Part 1: Britain's 30 most eccentric museums

Part 1: Ben le Vay travelled the country looking for all things British and eccentric. Here he reveals the first 15 of the country's most odd museums

7 mins

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 first of a two-part feature, he reveals 15 of Britain's most eccentric museums.

1. Chair museum, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

More interesting than you expect when you get furnished with the details. For instance, bodging is the art much practised in the woods hereabouts of spinning a bit of wood on a forest lathe to make ornate chair legs. Hence the Bodgers Arms pub nearby. You wooden credit it. Local council meetings could be confusing, however. ‘The sitting chair chair is going to table a motion…’

More information can be found here: Wycombe local history and chair museum

2. Cinema Organ museum, St Albans, Hertfordshire

See and hear a couple of those amazing organs such as the Wurlitzer from the great days of giant ‘dream palaces’, mostly now demolished, and four gaudily decorated mechanical organs which, like those in fairgrounds, work automatically but equally rousingly off cards with the music punched on them.

St Albans organ museum: 320 Camp Road, St Albans 01727 851557

3. Cornflakes Packet museum, Notting Hill, London

In fact, the much wider Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, which founder Robert Opie, with admirable foresight – although his friends may have thought him a little odd – started at the age of 16 in 1963, collecting, dating and pricing ordinary packaging of then contemporary household goods. A tad boring in 1963, but by 2010, absolutely fascinating. Since then his collection has mushroomed and gone back in time to the fascinating and unlikely origins of the things on all our kitchen shelves. His greatest wish? Winning the Lottery, perhaps? ‘Probably an early Heinz baked bean can, dating back the end of the 19th century. Mine only go back to the 1930s,’ he says wistfully.

More information can be found here: Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising

4. Corkscrew Museum, Alfriston, Sussex

Actually just a display that’s part of the English Wine Museum at the English Wine Centre, near Drusilla’s Zoo. There is also an extensive corkscrew collection, not always on display, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

More information on the corkscrew museum can be found here: English Wine Museum

5. Nagging Museum, London

Really the Clink Museum, where macabre medieval implements of punishment include a scold’s bridle, which made speech impossible. I know, sexist, not funny, don’t tell me off…

Clink Museum: Clink Street SE1 9DG; 0207 403 0900

6. Electric Shock Museum, Salcombe, Devon

There is actually just the one shock machine, Overbeck’s Rejuvenator, which made a huge fortune of £3 million for Otto Overbeck in the 1920s. The eccentric inventor of Bovril and alcohol-free beer left his peculiar collection of curios and his home at Overbecks to a shocked nation.

More information can be found here: Overbecks Museum (National Trust)

7. Gas Museum, Leicester

Not so much the gas itself, which would be rather difficult to pin down or display, but the history of the gas industry from the grimy Victorian coal gasworks to a 1920s kitchen full of appliances to modern natural gas piped from the North Sea.

Which of these is feasible: gas iron, gas hairdryer, gas fridge, gas curling tongs, gas projectors, gas radio? Answer: all of them and they’re all on display. In the Victorian gatehouse of an old gasworks.

More information can be found here: Gas Museum

8. Jabs Museum, Berkeley, Gloucestershire

This includes the hut where poor local children received jabs free from the great Dr Edward Jenner, whose work on the now-eradicated scourge of smallpox means he saved more lives than anyone else on earth. He liked to call the hut the Temple of Vaccinnia, which could equally indicate a sense of humour or a complete lack of one. His study and medical equipment may be viewed in his former home.

More information can be found here: Edward Jenner Museum

9. Laurel and Hardy Museum , Ulverston, Cumbria

The local boy was the thin one in the globally famous comedy duo. The films, the music, the custard pies – another fine mess, in fact. And have a drink afterwards at the Stan Laurel Inn.

Laurel and Hardy Museum: Brogden Street, Ulverston, Cumbria, LA12 7AH; 01229

10. Bottle Museum, Elsecar, Yorkshire

If you thought bottles were boring and just about their contents, what about the brilliant bottles invented by Hiram Codd in the 19th century for fizzy drinks, which had a marble wider than its neck somehow inserted inside and which, thanks to the pressurised lemonade, jammed up against a washer to make a seal? I’ve got one at home with its marble and washer still rattling around and with the maker’s name proudly embossed on the glass, which is a miracle, as millions of small boys smashed them to get the marbles out. So many that Codd designed a pear-shaped marble before the whole design went, well, pear-shaped, as easier-to-clean crown cap bottles arrived in the 20th century. It’s all part of the much wider Elsecar Heritage Centre, which includes steam railway, etc...

