Friday, July 06, 2007

A day at the museum

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 capital 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 beverage drinkers will find a museum dedicated to their passion.

Pollock’s Toy Museum

Tucked away behind Goodge Street Station, Pollock’s Toy Museum gives new meaning to the words hidden treasure. Spread out over six cosy (British for tiny) rooms connected by creaking narrow stairways Pollock’s is like a dolls houses itself. The museum pays loving tribute to the toys and gewgaws that have entertained children across the world: here you can see 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 along 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) jostling for space with rag toys from Delhi. Many of the exhibits are decades old like 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, travelled across the American Rockies in a wagon when the Wild West opened up only to find herself back home all these years later. One can’t help wonder what has become of the girl who hosted tea parties at her Victorian dolls houses and the Sebastian that owned that Aloysius. Pollock’s evokes bittersweet memories of childhood and leaves one mourning the passing on of a simpler time. After all, in an age of Playstations and Xboxes who has time for the pleasures of a game of snakes and ladders?
1 Scala Street London W1T 2HL
Tel: 020 7636 3452

The Freud Museum

The most famous resident of Maresfield Garden, London NW3 no longer lives there. A blue plaque outside number 20 identifies the premises as the home of one Dr. Sigmund Freud. Fleeing from Nazi occupied Vienna Freud arrived in London on 27th September 1938 and lived at no. 20 till his death on 23rd 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 artfully arranged. 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 had the strongest urge 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. But I felt terribly voyeuristic reading some of the intimate, touching and often bizarre and frightening dreams. The museum manages to retain the air of a warm and inviting home and as I went from room to room I felt like a nosey guest. The Doctor may no longer be in, but The Freud Museum is the perfect prescription for a day out.
20 Maresfield Gardens London NW3 5SX
Tel: +44 (0)20 7435 2002

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. There are some wonderful things to see here - the bank’s personal silver collection, satirical cartoons that date back to the 18th century and some of the very first currency notes ever circulated. For those who can’t tell the difference between Monet and Manet (it’s more than just one vowel you know) but can spot a real currency note from a fake, The Bank of England Museum will provide hours of joy.
Bartholomew Lane,
Off Threadneedle Street
Tel: (020) 7601 5545

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 is heaven for someone like 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 trend that pervaded post-war Britain. The museum also offers fascinating insights in to 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 lusciously blue Regency room. All that was missing was Lizzie, her brood of sisters and Mama writing, sewing and catching up on correspondence 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 without risking a restraining order.

136 Kingsland Road
London E2
020 7739 9893

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 it 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 get gullible buyers in to purchasing them for private collections (The British Museum bought two!). Outside the museum is a beautiful knot garden – a square framework within which hedges are grown 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’.
Lambeth Palace Road
020 7401 8865

So the next time you’re in London, skip the queues at Madame Tussauds for a glimpse at how the British once lived, played and yes, gardened. You might find that we aren’t as different as we’d like to believe.


Flights: Daily 5 flights from Delhi and 7 from Mumbai. Log on to or
Visas: Apply UK embassies in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. Visas cost Rs. 5700.

Where to stay The Beaufort Hotel, Knightsbridge ( 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. The Ritz London ( is ideally located for business and pleasure, and don’t forget the fabulous afternoon tea service. Superior Queen Rooms start at £260. One Aldwych ( 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( Lunch: With it’s dark wood communal style tables and great food, Busaba Eathai(13 Bird Street W1U 1BU Marylebone 020 7518 8080) is perfect for family and working lunches alike. If you’re traveling with toddlers try Jack & Lulu’s (North End Way, NW3 7ES 0870 438 2525) child friendly eating in the posh North London suburb of Hampstead. Dinner and drinks: Head to Albannach ( 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 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, reedbeds and marshes.

An edited version of this piece appeared here.


southways said...

Next time we meet I must remember to take your autograph!

ammani said...

Wonderfully written and lovingly detailed. The truncated version does not do justice to the original. Such a pity.

??! said...

you forgot the Tea Museum. Wouldn't that be the first thing a desi would run to, after coming to the home of the big bad Company?

Neha said...

am taking a printout of this post when i head to London :)

s said...

that was brillaintly written piece shoefy, the info on the museums is such a treasure!! lurrrrved it! and next time am in london by myself (perhaps in 2 yrs!!!)I'd definitely do a few of these.

Munimma said...

brought back some good memories. There was one children's museum close to hyde park and I thought I could walk to that place from where we were staying. I must have walked around that darned museum for almost 2 hours, dragging my then 5 year old. I even asked a few people for directions, including a postman (twice), but it just vanished on me. My daughter did not complain until the last 20 minutes or so :-) At least she had her bit of fun on the taxi ride back.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

southways :)

Ammani - thank you... what to do. I'm training myself to write within the wordcount set

??! :) I'm a coffee drinker so call me partial

neha - :)

s - thanks! i offer my services as a tour guide

munimma - a children's museum near hyde park? interesting. let me see if i can find it!

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