A historical coup – for a science museum

Cover of booklet about Science Museum The Last tsar Exhibition.

Cover of booklet about the exhibition, featuring Nicholas II, the Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Tatiana.

Q: WHICH London museum is currently hosting an absolutely cracking exhibition about Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia?

A: The Science Museum.

“The Science Museum?”

Yep, the Science Museum.

OK, so I have to ‘fess up here, and admit that I went through something like 80 per cent of the exhibition, The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution, completely at a loss to what it was doing in the Science Museum.

It was only in the final one-fifth, which covers the discovery, exhumation and identification of the remains of Nicholas and other members of the Imperial family, that the “Science” connection seemed to make sense.

Page on how the remains found at Pig's Meadow were confirmed to be those of the Imperial family.

Page on how the remains found at Pig’s Meadow were confirmed to be those of the Imperial family.

But as I was actually leaving the museum I picked up an information booklet, specifically about the exhibition I’d just seen. From that I learned that its theme is: “the role of medicine in the lives of the Imperial family”.

And then a lot more of the exhibits started to make sense. Such as the lilac maternity dress worn by Nicholas’s wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, when she was pregnant, in the hope of producing a boy to be Nicholas’s heir.

And a section about how the Tsarina and two of her daughters, the Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Olga, volunteered with the Red Cross and earned praise for caring for injured troops during World War I. And the family’s travelling medical chest.

I’m no Romanov expert, but I’ve crossed paths with Nicholas II throughout my life. At primary school, thanks to a reading textbook, I got bewitched by the Fabergé eggs that Nicholas gave to Alexandra each Easter, and the sheer drama of a royal family that had met a mysterious fate (the remains had not been found back then).

At secondary school, the Russian Revolution was part of the History A-Level syllabus, and at university, Russia during WWI featured on the periphery of my (history) degree course.

Photograph of evidence about the murders of the Imperial family collected from the Ipatiev House, where the murders took place.

Photograph of evidence about the murders of the Imperial family collected from the Ipatiev House, where the murders took place.

Two decades ago I visited Yekaterinberg. I went to the site of the Ipatiev House, where the Imperial family had been executed, and Ganina Yama, officially recognised as the unofficial burial place of the Tsar (even though it isn’t). And two years ago, while writing up my visit for this blog, I learned the incredible tale of about how the remains came to be found and identified.

Like I said, all this in no way makes me an authority on the Romanovs, but it did mean that most of the ‘facts’ given in the exhibition were not new to me. Such as the political problems caused when the Tsarina, feeling failed by conventional doctors, turned to spiritual leaders, like Rasputin, for help. And how, when an heir finally came along, the Tsarevich Alexei, he had haemophilia, but this was hushed up, so as not to destabilise the country.

However, I had only ever considered these in terms of “political” history – how they affected the general course of events – before, and never really given much (OK, any) thought to the people involved. Say, how difficult it must have been for this woman who ostensibly had everything, to be beset by ‘health’ (ie, possibly mental health) problems, and how frustrated she must have been to have access to the very best doctors, yet even they were unable to help her.

An x-ray of Empress Alexandra's hand, showing rings and bangles

An x-ray of Empress Alexandra’s hand, made in 1898.

Or, given the upheavals of the early 20th Century for Russia, from the Russo-Japanese war to the unrest and pressure for change at home around the 1905 Revolution, how alarming it would have been for the Tsar to have such a very vulnerable heir.

Not only did the exhibition make me think more deeply about things I already knew, it also taught me something new as well: that there are near-contemporaneous accounts of the investigations into the fate of the Tsar and his family in our (UK) National Archives; expect more on them anon…

And now, despite the best journalist practice, where you’re supposed to get the ‘best’ bits in first (to grab the reader’s attention, and, especially during the glory days of print, so you don’t run out of room before you’ve had chance to include them) I have actually saved what I consider the highlight of the exhibition till last (and when you consider that exhibition includes two Fabergé eggs, that’s really saying something!). What I would possibly describe as the jewel in the crown of this exhibition about the Imperial family.

