What an exciting assault on the senses a visit to the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is! The entire museum exists in the roof of St Thomas' Church in Southwark, near London Bridge. The church was once part of St Thomas' Hospital, with part of the attic being used as an apothecary and part used as an operating theatre for female patients. The attic was hidden away for over a hundred years after St Thomas' Hospital moved in the mid-19th century, rediscovered in 1956 and preserved as a museum.
You enter this strange place by climbing thirty-plus tightly wound and very worn, wooden spiral steps, clinging precariously on to a rather slack bannister rope, hopping you don't meet someone coming down as you head up. I did consider that should a visitor fall they could be administered a potion, have any broken bones reset and be blessed by a minister all in the one place. After a scrabble through a very tiny and cluttered reception-area-come-bookshop and up more steps you finally arrive in a Hogathian heaven of sloping ceilings, uneven floors, creaking eaves and dust; dust hanging in the air and covering every part of the collection that hasn't been sealed in a glass case. It is one of the most evocative rooms I think I have ever been in.
As museum experiences go, I struggled to pick up a thread of a story anywhere as I bumbled around the place. But the information sheet you were handed on arrival and the room itself were enough for me. Armed with the bare facts you could just stand in that attic and absorb the history. You didn't need all the 'stuff'. And there was a lot of it, randomly arranged around the room trying to emulate the apothecary experience: baskets and bowls of herbs, dried up berries, nuts and roots and ground-up powders spilling all over the place; jars of body parts and cases of grim looking 19th-century surgical equipment. It all smelt very nice. But it looked a bit Harry Potter at times. The mix of hand-written labels and photocopies of photocopies of photographs weren't needed. Along a corridor you came to the Operating Theatre. Literally a theatre with raised platforms looking down onto a hard wooden operating table. A couple of etchings of 18th-century amputations prompted you to remember what this place was all about.
The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret is small museum, obviously run on a tight budget. But well worth a visit. Just look beyond the clutter and it's easy to soak up the atmosphere of grimmer days gone by.