Great escapes: Days out with a difference
Bank holidays don't have to mean tacky theme parks, dreary seaside resorts and crowded shopping centres. A hilarious new guide to the plucky underdogs of British tourism showcases the best attractions you've never heard of...
Poldark Tin Mine, Cornwall
To a 19th-century tin miner, it might seem odd to spend a relaxing day out in what was once a backbreaking workplace. It gives you hope that in the future our grandchildren will be able to ride an educational steam train round the scoured husk of the Tiscali Customer Service Call Centre and that every branch of Asda will have a landscaped leisure jungle grown over its staff room.
If it weren't for tourism, though, the Poldark Tin Mine might have remained utterly forgotten. In 1972, ex-Royal Marine Peter Young bought this site, with its abandoned forge, at auction for £100 (outbidding his nearest rival by a clear £90). He'd come for a wardrobe, but obviously had an eye for a bargain.
Opening it as a public attraction, Young displayed his collection of steam engines in the forge grounds. After neighbours complained about the engines' compressors, he dug a cutting to deaden the noise – and nearly fell into the old Wheal Roots mine, undisturbed since 1860. Not one to look a gift mine in the head, he included the tin workings as part of his attraction, Halfpenny Park, alongside the air hockey tables and twopenny falls.
Then, in 1975, Robin Ellis arrived back from the American War of Independence over a sweeping television hilltop, and the nation went Cornish-tin-mining mad. The BBC's adaptation of Winston Graham's Poldark novels drew in massive audiences and, quicker than you could doff a tricorn hat, Halfpenny Park was rebranded as the Poldark Tin Mine.
A trip down the mine today feels thrillingly authentic. The tunnels were not dug for public access, so Poldark is still covered by the Mines and Quarries Acts – and it feels that way. Though it's perfectly safe, it is wet, cramped and steep, and you will, no matter how many times you are warned, whack your head. There's a constant rushing sound and, as you pick your way down the dripping steps into the deepest shaft of the tour, water gushes past you on all sides. Occasionally, a guide wanting to scare the living daylights out of tour parties will turn off one of the pumps so the water suddenly overflows halfway up the mine. It livens up the day underground.
The owners boast that it is Britain's deepest mine, and will happily frank your postcards to prove that they were mailed underground. The chamber is also licensed for subterranean weddings for anyone who fancies forgoing their topper and bridal veil for matching hard hats.
Poldark Tin Mine, Wendron, Helston, Cornwall (01326 573173) www.poldark-mine.co.uk
Cheddar Crazy Golf, Somerset
Spare a thought for the golfing widow, not to mention the golfing orphans and the ever-increasing number of golfing widowers. Nearly-whole families sit round dining tables every Sunday watching unclaimed plates of roast growing slowly tepid. But when was the last time you heard of a miniature-golfing widow?
Cheddar Crazy Golf is not particularly crazy. It is, truth be told, more like mini golf. The owner has plans to crazy up the course; thankfully this will not involve the construction of a purple robot King Kong that shoots hot balls out of its eyes, but rather the addition of a discreet loop-the-loop to one of the holes. But the real joy of Cheddar is its handsome setting. Cheddar's stone construction is sympathetic to the natural landmark that towers on either side, and tips a dignified cap to both the gorge and Glastonbury Tor in the shapes of some of its obstacles. Aside from the occasional ebullient cheer from other players, the loudest sounds are the wind riffling through the trees and a busy waterfall laughing somewhere in the distance.
A leisurely round at Cheddar tees off with a relatively straightforward first hole, lulling you into thinking that the game is going to be a breeze. Don't rush it. Cocky shots are frequently punished, and one man's doddle can easily become another's downfall.
One of the holy commandments of mini golf is that you are only permitted a maximum of seven shots on any one hole. Seasoned eight-year-olds in polyester plus fours stand patiently in lines behind you, wincing and yawning as you skip your little coloured ball over the yogurt-pot hole yet again. Whatever your ability, take time to savour the setting: leaning back and shading your eyes to gaze admiringly at the cliffs above is a good cover for having taken too long on your putt.
