Local listing on UK’s eight most weird and wonderful museums

Regular readers of this page, today and down the years, have always appreciated Selwyn Johnston’s contributions.

Wednesday, 12th May 2021, 6:00 am
The Johnston Brothers photographed pre-lockdown in their Barbershop-Museum. L-R. Selwyn, Nigel and Gordon

Amongst the wide-ranging stories he has shared here, his most prolific topics have been railway heritage and Northern Ireland’s significant role in two world wars.

Along with his two hair-dresser brothers, Nigel and Gordon, Selwyn and several other local steam-train enthusiasts run, manage and maintain Headhunters Barber Shop and Railway Museum in Enniskillen.

It’s unique worldwide - a place to get your hair cut where you can also wander three floors of rooms and corridors packed with all sorts of authentic, vintage, railway exhibits. A publicity slogan quips “Rail Heritage on the High Street - Short, Back and Sidings!”

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Barbershop and Museum motif

In a recent e-mail to Roamer, Selwyn announced that it “has been selected by the Independent newspaper as one of the eight most weird and wonderful museums in the UK.”

He didn’t mind the reference to ‘wonderful’ but was less sure about the other accolade until I told him that Paris’s (vast bone-filled) Catacombs, India’s Karni Mata Temple (famous for thousands of holy rats) and even the Empire State Building in New York, have all been officially described as ‘weird and wonderful’ by travel writers and heritage experts.

So has the serenely beautiful Basilica of the Holy Family in Barcelona, designed (using no straight lines) by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, and our own Giant’s Causeway designed (using mostly hexagonal shapes) by Irish giant Finn MacCool!

Selwyn’s e-mail included the Independent’s full citation: “Barber shops are 10 a penny. Railway museums are fairly common too. But barber shops that are also railway museums might be completely unique to Enniskillen. Get your short back and sides amidst memorabilia from the golden age of steam travel - conductor’s uniforms, signalling instruments, and old-fashioned tableware. Haircuts are optional, and museum admission is free.”

Derwent Pencil Museum

The Indy, as the online newspaper is often called, ran the story because of “all the places reopening after the calamitous closures of Covid-19” and whereas Northern Ireland lags a little behind the rest of the UK “some of the UK’s oddest institutions are now steadily making a return to public life.” (Headhunters is currently open for haircuts only.)

The eight museums display everything “from arcane medieval medicines to canine neckwear”, such as historic lawnmowers, false teeth, dodo bones and coloured pencils. More about those in a moment, but first, a short history of Headhunters. It was opened as a ladies and gents hairdressing saloon by brothers Nigel and Gordon Johnston in 1981, so this year is its 40th anniversary.

Named after the nearby Head Street, the interior was initially decorated with African jungle motifs. The focus on railway heritage was adopted in 2002 “purely by accident” says Selwyn. Trains were the Johnston-brothers shared (and consuming!) interest, as Fermanagh was once served by the Great Northern Railway (Ireland), The Sligo Leitrim & Northern County Railway and The Clogher Valley Railway.

By 1957 the trio of train companies had closed and Fermanagh had no rail links. The brothers hosted several railway exhibitions and organised reunion events for former train company employees. With no permanent location available for further displays they cleared a space in the saloon which soon expanded into the building’s five main rooms.

Karni Mata Temple, India: Holy Rats Slightly Below Centre

Headhunters is now a registered charity, a member of the Independent Museums Association, of the Heritage Railway Association and associate member of the Northern Ireland Museums Council. It boasts a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service and a runner-up prize in the UK Heritage Railway Association 2017 Awards.

And now, the other ‘weird and wonderful’ museums on the list of eight?

The Pendine Museum of Speed in Carmarthenshire commemorates the land speed records reached on Pendine Beach between 1922 and 1927 - a seven mile stretch of sand near the village of Pendine where five world records were made in five years. Amongst its wide range of exhibits, London’s Grant Museum of Zoology has dodo bones, a rare quagga skeleton (South African zebra extinct since 1883) and a glass container of 18 pickled moles.

The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh - appropriately housed in Scotland’s first lighthouse (Kinnaird Head Castle Lighthouse) - contains the UK’s largest collection of lighthouse lenses while Southport’s British Lawnmower Museum has a unique collection of Victorian scythes, solar-powered grass-cutting robots and lawnmowers that belonged to the rich and famous.

The British Dental Museum in London has a clockwork tooth drill (ouch!) and teeth taken from dead soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo.

Apart from Headhunters, one of Roamer’s two favourites on the ‘weird and wonderful’ list is the Derwent Pencil Museum, ‘home of the world’s first pencil’ in Keswick. Opened in 1981 it also houses one of the biggest colouring pencils in the world - a yellow pencil, 26 feet long and weighing just over 984 lbs.

And finally, the Dog Collar Museum in Kent, “located incongruously in the gatehouse of Leeds Castle,” cites the Independent, adding “which, equally incongruously, is in Kent.” Described by the BBC as “one of the world’s most eccentric museums” it encompasses over 500 years of doggy-wear including spiked collars, gold and silver collars, some engraved with family crests, and more modern examples made from tyres, beads and plastic.

Sadly, unless they’re assisting visitors, dogs aren’t admitted!