WWII

London: The Imperial War Museum

I blogged about the First World War gallery at the Imperial War Museum almost three years ago, and genuinely had every intention of returning soon after to blog about the rest of the museum…but somehow I’ve only just got around to making that return visit, I guess because Lambeth isn’t really somewhere I frequent (I’ve only been in the vicinity a handful of times since moving away from Elephant and Castle eight years ago).  Although some of the surrounding streets aren’t overly salubrious, the IWM itself is housed in a superb building, as you can probably see. Actually, the building is particularly interesting, because it used to be Bethlem Royal Hospital aka Bedlam, the most infamous psychiatric hospital of them all.  In medieval times, Bedlam was located close to what would become Liverpool Street, but by the early 19th century, space in the City was at a premium, so the hospital moved out to this purpose-built building in Lambeth, and there it remained until 1930, when it moved again to its current home in Beckenham. They knocked down the wings (which is where the wards were), and opened the central administrative hall as the Imperial War Museum in 1936. I don’t know about you, but I would be terrified enough if I was being committed even without being brought to a building this imposing, so I think it works much better as a museum, though its past does admittedly give it a creepy touch that I enjoy.

  

Like all of London’s major museums, the IWM is free and huge. It actually is still really imposing on the inside, even though it’s obviously been redesigned a few times since the ’30s (most recently just a few years ago).  I think the concept of a “war museum” itself is really interesting, because it’s genuinely not a military museum; you’ll find very little about battles and such in here. It’s more about how war impacts society (mainly World Wars 1 and 2, though there is a bit in here on more recent conflicts).

  

Because I already blogged about the First World War gallery, and the museum is so extensive, I decided to skip that section entirely this time around, and start with WWII (I’ll refer you to my earlier post if you’d like to read about their WWI collection). I’d enjoyed their WWI stuff so much that my hopes were high for WWII. Unfortunately, the galleries just didn’t measure up to expectations.

  

The main Second World War gallery was called “Turning Points: 1934-1945” and its intention is to “explore key moments of the Second World War through the connections between people’s lives and the objects on display,” which sounds like it could be a really interesting idea, but somehow it just didn’t work out that way. For starters, the objects were meant to be grouped together in themes like “War on the Way” and “Shifting Sands,” which translated to a few big things, like planes or cars, all displayed together, and then further on, a few more motorcycles or cars or whatever. The themes didn’t really come across very well at all. Another issue was that someone had made the (stupid) decision to make all the object labels in this gallery stickers stuck to the OUTSIDE of the cases.  Well, as you can probably guess, visitors had picked at the edges, because they could (I don’t necessarily think it was malicious or even intentional, because I’m totally the sort of person that will pick at the peeling edges of something without even thinking about it, and other people are probably the same), and some of them were so worn down that whole words were missing from the captions. They only redid this section three or four years ago, and you’d think they would have aimed for labels with more longevity than that. It’s fine if they wanted to use stickers because they were planning on moving objects around a lot, so it would be easy to change the labels, but why not at least stick them on the inside of the case where people couldn’t get at them? It made everything look kind of grubby and cheap.  It was also weird that almost nothing in here was interactive, given how much of the WWI gallery is. I think it would have really benefited from offering something hands-on, because it’s rather boring as is.

 

There were a few interesting objects in here, like a map Rommel had personally plotted military campaigns on, and Montgomery’s car, but I didn’t really get a sense of how the war affected British society except in a little exhibition off in a side gallery, called “A Family in Wartime.” This followed the Allpress family, who originally lived in Southwark (I think) but moved to Wimbledon because of the Blitz. They were fairly lucky in that both of their sons who were old enough to fight made it back home safely, but unlucky in that two of their daughters had congenital heart conditions and died as teenagers (I think they had nine children in total). I enjoyed learning about their family and how the war affected their lives, and particularly liked the doll house version of their Southwark house, made by one of their sons-in-law. They didn’t really seem to have any possessions actually belonging to the family, but they did have objects that were representative of a middle class family at that time, including a litterbug made to look like Hitler (because being wasteful helped the Nazis) that I personally think was way too cute. I get the idea of improving morale by making Hitler look ridiculous, but c’mon, that bug is kind of adorable, and Hitler was pure evil.

  

I was pretty excited for the “Secret War” gallery about espionage, because I am way fonder of old James Bond movies than I should be, given how sexist and racist most of them are (I think it’s because I grew up watching them with my family, and they’re one of the few things we’ll still all sit around and watch together), but this too was disappointing. There was way too much text in here, and actually, too many objects too. I just got sick of looking at them all, and thus probably missed some cool stuff in some of the cases. I did notice there was a letter from Noor Inayat Khan here, however, who you might remember if you read my post on Beaulieu. She was an incredibly brave British spy during WWII who was eventually captured and executed by the Nazis, and her letter was to another female spy back at HQ.