A relaxing session at Cheddar is a most agreeable way of letting time roll by. It's an unadorned, small pleasure that, if more of us regularly participated, could lead to an outbreak of more civil behaviour in other areas of our lives. Above all, like the relationship of pool to snooker, it's the classlessness of mini golf that makes it the people's game.
Cheddar Crazy Golf, 7 Queens Row, The Cliffs, Cheddar, Somerset (01934 743661) www.cheddarsomerset.co.uk/spon/cheddarcrazygolf.htm
The Cartoon Museum, London
Bloomsbury's civilised enclave of lantern-windowed bookshops and fusty collectors' outlets is a delightful firebreak of leather-bound calm among the paperback-packed chainstores of central London. Even though many of Bloomsbury's small businesses are probably struggling to find two 1875-minted collectable pennies to rub together, to walk these charming streets is to lose yourself in a Hollywood set dresser's fantasy London: neatly ordered squares filled with absent-minded professors, twill-clad booksellers, apoplectic colonels and nannies wheeling Silver Cross prams. Tourists who have alighted halfway up Tottenham Court Road (amid the pile-'em-high electrical outlets) and wondered where the hell Mary Poppins's London has gone are advised to take a brisk stroll east.
The Cartoon Museum is Bloomsbury's court jester, preserving centuries of iconic irreverence. If a keynote of the British character is our inability to take anything totally seriously, it's incredible that we've waited so long to build a celebration of it. Its collection rotates regularly, but the first display cabinets are stuffed with lovingly curated loft-fillers: Giles annuals and anthologies of Thelwell, rescued from the sides of bunk beds and toilet cisterns, a jumble sale behind glass. To either side are familiar-looking sketches, recontextualised in gallery frames: dozens of original cartoons in the Private Eye mode.
This artwork was intended for cheap, high-contrast reproduction, but here's a chance to see the pencil marks, whiteout, slips of the compass, pen spatters. Most cartoons are drawn at least half as big again as they'll be printed, and it's rewarding to get up close, to consider the process that has gone into something you might normally absorb in a matter of seconds. And they're funny. To allay worries that taking cartoons seriously might be missing the point, the museum starts with a batch of cracking one-liners.
Though the building is compact, split over two floors (single-frame cartoons downstairs, strips upstairs), you can comfortably lose a couple of hours here. The early exhibits, tinted etchings from the hands of Gillray, Cruikshank and Hogarth, are full of absorbing detail, each one crafted to be purchased and pored over, relics of an age when visual images weren't a fast-food fix but a nourishing meal. There is a half-hour sitcom's worth of detail in every busy frame. Modernity arrives at the turn of the wall; suddenly the pictures are freer, drawn with looser strokes.
The Cartoon Museum is a monument to the often unsung artists who have done so much to reflect and define our national character. Is there that much difference between this museum of social history and its big brother over the road? Why not dash between the two? If you're lucky, you might trip over a burglar in a striped sweater rushing out of one of the rare-coin shops and get a big pound note as a reward.
The Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London (02075 808155) www.cartooncentre.com
Pork Pie Pilgrimage, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire is the town that gave us the best cold pies in the world. The first place of worship on a Pork Pie Pilgrimage is the Melton Carnegie Museum. Every town seems to have a museum whether they have enough history to fill them or not and, boy, some of them don't half go on. There are some excellent examples, however, and the newly refurbished Melton Carnegie Museum is a model for them. It gets straight down to business. Through the main door, sharp left and there it is: a big wooden pork pie hanging over your head. There's a traditional pork-pie oven and a fleeting history lesson that covers the pie's relationship with Stilton. The rest of the museum covers the heritage of the local area, and throws in a couple of first-rate educational anecdotes. Victorian Melton was known as the centre of English fox-hunting. Pork pies were the ideal food to be carried across country on horseback.
From the Melton Carnegie Museum it's but a short walk to Leicester Street, where you can see the blue Pork Pie Pilgrimage plaque that commemorates pie pioneer Edward Adcock.
