York: Yorkshire Museum

The Yorkshire Museum wasn’t on my must-visit list, but we ended up going to see it anyway because we had to kill some time before our train on our last day in York. Along with York Castle Museum and York Art Gallery it is part of the York Museums Trust, so if you plan on visiting all three, it is probably worth getting the YMT card to save a bit of money, but we got free admission to the Yorkshire Museum with our National Art Pass anyway, so we didn’t bother (admission is otherwise £8).


The Yorkshire Museum has three main sections: Jurassic World, Roman York, and Medieval York (I guess you need to visit the York Castle Museum and Jorvik Viking Centre as well to get a more comprehensive version of York’s history), and we started with Jurassic World, which was a fairly standard dinosaur gallery with a few touchy bits, as you can see above. This is apparently a temporary but “long-term” exhibition, and we had seen it advertised all over town, with the tagline, “Now Open!” but aside from a VR dinosaur-feeding game (I desperately wanted to play, but it wasn’t clear whether we could without staff supervision, and there was no staff to be found), nothing here felt particularly state of the art. It was more the kind of thing you’d find in any local history museum with a decent-sized prehistoric section.


We quickly moved on to Roman York, which was a more extensive series of galleries that took up the rest of the ground floor. I was initially apprehensive about entering the museum because of the large group of school children just outside armed with wooden swords and shields who seemed to be making an awful lot of noise, and it was in Roman York that we encountered them. The museum I work at only has school groups in on days the museum is closed to the public to avoid situations like this one, and larger museums with dedicated education rooms tend to steer school groups mainly to those, but I guess in a museum that is open to the public every weekday but without extensive special facilities, they have no choice but to stick school kids in with the general public. Honestly, it would have been fine if they hadn’t been so damn loud, but they were! They also just barged in front of us as we were trying to look at things, including the skeleton above. Some kid kept telling his friends it was the skeleton of a gladiator despite the case clearly stating it was a woman. You’d think eight year olds would be able to at least read the word “woman,” but apparently not these ones, and no one was bothering to correct them.


In an effort to get away from them, we basically skipped the last room of Roman York, and headed downstairs for Medieval York (where we were granted an all too brief reprieve before they followed, but at least it was a reprieve). This was definitely the best of the main galleries, and was a bit more Viking and early medieval than late Middle Ages (which is the period I know more about), so it was nice to see some unusual artefacts and learn more about this period in York’s history.


Even though there were some lovely things on display, like the York Helmet, one of only three intact Anglian helmets found in Britain, and lots of hilarious stained glass cross-eyed kings, my favourite things were definitely the signs for children containing historical facts illustrated with funny cartoons, like the one above (I think it’s probably just a coincidence that he looks a bit like a thin Trump, though the bumbling idiocy and complete lack of consideration for other people seems to fit)!


I also liked the fun game (one of the few interactive things in this museum not solely aimed at children) where you could determine how Viking you were based on your interests. The Viking in the game actually looked a bit like Marcus, so I wasn’t surprised that he was 30% more Viking than I am (in terms of actual ancestry, I don’t think either of us are particularly Viking, since neither of us has any Scandinavian ancestry. At least none we know about).


The final section of the museum that we saw was probably Marcus’s favourite part, as it contained “The Map that Changed the World,” a 200 year old geological map drawn by the “father of English geology” William “Strata” Smith (good nickname). The label said that the map was covered by a roller blind, but as you can see, it was just sitting out in the open during our visit, though there was another map with a cloth over the top that you were allowed to lift to look at it. Not being a geology enthusiast, my favourite part was the poor taxidermed bear in one corner of the library.


