Lisa Byrne - how macabre museums are well worth a visit during the summer holidays

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 July 2017

Lisa Byrne

Lisa Byrne


A dose of horror helps to entertain the little ones during the long summer break.

It’s every parent’s dilemma. How do you fill the long, summer holidays without being driven demented by your little darlings and without the local adoption agency on speed dial! Well, if like me, you’re not a fan of shoving your child in front of the TV or some computing contraption, and it happens to be lashing rain outside, why not drag them to one of this county’s many outstanding museums? They won’t complain about being bored again (well, not for a few hours anyway).

Many of our museums are strangely verging on the macabre, and there’s nothing children like more than being scared, especially if they compare their standard of life with the not so fabulous ‘good old days’. My nine-year-old daughter Brontë doesn’t know she’s born, or so she readily told me after visiting the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds. Hailing from a medical family, I was thrilled to discover that a unique building of this kind tells such a graphic but fascinating story of how health, science and medicine have evolved over the centuries.

My young companion was in awe of the tough life before surgery, being particularly interested in the virtual tour of life on the streets of Leeds in 1842 which told the story of poor old Hannah Dyson, one of around 23,000 children working in factories in that year alone, often for 12 hours a day, six days a week. The young girl underwent a gruelling operation after getting her leg stuck in machinery and unfortunately died on the operating theatre.

If that wasn’t bad enough we were also informed the museum building was first opened in 1861 as a purpose-built Leeds Union Workhouse, a harsh home for the destitute, only merging with St James’s Hospital in 1945. I know I am in touch with my spiritual side, but I felt quite overwhelmed by the museum’s melancholy atmosphere, as if the ghosts of the workhouse were still around us. My poor husband found it so overbearing he had to leave and sit in the car.

A few weeks later I took Brontë to the Castle Museum in York. Now, I am a self-confessed history addict but even I occasionally find this museum slightly eerie. I can just about cope with the amazing exhibitions recreating centuries of history, but it’s when I get to the Victorian Street Kirkgate that I start to feel disconcerted. Walking through the cobbled lanes past authentic York businesses, a school room, police cell and Hansom cab, took me back centuries.

However, by far the most chilling part of the museum is the Castle Prison complete with original cells which once housed notorious murderers and thieves, including the legendary highwayman Dick Turpin. The castle has been a site of justice and imprisonment for around 1,000 years and is truly spooktacular. Unbelievably, a number of people, with the museum’s permission, have chosen to spend a night in the cells.

A few years ago, radio DJ Dougie Weake and a colleague stayed in the same cell that Dick Turpin spent his last few hours before being paraded to the gallows. Talking of the harrowing experience, Dougie said: ‘It was strange as it was deathly, deathly quiet. Every so often you hear a little noise, no matter what it is and you’re fully awake again as you’re not sure what’s going on.’

He added: ‘Then at 4.30am there was a definite noise which woke me up and then, whether it was my imagination, I felt the room go colder. It sounded a bit like a crackle of interference on a radio but more rapid.’ A shaken Dougie said he would never repeat the experience. ‘The history of this room is phenomenal. It’s been great to do it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again to be quite honest!’

So, if your little darlings are more fragile then maybe a trip to the local art gallery or taking the waters at Harrogate Turkish Baths might be a better excursion option. Thankfully, my daughter has inherited my love of the macabre - next stop York Dungeons.

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