I’ve got a confession – I can’t walk past a museum without popping in. Okay, it’s not the most troubling of addictions and is completely legal but it’s certainly fun.
It doesn’t have to be a large or well-known museum. A childhood holiday to Cornwall is forever linked with a visit to the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. The place terrified me! The Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum is unforgettable and harrowing and I used to be a frequent flyer to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Then there are the open-air ones at Blists Hill and Irongorge where you can spend pre-decimal pennies in the Victorian shops. Avoncroft Museum of Buildings is another gem and I’ve seen the enchanting Black Country Living Museum develop over the years and love how it frequently appears on television. Oh, and how could I forget Jorvik? Smell an authentic Viking! Who could resist?
Dorchester County Museum is another blast from my past. I used to visit as a child when on holiday in Dorset. I’m now living in the south west and had to pop over to the town last weekend. So of course, I had to go in to its museum.
Established in 1845 it moved to its current site in 1883. The building is Victorian high Gothic and worth a look – it’s beautiful.
It’s changed a lot since I last went. As I was probably about ten and am now about as ancient as some of the dinosaur exhibits, it’s not surprising. It’s expanded with the aid of various grants to include several new galleries. I’ve expanded quite a lot over the years too, but that’s another story.
Dorchester is one of those towns which got invaded by just about every force which attacked our land. As you wander around the museum it’s like a condensed time travel experience – a digestible slice of British history. You can walk on an actual Roman floor mosaic excavated from a house in the town, learn about a possible Viking war crime and wander into a Victorian parlour.
To be chronologically accurate, I suppose you should begin with the Jurassic gallery where there’s the 2.5 meter long head of a Pilosaur. It apparently swam around Weymouth Bay snapping its impressive jaws and using electric pulses to detect prey. My photo, taken on the phone, doesn’t do it nearly enough justice but I love the shadow play of the Gothic windows.
What most fascinated me was the Writers’ Gallery. There’s a reconstruction of Thomas Hardy’s Max Gate study, snippets about John Meade Trenchard of Moonfleet fame and Tom Sharpe who moved to live just outside Bridport.
Thomas Hardy's study
Then there’s this story about poet William Barnes. Look, I’m a romance writer, I love this sort of stuff!
The story goes that young William spotted Julia Miles stepping down from a stage coach in 1818. It was love at first sight for him and she was obviously quite keen too. There was only one problem: William’s lack of prospects. Dear reader, let this be a lesson to you – don’t fall in love with a writer! William and Julia kept in touch by letters and became secretly engaged. It wasn’t until 1827, after William improved his lot by becoming a teacher, that the couple could marry. It was a happy ending though, as they went on to have six children. Personally, I’m not sure going through pain-relief-free childbirth six times is my idea of happiness but each to her own.
I was a Billy-no-Mates on my visit and, as it was a glorious spring day, the place was fairly quiet. I love that slightly creeped-out feeling I get of being in museums on my own. Sometimes I sense the exhibits looking back at me. Or is that just me? You can imagine my surprise when I came around a corner and encountered this guy.
He’s an Ooser mask, once common in parts of the south west and used to scare people at midwinter gatherings. Why? I have no idea.
Maybe running away from it was the only way folk could keep warm in pre-central heating days. It was either that or indulge in something else energetic – and that recreational activity could often result in six pain-relief-free childbirths. I’ll take the Ooser any day, even if he’s enormous and made of horns and bull’s hair.
I must go back to the Dorchester County Museum. There’s a lot to see and that includes its beautiful setting. The main part of the museum is in the extraordinary Victorian Gallery with its Rose Window. There’s also a tea room, shop and lift to the upper floors.
If you’re in Dorset and love museums like I do, I recommend it for a very happy few hours.
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