This heartfelt tribute is mounted on a wall at the site of Adcock's 19th-century bakehouse, just next to what is now USA Chicken. His were the first Melton pies to explore the world outside. Thanks to hunters bigging it up back home, the pie became the very thing in the smart gentlemen's clubs, and an arrangement was made to carry the porky treats down to London.
The final port of call is the Melton pie's most famous retail outlet, Dickinson and Morris's Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe, where you will be able to enjoy a 15-minute demonstration of the art of hand-raising pork pies. It is best to book ahead, and if you can get an 18-or-more-strong gang together, there is also the option of the Pork Pie Experience. This lasts for a couple of hours and by the end you'll have made your own pie, which will be baked for you, to be collected from the shop the next day.
Melton Carnegie Museum, (01664 569946) www.leics.gov.uk/museums;
Dickinson & Morris, Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe, (01664 482068) www.porkpie.co.uk
National Coracle Centre, Carmarthenshire
Usually, you'll find that between the weighty words "National" and "Centre" live equally ponderous words, like "Asthma" or "Hurricane" or "Atomic World-Exploding Robot Submarine". But then, along with the really big things, there are those things upon which it's impossible to improve, like the knife, the door and the coracle. And while we're lacking anything as beautifully basic as a National Door Centre or a National Knife Centre, we do have the National Coracle Centre in Cenarth.
Coracles are boat version 1.0. They are the sort of boats that would grow on a boat tree. If there existed a scale of things that float on water, with the vulgar jet-trash of the Earl's Court boat show at one end, then the coracle would be at the other, just slightly up from the bread you throw to ducks. A bent hazel or willow frame, covered in stretched animal skin, flannel or canvas, traditionally waterproofed with pitch, the coracle is a design classic. And here, in a long Welsh shed, there are more of these endearing oneman bowls than you ever dreamed existed.
Our islands' love affair with the coracle goes back a long way. It's hard to think of many other forms of transport that have enjoyed such continuous use into the modern age. But though it might look like a schoolboy has just cracked it in half to remove the conker, the coracle is a masterpiece of evolved design.
Each river's coracle was different, perfectly adapted for local use; the Teifi versions were designed for fishing with a net dragged between twin coracles, scouring the river for salmon. Disease and commercial trawling have left salmon stocks dangerously low, so the normal catch these days is sewin (sea trout). Fowler will show you how, and for this he requires one plastic sea trout, a typical hand-made Teifi coracle, a bit of floor space in the corner of the centre and a willing volunteer from the tour party. Go on. You know you want a go.
After you've made an idiot of yourself trying to paddle, held your net and clobbered your plastic fish with a stubby rolling pin all at the same time without falling arse-over-trout, you can have a proper look around. But, first, Fowler will grab the coracle from you and unexpectedly turn himself into a tortoise. You may be tempted to applaud.
The centre also has an impressive collection of remarkably similar craft from all over the globe: a round Tibetan yak-skin boat, a parisal from India, a Vietnamese version that carried refugees 500 miles to Hong Kong, even an Iraqi water taxi called a guffa. The guffa at the centre was designed to withstand heavy Baghdad use, but balked at the heavy Welsh weather. It sits, melted in a small sad heap, like torched roadkill.
Either the design of the coracle is hardwired into all human brains (like rudimentary grammar, a fondness for the three-chord trick and laughing at farts), or the Celtic prototype has been borrowed worldwide.
The National Coracle Centre, Cenarth Falls, Carmarthenshire (01239 710980) www.coracle-centre.co.uk
National Fruit Collection, Kent
An apple a day (or five, according to Government guidelines) keeps the doctor away. Pop down to the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent at the right time of year and you could potentially enjoy 2,300 different types of apple a day.
