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Follow the brown signs

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Stormy times in a whole world of barometers….

This was the view from Chris’ balcony window at 7.30am on Wednesday morning. After the blindingly gorgeous weather we’d had the day before this sight was mildly disappointing. Sometimes though having your options limited ends you up discovering random places you probably wouldn’t have gone to before and today turned out to be just one of those days.

Chris told me about a brown sign he used to pass on his way to work that he’d always been intrigued by which points to (and this is no joke) Barometer World. I’m the biggest fan of the quirky and off-beat, however even I was a little apprehensive about the potential of this nicheset of niche attractions. But it was indoors, somewhere new and there’s a man with sideburns on the website, so I was sold.
Barometer World is just through the little village of Merton near Okehampton on the north side of Dartmoor. Moors fascinate me, they creep me out bad and I can’t help imagining myself suddenly lost, alone and wandering the windswept eerie landscape Jane Eyre style, perhaps encountering a rabid werewolf or running into a serial killer hell bent on axing me to death or something just as ridiculous, and weirdly I have a massive pull to things that freak me out, so I donned my bonnet and set off for Dartmoor.
Once we got up onto the moor the weather was appropriately dank and foggy. Chris wanted to show me the sprawling and ominous Dartmoor Prison but we could hardly see our own hands in front of our faces, let alone the road and other road users, so I didn’t get to appreciate it’s scariness as much as I could have done. The point was this brown sign though and I was obviously bouncing off the walls with excitement when I saw it…


