20 of Norfolk’s most weird and wonderful museums
- Credit: Archant
Would you like to see the world’s largest private collection of model soldiers? A world-famous embroidery by a fisherman artist or the world’s longest continuously operating radar site? England’s last town gas works ? If so, you’re in luck – as they can all be found in Norfolk...
See shells - Small but perfectly formed, like many of its beautiful exhibits, the Shell Museum at Glandford, near Holt, is the oldest purpose-built museum in Norfolk. Its exquisite jewel of a building is set close to a ford through the pretty river Glaven, and houses an impressive seashell collection plus fossils, local archaeological finds and a world-famous embroidery by a fisherman artist. It reopens on Tuesday, May 18.
Game of soldiers - The Soldier Museum at Houghton Hall is the largest private collection of model soldiers in the world. It was started by the 6th Marquess of Cholmondeley almost a century ago and the hundreds of minutely detailed soldiers are arranged in some fascinating reconstructions of battles including Waterloo. Houghton Hall reopens from May 19. Tickets must be booked.
Hero - For seafaring tales with added heroics visit the Henry Blogg Museum in Cromer which celebrates the extraordinary life of the lifeboatman who saved 873 lives during his 53 years of service. The seafront museum will be open on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Car castle - Caister Castle is home to one of the largest private collections of vehicles in Britain – from vintage, classic and sports cars to motorbikes and several rarities, including a car dating back to 1893, the first Ford Fiesta off the production line and Jim Clark's Lotus. There are also bicycles, horse drawn vehicles and pedal cars in this museum in the grounds of a 15th century castle.
We’re no longer quite so doomed - South Norfolk is blessed with two Dad’s Army museums and both reopen and report for duty this month. The Dad’s Army Appreciation Society collection at Bressingham Steam and Gardens, near Diss, includes vehicles and recreations of scenes from Walmington-on-Sea, the fictional home to Captain Mainwaring and his men. It reopens this week. The Dad’s Army Museum in Thetford (the town where a lot of the show was filmed) should reopen on May 29.
Religion and railway - An unusual mix of religious paintings and railway nostalgia brings visitors to St Seraphim’s Icon Gallery and Railway Heritage Museum in Little Walsingham. The village’s old railway station houses a chapel and gallery of beautiful icons painted by Father David and Leon Liddament, who brought an Orthodox community to the area.
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Military matters - The Radar Museum at Neatishead offers a fascinating glimpse into the role of radar. Climb inside the cockpits of military aircraft, learn about the history of the site and its role in the Second World War and the Cold War at the world’s longest continuously operating radar site. Reopens Tuesday, May 18, for booked tickets. The peaceful village of Forncett St Peter, south of Norwich, has an unusual number of tanks.
The Norfolk Tank Museum reopens on Tuesday, May 18, allowing people to visit, view, climb inside and even ride in its military vehicles. Those wanting an even more hands-on experience can join its tank club and help restore and maintain the beasts. Armourfest on August 15 is the museum’s festival of all things tank including lots of tanks and a living history re-enactment.
Across Norfolk tiny museums pay tribute to the wartime service and sacrifice of men and women from around the world. Seething Control Tower Museum, near Loddon, is a restored World War II air traffic control tower - and a memorial to those who served at the airfield which was home to the USA’s 448th Bombardment Group during World War Two. The next open day is planned for May 23.
We’ll have to wait a bit longer to visit more of Norfolk’s impressive collection of unusual museums:
One of the vilest prisons in England - In 1779 Wymondham prison was described by reformer John Howard in 1779 as ‘one of the vilest prisons in England.’ It was replaced with a gaol which instead of chaining prisoners in filthy communal dungeons gave them separate cells. The model prison built for Wymondham was copied across Britain and America and is now the town museum. It includes displays on the brush making industry which was the main employer in Wymondham in the mid 20th century. The Wymondham Heritage Museum should reopen on June 21.
How to holiday at home - With foreign holidays fraught with difficulty, find out how people have enjoyed breaks on the Broads for generations at the “Wish you were here!” exhibition of historic holiday pictures, postcards, travel logs and brochures at the Museum of the Broads. The Stalham museum will open in June with attractions including trips on steamboat, Falcon, and Edwardian replica electric boat, Marsh Harrier.
Controversial clergyman - One of the prettiest museums in Norfolk charts the history of Dereham. Thatched Bishop Bonner’s Cottage dates back to 1502, survived the great town fires of 1581 and 1679, and the bombs of the Zeppelin raid of 1915. The cottage takes its name from Bishop Edward Bonner, a rector from the 1530s. He was chaplain to Cardinal Wolsey then Bishop of London, and became notorious for his persecution of Protestants, gaining the title “Bloody Bonner.” It should reopen later this summer.
Steam, fire, gas and sea - The world’s largest collection of steam engines and organs at the Thursford Collection, near Fakenham reopens on July 5.
Ring a firebell, try on a helmet and see a fire pump once pulled by horses at the Stalham Firehouse Museum when it reopens later this year. Stalham had one of the first organised fire brigades in Britain, from 1833, and its original firehouse in the town churchyard is the second oldest in the country.
The Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local History is worth visiting for the name alone. Before natural gas was piped ashore it was made by heating coal. In the 19th and early 20th century towns across the country had their own gas works, but today Fakenham’s is the only one left. See gas-making machinery, the gas holder, gas lamps, gas meters, gas stoves and more. The museum, run entirely by volunteers, is expected to reopen in 2022.
The Mundesley Maritime Museum, perched on the cliff top in the coastguard’s tower is one of the smallest museums in the country. In fact it is so small that social distancing will be impossible so will reopen next year.
And those we have loved and lost.
Louis Tussaud’s House of Wax in Yarmouth closed in 2012 but is regularly revived to share pictures of its famously and fabulously unrecognisable waxworks.
The Collectors World of Eric St John-Foti was a gem of a museum near Downham Market. Attractions included a room dedicated to Barbara Cartland, displays of dolls and vintage cars, a gallery devoted to East Anglian ghosts and the Magical Dickens Experience with its Christmas, 1893-style, maze of murky gas-lit streets and tableaux of characters from Dickens’ novels. It was all housed in Hermitage Hall on the site of a medieval monastery and had its own shrine, plus an animal sanctuary.
The Iceni Village and Museums at Cockley Cley included reconstructed tribal huts, a carriage and vintage farm engine museum and a forge.