Today’s prompt seemed like the perfect time to hear from Victoria with her monthly Girl About Town post, particularly as she is always doing things I have never done before. Today’s prompt is intended to get us all out of a January (or maybe long-standing rut. I think that doing new things, trying new stuff and going to new places is what makes life fun and exciting and keeps life fresh. It’s also great for your relationship. Discovering new things together is key to a relationship and if you choose to do this prompt with a friend then having something new to go home and share with your other half is just as good.
I’ve been thinking about some of the things I want to try and so far I have come up with two – I’d love you to share yours in the comments box after reading Victoria’s post!
- Take a snowboarding class (I ski but have never tried to board!)
- Go to the opera – something I have just never gotten around to…
Do something/go somewhere you have never been: History lessons with a twist
I know that all my talk of cocktails, shoes and afternoon tea may leave you surprised when I say that I’m a big fat history geek. As in, I see David Starkey crop up in that information box at the bottom of the screen when flipping through the channels and I’m rendered unable to move from the sofa. Despite giving it up in year nine at school (I thought it was a tedious and boring subject – turns out, that was just the teacher) I’ve been surrounded by a family full of history buffs all my life and so I seem to have picked up the obsession by osmosis (you’ll tell by the misuse of this science reference that I’m clearly not a science geek, nor Brian Cox fangirl). The past, I now realise, has always been fascinating to me. It’s why I prefer stately homes to art galleries. It’s why, although chick lit is a big fat no on my reading list, chick lit disguised as historical fiction is a-ok (I’m talking to you Philippa Gregory), it’s why although I hate soap operas, my Sky+ is full of costume dramas (basically just soap operas in longer skirts) and why every fancy dress party I throw has some kind of dress code/theme from eras past.
So in that vein, I’m telling you about some little day trips I made to see some stories from our recent past, and one from prehistoric times!
Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum, Westminster, London
My bro is the biggest history buff of my whole family clan, so for his birthday we all paid a visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. I knew of their existence through the Imperial War Museum, and because my uncle used to work for the Home Office and mentions them a lot, but had never paid a visit as I still to this day have nightmares about the Blitz experience and the trench walk we did when I was a child. I’m also a bit claustrophobic about airless, underground rooms, but seeing as people lived and worked in those rooms for years, to preserve the freedom of our country, I thought I could suck it up and get on with it.
Anyway, back to the actual Rooms. You enter through a sleek sliding glass door at street level, and head straight down under ground to buy tickets and collect the rather good audio guides, before commencing the self-guided tour. It starts with the Cabinet room, set up exactly as it would have been when Churchill held his meetings here with the original furniture (no reproductions!), maps and even the original “graffiti”. It’s literally like you’ve stepped back in time with the sights, sounds and even smells of a defining era of our history assaulting every sense in your body. The whole set up gave me shivers when I realised that in these dingy, dark, uncomfortable, slightly shabby rooms, the fate of the world was decided by a few dedicated men and women (and a few animals too).
The commentary on the audio guide, much like the audio guide at Alcatraz (renowned for its excellence), is punctuated with real life reports from people that lived and worked in the warren of underground rooms, and the sound effects of bustling corridors, whistling guards and whirring machines add an eerie sense of reality to the tour.
Halfway round the tour you segue in to the Churchill Museum, with modern and interactive exhibits to really make it stand apart from the early- to mid-century set up in the Cabinet War Rooms themselves. It makes you feel like you’re actually getting two tours/exhibits for the price of one. The museum is laid out along a time line of Churchill’s life and is full of artefacts, reports, videos and blood-stirring excerpts from his speeches. It’s an amazing insight in to the well-known but also the hidden parts of the life of one of the most famous men in British, if not World, history.
If like me you’re also fascinated not just by the history and the life stories, but also the idea of international espionage, then the little details like the secret telephone room and colour coded telephone receivers will really capture your imagination. My favourite part of the tour was the map room, which was set up exactly how it was found, including the map pins left in the place on the day the war ended, the staff left and the lights were switched off and there they remain to this day. It was also rather endearing to see little touches like carpets and little flourishes of extravagance that were clearly added in an attempt to make this subterranean world more homely for the people that called it both The Office and Home.
As an aside, in the gift shop (there’s always a gift shop!), look past the “Keep Calm” posters and take note of the wartime propaganda notices about keeping your house and life in order. I bought postcards for all my team to pop up on their desks, and interestingly they contain messages that are as appropriate today as they were then, just for different reasons. Amongst others, ones that were particularly relevant to me were: “Less shopping means less shipping!”, “Go through your wardrobe: Make do and mend!” and “Eat less bread”
Titanic Belfast, Northern Ireland
I did know that Titanic was built in Belfast, but it also kind of slipped my mind. It’s one of the facts about Titanic that disappeared behind a wall of fiction in my memory, created by James Cameron. Everything I now “know” about the ship centres around a certain floppy haired actor and a porcelain skinned actress! So, seeing as all the facts I knew had cleverly wiped themselves from my brain, and 2012 was the 100 year anniversary of the tragedy, it felt right that on a trip to Dublin at the end of last year I booked some train tickets to head up to Belfast to see the recently opened exhibition.
