Return to the Mercer Museum

We were looking for something indoors that we could do on a very hot day that threatened with thunderstorms. The middle two kids were meeting up with friends and that scheduling meant we could not venture too far from home base. I, therefore, suggested the Mercer Museum as my husband and youngest son had never visited. My only previous visit had been in 2017 so I was happy to return.

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The Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and was created to house his vast collections. Mercer had a deep interest in a vast array of pre-industrial trades and tools and the building he commissioned is full of weird shaped rooms and nooks and crannies where he could showcase these according to subject and theme. We learned that the team of men who had constructed the building – from hand-mixed concrete – had been paid about $1.70 for a ten hour day. That is the equivalent of about $5 per hour in contemporary money. Mercer got a right bargain out of that because – to my mind – the building itself is the absolute star of the show.

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I may have unintentionally oversold the experience of this museum to the rest of the family because they were underwhelmed. My husband’s problem is that he compares all eccentric buildings or museums to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont or the House on the Rock in Wisconsin and finds them lacking as a result. As for the kids, I guess they have grown accustomed to interactive exhibits and experiences to capture their interest or some way I have created to engage them. They did enjoy some of the activities designed for kids along the way – despite being 13 and 19 – but they were otherwise a bit checked out. Despite having a bunch of moaners in tow, however, I still loved the place and all of its quirks.

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I will say that visiting a concrete building on an intensely hot day was a challenge in and of itself. I often felt as if I was exploring the interior of a pizza oven. The fans became very welcome and appreciated waypoints around the building. Temperature control was, I guess, the one real flaw in Mercer’s design.

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Eisenhower’s Farm

This Memorial Day, Mr Pict and I decided to go out for the day without the kids. They were invited to join us but declined so we thought we would take the opportunity to do something they would find tedious. We have been to Gettysburg many times since emigrating to the US. However, because Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd, our focus has always been on the battlefield. This time, therefore, we decided to approach Gettysburg from a different angle and visit Eisenhower’s home.

We arrived a little too early for a tour so we had a wander of the exterior of the property. We saw the limousine the Eisenhowers would take from the White House to Gettysburg and I was imagining this fancy car bumping along the uneven roads for two or three hours. Popping into the barn, I ended up chatting to one Ranger about Scotland generally and specifically about Eisenhower’s suite in Culzean Castle. It has been a long time since I visited Culzean so I had forgotten the Eisenhower connection. It is, therefore, pretty weird that I have ended up visiting two places where he lived given he is not exactly of interest to me. Adjacent to the barn, we saw the cramped cinder block hut that was the base of operations for the Secret Service Agents.

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We lucked out when it was time for our tour as we were assigned to a very informative and engaging Ranger. I only possess general knowledge of Eisenhower so I found it all very educational. I learned that the farm house was purchased and extensively restored by the Eisenhowers as part of their retirement plan but Ike kept being called back to serve his country in one way or another so it took many years before they could use the property as their permanent residence. They did, however, use it as a weekend bolt hole and to entertain visiting Heads of State. Only one – Nehru – stayed overnight and we saw the guest bedroom where he slept.

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My major takeaway from my visit was that, while Eisenhower was a man of extraordinary achievements in public life, in private life the Eisenhowers were massively ordinary. Since I am much more interested in social history than I am military or political history, this actually led me to engage with the tour much more than I anticipated because the home was a time capsule of mid-century taste rather than being a grand home. For example, the Eisenhowers loved to dinner eat off of tray tables while watching TV so we saw the sun room where they used to relax and their wonderfully cuboid TV cabinet. We saw the bedroom where Ike took naps and recuperated from his various acute health complaints and the master bedroom where Mamie would issue orders to staff while still in bed in her nightgown.

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After leaving the Eisenhower farm, we headed into Gettysburg. The centre was packed because of the Memorial Day celebrations so we ended up parked a few blocks away. As it happened, we were near a brewery so we decided to pop in for a grown up lunch and some day drinking on my part since I had a cider. That repast then gave us the recharge required to do some extensive wandering in the blistering heat. Most of the historic buildings were closed because it was a holiday but we took in the exteriors and browsed in some fun stores. Mr Pict enjoyed seeing the house where Lincoln had slept the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address and was also in nerd heaven in a store selling board games and another filled to the gunnels with Civil War antiques. We strolled back to our car along the route of the Memorial Day Parade so we could take in some of the festivities as we went.

