Beamish Museum: Angels of the North

Posted on July 13, 2014 by

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When Boswell asked Dr Johnson if The Giant’s Causeway was worth seeing, Johnson said ‘Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see’. Well. Beamish Museum (not far from The Angel of the North) is not only worth seeing, it’s well worth going to see.

Known locally as simply ‘Beamish’, this living museum is the result of the vision of one man, Frank Atkinson. His policy concerning what went in his museum was simple. ‘You offer it to us and we will collect it’. People responded enthusiastically by offering all kinds of things from everyday objects to steam engines and entire shops. Donations filled twenty-two huts and hangars of an entire army camp.

Beamish clocked up its first millionth visitor way back in 1978. Today it’s coming up to fifteen million (not a misprint).  I think they were all there the day we went.  Blimey!’ we say to one of the guides, ‘are you always this busy? ‘’If you think today is bad’ says he, ‘don’t come in the school holidays. All day, every day. Never ending stream. It can get a bit much sometimes’. I bet it can.

Once you’ve paid your entrance fee which is valid for twelve months (no wonder it’s always heaving) includes parking for the day, the only thing you have to fork out for is a ride on the steam driven Carousel (120 years old) and fish and chips cooked in beef dripping in coal fired fryers. A ride in a recreated carriage on an exact replica of Puffing Billy is thrown in gratis. The original, built in 1813, one of the world’s oldest locomotives in the world, is in the Science Museum in London.

The site covers over 300 acres but there’s plenty of free transport which runs non-stop until twenty minutes before closing time. You can visit all the places of interest by horse and cart, restored motor buses or electric trams from the early 1900s on the longest preserved tramway in the country. Some of the rusting old trams donated to the museum were once used as garden sheds.

The reconstructed pre WWI town with its Municipal Park and authentically reconstructed buildings is delightful. The attention to detail is awesome. A local Co-op Store with grocery, drapery and hardware departments was dismantled and rebuilt here. There’s also a sweetshop but you can’t get in for children. What a pity teachers don’t first take them into the Dentist’s house down the road. Then there’s the Motor & Cycle Works, a magnificent branch of Barclays Bank and, bizarrely (one wouldn’t imagine Freemasonry played much of a part in the life of many) a magnificent Masonic Hall. There’s a real baker baking real bread, a printer printing, a stationer, a pub and stable yard. Reconstructed Ravensworth Terrace, originally in nearby Gateshead, is where professionals such as dentists, music teachers and solicitors lived. The end house has a mock For Sale notice which draws many an envious eye.

The town station from 1867 was reopened in 1976 by none other than the poet Sir John Betjeman who was surely in seventh heaven. The wrought-iron footbridge which crosses the railway line leads to a signal box dating from 1896.

The grand Pockerley Hall, on the other hand, is not a reconstruction. Once owned by a gentleman farmer, it’s always been here. Parts date from the 1440s, parts from the late 1700s. The walled gardens are stunning.

Home Farm is also original. Once part of the Beamish estate, it represents WWII. The lovely farmhouse has an original pillbox outside and one of the farm cottages has an Anderson air raid shelter in the garden. The star of the show however, is undoubtedly Molly the sow and her piglets.

The Pit Village, set in the early 1900s, like the town, is a reconstruction. The row of miner’s cottages was demolished stone by stone and rebuilt here. Aspects of modern living are so awful it’s hard not to envy a way of life once thought so hard. The cottages are twice the size of the cramped flats of today. They are cosy with lovely furniture, one even had an organ. Cooking was on coal-fired ranges and people lived on home baked bread and fresh fruit and veg in season. They grew herbs, radishes, lettuces, beetroot, carrots, parsnips, turnips, broccoli, broad beans, peas, cauliflowers, cabbage, spinach, onions, leeks and rhubarb. Tomatoes spilled out of greenhouses. Chickens laid eggs. Many today have no outside space and dry washing in the airing cupboard, these women had back yards with washing lines. The men had sheds to follow their hobbies or keep pigeons.

The Board School was across the road. As was the church and village hall. It was a community. A busy life. No-one was ever lonely but a few yards from this idyll reality strikes home. The mines are not pretend. They are all too real. To feed their families, men endured inhumane working conditions.

It was hard not to leave the mine without a lump in the throat. A salutary experience. As for the pit ponies. Upsetting is putting it mildly. You would think women would be grateful to Mrs Thatcher for closing the pits so that their loved ones no longer have to suffer such a degrading way of earning a crust. Not a bit of it. On the contrary, they threw parties to celebrate her passing. But then, women didn’t work in the mines.

The Museum is sometimes criticised for trading in nostalgia. The mine is one place over which it should be unapologetic. Beamish is memorable on many counts but the mine which made me shed a tear of compassion and the sow which made me laugh are experiences I will remember.

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