You wouldn't know the museum was there, even from just round the corner. There are no signs whatsoever pointing towards the place, which is a first clue that the council don't care much for their heritage. Only when you turn into ye olde ChurchEnd, beyond medieval St Mary's and the Greyhound inn, does the museum's existence become apparent. Look for the 16th century brick farmhouse at the top of Greyhound Hill, set back behind a hedge in its own leafy garden. Maybe try the maze before you head inside - it's round the back beside the pond with the wishing well. And you'll know the front door's unlocked if the toy badger in the window is clutching a card saying "OPEN" in his claws. Admit it, you've fallen for the place's charms already. [photo][photo][photo][photo]
The building celebrated its 350th birthday last year, so the interior's crooked and timber-y like an old farmhouse should be. There's a kitchen with an open fireplace, a dining room with fine oak panelling and a scullery with a cold stone floor. The kitchen's decked out as it would have been circa 1820 when the house was owned by Mark Lemon, the first editor of Punch. There are no magazines lying around as in a dentist's waiting room, don't worry, but there are plenty of period utensils laid out beside the bread oven. As a nod to the more recent past, there's also a glass cabinet containing some very 1970s kitchen implements, such as a Stork margarine sponge-bakers cookbook and a plastic Multi-Mouligrater. Kids of today must be baffled, but this felt like home to me.
And upstairs even more so. The museum specialises in toys, with two gender-biased rooms devoted to them. The boys' room contained the very essence of my childhood, or so it seemed. A box of Lott's Tudor Blocks (made in Watford, price 2/6), which my grandmother always used to get out to keep me and my brother busy. A plastic Thunderbird5 - we had one of those, until we gave it away. And a display case laid out with tiny wooden houses and miniature farmyard figures, all identical to those which kept the two of us busy through many a 1970s afternoon. We'd construct these layouts across the bedroom floor, running Matchbox cars and plastic trains through the middle, and leave everything there for the best part of a week for my mum to tiptoe around. I think all the bits of our pretend 'village' are still in a box in my dad's loft... it's good to know they're potential museum fodder. It was also reassuring to see the museum's collection being enjoyed by a new generation of local children. An impromptu puppet show broke out in the girls' room, much to the delight of the children's mother, and even the Lott's Blocks kept one four-year-old as occupied as they once had me.
Nextdoor, in two upper rooms, is the reason you'll probably want to visit soon. The museum is hosting a special exhibition devoted to Harry Beck, designer of the world-famous tube map, who was born down the road in Finchley. It's not so much "This Is Your Life" as a series of displays tracing the map's development from the early 20th century to the present day. Lots and lots of paper maps from a local, private collection are arranged neatly in glass cases, alongside larger posters and a variety of tube ephemera. There are leftovers from the never-quite-built section of the nearby Northern line (destination Bushey Heath) and probably some other stuff too. Unfortunately I can't be sure because on Saturday the exhibition wasn't quite ready so hadn't opened yet. All I could do was peer through the open doorway at a table covered with backing paper, scissors and sticky tape, wishing I'd turned up 24 hours later then scheduled. It opened yesterday, honest, although the museum's website is a bit behind the times and waited until today to announce full details.
Harry Beck and the London Tube Map was due to run until May, but will probably now be the last exhibition the museum ever hosts. Barnet Council have budget cuts to make, and their eyes are very much on Church Farmhouse Museum. It costs £130,000 a year to run but attracts only 8000 visitors, which isn't seen as cost-effective by Brian Coleman and his slashing councillors. They argue that scarce funds needs to go to frontline services rather than optional heritage, and will be proposing closure at an Executive meeting on February 14th. Unless some Big Society miracle takes place soon, Church Farmhouse is expected to close at the end of March with the building taken over by commercial interests. No risk of a residential future, I'm told, because the farmhouse is Grade 2 listed and has an internal preservation order. But expect the collection to be split up, the premises vacated, and years of careful conservation reversed.
Most of Barnet's residents probably don't care - they never visit the museum anyway so won't notice it's gone. They'd rather have lower taxes and more money to spend on DVDs and Sky subscriptions, because that's what culture means to them nowadays. But two thousand borough residents care enough to have attended a rallyyesterday at the artsdepot, protesting against the senselessness of Barnet's Easyjet-level cuts. Over a thousand people have also added their names to a petition attempting to save the museum from closure, which is here if you'd like to add your name too. It's a damned shame when the public purse can no longer support cultural facilities that can't support themselves, but I guess that's the way our political landscape is heading. We're entering an era of one-way heritage vandalism, and this delightful old cottage is one of the first into the firing line.
Having missed the Harry Beck exhibition by a day, I'll definitely be back to visit Church Farmhouse Museum again. I'm hoping that'll be in April, but I fear it'll have to be March. Do come along soon, and make your voice heard before it's too late.