get comfortable right quick), so I suggested an open air museum that Marcus and I could drive to that would have the added benefit over traditional museums of being mostly outdoors once we arrived. There are three open air museums within an hour and a half drive of us: Chiltern Open Air Museum, the Weald and Downland Museum, and Amberley Museum. I was leaning strongly towards the Chiltern Museum and its Edwardian toilet block with carbolic soap, since I was thinking that’s exactly what I would need to scrub up mid-visit, until Marcus discovered that part of A View to a Kill was filmed at Amberley, and that decided it, since I am far fonder of the Moore and Connery Bond films than I should be (given how sexist and racist most of them are).

 

I had only seen said friend once since the pandemic started (when he came and sat in my back garden and I talked to him from inside the back door), but Marcus had been spending time with him, so I had to accept that like it or not, we were probably already in a “bubble” with him (though can anyone explain how the bubble system actually works, because I sure can’t), and if Marcus was exposed to him, I essentially was anyway, so I might as well hang out with him too and just try to keep my distance (this was back in August, before things started to tighten up again). I had booked our tickets in advance as instructed by the website; you have to book for one of three time slots: 10-11:30, 11:30-1, or 1-2:30. All this means is that you have to arrive at some point within your time slot, but once inside, you can stay until the museum closes at 4:30 if you wish. Tickets cost £13.60 per adult. I booked a few days beforehand and all the time slots except the earliest one were still available, so we ended up with the 1-2:30pm one since it was an hour and a half drive away and I’m not a particularly early riser on a Saturday (or any other day for that matter, unless I don’t have a choice).

 

Amberley Museum is built on the site of a former chalk quarry, so it is a lot more industrial in nature than some of the other living history museums I’ve visited. I was honestly pretty underwhelmed for the first section, since it just felt like we were passing through room after room full of machinery and tools that I couldn’t care less about. Though it is an open air museum, it of course has a lot of buildings you can go inside, and more mini-museums than I was anticipating, so we ended up spending more time indoors that I had envisioned when I suggested it. Amberley does require masks inside the buildings, and everyone was complying as far as I could see – they also only allow one group at a time in the smaller buildings, and most of the living history demonstrators are not currently there, I guess to ensure that we were the only people inside the buildings at one time, though they are still running the narrow gauge railway. The cars have open sides, and they only seat one family group per set of seats, but I suppose you ride at your own risk.

 

The site is bigger than it looks at first appearance, so I would recommend arriving no later than 1pm to have time to see everything before they shut, since we were a bit rushed towards the end of our visit. The quarries were initially owned by a father and son team whose surname was Pepper, and for some reason, the museum just kept referring to them as Pepper and Son without telling us what their first names were, which led to a lot of amusing speculation on our part as to how stupid their names must be for Amberley not to tell us. Finally, at the end of our visit, I discovered they were called John and Thomas. How disappointingly boring (though admittedly funny when put together)! Although the museum started strictly as an industrial museum in the 1970s (the pits closed in the 1960s), it acquired a lot of crap from other sites over the years, and today houses a number of small museums, such as a TV and radio museum. I would pooh-pooh the slight sexism of the intent behind the adorable parrot, above right, which was meant to sit on top a record player to make it more palatable to the “lady of the house”, but I do love it and would totally have it in my house, so I guess it’s accurate despite its sexism, at least where this lady is concerned. As we would see throughout Amberley, this museum had way, way too much text to read everything, especially as a lot of it was boring and technical, so we skimmed at best.

  

My favourite part was probably the Electricity Hall. There were so many fun retro things in here, from neon anthropomorphic lightbulb signage, to a bizarre “portable bath” (as you can see below left, it was neither small nor light, and was invented in the 1950s, when indoor plumbing would have been reasonably common, so I don’t understand the point), and allegedly the world’s first vacuum cleaner, invented in the early 20th century (I definitely remember seeing older vacuums at the Hoover Historical Center, but maybe they weren’t technically vacuum cleaners if they weren’t self-powered?).

 

I learned a number of fascinating things here, not least the existence of a thing called the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, and the fact that my friend is apparently grossed out by “museum cheese.” To start with the former, the Seashore Electric Railway was a viewing platform built on top of skinny legs that ran along a railway track that actually went into the sea. It was built in the 1890s, and rather creepily nicknamed “Daddy Longlegs” on account of its appearance. It initially only ran a few hundred metres, but they eventually extended it to a couple of miles. It sounds like a wonderfully weird bit of Victoriana, and though I’m slightly freaked out by it, I’m also sad that it doesn’t still exist! The museum cheese thing (as in the fake cheese they put inside old timey food displays in museums) was less of a surprise, since I knew my friend hates actual cheese, but I didn’t think anyone could actually be freaked out by fake cheese (I’ve already asked my learning officer friend if she has any museum cheese in her handling collection that I can borrow to gross out my other friend the next time I see him). This museum also had a tonne of interactive stuff, which I wasn’t keen on touching in the current situation, but other people were. I guess at least they had hand sanitizer dispensers situated at strategic points throughout the building.

