A leisure facility of satirical home-made machines
One could live in London for over twenty years – as in my case – and still be able to discover hidden gems. Novelty Automation is one such place.
Tucked away on a side street in the very central Holborn, I first read about this place on the extremely well researched and helpful instagram account Bablands, which is mainly focused on child-friendly activities yet often showcases many things which you’d love to visit without any kids in tow (but that’s another matter).
I have always been fascinated by vintage in general, and retro arcade games and luna park; one of my fondest memories of my very first trip to barcellona was a bar called La Fira, a cavernous space where decor and tables/chair were old fairground pieces (and it seems it’s still open over 25y later!).
What is Novelty Automation?
Novelty Automation is a mix of humour and engineering. It’s the home for engineer and cartoonist Tim Hunkin’s arcade machines, with some guest machines made by kindred spirits. He had run out of space in his Under The Pier Show seaside arcade in Southwold and felt it was time for a new adventure.
Tim became hooked on making arcade machines in the 1980s, for Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in Covent Garden – I actually remember this odd place, from my first family trips to London, but I had never actually set foot inside (how I wish I had!). The machines on display today in both locations are the labour of love of the last 40 years.
Once I looked into Novelty Automation, I knew I had to visit.
The opportunity finally came when the little one woke up on the sunday bank holiday May declaring “I want to go to a museum and I want to see mummies and skeletons”. So we made our way to an extremely packed British Museum; we rushed through the egyptian galleries looking at the marvelous treasures herein contained (planning to come back at a less busy time!) and, after a coffee and a cake in the thankfully quiet Members room, we hastily made our way out , towards Novelty Automation.
We were the only visitors there when we turned up, and the same when we left. Fab for us! The space isnt too big, occupying the ground floor of a period building marked ‘Tudor House’, itself worth a second look. Inside, a number of those automaton machines with a pretty wide range of quirkiness and interest. You buy a bunch of tokens (10 for £8.50 to start with) and off you go. Some machines require 1 token, some 2, and one (the photo booth with a difference) 3. We spent about half hour and didn’t have enough time to use all the machines, in fact we only really used about 4 or 5, so if you wanted to spend longer, there’s enough to do.
The automata have an odd feel of grotesque mixed with nostalgia; some are fun for the little ones, such as the ‘Microbreak‘, a vintage comfy chair, with a TV screen and a lampshade, some sort of simulator. This ride is built on the chassis of a 1985 Sega Space Harrier arcade game which provides the tipping and rocking mechanism. The animation is filmed in a model landscape made of weathered lumps of PU foam, which originally came from a float used to lay a north sea gas pipeline! At 1 token, it was definitely worth the ride.
We also enjoyed the ‘Fulfillment centre‘, in my view the most detailed of the games; you need to step fast, fast fast, to get the orders through, like a famous online retailer perhaps? Quite tricky for the 5yo but it was fun.
We stayed away from the tempting ‘Test your nerve‘ (the mock staffie in the cage looked remarkably threatning) and I gave a go to the ‘Chiropodist‘, possibly a bit of a let down but won’t give too much away as it’s still fun to try.
The ‘Divorce‘ was another nicely designed and gave the two of us the chance to play together. I won!
We had a laugh in the ‘Expressive Photobooth‘, and we got the real photo print to prove it (the most ‘expensive’ ride at 3 tokens).
I also tried free game (indeed you can just walk inside and try this one out), the gruesome and possibly anti vegan ‘Pet or Meat‘, really cute and gory at the same time (the 5yo decided it was too scary for him to try).
By far the winner of the day was the ‘Hadron Collider‘. We played it twice, the 5yo won something too, it talks and lits up and it’s fun for the kids to then put all the metal balls back into the collider.
So many we did not try! We’re planning a return visit for sure. It’s different, it’s fun and creative. For adults, they host drinks evening the first thursday of the month.
Check opening hours on the Instagram account
Tuesday to Saturday
11am to 6pm, apart from late opening on Thursday 12-8pm.
Closed on Sunday and Monday
1a Princeton St
London, WC1R 4AX