It's difficult to stop reeling them off, so poetic are their names: Nutmeg Pippin, Scotch Dumpling, Bloody Ploughman. Schoolmaster, Chorister Boy, Kosmonaut. Greasy Pippin, French Crab, Golden Knob. Gavin, Wayne, Polly Prosser. Missing Link, Extraordinaire, Climax, Ballyfatten, Red Army, Dick's Favourite, Improved Cockpit. Now, how do you like them apples?
Apples might form the bulk of the collection, but Brogdale also hosts hundreds of pear, plum and cherry strains, and a fair smattering of fruit you've only ever heard of in nursery rhymes. Before you've set foot through the turnstile, seek out the quinces and medlars growing next to the car park. If your fruit education stalled at the University of the Front Bit of the Supermarket, you might as well toss a coin to decide which one is which.
The National Fruit Collection originated in the early 19th century in the (not yet Royal) Horticultural Society's back garden in Chiswick. It was supposed to be a living record of Britain's fruit family tree. The absence of some sort of ancient knitted internet and the consequent lack of provender discussion boards had led to pandemonium; an apple known as a Granny Smith in one county might have been called a Prince Albert's Magnificent Royal Bum in the next.
Taxonomy was the hippest game in town at the time, and the National Fruit Collection was an attempt to pin down each variety and give it a proper designation.
By 1921 the collection, now dubbed the National Fruit Trials, moved to Wisley in Surrey, remaining there for 30 more years until it was shifted to Brogdale, the very core of the Garden of England. Your tour around Brogdale will be shaped according to the whim of your guide. Ours started with a brisk march towards a tree bearing a fabulous pear, the Santa Maria. After one has been picked, quartered and stuffed in your mouth, you'll know what you've been missing.
Few national collections can offer this. At Brogdale, the fruit never disappoints; your guide will have wandered the 150-acre site earlier on, creating a bespoke tour based on which fruit is the perfect ripeness to be tasted on that day. Do not spoil your appetite before you visit.
Brogdale Horticultural Trust, Brogdale Road, Faversham, Kent (01795 535286/535462) www.brogdale.org
Clarks Shoe Museum, Somerset
The worship of the brand is something every decent Briton finds rightly embarrassing. But there is one British label that makes us come over so unnecessary that it really deserves a whole museum dedicated to it. Luckily it's got one.
The story of the firm is told through documents, posters, display boards, equipment and shoes, with breaks for appealing novelties such as the largest leather boot in the world, made for Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887. Because Clarks is such a household name, and makes such everyday objects, this corporate history is unusually lively and engaging. There's something about Clarks that makes what is effectively a corporate promotional tour feel human and sweet. Perhaps it's the logo (dating from the 1930s and based on Bancroft Clark's own signature). Handwritten logos are always trustworthy. Or maybe it's that the company has remained true to itself; no matter how fusty or unfashionable it's become, they've weathered the storm.
Clarks is the largest non-sports shoemaker in the world, and it takes some determination to resist the creeping popularity of the trainer and stick with the sensible brown shoe.
Clarks remains a family-owned business, producing one core recognisable product. The top job in the company was held by a Clark right up until 1986 and, despite enormous pressure, the shareholders, 80 per cent of whom are family members, have resolutely refused to play the silly expand-and-devour games of the stock market.
If you're sick of finding out your gas is being supplied by some Belgian confectionery multinational, you should applaud this rare example of a company sticking to its guns and doing one thing rather well.
The whole of Street is woven into the Clarks shoe empire: the museum is part of the town and the town is part of the museum. The old factory buildings have been transformed into one of the most pleasant shopping developments in the country, open to the sky, the sandy stone walls strewn with forget-me-nots. Unlike the dreadful nowhereness of a typical shopping complex, the Clarks retail village is an organic part of its town.
Springing naturally from its surroundings, paying proud tribute to its local heritage, a celebration of an uncommonly British family-run success story, the museum fits perfectly. We'll take it.
The Shoe Museum, 40 High Street, Street, Somerset, BA16 0YA (01458 842169)
The Ashdown Forest Centre, Wych Cross, East Sussex
Disney now owns Winnie the Pooh's bear ass, and naturally their worldwide theme parks offer fans a ride through a simulated Hundred Acre Wood. Thankfully, back where the stories actually began, British Pooh-lovers can visit the real homes of Piglet and Eeyore for the cost of a few gallons of petrol and a packed lunch, and the setting is peaceful, affecting and unspoilt.