  

“Peace and Security: 1945-2014” had a similar layout to the WWII gallery, only it was dealing with more recent conflicts. I thought some of the objects here were really cool, in particular a suit of armour made by an artist to symbolise the conflict in Northern Ireland, a mosaic of Saddam Hussein that was torn down after his fall from power, a mannequin representing what a victim of a nuclear explosion would look like, and a big chunk of the Twin Towers, but I think the signage overall was again a little lacking.

  

The floor above all this (I think we were only up to the 4th floor at this point) held a few temporary photographic exhibitions that I actually really enjoyed. Two of them were on the conflict in Syria, and some of the photos of everyday life were excellent. There was also an exhibition on Guantanamo Bay, which I thought had the potential to be really interesting, were it not for the relatively poor labels that were both confusing and difficult to locate.

  

I was intrigued by the “Curiosities of War” exhibit, because any time I hear the word “curiosities” I think cabinet of curiosities and my interest is piqued, but this exhibition seemed to be something of an afterthought. To begin with, the layout was really bizarre; because the museum is arranged around an atrium, there is a lot of wasted space, and it was really apparent by the time we got up to this level. There were two super skinny passageways leading off from the gallery space on one end, and they weren’t connected on the other end. So to see “Curiosities of War,” you had to walk all the way down one hallway, come all the way back, walk down the other, and come all the way back again. And because they were so narrow, you literally couldn’t pass someone without making body contact, so if someone was coming the other way, you had to duck into an alcove to let them through. Also, it looked as though the person who made the signs did not arrange the artefacts, because at one point there was a sign about a wooden training horse from WWI, which I had noticed on the complete opposite side (catty corner) of the exhibition, shoved in next to a plane wheel, even though it was presumably supposed to be next to the sign about it where there was indeed plenty of space for it. I’m not sure how they even pulled that one off, but it was pretty lame.

  

The top floor was just home to a gallery about various Victoria Cross and George Cross holders, which was fine (there was a clip from an old movie about spies and some objects made by POWs that I thought were neat), although I think they tried to cram too many people in there, and it was overwhelming to read about them all. I get wanting to honour as many people as possible (even though it wasn’t a complete listing of VCs or George Cross holders as it was; I think only 250 people were featured), but I think the layout could have been better.

And now for the Holocaust gallery. We saved it for last, which was probably a mistake, because it was intense. Not that I thought it wouldn’t be, but I was unprepared for quite this level of intensity (or immersion. Most Holocaust exhibits I’ve seen were relatively small, but this one was on two levels, and we were in there for over an hour).  You couldn’t take photos, for obvious reasons, but it’s the kind of thing that stuck with me nonetheless. This was by far the most comprehensive Holocaust gallery I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been to quite a few over the years. It covered the whole appalling story, from the history of antisemitism in Europe, Hitler’s rise to power (which was unpleasantly reminiscent of recent events in America), and the beginnings of euthanasia of so-called “mental defectives” to the “Final Solution.” Throughout the way, the horror was really driven home by the inclusion of stories of people killed in the Holocaust, including their final letters to family members, which were terribly poignant to read. As if that wasn’t heart-rending enough, there were also toys belonging to children who were killed or who managed to survive through hiding; one boy spent 5 years concealed in a cupboard so small it gave him bone deformities, with only a few toys to play with in the dark (his piano teacher brought him food). There was a scale model of Auschwitz that described in chilling detail exactly what happened to people when they arrived, and a dissection table that came from one of the “hospitals” where they euthanised people. But the two things that disturbed me the most were actually bits of information taken from the signs in here: first, that the Final Solution probably came about as a result of various Nazi officials trying to outdo each other to impress Hitler, and secondly, that the crews of people forced to cremate bodies in Auschwitz were themselves changed over and killed off every four months, so that (in theory) no one would live to tell the world what the Nazis had done. I was taught about the Holocaust in school, of course, and although I remember it affecting me really intensely and giving me nightmares at the time, I think it’s also important to learn about it as an adult, because you do forgot details over time, and I think it affects you in a different way as an adult, when you understand that atrocities aren’t consigned to the past – genocide still happens. I genuinely think everyone should have to confront the horrors of the Holocaust in some way, because I can’t understand how anyone would think it’s OK to go around waving Nazi flags after seeing something like this.

  

So clearly, the IWM is a very mixed bag indeed. The Holocaust and WWI galleries are excellent, the photography exhibits were quite good, and everything else could really use some improvement – more interactivity for a start. It’s great that it’s free, but the level of neglect in some of the areas of the museum was really unfortunate, especially with something as inexpensive and easy to fix as a sticker, and the resulting inconsistencies in the quality of the galleries are too glaring to ignore. My other complaint is that the only toilets in the whole, six story museum are on Floor 0, other than disabled toilets/baby changing stations on most of the other floors. I’m glad that they at least offer those, but I didn’t feel comfortable using them when someone might have needed them more, which meant I had to hold in my pee for a very long time indeed (because I was too lazy to go all the way down and then all the way back up again). I don’t know why a museum this big couldn’t have at least two sets of toilets for everyone, especially when one of the floors was taken up by a big platform under the atrium with nothing in it (seriously, put at least a couple toilet stalls in there). There were odd things going on with the layout of this whole museum, but this was the worst thing for someone with a bladder as small as mine. Anyway, I’d definitely recommend visiting for at least for the Holocaust and WWI galleries, and the others are certainly worth seeing, but if your time is limited, then those two are the ones I’d make a priority, because you could easily spend an entire day or two here if you wanted to see everything in the museum. 4.5/5 for the Holocaust and WWI galleries, but 3/5 for the museum as a whole.