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It was a fun day out and we are hopeful for more day trips – preferably with our kids – now that we are officially in Summer.

Museum of Natural History

Our 14 year old had some options for a Biology assignment. I was pretty keen on a project involving writing about unusual diseases that appear in our family history but he chose to undertake one that involved a trip to a Natural History Museum. There is one close to home, in Philadelphia, which would have been more straightforward. However, he requested that we take a trip to New York to visit the museum there, which we had visited as part of the boys’ first ever trip to NYC back in February of 2014.

We had not been to NYC for years so we decided it could form the basis of a fun day trip. We formulated a plan for the day that we had to throw away the evening before the trip when the 14 year old fell of his skateboard and badly sprained his ankle. Since he was still pleading to go and given we had already booked and paid for the admission tickets, we decided to forge ahead with the trip to the museum but to junk all of the other plans for the day.*

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One area of focus for the assignment was early humans so we headed to that section first. I took a DNA test a few years ago as a means of making contact with other family historians researching the same families. It has led to all sorts of interesting interactions but there was really nothing interesting about my DNA. It proved I was as boring genetically as I was on paper. The only unexpected find was that I have a smattering of Neanderthal DNA. Until then, I had not known that Neanderthal DNA can still be identified at detectable levels in contemporary humans. I guess now I know where my massive forehead comes from.

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There was a special exhibition about sharks so we decided to boost our tickets for entry to that gallery. You might recall that my 14 year old and I are a wee bit obsessed with sharks. I cannot say that we especially learned anything new about sharks but we appreciated the life size models as we could really grasp the scale of some of the less familiar sharks. We also had fun with the megalodon models.

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I am sure that many visitors to natural history museums spend a lot of time among the dinosaur fossils. While I am certainly no dino nerd, I have never outgrown that childhood fascination with these ancient beasts. One of the things my son was writing about in his assignment was fossil evidence of dinosaurs being feathered so we particularly honed in on the exhibits relevant to that topic. We also made sure to visit all of our favourite dinosaurs – mine is a triceratops in case you are interested. We visited the Ice Age mammals too. As much as I know it would be wholly unethical to do so, I do think it would be marvelous to resurrect mammoths from extinction.

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Other sections of the museum we visited included the Central American gallery and the meteorite and gem sections. You will observe our family tradition of taking photos of ourselves in the same poses as sculptures. My 16 year old loves sparkly shiny things so has always enjoyed that section and my husband is an astronomy geek so he loves getting up close to space rocks. He was especially enthralled by a case containing three chunks of meteor taken from the surface of the moon.

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Unfortunately the limping 14 year old was starting to feel the strain of his busted ankle so we could not keep forging on through all of the other areas of the museum. We felt satisfied that we had covered a lot of ground, however, so left feeling fulfilled.

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And now we need to return to NYC at some point soon to do all of the things we had planned on doing that day but didn’t manage to achieve.

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*The reason the 14 year old is in the majority of the photos is because they will be used to illustrate his assignment and not because he is more biddable than the others when it comes to having his photo taken.

The Delaware Water Gap

A friend who owns a second home in the Poconos thoughtfully offered us the opportunity to spend a day or two at her property. We gratefully accepted her offer partly because we thought we could all benefit from a mini-break and also because we normally only take day trips to the Poconos so it meant we would have longer to explore. Furthermore, I have also wanted to visit the Delaware Water Gap since we moved here (I cannot even recollect precisely why) and having my friend’s house as a base presented us with the chance to go that bit further afield and spend an entire day poking around in that area, which is governed by the National Park Service.

On our first day, we decided to focus on relaxation and quality family time. We spent time in the house together – playing card games, watching shark documentaries – and we walked to a nearby lake to spend some time there. We had planned on going swimming but it was a little bit too chilly at that time of day even for paddling so we just enjoyed the scenery, people watching, ice cream, and playing more card games. After dinner on the shore of another lake, however, it was time to head out and go for a hike.

My husband and I visited Hawk Falls several years ago now but we have never managed to take the boys there because the parking situation has always been horrendously swamped. Because we had the ability to hike in the early evening this time, however, we found a parking spot with ease and headed to the falls. It’s a relatively easy hike to the falls – though a little steep for a stretch on the return – and I like the way the path winds through the woods and across streams. I just really like being in the woods.

