Is this Norfolk’s most quirkiest museum?

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Norfolk is home to some of the country's quirkiest museums but none are quite as dedicated to the craft of straw as much as Ella Carstairs' project. Reporter DONNA-LOUISE BISHOP caught up with the octogenarian to find out more.

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Tucked away in a remote location on the outskirts of Cromer is a quirky little museum which, for the past 30 years, has embraced the extraordinary art form of straw craft.

Based at her home, 88-year-old Ella Carstairs opens her doors every summer to show off artefacts from around the world, including collections of corn dollies, embroidered straw pictures, and marquetry - just to name a few.

But what is it that keeps her enthralled with this unique project which attracts visitors from across the globe?

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

'People come in here and they go out almost dying of shock,' she said. 'They cannot believe so much beauty comes out of straw. And since doing this I have met so many lovely people.'


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Born in the Middle East, Ella moved to England as a young child when her father, who worked in the armed forces, was posted to Slough.

But it wasn't until the 1980s, when she was living in Dulwich, that she first took an interest in straw-making after seeing an advertisement in the local library for corn dolly classes.

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

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Then, in a chance meeting with straw work master Lettice Sandford, she was introduced to a couple who were running a summer school for straw craft in Herefordshire.

Ella drove 150 miles each time for the three five-day summer camp courses. By then knew she was hooked and in 1989 she became one of the founders of the Guild of Straw Craftsmen.

Eventually she began a new love affair when she fell head over heels with Norfolk during a visit to a friend thirty years ago. On a bicycle ride, in the north Norfolk countryside, she came across a derelict cottage situated on one acre of land and knew it was the perfect place for both her home and dream of opening the museum.

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

'I loved it at first sight. On my mother's side there was a farming background so I think that rural side of life was always in my blood.

'When I saw this very neglected cottage for sale I thought what a wonderful position and went straight to the estate agents.'

Outside in the garden today there's a semi-circle of six sheds. All of them are brimming with items which make up the museum. Ella has hundreds of pieces in her collection, including around 150 straw hats. She also creates her own pieces, purchases items from charity shops and car boot sales, and has received many generous donations.

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Previously she taught people the skill of straw craft but is now unable to do so.

'It's only through being there and showing them how to do it and giving them encouragement that they learn,' she said. 'It's a joy as there's nothing like helping people with a hobby.'

And although she is worried about who will take over the museum after her, one thing is for certain, she wants as many people as possible to see the artefacts and enjoy the creativity which has gone into making the pieces.

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

'If more people could use their hands and be creative, there would be more happiness in the world.

'I could also not be happier when I am creating something.'

- You can visit the Norfolk Museum of Straw Works at Conifer Cottage, Buck Brigg, Hanworth, NR11 7HH. Visits are made by appointment only by ringing 01263 761615.

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

- For more information about the museum visit the website www.norfolkstrawmuseum.org or email info@norfolkstrawmuseum.org.

- For more information about The Guild of Straw Craftsmen visit the website www.strawcraftsmen.co.uk.

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norfolk Museum of Straw Works owned and curated by Ella Carstairs. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

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