Barometer World turned out to be one of the strangest brown sign experiences I’ve ever had. First impressions were good and it looked just like the kind of place I love the best, deserted and a little quirky, as epitomised by the very specific visitor instructions around…
We did everything we were told (left our barometers in the car and rang the bell for entry) and were ushered in by the smallest woman in the world, who was clearly shocked and even a little bit upset when I introduced myself and explained my book/website concept. She said Mr Collins would need to talk to us and promptly roped off access to the area marked “Exhibition – No photography” leaving us to enjoy the cuckoo clock collection and fine assortment of barometers (made by the aforementioned Mr Collins himself) in the Barometer World shop.
After around 15 minutes Mr Collins (complete with sideburns) came out to greet us, well when I say greet I mean he ambled out of his office and said “what do you want then?” Things didn’t get off to the best start. I know what to expect now when I first speak to attractions about what I’m doing, my project is a bit random afterall, I don’t work for anyone or have any underlying interest other than singing their praises and in an age where most pursuits are driven by money or some other gain it’s understandable that people are often sceptical, so I hoped it would just be a case of winning this dubious chap over. I was wrong. No matter what I said Mr Collins counteracted me with a negative argument. This is just a snippet of the conversation to give you an impression:
Mr Collins: What about attractions without browns signs? 
Me: Well the brown sign thing is really just a “hook”, I’m basically trying to encourage people to notice the unnoticed and to do things they wouldn’t normally do, so if you see a sign that isn’t brown for a pottery or if  a little church catches you eye I would say turn off the road and discover it, it’ll still be unique and important in it’s own little way, but having the brown sign thing is accessible and familiar to everyone and it encompasses thousands of attractions, so it’s a good place to start.
Mr Collins: Technically I shouldn’t have a brown sign, it’s only because the council changed the rules a few years ago because they wanted to boost trade for small businesses that I got one. I only get 700 visitors a year.
Me: Isn’t it a good thing for you they changed the rules then?
Mr Collins: The signs weren’t cheap to buy.
Me: I’m sure but you do get more people visiting because they see the sign?
Mr Collins: Yes.
Me: So having the sign has boosted visitor numbers and people are more aware of you?
Mr Collins: Well yes I suppose so, but it’s expensive to run a museum you know.
Me: It must be, I’ve spoken to many museum owners/managers who talk about the changing demands of their audiences and their struggle to adapt to keep visitors coming but…
Mr Collins: You can say that again!
Me: But there are grants and subsidies out there, and people and organisations who are dedicated to keeping museums like yours alive and want to help encourage more visitors through your doors…
Mr Collins: Yes but the grants aren’t enough to cover all the costs.
Me: Well no I imagine they don’t but…
Mr Collins: Only last year I spent many hundreds of pounds on display boards to make the exhibition space look nicer.
Me: Well that’s brilliant, and I’m sure they raise the experience for visitors.
Mr Collins: Well yes, but they were expensive and that money wasn’t covered by visitors entry fees alone, I needed to make it up myself.
Me (big sigh): Well I guess some things are done not because they make money but because they’re important and people feel passionately about them so the cost is worth it. I don’t know how many thousands of pounds I’ve spent driving around the UK visiting attractions and I don’t make a penny from my pursuits, I fund it by waitressing in the evening but it’s just where you allocate your money and what’s important to you I guess.
Mr Collins: Humpf, I bet you make a good living off that in London with all your tips and that?
Me: Well no actually, I don’t get to keep my tips and I’m on the minimum wage.
Mr Collins: Well, at least it’s minimum wage, around here the kids working in the pubs and restaurants are only getting a few quid and hour.
Me (quite literally lost for words and losing the will to live): Errrrr….
Chris (seeing that I’m about to weep): I don’t think this is really the point, Amanda is raising the profile of little known places like yours and working to inspire people to get out there and visit them, not discouraging them…
Mr Collins: Yes yes I can see that, all very commendable. I suppose you want to get in for free now do you?
Me: No actually, I’m  more than happy to pay for us, if you’d like to allow us in for free and me to write a review then that would be lovely, if not then my wages definitely stretch to the £2.50 entrance price.
Mr Collins: Well I think I could let you in… I suppose it depends if you give us a good review eh?
Chris (almost shouting as he leads us to the roped off exhibition area): Its not about good or bad reviews it’s part of a bigger thing!
Mr Collins (not listening):
Me (under my breath because I’m not brave enough to say it out loud): I wonder if you would give you a good review?
Unbelievably (and I’m very proud of this) throughout the whole conversation I didn’t go red, which I ALWAYS do in social situations especially when I don’t know people or if circumstances are even a little difficult. I kept waiting for the familiar rush of blood to my cheeks and preparing myself to power on through regardless but it just didn’t come. I think I realised straight away that my project was totally lost on this man, so it wasn’t like meeting someone like Phil at the Minack or Geoff at his little village museum. When I meet those people I feel as though I am opening myself up totally to someone who can see into my very soul and they understand immediately why I am doing my project. Those people (and every other attraction owner I’ve ever met in fact) really like and appreciate my project and that’s the bit that makes me emotional, but with Mr Collins it felt like he cared only about making barometers, not educating people about the importance they have and the history behind them. It was very odd.
Maybe I’m being a little hard on Mr Collins, he must have cared enough in the past to tell people about barometers and open up the museum in the first place but certainly something must have happened to change his attitude, whatever the reason though I just felt very sad (and in desperate need of a fag) after our conversation with him.
Chris and I were left to look around the small but perfectly formed exhibition space on our own. Both being moody types we weren’t in any hurry to joke about what just happened so we pootled around half-heartedly reading about barometers and taking in the painstakingly hand crafted objects themselves. It’s a shame really because the history of predicting the weather is fascinating and it would have been nice to feel inspired and to drink it all in like I usually do, but ho hum.
Only a little over 150 years ago people had no accurate way of forecasting the weather and inconveniences like being caught in the rain without an umbrella were the least of their worries, the real issue were the frequent shipwrecks caused by heavy storms which ships had no idea they were sailing into so significant numbers of sailors were being killed. Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy was the first person to really dedicate his time to finding an accurate way to predict the weather. As a navy man he had solid experience on the sea and it was on Fitzroy’s ship, The Beagle, that Mr Charles Darwin sailed for 5 years collecting his experiences which later formed the ground breaking theory in his famous book “The Origin of Species”. After the terrible shipwreck of The Royal Charter in 1859 just off the coast of Anglesey which killed 459 people Fitzroy set about measuring changes in air pressure, studying the various readings and comparing them to the weather conditions. He designed and built the first reliable barometer and used readings from barometers in different locations to draw up precise pressure charts which he painstakingly read to accurately predict the weather. Fitzroy used the newly discovered telegraph system (we know all about that!) to get pressure readings from all over the UK and in 1861 weather forecasts were published in The Times for the first time.
The museum shows a great array of some of the good and the bad weather predictors through history, including ones like this…
“Weather stick. Droops for rain. Points for dry”. Primitive but accurate.
My favourite was the evocatively named “tempest prognosticator” (which sadly I couldn’t take a picture of because photography was NOT permitted) and is basically a leach in a jar of water. Depending on the weather the leach takes on different forms and there’s a great little pictorial display of every type of leach position and what that means the weather will be. In stormy weather leaches (for some reason) rise to the top of their jars and try to get out. The museum leach was in an almost question mark shape so we kind of worked out that the weather was changeable, which it was, so I was impressed. Mr Collins has recreated (in amazing detail) a huge Victorian tempest prognosticator which was first exhibited in 1851 at The Great Exhibition in London. Designed in the style of Indian temple architecture, it is a complex and glorious gold plated extravaganza to predict storms using leeches, so when the weather is stormy the leaches all try to get out of their jars and ring bells attached to top of each jar, it’s the most bizarre but exciting example of weather forecasting and was clearly recreated and built with a lot of love.
Other pieces of interesting information were on the display boards (yep, those very expensive ones) and detailed many of the natural ways of forecasting the weather in the olden days, this one was my favourite: “If the ash flowers before the oak we shall have a soak, if the oak flowers before the ash we shall have splash”. I wonder whether anyone has done any scientific studies to see if this is true… I shall find out.
After the exhibition we said goodbye to the smallest woman in the world but not Mr Collins who was in his office (apparently emailing me, bizarrely) and left after visiting the heavily barometer themed toilet, complete with bird song activated when you opened the door and went for a proper Devon cream tea, which lifted our spirits no end, as you can see…
If nothing else Barometer World taught us a lot about the history of weather forecasting and why its important. We talked afterwards about the things we take for granted but don’t appreciate fully how they came to be, so it was an interesting visit despite the initial attitude from Mr Collins. All in all this informative and well thought out little museum (that doesn’t technically qualify for a brown sign) is full of excellent information and barometers (nearly all of which have been beautifully hand crafted) and it’s definitely worth a visit. Barometer World is also a brilliant example of how eye opening a visit to a little known place like this can be, even when you have concerns that it might be a bit boring and left field initially these places nearly always teach you things you didn’t know and help us understand the work undertaken by people who blazed trails just so we can lead the privileged lives we do now by investigating how our world works.