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Ostend, Belgium: Atlantikwall Museum

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Given what a windy day it was, with hints of rain on the horizon, after seeing James Ensorhuis and the kite festival, the only logical thing to do would be to visit an outdoor attraction, right?  Well, anyway, that’s what I did.  If you venture a few miles down the road from Ostend, you’ll find one of the best-preserved sections of the Atlantic Wall built by the Germans during WWII (the wall originally stretched all along the coast from France to Norway, which is pretty impressive, until you bear in mind that it did them a fat lot of good in the end, am I right?), which has now been turned into a whole museum complex that also includes a living history fishing village (knowing my penchant for fishing heritage centres, it may come as a bit of a surprise that I didn’t also visit that).

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Atlantikwall costs 8 euros, with an included audio guide, or 10 euros if you want to visit the fishing village as well (a saving of 4 euros), but be forewarned that it involves a lot of walking.  Even just getting from the carpark to the museum entrance is a fair hike, and then the museum itself is spread out over a couple kilometres with lots of stairs (though nothing like the 366 in Belfort), and although there are a few bunkers and stuff you can go inside, the vast majority is outside, so pick a nice day for your visit.  I didn’t exactly follow my own advice, but fortunately the rain held off, so aside from it being windy and a bit chilly, it wasn’t too bad in the end.

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After my boyfriend and I picked up our audio guides, we were initially a bit confused, as a map near the entrance seemed to indicate we had a choice of two different routes: a green and a red, but the arrow signs were all yellow, so perhaps they’ve been consolidated into one route, since we definitely saw everything.  The interesting thing about this section of the Atlantikwall is that it also includes some ruins from WWI (the “ONLY preserved German coastal battery from WWI,” according to their website), so I guess you get more bang for your buck/euro.  You all know by now of my long-running feud with audio guides, but these ones were alright.  They only rambled on for a minute or so at each stopping point, usually the time it took to walk to the next one, so you weren’t left dawdling around for ages waiting for it to finish.

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This being Belgium, there were of course a fair amount of rather hilarious mannequins (though nothing on the level of my all-time favourite one from Ijzertoren; I still genuinely can’t believe how terrible he looks); I think the soldier on the right has something of Dr. Crippen about him, only with less creepy eyes.

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You are of course, right on the sea, as you’re reminded every time you step out onto a raised section of the wall and have a look towards the coast, and it really would be quite lovely without all the barbed wire and concrete bunkers.  The stark contrast really helps ram the war home and makes you feel as though you might well have been transported back in time, only with non-threatening mannequins instead of Nazis.

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I feel as though I should maybe be talking more about all the weaponry laying around, and military history generally, but munitions lie well outside my area of expertise, and the audio guides pretty much tell you all you need to know, being supplemented by actual signs here and there.  There was even a sample of the different horrible obstructions the Germans attempted to put in the way of the Allies, including Rommelspargel, pointy post things named for both Rommel and their resemblance to asparagus.  Rommel himself was actually transferred here for a bit to make improvements, so he was the one responsible for all the additional fortifications, at least until Hitler forced him to commit suicide.

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Atlantikwall was mercifully nearly deserted the majority of the time we were walking through, although we managed to catch up with some annoying Euro-hipsters near the end (not sure how that worked, because the audio guide should mean that everyone is moving around at roughly the same pace.  Maybe because they kept stopping to flap their jaws instead of just moving along to the next number), which was irritating because it was the one section that did have a lot indoors, and some videos to watch, which I skipped just to get away from all the people.  Instead, I lingered in the storeroom, with its display of tinned sausages and other hilarious yet disgusting German foodstuffs, and copies of the menu that the soldiers were served.

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In general, I liked Atlantikwall, and I learned a fair bit (how much I’ve retained is another matter entirely, as evidenced by the scarcity of war information in this post, though one thing I did find interesting is that some Eastern Europeans who were opposed to communism volunteered with the Nazis, in the hopes of taking down Stalin, but the Germans didn’t fully trust them, so they were generally given shitty jobs of no major importance to do).  I think it’s fantastic that these pieces of history have been preserved (Belgium in general seems to make a real effort to honour the past, probably because it’s been used as a battleground in so many major wars), and I think the set-up is generally quite good; while we weren’t sure about the yellow arrows at first, as sometimes it felt like we were bypassing stuff, it’s actually arranged in quite a clever way, and the path winds you back around in such a manner that you get to see everything without much backtracking.  I also liked how we were left free to wander and explore (save for the alarm we were warned about if you stray beyond the ropes, leaving me anxious about accidentally triggering it).  So yeah, I suppose it was a pretty worthwhile experience, and something a bit different from all the WWI stuff that dominates most of Belgium (though there’ll be some of that coming soon, don’t worry!).  Maybe I’ll have to return to see that fishing village someday, though if they’re speaking Flemish, perhaps not…  3.5/5.

