Thursday, March 12, 2009

So the idea is this. During 2009 I'm attempting to visit 26 London museum-y attraction-type places, one starting with each letter of the alphabet. And then I'm writing about them. That's the idea. I intend to visit only attractions I've never visited before. Where possible I plan to concentrate on less well-known, peripheral museums. And I'll probably have to stop at W, because X, Y and Z don't look promising. So where first?

A is for Arsenal Museum
B is for Burgh House
C is for Crystal Palace Museum
D is for Dennis Severs' House
E is for Erith Museum
F is for Freud Museum
G is for Guards Museum
H is for Handel House Museum
I is for Island History Trust
J is for Jewel Tower
K is for Kew Steam Museum
L is for Linley Sambourne House
M is for Musical Museum
N is for National Army Museum
O is for Old Operating Theatre
P is for Pollock's Toy Museum
Q/R is for Queen's Gallery/Royal Mews
S is for Sikorski Museum
T is for Twickenham Museum
U is for UCL Collections (Petrie Museum)
V is for Crofton Roman Villa
W is for Whitewebbs Museum of Transport
Z is for Grant Museum of Zoology

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Arsenal Museum

Location: Drayton Park, London, N5 [map]
Open: Daily from 10am (closes early on matchdays)
Admission: £6 (or free as part of Stadium tour)
Website: www.arsenal.com/emirates-stadium/arsenal-museum
Time to set aside: up to an hour

Only a handful of English football clubs merit their own museum, and only one of these is worth visiting. Which one that is is a matter of personal choice. But if you don't choose the Arsenal Museum, obviously you're wrong.

Arsenal MuseumThe Arsenal Museum is located in a basement beneath Key Worker housing at the apex of the Ashburton Triangle. A less historic spot it would be hard to find. Handing over the entrance fee is also astonishingly difficult. The bloke on the door refused to take my £6, directing me instead to the Box Office (across a bridge, down some steps, wait). The bloke at the Box Office also refused to take my £6, directing me instead back to the Museum (up some steps, across a bridge, embarrassed return). The bloke on the door finally accepted my £6 only grudgingly, and even then solely on the understanding that I had the exact money in cash. It seems that 99% of the Museum's trade comes from fans who've been on the official Stadium tour and who get directed here at the end as a free afterthought, so my unexpected arrival proved unexpectedly challenging.

At last, down the stairs to the collection proper. This is a museum of two halves - the first half devoted to the people who made Arsenal great and the second given over to their finest achievements. Everything kicks off with a display about Woolwich. Look, there's a fibreglass Dial Square, as well as a listing of the very first team to play under the name of Royal Arsenal (a 6-1 home win against Erith, for what it's worth). If it's in-depth history you want, lift the telephone handset and soak in the details. I suspect most visitors don't bother, they just speed by to the interactive video exhibits further on. But I learnt plenty, not least that my favourite football club owes its early prominence to an evil conniving property developer chairman who schemed, manoeuvred and cheated his team across the Thames and into the top flight.

Arsenal MuseumA brighter future was to be had at Highbury Stadium (look, the original plans), at least for as long as the place lasted (look, there's the centre spot, a rectangle of turf preserved forever inside a glass block). A central display case contains artefacts belonging to god-like chairman Herbert Chapman who guided the club to Thirties supremacy, while another contains such goodies as the Women's FA Cup and Will Copping's barometer. But who's looking there? Not when there are buttons to press and dials to spin and dream teams to select and a giant wall-length screen cycling the exploits of notable Arsenal legends.

Up the other end, reminders that Arsenal have won an awful lot of stuff over the years. International excellence, record-breaking unbeaten league records, FA Cup triumphs, it's all desperately impressive. And terribly selective, of course. No mention of the times Spurs have embarrassingly thrashed us, nothing about going out in the Cup in the first round, and not a word about the criminally lacklustre 2008/9 season. But some appropriate crowing about the three times we've won the Double, including the 10p programme for the 1971 Cup Final (which was the very day my footballing loyalties were first forged). Not that the nylon-suited tourists wandering to and fro are interested in the words. They just want to photograph each other next to Thierry Henry's shirt and extremely large pieces of silverware, and then get out. You may want to linger a little longer. Or maybe not.
by tube: Arsenal (obviously)

A is also for...
» Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum (I turned up specially last week but they were unexpectedly closed, so no can do)
» Anaesthesia Heritage Centre (appointment recommended, and I don't do 'appointment recommended')
» Apsley House (I've been, and you should)

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Burgh House (Hampstead Museum)

Location: New End Square, Hampstead NW3 1LT [map]
Open: Wed, Thur, Fri, Sun (noon-5pm)
Admission: free
Brief summary: life by the Heath
Website: www.burghhouse.org.uk
Time to set aside: half an hour

Burgh HouseEver been for a proper walk round the heights of Hampstead? Not the grassy Heath-y bit, but the cluster of houses on the hilltop alongside? You don't have to walk far from Hampstead tube to find yourself amongst narrow lanes, intimate alleyways and asymmetric squares - quite unlike any other part of London. Those who live here don't get a lot of garden for their money, but they do get their choice of glorious Victorian townhouses and detached cottages and bold modernist infill, plus some of the capital's most famous neighbours. The rest of us are restricted to eyeing up this enclave via a jealous wander, and maybe paying a visit to a small museum which tells the area's story.

