Eccentricity Is Alive and Well at the Gnome Reserve
England has always been famous for its eccentrics. They curate weird and wonderful collections, run offbeat attractions and throw themselves into insane activities just for fun. Can you imagine, we have not one, but at least two lawnmower museums. When you've had your fill of castles, museums, and stately homes, try one of these for a little light relief.
One of the subplots of the 2001 French film Amélie involved the odyssey of a neighbor's garden gnome who traveled the world and sent photos of his adventures home. Perhaps one of his stops along the way was The Gnome Reserve and Wild Flower Garden in North Devon. It's a four-acre nature park with woodland, a stream and a pond where more than 1,000 garden gnomes and pixies frolic and fish among 250 species of wildflowers. They'll loan your whole family gnome hats and fishing poles so you can pose for lots of silly pictures without looking out of place.
There's also a Gnome Museum on the site, with a collection of antique gnomes, a picnic area and a Gnome Kitchen where you can buy sandwiches, snacks, and drinks.
Where: On the A386 between Biddeford and Bude
When: Open 10 am to 5 pm, March 21 to October 31
How Much: Adults: £3.95; seniors: £3.75; children under 16: £3.50; under 3s free
The Dog Collar Museum
If you think that dressing up your favorite pooch with shiny collar, perhaps spelling her name out in diamanté, is a chi-chi new phenomenon of our spoilt generations, think again. At the Dog Collar Museum at Leeds Castle in Kent, you can see five centuries of dog collars, hundreds of them in brass and copper, leather and fabric, jeweled and embroidered, carved and chased. It's the world's largest collection of canine neck accessories, based on a private collection donated by the widow of noted art historian medievalist, John Hunt. There are fearsome looking spiked collars, like the ancient one pictured here - possibly used for bear baiting - as well as delicate decorative adornments for favorite lap dogs. This is evidence of a remarkable obsession and should make you feel less silly about the impulse to dress up your own pet.
Sadly, Fido and Fifi can't join you for fashion inspiration. Because of the swans, geese and other wild fowls in the grounds, dogs are not permitted.
Where: The exhibition is one of the many attractions at Leeds Castle in Kent, signposted from Junction 8 of the M20 motorway, midway between London and the Channel Ports.
When: The Castle is open year round, with grounds opening at 10 am and the castle itself at 10:30 am to 5:30 pm, April to September and 4:00 October to March.
How Much: One admission ticket can be used for an unlimited number of times throughout the year and, since there is a lot to see and do besides the Dog Collar Museum, if you are staying in the area, the ticket can be good value. Prices in 2019 were £26.00 for adults, £24.00 for seniors/students and visitors with disabilities, £17.50 for children (4-15yrs), and free for children under 4 years old. On wet weather days, all children are admitted free.
The Forbidden Corner
Have you ever started a project that just got out of control? The story of The Forbidden Corner, on the Tupgill Park Estate in the Yorkshire Dales, describes that kind of project. It started out as a small wood, planted by owner Colin Armstrong as a windbreak for his stables. Ten years later, he and his friend, local architect Malcolm Tempest, decided to build a sheltered area to enjoy the view. One thing led to another and, by the 1990s, the private garden project had become a collection of grottos, tunnels, a boulder canyon, a pyramid of molten glass and all sorts of statues, carved trees, channels and follies were added. It was opened to the public in 1994, but in 1998, after a spate of publicity, the planning officers of the Yorkshire Dales National Park caught wind of the private project gone wild (and lacking planning permission) and nearly shut it down.
The public rallied to support the garden and in 2000 it was granted permission to stay open. If you are traveling in the Yorkshire Dales, go out of your way to visit this strange and delightfully weird place.
Where: Tupgill Park Estate, Leyburn in the Yorkshire Dales. For SatNav and GPS devices, use the postcode DL8 4TQ.
When: The attraction is open from early April. Admission is by timed, pre-booked tickets that can be purchased online here, or by telephoning +44 (0)1969 640638.
How Much: 2014 prices: adults, £11; seniors, £10; children 4-15, £9; children under 4, free. Family tickets for two adults and two children are available.
