UK

Hever, Kent: Hever Castle

I promised more Halloween posts, and at first glance, Hever Castle might not seem to fit that category, but hear me out. First of all, it bills itself as the “childhood home of Anne Boleyn” and we all know what happened to Anne Boleyn, as well as various other members of the Boleyn clan, so it has a very high potential for being haunted (if ghosts were real, of course). Secondly, it is also home to “700 years of history,” including a room full of torture implements (I suspect they’re not original to the house, but still, they might have souls attached to them or something), so lots more opportunities for ghosts there. Finally, every year during October half-term (it’s just a week-long break from school, but because pretty much all schools do it, it’s like an actual thing here that even people without kids (like me) notice on account of the resulting lack of traffic which means I can catch the bus to work twenty minutes later than normal that week), they do a special Halloween event, and I braved the hordes of children (and their parents) this year to check it out.

  

This was actually more of an undertaking than just dealing with crowds, as we had to rent a car to get down there, and then pay £15.90 each to get inside (we saved a whole measly pound by booking online the night before), but I was a woman on a mission. You see, I went to Hever Castle some years ago, well before I had this blog, and while we were sitting in the tearoom, having just enjoyed a slice of cake, a man emerged from the kitchen bearing a tray of ghost cupcakes, which he grandly set down on the cake table. I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t end up with a ghost cupcake that day (certainly not because I’d already had cake – there’s always room for more cake!); I think at the time the cafe may have been cash only, and we’d spent all we had on the non-ghost cake and tea. At any rate, the memory of the ghost cupcake that got away has haunted me (ha) through the intervening years, and I reckoned that visiting during Halloween half-term was the best chance I had of putting it right.

  

I could leave you in suspense until the end of the post, but I’m telling this visit like it was, and the truth is that I made a beeline for the cafe as soon as we got inside the grounds. And was rewarded, as you can probably see, with not only a ghost cupcake, but a tombstone one as well. Unfortunately, it was very much not worth the wait. The cake was a bit heavy, and the stuff underneath the fondant ghost was not frosting, as I’d assumed (and hoped), but a marshmallow!  I’m not keen on marshmallow at the best of times, and certainly not when I was anticipating frosting. I mean, I ate it, because I pretty much had to after making such a stink about the damn ghost cupcakes, but it was cloyingly sweet (even for me), and would have greatly benefited from actual buttercream and maybe some jam to cut the sweetness (I guess they were intended for children, but I honestly think I was looking forward to that ghost cupcake way more than any child was). I probably should have gone for the tombstone one, as Marcus tells me the tombstone was an After Eight.  Anyway, with that disappointment out of the way early, we headed off to explore the gardens.

  

The gardens were not as disappointing as the ghost cupcakes, at least not the Italianate one, which was bestrewn with Halloween decorations (lame, half-assed British ones, but still), but there was still some measure of disappointment because there was some kind of scavenger hunt for children where if they spotted all the terracotta pumpkins, they could collect candy at the end, and of course there was no equivalent scavenger hunt for adults. Frankly, they didn’t even have to give me candy or anything, I just would have enjoyed the hunt, though if one of the terracotta pumpkins was on offer as a prize, I certainly wouldn’t have turned it down. (I was upset that the terracotta pumpkins weren’t even for sale in any of the many, many gift shops, as I was quite taken with them.)

  

I guess now is a good time to cantankerously say a word about the way the British celebrate Halloween, which I still find perplexing after living here for the best part of a decade. Halloween is becoming more of a thing here, which is good, because it was still pretty low-key when I first moved here, but I have to say that in my opinion, something just ain’t right with Halloween in England. It is really strange to me that children get dressed up to go wander around a stately home – where I come from, your costume was special – something you spent months planning and really put some effort into (admittedly, I was a vampire like three years in a row because I REALLY liked vampires, but I had a different vampire look each year, and I did genuinely stress about picking a costume. I’d have nightmares where it was Halloween night, and I didn’t have a costume, so I couldn’t go trick or treating), and you pretty much saved it just for Halloween itself, unless you got invited to a costume party or something. Here, it seems like people slap on “fancy dress,” as they call it (confusingly), for any old occasion, and there’s a complete lack of effort with their Halloween costumes. Every kid just wears these awful generic costumes that came direct from Tesco or something, and there’s no creativity on show at all.  And the most annoying thing is that aside from Halloween dance parties at clubs (big old nope from me) and a few late night events at museums (and that very unspooky pet cemetery walk), pretty much everything is aimed at children, which is why I had to awkwardly show up to Hever Castle during half-term when we were basically the only childless couple there aside from a couple of groups of foreign tourists. Trick or treating may just be for children (though I actually do quite like passing out candy, not that I’ve gotten to do it in years), but Halloween is for everyone, and I wish Halloween events in Britain would reflect that.

  

OK, rant over (at least that rant, there may be more). So, despite my displeasure at being excluded from Halloween fun, at least I could enjoy the decorations and all the unintentionally creepy statues that lived in the garden (like Pan there, yikes!). And Hever Castle is also home to a couple mazes. I did not get to go in the water one, which I remembered from my earlier visit, because it was entirely full of children running around while their parents looked on, and I would have felt like a creep going in there (and not in the Halloween sense, but in the weird pervert sense), but I did go in the yew maze, which was just a bit too easy. I wasn’t even sick of wandering around yet when I inadvertently found my way out.

  

The gardens were also home to some children’s activities that looked like a lot of fun (archery aiming at targets with headless knights painted on them and a repel your own vampire kit that involved planting a bulb of garlic in a pot that you then sprinkled with “holy water”) that were yet again a no-go for adults, so I gave up and we made our way over to the castle itself.

  

Though I didn’t remember being particularly impressed by the castle on my first visit, this time it ended up being the best part of the day, mainly on account of the vampire questions and answers that someone had placed in each room of the house. I’m still not sure exactly how vampires relate to Hever Castle (ghosts would have made more sense, for the reasons stated at the start of the post), but I’m not complaining, because these were delightful, and full of lame little jokes and puns that I just loved.

  

I suppose the interiors weren’t half bad either, even without the vampire facts. Though the house was owned by the Boleyn family in the Tudor period, by the early 20th century, it had been purchased by the Astors (of Waldorf Hotel fame), namely William Waldorf Astor, who also owned the splendid Two Temple Place in London, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times. I’d say that the man had taste, except that the rooms he decorated in Hever Castle were my overriding memory of the house on my first visit, and the reason that I wasn’t particularly impressed by it. They would have been fine in an Edwardian mansion, but the style of the Astor rooms just doesn’t seem to fit inside a 13th century castle (with Tudor additions).

  

But I did love the more Tudory rooms, especially the ones that told the story of Anne’s life, illustrated by wax figure tableaux.

   

I dressed up like Anne Boleyn for Halloween some years ago, and I’ve always felt bad for her, because she might have been ambitious or even calculating (though it’s hard to say if she actually was, given the way women were treated at the time, and the slurs thrown at her after her death), but really, once Henry took an interest, what was she supposed to do? She had to essentially choose whether to prostitute herself, or hold out for what seemed like the better option of marriage, and she definitely didn’t deserve to be beheaded. The castle holds a few of Anne’s personal possessions, like a Book of Hours she wrote in, and copies of letters sent between her and Henry, the last letter she ever wrote him being especially sad (she basically offered to sacrifice herself so that her brother’s and friends’ lives would be spared, but of course Henry, being an enormous asshole, executed the lot of them).

  

The room full of torture implements that I mentioned earlier is also depressing, and kind of scary (I like creepy stuff, but the scolds’ masks are a bridge too far even for me. For some reason those freak me out more than actual maiming devices), but never fear, the castle also contains stuff like a random case full of derpy dog figurines to lighten the mood. There’s also a few rooms about the Astor family and their ownership of the house, including the almost obligatory room about life “belowstairs,” which was actually not completely uninteresting, especially, for some reason, the room assignment charts for when the Astors had parties – maybe because I couldn’t imagine having that many house guests every weekend (but then, I’ve never lived in a house that had actual separate wings and I also hate having guests, unless I know them well enough that I don’t have to change out of jimjams).

