A review of Sick to Death – Chester

While away on holiday for the Christmas I had an invitation from a friend (Richard Euston – Project Manager at Big Heritage Chester) to see their exhibition on the City Walls in Chester. The Sick to Death exhibit has been in situ since the late summer and covers medicine through time in an interesting and engaging way.

Set in the Water Tower, off the Chester City walls (which would have sat much closer to the river at the time of construction than today) it provides a nice link from the narrative to the city. Plague pits were dug next to the walls and used for disposal of bodies right next to the Water Tower. On the day of the visit the rain was falling and you could almost transport yourself back to the wet miserable folk digging to dispose of their plaguey dead!

Hats off to whoever designed the exhibition in the space at the Water Tower – not an easy space to work in with circular rooms, narrow doors, flights of spiral staircases and a steep set of steps back to road level.

The design fits the rooms perfectly and mixes interpretation panels with simple interactives, including a poor chap, rather loose of bowels who greets you with straining discomfort as you enter the room! This is a real hit with kids (both big and little) and strangely helped focus you as you go from the outside world to the exhibition within.

The ground floor covered plague and typhoid along with a history of early medicine. You could look at the fleas that carried plague bacteria through a microscope while being quarantined in a little plague shed (I am sure it had a proper name!). One of my favourite activities was building a pomander to ward off the illnesses, combining dried herbs in a pretty bag that you could take away with you for a donation, a great touchy, smelly activity. I took one away that is currently keeping my underwear draw fresh!

Those who regularly read this blog will know I love an opportunity to get in a museum dressing up box and there was plenty of chances to dress up and take a selfie here, from the plague doctor, to a soldier’s helmet, to the Tudor doctor in his ruff.img_20161221_121943028

Heading up the spiral staircase to the upstairs room we moved on to leprosy – with a lovely looking leper to get your photograph taken next too! Some more medical history information and then a fascinating skeleton with a bit of information about osteoarchaeology. This triggered much discussion in our group about if you would mind being on display in your skeletal form? I decided I certainly wouldn’t – I’d look very thin!! It was a really interesting piece to have on show.


I would heartily recommend a visit to Sick to Death, a great family day out and engaging for adults too. It provides a great balance between history and science and there are some brilliant items on loan from National collections that enhance the written content.

If you have the time we would also recommend a visit up to the camera obscura in the adjacent tower – despite being a rather dull and overcast day the view was brilliant.

The site is less than a 10 minute walk from the city centre for food and loos, and is close to the large car parks.  For more details of their opening time and information find more details here http://sicktodeath.org/

Oh And don’t forget to grab a selfie with the plague doctor!


NB As previously mentioned there are a lot of steps so it may not be suitable for buggies/wheelchairs or those with dodgy knees!


Remembrance weekend in Berlin

I was lucky enough to get the chance to visit Berlin last weekend. It wasn’t until I climbed aboard the aircraft that I realised I would be in the city on Armistice Day. I was intrigued about how the whole ‘thing’ would go in Berlin. I did a quick google and it turns out that Germany has a national day of mourning for all those lost in conflict the following weekend. Considering that Germany is only 27 years old as a united country and Berlin is only just over 700 years old it is a city scarred by conflict and in a massive guilt trip over what has happened in it’s short life.

I have written before about my feelings about how there are heroes and victims in both sides of any conflict https://custardon.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/custard-on-d-day-70-years-on/ Which ever side won or lost there is always someone who doesn’t come home to their friends and family.

In Berlin there is no escape from it’s troubled past. The older stone buildings bear the pock marks of bullet holes and bombings. They are repaired but the scars still show. The old buildings are often facades with new buildings behind the old frontage. The Wall is never far behind the scenes with a watchtower here and a photo opportunity there. There are small brass plaques on the streets marking the homes of the Jewish families who were taken from their homes to a terrifying end.

Battle scarred walls on Hamburger Strasse

I took a few moments to reflect on this as I walked around the Reichstag building on Sunday morning, my poppy still in place. I really just wanted to wrap my arms around the city and say, it’s okay. There are terrible things that happen during all conflicts. Human beings are pushed beyond the limits of normal. That might be sleeping in a trench, or living behind the iron curtain wishing for life with Pepsi cola. It might be choosing to kill to save your life or those of your friends, or surviving on little less than potatoes being bombed and blockaded. What struck me was seeing a building and a nation rise from the ashes, guilty of the sins of it’s fathers – who were cruel beasts. For my moment of remembrance I took a few minutes to think, as always of all those who never made it home but also for those caught up in a game they have no control of. Those trapped behind a wall erected overnight, those who lived through but were never quite the same because of their experiences. For everyone touched by war and still touched by war. The buildings of Berlin begin to grow and change. Repairs are finally completed and the new Capital City begins to stand on it’s new infant feet. What a price was paid for this by all sides – we will remember them.

