Street, Somerset: The Shoe Museum

a big boot (too high for Jessica to see)  DSC01547  DSC01549

Much like editing this post (seriously, I am just not feeling it today.  This has taken me the best part of the afternoon to proofread, and I dozed off at one point and suddenly woke up with drool all down my face), our second day in the West Country didn’t get off to the best start either, as we made the mistake of trying to go to Glastonbury (the town, not the festival, since I know damn well festivals are not my scene).  Multiple people, including the proprietress of our B&B, had told me about the “special atmosphere” there; being the skeptic that I am, I predicted that meant there would be a lot of shops selling crystals.  I wasn’t wrong.  Still, we wanted to at least hike up to Glastonbury Tor, but couldn’t find parking anywhere within a few miles of the hill (it was a Bank Holiday weekend after all, and there were a bunch of special events on at Glastonbury Abbey) and didn’t fancy hiking all that way back, but the glimpse of the town I got whilst we were circling around trying to park somewhere was enough for me.  Far too many hippies wearing silly clothing, the pervading stench of incense, and yes, the extremely high quota of crystal and astrology shops meant the place was not for me (for real, how do those shops stay in business?  I could see maybe one or two of them staying afloat, but not twenty!).  However, I perked up considerably when we gave up and headed onward to the nearby village of Street. Not that the village itself was anything so much to look at, having been turned mainly into an outlet mall, but I was excited for the Shoe Museum!

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Street is where Clarks Shoes got their start, and where the headquarters are still based (that’s why Glastonbury Tor is part of their logo), so it’s only natural that a Shoe Museum grew out of this (I feel weird not putting an apostrophe in “Clarks,” but there isn’t one in their official trademarked name, so I guess they don’t want one in there).  Be forewarned that a few things may stand in the way of seeing this museum, though.  Firstly, they are normally only open Monday-Friday, though obviously with an odd Saturday thrown in here and there (as we visited on a Saturday), so it may be best to check their website before attempting a visit.  You also have to park at and then brave the outlet mall, and try to resist its alleged low prices (ok, I did cave in and buy a much-needed new pair of sneakers, because a tenner for Vans is not a bad price, but the Cadbury’s “outlet” was selling Creme Eggs for twice as much as they cost at any supermarket, so I fail to see how those were bargain prices).  The next challenge was finding the place, which is theory should have been easy as it is right on the high street, but in practice we were thrown by one of those brown “places of interest” signs directing us up another street entirely (I feel like every time I type street, it is on the verge of being a pun, since the village is called Street); we eventually had to go in the library and ask directions, where they looked at us as though we were a bit dim.  However, having gotten through those hurdles, we finally found the Shoe Museum, with its delightfully free admission, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was much larger than I had been led to believe.

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I have never bought a pair of Clarks in my life, as they tend to be on the pricy side and I think are maybe a case of comfort over style, but I needed have feared not, as the main gallery of the museum is devoted to non-Clarks brand shoes from a number of historical eras (as they were mostly made by random cobblers, I’d say most of them aren’t a brand-name at all!).  And, best of all, the shoes were accompanied by a number of “Shoe-perstitions,” including tales of local ghosts that incorporated shoes somewhere in the legend (I am aware that I just pooh-poohed the supposed “mystical” nature of Glastonbury a few paragraphs up but I like hearing about folklore and hauntings, even if I don’t believe in them.  Call me a hypocrite if you like, but to me, there is a big difference between a free museum sharing a few entertaining ghost stories with its visitors, and a shopkeeper exploiting the gullible for financial gain.  Plus I like puns).  These included the story of some shoes that couldn’t be removed from a house without misfortune befalling the owners, and some superstitions I’d never heard of; for example, apparently it is (was?) a custom in England to put a penny in your shoe on your wedding day, in addition to the whole old/new/borrowed/blue thing.