 

After seeing the inside of the castle, we still weren’t done, because the estate is vast. We wandered past some splendid animal topiaries, and were en route to a regimental museum when I got side-tracked by an ice cream hut (not the first one I’d seen that day, but the first one that was actually open).  After wolfing down a few scoops (much better than the cupcake, though I have to admit that I was surprised that chocolate chip turned out to be chocolate ice cream, because chocolate chip is normally vanilla with chocolate chips in it. I guess that explains why I’ve never had chocolate chip in Britain before) we resumed the search for the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Museum, which is rather well hidden. I didn’t even realise it existed on our first visit, and wouldn’t have this time either if I hadn’t seen it mentioned on the website when we booked the tickets. There are no signs pointing to it once you’re in the grounds, though it is marked on the map they hand you when you walk in, but you really have to be looking for it.

  

After visiting it, I can kind of see why they don’t publicise it more. It’s not awful, but it’s not particularly impressive, being one long hut where you wind your way through reading posters (or mainly skipping them in my case, as they were overly wordy and not that interesting) with a few display cases. The only real object of note, other than a couple wax figures, was the ceramic figure of the regiment’s desert fox mascot, who is very cute. I do feel bad that no one seems to visit the museum though – at least, we were the only people inside, even though everywhere else on the estate was rammed.

  

After the KSY Museum, we headed over to one of the gift shops that also housed a collection of miniature houses, which I adore. They had Tudor, Stuart, and Georgian houses, as well as a few scenes from a Victorian household at Christmas, and they were all pretty charming, especially the Georgian one, which I would totally live in if it were real. Apparently one of the sons was a redcoat home from fighting those pesky Americans, and you could see him telling his parents all about it in the drawing room (yes, they were that detailed).

  

Aside from some fruitless searching for those terracotta jack o’lanterns in the shops, that was pretty much it for our visit, and we strolled back to the carpark (on the other side of the estate) through the water garden, which was very soothing (especially after having my nerves jangled by children running about and shrieking all day). There wasn’t really anything else Halloweeny of note, though I guess I should be grateful that there was even as much as there was, albeit not even aimed at adults, because the vampire facts + activities (that I couldn’t participate in) + Halloween decorations in the garden + ghost cupcakes is about as festive as England ever gets for Halloween.

  

Hever Castle is undoubtedly really, really expensive, but you do get more or less a full day out for your money, so that’s something. If you’re not bothered about Halloween decorations, I highly recommend coming when it’s not half-term, unless you have kids. The estate itself is pretty nice (and obviously quite photogenic), but I just can’t get over my disappointment at British Halloween events (and I’ll be blogging about another next week), even though I really should know better by now, and Hever Castle admittedly makes more of an effort than most. 3.5/5.

 

 

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Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery


Instead of opening this post with a photo of the outside of the museum like I normally would, I decided to cut to the chase and show you the best and weirdest thing in the museum right at the start (also the front of the museum is pretty boring, because it’s just in the town hall, whereas Minnie the dog (I’ll explain more later) is hilarious and awesome).

   

We were able to borrow a car for a day a few weeks ago, and though the air felt like autumn and my first thought was to drive out to the countryside to see some foliage, it was only the start of September, and all the trees in London were still green (not that they change to a colour more exciting than brown anyway, but still) so I had to concede that it was unlikely that trees outside the city would be much different. So a plan B then, but one that would still allow me to acquire cloudy apple juice and cider from my favourite orchard shop in East Sussex, because I’m always ready for fall, even if the trees aren’t cooperating. Unfortunately, I’ve been to pretty much everything nearby the cider shop worth blogging about over the years (except Hever Castle, which I’ve been to but haven’t blogged about…I’ll have to go back!), so I turned my search to obscure local museums, most of which I had to immediately eliminate because they’re not open on Sundays. Enter the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. Though they’re not normally open on a Sunday, their website claimed their “summer hours” (til October 8) did include Sunday opening, so I thought we should risk it, especially once I got a look at the photo of Minnie the Lu Lu Terrier on their website.

   

Happily, the Tunbridge Wells Museum was indeed open (as you may have guessed by this point) and also free to visit. We were able to find parking along the side of the building since it was a Sunday; otherwise I think you’d probably have to head for one of the nearby car parks. We were welcomed by an extremely nice and helpful woman at the front desk, who was very eager to make sure we saw all the highlights of the collection, and she immediately disposed me towards liking the museum.

   

We began with the toy alcove, and there were so many gems in here I can’t even show you them all, but I’ve included photos of some of the highlights, including a teeny model butcher shop (not that I patronise real butcher shops, but this one even had a little cat in it. A pet cat that is, not a cut of meat). I also really loved the poor derpy Felix the Cat doll, but, as you can probably tell from the opening photo, he wasn’t even the derpiest thing in this museum.

   

The showpieces of this first room were undoubtedly the massive dollhouse (I think it was Georgian, or at least the house it is based on was), which apparently lit up (the woman working there directed me to a button on the wall, but I pressed it twice and nothing happened, and I was too embarrassed to try again), but since I couldn’t get it to work, I contented myself with peering in through the darkened windows, and could still see enough to know that I would have killed for that dollhouse as a kid (even though I wasn’t particularly into dolls, elaborate old dollhouses are cool. I’d still love to have one, even if it turns out to be haunted); and the old rocking horse, who was nothing like my beloved childhood rocking horse Buckles, but was still a lovely horse (“running through the fields…”).

   

Most of the rest of the first gallery was taken up by extraordinarily wordy (but not uninteresting) displays about local industries, including cricket balls and much more to my tastes, biscuits (although the company seems to have made mostly water biscuits rather than anything actually delicious). There was a back wall lined with cases filled with everything from flasks to farming implements, accompanied by very old-school captions that were rather charming, but a bit of updating wouldn’t go amiss on some of the labels.

   

I was very taken with the sheep boots (shown above), but I was most excited about the Biddenden Maids cakes. I’m sure everyone knows by now how fascinated I am by the strange and unusual (and that Beetlejuice is one of my favourite movies), and when I was looking for something odd to write my MA thesis about some years ago, I happened upon the Biddenden Maids. I ended up not using them, because historical fact is kind of thin on the ground where they’re concerned, plus if they actually lived when the legend says they lived, they would have fallen well outside of the Early Modern era, but the story goes that in the 1100s there were wealthy conjoined twins living in Biddenden, a village in Kent, and they donated their lands to the village when they died with the proviso that income from the lands would be used to provide the poor with alms every year at Easter. The tradition continues to this day, and in addition to providing food to widows and pensioners on Easter Monday, Biddenden also gives out Biddenden Maids cakes bearing the image of the twins (I’m not gonna lie, I’ve debated going out to Biddenden at Easter to get one, as it’s rumoured that they also make some to sell to tourists as souvenirs), and a few recipients over the years have donated these to the museum, so I finally got to have a look at them. They were just as splendid as I’d hoped!

   

The next gallery was dedicated almost entirely to “Tunbridge Ware,”and that’s where Minnie comes in. Tunbridge Ware is a kind of highly decorative painted wood developed for the tourist trade in Tunbridge Wells (as you might be able to guess from the name, Tunbridge Wells is home to a natural spring, and thus became a spa town in the Restoration, like so many other towns with healing waters, so there were plenty of tourists coming through), and there were many, many examples on show in this gallery, but the box used to house Minnie is the most notable of all. Minnie was a Lu Lu Terrier, apparently an unusual (and unfortunate-looking) Chinese breed, and when she died, her owner decided to preserve her in high style by placing her taxidermied body inside a huge and elaborate Tunbridge Ware box. The photo on the right is of what was probably my favourite Tunbridge Ware design in this gallery, and shows a gentleman encountering a sweep and his donkey in the night, which he took to be the devil, hence his fright.

   

I also enjoyed these charming, rather primitive collages by George Smart, one of which was blown up and featured on a large banner outside the museum, as it was evidently a heritage weekend when we visited. Which probably makes not seeing the famous Pantiles (the other main thing Tunbridge Wells is famous for, being, as far as I can tell, simply a tiled shopping district that has been given a fancy name) whilst we were there even more of an oversight, but we were worried about getting a ticket if we left the car parked where it was for much longer, so we high-tailed it out of Tunbridge pretty sharpish after leaving the museum.

