As we emerge blinking, from months of Covid hibernation the world is full of surprises. I’d convinced myself that a home-based, introverted life was just fine. Plenty of reading, writing and thinking time—needs must—and in the initial enthusiasm of online living I made a few virtual visits to museums and galleries. But now that real-life options are opening up again I’ve enjoyed a few trips and the things that have made the biggest impression have not been what I anticipated.
It started with a visit to Salisbury Cathedral. The afternoon was of course, contained within the new normal of pre-booking, masks and social distancing but there was still plenty of freedom to be found and as I wandered around I became aware of a feeling bubbling up—the quiet excitement that comes from meandering in an unstructured way and landing like a butterfly on unexpected, interesting things. It was a pleasure I’d never been fully conscious of in the past but it felt familiar and it was only through its long absence and welcome reappearance that I came to recognise and value it. Some landings satisfy because they entertain or inform but other encounters are sensory and you simply need to be there to have them. There’s no amount of reading or online browsing that can summon up the sensation of feeling very small as you stand in the nave and look up at the delicate, cavernous ceiling; nor can it enable you to touch the ancient chill of the marble pillars. In my wanderings I came across what is said to be the world’s oldest working mechanical clock. I stopped and listened. Then I lingered to read the remarkable story of how it was discovered in the cathedral clock tower in 1928 by an observant horologist named Mr T. Robinson. He’d gone into the tower to inspect the current clock but spotted the priceless medieval treasure which had been cast aside and forgotten, decades before. And oddly, one of the best things about my visit was finding that the dusty, musty smell unique to churches was still alive and had survived the gallons of antiviral liquids that must have threatened it in recent months. I’d never realised how evocative that smell is but the primitive parts of my brain greeted it like an old friend.
A few weeks later I went to Shaftesbury in Dorset. Its most celebrated street is Gold Hill, made famous by Ridley Scott’s Hovis adverts and against all expectations I had to agree that it is unequivocally charming. At the top of the hill is a renovated sandstone cottage that’s home to a small museum of local history, run by volunteers. Once again, it was a delight to drift around and absorb random bits of information. I was particularly interested to learn that button-making was an important cottage industry in Shaftesbury and at the beginning of the nineteenth century it provided a livelihood for around four thousand women and children in the town. They twisted linen around a thin disc of sheep’s horn and then decorated it with fine embroidery. But mechanisation gradually forced the industry into decline and the final straw came when John Aston exhibited his button machine at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Widespread unemployment and poverty drove more than three hundred families to take advantage of assisted emigration schemes and they went off to start new lives in America or Australia. As we were leaving the museum we stopped and had a conversation with a friendly pair of volunteers who were packing up for the day. They asked what we’d thought of the exhibits. “Three hundred families…” I said, “that must have been devastating for such a small town.” We all nodded. Then we stood, not talking for a while. I’m not sure whether it was because we were empathising with the sad local history or just that small talk comes less easily after months of lockdown. But we soon perked up again and I appreciated the unexpected Zoom-free joy of having an enthusiastic to-and-fro discussion with strangers.
Then this month it was our fifth wedding anniversary and we celebrated with a day out in Oxford. Over lunch in the roof-top restaurant at the Ashmolean Museum we raised our glasses and surprised the young waitress by telling her that it was our diamond wedding. She was gratifyingly on the ball and recognised that we don’t look quite old enough to be marking sixty years together. That would have required me to marry Mike when I was two years old and he was six. We explained that as we married one another later in life, then we will never have big anniversaries so for the moment we celebrate the months instead. Then we went on to spend the afternoon at the Oxford University Natural History Museum.
The building is magnificent with a striking roof of glass and cast iron, reminiscent of grand Victorian railway stations, and as with Salisbury Cathedral you have to be there, gazing up, to appreciate the light and the scale. It opened in 1860 and influenced the design of London’s Natural History Museum that opened its doors to the public twenty-one years later. All around the walls are pillars, each a different variety of British stone, and painstakingly labelled in a bygone spirit of public education. There are one hundred and twenty six in all. There are also stunning statues of influential scientists, thinkers and engineers, many carved by eminent Pre-Raphaelite artists. Darwin, Galileo, Aristotle, Newton and Prince Albert are all represented but however much I might sigh it was no real surprise that there is not a single woman amongst the original busts and statues. In 2010 the museum began the process of addressing this by adding a bust of Dorothy Hodgkin who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for her work in crystallography.
The huge ground-floor gallery is informative and modern but it’s also true to its roots. Its stories evoke the excitement and wonder that Victorian scientists must have felt as they made new discoveries and challenged existing views of the world. Indeed the newly opened museum was the site of an infamous, furious debate between Thomas Huxley arguing in favour of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce arguing vociferously against the idea that mankind is descended from apes. And I could not ignore the contrast between the Victorian industrial confidence of this building and the little cottage museum in Shaftesbury with its tales of families made destitute by that very same Victorian industrial thrust. There was much to think about and I enjoyed wandering around, imagining myself in a crinoline and soaking up the atmosphere as I stopped by displays in no particular order—craggy fossils, a giant Japanese spider crab that is the stuff of nightmares and measures over three metres across, and a sad display about dodos. Close to the entrance is a stuffed North American black bear, its glossy pelt so thick that it was as much as I could do not to sink my hands into its depth. Years of ‘Don’t Touch’ signs had conditioned me and so I didn’t, but later I read that visitors are encouraged to touch many of the exhibits here including the bear. I wish I had. But I did stand eye to glassy eye with an aardvark and then had a conversation with Mike about when and where to meet for a cup of tea. It took a little while to realise the incongruity of having such a mundane discussion while standing on opposite sides of a life-sized cast of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Nearby were the skeletons of an African elephant and a giraffe, both fully-grown and huge in their own right but dwarfed by the prehistoric animal. Upstairs were displays of insects. There were tiny fleas and ticks, and big beetles so exquisite that it was hard to believe they were not enamelled. I moved my head from side to side to get the full iridescent splendour and the label informed me that one in three of all insect species is a beetle.
According to the Museums Association there are around 2,500 museums in the UK. These include many specialist collections curated by enthusiasts of subjects as diverse as magic, pencils, fans, motorbikes, telephone boxes, radios, and dentistry—a treasure trove with something for everyone. Top of my list is the National Railway Museum in York which I’ve visited several times. You can climb aboard a few of the vintage trains and there’s no online substitute for that. But it also makes me sad because the workmanship and quality of the fittings is so far removed from the 7.25 to Waterloo. I also love the American Museum on Claverton Down in Bath, where you can see the stitch bumps of quilts sewn in the Civil War and where the smell of traditional gingerbread seeps out of the old-fashioned kitchen and pervades the basement.
Tocks and ticks, dust and bear pelts, gazing upwards, fellow enthusiasts, and simply wandering and wondering what will intrigue the imagination or stimulate the senses next. It’s good to be out in the world again.