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Bletchley, Milton Keynes: Bletchley Park

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If you’re British, odds are good you’re already familiar with the story of Bletchley Park.  If you’re not, however, you might not know about it (I’d certainly never heard of it until I moved to Britain, and I love history), so perhaps a bit of background is in order.  Shortly after WWI, a German engineer invented the Enigma machine – a device that could be used to encode messages, which was basically a typewriter with up to four rotors attached; the code could be changed by changing the setting of the rotors, and the person receiving the message would have to know how to position their rotors to decode it ( I apologise if I’m describing this incorrectly, but I know almost nothing about engineering).  Although this device was initially conceived of for fairly innocuous purposes (its inventor thought that perhaps banks could have a use for it), it was adopted by the German military in the years leading up to WWII.  Obviously, in 1939, when the British entered the war, having the ability to crack the German codes would be extremely useful.  Enter Bletchley Park.

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Although Bletchley is now quite near to Milton Keynes (the famous “planned city” that was built in the 1960s), during the war, it was kind of in the middle of nowhere, which was one of its virtues.  Far enough from major cities to be an unlikely target of the Blitz, yet near enough to London to allow messages to be carried back and forth, the old country estate seemed an ideal location for MI6 to set up headquarters.  It had to be built in a hurry, so most of the staff had to work in crude huts that were boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter, yet it still attracted some of the greatest minds of the day, including Alan Turing.  (Benedict is set to play him in a film later this year, can’t wait!)  Turing improved a Polish invention, the Bombe machine (named after the pudding, rather than an incendiary device) to help with the decoding process, but it still involved a lot of quick-thinking on the part of the staff, particularly as the German codes changed every day (it helped that a lot of the messages contained standard phrases, like Heil Hitler, which was useful in sussing things out)!

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Anyway, there were lots of amazing inventions and innovations to come out of Bletchley Park, which I’m sure you can find more about elsewhere on the internet; suffice it to say that the work done here probably helped shorten the war by at least two years.  After the war, the whole Bletchley story remained classified until the ’70s, and the Park wasn’t decommissioned until the ’80s.  It was turned into a museum in the 1990s, which finally brings me to my visit here!

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It really is a whole complex, so you’ll want to set aside a good few hours for your visit.  Admission is £15 (though English Heritage members get £3 off, woot!), and they offer a number of free guided tours, though we didn’t partake of any.  You enter the park through a museum section with a short film, and an overview of the history of Bletchley (basically what I just did above, only in more detail).  It explained the whole process of breaking codes, which involved not only cracking the Enigma, but obviously required knowledge of German (and later, Japanese) to translate the messages!

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After that, they hand you an interactive tour device (a step up from the loathed audio guide, since it was a touch screen device, allowing you to skip around and only listen to the stuff you were really interested in, and they even had long and short versions of most clips for impatient people like me!), and you’re left to wander the property.

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The next building over was also a museum, but this one was deeply technical, about the exact working of the Enigma and the Bombe, and I really couldn’t follow most of what was going on, not being terribly technically minded myself (I’m the complete opposite of my brother, who’s currently getting a degree in mechanical engineering).  However, they also had information on Alan Turing, who I’ve always felt quite bad for (the British government basically stigmatised him for being gay, and effectively destroyed his career, which was certainly a major factor in his suicide a couple years later), including the statue of him, and even his adorable teddy (named Porgy).  They also had a 3D slideshow, which was again incomprehensibly technical, but hey, it was in 3D!

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The upper floor had some war memorabilia, and memories of life at Bletchley Park, which seemed to either involve delightful entertainments, like sport and films, or else just a crap-tonne of work, I suppose depending on one’s personality (I would have been one of the sad sacks who was miserable and unsociable).  We next headed around the “lake” (more of a pond, really) to the manor house, which looked really grand (and had an awesome griffin thing outside), but was pretty disappointing on the interior.  It smelled musty and was full of chairs, so I assume it’s normally just used as conference rooms and a banquet hall, as there weren’t really any displays inside.

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There were also a few huts to the left of the mansion, but they were either closed off, or just held small displays, like one on Ian Fleming that was actually fairly interesting (there was also another display on spies inside one of the museums).  There were a couple more huts behind the mansion, which were also closed off, though you could peer inside, and there was a small Polish war memorial hidden back here as well (and what appeared to be a cemetery behind a gate, though there wasn’t any information on that, so I’m not sure what the story is).