Burgh House was built in 1704, around the same time as Hampstead burst forth onto the London scene as an upmarket spa. Chief physician Dr William Gibbons moved into the house shortly afterwards, and it was he who encouraged visitors to gulp down the foul-tasting chalybeate waters. The spa's respectability didn't last, tarnished by drinking dens and vice, and it took several decades for Hampstead to regain its status as a desirable upper middle class haven. One of Burgh House's Victorian residents was Thomas Grylls, designer of Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner rose window, while the garden was later overhauled by legendary landscape architect Gertrude Jekyll. Quite a comedown after WW2, then, to end up as a crumbling Citizen's Advice Bureau, and only a concerted campaign by locals saved the building as a museum.

Burgh HouseIt's not the most obvious of museums, you have to look hard to be reassured it's OK to enter, but the volunteer on the front desk will probably smile broadly at the sight of a visitor. There's a small shop here - not the usual tea towels and tourist tat, but a proper collection of Hampstead ephemera and locally-sourced books. Off to the left is the creaky-floored Music Room - mostly empty apart from a grand piano, and bookable for weddings so long as the guests don't mind having nowhere to park. There are a couple more period rooms downstairs, again lightly furnished, connecting through to a modern extension at the rear. This is currently being used for a minimalist exhibition about artist John Constable, who lived out his last years a few doors up the road. Best not use the ladies or gents toilets to either side while there are visitors - the walls are rather thin and your flush may prove an embarrassing interruption.

The main Hampstead Museum is upstairs. Don't expect a lot, just a couple of bedroom-sized spaces decked out with Heritage Lottery displays. Room 1's the old stuff, including maps and models of the spa-time Heath. There's a bit more to see in Room 2. An Isokon long chair for a start, indicative of the modernist Lawn Road flats where Agatha Christie once lived. There's a section on wartime Hampstead, including a bed lifted from the deep level shelter on the platforms at Belsize Park tube station. You'll also see a few old High Street shopfronts, and a Mayoral chair, and a Scout flag (from the UK's first ever Scout troop). We're not talking proper exciting here, but at least a decent reflection of life beyond Hampstead's hilltop enclave.

There's one little interactive feature that ought to be quite fun, and that's an electronic map. Touch the screen and you can locate the houses of scores of famous people who've lived in Hampstead over the years (only the dead ones, obviously, it's no good trying to stalk Glenda or Esther). That blue circle on Christchurch Hill, who lived there? Press it, come on, try to press it, press it again. Who was it, ah him, never heard of him. Alas there are no names on the map, they're hidden inside an impenetrable indexing system, and trying to trawl through the anonymous coloured blobs soon gets rather tedious. Your lottery money would have been better spent on an ordinary paper-based map, perhaps of the kind available downstairs in the shop (Who Lived Where in Hampstead, £2.95).

A series of regularly-changed small exhibitions help to keep visitors coming back, but from what I saw all the genuine action is in the basement. Here you'll find the Buttery Cafe, packed out even in mid January, yet so poorly signposted that surely only local people know of its existence. Ideal for brunch or a slice of cake, so I'm told, but I slipped out through the shop without succumbing to either. Off to explore the streets and blue plaques on foot, my appetite suitably stimulated.
by tube: Hampstead

B is also for...
» Bank of England Museum (I've been, twice)
» Barnet Museum (I'm saving it for a jamjar moment)
» Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee (it's closed til later in the year)
» Brent Museum (I've been)
» British Museum (I've been, obviously)
» Bromley Museum (I got as far as the front door)
» Bruce Castle Museum (I've been)

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Crystal Palace Museum

Location: Anerley Hill, Crystal Palace SE19 2BA [map]
Open: Saturdays, Sundays & Bank Holidays (11am-4:30pm)
Admission: free
Guided tours: first Sunday of the month (noon, £3.50)
Brief summary: remembering Victorian spectacle
Website: www.crystalpalacemuseum.org.uk
Time to set aside: half an hour

Crystal Palace MuseumIt took me three attempts to visit the Crystal Palace Museum. I turned up on a Sunday in January and it was shut, no explanation. I turned up a couple of Saturdays ago and there was a sign on the locked door apologising for closure due to staff shortage. But I trooped out to the suburbs again last weekend and was finally rewarded by a "Museum Open" sign on the front doorstep. Thankfully my persistence was worth the repeated effort.

You're unlikely to stumble upon the Crystal Palace Museum by mistake. It's visible from the main road but not accessible, and it's accessible from the main park but only if you happen to wander into a muddy corner beside a miserable-looking brick ruin. The museum is housed in an 1880s classroom, which doesn't look like anything special but is in fact the only surviving building from the Palace's glory days. And this is very definitely an old-school exhibition.

You'll not find any buttons to press, artefacts to handle or videos to watch. Instead this is an exhibition presented within a series of glass cases... which is quite appropriate given that the original Crystal Palace was much the same only on a much larger scale. There are an awful lot of photographs on display, most of them lovingly prittsticked with an informative caption underneath. There's heritage ephemera such as tickets, programmes and chunks of roasted floor tile. There's an entire wall given over to a painted scene of what the Great Exhibition might have looked like, assuming it was frequented by cardboard cutouts in Victorian dress. And there's a big scale model of the Palace inside yet another glass case in the centre of the room. The whole place feels very much like a 1960s exhibition about the 1860s.

Crystal Palace (site)Don't knock the presentation. The photographic displays are both evocative and informative, and I learnt a heck of a lot about how important this place used to be. When the great Crystal Palace moved out from Hyde Park to Penge, a whole cross-section of Londoners followed. The main hall was the hub of popular classical music in the late 19th century, and greats such as Liszt and Sullivan performed here beneath the world's largest organ. Twenty consecutive FA Cup Finals were played in the park, and the Girl Guide movement kicked off on the site too. Brock's Fireworks used to put on spectacular themed displays, and a motor-racing circuit ran through the grounds. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury and Queen Victoria were known to pop down every now and then, and high society poured in through a long-closed station adjacent to the palace gates. Until one night in November 1936, that is, when a Great Fire destroyed the entire iron and glass cathedral in hours.

