London: Prince of Wales Theatre and British Museum

We took a trip to the capital to catch a musical and visit the British Museum

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In May, we went on a little overnight trip to London for a bit of culture (and comedy). We booked theatre tickets, hotel and train tickets with SuperBreak, who we’ve used before to get good deals on London theatre tickets. The package we got was very reasonable—but, as always, we had to make sure we had enough time to get from the hotel to the theatre, as the ‘1.2 miles’ distance feels like an awful lot further when you’re switching between Tube lines!

We stayed at the Radisson Blu Edwardian New Providence Wharf Hotel (bit of a mouthful)—which is an awful lot bigger and fancier than the places we normally stay. By booking through SuperBreak, we’d got a room and breakfast for a very low price, so we were a bit taken aback by how shiny and polished everything looked (most of the places we’ve stayed in London have been a bit more ‘budget’). Unfortunately, when we went to book in, there was a bit of a panic as our booking hadn’t actually been sent through to the hotel so they had no record of our reservation—for a moment it looked like we wouldn’t be staying in the big shiny hotel after all. However, we really could not fault the attitude of the staff members we spoke to. They were so pleasant and helpful, and rang straight through to resolve the issue with SuperBreak. Within ten minutes, they’d confirmed our reservation, apologized profusely, given us drinks vouchers to make up for it, and shown us to our room—which was an awful lot fancier than we were expecting! I don’t know if we got upgraded because the hotel was busy (there was a wedding on) or if that’s a standard room in this hotel, but the bedroom was huge!

Anyway, enough about the hotel—though it did deserve a mention for being the nicest we’ve stayed in on a SuperBreak deal and for having absolutely lovely staff—and on to our real reason for visiting London.

Prince of Wales Theatre

We’ve titled this with the name of the theatre, but that’s perhaps a bit misleading, as it was the show we came to see rather than the building. We had tickets for Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s irreverent musical The Book of Mormon.

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Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame) and Robert Lopez (co-writer of Avenue Q), The Book of Mormon first opened on Broadway in 2011 and made its West End debut in 2013. As fans of South Park, we were pretty aware of what to expect from the show: it’s a religious satire that is simultaneously wildly offensive and deeply critical of offensive ideologies. It tells the story of two naïve young Mormons—Elder Price and Elder Cunningham (played by Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner, reprising their Broadway roles) who are sent to Uganda as missionaries. Once there, they meet people whose lives are blighted by AIDS, poverty and war—but, nevertheless, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham blithely cling to their understanding that their new acquaintances’ lives will improve once they are introduced to the teachings of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

It’s darkly satirical, but it’s also a surprisingly sweet and heart-warming story

The above paragraph is an awfully dry way of describing the show, and it doesn’t really do it justice. We were expecting something funny, obnoxious and controversial—being familiar with Parker and Stone’s other work—but that description also doesn’t do justice to The Book of Mormon. Although it is just as outrageous as South Park—with very few topics that are off-limits for comedy purposes—and it is darkly satirical of Mormon practice and doctrine, it’s also a surprisingly sweet and heart-warming story about two well-meaning (though misguided) young men who truly believe they can make a difference in people’s lives. While the religion itself is roundly mocked (along with an awful lot of other things), its practitioners are treated with a sort of affection. In terms of the show’s depiction of Uganda, the show treads a really difficult line between using horrible circumstances to get (sometimes uncomfortable) laughs and poking fun at the naivety of Western attempts to understand these circumstances. Some of the jokes are pretty cheap and crude, and some rely on horrendous stereotypes, but—as with South Park—the ground is constantly shifting, with everything and everyone becoming a potential target for mockery.

We expected this sort of humour—surely no one would buy a ticket for The Book of Mormon if they expected something different?—but we weren’t really sure what to expect in terms of the music. Obviously, knowing the sort of songs that have appeared in South Park and Team America: World Police, we knew there’d be some very silly—but very catchy—songs, but we weren’t sure how it would stack up as a musical. On this score, we were very pleasantly surprised, as The Book of Mormon is a show that knows its musical theatre history and presents it (just as it presents everything) with a mixture of satire and fondness.

