Portland Observatory Museum

“Breathtaking views and fascinating history at America’s last standing maritime signal tower.”

PO sign

Last year during my tour of Longfellow’s House in Portland, Maine, our guide happened to mention that The Portland Observatory was well worth a visit. I read more about it in my guide book but there wasn’t time to get there in 2014. This year it was at the top of my list so after a delicious lunch at Central Provisions I headed for Congress Street, one of the ‘main drags’ of Portland. It’s an uphill pull to reach the Observatory but that would be necessary as an observatory, of course, needs to be on the highest ground. I had expected something like the Hampstead Observatory where you can view the night sky but the Portland version is a very different.

P Observatory

On arrival I joined 3 other visitors on a volunteer guided tour to climb the 103 steps through seven stories to the viewing platform with a good dose of history thrown in.

On March 21, 1807, Lemuel Moody bought a one-half acre plot on the crest of Munjoy Hill, Portland. He planned to build a “marine lookout” to identify ships entering Portland Harbor and to provide useful information to ship owners and merchants. Such maritime signal towers already existed in Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and England. In order to raise capital, he founded the Portland Monument Ground Association and sold shares to investors. [Adapted from Observatory information boards]


The tall octagonal building was not well received at first due to its being built of wood and not brick. It was dubbed “the brown tower” but today it is celebrated as a National Historic Landmark.

National Historic Landmark

The idea was that two flags were made for each vessel. One was to be flown by the ship as it approached the harbour and the other kept at the Observatory and flown when the observer spotted the ship’s flag. The merchant, or his representative, could then get straight to the port and greet the ship as it arrived and unload its cargo.

ships in town

Carnival Splendour and Celebrity Cruise ships in the Portland Harbour

The flags have all gone now and so has the original telescope as the building was left to go to wrack and ruin during the mid twentieth century when technological advances improved ship to shore communication. It is amazing that the wooden structure has survived all this time. In 1866 Portland was virtually gutted by fire which reached as far as the nearby streets and destroyed a huge percentage of buildings in the city.

graffiti 2

The initials of some of those involved in building the tower were carved into the wood are still visible including Lemuel Moody’s [above].

graffitti 1

At the top floor lantern you can step out onto a deck and take in the 360 degree view.

view 2

The View West down Congress Street to central Portland

view 1

The View North/Northeast and Casco Bay

Talking with the docents at the lantern I now have a tip as to where to visit on a future trip to Portland : The International Museum of Cryptozoology!


Tiger, Mog, Pink Rabbit and More : The Jewish Museum, London

Kerr leaflet

On Sunday I met my sister, who was visiting me in London for the day, at the Jewish Museum, in Camden. As her train was somewhat delayed and she had had to leave the train at Stratford instead of Liverpool Street we had only a limited amount of time to look round. We chose to visit the current temporary exhibition on the third floor :Pink_Rabbit_home_page_920x265__false__true

and then quickly work our way through the History: A British Story section on the second floor. While I was waiting I spent time on the ground floor looking at the crowd-sourced Sacrifice displays.

sacrifice leaflet

What have you sacrificed?

Jewish Museum London’s third crowd-sourced exhibition will explore the theme of Sacrifice through personal mementoes, historic artefacts and fine art.

Members of the public have submitted objects alongside stories of sacrifices made, which will be displayed alongside treasures from the museum’s collection. 

Objects on display represent sacrifices from the momentous to the more mundane, across many times and cultures. They include representations of Greek mythology and Biblical tales, and personal stories from two World Wars. ”

Mikveh Bath

Mikveh Bath on Display

And, also on the ground floor, the Mikveh Bath unearthed in Milk Street, in the City, in 2001. This is a Jewish ritual bath dating from the 13th century and the oldest object in the Museum. It links the long history of Jews in Britain to a religious practice still shared by Jews throughout the world. It was built in the home of the Crespin family and may have been used by the family in private worship or in preparation for public worship.

Mikvehs are most commonly used by observant married women and by men before the Sabbath or religious festivals. It is also used in the preparation for marriage and in the final stage of converting to Judaism. Those using Mikveh achieve spiritual purity by immersing themselves in its waters.

Today the Mikveh is still used and rain water is still a constituent. [Adapted from Information Boards]

modern mikveh

Judith Kerr is the author of one of my best-loved books “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit”. She is also the author and illustrator of many children’s picture books including the Mog stories and the Tiger came to Tea which I remember reading to my sons when they were small.

JM shop

Judith Kerr is now 92 but in 1933 she and her parents and brother left Berlin and Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power. After travelling through Switzerland and living in Paris they finally settled in London.

