June 18, 2024

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10 UK attractions where the guides bring history to life | United Kingdom holidays

10 UK attractions where the guides bring history to life | United Kingdom holidays

Verdant Works, Dundee

Dubbed Juteopolis because of its dominant role in the jute trade in the 19th century, Dundee was once home to 130 jute mills. Working conditions were so tough that in the run-up to the first world war, half of the men from Dundee who volunteered for the army were rejected on the basis they were “undersized, underfed and under strengthened”. At Verdant Works, a former jute mill turned textile heritage attraction, social history is tangible, especially if you visit on one of the two days each week when volunteer Lily Thomson is on duty. Lily started working at one of the jute mills when she was 15 and has been volunteering at Verdant Works for 25 years. An expert demonstrator of the mill’s machinery (some of it more than 100 years old), she has plenty of anecdotes to share.
£11.75, verdantworks.co.uk

Glasgow Police Museum, Scotland

Curator and former officer Alastair Dinsmor with exhibits at Glasgow Police Museum.
Curator and former officer Alastair Dinsmor with exhibits at Glasgow Police Museum.

Squirreled away on the first floor of a genteel sandstone block on Glasgow’s Bell Street, the Police Museum is run and staffed by volunteers from the Glasgow Police Heritage Society. Some, including curator Alastair Dinsmor, are former officers. Popular with family genealogists and local and social historians, it tells the story of Britain’s first officially recognised police force – the City of Glasgow Police – which was established in 1800, 29 years before Robert Peel’s Met. Uniforms, helmets and badges from different forces and eras are on display, but it’s the details that stand out: spot the difference between elaborately carved and painted truncheons carried by early Glasgow, Govan and Partick forces.
Entry by donation, policemuseum.org.uk

Norwich Printing Museum, Norfolk

No longer based in Norwich but at the National Trust’s Blickling Hall estate, near Aylsham, this treasured collection of printing presses, lead and wooden type and bookbinding equipment owes its existence to the historic East Anglian printer and publisher Jarrold & Son Ltd. The museum was set up in Norwich in 1982 to display some of the company’s original 19th-century equipment, but the number of exhibits grew as other heritage printers closed. Now a charity dedicated to the preservation of historic printing machinery, it opens from March to November in Blickling’s Historic Print Shop, where skilled volunteers and craftspeople demonstrate the machinery and run workshops.
Entrance is free, but National Trust parking charges apply to non-members, norwichprintingmuseum.co.uk

Big Pit National Coal Museum, Gwent

Gwent’s Big Pit National Coal Museum
Guides Emma and Wayne ( in blue) accompany visitors in a cage to see the bottom of the pit at Gwent’s Big Pit National Coal Museum

Part of Blaenavon World Heritage Site, recognised by Unesco for its defining role in the iron and coal industries in the 19th century, the Big Pit belongs to a landscape of attractions that tell the story of those industries and the communities that grew up around them. Visitors can explore the underground tunnels and pit pony stables in the capable hands of former miners. High above the town, which is a few miles south-west of Abergavenny, the former colliery buildings include a canteen, medical centre and smartly tiled Pithead Baths. There are also workers’ cottages, chapels and a workmen’s hall (now home to a volunteer-run cinema). Looming over it is the winding gear that took miners 300ft underground.
General admission and underground tours (free of charge) must be pre-booked, museum.wales

Shepton Mallet Prison, Somerset

It’s not every day you meet someone who once shared a sandwich with Reggie Kray. Time it right, though, and your tour of 397-year-old Shepton Mallet Prison – the oldest working prison in the UK when it closed in 2013 – will be led by ex-prison officer Maurice Gee. Gee once gave his lunch to the gangster when he was escorting Kray between jails, and the van they were travelling in broke down. From gruesome detail about the original treadmills, (you’ll never look at a running machine the same way again), to visiting the cell in which David Tennant’s Des was filmed and hearing about the American GIs whose spirituals echoed through the prison’s corridors, there’s plenty to learn on one of Maurice’s tours.
From £10 self-guided or £18 for a guided tour, sheptonmalletprison.com