Elsecar Heritage Centre: Wath Road, Elsecar, South Yorkshire S74 8HJ; 01226 740203

11. Penny-Farthing Museum , Knutsford, Cheshire

The bicycles, not the coins after which they were named (being one big and one small). The main wheel, above which one sat, could be 54 inches high, with a small trailing wheel behind, so falling off was painful. This museum with around 70 machines on display is, in fact, the Courtyard Coffee House. Free tea to anyone arriving on a penny-farthing.

Penny-Farthing Museum: At the rear of 92 King Street, Knutsford, WA16 6DX; 01565 653974

12. Tile Museum, Iron bridge, Shropshire

A lot of it is to do with those glorious Victorian loos, or rather their way of making a virtue of a necessity and going for decoration in a huge way that we perhaps don’t have the confidence to do today. The Jackfield Tile Museum shows how the fantastically ornate tiles were made, and there are walk-through reproductions of tilework at its most fancy (a Victorian pub and Covent Garden Underground station).

Young people, if they can be persuaded to spend a day on the tiles, end up fascinated and making their own tiles, which are later fired and posted on to them. Part of ten attractions on the Ironbridge Gorge Passport Ticket, mostly relating to the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

More information can be found here: Jackfield Tile Museum

13. Catalyst Museum, Widnes, Cheshire

Four rather good galleries dedicated to the science that gave this area its prosperity (and a lot of pollution). You can take refreshment in the Elements café where you may indeed ponder the importance of chemistry, in that it’s all right to sprinkle sodium chloride (salt) on your chips but not sodium chlorate (which might make them explode and would certainly poison you). Not recommended: chatting up the staff with the line ‘I think there’s a certain chemistry between us.’ The whole area and the river have, of course, been much cleaned up since the height of the Industrial Revolution.

Or as the Bard would have put it: ‘The quality of Mersey is somewhat strained.’

More information can be found here: Catalyst Museum

14. Lavatory Museum, Stoke-on-Trent

Set amidst the Potteries, principal source of the world’s plates, mugs, etc, and also the khazi capital of the empire, is the Gladstone Pottery Museum. Here the Flushed With Pride gallery lifts the lid on the illustrious history of the brilliant British bog, or water closet, which freed the world from perilous pongs. It’s a subject that affects everyone, so there’s plenty to go on (groan!).

There are fascinating Victorian contraptions with their strange embellishments. Were the ones marked Crapper the origin of the verb? (No, it was a coincidence.) How do you make a lavatory bowl in one piece? There’s even a section called Triumph of the Water Closet, which boggles the mind somewhat, plus a fascinating complete Victorian pottery factory. Plus, if you don’t pooh-pooh the whole concept, there’s the guided walk at York.

The Historic Toilet Tour of York is a sanitary experience, but a guided walk happens only at their convenience. ‘It’s come and go,’ said a spokesman. Quite.

Gladstone Pottery Museum: Uttoxeter Road, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent ST3 1PQ; 01782 319232

York Walk: 01904 622303

15. Elephant’s Toe Nail Museum, Edinburgh

OK, OK, I can’t produce a whole museum dedicated to this subject. But there are indeed some elephant’s toe nails on display in a most unexpected place: in a military museum in Edinburgh Castle. The elephant in question was adopted as a mascot by the 78th  Regiment while serving in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the 1820s and was shipped home as it proved so disciplined at leading regimental parades. But after moving into stables at the castle its discipline slipped a little and it adopted the local love of a little too much booze, aided and abetted by its keeper Private McIntosh, who was lucky not to be charged with being trunk in charge of an elephant (tusk, tusk). In the end, neither of their livers was up to the vast amounts of beer they consumed and the elephant’s toe nails are all that remains, sawn off and retained in the National War Museum of Scotland.

The castle, of course, in itself well worth a visit, is also home to an eccentric Dogs’ Cemetery and the Scots are also rather good at elephant polo. To quote my book Eccentric Edinburgh,‘You don’t visit Edinburgh, you fall in love with the place’.

More information can be found here: Edinburgh Castle

Extract taken from Ben le Vay's new book, Eccentric Britain

Eccentric Britain
A practical guide to a curious country
Ben le Vay
(Bradt, £16.99)


Watch out for the next 15 eccentric museums in the follow-up feature, next week...

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