Why have I never heard of this town before?
I had no intention of going there (obviously, as I’d never heard of it), but ended up spending two nights.
The A49 runs across the corner of the town as it heads south towards Stokesay Castle. I’d already seen a couple of castles that afternoon as I tootled along on my A49 road trip and thought I’d head to Stokesay Castle and find somewhere to park up for the night so I’d be able to visit first thing the following morning.
Just before the turnoff for Stokesay Castle is Craven Arms. As I drove through I noticed an eco-type building (it had a grass roof) and a big sign inviting me to see a woolly mammoth.
Of course that caught my attention. So when I didn’t find anywhere great to park near the castle I backtracked to Craven Arms and parked up in the car park by the eco-building which turned out to be the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre.
The car park was quite secluded and quiet and there were trees and bushes keeping my van out of obvious view. Once I’d set myself up for the night I went for a wander.
The Discovery Centre had plenty of windows and I circled the building peering in trying to spot the woolly mammoth. It was obviously hunkered down for the night as there was no sign of it at all.
I continued my wander by heading up the high street and following signs for the town centre. The high street was lined with quite well-kept terraced houses, a small school, a couple of charity shops and an old building that claimed it was both ‘The Land of Lost Content’ and ‘The National Museum of British Popular Culture’. Intriguing.
A busier road ran across the top of the high street and had a few takeaways and small shops lining it. Running across the end of this road was the A49 with a very large independent supermarket sited on the far side.
I walked back to the car park and got a good night’s sleep as I knew that the following morning Stokesay Castle would have to wait. I had a land of lost content to explore and a woolly mammoth to find.
The following morning the car park quickly filled. Maybe this place isn’t such a secret after all. Or maybe they’d all just been driving past and like me couldn’t resist the lure of a mammoth.
As soon as the Discovery Centre opened I headed inside to use the loos and get a cup of coffee. I browsed the gift shop and then paid £1.75 to go into the museum where the woolly mammoth lives. It’s usually £3.50 but the film about the area which is included in the ticket price wasn’t working and so they were charging half price.
The woolly mammoth is one of the first things to be seen as you enter the museum. It’s a skeleton found nearby. Actually it’s a replica of a skeleton found nearby as the real bones are too delicate to be exposed to the light and so are kept securely locked up somewhere else.
In 1986 the bones of 4 mammoths – an adult and three young ones – were found in a quarry at Condover, just south of Shrewsbury. It seems they were trapped in a kettle hole. When the scientists dated the bones they were in for a surprise. They found that the mammoths were still roaming through Shropshire 13,000 years ago. Previous scientific theories suggested that they died out 5,000 years earlier.
The mammoth (which was no longer woolly and wasn’t actually a real mammoth after all) was huge. It’s hard to imagine animals that size wandering around the Shropshire Hills. But of course the Shropshire Hills weren’t in Shropshire as we know it back then – they were on their way back from the equator and had run into an ice age along the way.
The exhibition in the Discovery Centre was really good. It started with explaining how the land was formed over millions of years and then went on to show how the first people lived, then the Romans and so on until it finished at the present day.
Well worth £1.75 even if the mammoth was a replica.
Next I moved on to the Land of Lost Content. This is a private museum which even though it declares itself to be the NATIONAL Museum of British Popular Culture gets no state funding. National museums are usually free as they are funded by the government. This one costs £5 to get in. I concluded that just declaring yourself to be a national museum obviously isn’t enough to actually be one and get the money that goes along with it.
The curator/owner is a lady called Stella Mitchell. Stella is apparently an eccentric artist and compulsive obsessive collector. I’m not being rude calling her that – it’s what it says on the website.
The chimes above the door jangled as I entered and Stella, dressed in a period costume from (I’m guessing here) the ’40s appeared from behind a jumble of exhibits. She told me the museum is her hobby and as she has so much stuff it may as well be displayed and that the entrance fees barely cover the upkeep of the place.
As I spent the next hour winding my way round the three floors of the old market hall building I began to understand what she meant by both having a lot of stuff and by barely being able to cover the costs of the upkeep.
There was a lot of dust and a musty smell followed me around. There were exhibits on top of exhibits and at times I had to squeeze sideways to get past them. Exhibits hung from the ceiling, were fastened to the walls, lined the staircases.
There was some organisation though as the museum was split into time periods or themes like cosmetics or children’s toys.
Even the self service cafe with its plates of cakes and honesty box was themed.
Lights were on sensors and switched themselves on and off as I moved around. The music changed as I moved from section to section too.
There was just SO much to see here. Possibly an example of every household or personal item that has been bought and sold for the past couple of centuries. There’s no way it can all be taken in and I wondered if even Stella knows exactly what she’s got here.
Better funded museums have teams of cleaners and special curators and archives where the majority of items can be stored so just a few choice items can be displayed at a time. This museum has none of that and that’s partly what made it so fascinating. It would be a great resource for anyone interested in design or social history.
One sad thing in the museum was a sign explaining that a collection of old dolls had been stolen. Why would someone do that? Some things were kept securely behind glass, but many of the exhibits were on open display and as a visitor you’re trusted to wander round on your own. I like that and hate it when people betray that trust. Not only is it a horrible thing to do, but it makes life less nice for all of us as more security and restrictions get put in place which hinder us and spoil our experiences.
The museum’s website has a short video of a news interview Stella did back in the 1980s when her collection was just in her house and the idea of a museum was just a dream. Well she got her dream, along with a lot more stuff. I wonder what will happen to it all when she can no longer manage it?
Leaving the museum I had time to look in the charity shops and a rather good second-hand bookshop and visit the independent supermarket. It had everything. It reminded me of the shops on the islands in Shetland where you can buy just about anything you can think of under one roof – everything from a fishhook to a banana, from a toner cartridge to a pair of tights – only this was on a much larger scale.
I did make it to Stokesay Castle, but only in the afternoon. It’s another great thing Craven Arms has got going for it as even without a car it would be fairly easy to walk to and it’s one of the prettiest castles I’ve visited.
It was getting quite late by the time I returned to the Discovery Centre car park for my second night. I probably could’ve stayed yet another day as there are lots of walks to do in the area, but the next morning I left and continued my road trip south down the A49.
Have you been to Craven Arms? Would you like to? Share your thoughts in the comments below.