For most people Thames is the town you whizz though on the way to the more exciting destinations in the Coromandel and to be honest this is what we often do except on this one occasion when it was decided to stop at the small local museum.
The Thames Museum featured in an episode of ‘Heritage Rescue’ during 2016 and as such was brought to my attention fuelling a quick pit stop along with the obligatory pie and coffee. The entry fee is $5 an adult or in our case, $10 for a family of two adults and two children. For this you get entry into an Aladdin’s cave of memorabilia from the 1800s and later. The early fridge and scary looking dentists chair filled both tween and teen with horror.
The first room was divided into spaces depicting life in a Victorian household. Leading on from this was a space where a short film would have been shown (but for whatever reason was not on the day we were visiting) and in cabinets along the walls were a variety of early Maori artefacts. This part of the museum was a little disappointing, there were very few explanatory notes as to what the artefacts were, where they were found or even who donated them. Unfortunately it did give the impression of being an afterthought which seems a shame given the rich Maori history of the area.
A third room held a collection of tools and equipment (including several dreaded dentist chairs which I forgot to photograph) whilst the final room where the spaces which were given a make over by the TV show ‘Heirtage Rescue’.
The brillant blue of the painted walls setting off the easy to read maps and displays. A small side room off this main space was given over to handcrafted models of the towns heritage buildings.
Like so many of our small town museums this one is run solely by volunteers and as such they should be applauded for their efforts in bringing the history of their town to life. Having said that it was at times difficult to navigate visually around the museum, particularly as the general feel is one of an overstuffed Victorian home. There is something to be said for a more minimalist approach. It was a stark and distinct difference between the areas given a make over by museum professionals and those not yet tackled, perhaps to the detriment of the remainder of the museum.
Why fleeting you might ask? Well in a nutshell, the visit occured a couple of years ago during a whirlwind trip to London with the family and after a protracted visit to the Natural History Museum followed by getting distracted by a well known sci-fi shop I was left with a mere two and half hours to see the Museum…As some of you are well aware this is not nearly enough time and so it was, a fleeting visit. The following are a few of the photos I took along with brief explanations.
One of the first gallerys I made my way to was the early Medieval gallery – I had long wanted to see the artefacts from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, the famous Anglo-saxon ship burial. Sutton Hoo is located near Woodbridge in Suffolk and is the remains of a 6th and 7th century AD cemetary. Mound 1 was excavated in 1939 providing the world with a fascinating glimpse of the artistic ability of our Anglo-saxon forebears. The artefacts were richer and more intricate than any other found before.
An ornate purse lid – would have originally covered a leather pouch which hung at the waist.
These ornate shoulder clasps are one of kind in Europe and were originally used to hold together the two halves of a stiff leather cuirass so it can fit the torso snugly in the Roman style.
Not far from the Sutton Hoo treasure is the Lewis Chessmen. These fascinating wee carvings were discovered in 1831 in Uig on the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides). They are 12th century in date and carved from walrus ivory; it is believed they were originally made in Trondheim in Norway – at the time the Outer Hebrides were ruled by Norway. A number of years ago, a travelling exhibition on the Vikings came to the Auckland Museum in New Zealand. Two of the Lewis Chessmen accompanied the exhibition and it was this that inspired me to write “A Viking Moon”.
Staying with the Vikings we have the Cuerdale Hoard from Lancashire. The display at the museum is only part an enormous hoard of silver found in a lead chest beside the River Ribble. The hoard itself consisted of 7500 coins and 1200 pieces of silver bullion, weighing in at forty kilograms. The coins come from a variety of sources – mainly the eastern Viking kingdoms of England but also from King Alfred’s Wessex, Byzantium, Scandinavia, Islamic and Carolingian sources. The Ribble Valley was an important Viking route between the Irish Sea and York and this may have some bearing on why the hoard was found here.
Staying in the early Medieval my next photo is of the Burghead Bull. The town of Burghead in Moray, Scotland occupies part of what was once a Pictish promontory fort of great importance. The Burghead Bulls were discovered in the late nineteenth century when much of the fort was destroyed to make way for more houses. Originally there were thirty panels carrying carved images of bulls, now however, only six remain – one of which is held at the British Museum. They are dated to 5th century AD and it has been suggested they formed a frieze set into the ramparts of the fort and possibly represent a warrior cult which celebrated strength and aggression. Regardless of what the bull represents it is a fabulous piece of Pictish art.
Travelling back in time I moved onto the Roman and Iron Age galleries (this was a flying visit, I had just recieved a text from an impatient husband…)
In the Roman gallery I took a moment to admire a stone sarcophagus found in London in 1853 within what was described as an extensive Roman cemetary outside the city wall to the east. It is dated to the early 4th century AD.