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There are definitely more impressive waterfalls but Hawk Falls are pleasing enough. Running water is always lovely, right? Except in relation to natural disasters or domestic pipe failures, of course. While we had met other visitors on the path, by the time we reached the falls, we had the whole place to ourselves. It was really peaceful. The boys had fun leaping around on the rocks. The 15 year old even scaled the rock wall on the opposite bank.

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We had a leisurely start to the next day. We also decided to start with a big breakfast because we knew we would have few and far between (if any) opportunities to stop for a bite to eat for the rest of the day. Our 18 year old ordered a massive sandwich stacked full of any breakfast meat you can think of and slathered in sausage gravy. His digestive system is in training for that $27 a day college meal plan he had to sign up for.

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I had devised an itinerary for our travels through the Delaware Water Gap and the first stop was my happy place: an old cemetery. Obviously I like to wander around in cemeteries regardless of any personal connection to the place but, on this occasion, my husband and kids actually have some relatives buried there. Only my 12 year old agreed to come and find the graves with me. Everyone else stayed in the car. You will observe from the accompanying photos that this became a common occurrence on this particular trip. My youngest son was my exploration buddy while the others opted in and mostly out of most itinerary items. Anyway, we found the two relevant Shellenberger graves with ease.

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Next up on the itinerary was visiting the view points on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. Now I had conducted a decent amount of research on the Delaware Water Gap in order to draw up my itinerary so I was surprised and disappointed to discover that the view points were, quite frankly, totally duff. The first one we visited, we literally could not even glimpse a sliver of water through the trees and across the railroad tracks. What we could see was the interstate on the opposite side of the river and the sheer face of a small mountain. The same proved true of the other two view points we visited – though I did manage to see a patch of water from one of them. What I came to realise was that the National Park Service had taken photos of the views using either drones or cranes. Therefore, any human of normal height stood absolute zero chance of seeing the view, especially since there seemed to be no management of the foliage on the river banks.

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After that failure, the kids were growing ever more cynical about the purpose and merits of the whole trip. I decided we should boost up the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River and focus on all the bits and bobs on the New Jersey side I was hoping to see. Incidentally, all of the Visitor Centers and Ranger stations were closed and none of the historic buildings were open for visitors so it was just as well I had conducted all of my research in advance. What my research did not tell me was just how arduous navigating the roads was going to be.

The first stops were all fine as they were within the boundaries of still functioning towns. First there was the Foster-Armstrong House (usually open the public but not recently) which was a ferry-side tavern and inn for tired 19th Century travelers. Then there was the Minisink Dutch Reformed Church, the oldest church in the county and still going strong today. And there was the Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse.

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After those three historic buildings, my itinerary took us onto the Old Mine Road. Well, this proved to be quite the challenge. The road dates from the 1600s but I had expected the surface to have been improved since then. I am obviously exaggerating but the surface was seriously bad. It was extremely crumbled, full of deep pot holes and eroded at the sides – and it was single track as it was for very long stretches – and just incredibly rickety. It got worse the further we ventured down the road and the more committed we were to just plunging onwards. It actually got to the point that Mr Pict and I were making mental note of routes for one of us hiking back off the road on foot and where the nearest lived in property was for phoning for help should the axel of the car break. I feel like we should have earned badges declaring “I survived the Old Mine Road”.

Anyway, first stop on the Old Mine Road was the Westbrook Bell House. While my oldest two sons trekked back along the road to a ruined barn my 15 year old wanted to photograph, my youngest son and I headed down a grass covered path through the woods in search of the house. It felt like a fairytale with maybe a witch’s house at the end of the trail. We soon reached the house, which is the oldest extant structure in the Delaware Water Gap, dating as it does from 1701. We were wandering around the exterior of the house and peering into barns that looked like they might collapse at any moment when I smelled and then spotted what looked to my non-expert eyes like pretty fresh bear poop. We, therefore, decided it might be a smart idea to skedaddle back through the woods to the car.

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After another bone-jangling stretch of the Old Mine Road, we rejoined a proper road to visit what was once the village of Bevans. This rural hamlet has been transformed into the Peters Valley School of Craft so there were art and craft galleries and artisan workshops operating out of the old buildings.

