Saturday 30 May 2009

Ten museums

Here's a list I have been meaning to put together for such a long while: my ten favourite museums. I have needed a whole week away from work and the computer to come up with a list that I like. There were so many possible contenders!

  • The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. This is a mad collection of artefacts, gathered initially by Lt General Pitt Rivers, a Victorian anthropologist, explorer and archaeologist and then added to by later collectors. It has items as diverse as shrunken human heads from Bolivian tribes, an Inuit's clothes, dinosaur skeletons, a dodo, a coracle and toy trucks made from old Coca Cola cans. Last year it had a massive refurbishment, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and is now accessible, airy and impressive. Every time you go, you will find something different to coo over.
  • The Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. This is part of the Victoria and Albert Museum but is located at the opposite end of London. This is my favourite museum in London, and very close to where we live, so I take C and O at least once every school holiday. It is compact, simple and enchanting. O loves the enormous dolls houses, C loves the Action Men and I love all the Victorian nursery furniture and costumes.
  • The National Museum of American History in Washington DC. I spent a few weeks in Washington DC, staying with cousins, when I was seventeen and I went back to this museum almost every day. It was entirely responsible for me deciding to study American History at university a year or two later. The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution and is situated about halfway up the Mall, in a part of East Coast America just steeped in historical significance. I remember seeing inaugural gowns from various first ladies, the earliest surviving stars and stripes flag, a cotton gin and very early photos of Civil War soldiers. If this is not so handy for you, there is also The American Museum in Britain, in Bath which has an excellent collection of quilts and other American memorabilia.
  • The Natural History Museum in Kensington, London. Of the big three Kensington museums (the Science Museum, the V & A and the Natural History Museum), this is my favourite. Ignore the whizz-bang dinosaur exhibition which will be full of screeching children and head for the life size blue whale or the primates on the top floor. Each year it hosts the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, which I have always loved. You can now buy prints of the winning photographs; we have two from the 2008 competition up at home.
  • The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, South East London. This is another madly eclectic museum. I discovered it very recently and it still feels a bit like a local secret for the lucky people who live nearby. It has an aquarium, ornamental gardens, Polish paper art, a stuffed walrus (HOW big?), a staggering collection of musical instruments and Chinese embroidery. Amongst other things.

  • The National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, Cornwall is better than the one in Greenwich. It is located right on the quay in a modern, purpose built building and is rammed with boats of every size and shape. There are plenty of interactive things to do which will entice even the most London-ish, landlocked person into dreaming of running away to sea.
  • The Imperial War Museum - both the main museum in Lambeth in London, and the aviation site at Duxford, just outside Cambridge. The enormous guns outside the main London museum set the tone for a visit - awe inspiring. I always think how courageous someone was, to set up a museum about wars - from warfare to the home front and everything in between. It has particularly an excellent set of displays on WWII; I love walking around the house set up for blackout, and squeezing into the Andersen shelter.

  • The Fashion Museum in Bath. I need to go back to this museum I think. I went loads as a teenager, when school trips to Bath were on the curriculum every year. It knocks the socks (ha!) off the costume room at the V & A in London. Gasp at the corsets and laugh at the hats. I find old items of clothing really quite moving; how can you not think about the people who wore these costumes? They bring history vividly alive for me.
  • The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in Hampshire is a very recent discovery. I went for the first time this past week when I was camping in the New Forest. I'm not wild about cars as a rule, but this museum is just so much fun. Shiny old cars that simply ooze glamour. I imagined myself being driven off to a picnic by Lord Peter Wimsey in his shiny red Daimler. I sat in the passenger seat with a chiffon scarf tied fetchingly around my hair, and with a wicker picnic basket on the back seat. This just pipped the London Transport Museum as my best museum about Things That Go. Those of you who have boy children will understand the need for this category.
  • The Castell Henllys Iron Age Fort in Pembrokeshire, Wales. A rubbish website but an amazing place. It is a reconstructed Iron Age fort in rural Wales, built on the site of an actual Iron Age settlement. Sit around the central fire in the Chief's hut, grind some flour, try your hand at wattle-and-daubing a wall and marvel at how easy our 21st Century life is.


