Britain’s most bizarre attractions
A panel that commemorates the Grotto's 150th anniversary shows the shells' natural colours before gas lights darkened them. (Margate Shell Grotto)
The British are known to celebrate the eccentric and the quirky -- even when it comes to their visitor attractions. Amid the island nation’s varied countryside, there are places that celebrate bubble cars, witchcraft, cuckoo clocks, paperweights and a teetotal pub.
Bear in mind that many of these offbeat attractions, run by passionate people who are enthused about their bizarre corner of the world, are not as fine tuned as the more famous Disney, Legoland or Universal Studios theme parks. But buy a ticket with childlike glee and you may find yourself revelling with a toddler’s fascination at these odd new experiences.
First, head to the Lake District's Puzzling Place in the town of Keswick, a house of illusion that is devoted to brain teasers. It has mind-bending optical illusions, holograms and an “Anti Gravity” room where balls roll uphill, water flows at an unnatural angle and everyone appears to stand at an impossible slant. Also in Keswick is the Cumberland Pencil Museum where you can marvel at a secret spy -style World War II pencil, get up close to one of the world’s longest pencils, nearly eight metres long, and follow the history of pencil making through the ages.
Believe it or not, you can actually visit the Forbidden Corner in Middleham, North Yorkshire, an insane amusement park infested with talking statues, shrinking rooms, giant statues, secret doors and endless underground labyrinths. It started out life as a World War II tank depot until the owner began filling it with eccentric features. The private venture was then opened to the public in 1994 due to popular demand.
In Southwold, Suffolk, few can resist the Whack a Banker machine or the Booth of Truth at the Under The Pier Show, a hair-brained arcade of home-made contraptions, mad cap games and exhibits that is the brainchild of local scientist and inventor Tim Hunkin. Check out the Doctor game, where you hold the stethoscope against your chest as the machine diagnoses your complaint and writes out a fake prescription, or the utterly bizarre Autofrisk machine, which brashly tells visitors to “stand in position and let the rubber gloves give you a thorough frisk”.
After that, head to the strange village of Portmerion in North Wales. Its out-of-place Italianate architecture, which dates back to the 1920s, is a mixture of decorative styles and eccentric designs, creating a fantasy land that was later used as the backdrop to the 1960s British sci-fi drama, The Prisoner. Throw in classical colonnades, cupolas and a Buddha statue from the 1958 film Inn of the Sixth Happiness, all cradled by the majestic Welsh mountains, and it is a rather bizarre place to spend an afternoon.
Then again Gnome Magic might just top it all. The five-acre garden in Dedham, near Colchester, Essex celebrates the colourful 2ft-tall terracotta figures that have adorned gardens around Britain since the mid 19th Century. Here you can visit more than 800 gnomes that are scattered around the park, and there is a museum and wooded area on-site for spotting the little creatures. You can also paint your own smiling hooded dwarf to take home with you.
There are few chances for normal folk to get behind the controls of heavy construction machinery. But at the UK’s four Diggerland parks, in Kent, Yorkshire, Durham and Devon, you can drive excavators, dumper trucks and tractors through the mud and puddles all day long. You can also take part in digger or dumper truck races.
Before broadcasting began in 1924, musical entertainment in the home stemmed from self-playing musical instruments and automata. Keith Harding’s World of Mechanical Music in Gloucestershire will take you back to that time, as restored instruments from the 1920s and ‘30s are played by guides in the form of live entertainment, from a huge, hand-made gramophone to the wind-up banjo.
It is possible that the Margate Shell Grotto in Kent has been around for more than 200 years. There is even speculation that the builders included the Knights Templar, with a construction date of mid-12th Century. No matter how it began, today the 189sqm of mosaic grotto is a chance to gawp at the 4.6 million cockle, mussel, oyster and whelk shells festooned in elaborate mosaics covering every surface. There are even abstract patterns of roses, animal faces and skulls.
In Devon, the House of Marbles is a traditional working games and glass factory, which stocks approximately 25 million marbles. Try out one of the longest marble runs in Britain -- laid out straight it would be 60m long -- and marvel at a two tonne giant marble floating on water. Visitors can also try their hand at glass blowing – and you get to keep the objects you make.