My favourite museum in the city is the Natural History Museum; always has been and probably always will be. My friend Claire again accompanied me this week for my London jaunt, and while we had originally planned to go to Kensington, we decided spontaneously that morning to go somewhere else instead. Thus, the Natural History Museum isn’t the focus of this week’s post. The Horniman Museum, however, is.
Situated not far from Forest Hill train station, the museum was founded by Frederick John Horniman in 1901. He was an avid collector, and after years of travelling had amassed around 30,000 items, mostly anthropological artefacts, examples of natural history, and slightly more unusually, musical instruments.
The natural history cases are particularly marvellous, although some of the taxidermy is perhaps slightly unnerving. (If you visit, look for the rockhopper penguin and you’ll know what I mean.) Standing proud in the centre of the room on an enormous iceberg is a behemoth of a walrus. It’s a real one, now stuffed, and it’s been on display for over a century. However, when it was mounted, few people had ever seen a walrus alive, so this particular model is, shall we say, “overstuffed”. Walruses are far wrinklier than this in real life, but his popularity is assured, being a mascot to the museum in the way that Dippy and the blue whale are to the Natural History Museum.
Around him are many cases containing examples of many mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and invertebrates. They are mostly arranged by species and family – for example, whole cases are given over solely to different species of ducks or parrots, but some work in other ways. One, for example, shows the many different ways that animals have learnt to defend themselves, lining up creatures with spikes, horns, toxic bites or noxious tastes together. One notable exhibit has the head of a wolf surrounded by the heads of various breeds of dog such as a bloodhound, bulldog and collie, showing how selective breeding has changed dogs into so many different appearances.
Personally, my favourite creatures in here are a bittern with a serious case of “resting bitch face”, two skunks, the okapi and the family of musquash (also known as muskrats). There’s plenty else to see in this room alone, though. Almost every species of primate seems to be present and there are comparative skeletons of all the great apes, including a human one, making the similarities look even more striking.
Downstairs is a small aquarium which splits off into tanks showing several different biomes, from a typical British pond to coastal seas and rainforest swamps. It’s small and you have to pay extra to go in, but it’s worth taking a look around. It’s home to dogfish, jellyfish, rays and rather a lot of frogs.
Another room is called the African Worlds Gallery. I confess that Claire and I didn’t spend too long in here because of an unnecessarily loud school party (we’re too old for that nonsense) so I can’t give you too much detail about it. From what I did see, it was a lot of photos, costumes and artefacts from all over Africa, displaying great examples of the people and culture of this often misunderstood continent. If I go back again, I shall check out this exhibition in more detail.
The final part of the museum’s interior is perhaps the oddest, dedicated as it is to thousands of musical instruments. Contained here are examples of everything you could ever imagine from pianos to mouth organs, violins to bagpipes, xylophones to flutes. Whether you pluck it, blow it, bang it, shake it or tap it, there’s one of it here. We got excited at the prospect of the primary school favourite, the recorder, turning up and weren’t disappointed. The museum has several, including an enormous bass recorder that would certainly make school assemblies a bit more interesting.
I’m not musically inclined, but seeing all these together is rather astounding. Humans have been making music for as long as we’ve been talking, probably longer, and the wide variety of instruments we’ve created for the purpose is nothing short of breath-taking.
Our visit to the Horniman Museum was rounded off by a stroll through the beautiful gardens. It was a gloriously clear day and from the bandstand just above the museum itself you can see right across London, taking in Battersea Power Station, the Shard and the other nearby skyscrapers and St Paul’s, which looks miniscule from this far away. There are also specialist gardens here, one for food and one for medicinal plants, all labelled to tell you what they do. Most spectacularly of all though is the Grade II listed conservatory that sits just behind the museum. It dates back to 1894 and used to be at the Horniman’s Croydon family home, but was moved to the museum in the 1980s. It is beautiful in the extreme, ornately crafted and makes your average conservatory look pathetic in comparasion.
The Horniman Museum is a reminder than London is packed full of museums that most people don’t bother to go to, or even know about. The three in Kensington get all the glory, but one of the purposes of this blog is to show people places off the beaten track and find treasures like this that they may not normally see. I daresay there will be many more museums to come, so watch this space.
Knowing where to begin my journey through London was perhaps one of the more difficult questions in setting up this blog. Do I go somewhere world famous and obvious, like Buckingham Palace, or to one of my favourite locations like the Natural History Museum, or to somewhere completely obscure and off the beaten track like … well, it’s so obscure I don’t know it. But then one location seemed to make more sense than any other. If you’re going to start something, you have to start at the beginning, and that can only mean Greenwich, the place where time itself begins.