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The show’s narrative follows a very familiar arc for fans of musicals—even resolving the seemingly impossible crisis that faces the protagonists with an utterly ludicrous musical salvation—and the songs themselves are written in the usual Broadway styles. In fact, the musical numbers almost work as a rundown of the key styles found elsewhere in musical theatre, gently lampooning these through the contrast of the ‘nice’ style to the (often) crass and controversial lyrics. Many of the songs are almost—almost—spoofs of other famous Broadway hits, though this is done with a surprisingly light touch in places. Perhaps the clearest parodies are ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ and ‘You and Me (But Mostly Me)’, in which you can clearly hear the musical echoes of ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘Defying Gravity’ at various points in the song. What’s great about these numbers is that, not only is the musical inspiration really clear, the lyrics of each also lampoon the content and sentiment of their inspiration. That’s abundantly clear in the case of ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’, which is pretty much a straightforward parody of the message of ‘Hakuna Matata’ (and this is underlined by Elder Cunningham asking if the phrase means ‘no worries, for the rest of your days’—‘not exactly’ is the answer he receives), but we really liked the way ‘You and Me (But Mostly Me)’ mocks the idea of friendship as presented in Wicked by repeatedly reminding the audience that one of the friends is a bit more of a diva than the other (which, to be honest, is exactly what happens in ‘Defying Gravity’ as soon as Elphaba hits that high note).

The Book of Mormon is probably not for everyone, but if you’re a fan of Parker and Stone’s other work then it’s a definite recommendation.

The British Museum

The following day we decided to take a trip to the British Museum. I’m not sure that this institution needs much of an introduction, and it’s somewhere we’ve been several times.

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Photo: Ham via Creative Commons

On this occasion, we had tickets for the museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition, a collection of hundreds of artefacts with a 37-metre-long warship at the centre. We actually heard about this exhibition in a rather unusual way—when we were on honeymoon in Norway in March, we visited Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, where we saw that several items had been removed from display in order to go on loan to an upcoming British Museum exhibition. So we were very keen to visit the BM Vikings exhibition when it opened.

I don’t know if Oslo spoilt us—we visited the Viking Ship Museum as well as the Historical Museum—but we found the BM’s exhibition very disappointing. It was very overcrowded, making it almost impossible to see some display cases. The information accompanying the displays was patchy—some boards had ‘dumbed down’ explanations too much, and there were a number of places where the information contradicted what we’d learnt in Oslo (and, in the case of one board about literature and storytelling, contradicted what Hannah knows from her doctoral research in Medieval Studies). All in all, it seemed a rather poorly thought-out experience—though it clearly succeeded in drawing big crowds (surely Vikings always do?), it failed in an attempt to educate or enthuse people about history. We ended up squeezing through the last little bit of the display as quickly as we could, so that we could go and look at some of the better arranged displays in the rest of the museum.

Fortunately, while the ‘big name’ exhibitions can be rather hit-and-miss, the museum itself remains as wonderful as ever. The museum was established by an act of Parliament in 1753, to house the collection of Hans Sloane. In 1757, King George II donated the Old Royal Library collection of around 2000 manuscripts, which carried with it the privilege of copyright receipt. The museum was housed in Montagu House, Great Russell Street and opened to the public (‘all studious and curious Persons’) in 1759.

Sir Robert Smirke was commissioned to design a new building for the museum and library

The library expanded massively in the decades that followed, receiving donations of natural history specimens, antiquities and books from a variety of bequests. By the time George IV donated his father’s King’s Library collection in 1822, Montagu House had been deemed insufficient for the museum’s needs. Sir Robert Smirke was commissioned to design a new building for the museum and library. His quadrangular neo-classical building replaced Montagu House, and was opened to the public in 1857. However, the museum’s collections continued to grow, even while the new building was under construction, and so decisions were made to augment Smirke’s designs with additional galleries, and even to move some collections to alternative premises. In the 1880s, the natural history collections were moved to premises in South Kensington, initially called the British Museum (Natural History) but later renamed the Natural History Museum.

