Ben le Vay travelled the country looking for all things British and eccentric. In part two of our eccentric museums feature he reveals the country's most odd museums
Ben le Vay travelled up and down the country seeking out the the wierdest, wackiest and most British things about this curious country for his new book, Eccentric Britain. Here, in the second part of his feature, he reveals 15 more of Britain's most eccentric museums.
Again these are contents, not the official title of Oxford’s extraordinary, eclectic and eccentric Pitt Rivers Museum, one of those everything-in-the-world collections that curious rich people used to put together. Where else will you find: shrunken heads; mummified people; a witch in a bottle; whole boats; American Indian skin shirts decorated with porcupine quills?
The place is crammed and many of the items are still labelled in the handwriting of the original curator. Pull open a drawer (under the display cases) and there may be magic objects, including amulets and charms; an intriguing collection of locks and keys; tools and weapons; voodoo dolls; weird musical instruments; mummified toads; severed fingers.
The opening hours are limited to afternoons at the time of writing, but it’s free and fascinating. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the Natural History Museum, through which you must pass, is it.
More information can be found here: Pitt Rivers Museum
Reading, Berkshire (pronounced Redding, not like the activity you are doing now) is famous for many things, including being home to Huntley & Palmer, major manufacturers – in fact the world’s biggest in 1900 – of biscuits (cookies, if you will). The place was called Biscuit Town colloquially and the football team the Biscuit Men.
These biscuits are held with great affection by the British, and the highly decorated tins they used to be sold in are collectable in themselves. It’s in fact just a section of The Museum of Reading at the Town Hall (style: twiddly bits Gothic Revival). This also has, strangely, a full-sized copy of the Bayeux Tapestry made by Victorian ladies, which doesn’t have to be viewed in near-darkness like the original (yes, I know that’s an embroidery, not a tapestry, and was probably made in Kent, not Bayeux, but we’re not going to change that now).
Plus you can buy biscuits to take away or nibble in the Biscuit Tin café. Huntley & Palmer’s biscuits were taken to the South Pole by Captain Scott in his disastrous expedition. Not enough Oates probably. Does that take the biscuit, bad-joke-wise?
What about the fact that in 19th-century Italy, Garibaldi helped push out the Bourbons? Lets stop before we go crackers.
Above Brian and Sue Radam’s lawnmower shop, this is mower interesting, containing 150 vintage and celebrity machines. There is a smaller display at Trerice, a National Trust manor house near Newquay, Cornwall which has a mere 87 mowers.
More information can be found here: Lawnmower Museum
One hundred china, or wax-headed, Victorian dolls amidst the cacophony of 100 automatic music boxes, curios and mechanical dance organs from the same period.
Mechanical Music Museum and Doll Collection: Church Road, Portfield, Chichester PO19 4HN; 01243372646
Hotter than the Spice Girls ever were, Norfolk’s mustard industry has a fascinating history illustrated here through the history of the Colman family, plus, of course, oodles of products to buy. And if that leaves you thirsty, try the Teapot Museum nearby.
More information can be found here: Mustard Museum
An interesting remnant of a once-huge local industry that helped stitch the Empire together. This is in fact a water-powered needle scouring mill but you’ll have to go along to see the point. One could naturally follow this with the Button Museum, Ross on Wye, but I believe the owners have retired and closed it (‘Sell our collection? Never!’).
Needle Museum Forge Mill: Needle Mill Lane, Redditch, Worcestershire B98 8HY; 01527 62509
Return to the land of hope and gory when conscious, screaming patients endured butchery, which often killed them, in front of an audience (as in operating theatre), while sawdust soaked up the blood. The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret, near London Bridge, dates from 1822, before antiseptics and anaesthetics. If this makes you feel faint, there’s always the London Fan Museum at Greenwich.
To be blunt, some may not see the point, but it’s quite a draw on a rainy day in the Lake District where graphite mines provided the ‘lead’ for the famous Cumberland pencils. How about the world’s biggest pencil, or spy pencils with secret maps in them? Plus all the 4Bs or 3Hs you can carry.
More information can be found here: Pencil Museum
The home of Clark’s shoes, but this family business is not the sole subject. It has the last word on footwear back to the 16th century and, on the way in, some early shoemaking machines.
Shoe Museum: 01458 842169
This features a selection of the world’s largest collection of British teapots – 3,000 varieties from short and stout to ancient and priceless, including the world’s largest. The fascinating RAF Air Defence Radar Museum is nearby.
A fur bet for the right kind of child. There’s another one in Worcestershire.
There are three linked museums: the Prison and Police Museum, which includes stocks and chains in an 1816 extension to a house of correction; the 18th-century Courthouse Museum; and the Ripon Workhouse Museum, in an 1854 building. Curator Anthony Chadwick says: ‘This place has a remarkable effect on people. About 90 per cent of visitors to the prison approve of everything that they see and wish to go back to those
times, then they see the workhouse and their reaction is exactly the opposite.’
More information can be found here: Ripon Museums
Marconi transmitted from here to the mainland, first installing his equipment on the Titanic, which saved so many lives. There is a good collection of early radios and televisions, if that kind of thing is on your wavelength.
National Wireless Museum: Puckpool Park, Ryde PO34 5AR
Wizard during a wet spell on holiday. But think about it: either witchcraft is real, or all those women burnt alive or drowned on ducking stools were terribly wronged. In fact this museum itself was pretty drowned in the shock Boscastle floods of 2004, but is back on form now, as if someone waved a magic wand. Don’t miss staggeringly beautiful Tintagel nearby.
More information can be found here: The Museum of Witchcraft
30. Vacuum Cleaner Museum
If you think this idea sucks (sorry), you’d be right, literally. More than 70 vintage Hoovers, Electroluxes, Kirbys, Dysons, etc. ‘All I’ve ever wanted is to work with vacuum cleaners,’ says James Brown. It’s actually a shop in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, called Mr Vacuum Cleaner, which sells and repairs machines. But the further into the shop you go, the more vintage and strange machines come into view. And don’t call them Hoover when they are not or – crime of crimes – use ‘Hoovering’ as a verb. James started young: ‘When I was four and my Mum was poorly, I used to help out with her Electrolux 345 Automatic,’ James says. ‘When I was eight, my Dad found a little Goblin 800 that had been thrown away. We fixed it and that was my very own vacuum cleaner.’ Note the early attention to detail.
James’s biggest treat was visiting the factory of the Rolls-Royce of vacuums, Kirby, in Ohio. He was quoted as saying ‘I was so excited, I could barely speak.’ Hoover didn’t invent the vacuum, but bought it off a sucker called Spangler (and then really cleaned up), so perhaps one should Spangler the carpet. This is a shop, so no admission charge, but do buy something, even if it’s just some bags for your old upright. A few yards away from D H Lawrence’s Birthplace Museum … I wonder which women were more grateful for at the time – Sons & Lovers or the vacuum?
More information can be found here: mr vacuum cleaner
Extract taken from Ben le Vay's new book, Eccentric Britain
A practical guide to a curious country
Ben le Vay