Greenwich isn’t an area I know terribly well, but I like it when I do turn up. My friend Claire accompanied me on this journey and, determined to show me something blog-worthy, announced that she wanted to show me one of her favourite places in London.
It turns out that her favourite place in London is among the hallowed halls of the Old Royal Naval College, sandwiched between the Thames and Greenwich Park, most notably the Painted Hall, which I’ll get onto in a moment, as it’s the main reason I’m writing today.
Where the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) now stands was once the location of Greenwich Palace, which was built by Henry VII, and later saw the birth of his two granddaughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. After it was demolished in the 1690s, Mary II saw a hospital was built there for seamen, which was when the famous Chapel and the Painted Hall were introduced. The hospital was closed in the 1800s and was then converted into a training base for the Royal Navy. They abandoned the site in 1998, when it was turned over to the Greenwich Foundation, who restored it and ensured that it would all be opened up for visitors.
If you aren’t sure what building I’m talking about, then I suggest you google it, and you’ll find very quickly that you’ve probably seen its exteriors somewhere before. It makes an appearance in many films including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Tomb Raider, Thor: The Dark World, The King’s Speech, The Golden Compass and Les Miserables.
While the outside is a deeply impressive looking building, it is inside where the truly beautiful sights exist. The Chapel is wonderful, gilded and ornate to within an inch of its life. The ceiling was designed by John Papworth, a master plasterer and uses squares and octagons in a neo-classical design. In keeping with the naval theme, there is an anchor and rope incorporated in the floor design, although there are hints of its naval history throughout.
Despite being non-religious, I’ve always found a certain calmness and delight in chapels, cathedrals and the like. They’re peaceful places, and always have an eerie sort of quiet that you don’t find anywhere else. It still serves its original purpose and a service is held every Sunday with supposedly some of the best acoustics anywhere. The organ is still in use, too, and cost £1000 to install in 1798.
Opposite this, across the courtyard, you have the Painted Hall, one of Claire’s favourite London spots and one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Before you even get to the paintings, as you step into the door you can look right up into the dome, ninety feet above you, and then the famous ceiling, all 5683 square feet of it, comes into view. I realised almost immediately that I’d seen it before in a documentary about the Stuarts, but nothing comes close to seeing it for real.
Seated in the middle of a grand oval are King William III and Queen Mary II, the only monarchs to have co-ruled. They are surrounded by their family, and then beyond that symbols that represent the monarchy as a whole, as well as religion and then all the things that one would expect from a place so intrinsically linked to the navy – signs of our maritime power, navigation and trade.
The walls, too, are covered in intricate paintings showing more people and events than it’s possible to even take in. The painter was one Sir John Thornhill, who worked on it in two major phases between 1708 and 1727. For all his work, he became the first artist to receive a knighthood, and quite rightly so. The Painted Hall is known to some as “the finest dining hall in Europe”, and others still call it “the Sistine Chapel of the UK”. Both are completely fair assessments. Thornhill has included himself in the work; he can be found on the west wall, surrounded by paintbrushes, looking down upon his work.
To save your neck, in the middle of the room there is a mirror on a table, so you can peek up while looking down, making for a very curious experience. The rest of the room feels a little like Hogwarts; long wooden tables lined with candlesticks and awaiting a new class of wizards to come in and enjoy a conjured up feast. Like so many places in London, there is a sense of magic about the place, and very definitely a sense of history. The paintings are currently being restored at great cost to bring back the original vibrancy, but even now they are remarkable things to look at. Claire has since discovered that it’s even possible to get married there, and I do wonder how she’s going to broach that subject with her boyfriend when the time comes.
Finally, just off the main hall is a smaller room dedicated to Lord Nelson. His coffin was stored here prior to his being laid-in-state, and now it holds examples of his coat of arms and a replica statue of the one that stands atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. This one is much smaller, however, being perhaps a couple of metres tall – the real one is five metres tall, although you’d never know it from the foot of the column.
There’s a reason this is a World Heritage Site, and I for one encourage you all to stop by if you’re in the area, and even if you’re not, to gaze upon the incredible artwork in here. Greenwich is great for a day out in general, with the expansive and beautiful park nearby, as well as the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark, Greenwich Market and more besides. But let’s not hurry ourselves. We’ve got plenty to time to get around to discussing those.