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Photo: lena1 via Creative Commons

The British Museum Library also continued to expand rapidly, and it also needed a new home. The quadrangle at the centre of Smirke’s original design was also filled with the now-iconic cast iron, concrete and glass Reading Room (designed by Robert’s brother Sydney Smirke), which was also opened in 1857. This remained the library’s home until the British Library Act 1972 created an independent entity (the British Library), which was finally moved to purpose-built premises in St Pancras in 1997.

Between 2007 and 2013, the Reading Room hosted a number of special exhibitions. In fact, the last exhibition we went to was housed in the Reading Room—Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum. However, by the time the Vikings exhibition was staged, a new gallery had been constructed for housing temporary exhibitions—the future of the Reading Room is currently uncertain (and the museum have been carrying out consultation on its potential future use). The new gallery was certainly better suited to the Vikings exhibition—we’re not sure how well they could’ve displayed a 120-foot warship in the Reading Room—however, we did miss the ‘feel’ of the historical Reading Room, which had been used to good effect in previous exhibitions (Hannah’s personal favourite was the Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe in 2011, which made very good use of the exhibition space).

We meandered around some of the other galleries for a peaceful, unhurried look

On this occasion, we cut our visit to the (ticketed) exhibition short and meandered around some of the other galleries instead. We didn’t have any particular items or artefacts that we wanted to see, though it was good to be able to get a (peaceful, unhurried) look at some pieces that were contemporaneous with the items selected for the Vikings display (e.g. the Lewis Chessmen—only a couple of which were moved to the temporary exhibition, the rest remained in their usual display—and the Sutton Hoo helmet).

And with that, our trip to London came to an end. Unusually, we travelled home separately—Rob had to book an earlier train to Manchester so he could get back to Manchester for a Nine Inch Nails gig, while Hannah waited for the (very cheap) train that she’d booked as part of the package deal. So, by the time we both got home, we’d managed to cram in a controversial West End musical, a fancy hotel, Vikings, the British Museum and Trent Reznor—not a bad weekend, all in all.

A Trip to Medieval Denbighshire

The Manchester Medieval Society’s 2014 excursion was to Denbighshire in North Wales, where we visited Valle Crucis Abbey, Llangar Church, Rug Chapel and Denbigh Castle

The Manchester Medieval Society (founded in 1933) runs an excursion to sites of historical interest each year. As Hannah is currently the society treasurer, we always go along on the excursions. Since we’ve decided that this blog will just be about places we’ve visited since our wedding, the first excursion we’re going to write about is the 2014 trip to Denbighshire.

Valle Crucis Abbey

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The ruins of this Cistercian abbey lie in Llantysilio, near Llangollen. ‘Valle Crucis’ means ‘vale of the cross’, and the name derives from the nearby Pillar of Eliseg, a ninth-century stone pillar that was once surmounted by a towering cross. The abbey was founded in 1201 by Madoc, ap Gruffyd Maelor, and was dissolved in 1537. It is now looked after by Cadw.

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Valle Crucis was the last Cistercian abbey to be founded in Wales. As with other Cistercian abbeys, its location was selected for its isolation—although apparently the ‘isolation’ in this case was achieved by relocating the population of the village that stood in the way. The monks of Valle Crucis came from Strata Marcella, an older abbey near Welshpool. According to the rules of their order, the ‘choir monks’ (who wore white habits) lived in devout seclusion, while a community of lay brethren (who wore brown habits) attended to the manual labour and the more public aspects of abbey life. It seems that the original design of the abbey included accommodation for around twenty choir monks and forty lay brothers.

The number of monks living at the abbey fell as a result of the Black Death

The abbey suffered a number of crises in its early years. Shortly after Madoc’s death in 1236, the abbey was ravaged by fire. It is also believed that the abbey suffered damage during Edward I’s invasion of Wales in the late thirteenth century. As with many abbeys, the number of monks at Valle Crucis fell as a result of the Black Death in the mid-1300s, and the building was apparently also damaged during Owain Glyndŵr’s revolt in the early fifteenth century.