It is a selection of photographs taken by Herbert Galloway Stewart, English tutor to the Tsar’s nephew. They’re not formal portraits, but the sort of informal snaps that only someone close to the family could take: the children playing in the snow, family boating trips, that kind of thing. Even, if I remember rightly (photography isn’t allowed in the exhibition) Nicholas doing the carpentry that kept him occupied during his months under house arrest between his abdication in March 1917 and death in July 1918.

As far as I can gather, they’ve never been exhibited before, and, according to a post on the Museum website, they actually inspired the exhibition – after they were found in the Museum’s collection by a curator researching another show. It’s a pretty awesome story, and you can read it – and more information about the exhibition, here.

I could be wrong on this, but having read the blog post and the booklet, I’m wondering whether someone at the museum thought: “Hmm, we’ve got this amazing resource [the Stewart photographs]. We really have to use them. Now, how can we contrive something science-y to put them in?”

If that sounds like I’m criticising the museum for, in a way, engineering (‘scuse the pun), an exhibition, I’m sorry, because that’s the last thing I’m thinking; I’m just really grateful to the curator who found the albums, Dr Natalia Sidlina, and everyone else who devised an excuse for making them public.

Considering the amount and quality of the stuff in the room (Fabergé eggs, for goodness sake!) it’s surprising that entry is free. You’re supposed to book tickets in advance, probably so it doesn’t get too crowded. But while I was there, admittedly mid-week and almost closing time, the only visitors other than me were a couple who were munching their way through a family-sized bag of crisps (yes, really!) as they ambled along. I hope it’s busier than that as other times – it so absolutely deserves to be. (It’s so good I am seriously thinking about making another trip to London just to see it again.)

Here’s an interesting footnote: the exhibition is sponsored by JSC Russian Railways, the state railway of Russia. During Soviet times, of course, it was the state that tried to pretty much airbrush out of existence the fate of the former Imperial family – so much so that the people who found the remains had to keep their discovery to themselves until the end of the Soviet era. Now the state is sponsoring a major – and very public – exhibition about their untimely deaths. How times change, eh?

The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution runs until 24 March. More details and booking info here.

(ps. Go see it! You’ll kick yourself if you don’t!)

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Making prints for a Prince

Prince Albert by Roger Fenton

Prince Albert by Roger Fenton. I love this picture because it’s so informal – it shows how at ease the prince must have been in Fenton’s company.

In London t’other week I renewed an acquaintance with a man from my past, one who has been dead for over a century.

Roger Fenton is his name, and he is sometimes described as “the first war photographer”, because of his photographs of the Crimean War.

I was introduced to Fenton a couple of decades ago, when I worked on the local paper for the town of Heywood in Lancashire, the Heywood Advertiser, and Fenton had been a prominent member of a prominent family on our ‘patch’.

Fenton trained as a lawyer, then tried being an artist, then discovered photography – which had, of course, only recently been invented. Through his photography, Fenton became acquainted with Prince Albert (as in the husband of Queen Victoria), and it was because of Albert, among others, that Fenton was sent to document the Crimean War.

Roger Fenton's horse-drawn photographic van

Roger Fenton’s horse-drawn photographic van. The man at tthe front isn’t Fenton but his assistant Marcus Sparling.

At the time photographic equipment was bulky, to say the very least, and as the process itself was rather long and complicated, it would have taken forever to take even one single picture. Yet there was this son of Heywood, trundling round a war zone in his specially adapted van, taking pictures of the action. Well, not the action exactly, what with those exposure times (“Er, can you just hold that killing/being killed position for five minutes or so, please?”) but of the people involved in the action, and the places where it was happening.

As a journalist who is a history graduate who covets practically every historical photograph on the planet (even if I am myself a really, really tat photographer!), I found Fenton’s work fascinating, and still do today. So when I learned that a shed-load of his pictures from the Royal Collection were being exhibited in London – in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, to boot – of course I was going to see it.

Some of the pictures are quite famous, but the exhibition contains many pictures that were new to me. All (I think) of them are accessible on the Royal Collection website (here) along with lots of other pictures not connected with Crimea, including many of the Royal Family and Royal residences, but you still can’t beat seeing them in the flesh (or rather, I suppose, in the paper, or albumen or whatever).

