Sprawled across a valley ten miles north of Durham is where you'll find Beamish, a fantastic attraction dubbed the Living Museum of the North. It started out in the early 1970s as an open-air attempt to keep alive the area's rural and industrial heritage, the museum accepting any old artefact from a farmer's shovel to a mining winch. A large proportion of these are now on display across the 300 acre site, grouped into historically themed areas with a particular emphasis on 100 years ago and several decades either side. And it's all beautifully done, each cluster of heritage buildings packed with evocative interiors and machinery that bring the past to life. Throw in some vintage vehicles for getting about and the occasional chicken, and what's not to love?
n.b. I visited on a wet late-season Wednesday, which hopefully won't colour the review that follows (because that colour would be grey)
Entrance is through a steamhammer gate via a giant five-tier car park, to an echoing entrance pavilion sized for summer crowds. Admittance isn't cheap, currently £18.50, but for that you get an annual pass, and if you arrive by bus (like I did) you get 25% off. Once inside the site the first thing reached is a tram stop, where tracks lead out of sight in either direction, but you don't have to wait, it's perfectly possible to walk. Closest by is the Pit Village, a row of Edwardian cottages complete with vegetable beds out front, a Methodist chapel and a primary school. All of these were shipped in from elsewhere and rebuilt, not that you'd immediately know, and are fully functional (as the children undergoing a stern slate-based lesson could testify). Elsewhere there are pit ponies to meet, plus a recently-arrived Fried Fish and Chip Potatoes restaurant, its entire lunchtime menu fried in dripping (and much tastier than your average chippy chips, I can confirm).
Nextdoor, unsurprisingly given which county this is, stands a semi-functional colliery. This too was reconstructed from elsewhere, as the economic fate of the surrounding coalfield became clear, and stands as testimony to a way of life more recently departed. For us southerners it's the most unusual experience on site, not least the opportunity to wander round and through the buildings that would have topped a dirty shaft. The museum specialises in miners safety lamps, first successfully demonstrated 200 years ago this month, with a variety of specimens from throughout their evolution on display. But best of all was when a volunteer handed me an unexpected hard hat and directed me towards a hole in the hillside. This was once the Mahogany Drift Mine, following a coal seam stretching a mile underground. Only the first 100 feet has been restored, but that's far enough to discover from an ex-miner how the coal was removed and how claustrophobic that would have been. Mines were generally only as high as the coal seam they traced, in this case four and a half feet, which meant crouching and ducking for almost the entire ten minutes underground. Excellently done.
Other areas touch on a more rural past. Pockerley Old Hall and its surrounding fields aim to recreate an 1820s landscape, with several rooms, nooks and crannies to explore inside. Down the hill is a Georgian Waggonway, the precursor of all modern railways, with brief steam train rides available on busier days. Meanwhile on the other side of the site Home Farm has been dressed up with 1940s wartime ephemera, and boasts geese, chicken and a particularly enormous pig. The country farmhouse is very cosy at this time of year, now that the fires have been lit, and the smell of baking from the Aga was especially welcoming. Much of the furniture and fittings in the farm cottage reminded me of how my grandmother's house had once been kitted out, which was a good excuse to chat to the Land Girl sat knitting by the fireplace. But as for the British Kitchen, a kiosk offering a spin on wartime food, I fear the man inside spent most of his day looking wistfully at occasional passers-by rather than serving up much in the way of tea or Spam.
What Beamish is known best for is its 1900s Town. A medium-sized High Street has been painstakingly recreated, with period businesses and an ex-Gateshead terrace lining the pavement, and a web of tram tracks and wires down the centre. The shops and period houses are excellent, not just in the way they're stacked full of period produce, but also because there's a shopkeeper in each ready to draw you into the illusion. The landlady at the Sun Inn has dandelion and burdock for sale, the bloke at the Co-Op will explain the divi, and the dentist will tell you things you'd rather not know about the economics of tooth extraction before the electric drill. The sweetshop is as well stocked as you'd expect (I walked away with a quarter of rhubarb and custard), while the Masonic Hall is far larger than you'd guess from the street. And every ten minutes or so a tram rolls by, in one direction or the other, completing the illusion that you've somehow stepped back in time.
Of course there's a old station, locally sourced, although I'm not sure quite how much railway activity it sees. A small fairground gives kids a spin in the summer months, beside a large patch of lawn that won't be seeing any picnics for several months. And further up the road is one of Beamish's many store cupboards, this a huge warehouse rammed with sliding racks of 'stuff'. It was like walking into an old catalogue, or indeed not-so-old in places as childhood toys jostled with a box of Marguerite Patten recipe cards, a row of salon-style hairdriers and precisely the same stack of Tupperware bowls (in autumn shades) my family used to own. Beamish has always had a policy of accepting any donation, and one day scholars will want to look back to see what 20th century hi-fi systems, liquidisers and office chairs actually looked like.
All in all I took three hours to look round, which should have been at least four, which it might well have been on a day when more was open. I didn't explore the farthest recesses of the site, nor the rare breeds grazing in the central fields, nor ride the tram around the perimeter quite often enough. But although the rain meant I didn't get the chance to enjoy the pastoral autumn landscape at its best, there was the huge bonus of having large numbers of exhibits to myself. Only one school party was out and about - the benefit of visiting in October rather than July - plus a few hardy groups and families in dripping waterproofs. So whenever I came across an employee playing their part in some heritage scenario, I was free to engage in proper one-on-one conversation and so get a lot more out of my visit. They'll be doing it all again at Beamish today, treating every visitor afresh, at the living museum that's several days out in one. [10 photos]