Saturday, 17 December 2011

Midlands Mob descends on Puzzle Museum - Part 1

Warning: This post contains more than the usual sickening degree of superlatives and gushing language. I won’t be able to help myself.
You have been warned – proceed at own risk. 

Through a short series of fortunate events, James Dalgety invited a bunch of us Midlands puzzlers down to his Puzzle Museum last Saturday. Numbers had to be limited (it turned out he already had a house-full on top of us bunch descending for the day!) so in the end, eight of us made the pilgrimage south to Devon. Nigel took Louis (who’d flown across from Eindhoven for the occasion) and I from Birmingham, with Chris and Helen heading down from Cheltenham and James, Ali and Oli heading across from London-ish. 

Wil Strijbos had tipped us off that he’d be visiting James at the time, so we managed to time our arrival between James’ eminently sensible Not-Before-Nine rule (I have to say that, Gill operates a similar rule in our house on weekends!) and Wil’s 10:30 departure to catch a train back toward the Strijbos Collection. 

James on tour...
It seemed that some folks had not only used the opportunity to meet Wil for the first time, but also to exchange some cash for a puzzle or two – most notably Chris’ purchase of a Romantic Cake Box – which he then passed around all of us to have a go on while trying hard not to look at it himself so as to save that pleasure for later – it’s a really cute little box with a fairly unusual opening mechanism – I’ll bet he likes it! [Turns out he does.. :-) ]

Wil left a copy of his new aluminium cylinder (Aluminium Washer Cylinder) behind for us to play with as well – he’d given it to Oli at the Camden bash during the course of the week and Oli returned it on the Saturday morning still unopened – during the course of the day a few of us took a crack at it and got absolutely nowhere – it is very different to his first Aluminium Cylinder. In fact Louis was asked to take it home to Wil, so he spent most of the two hour drive home playing with it, as did I the next morning, and neither of us made any headway at all … keep an eye out for that one…

After Wil had left and we were sort of settling down (well as much as you can with that many incredible toys around to be played with!) James asked if we’d like a quick tour of the collection – and as Oli was the only person who’d been before, the rest of us duly joined the tour … well the “quick tour” lasted 2 hours, even though we skipped several entire sections because James knew we weren’t particularly interested in them. 

The tour started with a quick overview of the first section of the massive collection of puzzle jugs, then onto a 400 year-old compound printing block stool – admittedly not a puzzle in it’s own right, however its survival to today was sealed by the fact that it was found to be a fun children’s puzzle, and was discovered in a nursery being used as such in 1913… that pretty much sets the tone for the collection’s importance…
Louis, Nigel & James

From there the tour worked it’s way around the room, taking us through the gorgeous custom made cabinets taking up half the walls in the room … the glass-fronted cabinets only show a small proportion of the treasures these cabinets hold – the doors below open to give access to a set of drawers, each of which is literally jammed to the gills with puzzles in their original boxes. 

The first couple of cabinets contain Japanese Puzzle boxes – including a huge number of house shaped boxes – the sort of ones you only see in really old books about the Japanese puzzles boxes of old. The next cabinet fast forwards a bit into reasonably modern times with a jaw-dropping collection of Berrocal sculptures – and that sentence on it’s own would probably set this puzzle collection apart from almost every other collection in the world – but there’s more. In fact on a couple of tables at the other end of the room there are another bunch of them – including what look to the untrained (i.e. my!) eye like a few duplicates.
Berrocal Bits

While he’s chatting about being an agent for the Berrocals, James points out the one exception to one of his house-rules – the rule is that you’re only allowed to leave a single puzzle unsolved or partly solved per visit – James breaks that rule for the Berrocals because he enjoys solving them so much himself, and that gives him an extra excuse to have a little play … there can’t be many places in the world you can go where your host says that if there’s time he really enjoys hosting Berrocal assembly races – everyone sits around the table with a copy of a puzzle and then races to assemble it properly … that was a pretty mind-boggling concept given the dizzying prices they change hands for these days – and yet the offer’s there! (We didn’t get around to trying it that day – maybe next time … in fact on the day, none of us plucked up the courage to have a go at one of them – perhaps we’d all heard how long Oli had spent reassembling one on his G4G visit.)

One of the next cabinets contains a complete collection of Stewart Coffin originals and James enjoys telling the story that the great puzzle designer himself heard that the collection was missing a few originals, so he sent copies of those over and would only accept a token payment in return – what a gent!
Boardman Puzzling Pyramid

At one point James brought out a pyramid of tiny little ring boxes - each of which contained one of Allan Boardman's incredible little micro-puzzles - he challenged one of us to assemble one of them that had become disassembled - a simple little standard six piece star - the only snag being that it was about 3  millimetres across - none of us volunteered - and strangely James didn't appear surprised at that.