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The huts to the right of the mansion, however, were the ones that had already been restored, so those were pretty cool.  One of them had a bunch of interactive code breaking games, and the other ones were just decorated as they would have been during the war – they even had a re-creation of Alan Turing’s office!  Videos of actors playing the codebreakers were projected on the walls, and it’s worth noting that most of the workers here were women, recruited largely from the upper classes (like Baroness Trumpington) or the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service).  Indeed, the building housing the code-breaking machines was staffed entirely by women.

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A garage behind the manor house contained the vehicles used by the staff.  Though most of the code-breakers got around town by bicycle, due to rationing, there were quite a few other workers that weren’t involved in code-breaking, but played a crucial role in relaying the resulting messages to the government and military.  Many of these drivers were also women, who got to ride bad-ass motorcycles back and forth between London and Bletchley, often in the dead of night.  Obviously they had phones and telegrams and such back then, but then you ran the risk of your messages being intercepted (since the transmissions from the Germans were being intercepted by the British in the first place), so it was safer to just hand-deliver them.  They also had some Packards that were used by staff.

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In addition to the main buildings, Bletchley Park contains a lot of smaller museums that aren’t managed by the Trust, but are still included in the price of admission; there’s a radio museum, a cinema museum, and a post office museum, but my favourite by far was the Toy Museum. This place was all kinds of awesome.  It reeked of mothballs (which I kind of like, it reminds me of how my great-aunt’s house smelled) and had so much crap crammed into just a couple of rooms, even old caricature puzzles that showed FDR perched on a stool (unlikely, but I guess a good compromise between standing or showing him in a wheelchair).

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In addition to old toys (some of which visiting children were allowed to play with), they also had a variety of clothing from the ’40s, with descriptions of the fabrics used and how things were made, which I thought was fascinating (and explained the presence of the mothballs, I have a moth problem myself, and those newfangled “good-smelling” moth repellants they have now simply don’t do the job). I loved all the old dresses, and would happily wear them myself, even if they were made from flour sacks and old parachutes.

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I also liked all the old cookery booklets designed to help you make the most of your rations, and could have easily spent much longer here looking at everything (I have a Betty Crocker cookbook of my grandma’s from 1950, and it has those same charming illustrations of anthropomorphic food in it, as well as little poems – the one about eggs is unintentionally hilarious).

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I should mention that there is also a National Museum of Computing right in one of the car parks, which has the Colossus and other early giant computers in it, but apparently they’re engaged in a long-running feud with Bletchley Park, and so it is not included in the admission, but is a separate attraction that costs 5 pounds extra.  For that reason, we did not visit, and I imagine many other people don’t either, but it is there if computers are your primary interest.

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We spent three hours in Bletchley, and could probably easily have spent more, especially if we’d taken one of the tours.  Although some of the museums were just too specialised for me (I’m still not completely sure how the machines worked, but the museum assured me that I probably wouldn’t unless my mind worked like Alan Turing’s, so I don’t feel so bad about that), and it would have been nice if more had been done with the manor house, as it seemed like a gorgeous building that just needed some attention, overall the day was very enjoyable.  I really liked learning more about the people who worked here, and the amazing work they did, and I think it was worth the long drive up from London (don’t miss the chance to get your picture with the concrete triceratops in Milton Keynes whilst you’re in the area, as seen below).  4/5

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Kent, UK: Dover Castle

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After a short drive down the coast from Walmer, we found ourselves at Dover Castle, another English Heritage property, hence another chance to get our money’s worth out of that membership.  If you don’t have a membership pass, Dover Castle is a fairly pricy outing at £17.50.  The castle dates back to the 1160s, during the reign of Henry II, but the oldest buildings on the property are the Roman lighthouse and Anglo-Saxon church.  There are also a series of tunnels; medieval ones under the castle, and a different set that  were constructed for defensive purposes during the Napoleonic Wars, but in more recent history served as the place where “Operation Dynamo,” also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was planned (over 300,000 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk during WWII by a fleet of ships launched from Dover, including many privately owned small craft).

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As directed by the girl working at the admissions desk, we first headed to those tunnels, since they only take groups of thirty people down at a time, to wait in the inevitable queue.  They also only do tours every half an hour, and the first one was already full, so we ended up having to wait about forty minutes for the “Secret Wartime Tunnels Tour.”  If the tour had been good, I wouldn’t have minded the wait, but it turned out to be incredibly lame.  After being shown a short newsreel, and an informational video about Dunkirk that mainly served to showcase some outdated technology, we were ushered down a long tunnel where graphics appeared on the wall to tell the story of Dunkirk; unfortunately, because we were at the back of the group, we couldn’t actually see what was going on.  We were then allowed to wander the last portion of the tunnels on our own, which included the communications rooms and some supposedly haunted messaging room.