Middleport Pottery, Staffordshire

Middleport Pottery in Staffordshire is now a working factory and visitor attraction
Middleport Pottery in Staffordshire is a working factory and visitor attraction. Photograph: Jenny Harper

The Potteries – the six towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent – formed the fiery core of the British pottery industry in the 18th century. At their height, almost 300 companies were producing ceramics in the area, with Wedgwood and Spode among their iconic ranks. Of the handful that remain, Burleigh has been manufacturing continuously at its Middleport Pottery site, in Burslem, since 1888. In 2011, Re-Form Heritage stepped in to save the Victorian potbank from closure and it now operates both as a working pottery and a visitor attraction. The guided factory tour is likely to be led by a volunteer who worked in the industry. You can also tour the historic bottle oven and former company offices independently.
Self-guided tours from £6; guided tours from £10, burleigh.co.uk

National Wool Museum, Carmarthenshire

National Wool Museum
A craftsperson at Wales’s National Wool Museum. Photograph: Aled Llywelyn

Wales’s National Wool Museum is set in a listed former woollen mill in Dre-fach Felindre, in the beautiful Teifi valley, not far from the aptly named town of Cardigan. Telling the story of the woollen industry, once more dominant in Wales than coal, it covers the process from fleece to fabric with the help of some gleaming historic machines. Keeping these crafts alive, and on hand to demonstrate each restored machine, are four crafters who are specialists in traditional carding, spinning and weaving techniques. In the museum grounds volunteers also care for the Natural Dye Garden – a sustainable garden filled with plants traditionally used for natural dyes.
Free entry, pre-booking required, museum.wales

The Tank Museum, Dorset

Group Tour at The Tank Museum in Dorset

Like many of the country’s military museums, the Tank Museum near Wareham is supported by a large team of ex- or off-duty forces volunteers; if you want to know what it feels like to drive an 11-tonne armoured vehicle into battle (or watch one taking part in a live-action demonstration during one of its many annual events), this is your place. Set up, in part, at the instigation of Rudyard Kipling, who suggested the army’s tank-testing centre at Bovington could make use of discarded machines in a museum, the attraction is now home to probably the largest collection of tanks in the world. The 300 or so exhibits include the world’s first working tank and first world war-designed Little Willie, as well as unexpected lots that include an armoured Rolls-Royce from 1920.
From £14.50 (full-price tickets include an annual pass), tankmuseum.org

National Railway Museum, York

The Mallard locomotive at the National Railway Museum.
The Mallard locomotive at the National Railway Museum. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

From the elegant Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive, to Laddie, an Airedale terrier who once trotted up and down at Wimbledon station with a collecting box on his back raising funds for the London & South Western Railway Servant’s Orphanage, you’ll find plenty of interest among the 6,000 items on display at the National Railway Museum. As with so many attractions, some of the most illuminating stories come from the museum’s 250 volunteers – a significant proportion of whom come from railway or engineering backgrounds and help out as drivers, guards, guides and signallers.
Free entry; pre-booking required, railwaymuseum.org.uk

Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre, Lincolnshire

Many visit this unsung museum with low expectations but leave deeply moved. In the mid-20th century, Grimsby was the biggest fishing port in the world and this site introduces visitors to trawler life in the round. From the excitement of a young trawlerman leaving home for the first time (and a mother’s bittersweet knowledge of what lies ahead) to a look at the challenges of life at sea, this is a no-holds-barred tour. If you can, take the add-on tour of the Ross Tiger, a retired fishing vessel. Most tours are led by ex-trawlermen who bring the ship, and the stories of its crews, vividly to life.
Adult £8.50, child £4, plus £3 (£1) for the Ross Tiger tour, fishingheritage.com