Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Just a few handy highlights of my recent visit to Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Quite macabre, but I love the way these fingers appear to be creeping out of the frame.

Still trying to work out if this child’s chubby hands below are about to release the bird or squeeze it to death!

Love these gorgeous Gainsborough hands!

But I was mostly intrigued by the timeless quality of this last one. The rings on her fingers and the whole style and countenance of the woman suggested to me that she was painted in the 20th century. Yet this gorgeous informal portrait of Catherine Sardou was painted by Antoine-Jean Gros in 1796!

Those rings are similar to ones I wear today…



Guernsey Trip #1 – The Bailiwick of Guernsey Millennium Tapestry

St Peter Port in Guernsey is littered with little museums and galleries, but sadly, most of them close at the end of September. So arriving at the beginning of October, was perhaps a bad plan!

Never-the-less, the two main museums, Cornet Castle and the Guernsey Museum at Candie are open almost all year round, as is the small, but beautifully formed, Guernsey Tapestry museum.

I’ll start with the tapestry museum – it was the first one I visited and very pleased I did. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I visited the Bayeux Tapestry recently and wondered how it would compare. The tapestry was started as a community event to mark the millennium, involving the ten parishes of the Bailiwick of Guernsey working on their own tapestry with supervision from a team of tapestry doyens. Each of the tapestries depict a piece of Guernsey history over the last 1000 years, from the mythological and ghostly tradition of the island and the conflict of war to art, craft, architecture, tomatoes and cows.

The panels were designed by artist Valerie Chandler and transferred onto textile by Jenneth Fitzgerald, who co-ordinated the mammoth project and received an OBE from Prince Charles in recognition of her achievement (an award that she promptly shared with everyone involved in the project).

Ok, it might sound a bit amateurish – random people of varying abilities contributing to a tapestry, but the results are anything but. The vibrant colours, textures, attention to detail, humour and heart – you’ll find it all. It’s obvious that the people involved in the project, from the co-ordinating team to the children who added a stitch or two, have taken pride in their work.

Like the Bayeux Tapestry, the Guernsey Tapestry is housed in a purpose-built gallery with dimmed lighting. Like the Bayeux Tapestry, an audio guide talks you through the tapestries drawing your attention to a quirky detail or a pertinent point in Guernsey’s history. The audio guide doesn’t point out to you the different textures, used to great effect on the second panel by to depict the waves rolling against the western shore of the island, or the flames in the sixth panel or the fishermen’s nets in panel number eight. Luckily Caroline is on hand to help with any questions I have about the work. She can also point to the cow on the St Peter Port panel where her tapestry stitch resides.

At the very least, the Guernsey Tapestry is a great starting point for introducing you to Guernsey’s unique history, but I think if you look closer and immerse yourself in the fabric of time, you’ll get a great deal more out of this lovely place. And if you need more colour, just ask at the desk in the gift shop – I was lucky that it was a quiet day and got myself an impromptu second tour with my own private guide, with insights into the tapestry and some of the personal stories behind it.

Definitely worth a tour. It cost £4.95 for adults, £4.50 for over 65s and students. Children under 16 go free.

Easter to end of October, Monday – Saturday 10am – 4.30pm.
(November to Easter open Thursdays only 10am – 4pm)

Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

Nestled into the cliff face above the pier at Bournemouth is the hidden gem of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum.

From the roadside it appears as a single-storey, unremarkable Victorian building, but from the beach below it offers intrigue, tempting you with its turrets peeking above the bushes in the cliff top garden.  The road entrance is only apparently used these days for newly-wedded couple; we plebs must make our way to the garden entrance to gain access through the modern extension on the west side of the house. Strangely in keeping with the rest of the house, the new extension adds its own style to the mixed bag of stylistic references. In that perfect way of Victorian eclecticism, the house borrows from oriental, Italianate, Scottish Baronial, classical and French traditions, reflecting the owners’ collections and travel itinerary.

So who would live in a house like this? Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes, that’s who. Pretty much a self-made pair: entrepreneurs, hoteliers and collectors.  A Victorian love story of a boy shipped off to Glasgow following his father’s death, bereft of his inheritance, only to discover his true love in Annie Nelson Clark, the daughter of his art and literature loving friend John King Clark.

After marrying and working in Dublin, Merton was recommended the south coast of England to alleviate his chronic chest ailments, so he bought the Bath Hotel in the centre of Bournemouth. Having renovated and extended the hotel in floor plan and in name – it became known as the Royal Bath Hotel because of its association with Edward VII, at the time scraping a living as the Prince of Wales – the Russell-Cotes then set to work building a family home next door. The building is in fact the vision of Merton, but his intention was to build it as a gift for his wife. Their story appears to be one of deep love and wedded bliss as our guide Pippa has interpreted it – she is leading us through the building on a mammoth 2 hour tour – what she calls a drop-in tour. You can drop in to the tour at any time, likewise you can drop out at any time if you’re getting bored with her commentary. It says much about Pippa’s commentary that the numbers double (if not more!) by the end of the tour. She brings the house to life, describing the decor, the history, some of the painting, the couples love of celebrity and their shoulder-rubbings with actors of the day. In fact, I’m wondering if I should check out Pippa’s credentials as her delivery is so polished and her storytelling so professional, I’m wondering if she is an actor herself.