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Tempting as it was to stay on these proper roads, I was both determined (some might say foolishly) to see the other items on my itinerary and I was convinced (some might say foolishly) that the final stretch of Old Mine Road could not possibly be as bad as the stretch we had left behind. Yup. Foolish. If anything, it was worse because this stretch also involved uphill stretches. I swear I could hear our car wheezing. I think everyone was relieved when we reached the Van Campen Inn and could pull over the car and take a break from all the bumpy driving. I had spotted on one of the maps I had looked at that there was a cemetery for enslaved people in the vicinity of the inn so my youngest son and I set off trying to find it. We were wholly unsuccessful. I think mostly we were determined to try just to avoid getting back in the car for a while longer.

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The Delaware View House was in a very sorry state. It had served as a hunting lodge and a hotel in its prime. Now it is clearly deteriorating rapidly. We very carefully walked around the wraparound porch before losing our nerve and getting ourselves back to solid ground.

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The penultimate planned stop was at Millbrook Village. This is the site of a genuine settlement from the 1830s but the few remaining historic buildings have been expanded upon with reconstructed buildings that create the impression of what the village looked like in the 1870s. I think it would have been fun to visit at a time when visitors were permitted to enter buildings. This was probably the most engaged the boys were on the trip but they were fed up and jaded from all of the previous stops and from the nerve-shredding travels on that road so they were pretty resistant to finding anything of interest at that point.

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The penultimate actual stop was at the request of my 15 year old. He has apparently inherited my love of dilapidated buildings so he wanted to take photographs of a barn that was falling apart at the seams. My 12 year old stood in the window of a gable end that had fallen, Buster Keaton style, while the 15 year old gave me palpitations by climbing over piles of planks in search of better camera angles.

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We made one final pit stop in the Delaware Water Gap as one final attempt to see the Delaware. Kittatinny Point Overlook suggests being in an elevated position that provides a view out over the Delaware. Well nope. Not that we could find anyway. The best we could hope for was descending some stairs in order to be down on the shore. Unfortunately this spot was the end point for the scores of people who had rafted down the river so it was very busy and there were boats everywhere. Therefore, even that close to the water, it was nigh impossible to really take in let alone appreciate the view.

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As you can no doubt tell, my trip to Delaware Water Gap was somewhat disappointing. I am sure it is a fantastic area to visit if one wants to interact with the water in some way but I don’t do water sports. I really wanted to engage with the history of the area and to take in the landscape. I believe, therefore, it was a case of too high expectations and a lack of delivery. The whole “view” point debacle really set the tone for the day. When Mr Pict gets hacked off on an excursion, things are really not going well. I happen to like old, abandoned, decaying buildings so I definitely got far more out of it than anyone else in the family but I cannot say that was worth the investment of time. The condition of the Old Mine Road was probably the nail in the coffin of the trip. It set our nerves on edge and meant there was too much focus on the function and mechanics of driving rather than taking in the surroundings. It also simply slowed us down and made a long day out even longer. I am glad I finally visited the Delaware Water Gap after years of wanting to do so but I don’t think I could recommend a visit there to anyone not wishing to float down the river and I don’t envisage a return visit.

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Brandywine Battlefield

Living in eastern Pennsylvania as we do, we are never too far from a Revolutionary War site. We are surrounded by the stuff. Despite that, I really don’t know as much as I ought to about the Revolution. It just doesn’t engage me as a subject so I really only retain the scratchiest general knowledge about it. This is not because I am British. Nope. I am totally on the side of the Americans. I am just really not into military history unless it intersects with some other genre of history that I am into. I only know as much as I do about the Civil War because I am married to a big Civil War nerd and learning osmosis happens.

Anyway, one of the local Revolutionary history sites we had not visited in the almost 8 years since moving here was a pretty big one: Brandywine. It was the biggest battle of the War, with the most troops fighting and doing so continuously for 11 hours over 10 square miles. The battlefield is only open seasonally and on particular days so we have just never gotten around to making a plan to visit work. Mr Pict, however, was determined we should finally visit so we got our act together and went.

