diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Day out: Amberley Museum

My job today is to persuade you to visit a museum 50 miles from London. Not because I've been asked, but because I suspect you might enjoy it. As such I'll be dropping into today's review a number of phrases designed to hook specific members of my audience. Watch out for these as you read through.

Location: Station Rd, Amberley, West Sussex BN18 9LT [map]
Open: 10:00-17:00 (mid March - end October)
Admission: £11 (£6.60 children) (under 4s free)
Website: www.amberleymuseum.co.uk

Amberley Museum is located in a chalk quarry in the South Downs, close to where the river Arun cuts through the escarpment. It was dug out between the 1840s and the 1960s, with the chalk burnt on site in kilns to make lime. After the business closed the Southern Industrial History Centre Trust moved in, deeming the 36 acre site ideal for a museum. Over the years it's grown into quite a collection of "stuff", especially buildings rescued from elsewhere in southern England. Although industrial heritage is the watchword, there's a particularly strong emphasis on crafts, transport and the history of communications.

Catch the Bognor Regis train from London Victoria and you can be at Amberley in less than 90 minutes. The entrance to the museum is immediately opposite the station, which is no coincidence because the entrance lies along a path that used to be a goods siding. On special event days, of which there are many, the main gates may be open to allow to allow in a stream of vintage motorcycles or whatever. Those on foot enter through the shop, then the lime kilns, before emerging past the blacksmith into the main square. And then, well, what a choice.

For starters...
  • There's a Print Workshop! Not just a shed full of exhibits, but actual working presses that still produce printed materials (available for sale). Also on show is the last hot metal front page to roll out of Fleet Street (which'd be the Sunday Express from 1986).
  • There's a Radio and Television Exhibition! Step inside the wooden shack for an extensive history from crystal sets to Betamax. Learn about Peter Pendleton from Marconi in Writtle, the world's first DJ. Gawp at valves, and old Sinclair Electronics adverts and a proper BBC microphone. Listen in to the radio hams chatting to new friends around the world via short wave (I was almost excited, until the bloke on the other end turned out to be from Norfolk). And end up in a room crammed with wirelesses, reel to reels and cathode ray monsters. I'm sure we used to have one of those.

    For a recce round the entire site there are two options...
  • There's a vintage bus! In fact there are lots, tucked away in a couple of preserved bus garages round the site, but some are quite fragile so don't come out often. Climb aboard and take a ride around the site, welcomed aboard by a conductress in pristine white Southdown uniform. And she'll clip you a ticket too.
  • There's a narrow gauge railway! It runs round the edge of the site, up the tongue below the cliff and back again. Hop on for free, if you can find a seat, or maybe squeeze your entire family in beside an unsuspecting solo visitor and taint his ride. "Sit down Hayley, no sit down." "Look Noah it's Thomas, toot toot, toot toot!" Volunteer crews (who like playing trains) ride the footplate and spray steam into the sky (or possibly over you). Watch out for the ticket office rescued from Hove station along the way.

  • There's a bric-a-brac stall! It's more a caravan really, with a pair of volunteers keeping an eye on the books, videos, toys and general bits. If you're having trouble persuading your other half to visit Amberley, maybe mention they do shopping too.
  • There's a museum of roadmaking! Not cars, but the actual surface on which they run, in copious detail. The building's funded by the Worshipful Company of Paviors, and it's hidden in a chalk pit up the hill so you might well get the place to yourself. As well as a wall of roadsigns (pre and post Worboys), and a big orange cement mixer, there's also a 1970-model traffic bollard and a room round the back including a 1960s Moulton bike. There's even a display of perforated circles showing the development of the Road Fund Licence. For the win.
  • There's a hillside walk! Most visitors don't bother, it's a bit steep if you're young, and it's a bit steep if you're old. But take the five minute climb up the zigzag path and you'll pass bluebells, primroses and violets, or at least at this time of year you will. And from the top there's a great view down across the South Pit, the entire museum and the rolling Weald beyond. Just me and a yellow butterfly on my visit, gorgeous.

    And then...
  • There's a Bodger's Camp! In a glade by the nature trail, a cluster of huts is home to a trio of woodcraft activities. Colin makes shafts and spindles on his pole lathe. Barnersby & Son make rakes and gate hurdles. They both sell their wares and offer the opportunity of a hands-on course, as does the beardy bloke who'll help you to make your own bow and arrow.
  • There's a pottery! Tilly makes her own stuff on site, including something personalised I've bought for one of you. And she spelt it right.
  • There's a De Witt lime kiln block, which English Heritage recently threw money at. There's a wheelwright's shop, a relocated roadside cafe and a fire station! There's a village garage with an Austin 7 inside!

    Whereas right down the end...
  • There's an electricity pavilion! It's a big metal shed originally filled by the local electricity company, celebrating all the household uses this magic juice has brought. I loved the mass of historical artefacts, from early electrics via a 1930s shopfront to a Goblin teasmade. There's even a display of 100 years of light switches, and two Sinclair C5s.
  • There's a Connected World exhibition! BT have a few museum outposts across the country, and here at Amberley they have the telephone collection. It gives up around 2006, so the mobiles look almost prehistoric, but the rest go way back. It was proper nostalgic actually dialling a number, and to try out an A and B button payphone, and to learn how a telephone exchange works (from a 1960s video).
  • There's a Railway Hall! It's got little working trains and carriages inside, including a MailRail loco with all the canvas hoppers still intact. And there's a green painted hopper from the Bond film "A View To A Kill", inside which Roger Moore and Grace Jones battled, and still painted with the Zorin logo. The museum was used for filming exterior scenes for the mine sequence back in 1984, with a rail tunnel through to the quarry next door playing the part of the entrance.

    It is a veritable feast, is Amberley. A pick and mix of heritage goodies, both educational and hands-on, but the exploration is always entertaining. An ideal place for grandparents ("look we had one of those") to bring the family, or for anyone keen to dig through generally uncharted aspects of our nation's recent past. I stayed five hours in the chalk pit, on a glorious Bank Holiday Monday, and revelled in the experience.

    And nearby, so you know...
    • a minute down the road by the turnpike bridge there's a pub, a brasserie and riverside cafe, each with a capacious car park.
    • fifteen minutes walk away is the village of Amberley, a chocolate-box village of curved lanes and thatched roofs. It has a tearoom, a 12th century church and a pottery, but no longer a pub (because the new owner wants to turn it into two houses, which local residents are not happy about)
    • the South Downs Way crosses the valley very close by, so before long you can be striding up onto the escarpment for a stunning view.

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