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"That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again."
Those words were written by AE Housman, author of A Shropshire Lad (in spite of his having been born in Worcestershire!) and they lend their name to one of the most remarkable museums I've ever been to. Tucked away quietly in the unassuming Shropshire town of Craven Arms, it's run by Stella and Dave Mitchell, who have spent something like four decades collecting anything and everything which might reasonably qualify as 20th century popular culture. (Indeed, the museum advertises itself as the Museum of British Popular Culture.)
** Orientation **
The museum is situated in an old Victorian market hall near the town centre, and it's rather TARDIS-like in the way that it manages to pack a huge amount of stuff into a fairly small space. The exhibits are really packed in here: the displays begin as soon as you go in through the front door (where you pay) and from there you walk around a real rabbit warren of passageways, lined on both sides by case after case after case of ephemera. This goes on for 20 or 30 rooms on three floors, and you may well have sensory overload by the end!
The Land of Lost Content does not receive any subsidy (as you are told perhaps very slightly too often as you walk around) which is probably a bit of a blessing in disguise. You really can't imagine any public funding body being prepared to shell out on this place without insisting on at least a few changes - but then it wouldn't have quite the same quirky, individual character it does now. Would the case full of golliwogs survive, for example? Whatever you think of those dolls, they are undoubtedly a part of British 20th century culture, and as such I think it's right that they are here.
** The displays **
Each room and display case is broadly themed. For example, early on there is a display of Second World War "home front" material (though not militaria; Stella is a pacifist who doesn't approve of such things) and so you think you know what you're in for... but then you turn around and discover a Bennett's Dairies milk bottle of the sort I remember from the early 1980s, and behind this a bottle of orange Corona fizz. An *unopened* bottle, mark you, still with the garish orange liquid filling it to the brim! Look a little further and there's an Ascot water heater of the sort that once adorned so many kitchen walls. And so it goes on.
One of my favourite displays is the sweetshop: this has packs of just about every old-fashioned chocolate bar and assortment tin you could imagine. It's fun to see how different some of the now-familiar bars looked in their early years: Crunchies, for example, were originally Fry's bars and in a much squarer and less prepossessing pack than the shiny golden version we see nowadays. Upstairs there's a small area devoted to Woolworths, including a sad poster advertising the company's forthcoming centenary... which it fell short of by a single year.
Naturally children are likely to find the toy cabinets interesting, and here you will find (among so many other things) a great big Ferris wheel made out of Meccano, but don't neglect some of the less obvious displays: 1930s wooden skis, old metal road signs, cinema posters, a huge selection of (rather dusty) old televisions and early video recorders... you name it, really. The home electronics revolution is really a bit recent for the Land of Lost Content, but there are one or two computers and the like on show. (An Atari and a couple of Commodores; it would have been nice to have seen a Sinclair or Amstrad!)
** Practicalities **
The Land of Lost Content is open ten months of the year, being closed in January and February. It's open from 11 am to 5 pm every day except Wednesdays; you can hardly begrudge Stella and her staff one day off a week given what must be a pretty tiring task keeping such a huge collection in order! Admission is around five pounds, with slight discounts for concessions such as over-60s: my party contained two adults and two senior citizens and that came to £19. There's no cloakroom (there isn't any space!) so you'll have to carry round everything you bring; for that reason rucksacks and the like are not recommended.
When I visited, the temperature inside (according to a handy thermometer!) was 16 degrees, so you shouldn't feel uncomfortable with ordinary outdoor clothes on. I suspect it may get a little stuffy on the hottest days, though. There are no lifts, but the staircases do have stairlifts. There are toilets (on both ground and upper floors) and these, though nothing special, are quite clean and well stocked. There's also a small café with a rather limited menu, and a gift shop attached; here you can have a break and a sandwich, though like everything else here it's rather squeezed in and can be a little crowded if there happens to be a large party going round the museum. The woman serving my (small) party with our bacon rolls was very friendly and made it a nice place to relax for a few minutes.
You are not allowed to take photos inside, and this rule is reinforced gently but firmly by reminder signs dotted around the place. On the one hand this is a little bit disappointing at a time when many organisations (even the National Trust!) are relaxing their rules on interior photography, but it's probably a good thing overall given the extremely cramped nature of the place. There's also the preservation factor to consider: flash photography in particular would probably damage many of the items on display. There is apparently a large online archive of images from the collection available to academics... but only to them, which is rather frustrating.
** Getting there **
Craven Arms has the advantage of being extremely easy to get to, lying as it does on the main A49 road which runs north-south between Hereford and Shrewsbury. From this, turn east onto the B4368 (Corvedale Road) and after just a few yards you'll find a left turn leading to that increasing rarity of sights, a *free* car park. This is of moderate size, but had plenty of spaces even on a Saturday in May. From there the Land of Lost Content itself is a couple of hundred yards' walk down Market Street, and is hard to miss. There is no parking at the museum itself.
You can also get to the museum easily enough by public transport, as the town has its own railway station, about half a mile away in the northern part of the town. Craven Arms station stands on the junction between the Welsh Marches line (Hereford to Shrewsbury) and the Heart of Wales line leading down through rural mid-Wales to Llanelli. The Welsh Marches line sees an hourly service (less on Sundays) but the Heart of Wales line has only four trains per day, so check carefully!
** Verdict **
The Land of Lost Content is a perfect example of the eccentric British tourist attraction. It won't be for everyone - if you like your museums organised and structured, then you'll hate it - but if like me you can gain enjoyment simply from wandering through an Aladdin's cave packed to the rafters with a huge assortment of, well, *stuff* then after your first visit you may well wonder what kept you so long. I'm not sure it's really for small children, but everyone else should give it a go.