 

There was also a railway exhibition that my friend was very excited to see, but I was much less enthused, so I basically just left him to it and wandered through the museum until I came across a display on the filming of A View to a Kill, accompanied by a clip from a 1985 BBC film programme that showed some of the filming and interviewed Roger Moore whilst he was sitting in Amberley Museum. I happily stood there and watched the entire thing whilst waiting for my friend to catch up.

  

Of course we had to then go over and see the actual filming sites. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the film, but the scenes showing the outside of Zorin’s (the baddie, played by Christopher Walken) mine were filmed here, as you can see above right, and they also still have the mine carts painted with Zorin’s logo, and the pit that the annoying “geologist” Bond girl that does nothing but helplessly scream “James, James” the entire film climbs out of to escape from the mine, and I was obviously pretty excited about all of this.

 

I also adored the mannequins in the oddly named “Connected Earth” display (which frankly sounds like a health food shop or something), which were some of the creepiest ones I’ve ever seen. The one with the braids honestly looks like she could be some kind of East German Bond villain herself! This exhibition also had interactives, including a particularly annoying one where you could set off various alarms. I was convinced there was a fire alarm going off somewhere until I saw the display – they might want to rethink that one!

 

By the time we’d seen all these exhibitions, it was getting close to closing time, so we kind of rushed through the craftspeople’s village and a couple buildings with information about the quarries, which was fairly easy to do since there weren’t actually craftspeople on site, so not a whole lot to see (it does look as though you can normally buy some of their wares though, should you be so inclined). There is also a sculpture trail, and you will probably pass some of the sculptures as you make your way through, but they’re really not a selling point, as they were some of the ugliest sculptures I’ve ever seen, except for a few bird ones (they were so ugly I didn’t even take any photos to show you).

 

Although I was initially disappointed at the largely industrial nature of the site and the very text-heavy technical displays (the real old-fashioned small print text at that), the exhibition halls largely won me over, even though I ended up spending more time inside than I was planning on as a result. I think they had some sort of a sweet shop that we didn’t go in, but I was also kind of disappointed they didn’t have a ye olde bakery or chippy like Blists Hill (still my favourite living history museum), even though I don’t really think this is the same sort of place. If it wasn’t for the exhibition halls, I would have rated it much lower, but as it is, I’m going to give them 3/5 (though I think there’s probably some work to be done on their Covid procedures with all the interactives). We spent more time here than I anticipated, and I honestly kind of liked that there weren’t living history interpreters on site because I always find it kind of awkward to interact with them (especially the amateur actor kind that insist on staying in character), but I do think some of their text panels need an update, and I probably would have had a bit more fun if I had visited in the before times when I would have felt comfortable touching stuff.

 

Deepdene, Nonsuch, and Cissbury Ring: A Medley of Walks

Since we’ve had use of a car on various occasions over the past month, we’ve used it as an opportunity to explore some of the countryside within an easy drive from SW London. Back in mid-August, I had taken a day off work (I’ve actually been off for a lot of August and September, since I was saving up all my annual leave in the hope things would improve enough that we’d be able to travel safely at some point in the summer, and when that didn’t happen, I found myself with an awful lot of “staycation” time to use before October), and had made up my mind the night before to go check out Deepdene Trail, near Dorking, without bothering to consult the weather, which is always a mistake. Sure enough, the day dawned exceptionally cold and rainy, but I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to go somewhere, so I grabbed my big parrot-handled umbrella (purchased at the Mary Poppins musical last year), Marcus took a waterproof jacket, and off we went.

 

When we left our house, it was only drizzling, but by the time we got to Dorking, it was absolutely pissing it down! And the only parking we could find was in the middle of town, about a mile away from the start of the trail, so I was already pretty cold and unhappy by the time we got to it (we subsequently discovered numerous places we could have parked that would have been a lot closer, so don’t be like us). Deepdene was at one time a grand estate owned by the Hope family (of cursed diamond fame), containing a manor house, a variety of follies, and other delights, but all that survives today are the gardens, the family mausoleum, and a few other random bits and bobs that I’ll get to in a minute. We first headed for the mausoleum, and I was not pleased when we followed the signs to the top of a hill only to be led straight down again when we reached the top. Due to the relentless rain, the hill was very muddy and slippery, so I had to take teeny tiny steps so I didn’t fall on my ass and ruin my giant purposely ripped goth sweater (I actually bought two of the stupid things in different colours because they’re really comfy).

