Offbeat Objects: The Great Bed of Ware

If you’re in London and the queue for the Natural History Museum is looking a bit too manic for you, pop across the street to the V&A Museum to see an Offbeat Object that you very well might have missed otherwise, and makes for a great tale. Today’s recommendation is – the Great Bed of Ware!

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Human on the side for comparison.

You may be thinking, “It’s just a big bed, what’s the deal?” Well folks, let me tell you the story of this bed. It’s 3 m wide (~10 ft), so already larger than a California King sized bed (measuring in at a paltry 1.8 m / 6 ft wide). History says that it could comfortably accommodate up to three couples in it. Allegedly twenty-six butchers and their wives spend the night in it for a bet once.

And not only is it gigantic, it’s pretty old. We aren’t sure of the exact year, but it was constructed around 1590. The first mention of it in writing comes from a letter written by a travelling German prince staying in the White Hart Inn in 1596. It was already 100 years old at the time of the 26 butchers stunt! It was likely always in the town of Ware until it’s movement to the V&A in 1931. The local inns purchased it off one another over the years as an Elizabethan tourist trap, as Ware is on the road between London and Cambridge. The bed was as famous in its day as some of the more unique American road stops are, like the giant ball of twine or world’s largest chair. One could even argue it was more famous than that, as Shakespeare used it in 1601 to describe something enormous in The Twelfth Night with Sir Toby Belch describing a sheet of paper as “big enough for the Bed of Ware.”

Moving it from Ware to London proved an interesting challenge for the V&A. The bed had to be carefully dismantled and packed up over six days. In total, it weighed 1413 pounds! It took another nine days to physically move the behemoth, and then required ten strapping carriers to porter it through the museum’s corridors. Unsurprisingly, it’s not been moved from its display since – but that’s mostly because it’s been a crowd-pleaser since arrival.

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Once a tourist attraction, always a tourist attraction.

On its display now, you can get very close and personal with the bed. If you do, you’ll quickly notice another thing about tourist attractions that seems to withstand the test of time – graffitied initials all over the bed. Visitors have carved initials all over the wood, or applied red wax seals with their stamps on it. Not even the lion at the top of the headboard was spared the indignity of a seal to the nose. Whilst it was probably pretty tacky then, it’s fascinating to see this 400 year old graffiti and wax seals up close today.

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Ye olde “RB <3s EH” kind of action going on here.

A final note – this is an authentic Elizabethan bed, and although much larger than most, it gives a great idea of how people of some means would have slept. The wood is mostly bare now, but conservators have found evidence that the carvings would originally have been painted. The busy scenes around the bed would have been meant to be enjoyed and looked at for some time. The bedding is obviously more recent, but has been made with period materials and kept to look as much like a bed of the time as we understand it to be.

It’s not often one goes to see furniture on a museum visit, but I cannot recommend this one enough. Also, if you’re big into Elizabethan era things in general, you’ll find that the bed is in the middle of a bunch of artefacts from the period. Now go! Find something new and obscure to tell your friends about!

 

— Kate

Christmastime in Kensington (Winter 2015)

So at this time I wasn’t working and the significant otter was due at a multi-day conference in London. It therefore stood to reason that if he was going to need to rent a hotel room for a night that I might as well come crash and have a wander whilst he was at work. He was centred around Westminster, but we ended up finding a nice place near Kensington, so I took it as a sign to go see a few of the things I’d been meaning to there.

I decided to try and skip the crowds and go to Kensington Palace first. Had a brisk walk across Kensington Gardens and right to the building itself. I have to be honest, it doesn’t look particularly palatial to me, but nice enough. Pretty majestic statue of Queen Victoria near the entrance to be certain.

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Kensington Palace may best be known for Queen Victoria, as she spent most of her childhood in it under a strict regime put in place by her mother. Though they’ve turned it into a beautiful museum area based on her entire lifetime, it was said that Victoria never really went back to the palace after she became queen. Regardless, it’s highly recommended to see if you’re a Victoria fan, especially after the recent show Victoria has aired. It’s a very intimate look at her personal and regal lives. I regret that I don’t have many photos from the exhibit, but they’ve got a lot of dark lighting for conservation purposes. Plus I was really just enjoying the experience of it all.

Of course, the palace wasn’t just built for Victoria. It was originally merely a Jacobean mansion built in the early 17th century by the First Earl of Nottingham and thusly called Nottingham House. It was when the joint monarchs William and Mary began to look for a healthier location to live for the unwell William that it was purchased and transformed into Kensington Palace. Sir Christopher Wren (the same architect who designed and built St Paul’s Cathedral) was put in charge of its expansion. In order to save on money and time, he kept the original mansion unchanged and added pavilion extensions at each of the corners. For the next 70 years, Kensington Palace was the favourite palace of residence for British monarchy. However, King George II allowed the palace to fall into disrepair after the death of his wife. After his death, the ascending King George III left the palace and it was only used for minor royalty after.

Next of course, were the Kensington Gardens. I had darted through them earlier through a chilly fog, but it has since lifted and exposed a lovely winter scene. Closer to the palace is the Sunken Garden, which was actually only planted in 1908. It was modelled on a similar garden at Hampton Court Palace downriver and follows 18th century ideals of gardening.

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Next was a walk through the wider gardens. Being December, the flowers were all gone, but it has a mystical feel about it, which is something to be admired in a garden in the centre of London. Be brave with any snacks you might eat here though, as the squirrels are so fearless that they have signs warning you of them. They’ll walk right up to you. This is a more recent phenomena, as through the Palace’s heyday the gardens were closed to the public except for Saturdays. Even then, only the ‘respectably dressed’ could come in. If you walk the gardens now, I can assure you that this is no longer enforced. Regardless of dress code, Kensington Gardens are well worth an afternoon stroll and you’ll have plenty of room to do so with over 240 acres! It was originally part of Hyde Park and is still right next to it, so one can easily cross between the two and not realise straight away.

At the edge of the parks if you’re heading towards the museums, you can’t miss the Albert Memorial across from the Royal Albert Hall. It was commissioned by Queen Victoria in memory of Prince Albert after his death in 1861. It was officially completed in 1875 and cost £120,000 at the time (approximately £10 million today). It is 176 feet tall and took over ten years to complete. It had fallen into disrepair over the century and in the late 1990s work began to restore the monument to its former glory. For 80 years the statue had been covered in black paint, which theories believe may have been an atmospheric pollution that destroyed the original gold leaf surface. Following the restoration, it is now recovered in new gold leaf.

 

Finally, finishing the Victorian tour I had accidentally set myself on, I went to see the Victoria & Albert Museum, just south of the gardens. The V&A is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and designs from around the world and throughout 5,000 years of history. Normally I’m not a huge fan of art museums, but I will always make an exception for the V&A. It is just phenomenal. It was founded in 1852 and is (obviously) named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The region it’s in has been coined as “Albertopolis” because of so many things in the region being associated with the Prince. Again, I didn’t take as many photos as I would have liked, but I was enjoying myself far too much. I’ll have to take more photos to share later.

 

After all this, I was exhausted and quite pleased to find my sweetheart and plop down in a pub. Managed a record pedometer tracking of 11.8 miles in the day. I perhaps wouldn’t recommend doing all of this in one go like I did unless you’ve got really good footwear and a good night’s sleep, but it was a really good day!

— Kate