Although it contained some interesting things, I don’t think I would have bothered seeing this museum if hadn’t got in for free. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary from the average local history museum (though it is undoubtedly bigger than many, including the one I work at), and although I fully understand the importance of museum visits for the younger generations, the school children were quite loud and disruptive and I think they probably could have been encouraged to walk through the museum in a more orderly manner. 2.5/5 for the Yorkshire Museum, but our visit to York overall (intruder in our hotel room notwithstanding) was lovely. I’m definitely a fan of the potato scallop, which we don’t see down south (just a battered slice of potato – the veggie alternative to fish, at least at places too old school to have battered halloumi or tofu) and the cheap cheap Northern prices (60p for a giant potato scallop and free scraps? Yes please!) so I will undoubtedly return!

York: York Castle Museum

I have a tendency to overdo it on holiday and visit way too many museums to the point where I end up completely exhausted. I was trying very hard not to do that this time and instead limit myself to one museum per day, but we seriously only spent half an hour at the Jorvik Viking Centre (and that was with riding the ride twice!), so I thought another museum wouldn’t hurt, particularly a fun one. And York Castle Museum seemed like it definitely fit the bill. A museum with a street of yesteryear, Victorian prison, and an exhibition from the Museum of Broken Relationships?! Yes, please!


But all that fun comes at a price. £12 to be exact, or £10.90 without Gift Aid. Actually, because we visited on a weekend during their Dickensian Christmas event, we paid even more than that – £13.90. Though if you’re not visiting with kids who want to see Santa, I think you can safely skip the weekends. I didn’t see anything magically Christmassy enough to justify the higher price (the decorations stay up for the whole Christmas season, it’s just the Dickens characters and Santa that are only there on a weekend). But this is probably making me seem a bit down on the museum, which was far from the case.


Contrary to what you might think from the name (naturally enough), the museum is not actually built in a castle, but is located in an old gaol on the site of what once was York Castle (there is still a castle-looking structure, called Clifford’s Tower, nearby). It was built by a Dr. John Kirk who sounded like a typical eccentric Victorian(ish) collector and wanted somewhere to house his collection and showcase the traditional ways of Yorkshire life. Apparently the museum was the first of its kind in Britain with everything designed to best showcase the objects in his collection, including the creation of a Victorian street named Kirkgate after its founder. I mean, frankly, the man sounds like a delight (except for the whole preserving traditional ways thing, which sounds a bit UKIPy for my tastes, though maybe he didn’t mean it in that way), and his museum still basically is.


We started by going up a walkway that had a brief timeline of York history and then looked at a few mock-ups of rooms throughout history, and an excellent collection of Staffordshire Dick Turpin figurines. This led into the “Toy Stories” gallery, which contained old, creepy, and sadly, even racist (blackface performing dolls) toys. Fortunately, I saw this gallery shortly before we saw the stage version of Mary Poppins in the West End (I’m like a super fan of Charlie Stemp, who plays Bert), because the musical has these giant creepy toys that come to life, and I would definitely had been more freaked out by these toys had I seen the play first. The toys segued into “Shaping the Body”, which was a collection of historic clothing arranged roughly chronologically. Most notable were the pieces of clothing belonging to corpulent monarchs. Above you can see Victoria’s dress, and George IV’s shirt. Everyone mocks George IV for being fat, of course, particularly cartoonists like Gillray, but jeez, judging by that dress, Victoria was even bigger! The woman was practically a cube (I know fat-shaming isn’t nice, but Victoria was so horrible she has it coming)! They also had a few dress-up stations, and I was dying to do it, but the clothes were very definitely child-sized, and there were too many people about, so I chickened out.


Next was Kirkgate, the ye olde street. And it was a good one! The Dickensian Christmas element seemed to be people dressed up as characters from his novels, though I’m not familiar enough with most of Dickens’ oeuvre to have recognised them by sight. There was also a magician, but I think he probably sensed my distaste for activities that involve audience participation, because he kept his magic to himself. There was even a sweet shop where you could actually buy sweets, but as the prices were quite high and they didn’t have soor plums (no reason they would, they’re a Scottish thing. I just really like them) we gave it a miss. I did, of course, pretend to try out the outhouse though, and managed a particularly unpleasant fake pooping face.


