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The Great Hall is one of the most interesting buildings to visit in Winchester as it has an incredible history and is the last remnant of Winchester Castle. Winchester had a castle since the eleventh century, when it was built for William the Conqueror in 1067 as a defensive stronghold. A royal palace was also added soon afterwards.
These buildings needed repair in King John’s reign and so the Great Hall that stands today was built by Henry III between 1222 and 1235. The painted round table that hangs on the wall encapsulates the legend of King Arthur and was said to be the table that he and his knights used.
However the table was actually created around 1290 to celebrate the betrothal of one of King Edward I’s daughters. Henry VIII then had it painted with a Tudor rose in the sixteenth century.
Winchester was an important royal and administrative centre in the medieval period and the castle was a focus for this. The Treasury and the Exchequer were both based there and monarchs spent a great deal of time at the palace. Empress Matilda’s army was besieged by King Stephen at the castle in 1141, Henry III was born there in 1207 and Edward I and his wife, Margaret of France were nearly killed by fire at the palace in 1302.
The round table hanging on the wall today began as a standing table with 12 legs and a central support. It was built from English oak and weighs 1200kg. It is not known how it was used or displayed originally, but it is thought that it has been hung on the wall of the great Hall since at least 1540.
This was probably the point when the table was painted to portray Henry VIII as King Arthur on his throne, with the Tudor rose and 24 spaces for the Knights of the Round Table.
During the later medieval period Winchester lost significance as London became the centre of government, however the Great Hall was still an important location for court business. The Castle was captured by Parliamentary forces in 1646 and was demolished by Oliver Cromwell. The Great Hall was spared from this fate as it was useful for assemblies and the County Assizes.
After the Restoration, Charles II planned to rebuild the palace as the King’s House, designed by Christopher Wren. However the plans were abandoned by James II. In 1900 a new King’s House was built with the same design, and now the buildings contain private flats and Winchester’s Military Museums.
The Great Hall now contains a small but brilliant exhibition, showing the history of the castle and hall. Outside the hall is a recreation of a medieval garden, Queen Eleanor’s Garden, named after Queen Eleanor of Provence and her daughter-in-law Queen Eleanor of Castile, who may have used the garden.
The Hall also contains several monuments, including a bronze statue of Queen Victoria and two enormous stainless steel gates, designed by Antony Robinson to commemorate the Royal Wedding Charles and Diana in 1981.
I visited Winchester again last weekend for the first time for many years and its still as good as ever. On my trip I managed to fit in the Cathedral, the Great Hall and castle museum, Winchester College, the City Museum and the Christmas Market which opened a couple of weeks ago. Had a wonderful tour around Winchester Cathedral from a tour guide called Joanna Pope – so thanks to her for reminding me of all the great stories!
Winchester Cathedral began as a royal Anglo-Saxon church known as Old Minster, the brick outline of which you can still see on the lawn outside the cathedral today. It became the most important royal church in the country and many kings were buried there, including Alfred the Great. It was also a focus for pilgrims coming to see the bones of St Swithun.
When William the Conqueror invaded in 1066 he took over the cathedral and eventually it was rebuilt using the original stone and consecrated in 1093. Over the next 400 years, the cathedral flourished with new works of art including a new illuminated bible which you can go to see in the library and museum housed in the cathedral.
In the fourteenth century, the cathedral was remodelled in the Gothic style. Round arches were raised higher and redesigned with Gothic points, new windows, screens and vaulted ceilings were built and the cathedral became infinitely more ornate, as it looks today.
This can be confusing at first, because the cathedral is described as Norman and yet it looks so quintessentially Gothic. Our guide explained that this redesign which began in the fourteenth century covered up the Norman pillars and these pillars are still structurally at the centre of the Gothic pillars. In the transepts and in the crypt you can still see the Normal style and the difference is breathtaking.
Our guide also drew our attention to the chantry chapels in the nave. One reached right up to the top of the arch and another reached only half way. This is because one was built before the arches were raised during the Gothic redesign and the other was built before.
Winchester suffered upheavals during the Reformation, but the Cathedral was not too badly damaged, however the Benedictine monastery, St Swithun’s Priory was shut down and the cloister demolished.
One of the most amazing parts of the cathedral that hits you as soon as you come in is the west stained-glass window. It is made up of tiny fragments of glass and you can see bits of faces and arms in the fragments, which is pretty unnerving. It looks like this because it is reconstructed from the fragments of the original window which was smashed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces during the Civil War.
On our tour, our guide explained this story with real feeling. During the Civil War the cathedral was used as a stable and as waste was swept out of the cathedral, glass fragments were swept out with it. The local people collected these fragments and saved them until the monarchy was restored and the window was reconstructed from the pieces as a mosaic.