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We started off at the Visitor Center where some friendly, chatty staff placed the battle within its wider context for us. Mr Pict also got deep into the weeds of a conversation with them about why the site doesn’t have National Park status. The rest of us scuttled off into the adjoining museum. Small as the museum was, the information boards were some of the clearest and most informative I have encountered. I was actually finally able to grasp the chronology of the conflicts that occurred in our region and why the American and British sides manoeuvred that they did. I always love a diorama and they had several. Meanwhile the 12 and 14 year olds entertained themselves in the dress up corner.

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The rest of the trip was a driving tour. We could have hit up a couple of dozen points of interest along the route but nobody was really enthralled at that prospect so we kept to the highlights. We started at the house of Gideon Gilpin, a Quaker farmer. It was the property that Lafayette used as his quarters and where he returned after being shot in the leg during the battle. Incidentally Lafayette turned 20 days before Brandywine which kind of blows my mind. I personally just like old buildings so I enjoyed wandering around and looking at the shapes and the stonework. Near the house is a massive sycamore tree that is over 300 years old which means it was around during the battle. I kind of love that living connection to the past.

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The next stop was the Benjamin Ring house that Washington used as his HQ. The interior was not yet open so we just skirted its exterior. I didn’t find it too interesting to look at. However, we got chatting to a volunteer guide who, while telling us that his hobby is making replicas of historic guns, revealed that he lives in the house that was the site of the last witch trial (more of an interrogation) in Pennsylvania. Obviously I had to steer the conversation in that direction. Much more interesting to me than battles and military leaders.

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We went to find Jefferis Ford, which is the spot where the sneaky British forces managed to cross the river. American troops were defending all of the other fords along the river but, for some reason, neglected to protect Jefferis Ford. Quite the oops. Anyway, we cross the bridge that now spans that area and looked down at the dun brown water and then we went on a trek up hill and down dale trying to find a spot with decent sight lines where I could do a three point turn. So that was annoying.

The final stop was at the Birmingham Quaker Meetinghouse. This was the location of some ferocious fighting and fallen soliders from both sides are buried in a mass grave in the small walled cemetery that abuts the meetinghouse. As much as military history is not my thing, cemeteries very much are. After visiting the walled graveyard, I therefore wandered off into the adjoining larger cemetery. Most of the stones are very small and simple, since Quakers traditionally do not approve of ostentatious memorials. I went in search of the grave of artist NC Wyeth but really stood no chance of locating it since his family’s stone is a simple one set into the ground. Our kids were all out of tolerance for this parent-driven excursion as it was so were not up for entertaining my cemetery wanderings.

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While the cemetery largely comprised standard grave markers, there were some very elaborate memorials. Just outside the gates were monuments to Lafayette and Casimir Pulaski, neither of whom is buried in Pennsylvania let alone that cemetery. Inside the cemetery, however, is a large monument containing a marble statue that really is quite at odds with the rest of the graves. It marks the plots of the family of John Gheen Taylor. Want to know why he got to break the rules? That would be because he was the cemetery president.

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So that was our trip to Brandywine Battlefield. I don’t think I will feel the need to return but, surprisingly, I did actually learn something through my visit. Plus it is always nice to go for a wander somewhere new. Now I am actually keen to visit the Museum of the American Revolution so that I can put together some more of the details of the war. Because goodness knows I am not going to sit down to read a book about it or even watch a documentary. Once I feel ready to return to museums, that one is going to be high on my list.

Nemours

We had four guests visiting us over the Thanksgiving holiday: my in-laws and Mr Pict’s oldest friend and his partner.  After a day of over-indulging in feasting, we all felt the need to get some fresh air and burn off some calories.  We, therefore, headed to Valley Forge to hike around the site of the encampment and the surrounding fields.  I have blogged about a previous visit to Valley Forge, back in Spring of 2016, so will not repeat myself here.  Suffice to say it was a fair bit colder than it had been during that first exploration.  The wind was so biting that I lost feeling in my ears.  I also tried to recreate a previous “gargoyle” photo but had misremembered which son was the model.

