After my visit to Keswick’s pencil museum I walked into the town centre to find The Puzzling Place, somewhere else which was featured in my ‘111 Places’ book. Described as ‘an indoor extravaganza of puzzles and optical illusions’, this was the place where you can shake your own hand, see water flowing backwards, slide uphill and stick yourself to the ceiling – it sounded quirky and fun, and hopefully more interesting than the pencil museum.
Having paid my £4.50 entrance fee the first thing I came to was the magic mirror so I stuck my hand through the centre to see what happened and there it was, my own hand and arm coming back at me. The Impossible Chess Set was a photo of a physical model made by Bruno Ernst based on a design by Swedish artist Oscar Reutersvard, while the praxinoscope was invented in France in 1877 by Charles-Emile Reynaud. This one was quite a pretty little thing and spinning the cylider made the static horses inside come to life.
Illusion or reality – which do you see? This works equally well on a computer screen but it confused the camera – I actually photographed ‘reality’ but the camera lens saw ‘illusion’. The secret is in where you view it from – close up produces one word, viewed from a distance gives you the other. It doesn’t matter which way round you put the two wooden blocks in the circular frame, one always looks bigger than the other but they are actually both exactly the same size – and sometimes I wish I really was as tall and slim as I appear in the mirror, although I’m not sure about the stick-thin legs.
Somewhere in this attractive beach scene you can find Napoleon – this figure/ground illusion apparently appeared shortly after his death in 1821. Once he’s been found he becomes incredibly obvious and can never be ‘lost’ again as once seen he can’t be ‘unseen’. The following illusion was devised by French artist Isia Leviant – stare at the centre yellow circle for long enough and the blue and green outer circles will appear to be moving, sometimes clockwise, sometimes anti-clockwise. Stare a bit longer and the yellow circle will appear to be getting larger.
‘Melancholy Tunes on a Flemish Winter’s Day’ is by Flemish artist Jos De Mey and is an example of how the human brain creates something which looks three-dimensional out of a two-dimensional drawing. The suspended window frame was constantly turning and though it appeared to be solid it also looked as if the stick was passing through the centre of it.
Although there were many more puzzles and illusions, including the Hologram Gallery, the best three were yet to come. Looking through the ‘window’ set in one wall of the Ames Forced Perspective Room it looked like any normal rectangular room though it was anything but. In the words of the caterpillar in Alice In Wonderland, referring to the mushroom he’d been sitting on – “One side will make you grow taller, the other side will make you grow shorter” and I only had to walk from one side of the room to the other to make myself grow or shrink. The inspiration for this room came from a place in New Zealand and it’s the only room of this kind in the UK.
In the Anti-Gravity Room water flows at an unnatural angle, you can slide uphill, and you can stand at a slant and lean at a crazy angle without falling over, though being on my own there was no-one to take a photo of me doing it. The room also comes with a warning but even so I was quite unprepared for the effect it had on me. Two steps in and I was staggering against the wall as if I’d just drunk a barrel full of beer, I couldn’t walk straight at all, and when I went over to the far wall I was immediately sent hurtling back across the room; there are grab rails in several places and they really are needed. And yes, when I came out of there I did feel slightly nauseous although it passed within a couple of minutes and I was fine.
The next room was one where I could have had a lot of fun if I hadn’t been on my own, especially when it came to taking photos, but fortunately there was cctv and a monitor screen on one wall so wherever I was in the room I could take shots of myself – and no, I’m not explaining how it all works.
The Puzzling Place makes no secret of how everything works; the theory behind every illusion is explained underneath each one and there’s a perfectly logical explanation for every visual effect. It was a very interesting and quirky place to look round, much better than the Pencil Museum, and now having looked back at my photos I’ve had a few ideas for some better shots so that’s a place I may very well return to another time.