Beamish might be a world-famous open air
museum, but it is also much more than that. It is a place which tells the story
of the North East, but by making the history, culture and heritage come alive. At
Beamish you can ride on an old fashioned steam engine, eat fish and chips
cooked on an authentic coal-fired range or visit an Edwardian dentist (although
you might not want him to actually work on your teeth).
“It’s a museum for people,” says Richard
Evans, Director of Beamish. “We have fantastic objects, but we are able to
bring them to life. Socially, culturally and economically, this is a really
Beamish started life in the post-war period
and was proposed in 1958 when the speed of de-industrialisation was quite
dizzying for the entire region. It opened to the public in 1971, introducing
local people, and those from around the world to everyday life in Georgian,
Victorian and Edwardian times.
“The North East has always shared
traditions, culture, history and industry,” adds Evans. “Beamish started as a
response to that.”
The 300 acre site is situated in the
countryside just outside County Durham. Its latest feature is a 100-year-old band hall from the nearby
town of Hetton-le-hole on the edge of Durham. It was taken, brick by brick, to Beamish and the local community
raised £10,000 to help bring it there.
In chronological terms, a visit to Beamish begins
in the 1820s, with Pockerley Old Hall. The hall actually dates back to 400
years earlier, but in the Georgian era it would have been home to a tenant
farmer or miner and there are costumed guides ready to chat to you about life back
then. They can explain where the servants would have slept, and the grim
reality of life as a servant’s child, working all day and stuck up in a dark,
cold attic at night.
The Old Hall has its own farm and gardens,
but makes it clear that it is set in a time when change was coming. This is not
done by signs or glass exhibits. Instead, the start of industrialisation can be
felt, literally, by a journey in a steam wagon via the Pockerley Waggonway.
Visitors to Beamish can travel between eras
by old-fashioned trams. One of the most evocative stops is at the re-creation
of a classic North Eastern market town in the years running up to World War
One. There is a railway station nearby and the town boasts typical shops, with
almost typical shop owners and customers (“almost” because they are not
actually ghosts from the past, but actors).
In the sweetshop, it is possible to see how
old fashioned sweets were made and watch them being heated, stretched out and
then cooled on the counters. Fortunately for those with a sweet tooth, samples
are available and you can suck or chew your way back in time.
Everything seems extremely authentic, from
the shillings, farthings and half-pennies, to the presses on display in the
stationers. Newspapers are not made like that anymore.
Some of the most remarkable parts of Beamish
are the Pit villages and colliery, which are part of a world which no longer exists.
Hard hats can be put on and life as a miner re-created, but for minutes rather
than hours. It is easier to imagine life as a miner when you are crouching down
in the dark and cold.
|It was amazing to go down into the pits and see how hard the work must have been. We had to put on hard hats beforehand.|
The pit village also includes a school, and
children are welcome to try out fountain pens before quietly getting on with
their work, under the eye of a very strict teacher.
Beamish is not finished yet.
“At the moment we are working on a 1950s
town,” reveals Evans. “It’s the story of the recovery of the North East after
the second world war, and the birth of the NHS.”
Everything will, of course, be authentic,
and visitors will even be able to stay in a 1950s semi, enjoying a fully
“This is a museum, not a theme park,” says
Evans, “and everything we do is connected to scholarship and research. But we
make no apology for being popular.
“We want our visitors to remember the
tastes of what they eat and the smells of where they go. It’s a sensual place
as well as an intellectual one.”