The Weird and Wonderful shop in Accrington
PUBLISHED: 09:18 07 May 2014
When Victorian gentlemen and intrepid ladies canoed to the upper reaches of the Limpopo or trekked to the furthest corners of the Tibetan steppe, they invariably returned with a sackful of unusual mementos as well as a few rare tropical diseases.
You can find echoes of this past at some stately homes where glass cases lurk in dark corners. They are normally described as ‘A Cabinet of Curiosities’ and contain a weird and wonderful mixture of anything from shrunken heads to poison-tipped darts.
Norman Wright doesn’t have a cabinet of curiosities. He has a shop full of them in the middle of Accrington. Naturally, the sign over the door says ‘Weird and Wonderful’, making it Lancashire’s strangest shop.
Some will love it; for others, it will give them the heebie-jeebies.
Where else could you find an enormous egg from the elephant bird, extinct since the 1600s? Or skull of a lioness, assorted small lizards pickled in jars, the complete skeleton of a rather evil-looking four-horned Jacob’s Ram or the stuffed head of a buffalo wearing a top hat at a slightly rakish angle?
No surprise, then, that this business has caused shoppers in the Lancashire town to stop in their tracks as they pass a window full of the beautiful and the bizarre. ‘Some people have said it’s a little ghoulish,’ admits Norman. ‘One or two have even suggested I might go out after dark and dig up bodies!’
Well, there is part of a human skeleton – the head is missing - hanging from one of the walls. But as well as reflecting an entrepreneurial spirit, Norman sees his shop as a place where art meets education. He’s passionate about natural history and wants to share items from this exotic menagerie.
‘When I opened last summer people said “What is it?” They couldn’t work out if the things were for sale or if it was a small natural history museum. There’s certainly nothing quite like it around here,’ he says.
This old curiosity shop started out in the 1850s as a bakery but more recently housed a business, run by his parents, selling domestic fires.
After leaving Oakhill College in Whalley, Norman studied art and design at Blackpool and Loughborough before deciding he wanted to be self-employed just like his mum and dad. He started buying antiques and curios that appealed to him and he soon discovered he had an eye for them. It rapidly grew into a thriving internet business but his next move was a retail outlet.
Weird and Wonderful, in Whalley Road, lives up to its name and Norman’s passion for recycling can be seen from the items he sells to the furnishings and fittings, largely created from material reclaimed from the former shop interior.
‘Initially, I was interested in pocket watches and vintage cameras and moved onto antlers and all things to do with natural history,’ he says. ‘People travelled a lot less in Victorian times but those who did brought back wondrous things.
‘I saw those things, as a child, because my grandmother would take me to museums. I developed a great affinity for the natural world and to have a shop like this makes me feel like a kid at Christmas.’
Hardly surprising when parcels arrive containing large numbers of exotic butterflies of breathtaking colours and huge insects that sparkle like jewels.
Norman, who is 23 and lives at Chaigley, says: ‘High end taxidermy is now fashionable. It’s leaving the stately home and finding it’s way into the homes of people who are interested in interior design.
‘I’ve just come back from an interiors show in London and I spoke to a number of people who said there was a growing demand for natural products. There is a particular booming market for taxidermy.
‘Expert taxidermists can be great artists. What they do – creating a structure that makes the animal look so realistic - requires the skills of a sculptor.’
Norman is aware of the sensitivities of animal lovers who might be dismayed to see a stuffed rhino head on his shop wall. ‘It makes me sad too, but I explain to people that these are historic pieces and I believe it’s right that people should see them.
‘Everything I have is either a historic piece that complies with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or has been ethically sourced.
‘The rhino head dates back to 1910. The horn was removed many years ago and the replacement is fibreglass. You might think some people would be horrified by these items but I have several customers who are vegans who can see the natural beauty created from what was often road-kill.
‘Much of what I have has simply died – it could be road-kill or animals from private zoos that have died of old age. I have the skull of a lioness and I’ll soon have the rest of the skeleton which I’ll be putting together. That could be worth anything in the region of £10,000.’
Norman, who shares the building with a trendy if traditional barbershop, has built up a formidable network of contacts who will alert him when items come onto the market. Often, these are private collections being broken up. ‘If someone wants a human skull, I ring my skull man,’ he says. ‘The demand for human skeletons and skulls is going through the roof. In the 1950s they stopped providing the real thing for medical study and started making them artificially. They are hard to come by.’ On one shelf there is a human skull – a carved Indonesian head-hunter’s trophy.
‘A lot of people in this business have their own personal collections – things they might not want to let go. But I regard this as a moving collection.
‘I am thankful that I do a job where I’m surrounded by so many amazing things but it’s great when I sell an item. It goes to a home where it will be appreciated and I can start looking for replacements.’
Not everyone is convinced. ‘We had one elderly lady who went around the shop tapping each of the skulls saying ‘It’s plastic’. But they’re all real – it’s just that people don’t see things like this outside a museum.’
You can find out more at www.theweirdandwonderful.com