Our guide mentioned that in 2000, organisers had considered replacing the window with a specially-designed window to celebrate the millennium. She expressed her relief that this never happened – and I agree – it is one of the most wonderful stained-glass windows I have ever seen.
Other interesting aspects of the cathedral are the memorials and tombs of some famous people including notably Jane Austen. When I was there they also had a small exhibition about her life.
I was unable to on my visit myself, but you can also go on a tour of the crypt which our guide said was certainly worth it. You can see part of the crypt by going down some steps in the north transept. This part includes a Antony Gormley sculpture of a man, who is left standing in water when the crypt floods.
At the moment there is an excellent Christmas market and ice rink on the south side of the cathedral which will be running until Sunday 22nd of December.
I must have walked down Whitehall a hundred times, past one stone façade after another, and not realised that such an important building lay just beside me. I knew about the old Palace of Whitehall, which was a key royal residence until it was destroyed by fire in 1698. And I knew that the banqueting house was the only surviving building. However, somehow I failed to visit it before now!
So much has been built around the Banqueting House, designed to match the Inigo Jones design, that you can barely tell the buildings apart and I am still pretty oblivious to which buildings are old and which new. I feel this is why the Banqueting House is often missed by tourists, travelling between the key sights at Westminster and Trafalgar Square. This is also not helped by its location opposite Horse Guards Parade and The Household Cavalry Museum, which means that tourists are drawn towards the guards on horseback for photographs.
I purchased membership to Historic Royal Palaces recently, so made a real effort to visit the last attraction on the list that I hadn’t been to. This isn’t always easy as the Banqueting House is used for a lot of corporate functions and so can close unexpectedly. They advise you to ring ahead if you wish to visit. It was closed when I arrived but I returned a few hours later and it was opened. I happened to be the BFI London Film Festival Awards happening there that night, so there was part of the stage set up there already.
When you arrive at the Banqueting House, you are treated to a short video explaining the history of the house, which is pretty useful. They also had some images on display of the Banqueting House surrounded by smaller buildings, which really makes you realise what an magnificent building it really is – something that gets missed now that it is surrounded by similarly grand buildings on Whitehall.
Whitehall Palace was created by Henry VIII from a mansion owned by Cardinal Wolsey. The first permanent banqueting house was built for James I but was destroyed by fire in 1619. This prompted a brand new house to be built in a completed different style from the existing Tudor buildings. The Banqueting House was designed by Inigo Jones and completed in 1622. It was one of the first buildings built in the neo-classical style in London, a style which went on to transform London, particularly the west, from medieval and gothic structures to grand Palladian mansions.
Charles I succeeded James in 1625 and focused on the arts. He visited Spain and was an admirer of Titian, Rubens, and Velázquez. He commissioned Rubens to paint the magnificent ceiling of the Banqueting House, the main attraction for visitors today. This is the only room of the building open to the public now, apart from the basement area, and you will spend your entire visit looking at this painting.
The painting is titled The Apotheosis of James I and is a glorification of James and an allegory of his son Charles’ birth. It is certainly a piece designed to promote the king to guests who attended events at the Banqueting House. However banquets became less common at the house after this point, to avoid candle smoke damaging the painting.
Charles I made the Banqueting House what it is today, not only in his artistic additions, but also in providing the most famous historical event that occured there. After Charles I was arrested and sentenced to death, he was brought to the Banqueting House to be executed. It is thought that the scaffold was erected outside the central window of the house, so that, on 30 January 1649, he stepped through the window to be beheaded in front of a crowd on Whitehall.
This is something that I feel Historic Royal Palaces should make more of in the visitor experience, since it is such a famous and important historical event. I would like to see some kind of monument on or outside the front of the house to indicate where Charles I was executed, so that even passers by not visiting the house are made aware of the pivotal event that took place where they walk.
I visited the Churchill War Rooms many years ago and since my memories of it were hazy, I thought I’d check it out and see how it had changed. I remembered looking in on the old rooms and had a general feeling that it was a pretty great day out.
I also remembered it as being quite small and cramped, so I only left myself an afternoon to visit. This has certainly changed. The first thing I would say to people thinking of visiting the Churchill War Rooms is: leave plenty of time! You could easily spend a whole day there now if you like to be thorough in museums – I had to rush through the last few things to get through it all before closing time.
I must have visited before 2003 as all I remembered was the basic suite of the cabinet war rooms. In 2003, the attraction received major redevelopment. A new suite of rooms, which had been occupied by Churchill, his wife and other associates, was restored and opened to the public. Also an enormous museum about the life and work of Winston Churchill was opened and in 2006 it won the Council of Europe Museum Prize.
