Unusual Places Summaries

[Soane Museum]

Sir John Soane's Museum

[This is an extension of the Grobius Shortling Web Page "Castles, Stone Circles, and Ancient Monuments." All the places listed here have been personally visited, and any factual errors or wrong-headed opinions are my own fault. --Grobius Shortling, Feb 1997]

There are a lot of pictures on this page, so to make it easier to view, I have reduced them all to thumbnail size. If you want to see an enlargement, click on the thumbnail picture. [G.S. March 1998]

An apology is owed regarding links that no longer exist. I hate it when this happens, but it does all the time. Some web sites leave a forwarding address when they have moved, which is the proper thing to do (and the fact that the surfing site -- see Sandwood Bay -- did not is unforgivable because I'm sure it still exists somewhere). Others just fade away, which is a pity. However, I don't have the time to keep all my web pages up to date, so please don't blame me when you get the famous 404 error, just believe that it was seen and read and enjoyed at some point in time.

Unusual Places in Great Britain

[Chiswick House]

Chiswick House
From the Great Buildings List
(A scholarly compendium on the Internet; explore it if you are into this subject)
Floor Plan
(Even the floor plan is elegant, but where are the toilets?)

CHISWICK HOUSE -- There used to be a manor house next to this, which makes a little more sense than what you see now; it was a Greek picnic pavilion for his Lordship's mistress, where they could play civilized games with their cronies in splendid style in a building that rivals the Taj Mahal in perfect design; it really is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world (actually a rip-off of Palladian Italian villas of a century or so before), even if it's impractical as a house to live in (i.e., large wine cellar, but no kitchen). The park-like grounds and the conservatory are also very fine; because it is hard to get to, it is undervisited and underfunded, which is a pity--local council is always threatening to cut back on maintenance, etc., such as when the marvellous cedar trees were badly damaged by a storm a few years ago and haven't been replaced or patched up decently; help them out and take an afternoon to visit (Chiswick Station is on the Underground and also on British Rail so it's easy to get to if you aren't afraid of venturing into the 'burbs' -- you can also get there via a very pleasant walk from Hammersmith along the Thames, with some good pubs on the way -- about half an hour not counting pub stops).
Sir JOHN SOANE'S MUSEUM -- Architect of the Bank of England, Soane built his own house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and it is a display of eccentric taste in the best manner; really unusual architectural and design features in the rooms, especially the two-story atrium that houses an incredible Hogarth collection in the form of 6-ft high 'books' attached to the wall, and the Classical sculpture rooms -- he also glassed in the little bit of back yard that comes with London town houses and built a kind of conservatory for statuary, rather than plants -- and the amazing breakfast room; a place lovingly preserved by its conservators under his legacy, which was to keep this place open forever, for free, to anybody who wants to see it (except on Mondays); if you are in London for a short time, skip the British Museum and Harrod's and go here instead. The Regency Period in England was rather avant-garde, a transition between the Augustan rigors of the Age of Reason and the Gothic fantasies of the Victorians -- it was, after all, an age of revolution (trains were first invented then, too). This would have been a good time to live in if you had enough money, pretty lousy if you were poor. Interestingly enough, one of Soane's motives in establishing this trust was to disinherit his son from the estate. [Soane Museum]

Soane's Museum
Official Home Page
Travel Guide Reference

[Hampton Court]

Hampton Court
Tennis Courts
(This is the traditional tennis bunch, not the "Lawn Tennis" we know)
Tourist Blurb
(Not bad for such a travel guide promotional thing)