She portrays Russell-Cotes as a self-publicist, encouraging friendships with royalty and actors. She tells us about the Lillie Langtry loo, the red glass in the conservatory, the Rosetti painting, the Japanese collection, the Napoleonic wine cooler and campaign lamp (both actual possessions of Napoleon in whom Merton had a particular interest). Benevolently, the Russell-Cotes, erstwhile mayor of Bournemouth and having secured the title of Sir and Lady, left the house and it’s substantial collection to the people of Bournemouth, with a separate sum bequeathed to pay for the upkeep of a curator for a number of years.


Perhaps they would have turned in their family mausoleum had they known that a 1960s curator had taken it upon himself to paint the rich red main hall peppermint green, or gloss paint the woodwork in the boudoir brilliant white, rather than retain Mrs R-C’s preferred pink! Happily a lottery grant has helped to restore the house almost to its former glory. Wallpaper and paint samples hidden behind furniture and electric fittings have helped to identify wall hangings and commission replacement furnishings.  The painted ceilings, friezes and cornices are almost there, but the conservatory with its peeling paint and emergency buckets still has a long way to go.


If you aren’t inclined to take the tour, there is a perfectly good introductory film at the entrance to the museum just before you enter the original house through the conservatory. There are also information boards available for descriptions about the paintings and sculptures in the collection. And it is possible to wander through the house appreciating the rooms, the art and the antiques without having to read up about each individual item. Unlike many historical buildings the Russell-Cotes Museum does not force you around a predetermined route with ropes and barriers to keep you in check. You may wander at your leisure and take a break on any of the many chairs not sporting a teasle. A lovely touch, I think, to deter you from sitting on a delicate fabric or potentially hazardous item of furnishing!

In fact it’s probably best to take a seat every now and again, as after a while you find the Florence-effect coming on. There is far too much in one place to appreciate everything! It’s handy therefore that Pippa is on hand to draw our attention to some of the stand-out pieces in the collection, where the money was spent on bespoke art and where saving were made on catalogue-bought fittings.  She points out that, ironically, the paintings, sculpures, china cabinets, curios and stuffed animals are only a small portion of the enormous collection which would have cluttered the house in the Russell-Cotes’ time.


Of course mid-Victorians were exposed to the styles of art, architecture and industry from around the world, particularly with the opening of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, but it wasn’t until the 1880s that Japan began to open its doors to the world, and en route back from New Zealand the Russell-Cotes chose to purchase some exceptional tourist souvenirs –  some of which, on reflection, should probably have stayed in the country of origin. And if that makes you think of the Elgin Marbles, then you might be surprised that they (or plaster cast replicas) adorn the frieze about the entrance staircase. Other friezes, also catalogue-bought, are made from compressed paper – I’m immediately interested considering my minor obsession with Victorian papier-mâché, but in this case the cherubic bottoms adorning the upper levels of the main hall haven’t fared so well and one has a thumb-sized dimple in his buttock.

As well as the impressive collection of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art, there are amazing Sèvres and Imari pieces of porcelain dotted around, Māori art, and Japanese carved Ivory. In fact there are Japanese pieces all over the place, having overspilled from the Mikado’s Room overlooking the little Japanese bridge in the garden. Apparently on their return to Bournemouth and before the house was built in 1901, the Japanese collection was housed in a suite of its own in the Royal Bath Hotel and only guests worth their salt – royalty, actors, dignitaries, etc – were invited to view the treasures which travelled back from the Far East in 100 packing cases.


Beyond the classical and oriental inspired Main Hall, an extension leads on to what was originally the kitchen garden. These four rooms now form an art gallery housing works of art from the collection and in the furthest two rooms is the current exhibition – Refracted: Collection Highlights –  curated with the help of the local LGBT+ community. Sections are inspired by the colours of the rainbow and even if none the individual pieces of art are to your taste, you’ve got to admire the arrangement of the galleries – it’s a joy to walk round the exhibition just to get the juxtaposition of the painted walls! I do like the work on display though – particularly Walter Cranes and the Casque D’or by Kate Olver – but to be honest I’m all Uffizi-ed out now and I’m off to the cafe for a spot of lunch.


My head is still spinning with some of Pippa’s stories, and there is far too much to impart – so I think you should make the trip to Bournemouth and have a look at the museum and collection yourself.

The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum is open 10am-5pm, Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays. It occasionally closes for special events. It costs £6 for adults and OAPs and £4 for children and concessions on means-tested benefits. Worth every penny!



