Opinion

Why The Hell Do People Go To Ripley's Believe It Or Not!?

Why The Hell Do People Go To Ripley's Believe It Or Not!?
This chap has just seen the entry price

We are looking at a woman killing a bear with a frying pan in front of a t rex.

We are looking at the 'toot sweet' candy machine from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

We are looking at Sting's face carved out of a phone book.

There are too many good openers for an article on Ripley's Believe it or Not! to use just one. Piccadilly Circus' wunderkammer-on-steroids is oft-scorned by Londoners as an overpriced touristland black hole, that makes its employees work Christmas Day. But, believe it or not, we're here to give it a chance.

Robert Wadlow, the world's tallest ever man, and something of an icon for Ripley's

First things first: who's this Ripley character when he's at home? Well, Robert Ripley rarely was at home — something of a latter day Marco Polo (with the unfortunate facial features of a pudgy Ken Dodd), 'Rip' scoured the globe in search of stories that would baffle and bemuse, bringing them to life in his comics, radio and TV shows. He's also said to have coined the phrase "believe it or not!"... which we're frankly incredulous about (popularised it, perhaps).

Nonetheless, as we delve into a small but fascinating introductory section on Ripley  (it includes a tack button found in a clam, mailed in by a fan) we feel sheepish having known so little about a man emblazoned across a whopping great London attraction. (If we couldn't tell you who Madame Tussaud was, we'd feel compelled to resign.)

So why IS Ripley's in London? Well, it isn't a one-off; these emporiums of oddness are scattered across the States (and Blackpool), each stuffed with their own unique gimcrack. Piccadilly Circus in this case has been chosen, presumably because Ripley's leftover fortune can cover the rent, but despite this being a global collection, there are nods to the host city.

There's an opening and closing Tower Bridge formed out of 264,345 matchsticks by the acutely arthritic Mr Pollard, while a small personal ambition of ours is achieved when we track down a bottle of Harrods' Tutankhamun Ale — flogged at £5,000 a pop (we dispute the 'world's oldest beer' claim: it was brewed in 1996, but anyway).

Throw a selection of mummified royal wedding cake and gloves worn by Charles II into the pot, and we're relatively sated as Londoners. Speaking of pots, there's a delightful moment of toilet humour, thanks to Benjamin Disraeli's chamber pot — skillfully painted with the image of his arch rival, William Gladstone.

This is genuinely Disraeli's bog, apparently

Such stories do whiff of myth, but Ripley's claims to deal only in facts (aliens and witchcraft are generally frowned upon in these parts). And yup, turns out the historical phenomenon of pissing all over your foes really was a thing.

And then the faces begin.

Michelle Obama's face, made from 2,000 bottle tops. Wouldn't it be great if Barack made this

There are only so many famous faces made out of random things you can look at before you go a bit mad. That number is about 10 — and by the time we've been confronted with a Diana Ross made out of number plates, a Judas made from matchsticks, a jelly bean Michael Jackson and a dung-formed Jimi Hendrix, the art form does begin to parody itself somewhat.

You also come to realise there's a fine line between genius and psychopath; whoever made a picture of JFK out of smashed-up butterflies is erring towards the wrong end of the spectrum.

Meanwhile, the kids seem to be loving every minute of Ripley's: cries of "mummy, what's this?" and "can we go round a second time?" are bandied about, and even towards the end of the experience, there's no sign of glum faces and foot dragging. No mean feat in this day and age.

One older kid we run into is in his element right now. Bjorn is from Sweden. "I'm a collector, I collect everything," he says. So his house looks like Ripley's? "It's a bit more creepy," he confides — explaining that he collects everything from military memorabilia to stuffed animals. He's particularly taken with the taxidermy collection here, boasting a five legged lamb (think of the roast dinners). "The more bizarre it is, the better it is," grins Bjorn.

Bjorn poses in front of a waxwork of Thomas Wedder's nose

Which brings us to the 'freak show' element of Ripley's. While half the emporium is about what people did with their lives, the other is about the lives they were forced to live with. Is it OK that kids gape slack-jawed as Grace McDaniels, the 'world's ugliest woman' slowly rotates to reveal her Sturge-Weber syndrome features? Or at the 485kg Earl Hughes of Monticello, Missouri?

There is certainly a touch of Barnum & Bailey to Ripley's — indeed some of the exhibits, like the 'Fiji Mermaid', once starred in the travelling circus show. Still, you can't accuse Ripley's of stirring anything up. Ripley himself was a matter of fact(s) man — and visitors are invited to reach their own conclusions on what they see — whether amazement, sympathy, disgust, hilarity or all of the above. It's up to the parents how they explain things  to their kids, and that's how it should be.

If you are taking kids (or are of a nervous disposition yourself), be warned that things do get dark; iron maidens and horrendous forms of Chinese torture await you in a (skipable) mini dungeon. A tank of water kept at the same temperature of that in which Titanic passengers perished is oddly disturbing too — not least because of how many kids must have dipped their mitts in it.

But the lighter touches are there too, and it's hard not to smile at the likes of Willard Wigan's micro sculptures, perched on the end of pin heads. Dare we say it, Ripley's sparkles with the odd moment of pure joy. And we're massive cynics.

You can skip this bit if you like

A couple of flashy add ons wrap up the Ripley's experience; a mirror maze (where you'll end up aping Roger Moore in The Man With the Golden Gun), and the rotating vortex tunnel — almost as unpleasant a way to end your trip to Ripley's as being egged on to buy a £25 book of crappy souvenir photos. Told you we were cynical.

Ripley's does have a knack of wowing you one second, disgusting you the next, and grating on you just after that (we swear some of the looping music tracks are played to move you on faster, and every time an information board ends with '...believe it or not!' the scream in our head gets a tiny bit louder).

But while some things will impress you far more than others, it is frankly impossible to come here and be bored. Just for goodness sake, get a two-for-one deal... the £27.99 entry fee is by far the most unbelievable thing there.

Better than bubblegum
The view out on Piccadilly Circus. It's pity there's no trivia about the immediate area - although Ripley's is so cluttered, it's possible we missed it
In case you weren't invited to the wedding
Christ
Beatles on Beetles
Apparently Nancy Wilson (right) was only ever meant to stun the bear. Instead she killed it dead
Earl Hughes, of being overweight fame
Come on in
Told you this was a thing
Can't afford a Ferrari? Then you knit one
This one came with no visible explanation
Charles II's gloves
Dinosaur eggs - pretty cool

Last Updated 27 July 2017