Moving along swiftly I found myself in the British Iron Age and here I had to stop and admire the mirrors. Of all the artefacts from this period these are my favorite (and no its not because I have vain streak…). I have long held the belief that mirrors were more than a toilette item for these were never true mirrors that the modern person might be familiar with. Their surfaces were often burnished bronze and would at best reflect a fuzzy image. Instead I would suggest that the surface of a mirror acted in a similar way to the reflective surface of lake, pond or well providing access to the otherworld – a liminal space/place. Such places are well documented as being special, the vast numbersof artefacts found deposited into watery places at this time speaks for itself. Furthermore, it is surely no coincidence that later myths and stories use a mirror as a storytelling device (think Snow White).
The St Keverne Mirror (Cornwall) 120BC-80BC
The Desborough Mirror (50BC-50AD)
The Wetwang Mirror (Yorkshire) 210BC-160BC
Then of course something shiny caught my eye, first the Snettisham Torc and then the twisted gold torcs from the Ipswich Hoard. The Snettisham Torc was discovered in 1950 near the village of Snettisham in Norfolk. It is made up of a kilo of gold mixed with silver, there are 64 threads and each thread is 1.9mm wide, eight threads were pulled together and twisted then all were twisted again to make the torc. The terminal ends are hollow and were cast from a mould. The torc is dated to between 150BC and 50BC. The Ipswich Hoard was the second hoard to be found in the area, the first being Anglo-saxon in date. This particular hoard was discovered during the construction of a housing estate in 1968 by a digger driver and consisted of six twisted gold torcs. These torcs had less silver in them which has led the musuem to date their manufacture to around 75BC.
The Snettisham Torc
The Ipswich Hoard
Finally I wound my way through the Egyptian gallery and down the stairs to meet up with the family who were marvelling at the large statues from the ancient world. The following is a selection of the photos from this part of the museum.
There was so much else to see but I simply ran out of time and as we were flying out the next day any other sight seeing would have to wait until another visit – although I have heard recently that there are plans afoot for a downloadable VR experience for those who can’t visit in person.
Below are a few links which relate to the above photos.
Whenever I go somewhere new my first stop (after a leg stretch and a coffee) is usually to the local museum. I have a deep fondness for museums and the people who put their heart and soul into their creation and upkeep. The Mercury Bay Museum was one of those musuems where the peoples love of their town and surroundings was evident.
Our first visit to Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula was in the winter and unfortunately the musuem was closed however we had much better luck on our second visit. Situated on The Esplanade just opposite the wharf, this small but well thought out musuem tells the history of the area beginning with Kupe who gave the local area the name Te Whitianga nui a Kupe or The Big Crossing Place of Kupe.
Originally the site of the museum was an urupa or cemetary for the local Maori iwi called Ngati Hei up until the 1870s. But when European curio hunters violated the tapu of the site members of the Ngati Hei removed the remains of their people and reinterred them safely elsewhere. The Maori history of the area represents only a small part of the musuem and was my one criticism of this otherwise outstanding museum. The displays of Maori artefacts were not clearly labelled and the display was largely restricted to the walls of the walkway as you entered and could be easily overlooked – personally I think the museum designers may have missed a beat in down playing the 800 years or so of Maori history.
The Museum is very child friendly – my daughter in particular enjoyed dressing up as Captain Cook who visited the area in 1769 on the HMS Endeavour. It was he who gave the area its European name of Mercury Bay after taking his longitude and latitude from the viewing of the transit of the sun across the planet Mercury.
As you head further into the museum there is a significant display on the wreck of The Buffalo which gave the local beach its name (Buffalo Beach), the Kauri room and shanty shack – Kauri were an important part of the economy in the 1800s, either as logs or from the fossilied resin/gum – a 1950s school room, a 1960s bach, a smithy, two rooms displaying birds of the area and displays regarding the importance of the fishing industry (commercially and recreationally) and agriculture to the area. A butter churn display harks back to the days when the museum was once a dairy factory producing butter from cream from all over the Mercury Bay area. The musuem also holds an extensive collection of photos covering the life and times of Mercury Bay and its residents.
The fog rolled in along the North Cornish coast blanketing the hills. Coming in fast behind it was a weather front of rain and blustering wind. What was I doing out in this weather? Why would anyone venture forth in such conditions, most sensible people were safe inside. But today I was a tourist and nothing was going to stand between myself and the place I wished to visit.
Tomorrow it would close for the winter and my chances of visiting again would be blown (it’s a long to come from NZ). My destination? The Museum of Witchcraft in the wee coastal village of Boscastle on the North Cornish coast. I had also dragged the husband and kids along (I needed a driver and there’s this funny law which says you can’t leave the kids at home alone…)
The museum is the home to the worlds’ largest collection of “witchcraft-related objects dating from the time of the witch-hunts to the present day.” A friend recently asked why I would want to visit the museum. Well, in short it is a fascinating subject because it tells a story of how people have viewed not only themselves but also the world around them on a very deep and personal level. So my question to her was – why wouldn’t you?
