Keswick, Cumbria: The Pencil Museum

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After my successful trips to the Pen Room and the Museum of Everyday Life (the latter had a special exhibit on pencils), I was very keen indeed to visit the Pencil Museum in Cumbria.  I love the quirkiness of museums that focus intensely on one mundane object (and I was planning on seeing the Lawn Mower Museum as well, but it was closed without warning on the day I attempted to visit), so I had high hopes for this little museum.  However, I was instantly irritated when we pulled into the extremely full carpark and were met with a hefty £4 parking fee from a machine that didn’t take notes or cards (do people really just travel around with that much change at all times in this day and age? I sure don’t), so we had to backtrack to a supermarket to get change before we could even park (in retrospect, we should have just left the car in the supermarket parking lot and walked to the museum, but I was too annoyed at the time for logic).  The museum does refund £1.50 of the parking fee with admission to the museum, which I guess they don’t have to do since they don’t own the carpark, but it still seems ridiculous to have a flat parking rate that high in a random village (on top of parking, it’s another £4.25 for admission).

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The museum is not large, as you can probably tell from the first picture, and about half the space is taken up by a gift shop + cafe, leaving the rest of the museum crammed into one large room.  You do enter the museum via a reproduction of a graphite mine, which I appreciated, but there were no authentic smells or anything.  The museum covers the history of pencils, in particular their connection to Keswick, and explains the details of pencil manufacturing.  Basically, the first graphite pencils were made in Keswick because of a large graphite mine discovered in Cumbria, in nearby Borrowdale; until the advent of artificial graphite in the late 18th century, that mine was the sole source of this material.  Over the years, the factory has changed hands (and names) several times, and is actually no longer in Keswick, having moved to Lillyhall in 2008, but the museum remains.

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Besides the history lesson, there were of course lots of pencils.  They actually had the same decorative display cases as the Pen Room, containing artistic arrangements made of pencils, and even one made of pen nibs (exactly like the one in the Pen Room).  The Cumberland factory seems to be mainly known for their Derwent line of coloured pencils, so there were a lot of sets of those knocking about the place (oddly, even their regular pencils appear to be made without erasers, which makes it strange that they included the famous saying about mistakes being why pencils have erasers, in a wall of pencil quotes at the start.  They gave us a free souvenir pencil with admission, which was also sadly eraserless).

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The world’s largest coloured pencil, in yellow, was hanging on the wall, which I guess is notable if you like giant versions of things, but one of the most fascinating exhibits was the one about wartime pencils, and the special ones created with a hollow space inside that could be used to hide maps or compasses.  Thousands of pencils were produced that contained maps of Europe, and distributed to troops during WWII, though only ten sets of them are currently known to remain in existence, one of which was of course in the museum.

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They also had a very luxe pencil (a sexy pencil, I’d say) that was created for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee a few years ago, with a top shaped like a crown that was made of diamonds (I still think an eraser would be more useful, but what do I know?).  In keeping with the extremely British theme, there was a model of Tower Bridge, made (naturally) of pencils.

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And there was a collection of pencil carvings, made by a man who was somehow able to sculpt the pencil tips into amazing tiny figures.  The museum provided a magnifying glass for studying them in depth, but you might be able to make out a man lifting a barbell and a tiny elephant in the picture on the right.  The museum of course also included the almost obligatory Mr. Rogers-esque video on pencil production, which was kind of mesmerising, and a clip of the Snowman, which was drawn using Cumberland brand pencils (I’ve always hated the Snowman because of that horrible song and also because it’s sad, but I know it’s a Christmas tradition for a lot of British people).

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I should confess that I hate using pencils, particularly the normal, non-mechanical variety, as the sound of the wood rasping against the paper if the tip isn’t perfectly sharp sets my teeth on edge, and the metal bit on the end scraping when the eraser gets worn down is even worse, but I don’t think my dislike of the central subject of this museum has influenced my opinion of the place (after all, I loved the Pen Room, and I suck at using a proper pen with a nib and everything).  I think part of my problem with it was that it was so crowded, which was perhaps to be expected on a bank holiday weekend, but still, it was out of hand for such a small space.  Even if it had been empty, however, it just wasn’t really big enough, and a lot of the items in it had scanty labelling, or no labels at all, so you were just looking at a bunch of generic pencils with no explanation of how they were different from every other pencil.  Plus the whole parking thing was super annoying.  It’s not worth making a special trip for, but is something different to do if you’re bored of just walking around in the Lake District (and there are some spectacular views of Windermere if you drive back south from the museum, so that’s a bonus).  But it’s no Pen Room, and certainly no Museum of Everyday Life – it’s probably best for children, as there’s lots of stuff they can draw or colour, and they get to do a special scavenger hunt.  2.5/5