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But the abbey bounced back. In 1535, it was the second richest Cistercian abbey in Wales (after Tintern, and known for its association with the literary arts. In the fifteenth century, the abbey (more welcoming now that the Cistercians had relaxed the austere rule of their order) had offered hospitality to Welsh poets, including Gutun Owain, Guto’r Glyn (who died and was buried at the abbey in 1493) and Tudur Aled. Nevertheless, when the Reformation came, this wasn’t enough to save Valle Crucis, and the abbey was identified for suppression in 1537.

The estate was sequestered by parliament in 1651 and by the late 1700s was used as a farm

On its dissolution, Valle Crucis was leased to Sir William Puckering, then Baron Wotton, but the estate was eventually sequestered by parliament in 1651. By the late 1700s, the abbey was being used as a farm. Eventually, though, Cadw took over—and Valle Crucis is now the best-preserved monastery in North Wales.

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This is a really beautiful place to visit, and a significant part of North Wales’s medieval heritage. Just wandering around Valle Crucis gives you a sense of the abbey’s imposing past—but also its importance to the landscape and people that surrounded and inhabited it.

The abbey church and west range are in ruins, but the east range is mostly intact—with the dormitory and abbot’s rooms being particularly well-preserved (and unusually accessible, given that they’re on the first floor of the building). The dormitory now houses a collection of medieval grave slabs, including that of Madog Crypl.

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Elsewhere, there are beautiful surviving window traceries and evidence of nineteenth-century restoration.

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After spending some time enjoying the evocative atmosphere at Valle Crucis, it was time to move on to our next location…

Llangar Old Church

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Llangar Church (also known as All Saints Old Parish Church) was built in the fifteenth century—though there’s evidence of an earlier church at Llangar in documents dating to 1291. This isolated little church is reached by a rocky footpath just off the B4401, and its late medieval heritage is ostensibly obscured by bright whitewashed walls (which was actually the norm for parish churches until Victorian times).

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The church at Llangar really is a testament to Cadw’s restoration and conservation work. Although the building had served as the parish church for several centuries, it was abandoned in the 1800s as a result of people moving away from Llangar (and its neighbouring township of Cymmer). When the Church of St John the Evangelist at Cynwyd was consecrated in 1856, it became the new parish church, and the decision was taken not to restore All Saints. And so the old church languished in a state of disrepair and dilapidation until the late twentieth century.

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In 1974, Cadw began a major rescue operation. In a way, the church’s disuse had some benefits, as a number of features had remained untouched—or were lying in wait beneath the veneer of later centuries. The medieval arch-braced roof trusses are still visible, as is the barrel-vaulted canopy over the altar. Restoration work was also carried out on the church’s (mostly Georgian) furnishings—including the dramatic pulpit, the box-pews (for the gentry) and the benches (for the rest of the congregation). The singing gallery and music stand are also preserved.

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Undoubtedly, one of the most captivating features of Llangar Church is the series of wall paintings. When the restoration work was carried out, eight layers of wall paintings were uncovered, dating from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. On the south wall, the fragmentary remnants of a painting of the seven deadly sins (in which each of the sins is represented by a human figure riding on the back of an animal) and seven corresponding works of mercy are (just) visible. The north wall displayed the text of Gweddi’r Arglwydd (the Lord’s Prayer).

From the cradle to the grave

But by far the most dramatic wall painting is the eighteenth-century skeleton who faces you as you enter the church. This grisly spectre of mortality wields a dart and an hourglass, and has a set of gravedigger’s tools between its legs. We were very curious about the skeleton’s pelvis, though, as it seemed to some of us that there was something else depicted in this painting. Although it’s not very clear, it does seem like there’s something nestled under Death’s ribcage—and a few members of our group suspected that it might, in fact, be a baby. If this is the case, then the picture is designed to offer a grim reminder of the inevitable path of human existence—all the way from the cradle to the grave.

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Outside the church is a picturesque sloping churchyard which still houses a jumble of tied tombstones.

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Llangar Church is now a Grade I listed building and a scheduled monument. It’s not the most accessible heritage site in the country (which is, of course, part of its charm), and (I believe) it has rather limited opening times. Because we were visiting as part of an excursion by a historical society, we’d been in touch ahead of time and were shown in by a Cadw guide, but we’d advise you check their website before planning a trip.