HAMPTON COURT-- Cardinal Wolsey's palace, confiscated by the envious Henry VIII. I'll take this over Versailles any day; this is a world-class masterpiece; even the indoor tennis/squash court is impressive, although the famous maze is a bit of a bore (too many chewing-gum wrappers and kids who have lost patience and bored holes through the hedges to the adjacent passage); Wren did a nice job of updating the clock courtyard without messing around with the interior Jacobean rooms; place is a pure hodgepodge of interior and exterior building designs from different periods, and the place is big enough for all of them to coexist; Thames is nice here too, with an attractive town and lots of good pubs. Cardinal Wolsey got screwed by that greedy and pragmatic Tudor, but probably deservedly -- you will note that the Catholic Church never made him a saint as they did with Thomas More.
BOLSOVER CASTLE -- Hard place to get to, in a not-that-attractive part of the country, although the town and castle is something of a pearl in the pig sty (see the entry in the English Castles page, or click the image to go to the full web page on Tripod). This is not a "real" castle although built on the site of a relatively unimportant but large Norman motte-and-bailey. It is a very rich man's fancy when there was a trend to build Camelots at the same time the middle classes were orchestrating a revolution. [Bolsover]

Bolsover Castle
      Bolsover District Council
(Those folks never acknowledged my Bolsover Castle page, which I e-mailed them about, ingrates!)
      A scholarly excavation of the Garden Court
(Fascinating bureaucratic report, more than you will ever want to know)

BRIGHTON PAVILION -- One of the most eccentric buildings in the world (and awesome). The Prince Regent (George III's son) built this masterpiece in what had been a minor seaside resort. (If you don't want to go to Brighton, even though it's only an hour train ride, check out Lancaster House in London for similar Regency Rococo at its best if more restrained -- however, this is not open to the public that often.) This is pseudo-Persian/Indian fantasy to an extreme beyond all reality until you see it. Brighton itself is a great place to visit, even though its famous pebble-covered beach is not 'user-friendly'; it is practically the only seaside resort in England that still holds up against the Costa del Sol, etc. where most Brits go to on holiday these days. [Well, there is Blackpool, but you have to be a fan of Atlantic City or Coney Island as they used to be years ago.]

KEW GARDENS -- The Royal Botanical Gardens. A very fine park by the Thames near Hampton Court. Has a very interesting Chinese pagoda, nice gardens and other carefully arranged flora, and the little "cottage" in the woods where George III's wife played with her ladies-in-waiting at being milkmaids. But the greatest achievements here are the amazing Victorian iron and glass hot-houses. This sort of thing is needed to preserve tropical plants in a place like England, but the Victorians outdid themselves with this "industrial architecture" -- nothing comparable has been erected since that still survives (there are similar buildings of the sort in New York, etc., but these are still the best). [Kew Greenhouse]

Kew Gardens (London, not Queens NY)
Offical Home Page
Tourist's Reference

[Kingley Vale]

Kingley Vale
Yew Trees
(The Royal Forestry Society's tree of the month; check out the rest of the site)
Crop Circles
(Kingley Vale is in there somewhere; this is one of those odd societies who see mystic significance in crop markings, i.e. patterns visible only from the air that show underground features that interfere with crop growth)

Nearby is the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, Singleton, Chichester. I can't find a web site for this fascinating place, where they have moved ancient buildings (mostly small, domestic) that were endangered in their original sites, and set up a small village. This is a 'must-visit'.

KINGLEY VALE (near Chichester) -- an ancient yew forest, largest in Europe, spooky as hell (yew trees tend to be ornamental bushlike evergreens with nice red berries, but they grow into gnarled giants if they can survive to be 500 or so years old, with 50-foot-long branches scraping the ground and an undersea darkness in their midst). There are prehistoric burial mounds on the surrounding hills and a great view to the coast, where you can see hilltops, towns, churches, and the spire of the cathedral all in a line (a ley line of course). The forest was very badly damaged in a famous hurricane that toppled thousands of old trees in England about ten years ago, actually one of the most devasting in history as far as it affected the landscape, but I haven't been back to visit to see what the results were. It has bad memories for me of when my father, suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, got lost in these woods for something like four hours, and I spent the time combing back and forth through the maze of winding trails and asking people if they had seen a doddery old man and growing ever more frantic and exhausted (he turned up asleep in the car). But don't let sad tales like this turn you off -- it is a marvellous place.

Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire

This place looks like a toy, or an illustration from a child's book of neat-looking houses. But it is one of the most fantastic examples you can see of half-timbered Elizabethan architecture. Such construction was built of huge oaken beams and struts, infilled with a sort of plaster/mud/wicker substance whitewashed with lime on the outside to waterproof it. The wood warps with age, giving the building its wobbly look, uneven floors on the inside, tilted walls. The structure is incredibly durable and flexible (you just plug in more infilling to take care of cracks) and also picturesque -- maybe not that convenient, however, which is why so many buildings of the sort were replaced by brick houses. This is by far the best surviving example of such a building in England -- all the Stratford-upon-Avon and Tudor-style suburban schlock notwithstanding.
Click on the picture to see a closer view, which almost resembles a model in some theme park, and note how much space in the walls is devoted to WINDOWS. The interior lighting is therefore wonderful, and with all the woodwork and furnishings inside, is really cosy even with large open galleries, large rooms, etc. (By the way, I have no idea where or what BIG Moreton Hall was.)

Also click here to see view of an altogether different type of thing located not far away from here -- the artificial ruin of Mow Cop that was built in 1760 to improve the view from somebody's estate. For more on follies, visit this site.

HADRIAN'S WALL, VINDOLANDA, and the TEMPLE of MITHRAS -- The remotest northern boundary of the Roman Empire and their equivalent of the Great Wall of China (actually, that's misleading, because there is more hospitable territory once you get beyond the moors and into the lowlands of Scotland, where Roman traders certainly ventured); the central part of the wall itself might as well be on the border of Hyperborea, from the way it appears, and when the crows fly home at night against a great sunset, with not a soul in sight, you can only stand still in awe; the Mithraic temple is off on the side (Mithras was the favorite god of the Roman legions back when the empire was crumbling and the Christians were beginning to dominate) and still has its altars, now open to the weather since the roof is long gone--eerie place, but if Mithras ever existed, this is where he still survives; Vindolanda is a fun place, was a garrison R&R town for the soldiers of the wall, remains of old inns and bazaars, and some well-researched reconstructions of the wall itself as it must have looked once (and the inevitable T-shirt store). The picture shows the scanty remains of the Hardknott Pass Roman Fort, which must have been one of the most desolate of all postings in the army. This is in the Lake District and was not part of Hadrian's Wall, but was a fall-back garrison protecting the West Coast from the Irish; it was built on the peripheral slopes of England's highest mountain, Scafell Pike. [Hardknott Castle]

Hadrian's Wall Area
Hardknott Castle
(Nice pictures a couple took on their honeymoon)
Mountain Passes on Motorbikes
(A bikers' magazine. The Hardknott Pass is one of the routes mentioned)
Hadrian's Wall
Bus Schedule and things
(Official bumf from the Carlisle local council)
Analysis of Cloth Remains
(A major research project on cloth fibers, hmm)
Temple of Mithras
A Replica of the Temple
Was Mithras the Same as Jesus?

[Sandwood Bay]

Sandwood Bay
Walking Tour
(I don't agree with the assessment of difficulty -- this is a damn hard place to get to, and the weather can be lousy)
Surfing Conditions
(Click on Forecasts/Scotland for Sandwood Bay. Any beach in the world, somebody's surfed it)

SANDWOOD BAY -- just about the hardest place to get to in Britain, right up on the northwest coast of Scotland, with a four-mile trudge through bogs to get to it (not even a jeep could make it); a nice long sandy beach, with treacherous tides and quicksands, and some weird rock formations; even sensible people have supported reports that there are mermaids here and silkies (but not when anybody is around--in the summer, there are large numbers of people who make the slog and leave litter all over the place--styrofoam crap appears here, just as it does everywhere else now). The weathered warning signs about quicksand add spice to one's visit. But it wouldn't surprise me if they've built a real road to it by now (last visit was in 1975), as they have done in a lot of the rest of the Highlands to spoil the wilderness aspect of getting to places like this -- imagine, there is now a road bridge to Skye, what an abomination! Click here for another picture (facing the other way).
SCILLY ISLANDS (sorry, Isles of Scilly, the locals don't like being called silly) -- The remains of sunken Lyonesse, or maybe even Atlantis. This archipelago has been sinking for hundreds of years (click here to see this, even at low tide), so that what used to be flatlands in the center of a larger island is now sea lake, separating the mass into five large islands and hundred of little ones. Not much remains here, but this place has all the appeal of any remote islands (like Bermuda, or Block Island, or Monhegan in Maine -- which actually was settled by the Vikings), much as they are abused by tourism. Going here by ferry boat is absolutely incredible when the sea is acting up off the cliff-bound coast of Cornwall. The main island has a nice bit of fortified wall around a headland, and some other late fortification -- makes for good walking with the ocean crashing all around. You have to take small boats to remoter islands in the archipelago and can end up 'stranded' for a while (not so good if you didn't bring food or drink with you and expected to find a nice pub). A couple of 'castles' (artillery forts) on Bryher -- King Charles and Cromwell -- and also an Elizabethan fort on St. Mary's of the sort you would expect to see in the West Indies, which is now a hotel. Saw some seals while walking among the rocks, and was startled enough to go "Aaah, what's that?" [Isles of Scilly]