After Kirkgate, we ended up back where we came in and had to cut through the shop to see the other half of the museum (kind of like the Museum of Oslo). This was just as large as the first half of the museum, and began with a WWI gallery. Similar to other museums I know and love (Thackray Museum), York Castle Museum gives you a list of real people who were alive at the time, and has you pick one to follow through the war and find out at the end whether you had survived. I picked a guy called Albert, both because I like the name, and his symbol was a plane, so I figured I would get to do some flying, though I think he was primarily a aircraft mechanic.


I don’t think there was enough follow-up with this because I only caught a few updates on Albert throughout the display (he did survive the war, but not for terribly long after) but the rest of the exhibition was pretty good. I liked the fake head on a stick that resembled the actual ones stuck over the parapet of the trenches to try to trick the enemy into firing to reveal their position. Like so many other WWI projects, this was HLF funded, and so it had a similar feel to other exhibitions I’ve seen in terms of interactivity and concept.


Next came the exhibition by the Museum of Broken Relationships, which I’ve been meaning to see if I ever make it to Croatia. I assume this was only a sampling of what’s there because there were only maybe 50 objects on show. If you’re not familiar with the concept, people who have been in relationships that have ended have donated objects representing those relationships and written a short piece on the relationship and how it ended. These could be terribly poignant (the one written by a man whose wife had died from cancer), but also quite funny (a fake penis with piercings that represented the piercings of a guy who got them without asking his partner). There were objects that had been donated specially for this exhibition by people from Yorkshire, and a display on Brexit to represent the breakdown of Britain’s relationship with the EU. Based on what I saw here, I don’t know if I would schedule a trip to Zagreb solely for this museum, but it was interesting to read people’s stories of heartbreak.


We were then directed outside where we saw the site of the old gallows (though you couldn’t climb them) and the stocks (these you could use, as you can see at the bottom of the post). There was a sign pointing to something called the Rainham Mill, but I wasn’t totally sure if it was part of the museum (and also it was cold and rainy) so we didn’t go. Turns out it is part of the museum, and is a Victorian watermill, so don’t be like me – check it out if you visit!


Finally, there was a gallery on the 1960s (disappointing because there were no dress-up opportunities), and the old prison cells! These were actually a bit scary because it was very dark, and there were video projections based on real prisoners that would only show up after you’d walked into the cell. The best one (and worst one, I guess) was a cell where nine people had suffocated one night, which was absolutely pitch black and had sounds of people struggling to breathe. After you had made your way all the way into the room, green writing suddenly popped up on one wall about the people who died. Scary but sad! There were also cells dedicated to famous prisoners, including Dick Turpin, and a room with an audio recording of poetry written by prisoners.


This museum was actually loads of fun, enough to probably justify the high entrance fee, as we spent ages here and could have spent even more time had we seen the mill. As it was, we were tired and hungry, so headed straight over to Betty’s for tea, which is basically obligatory for all visitors to York (I do wish they offered a non-fruited plain scone, but I did enjoy my fruit-free rarebit scone and my very buttery caramel and walnut tart with ice cream. And lots of Earl Grey. Probably too much in fact, as I was peeing every ten minutes for the rest of the night). 4/5 for York Castle Museum, I think. Pricey, but just about worth it (certainly more so than Jorvik Viking Centre)!

York: Jorvik Viking Centre

The Jorvik Viking Centre was the only museum in York that I remember seeing on my first trip there (frankly, I’m not sure what we did the rest of the time, other than eat fudge), and given that I had it listed as one of my Favourite Places for quite a while, I was keen to return. But also a bit apprehensive, as they had apparently undergone a major redevelopment since my first visit, and typically that means a change for the worse. Apologies for the poor photos throughout this post, as the whole bloody museum was too dark.