Science Museum


I haven’t been to the Science Museum in South Kensington for some years – 10? 12, perhaps? – so I was looking forward to seeing what new stuff was in store for me and my nephews.

Surprisingly, considering it was the start of the schools holidays, the queue to get in was minimal. A quick bag check and straight through to the entry tills where you can pass through free of charge or offer a donation to the upkeep of the museum (suggested £5 donation per person).

Now I must be honest here – I can’t say I was ever much taken with the Energy Hall in the main gallery. I know they are all big impressive exhibits, all important breakthroughs in their own right, but they never quite got me steamed up! I know my dad would have loved the huge scale models – they were probably there to be seen when he was a boy, and they do suffer slightly from old-world museum exhibit syndrome with a tad of dustiness about them.

Which is a big shame really, because, if like me, you’re not totally enthralled with the grandeur of this massive gallery, then you might be forgiven for thinking it’s going to be a bit of a bland, bygone museum experience. But, oh no, you just need to move on a few metres into the Exploring Space gallery and that, for me, is where this museum starts!

I’m not going to say this is the most perfect gallery of all time, it just resonates deeply with me and my dreams, as a seven-year-old, of becoming an astronaut. (I still have these dreams, but I’m sure now, as then, they’re not too keen to let a chronic asthmatic into space!)


This is a gallery filled with rockets, satellites, a replica of the Eagle Moon lander and dangling planets in a moodily dark atmospheric gallery. I think perhaps the last time I was here, me and my eyes were a tad younger and I didn’t notice how difficult it is to read the information panels beside the exhibits. I can see that they are filled with fascinating facts about the Apollo missions, Sputnik, Valentina Tereshkova, the first and only female to fly solo in space – but I can hardly read a bloody thing. And it gets worse when someone joins you at the exhibit and their shadow falls over the captions!

Never mind, I know most of this stuff anyway, so I can happily chunter on to my nephews, probably boring them rigid in the process.

We have to cut our time in the gallery short because we’ve booked in to the Legend of Apollo experience and need to hightail it through the Making of the Modern World gallery with all manner of transport and technology, stopping briefly for a pee stop and to take a photo of Stephenson’s Rocket.

We file into a small room and start with an explanatory film about the missions to the moon before moving in to the Discovery Motion Theatre, picking up our 3D glasses on the way to experiencing the animated journey in a multi-sensational, chair rocking, 3D, surround-sound spectacle.

It was fun and a little unexpected – I thought it was just a film! – and we filed out and straight on to a second 3D experience in the enormous IMAX theatre on the top floor. From the IMAX films on offer, we chose A Beautiful Planet. Who doesn’t enjoy a 3D film? No-one can criticise the amazing effects and the scale of the experience, but I think I have to criticise the makers for being a tiny bit misleading with the name of this film. I think perhaps ‘Good bits of IMAX film from space tied up in a tenuously linked storyline about Earth, and perhaps Mars, and a lot about the International Space Station’.  Obviously, A Beautiful Planet is catchier!

Footage of Earth from the Space Station is always impressive – night shots of cities, beautiful oceans and awesome weather conditions, but the IMAX experience was disappointingly ‘flat’. The best footage of Earth was taken from ground level over the oceans and across mountain ranges which then morph into Mars – possibly to reinforce the environmental message of the dangers of climate change.

The best footage, however, comes direct from the ISS with astronauts, boxes, oranges and all manner of debris floating before your 3D specs. My verdict – great footage, bad plot, but highly enjoyable nonetheless.

From the IMAX theatre, we hit the Deep Blue Diner for lunch – nice salads on offer here, a selection of burgers, kids’ menu – with waitress service in a moodily-lit, vibrant blue corner of the Wellcome Wing. Tasty!

After a nice relaxing lunch, we hit the trail again. Retracing our steps we head for a closer look at the Rocket and move on to inspect Tim Peake’s capsule with its charred shell and enormous parachute. Casting my mind back a couple of hours to our Legend of Apollo experience, I feel I can appreciate the scars and the scale of the craft a little more (even if I’d still like to experience the real thing for myself!). What I love most about the Soyuz TMA-19M descent module is its lovely art deco shape. Obviously, the design of the capsule follows all the rules of fit-for-purpose. There’s no concern for superficial styling to make it look nice – it has to be designed to fit in the nose of the Soyuz rocket, attach snuggly with the ISS and return to Earth safely though the planet’s atmosphere, withstanding temperatures of 17,000°C. So there’s no option of a pretty rose window or an Art Nouveau-style handle, but strangely, it looks so stylish that the landing capsule could have come straight from a Tintin novel or even from the mind of HG Wells. For me, the highlight of the visit!


We wander aimlessly into places that look exciting to the boys. The Flight gallery is a favourite, with its history of flight from balloons as depicted on commemorative china, which I loved, while the boys were off examining the cockpit of a 1943 Douglas DC-3. Raised walkways make the most of the exhibits from Amy Johnson’s Gypsy Moth to the Hawker P1127.