Scilly Islands
Official Web Site :: Also try this
(A good local guide, but all very resort-oriented, no history)
Isles of Scilly
(Has information about shipwrecks and links to other shipwreck sites)

WHITBY -- What can you say about an impressive little seaport famous for a church synod a thousand years or more ago that abolished the Celtic form of Christianity, a famous poet (Caedmon, who metaphorized the human life span as a pigeon blundering into a great hall during a banquet and fluttering out the other side after a dazzling and scary bit of excitement -- well, maybe I'm misstating it a bit), and the advent of Count Dracula to England under very odd and eerie circumstances in the form of a great hound that bounded off a shipwreck into the stormy night? Oh, and also Captain Cook came from here. This place has lots going for it -- apart from the fact that it inexplicably does not have a castle. Fantastic gaunt abbey ruins on one promontory, classic Victorian terraces on the other, a steep river valley in the middle, and a long breakwater pier thrusting out into the North Sea (with waves constantly crashing over it of course). Supply some really good pubs and excellent fish and chips as seasoning, and you end up with one of the most interesting places in England. There is (was?) also a very impressive railway viaduct higher up the valley, but the line itself was closed down by that awful Beeching committee in the 1950s. [Other great English seaports, excluding major cities, are Penzance, Falmouth, and Looe in Cornwall, Greenwich and Gravesend on the Thames (where Pocahontas is buried), Bosham in Sussex, Rye and Sandwich in Kent (both dried up now), Wivenhoe, Weymouth, Lyme Regis, Seahouses, Yarmouth, etc. etc. -- this could go on and on.]

YORK: The RAILWAY MUSEUM -- The city of York has a lot to offer, including a very odd and appealing museum of Victorian/Edwardian store fronts, carriages, etc. in the castle, a fantastic cathedral, and great town walls. A highlight of any trip here, however, is the train museum. This is almost unmatched in the world (that I can think of). Great collection of old steam engines and posh railway cars, including Queen Victoria's private coach. Trains went everywhere, and often, back then, although one had to buy a first-class ticket to ride in any comfort. Just read practically any Sherlock Holmes story where he leaves London to see how easy it was to get around by train. York's train station is a work of art in itself; note the beautifully engineered curved roof. [Train Museum]

National Railway Museum
(You will love this if you like trains and your browser can handle the site -- add /nrm.html to the end of the URL if it can't)
York Castle Museum
(A very interesting museum on the site of the original castle, later converted into a prison, with courthouses, around the old bailey, and the keep, Clifford's Tower, sitting in the middle of the parking lot)

[York Castle Museum]
York Castle Museum -- Edwardian Street

[This is just a partial list of places of this sort. If you have other recommendations or comments, please let me know. Write to: Grobius]

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There are a couple of links for each place mentioned here, chosen at random using the "Web Ferrett" multiple search engine. Some of them are rather eccentric -- the Internet is a fascinating place. A few of them will become 'broken links' in time, so if you notice one, please notify me. This section is a spillover area (I moved the links up to their relevant areas for the most part).

Castles and Ancient Monuments in Great Britain

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