Where the museum succeeded, much to my surprise, was in changing how I viewed the park after I walked back outside. Where previously I'd seen empty terraces and and a big half-empty park, now I could picture the enormity of what had been here before. My Crystal Palace will no longer be a sports ground surrounded by dog walkers, but a living breathing Victorian theme park packed with fountains, funfair and Fairy Archipelago. And that miserable-looking brick ruin beside the museum car park turned out to be the base of a 275-foot water tower designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This South Tower was later used by broadcasting pioneer John Logie Baird as both experimental TV studios and a giant VHF aerial. It's proper historic, that is. And I'd never have guessed if the Museum had been closed.
by train: Crystal Palace

C is also for...
» Carlyle's House (I've been)
» Cartoon Museum
» Charles Dickens Museum (I've been)
» Church Farmhouse Museum, Hendon (I'm waiting for a jamjar moment)
» Churchill Museum (I've been, it's great)
» Clink Prison Museum
» Clockmakers' Museum (I've been)
» Courtauld Institute (I've been)
» Crofton Roman Villa
» Croydon Museum (I've been, they kicked me out)
» Cuming Museum (I've been, it's tiny)

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Dennis Severs' House

Location: 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, E1 6BX [map]
Open: Sunday afternoons; Monday evenings (by candlelight); certain Monday lunchtimes (noon-2pm)
Admission: £12, £8 or £5 (depending on timing)
brief summary: still life drama
Website: www.dennissevershouse.co.uk
Time to set aside: an hour

Dennis Severs' House, in its Christmas fineryJust north of Spitalfields market, in a street that's still half eighteenth century, you'll find an old silk weaver's house with red shutters. Look for the lantern above the front door and, if it's lit, pull on the bell to the right. After a short wait (and upon payment of the requisite fee) you'll be welcomed politely inside. Pay attention to the pep talk, then sssh, not a sound! The building's dead owner would be most disappointed if you uttered even a single word during your visit to his abode. For this is Dennis Severs' house - a unique historical re-enactment where the characters are all in your head. Look past the motley collection of objects, soak in the atmosphere, and step back.

When Dennis moved to Folgate Street 30 years ago, this was no desirable gentrified neighbourhood. But he saw potential in a derelict silk weaver's house at number 18, snapped it up and then set about restoring it in a most unusual way. Different rooms would showcase different periods in the timeline of the house, from the early 18th to the early 20th century. He created an imaginary family, the Jervises, then littered each room with furniture and artefacts to reflect how they might have lived. And then, most brilliantly eccentric of all, Dennis moved in. No electric lights, no central heating, just one man living in the higgledy-piggledy past.

Ten years after Dennis's premature death, his house remains a fascinating and idiosyncratic museum. Visitors wander round from cellar to attic, ten rooms in total, and immerse themselves in what can perhaps best be described as a living experience. Each room is laid out as if the Jervis family have just walked out, and might return at any minute. Flickering candles, washing hanging over the stairs, half eaten snacks - all are hints of a life just departed. And sssh! Your silence is a crucial part of the all-enveloping ambience. Floorboards may creak and distant music may play, but modern voices should play no part whatsoever in your interpretation of events. As written notes from Dennis posted around the house declare, those who feel the need to chatter just "don't get it".

It is, unfortunately, impossible to conduct the tour in complete silence. The house's guardians need to direct you from one floor to the next ("in here first", "now down to the cellar", "upstairs please") and can also be heard whispering to one another about organisational matters when they think you're not listening. Try to block out their occasional mutterings and instead embrace alternative sensory overload. Authentic smells abound, particularly of food and spices in the dining room or kitchen. There are ornaments and ephemera aplenty to keep your eyes enthused, and the trick is to imagine not what they are but why they're there. Another regular printed message from Dennis provides the house's rationale - "You either see it or you don't".

Some of the rooms have a woman's touch - the fictional Mrs Jervis is a strong character throughout. Other rooms are more masculine - the Smoking Room, for example, allows you to step into the drunken aftermath of a scene from a Hogarth painting. The attic rooms are quite bleak, and (I'm seeing it, I'm seeing it) the old four poster's mattress must have been damned cold and uncomfortable to sleep on. Watch out for two modern residents - a parrot that lives in a cage in the front parlour window, and Whitechapel the cat. But it's the former owner we have to thank for the genuine depth of detail throughout Dennis Severs' House. Eccentric, enchanting, illuminating and, yes, unique. The house is the performer here, and you are cordially invited to spend a rare hour as its audience.
by tube: Liverpool Street

D is also for...
» Danson House, Bexley
» Design Museum (I've been)
» Dr Johnson's House (I've been)
» Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (I've been) (small but perfectly formed)
» Dorwich House Museum, Kingston
» Dulwich Picture Gallery (I've been)

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Erith Museum

Location: Walnut Tree Road, Erith DA8 1RS [map]
Open: Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays (2:15pm-4:45pm)
Admission: free
Brief summary: local life remembered
Short term prospects: imminently doomed
Website: www.erithmuseum.org.uk
Time to set aside: half an hour

Most museums are about history. But Erith Museum is different - it's about to become history. And I visited only just in time.

