Britain is famed the world over for its museums - from central London behemoths like the Natural History, British and Science Museums, to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the National Railway Museum in York, and the Historic Dockyard Museums of Portsmouth.
But in amongst them all are thousands of smaller attractions, often covering niche or peculiar subjects. London alone contains museums devoted to sewing machines, paper fans, and even to ink. Some of these specialised museums are better suited to families than others. Try our list below for some of the best examples.
The Dog Collar Museum, Kent
Leeds Castle, Broomfield, Maidstone ME17 1PL
All dog collars are pretty much the same, right? Wrong. A trip to Leeds Castle in Kent is never complete without visiting this quirky little museum within the grounds. It holds over 130 examples of ‘canine neckwear’ dating back to the 16th century - when European collars came with spikes to ward off bears and wolves. Other novelty straps include jewelled collars, silver collars, and examples made from tyres, beads and plastic. Warning: dad will make terrible puns about dog leads and Leeds Castle.
Museum of Brands, London
111-117 Lancaster Road, Notting Hill, London W11 1QT.
Today’s trash and recycling is tomorrow’s museum exhibit. That’s the ethos behind the Museum of Brands, which collects and displays such ephemerals as sweet wrappers, baked bean cans, and other assorted household throwaways. This is a fascinating museum for families to explore together - the more generations the better. Parents and grandparents will delight in spotting long-forgotten packaging from their childhood, while the kids will just love seeing how their favourite chocolate bars and drinks cans looked in previous decades. A must-see.
Derwent Pencil Museum, Keswick
Southey Works, Keswick, Cumbria, CA12 5NG
How do they get the lead into pencils? Why is it called lead when it’s actually graphite? This and 100 other fascinating questions you probably never thought to ask are explored at this Lake District museum. The very first modern pencils in the world were manufactured in Keswick, which was lucky enough to find itself next to bumper deposits of graphite. The museum tells this fascinating story, along with novelty exhibits such as the world’s largest colour pencil, and tiny graphite sculptures. Oh, and your kids will love the gift shop.
The House on the Hill Museum, Essex
Mountfitchet Castle, Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex CM24 8SP
Nothing to do with Peppa Pig, but a glorious museum devoted to toys and games. The collection spans the decades so, like the Museum of Brands, every generation will find plenty of exhibits that’ll transport them back to childhood. The toys are all crammed together into eccentric displays, and you can have a ton of fun spotting the weird juxtapositions - like the He-Man and A-Team mash-up shown in our photo. The museum forms part of the Mountfitchet Castle visitor attraction, which itself provides a wonderful day out for families. Just watch out for the spitting dinosaurs when leaving the museum!
House of Marbles, Devon
The Old Pottery, Pottery Road, Bovey Tracey, Devon TQ13 9DS
The House of Marbles doesn’t just do marbles. Its collection of small museums includes other vintage toys and games (which it manufactures) as well as pottery and glass-blowing. But the marbles are the stars of the show. Kids and adults alike will stare agog at the various marble runs that decorate the place - including the largest you’ve ever seen, upstairs. The outdoor play area is also a popular spot, with further marble-based games. Don’t forget the gift shop, which has dozens of species of marble, lined up in trays like pick-n-mix.
The Postal Museum, London
15-20 Phoenix Pl, London WC1X 0DA
Perhaps the best-known venue in the list, the Postal Museum opened in its current form in 2017… and it’s first class. The museum is particularly famed for its underground train ride, which follows the tracks of the Post Office’s private tube line called Mail Rail. But the main museum itself is stuffed with wonders. Did you know that the Post Office once experimented with delivering mail by rocket? What were blue post boxes used for? There’s a secret around every corner. If you have smaller children, be sure to book a session in the ‘Sorted!’ play room. It’s one of London’s best museum play areas.
Jackfield Tile Museum, Shropshire
Salthouse Rd, Telford TF8 7LJ
Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, which would transform human civilisation and shape the modern world. It’s quite rightly a World Heritage Site, whose story is played out across seven museums. The most kid-friendly is the Enginuity museum, which explores the site’s history through hands-on science and engineering exhibits. But the quirkier Tile Museum is also a must-see. Two particular highlights are the recreated children’s ward with bright, nursery-rhyme-themed tiles, and the recreation of Covent Garden tube station, whose tiles came from Jackfield.
Southwold Pier, Suffolk
Southwold Pier, Southwold, Suffolk.
Can a pier count as a museum? It can when it’s stuffed with the bizarre contraptions of Tim Hunkin, the famed inventor/engineer of novelty slot machines. His Under the Pier show contains such diversions as the Zimmer Frame Simulator, whack-a-banker, and the ‘expressive photo booth’, which will physically startle you just before taking your picture. Brilliant stuff. Hunkin has a second tiny museum/attraction in Holborn, London called Novelty Automation, with more of the same.
Hampstead Lane, Yalding, Maidstone, Kent. ME18 6HG.
The perfect cuppa takes four minutes to brew. You’ll need considerably longer to take in all the exhibits at this charming little museum near Maidstone. Teapot Island reckons to have over 8,200 teapots on display (and many more for sale). Most are novelty items, including pots shaped like teddy bears, the Queen, every animal your five year old can name, and even Darth Vader - the last person in the universe you’d associate with a cup of tea.
Museum of Water and Steam, London
Green Dragon Lane, Brentford, London TW8 0EN
You can’t make a good cuppa (or even a bad one) without boiling some water. That’s part of the theme of our final museum, centered around some truly mind-boggling steam engines. The Museum of Water and Steam is easy to find. It sits beneath a huge hydraulic tower beside Kew Bridge. This historic former waterworks is well pumped up for family visits, with an outdoor splash zone and miniature railway, besides the giant engines that visitors of any age will enjoy.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.