Admission is £12.50 for adults, and they recommend booking a Fast Pass in advance, which is an extra £1. We did this, but if you’re visiting at an off time, it really isn’t necessary. We were there on a Sunday morning, which was pretty dead, but weekdays look to be very busy, so it might be worth getting the Fast Pass if that’s the only time you can visit. All this talk of Fast Passes probably makes it sound a bit like an amusement park, and well, it does have a ride, which is the reason I loved it so much on my first visit. Upon entering, you go into a gallery that has the ruins of a Viking house under the floor, with a guy dressed as a Viking giving a short talk about it. The Vikings invaded York in 866 CE and renamed the city Jorvik, and then proceeded to settle and live there for over a century, though the people who settled there were not the warriors most people picture when they hear the word Viking, but were ordinary farmers and craftspeople (of which more shortly). This first gallery also had a fairly fun interactive game where you could virtually dig up an artefact and then choose the best way to clean and preserve it.


After playing the game, we headed straight for the thing I was most looking forward to: the ride! Now, this is a very sedate ride, so if like me, you suffer from motion sickness, there’s no need to worry! I would say it’s most akin to one of the more boring rides in EPCOT where you sit in a vehicle of the future learning about the year 2000 from the perspective of people in 1970. You climb into a little car thing (they have two rows of seats, and you’ll be seated next to whomever you come with, so you don’t have to worry about sitting next to a random person (I assume if you come alone, you get a bench to yourself)). There might be strangers in the other row of seats, but because they are tiered, you won’t have to really see or interact with them throughout the ride. Then you select your language (there are different English audio guides for adults and children, and having listened to them both, I would say the children’s one is much more interesting and informative), and the tour will play from speakers next to your head (I was told to mind my head on the speakers on the way in, so of course I immediately whacked my head against them. Maybe padded headrests would be a better idea?).


The car is then propelled through the Viking town of Jorvik, where you’ll meet some of its inhabitants. The children’s tour actually tells you their names and gives more of a back story, as it is told from the perspective of a child living in the town. The adult one is just a commentary describing the village, and is rather boring. The guy drones on and on and won’t shut up. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Jorvik, who are animatronic figures, are moving around doing whatever their assigned task is (trying to pull a slave off a boat, making cups (the street the museum is on is named Coppergate because of all the cup makers. I assume cop meant cup), pooping – there’s a wide range!) and speaking Norse, which you can really only hear on the children’s tour, because the dry boring adult tour guide just blathers on without pause.


Obviously, I am all about these animatronic figures, especially the animals (there’s a dog, cats, pigs, and even rats), particularly my favourite, the pooping man (you don’t actually see him poop, you just see his upper half as he sits in an outhouse). Now, here is an example of where the tour has changed for the worse. I’m pretty sure that the first time we visited, the audio tour actually translated whatever the townspeople were saying, and when it got to the pooping man, it said something like, “Leave me alone! Can’t you see I am pooping?” Clearly this was the best thing ever, and I was dying to get to the pooper to hear it. But now, you either get boring man just talking right through it and basically ignoring pooping man, or the little kid going, “oh, he seems busy, so let’s leave him alone.” Lame! Why would you get rid of a poop joke?


Other than that disappointment, the figures seemed more or less the same, and I still enjoyed myself, so much so that after we got off the ride, we got right back on and did it again! I’m not sure if this is officially allowed, but if you follow the signs through the museum to the toilets, it takes you back to the start of the ride, and the people ahead of us also rode twice and the guy working there recognised them and seemed totally OK with it, so if they’re not busy, I don’t think they really care. This is how I was able to listen to both tours, and learned I preferred the children’s version. I would also recommend sitting in a different tier of seats if you ride twice, because we were able to see things from the front row of seats that we couldn’t from the back, and vice versa.