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And there were some fabulous shoes here, something for every taste really (even some men’s shoes and boots, though these were by far in the minority).  I’ve always been partial to a two-tone shoe, so I loved all the oxfords and those gorgeous high laced boots, even if most of them looked way too narrow to even attempt cramming my toes into (I have narrow heels, but kind of wide toes (am I over-sharing here?) so it’s really hard for me to find shoes that fit properly. Which is why my feet are usually a hideous blistery mess).

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I’m not much of a heel girl, since I like being able to walk without falling over, but those were certainly very well-represented here too, along with a variety of more comfy-looking slippers.  They even had a slipper belonging to a Pope (I think it was one of the Leos, it’s shown below)!

Pope Slippers, oh my Gott! DSC01597  DSC01592

Off of the main gallery, there was a small annex that led to a re-creation of the original Clarks Office (spacious, yet cozy.  Much better than those dreadful open plan offices they expect people to work in today (says the introvert who couldn’t hack it in one, even as a volunteer)), and on the other end was the Clarks gallery, beginning with a brief history of the business (I say brief, but it was definitely written in the verbose style of all the best old-school museums) and a workbench belonging to one of their original craftsmen.

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After looking at Clarks shoes through the ages, I was surprised to see that Clarks weren’t always as, erm, ugly as they are today.  It seems the change happened gradually, and had a lot to do with mechanisation and trying to keep costs down and the like.

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There was a further small gallery downstairs (near the entrance) that told about Clarks during the World Wars, as the traditionally Quaker owners tried to reconcile their pacifist beliefs with capitalism and the very real need for shoes for the Allied soldiers (spoiler, some of the Clark family went to prison as conscientious objectors, and others tried to support the war effort in non-combative ways, like employing Belgian war refugees and making boots for the troops (as a side note to an aside, I’ve been learning a bit about the Belgian war refugee community in Wimbledon in the course of my research for a WWI project I volunteer with, and it is fascinating stuff)). They also had one of those old shoe measuring machines that you’re meant to stick your whole foot in, though it was behind a rope and not for use (I never experienced them as a child, as they’d moved onto those slidey metal things by then, but they have a working one in the Clarks shop in the outlet mall; shame the queue was too long for me to try it out).

Clarks Shoe Museum, Street   Clarks Shoe Factory

Say what you will about their shoes (I certainly have) and the fact that they are no longer made in England, but the Clarks Shoe Museum, is, unlike their footwear, still a very homespun affair, and a charming example of an extremely specialised local museum.  I really liked the homeliness of the museum, and was certainly impressed by the huge and unexpected variety of shoes on display; it was nice seeing something this old-fashioned in the middle of the otherwise crass outlet-shopping commercialism that has overtaken the village.  It certainly set the tone for a much-improved rest of the day (for the most part, as you’ll see in an upcoming post) after the New-Age nightmare that is Glastonbury.  3.5/5.

 

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11 comments

  1. In my youth they would cheerfully measure your feet with an x-Ray machine before flogging you a pair of T-bar sandals. I admit to being in the comfort over style category after various foot / ankle injuries (all self-inflicted by an annoying tendency to fall over). Clarks is the one place I can be sure of finding something (anything) I can actually walk in so I think I would like this museum.

    1. Clarks shoes made up a surprisingly small proportion of the shoes on display, though there was a fair bit about the history of the company. They kept referring to this men’s sandal that was one of their signature shoes, apparently, but there wasn’t an example of one there, which I found odd.

  2. Have you ever heard of a book called, “Far from the sodding crowd: More uncommonly British days out”?
    Clarks Shoe Museum is on page 95 of my copy.

    1. Is that one of those Bollocks to Alton Towers books? I’ve flipped through a couple of those, but I must say I’m partial to my Weird Europe book, even if it’s about 20 years out of date (prices are listed in pre-Euro currencies, and a lot of the places aren’t around anymore, sadly, but I still like reading about them).

      1. It’s the sequel to “Bollocks to Alton Towers”. I couldn’t be doing with a Europe wide book of places to visit; I’ve still got quite a list of places in the UK I haven’t even come close to visiting!

  3. haha I remember those foot measuring machines! Do they really have one to try out in the shop? Not seen one in years!

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