Title page WHSPR

Judith Kerr was born on 14 June 1923 in Berlin but escaped from Hitler’s Germany with her parents and brother in 1933 when she was nine years old. Her father was a drama critic and a distinguished writer whose books were burned by the Nazis. The family passed through Switzerland and France before arriving finally in England in 1936. Judith went to eleven different schools, worked in the Red Cross during the war, and won a scholarship to the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1945. Since then she has worked as an artist, a BBC television scriptwriter and, for the past thirty years, as author and illustrator of children’s books.
Her three autobiographical novels are based on her early wandering years (which against all the odds she greatly enjoyed), her adolescence in London during the war, and finally on a brief return to Berlin as a young married woman. The stories have been internationally acclaimed and, to the author’s considerable satisfaction, have done particularly well in Germany where they are sometimes used as an easy introduction to a difficult period of Germany history.
Judith has a daughter who is a designer and a son who is a novelist. She lives in London.

The exhibition displays original art work done by the very young Judith and treasured by her mother as they made their escape across Europe. There are video displays featuring interviews with her and the stories behind her creations. Children, of course, are well catered for including the opportunity to take tea with a life-sized tiger. I was delighted to find out so much more about this intelligent and talented gentle woman the events of whose early years could have scarred her for life.

On the floor below are the Museum’s main collections.

Judaism: A Living Faith
A collection of rare and beautiful ceremonial art objects.

History: A British Story
An insight into British Jewish history from 1066 to today featuring interactive and thought provoking exhibits.

The Holocaust Gallery
Told through the story of one British-born survivor of Auschwitz.

As I said earlier we only had time to work our way quickly through one of the sections and I chose the history of Jews in Britain. The first Jews arrived with the Norman Conquest in 1066 and they were entirely banished in the 12th century. A changing map shows the incidence of Jews in Britain over the centuries. They have had a huge influence on our culture and fought and gave their lives for Britain in both World Wars. Here are a few items that I particularly picked out from the highlights of this fascinating overview.

Russian Vapour Bath

FO's diary

Deed box

One day I hope to revisit The Jewish Museum and see the rest of the collection.

The Jewish Museum offers free entry to Art Fund card holders.

Rothenstein’s Relevance at The Ben Uri Gallery

RR poster

In January 2014 I visited the Ben Uri Gallery in north London and today I was back there again.  It’s very fortuitous that I happen to be dog-sitting again when another excellent show is on at the Gallery. Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945) was born in Bradford and attended Bradford Grammar School and was a very significant figure in the art world in the first half of the 20th century. Continue reading

Historic New England Houses

The second place we stayed on this trip was in Maine and had the delightful name of Merrymeeting Retreat. It’s named after the nearby peninsula and bay of the Kennenec River to which it’s possible to walk, through woods, to see eagles nesting and other wildlife.

Our host told us that the house, below, was built in 1780 by Captain Samuel and Hannah Hinton Lilly. It stands next to the very quiet Route 128 (River Road) about 12 miles north of the historic town of Bath and about 8 miles from the equally historic (by American standards) town of Wiscasset to the east.

river road house

porch Continue reading

Tuesday 12 May 2015 : My Very Own Bloomsday

Bloomsday is a celebration that takes place both in Dublin and around the world. It celebrates Thursday 16 June 1904, which is the day depicted in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. The day is named after Leopold Bloom, the central character in Ulysses. The novel follows the life and thoughts of Leopold Bloom and a host of other characters – real and fictional – from 8am on 16 June 1904 through to the early hours of the following morning.

Celebrations often include dressing up like characters from the book and in clothes that would have been the style of the era. One of the hallmark fancy dress items of Bloomsday is the straw boater hat. Celebrations come in many different forms like readings, performances and visiting the places and establishments that are referenced in the book. The Bloomsday Breakfast is another common celebration, which involves eating the same breakfast as Leopold Bloom consumes on the morning of 16 June. This includes liver and kidneys alongside the typical ingredients of an Irish fried breakfast.”

joyce breakfast

Joyce’s Table set for Breakfast at The Martello Tower Continue reading

FOR SALE : Preserved and meticulously restored : The Crocker Tavern House, Barnstable, MA

Crocker Tavern House sign

Crocker seems to have been a popular name around Barnstable, MA, where we stayed on our recent trip to New England. Our AirBnB was the annexe of Henry Crocker House (Item 2 on Page 2) and just across the road is the Crocker Tavern House. And there’s an Historic New England property in nearby Yarmouth Port The Winslow Crocker House. We’ve visited this area before. In fact, we’ve stayed in Barnstable a few times and I wrote about it here in 2012.


Continue reading