The UK is home to some of the most esteemed museums in the world, but beyond the surface there are also plenty of lesser-known gems to enjoy.
Lawnmowers, cuckoo clocks and hand fans might not sound like typical components of an informative day out, but spending an hour or two understanding their histories can tell you a lot about Britain’s people and its past.
Here are 10 of the UK’s most unique and fascinating museums to visit if you get the chance.
1. Cumberland Pencil Museum - Keswick, England
The world’s first lead pencil was made in Keswick in 1564 after a violent storm in nearby Borrowdale uprooted oak trees, exposing lumps of graphite underneath. A cottage industry of pencil production followed which resulted in the UK’s first pencil factory in 1832.
To commemorate this local success story, the Cumberland Pencil Museum was founded on the site of the first factory in 1916. Visitors can enter through a replica graphite mine before viewing a secret pencil collection from World War Two and the Guinness World Record-winning longest pencil at 8 metres long.
2. Cuckooland - Cheshire, England
Brothers Roman and Maz Piekarski were both trained as clockmakers at the age of 15. Now, almost 50 years later, the brothers have established a museum, Cuckooland, in a former school near Knutsford, Cheshire. It’s the largest collection of cuckoo clocks in the world.
The brothers have travelled far and wide in search of new items, particularly to the Black Forest in Germany – the home of the cuckoo clock. Now, the museum boasts a collection of around 700 clocks, the oldest of which is over 250 years old.
3. The Anaesthesia Heritage Centre - London, England
Down a staircase from Marylebone’s Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland, you will find a curious collection of medical paraphernalia that charts the fascinating history of anaesthesia.
The Anaesthesia Heritage Centre features early hand billows – which were used to resuscitate patients in 1774 – and an original 19th-century chloroform inhaler used by pioneering anaesthetist John Snow. Visitors to the museum can also see the ECG machine used during George VI’s final lung operation at Buckingham Palace.
4. The Smallest House in Great Britain - Conwy, Wales
Measuring just 6 feet across, 10 feet wide, and 10 feet deep, the Smallest House in Great Britain is the result of an opportunistic 19th-century builder who added frontage to a gap between two adjacent houses. It contains a downstairs living area with cooking facilities and an upstairs bedroom.
Various people, including some couples, lived at ‘Smalls’ up until 1900 when it was declared uninhabitable. Distraught owner Robert Jones toured the country with friend and North Wales Weekly News editor, Roger Dawson, hoping to prove his dwelling was indeed Britain’s smallest. This was certified by the Guinness Book of Records in 1922 and it has operated as a museum ever since.
5. Warley Museum – West Yorkshire, England
‘Smalls’ may be the smallest house in Britain but it is by no means the smallest museum on this list. That honour belongs to a decommissioned British Telecommunications (BT) phone booth outside The Maypole Inn pub in West Yorkshire. The phone box was adopted and repurposed by Yorkshire residents into the Warley Museum.
A labour of love for the Warley Community Association, the museum is regularly replenished with donated artefacts. Only one person can fit into the museum at one time to view the photographs, etched glass and personal belongings which reveal the area’s history.
6. Dog Collar Museum - Leeds, England
Located within Leeds Castle, the truly unique Dog Collar Museum displays canine neckwear that spans five centuries. Most collars were donated when Gertrude Hunt passed on the collection of her late husband John, an Irish medieval scholar.
There are collars from the 15th century, when bears and wolves roamed freely in Europe and would rip out dogs’ throats. There are also 16th-century German iron collars replete with spikes and even ornate examples from the Baroque period.
7. British Lawnmower Museum - Southport, England
The British Lawnmower Museum in Southport is the culmination of the lifelong obsession of former lawnmower racing champion Brian Radam. From working in his family lawnmower business to sourcing some of the rarest remaining machinery, Radam has established himself as the foremost expert on the subject.
The collection includes a lawnmower given to Princess Diana and Prince Charles as a wedding present, a mower donated by Queen’s Brian May and countless other models – from the earliest forms of the machinery to the modern-day robot mower.
8. Booth Museum of Natural History - Brighton, England
In 1874, naturalist and collector Edward Thomas Booth opened The Booth Museum with the ambition of displaying examples of every bird in Britain. Though Booth’s dream was never realised, the museum’s collection has ultimately grown to incorporate insects, mammals, plants, fossils and even dinosaur bones.
There are now over half a million specimens in this extraordinary ensemble, the centrepiece of which is Booth’s collection of Victorian taxidermy. With the museum long passed into civic ownership after Booth’s death, it became a Museum of Natural History in 1971.
9. The Fan Museum - Greenwich, England
Opened in 1991 in the Greenwich World Heritage Site, The Fan Museum is the world’s first museum dedicated to the history of hand fans. With over 5,000 fans on display – the oldest dating back to the 11th century – the museum’s extensive collection is fascinating.
A ‘secret’ Japanese garden can also be viewed from the museum’s stunning orangery tea room, and visitors can also take a stroll around the beautifully restored Grade II-listed buildings within which the museum sits.
10. Shell Grotto - Margate, England
The Shell Grotto in Margate is a truly magnificent structure consisting of 70 foot of underground tunnels decorated with 4.6 million shells. The walls are adorned with elaborate mosaics formed from the shells of whelks, cockles, mussels and oysters.
Reportedly discovered by accident in 1835, the Grotto’s exact origin is unknown, which adds to its allure. Pagan temple? Cult meeting place? Regency folly? The explanations are far-ranging but still nothing more than speculation over 180 years into the Grotto’s known existence.