From the new to the old – the new face of Berlin

Happy Birthday Prospero

When I was working for the National Trust I spent a lot of my early career working on researching and gathering data for the new exhibition at the New Needles Battery about the Highdown Rocket Testing site. So the heritage of British Rocketry is very close to my heart.

I am a fan girl for Prospero – The first (and last) all British built and launched satellite and as it is it’s Launch Birthday today I thought some of you might like to get to know Prospero and it’s launch rocket Black Arrow R3 a bit better. This blog contains information I gathered during my time working with some of the men and women who worked on these rocket program. I am not sure if their remembrances match the facts of the history books, but I believe that all I was told is true.

Back in the 1950’s The British Government had a top secret rocket building program – The Black Knight. The rockets were deigned and built on the Isle of Wight in a joint venture between the RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment) Farnbourgh and Saunders Roe – ship and aircraft builders based in East Cowes IOW. The rockets were tested to ensure that all the on board technology was working correctly. These static tests were carried out on the Isle of Wight, at Highdown, a site high above Scratchells Bay, with fine views of the Needles Rocks and lighthouse. The rockets were strapped into test gantries, the workforce would retreat underground and the engines would be fired for a matter of seconds. The data was collected and reduced, everything was checked and the rockets were shipped off to Australia, where they were fired into space. Black Knight was the most successful rocket program of all time. The budget for the whole 20 year test project was less than NASA was spending in one day at that time. In fact data gathered from the Black Knight launches was used by NASA in it Apollo program – so you could say that the Isle of Wight helped put a man on the moon.

Comic Book artist Geoff Campion’s depiction of testing at the Highdown site.

Fast forward a bit to the mid 1960’s and the focus of space has changed, to the potential of satellite technology. RAE, Saunders Roe and Marconi Systems (builders of satellites) looked at the potential of the Black Knight project to be able to become a satellite launch vehicle. The Black Knight was modified to become a three stage rocket and was renamed the Black Arrow. Building and testing of the Black Arrows began at Highdown and Marconi systems began work on a prototype satellite – Puck.

By October 1971 it was all systems go. The fourth Black Arrow Rocket R3 was in place in Woomera with the X3 satellite, now named Prospero, tucked safely in the nose cone of the rocket. On October 28th R3 in an almost text book launch, propelled Prospero into orbit high above the Earth and Prospero’s mission began.

A full scale model of Prospero on display at the Needles New Battery – it once hung in the boardroom of Saunder Roe.

To be fair, it wasn’t much of a mission not to explore new worlds etc. etc. but it did boldly go where no British satellite had gone before! Prospero had two jobs, to send a signal back to Earth on safe arrival in orbit,  then to repeat the signal a day later to show that the solar cells were charging. This it did. It’s on board tape recorder made 730 plays until May 24th 1973, when it appears the solar cells were no longer charging this officially ended it’s operational status. Prospero was contacted annually until 1996 when it was officially deactivated – this coincided with the closure of the UK’s Defence Research Establishment. This was not quite the end. Prospero is turned on annually for it’s birthday – you might be able to contact it today if you have the right technology! Not bad for a 45 year old piece of space junk!

Prospero sits in a low Earth orbit and passes overhead twice a day, it is expected to do so until 2070 – almost 100 years after it’s launch – not bad for a two day mission. It certainly lasted longer than Britsh Rocketry. The weekend after the launch of R3, the workers of Highdown were given notice that the project was coming to an end. By the end of 1972 the Highdown site was closed, bulldozed, stripped of it’s assets and left to return to nature. The funding had been cut by the government. Offical reports during parliamentary debate show it was quoted that there was no future in satellite technology.

The Highdown site today. The test gantries still visible at the extremities of the site with the Blockhouse safety bunker in the centre

If you want to get up close to Prospero, the X3 Flight Spare is on show at the Science Museum London. The Highdown test site is open to the public at the very west of the Isle of Wight and the National Trust manages an exhibition in the old underground bunkers of the Needles New Battery.



The 1866 Petition – a follow up!

I have been busy researching the stories of those women active in the early days of the suffrage movement on the Isle of Wight for most of the summer. I have found out some fascinating things and with the help of a relative of one of the ladies I have build quite an interesting picture of these political pioneers.