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I’m not sure why they made such a fuss about it being a “guided” tour, as the guide’s only purpose seemed to be to hustle us along the tunnel; everything else was done by video.  I’m not really sure why they couldn’t just make the whole thing self-guided to avoid the waits altogether, but whatever, it was lame, and I wouldn’t advise waiting for it.  However, the Underground Hospital Tour didn’t have much of a queue when we were there, so if you want to see something underground, I’d probably go with that one – if it is as bad as the other tour, at least you won’t have wasted as much time, plus it’s a hospital, so might intrinsically be more interesting than some bare tunnels (I’m not knocking Operation Dynamo, I think it’s an incredible story, which is why it’s such a shame that it wasn’t told in a more engaging way).

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We emerged from the tunnels into a gift shop (naturally) and small museum that told the story of the tunnels in more detail, including a collection of British uniforms throughout history.  There were also some splendid views of the coast, and of the famous White Cliffs of Dover from this side.

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We’d passed an ice cream hut on the way down to the tunnels, and far be it from me to pass up an ice cream, so I grabbed a scoop of mint chocolate chip for the trek up to the castle proper (they do have a “land train” available for the elderly/infirm/just plain lazy, but I needed to burn off that ice cream, so we just walked everywhere.  It really wasn’t that far, and was probably faster than waiting for the land train to rock up).  The Great Tower is ringed by a number of small museums, and we decided to start with those first.

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The first museum offered an introduction to the Tower, and a video about the early Plantagenets (until I moved to Britain, I always pronounced Plantagenet with a silent “t,” which I suspect was far too French-leaning of me.  However, I still stubbornly persist in leaving off the “t” in filet, and don’t get me started on the pronunciation of “fete”).  The main reason this museum is noteworthy is because of the little sketches of “Roland the Farter,” the court jester.  Considering many of the visitors to Dover Castle are French (on account of all the ferries and the Channel Tunnel; Dover is so close to France that we could only get French radio stations as we neared the coast), I thought the first cartoon pictured above was delightfully cheeky (as is the second, in a more punny way).  Plus, he’s called Roland the Farter, which is hilarious.

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When we wandered into the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment Museum, I wasn’t expecting much more than a respite from the cold wind that had suddenly kicked up, especially because the first room was just full of boring plaques.  Happily, this small museum proved to be a treasure trove of terrible mannequins, authentic smells (at least, I think they were authentic smells, it is entirely possible that it might have just stank in there), and even one of those machines I inexplicably love that turns normal pennies into “souvenir” pennies.

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It was finally time to journey up the many stairs of the centrepiece of the castle, the Great Tower.  The Tower has been decorated to look as it would have during the reign of Henry II, and it is pretty fantastic.  There wasn’t much signage, so I didn’t have a clue where we were wandering to, but that was part of the experience.  Navigating the maze-like interior of the tower helped me understand how the layout would have helped deter would-be invaders, plus it gave the whole thing the air of a grand adventure.

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We began in the medieval kitchen, because you have to, really, in these types of places, and ventured up to a banqueting room.

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And made our way through some tunnels to discover a throne room,with even more hidden rooms behind the throne.

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One of which was a small stone chapel, with lovely small stained glass windows.  There was also some rather plush bedrooms in the tower, and the day had gotten so chilly I would have happily curled up beneath the furs in one of the beds, had I been allowed.

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Finally reaching the top of the tower, we were rewarded with even more gorgeous views of the coastline, as well as a good peek into the yard below that contained a trebuchet.

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The trip back down led us into a few more rooms we hadn’t caught on the way up, many of them with costumed actors in who were patiently answering visitors’ questions (fortunately, they weren’t actually re-enacting anything, which I always find slightly cringy).

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Upon safely reaching the bottom, we decided to tackle yet more stairs by heading down into the medieval tunnels, which were certainly very tunnely, but didn’t have much else to recommend them, so if you’re pressed for time, you can probably give them a miss.

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I did want to see the Anglo Saxon church, so we popped into that on our way out.  The Roman lighthouse is right next door, so we were able to have a peek inside that as well – it is just a crumbling stone tower (it’s the structure to the right of the church, below).  The church had a little history display set up in the back, and quite a lot of photos of the Queen and various other Royals attending the services there.

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I very much enjoyed the Great Tower, but the rest of the castle was a mixed bag.  The Royal Regiment Museum was entertaining, the views were very good indeed, but the tunnels were disappointing, and most of the other attractions on the property weren’t terribly noteworthy.  I think Dover Castle has a fascinating history behind it, but I feel like that wasn’t always made as clear as it could have been, and many of the things could have benefited from more signage (but that would probably go against the English Heritage policy of trying to sell guidebooks to everyone, so there you are).  I feel that if I had to pay 17 quid for entrance I would have been kind of annoyed, but as it was, it was a decent outing that didn’t quite live up to the hype of the brochure.  3.5/5

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London: Churchill War Rooms, Valentine’s Day Late

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I’m pretty sure there’s nothing more romantic than spending Valentine’s Day underground, in a WWII era bunker.  In all seriousness, it has to be up there (and I mean this in a non-sarcastic manner) with the Valentine’s Day when my boyfriend took me for afternoon tea and then to the London Dungeons (he knows me so well), so I was really glad we found out about the event before it was sold out!  It did cost £17.50 apiece, but that’s what admission to the Churchill War Rooms costs anyway (though really, £17.50?! I know I complain about admission prices on here a lot, mainly because I am broke, but the Churchill War Rooms admission is really over the top.  Definitely take advantage of the National Rail 2 for 1 offer if you decide to come here!), and I was hoping we’d have time to look around in between all the special activities.