Erith LibraryThat's Erith, pronounced Ee-rith. It's on the south-eastern flank of London, alongside the Thames Estuary, and not somewhere on any tourist itinerary. Even if you turned up out of curiosity you'd never notice the museum, not unless you knew it was there. It's close to the station, but not on the main walking route to the town centre. It's hidden inside Erith library (an ornate 1906 building), not that there's an obvious sign outside announcing the museum's existence. Step inside, past the librarian's desk, and look towards the stairs to your left. For just seven and a half hours a week a small sign hangs here reading 'MUSEUM OPEN'. But not for much longer. Not for very much longer at all.

Erith Museum is little more than a library's attic - an upper chamber divided into two well-stocked rooms. The place is run by volunteers, a couple of whom who sit patiently at the desk at the top of the stairs awaiting infrequent visitors. It's only thanks to these good folk that the museum has survived this long, battling heroically against the indifference of the local council. That battle may soon be lost.

There's a modest collection of local exhibits and ephemera to explore. The usual flints and fossils feature in one cabinet (I think it's mandatory for all small museums to include these), plus a collection of objects excavated from nearby Lesnes Abbey. King Henry VIII's warship the Great Harry was fitted out in Erith dockyard, so there's a model of that, along with a selection of more recent Thames boats and barges. There's a pianola, presumably because the museum was bequeathed it, and also "the popular Edwardian kitchen display" - not proper local, but proper history all the same. A recurring theme is the industry that once thrived here beside the estuary but no longer exists. Borax Consolidated Ltd, long shut; Atlas preservatives, gone; Sovex, departed; Royal Doulton, moved on. More poignantly, older Erith residents will appreciate the photographic display of vanished shops, pubs, schools and other buildings. The library's next on the deathlist.

old town sign on the stairs at Erith MuseumA new Erith library is under construction closer to the heart of the town. It's very nearly finished, indeed it should have been open a couple of weeks ago, but until it's completed the old library lingers on. The new place will have lots of computer terminals for public use, and some books, and greater footfall, and did I mention the computers? But there'll be no attic, nor any appropriate space for the museum to inhabit, so the collection can't follow on. And there's no way that the museum can continue in the old building once all the library staff have moved out, so an enforced limbo awaits.

The volunteers who run the museum are worried. They have nowhere to go, and none of the other heritage sites in Bexley fancy taking on an Erith-specific exhibit, so the entire collection may be about to be split up or mothballed. As for the old library, it may be Grade II listed but there are genuine fears that its vacant shell will prove too tempting a target for destructive vandals. No simple padlock will keep them out, and some fear that the council are just looking for an excuse to knock the place down and sell off the land to property developers.

Erith Museum - remembering Callender Cables and Atlas PreservativesI had a lovely long conversation with the lady and gentleman on duty. They'd not been expecting to have the place open into March - every additional week is a bonus at the moment. They told me of the expansion plans they've had to put on hold - there's no point opening up the back room to visitors if there are no visitors. They told me that their group of volunteers aren't getting any younger, and it's nigh impossible to find replacements to make up their declining numbers. They expressed concerns for the future of their enterprise with an eloquent mixture of despair and resignation. They gave me three souvenir bookmarks, presumably because they couldn't see any subsequent visitors ever taking one. They even made me a mug of hot chocolate and offered me a custard cream while we chatted. You don't get service like that in the V&A.

The rest of London won't miss Erith Museum, won't miss it at all. But the local community, if only they were interested, are about to lose a lovingly preserved slice of their social and industrial heritage. Living history needs tangible connections to the past, not digitised artefacts on a computer touchscreen in a virtual learning centre. I'm delighted that my alphabetical trek brought me here before the museum shut down for good, but saddened that the place probably won't survive until the end of the month. Like so much in Erith, progress has wiped the past away.
by train: Erith

E is also for...
» Eastbury Manor House (currently undergoing refurbishment)
» Eltham Palace (I've been, and you should)
» Estorick Collection

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Freud Museum

Location: 20 Maresfield Gardens NW3 5SX [map]
Open: Wednesday to Sunday (12noon - 5pm)
Admission: £5 (plus £2 for audio guide)
Brief summary: where dreams were couched
Website: www.freud.org.uk
Time to set aside: an hour

In September 1938 the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud fled his home in Austria in an attempt to escape from Nazi persecution. He was 82 years old, with terminal cancer, and longed to live out his final months in a place of safety alongside his beloved family. So he came to England and moved into a large townhouse in West Hampstead, in a leafy suburban avenue just up the hill from Finchley Road station. A year later Freud was dead, but his final home still bears the mark of one of the greatest minds that ever lived.

20 Maresfield GardensFreud's house looks particularly alluring in the spring, behind a clipped green hedge beneath blossoming branches. Step through the pale blue front door into the entrance hall and it's equally peaceful inside. The house is very much as it once was, with Sigmund's possessions and collections on display from room to room. The ground floor study reflects many aspects of his personality. At the garden end is Freud's desk, stacked with intricate statuettes from around the world. His specially-made chair, designed for slouching, looks like an abstract torso with open arms (very Freudian). Around the walls are leather-bound volumes interspersed with a number of classical antiquities - this was more Freud's museum than his library.

And up against the far wall, yes it is, it's that couch. It was donated by a grateful patient in 1890 and was the centre of Sigmund's greatest work over the subsequent half century. Here his clients reclined to outpour their dreams, while the old man sat in a green tub chair to one side trying to make sense of their free association. The couch is still covered by a beautiful oriental throw, its border illustrated with (what else?!) a row of fertility symbols. Freud saw only a handful of patients during his time in London, so it seems somehow highly unfair that this historic piece of furniture has ended up here rather than at his former residence in Vienna.