The boys pass up on the chance to ‘fly’ in one of the simulators – they’ve just had lunch and don’t want to lose it. There’s also a virtual reality space descent following Tim Peake’s return to the planet, which we’ll leave for another day as I seem to be the only one interested. We also leave the Wonderlab, skip the Information Age gallery, pause for a while in the Mathematics gallery to rest on the benches and admire the amazing canopy designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. The undulating 3D forms are inspired by the in-flight air currents of the 1929 Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’ aircraft at the head of the gallery. Illuminated by a constantly moving violet light, the whole gallery has such an hypnotic effect, that I almost had to force myself to look at the other exhibits.

We ended up on the top gallery overlooking the main Energy Hall. The interactive Energy gallery keeps us all entertained, and it’s a shame that some of the consoles are out of action. While the boys try out all the exhibits, including the Do Not Touch installation (which, of course, just cries out to be touched!), I go for a quick whizz around the watches in The Clockmakers’ Museum. A bit of a weakness of mine – clocks, globes, orreries, astrolabes… In reality I know nothing about their workings, I just like looking at them!


It’s interesting that in a museum where often the overall design of the individual galleries outdoes some of the exhibits therein, here we have a relatively old-fashioned display of clocks and watches packed into cases. Some of the delicate pocket watches are exquisite, but there are far too many of them to appreciate each one. Instead I jump from case to case, picking out my two or three favourites and reading about them. There’s also one of John Harrison’s early marine chronometers and a wonky little orrery tucked inside a glass globe that grab my attention before I return to the boys in the Energy gallery.

So we leave with, I reckon, only one third of the museum covered. There’s plenty for a return visit… the Robot exhibition, the Statoil Gallery, I didn’t get to visit my favourite home appliances in The Secret Life of the Home gallery in the basement – and then there’s the new Medicine gallery due to open in 2019.

 So plenty of reasons for a return visit!

Hadrian’s Wallsend

So, Wallsend eh? Growing up, I always thought it was a funny name, up there with the likes of Pity Me and Tantobie, to cite just two brilliantly-named north eastern locations. But I’ve just been for a visit and found out Wallsend’s even sillier Roman name – Segedunum!

Segedunum is the Roman fort at one end of Hadrian’s Wall, that amazing national treasure built across the Northumbrian and Cumbrian countryside to keep out those scary Picts. The settlement is not qute as large as the incredible Vindolanda site further along the wall, but its definitely worth a visit.

Having said that, though – if you ever wonder why historians get excited about discovering a series of small walls, then you might be even more curious about us showing excitement when some of the missing walls have been filled in with even smaller walls of contemporary cobbles. Not even the real archaeological deal, just something indicating the original lie of the land.

But it is interesting – a real eye opener showing the arrangement of life in a Roman fort. The cavalry barracks with their arrangement of rooms for officers and horses – hearth at the front denoting a room for three cavalry men, and the room at the back with a big pit for draining away the urine of the three cavalrymen’s horses. The hospital latrine with it original arrangement of drains and the channel from the water tank showing the hygiene logistics of the camp. The grandeur of the commanding officer’s house built to reflect the rich Roman villas of the Mediterranean – including the shaded courtyard to protect them from the Northumbrian sun!
At the far end of the site is a reconstruction of the bath house, sadly closed to the public due to a large whole in the roof, rendering it unfit and unsound for visitors. Luckily for us, there is a reconstruction of the bathhouse floor plan further along Hadrian’s Cycleway – about 200 metres from the main site. The verge of the Cycleway and parts of the site itself were in full bloom with wild flowers planted courtesy of the remainder of a half million pound grant awarded by ex-chancellor George Osborne – surely one of the very few gestures by a Tory government for the benefit of the north east, even the attendant at the museum, rolled her eyes in confusion at the thought!
It was a grey day when we visited, but the site was in glorious colour thanks to the wild flowers filling the verge of the cycle path – thanks in part to Mr Osborne’s £500,000 grant. The small Roman garden by the now-defunct bathhouse was also quite lovely, with places to picnic if the rain held off.
Segedunum – Seg (rhyming with egg)-u-due-num, if you’re asking (‘Seggy’ for short, according to the attendant) – consists of the restored section between the roadside and the cycleway, the new bathhouse site and an informative purpose-built museum with viewing gallery.
I must admit that Mr Jenkins and I thought the viewing gallery was an airport control tower, but the elevated section of the museum helps you to view the whole site with the help of an animated timeline, taking you from the Roman invasion of Britain, through the abandonment and decay of the camp, it’s return to nature, and then, in the Victorian industrial era, a building flurry of terraced housing, quickly demolished as time flies by to the excavation of the site and renovation of the original Roman fort. The top of the tower, on level 9, is served by a lift, so you don’t have to climb all the stairs. Strangely, levels 8 to 4 don’t exist, so it’s straight down to the cafe on level 3 and the galleries on levels 1 and 2. The staff are friendly and there were a bunch of tame Romans around adding colour to the story of the fort. The Romans, in full regalia, were hanging around the car park and mingling with visitors on level 1, where items excavated from the grounds were displayed with interactive displays, and films explaining the social structure of the Roman and indiginous inhabitants.
It’s an interesting place, not over-packed with info, making it accessible for those tempted in for a quick idea of the place, or children with a shorter attention span. The in-depth details are imparted from an engaging film showing characters from the heyday of the fort, and from their modern-day counterparts with their brightly coloured armour and weapons.
The museum employees pointed us up to the viewing gallery first, but recommended a trip to the main gallery to chat with the Romans before they knock of at 3pm. The tea room would be closing early too, so get yourself up there if you need a cup of tea… Duly instructed we were up in the friendly, if almost empty, tea room by 3.30pm overlooking the site of the fort and the car park, just in time to watch the Romans pack their armour into crates and lug them into the boot of their cars.
Back down to level 2 and a bit more information about the colliery and shipbuilding. Not quite as exhaustive as the Roman exhibits, but interesting none-the-less. However, it is the museum’s Roman credentials that make this place, and the exhibits work hard at emphasising the day-to-day life of the fort and its interaction with the existing community. It made me wonder why I always spurned the offer of a trip to Housesteads when I was younger. Housesteads, that other popular Roman site on Hadrian’s Wall and popular destination for boring Latin teachers….. Perhaps I was just waiting for technology to catch up to make the visit a tad more interesting.
Segedunum is open to public from the 1 April to the 30 September, daily from 10am-5pm. Entrance fees are £5.95 for addults, £3.95 for concessions and children under 16 go free.