 

Unfortunately, the mausoleum was more than a little underwhelming – I just didn’t find it all that aesthetically pleasing, and given the awful weather, I didn’t think it was worth the effort it took to get there. But I still really wanted to see Coady the lion, who is a replica of one of the two lion statues that used to sit in the gardens, mainly because they’d bothered to give him a cute name (he was made of Coade stone, so kind of a pun), so we then had to walk back in the opposite direction (back up mud hill again) to find the gardens, which were at the bottom of the most uncomfortable set of stairs I’ve ever walked down. For real, they were made up of pointy stones of all different shapes and sizes that literally hurt to walk on, even though I was wearing sneakers. Marcus was a fair way behind me, so I don’t think he heard the full extent of my complaining, but I was bitching to myself the entire way down. And they were slippery because of the rain, so trying not to slip whilst still walking quickly enough to minimise the pain stressed me out even more.

 

But Coady was pretty delightful, albeit a lot smaller than I was expecting. I was picturing a full-on Trafalgar Square sized lion, and got one only about two feet long! Fortunately, the gardens were also home to the cute tower you can see me standing on at the start of the post, and a crumbling, graffiti-covered folly of some sort where we hid out from the rain for a bit, since the sound of the drops pattering on my brolly was starting to give me a headache. Unfortunately, the gardens now look out on some kind of unattractive yard full of building materials surrounded by fencing, and we ran into a couple of dead ends before we found the way out (since I was NOT walking up those stairs again).

 

You will notice that I look wet and miserable in every photo, which pretty much sums up the experience of the walk. Neither one of us could wait to get home and change into dry clothes, but we did stop at the M&S in Dorking to grab some crisps, since I was starving and didn’t want to get carsick on the way back, as I’m wont to do on an empty stomach, and I was really not impressed to see that not a single member of staff was wearing a mask. Dorking’s a cute town otherwise, though there isn’t much to do unless you’re into antiquing, and I was perfectly happy to be on my way. As you can see, Deepdene Trail is not without attractive features, and I think it would be a perfectly fine walk in nice weather, but definitely don’t try it in the rain like we did!

 

We had slightly better weather for Nonsuch Park, which is located in Ewell/Cheam. Those are not places I would normally visit (no offence if you live there, but they’re not exactly tourist attractions), but I’ve always been intrigued by Nonsuch Palace (pronounced none-such, despite the spelling), which originally stood here, and was built by Henry VIII to be the best palace ever. After Henry died, it went through various owners before eventually passing to Barbara Villiers, mistress of Charles II, who had the place demolished, but honestly, it was probably falling apart before then, since I remember reading somewhere that most of Henry VIII’s palaces were crappily built. He tended to want things built quickly that looked impressive, but they ended up having shoddy workmanship. The only reason Hampton Court is still standing is because it was built by Cardinal Wolsey, who did value quality over quantity! Poor construction aside, I bet the palace did look amazing, and I would have loved to have seen it, but all that’s here now is a park and a Georgian manor house that they rent out for weddings and such, though I don’t think you can go inside unless you’re attending an event.

 

Most of the park is just grassy fields – to be honest, I think Richmond Park is nicer – but there were formal gardens near the manor house that contained some nice topiary and trellises and things, and I was relieved to not have to keep my distance from scary deer for a change. Most importantly, I found the memorial bench shown above left, which I thought was adorable and funny and certainly a cut above the normal boring “in memory of” or “he loved this park” benches. We walked around for about an hour and then the wind started to pick up and the rain clouds were a comin’, so we headed back home to avoid a repeat of Deepdene, especially as I was wearing my I Love Lucy replica dress that would have become real see-through real quick if it got wet (Lucy definitely wore petticoats and a slip with it, but I wasn’t!). I’m glad we checked it out, but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way for it again.

 

Finally, I wanted to go to the seaside at some point on a day when the weather was nice, and since I knew I would be eating ice cream (my main reason for visiting the seaside), I thought we should probably go on a walk first, so we decided on Cissbury Ring, which is managed by the National Trust and is located not far from Worthing, in West Sussex. The carpark is free, which is unusual for a National Trust property, but I guess you get what you pay for, because there were no maps or signage of any kind, and we were just left to make our way up the hill, assuming that was the right direction to go for a hill fort. But we definitely took a wrong turn somewhere, because we found ourselves hiking up a really steep bit through a poo-filled pasture, though we made it in the end. Maybe this is my own ignorance of neolithic sites coming through, but when I heard “hill fort” I was picturing ruins of some sort. Nope, it is literally just the top of a big ass hill that you walk around. Apparently there used to be flint mines here, but you wouldn’t really know it to look at the nothing that is here today.