The war rooms now have an excellent audio guide which takes your through the different rooms and explains how they were used during the war. The bunker began to be constructed in 1938 and started to be used just before the outbreak of war in 1939.
The first room you come to is the Cabinet Room, where Churchill and his cabinet and military officials met to discuss strategy. The room was left exactly as it was when the war ended in 1945 and it’s fascinating to see Churchill’s leather chair still in pride of place in front of the world map.
During the first year of the war, Neville Chamberlain only used the room once, but after Churchill became Prime Minister, he said ’this is the room from which I will direct the war’ and subsequently had 115 cabinet meetings there.
Another interesting room is the Transatlantic Telephone Room which contained a secure telephone line which Churchill used to talk to President Roosevelt in Washington. This security was achieved with the use of a SIGSALY code-scrambler located in the basement of Selfridges, Oxford Street. I really wish this still existed and could be visited by the public!
There is a good section halfway through the route around the rooms, which gives a little more information about the way the rooms were used. There are some great objects on display as well as a map which shows how huge the bunker complex is – visited are only seeing a tiny portion of it!
There’s some great information about the ordinary people who worked in the war rooms and how they had to sleep in the sub-basement dormitory known as “the dock”. This small section is accompanied with some fantastic video interviews with former employees.
One interesting exhibit is a joke letter written by staff complaining of ‘acute shortages’ of ‘silk stockings, chocolates and cosmetics’.
In the light of the above, it is considered that the most expedient method of implementing the proposal in (c) would be the early dispatch of a mission to the U.S.A; a Force Commander has already been appointed, in anticipation of instructions.
At this point you enter the Churchill Museum, which is massive and includes lots of audiovisual displays, interactive elements, sounds and objects. It has been designed so that you do not start at the beginning of Churchill’s life, but rather follow the course ofhte war and then return to Churchill’s birth and early life halfway through the museum.
While the museum is full of interesting exhibits and detailed information, I feel that it has suffered from the 2003 curators’ over-excitement about new technologies. The museum is very dark, clearly to accentuate the panels and visual exhibits that light up. However this is quite disorientating once you’ve been in the museum for a few minutes, and some of the smaller more traditional exhibits such as letters and documents are difficult to read and so suffer.
The museum also lacks a clear route. I am sure some people prefer to wander and find their own route, but personally I like to look at everything when I visit a museum, preferably in order, so if I find myself reading about something ten years ahead or behind where I just was, I find it very distracting. Of course I am sure this is a personal thing.
The designers were clearly trying to weave sound and image in a very innovative way in the museum, and it certainly is innovative. However I sometimes felt the words ‘style over substance’ come to mind, as some of the design elements seemed a bit unnecessary. For example they incorporated two projections facing eachother with seats beneath, and the accompanying sound could only be heard when sitting directly below the opposite screen. While an interesting idea, it still means you have several voices in your ears at once and I feel it may have simply been more effective to just have two screens installed away from one another.
Another example of this overuse of sound technologies is the use of focused speakers in the ceiling, which are activated when you step on a sensor in the right place directly below the speaker. I am all for these methods of directing sound so it is not heard by everybody else, however it does somewhat remove the social element of visiting a museum. I found myself at several points listening to an interesting commentary near somebody else, before they suddenly moved away from the sensor, so the sound was turned off and I missed the end of the recording.
I found myself frequently wandering around confused, trying to read something, while hearing several conflicting voices coming from unexpected places. Perhaps I am just old-fashioned about these things and in a few years we will all be so used to these kinds of exhibitions. However I do think that curators should be careful not to overuse these techniques for the sake of it, at the expense of people’s understanding and comfort.
One interesting element of the museum is the Lifeline, an interactive timeline which contains loads of detailed information about every year of Churchill’s life. This is really fascinating once yuo get the hang of it, however it demonstrated how fast technology moves. As it’s 2013 my first inclination was to touch the screen to move through the timeline, however instead you have to touch one of the small pads positioned around the table. It is not very sensitive and a little difficult to navigate, but a useful reference all the same.
Leaving aside these design-related criticisms, I must say the Churchill Museum is incredibly comprehensive and has some fascinating exhibits. One of my favourites was a small interactive screen which showed remarks Churchill made over the course of his life. He was n incredibly witty man and these quotes made fantastic reading.
The museum also has one of Churchill’s Siren suits on display, an all-in-one zip up suit which he wore on many occasions. From Churchill’s early life there are also some school reports, which show his lack of achievement in early life but his interest in history, and a punishment book, which is fascinating to read just to see the kinds of punishments delivered for the types of school-related transgressions.