Goth City

Goth Central

You wonder, as you walk in to the curiosity cabinet that is the Whitby Museum, why you have never visited it before! At first glance it appears to be an old fashioned museum stuck in a Victorian time warp. And that’s correct – it has all of the dry display cabinets of the old Geological Museum in London’s South Ken, coupled with the eclectic collection of Forest Hill’s beautiful Horniman Museum. And it’s true, some of the exhibits have been in the Whitby Museum for so long that their typed up description label is fading on yellowing paper, so much so that in some cases I had to photograph the label and enlarge it on my phone to be able to read it! It’s actually quite a charming little foible of the museum.

But did I just mention the electric nature of the Horniman Museum? Well, bless me, it has competition with the Whitby Museum – if you’d like to consider museums which have the most wide ranging and frankly quite bizarre collections I’ve come across. The Hancock Museum of my childhood (circa 1970) had a similar atmosphere, but the amazing thing about Whitby is that the collection is housed mostly in one room. It’s not large by museum standards, but it is absolutely packed to the brim with artefacts and oddities.

imageThe gory Hand of Glory

A handy returnable laminated guide sheet is handed to you when you hand over your £5 entrance fee, but it doesn’t give you the full gist of what’s in store. Wandering around I found many displays pandering to my wide range of interests, from the huge collection of ammonites (a favourite obsession of mine), to the collection of cameras collected over the last century (tying in with my love of photography), to the handicrafts section (my other job alongside picture research), to the cabinets packed with china and glass (both lifelong passions) and the amazing miniature models (harking back to my early days studying precision modelling). There’s also a standing stone with cup markings, for goodness sake (… thinks back to the many holidays spent dragging my kids round fields looking for wild versions… ).

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And if you’re looking for weird juxtapositioning, opposite  the stone you’ll find a grandfather clock alongside a ceiling height totem pole!

imageThen there were the work related exhibits – the orrery in the explorers exhibition tying in nicely with my four years of working on the orrery and tellurion model making magazines, the amazing fossils, including the huge ichthyosaurus embedded into the wall of the museum, harking back to the geological and fossil publication I worked on a few years back.

It may have been synergy that guided me to Whitby and the museum during the October half term holiday and leading up to Halloween – and neither disappointed on the gothic front. Whilst a fine selection of goths roamed the streets of Whitby looking for the Bram Stoker experience, the ghoulish highlights amongst the museums collection left a more subtle skin-crawling impression.

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Top of the list were the incredibly haunting faces of the dolls in the toy section, the boat of bones – a model of a gun ship made by French PoWs during the Napoleonic wars from the bones left over from their meat rations, and best of all, the creepy Hand of Glory – a desiccated human hand found in a local criminal’s home kept as good luck trophy (and in fairness, the guy was never caught!).


I felt that perhaps I was on a nostalgic journey, enjoying hunching over the wood and glass cabinets the way I used to with the semi precious gems in the Geological Museum in days or yore. I felt that I was enjoying the museum so much because it transported me back to my childhood. I felt that no child in its right mind would enjoy such a dry display in these days of instant entertainment. And as I look around over the top of the cabinets, I was one of 5 adults all around my age, who seemed to be the only visitors to the museum – hmmm, what would a child make of this museum, I thought.