 

Well, I shouldn’t say nothing, because they had wild ponies! For some reason, these didn’t intimidate me as much as farm horses do, I guess because they were intent on eating and paid me no attention whatsoever, but I did feel bad for them because all their heads were being completely attacked by flies. If you watch TV in Britain, you’ve probably seen that Lloyds advert where all the horses go running up to the people on a beach, and they get to shower them with sugar lumps, etc. Well, I bank with Lloyds, and I’m still waiting for my free horse to show up, who I will name Bill Withers (because horses have withers…it’s a pun!). So I thought maybe this was my moment at last, and Bill Withers was in that field waiting for me, and he’d run up to me and we’d be together forever and I could ride him to work and have him kick people who pissed me off. In case he needed help finding me, I started walking past the horses calling, “Bill Withers, Bill Withers,” but didn’t get a response. I guess he might still be out there somewhere (because a Lloyds advert wouldn’t just lie to me, would it?), but sadly, he wasn’t at Cissbury Ring. So I cheered myself up by singing “My Lovely Horse” instead. I’m sure the other people there thought I was strange, but they shouldn’t have really been standing close enough to hear me anyway, frankly.

 

We headed to Worthing after, which was fortunately nothing like the horrible extremely non-socially distanced pictures I’ve seen of Bournemouth, where people were packed so close together on the beach they could barely move. It wasn’t really that warm, and it was a weekday, so we had a large stretch of coast to ourselves where I could dip my toes in (only a bit though, the water was cold!). Sadly, despite what the internet said, the Worthing branch of Boho Gelato didn’t open until 4, so we ended up having to drive all the way to Brighton so I could get my fix (which is farther than you’d think because traffic) from the main branch of Boho Gelato (the one in Worthing only has half the amount of flavours anyway, so I can’t say I regret going to Brighton in the end, even though finding parking was a nightmare, and I had to queue for half an hour to get my gelato). I can’t see any reason why I would ever go back to Cissbury Ring, since I am totally not a fan of walking up hills (or walking down them for that matter. It hurts my knees), and it didn’t even have a Coady the lion to keep me entertained, but at least I saw it once!

Bath, Somerset: The American Museum

I don’t think the house is this wonky in person, it’s just a weird angle!

I have wanted to visit the American Museum in Bath for ages, not least because as an American, I’m always intrigued to see how the British interpret American history and culture, but it was closed the last time I want to Bath a few years back (I can’t remember if they close for the winter, or if it was because they were closed for renovations or something). But it’s open now, so I definitely wanted to work it into our visit. However, they are (sensibly enough) limiting numbers, but (annoyingly enough) do not offer any kind of online prebooking – tickets are strictly sold on the day on a first come first served basis, and since we had a long drive down from London, I wasn’t entirely confident that we would be able to get there early enough to get some. We headed over as soon as we arrived in Bath, and this is definitely the kind of museum where it’s better to have a car, because it is in a secluded estate outside the city, though maybe there’s a bus route that can get you close. I was pleased enough with the free parking!

 

We arrived just after 12, and made our way down the short trail to the ticket office. I knew they offered tours of the museum at 11, 1, and 3, so I was hoping we were early enough to make the 1pm tour, which would give us plenty of time to visit the Holburne after, but tickets were already sold out, and we could only get a 3pm slot, with a 2:30 slot to see their temporary exhibition, which was better than nothing! Tickets are £10, or £5 with a National Art Pass, though they don’t advertise the discount at the admissions desk, so you have to ask (fortunately, I had checked the website beforehand and seen it listed there, so I whipped our cards right out and asked for the discount that I knew was available). Since the 3pm tour wasn’t scheduled to finish until 4:30, which would not give us time to get over to the Holburne after, we decided to immediately leave the American Museum to see the Holburne’s Grayson Perry exhibition and return to the American Museum later, even though the ticket desk guy seemed skeptical that we’d have time. I’m a speedy museum visitor, and I knew I’d make it work, so happily proved him wrong when we returned later that afternoon with time to spare (even with all the queuing at the Holburne). To be fair, he was nice about it and asked how the exhibition was – he apparently recognised my hair even with my mask on.

 

Masks are required inside buildings at the American Museum, though you can wander the gardens without one if you so choose. We had a date with their special exhibition “Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs,” with items on loan from the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which sounded right up my alley, since I love vintage fashion. And I wasn’t wrong, though since they appeared to have removed the text from the exhibit, apart from a few larger signs that talked more about the era than the clothes themselves (I suspect they had the additional information written on either a laminated sheet or one of those little booklets you carry around with you and just thought the easiest course of action was to eliminate them entirely once Covid happened, rather than pay to have signage made) it didn’t take very long to look at. The most interesting part for me was actually the section at the back full of photographs of old film stars, since those did have labels. There was also a selection of 1930s fan magazines, and I was intrigued to read the gossip, since I love old movies and know a lot of the old stars better than modern celebs (though of course, with the tight control studios had over their actors in those days, there wasn’t anything really juicy)! The clothes were gorgeous though, especially the British seaside dresses, which I would totally wear, I just wish I could have learned more about the individual pieces! And the dressing up section was removed as well, for obvious reasons, but I kind of wished they had just removed the whole little station entirely (there was still a little dressing room set-up) so I didn’t have to be disappointed by realising what I was missing out on.

