Less than half a mile from my doorstep is a house of treasures.
At this season of the year you approach it along tree lined paths under bare branches and clouded skies, and on the skyline the dark shape of a single tower half hidden behind the trees is the only suggestion that something out of the ordinary lies up there at the top of the hill.
Coming closer you realise there is more, and perhaps by now the skies have cleared, and you feel more inclined to climb the path to see what else there is to discover, but when you get there the entrance doesn’t promise much.
Nothing draws you in except mild curiosity, so pushing open the heavy oak door and crossing the threshold you find yourself unprepared for what suddenly confronts you, and you stand amazed at the unexpectedness of sparkling gilded mirrors and twinkling chandeliers, polished marble, and the rich warm glow of stained glass.
Cliffe Castle is now a museum, but it was once the home of the Butterfield family. Henry Isaac Butterfield rebuilt it in the 1870’s in fashionably medieval style, though the opulent furnishings were hardly medieval.
But I said this was a house of treasures. Move further on and you come to the collections, and this is where the fun starts; in a quiet, self deprecating way the museum is a storehouse of delights.
Lurking in the early history gallery is the marvellous reconstruction of Pholiderpeton scutigerum Huxley, an enormous amphibian the size of a crocodile whose fossil remains were found in a Bradford colliery in 1868 and which are displayed in a cabinet below; it “crawled on weak legs amongst the tropical plants which clothed the area and caught fish that swam in the lakes”. The model of the creature is crunching a large fish between its jaws. Tropical plants and giant amphibians in Bradford! Further on the fossils give way to a wonderful collection of minerals, and then to the galleries of British wildlife with dioramas of stuffed birds and small mammals, but the prize for taxidermy (at least as far as the children there on half-term holiday visits would seem to indicate) must be upstairs in the local history gallery where there is a lamb with two heads, beady eyes fixing you with a glassy stare. It reminds me of childhood visits to Potter’s Museum in Sussex, long ago sold and dispersed but world famous (and coincidentally once more in the news).
One of the things I love best about the displays is the friendly, modest way the interpretation boards are written. A cousin visiting from the United States loved it for the same reason. “Don’t expect the Smithsonian!” I warned before we went – but he was captivated by the unpretentiousness and particularly liked a caption in the Egyptian gallery which reads:
“This mini exhibition contains most of the objects that make up the museum’s small collection of Ancient Egyptian material. They are not as spectacular as the famous discoveries from Tutankhamen’s tomb but they still show the richness of this long dead but fascinating civilisation.”
In the same spirit the display includes a little group of pieces of failed pottery – broken parts of pots that had fused together in the kiln and had been thrown away. Of such stuff is life made, and I enjoy the fact that these things are here, and that it’s not just the perfectly preserved that we always want to see in museums.
Treasures like Cliffe Castle are easily overlooked. The work that goes into running them, the thought and care behind the design and curation – everything that makes places like this so wonderful to visit. I’m so lucky this treasure house is so close by.