   

But I’m not finished with the museum yet! There was also a small room with a few paintings in it, as well as a letter from Nelson (written after he lost his arm, to judge by the handwriting, though it still looked better than what I can achieve with my dominant hand), but the taxidermy is really what I need to show you. The final room of the museum contained the obligatory geological exhibits, but also a small taxidermy collection, the wildcat and squirrel shown here being highlights. There was also a splendidly derpy fox cub. I also liked that they thoughtfully kept the butterfly cases covered (probably to protect them, since I’m guessing they didn’t know about my lepidopterophobia), as it meant that I didn’t have to look at them.

   

As you may have guessed from the post title, the museum is also an art gallery, which is located just across the hall from the main museum. The exhibition when we visited was called “Springlines” and was meant to be an exploration of “hidden and mysterious bodies of water.” It wasn’t quite as exciting as the title promised, being a collection of fairly ordinary landscapes, but I did like how the pictures were accompanied by poetry, which did at least add something evocative to the paintings.

   

Considering my past experiences with local museums hadn’t led me to expect much out of Tunbridge Wells, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Having very friendly staff probably helped, but I was also impressed by the sheer array and eclecticism of objects on show, and thought the captions were generally quite informative, for all that a few of them could use an update. 3.5/5, it definitely exceeded my expectations, and was worth coming to for poor ridiculous Minnie alone.

   

While we were (sort of) in the area (well, it is very close indeed to the aforementioned cider shop (with limitless free samples) anyway), we decided to go for a walk around the bit of Ashdown Forest that was introduced to the world by A.A. Milne as Hundred Acre Wood. I’m sure I read the Pooh books at some point, but I don’t really remember them very well as most of my Pooh memories are dominated by the cartoon, which I loved as a kid. There isn’t much to the walks; you can opt for either a “Short Pooh” or a “Long Pooh” walk (obviously I was making endless poo jokes), and the short Pooh is very short indeed, so we went for the Long Pooh, which primarily involved walking up and down two miles of hills (and stepping in lots of actual poo, due to it also being a horse trail) around a heath which was supposed to be Eeyore’s Gloomy Place (poor Eeyore. I think I’m a cross between him and Rabbit), but we also took in Roo’s Sandy Place, the North Pole, the Heffalump Trap, the Enchanted Forest (really more of a heath, like the rest of it), and the A.A. Milne memorial along the way. It is literally is just a walk in the country, but I think it’s kind of nice in a way that it’s not all commercialised (much as I would like to see some statues of Pooh and friends to help bring it to life, the fact that you have to use your imagination means that it’s not very busy. There is a tearoom down the road called “The Shop at Pooh Corner” or something like that, but that’s really only the concession to capitalism here). Just mentioning it as something else to do if you find yourself in the Sussex/western edge of Kent countryside.

Hove, East Sussex: Hove Museum and Art Gallery

I’ve been to Brighton quite a few times over the years, and except for the Old Police Cells Museum, which I’m never around at the right time of day to visit (it’s by pre-booked guided tour only, and the only tour time is 10:30 in the morning), I feel I’ve pretty well exhausted its limited museum options at this point.  So on this trip to the coast (which turned out to be much colder than London, so not a good seaside day after all), I turned to its smaller neighbouring town of Hove, and the Hove Museum and Art Gallery, which was rumoured to have a nice collection of magic lantern slides.

  

The Hove Museum falls under the authority of Brighton Museums, which makes sense, because it is very similar in feel to the larger Brighton Museum.  Fortunately, admission to the Hove Museum is free to all, and not just residents of Brighton and Hove, like the Brighton Museum is. At the time of my visit, there was a special exhibit about puppets on the ground floor, so that’s where I began.

  

I’d be the first to admit that a lot of puppets are kind of menacing, but most of these ones were actually quite charming. I particularly liked the ones of Miss Fox and Miss Cat (above previous paragraph), and of Bluebeard, Bluebeard’s wife, and the ghost of one of his previous wives (not pictured, because I don’t have a photo for some reason). There was a woman in there at the same time as me who was apparently one of the creators of a Rikki-Tikki-Tavi puppet theatre, and she was explaining how she made it to some other woman, but I was too distracted by her pronunciation of “Tavi” to pay attention. I’ve always said “taa-vee,” but this woman kept saying “tah-vee.” I guess it’s one of those British/American English divides…I just asked Marcus how to phonetically spell the “aaa” noise I make in “Tavi” and “apple” and he couldn’t do it because it’s not even a noise English people make. Just picture a sort of annoying nasally “a” noise.

  

The bulk of the museum was located on the first floor, and as I was keen to see the magic lantern stuff (Professor Heard from that Brompton Cemetery event last year fired up my enthusiasm for the medium), I headed to the film gallery first. This turned out to be two small rooms, plus a neat little cinema (I loved the wall decor) where you could watch short films starring puppets (dunno if this was connected to the puppet exhibit, or if they show them all the time).

  

The slides turned out to be all mounted together in a large panel that you could press a switch to illuminate. I think my favourites are the dog and cat in the fourth row from the bottom (they’re a little hard to see, but they’re dressed in people clothes, and the cat is reading a book), but there were enough entertaining slides that I stood there studying them for a good long while (longer than the light stayed on for anyway, I had to press it again). There were also a few thaumatrope and flipbook type things to play with, and some early silent films of the Brighton area to enjoy.

  

Next was a small room devoted to the history of Hove, which segued into an equally pint-sized art gallery. I didn’t spend too much time in the local history section, which was a bit wordy, even for me (plus I’m just not that interested in the history of Hove), but it seems like Hove was built up during the Regency period, same as Brighton. Also, Edward VII apparently liked to hang out in Hove when he was still the Prince of Wales. The art gallery had a few paintings in it that I quite liked (which is impressive, given that there were only about ten paintings in there), including a whole wall with a giant monkey painting.

  

The “Wizard’s Attic,” which was presumably aimed at children (though they’d have to be fairly brave children, as you’ll see once you get a look at some of the toys there), was without question my favourite gallery in the museum. The premise was that a wizard (pictured above) lived there (you had to be quiet so as not to wake him up), and he liked to collect and repair old toys. So the room was chock-full of Pollock’s Toy Museum style cases of antique toys of varying degrees of disturbing. I have to admit that I quite liked those George V, Queen Mary, and young Edward VIII (in his pre-Nazi sympathiser days) dolls, even if they were a bit creepy.

  

But their creepiness was nothing compared to those clown dolls pictured above. I’m positive if you let them into your house, they would kill everyone you cared about in the night, and wait until you woke up and saw what they had done before they killed you too. It’s a good thing the sensible Wizard has them contained behind glass. Tricycle boy there is a bit unsettling too…to be honest, there were a lot of shit-scary toys here. I’m not sure how much children would actually like this terrifying collection, but I loved it. It was like being in an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or something (god, I used to love that show, but I had no idea it ran until 2000!  I must have stopped watching at some point in the mid-’90s).

  

The final gallery was devoted to different crafts and how they were produced – I’m not terribly interested in crafts, but a few objects did catch my eye, like the figure of Lucretia stabbing herself, above, a pumpkin teapot (which you may be able to spot in the photo on the above left), and some cute little monster dolls (below left).

 

I ended up spending less than an hour at this museum, which is fine because it was free, but it definitely felt like Brighton Museum’s less impressive little sister (which is kind of funny, because apparently Hove likes to think of itself as being posher than Brighton). It matched Brighton Museum’s eclecticism, just on a reduced scale (there was even a pavilion-y structure outside the museum that I think was some sort of war memorial). I really enjoyed the magic lantern slides, and the toy gallery, but the rest was a little hit-and-miss. I think it’s worth a visit if, like me, you’ve been to the area a lot and want something new to see, but if you’re only in this part of Sussex for a day or two, I’d just stay in Brighton and see the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museum instead (and eat some ice cream! Scoop and Crumb or Boho Gelato are both good options), or maybe go for a walk at Devil’s Dyke (and then get ice cream!). I’d even recommend the Booth Museum over this one (if you’re into taxidermy), just because it’s so gloriously old fashioned. 2.5/5 for the Hove Museum.

