Once upon a time, a young author went riding on Bodmin Moors in Devon. She and her friend became lost in the fog, and loosened their horses in the hope they might lead them to shelter. The horses took them to an inn, and there they remained to recover, and were entertained by tales of ghosts and smugglers.
The author, Daphne du Maurier, was inspired to write a novel – Jamaican Inn – named after the inn, and it was published in 1939 and turned into a Hitchcock film.
Jamaica Inn is still there on Bodmin Moor as it has been since it was built in 1750, and you can stay there, if you wish, as its role is unchanged: coaching inn on an old turnpike providing a break for travellers. Its location, isolated and bleak, made it a fantastic place for smugglers to hide their goods. In the 18th Century as much as half of all contraband brandy was brought into Britain by the coastline of Devon and Cornwall.
With such connections as a famous author and a notorious legacy, the inn has transformed itself into a museum, with a special room – The Daphne Du Maurier room, displaying personal items and a writing desk she used. The other part of the museum is the Smugglers Museum, which explores the arts of evasion as practised by these rogues. Smuggling occurred all over the British Isles and at its peak activity in the 1700s, Cornwall’s lack of law enforcement and isolated coves made it ideal destination for smugglers.
The museum exhibits all kinds of artefacts including horseshoe markers that create false trails on sandy beach coves and wanted posters. It’s not a big museum, and very niche, you’d probably not travel hundreds of miles to visit it, but a tourist in the vicinity might drop in for an hour or so.
There are all kinds of niche museums, usually set up by enthusiasts, or a small society, or attached to an industry or private company. You can visit the pencil museum in Keswick, where the world’s first lead pencil was made; or the House of Marbles in Devon – part of a working glass and games factory; or there’s the Cuckooland in Cheshire, which isn’t about birds, but clocks; the fan museum in Greenwich has 3,500 fans dating back to 11th century. What about bagpipes, lawnmowers, dog collars, or witchcraft? The quirky, eccentric collections of people fascinated with the past, brought together for wonderment, and bewilderment.
To be honest, once you’ve visited one national museum of antiquities, it does feel like you’ve seen them all, whereas the niche variety never ceases to entertain for a small fee.
What’s the strangest museum you’ve ever visited?