This is definitely a must-see attraction for any Steampunk visiting London. The first exhibit you come to is called Energy Hall and features full-size steam engines and has interactive features that show you the physics of how they work and give the history of how they fit into the evolution of steam technology as a whole.
But, the absolute best exhibit hall is Making the Modern world. It offers a veritable cornucopia of amazing inventions, including Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1 and a working model of a Victorian-era workshop run on a belt system.
Like the Museum of London, I would definitely recommend this as a great place to take people with mixed interests because the museum also has exhibits on the history of agriculture, real objects used in the early days of space travel and a “4D” cinema that has films on a wide range of topics.
This institution has two different locations, but I only got a chance to make it to the one just north of the Millennium Bridge. (the other is at the seafront and focuses on the history of the docklands and shipping industry). The city of London has a very long history, so there is lots to see that doesn’t fit into my Steampunk theme, which can make it ideal for entertaining a group with varied interests. I loved the open format of the exhibits that allows visitors to meander through history, including one of the best displays on the everyday life during the Roman Empire that my Historian hubby has ever seen.
On the steamy side, there is tons to see. There was an amazing immersive exhibit about pleasure gardens like those that became popular during the 1800s. The darkened space features really cool period clothes, and videos that appear on the walls featuring people wearing them and acting out scenes. The mannequins are also sculptures in their own right and are lit according to what is being shown on the walls. The low light made it difficult to capture with a camera, especially because I didn’t want a flash to ruin the experience for other visitors, but trust me when I tell you it was captivating.
There is also a series of Victorian storefronts that you can walk through that are chockfull of period-appropriate merchandise and props. There is a big-wheel bike out in the open if you want a picture with one.
I also liked the displays of shoes, watches, and other technology that were strewn around in some of the other period sections. The exhibit on the suffrage movement was extremely well done, though I was shocked by a lot of what I saw. I had no idea how violent the pursuit of voting rights became in Britain. All in all, it is a wonderful museum with free admission and worth a whole day’s visit.
My favorite part by far of visiting the Tower Bridge was venturing into the engine rooms below street level. The green and black coal-powered hydraulic engines reminded me of a giant mechanical grasshopper ready to spring, and made the whole exhibition worth the admission fee. One of the biggest surprises for me during Steam Tour was how colorful some of these old engines are! If you are a fan of engines and haven’t seem my post about the London Museum of Water and Steam don’t forget to take a look.
How it works: “When it was built, Tower Bridge was the largest and most sophisticated bascule bridge ever completed (“bascule” comes from the French for “see-saw”). These bascules were operated by hydraulics, using steam to power the enormous pumping engines. The energy created was stored in six massive accumulators, as soon as power was required to lift the Bridge, it was always readily available. The accumulators fed the driving engines, which drove the bascules up and down. Despite the complexity of the system, the bascules only took about a minute to raise to their maximum angle of 86 degrees.” From the Tower Bridge website.
For more information and pictures from my visit to the Tower Bridge, check out Parts 1 and 2.
Visiting the bridge and looking at the outside is of course free, but visiting The Tower Bridge Exhibition within has a small fee. Visitors begin by going up into the top of the north tower where there is a short introductory video with a screen that blends into the Victorian era props around it. Afterwards you get to move into the tower and enjoy the historical and artistic exhibits on the East and West Walkways. I can’t say that the walkway exhibits were the highlight, but there was some interesting information about the history of bridge construction for “how does it work?” types. (You should go to their website for more info on what exhibits are currently on view.)
They recently installed glass floors on the West Walkway, but this was shortly after my visit in September 2014 so I didn’t get a chance to experience this aspect of the bridge. I can only imagine the incredible view onto the bustling street below, but I can vouch for the panoramic views of the city from the top of the towers!
But for me, the best was yet to come. As part of your exhibition admission, you also get to visit the engine room that used to power the raising of the bridge. So check out The Tower Bridge Part 3: The Inner Workings next time!
This is my pick for the best place on my entire Steam Tour to take your littlest Steampunks. There are fun, hands-on exhibits about the water cycle and great info about the history of harnessing the Thames and combatting the Cholera outbreaks through London’s history. But the most exciting parts of the museum complex is room after room of real, working steam engines. They don’t run every engine every day, but I was lucky enough to visit on a bank holiday when they did run every engine for at least 15 minutes at some point during their open hours.
In the courtyard there are some smaller engines as well as a station to make giant bubbles in the afternoon, so that is another plus for kids. There is also a replica of a Victorian-era workshop where all the machines run on the same belt system (the original workshop was destroyed during the Blitz) and they offer tours.
The primary reason I wanted to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum was because I heard about the amazing displays of fashion through the ages. There is a really great circular gallery with men’s and women’s clothing, and right now there is also an exhibit on wedding dresses, though that has an extra charge where the rest of the museum is free. It would be a great place to do research for costumes, both to get visual inspiration as well as great background info. My best pictures were mostly of dresses, but there are lots of great suits, boots and hats for the menfolk as well.