 

Bournemouth, Dorset: The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

The Russell-Cotes House is exactly the kind of house I’d like to live in…if it wasn’t a museum, and also wasn’t in Bournemouth (not knocking the town, because it’s the first time I’ve ever been there and I didn’t really go anywhere except Russell-Cotes House, but it looked kind of seedy as we were driving through, like most English seaside towns. The beach did look quite nice though, if it hadn’t been freezing cold. In May).

  

It is a gloriously quirky Victorian mansion (completed in 1901, shortly before Queen Victoria died, it is also technically one of the last Victorian mansions ever built, as the museum kept reminding us) perched on a side of a hill overlooking the sea. Apparently it is built in an “Art Nouveau” style, but the turrets, bold colours, and big wrap-around front porch reminded me of Victorian houses in America, rather than the more boring sedate brick Victorian buildings that are much more common in England (like the one I live in, which has been divided into flats and stripped of any character it might have had, save for the fireplace and high ceilings), which is why I probably loved it so much.

  

Admission to this fabulous building (its official name is East Cliff Hall) is £6 (or £5.45 if you decline the Gift Aid), and the self-guided tour starts with a short film about the history of the house. Built by Merton Russell-Cotes for his wife Annie, it was their dream home and a place for them to display the many, many objects they had collected on their travels through the years. They seem to have been a rather sweet and devoted couple, what with travelling the world together, and dying within a year of each other (don’t worry, they were able to enjoy their house for about twenty years first). They were also clearly extraordinarily wealthy and well-connected, though where their money came from is a mystery, at least to me, because it wasn’t discussed anywhere in the museum (I suspect there’s a dark secret somewhere in their past, albeit with absolutely no evidence to support this theory).

  

The house is meant to be set up pretty much as Merton and Annie would have had it (except for a few of the more museum-y rooms), and you’re free to wander through and pretend you’re visiting them, I guess. So nothing is really roped off (though obviously you’re expected to not touch things) and there aren’t signs on anything, just a a large informational guide on a stand in each room (we came right after they opened, so there were only a handful of visitors, but I suspect this gets annoying at busier times, because those books were seriously like twenty pages each, and based on my experiences in way too many National Trust properties, I can imagine that some people stand there for ages reading every page). We got a taste of their enviable lifestyle right off the bat, when we walked into the dining room and were greeted with an octagonal table and a wine cooler (above right) once owned by Napoleon that they managed to snap up whilst they were visiting St. Helena (as you do…oh wait, you haven’t been to one of the most isolated islands in the world?! Me either). I also immediately learned that Merton really liked birds (as do I, admittedly. Well, some birds. Not those white ibis in Australia. Or emus or cassowaries (also in Australia)), and had chosen to decorate the room with a splendid peacock border.

  

There was a collection of busts in the conservatory, my favourite being good ol’ Wellington (looking rather dashing), though his rival (archnemesis?) Napoleon was there too.  However, the conservatory was locked, so we just had to peer out at them from the dining room.

 

Napoleon’s table wasn’t the only famous person’s furniture that the Russell-Cotes’s owned. They also had a sofa and chairs that were Queen Victoria’s (I don’t think she ever visited this home, since she died shortly after it was completed, but I believe she did visit them in a previous residence, and her daughter, Princess Beatrice, took tea here with Annie), and a cabinet belonging to Empress Eugenie of France, who they knew personally. Actually, the story behind the cabinet is that Eugenie didn’t realise it had been sold, and got a nasty shock when she went to East Cliff Hall for a visit and saw it in pride of place in the drawing room.  The dress in the picture above is a re-creation of Annie’s wedding dress, based off of a photograph taken on her wedding day.

  

The main hall of the house was similarly extravagant, and contained even more busts, paintings by Rossetti et al, and a fountain inspired by the Moorish room at Leighton House (which was one of the only parts of Leighton House that I didn’t complain about).  The ornamentation even carried on into the public restrooms…I strongly recommend that you use the ones in the actual house rather than the ones in the gift shop or cafe, because they are worth seeing, in particular the ladies’ loo (I peeped into the men’s and it was nice, but not as elaborate as the women’s toilet).

  

There was an extension added on to the house for art galleries (done whilst the Russell-Cotes’s were still alive, as they had always planned to donate the building to Bournemouth after they died (they had children, by the way, they probably just reckoned they didn’t need the house), and had some of the house open to the public once a month whilst they were still living in it), though unfortunately only a couple of the galleries were open, because they were in the process of putting together a new exhibit.

  

Merton and Annie definitely seemed to be partial to statues and busts (though apparently Merton collected most of the art; Annie was more into natural history), and my favourite piece here was a bust of George Bernard Shaw (above right) done, oddly enough, by Kathleen Scott, widow of Robert Falcon Scott of polar fame (bust on the left is Nelson, no idea who the sculptor was).

  

Now, I want to talk about the stained glass on the cupola over the main hall, because that is what convinced me that I needed to visit the house in the first place. As you can hopefully tell from the picture above (click to enlarge), it has bats and owls on it, flying through a night sky. If I could only have one element from this house in my imaginary dream home, this is what I’m taking, no doubt about it.

 

Though the upstairs rooms admittedly weren’t as grand as the ones downstairs, they were nonetheless my favourite section of the house, because they were more straightforward museum rooms, with actual labels, and I got to learn more about Merton and Annie’s travels and the things they collected. One room had objects ranging from a decorative band that was on the outside of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake (Merton and Annie were both born in 1835, so I imagine they were too young to have actually attended her wedding), to an instrument made from a crocodile’s head, and, in keeping with the crocodile theme, some child-sized ankle bracelets found in the stomach of a crocodile in India, meaning some unlucky little girl got eaten.

  

There was also a “Mikado Room” built to house Merton’s Asian artefacts, and another room with souvenirs from their trip to Russia and Scandinavia, including a child’s sled embellished with some scary toothed geese. The signage in here included extracts from Annie’s diary entries during the Russia trip, which were pretty interesting. They visited about twenty years before the Revolution, but apparently could already see signs of unrest.

  

Lest you think that the things poor Annie collected had been left out, never fear! There was also a whole room full of natural history stuff, like a case full of stuffed kiwis that she acquired in New Zealand (obviously). The bedroom she was forced to move to shortly before she died was also up here; she had to move because it was near the only room that could accommodate her nurse (I guess because all the other rooms were too nice?).

  

My favourite decorative border in the house was in what I’m going to call the “Crow Room” (unless those are blackbirds? I like birds, but I’m not great at identifying them). I especially love the golden moon that’s been added in. (Many of the rooms also had beautiful gold stars painted up near the ceiling. This was really my kind of house.)

  

The strangest room had to be the Henry Irving Room, which was like a bizarre shrine to the actor Henry Irving. Apparently he was a good friend of Merton and Annie, and they loved his acting, so were devastated when he died, and set a whole room aside for Irving artefacts. I know Irving was a famous actor, but I don’t really know all that much about him, so I couldn’t fully appreciate the Irvingness of this room, though I did admire the weirdness.

  

More stained glass of note (because those damn Victorians really excelled at stained glass); the piece over the centre of the upstairs hallway. It’s a little hard to see, but the corners of each larger square are the signs of the zodiac. I was particularly partial to Taurus, who you might just be able to spot (and I’ve just noticed that Aquarius looks rather like the Mannequin Pis).

  

There were so many more fabulous details in the house that I’d love to show you, but we’d be here all day, so let me move on to the gardens. Apparently, the gardens once stretched for quite a ways around the house, but they’ve all been swallowed up by real estate, so all that’s left now is the grotto area, and a small Japanese garden. Unusually, the Russell-Cotes’s didn’t have any live-in servants, instead relying on staff from the hotel next door to keep their house running, so there was a secret gate in the garden that they could cut through on their way over. (Merton and Annie did own the hotel too at one point, though I’m not sure if it was while they were living in East Cliff House. I do hope that the staff were properly compensated for their work, and not just expected to do two jobs for the same pay, but knowing Victorians, my hopes aren’t high.)