The tour continued around the cabinets with a nod to a vast collection of Arjeu assemblies, twisty puzzles and some pretty unusual-looking, and dare I say rare, Japanese puzzle boxes – including a rather Bad Radio – which we’ll come back to a bit later... the drawers below that cabinet were jammed with the largest collection of Kamei boxes I’ve seen (on the web, in books or in real life) – Oli spent several happy hours in the afternoon systematically working his way through the ones he hadn’t seen yet. 
Oli in Puzzle Heaven

We must have spent the best part of an hour working our way around the first room, before we ventured off upstairs for the second part of the tour – there’s a wall of puzzle jugs next to the stairs up to the second room and we started on those with James passing around a Greedy/Thrift cup while he told us the story behind it – he’d bought it at an antique fair for a reasonable price and had been told it was Chinese and a few hundred years old. At this point we started being a bit more careful in inspecting it and passing it around – but when he told us he’d subsequently taken it to a specialist who’d dated it at twelfth century, it was carefully given back to him before we managed to destroy a little piece of history ... but that little interaction really summed up James’ approach to the collection – it’s there to be enjoyed and appreciated – not kept behind glass cabinets and merely looked at...

Next along the wall were a series of drawers with antique puzzles – including several sets of Hoffmann puzzle collections – all still in their original boxes and piles of additional copies of the puzzles most of us are only likely to see in books like Edward Hordern’s Hoffmann’s Puzzles Old and New.

Further along the wall a couple of us recognised a set of Eric Fuller’s Wunder puzzles and commented that some of us had them as well – Chris mentioned the picture of the original one in the Slocum / Botermans book and within seconds James had dived into a drawer and fished out two different versions of the original and a folded sheet of paper with pictures of the original three mechanisms – Chris and Louis then proceeded to open them before we moved onto the next chest of drawers and ...

... a mind-blowing collection of impossible bottles, mostly by Harry Eng. There were one or two dotted around the tops of some of the cabinets, and an entire drawer-full of them – from “simple” deck in a bottle, to three decks in a bottle, a pile of coins which James playfully offered to tip out on someone’s expectant upturned palm before we realised that all of them were too large to get through the mouth, a loaded deck in a bottle (great little nod to the magicians!), several balls in a bottle, many of Harry’s famous knots and even a coach and horses in a bottle. 

Keychain Puzzles Galore!
Several drawers down the other side of the room are devoted to an enormous (complete) collection of keychain puzzles – all still with their original card packaging – but available for a play nonetheless. 

On the way down to the third room I spotted a pile of boxes that really put a smile on my face – stacked next to the staircase was a bunch of Stickmen including a Holiday Lockbox, a Magic Tile Lockbox, a #2 Box, a #3 Gear Box , a #5 Takeapart aka Borg Box, a #11 Fulcrum Box, a #12 Cross Box and a #15 Sliding Tile Box ... I suspect that there may have been more there, and looking at some of my pics, there may even have been a second row in some places ... given my current attraction to Stickmen boxes, it was rather nice to see a whole bunch of them there together ...

Downstairs the room is jammed with bookcases and the sort of chests of drawers that you expect to find in a museum – only these ones are jammed with yet more puzzles and games. We didn’t spend a lot of time on those as James had already established that none of us was particularly intrigued by dexterity puzzles – although we were treated to some exceptionally well preserved ball bearing dexterity puzzles over a hundred years old.
Stickman Stash

The book collection down there would probably make a number of libraries sick with envy – there were copies of literally every puzzle book you can imagine along with a pretty incredible collection of old scientific and games books... you could lose yourself in there for months and still find new things to explore.

All along the “quick tour” we were all collecting puzzles to play with – James pointed out a couple of interesting puzzles boxes along the way (we’d told him beforehand that most of us particularly enjoyed puzzle boxes) and by the time we headed back up to the main puzzle room, we were clutching a variety of Eric Fuller boxes between us, and Louis and I had managed to pick out a Gary Foshee Skeleton Lock that had defeated us at Wil’s place earlier this year.

Throughout the tour James was not only showing us incredible little bits of puzzling history, but telling us stories about how the puzzles came about, or their historical significance (quite a few of the puzzles were made to promote particular political parties or philosophies) and he really brought the collection alive – positioning it not just as a pretty incredible collection of puzzles, but also as a significant historical collection.

...the end of the tour saw us head back to the puzzle room for some serious puzzling...

To be continued...


  1. Truly extraordinary! Thanks for this fascinating insight.

  2. James commented he would be happy to sell the entire collection, at the right price, as it needs to go to a home where it can be managed and appreciated by more people. You may need to strike lucky on the Euromillions though as a National Lottery win would not be enough!!!

    Wonderful collection and a really passionate and knowledgeable gentleman. It was a privilege to be there.

  3. Wow, what a collection, really amazing!...thanks for the write-up.

  4. I have met James at quite a few puzzle parties I have attended over the years, it has been a real pleasure, I have yet to visit his puzzle museum, but it is high on the list of things I want to do before I die. I have a small puzzlemuseum, maze and puzzle shop in New Zealand called Labyrinth Woodworks, and it was a real pleasure to have puzzle great Oskar van Deventer come and open it a few years ago and