THE Glendale Toy Museum is sited right on Skye’s stark and lunar edge, and within its walls one phrase is to be heard more than any other: “Oh, we used to have one of those…” Being here is like hearing the Queen inspect a map of continental Africa: “Oh, we used to…”
The daytrippers and backpackers loiter in a rainbow of breathable rainwear, alternating between the museum’s two tiny rooms, unsure which outcome is the more perplexing: that they’ve made it, finally, to this far-flung fold of the Ordnance Survey map or that, having done so, they find the only thing here is… a toy museum.
Outside, sheep take five in the front gardens of the few nearby houses; the road signs say “Feral goats for two miles”. But inside, the humans are strolling down memory lane, marooned in the more remote territory that is the past, inspecting the Pelham puppets, the Stylophones, Tardises various, the creepy 1930s dolls, and turning to companions to exclaim: “Oh, we used to have one of those…”
The very nature of things tells us that childhood seldom ends well: we grow cynical and corpulent, we succumb to the idea that Keeping Up Appearances can be quite funny and, eventually, we die. Fittingly, the story of the Glendale Toy Museum is ending sadly too. After a quarter of a century, the museum is closing; this season is to be its last. Andy Pandy and Looby Loo are going for the big sleep; the curtains are being pulled across Play School’s round window. This is, as the advertising proclaims, “Europe’s most remote toy museum”, a claim that is proud but perverse, like emphasising that you’re Macclesfield’s tallest trumpeter. No longer, though, shall flummoxed Germans emerge from high-performance Audis, blinking in the Hebridean light, climb the track and enter the solid late-Victorian house to find Terry and Paddy Wilding freaking out with yo-yos.
Terry is 65; Paddy is 71. Their reign in the Empire of Childhood has been long, happy and glorious. But Terry’s pension kicks in this year, and even a shelf-full of Clangers figurines lose their appeal in the end. Both are from Lancashire and were married previously, meeting on a blind date in the late 1980s. Terry designed buses for Leyland and Paddy was a primary teacher. But she was also a collector, a hoarder, a habitué of flea markets and jumble sales. From the mid-1950s on, she says, she picked Blackpool clean, just as one man’s post-war junk was becoming another’s collectable. “Back then, the dealers wanted only new stuff,” she remembers. “If someone put a new lamp or some newish clothes into a jumble sale, the dealers were on them like wolves, even in church halls. I was the opposite: I quite liked the tat.”
And, being a teacher, it was toys her eyes alighted upon most gladly. The dealers weren’t interested in toys, or puppets, bears or dolls, she says: “They weren’t thinking ahead. Because anything that people really love, they’re going to want back eventually.”
The collection grew, the relationship blossomed, children came in due course. The couple visited Skye on holiday and, absent-mindedly, they never left. They happened upon Holmisdale House, a commanding five-bedroom villa built by a military adviser to Queen Victoria, and bought it for £26,000. The microscopic hall and the two front rooms became the museum, and the Wildings sequestered themselves in the rooms above. “If you need the toilet,” Paddy tells customers still, “it’s up the stairs and turn left at the 1970 Mandy annual.”
Downstairs, meanwhile, is a hybrid of time capsule and sociopath’s parlour, a Miss Havisham hideaway papered with peeling cheer. The room to the left is a wind-up world of Victorian and Edwardian automata and bits of dolls’ houses in glass boxes, scrapbooks, board games and disconnected puppets. To the right is the post-war collection: including, weirdly, a shelf in tribute to Donny and Marie Osmond, a Six Million Dollar Man, some (heretically unboxed) Doctor Who stuff and a fleet of Star Wars models: “This is the Millennium Falcon, obviously,” says Terry earnestly. “Actually, it’s our second. We accidentally blew the first one up. Which ironically is what happened to the real one in the film…”
And here the pair have been, six days a week, since 1987. Some days only a handful of customers come through, though in a good week all told they can get around 50. Paddy is traumatised still by the time, a decade back when both rooms were full already, that a coach party of German students turned up. Around a hundred shoehorned themselves in, a feat akin to the population of China moving to Orkney. “That was hell,” shudders Paddy. “Like a nightmare. They just kept coming in and coming in: a hundred people in wet cagoules, all rooted to the spot because they couldn’t move, steam coming off them, knocking the puppets to the ground with their rucksacks. So no more coach parties.”