So more on Ellen Cantelo 69, High Street Carisbrooke, Sarah James, St James Street Newport and Elizabeth Thompson of Carisbrooke and why did they sign the 1866 petition? If you missed the first instalment catch up here!   https://sudniheritage.wordpress.com/2016/06/07/1866-mass-votes-for-women-petition-iow/

I initially thought that these ladies had been drafted into signing the petition because of the artistic movement on the Isle of Wight and that was how they had heard of the cause of women’s suffrage. I was very wrong! I was contacted by the wonderful and extremely knowledgeable Barry Cantelo over the summer – Ellen Cantelo’s great nephew. After being told off for pronouncing their surname incorrectly he filled me in on how the family were involved in politics!

The Cantelo family were part of the Chartist movement and were therefore politically knowledgeable, politically active and no stranger to a fight against the system. Ellen’s father (William) was a publican in  Newport, holding the position of Landlord of the Eight Bells and the Castle at times during his career. His 4 children John, William, Ellen and Elizabeth went on to have very interesting lives. John was a portrait painter, William was a part time publican and part time engineer and it is believed he invented the machine gun before Maxim (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23709471) then mysteriously disappeared. His daughters Ellen and Elizabeth (now Mrs Thompson) were those who signed the 1866 petition and Ellen went on to have a career as an artist and photographer.

Ellen was an accomplished water colourist and during a period in the 1860’s whilst living in London she was catalogued and became a member of the Royal Society of Water Colourists – which was about as high as you could get, as women were not permitted to join the Royal Academy. Ellen built her career as a Countryside painter and a number of her works are in store at Carisbrooke Castle Museum  http://artuk.org/discover/artists/cantelo-ellen-c-18251898

On her return to the Island her artistic and enquiring nature led to her experiment with photography. She went into business with Mr Brading and formed Brading and Cantelo who photographed Island scenes some of which became picture postcards.

Ellen never married and passed away in 1898 while living in Lake after what appears to be a full and successful career. She left £253.00 to her sister Elizabeth Thompson (the other signee).

As for Sarah James, I have not been able to find anything specific but after chatting to Barry he believes there is a chance that she could have a connection to the Cantelo family too, perhaps a fiance or cousin of this politically knowledgeable family.

All in all a fascinating story of a very inspiring women, who was willing to challenge the stereotypes of the time to follow a career and succeed at the highest level. If i find out anything further, I will post again.

A Night at the Lost Palace

In 2015 I heard Tim Powell of Historic Royal Palaces talking about the vision for the Lost Palace at the Museum and Heritage show. It was a fascinating project that really peaked my interest in how tech was going to help tell the story of the lost palace of Whitehall. Appealing for people to offer prototypes online, how to bring these ideas to life and would the technology be able to deliver – something that concerns anyone who embarks on a project like this. As a museum user there is nothing worse than glitchy or broken tech especially for something you are really interested in.

I had been keeping my eye on the project and during last summer I looked into helping with the testing of some of the prototypes but I was too late, the day was filled already. I would just have to wait! Tim gave an update on the project at this springs M&H Show. It was interesting to hear about the challenges and the highlights of the beta testing and to hear how the story was going to be told. The most exciting part for me was, that I (along with any other member of the paying public) would be able to go along and experience the Lost Palace for themselves. As soon as the tickets were available they were in my shopping cart and then fixed to the front of my fridge.

We picked a Saturday teatime slot 6.30pm – wishing to avoid the families in the daytime but early enough for us to get the train back. We were so lucky with the weather, with a warm dry day leading to a pleasant summer evening. On arrival at Banqueting House we were moved to the waiting area and then a few minutes before time we were offered the technology. Which was a set of earphones, a wooden block with a blackened ‘burnt’ end and a lanyard which held it all together. Then a countdown began and the tour was off. There was a short session indoors – a chance for us to familiarise ourselves with the kit and ensure it was all working correctly (a great idea and a real fail-safe to pick up any glitches before the off).


I’m not going to say  too much about the tour – as I am sure you are going to want to experience it all for yourselves but I will say it was really well done! I loved that the history was told as a story by characters from the time. I found the interactive items on the street a good way to delve deeper into the stories and it also peaked the interest of passers by who were baffled by a group of random people holding lumps of wood up to posts in busy central London on a Saturday night!

The technology worked really well for me but my partner found a few issues – I think this was mainly because he hadn’t stood quite in the right place to pick up the signal (he followed the crowd rather than the instructions). We both loved the end to the tour in Banqueting House sitting on a beanbag and looking at the beautiful painted ceiling. The walking gave you more of an insight into the size and scale of the original building. Most of all, The Lost Palace tour seems like the best way to tell the story of a building that is no longer there but has a fascinating history.