Of course it’s not like normal exhibitions, full of artefacts and actual tangible items for you to oooh and aaah over, or as is the case with exhibitions of tragic moments in history, observe in respectful silence and with tears in your eyes. It’s the artefacts that usually pull me in and help me identify with the story the exhibition is trying to tell, so I was a bit worried that it’d leave me a bit cold with no actual stuff (that’s not meant to sound crass, apologies if it did), and that I’d find it hard to empathise with the story.
I needn’t have worried. Titanic’s much-publicised beginnings are told with pictures, videos, on-board simulations, stories read by actors and real life accounts from survivors told in their own words and voices. The set up is clever, taking you through the history of the community that built her, an actual journey into the “shipyard”, through a very clever launch simulation looking over the actual dock where she first hit water, and then “inside” as they fitted her out. Really, we are seeing the raucous, noisy and glorious birth of probably the most famous ship in history.
Then the mood changes, and the moment she is hit is detailed with displays, narrations and visual effects that left me shivering inside. I sat in the room that told this part of the story in a reflective silence for a long time, listening to the actual voices of survivors, reading the distress message transcripts, and staring at the Morse code symbols over and over.
The inquests that followed the tragedy, and the changes in maritime law that were implemented as a consequence, were then examined. After that you reach a beautiful display of the countless books, films and pieces of music written in tribute to the ship, her crew, her survivors and the poor lost souls, and the years of media coverage and interest her wreckage has generated. I spent quite a lot of time here just looking and listening and feeling.
But then there’s the best bit, a theatre playing footage and voice-over commentary from the submarine that found Titanic at the bottom of the ocean. It’s enchanting, mesmerising, chilling and upsetting all at the same time. Anyone who has seen the James Cameron film will also recognise snippets of the recording. At the end of the film you can then explore the ocean floor for objects using touch screens to access different visual locations from the various mini-submarines and even stand on a (fake) glass floor to look through to the “sea bed” beneath your feet. Even though you know it’s all a simulation, it’s startlingly real and even made me feel a bit queasy!
At the very end I was also excited to find the actual costumes worn by Kate and Leo in the James Cameron film along with a few others, and some props, which explains why they weren’t at the V&A Hollywood Costume Exhibition, where I had expected to see them!
It really was very cleverly done and, considering there’s nothing but photos, film and interviews that they can show, it really captured my heart and drew me right in. My highlights would include the virtual deck tour, re-creations of the cabins, the deep water exploration theatre and the interactive “artefact locator” with the “glass” floor. It’s most definitely worth a visit if you’re in the City.
We booked tickets online and took a cab from Belfast Central station which takes no more than ten minutes.
Walking with Dinosaurs (seen at the O2 but now on tour, back in the UK in the spring)
I mentioned before that my bro is the biggest history geek that I know, but when it comes to dinosaurs, I know of a contender for his crown – my friend’s six year old son! So I took all my dino nerd friends and family, old and young, back to a prehistoric age to see the Walking with Dinosaurs live show at the O2.
It was awesome.
I was surprised to be so excited by the prospect of seeing dinosaur puppets (not a spoiler!) going about their pre-historic business, set to music and narrated by a fake paleontologist, but I really, really was.
The show takes you through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods and features the “celebrities” of each era… culminating in the Big One. My bro being a complete dino nerd as a child must have rubbed off on me because I found myself actually getting excited as the dinosaurs entered the arena with yelps of “ooooh, Brachiosaurus“, “I bet this is Stegosaurus“, “woooooo, T-Rex!”
Thankfully my squeals were drowned out by those of the kids in the box with us!
The journey is illustrated beautifully with the use of the ever changing landscape (so cleverly done) and is accompanied by a moving music score (I didn’t, but I did almost cry at one point). The narrator, playing the part of a palaeontologist called Huxley (who was pretty handsome, as far as I can tell from the close ups!), provided enthusiastic commentary about the flora and fauna of the different ages, evolution, the changing land mass and the dinosaurs themselves in terms that were understandable to young kids, but not boring for the big kids.
The puppets were brilliant and the smaller ones were mesmerising in the same way as those in Warhorse - You know they aren’t real, clearly being able to see the human operatives, but you can’t help but be sucked in by their life-like mannerisms and movements (as life-like as we know long-extinct gigantic reptiles to be). Really very clever.
It’s not highly scientific, more like a prehistoric soap opera at times, and I have no idea on the accuracy, though my dino-expert-New-Scientist-subscriber companions didn’t correct it too much, so I’m assuming it was relatively correct. I found it all rather interesting and engaging but I didn’t learn anything new, but maybe I’m a dino nerd too? Well, I have watched The Land Before Time at least 100 times and the Jurassic Park films about 50, so I must have learned something (Long-Necks don’t play with Three-Horns)?
The ending is all rather cute and funny too with a particular character stealing the show.
It’s going on tour, so check here for dates and tickets.