Yes, yes, we love the Tate, and the V&A is a national treasure, but there’s more to London’s museum scene, you know. The city is full of offbeat spaces that will satisfy the most niche tastes: Devotees of sewing machines, hand fans (not people with hand fetishes but those fascinated by pleated cooling accessories) and even hot beverages will find a museum dedicated to their passion.
Pollock’s Toy Museum
Tucked away behind Goodge Street station, this museum gives new meaning to the words “hidden treasure”. Spread out over six cosy (British for tiny) rooms connected by narrow, creaking stairways, Pollock’s is like a doll’s house itself. The museum pays loving tribute to the toys and gewgaws that have entertained children across the world: the familiar rude visages of Punch and Judy, catapults, marbles, vintage train sets, board games and what appear to be the earliest form of trading cards, including a set on English poets and their work (my Wordsworth for your Byron?). Dotted on the walls are toys from former colonial outposts—India, China, America, Africa. I was delighted to find a pair of marapachi dolls (traditionally given to South Indian girls when they get married) next to rag toys from Delhi. Many of the exhibits are decades old, such as a well-loved Felix the Cat c.1924, but the two oldest residents of the museum are a pair of English wax dolls: Caroline (born 1822) and her nameless friend. The latter left England in the 19th century and travelled across the American Rockies in a wagon when the Wild West opened up, only to find herself back home years later. Pollock’s evokes bittersweet memories of childhood and leaves one mourning the passing of a simpler time. After all, in an age of PlayStations, who has time for board games?
Pollock’s Toy Museum, http://www.pollockstoymuseum.com/ 1, Scala Street, London W1T 2HL. Tel: 44-20-76363452
The most famous resident of Maresfield Garden, London NW3, no longer lives there. A blue plaque outside No. 20 identifies the premises as the home of one Dr Sigmund Freud. Fleeing from Nazi-occupied Vienna, Freud arrived in London on 27 September 1938 and lived at No. 20 till his death on 23 September 1939. From the parquet flooring to Freud’s vast collection of ancient antiquities to a portrait of him by Salvador Dali, the house and its contents have been lovingly maintained. On the ground floor, Freud’s study is the quintessential professor’s pad with its book-lined walls and priceless antiques. But the star attractions of this room are the couch—yes, that couch—covered in rich tapestry rugs and the green tub chair Freud sat on as his patients delved deep within. I wanted to duck beneath the velvet cordon and lie down myself, and no doubt would have but for the dapper old gentleman who invited me upstairs to view a film. Fancy that kind of attention at the British Museum. There’s also an exhibition of letters, postcards and books from Freud’s travels on the first floor, but what really caught my eye here was the visitor’s book. People are invited to write down their dreams here and it’s wonderful what we will admit to under the cloak of anonymity. The museum retains the air of an inviting home and, as I went from room to room, I felt like a nosy guest. The doctor may no longer be in, but the Freud Museum is the perfect prescription for a day out.
The Freud Museum, http://www.freud.org.uk/ 20, Maresfield Gardens, London NW3 5SX. Tel: 44-20-74352002
Bank of England Museum
Situated in the heart of London’s financial district, the Bank of England Museum traces the history of money, business and the bank itself. With its large domed ceilings, arched walkways and John Soanes’ original caryatids, this museum definitely wants to impress upon you its gravitas in British history. The Bank of England, I learned, was a place of many firsts: The first purpose-built bank in the world, the first house in the city to employ women in 1894 and the first (and only) place in the country where one can handle a bar of pure gold. Some wonderful things to see here—the bank’s own silver collection, satirical cartoons from the 18th century and some of the first currency notes ever circulated. For those who can’t distinguish between Monet and Manet, but can tell a real currency note from a fake, the Bank of England Museum will provide hours of joy.
