8 of the most weird and wonderful museums in the UK

These museums belong in museums themselves, says Luke Rix-Standing.

Luke Rix-Standing
Monday 26 April 2021 15:24 BST
Grant Museum of Zoology
Grant Museum of Zoology

Of all the places reopening after the calamitous closures of Covid museums have not gobbled up the most headlines. We understand why pubs are generating that little bit more buzz, but with museums in Scotland now opening their doors, with Wales’ already open and England’s soon to follow from May 17 (Northern Ireland – hopefully it won’t be too much longer), some of the UK’s oddest institutions are now steadily making a return to public life.

These are our pick to look forward to, from arcane medieval medicines to canine neckwear…

1. The Derwent Pencil Museum, Keswick

Accessed through a replica graphite mine, this unusual establishment will sharpen your knowledge of all things leaded with expansive displays on the pencil’s past and present. The flagship attraction is surely a gargantuan yellow colouring pencil suspended by steel struts in the centre of the main room. At 7.91 metres and weighing almost 450 kilos, it is apparently one of the largest pencils in the world.

2. The Pendine Museum of Speed, Carmarthenshire

Not so much weird as incredibly niche, the Pendine Museum of Speed was built to commemorate the land speed records set on Pendine Beach between 1922 and 1927. As cars became faster and drivers became bolder, the seven mile stretch of sand near the village of Pendine became the go-to track for record attempts that Britain’s roadways could no longer contain.

Pendine saw five world records in five years, but its time in the spotlight came to an abrupt and tragic end when former record-holder JG Parry-Thomas was killed in his car, Babs, while travelling at 170mph. Babs now takes pride of place in the museum, though it is currently being refurbished.

3. Dog Collar Museum, Kent

Located incongruously in the gatehouse of Leeds Castle (which, equally incongruously, is in Kent), the dog collar museum does exactly what it says on the tin. From spiked leather chokers that would blend in with a medieval torture chamber, to gold-encrusted necklets engraved with family crests, the collection contains a catalogue of canine curiosities dating all the way back to the 1400s. Dogs, somewhat ironically, are not allowed in.

4. Grant Museum of Zoology, London

Museums and zoology would seem a natural pairing, but there’s nothing normal about the collection at the Grant Museum of Zoology, a public archive of slimy things-in-jars that would likely make even Charles Darwin grimace.

Those seeking interesting anatomical artefacts can peruse well-preserved dodo bones, a quagga skeleton, and the remains of a thylacine, a giant, wolfish marsupial that went extinct in 1936. Those instead seeking mad-scientist ickiness can enjoy countless bisected animal heads, and a large vase jammed with 18 pickled moles.

5. The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, Fraserburgh

Where better to learn about lighthouses than in one – specifically the first lighthouse ever built on Scottish soil. Initially just a large lamp on a castle, modern visitors to Kinnaird Head Castle Lighthouse can enjoy the largest collection of lighthouse lenses in the UK, and try on traditional lighthouse-keeper garb. Come for the sea views and spiral staircases; stay for the stories about lighthouse building in an era before cranes or scaffolding.

6. The British Lawnmower Museum, Southport

When Edwin Beard Budding dreamed up the lawnmower in the 1820s, his neighbours thought the idea so barmy he had to test his machine at night to save face. Fast forward two centuries and there’s an entire museum dedicated to his invention, from the glorified scythes of Victorian times to the solar-powered robots of today.

Look out for the Lawnmowers of the Rich and Famous exhibit, showcasing cutters owned by Charles and  Diana, Alan Titchmarsh, and Brian May.

7. The British Dental Museum, London

A wind-up tooth drill, an oil painting of a man getting a filling, and dentures made with teeth taken from dead soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo: the British Dental Museum will make you feel very, very sorry for your ancestors. The exhibits are almost universally unpleasant, and you may feel a sudden, irresistible urge to floss.

8. Headhunters Barber Shop and Railway Museum, Enniskillen

Barber shops are 10 a penny. Railway museums are fairly common too. But barber shops that are also railway museums might be completely unique to Enniskillen. Get your short back and sides amidst memorabilia from the golden age of steam travel – conductor’s uniforms, signalling instruments, and old-fashioned tableware. Haircuts are optional, and museum admission is free.

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