NOT half an hour from Swindon is one of the wonders of the modern world.

I know this to be true because I read it on the internet – and because, like about 25,000 other people every year, I’ve been to the place in question.

The internet would have us believe all manner of things, many of them nonsense, but when it comes to Keith Harding’s World of Mechanical Music, at least one corner of the web is spot on in its praise.

Keith Harding’s World of Mechanical Music is in Northleach, Gloucestershire, a little way along the A429 from Cirencester, and it’s one of the best museums in the region – or any other region.

It’s a chamber of wonders from the home entertainment era that preceded the invention of the radio and record player. Its exhibits come from the days when the music box was king – provided you could raise the small fortune to buy one or at least find the small change for a coin-operated version in your local tavern.

The museum is one of several attractions featured on a website called Atlas Obscura, which bills itself as “...a user-generated guide to wondrous and unique places all around the world”.

On the site, the World of Mechanical Music rubs shoulders with the likes of the luminous Firefly Squid of Japan’s Toyama Bay and the Dead River of Zion, Illinois, which is so called because it mysteriously vanishes into the ground.

The website has organised what it calls Obscura Day, urging its users to visit such attractions tomorrow.

This all came as news to Keith Harding, the amiable 78-year-old who founded the World of Mechanical Music in London in 1961, moved it to Northleach in 1987 and has been there ever since. He doesn’t know whether the internet recognition will affect his already impressive visitor numbers, but all who come along are promised a warm welcome and a fascinating experience.

“When I was a boy,” he said, “my father was a doctor in Faringdon.

“I was invited to parties in big houses where the music boxes that were once in drawing rooms had been passed down to the nursery.

“Most of my friends had music boxes, and I had that early fascination.

“I’m interested in everything that moves – I always wanted to know the cause of everything.”

Of such early interests, wonders may eventually be born.

Mr Harding has been many things in his life, including an engineer, a journalist, a Dominican Friar, a librarian and a member of the RAF. He left the RAF when it seemed the powers that be were about to direct his talents toward making bigger and better atom bombs – not a prospect he relished.

He is a Freeman of the City of London and an internationally acclaimed maker and restorer of clocks, musical boxes and various other intriguing machines. There is scarcely a clock or musical box in the Victoria and Albert Museum that has not been worked on by him at some point, and the V&A also housed a special clock he was asked to build in honour of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. He regularly advises leading auction houses.

He and his small team at Northleach have grateful clients all over the world, from prestigious museums and galleries to private collectors with deep pockets and a taste for the exquisite and unusual.

When not busy with such matters, Mr Harding has found time for cave diving, the violin, playing in a brass band and studying ancient written languages, among other pursuits.

At the museum, some of his greatest work in the musical field can be viewed and heard by anybody prepared to hand over a modest admission price.

In fact, even before entering the museum, visitors can listen in the gift shop to a selection of musical boxes including a huge early 20th Century machine called the Polyphon, which plays a beautiful, ringing melody using a mechanism of rotating drums, discs and steel teeth.

Inside the museum proper is the machine’s bigger sibling, which offers a choice of several tunes thanks to interchangable platters.

“These were the word’s first floppy discs, you know,” said a smiling Mr Harding, brandishing a piece of steel the size of an industrial table saw blade.

There are also countless other machines, including ones for home use, dating from the early 1700s to about the early 1900s. They bear proud makers’ marks naming places as diverse as London, Leipzig and New York.

Mr Harding said: “Before radio, this was the music in the home. You could buy them if you were rich. Prices for some might be equivalent to the price of a car today.”

Also in the museum are automata – moving figures driven by cranks or clockwork – and self-playing musical instruments including pianos and organs.

Music for the pianos comes courtesy of hole-punched paper rolls, many of which were originally recorded by the great musicians and composers of the day.

This makes Northleach one of the few places in the world where you can hear, for example, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue played on live piano in the same room by the man himself – even though he died nearly 73 years ago.

Tours of the museum cost £8 for adults, £7 for senior citizens, £3.50 for children and £19 for families.

The museum’s website is at, and the museum can be contacted on 01451 860181.

It is open every day except Christmas Day and Boxing Day from 10am to 5pm, with the last tour starting at 4pm.