After a brief trip upstairs for a speedy journey through the history of the wedding dress, I arrived back in the main room to find it full of families – one girl dragging her mum to see the stuffed birds in their display case, and a family pouring over the amazing dolls house back in the children’s toys section, and one boy gobsmacked by the tale his dad told him of Victorian headmasters beating naughty children with the cane displayed in the education display case. An older girl gazed at the carved Whitby jet trying her best to photograph it through the reflective case.

Perhaps I was wrong then, perhaps kids today appreciate the object on display more if it’s not surrounded by all singing, all dancing interactive gadgets.

I wondered again, as I left the museum, why I hadn’t visited it before now. I’d had, after all, a mere 50 years of visiting Whitby on a regular basis! If you find yourself in Whitby – on a seaside holiday or as part of a gothic retreat – I would highly recommend the museum. You can find it in Pannett Park, open daily and costs a fiver for adults (concessions £4 for seniors and £3.50 for students). Children under 17 go free.

National Glass Centre


I’ve been a regular visitor to the National Glass Centre for many years now. It celebrates the glass-making heritage of Sunderland in a unique building, with its unassuming, industrial entrance in direct contrast to its show-off riverside façade.  I love the entrance which dips away from what is ostensibly the roof of the Centre, drawing you down into a progressively enclosed channel of claustrophobia before propelling you through the doors and back into the light.

In the early days I became a ‘friend’ and spent many happy hours there with my children in the great interactive gallery with its imaginative explanations of the history, the properties and the possibilities of glass.

img_2381Verdant Seascape Sculpture, Fritz Dreisbach

My recent visit was interesting. It’s been a good few years since I was last there, so I dragged my sister along for a trip out. She was quite surprised that I wanted to have a look around – thought I’d be more interested in heading straight to the cafe for a coffee. But I managed to stop her in her tracks and drag her around the recently renovated top deck of the centre, completed a couple of years ago after a £2.3 million overhaul.

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Now, I might eat my words here, but I do believe that the National Glass Centre appeals to all ages. In the early days when it first opened, one side of the top floor was dedicated to an informative, hands-on, children-friendly exhibition. After a few years it started to look a little tired; worn out by little hands and big, hell bent on lifting flaps and turning cranks. It’s been replaced by a more subtle display of the history of glass making on the Wear – imaginatively done, with archive images and phone points to listen to the voices of workers from the Jobling, Pyrex and Corning factories of days past. There are peep-hole displays with a fine selection of locally made glass oddities, glass displays with front and back transparency to tempt you into the next section, and a fine rotunda-style film show. Sadly, the lighting in the rotunda was too intense and introductory film show, which offered much in the way of eye-candy with beautifully photographed glassmaking processes, was too weak to compete. I’d like to think they’ll have it sorted by the next time I visit.

Meanwhile there’s a dedicated kids’ area in the Learning Studio, adventure backpacks and family workshops. And of course, there is always that perennial enjoyment for kids – running across the 6cm thick glass roof while terrified parents look on – hoping to their own personal god that the glass is strong enough to hold their weight. Best ever fun my children had was lying on the glass roof making faces at the tea-drinking customers in the cafe eight metres or so below!

img_2377The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, Andrew Miller

The temporary exhibition when we visited really appealed to my sense of recycling – Andrew Miller’s ‘The Good, the Bad & the Ugly’. I love his philosophy behind the exhibition, a collection of discarded objects, apparently worthless, but considered for their history, their previous design credentials, their past emotional attachments and their ultimate rise in status as a work of art. I’m sure that there will be the odd observer who will look at Miller’s work and exclaim, ‘It’s just a load of old rubbish!’ – and yes, they’d be right, but the ‘rubbish’, like the work of Joseph Cornell to Ai Weiwei, has been thoughtfully combined to create a compelling piece of art.

Finally done upstairs and having paid our suggested, but not compulsory, donation of £5 each, my sister finally got me to the lower level and the much sought-after cup of coffee. The Glass Yard cafe here has won awards, and it’s a fine place to sit and watch the Wear wander past the huge panoramic windows on its last leg to the North Sea. It’s also next to the amazing gift shop, which has introduced me to a few glass artists in the past, including Peter Layton at London Glassblowing (where incidentally, I’ll be trying my hand at glassblowing in the new year. Exciting stuff!). As often happens, I managed to spend a wee amount on a piece made at the NGC, and you can actually wander down the corridor at the far corner of the shop and sit yourself down for spell of glassblowing voyeurism.

It’s great to see such artists at work moulding the glass to their own fancy, seemingly unfazed by the tremendous heat of the furnace (for lovers of eco-friendly facts, you’ll be happy to know that the heat from the furnaces is also used to heat the building). The NGC has had links with the University of Sunderland for some years now – it’s only fitting that a city so emphatically linked with glass-making is now teaching the next generation of artists.