As this is my 200th post and I have been blogging for just over 2 years, I am going to do a giveaway of some embroidery, fabric and buttons. To win, leave me a comment before Thursday 4th June, telling me about your favourite museum - where ever in the world it might be. I will use a random number generator to draw a winner and announce the winner on 4th June. I look forward to seeing what list you all come up with!

Thursday 21 May 2009

Ten things

  • Leyton, where I live, is not picturesque, and does not often feature as a literary setting. So I've always perversely loved the opening line of Meera Syal's Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee: "Not even the snow could make Leyton look lovely". I think that even Meera Syal would have been impressed with the massive rainbow that appeared in the thundery skies over Leyton last weekend though.
  • I took O to the National Gallery on Saturday. We sat in front of the Impressionists and tried to copy their pictures. It did not take us long to decide that being an Impressionist was too much like hard work. Both of us are more into great sweeps of colour than lots of delicately balanced blobs of colour.
  • A deep chuckle and then a cry of "whoops-a-daisy!" from the nurse is top of my list of Things I Don't Want To Hear When I'm Having a Smear Test. And then she asked me why I looked so tense.
  • All week at work the harmonious colours of my diary, my iPod case and my little tin of tinted Vaseline have given me much pleasure.
  • The Vaseline Rosy Lips is the nicest lip balm I have ever had. Ever. I'm sorry to say that it has even knocked my homemade cocoa butter and coconut oil version off the top spot. The Vaseline one has rose and almond oil in it and smells and tastes as lovely as the tin looks.
  • Anna sent me a Be-Ro recipe booklet, which is enchanting. It even has a recipe for little biscuits called 'Sticky Blobs' - how cool!
  • I bought some embroidery transfers from Sublime Stitching. I have started on some designs from her Camp Out range and I hope that they will shortly become bunting for when we go camping.
  • We've just finished the last jar of jam from 2008. O wants to add raspberry jam to our repertoire this year so I am keeping an eye on the progress of the crops at the PYO.
  • I have bought some glow sticks from here to take camping with us this weekend. At Orchard Campsite, where we went last month, they threw handfuls of them out to all the children once the sun had set. This was such fun.
  • This is my 199th post, and it is almost exactly two years since I started this blog; that Camping Masterlist is still very much in use. I think this merits a giveaway. Come back next week to find out more!

Thursday 14 May 2009

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

I have been like the Tango this week.
Slow - poorly and lounging on the sofa with a temperature and a box of tissues, I finished knitting my socks in between naps.
Slow - still poorly, still on the sofa, and with Cary Grant for company, I made good progress on a tank top for me.
Quick - last night the antibiotics kicked in, and I made a much needed, quilted mat, to protect the new hall carpet. It is very simple - some leftover fabrics from my out-of-control pile, sandwiched with two layers of flannel on the back which makes it thick and non-slippy.
Quick - spurred on by making a mat in under an hour, and with the sewing machine set up, I decided to make myself a quilt top out of three favourite pieces of Kaffe Fassett fabric. The quilt top is very simple - just two 1 metre pieces of fabric, with 12cm of sashing down both sides to widen the finished quilt. It was inspired by the Six Of One and Half a Dozen of Another quilt in Last Minute Patchwork and Quilted Gifts. The whole top was done in about half an hour.

Slow - I now need to quilt the quilt and finish the tank top. Many more Cary Grant films will be required for this. How much do I love LOVEFiLM!

Monday 11 May 2009

Not even swine flu

I hate being ill. There is nothing to do and nothing gets done.

'And what's the point of you being ill, if its not even swine flu?' C demanded, grumpily, this morning.

Friday 8 May 2009

Camping memories

I have been laughing my way through The tent, the bucket and me by Emma Kennedy this week. The book is an account of her family’s summer holidays in Britain and France in the 1970s. They started off camping in a force 10 gale on a Welsh cliff top and their annual holidays became steadily worse, encountering the horror of French hole-in-the-floor toilets, marital bust ups, road accidents, camping in a forest full of wild boar, many, many violent bouts of food poisoning and an ants’ nest the size of a sideboard.