  

Since we still had about twenty minutes before our house visit started, we decided it would be a good time to check out the cafe, which I was excited to visit since they advertise the fact that they make American baked goods using American recipes, and though I’m usually disappointed when British people attempt American baking (the only American style bakery I like here is the one in Chiswick that’s actually run by Americans), I still wanted to give it a go! Although it was getting towards the end of the day, they still had a good selection of cookies and a few pieces of cake, but since the cookies were individually bagged, whereas the cake was just sitting out for people to cough and sneeze on, I opted for a snickerdoodle (basically a sugar cookie that gets rolled in cinnamon and sugar before it bakes, for those who aren’t familiar), and Marcus got a ranger cookie (I think they also had normal chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin, as well as a couple vegan and gf options). I wasn’t too impressed with the ranger cookie (though I’ve never been that into them since they tend to be oatier than I find ideal) but I actually quite liked my snickerdoodle, even though it was a bit drier than its American equivalent would have been. And I was able to get a tea with milk without people looking at me like I was insane, which I would not have been able to do in America, so winning, I guess? (I still think I should start selling my baking so people know what this stuff is supposed to taste like, but I doubt anyone is going to give my home kitchen a health certificate and I can’t afford commercial premises.)

 

At this point, it was time to see the main house (Claverton Manor), so we queued up outside along with ten other people (and if like me, you drink a tea right beforehand, be forewarned that there aren’t toilets inside the manor – they are only outside near the cafe and in the shop building where the temporary exhibition is also housed, so I had to make a fairly hasty sprint over to the shop once the tour finished. They were very clean, however!). We were greeted by the two elderly volunteers who were accompanying us throughout the manor, who each took a group of six. Marcus and I got stuck with a family of four, whose kids got progressively brattier as the tour progressed. Now, the American Museum’s website refers to the house visits as “chaperoned” rather than as guided tours, so what I had envisioned was the volunteers just leading us to each floor and making sure we stayed in the designated area, but letting us look around that area on our own. Instead, our guide launched into a full-on guided tour, and though he did give us a bit of time to look around after, he started rushing us through if he thought we were taking too long, which meant we were rushed through the basement, which had more text than anywhere else in the museum, but had way too much time on the upper floors. As a volunteer manager, I don’t take any particular pleasure in saying bad things about volunteers – sure, you do run across difficult ones, but most of them are nice people doing the best they can – but the history nerd in me feels the need to point out that he also had his history a bit muddled. At one point, he told us that Ben Franklin invented a particular type of stove in the early 1800s, which I found curious since I knew Franklin had died in 1790, but I didn’t want to correct him and embarrass him in front of the group (it was probably good I was wearing a mask, since I pulled a face when he said it). He also started directing most of the tour at me, I guess since I was the only one obviously paying attention, which was fine, but he kept moving closer and closer to me (definitely closer than 2 metres) and I kept stepping back to try to maintain the distance (we were both wearing masks, but still. I was genuinely more concerned for his safety than my own).

  

His explanation of how the American Museum came to be wasn’t the clearest (and I didn’t have time to read the text panel explaining it since I was rushed out of the room), but what I gathered was that a rich American named Pratt, whose father or grandfather had been one of the early directors of Standard Oil, moved to England and got the idea of establishing a museum dedicated to American arts and crafts, so he purchased a manor house with a few of his colleagues, and they set about moving over entire rooms from houses in America that were about to be demolished, as well as a selection of arts and crafts. When I heard American decorative arts mentioned, I was initially picturing folk art, which I love, so I was very keen; however, other than a selection of religious art in the basement of the museum, the bulk of the collection was much more boring than that, consisting of things like furniture and silver. The tavern in the basement was interesting, as were some of the rooms (like the Pennsylvania Dutch room), but they took up a lot of space, so even though the manor was big, there wasn’t actually all that much in it.

 

My favourite room in the house was by far the quilt room, which was just filled with loads of quilts set up in panels you could flip through (they asked you to put on a disposable glove before doing so, which was fine with me!). The best quilt without question was the one featuring little political cartoons, though there were a number of interesting ones, including several from Ohio. The mother from the family in our group was clearly interested as well, so we spent the most time in here of all the rooms in the house.