Freudian plaquesFreud was so frail during his year in Hampstead that he never once went upstairs. He never saw the light spacious bedrooms, one now devoted to an exhibition of his life and work, another now somewhere to sit and watch documentaries and home movie footage. An adjacent drawing room is devoted to his daughter Anna, herself a psychoanalyst of note, whose blue plaque graces the front of the house along with her father's. Meanwhile on the landing are further objects, relics and treasures collected over a lifetime of cultural travelling, plus artwork including a Dali portrait and a dreamlike painting by the Wolfman, one of Freud's most famous patients.

The back garden was the great man's pride and joy. He'd never had one before, nothing so green and leafy, so spent much of his final spring and summer sat out in the open conservatory. That conservatory is now a shop where you can buy a mass of Freud-related memorabilia, and I was impressed by the range and untackiness of what was available. A huge selection of books, for a start, some scholarly and others rather more populist. You can buy a SuperEgo badge for your rucksack, or a beardy finger puppet, or even a pair of rather witty Freudian slippers. It's also the place to hire an audio guide on your way in - two pounds well spent to provide much illuminating background information during your walk round the house. With a bit of luck you'll learn a lot about the man who invented psychoanalysis, and learn just a little bit more about yourself along the way.
by tube: Finchley Road

F is also for...
» Fan Museum (waiting for a jamjar moment)
» Fashion and Textile Museum (Zandra's contemporary collection)
» Firepower (The Royal Artillery Museum) (The most exciting thing in Woolwich, probably)
» Florence Nightingale Museum (I've been)
» Forty Hall Museum (Enfield) (I've been)
» Foundling Museum (I've been)
» Fulham Palace

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Guards Museum

Location: Wellington Barracks, Birdcage Walk SW1E 6HQ [map]
Open: daily (10am - 4pm)
Admission: £3 (serving military personnel £1)
Brief summary: battles, bayonets and bearskins
Website: www.theguardsmuseum.com
Time to set aside: up to an hour

And now for a museum so central you've probably never noticed it. Wellington Barracks runs along the southern edge of St James's Park (if you've ever been in the area your eyes have probably been on the park, not the barracks). These buildings are home to a battalion of the Household Division of the British Army (who have to be stationed incredibly close to Buckingham Palace because many of their ceremonial duties involve marching up and down in front of the Queen). Tourists know these soldiers better than locals, because they're the men in red coats and furry black hats who perform daily in the Changing of the Guard. They're representatives of the five regiments of the Foot Guards (Grenadier, Coldstream, Welsh, Scots and Irish). And yes, they have their own museum.

Entrance to Guards MuseumStep off Birdcage Walk into the small courtyard at the eastern end of Wellington Barracks, and you may wonder precisely which building the museum is. The small squat building to the right, maybe (er, no, that's the gift shop, with its masses of shelves of toy soldiers for sale). The much larger Mediterranean-style box to the left, perhaps [photo] (er, no, that's the Guards Chapel, a strikingly modern place of worship open for public perusal on weekdays). No, it's none of the buildings round here, grand or otherwise. The Guards Museum is hidden underground, off to the right between two sentry boxes and down some steps into the basement. Maybe that's why you've never noticed it before.

Prepare yourself for a military experience. The bloke on the front desk, undoubtedly a retired soldier, will take your money and check your bag, then direct you off into a world of medals and insignia. If you're lucky the DVD in the mini theatre will be playing to provide an outline of the Guards' historic role, although last weekend the machine appeared to be buggered so I had to skip that. An example of each of the ceremonial uniforms is on display here, including those iconic black bearskins that tower unfeasibly above parading guardsmen's heads. Pay careful attention and you'll be able to differentiate between a Scots Guard and a Coldstream Guard across a crowded parade ground. And then into the museum proper - a series of about five or six rooms outlining the regiments' chronological story.

Try not to be disturbed by the initial tableau of three life-sized guardsman dummies waving a big flag and roaring in battlefield defiance. Instead start to make your way round the walls looking at the artefacts and reading about the history. The Guards started out as a Stuart defence force protecting the King, and have been involved in every major skirmish ever since. Prepare to read about them all. Or, if you're a visiting American child, just whoop at all the weaponry and imagine what fun it must have been stabbing, hacking and slicing through your enemies with it.

Guardsman outside Guards MuseumThere are an awful lot of strange hats. The guards have always been game for wearing particularly ostentatious headgear, some of which make a bearskin helmet look positively tame. There's also a lot of assorted memorabilia, much of it campaign related, with a particular emphasis on the horrors and glories of the Crimea. Some general earned that dangly silver thing, some footsoldier banged that drum in the heat of battle, and some proud veteran donated that letter of commendation. It'd be hard to ever describe the collection as exciting, unless you're the sort who really gets off on all things military, but the artefacts do generate a convincing historical atmosphere.