The National Glass Centre sits on the north bank of the River Wear in Sunderland – entrance is free with a collection box for the generous.

Newton vs Thatcher


I recently found myself in Grantham with a few hours to kill, so true to form I sought out the nearest museum…

Sadly, Grantham Museum has been hit by funding cuts and this is reflected in the quality of some of the displays. Not all, though. There are some imaginative arrangements going on here, but the display boards invariable sport a spattering of typos and, more heinous from my point of view, bad quality, pixelated images!

It’s a small affair, slightly minimalist in layout, but covering the main points of interest from these here parts – Barnes Wallis and the Dambusters, transport links, D-Day landings and Thatcher, the Milk-Snatcher. But most interesting as far as I’m concerned is the small exhibit dedicated to Isaac Newton.

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I hadn’t realised Newton hailed from Grantham – perhaps he’s been overshadowed by a more invidious inhabitant – but soon got an inkling with the Newton Shopping Centre and sign posts pointing to the Isaac Newton School. Newton moved into the home of William Clarke in Grantham at the age of 12 so that he could attend the town’s grammar school. There is a replica of his foster father’s apothecary shop included in the exhibition, along with a cast of his sundial, an interactive display of the town during Newton’s lifetime and his death mask, which was used to sculpt the marble likeness for his tomb in Westminster Abbey.


Thatcher’s display has a late 1970’s sitting room with a telly, running a continuous loop of her victory over Jim Callaghan and the Labour Party. Alongside is a timeline of her ‘successes’ and a display case holding her shoes and handbag. I wondered if in years to come someone would think to display Obama’s toilet bag or Blair’s shower cap in a museum. But then, perhaps someone is actually interested in such trivia.

The museum was threatened with closure by local council cuts and is now run mainly by volunteers. After an interesting hour mooching round the museum I headed to the small cafe at the front of the building, tempted by the coffee machine I’d spotted on my way in. Sadly though, it appeared to have been hit by the cuts too and the elderly volunteer waved a jar of instant at me asking if this would be OK. Nope, I don’t think so. I opted for a tea instead, which duly arrived in a cardboard cup. I would have passed on that too had I realised…

While we we were waiting for the kettle to boil (a veritable lifetime!) the volunteer made small talk and suggested a pilgrimage to the home of Margaret Thatcher after my visit to the museum. A pilgrimage! I would much rather slit my own throat, and I told him I was much more interested in the architecture of the town and its links to Isaac Newton, (The rest of the sentence ‘…than some foul politician who spent most of her time in office dismantling the lives of those least able to defend themselves.’ remained unspoken.) In spite of my obvious antipathy to Grantham’s greatest leader, the staff were very helpful and informative about the museum and the town, which is situated on the route of the Great North Road. The hotel in which I’d just spent the previous night was apparently, a main stopover and had links to English royalty from days of yore, including Richard III and King John. So off I went to have a closer look and continue my tour of Grantham…


Grantham Museum is situated right beside the tourist and arts centre and admission is free. Check out their facebook page too.

Normandy & the Conquerors


We’ve just spent a week of warfare in Normandy. It wasn’t our intention to have a holiday there slap bang in the middle of the D-Day commemorations, nor did we intend to rock up at Gold Beach on the actual anniversary.

But we did, and it was a strange thing.

Arriving in the midst of a sea fret we gazed out at the strange shadows emerging from the bay. Bit by bit, the mists cleared and within minutes we were bathed in steamy sunshine. The atmosphere, too, seemed to sway between melancholy and celebration, with equal numbers of visitors meditating on the events of 72 years ago and those dressed in 1940s kit out for a bit of a party.

From the cliff top above the small town of Arromanches-les-Bains, a sobering glance out to sea reveals the remains of the landing port build by the Allies. Not much remains of Mulberry harbour, but enough to get a general idea of the scale of the thing, built prefab-style in sections towed from Britain and built in the days after the initial landings.

Luckily, Arromanches itself was spared much of the bombing that devastated other communities in Normandy and as we looked down from the cliff towards the seaside town you could make out the strains of Scottish bagpipes and French choirs, performing on the now-peaceful promenade in remembrance of the fallen of D-Day and the subsequent liberation of France.

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The cliff-top bears witness to the remains of the battle with rusting gun emplacements and floating bridges. The latter form an unlikely backdrop to the memorial honouring the sappers of the Royal Engineers, where we stopped a-while. Just down from the memorial, past the statue of the Virgin Mary and a row of multi-national flags is the Arromanches 360° Cinema.

The Cinema bombards you with images and sounds of D-Day, while down in the town itself is the Musée du Débarquement gives more detail about the Mulberry harbours and the turn of events following D-Day if you want to immerse yourself in the action or learn more about the context.