The museum was not always in Boscastle, originally it was based on the Isle of Man in Castleton. It was first opened by Cecil Williamson in 1951 (the same year the Witchcraft Act was repealed successfully). He employed Gerald Gardner – the father of modern witchcraft – as “Resident Witch” and the museum was very successful. But eventually as things go, the two men felt the museum should go in different directions and Williamson sold the building to Gardner and moved his collection to Windsor and then onto the Cotswolds. Unfortunately a lack of tolerance in the local area resulted in the museum being firebombed several times. Once more Williamson moved his collection but this time to Boscastle, where it has been ever since. The current owner is Graham King, who bought it from Williamson in 1996.
In 2004 the whole of Boscastle was brought to its knees when a flash flood filled the valley – the town was swamped by over three metres of flood waters. The museum was severely damaged however this did not deter King – clean up of the museum began as soon as possible with every inch of mud being sifted and every item found meticulously cleaned and disinfected. During this time the museum layout was redesigned and gradually the museum rose from mud and sewage all brand new. I recently read on Facebook, that once more the museum is having a bit of face lift for no other reason than “change is good”.
The museum itself is divided into sections, each section dealing with one particular aspect of the craft. The descriptions below are from a pamphlet bought at the museum during my visit.
Images of Witchcraft – “Although many people today are sceptical about the power of magic, there can be no doubt about the enduring power of the image of the witch.
Persecution – “Our display about the witch-hunts begins with a 17th Century copy of Daemonologie – a book condemning magic written by King James I. King James wrote it after personally interrogating the suspects in the North Berwick witchcraft case, who were accused of raising a storm to sink his ship”.
The Wheel of the Year – “Modern witches meet on, and celebrate, ancient seasonal festivals and call them Sabbats”.
Stangs – “Modern witches refer to forked or skull-topped staffs as stangs”.
Sacred Sites – “Ancient sacred sites are very important to many people who practise Modern Pagan Witchcraft today…however, the witches of the past centuries also valued sacred sites as places to practise magic.”
The Hare and Shape-Shifting – “Many legends and folktales tell of witches turning into animals – particularly hares, cats and owls. A traditional Cornish term for “cursed” is “owl-blasted”.
The Magic of Christianity – “Trial records show that most people who practised magic during the witch-hunts were Christians, and often used the sacred object of Christianity in their spells.
Herbs and Healing – “Healing has always been an important part of magic. Many people arrested for witchcraft were respected healers using charms and herbal remedies.
The Wise Woman – “Our wise woman in her cottage shows just how different real life witches were from the stereotype of the ugly hag muttering curses.”
Granny Boswell – a well known Cornish wise woman.
Protection Magic – “The use of objects as protection charms (also known as amulets) is one of the most ancient types of magic – and also one still widely used thoughout the world today.”
Magic in Wartime – “This display shows some of the ways people have used magic to help them cope with the stress and danger of war.”
Mandrakes – “According to William Shakespeare, human shaped mandrakes roots were worn as good luck charms.”
Curses – “Did people really use magic to put curses on their enemies? Of course they did!…Cursing was an instrument of natural justice, and a form of anger management.”
Ritual Magic and The Golden Dawn – “At the heart of the display are the colourful and dramatic tools developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.”
The Richel Collection – “This collection of magical objects from the Netherlands bequeathed to the museum in 2000, is complex, challenging and sometimes downright mystifying – though sexual symbolism is a recurring theme.”
The Devil and the Horned God – “There can be little doubt that the horned Devil of medieval art had its origins in earlier horned deities of nature and fertility, such as the Egyptian goddess Hathor, the Celtic god Cerunnos and the Roman god Pan.”
Baphomet and the Green Man
Fortune Telling and Divination – “Of all the objects in the museum, the one that most intrigues and fascinates visitors is the dark mirror used by the museums founder Cecil Williamson.”
Spells and Charms – “Many of the exhibits in this museum illustrate a central principle of folk magic, that there is magic all around us in the natural objects of everyday life”.
Sea Witchcraft – “There are many accounts of witches selling the wind to sailors, by magically knotting it into a length of rope on a windy day.”
Tools of the Witch – “Knitting needles might not seem an obvious magical tool – but stitches are really knots, and knot magic is ancient and widespread.”
Modern Witchcraft – “Many of the objects in this section are personal and unusual, such as the Peruvian magic dolls used by Brownie Pate, or the painted altar stone made by Iain Steele, with its dragon like symbol in the centre.”
This may not be a museum for everyone, some might even find the occasional display uncomfortable (the sideways looks I kept getting from the hubby was proof of that). Even so, the effort to visit should be made. To learn about and educate ourselves in the ways of the craft and its history means that the past won’t be repeated. When it comes down to it, today witchcraft/paganism is just another form of spirituality which provides harmony and solace in the lives who follow that path.
It was a fascinating museum and well worth the trip, the dreary weather adding to the atmosphere. To visit on a bright sunny day when Boscastle is thronging with tourists…
Contact details: The Museum of Witchcraft, The Harbour, Boscastle, Cornwall PL35 0HD.