At this point during my visit, we had to hurry through the final part of the museum to see the rest of the war rooms before closing times. Again it would have been good to know how many rooms were left if you don’t have much time as you get stuck into the museum halfway through the route around the historical rooms.
These final rooms included the bedrooms of Churchill, his wife and other senior staff and the Chief of Staff Conference Room, which includes large maps with wartime doodlings of Hitler on them
There is also a room which the BBC used to broadcast Churchill’s speeches, four of which he made from his bedroom, including his 11 September 1940 speech warning of Hitler’s plans against the UK.
The map room is also fascinating, with maps covering every wall and each one marked by millions of tiny pinpricks as they were marked and remarked by hand. It is amazing how plans were executed from these rooms with such basic organisational equipment.
The Churchill War Rooms is definitely worth and now it has been expanded so much, I would say it is worth a whole day’s visit, as you can certainly make it worth the £17 ticket price if you absorb all the information there. The museum is open daily from 9.30am to 6pm and is a short walk from Westminster or St James’s Park tube stations.
There is a fabulous exhibition currently running at the PM Gallery, which is part of Pitzhanger Manor House in Walpole park, Ealing. Entitled Out of the Shadows: MacDonald Gill, it displays the work of MacDonald Gill, illustrator, architect and mapmaker, who created some wonderful pictorial maps of London.
Gill has been hugely influential in the field of graphic design and some of his images are well-known. Most famous perhaps is the ‘Wonderground’ map, made in 1914 for London Underground which shows a fantasy version of the Tube.
There are many detailed and humorous maps of the London streets, as well as some interesting educational maps and posters depicting aspects of the British Empire, produced for various companies and government departments.
His professional success was also underpinned by major national commissions including the design of the alphabet for standard military headstones (for the Imperial War Graves Commission); the procession map and title page for the official programme for the Coronation of King George VI; a new logo and posters for the General Post Office.
The exhibition also contains more personal objects from Gill’s life and career as well as architectural drawings, letters and photographs. This is a small but very rewarding exhibition, a little off the beaten track for visitors to London, but should certainly be visited by everyone.
The only thing I wish they had was a gift shop or information about how to buy copies of the maps since I would love to have some of them as posters. Many of the objects on display have been loaned from the London Transport Museum and other archives so I am contacting them to find out. The exhibition lasts until 2 November and the nearest tube station is Ealing Broadway on the Central Line.
I went to the Design Museum on the South Bank to visit The Future is Here exhibition, which focuses on new design and manufacturing techniques. It has a quick introduction to the breakthroughs of the industrial revolution before flagging the dawn of ‘a new industrial revolution’, with advances in robotics, new materials and 3D printing.
We are in the midst of a transformation in the way we design, make and use the objects that we depend on. It is a transformation that will affect commerce, industry, and the way that we all live as profoundly as any previous Industrial Revolution. The exhibition explores how the boundaries between designer, manufacturer and consumer are becoming increasingly blurred. See some of these manufacturing techniques demonstrated in The Future is Here Factory and find out how they will change the designed world around you.
The exhibition had some fascinating objects showing new materials and new ways of designing products, but the best exhibits were the machines themselves in action. They have a 3D printer and woodworking machines as well as some robotic demonstrations and videos of products being designed and materials processed. They also have some examples of furniture which you can have manufactured to order online from downloadable designs, before assembling the parts at home. Even the exhibition itself was built from cardboard, stacked and carved to create light but solid tables.
The main collection exhibition is Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things, on display until 2015, which I actually found more interesting. The Design Museum have selected 150 objects from the collections to explore their history. It includes some fascinating examples of British design, including a feature on the design of road signs and the London telephone box. It’s also interesting to see some not-so-old examples of design, such as the Apple iMac, which look so dated now.
Six design stories offer a diverse look at design tracing the history and processes of contemporary design. The show includes furniture, product, fashion, transport and architecture alongside a selection of prototypes, models and specially commissioned films.
Another smaller section at the museum is Designers in Residence 2013, which to be honest I found a little pretentious, except for the very moving work of Chloe Meineck, who designs memory boxes for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
The Future is Here is on display until 29 October 2013 and is open daily between 10am and 5.45pm. The gift shop is also worth a visit, even if only to look at the products. There are some really interesting things there, but as you might expect everything’s very expensive.
I visited the National Maritime Museum yesterday, which has some fantastic examples of ship figureheads and ship badges from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From the outset of the age of seafaring, images were used to mark out the identity of a ship and these soon developed into painted wooden statues, mounted onto the bowsprit.