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The following day, the six adults went on a child-free trip across the border into Delaware.  Our destination for the day was Nemours.  This is a French chateau style mansion that Alfred Dupont built for the woman who would become his second wife.  We learned that Alicia was not easily wooed and that the mansion was Alfred’s final pitch at winning her affections.  She agreed to marry him but I am pretty certain he did not win her affections.  Indeed, the subtext of our entire tour of the property was how problematic and dysfunctional Alfred’s marriages were – and obviously he was the common denominator – and how suspicious a few events in the biographical timeline were, including sudden deaths that removed the necessity for a divorce or the mysterious advent of infants.  I basically had my own little dramatic soap opera playing in my head as I moved from room to room and learned more about Alfred and his wives.

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After a quick pootle around the grounds, we embarked on a guided tour led by an enthusiastic young woman named Kat.  She started the tour in the mansion’s basement and that turned out to be my favourite part of the house.  I have visited hundreds of stately homes, palaces, and castles in my time and the public rooms tend to be much of a muchness.  What set this home apart from the others that I have visited was that basement level.  Since he had built his mansion from scratch in the early 20th Century, Alfred was not having to cram modern technology into a much older building or try to couple the old and new.  He also seemed to be especially enthralled with engineering and with the cutting edge of mod cons so there were lots of fascinating gizmos, gadgets, and gubbins going on beneath the surface of the building.  As someone who spends too much of her life doing laundry, I especially liked the spacious laundry room – housed in an exterior building but connected to the mansion through a tunnel so that undies need never be exposed to public view.

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Each room in the house had been decorated for the Christmas season.  The chosen decorations were on a theme connected to the space in which they were sited and I enjoyed the festive sparkle and the attention to detail.  Again, my favourite trees were to be found in the basement level – a steampunk tree in the boiler room and a bottle tree in the bottling room.

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The house is beautifully decorated and immaculately maintained.  I found myself admiring the skill of the people who must remove every speck of dust from the surfaces in advance of doors being opened each day.  There was a lot of opulence on display but it was not so lavish as to be garish or excessive.  My favourite room was the conservatory closely followed by the kitchen.

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After completing our tour of the house, we wandered over to the garage – which was larger than my house – to see the family’s collection of very shiny luxury cars.  We contemplated having a walk around the grounds, which are laid out in a French style, but it was far too cold and we were too hungry to tolerate the cold.  We, therefore, bid farewell to Nemours and its muffled tales of familial dysfunction.  Since we have also visited Hagley Museum (way back in 2015), we now need to visit Delaware’s other open-to-the-public DuPont property at Winterarthur.

 

National Museum of American Jewish History and Ghost Ship

Today is my birthday.  Today is also election day and, since my workplace is used as a polling station, my birthday treat is a day off of work to be home alone.  Each year, on a weekend adjacent to my birthday, I get to decide where we go and what we do for a day trip.  I love museums so my choice was to visit a museum in Philly that we had not yet visited.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is situated in the old city.  It is housed in a lovely building that allows its collections to be organised into clear chronological and narrative strands.  We started on the an upper floor and with the story of the first Jewish community to immigrate to the United States and then moved throughout the galleries and levels to learn about the contributions the Jewish community have made to American history and culture.  I realised that I knew almost nothing about Jews in colonial America so I found that gallery to be especially interesting.  My kids enjoyed the section about migration within the US and my youngest had a hoot dressing up in prairie clothes and pretending to cook beneath the covered wagon.  He tried on various costumes in several sections of the museum which was a great way to keep him moving and engaged.  At one point he even pretended to be a dog in a kennel.  My 14 year old is currently reading the book ‘Refugee’ by Alan Gratz so he liked the display about the perilous journey of the St Louis and, of course, the tragic consequences of countries refusing permission to land.  Predictably, Mr Pict liked the section on the Civil War.  For my part, I really enjoyed my visit to this museum.  I especially like social history and there was plenty of that being showcased.  I actually would have benefited from more time in the museum as I had to rush through the last section and even then we were the last visitors to leave and they literally locked the doors behind us.

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After the museum, we headed off in search of food.  Before we found a suitable option, however, we passed Shanes Confectionery and had to pop in.  Aside from being a sweet-toothed family, Shanes claims to be the longest running confectionery shop in the US.  We were gifted some Shanes chocolate and famous clear candy a few years ago now so we have sampled some but it was great to finally be in the store.  Stepping across the threshold was like stepping back in time as the store has been lovingly and beautifully restored to its early 20th Century style, including restored machinery and gadgets.  My oldest son found the narrowness of the store to be too claustrophobic for his liking but the rest of us thought it was all wonderful.  My youngest is a chocaholic so he was smitten to the point of being overwhelmed by all the marvellous chocolates.  He is also cat-obsessed so he loved seeing chocolate in feline form.  I loved seeing the old cash registers and the stained glass and the patina on all the wooden shelves.  There were so many fabulous confections to choose from but we rose to the challenge and made our selections.