My original plan had been to sample at least two Ripper Tours while in London, but after running into 6 other tour groups on my maiden voyage, I decided it wasn’t necessary. The groups ranged from 12 members to more like 40, and they all (unsurprisingly) were stopping at the same places. One group was headed up by a vintage bobby, my guide was in waistcoat and hat, and others were dressed in normal street clothes.
I knew there would be at least a couple other groups around but this was nuts, especially considering there was hardly anything to see. That area of London had suffered a great deal during the London Blitz of WWII, so there weren’t really any historic buildings left standing, so the tour meant walking through a long street lined with curry restaurants and maneuvering around construction zones. By about 30 minutes in, the Mister and I were joking that we should have just stopped at the beginning for curry instead.
I was on a tour using what they called “Ripper Vision” and some large historical photographs to try to enhance the experience, but it still fell flat for me. Ripper Vision consisted of a handheld projector that the guide used to show photos of the victims and newspaper stories from the Ripper days, but he couldn’t keep the projector steady so I ended up actually feeling sea sick from all the jerking around and had to look away. The guide was well-versed in Ripper lore, but without any real sites that still looked like they did during the Victorian era, it definitely could have been a lecture in a hall and saved my feet the trouble.
If you want to learn about Jack, I’d say get a book. I’ll be writing a Jack the Ripper Steampunk Sourcebook article for my ezine which will be available around Christmas time, and will not only look at the history and mystery surrounding the murders, but also Jack’s appearances and role in Steampunk so far.
Have you ever read any Steampunk fiction or seen any good movies that featured Jack the Ripper? Do tell!
It is common knowledge that the Brits love their tea, but it is less common knowledge how this love affair all began. If you are looking for a fun way to explore that history, you should try visiting the good ship Cutty Sark near the waterfront in Greenwich.
The ship itself wasn’t built until 1869, but tea first came to the UK two centuries earlier. Here is a timeline from the Cutty Sark’s exhibits.
In its heyday, The Cutty Sark was one of the most impressive vessels on the sea, and especially well-suited for transporting tea. The copper hull was not only beautiful, but was especially good at keeping sea water out of the cargo hold. It also had an amazing carrying capacity and was one of the fastest ships on the water.
In fact, it engaged in a historic race in 1872 against another transport called The Thermopylae. Both ships left Shanghai at the same time, and the Cutty Sark took an early lead. Unfortunately, she lost her rudder and had to stop for repairs. The Thermopylae ended up making it to England a full week before The Cutty Sark. This was the only time that both ships left from the same port at the same time, but the Cutty Sark later set a record for reaching Sydney in just 73 days.
I loved visiting the exhibits on the inside, especially the first floor where the interior and the displays were made out of tea crates. There is another gallery the next floor up that has interactive features and videos to help you get into the mindset of a sailor on the ship over its long history. I was also lucky enough to have the perfect weather to explore the deck, which has been restored to its former and shiny glory.
The Royal Observatory is probably best known for being the home of the Prime Meridian, but I went there to check out an amazing Steampunk exhibit dedicated to “the longitude question.” Thousands of seamen lost their lives because they couldn’t be sure where they were when they were in the open ocean, so the British Parliament implemented a competition in 1714 and offered a reward of 20,000 pounds to anyone who could figure out how to calculate longitude when out to sea. Little did the Longitude Board know that it would be 50 years before anyone could find the answer.
The exhibit, Longitude Punk’d, is set up as a series of submissions to this contest and is intermixed with the Observatory’s collection of real and sometimes bizarre submissions. There are many buildings in the Greenwich Observatory complex, and this exhibition takes advantage of the historic Flamsteed House that sits on the grounds. There is normally already a gallery dedicated to longitude in the house, but for now the Steampunks have taken over that gallery as well as several other rooms as well as the courtyard to show their amazing contraptions and costumes.
Throughout the house you can read “The Rime of the Ancient Commodore,” which is a whimsical epic poem about one of the artists’ alter ego and his unique quest for the answer to the longitude question. His theory? Animals know exactly where they are, so if you can learn to talk to animals, all you have to do is ask for directions 🙂 Make sure to take the time to watch the series of short films embedded between display cases to meet the artists and find out the ideas behind their amazing creations.
The exhibit costs 8.50, but you also get admission to the Cutty Sark and the complementary and more serious examination of longitude at the Maritime Museum called Ships, Clocks and Stars any time within a month of your first visit. It will run between now and January 2015, so don’t miss your chance to get punk’d!
But even if you aren’t in town in time for the exhibit, there is a ton to see at the observatory for fans of the Victorian era, and I am going to post soon about their permanent galleries as well so stay tuned.