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BRITAIN'S QUIRKIEST MUSEUMS

Dinah Hatch

Back to Inspirations
Yeah, yeah, we've all been to the National Gallery and the Science Museum but who has sampled the delights of the Cumberland Pencil Museum or engaged in the goriness of the Old Operating Theatre? Britain is crammed with completely charming but slightly offbeat museums catering to just about every interest and whim imaginable so why not go exploring their eccentric brilliance….
Borrowdale Gates Hotel

Pencil Museum in Cumberland, Keswick

From the moment I realised I had to enter this museum via a replica graphite mine, I was sold. A very cute idea. From there, I headed for the secret WW2 pencils in which are hidden secret maps so that if downed pilots fell behind enemy lines they could make their way home – awesome. My small children were deeply taken with the world's largest colouring pencil at 8 metres and took part in one of the regular art workshops which they adored. A great place to spend a rainy afternoon.

Stay at: The Borrowdale Hotel, Keswick. At the foot of Shepherd's Crag in the Borrowdale valley, this gorgeous historic spot is all blazing fireplaces and oaky décor with smart but comfy chairs in winter and glorious drinks on the Victorian verandah come summer.

Best Western Glendower Hotel

British Lawnmower Museum, Southport

Set up by ex-racing champion Brian Radam, the museum has become one of the world's leading authorities on vintage lawnmowers and is now a specialist in antique garden machinery. We love the section called Lawnmowers of the Rich and Famous which includes ones owned by Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Brian May, Nicholas Parsons, Eric Morcambe, Jean Alexander (she of Coronation Street's Hilda Ogden fame) and Alan Titchmarsh.

Stay at: The smart Best Western Glendower Hotel on North Promenade in St Anne, overlooking the pier and minutes from four championship golf courses.

The Milestone Hotel

Old Operating Theatre, London Bridge

This is Europe's oldest surviving operating theatre, housed in the attic of the church belonging to the old St Thomas hospital. Pre-dating anaesthetics and antiseptics (arrgh!), there are some terrific events held here including a Victorian surgery talk presented in the original 1822 operating theatre with seating just how medical students would have been seated to watch teaching surgery.

Stay at: The Milestone Hotel, Kensington Court, a smart, elegant and central spot just across the river from the Old Operating Theatre and perfectly positioned to enjoy London's top attractions.

Chilston Park Hotel

Dog Collar Museum, Leeds Castle, Maidstone

A showcase of canine neckwear! What's not to love? This delightful museum's content spans five centuries of doggie fashion right back to medieval times and displays collars from back when their decadence was a display of their owner's wealth. From deeply foreboding iron spiked affairs to seriously swish velvet numbers, you'll see all sorts here - some 500,000 people visit each year to enjoy this quirky museum within the ground of Leeds Castle.

Stay at: Chilston Park Hotel, a simply gorgeous 17th century Grade 1 listed country house within 23 acres of grounds. A total treat.

Ladderstile Retreat

Cuckooland, Tabley, Cheshire

The collection of cuckoo clocks at Cuckooland are regarded as the most important in the world. It was brought together by horologists and clock restorer brothers Roman and Maz Piekarski who began restoring timepieces at the tender age of 15 and have grown their interest into a fascinating assortment of clocks including a rare cuckoo and echo clock which, with the help of bellows and whistles, makes realistic cuckoo noises. CUCKOO!

Stay at: The Ladderstile Retreat B&B, set on a working livestock farm on the edge of the Peak District and a 30 minute drive away.

Cliftonville Townhouse Boutique B&B

The Shell Grotto, Margate

The discovery of this little grotto whose walls are plastered with shells in the town of Margate came as a total surprise to the locals back in 1835. Seemingly happened upon by a small boy digging a duck pond with his dad, the grotto with its strange symbols patterned upon millions of mounted shells, is a source of continued mystery but utterly fascinating – a unique work of art that is a total must-see.

Stay at: The Cliftonville Townhouse boutique B&B, a contemporary, fresh and stylish boutique spot just ten minutes' walk from the centre of Margate.

Hotel Felix- Cambridge

Centre of Computing History, Cambs

The computing revolution is chronicled in all its super-techie glory here. Just try and stop yourself from shouting: “I had one of those in the 80s!” as you meander around the exhibitions. Apart from telling the story of the evolution of the computer, there are also loads of excellent events held here including a retro video game night, a Women in Computing festival and teachers' twilight sessions.

Stay at: The Hotel Felix in Cambridge, set in leafy gardens just one mile from the city centre.

The Mount Somerset Hotel & Spa

The Shoe Museum, Street, Somerset

Now then, who doesn't want to see the last made for Princess Diana's wedding slipper? The Shoe Museum, in Street, Somerset, is home to more than 1,500 shoes dating from Roman times to present day, with highlights including an Emir's slipper from Nigeria, a Chinese shoe for a bound foot, kub kobs worn in Turkish baths, and Finnish shoes made from birch bark.

Stay at: The Mount Somerset Hotel and Spa, a cosy Regency country pile nestled in the Quantocks and the Blackdown Hills.

Heath House

Museum of Mental Health, near Wakefield

Find out what mental health care was like in the 19th century (although I think you can take a rough guess when you discover the museum was focused on the history of somewhere called the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum) at this fascinating attraction. Run by a local NHS Foundation Trust, the evolution of treatment for mental health is, inevitably, intriguing and sad simultaneously. By appointment only.

Stay at: The friendly Heath House B&B in Ossett, an early Victorian house in pretty grounds serving an excellent brekkie.

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