  

I certainly enjoyed pretty much every aspect of this house’s appearance, inside and out, though I’m still not sure how I feel about Merton and Annie – they were definitely a fascinating couple who had amazing experiences, but I feel like them using the hotel’s staff is probably a bit shady, and I’m still bothered that I don’t know the source of their wealth. But, they are long-dead, and the house as it stands today is magnificent, and worth the relatively modest price of admission (I mean, can you imagine what the National Trust or English Heritage would charge to see something like this? Probably at least 15 quid, if not more!).  I do love labels, so I would have liked to see some in the actual house, but I can understand that it would detract from the experience they’re going for. Perhaps if they put a couple smaller guides in each room in place of the big books, it would be better, because some of the books contained stuff like a list of restoration expenses, or a lengthy history of some of the artistic styles represented in the paintings, and it was way more than I cared to read and came at the expense of information about some of the smaller, but more intriguing looking objects. Because of that, I’ll give it 4/5, but it is a most excellent looking house, and I think Merton would be happy to see all the birds that still frequent the garden.

  

 

Tolpuddle, Dorset: Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum

This is an odd one, and not only because “martyrs” is surprisingly hard to spell. Having never heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs before, when Marcus first proposed going to this museum, I assumed they were Protestants burnt at the stake during the reign of Mary I, like the Oxford Martyrs, Lewes Martyrs, et al. Or at least hanged, or otherwise killed for their beliefs, as the term martyr usually implies. But no. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of men in the 19th century who were transported to Australia for the crime of swearing a secret oath, but allowed to come back to England after a couple years when the public outcry got to be too much.

  

I admit that when I first heard this story, I was probably offensively flippant about the whole thing…when you’re expecting people to have been killed brutally to have earned the title of martyr, somehow a brief spell in Australia doesn’t really compare (I may have said something to the effect of, “So they got a lovely free Australian holiday? Some martyrs!”). But, this is clearly something that the people of Tolpuddle take very seriously, even hosting a yearly festival and procession in their memory, so I was willing to see the museum to learn more.

  

Tolpuddle is a “blink and you’ll miss it” sized village, so I wasn’t expecting the museum to be particularly large either, and I was right. But it is free, so there we are. 95% of the museum simply consisted of posters on the wall, in the style of protest or trade union banners, with several touchscreens and only a small glass case in the centre for artefacts, of which very few were particularly interesting. However, the posters did contain a lot more information about the story of the martyrs, so at least I learned something.

  

Basically, in 1834, a group of villagers formed an early example of a trade union to protest their low wages (six shillings a week, which according to the chart on the museum’s wall, wouldn’t have even been enough to buy adequate food for their families, let alone pay rent or buy clothing). Though trade unions weren’t technically illegal, swearing secret oaths was, and that was what got the men in trouble when one of their fellow labourers sold them out. A “rigged trial” followed, and six men: George Loveless, James Brine, James Hammett, James Loveless, and Thomas and John Standfield (they were father and son), were sentenced to be transported to Australia for their “crime.” (The museum was real salty about Lord Melbourne and the Whigs.) Protests back in England ultimately forced the government to pardon them, although they took their time about it, and the pardon took a couple of years to reach Australia. The men eventually returned to England, and were given plots of land in Essex to make up for their ordeal, but most of them realised they no longer felt safe in England, and emigrated to Canada together, where George Loveless, the “ringleader,” wrote several books about the martyrs’ plight, which is why the story probably has stuck in the minds of villagers to this day.

 

As you might expect from all this, Tolpuddle is an unusually left-leaning village (which you wouldn’t think was the case in the 19th century, given what happened, but the earliest commemoration was in 1875, when the only martyr to remain in Tolpuddle was given an engraved watch), and the shop was essentially full of Labour-themed souvenirs, including Jeremy Corbyn mugs, a rather splendid (and expensive!) Tony Benn bowl, and some pretty cool t-shirts (though they were definitely walking the line between politics and straight-up propaganda. I could see those of a more conservative bent not feeling entirely comfortable here). The building the museum is housed in, as well as the surrounding cottages, were built in 1934 to commemorate the centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and were intended to house retired agricultural trade unionists (which may still be the case today; the website isn’t entirely clear on this).

There are apparently a few other related sites around the village, including the tree that the martyrs initially met under, creatively called the “Martyrs Tree” (you can get a t-shirt featuring it), and the grave of James Hammett, one of the martyrs, but we were in a bit of a rush, so didn’t stop to see them. While I still think the term “martyrs” is a bit, well, misleading (…or maybe just confusing?) in describing their experience (maybe they could be the Tolpuddle Six?), they were nonetheless extremely unfairly treated (transportation was definitely no picnic), as were many other working men and women throughout the 19th century (and beyond), and the publicity their case attracted played an important role in the shaping of British trade unions and the fight for workers’ rights. Though it is undoubtedly an interesting story, I could have just read it on the website, as the museum didn’t really contain any artefacts worth noting, other than the court (police?) book recording the names of the six and a physical description of each man. So it’s worth stopping in if you’re passing through the area anyway as we were, but I wouldn’t make a special trip for it unless you’re coming for the festival, which takes place in July, and seems to be a pretty big event. 1.5/5.

Blandford, Dorset: The Blandford Fashion Museum

I make no attempt to hide the fact that I have the most juvenile sense of humour, so I’ll just admit it up-front: I only visited the Blandford Fashion Museum because it was built by Bastards.  Yes, the Georgian building that the museum is housed in was literally built by a pair of Bastards; the brothers John and William Bastard. I’m pretty sure bastard has been a derogatory term since at least medieval times, so I’m not quite sure why the two were saddled with such an unfortunate surname, but they don’t seem to have lived up to it in either sense of the word, since they were both legitimate Bastard children, and they rebuilt most of Blandford after the fire of 1731, and it is a reasonable looking town (despite it also having an unfortunate name).

  

Anyway, our visit to the Bastard House, I mean, Blandford Fashion Museum, got off to a somewhere awkward start due to some confusing signage outside. The museum is also home to a tearoom, and the sign outside that said they were only open til 4…as it was already 4:02 by the time we arrived, we thought we were too late. However, when we walked around to the museum entrance, there was an “Open” sign hanging from the gate, and a sign saying that their spring hours, which began on the first of April (this was the end of April) were from 10-5. There was a gentleman working in the garden just next to the front door, so we asked him if they were still open, and he seemed uncertain, but told us to go in anyway and see if anyone was at the admissions desk. Fortunately, there was still a volunteer there, but she was busy counting up the day’s takings when we walked in. Feeling uncertain, we offered to leave, but she assured us that it was fine, because they were supposed to let people in until 4:30 anyway, so we paid her a fiver each, and began to look around the museum.

  

Unfortunately, while the admissions lady was perfectly nice, and didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry, the same couldn’t be said of the tearoom staff. Though we had absolutely no intention of taking tea, and told them as much, we had to listen to the continued grumblings of the tearoom ladies throughout our visit, as they bitched about having already closed the tearoom, and wanting to go home (and to be honest, I’m not quite sure why they couldn’t have just gone home. They certainly didn’t contribute anything positive to our visit). They had already turned the lights out in most of the museum, so the poor volunteer at the admissions desk, who clearly had some mobility issues, had to come over and turn them back on for us (which is why some of the pictures are really dark), and unlock the rooms that they had already locked up. We felt really horrible and guilty about the whole thing, but we had already paid, so we just rushed through the museum as quickly as we could, feeling uncomfortable the whole while.

  

As for the museum itself, I think I would have quite enjoyed it if I didn’t have to hurry through. The collections were arranged in 10 or 11 different rooms of the house, and whilst there were only a handful of outfits in most of the rooms, the signage was generally quite good, and some of the clothes were really neat. Take that fruit-print dress from the ’50s, above left, which I would totally wear (actually, I have a pineapple dress, but it’s not as good as that one!).

  

Sadly, there was no mention of the Bastards in the house (the admissions lady was telling us a bit about the history of the museum, which was started by a lady called Mrs. Penny, and I was already biting the inside of my lip so I didn’t start laughing in anticipation of her talking about the Bastard brothers, but she left them out altogether. Eagle-eyed Marcus did spot one mention of them outside a different building, as you’ll see at the end of the post to prove I’m not making them up), but there were a few amusing anecdotes amongst the object labels, including one about the man who devised and wore the first top hat in 1797. Apparently, “passers-by reacted with horror” and he was later fined for daring to wear such an unusual piece of headwear. Of course, a few decades on everyone was wearing the damn things!