Vivandière with the French army

Vivandière with the French army

As well as seeing umpteen pictures I hadn’t seen before, I learned a couple of new things. Firstly, that Fenton wasn’t, technically, the first war photographer, or even the first to photograph the Crimean War. That was Carol Szathmari, an Austro-Hungarian, but Szathmari photographed the war before it became “the Crimean War”, ie, when Russian and Ottoman forces were still fighting pretty much in his backyard, around the Danube in Europe, before the war moved to Crimea. But Fenton was the first British war photographer, and the first, I suppose, to be commissioned to take pictures for public consumption.

I learned too that Florence Nightingale and her nurses and Mary Seacole weren’t the only women around the battlefields (to be fair, military history has never been my strong point): the exhibition includes photographs of an officer and his wife, and another of the wife of an NCO, who cooked and laundered for the British soldiers. And the French forces had a veritable army of “Vivandières”, who provided canteen services for the troops, often in feminised versions of the uniforms of whichever regiment they were attached to – there’s even one pic of a Vivandière wearing something that looks shockingly like trousers!

My only disappointment was that I had timed my visit to coincide with a talk that I thought would be about the difficulties of being a Victorian photographer in a war-zone (see above), but turned out to be about the umpteen ethnic groups who fought in the war. However, seeing as I’d never really given much thought to that – the multitude of ethnicities that would have been included in the Russian and Ottoman Empires – I guess I still learned something.

Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimea is one of two exhibitions currently running at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace under the general title Russia; the other is Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs, which I’ve reviewed here. (Spoiler alert – it includes FABERGÉ EGGS!!!!). Russia runs until 28 April. Adult admission – to both exhibitions – is £12; tickets can be booked here.

All pics ©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II/The Royal Collection

It’s a Bling Thing

Basket of Flowers Faberge Egg

Basket of Flowers Faberge Egg, from the Royal Collection

So, you go to the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, and you go up the stairs. On one side of the landing is an exhibition of photographs taken by British photographer Roger Fenton during the Crimean War, in which Britain, France and Ottoman Turkey fought against Russia.

On the other side of the landing is Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs, an exhibition celebrating the “diplomatic alliances and dynastic ties” that linked Britain and Russia over 300 years – including the two-and-a-half years of the Crimean War. (And also WWI when, just over half a century after the Crimean War, Russia and Britain [among others, including France] fought on the same side against Germany and Ottoman Turkey; confused, much?)

The two exhibitions make very different first impressions. Fenton is ostensibly unexciting – a room of uniform-sized rectangles of grey and beige, hung at the same height, but when you get close to those dull rectangles their content is fascinating.

Catherine-the-Great portrait

Portrait of Empress Catherine II (or Catherine the Great).

The Romanovs side, however, hits you like a ton of bricks as soon as you go through the door; artfully sculpted bricks made of semi-precious stone, that is. Ginormous portraits of Imperial, aristocratic and military figures (sometimes one and the same), with frames that are works of art in themselves, and huge vases and pedestals, of malachite and gilt, and gilded porcelain. And they are merely the first things you see when you enter.

Other items, in other rooms, range from couple-of-centuries-old atlases of Royal travels to an informal portrait of the late Queen Mother when she was Duchess of York, painted by a Russian-trained artist, via pieces of Imperial dinnerware, finely-enamelled kovshs (drinking vessels) and glorious icons, to name but a few.

There’s some stunning jewellery, too, and items such as cigarette cases and silverware. And a selection of Fabergé ornaments and the like, including three FABERGÉ EGGS: The Basket of Flowers Egg from Easter 1901 (see above), the Colonnade Egg from 1910, and the Mosaic Egg and Surprise, given by the Tsar to his wife in 1914. (If HM ever gets bored of dusting any one of them I’d be only too happy to take it off her hands!)

photograph Nicholas-II George-V

Photograph of Nicholas II and George, Prince of Wales (the future King George V), taken in 1909, during the Imperial family’s last visit to Britain.