Having got the ride out of my system, we then proceeded through the museum, which seemed a bit more high tech than our first visit, and with a different layout, but otherwise more or less the same as I remembered. Since you’re probably not sick of hearing about poop yet, you should know that there is an actual Viking turd in the museum, and that is fortunately still proudly on show! There are also various other Viking artefacts and some skeletons, along with a brief explanation of Viking culture, but it all seems rather bland compared to the ride. I think this is their attempt to make it a serious historical attraction, but it feels half-assed at best (also all staff members have to wear Viking clothing, which makes me feel a bit bad for them. It would be fun to do it once in a while, but not every day!).


So I’m sorry to report that the ride is no longer quite the hilarious experience I fondly remembered, but it is still entertaining…as long as you opt for the children’s audio guide! I think they should give up on selling a museum that is essentially a ride with a gallery tacked on as serious history, and go back to a more whimsical audio tour, as more befits the animatronics. On my first visit, I would definitely have given it 4/5 (had I had a blog with a ratings system at the time) but now I think it’s at best 3/5. Just embrace the cheese, Jorvik!


York: National Railway Museum

Happy New Year, everyone! To carry on our anniversary tradition of going somewhere even greyer and rainier than London, Marcus and I headed up to York for a few days at the end of November. We had been there together once before in 2010, back in the dark days before I had a blog, so I thought it was well worth doing a return trip, this time with more museum visits and a nicer hotel (or so we thought, at least until the night a drunk man wandered into our room whilst we were asleep. We still don’t know how he got in, and let me tell you, suddenly waking up from a sound sleep to see a strange man in your room is no picnic, even if he came in by accident and not with malicious intent). We started with the National Railway Museum immediately after arriving, before we had even checked into our hotel, because the museum is only about a two minute walk from the train station, but it was a twenty minute walk from our hotel, and I am lazy. Fortunately, they had lockers at the museum for our bags, though be forewarned you need £3 in the exact denominations of a £2 coin and a £1 coin to use them (though the museum will give change if needed), and you won’t be getting that money back.


Bags safely stowed, we headed into the museum proper, which is free to visit (it’s part of the Science Museum group). As you might expect from a museum that houses actual trains, the building is huge. It actually straddles two halves of a road, and is split between a Great Hall, Station Hall, North Shed, South Yard, and a few other little nooks and crannies (just like an English muffin, or a toasting muffin, as I like to call them in England). Because it was nearest the lockers, we started with the Station Hall, which meant we saw the thing I most wanted to see first: Laddie, the dog who used to collect money for charity inside Waterloo Station. He is long dead, though he remained in the station for decades after he died, having been taxidermied and enclosed inside a box into which you can drop coins (I would love it if they had actually rigged up some kind of motor so he barked or something when you did, but he just stands there, inanimate), before being moved to the museum, where you can still drop coins into him. However, I preferred to save my coins for one of those machines that flattens a penny that I always end up laboriously describing because I don’t know their technical name. Well, guess what? Thanks to the machine here, now I do! It’s a Pennymangle! This is how I shall refer to these machines henceforth, and I naturally had to mangle myself a Laddie penny in their machine.


The Station Hall is also where the trains of the rich and famous are kept…well, the trains of British royalty anyway. One of my dreams is to have my own private carriage so I can travel where I need to go without having to interact with the plebs, and of course for the royal family, deeply undeserved though it is, that fantasy is a reality. Only some of them had a whole damn train’s worth of carriages rather than just one. Like Victoria, for instance, who pootled around in a very fancy set of coaches, whilst her aunt, Queen Adelaide (I kind of love the term dowager queen, even though it’s a bit insulting to queens who weren’t actually elderly when they were widowed), was only given one small carriage of her own to trail behind Victoria’s train (I assume Victoria kept the door between the cars locked so she didn’t have to associate with Adelaide). Don’t get me wrong, honestly I’d be happy with my own compartment (with private bathroom of course), but it seems a bit crap for a queen compared to what the rest of them got. Sorry about the poor picture quality of these trains, but the Station Hall was very dark.


