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The Herschel Museum of Astronomy

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Address: 19 New King Street / Bath / BA1 2BL

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      02.04.2013 17:44
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      A quaint little attraction for those with an interest in astronomy and with an hour to kill in Bath

      Being a loyal follower (aka a glutton for punishment) of the London Irish rugby team saw me on a day trip to the fabulous city of Bath steeped in history to witness yet another crushing away defeat. Arriving early I had a few hours to kill and having gained a recent interest in astronomy, albeit without any real knowledge, The Herschel Museum of Astronomy sounded just the ticket to undertake this temporal homicide since the estimated visitation time was approximately an hour. Of course that was dependent on finding the place first which proved a lot trickier than I was hoping. Located at 19 New King Street this street was too small to appear on my iPhone map so I had to resort to following the route it laid out for me beginning near the train station which required a lot of zigzagging around streets, so unless you are highly familiar with Bath you will probably require a map to help you find this place or risk being lost in a labyrinth. Once you get to New King Street the museum itself is very unassuming and merges in with all the other terraced housing around with just a small plaque to alert you to its existence, but at least the houses are labelled sequentially so finding number 19 is easy enough and for me this added a charming sense of realism to the place as you could imagine it as being just an ordinary house where some extraordinary things occurred some 240 years ago.


      ==Address==

      Herschel Museum of Astronomy, 19 New King Street, Bath BA1 2BL
      Tel: +44 01225 446865
      Fax: +44 01225 446865
      Website: bath-preservation-trust.org.uk or herschelmuseum.org.uk


      ==Prices==

      Adult: £6.00
      Children and School Groups: £3.00
      Concession: £5.50
      Family (2 Adults, 2 Children): £14.50
      Student: £3.50
      B&NES Discovery Card Holders: 2 for 1 entry


      ==Opening Times==

      Mondays - Fridays: 13:00 - 17:00
      Weekends and Bank holidays: 11:00 - 17:00


      ==The History of the Herschels==

      "William Herschel was the first man to give a reasonably correct picture of the shape of our star-system or galaxy; he was the best telescope-maker of his time, and possibly the greatest observer who ever lived", Sir Patrick Moore.

      I'm sure anyone with an interest in astronomy will have heard of the German born Englishman Frederick "William" Herschel (B. 15th November 1738, D. 25th August 1822 aged 84), who started out as a prolific musician mastering the oboe, cello, harpsichord and organ and producing some 24 symphonies along the way. It was when he moved to Bath, bringing with him his sister Caroline, 12 years his junior, whom he trained in both music and astronomy who then took on the running of the household, that his star gazing hobby became more serious and he began developing his own telescopes to see further in to space than anyone before him. Amongst many of his important astronomical observations his most famous was undoubtedly the discovery of Uranus in 1781 which in that split second doubled the known size of the solar system and kick started the exploration of our solar system and through building and selling telescopes he was able to turn his hobby in to a full time career.

      Over the years he also made other massive contributions to astronomy including but not limited to: his reflective telescope designs (Herschelian telescopes) which did away with the need for speculum mirrors with their poor reflection; his observations on double star systems (discovering 800+) allowed him to prove that they orbited under mutual gravitation attraction and laid the groundwork for "binary star astronomy"; his surveys of the deep sky allowed the identification of over 2400 objects which eventually became the New General Catalogue (NGC) which is still used today to label these celestial objects; his discovery of two moons of Saturn and potentially the rings around Uranus; he was the first to realise that the solar system was moving through space due to observing the proper motion of stars and that the shape of the Milky Way was disk-like; he coined the term 'asteroid', and last but not least he discovered infrared radiation in sunlight whilst trying to observe sun spots.

      But he was not the only Herschel to contribute to astronomy - his sister Caroline (B. 16th March 1750, D. 9th January 1848 aged 97), sadly scarred by small pox and destined to never marry, was one of the first pioneer female astronomers and became known as a comet hunter (spotting 9 of the fiery tailed devils), and her observations and catalogue work won her the Gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society whom she became an honorary member of in 1835; his son John picked up where his father left off and finished his father's dream of mapping the heavens by setting up base in South Africa for 3 years as well as contributing to photography with his discovery of the fixing agent sodium thiosulphate. So, a rather useful family for the advancement of science, and to think it all started in a humble five storey house in Bath.


      ==Visiting Experience==

      Upon entry to the museum you head through a small corridor to the reception area / gift shop where you pay for your entry ticket. For an extra £1 you can also get an audio guide, but the ticket seller didn't inform me of this fact and it wasn't until I saw those numbered labels propped against various items of interest that I realised it was even available which was unfortunate. Although to be honest, I rarely go for them anyway as I usually opt for the main guide book which costs £3.50. As soon as you have paid you are free to wander the three available floors in no particular order which is groovy as in my past experiences with museums that follow a certain route I always feel under pressure to move out of the way of other patrons so usually end up missing quite a bit or feeling rushed. The reception area itself contains a lot of interesting pieces which capture your attention immediately including a replica of the 7ft Newtonian reflecting telescope Herschel used to spot Uranus and a scale model of the 40ft telescope he built in Slough which unfortunately was too cumbersome to be of use but did become an unofficial Wonder of the World on ordnance maps as well as drawings, pictures and original speculum mirrors.