  

And, as you can see, the mannequins were also pretty good (i.e. creepy)!  The earliest pieces of clothing were Georgian, and there were a couple Victorian dresses, but most of the collection was 20th century. There were also separate displays of hats, shoes, lace, buttons (including Dorset knobs, for which the bread products are named, due to their resemblance to the buttons), and coats.

  

I am not a fan of winter; in fact, pretty much the only positive, as far as I’m concerned, is getting to wear a good coat, so I really enjoyed the coat room. I probably have about ten winter coats already (in fairness to me, they’ve been acquired over a number of years, and that’s pretty much all people see of your outfit for four or five months out of the year, so I don’t think ten is an excessive number), but I would definitely happily add that cool reversible coat from the ’20s (above left) to my collection, though it doesn’t look all that warm.

  

Anyway, I definitely think this museum had some potential (though a fiver might be a bit steep), but our visit was unfortunately tainted by those tearoom ladies and their attitude problem. If the museum is actually open until 5, as the sign outside and the website claim (and the volunteer agreed with), I don’t understand why it was a problem for us to visit at 4 (and we were out the door by 4:30, so they still technically got to leave early). I think they need to sort out what their opening hours actually are, and make sure all the employees and volunteers are aware of them. Also, although I enjoyed most of the signs, one of the rooms mysteriously had none, just empty stands (perhaps it was those tearoom ladies being overzealous in shutting the place down early?) which is a shame, because additional information was definitely crucial to the experience, and I would have liked to know something about the dresses I was looking at in that room. So 2/5 for our particular awkward experience, which I would like to stress is not the fault of the volunteer, just those mean tearoom ladies (who were presumably being paid), but I’d be willing to bump it up to 3 if that hadn’t happened, because the displays were clearly lovingly arranged by someone, and the signage was surprisingly good (save for a mention of Barbra “Streisland” and of course the missing labels) for a small local museum.

Dorchester, Dorset: The Keep Military Museum

Of course, Dorset wasn’t all just knobs. I also found time to visit some museums. The glorious, castle-like Keep Military Museum is situated rather incongruously in the middle of Dorchester, sandwiched between the much less attractive modern barracks, and a large pay-and-display car park (and a note on the car park; there is a small, free car park behind the museum for visitors, so you don’t need to pay to park unless there’s no space in the museum lot). When I was looking for museums to visit in Dorchester (which is where the Knob Festival took place), the two that stood out to me were the Keep and the Dorset County Museum; sorely tempted though I was by the Crystal Palace style gallery at the Dorset County Museum, the promise of mannequins (and bizarrely, Hitler’s desk) won me over to the Keep in the end (and with each museum charging £7 for admission, I certainly wasn’t going to visit both!).

  

So, after parting with £7 each, and undergoing a brief interrogation from the admissions desk guy about how I’d heard of the place (he was perfectly nice about it, he was just very anxious to know EXACTLY where I’d heard of them, and apparently “Uh, I just googled ‘museums in Dorchester,’ and you popped up,” wasn’t specific enough) Marcus and I were ready to enter the Keep. However, we’d arrived at exactly the same time as a group of elderly military enthusiasts (I think they may have been veterans) who were being given a tour of the museum, so one of the volunteers suggested that we start with one of the upper floors first so we didn’t get stuck behind them, which was much appreciated. Thus, we began the ascent up one of the spiral staircases running through the Keep, and emerged on the first floor.

  

This floor contained a chronological history of the Devon and Dorset Regiments, which are the regiments that the museum is dedicated to (being located in Dorset and all). Most of the local regiments were formed in the 17th and 18th centuries, so some of the earliest artefacts were from the American Revolution. As I mentioned in the National Army Museum post, I read Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition, about Benedict Arnold, not too long ago, so I was in the perfect position to appreciate all the John Andre stuff in their collection. John Andre was a British Army officer who was sent to collect maps from Benedict Arnold after Arnold decided to turn traitor; however, he was captured by American militiamen on his way back to British lines, and because General Clinton had promised to protect Arnold, he couldn’t exchange Arnold for Andre, so Andre was executed in Arnold’s stead. There’s actually a rather horrible story about how Andre was executed…because he was technically an officer, he was hoping to be executed by firing squad, but because he wasn’t in uniform when he was caught, Washington decided to make an example of him by treating him as a spy, thus executing him by hanging. Andre wasn’t told this until the day of his execution, when he was marched from his cell, and led to the purpose-built gallows. Upon seeing them, his knees buckled, because he thought he was getting the firing squad (hangings back then were still by short drop, so you died of strangulation, which took ages. It was much more prolonged and horrible than firing squad). I felt pretty sick reading this story in Philbrick’s book, and helpfully, the museum provided a small diorama of his hanging (so now I can REALLY visualise it). There was also a lock of Andre’s hair, given by him to Peggy Shippen (Benedict Arnold’s wife, but she and Andre had had a flirtation going before she married Arnold…it’s a long story), and a few more of his possessions.

   

But let’s leave the depressing story of Andre there (lest you feel too bad for him, you should know that he was super snobby, although that doesn’t mean he deserved hanging), and talk about something more cheerful. Like all the dressing up opportunities this museum provides!  As is pretty much a requirement for any museum that talks about WWI, they had a mock-up of some trenches, and one of the rooms had some clothes hanging on a hook, so even though I’m not 100% sure if I should have done so, I obviously put them on and posed (it was a lovely coat too. So big and warm). I also grabbed a helmet and gun in the WWII display (I’ve trimmed my bangs since then! I was in the middle of an attempt to grow them out at the time, but I just couldn’t deal with them covering half my face anymore).

  

We found “Hitler’s desk” up here. It might not even have actually been Hitler’s desk, though it was apparently retrieved from the bunker where Hitler was holed up at the end of the war, so it was certainly at least a Nazi desk (not that that’s really something to brag about). To be honest, I found the information about British rationing way more interesting…I was initially somewhat perturbed to see the tiny amount of cheese I would have been allocated, so was relieved to see that vegetarians were given extra cheese.  I just hope it was a nice mature cheddar or something, rather than the horrible government-grade cheese that I suspect it probably was.

  

The next floor was the medals floor, and really all that can be said about this is “wow, that’s a lot of medals!” In fact, that’s exactly what I said when I saw it, and I had to laugh when another couple came up a minute after we did, and the guy immediately exclaimed, “wow, that’s a lot of medals!”

  

The third floor carried on with the history of the regiments in post-WWII engagements, though there was also a splendid matchstick model of the Keep hidden in the corner. I should mention that most of the labels throughout the museum were written on wooden paddles hanging from the side of each case. There weren’t enough visitors that there was an issue with having to wait to read them, but I do think it might have been easier if labels had actually been put on the cases, rather than having to keep looking back and forth to figure out what each number was. At least there was additional information about everything though, unlike at the NAM.

  

We finally made our way up to the top of the Keep (all the floors of the museum are lift-accessible, but you can only get up to the roof by stairs, unfortunately. Also, if you can’t take the stairs, you sadly miss out on all the military cartoons they have posted on the way up), and its panoramic views of Dorchester. Despite the Keep’s Norman appearance, it was actually only completed in 1879, and rather boringly served as an administrative centre for the Dorsetshire Regiment before being turned into a museum (although soldiers were de-loused in the room inside the turret you can see in the photo on the left, which is kind of interesting). From the top of the Keep, you can see the Little Keep, which was the home of the old militia barracks, completed in 1866, and is still more attractive than the new barracks, but probably wouldn’t meet the modern army’s needs.

  

Since we’d missed the ground floor initially to give the tour group time to pass through, we headed back down there last, and honestly, I’m glad we saw it at the end of our visit, because it was the best part! The mannequins were just fantastic, and there was some pretty cool stuff down here, like a prison cell that soldiers were kept in to await court martial.

