Reliably unreliable weather, a 99 and an hour or two on the penny falls. Here are some of our favourite museums to visit on your next British seaside holiday.
Mentioned in the Domesday book as a fishing port, Southwold’s relationship with the sea is an enduring one. Today it’s an ideal holiday spot, with a pier, brewery and charming lighthouse which looms over the town, not to mention the golden sandy beaches. The town is full of historical nuggets like the Southwold Sailor’s Reading Room, which was established in 1864 as a memorial to the former chairman of the Southwold Union Book Club, Captain Rayley RN. The grade II listed building was where sailors were encouraged to gather and read, rather than spending their evenings (and earnings) down the pub, and is open to visitors today.
Just up the road from the lighthouse is Southwold’s museum – catch the daily two-hour opening window and you’ll be rewarded with varied displays covering all aspects of life in the town through history. Here you can learn all about nature, transport, fishing and industry, religion and war in Southwold, in this compact but jam-packed museum.
Whitstable Museum and Gallery
Teeming with history, the Kent town of Whitstable is known to have been inhabited since the Palaeolithic era, and had Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman and Saxon settlements. The town is famous for its seafood, and today visitors flock to the town for this, as well as its galleries, shops, pebble beaches and watersports.
Whitstable Museum explores the town’s several impressive claims to fame. Helmet diving began in Whitstable in 1829 when diving pioneers Deane and Edwards sailed from the town for the first trials of their newly-developed diving equipment – on display is an early diving helmet, boots and a suit, as well as artefacts salvaged from the Mary Rose. Whistable was also the home of treasured Star Wars and horror actor Peter Cushing for 50 years – Cushing Corner reveals his life and presents some of the late actor’s memorabilia and possessions. Displays also focus on the history of the local oyster fishing industry, a trade brought to the town by the Romans, and the wooden boat-building trade.
Ceredigion Museum/Amgueddfa Ceredigion
The ancient Welsh market town of Aberystwyth has plenty to keep you entertained on your holidays. From the steam operated narrow gauge Vale of Rheidol Railway to the scenic ruins of Aberystwyth Castle – a 13th century fortress overlooking the Irish Sea from its dramatic hilltop viewpoint. There’s also the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway – a funicular which has been in operation for more than a century, taking visitors to the top of Constitution Hill for breathtaking views over the bay and hills, and a camera obscura which takes advantage of this stunning location.
Set in a quaint restored Edwardian theatre, Ceredigion Museum presents historical and archaeological highlights covering the length and breadth of the Ceredigion – from finds of the Neolithic period to artefacts exploring the changing shape of the county in the 1970s. Displays cover home and work life, agriculture and seafaring as well as a reconstruction of a 19th century Welsh cottage. The building is an exhibit in itself – the old Coliseum Theatre’s history is reflected in a collection of theatrical memorabilia.
We’ve spoken about the stirring setting of Stromness before; situated on the Orkney mainland, the town provided inspiration for countless artists and writers, and it still maintains its maritime charm today. The iconic buildings, constructed from local stone, house just over 2,000 Orcadians, giving the harbour town a relaxed but cosmopolitan vibe.
The museum’s a gem too, located in a former home – Tankerness House – which was occupied by the Baikie family for three centuries. The Library and Drawing Room, decorated as they would have been during the family’s occupation, gives you an idea of island life centuries ago. There’s also an important collection of whaling relics, objects relating to Orkney’s involvement with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and artefacts from Scapa Flow, as well as Victorian natural history displays and Inuit objects brought back from explorer and Orcadian John Rae’s Arctic voyages.
Famous for its blacker-than-black mineral jet, its eerie ruined gothic abbey and, of course, for inspiring Bram Stoker’s Dracula, you’d be forgiven for thinking Whitby was doing its best to frighten you away. The historic fishing town has a lot going for it: beautiful cobbled streets, picturesque cottages, spectacular sea views and even whale watching. Whitby was also the birthplace of Captain James Cook – the first European to make contact with Australia and Hawaii.
With such rich history you can be sure that the Whitby Museum is a good port of call on your trip to the goth wonderland, with examples of local fossils, jet, maritime heritage objects, social history objects and arts and textiles all on display. The museum’s crowning glory is, perhaps, the Hand of Glory. This rather gruesome relic is the dried and pickled right hand of a felon, cut off while the body hanged at the gallows. Hands of Glory were used as a burgling aid, said to induce a permanent coma to all the sleeping residents at a targeted house. Two of these grim devices were thought to have been in use in North Yorkshire in the 18th and 19th centuries.
A trip to the Victorian seaside resort of Cromer won’t just afford you a giddy supply of arcades, a fossil-strewn beach and traditional pier jutting into the chilly North Sea – you’ll also be able to take in the delights of Cromer Museum. The displays include the fossilised remains of a gigantic steppe mammoth discovered in nearby cliffs – with neck vertebrae bigger than your head; stories from daring rescues by the famous local lifeboatman Henry Blogg; and a cosy Victorian fisherman’s cottage showing you just what life was like in the town at the end of the 19th century.
Also on show at the museum is Fishermen and Kings, a permanent exhibition exploring the life and work of Photographer Olive Edis, who captured the local north Norfolk fishing community with her tender portraits. The popular photographer also snapped politicians, scientists, artists and even royalty, and was the first ever female war photographer. Cromer Museum is blessed with the largest collection of her work found anywhere in the world.