And it's not all old stuff. After a reminder of the Guards contribution to both World Wars comes an unexpectedly up-to-date section detailing life on the frontline in Afghanistan. There's a mock up of a soldier's desert quarters, complete with army rations and a copy of the Sun newspaper, alongside a caption dating the scene to 2008. It's not all parading up and down for tourists and providing silver service for Her Maj, these guys still put their life on the line during lengthy foreign tours of duty. If that thought stirs your heart, you might appreciate a tour round the basement to pay your respects.
by tube: St James's Park

G is also for...
» Garden Museum (horticulture in a Lambeth church)
» Geffrye Museum (fantastic collection of historical English interiors) (I've been)
» Greenwich Heritage Centre (a few displays in Woolwich) (I've been)
» Guildhall Art Gallery (includes Roman Amphitheatre) (I've been)
» Gunnersbury Park Museum (twin council collections) (I've been)

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Handel House Museum

Location: 25 Brook Street, Mayfair W1K 4HB [map]
Open: Tuesday-Sunday (10am - 6pm) (late opening Sun, late closing Thu)
Admission: £5
Brief summary: where the Messiah was writen
Website: www.handelhouse.org
Time to set aside: an hour

Handel House Museum, 25 Brook StreetExactly 250 years ago today, around eight o'clock in the morning, the great Baroque composer Handel breathed his last. In the heart of Mayfair. You might have thought that George Frideric was German, and indeed by birth he was, but he spent two thirds of his life in England and lived out his last 36 years at a townhouse in Brook Street. The ground floor at number 25 may now be a ladies' designer boutique, but upstairs the rooms have been restored as GFH might have known them. Normally visitors have to enter round the back, in exclusive Lancashire Court, but today (for one anniversary day only) Handel's front door will be open and access to his former home will be free of charge.

In 1723, when Handel moved in, this was a brand new Georgian terrace in a newly fashionable part of town. He was a very busy man, composing and staging Italian operas around the city and writing for the royal court. But here at number 25 he led a rather less gregarious life, allowing only close friends and musicians to visit, and keeping his private life very much to himself. 250 years later, courtesy of the Handel House Museum, anyone can come poke round George's private chambers and see where he composed some of his greatest works. And you might be very surprised to discover which other musician once lived nextdoor.

Handel lived here, 25 Brook StreetFirst stop, at the top of the house, Handel's bedroom closet. It's just big enough to hold a small cinema (i.e. a couple of rows of chairs in front of a TV screen), and here you can watch a short introductory video where various musical Londoners gush generously about the composer's output. The emphasis is rather more on his music than his history, which feels appropriate, and a suitable reminder of the back catalogue's breadth and clarity. When you're suitably primed, step through the rear door into the museum proper. This dark wood-panelled room used to be Handel's dressing room, somewhere for him to try on a decorative waistcoat or puff a powdered wig. Today the room is merely decked out with portraits of 18th century cultural contemporaries, which you can read about on a big text-heavy laminated sheet dispensed by the room's curator. Squint carefully, there's much to discover.

Next into the bedroom, where a period four-poster with red drapes props up the far wall. It's not the precise bed in which George died on 14th April 1759, that's long gone, but it has been sourced and accesorised as far as possible to match the inventory taken after his death. Try not to look out of the window - the glitzy shop windows of Mayfair shatter the Regency illusion somewhat. Then tread downstairs to the first floor rehearsal room. Here Handel first performed his prototype works, sometimes solo but often with invited instrumental accompaniment. Centrepiece is an ornate single-manual harpsichord, still used for live performance today - indeed the museum's owners encourage Baroque musicians to come practice in this room for free. Nextdoor is a rather smaller spinet, this in Handel's official Composition Room. Here he turned out his triumphal Messiah in three weeks flat, here too originated Zadok The Priest and the Music For The Royal Fireworks. Few London spaces have a richer legacy.

Hendrix lived here, 23 Brook StreetNip nextdoor through a connecting passage into 23 Brook Street and you'll be able to explore a brand new (just-opened last week) exhibition - Handel Reveal'd. A range of Handellian aretfacts are on display across two floors, including a handwritten score completed on Christmas Day, a "life mask" and one of George's share certificates. There's also muted speculation into the composer's confirmed bachelorhood, and a chance to plug yourself into a Walkman to hear the odd overture while you peruse. It's only on the upper floor that Handel's unlikely musical neighbour is revealed. For a few brief months 40 years ago this flat was home to guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, shacked up in a 60s lovepad with girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. Present visitors get to see nothing more than a few press photographs shot here, but these are enough to make you envisage the room in a completely different way. Two geniuses for the price of one, that's Brook Street for you.
by tube: Bond Street

H is also for...
» Hackney Museum (I've been, it's not bad)
» Hall Place (I'm waiting for a jamjar moment)
» Harrow Museum (I've been, it's a bit dull)
» HMS Belfast (I've been, it's well worth a look)
» Hogarth's House (I've been, it's currently closed for renovation)
» Honeywood Museum (I've walked past, it's in Carshalton)
» Horniman Museum (I've been, more than once)
» House Mill (I've been, it's local)
» Hunterian Museum (I've been, there are lots of pickled bodyparts)

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Island History Trust

Location: 197 East Ferry Road, London E14 3BA [map]
Open: Tue, Wed & first Sunday of the month (1:30-4:30pm)
Admission: free (Open Days £2)
Brief summary: Docklands in black and white
Website: www.islandhistory.org.uk
Time to set aside: dependent on family connections

Dockland SettlementThe Isle of Dogs is no island, more an East End tongue hanging down within the Thames's snakiest meander. And while the E14 postcode may now may be best known for its shiny towers and financial dominance, that's only the very latest part of the story. The history of the peninsula stretches back to medieval times - first a marshy outpost, then the very heart of international trade, then a place of belching industry. But one constant presence has been the island's community - a group of people isolated by geography and bound together by circumstance. This museum celebrates their resilience.

The Island History Trust base themselves in a community centre at the foot of the Isle of Dogs, down where the genuine residents live. Long before property developers sought to build riverside flats and waterside towers, a motley assortment of working class terraces grew up to provide the docks and their supporting industries with personnel. Some of these streets are delightful (Thermopylae Gate, anyone), others merely post-war estates built up on the site of bombed out back-to-backs. Over the years many of the former residents have moved away, priced out by incomers, but when the Trust holds an Open Weekend they pop back for a natter and some tea and cake. There's much to remember.