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Dinner was in a British themed pub.  We were all excited to spot that Irn Bru was one of the soft drinks available.  Even though the recipe has (somewhat controversially) changed since we left Scotland, it was a taste of home.  There were also mushy peas available as a side so Mr Pict and I ordered those.  They were far too good quality to taste authentic but that is not a cause for complaint.  I can usually only manage a single course when eating but I had spotted sticky toffee pudding on the menu so had to order it – though I did share with some of the boys.  I was delighted to discover that it had been made with dates just as it should be.  It was scrumptious.

The closing ceremony for my birthday trip was to view an art installation on the Delaware River.  When we arrived at the Race Street Pier, it was already dark so the ghost ship should have been visible.  Alas, it was not.  We were informed that the organizers were experiencing technical difficulties and they had no timeline whatsoever for a resolution.  Oh dear.  The crowd was restless.  Some people were loudly complaining.  We took up a position along the pier’s barrier and waited patiently for the glitch to be fixed.  After half an hour of waiting, however, the boys were bottomed out on patience and started to plead with me to give up and to just go home.  I was, however, determined to see this thing so just tuned out their gripes.  I admit that even my patience was waning as the cold seeped into my bones some time after the 40 minute mark.  Finally, water erupted from rigging that sat on the water’s surface and, as the fountains spumed, the image of an 18th Century schooner appeared, projected onto the water.  It was impressive and I was glad to see it.  Was it remarkable enough to wait almost an hour in the cold with four moaning children?  The verdict is still out.

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Canada Trip #10 – Ramparts of Quebec

After our visit to the Montmorency Falls and the Ile d’Orleans, we wanted to spend the evening back in Quebec’s old city given it was our last evening there.  It was completely lovely to be out in the cooling air and the golden light of the sinking sun really showcased the city’s architecture.  We didn’t really have an objective when we set out for our stroll but then inspiration struck and we decided to walk along a section of the Ramparts.

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The fortifications technically date from the mid-18th Century after the British took the city from the French but they have been demolished and reconstructed over the centuries so they are a bit of an architectural Frankenstein.  We could not have walked the entire perimeter of the walls even had we wanted to because, once again, as with our attempt to reach the Plains of Abraham, we were thwarted by construction works.  We, therefore, walked a stretch from Porte Saint-Jean around to the area of the Plains of Abraham.

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The elevation of the walls afforded us a great view over the city streets, lots of panoramic vistas, and letterbox vignettes observed through these oblong windows cut into the walls.  It also helped us appreciate how these fortifications functioned as defences and how much they must have dominated the city.

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The ramparts made for a really lovely stroll, away from the crowds yet still in the thick of things, and it was especially pleasant to be so high up as the sun set and then to be back in the area of the Place Royale in the dark to enjoy the twinkling lights and glow from the lamps.  It turned out to be the best way for us to bid farewell to Quebec.

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Canada Trip #6 – Musee de la Civilisation

We were keen to do something educational in Quebec, really learn something about the history and culture of the place.  The Musee de la Civilisation was a mere hop, skip, and jump from our apartment so we headed there.  It’s a museum of history and anthropology which obviously has a particular focus on French Canada and the First Nations peoples.  It was, therefore, perfect for our purposes.  I suppose because I am more used to Victorian museum buildings so I was pleasantly surprised by how spacious this museum was and how the flow worked between sections.

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I enjoyed the exhibition on the history of French Canada.  It was presented in chronological order and I thought the artefacts were well-curated in order to illustrate that history and communicate something about the people of each period.  Lots of social history too which is my thing.  The kids really did not dig this section at all and did not especially engage but they are all old enough now that they could mill around at their own pace while their father and I took our time.

