10 top free cultural gems in Britain

Learn a little more about your own backyard during this half-term holiday at these local cultural gems. What's more they don't cost a penny, says Paul Murphy

1. (Bethnal Green) Museum of Childhood, London

It may be a Museum of Childhood but it certainly isn't just for kids. This V&A outpost boasts over 6,000 exhibits spanning 400 years of childhood - from Harry Potter's Nimbus 2000 broomstick to an early game of Goose (circa 1750), from Burmese marionettes to Belgian Smurfs. Their current exhibition (until 19 April) is Top to Toe: Fashion for Kids which covers the world of children's clothing from 250 years ago to the present day, so pop along and relive your own childhood fashions.

• Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, +44 (0)20 8983 5200, vam.ac.uk/moc. Open daily 10am-5.45pm

2. National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

Housed in a stunning modern building the NWM charts the Industrial Revolution from a Welsh seaport perspective, including archive images and oral history, to give an insight into community life. Poverty versus wealth, dangers to health and body, families under pressure, noise, grime and exploitation are all covered in this warts 'n' all investigation. If you think things are bad today, you may come out of here thanking your lucky stars that you weren't born into a poor Welsh family in the mid 19th century.

• Oystermouth Road, Maritime Quarter, Swansea, +44 (0)1792 638950, museumwales.ac.uk. Open daily 10am–5pm

3. People's Palace and Winter Gardens, Glasgow

The People's Palace is the story of ordinary Glaswegians and, how they have made the most of the poor hand life that has often dealt to them over the last 250 years: a single tenement room contrasts with a tobacco lord's trappings while political banners and the famous banana boots worn by Billy Connolly on stage in the 1970s are different voices of Glasgow culture. The splendid Victorian glass-and-iron Winter Palace, housing tropical and subtropical plants is the perfect place for a warming coffee and a slice of Millionaires Shortbread.

• Glasgow Green, +44 (0)141 276 0788, glasgowmuseums.com. Open Monday to Thursday and Saturday 10am-5pm, Friday and Sunday 11am-5pm.

4. Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead

There's no need to "gan along the Scotswood Road to see the Blaydon Races", you can see the original painting by William Irving here, at the North East's leading gallery of design and contemporary craft. Alongside the Shipley's excellent fine art collection, a new Designs for Life gallery showcases over 300 objects from all over the world. Currently showing is 70 years of Penguin Design (until 31 May) which looks at iconic book covers.

On 23 May the eagerly awaited Great North Museum: Hancock and the Hatton Gallery (admission also free) will be opening on the other side of the Tyne.

• The Shipley: Prince Consort Road, Gateshead, +44 (0)191 232 6789,

• Great North Museum Barras Bridge,
Newcastle upon Tyne, +44 (0)191 222 6765, twmuseums.org.uk/greatnorthmuseum

Both are open Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 2pm-5pm

5. Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

The Observer called this "one of the finest small art galleries in Europe" and with works by Monet, Manet, Magritte; Renoir, Rubens, Rossetti and Rodin; Degas, Delacroix and van Dyck, not to mention Turner, Gainsborough and Picasso, how could we argue? (Did we also mention that it is housed in one of the country's finest Art Deco buildings?). The Barber is also renowned for one of Europe's best collections of coins; its current exhibition is Claims to Power Coins and Political Spin (29 April), showing how, for example by depicting deities on their currency, rulers identified themselves with the gods while also seeking divine protection. Food for thought in these credit-crunched times.

• University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, +44 (0)121 414 7333, barber.org.uk. Open Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 12pm-5pm

6. Blaise Castle House, near Bristol

Jane Austen described this handsome late 18th-century mansion as "the finest place in England". Today, situated in the beautiful parkland of the Blaise Estate, just north of Bristol, it serves as the city's social history collection. It's a sort of local ideal home collection spanning the last 300 years, showing domestic equipment and items used in bygone Bristol households. Fashionistas will love the Costume Gallery (it's one of the largest in the country), or check out the toy collection which includes the ever popular model trains. Don't miss the Cabinet of Curiosities, with such weird and wonderful items as a Hiroshima fused glass bottle, a Scold's Bridle and an arm bone of a Bristol rioter (1831) carved with a human face!

• Henbury Road, Henbury, +44 (0)117 903 9818, bristol.gov.uk. Open Saturday to Wednesday 10am-5pm

7. Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth

Housed in a flamboyant Italianate-meets-Scottish baronial villa on the cliff side, the Russell-Cotes is a "must see" even on the sunniest day in Bournemouth. The adjectives eclectic, oriental and pre-Raphaelite come to mind in this highly colourful collection of artworks, stained glass and Japanese souvenirs gleaned by the Russell Cotes family during their world travels in the late Victorian period. Currently on show (until Aug 9) is A-Z, A Handbook, featuring typically maverick mosaics by Cleo Mussi, one of the world's leading exponents of the art.

• Russell-Cotes Road, East Cliff, Bournemouth, +44 (0)1202 451 858, russell-cotes.bournemouth.gov.uk. Open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays.

8. Leeds City Art Gallery

This is home to one of the best collections of 20th-century British art outside of London. Nationally important prints, watercolours, paintings, sculptures, photography, and contemporary art include works by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Antony Gormley and Francis Bacon. There is a new multi-media exhibition gallery and, worth a visit in its own right, is the splendidly refurbished Victorian Tile Hall café. Rank: Picturing The Social Order 1615-2009 (until 26 April) looks at how artists have captured the shape, class and perception of where individuals stand in society from Renaissance times to the present.

• The Headrow, Leeds. +44 (0)113 247 8256, leeds.gov.uk/artgallery. Monday to Tuesday 10am-8pm (except Bank Holidays). Wednesday 12pm-8pm. Thursday to Saturday 10am-5pm. Sunday 1pm-5pm

9. Woodhenge, Wiltshire

The very name may sound like an April Fool's prank but take our word, it's for real – or rather, was for real. So, why has everyone heard of Stonehenge while so few people know about Woodhenge? The answer is quite simply that Woodhenge – being erm, wooden – just didn't stand the test of time. Which is a shame as it was of similar size and contemporary age (2300-2000BC) to its stone neighbour and is just as mysterious. Excavations during the 1970s revealed that a child whose skull had been split had been buried near to the centre of Woodhenge. It is thought that this was a sacrifice or an offering to mark the beginning of its use.

• Between Larkhill and Amesbury, about 2km (1.2miles) north east of Stonehenge. Open at any time. english-heritage.org.uk

10. Linen Hall Library, Belfast

Between the 17th and 19th centuries linen was almost as important to Ireland as wool was to England. To get an idea of the wealth it bought, visit the wonderfully grand and old-fashioned Linen Hall Library - it really is one of Belfast's "hidden" gems, known to locals only - where you can enjoy a coffee with splendid views on to the buzzing hub of the city, Donegall Square. Tucked away in a new annex is a small museum with features on The Troubles and, should you wish to trace Irish roots, a genealogy section.

• Library: 17 Donegall Square North, +028 9032 1707, linenhall.com. Open Monday to Friday, 9.30am-5.30pm, Saturday 9.30am-1pm


Paul Murphy

The GuardianTramp

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