5000 large black and white photographs take up a lot of space. They're all filed away in cardboard boxes, lovingly laminated and carefully catalogued. Sit at one of the centre's tables and you can flick through the Industrial selection, sit at another and a century of schoolchildren beam out. Someone's gone to a lot of effort to try to name all the people and locations in the photos, and if you have a particular Docklands resident in mind you can try to track them down using a very detailed card-based indexing system. Be warned, they may be grinning at a street party, or looking distinctly under-nourished, or wearing an especially ridiculous hat. (God help us if pancake-sized flat caps ever come back into fashion) (I'll give it three years)

Isle of Dogs historical tapestryWhile I sat looking through a box of street scenes, one former lady resident started hunting through a neighbouring pack of sporting photos. "That's your Uncle Frank," she told the intrigued youngster tagging along beside. "And that's my brother Albert, all dressed up for the football, he did love his football. He used to play in four different leagues - Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon - and he signed up under a different name each time because officially he wasn't allowed to play in more than one." With a grin of recognition on the boy's face, that was another family legend safely entrusted to the next generation.

Many people seemed to be using the Open Day as an opportunity to meet up with old friends, neighbours and former schoolmates. There were gossipy chats in every corner, with the volunteers' tea and homemade cakes going down a storm. Barring a few tagged-along grandchildren I did feel like I was the youngest person in the room by about 20 years, but I was made more than welcome all the same. A couple of very informative display boards explained the industrial and social history of the area - the latter surprisingly more interesting than the former. And it was also fascinating to find out, through those extra-special very ordinary photographs, a lot more about the ordinary lives of a century of genuine East Enders.

If you ever had relatives down on the Dogs, or if you're a more recent arrival to the area with an interest in its past, I know that Eve and her volunteers would be more than pleased to welcome you. Normally their collection's open in an upper room on the first Sunday of the month, with photos to explore and publications to peruse. For a rather broader experience (and tea and cakes), wait until the twice-yearly Open Weekend. Few communities can boast such a comprehensive repository of the everyday.
by DLR: Mudchute

I is also for...
» Imperial War Museum (I've been, who hasn't?)
» Islington Museum (I've been)

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Jewel Tower

Location: Abingdon Street, Westminster SW1P 3JX [map]
Open: daily (10am-5pm)
Admission: £3
Brief summary: small remnant of medieval Westminster
Website: www.english-heritage.org.uk
Time to set aside: half an hour

Jewel TowerSome tourist attractions sound more exciting than they really are. The Jewel Tower is one such place. They're right about the tower bit, but the jewels are long gone. One wonders how many foreign tourists take one look at the queue snaking out of Westminster Abbey nextdoor and decide instead to spend their valuable time visiting its exciting-sounding neighbour. They must be terribly disappointed. But if you come to look at the building, not its contents, you shouldn't be too upset.

The Palace of Westminster was the pre-eminent site of power in medieval London. Much of it survived until a very serious fire in 1834, after which only three fortunate corners remained. One of these was Westminster Hall, another was the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel, and the third was the Jewel Tower (which lay beyond the palace garden, far enough away from the flames). To pay a visit to this lucky remnant, find Westminster's non-Big-Ben end and then walk across College Green (where TV cameras wait patiently to interview anxious MPs). Tread down the steps and try not to fall in the remains of the moat (look, it still goes under the road towards the palace proper). Once inside, first stop is the shop.

Jewel Tower windowAfter the nice lady has taken your money (I got the nice lady, you may not be so lucky), the tour begins two floors up. To get there requires ascent of a stone spiral staircase, of the kind that there really aren't enough of in London. The Jewel Tower has only two rooms per floor, but they do at least feel proper medieval (with thick Kentish ragstone walls to match, so that's your mobile reception gone). The top floor's all about recounting the tower's history, which means a lot of information panels to read and not too much else. The building was originally the "King's Privy Wardrobe" where King Edward III secured his treasures, constructed in 1365 (or thereabouts) by master mason Henry Yevele. Some of the original elm foundations are on display on a ledge by the window. Eventually all the royal gold moved out to the Tower of London, and the building was used for several centuries as a document archive for the House of Lords. Fortunate, that, what with the big 1834 fire and all. Most recently the Jewel Tower was home to a weights and measures office, and examples of gallon, pint and bushel cups are on show in room number two. It gleams, sort of, but this can't be the treasure tourists expect when they visit.

Down on the first floor is an exhibition entitled Parliament past and present. In this case 'present' means 1997 not 2009, which under current circumstances is probably a good thing. This untimely freeze-frame means that when you see the Speaker's robes in a glass case it's that nice old Bernard Weatherill, not the current discredited incumbent. It also means a big laminated photo of PM Tony Blair at the dispatch box, plus a giant grinning Gordon Brown exemplifying the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. The historical panels are probably of more interest, unless you feel patronised by paying good money to read what is essentially a nicely illustrated pamphlet in 20-or-so bite-sized chunks. Again, foreign tourists probably pass though relatively fast.