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I was initially dismayed at the size of the queue to get in, as waiting for entry to a ticketed event typically doesn’t bode well, but the crowds thinned out as we made our way into the bunker.  The special activities on offer included writing a letter to your sweetheart overseas (as the whole premise was obviously that this was during the War; most people made an effort to dress the part, which enhanced the atmosphere), swing dancing lessons in the auditorium, and a champagne bar that was meant to be serving up Churchill’s favourite champagne.  I’m not sure whether it actually was Churchill’s preferred label; it was certainly delicious, but then, it cost as much for a glass as it does for two bottles of the sort of swill we usually buy (only fit for making mimosas), so I wasn’t expecting anything less.

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Sufficiently emboldened by the champers, we took our places on the dance floor for the next swing dancing lesson, a circle dance called the “Big Apple.”  It was tremendous fun, and convinced me that I need to get over my fear of looking like an idiot and sign up for some swing dancing lessons, as it’s something I’ve always wanted to learn how to do.  Alas, since we were both out there dancing, I’ve no pictures to commemorate the experience, but I’m sure we didn’t look stupid or anything…

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People were either all starting to dance or head out for the night at this point, so I seized the opportunity to have a look ’round the relatively empty Churchill museum, which followed the timeline of Churchill’s life.  Though you all know I love FDR, I have to concede that Churchill was the master of witticisms, so I was thrilled that the museum had taken the trouble to compile the best ones on a handy touch screen.

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I really enjoyed looking at all the Churchill and war memorabilia, even though my lingering cold combined with the champagne meant that I wasn’t giving all the displays my usual full attention.  Oh well, I guess I’ll have an excuse to return some day (using my 50% off English Heritage discount of course).

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In addition to the museum displays, there was of course the bunker, which, whilst nowhere on the scale of Kelvedon Hatch (but then Kelvedon Hatch isn’t built under prime real estate in Westminster), was still enough of a maze to get us confused when trying to find Churchill’s bedroom.  He only spent three nights in the actual bunker, but he stayed fairly often in the aboveground rooms, which were apparently much plusher.   A volunteer regaled us with some amusing Churchill stories, like the time the bunker had to be evacuated because it was filling with smoke, only for the staff to realise that this was because Churchill was sitting on the chimney, smoking a cigar.

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Churchill’s bedroom contained an authentic cigar, and a chamberpot, so that was exciting too!  The other rooms that were part of the bunker, including the Map Room and various Communications rooms, all had delightful mannequins in them – bonus!  There was also a cafe serving up some tasty looking chips, but the queue was long and there was nowhere to sit, so we abandoned the idea of eating there.  The shop was offering a 10% discount on the night of the event, so I took advantage of the sale to snap up yet more postcards for my ever-expanding collection.

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This had to have been one of the better late museum openings I’ve attended (even at that price, and you all know I’m a cheapskate, so I must have liked it!), definitely helped along by the dancing and champagne, but I think the Churchill War Rooms are well worth visiting even without a special event on (though I was glad of an excuse to get all dressed up – I swear my hair looked much better before I had to brave 60 mph winds!).   4/5 for the event + museum.  (And for evidence of the extreme windiness that night, please see the picture on the bottom right.)

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Reigate, Surrey: Reigate Caves

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Last Saturday began much like every other weekend – with my boyfriend and I sitting around eating waffles in our jimjams, and debating what to do whilst waiting for vintage episodes of The Simpsons to come on.  Excitingly, it soon became apparent that this wasn’t like every other weekend, as we had actually found a reason to leave the house!  I’m totally a list-maker, though unfortunately, not well-organised enough to keep them all in one location.  One of the many lists I have is on Google Maps, and includes various attractions around Britain I want to visit.  We’ve already been to most of the caves within an easy drive from London, but Reigate Caves were ones we hadn’t visited, due to them only being open 5 days a year.  I happened to check their website for the next open day, not really expecting it to be any time soon, only to find out it was that very Saturday!  With a destination sorted, we hopped in the car, Reigate bound.

