Property: At home in my museum: Living in a museum would be misery for most of us, but to some people it's pure pleasure. Rosalind Russell reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HOW MANY visitors do you have in a year? Forty perhaps? A lively social life might boost the figure to a companionable hundred or so. Last year, David and Christine Kidd had 20,000. Charming though the Kidds are, they would be the first to admit it wasn't just their sparkling personalities that drew guests in such large numbers. They flocked to Cockthorpe Hall, near the north Norfolk coast, because the Kidds had turned their 17th-century, Grade II listed home into a toy museum.

David, a musician turned antiques dealer, has had a lifelong obsession with toys, mostly the mechanical kind. One of his favourites is a tin-plate piggy cook who tosses a pancake out of her frying pan. When the collection swelled to 5,000 items, he and Christine decided they might as well turn a passion into profit and open it up to the general public.

Making a hobby into paid employment may seem like the answer to a dream. But having thousands of people tramp across your Axminster every week isn't everyone's idea of fun. In seven years, 200,000 have filed through the Kidds' front door.

Most collectors, however, don't need much of an excuse to share their enthusiasm with the world. From a castle wing in Northumberland, chock-a-block with armour, spears and even a stuffed bear, to a Victorian house in Dumfries and Galloway displaying the ethnographic art collection of the Scottish Explorers' Club, enthusiasts can't wait to welcome visitors into their homes to show off their collections.

'We bought the house in Norfolk specifically to open a toy museum,' David Kidd says. 'I've been putting the collection together for 25 years and started off as a private collector. I suffer from terrible magpie instincts.'

The Kidds live in the Victorian half of Cockthorpe Hall and set up the museum in the part built in 1580. From their bedroom, they look across their paddocks to the sea and watch sleek grey seals lazing on the sandbar of Blakeney Point. Cockthorpe is as rural as you can get. The roads are narrow, and if you drive another mile and a half you fall off the edge of East Anglia. But its isolated position didn't deter toy fans.

'Even the most deprived person has had a toy at one time,' David explains. 'Without fail, the visitors spot a Dinky car or a teddy bear and say: 'Oh I had one just like that]' Toys trigger memories, usually happy ones. I love listening to the oohs and aahs of delight.'

In the depths of winter there has been the odd day when no visitors have come. But the Kidds stayed open all year, apart from three days at Christmas. It has meant hard work and lots of commitment.

'Running a private museum is a tremendous tie, with no holidays,' David warns. His wife, Christine, he admits, does not share his passion for toys with quite the same intensity. In fact she would rather be working with her horses, he says with some bewilderment.

But after seven years of living in a museum, the two of them have had enough. The long recession has resulted in a falling number of visitors, Christine needs more land for her horses and they both want to be able to have holidays. The museum has been closed and the toys are about to be packed away. All those bought specially for the museum will be sold off, though the items David owned before will be kept. Cockthorpe, with its seven bedrooms, an Aga in the kitchen and a colourful history - it was the home of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cloudesley Shovel (1650-1707) - is up for sale through Beltons with a guide price of pounds 295,000.

The inhabitants of Callaly Castle in Northumberland are privileged in having their own private museum. Converted more than 10 years ago into wings and apartments, the castle, its cottages and lodges are now home to 22 families. At the centre, in an indoor courtyard, is the museum, open only to residents and their guests. It is maintained by the owners, who are all shareholders in the castle. 'We don't exactly keep the spears sharpened,' Tom Simmonds says, 'but we do keep them dusted.'

The exhibits, apart from spears, include a massive stuffed Kodiak bear (this Alaskan giant is the largest living land carnivore and can stand an impressive 2.8m high), stuffed animals' heads and a fine wrought-iron spiral staircase. They were collected mostly by the family who owned the castle before it was sold to a developer. Tom Simmonds, a fruit importer, and his wife Joan bought the North Wing from the family who had retained it when the rest of the Grade II listed castle was sold off. Now, they are selling it through Hamptons

for pounds 240,000.

'Guests enjoy visiting the museum,' Tom Simmonds says. 'Occasionally people turn up with a very old guidebook to visit the museum and say: 'Oh sorry, thought you were still open to the public.' But it would be too much of a security risk now to have visitors. Everyone in the castle has access. I should think anyone who had a few beers too many would get quite a fright bumping into our bear.'

The Kodiak would probably not unduly ruffle David Young. His museum, at his large Victorian home - Craigleuch, at Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway - has for the past 14 years housed the Scottish Explorers' Collection. 'We have a large ethnographic art collection,' David Young says. He is a jeweller. 'It's mostly African and American Indian (although they're called First Nation People these days). It started with my grandfather, and then continued with my father and uncles who were explorers and collectors.'

The extraordinary 15-bedroom house, with turrets and cupola, is in the grand Scots Baronial style, built when the Scots were busily colonising the Empire, and - like everyone else - carrying home souvenirs. Young, whose family come from Edinburgh, was born in Canada. His father, exploring South America when David was born, had failed to persuade his wife to accompany him on his latest trip.

'I later travelled everywhere with my parents. I'm interested in gathering American Indian carvings. It's an addiction. The collection is not of things like hoes, axes, knives or forks or anything utilitarian. They are pieces of considerable importance. We have some stunning examples of Benin art and outstanding Yoruba carvings, also prehistoric First Nation carvings from the woodlands of east America, which are very rare. It is the only collection in Britain.'

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the south of Scotland, Craigleuch is off the beaten track; visitors must be sufficiently eagle-eyed to spot it on their road map, or have already heard about the collection.

Young hasdecided to sell Craigleuch (for sale through Knight Frank & Rutley for pounds 295,000), but his museum collection will be going with him. 'Moving it all will be a formidable task. I have enjoyed showing the collection to people, especially when someone spots something that delights them. But running the museum has been quite an undertaking.'-

(Photograph omitted)

Comments