Jewel Tower gargoyleAnd finally back to the ground floor shop, because this is the most interesting room in the building. Not the selection of English Heritage goodies at eye level, but instead look up at the 14th century roof. That's the original rib vaulting, complete with decorative bosses and grotesque heads, and a fine example of medieval mastercraftsmen at work. It's not worth three quid just to see this bit, although you might get into the shop for nothing if you claimed you were only here for heritage jams and a teatowel. Whatever, it's wonderful that this small part of the old Palace of Westminster survives. At least something round here has long-term integrity.
by tube: Westminster

J is also for...
» Jewish Museum (closed for major renovation until the Autumn, otherwise I'd definitely have gone there instead)

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Kew Bridge Steam Museum

Location: Green Dragon Lane, Brentford, TW8 0EN [map]
Open: 11am-4pm (closed Mondays)
Admission: £9.50
Brief summary: steam, water and grease
Website: www.kbsm.org
Time to set aside: at least half a day

Kew Bridge Steam MuseumEvery now and then my alphabetical journey throws up a museum I can't believe I haven't been to before. This is one of those. Formerly one of London's most important pumping stations, the Kew Bridge Steam Museum is now a hybrid hotchpotch of industrial heritage, machine room and engine shed. It's located by the Thames between Brentford and Chiswick, beneath a giant standpipe tower visible for miles around. And hidden within are some absolutely whacking great steam engines. The Industrial Revolution wasn't powered by electricity, oh no, it was much harder work than that.

Quick bit of historical background. The Grand Junction Waterworks Company was formed 200 years ago to supply London with canal-sourced drinking water. This proved somewhat unhygienic so they soon switched their sights to the Thames, constructing a waterworks in Chelsea near the mouth of the Westbourne sewer. Not much better, obviously, so in 1838 they upped sticks to Kew Bridge and piped in cleaner water from midstream. When the building was decommissioned after WW2 the old engines were preserved in case anybody ever raised enough money to turn them into a museum. And they did, so they are.

Hathorn Davey Triple Expansion EngineThe museum smells of grease and old rags, which is perhaps not surprising because they're what keep the place together. Every now and then a boiler-suited volunteer will scuttle in through one door and out through another, maybe to give some flange somewhere a good oil, or maybe for a well-deserved cup of tea. If you're lucky he's here to fire up one of the engines, so be patient, it could take a while to build up sufficient head of steam. Listen carefully to his enthusiastic commentary and you might learn a fair amount about rotative motion, crankshafts and piston rods. And the three old machines in the central Steam Hall may look large and impressive, but they're some of the smaller beasts that run on site.

Nextdoor are three much bigger machines, sufficiently tall that you can climb various sets of stairs to view them at beam, cylinder or engine level. On the day of my visit only the Boulton & Watt engine, an 1820 survivor transplanted from Chelsea, was being demonstrated. While one volunteer gave us a rundown of the museum's history, his colleague flipped various levers with rhythmic precision until the mechanism ran steadily without human intervention. Above our heads a 15 ton beam rose, tripped and fell, forcing several gallons of water into a pondlike sump below. Such majestic power once helped to keep parts of London's water supply cholera-free.

Grand Junction 90 inch EngineAlong another corridor, crammed within a pair of narrow yet lofty brick chambers, stand the museum's Cornish Engines. One of these is the world's largest surviving single cylinder beam engine, and the other is the largest working beam engine in the world. Not bad for suburban Brentford. Again there's up-close access on three floors (but this time climbing to the top deck alongside the twin beams gave me an unexpected attack of vertigo). They're both monstrous and magnificent, even when stationary, with pipes and cylinders agleam. Add in venting steam and thrusting rods, on the rare occasions the 90 inch engine is actually fired up, and the experience is one to remember.

Follow the right path downstairs in this maze of a building and you'll find the Water For Life Gallery - a relatively modern display which details the history of water supply and usage in London. Not the sort of attraction you'd normally travel miles to see, and not quite the "fascinating story" the museum's literature promises, but interesting enough if you've ever wondered why the stuff that gushes out of your household tap doesn't kill you. I liked the lengthy wall collage comprising a century of domestic appliances, from hip bath via washing machine to foot spa. There were also special interactive bits for kids, including a robot sewercam and a twirly filtration jar, although nothing that could complete with the steaming whirring engines elsewhere.

Kew Steam RailwayAnd there's more. A 400 yard steam railway operates around the edge of the site (the only fully operational steam railway in London) and visitors can hop on the back for a light chug through the backyard. I was hoping for a ride on the last train before lunch, but the rear carriages were 90% full of excited families who didn't look like they'd appreciate an obvious non-Dad squeezing in. Instead I made do looking at a stationary waterwheel, and nosing into some deserted workshops, and listening to the history of the standpipe tower via an old telephone.

Time your visit carefully. Not all of the old engines are in steam every day, indeed many are open on special occasions only. Weekdays tend to be quiet, and Sundays tend to have more going on than Saturdays. The last weekend of the month is usually the best time to visit, although watch out for various extra events at other times (model railway shows, wartime reconstructions, Meccano rallies, that sort of thing).

And keep your ticket. Entrance may be fairly pricey but admission lasts for twelve months, so if one particular engine's not running you can come back on another day when it is. Who knows, you might even decide you like the place so much that you sign up as a volunteer, and then you can come back and get your hands greasy whenever you like. I won't be going quite that far, but I'll certainly be giving my ticket another outing.
by train: Kew Bridge  by tube: Gunnersbury  by bus: 65, 237, 267, 391

K is also for...
» Keats' House (closed for refurbishment until later this year)
» Kelmscott House (William Morris's home) (occasionally slightly open)
» Kempton Park Pumping Station and Steam Museum (I've been) (verily, Hounslow is blessed with steam engines)
» Kensington Palace (I've been no closer than Diana's gates)
» Kenwood House (I've been)
» Kinetica Museum (not-many moving sculptures in Spitalfields)
» Kings Place (newly-opened galleries at Guardian HQ)
» Kingston Museum (waiting for a jamjar moment)
» Kirkaldy Testing Museum (I've been)

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