Amongst the bling, though, there are some sobering items – ones directly relating to the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, who were murdered in Yekaterinberg in 1918; from a painting of the Tsar and Tsarina’s wedding, to Tsesarevich Alexei’s Cossack uniform, to photographs of the Imperial family’s last visit to their relatives in Britain, to copies of George V’s diary entries about the Russian revolution and, later, the memorial service for his cousin, the Tsar.

The most poignant of all the exhibits has to be a presentation box featuring a miniature of Nicholas II. The box was made in 1916, but the miniature was only fitted into place in May 1917, two months after the Tsar had abdicated.

The box is jaw-droppingly lovely – top-top-top quality enamelling on gold, and set with diamonds, including a ring of stones around the miniature of the Tsar. It’s the sort of thing that only someone of limitless wealth and resources could get made, the sort of person who lived a life of absolute privilege. But I defy even the staunchest republican to look at that box and not feel at least pity for the man looking out from the miniature, so completely unaware of what was to happen to him, his wife, their children and members of their extended family, just months after it was completed.

Gold, enamel and diamond presentation box with miniature of Tsar Nicholas II.

Gold, enamel and diamond presentation box with miniature of Tsar Nicholas II.

As I left the palace I couldn’t help wondering , if such an exhibition were to be held say, 100 years from now, what kind of thing might be on display then:

“Calendar presented to HM Queen Elizabeth II by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, featuring photographs of a bare-chested President Putin on horseback and wrangling a bear”?

Best go and admire the bling of today, while you can!

Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs is one of two exhibitions currently running at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace under the general title Russia; the other is Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimea , which I’ve reviewed here. Russia runs until 28 April. Adult admission – to both exhibitions – is £12; tickets can be booked here.

All pics ©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II/The Royal Collection

Get carried away by a fence that isn’t a fence

Take a look at this…

“Why? It’s just a fence,” you say. “A boring fence. And a pretty battered one at that.”

Ah, but the thing is, this fence had a life before it became a fence, and it’s actually a rarely-recognised relic of World War II London.

For in its first life, this “fence” was a stretcher, and it and hundreds of thousands like it were used by the ARP (Air Raid Protection) officers to carry casualties of the bombing raids of the Blitz.

After the war someone had the bright idea of turning them into fences, sometimes to replace railings removed as part of the war effort (they were supposed to be melted down and made into weapons and materiel).

The stretchers went un-noticed and unappreciated for decades – some were even removed and destroyed – but now a group of people are working to raise the profile of the “stretcher railings”, and to get them protected and preserved.

They’ve set up a website: https://www.stretcherrailings.com/ (which is where I got the picture above from), which has more information about the stretchers in their original form, and the campaign to save them now they are stretcher railings.

After looking around the website, I realise that when I worked in London a few years ago, I must have gone past one particular set of stretcher railings countless times, and thinking back, I do remember seeing – without actually looking at – a “fence” when the bus would get stuck in traffic on that part of the route.

However, having just checked out Streetview, it looks like they’ve been removed, and only in the last couple of years. I’m just so gutted I didn’t know about stretcher railings when I was in London, as it would have been really cool to appreciate them when I went past them.

It’s so wonderful that someone has realised just how important the stretcher railings are, and why they are worth preserving; what a vital part they must have played in saving Londoners’ lives during the War, and what their re-use (upcycling?) tell us about the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the “Waste Not, Want Not” post-War generation.

They might not be your conventional tourist sight like Buckingham Palace or the National Gallery or Covent Garden, but next time I’m in London, seeking out some stretcher railings will be top of my list of things to do.

A heart-breaking love story that’s fact not fiction

St Bartholomew the Great Church in Smithfield, London, has been used as a location for some of the most famous films ever, from action flick Transformers to smash-hit rom-com Four Weddings and a Funeral.

But the church’s walls bear testament too to another story, one with all the elements of a box-office smash: everlasting love, drama, peril and tragedy. Only this tale is heart-breakingly true.

During my first visit to the church, several years ago now, I spotted this plaque:

memorial great-st-barts church smithfield

I’ve blanked out the name of the person concerned because, even though all this information is freely available online to anyone who knows what, or who, they are looking for, I don’t think it’s my place to go: “Oooh, Internet, look at this…”. So for the purposes of this post I’m going to call her Mrs Miniver (a famous fictional wife caught up in WWII).