The Temple of Relief
We have all kinds of euphemisms for that urgent call of nature that can strike at the most inopportune moment. In England, women used to say they needed to "spend a penny," referring to the cost to open the lock on a public toilet. Men might be caught short or need to have a pit stop. Whatever you called it, the Victorians had even more euphemistic ways of concealing this basic human function. Near Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter station, off Vyse Street, you can see the lengths they went to. The green painted cast iron structure, just outside the station, decorated with elaborate floral designs, was a public urinal. Made in Scotland and set up in 1883, it is no longer in use for its original purpose. But you can admire it for its ingenuity and for its Grade II Listed status. The locals refer to it as The Temple of Relief.
Where: Off Vyse Street near the Jewellery Quarter station and tram stop in Birmingham.
When: Any time
How Much: It's free to look at whenever you want. But you can't use it, so there's no way to spend a penny.
There must be a kind of atavistic thrill to be found moving mountains of dirt with big machines - backhoes, diggers and other earth movers - because both boys and girls, and their parents, are turning Diggerland's four messy locations into some of the oddest theme park successes in the UK. JCB, the English Midlands maker of those familiar yellow super shovels, provides the machines and a variety of mucky landscapes to work in and families - including children at least 100cm/40inches tall and seniors over 65 - are invited to drive them, learn to work their levers and ride in their giant shovels.
Where: The parks are located in Kent, Devon, Durham, and Yorkshire. Check the Diggerland website for exact locations.
When: From mid-February, all the parks are open weekends and school vacations. They're also open every day in July and August, 10 am to 4 pm in February and to 5 pm from March to October.
How Much: Adults and children over 90cm/35.5 inches, £23.95 in 2019 (shorter children are free); seniors over 65, £11.95. There are substantial savings for tickets purchased online.
A la Ronde
The classic image of an English eccentric is a middle-aged man in a tweed suit, sporting a bushy, steely colored mustache and peering at his collection of oddities through a large magnifying glass.
But eccentrics come in all genders and A la Ronde a 16-sided house with an inner octagonal room and an amazing cabinet of curiosities was the work of two eccentric cousins who apparently had a lot of time on their hands.
Following a 1784 grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land, Jane Parminter, daughter of a wealthy Devon wine merchant, and her orphaned cousin Mary set about designing A la Ronde near the resort of Exmouth as a country retreat and a place to keep and display their many souvenirs. Among the quirky details is a drawing room with walls covered in elaborately arranged feathers and with pictures made of sand, card, and seaweed. The entire top floor of the house is a shell gallery paved in pictures made of seashells. The diamond shaped windows are said to have been the inspiration for the Shell Cottage windows in the last Harry Potter film.
But perhaps the most eccentric thing about A la Ronde was Mary Parminter's complicated will that specified the house could only be inherited by unmarried women. And, in fact, except for a brief period when a male relative owned the house, from the day it was built until the National Trust acquired it opened it to the public in 1991, A la Ronde was passed from spinster to spinster for nearly 200 years.
Visitors can dress up in period costumes, try their hands at making shell pictures and paper silhouettes or have a game of croquet on the lawns.
Where: Summer Lane, Exmouth, Devon, EX8 5BD
When: Daily from 11 am to 5 pm, from March 1 to October 31. Open weekends during the winter months. The grounds, shop and tea room open half an hour earlier and stay open a half an hour later.
How Much: Admission including the house - adults £10.00 in 2019, children £5.00. Family tickets are available. Admission to the grounds and tea room are free.
Dido's Dog House at Ightham Mote
Ightham Mote, a Medieval moated house in Kent dating from about 1320 and rebuilt over the years by many owners, was the subject of one of the most expensive restoration projects ever undertaken by the National Trust. Exhibits in the house illustrate the processes through which such a fragile but important house is restored. Many people overlook the large dog house in the courtyard, thinking it is of a piece with the rest of the building. Actually, it was added by a 19th-century owner to house his family's St. Bernard, Dido. It's built of stone, tile, and wood to match the house and has the odd distinction of being the only Grade I Listed dog house in the world.
In the historical listing kept by English Heritage, it is described as "Central gabled dog-kennel, half-timbered, added in 1891." It's likely that it would not be listed among the nation's historic treasures if it were not part of the grounds of such a spectacular medieval manor house. But it is one of the eccentricities of English preservation law and culture that the dog house cannot now be moved or changed - or even repaired - without elaborate planning applications, studies, and permissions.
Where: At the National Trust's Ightham Mote, Mote Road, Ivy Hatch, Sevenoaks, Kent TN15 0NT
When: Open every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas, 11 am to 5 pm, all year round. Estate grounds are open dawn to dusk.