And if you do get to visit Llangar, you should really combine it with the next place on our itinerary…

Rug Chapel

Rug (or Rhug) Chapel isn’t actually medieval—it was commissioned in 1637 by William Salesbury—so it wasn’t an immediate choice for a Medieval Society excursion. However, this beautiful private chapel, which is dedicated to the Holy Trinity, is just too lovely to miss.

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The rather plain exterior and garden setting of the chapel is misleading. This deceptively modest little stone building houses an incredible interior, filled with lavish carved and painted decoration. The Cadw website describes the chapel’s decoration as being the result of ‘high church pretensions and a zany style’, and this seems like a fair assessment.

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One of the most impressive features is the chapel’s roof, with its coloured panels running the full length of the building. It’s adorned with cut-out angels and a decorative frieze—and it’s just spectacular.

Looking down from the roof, though, you discover that all the timberwork in the chapel is highly decorated. From the pews and the bench-ends, to the screens, altar rails and parapets.

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And, if the skeleton at Llangar Church wasn’t enough to remind you of your mortality, the chapel also boasts an imposing wall painting of its own—a skeleton (complete with hourglass and additional skull) surrounded by verse in Welsh warning of the fleeting nature of life. Surmounting the Welsh is the Latin motto Ut hora sic vita—as is an hour, so is life.

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Standing outside Rug Chapel is a stone-based pillar that appears to be an old town or market cross. This is a little bit of a mystery, as the chapel was built several centuries after a cross like this would’ve been erected. And there’s also no clear evidence of a settlement on the site that would’ve warranted such a marker.

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We didn’t really have time to ponder this puzzle, however, as we had to return to the coach and continue to our final site of the day.

Denbigh Castle

Denbigh Castle (Castell Dinbych) stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Vale of Clwyd. Construction began in 1282, under the instruction of Henry de Lacy. It was intended to be part of Edward I’s ring of fortresses around North Wales, and it was completed (after building was halted when the incomplete castle was temporarily captured in 1294 during the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn) in 1305.

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The castle was heavily defended by its enclosure wall and by its seriously unwelcoming gatehouse that was buttressed by octagonal towers, but also by the walled town that occupied the rest of the promontory. One of the gateways to the walled town (Burgess Gate) still survives, and sections of the wall (which also survives) are accessible to visitors.

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But, sadly, we only had time to visit the castle—though we did get a fantastic guided tour (and our guide coped admirably with the fact that he had to show a group of academic medievalists around a medieval castle). While the castles of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech (also part of Edward I’s ring of castles) might be better known, Denbigh Castle is a pretty breath-taking site. Although it was allowed to fall into ruin after its abandonment in 1660, large parts of the structure survive—enough to help visitors build a mental picture of the castle in its prime.

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Parts of the triple-towered gatehouse survive, including the large carved figure (possibly Edward I himself) who greets visitors as they arrive. Inside the walls (parts of which are preserved and accessible to the bold vertigo-less visitor), some of the buildings of the castle’s inner ward are still identifiable. In particular, the hexagonal kitchen tower can be identified by its two massive fireplaces and its proximity to the castle’s gigantic well.

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The ruins remind you of the castle’s formidable defences and its strategic complexity

Other features of the castle can also be discerned—including the sally port (or sneaky back door) in the southwestern corner and the Postern Tower. All of these remind you of the castle’s formidable defences, and its role as a fortress as well as a place of residence. In fact, the castle ruins paint a picture of a structure that is very creative in its strategic complexity—for instance, the sloping pathway leading up from the Postern Gate to the castle has a tight, sharp turn in it, which was intended to disorientate and expose enemy soldiers seeking to attack from this side. It’s quite dizzying to look at this defensive construction and imagine how an invader would feel if they got caught there.

Like all the sites we visited on this trip, Denbigh Castle is in the care of Cadw. In addition to being told the story of the castle’s construction and habitation, we were also shown some of the more recent restoration work that has been carried out to preserve this site for future generations. This work included the removal of cement-based mortar (a remnant of earlier restoration work) and the stabilizing of masonry with locally-sourced materials that are sympathetic to the original stonework.

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And with that, our trip to medieval Denbighshire came to an end. Time to return to our coach and head back to Manchester.