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Off the beaten track

London's big-name museums distract from lesser-known places that provide riches for discerning visitors. Chris Fautley uncovers the capital's backwaters

NAME Firepower The Royal Artillery Museum

Where Woolwich, SE18.

Tel: 020 8855 7755 Admission: pound;2 per child


More than 500 years of field guns make up the collection of the Royal Artillery, housed in the former Royal Arsenal. Every conceivable type of artillery is here, with a few surprises - such as the gun carriage used to carry the remains of George V. The human angle is covered in depth, with a display of the Royal Artillery's medal collection, Zulu weaponry, and even some of Prince Louis Napoleon's personal effects. Videos, interactives and information panels complete the story.

Biggest Surprise

The shattering crash as a shell "explodes", unannounced. Completely unexpected.

Don't miss

Phase 2. This newly opened part of the museum is in a separate building.

Home to "trophy" guns and 20th century exhibits from the Cold War onwards.

Includes the Korean War and Falklands War.

NAME The Fan Museum

Where Greenwich, SE10.

Tel: 020 8305 1441 Admission: pound;1 per child.

WHAT YOU CAN SEE Displays of 3,000-plus fans belonging to what aspires to be the world's only fan museum. Housed in two characterful Georgian houses, the ground floor focuses on fan making, while the first floor hosts regularly changing themed exhibitions such as floral designs. There are intricately patterned fans of all shapes and sizes from around the world.

Many are hundreds of years old, featuring materials as diverse as mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell and ivory. The standard of craftsmanship is superb: for example, an 18th century Chinese brise fan with ivory carved finer than lace. A surefire hit for art and design students.

Biggest Surprise A 20th century Vent- Axia (ventilation unit) but it's a fan, so why shouldn't it be here?

don't miss A finely carved, 1999 Welsh fan made of slate.

NAME The Clink Museum Where Clink Street, SE1.

Tel: 020 7403 0900

Admission pound;3.50 per child.

what you can see The Clink was a small district in Southwark, south London, part of a manor owned by the Bishops of Winchester. This museum tells the story of The Clink's prison from the 12th century to 1780 - when it was a big episcopal money-earner. Covering a neglected aspect of London's social history, visitors walk through scenes portraying prison life during its various roles - including religious martyrs, and debtors prison. Prisoners tell their tales, complemented with information panels bursting with interest. Hands-on implements of torture include a boot that makes your foot fall off, (you can try it!); a thumbscrew, (you can't); and a chastity belt, (don't ask).

Biggest Surprise Most implements of torture are the real thing.

don't miss The Debtor's Cell of 1690. It oozes atmosphere.

NAME London Canal Museum Where King's Cross, N1.

Tel: 020 7713 0836; Admission: pound;1.25 per child.

what you can see Overlooking Battlebridge Basin on Regent's Canal, the museum explores the history of canals, their people and their trade.

Exhibits, with a strong Regent's Canal slant, are displayed across two floors. The first floor is big on horses - for years the principal form of canal "motive power". The ground floor features traditional canal art, and artefacts representing everyday canal life. Nimble fingers can practice knot-tying skills: follow the instructions, and a sheepshank is yours for the asking. Pop outside to see privately owned barges moored in the basin.

Biggest Surprise The museum was originally a Victorian ice warehouse. Ice was imported from Norway, and brought here via the Regent's Canal. You can view the enormous storage wells.

DON'T MISS Narrow boat "Coronis" on the ground floor. Climb aboard and experience the cramped living quarters of a 1930s narrow boat family.

NAME Museum in Docklands Where West India Quay, E14.

Tel: 0870 444 3856

Admission: Free.

WHAT YOU CAN SEE Housed in a 19th century dockside warehouse, this is a museum in Docklands - and not exclusively of Docklands. The "enclosed" docks per se, are a relatively recent feature from the past 200 years.

This, then, is the place to learn about London's history as a port; spread across three floors, the story is presented on a time line basis from Roman times through to the 20th century Docklands regeneration. Social history is an aspect investigated especially well: particularly worthy of mention are the areas covering the lives of dockers and World War II.

Biggest Surprise A 70kg Roman lead ingot: retrieved from the riverbed.

don't miss Sailor Town - a walk-through recreation featuring the alleyways, shops, pubs, industry and lodging houses of 19th-century Docklands.

NAME The Bank of England Museum Where Bartholomew Lane EC2.

Tel: 020 7601 5545 Admission: Free.

WHAT YOU CAN SEE Filthy lucre! Just the tip of the iceberg in the museum devoted to the Old Lady's 31-year history. Items on show include the Bank's charter of 1694, 18th century lottery tickets, and a 163 button telling machine. You can also see what happens to the six tonnes of used bank notes withdrawn each day. The coin and bank note collection is impressive; budding tycoons, meanwhile, should try the foreign exchange dealing room simulation.

Biggest Surprise A 19th century pound;1 million banknote. Real enough, but only used for internal accounting purposes.

DON'T MISS The gold bullion - including a Roman ingot. The stacked 59 gold bars are dummies, but there is a real one you can attempt to lift (or not).

It's worth a cool pound;87,000.

NAME The Clockmakers' Museum Where Guildhall Library, EC2.

Tel.: 020 7332 1868, (for opening hours only);

Admission: Free.

what you can see The museum of the Clockmakers' Company, with a dazzling display of more than 500 timepieces stretching back to the 15th century.

The vast majority are, in fact, watches - with cases and mechanisms so delicately crafted that time-keeping could almost have been an afterthought. There are some impressive clocks too, including several of the longcase variety. A 1675 example still ticks reassuringly.

Biggest Surprise The horologist's craft is alive and well - as demonstrated by the 21st century wind-up timepieces on display. Mass produced marvels of micro-chippery they are not.

don't miss The "Cabinet of Curiosities" - with oddities such as a rolling ball clock whose ball bearings zigzag 2,522 miles each year; a 19th century clock wound by hydrogen gas; and a decimal watch with 10-hour dial.

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