      Also on the ground floor is the dining room styled to the 19th Century with wall paper based upon designs found in a different house in Bath and the rug a copy of and 18th Century French Aubusson carpet as well as Regency period furniture including the original dining table, a longcase clock and Herschel's original travelling trunk all aimed to keep the décor as true to the period as possible. Also look out for the walls that contain an assortment of prints, satirical astronomical cartoons and an original planisphere from 1811. Unfortunately, this is where your journey will end if you are a wheelchair user or cannot use stairs since this is an historical building not equipped to allow wheelchair access, but in the reception is a virtual tour of the house with pictures and detailed descriptions of everything you could want to know so hopefully will provide an informative experience if nothing else.

      Upstairs takes you to a first floor drawing room (originally a study/workroom and possibly William's bedroom) and a music room where Herschel would have taught music to his pupils. Here you can see a wonderful array of historical artefacts including mirrors and prisms, letters and manuscripts, ancient globes, the log of all the special guests that turned up to 19 New King Street to make use of Herschel's telescope including a lot of royalty and upper class kept by Caroline (well worth a perusal) and musical instruments including a square piano and a Louis XVI harp made in 1795. These are out in the open, so clumsy people and mischievous children should be reined in around here to avoid destroying a part of our heritage. The most interesting piece on this floor though is the brass drum orrery built by George Adam around 1782 which shows the movement of the planets and their moons as well as incorporating a tellurium and lunarium which demonstrate the changing seasons and affect moons have on tides so do look out for that one.

      Going back down to the basement, passing all sorts of pictures and satirical cartoons along the way, if you safely make it down the rickety stairs you are first hit with a family tree for William Herschel which gives some fascinating insight to the family as a whole and to your left you enter the original kitchen furnished with a mixture of Georgian and Victorian furniture and kitchen equipment. There is also a scale model of the house randomly stood there which is cool if you like models. Moving on through is the workshop and this is probably the most scientifically interesting room in the house with lots of fascinating instruments to look at including the massive treadle lathe to turn smaller parts of telescopes like the eyepieces, a replica of a parabolic mirror polishing machine and a replica furnace. You can also look out for a mould made out of horse dung and plaster to house the molten metal which was used to make the mirrors - that sounds like a kid pleaser. Moving on, the next room is an exhibition area to display lots more intriguing documents and artefacts before granting you entrance to the garden which is small but pretty and has a couple of attractive sculptures to gaze upon, and rather more poignantly it was here that Uranus was discovered and you get the opportunity to bask in the historical significance of that.

      Back inside there is one final point of interest which is by going back to the family tree and going on past it you arrive at the Star Vault which is basically a mini theatre where you get to watch a 15 minute presentation narrated by the late great Sir Patrick Moore who had an affiliation with this museum, which portrays, through actors, the lives of the Herschels while they were here which is well worth a watch if you have time, as it is both informative and full of amusing melodramatic acting, especially with the recreation of a now infamous accident Herschel had with molten metal and the horse dung mould causing a spillage resulting in stone flooring flying every which way. The cracks caused by the accident are still visible today. When I arrived this presentation was not running and the room was shrouded in darkness, but there were some helpful instructions telling you how to turn a DVD player on and then how to press play and repeat which obviously is child's play in the comfort of your own home, but somehow becomes a complex procedure verging on rocket science when fiddling with someone else's technology where you fear you could break it with one false move. Still, we got it working and the fellow visitors that day should be grateful for our intervention.

      So, that's the tour of the house jam packed with reconstructed rooms carefully reflecting the period with well-chosen décor and furniture whilst showcasing lots of fascinating astronomy artefacts, instruments, letters, drawings, manuscripts, pictures and satirical cartoons all bursting with historical merit, which took me about 45 minutes to complete. It would probably be longer with the audio tour and if there were more people there - I luckily arrived early on and there were only about 3 other groups milling around so I practically had free roam of the place. It may be a small museum, but its importance regarding the advancement of astronomy is staggering and it has an atmospheric charm to it, so for anyone interested in astronomy this is a great place to come to if you have a little time to spare, but it probably won't take you much more than an hour so probably won't be the main attraction on a day out.


      ==Facilities and Travel Information==

      * There are toilets available, but unfortunately these are in the basement so if you cannot get down the stairs these will remain unreachable for you.

      * Gift shop - consists of one bookcase containing books, DVDs, jigsaws, and toys aimed at children so not much choice which is probably better from a parent's perspective.

      * School tours are available with workshops priced at £3 per child, and for families there are trails to follow and a basket of handling objects, hopefully to remove the temptation to touch things on the way around.

      * There is supposedly car parking available but from all I could see that would be street parking so you would probably be better off parking elsewhere in the city or using park and ride and perambulating to the museum.

      * The Bath railway station is a 15 minute walk away or you can catch the No. 14 bus to Monmouth place which will put you a minute away from the museum.

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