  

There was also some fascinating, albeit depressing information about the soldiers who were executed for desertion in WWI (three of them were from the Dorsetshire Regiment, and their stories were told here), traditional army punishments (each more horrible than the last, these included flogging, being made to sit on some kind of wooden “horse” torture device, having your heels somehow forced up to your chin, and a form of water torture that was so painful it made even the toughest men faint. Makes branding seem almost pleasant by comparison), and the difference in the quality of life between 19th century soldiers, and their farmer counterparts (hint: it was much better being a farmer).

  

To end on a more positive note, there was another dressing-up box in a room at the back of the museum, and since no one else was there, I indulged myself again! (I know the hat doesn’t go with the first jacket (and my salute’s a bit crap in the second jacket), but they didn’t have one that did, and I didn’t want to go hat-less. And god, I really need one of those WWI overcoats for myself. SO GOOD.)

Before we went, I read some reviews comparing the Keep to the NAM in London, and they said the two were of similar quality (intended as a compliment). Since these were written before the new NAM opened, it gives me some insight into what the old museum must have been like, and validates my position in my NAM post that the old museum must have been better than the new one in terms of artefact display, because the Keep was pretty damn good about displaying their artefacts, despite the wooden paddle labels that made me feel like I was a pupil in a ye olde one room schoolhouse. Although I didn’t really find much of interest in the medals floor, I get that they’re understandably proud of them and want to display them somewhere (it would help if they explained how the medals were earned, because they only did that in a couple of instances, and I’m sure the stories would be interesting), and on the whole, it was definitely the biggest, as well as one of the better regimental museums I’ve seen, especially the ground and first floors. 3.5/5 for the museum, and they deserve another medal in their massive collection for providing so many superb dressing-up opportunities.

 

 

The Dorset Knob Throwing Festival!

I do love a bizarre local festival (see Kattenstoet), and the Dorset Knob Throwing Festival certainly falls under that category. I first became aware of it a few years ago, via a cooking show, I think (can’t remember which one), and this year, the stars aligned and I was able to attend (OK, Marcus and I were planning on going somewhere in England on the early May bank holiday weekend anyway, and we were thinking of Leicester (to see some Daniel Lambert sites), until I thought, “wait, when’s the Dorset Knob Festival?” Turns out it is also on the early May bank holiday weekend. Decision made).

I’ve been to enough, shall we say, provincial festivals and fetes in England to know roughly what to expect, so I wasn’t setting my hopes too high, but I was still expecting an amusing day out based solely on the obvious sense of humour possessed by the festival organisers. But first things first, what, you may ask, is a Dorset knob, and why is there a festival based around throwing them?

In the words of Dorset Phil, who performed at the Knob Festival, and described them more eloquently than I can: “Knob knob knob, Dorset knob, I likes mine with cheese. Hard as wood, tastes real good, but it goes soft when I dunk it in my tea.” (I recommend watching the whole video; the verses are pretty great too, and it is damn catchy.) Basically, they are small, hard, dry, extremely bland (I don’t agree with the “tastes real good” line) biscuity things that used to be generally available in the area, but are now produced by only one baking company, and only seasonally.  They’re made out of triple-baked bread dough, so it’s sort of like what would happen if you left a small roll somewhere for a good month or so to dry out. And yes, people eat them with cheese, typically a local blue cheese, which is how they were serving them at the festival (I did not have one there, because I hate blue cheese), but you can also dunk them in tea, which is how the competitors eat them in the knob eating contest. As for why they throw them…well, I genuinely can’t find an answer to that, but perhaps it’s related to similar traditions elsewhere in England of throwing hot cross buns. Ten years ago, someone seemed to realise that Dorset knobs had a hilarious name, started an innuendo-laden festival in their honour, and it’s grown from there, even having to move to a new location this year to accommodate the crowds.

  

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t due to cooperate on the day of the festival, as it was supposed to rain all day, only getting worse as the day progressed. So I threw on wellies and my raincoat, and we showed up right when the festival opened, before the rain got really bad. This turned out to be a smart move, as we were able to park relatively close to the field where the festival was taking place, and it wasn’t super crowded.

  

Admission was a fiver, and I was initially a little dismayed when I saw the venue…though I had been expecting crap, I was hoping I’d be wrong, but it just looked like a very standard English outdoor festival – some stalls by local food producers, and then some random generic crap for sale, like those wooden bowls and leatherware that seem to pop up at every market. However, once we got inside and saw all the knob-themed things, I started to perk up, because it was funny, and also rather delightful.

  

In addition to the knob throwing (of which more in a second, but I think they really missed a trick by not calling it “knob tossing”), there were SO MANY OTHER knob-themed games, including putt-the-knob, knob and spoon race, splat-the-knob, guess the weight of the big knob, knob-spotting, etc etc. I was also thrilled to see that they had t-shirts, tote bags, and bumper stickers for sale, because one of my main aims in visiting was to score myself a knob t-shirt (mission accomplished, though maybe they should consider having black t-shirts in women’s sizes. I’m not a huge fan of pink, and they were already sold out of men’s smalls in black). But of course we started with the knob throwing. You got three tries for a pound and you had to throw underarm, and it is not as easy as it looks. They’re light, and they don’t go very far (I think a hot cross bun would be a hell of a lot easier to throw). I definitely did not take home the glorious bronze knob for my attempts.

As you can see, I also pinned the knob on the Cerne giant. Although I did indeed get it in the right place, anatomically (the blindfold wasn’t very effective), you actually had to land in the correct, pre-chosen secret square, which could have been anywhere on the board, to win the prize. We also attempted to guess the number of knobs in a jar, albeit unsuccessfully. Once we’d had enough of knob games, we wandered around a bit and dropped far too much money on food, including some surprisingly excellent brownies, local honey fudge, a three pack of beer from Cerne Abbas Brewery (which honestly, we bought mainly for the bottles with their Cerne giant label), and of course, an ice cream (though I pretty much just ate sweets, I was pleasantly surprised by how many savoury veggie options there were, including a vendor selling steamed puddings filled with dal that looked intriguing, but the food tent was hellishly crowded on account of the rain, and I wasn’t up for braving it again after I’d passed her stall), and then stood around listening to the musical stylings of the aforementioned Dorset Phil (who writes songs about drinking, and Dorset, and sometimes both, as in the case of his Badger Ale song), who I actually really enjoyed (but then I quite like the Wurzels, and he had a similar sort of amusing regional accent vibe).

Other than “awwwing” at all the cute puppies people had with them, there wasn’t really much else to do, and the rain was coming down harder, so we called it a day. Honestly, considering the size of the festival, I was amazed we spent almost two hours there, and that I enjoyed myself as much as I did. It was indeed, as the sign at the entrance promised, a “knobtastic day.” Kudos to the organisers for having a great sense of humour, and to everyone working there for being really friendly. It kind of reminded me of the funfair in that episode of Father Ted when Ted is trying to get interviewed by that TV show (minus the shitty rides), but it was self-consciously so – they’re definitely in on the joke!  The whole thing was really quite charming, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would go back again, especially if I lived closer!  3.5/5.

Cambridge: The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

So you might have been thinking that the Sedgwick Museum was my last Cambridge post, since I mentioned we dropped in on the way back to the station, but nope! I meant to write this post weeks ago, right after I went to Cambridge, which is when I wrote the other posts, but I ran out of time, and then I started my job and it totally slipped my mind. But (obviously) I remembered eventually (seeing the pictures in my media library when I went to upload new stuff helped), so here it is. And I promise, then I’m done with Cambridge (at least for the foreseeable future)!

  

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is right around the corner from the Whipple Museum, and next door to the Sedgwick, so it’s part of the whole museum district of Cambridge (the Polar Museum and the Fitzwilliam stand alone). It is also free, like every other Cambridge University museum I’ve been talking about. When we walked in, we had the misfortune of being right behind a group of students who were being given a tour around the museum (and I felt really bad for their guide. When she asked if anyone was interested in archaeology or anthropology, no one raised their hands. Don’t young people watch Indiana Jones anymore? I mean, I know those films don’t reflect reality, but I don’t know how anyone could watch Raiders and not think archaeology is cool), so we decided to go in the opposite direction, and start with the temporary exhibition “Another India,” about artefacts from minority populations in India.