 

There were about four floors in the house, and by the time we left the quilt room (about halfway through the tour), the kids in the family were starting to get restless, which is understandable enough, since so was I, frankly, but instead of making an effort to keep them entertained, or at least watch them, the parents decided to let their kids run wild. So they started fighting right in front of the glass cases and touching things that you weren’t meant to touch, and the poor volunteer had to keep asking them not to touch things whilst the parents trailed behind, completely oblivious. I used to see stuff like this all the time in the museum where I work (like a kid riding her damn scooter through the museum whilst her dad just stood there and watched), and I hate it when parents don’t teach their children how to behave in a museum (and the kids in question were about 8, so definitely old enough to know better! I have a lot more sympathy where toddlers are concerned). Volunteers shouldn’t be forced to discipline someone else’s kids! I eventually told them to knock off fighting in front of the exhibits myself, but they just ignored me. So obnoxious.

 

Finally (mercifully) we reached the end of the tour, and had an opportunity to visit the folk art gallery, which was frankly the thing I was most excited to see. This was smaller than I was hoping, and completely lacking in signage, but there were some delightful pieces in here! I wish the whole house could have been like this.

 

Obviously there were some issues with the tour, and the bratty children in particular (which is of course in no way the museum’s fault), and I think I would have much preferred visiting the museum in normal times, when I could have looked around at my own pace. I did like the special exhibition (though again, I wanted more text), and the snickerdoodles, and the staff and volunteers all seemed very nice, if maybe a bit in need of a brush-up on American history in some cases. 3/5 for this visit, but I’d probably try it again if Covid times ever end, especially since we didn’t even have time to look around the gardens.

 

Bath, Somerset: “Grayson Perry: the Pre-Therapy Years” @ Holburne Museum

I finally visited a proper museum for the first time since March, and certainly not without trepidation. But in light of the fact that I thought I might have to return to the office in September anyway (which has fortunately been postponed til October), I reckoned I should take the plunge and see how other museums were handling opening in the age of Covid. Because I am still apprehensive about taking public transport, I was actually more comfortable with visiting a museum two and a half hours away in Bath than one in London, since at least we could drive there, and because Holburne Museum’s Grayson Perry exhibition was one of the places I was planning on visiting right before lockdown happened, I thought it was fitting that it was the first museum I visited after lockdown.

  

Holburne Museum advised pre-booking (admission is £11, or £5.50 with Art Pass, which you better believe I used after not getting the opportunity to for most of the year!), although they didn’t have timed slots available; you just had to book for the day you wanted to visit. Since I’m new to the socially distanced museum experience, I had thought that pre-booking would mean we could skip the ticket line and just go right in. Nope, there was a whole lot of queuing just to get in the door. Normally I wouldn’t care so much, but we were booked to see an exhibition at the American Museum at 2:30 and would have to leave the Holburne by 2:15 at the latest, and it was already after 12:30 when we arrived, so when we saw the sign saying it would be a half an hour wait from the point where we queued up, I was anxious we wouldn’t have time to see the exhibition before we had to leave. Once we got inside, the reason for the queue became clear – there was a one way system in place, and since only one set of staircases was open, they were sending everyone up in the lift, one group at a time, so you had to wait for the group ahead of you to go up before you were allowed into the ticket area. So there was absolutely no point in pre-booking since we had to pass through the ticket desk anyway, and they didn’t seem to be limiting numbers so much as just staggering entry. Considering I paid a £2 booking fee to book online, I think it’s worth knowing that it’s unnecessary!

 

At any rate, at least everyone was wearing masks, including all staff members (which made a nice change from some of the shops I’ve been in – looking at you M&S Food Hall), and people were practicing social distancing for the most part. There was one member of staff who was solely responsible for sending people up in the lift, and she was spraying down the lift buttons between each group, though I imagine there was still some risk just from breathing in the enclosed air in the lift if the group ahead of you had coughed or sneezed in it, but if I spent too much time dwelling on that thought, I’d never go anywhere, so best not to think about it really. Honestly, it felt safer to me than a supermarket since we weren’t touching anything and people were generally being respectful of the rules. And now (finally) to the exhibition itself!

 

I had never been to the Holburne before, but I get the impression from the reviews I had read of the exhibition before lockdown that it had been moved into a different area in the museum, as it was originally meant to have been in quite a small space, but the space it’s in now was reasonably open, with rope barriers set up to make sure traffic only flowed through one way. I also think only some of the museum was currently open to the public, and that the Grayson Perry exhibition was in what were normally permanent galleries. And honestly, I really liked some aspects of the new museuming experience, such as the fact that the staggered entry meant that there weren’t many people in the gallery, so we didn’t have to wait around to look at things like we normally would in a special exhibition; we could just flow through (at least until we worked our way up to the slow moving group in front of us, and had to wait for them to finish since we couldn’t go around them, but we were fortunately near the end of the gallery, so we didn’t have to wait for long).