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The Reigate Caves consist of three separate caves (which aren’t actually caves as such, but old sand mines, which is fairly typical of “caves” in the Weald): Baron’s Cave, which is under the old Castle grounds, and the Tunnel Road Caves, which are opposite each other under (appropriately enough) Tunnel Road.  It was £3 for Tunnel Road Caves, and another £2 for Baron’s Cave, both of which included a guided tour.  The whole enterprise is run by the Wealden Cave Society, who honestly seemed like delightful people.  We began with a tour of the Western Caverns, led by a guide who was seriously pretty great.

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He was very laid back, to the point where he would just start talking whenever he got to a point of interest in the cave, whether or not the group was with him.  I thought that was fantastic, because why should everyone have to wait for stragglers?  That way, if people with children wanted to hang back, and didn’t really care about the tour, the rest of us didn’t have to wait for them to catch up.  There was a second guide to bring up the rear, to ensure the stragglers didn’t get completely lost, and help answer questions.  The main guide also reminded me a bit of Chris Packham (they had the same w’s for r’s speech thing going on), which I think is part of why I liked him so much, since I adore Chris Packham, (and agree with him that pandas are completely overrated).  He was clearly very passionate and knowledgeable about the caves, which I always like to see (people with slightly eccentric interests, that is, as I have many of those myself).

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The caves are currently owned by a gun club, who normally have target practice in the caves, though obviously not when the tours are going on.  Therefore, the caves were littered with spent casings, and we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the target areas.  I’m no fan of guns (perhaps surprising coming from an American), so I felt slightly uneasy at the start, until it became apparent that no one was going to emerge from a hidey-hole and start shooting at us.  Otherwise, I’d say the dominant feature of the caves was sand, which was apparently also scattered with bits of broken glass, so it’s probably not the best place to wear open toed shoes.

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The caves have what is an extensive, yet strangely poorly documented history.  Obviously, their main use was as a source of sand, which was used for glass making, ink blotting, and to soak up spillage on local pub floors, which I’m told is what gave rise to the local saying, “happy as a sand boy,” (which I must start using) as the sand boys would get a free drink at each pub they delivered sand to, thus ending up plastered by the end of the day.  During WWI, they were used to store explosives, which likely would have resulted in the complete annihilation of Reigate had any of them actually gone off. During WWII, the townspeople used it as a bomb shelter, which I also have to question the efficacy of, as sand isn’t the sturdiest material, but thankfully, it was never put to the test.  It seems like mostly what people did in them was carve things into the walls, judging by the enormous amount of graffiti (which included an excellent war-era caricature of Hitler, which I was unable to get a picture of).

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Me and some face graffiti

Being man-made, the caves had reasonably high ceilings, so might have more appeal for claustrophobics than the average cave. Though there was a large skull carved into one of the walls, which might manage to freak someone out if the caves themselves hadn’t.  I reckon the tour lasted about 35-45 minutes, after which we entered the Eastern Caverns, which were self-guided (though naturally, required hard hats).

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HAA!

The Eastern Caverns detailed more of the history of the caves with the use of posters (though our guide had already covered most of it during the tour), and featured things like a recreation of a bomb shelter (complete with scary sound effects), a Cold War room, and a men’s urinal trough.  I think it was meant to be more of a “spooky” experience, as they had fake bats hanging throughout for children to count, and little signs with a ghost on them, which is of course exactly my cup of tea (Earl Grey, two sugars and a splash of milk).  It even had authentic smells (as did the stairs leading down to Tunnel Road, come to think of it) thanks to a paraffin lamp, which also had the effect of making the air authentically smoky.

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Finally (after procuring a cookie sandwich from a local bakery, as there was no ice creamery on the high street.  Get on that, Reigate!), we hiked up the hill to Baron’s Cave, following the directional bat signs.  We were given lamps this time, in lieu of hard hats, and caught up with a group who had just begun the guided tour.  This guide was rather dour compared to the first one, but he was still informative (and was quite stern with an exceptionally bratty child, which I appreciated).  Baron’s Cave was originally constructed in the 11th century as part of Reigate Castle, and was probably used primarily as a wine cellar, and alternate exit from the castle.  It is also rumoured to have been the meeting spot for the barons on their way to Runnymede to sign the Magna Carta (hence the name), which is pretty cool.

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As such, although it was much smaller than the other caves, it had even older graffiti, including carvings of a horse and cow.  Most of the stuff we saw was from the 18th century, although much of it goes back even further, but has been covered over by newer carvings.  Other than the graffiti, the main attractions were a staircase that once led to a pyramid on the castle grounds, but now leads to nothing (though the pyramid is still there, and you can go up and see it!), the wine cellar room, and a random T-Rex.

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You can just see him hiding in the back. Rawr!

I’m happy we discovered the open day in time to go, because the Reigate Caves were a very nice experience.  I’m rating them as 4/5, and certainly better than Chislehurst Caves.  I think the fact that the Cave Society run the tours help turn it into a quality experience, as they clearly have a vested interest in all things underground.  The only other open days this year are the 13th July, 10th August, and 14th September, so I’d definitely recommend heading down to Reigate on one of them to take in the cavey goodness.

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