Scottish Fisheries Museum
A beautiful little Scottish town with a scenic harbour offering splendid views, Anstruther was once a busy fishing port, where fleets of anglers would fish the North Sea herring shoals. Today just a few fishermen remain, but the harbour is still very much the beating heart of the town. Take a trip to this quaint coastal resort to sample the famous local fish and chips, wander the winding historic cobbled streets and take a boat trip to the Isle of May for a spot of puffin watching and seal spotting.
Overlooking the all-important harbour, the Scottish Fisheries Museum tells the story of Scottish fishing through the ages, from its earliest days to the present. The museum has model boats, a photographic archive, a large collection of paintings and the personal collection of Frank Buckland – the naturalist, writer and fish culturist to Queen Victoria. There is also a fleet of 22 historic boats, three of which – the Reaper, the Research and the Lively Hope, are recognised as vessels of national significance and are included in the National Historic Fleet.
Time and Tide Museum
Great Yarmouth is the ultimate in guilty seaside pleasures. People have been flocking to Yarmouth for centuries – first as a Roman settlement, then as a medieval town and now as a shamelessly tacky seaside resort. It boasts golden sands, the only remaining roller coaster in the UK operated by a brakeman, who sits at the back of the wooden coaster controlling the speed, and the historic ‘Rows’ – narrow streets originally lived in by the town’s many fishermen.
Once you’ve had enough of the rides and arcades a trip to Time and Tide Museum is a must. Situated in an old herring curing works, the Victorian walls still emanate a smokey smell. The museum tells the story of the town’s maritime and fishing past, has a great collection of historic fishing boats, and boasts a reconstructed Row where you can explore the typical home of a fisherman.
If you’re into sun, sea, sand and sailing you could do a lot worse than head to the Dorset seaside town of Weymouth, a historic port town which was established in the middle ages. Weymouth also boasts one of Britain’s best preserved Tudor buildings, known simply as Tudor House.
Now tucked away in the old harbourside, this treasured early 17th century building originally sat at an inlet from the main harbour, and was thought to have been a merchant’s property. The house today is decked out with furnishings of the era and tells the story of Weymouth’s heritage as a bustling port town. A guided tour by one of the enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteer guides is highly recommended.
Lyme Regis Museum
Once the home of fossil collector extraordinaire Mary Anning, the town of Lyme Regis is in a prime position on the ancient Jurassic Coast for spectacular prehistoric finds. This World Heritage Site has given up some of the country’s most spectacular fossils. Located in her birthplace and former fossil shop, Lyme Regis Museum overlooks the sea and the lucrative beach, which is littered with 185 million years of history through its Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous rock formations.
The museum tells Anning’s story, while revealing some of the best finds scoured from the coast. It also explores the literary and artistic connections of the area – the likes of Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter, Oscar Wilde and JMW Turner have been inspired by Lyme’s dramatic cliffs and picturesque seaside. For anyone inspired by Mary Anning’s incredible finds the museum runs regular fossil walks, led by experts who will help you make your own paleontological discoveries.
Yorkshire’s largest coastal holiday resort, Scarborough first gained popularity when a spa was built here after the discovery of a spring in the 17th century. The spa waters were said to have medicinal qualities and visitors flocked to the town to cure their ailments. Scarborough’s iconic Grand Hotel, which opened in 1867, was once the largest hotel in Europe and points to the popularity of the town as a tourist destination.
Another incredible piece of architecture is the Rotunda Museum. Based in a dizzying Grade II listed circular building, which is in itself a sight to behold, the museum holds a rich collection of fossils and minerals, reflecting Scarborough’s position on Yorkshire’s dinosaur coast. As well as this there’s the remains of a Bronze Age chieftain known as Gristhorpe Man and finds from mesolithic settlement Star Carr – one of the most important early Middle Stone Age sites ever found.
If you’re looking for the quintessential British seaside holiday then Weston-super-Mare is pretty tough to beat. A traditional Victorian seaside town, Weston boasts long sandy beaches, donkeys, rides and attractions as well as scenic walks and a selection of parks and gardens.
Make sure you include a visit to Weston Museum on your trip; the museum features gems from the North Somerset Collection, including art, costume, geology, natural history and archaeology. A big focus of the collection is social history, particularly of the North Somerset area, with collections spanning tourism, wartime, local trades and memorabilia.
Adjacent to the main museum building, the Victorian Clara’s Cottage is one of Weston Museum’s most popular exhibits. Decorated in the style of 1901 the building transports you back to Weston in the early 20th century, and houses the museum’s wonderful toy collection.
Southport’s four beaches have something for everyone, whether it be bird watching, extreme sports, paddling in the sea or exploring the UK’s biggest art gallery – Crosby Beach, where Anthony Gormley’s installation Another Place sees 100 iron figures watching eerily out to sea. Also home to the oldest iron pier in the country, a funfair and a model railway village, Southport is a seaside jewel on the Sefton coast.
One thing not to miss in Southport is the cultural pick’n’mix that is The Atkinson. Comprising theatres, exhibition spaces, a library and museum spaces, the culturally curious could spend a whole day investigating what The Atkinson has to offer. Amongst the delights are a well-stocked Egyptology Gallery which explores the themes of ritual, everyday life, beauty and communication, and an interactive museum Between Land and Sea, which tells the story of the Sefton coast over the past 10,000 years.