In addition to the royal trains (Adelaide-Elizabeth II), this hall also contained historic carriages from trains for us normies, and my god, even the third class carriages were nicer than what you get nowadays in first class, at least from what I’ve seen from the outside looking in (except for maybe the lack of lights unless you brought your own with you. No wonder so many people were murdered in trains). OK, so the earliest trains sucked because you’d just have to ride in an open carriage with wooden benches, but later on you’d be riding in style, with even a third class dining car in some trains that looked well fancier than anything you’d see on the average modern train.


After we finished reliving the glory days of rail, we headed outside to the South Yard, though on a day as gloomy as the one we visited, there wasn’t much to see. There are steam train and miniature railway rides available for a fee, and there is a shed containing the Workshop, where in theory you can see museum staff working on trains, though nobody was in on a Saturday so it was just some trains with no signage. We headed back in pretty quickly and made tracks (ha) for the Great Hall.


I thought the Station Hall was pretty big, but the aptly named Great Hall was even bigger, and was also full of trains, this time arranged around a vintage turntable. You could even climb aboard some of these trains, like the Japanese Shinkansen, apparently the only one outside of Japan. I think it’s probably time I said it – apart from us, visitors seemed to fall into two categories: families with young children, and well, anoraks. Definitely a lot of trainspotting types, some of whom were actively taking notes in little notebooks. So we felt a little out of place, and had difficulty looking inside some of the trains, as the viewing platforms were dominated by small children who refused to move. It’s nice to see children enjoying a museum, but I could have done with some of them being a little less bratty. The trainspotters, however, were relatively inoffensive.


Marcus, whilst not a trainspotter, was quite excited to see the Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive. As it’s not actually moving anywhere inside the museum, I’m not sure I see the appeal. Still, there were plenty of interesting things in here, even for the likes of me, especially the WWI hospital train. I’ve read about them, but had never actually gotten to go inside one, so that was definitely a neat experience. I also liked all the vintage railway posters scattered throughout the museum, even the crab one, below.


The Great Hall leads into the North Shed, which contains a section on the Flying Scotsman, and is also basically an open collections store that you can walk around. Everything is just stacked on top of everything else all higgledy-piggledy, and there was no real organisation to the collection and minimal signage, but it was worth walking around to spot some of the odder artefacts, like a vintage roll of coarse brown LNER toilet paper (we took a LNER train up, but I didn’t actually use the toilet (I avoid train toilets whenever possible, and it was only a two hour journey) so I can’t comment on the softness of its modern equivalent). And then I discovered there was a whole gallery upstairs as well, full of the detailed information about railways that had been somewhat lacking in other parts of the museum (aside from an exhibition on National Rail, the focus was mainly on the individual trains on display), including, excitingly, railway disasters! There was also a viewing platform up here where you could watch trains pulling into York Station (despite the rain, it was disturbingly crowded with keen train beans), but platform aside, this area felt a little forlorn, and wasn’t quite as dynamic and modern as the rest of the museum.


Finally, we checked out a temporary display of some of the Railway Museum’s choice memorabilia, including Stephenson’s (of Rocket fame) actual draught board and a miniature replica of a train where someone had been murdered that was used as evidence in the trial, and picked up a few postcards from the main shop (they have two shops). We didn’t visit the other temporary exhibition entitled “Brass, Steel, and Fire”, which was also free, but you had to book a ticket, and we just couldn’t be bothered (we were there for hours anyway, and we were ready to chill at the hotel for a bit), and I’m sorry to report that all of the ice cream huts at the museum were closed (probably because of the horrible weather), though there was an antique carriage that had been converted into a tea room that was open (we were waiting for Betty’s). Despite seemingly not being the museum’s target audience, and not much of a train enthusiast (I vastly prefer train travel to plane travel, but I’m not terribly interested in the trains themselves), I still managed to have a very enjoyable day, and I definitely recommend this museum to anyone visiting York, especially as it is one of the few museums here that is free (York apparently gets the most tourists in the UK outside of London, and it can be a bit of a tourist trap, though their high prices are still low compared to London). 4/5.