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Glandford Shell Museum

October 8, 2009

Most of us have a collection of one sort or another. Some of us collect old postcards or perfume bottles, others collect Dinky Toys, Elvis records or china teacups. Many collections live in dusty cupboards and drawers, and rarely see the light of day. Some collectors annex a couple of shelves in a corner of the sitting room, and show off their treasures with inordinate pride. Others amass so many items that they need a dedicated garden shed to house them. But country squire Sir Alfred Jodrell went one better to display his collection of shells from across the world: he built a museum. Martyn Oliver goes to visit.
The Glandford Shell Museum is on the bank of the river Glaven, between Blakeney and Holt in the very north of North Norfolk. Jodrell was a true late Victorian philanthropist. He completely rebuilt the village of Glandford, so that while many agricultural labourers in Jodrell’s lifetime lived in squalor, the farmworkers and their families on his Bayfield estate had warm and comfortable cottages. The cottages and barns were built in the Dutch style, with rounded gables, a legacy of the engineers from Holland who drained much of East Anglia’s wetlands, and Jodrell used the same style for the Shell Museum.

Built in 1915 in a wildflower meadow beside St Michael’s Church (which Jodrell had also rebuilt), the Museum is a pretty one-roomed building whose tall windows and high ceiling light the exhibits perfectly. With no artificial heat or light, Jodrell’s extensive collections of shells, of all sizes, shapes and colours, is kept in ideal conditions.


Glandford Shell Museum © Martyn Oliver 2009

The Museum, whose only income is derived from entrance fees, is carefully managed and maintained by curator Wendy Gill and her husband. Wendy is also verger of the church, and describes her work as ‘Lovely. It’s as though we were “meant” to be here.’

At Glandford you’ll find examples of Strombus gigas (a pink conch), Cassis coronatus (a red ‘helmet’ shell) and Charonia tritonis (a triton used in the Pacific islands as a war trumpet). One shelf is dedicated to the shells of Murex brandaris, belonging to a family of large and predatory rock snail whose excretions were used in the production of purple dye for imperial and ecclesiastical robes. As well as scientific labels, many of the shells in the collection carry charming everyday names such as Baby’s Toes, Cats’ Eyes, Venus Ears and Horse’s Hoof.


Shells on show in the museum © Martyn Oliver 2009

The largest shell in the collection is a chestnut and white turtle shell, measuring about 42 in long. The smallest is one of a set of tiny cones, each no more than a tenth of an inch in length.

Some shells have been used as currency: cowries, for instance, were at one time used in payment for slaves. And one beautiful shell in particular, the Wentletrap (from the Dutch for spiral staircase, wendeltrappe), was so coveted in the 18th century that examples often changed hands for upwards of £100 each. Chinese-made fakes were manufactured from a paste of rice flour, apparently so perfect that they could only be exposed by immersing them in water – at which point your investment melted away.



Pink conch shells and part of John Craske's tapestry © Martyn Oliver 2009

But that’s not all you’ll find in the Museum. There’s a selection of Valentine’s cards from the mid-20th century, sent – anonymously – by the Shell Oil Co. to its lady customers. There’s a 14-ft tapestry of the North Norfolk coastline, made by the noted naïve needlecraftsman John Craske. There’s a ship in a bottle by the equally famous “carafologist” Jack Needham. There’s a collection of polished agate pendants, a collection of artifacts from Pompeii, and there’s a sugar bowl used (once) by Queen Elizabeth I. And so much more. In fact, the Glandford Shell Museum is the epitome of the Cabinet of Curiosities. And at a mere £2 entrance fee, it’s certainly an experience not to be missed. You’ll love it.

For more details, visit www.shellmuseum.org.uk; and for winter opening, contact the Curator on 01263 740081.

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