How had this woman come to die “as a result of enemy action at sea,” I wondered? Goodness knows how many women (and children – and men too old, ill or exempt to fight) died in the Nazi bombings of the UK – the London Blitz, for example. But why was this woman killed at sea?

Women did serve in WWII – the brave members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the brainy codebreakers at Bletchley Park, are just a couple of examples – but they were still very much in the minority. Was Mrs Miniver one of them?

Intending no disrespect to the tens of thousands of men killed and injured in WWII, I decided to try to find out.

Thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), which classified her as “civilian war dead”, I discovered that Mrs Miniver is buried on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. When she died, she was 44 years old, married to an army Major, and she was injured at sea on 29 March 1941 and died two days later in hospital on Lewis.

After that I drew a blank. Until, a couple of years later, while procrastinating, I thought I would try searching again for Mrs Miniver. By this time, one of her descendants (or a descendant of a relative) had posted more, much more, information on a(n openly accessible) genealogy site. And it made for very moving reading.

It turned out that the major was Mrs Miniver’s second husband; interestingly (and possibly scandalously) for the time, Mrs Miniver was a divorcee; she’d married her first husband when she was 21 (and he was 25).

Maybe because of the sense of urgency brought on by the start of war, both Mrs Miniver and her first husband married their new spouses in September 1939.

In March 1941, Mrs Miniver was a passenger on the MV Staffordshire (a passenger and refrigerated cargo ship being used as a troopship), which was sailing from Liverpool to India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). I don’t know why she was on the boat, to join her husband, if he was fighting in India, perhaps?

On March 28 (not 29, as recorded by the CWGC), about 200 miles off the Butt of Lewis, the ship was bombed by an enemy Fokker Wolf Condor plane.

As I write this, in Lancashire, it’s midday in mid-January and it’s just started to snow outside. But I’m in a cosy room, safe and warm, with nothing much to disturb me beyond the sound of the odd car going past outside. It’s almost impossible to comprehend how absolutely terrifying it must have been to be stuck on a lump of metal on top of hundreds of feet of freezing, probably choppy, water, 200 miles from land, with someone trying to kill you; not just for Mrs Miniver, of course, but for everyone else on board.

Mrs Miniver suffered a broken leg in the attack, but as she was being evacuated from the ship, being lowered on a door being used as a stretcher, the door overturned and three people fell on top of her, making her injury worse.

According to the relative’s post, Mrs Miniver was one of 100 survivors evacuated and taken to Stornoway, 23 of whom were taken to hospital.

Despite the best efforts of doctors, however, Mrs Miniver died on 31 March, as a result of a compound fracture. On 2 April she was buried in a local cemetery. Present at her funeral were relatives who had travelled to Lewis, and other Staffordshire passengers.

The Major/’Mr Miniver’ seems to have re-married in 1945 (his second wife pre-deceased him), and he continued to be a professional soldier, enjoying a distinguished military career.

He died in 1979. On 31 March 1980, the 39th anniversary of Mrs Miniver’s death, his ashes were scattered on her grave on the Isle of Lewis.

I think what I find so moving about this tale is that it looks like Mr and Mrs Miniver were rather posh, and no one does the stiff upper lip and stoicism quite like a British posh person. Yet here was Mr Miniver, who was not only posh but a career soldier to boot, choosing to be laid to rest with the wife he had lost nearly four decades earlier. How much must this rough, tough soldier have loved, and missed, her?

***

Mrs Miniver may be the focus of this post, but she wasn’t the only person killed in the attack. According to the best I can find out, around 30 people were killed, half of them passengers, the other half crew.

The civilian dead included the wife and son of one of the officers on board. The dead crew were all Merchant Seamen, two of whom were members of the Indian Merchant Navy. Almost all of them are honoured on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. Seeing as that: “commemorates the men of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who have no grave but the sea,” I assume their bodies were never recovered. The website “Tower Hill: Lest We Forget” has more information about them, and other dead members of the crew: http://www.benjidog.co.uk/Tower%20Hill/Sparta%20to%20Stangrant.html

After the bombing, the Staffordshire, still on fire, was towed to the mainland, where the fires were put out. She was repaired and returned to service.

