Around the end of October, many of Britain's outdoor tourist attractions grind to a halt. Half term week allows one last hurrah, but then dark afternoons and worsening weather make staying open increasingly pointless and it's time to shut up shop until Easter. Today I'm going to tell you about one such attraction, the Chiltern Open Air Museum, almost entirely pointlessly because it closes for the season tomorrow. But a walk in the Buckinghamshire countryside is always to be recommended at this time of year, the beech leaves scrunching underfoot, even if the museum stop-off is imminently out of bounds until spring.
Chiltern Open Air Museum
Newland Park, Chalfont St Giles
Buckinghamshire, HP8 4AB
Open 10.00am – 5.00pm (Easter-October)
Admission: £9.50 [website]
An open air museum, it turns out, is mostly a museum of buildings. In this case that's rural buildings threatened with demolition, from anywhere across the Chilterns, carefully dismantled in their place of origin and rebuilt here. The Chiltern Open Air Museum opened in 1976 thanks to a small but dedicated group of volunteers, and has been growing in size and stature ever since. Currently there are more than 30 historic buildings on site, if we're allowed to call barns, cottages and granaries historic, which by the very philosophy of the museum we are. Please remember to wash your hands after touching the fences.
The museum's set in 45 acres of forested farmland on the Bucks/Herts border, tucked in around the perimeter of Newland Park, a university campus. "It'll take you two hours to go round," said the lady on the front desk, and if I'd stopped off in the tea room like she wanted then she'd have been about right. I got the idea of what was on offer almost immediately from the Caversham Public Conveniences outside, a splendid and symmetrical Edwardian structure, inside which are (functioning) gents urinals and a supply of carbolic soap. Please remember to wash your hands before proceeding around the site.
Every building on site is named after the place from which it was rescued. Hence first up is the Northolt Barn, and later the High Wycombe Tollhouse, the Preston Bisset Privy and the Leavesden Apple Store. I was particularly taken by the Amersham Prefab, probably the museum's most modern building, decked out in Fifties style and with mood music playing from the wireless. Enthralled also by the Garston Forge, in which some actual blacksmithery was being demonstrated, and by the Leagrave Cottages, condemned as unfit for human habitation in the 1980s. Please remember to wash your hands before using the picnic benches.
The collection is concentrated in three distinct clusters - a village, a farm and a sort of almost urban bit. The farm's a traditional one, with muddy yard and wooden buildings arranged higgledy piggledy all around. I was particularly taken by the 60 foot cherry ladder suspended across the barn roof, just like they used to use in the village where I grew up. The museum also boasts fields of cows and horses and sheep, which is a winning extra if you've brought children along. Where else can the younger generation experience how agriculture used to be except by wandering around places like this? Please remember to wash your hands after touching the animals.
Leafy trails lead off into the surrounding woodland, one of which leads to an Iron Age House. This flint-floored, thatch-roofed structure isn't a Chiltern original, it was built in the 1990s, and would look wonderfully authentic were it not for the electricity pylon rising immediately behind. Meanwhile down the far end of the site is a former furniture factory, now half Chesham Woodware exhibition (where I was) and half tearoom (where all the other visitors were). It'll all look lovely at Easter. And there are notices everywhere, so you won't forget to wash your hands before leaving.
How to get there: This being the middle of the Buckinghamshire countryside, the museum's website strongly suggests you drive. The nearest bus, they say, stops half an hour's walk away, which you suspect they've mentioned to ensure you don't risk it. And should you arrive at one of the two closest stations, that's Chalfont and Latimer or Chorleywood, they then recommend hailing a taxi. Well that was all like bait to me, so I took the train and walked.
From Chorleywood, just under an hour. You leave the station and head up the hill, up Shire Lane, and simply keep going. On the way you pass The Orchard, the Voysey house that John Betjeman so enthuses over in Metroland, although I've twice failed to spot it, I can't have been looking carefully enough. As the ultimate uber-commuter homes fade out, the road slims to a narrow muddy track edging relentlessly downhill. As the streetname suggests Shire Lane marks the precise border between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, with a large tract of ancientwoodland all down the latter, should you be tempted to branch off. Annoyingly onward passage is then blocked by the museum's backside, and a big fence, requiring a 1km diversion to reach the main entrance where they'll finally let you in.
Or from Chalfont and Latimer, nearer two hours. I followed a private road past where pharmaceutical company Amersham International's HQ used to be, then a splendid mile of beechy woodland-edge round the top of the local golf course. From here I followed the River Misbourne down to ChalfontSt Giles, a delightful (and highly aspirational) village, most famous for Milton's Cottage. Here the famous author John Milton came to escape the plague and to complete Paradise Lost, and his Tudor home is now a museum (but only open on Tuesdays, and only until the end of October, so that's just shut for the winter too). A final climb out of the village follows the Chiltern Way, and fields through which an HS2tunnel shaft will eventually emerge, with the high speed line buried below safely out of sight of potentially angry constituents. I'm glad I walked.