Now, I have been a Laurel and Hardy fan for years and years. Of course I had been brought up watching them on the television but in 1975 when "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" spent 10 weeks in the pop charts reaching the height of number 2 kept off the top position only by Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", my admiration was confirmed. So it is at least 30 years that I have been fanatical yet in all that time I have never visited the Laurel and Hardy Museum at Ulverston, birthplace of Stan Laurel.
Recently, I found myself at Lake Windermere, in the Lake District, for a week with my job. To my amazement I realised that I was only a fifteen minute drive from Ulverston and when I told my boss about my life-long interest in the Boys and their connection with that town he offered to let me have the morning off to go and visit. Of course, I did not turn down the offer and although the town and the museum have been covered in these pages before, there are newer readers of this magazine who probably do not know about it and I thought I'd describe these joys to you.
I was dropped off on a road just off the main roundabout in this delightful Market Town at just before ten o'clock and my boss, who had kindly driven me, suggested we meet at this point at 2.30pm. I looked for some sort of landmark for us to agree on and saw, to my amazement and amusement, that we were sitting right outside "The Stan Laurel Inn". Our arrangements made, I immediately followed signs to the town centre where I found the indoor market. There I picked up a free tourist guide to the town and within its pages found reference to the museum and a road map. I was on my way!
Going down one of the roads, I came across a store called "Laurels" which had a full size model of Stan in one window and the same of Babe in the other. The museum itself is actually well sign-posted and when I arrived I realised that it would have been hard to miss. An archway has a big sign, there is a notice on the pavement and there are numerous L&H images outside to help you on your way! There is a courtyard, which appears to be shared by the museum, a pub, a fish and chip restaurant and a handful of shops. In the courtyard was a bench on which is a plaque dedicating it to the late Bill Cubin, founder of The Laurel and Hardy Museum and old friend of us here at Helpmates. The museum itself is down a few steps and into what would appear to be a pub cellar. Sitting at a desk was a young man to whom I introduced myself. It turned out that he is Bill's grandson and, as our conversation was to reveal, he is a knowledgeable fan of the Boys himself.
The museum is just three small rooms (although it was previously only two rooms and the sponsored extension has doubled its size) but it is packed - yes absolutely packed with everything you could possibly imagine about our heroes. Photographs, letters, toys, souvenirs from contemporary up to modern are there. As I had a good amount of time, I read most of what was on display and this included some of the letters that Stan had written in reply to letters from his fans. A particularly touching example was a letter that he had written in response to one that a fan had sent him, sympathising over the death of Oliver Hardy.
The way all this memorabilia is just glued, taped or pinned to the walls and ceilings is quite criminal in a way - yet it is that cornucopia that gives the museum the wonderful atmosphere. Countless models of the Boys included full sized ones with Stan's hat which mysteriously lifted up by itself. There is so, so much there and it is all piled so high that you cannot help thinking that there are more gems being hidden beneath.
One of the rooms is set up to be a mini cinema with L&H posters around the walls and I went and sat down to watch some movies. First there was a marvellous documentary that Bill had made about Ulverston and the museum. This was followed by the short "Berth Marks" (the name of Ulverston's tent - Berth/Birth - get it?) and then the favourite "Busy Bodies".
Although this was an off-season Thursday morning, there was a steady stream of visitors which is a testament to how popular the boys still are. And many people sat down to watch the movies, some very, very young. It's a great little museum and every fan should make the effort to visit it at least once (even though it has taken me thirty years!)
I still had some time to spend and thought I would make the pilgrimage to find the house in which Stan was born. I knew it was Argyle Street but couldn't remember the number. In the museum though, there was another of Stan's letters to a fan in which he confirmed that he was born in Ulverston and stated the address as being number 3. I found Argyle Street on my map and I was off.
Ulverston is actually smaller than I thought and Argyle Street closer than I thought so I ended up spiralling around until I came across it. The local secondary school was obviously just starting its lunch break because as I approached my goal, suddenly there were swarms of school teenagers around. I wondered if they appreciated how lucky they were to live and study so close to the place that gave birth to one half of the greatest double act that ever lived!
I went under the railway bridge, turned the corner and there it was - Argyle Street. And there was number 3. The plaque on the wall confirmed that this was the house in which Stan was born and sure enough, there was the primary school on the other side of the road in which Stan's father Arthur Jefferson had set up one of his theatre companies. I just wallowed in the atmosphere and my joy at finally making it to this place. I imagined how it would have been way back in 1890, the year in which Stan was born, and realised the view along the street and beyond would hardly have changed at all. There I was standing there exactly one hundred and fifteen years and fourteen days after Stan was born there. What an enormous thrill.
I now realised I was only five minutes away from "The Stan Laurel Inn" but made my way back to the fish and chip shop next to the museum to have my lunch before being picked up to be taken back to reality.
Look - if you really call yourself a Laurel and Hardy fan you MUST go to Ulverston. Oh, and they have almost raised all the money they need to erect the statue for which we have been campaigning for so many years and I was delighted to see in the museum the photographs of the almost completed sculptures. They look fantastic! There will be a huge gathering of fans for the erection ceremony which might be the time you choose to make your visit. I promise you, you'll be pleased you did!
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