To for more information and to book you place on a tour http://www.hrp.org.uk/banqueting-house/visit-us/top-things-to-see-and-do/the-lost-palace/#gs.KKbjTfg before Lost Palace closes on 4th September.

1866 Mass Votes for women Petition – IOW

150 years ago today John Stuart Mill (- of his own freewill) presented a petition to Parliament signed by some 1521 people submitted by Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett. This was the 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition, the first mass Votes for Women Petition submitted to Parliament. There were many more to come and a long fight ahead for the women (and men) involved in fighting for women’s suffrage.

It was a pretty rubbish time to be a women (in modern terms), you were still owned by your father until you married and then you became your husband’s possession. Then men in your life would have control of your money, your children and everything in your life. I need a whole other blog or two to go into this so I’ll be back with more on this at a later date. Meanwhile back to the Isle of Wight…

Three ladies on the Isle of Wight signed the petition that Mill presented in 1866. Ellen Cantelo – 69 High Street Newport, Sarah James – St James Street Newport  and Elizabeth Thompson of Carisbrooke. It is understood that the signatures for the petition were collected through family and friends connections. You can see that in the growing mill towns that people would go from neighbour to neighbour, but how did the petition reach these ladies on the the Isle of Wight? That is what I am trying to find out!

I have been able to find some information on Ellen Cantelo – she was an artist and it would appear, fairly successful as she left £253.00 in her will after she passed away in 1898 – before the suffrage fight really began to take hold. The money was left to Elizabeth Thompson (the same lady who signed the petition? perhaps her sister?). As for the other ladies, they both remain somewhat a mystery but it’s still early days for researching. I look forward to updating this blog as I find out more.

I am fascinated by these ladies, living in Newport in the 1860’s being involved in women’s rights and perhaps facing prejudice or taunts for being a woman with an opinion and I am excited to find out where things went from here. Please read the next installment https://sudniheritage.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/the-1866-petition-a-follow-up/

To find out more about the petition and to look who signed it you can download the signatories here http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/parliamentary-collections/1866-suffrage-petition/





The appeal of the Routemaster

I was recently waiting for a bus – route 15 to take me from Tower Hill to Charing Cross. I had to wait ages, I was tired and really wanted a sit down (which is why I chose the bus over walking) but at least the weather was nice!

To my surprise a lovely old Routemaster arrived at the bus stop and we all boarded, up those iconic stairs off the running board. I was first on board so I picked the ‘Chewbacca seat’ (the one at the front where Chewbacca would sit if the bus was the Millenium Falcon).

Heritage Route 15 at Aldwych

For those who are not familiar with the route 15 it runs from Blackwall Station to Charing Cross, it also passes such iconic sights as the Tower of London, Monument, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Courts of Justice – so some fantastic architecture. I discovered later the the Heritage Route 15 runs from Tower Hill to Trafalgar Square every 20 minutes.

While bumping around in the front seat enjoying the view, I realised the bubbling of excitement around me and that the majority of the passengers were visitors to London from overseas. I felt a bit out of place, as I was just catching the bus! I was excited – but I am a London Transport geek, I collect tube stations! But so was everyone else. Every time the bus stopped folk in the street took our photos, people waved as we drove along the streets, I was travelling in an icon!

Heritage Route 15 at Aldwych

A week or so later, I was back in London again at the the London Transport Museum Depot Open day in Acton (I did mention I was a LT geek). As part of the day there were 3 Routemasters running short 25 minutes bus rides around the Acton and Ealing area. The trips were very popular – our bus was pretty much full. The bus we travelled on was the last Routemaster off the production line and is kept running by the London Bus Museum in Weybridge. Once again there was that air of excitement, phone cameras were out (both on board and the people on the streets) we were waved at like royalty and it was a really uplifting experience.

So what is it about the Routemaster that gets us all excited? It is an icon of London along with Black cabs, red telephone boxes and post boxes. The Routemaster is on postcards, magnets, purses, bags, shopping bags, t-shirts and every bit of tourist memorabilia that can be bought. As we threaded our way through central London, we watched tourists queue to get a picture next to a phone box, I remember doing the same with yellow taxis in NYC. It was then that it clicked, seeing a Routemaster cruising down Route 15 is seeing a bit of London iconography up and running. The Routemaster is The London bus – despite it only being introduced in 1956, many London buses came before it and many will come after. There was national outcry when they were withdrawn in 2005. It is a beautiful and efficient design with the passenger in mind, easy to board and alight, shiny and red, threading it’s way through the streets of London for 50 years.

I really enjoyed my rides on the Routemaster and I hope these buses run for many years to come, to delight the visitors and enthrall their passengers. A bit of heritage running through the streets of London, bringing history to life.