***

For anyone curious about what the rest of St Bartholomew-the-Great looks like, a few pictures:

Delightfully Deco: Eltham Palace

NORMALLY on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow it’s the items I covet (many of them, anyway). Tonight, however, it was the location: Eltham Palace in south-east London.

Although it was originally a palace – built in Medieval times and lived in by Henry VIII – now it’s a grand(ish) house, large enough to be posh, yet not so big that going to the kitchen to make a cup of tea during a sleepless night would be daunting.

But it’s not the size that makes it so attractive, but the stunning, original Art Deco interiors (and exterior). From the round entrance hall, with its marquetry frieze of a cityscape, to the gold mosaic tiles in the lady of the house’s en-suite, it’s an absolute joy. But just as the size is not overwhelming, nor is the decor; it’s stylish, but still extremely comfortable. The sort of place you – or I, at any rate – could easily live in. If only I had the chance…

And on top of that, there’s a Medieval great hall, left over from the site’s origins as a Medieval palace, and 19 acres of grounds, including a moat(!), and, apparently, the “oldest working bridge in London”. Oh, and a lemur-ladder (for Mah-Jongg, the lemur who used to live there).

If you visit the English Heritage website ( https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/eltham-palace-and-gardens/things-to-do/ ), or you’ve seen tonight’s Antiques Roadshow, you’ll already know a lot about the history of Eltham Palace, from that Medieval palace, to the repair and Art Deco rebuild in the 1930s by milionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (Mah-Jongg’s ‘parents’), to its time as an Army training school and, now, its ownership by English Heritage.

ButI thought I’d share some pics I took when I went there, nearly a decade ago. At the time I don’t think you could take pictures inside the house (maybe that’s changed now), so these are what the exterior looked like at the time.

Core-blimey! It’s the Grange-over-Sands Community Orchard

Grange-over-Sands community-orchard boardIF an apple a day really does keep the doctor away, then good luck to anyone looking for medical help in the genteel South Lakeland town of Grange-over-Sands.

Because there are lots of apples in Grange, lots and lots of them.

Most of them are in one of the most lovely community facilities I’ve ever come across, the Grange Community Orchard.

The orchard is right on the main road through Grange, and it’s actually quite easy to miss, as it looks rather like a bog-standard park, albeit a rather tree-y park.

But noticeboards at the entrances tell visitors that it’s actually a community orchard, “created for the enjoyment of the public of Grange and its visitors”.Community-orchard Grange-over-Sands info

The orchard, which was planted in 1998, now holds around 30 varieties of apple tree, including some that have their origins in Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland – how’s that for sourcing locally?

Georges-Cave, Grange community-orchardOn each tree there’s a label, giving its origin, the date it was introduced, the type of apple – cooking, dessert or both – and (yum!) when it should be ready for picking.

There aren’t just apples in the orchard, though, there are other fruit trees too, including pear, mulberry, quince and medlar. And, to encourage wildlife, a wildflower meadow and native hedging, including sea buckthorn and hazel.

The orchard was created by Grange Civic Society and South Lakeland District Council (SLDC), and it’s now tended by volunteers (who look to be doing a great job, by the way), and it’s all farmed organically, without artificial pesticides or fertilisers.Grange-over-Sands community-orchard

Grange is a pretty nice place anyway – scenic and rather peaceful, even when it’s paying host to coachloads of tourists – but the orchard is especially lovely, especially on a sunny day. Even if all those apples had scared the doctor away, an amble through the orchard has to be one of the best forms of therapy ever.

More information about the South Lakeland Orchard Group (SLOG) is available here: http://www.slorchards.co.ukapple Grange orchard

Going Dutch

“I’ve always promised the wife I’d tek her on a cruise,” said the man with the cheeky grin as Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground glided gracefully past the back of his head.

Old Trafford is indeed a shrine to millions of football fans, but as anyone familiar with it knows, it’s not in exactly the world’s most exotic location.