 

I also liked Grayson’s art, which was in his typical irreverent style – in fact, probably even more irreverent than some of his later work, as there were penises (penii) and sacrilegious imagery aplenty in here (I especially like Charles I hunting with his dong out, above right)! The works on show were from early in Perry’s career, from the years 1982-1994, and this seems to have been before he started using tapestries and other media, since nearly everything here was pottery. These were also the years when Perry was beginning to explore cross-dressing and was in the process of developing his Claire persona (if you’re not familiar with Perry, he sometimes appears in drag as his alter ego Claire), so a lot of the works were explorations of masculinity or depictions of middle aged women that he was using as inspiration to develop Claire.

 

Some of these pieces were genuinely laugh out loud funny, and though I could have done with more text in some places (although conversely, I would say some of the pieces themselves had too much text. I think Perry got a little text-happy when he was churning out pieces quickly since it’s clearly easier to stamp text on than do an actual drawing, and he admitted himself that it was a period in his life when he was just trying to make money), I think there was a good balance in terms of providing a decent amount of background, but not giving people so much to read that they couldn’t pass through in a timely manner (except the people in front of us, of course, but that’s always the way). The exhibition filled one medium sized gallery and flowed across the museum into half of another permanent gallery, with seventy items in total to look at, including a short film. Although I was worried we wouldn’t have enough time, since we didn’t even enter the museum until 1, we actually managed to see the exhibition in good time and take a quick look around the rest of the museum because only a small amount of it (I’m assuming, since I don’t know how big it normally is, but there were definitely areas we couldn’t enter) was open.

 

The Grayson Perry exhibition was on the 2nd floor, and we were asked to make our way back down via the stairs (though I’m sure they will take you back down in the lift if needed) to make the one way system work. The other galleries contained a few portraits (seemingly mainly by Gainsborough) and a collection of ceramics (though no delightful Staffordshire murdery ones, I’m sad to say. These were much more boring than that) and I was speeding through them so we had time to see everything before I realised that’s all there was! Clearly the main focus right now is Grayson Perry, since the exhibition is only temporary, though it has been extended until January 2021 to give people time to visit.

 

Since it was a long drive from London, despite doing my best to avoid using public toilets, I didn’t really have a choice, so I did nip into the basement to avail myself of the Holburne’s facilities. And I was definitely impressed! I was the only person in there, and I could tell they had just been cleaned, since they were spotless and well stocked with plenty of soap and paper towels (and hand sanitizer, but that makes my hands feel a bit gross. I’d much rather use actual soap and water if it’s available!), and a cleaner popped in right after I had finished, so honestly, museum toilets (at least at this museum) are definitely preferable to those in a service station or something. On the whole, I enjoyed my visit to the Holburne, mainly because it was nice to visit a museum again after so long! Although it would have been nice if they’d made it clearer on their website that pre-booking really wasn’t necessary, once we got inside, I could tell they were doing everything possible to ensure a safe experience for their visitors. I do think £11 is a little expensive for the exhibition, but I was perfectly happy with my half-price admission, and I know they must be in need of money, so I really can’t begrudge them trying to get everything they can right now. Having seen both now, I can say that I prefer Perry’s later work to his earlier pieces, especially the excellent exhibition I saw at the Serpentine a few years ago, but if you like Grayson Perry’s style, you’ll like his early stuff too, just maybe not quite as much. 3/5.

Horsham, Sussex: Leonardslee Gardens

You will notice, via my posts over the coming weeks, that I have finally started to cautiously partake in some activities that I wouldn’t have considered even a month or so ago, such as visiting museums. However, I’m going to ease you (and myself) in with somewhere that was mainly gardens with a bit of museum, Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens, in West Sussex. As I mentioned in my last post, we recently rented a car for a week, and I knew I wanted to do something other than just sitting at home on my birthday, preferably something that featured animals in some capacity, so when I heard that Leonardslee had both wallabies AND a dolls’ house museum, I was there!

  

Since it was meant to rain that afternoon, we aimed to get there earlyish, so after a lovely birthday breakfast of pain au chocolat and hazelnut cinnamon buns from our local(ish) Swiss bakery, we headed out. Admission to the gardens is £12.50, and although they do encourage pre-booking to limit social contact, it’s not obligatory, presumably because the gardens are large, so they are more easily to accommodate people than a smaller location such as a museum would be able to. You do have to pass through the admissions desk and show your tickets even if you have pre-booked, so we ended up just paying when we arrived, since a contactless payment wasn’t any more contact than showing someone our booking on a phone would have been. Masks are required in the gift shop, though not in the gardens themselves, and I didn’t see anyone wearing them outside, but the gardens were empty enough that we didn’t have any trouble social distancing.

