London's got its fair share of niche museums (fans, teeth, eyeballs and sewing machines all feature in that particular list). But if you venture a little way out of the capital, you'll find an equally quirky and eclectic collection of museums and galleries. We're not talking general museums with a couple of unusual artefacts, but entire museums dedicated to items you wouldn't expect to have their own museum.
The Dog Collar Museum, Leeds Castle, Kent
That's canine neckwear, not canonical uniform, by the way. Within the grounds of Leeds Castle, The Dog Collar Museum is home to the largest collection of... well, dog collars, in the world — not that we imagine there's too much competition. Over 130 collars dating back an impressive five centuries are on display. It began in the 1970s, when Gertrude Hunt presented the collection of dog collars to the Leeds Castle Foundation in memory of her husband, historian John Hunt, and the collection has grown from there.
The Dog Collar Museum at Leeds Castle, Broomfield, Maidstone, Kent, ME17 1PL.
Miniature Model Houses Museum, Hever Castle, Kent
Not to be outdone by Leeds Castle (above), Hever Castle also has an obscure museum, dedicated to Miniature Model Houses. Located out the back of the gift shop, it's easy to miss. If you do track it down, you're treated to a series of five houses built at 1:12 scale, and depicting the changing architecture and lifestyles through various time periods, from medieval times to the Victorian age, alongside information about domestic life during each period.
Miniature Model Houses Museum, Hever Castle, Hever Road, Kent, TN8 7NG.
Shell Grotto, Margate, Kent
Maybe this doesn't technically count as a museum — not least because you'll leave with more questions than you had when you arrived — but the Shell Grotto is dedicated to one thing. 4.6 million shells line the walls of this bizarre cavern beneath the streets of Margate. Most are specimens from the British Isles but some come from as far afield as the Caribbean. Intriguingly, nobody knows how they got there.
Shell Grotto, Grotto Hill, Margate, CT9 2BU. We included it in our list of 7 enchanting grottos and caves to visit near London.
Teapot Island near Maidstone, Kent
We've said it before, we'll say it again. Teapot Island may be the most British day out you can have. It's a museum, on an island, displaying more than 8,000 teapots. The island part comes about due to its location next to the River Medway. As for the teapots? The world's largest (apparently) chai vessel sits in the garden outside the museum. Inside, corridor upon corridor of floor to ceiling teapots, all safely behind perspex, and depicting all manner of objects, animals and people — from Winston Churchill to the Tower of London to The Beatles. The only non-teapot thing on display in the whole place is a marker on the wall, about waist height, depicting the water level during the Christmas 2013 floods.
Teapot Island, Hampstead Lane, Yalding, Maidstone, Kent, ME18 6HG.
Pooh Corner, Hartfield, East Sussex
OK, so this one isn't that unusual, nor is it particularly secret, but it is cute. In a gorgeous old cottage on Hartfield High Street is Pooh Corner; a museum, shop and tea room dedicated to all things Winnie the Pooh.
Why Hartfield? It's close to the farmhouse where AA Milne lived when he was writing the famous books, and several of his fictional landmarks can be visited in the Ashdown Forest today.
The Pooh Corner tea room offers both indoor and outdoor seating, with a gorgeous country garden to the side of the cottage. The menu is largely Pooh-themed, including bear-shaped toast served with honey. Inside, the tearoom segues into the gift shop (keyrings, books, cuddly toys), at the back of which is the 'Poohseum'. A single room, it tells the story of Winnie the Pooh, from origins to recent film adaptations, as well as the real-life Christopher Robin, AA Milne and EH Shepard.
Anna's Museum, Brighton, East Sussex
View this post on Instagram
As featured in our list of unusual things to do near Brighton, Anna's Museum is so small, it doesn't even have a door. It consists of a window display in a house in a Brighton back street, displaying items belonging to taxidermy artist Anna. Items on display occasionally change, but expect to see anything from the egg/animal skeleton/general natural history field of interest.
Anna's Museum, 45 Upper North Street, Brighton.
Toy and Model Museum, Brighton, East Sussex
Another of our south coast finds is Brighton's Toy and Model Museum, serving up a dose of nostalgia right next to Brighton station. Two working railway layouts, radio-controlled model aircraft, vintage slot machines, teddies and dolls are among the 10,000+ items on display.
Brighton Toy and Model Museum, 52-55 Trafalgar Street, BN1 4EB. Admission is £6.50 adult/£4 child.
Old Police Cells Museum, Brighton, East Sussex
One last entry for Brighton, The Old Police Cells Museum is exactly that — a museum in, and about, the former police cells.
Local archives, police reports and witness accounts are used to tell history of policing and crime in Sussex including stories of criminals who spent the night in cells before they were closed in 1929, as well as the murder of Chief Constable Henry Solomon in 1844.
The Old Police Cells Museum, Brighton Town Hall, Bartholomew Square.
Wings Museum, Balcombe, West Sussex
Aviation museums aren't uncommon, but Wings Museum is a bit unusual. As Atlas Obscura puts it, it presents its wrecks like taxidermy. Rather than lovingly restored aircraft, the Ghosts of the Tundra section of the museum showcases recovered planes in dioramas representing the sites where they crashed.
Less bashed up planes, RAF uniforms and a real Anderson shelter are also on display in the museum.
Wings Museum, Unit 1, Bucklands Farm, Brantridge Lane, Near Balcombe, West Sussex RH17 6JT.
Millenium Seed Bank, Wakehurst, West Sussex
Located at Wakehurst, sister site to Kew Gardens, the Millennium Seed Bank is effectively a large scale ecological insurance project. 2.4 billion seeds from species from all over the world are stored securely in an underground bunker, protecting those species from extinction in case of ecological disaster. They're not messing about — the vaults are bomb- and radiation-proof, so obviously aren't open to the public. But above ground you can see the scientists at work, and see how seeds are dried, cleaned and processed for storage.
Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, Ardingly, Haywards Heath, Sussex, RH17 6TN.
The Hockey Museum, Woking, Surrey
The only museum of hockey in the world can be found slap bang in the middle of Woking, where it's been since 2017. It came about in 2011, to help the International Hockey Federation Foundation for the Promotion and Development of Hockey (try saying that with your gumshield in) to preserve the sport's heritage. Though modern hockey came about in the UK, the museum covers the sport worldwide.
As well as hockey sticks and kits, the museum holds books, magazines, photos, prints, paintings, postcards, stamps and other exhibits dating back 150 years.
The Hockey Museum, 13 High Street, Woking, Surrey, GU21 6PL.
The Sunbury Embroidery Gallery, Surrey
Teetering on the London-Surrey border, The Sunbury Gallery has a rotating programme of art exhibitions in all different mediums, but The Sunbury Embroidery Gallery is a permanent exhibition.
Its centrepiece is The Sunbury Millennium Embroidery, a 3mx1m tapestry consisting of over 300 individual pieces of embroidery, commissioned for the new millennium and depicting a local scene. Look out for other embroidery, tapestry and textile works on temporary display in the space as well — and the walled garden where the gallery is located looks its best in summer.
The Sunbury Embroidery Gallery, The Walled Garden, Thames Street, Sunbury on Thames, TW16 6AB.
River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire
Since 1998, the River & Rowing Museum has been in Henley on Thames, celebrating all things related to the sport of rowing, as well as the river and the town itself. It's a family-friendly place to visit, with a permanent Wind in the Willows gallery, and over 20,000 objects including posters, photos, medals and trophies.
River & Rowing Museum, Mill Meadows, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, RG9 1BF.
John Lewis Heritage Centre, Cookham, Berkshire
The John Lewis Heritage Centre is where the company's business archive is kept, and has been since 2013. It's only open to design teams, Partners, and other people on official business during the week, but at weekends the public can visit (at time of writing, public visits are still on hold due to Covid-19).
A large part of the John Lewis Heritage Centre collection is the textile archive of Stead McAlpin, a fabric printing factory in Carlisle that was once owned by the Partnership. The company also has an online Memory Store, containing memories, photos, map and information about John Lewis and the people who've been involved in it.
John Lewis Heritage Centre, Odney Lane, Cookham, Berkshire, SL6 9SR.
Museum of Eton Life, Windsor, Berkshire
While the realities of studying at a school as prestigious as Eton remain a mystery to most, we can get an insight into the history and traditions at the Museum of Eton Life.
School archives, works of art, and objects such as past uniforms tell the story of different aspects of Eton, including where students live. The museum also covers some of Eton's more famous alumni, and there are interactive activities for kids, such as dressing up in Eton uniforms.
Museum of Eton Life, Eton College, Windsor, SL4 6DB.
Chiltern Open Air Museum, Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire
'Old buildings from the region that nobody else wants' is how we described the collection at the Chiltern Open Air Museum after our 2018 visit. Factories, toilets and prefab houses from surrounding towns are among the 30 buildings which have been gathered on the site, many of which are open for the public to peruses.
If this sounds up your street, the Brooking National Architectural Museum in Surrey might also be of interest — windows from St Paul's Cathedral and doors from Wembley Stadium were among the treasures we spotted.
Chiltern Open Air Museum, Newland Park, Gorelands Lane, Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, HP8 4AB.
The Roald Dahl Museum, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire
We always thought Great Missenden was a far-flung place, so imagine our surprise when we found out it's only about five miles from the end of the Metropolitan line. Children's author Roald Dahl spent part of his adult life living in the village, and today's there's a museum dedicated to his much-loved works.
Stand inside the writing hut where Dahl created his characters, and learn about his life, including his experience being shot down over Libya. You'll know when you've found the place — it's got Wonka-style purple gates, and the silhouette of the BFG on the outside of the building.
Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, 81-83 High Street, Great Missenden, Bucks, HP16 0AL.
Tiptree Jam Museum, Tiptree, Essex
Say Tiptree, and most people think of jam. But did you know the jam brand is named after the rural Essex village where it originates, and where it's still based today?
Alongside the farm where much of the fruit is grown, is the Tiptree Jam Museum (which we visited in 2021). Set in a barn adjoined the tea rooms and gift shop, it covers the company's impressive history, weaving railway developments, wartime exploits and royal visits into the tale, and throwing in a three-legged chicken just for the heck of it. There's plenty for historians to ponder, but we were just as fascinated by the different packaging and adverts the company has use over the years.
Tiptree Jam Museum, Factory Hill, Tiptree, Colchester, Essex, CO5 0RF.
House on the Hill Toy Museum, Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex
70,000 toys are the subject of the House on the Hill Toy Museum, which is found in the grounds of Mountfitchet Castle in Essex — and it's one heck of a nostalgia trip. Dolls, action figures, electronic toys and recognisable figures ranging from Batman to the Dukes of Hazzard can all be found if you look hard enough. Bikes, dinosaurs, and, oddly, a shrine to Princess Diana, are all present and correct. A sense of humour helps too — a life-size Marilyn Monroe grips her skirt as a squadron of X-wings prepare to take off
The House on the Hill Toy Museum, Mountfitchet Castle, Stansted, Essex, CM24 8SP.
This is by no means a complete list of the country's niche museums — just those you could see in a day trip from London. Further afield you've got the Pencil Museum in Keswick, Devon's House of Marbles, and plenty else to keep the most curious brains occupied. But if you know of another niche or unusual museum close to London, we'd love to hear about it.