Glover, Vermont: The Museum of Everyday Life

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I alluded to this museum some weeks ago when writing about another Glover museum: the sensational Bread and Puppet Theater.  Though it’s taken me a while to get around to writing about it, it’s certainly not because the museum wasn’t any good.  To the contrary, Glover seems to have produced an extraordinary number of creative individuals and weird museums for its tiny size (and actually, the creators of this museum seem to also be involved with the Bread and Puppet Theater, which isn’t surprising, as the museums give off a similar vibe).  I suspect it’s some kind of hippie enclave, not that there’s anything wrong with that!

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Even though I always check out Atlas Obscura and Nerdy Day Trips before planning any kind of vacation, I only happened to find out about the Museum of Everyday Life after a last minute glance at the excellent Roadside America (which I haven’t used much in the past due to mainly travelling in Europe, but it proved to be invaluable on this road trip).  I couldn’t even find an address for the place!  The website gives vague directions, and it is along Rt. 16, so following that is probably your best bet.  We ended up driving past it while we were heading for Bread and Puppet, because we weren’t looking for it at that point, and had to turn around and go back.  It is literally in an abandoned barn at the side of the road, next to a large pond, about 5 miles south of Glover.

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The museum is totally unstaffed, and we were the only visitors, though clearly more people than I would have imagined track it down, judging by the entries in the guestbook.  You have to turn on the lights before you go in, and the building is unheated, so it definitely gets chilly!  Inside, we were met with the most incredible array, of well, crap, really.  It is the museum of everyday life, after all, so much of the permanent collection seemed to be made up of cool junk people had donated.  There was also a random giant bear in the corner, with knives sticking out of him.  Cool.

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The temporary exhibits seem to change about once a year and can evidently be about anything (they take suggestions!); past ones were on matches and safety pins, but the current one is on pencils!  (Which partially makes up for the fact that I still haven’t been to the Pencil Museum in Cumbria, though I have seen the Birmingham Pen Room!) They take you right in with a hand-written history of pencils (actually, all the signage here is charmingly hand-written), and then showcase all sorts of pencil paraphernalia.

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From shaped pencil sharpeners, to exotic and giant pencils, they’ve got it all!  The displays are arranged on handmade wooden cases, and of course, include things you can interact with.  The best was the pencil shooter, lovingly constructed from an upended horn and a spring.  In order to use it, you of course had to wear the safety equipment hanging on the wall; a safety vest and a pair of goggles, and you had to yell something before you fired at the target (perhaps PENCIL!  I can’t remember).  Despite fully entering into the spirit of the occasion, I was pretty rubbish at it.

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There were lots of other surprises to be had at the Museum of Everyday Life, like the carefully cultivated spiderweb in one of the corners, complete with dead spiders and flies that had been hand-collected (arachnophobes might want to avoid that corner).  Due to my pathetically small bladder, I also discovered that they have a compost toilet, which may sound kind of gross, but it was honestly pleasanter than I was anticipating.  I am sad to report that they have apparently had a problem with theft, as there were signs explaining that a giant pencil and one of the erotic matchbooks (part of a collection behind the “adults-only” velvet curtain.  Sexy) had been stolen.  Seriously, people are the worst.  Why would anyone steal from this delightful place?

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You may have noticed that you can even dress up as a pencil!  The costume seemed weirdly to have been made for someone my height, as it fit disturbingly perfectly.  However, as I couldn’t really move my legs in it, I couldn’t venture round the museum wearing it, so I left it in its home in the merch section, which also has a small selection of pamphlets and things for sale (though they were sadly out of matchbooks), which you can pay for by leaving money in the donation box.  Again, please don’t rip a small museum off!

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It looks like they’ve only been around for 2-3 years, so I hope they can keep it going – stumbling in here feels like finding some secret treasure trove, and the atmosphere is perfect!  I am exceedingly fond of small, quirky museums, and I think the Museum of Everyday Things has been the quirkiest yet, so it gets top marks: 5/5.  Definitely, definitely stop here if you are in Vermont – you can easily swing by the puppet theater too!