Early on the images were often religious symbols to protect the ship during its voyages or animals to indicate the ship’s power and grace and to frighten enemy sailors. Serpents, swans and lions were among the most popular animals used to adorn ships in the medieval and early modern periods.
In the eighteenth century, painted human figures became more popular. These were often mythological figures and/or figures that represented the name of the ship. The popularity of these figures continued into the nineteenth century, becoming larger, heavier and more elaborate. Certain figures were very popular, for example a naked or semi-clothed woman was said to calm a stormy ocean.
With the success of steam-powered ships, figureheads went out of use and were abolished by the Royal Navy for major vessels in 1894. In 1918 the Navy adopted the use of ship’s badges displayed on the bridge to mark the identity of a ship. These were much more uniform in design but still contained symbols of the ship’s name.
I visited the Black Country Living Museum last month, which is just outside Dudley near Birmingham. It’s an interesting mix of museum and reconstructed town with actors, reconstructed shops, an old mine and a canal with tunnels. It’s huge and really deserves a whole day to see everything and I reckon it’s perfect for families and kids.
Before you are released into the outside areas, there is a small but really informative museum about the Black Country area, which encompasses Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell. It gives in depth information about the industries that emerged and developed in these areas: coal, iron, steel and more specifically chains, locks, glass, springs, equestrian and railway equipment. The areas really became the driving force of the industrial revolution and the museum is designed to give you an overview of what was produced in the Black Country before you walk into the reconstructed town.
Outside the museum there is a small transport museum with cars and engines from the era and there is a working tram which you can take to get around the grounds, although I didn’t take that up myself. On a nice day (which this was!) it’s a genuinely nice place to have a walk around. There’s a small park and the lanes and cobbled streets that run through the town are so quiet it is easy to imagine you are back in the nineteenth century. There are over fifty reconstructed houses, shops and workshops which you can explore, and actors in period costume give you information about how people used to live. On that note, the actors have got the balance quite right: they are not too pushy and unnerving and they won’t overact or refuse to come out of character. I normally don’t like actors at historical attractions but the people working here were pretty friendly without being overwhelming.
Walking around the town it is easy to see why the Black Country Living Museum is such a good place for kids. There were several school parties there when I visited and they seemed to be having a great time playing Victorian games like hoop rolling on the cobbles. There is also a reconstructed school where we could see the kids being given an authentic Victorian lesson in the classroom. Once they’ve put up with the educational side, there’s a reconstructed funfair with authentic old arcade games and rides which although slightly creepy is probably good fun if you’re part of a huge group of children.
Other highlights of the experience include a reconstructed coal drift mine which you can explore in a group led by a guide. It’s pitch dark and very narrow and uneven so gives you as good an idea of the mining conditions of the time as you you’re going to get in a museum. Miners tended to work twelve-hour shifts, some could be as young as ten years old and casualties and deaths due to flooding, falls and collapsed mines were common. This tour was one of the most interesting parts of my visit to the museum and I recommend you check the tour times early to be sure you don’t miss the opportunity to go.
The Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute is another really interesting building in the town. The interior of the building is set in 1935 and the information, photos and artefacts inside explore the British labour history. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1910 chainmakers’ strike, there is an exhibition about Mary Macarthur, secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. I might explore her life in more depth in another post.
Again if you check the times early and pay a little extra, you can take a canal trip through the tunnels and it really is worth it. When I went, it was the last trip of the day so we were the only ones on the boat and had a private tour from the guide. The tunnels are some of the longest in the country and were built to transport cargo and to give access to mine limestone from the hills. The guide we had was really interesting and showed us fossils in the rock and even better there is an audio-visual display half way through the tour which incredibly shows you the geological history of the Black Country from the Big Bang to today!
Finally don’t forget to check out the Bottle & Glass Inn, which serves traditional food and real ale. Unfortunately it was closed when I got round to visiting it, but I did visit the authentic Hobbs and Sons Fish and Chip shop which was excellent, and serves pickled onions and pickled eggs!
The Black Country Living Museum is well worth a visit if you’re in the area and is a particularly good day out for kids. The adult price is £14.95 which isn’t too bad considering the size of the place and the amount to see there, so I would say it is worth it. If I had any criticism it would be that I would’ve liked to find out a little more about how they set up the museum in the first place, what was there before and how much of the buildings are original and exactly what the reconstructed parts were based on. But leaving aside the history of the museum itself, it does give a great overview of British industrial and labour history in the Black Country area, and I certainly learnt a lot and have a much better feel for the period than I did before I visited.