The man above was being interviewed on our BBC local news programme, North-West Tonight, during a feature on Manchester Ship Canal cruises. Yes, that’s a cruise along the inland waterway built between the industrial hub of Manchester and the port city of Liverpool about a century ago.

The Ship Canal may have been one of the main arteries that fed the phenomenal growth of the North West in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, but glamorous it ain’t. And the man above’s comment is even funnier if you imagine it said with our flat Northern vowels.

Still, he had fulfilled his promise and taken “the wife” on a cruise, even if it was a cruise of sorts.

(If you think I’m dissing Manchester Ship Canal cruises, I’m not, in any way – my mum and dad went on one and loved it.)

Anyway, the above is a roundabout way of saying that I, too, have just been on a cruise-of-sorts: a Mini-Cruise to Amsterdam.

Departing the Port of Tyne on the ferry to Amsterdam.

Departing the Port of Tyne on the ferry to Amsterdam.

My parents (see above) are on the mailing list for travel company David Urquhart, and it was because of that that I spotted that they were offering a Mini-Cruise to Amsterdam for “from £59 per person”. That included return coach travel from the North West to the ferry terminal near Newcastle, and a coach transfer from the terminal at IJmuiden to Amsterdam. It seemed like too good a bargain to miss. The only downer was that you get only a handful of hours, at most, in Amsterdam. But then what could be more jet-set than nipping abroad for lunch?

So, after paying a single supplement of £16 (because there was just me, booo!) I was booked on-board.

I had been to Amsterdam before, but many years ago, when I was a student, and my uni room-mate and I stayed in a hostel and spent several days ambling around looking for things that looked interesting.

This time I was more organised. Thanks to Professor DuckDuckGo I learned that Amsterdam now boasts a branch of the Hermitage, as in the world-famous museum in St Petersburg, Russia. That would be my number one target, I decided, and anything else I managed to see or do would be a bonus.

I know that, technically, all David Urquhart had to do was get me to the terminal and back (in the UK) and from the terminal and back (in Holland) and book me a cabin on the ferry, but they really did that job faultlessly.

The coach was clean and comfortable, and the driver, Craig, was entertaining, friendly and efficient.

The ferry itself is operated by DFDS Seaways (you can book tickets independently, but, well it would have cost 59 quid just to get to Newcastle on the train – if the trains were running, that is – so why not go for a bargain when you see one?).

There’s a load of stuff on the DFDS website about facilities on board, and it’s a fair reflection of the reality. On the one hand, it’s not The-Ritz-on-Sea: this is a working ferry after all, not a purpose-built cruise ship, but on the other, it is pretty fancy for a ferry. It has a nightclub, for goodness’ sake! And the restaurants and bars are nicely decorated and serve food and drink on proper crockery and with proper (metal) cutlery.

My cabin, which could accommodate two people in bunk-beds, was small but not unbearably so, although it might have been a bit cramped if there had been two of us. But then the cabin is only supposed to be a place to sleep, it’s not like you’re living in it or anything, and it is for just two nights.

In addition to the bunk beds, there was a little sofa big enough for two people, and a desk/dressing table, with chair, and one (continental plug) electric socket. And it had a bedside table and bedside light, and coat hooks and even a couple of coat-hangers.

The cabin and the ensuite bathroom were spotlessly clean, as was the bedlinen, and the bed was really comfortable too.

What with the restaurant, bistro, coffee bar, nightclub and children’s play area, there was lots to keep the passengers entertained, even right through the night, something that some people seemed to take full advantage of!

It took ages to get through customs/immigration, so we had less time in Amsterdam than we should have had.

If you’re hoping to ‘do’ Amsterdam in one Sunday in November, this was probably the best, and worst, one to choose, as it was the day that Sinterklaas arrived in town (https://www.iamsterdam.com/en/see-and-do/whats-on/festivals/overview-childrens-festivals/arrival-of-sinterklaas)

It was the worst because it meant that between me and my target, the Hermitage, was a network of barricaded, already busy, streets awaiting Sinterklaas and his procession.

(I made it, of course, and even spotted en route, an exhibition of colour photographs before 1918, at the University of Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum. I’ve been fascinated by this type of photograph, autochrome, for years, ever since a BBC series on Albert Kahn – whose work features in the exhibition. I just wish I’d not had to tear through it at breakneck speed.)