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What we all uniformly enjoyed was a special exhibition on the subject of poison.  We learned about poisons used for good and poisons used for malicious purposes and the presentation was very visual and interactive.  My macabre lot found it fascinating – though I suspect their highlight was seeing a bloke (hopefully an employee) reaching his bare arm and ungloved hand into a tank full of poisonous frogs.  As I have previously confided, I have an interest in the history of pandemics and that has led to a bit of an interest in medical history.  I, therefore, enjoyed all of the items that were about turning poisons into medicines – some of which were obviously of questionable merit (hello, mercury!) and a display case full of bezoars.  As someone who loves the macabre, I also liked the poisons that were used for detecting witches.  Mr Pict and two of our oldest sons are arachnophobes but they liked seeing a tarantula and a black widow.

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The next section we visited was a sort of maze full of games that were, I think, about using your senses to solve puzzles and messing around with optical illusions.  The boys especially enjoyed playing around with a mirror in which they could pretend to be dangling above skyscrapers and a maze that was absolutely devoid of light.  It was fun to find our way around using just our hands and it was even more fun to watch each other on the night vision cameras.

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The final section we went to was about prehistory.  I mean, what history museum is complete without some fossils?  I loved the way several exhibits were presented, with an audiovisual animation of a creature playing behind the glass case containing the relevant fossil.  My youngest – who is absolutely obsessed with cats – was delighted to find a mummified cat on display.

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It was a really good quality museum and a thoroughly pleasing way to spend a morning in Quebec.

Canada Trip #3 – Ricker Basin Ghost Village

Between our tour of Ben & Jerry’s and all of our edible tourism later in the day, we went for a hike in Little River State Park.  We all like to wander in the wilderness and I love ghost towns so our aim was to do the history trail that took us around the abandoned farming community of Ricker basin.  What I had not planned for, when proposing this hike, was the weather and the elevation of the trail.  We arrived at the State Park in absolutely torrential rain.  Even the park officers looked at us like we were loopy.  They also revealed to us that the trail should take us a few hours.  This did not compute with me, even as I looked at the map, but that was because I had not comprehended that the hike was going to be so steep and, at points, difficult underfoot.  I did that thing of assuming the park folks were basing their estimation on a slow pace of walking instead of asking about the topography so we committed to the trek and off we went.

Thankfully, the rain eased up and then stopped entirely early on in our trail.  The mud underfoot was still something we had to contend with and the intense humidity brought with it mosquitoes and other biting minibeasts galore but we were thankful at least to not be battling through rain.  One of the reasons Ricker Basin was abandoned was because of flooding.  It experienced two awful floods in 1927 and 1934, the first of which killed 55 people.  The second flood inspired the construction of a dam and led to a declining population.  Until then, however, the area had been farmed by a number of families for a century.

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As we trudged past the remnants of farmhouses and buildings, it seemed incredible to me that people had ever lived here.  The terrain was really pretty steep.  It was little wonder that they were largely subsistence farmers because trudging back and forth to market would have been quite the task.  Even before that, however, it must have been a massive undertaking to clear the land and prepare the ground for agriculture.  In the years since its abandonment, nature had almost completely engulfed all signs of human habitation.  There were trees everywhere.  There must have been even more dense woodland back when Mr Ricker first bought the land and started endeavouring to clear it.  These were definitely hardy people.

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One building is still standing but otherwise nothing remains of the buildings except for foundations and the occasional basement.  In addition to the farms, there was also a school house, and a couple of cemeteries.  At one of the cemeteries, I learned that the family who owned the plot had planted trees around its borders, one for every member of the family, planting another when someone married into the family, so that each individual had a tree available for cutting down and turning into a coffin when they died.  As morbid as it seems to have a coffin tree planted to commemorate your birth or wedding, I actually found myself admiring the pragmatism and forward planning of the scheme.  Circle of Life and all that.  As we walked – and it was a whole lot of walking, our phones logging almost 15,000 steps – we would occasionally stumble across a little fragment of metal.  Previous hikers had started a tradition of gathering artefacts found on or near the paths into collections in specific sites so we picked up what we found and added the items – including a bolt and a bed spring – to gatherings of other finds lined up on walls.

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It was a really enjoyable walk that reminded me a lot of some of our favourite treks in Argyll.  It mercifully did not take us the four or five hours the park rangers had predicted but it did take us a great deal more time and energy than I had anticipated.  Thankfully all the little spots of human habitation kept all of us – especially the children – engaged.  We definitely earned our calorie intake that day.

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