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Beamish Open Air Museum

Beamish Open Air Museum

A signpost off the A693 points the way to the Beamish Living Museum of the North, a recreation of northern industrial life as it was around the turn of the twentieth century. The minor road leads past the Shepherd and Shepherdess, a Georgian public house with two romantically styled figures for its inn sign.  Beyond the pub the way to the museum is beneath the massive frame of a forge hammer.

With check-in formalities over, we climbed aboard a 1930’s tramcar on loan, we were pleased to note, from Crich Tramway Museum.  Running round the perimeter of the site it is possible to hop on and hop off whenever something takes your fancy; we travelled as far as Town Street, the museum’s pride and joy; a collection of houses and businesses that were moved lock stock and barrel from their original sites throughout the North East. On the right as you descend from the tram is a co-op store that once supplied the needs of folk living at nearby Annfield Plain.   This was the hey-day of co-operatives, when stores sold everything from drapery and miners’ tools (as they were not provided by colliery owners) to groceries and for modern tastes, a sweetshop offering delights made behind the shop.  Not necessarily the cheapest stores, co-ops did have the advantage of selling fair quality and of course, they paid a dividend at the end of the year.

Standing next to the co-op is a typical town garage which was basically an improved blacksmith’s shop, catering for every form of mobility from bicycles to early motor cars. Petrol was dispensed from two-gallon cans and repairs were made on the spot.  Across the road is a fine row of Victorian houses; called Ravensworth Terrace which came from Bensham in Gateshead.  These were fashionable houses in their day, occupied by professionals such as the music teacher who lived and taught in the parlour of number 2.  Fully furnished like all the others in the row in the ornate over heavy fashion of the time, it stands next door to a solicitor’s office.  This was where J & R S Watson had their practice in the early 1900s.  Nothing like a modern office, it is positively Dickensian, without typewriters, duplicators or even a telephone, documents on the senior partner’s desk are tied in pink ribbon.

Fear of visiting the dentist dates back to the time when dentists were little more than tooth-pullers with many holding only the barest of qualifications. A dentist lived at 3 Ravensworth Terrace and it shows how things have improved more recently.  Anaesthetics were unreliable and oil of cloves was often the only means of combating pain.  The dentist operated and lived under the one roof; his surgery was in a tiny room on the first floor and looks more like a torture chamber, with its cast-iron chair and foot operated drill.  His technician made false teeth in another room, away from the family quarters.  Here there is an indoor toilet and bathroom, very much an up to date addition in its day and the nursery is cheerfully set out with children’s toys.

Hopping on and off the trams

The Sun Inn, originally from High Bondgate in Bishop Auckland is still fully licensed and dispensing ale as it has done since the 1860s. Next door to it is a still functioning printer’s shop with the town stables to its rear.  The imposing structure of a bank stands securely next to where the mysteries of the former Sunderland Masonic lodge are laid bare.

We found it easier to walk rather than chance missing something by hopping on and off the tram. From the park with its traditional bandstand at the end of Town Street, Rowley Station stands at the end of a short track where an early 20th century train chugs to and fro.  Steam was very much in evidence on our visit for not only was there the nostalgia of a steam train, but next to it was a roundabout of galloping horses driven by a steam engine.  This early method of propulsion was echoed by dozens of steam traction engines and lorries happily filled the air with their smoke as they trundled slowly around the site.  A slight rise made its way to Home Farm; a ‘model farm’ in its day, it is still run, albeit on a smaller scale, as it did when the estate was owned by the Eden and Shafto families.  Sir Anthony Eden, who followed Sir Winston Churchill as Prime Minister in the post war government, was a descendant of that family and the most memorable was Bonnie Bobbie Shafto as commemorated in the Geordie ditty of that name.

Slightly below the farm and across the access road, a group of single-storied terrace cottages, the schoolhouse, a Methodist Chapel and pit-head machinery are the true to life replicas of those found in a typical Durham mining village at the turn of the 20th century. While the pit-head gear has come from outside the immediate area, the drift mine close to the centre of the village is authentic.  It was first opened in 1855 and temporarily reopened in 1921 to serve Beamish Chophill Colliery.  Enough of the mine is accessible to let visitors appreciate working conditions in the damp, dirty, confined space.  Dating from the 1860s, the row of pit cottages came from Francis Street, Hetton-le-Hole in County Durham.  Housing and coal were provided free as part of a miner’s wages, creating a close-knit community of mutually dependent families linked by the ever present danger of work underground.  The cottages are furnished as though it were 1913 when miners’ wages were comparatively high and as a result they could afford to buy expensive furniture. Flush toilets were something only dreamed about and the cottage backyards incorporated ‘netties’ or earth closets, which were emptied by nightsoil men once a week.  Water for drinking and general purposes came from a stand pipe, one for every six houses.  Pitmen were keen gardeners and pigeon fanciers; each cottage garden grows the sort of vegetables you might have seen a hundred years ago, but rarely if at all can the leeks manage to compete with the hotly contested monsters still grown on local allotments. Most miners and their families were devoutly religious and 2 Francis Street is furnished as though a Methodist family lived there, while the family at number 3 was Catholic.  In sparsely furnished number 4 the widow of a miner killed underground has to bring up her family on a pittance until her sons are old enough to draw adult wages by working underground.

An authentic fish supper, cooked in beef dripping

The cottages in Pit Village manage to have a lived-in feel about them, from the galvanised tin baths hanging on outside walls, to the mouth watering smell of baking taking place at 3 Francis Street.  Pitmen always bathed in front of the black-leaded kitchen range, but some of them refused to wash their backs, believing it would weaken them. Despite the queue outside Davy’s Fried Fish Shop everyone agreed that this was an authentic fish supper; cooked in beef dripping rather than tasteless vegetable oil, far removed from the list of healthy options, the chips were crisp on the outside and fluffy inside and the batter surrounding the cod a few hours from the sea was – well try it yourself!  Cooked in a coal-burning range, the massive portions were wrapped not quite in newsprint, but in a very close imitation.

A belt of Scots Pines separates Pit Village from Pockerley, where an agricultural landscape has been recreated as it would have been in the early 19th century.  Animals typical of the time can be seen grazing on the unenclosed fields.  No black and white Friesians as of today, but Durham Shorthorn cattle, Teeswater sheep and Cleveland Bay horses, once the mainstay of farm animals in the North East.

Steam was first used to move coal along waggonways from local collieries to ships waiting at staithes, jetties on nearby rivers. Despite severe competition, George Stephenson was the first to design and build a successful steam locomotive in 1815.  A replica of his Locomotion No.1 now runs sedately along a track below Pockerley Old Hall.

The only ‘modern’ section of Beamish is the fascinating collection of items donated over the years.  This is due to the policy of the first museum director, Frank Atkinson, whose motto was ‘if you offer it, we will collect it’.  This might sound like the start of a huge pile of unwanted junk, but the policy captured the imagination of people throughout the region, leading to a link between the museum and the local community.

Alistair Plant


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