It was my son’s eleventh birthday in November and we wanted to take him somewhere for the day that was interesting and unusual. We decided to go to Beamish Museum which is an open air museum in County Durham, about 8 miles south west of Newcastle Upon Tyne and 12 miles north west of Durham City. Beamish is an unusual museum as it is a living museum, which aims to bring the past to life. It aims to show you the past as it used to be, preserving the heritage of the North East and telling the story of every day life in the days gone past. The buildings are all authentic and come from villages and towns across the region and the collections are shown in working condition, with the staff dressed in authentic dress of the day.
I had visited before but it was at least ten years since my previous visit and I understood that a lot had been added to the museum since then. I was really looking forward to going back and seeing what had changed. I was hoping my son would enjoy the day out, and as his grandparents were over for a visit it would be a real family day out.
The museum is well sign posted and easy to find. There is plenty of car parking space and the you walk down the hill towards the museum which looks like this.
We had a slight wait to get in but the staff were very helpful. Once you have bought your tickets you can enter the museum itself, you have to go through the gift shop. The museum itself occupies a very large land area. To get to the far end at a relaxed walking pace would take about 20 minutes, and that is without looking at anything. Transport is provided, you can catch either a bus or a tram and these run at regular intervals in both directions round the park. The museum is set out in a large circle allowing you to travel round it easily. When you leave the gift shop and walk down the hill you find a bus and tram stop. It is fun waiting to see what turns up first and the trams and buses are authentic to the period.
We got onto a bus and the first stop was Pockerley Old Hall. This has always been on the Beamish site and was even mentioned as far back as 1183. The Georgian House dates back to around 1720 and is very impressive.
The gardens contain a vegetable garden, a formal panterre garden and orchards and all the plants in the garden listed in catalogues from the 1820’s so they are authentic. Inside there are two floors, and all the furnishings are authentic to the period. There is a large kitchen downstairs which has a range and and a very large bread oven. There is also a parlour with a large fire and a selection of games from the period on a large table. My son had great fun playing draughts with his dad on the large wooden board. There is also a pantry.
This shows how the food would have been stored by hanging it from the ceiling or in pots on the shelves, a far cry from our kitchens today. Upstairs are the bedrooms, which have both the family and servant quarters. Interestingly there is also a dry storage room up here which contains a variety of wicked looking man traps! The baths are of the tin variety, much to my son’s great amusement.
One of the interesting things about Beamish is that the farms are worked as they would have been, traditional agricultural methods are used. The animals are also authentic regional breeds, which is helping to preserve them. On the way up to the Pockerly Old Hall we spotted these very unusual geese who were distinctive to say the least. Around Pockerly Old Hall the land is set out the way it would have been in Georgian times, with cow pastures and the pond field. At the bottom of the hill the Pockerly Waggonway is found. This was used to move coal from the pits to the riverside and was originally a horse waggonway but then changed to steam. There is a Great Shed here which has the original ironwork from George Stephenson’s Forth Bank works in Newcastle incorporated into it. More exciting to my son was that as we visited at the end of November Santa was there in his grotto. There was also a steam driven merry-go-round to ride on which was great fun.
At the far end of the town you will find a Victorian park with a bandstand and ornamental flower beds. You will also find a shopping street and a row of Victorian terraced houses which are fascinating to visit. We started at the bank and Masonic Hall. The Bank allows you to see a working bank from the era complete with the money that was used then. You can even go down and have a peep into the safes and strong rooms. The Masonic Hall was fascinating. In the early twentieth century freemasonry was more commonplace and members often provided support for education and health care. At the time we were visiting there was also a market inside the Masonic Hall which was lovely. I assume it was inside as it was late November and the weather did not allow for it to be outside. There was a range of gorgeous home-made foods, candles, dog chocolates, beer and cakes and we spent ages looking round this. The market was staffed by people in traditional dress of the day which added an extra dimension to the experience.
Leaving the Masonic Hall we headed to the Garage. This is a typical town garage and has an array of motorbikes and cars from the time on show in the showroom. There is also the opportunity for the kids to use real tools and make a model car out of wood.
The Sweet Shop is definitely worth a visit, the rows of jars of sweets on the wall rather astonished my son. Unfortunately I was not able to get a decent photo as it was very crowded but the shelves are made of mahogany, there are lots of mirrors and rows and rows of glass bottles filled with sweets. You can buy them by the quarter and in the factory behind the shop you can see the sweets being made.
It is worth a look in Ravensworth Terrace, the row of early Victorian Houses. Each house shows a different persons lifestyle from the time. The dentist has some rather scary looking equipment and it is worth noting that in those days anyone could say they practised dentistry as long as they did not use the title dentist. You can see why trips to the dentist were avoided. The solicitors is also noteworthy, remember that this is before computers, photocopiers and fax machines.
There is plenty to see in the town and time was pressing so we moved on. We went next to the Pit Village which contains a colliery, pit cottages, a school and the chapel. The Pit Village recreates a typical pit from the 1900’s and all the buildings have been brought from various parts of the region. As it was November there was also an outside skating rink but we were not brave enough to try it.
The school was very interesting, it was relocated from East Stanley and was first open in 1892. It consists of three classrooms which held up to 200 children. Attendance in school was compulsory but leaving age was 12.
It was interesting to note that there was a girls and boys entrance. On the way in we passed metal hoops and sticks which the children used to play with. My son had a go, but it was very difficult. In those days discipline was very strict and learning was by rote.
The chapel is a typical Methodist Chapel from the time when Methodism flourished in the North East.
There was plenty of other things to see at Beamish museum that we missed out, given it was a really cold day. We also had difficulty getting something to eat as we left it rather late and the eating places were then really crowded. There are a number of places to eat, there is a tea rooms in the town and a fish and chip shop in the Pit Village. The fish and chip shop uses authentic coal fires to cook the fish and chips so it takes a while and by the time we got there it was a 45 minute wait. I think if we went back we would plan to head to the eating places earlier.
There is plenty that I would love to go back and visit, we missed out the Home Farm and the Railway Station entirely and I would love to go and visit the Colliery. The great thing is that when you buy the tickets they are valid for a year, so you can go back for free at any time within that year. We will definitely be going back when it is a bit warmer. Prices vary depending on the time of year but an unlimited adult ticket is £16.00 and an unlimited child ticket is £10.00. It is definitely a great day out but get there early as there is loads to see.
For more information: http://www.beamish.org.uk/