Bank of England Museum, http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/museum/index.htm, Bartholomew Lane, off Threadneedle Street, EC2R 8AH. Tel: 44-20-76015545
The Geffrye Museum
I can’t resist sneaking a look into people’s homes when I walk by (which is why you should always keep your curtains drawn), so a trip to the Geffrye Museum was heaven for me. Housed in a former almshouse of the Ironmonger Company in the heart of trendy Shoreditch, the museum traces the evolution of the urban middle-class home from the 1600s to the present day. Visitors can walk by a series of beautifully recreated rooms that capture the pared-down look of the 17th century to the high style of the Victorians to the utilitarian trends of post-war Britain. The museum also offers fascinating insights into the lives of men and women from each period. You can listen to someone read from the diary of a housewife living at the end of the Elizabethan era: An average day consisted of prayer, private prayer, wandering about the house, ordering dinner, more wandering about the house and contemplation (no wonder, Bridget Jones’ Diary was a hit). My personal favourite was the luscious blue Regency room. All that was missing was Lizzie, her brood of sisters and Mama writing, sewing and catching up on correspondence while waiting for news of Mr Bingley. It’s fitting that the museum’s logo is an old-fashioned keyhole. It offers us an intimate look at the way people once lived.
The Geffrye Museum, 136, Kingsland Road, Shoreditch, London E2. Tel: 44-20-77399893
Museum of Gardening History
Underneath the vaulted ceilings of an old chapel on Lambeth Palace Road, the Museum of Gardening History presents a collection of gardening implements that go back to the Palaeolithic age. There are some rather weird and wonderful things on display here: Folding multi-knives (c.1820) with bone handles that look like primitive Swiss army knives, Tudor thumb pots and a specimen of the vegetable lamb (not to be confused with a tofu alternative for vegans). Once found on the banks of the Volga, the vegetable lamb was considered a natural wonder of the world. With all the features of a lamb (including a woolly exterior), it was believed that the vegetable lamb grew from, and was tethered to, a stem. In reality, it was nothing but a plant (Cibotium barometz) with a rhizome body often sculpted to lure the gullible into purchasing them for private collections (the British Museum bought two). Outside the museum is a beautiful knot garden—a square framework within which hedges grow in intricate geometric shapes—and a dazzling array of flowers and herbs. Take some time to sit in the shade and look upon the final resting place of Admiral Bligh (yes, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) who, among other things, “first transplanted the bread fruit tree from Otaheite to the West Indies.”
Museum of Gardening History, www.museumgardenhistory.org, Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7LB. Tel: 44-20- 74018865
Next time you’re in London, skip the queues at Madame Tussauds for a glimpse of how the British once lived, played and yes, gardened. You might find that we aren’t as different as we’d like to believe.
How to go:
Flights: Five flights daily from New Delhi and seven from Mumbai. Log on to www.ba.com or www.jetairways.com. Return fares start from around Rs40,000, including taxes.
Visas: Apply at UK embassies in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. Visas cost Rs5,700.
Where to stay:
The Beaufort Hotel, Knightsbridge (www.thebeaufort.co.uk) might look like a venerable old building from the outside but inside, it’s avant-garde style all the way. A double room ranges from £160-£205 (about Rs13,000-Rs16,000). The Ritz London (www.theritzlondon.com) is ideally located for business and pleasure, and don’t forget the fabulous afternoon tea service. Superior Queen Rooms start at £260. One Aldwych (www.onealdwych.com) provides contemporary luxury in the heart of bustling Covent Garden. Rooms start at £340.
Where to eat:
Breakfast:Pick up a croissant and freshly squeezed orange juice at Patisserie Valeria (www.patisserie-valerie.co.uk). Lunch: With its dark wood communal style tables and great food, Busaba Eathai (13, Bird Street W1U 1BU Marylebone, 44-20-75188080) is perfect for family and working lunches alike. If you’re travelling with toddlers, try Jack & Lulu’s (North End Way, NW3 7ES, 44-870-438 2525), which offers child-friendly eating in the posh North London suburb of Hampstead.
Dinner and drinks: Head to Albannach (www.albannach.co.uk) for a fine collection of whiskies and a late meal under the watchful eyes of Lord Nelson.
What to do:
Catch the Royal Shakespeare Company if they’re on tour. Drop in at the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre for an interesting brush with contemporary art (Note: The gallery shows a few major exhibitions a year and does not have a permanent collection). If weather permits (if not, buy a pair of wellies), head to the London Wetland Centre, a 105-acre city wildlife area of lakes, reed beds and marshes.
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