  

This is definitely just my own ignorance showing, but I never realised that India still had native, tribal populations, so I was really intrigued and eager to learn more about them. The exhibition talked about the impact colonialism had on them, as well as displaying a really striking range of artefacts. I particularly loved the painted tiles, and the head-taker’s ornament (that skull thing), both of which are shown above, but I seem to remember it being kind of dark in there, so you couldn’t read the labels unless you were right on top of them.

  

We then proceeded up to the first floor, which reminded me of nothing so much as a condensed version of the Horniman (the anthropological bits of the Horniman, anyway). It contained artefacts from cultures all around the world, arranged roughly geographically. There was simply too much to see in the limited time available to us, so I focused on things that I thought were neat (which I guess is what I always do, but even more so when there’s a time crunch). I love Day of the Dead figures, and some of the ones they had here were pretty great (I bought a whole diorama of Day of the Dead mariachi figurines when I was in Tijuana years ago, but the glass on the case broke on the flight home, which I think my mother used as an excuse to throw them out a few years later, after I moved to Britain. They were awesome though. I’d like to get more!).

  

Unfortunately, the students followed us up here pretty shortly after, and though the guide did a great job of trying to keep them corralled in the middle of the room (I should add that these were presumably Cambridge students, or at least of a high school-university age (I am real bad at gauging the ages of people younger than me), so yeah, it’s not like they were little kids or anything), but they were still wandering around a bit being distracting, and it was time to move on. It was clear before leaving though, that this was the oldest gallery of the museum (in terms of the set-up of the displays), and probably the only section (save for the temporary exhibit) with adequate labelling, so I feel like I could have learned a lot if I had more time. Also please note the awesome totem pole that dominates the building (it can be seen in the opening picture); the guide was asking the students to guess the animals on it as we were leaving, and they got them all hilariously wrong (c’mon, at least pick animals that actually live in the Pacific Northwest!).

  

The second, and final floor, was probably the most intriguing floor in concept, if not in execution. The premise here was that anthropology and archaeology are subjects that are in constant flux, and that anthropology in particular has come a long way from its original, often racist roots, and as such, the museum was a work in progress, and the visitor should play a role in deciding what its future should be. So they asked you to look around, and then fill out a survey about your experience (though there was only one other survey in the box when I put mine in, and this at the end of the day, so I don’t know how successful this has been. Maybe if they made an actual volunteer hand them out, instead of leaving people to their own devices, so they’d feel guilted into doing it).

  

Anyway, this floor was thus mainly just an assortment of objects, grouped by type, and beautifully arranged in cases together, but lacking pretty much any labels at all, with a few exceptions for things like African masks, and the Mayan (?) head shown above right. (I think of him as Olmec, but only because that was the name of the talking head at the entrance to the Hidden Temple. I don’t know whether it was actually Olmec in origin, because I don’t have a picture of its caption (also, if I could go on any stupid game show ever, my first choice would definitely be Legends of the Hidden Temple, followed by Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, which is much better than the American version. I watched Legends every day when I was a kid)). So obviously it would have been much improved by better signage (which I guess is the whole thing they were trying to get away from, because someone talking about other cultures will always lack innate understanding of those cultures, and thus misinterpret things, but you still need to give people some context), which is more or less what I said in my survey (I also went on about Indiana Jones for a bit, because they are like my favourite movies (except that one we don’t talk about)).

  

We finished up by seeing the things on the ground floor that we missed on our way in, because students. These included a neat skeleton in a stone coffin, along with the bones of a mouse and shrew who had gnawed the body, and a bust of Jupiter (not Jesus, though they look similar, which probably makes sense, given how much of Christianity is pieced together from other religions), as well as other less interesting Roman bits and pieces that had been recovered from around Cambridge. Though this museum was basically fine, I did find it somewhat disappointing compared to what I was expecting (the Horniman sets a high bar, as does the Field Museum is Chicago, which I haven’t actually been to since I was a teenager, but remember fondly). I give them points for attempting to be culturally sensitive, but I don’t think that should come at the price of providing adequate signage in some of the galleries. 3/5.

Cambridge: The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

I have to confess that the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences was pretty much my concession to Marcus. Not that he didn’t enjoy all the other museums, but the Sedgwick is one I probably would have skipped if I was on my own, because other than the occasional dinosaur bone, earth science doesn’t exactly thrill me. But it was right next to the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, and on the way back to the train station, so there was really no reason not to visit (note that unlike the Whipple Museum, for the Sedgwick, you really do have to walk around to the back for the main entrance, but it’s worth it for the splendid staircases).

  

Except for the impossible-to-miss Iguanodon, first impressions of the Sedgwick were not great. It appeared to be a room full of case after case of well, rocks. Still, I spent a while studying the Iguanodon, and was interested to learn that while undoubtedly more accurate than Owen’s hilarious, albeit rather charming version at Crystal Palace, the Iguanodon at the Sedgwick is also outdated according to modern theories that have the Iguanodon walking on four legs, rather than two. However, they’re chosen to leave him in his current position to show how theories change over time, and he certainly looks more imposing this way.

  

Happily, after quickly making my way past all those cases of rocks, I was excited to find that there was more dinosaur stuff at the back of the room, including the excellent painting shown above, and the giant Plesiosaur on the right that looks a lot like how the Loch Ness monster is meant to look, if, you know, it was real (which it’s not). Even cooler was the fact that a lot of these fossils were purchased from the famous Mary Anning.

  

I was also glad that there was a whole other section to the museum, completely hidden from the entrance, that contained more interesting stuff than just rocks. Such as loads of plant and animal fossils, included some collected by Charles Darwin and other famous geologists, and even re-creations of what some of the animals would have looked like. Check out the largest spider that ever lived, which I am clearly more than a little disgusted by. I don’t even know how you would go about killing something like that…the horrible crunchy squish that would result makes me feel a little sick just thinking about it.

  

But the best section was still to come. It was the second half of the first room, which we came back to last. First of all, there were some more awesome skeletons, including one of a hippo fossil found near Cambridge (because 120,000 years ago, the same species of hippo that now lives only in Africa used to live in Britain as well), and a Giant Irish Elk.

  

Then, there was a whole display devoted to Charles Darwin (in addition to the fossils he collected that I already mentioned). It detailed his years as a geologist, which is what he was at the start of his career (he also attended Cambridge, which is why he was featured here) before getting into biology, and focused mainly on his voyage on the Beagle, with many, many artefacts from that voyage (he distributed his collection to various friends upon his return, but a lot of the things he collected seemed to have ultimately ended up here). I’d just been reading up on Darwin (well, sort of indirectly through the story of his beard in Victorians Undone, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the Victorians, medical history, or the history of the body generally), so I thought this was all really interesting, and quite relevant to what I’d just been reading, since it talked a bit about his health complaints.

  

The final section of interest (to me anyway, though I think Marcus was most impressed by the collection of rock hammers belonging to famous geologists) was a whole case full of information about the role of the members of the Sedgwick Club in WWI (the Sedgwick Club being Cambridge’s geological society named after pioneering geologist Adam Sedgwick, who is also the museum’s eponym). It talked about how geologists were used to supervise tunneling operations throughout the war, since Flanders has different bedrock than France, and different methods were needed for each type, especially when calculating the number of explosives needed to blow up German trenches from underneath!  It also mentioned a few prominent geologists from that time, and how they served; the one that caught my eye was Gertrude Elles. Elles grew up in Wimbledon, which was neat in itself (since I live there), but she was also remarkable for being a female geologist in the Edwardian era, and for serving with the Red Cross during the war, for which she was awarded an MBE.

  

Even though I wasn’t the most enthusiastic visitor at first, by the end I was glad that we had found things we could both enjoy in the museum, and I was excited that I even managed to learn something new about the First World War!  Plus everyone likes dinosaurs (don’t they?!) and the museum is of course free, so it’s certainly worth at least dropping in, because you might discover something interesting (amongst all the rocks, or maybe even the rocks themselves if that’s what floats your boat). 3.5/5, better than expected, and worth the effort just for those fabulous bison on the staircase.