Travel

A Day at Horniman

Sparkling sunny weekends are a rarity in our part of the world. If the week shall go in a sunny, breezy mode, Friday rolls in and the clouds declare their presence, often not in a I-am-billowy-and-pretty-just-like-that way. The weekend did start on a cracking note and the sun did power its way through Sunday. So the British have declared summer. Over the last two days, men have been spotted in speedos atop caravans, women have been noted to drive in bikinis and others have been sitting in barely-there-shorts in the backyards.

On Friday, quite early in the morning I had work in London – which meant I had the whole day to myself after. I made my way to the Horniman Museum. The fact that it was free added a spring to my step. But what I had overestimated was my power to get lost. I Will get lost. No matter how many years I have been living in a country. My teenage years in Calcutta were spent regularly landing up in odd places and an irate father coming to the rescue. Once after a date, I took the wrong bus and reached another part of Calcutta quite late at night. I was invited by an old man to his terrace home – when I look back I am astounded at my calibre for silliness. I did go up to the terrace with him and make an SOS call to the parents (who could not believe their ears). As it happened, it was new year’s eve, and my uncle and his family were visiting us from London. The whole family came to get me back home. Suffice it to say that the evening is etched in my memory.

It took me two hours to get to Forest Hill from Baker’s Street by tube and overground trains (when it should have taken me all of 50 minutes). I do not know where I went wrong except that I did get on and off a few trains and stand at stations where I should not have. In the meantime, the person who was getting steadily worked up through watsapp was the husband. He had visions of massive charges on the card because of all the overground trains I was changing.

But I did reach Horniman. I have proof of meeting the in-house walrus.

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Walking beneath the cherry blossoms of Forest Hill take away the sting of goofing up.
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Beneath bowers of cherry blossoms who can be woeful for long.

Our Walrus is an unusual taxidermy specimen, it appears stretched and ‘over stuffed’ as it lacks the skin folds characteristic of a walrus in the wild. Over one hundred years ago, only a few people had ever seen a live walrus, so it is hardly surprising that ours does not look true to life.

The name Horniman is owed a great deal to by tea lovers. Today it is owned by Douwe Egberts but the founder of the eponymously named Horniman’s Tea was a trader called John Horniman. He had started the tea trading business in the small but beautiful Isle of Wight in 1826 and had also changed the concept of selling of loose leaf teas which were often adulterated with dust and hedge clippings by unscrupulous sellers (horrendous, right?). He sealed his packages of tea thus ensuring that authentic tea leaves reached the customers sans the extra ingredients. Even our much-touted philosopher of profoundness, Nietzsche, deemed Horniman’s to be his preferred brand of tea. Who likes the great outdoors (apart from the leaves) in his tea? Well, the great majority clearly gave John a thumbs up, so his company did become the largest tea trading company in the world by 1891.

The museum however was not his idea. It was his son Frederick’s brainchild.

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Portrait of Frederick John Horniman

Thanks to the country’s passion for tea, Frederick had enough moolah to indulge his passion for collecting. Everything from natural history to musical instruments and cultural artefacts. This museum of his has a sum total of about 350,000 objects. As a tea lover how could I not see what tea had wrought?

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Meet the walrus of Horniman’s. He is a celebrity, okay? He was possibly sourced from the area around Hudson Bay in Canada. Queen Victoria too had visited our tooth-some friend.
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If he looks unnaturally fat, blame it on the taxidermist. He/she overstuffed him. So there are no folds on his skin.
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Meet the three long-eared owls. I took to them. I mean, just look at them. Especially the look of the third fellow on the extreme right.
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Look at that beak of the Crowned Horn Bill. Solid as a curved piece of wood, you think?
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Iridiscence. Beetles and bugs.
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Scarlet Ibis
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A Central American beauty. 
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Merman. ‘WHAT’, did you say? In the early 18th-19th centuries, mermen were brought by sailors to Europe. They were believed to be real for centuries, inhabiting the oceans around Asia, till it was discovered that they were indeed products of man’s genius for imagination. They were found to have been the head and torso of a monkey put together with the tail of a fish. Man is a genius. Fraudulent ones, more so.
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Golden-headed Trogon
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Philosophising orang-utan. He has the stance and stick of a hermit.
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Be kind to my special friend, the red-howler monkey. He belongs in the treetops of Brazil. I am sure he thought, ‘Oh no, am I in the Blighty?’ and that priceless expression was thus frozen.

Lest you think that strange stuffed animals is all you shall get to see, there is also the wonderful park and greenery around you on a fine summer’s day.

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Horniman gardens
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Views of London’s skyline (you can just about make out the silhouette of The Shard on the horizon)
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Conservatory at the Horniman Museum
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When you leave the museum, you might just be rewarded by a Mr. Whippy.

So, the question is that if you are in London, should you or should you not head over to Horniman’s. I would say give it a go if you feel like turning into a child all over again. And do remember me if you meet the walrus and the red howler monkey.

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