Many of the more vividly awful memories are reserved for their camping holidays. Camping does this to people I’ve noticed. There is something about childhood camping experiences, that shape (or scar, maybe?) the adult brain. You either went camping as a child and have nothing but idyllic memories of running barefoot across the grass and eating tubs of full fat ice cream made that morning by the local farmer’s wife. Or you all too vividly remember the tent being flooded in the middle of the night, while you slept in a Welsh valley, amongst sheep that kept you awake with their incessant bleating. You either long to recreate the pastoral camping vision for your own children, or you swore long, long ago that as an adult you would only ever holiday in something that had an accredited star system and a flush toilet.

I grew up with an obsessive love for quaintly old fashioned adventure stories by authors like Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I longed to take to the hills with nothing more than a knapsack full of fruitcake and apples, a jam jar with a string handle to catch tadpoles in, and a map. I would sleep on a bed of heather, under a conveniently placed gorse bush. My parents’ firmly rooted love of holidaying in remote gites in the far corners of France, during the pulsating heat of August, was disappointing in this context. There is not much scope for heathland adventures, when you are squashed into the back of a sticky, sweaty, Volvo estate with your siblings on the way to admire a medieval French bridge. For me, camping is both an adventure and a return to childhood – not my childhood, but the made-up, impossibly exciting childhood of books.

My mother, in Ireland, August 1985, wishing she was in the south of France with a bottle of wine.
I persuaded my parents to buy me a tent for my eleventh birthday and pitched it in the back garden each summer. The tent was an old fashioned brown one, the shape of a toblerone, which looked exactly as a tent should. I piled it full of books and toys and it became like a spare outdoor bedroom for me. Sometimes I slept in it, but just having it as a little, private playroom was usually enough.

When I went to University, I bought myself a new tent. Tent technology had improved immensely during the 1980s and my new tent had bendy, fibreglass poles, an integrated ground sheet and remained dry when it rained. The week before my finals I packed up my tent and went out to the coast with a pile of textbooks. I sat in the sunshine and revised solidly for four whole days. When I came back to campus, the air of exam hysteria surprised me; I was calm and tanned and ready for the exams to be over and a life of camping holidays to begin.

A tent full of textbooks, Norfolk 1994.

And now I take my own children camping – giving them childhood holiday memories that will run deep in their psyche and give them something to aim for or rebel against. And it’s all I can do not to beg them to love camping as I do. I want to say mournfully “Don’t break my heart by renting a villa in Tuscany”, but of course that would be the quickest way to provoke them into doing just that.

I play it cool, take the children camping, and enjoy myself. And I keep my fingers crossed that somewhere, deep in their minds, they’re enjoying it enough to want to keep on doing it when they’re older too. And if they grow up to hate camping, they can always go and stay with their grandparents in a gite in a remote corner of France, while I take my tent up a Welsh mountain.

Monday 4 May 2009

How a triathlete differs from a list writer

1. The Triathlete thinks that a good thing to do with a long Bank Holiday weekend is a sprint distance race,starting at 6am. The List Writer thinks that sitting in a gourmet pub in Oxford with her parents and her children would be more civilised.

2. The Triathlete always pines after a new bike. The List Writer dreams of new fabric or yarn.

3. When The Triathlete crashes off his bike in the middle of his race, he turns down offers of assistance from the St John's ambulance and yelps about how much damage this has done to his race time, before hopping back onto the bike and speeding off. The List Writer always rides her bike sedately and would never crash. And if she did, she would gladly accept a sweet cup of tea from the St Johns ambulance chaps and take things easy for a while.

4. The Triathlete finds the smell of chlorine and wetsuit rubber really quite acceptable. When The List Writer smells chlorine it makes her want to get out the washing powder and her handcream.

5. The Triathlete loves eating oats for breakfast. The List Writer eats oats for breakfast only because they are good for her; a croissant would always be preferable.

6. The Triathlete can swim 1,500m, then bike 40km, and finally run 10km. And will be going even further in September. Yikes. The List Writer can't...

...and she is very proud of her triathlete for being able to do so.

Saturday 2 May 2009

The grin said it all

I haven't got the words to describe the day I've just had, but Dad's grin said it all.

Another sun-shiney day. Another family day. More happy memories.

Well done, Dad. We're all so proud of you!