There are, however, still Germans: today six young men from some consonantal pile-up near Cologne. Germans love toys, says Terry, puppets particularly and – it’s dismaying to learn – Meccano militaria. Happily, they overlook the copy of We’re All In It, a children’s colouring book of the 1940s featuring toddler soldiers bayonetting their cats.
Terry does the bulk of the mein-hosting. He handles the demonstrations and the potted histories, like a fact-crammed, white-bearded uber-curator, and you can just see him on the Blue Peter sofa, explaining why magnesium is so volatile. Curiously, Terry’s voice is identical to that of Mark Radcliffe, the wry Radio 2 DJ. He’ll be discussing wooden toys of the 1920s but at any moment, you fear, he might start interviewing the Arctic Monkeys. Today he is welcoming a mother and daughter, the Stewarts from Hawick, who visited the museum in its third year of operation and are therefore able to report that it appears not to have changed a jot.
“Captain Scarlett there,” Terry says, indicating a figurine. “Modelled, of course, on Cary Grant…”
“Oh, I liked him,” sighs the elder woman, meaning Grant presumably.
“And that’s Action Girl. Not a well-known toy. Same maker as Action Man but not quite the same quality of manufacture.” The Stewarts nod sadly. “In fact, the chief designer of Palitoy has visited this very museum. The gripping hands of Action Man were modelled on his.” Terry visibly swells. “So I can say honestly that I’ve shaken the hand of Action Man.” And I’ve shaken Terry’s hand. This Action Man link ensures I’ll never wash my own again.
“Action Girl – I think my friend used to have one of those,” mulls Stewart the younger.
Celebrity-wise, though, Action Man is just cannon-fodder. Glendale has welcomed them all. Rolf Harris popped in once. He autographed the museum’s Stylophone. Paul O’Grady, aka Lily Savage, has been too; he chided Terry and Paddy for displaying nothing connected to his favourite show, The Avengers, then sent an Avengers annual he’d owned as a boy, full of adolescent scribbles. Magnus Magnusson has been. And Libby Purves of Radio Four: “She wrote about us in a book,” Paddy recalls. “She said she was amazed we let kids play with the toys. That’s just daft – why wouldn’t we?”
Ah, but this takes us into a tricky area: children. Paddy has thoughts about children – or, more exactly, about parents. Adults are encouraged to do as they please with the toys, stopping short of putting them on eBay. Should a parent allow their child to step out of line, however, they’ll receive one of Paddy’s poky Lancastrian homilies on manners and consideration. She recalls a family of five who arrived, sat in a circle on the floor and proceeded to play robustly with her fragile heirlooms: “I told them, this is a museum, not a creche.”
Operating a toy museum, even if it is the most remote toy museum in Europe, provides all manner of unedifying insights into modern parenting, she insists. “Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. We have two main rooms here. The child will be left to look at the puppets and the bears, the parent will go next door and look at the spaceships, and there’ll be no communication, no sharing, nothing. The museum is meant to be magical, but sometimes you suspect they’re just keeping out of the rain. The parent doesn’t relate to the child, and the child isn’t interested in toys that don’t bleep.”
When they close in November, Terry and Paddy will stick the best toys on eBay and give the rest away. It will, finally and definitively, be time to take the advice of Corinthians 13:11 and put away childish things. But only in a manner of speaking: “As far as Terry and I are concerned,” Paddy says, “there is no such thing as age. We don’t recognise childhood or old age. There is just wherever you happen to find yourself and the capacity for joy and wonder.” Paddy, I want to say, oh, I used to have one of those…
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Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
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Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
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