 

Leonardslee has both free range wallabies that we never ended up encountering, which were originally introduced to the gardens in 1889, and a separate enclosure for mothers and joeys, and the enclosure wallabies are fed every day at noon, which is right about when we arrived, so we headed directly there. I’m not sure exactly what their food is (some kind of grain, by the looks of it), but they didn’t seem super keen, or were maybe just a bit scared by the people outside the enclosure, as some of them hung back for quite a while, except for this one large white wallaby that seemed like kind of a jerk. She hopped to every bowl of food, pushing other wallabies out of the way to get in there, even though there was more than enough food to go around. Wallabies breed in January and February, and only have a 29 day gestation period, so the joeys were already pretty large by the time we saw them, but they were still cute. I love Australian marsupials, though I think wombats are still my favourite!

 

After we’d had our fill of the enclosure wallabies, we headed off to try to find some free range ones. However, we quickly had to put the kibosh on that idea when we found ourselves trapped behind a group of very, very slow moving people on a narrow trail. In the before times, we would have just gone around them, but in Covid times, there wasn’t enough space to do so safely, so after following them for a bit like Mr. Bean when he gets stuck behind the elderly people on the hotel staircase, I got too impatient to continue, so we turned around and took a different trail that led us to the lakes. These were quite picturesque, as I’m sure you can tell, but there wasn’t much to do other than walk around them, and as it was my birthday, I made the executive decision that I couldn’t be bothered to take the trail that led to the deer park (since I can see millions of deer in Richmond Park any time I want, and I don’t even particularly like them, as they seem scarily aggressive during rutting season. I don’t even feel like it’s safe for people to walk amongst them when they’re having their antler fights, but clearly the Queen doesn’t care as long as she gets her venison), so we headed back to the centre of the estate again.

 

And this is where I found the dolls’ house museum, which was easily the best part of Leonardslee. It was created by a lady named Helen Holland in 1998, and it was amazing. I love miniature things and dolls’ houses so much, and this was a whole village! It filled an entire room, with a mansion and row of shops right in the middle. I was instantly captivated when I walked in the door and saw the miniature churchyard with adorable tiny graves (even an open grave!), but honestly there was so many highlights.

 

I could fill up the rest of this post with pictures of all the different rooms and buildings, but I guess I’ll spare those of you who aren’t as enamoured with this stuff as I am (though seriously, why not?). Helen clearly had a sense of humour, as there were a number of cheeky touches, like a dog stealing sausages, a man obliviously carrying on with his bath whilst a repairman fixed the toilet, a poor little boy in a dunce cap standing in the corner of the schoolroom, and a couple literally “rolling in the hay” in the hayloft of the barn.

 

There were even moving parts (though not on the hayloft couple, I hasten to add)! There was a tiny lift that went up and down with a woman riding in it, a maid dusting, and a butcher’s arm chopping meat. The dolls’ house was in an indoor area, but it was only us and one other woman who was on the opposite side of the exhibition when we came in, and we availed ourselves of the bottles of hand sanitizer that had been placed at the entrance and exit, so it felt OK being indoors with a stranger and helped give me the confidence to start visiting museums again later that week.

 

I probably could have spent most of the day in the dolls’ house museum, but a family came in as we were near the end, and I could tell the children were going to be running all around, so it hastened my departure somewhat. Leonardslee describes itself as the “Finest Woodland Gardens in England”, and there were still a few gardens we hadn’t seen, so we headed to those next. The rock garden was memorable mainly for the lion sculpture hidden in it, though it does look lovely in the pictures taken in the spring when more flowers are in bloom.

 

We also visited the oldest garden on the estate (not sure exactly how old it was, but most of the estate seemed to have been designed in the 1880s-90s, when Leonardslee was owned by the naturalist Sir Edmund Loder). It was described as “magical” and we did find a few fairy doors hidden around, but it was a bit smaller than we were expecting. I liked the sequoias and the massive Douglas fir though!

 

I also loved the tree fountain in front of the old manor house, which is now a restaurant amusingly named “Restaurant Interlude” that I think is serving afternoon tea again, but I knew I had ice cream cake waiting for me at home, besides still not being super keen to actually have a lengthy meal in a restaurant, so we didn’t investigate further. We did, however, visit the enclosure wallabies again before we left, where we very clearly heard a rooster crowing, so of course I had to wander around until we found the chickens, which were right at the end of the estate. The roosters were named Rodney, Idris, and Wesley, but I’m not sure which was which (we weren’t told the names of the hens, which is typical. Only the males were worthy of names, apparently).

 

By this point it was starting to rain a bit, and I was ready to go home and open some presents anyway, so we decided to head off (and made it just in time, as it started really pissing it down when we got in the car). It wasn’t the sort of place I would have normally visited, given the £12.50 admission fee just for gardens, but given the current circumstances, and how few places I had been in the past six months, I actually thought it was alright. I loved the dolls’ house museum and the wallabies, and the gardens themselves were undeniably attractive; I’m just always a bit meh on gardens. I prefer a stately home and gardens where you can actually go inside the house, which is probably why Leonardslee hadn’t been on my radar previously. 3/5, mainly just based on my love for the dolls’ village!