However, like I said, what made this probably the best Sunday in November to be in Amsterdam was also what compensated for the brevity of my visit: the arrival of Sinterklaas. Not because I was expecting Sinterklaas to be laden down with lovely gifts for me (I’m a bit old for that!) but because of the children who were, many of whom were in dresssed as Sinterklaas’s assistants, “Pieten”, in brightly-coloured, gold-trimmed breeches, boleros and caps, but all of whom were beside themselves with excitement.

I was just really sad that I had to leave before Sinterklaas arrived.

Note: If you want to know more about Sinterklaas, the official tourism website, iamsterdam.com, has loads of information, about him, the controversy over his assistant “Black Piet” and this thoroughly entertaining explanation of the differences between “Sint”erklaas and “Sant”(a Claus)

Which bottom is top?

WHAT does a beautiful bottom look like? Yeah, yeah, I know this is supposed to be a travel blog, not the Daily Mail Sidebar of Shame, but bear with me on this, because, technically, this post really is travel-related.

You see, I was travelling when I saw these particular “beautiful buttocks”, as they were on display in Amsterdam. (Obviously, if you actually live in Amsterdam, this isn’t travel-related, but I don’t so it is.)

Amsterdam having the reputation it has, this won’t be the first time a naked bottom has had a public airing in the city. However, this particular bottom is supposed to be worth more attention than most, seeing as it belongs to Venus Callipyge, or “Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks”, and it’s on display in the Amsterdam branch of the world-famous Hermitage museum (which I have also visited).

Apparently, there are several versions of Venus Callipgye in the world, supposedly based on or inspired by a Roman copy of a Greek original. This one in the Hermitage is by Italian sculptor Vincenzo Pacetti (1746-1820), and it’s in Classic Beauties, a temporary exhibition of treasures from the collections of the main Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia.

If our Kardashian-obsessed tabloid media (and social media) is to be believed, tastes have changed in the two-and-a-quarter centuries since Pacetti got out his chisel. I just thought it was interesting to compare the two (supposed) ideals of beauty. I know which I prefer, anyway: the one that’s made from marble, not silicone.

Hermitage Amsterdam opened in 2009 in a former old people’s home (a classy one, built in 1683). How do the two compare? Hermitage Amsterdam is a lot smaller than the original (although to be honest, it would be hard to be as big or bigger!).

During my visit last month it had just the one exhibition (Classic Beauties) of stuff from the original Hermitage, on one theme and just paintings and sculpture, rather than a selection of objects representing the sheer range of the collections held in St Petersburg.

(In case you’re wondering, the theme of Classic Beauties is the artists and art inspired by the excavations of Roman sites in Italy during the 18th Century. It’s due to run until 13 January 2019. I won’t be including more pictures because I didn’t take any – I just don’t feel right taking pictures in exhibitions, unless it’s for a special reason – illustrating a beautiful bottom, for example.)

The other temporary exhibition (also until 13 January) at Hermitage Amsterdam is the Outsider Art Museum, an exhibition of art created by people not formally trained as artists.

The permanent exhibitions are “Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age”, 30 portraits of residents of Amsterdam in the 17th Century, taken from the collections at the Amsterdam Museum and Rijksmuseum. That’s worth seeing if only because of the sheer size of the paintings – they’re massive! (If rather heavy on the black and brown; did colour not reach Holland until the 18th Century or something?)

And there’s the eight-minute-long Panorama Amsterdam, which is a video history of Amsterdam.

An adult ticket for the whole museum is 25 euros, while tickets for just Classic Beauties and Golden Age… alone are 18 euros.

I only had time to race round Classic Beauties and the Golden Age portraits (I’ll explain why later), so didn’t get chance to deconstruct properly the architecture of the building itself. It did feel a bit generic, though; I may have been in a building more than 300 years old, but I didn’t feel like I was, which is a bit of a shame really. And, of course, while it’s old, it has nothing like the history of the original Hermitage in St Petersburg.

But I’ve seen it now and I’m glad I have.