Tootling along the coast to Gold Beach we started at Ouistreham and Sword Beach, landed by the British Paratroopers, past Juno Beach, taken by the Canadians, and if we’d continued up the coast, we would have hit Omaha Beach, where US troops landed. It seemed that most nationalities chose to invade again (on a much more peaceful scale) in a show of unity, and throughout Normandy while we were there British, Canadian, American, German and (of course) French flags flew together as the region celebrated an all-encompassing accord of peace.

Driving south west of Arromanches, past the fields full of cars and camper vans and pedestrians spilling on to the roads, we headed to Bayeux. Leaving behind the memories of twentieth century warfare, we went in search of a less sophisticated, yet no less barbaric, battle.

Growing up in the UK, you can’t avoid the date 1066 – it’s our history! But it’s also the history of Normandy and one if it’s most famous sons, William the Bastard, soon to be William the Conqueror, and the amazing tapestry telling the tale of his accession to the English throne.


Now, if I’m honest, I didn’t think much of the Bayeux Tapestry when I was a kid. I thought the figures were a bit basic and the story-telling a bit confused. But, hell – what did I know. Seeing it now, being able to appreciate the historical context and the skill of the embroiderers, I was quite taken with it. I have over the years as a professional picture researcher had to research the tapestry for various publications, and of course, it’s ideal for depicting a king (three of them are featured) from the days before photography. But seeing it in real life with the imaginative and humorous commentary was really worthwhile.  The museum housing the tapestry also includes a gallery showing the techniques and materials used to make the tapestry, the history background, genealogical charts and a cinema presentation – all described in both French and English (though actually, some of the translations could have been checked out!) But fair play to them, how many museums in the UK have extended French translations, with or without the odd grammatical error?

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What you don’t see in school when you’re learning about the Battle of Hastings, are the delightful caricatures in the friezes above and below the main event of the tapestry. Yes, we’ve all seen William, and Harold with the arrow in his eye, and Halley’s comet – but who’s managed to spot the naked man with the unfeasibly large penis, the dragons and griffins, the soldiers nicking battle trophies and the little Gilliam-esque details?

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Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 57 : La mort d'Harold

Hasting and D-Day were separated by nearly nine centuries of turbulent warfare throughout Europe. I wonder if in the 28th century the D-Day beaches will still be tempting tourists. I’m sure if they are, the visitors will be greeted with the same friendly attitude which welcomed us. Normandy, on the eve of the UK referendum, was flying the flags of almost every nation under the sun; outside Bayeux Cathedral where a whole row of union flags flew to honour the British who fought for France’s liberation, at tourist sites where flags of every nation seemed to be represented, and in small towns where the flags of the EU nations flapped alongside the EU flag. Everywhere there seemed to be flag-inspired symbolism of tribal unity and it would be a shame to turn our backs on a united Europe which has held its peace now for over 70 years.

Bayeux Tapestry images courtesy of Wikipedia

Plague, Fire, Revolution – Samuel Pepys at the National Maritime Museum


You know what it’s like when there’s something right on your doorstep and you don’t think to have a proper look at it because you can see it anytime… and then, too late – it’s gone? Well, I was in danger of missing out on the Pepys exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for exactly that reason. Right on my doorstep and months of good intentions to visit culminated in a last minute dash on the penultimate day of the exhibition.

And was I please I did!? It was up to the usual high standards of the Maritime Museum – imaginatively laid out and engaging, covering all the usual amazing highlights of that one decade in the 1600s.

Beheading God’s chosen ruler, a brief flirtation with republicanism, a deathly epidemic and a big fire. Everything covered with great images, portraits and exhibits. The Restoration theatre kept me entertained for ages, moving only to ease my achy bum from the hard benches. The animation depicting the Great Fire of London with voice-over reading from Pepys’ diary was very well done; exciting and poignant, and again moving only to reduce the pain caused by the hunting stool-style seats which were too narrow for my chunky hindquarters.

With each area covered by the exhibition is an interactive screen with images from the diary. Touch the screen and a translation of Pepys’ shorthand allows you to read his entry, with highlighted sections annotated for further clarification. In the plague section I was very excited to read about his witnessing a plague victim left out for collection in a lane by Coome Farm. Excited, because thats my home! Not the farm itself, but my home is a Victorian terrace build on land once belonging to the aforementioned ‘Coome Farm’.

It had fashion, art, science, architecture and a real taste of the period. So much so that I feel I need to read his diary in full. (Something I’m a ashamed to say I’ve never done.) There were ‘Eureka!’ moments when I thought, yes, that explains it all, moments of clarification in the complicated line of Royal succession and, finally, the great realisation that, in my opinion, Sir Christopher Wren was a dead ringer for Christopher Walken.

Apart from the slightly uncomfortable nether quarters, I don’t think I’m able to find fault with the exhibition, and had I seen it sooner, I would have definitely been back for a second viewing.

If you are in Greenwich on bank holiday Monday, go and see it – 28 March is your last chance. Worth the trip – I promise you!