Exploring the Hundred Acre Wood is best done with a map printed from the Ashdown Forest Rangers' website. You have to find your own way around; the unspoilt scenery would be spoilt by signs pointing to the unspoilt scenery.
The tour is done backwards, beginning with the Enchanted Place where boy and bear go their separate ways at the very end of The House at Pooh Corner. Gill's Lap was rechristened Galleon's Lap for the book, but the soft grass and clustered, apparently innumerable trees are still there. From here, strike westwards towards where the map indicates the Lone Pine and a residual Heffalump Trap (unsignposted so as not to alert any potential victims). To the east of the stone is the dip better known as the Sandy Pit Where Roo Plays. During the damp seasons this is more like the Boggy Pit Where Roo Drowns, but its familiar shape makes it one of the most satisfying discoveries on the walk.
Visiting the bridge from which Pooh Sticks was first played still involves a heartening amount of getting the locals to point and draw maps, but the best way is to start at the Pooh Car Park and forage for directions. It's in a little valley in Posingford Wood at the northernmost tip of the forest.
It's a good idea to bring your own sticks, as the area has been picked bare of loose twigs by visitors, making the Pooh Sticks Bridge one of the hardest woodland bridges in Britain to play Pooh Sticks from. It's suspiciously firmly bolted together with some additional stanchions supporting the instantly recognisable beams in a way that reeks of Health and Safety Risk Reports rather than wild walks in the woods with a bear but since young tourists falling in the river and becoming Pooh Sticks would be a Very Bad Idea, it would be disingenuous to carp. It's a solid modern facsimile of the original bridge that will likely stand for several more generations of fans.
The Ashdown Forest Centre, Wych Cross, Forest Row, East Sussex, RH18 5JP (01342 823583) www.ashdownforest.org
Partick Thistle stadium tour, Scotland
In Maryhill, north-west of Glasgow, there nestles a modest ground, just a few miles away from the Ibrox and Celtic Park stadia where the city's top football teams, Rangers and Celtic, stare furiously at each other. While Glasgow's battling behemoths have faced a long struggle to quell sectarian enmity between some of their supporters, this Maryhill club has never been seen as either Protestant or Catholic.
Firhill Stadium is home to Partick Thistle, a team in the somewhat unglamorous second tier of the Scottish League system. Robert Reid, honorary club vice-president, PTFC historian and your genial Firhill tour guide, has witnessed many of the ups, the downs and the frequent standing stills of the Jags, as Thistle are affectionately known to their fans.
The Partick Thistle tour can be booked via the club's website – it's one of less than a handful of clubs thoughtful enough to mention that tours of the ground are available at all. Plus you've got to admire their kit – hoops are always cool, especially red and yellow hoops. Reid will cheerfully tell you how those colours came about, explain why there's a ballet shoe in the boardroom display cabinet, and reel off the side that beat Rangers to lift the Scottish Cup of 1921. Thistle have only won Scotland's top cup competition on that single occasion.
The tour sweeps you comprehensively around the treatment and dressing rooms, match official areas, and even the laundry. There is, however, nothing to match the moment when you walk out of the players' tunnel and on to the pitch. Whether you're interested in football or not, your pulse will bop a little faster, the exhilaration only slightly tempered by a twinge of disappointment that nobody managed to arrange a full house to cheer and applaud your very presence.
Partick Thistle FC, Firhill Stadium, 80 Firhill Road, Glasgow (01415 791971) www.ptfc.co.uk
This is an edited extract from More Bollocks To Alton Towers: Further Uncommonly British Days Out, by Robin Halstead, Jason Hazeley, Alex Morris and Joel Morris (£7.99), published in paperback by Penguin Books on 3 April. To order a copy for the special price of £7.59 free P&P call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
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