Newest Review: ... like to get the tram down to the town and said that if we did then it would be along in five minutes. The tram is one of the things I reme... more
The Living Museum of the North
Beamish North of England Open Air Museum (Beamish)
Member Name: noodlesandwich
Beamish North of England Open Air Museum (Beamish)
Advantages: vivid recreation of northern history
Disadvantages: a lot to fit in, closes too early
At £16 the price of an adult ticket may seem expensive but the ticket is also a yearly pass, so for those who are able to make regular trips it is excellent value. It also means you don't have to rush around to try and cram everything into one day. I bought a ticket earlier this year and have returned three or four times since.
The entrance to Beamish is through a large red gate which was once a steam hammer used in steel works in Darlington. Immediately beyond this is ample free car parking and there's always a parking assistant around. The ground slopes down toward the entrance building. In here is a shop, cafe and pay points, you can pick up a free map of the site and information leaflet here, or you could buy a much more detailed guide book for £4.95. Entry is through a darkened room where you can watch an introductory film play over a model of the site, then it's out to catch a tram or bus unless you fancy a stroll to the area you wish to visit first.
Beamish is unmissable for transport enthusiasts. There's a fleet of six restored trams. There are also a couple of replica buses, one of which is period style but has been adapted to fit a wheelchair lift and has space for four wheelchairs on board. There are steam engine rides at Pockerley Waggonway and a Victorian country train station. You'll also see other period vehicles driving around or on show, although you might not be able to ride on these. I wouldn't say I'm especially interested in vehicles, old or new, but one of the pleasures of Beamish is the luxury of hopping on and off beautifully restored trams for unlimited free rides throughout the day.
The staff are dressed in period costume and stationed in the different areas to act the part and offer information and advice. They often demonstrate an activity common to the place and time. I have generally been very impressed with the attitudes and manners of staff. Most of them seem friendly, knowledgeable and cheerful. They have been eager to volunteer information, and good at engaging the attention of children, my daughter was delighted at being singled out and chatted to by young women dressed in old style costumes and she babbled on delightedly to them once she had overcome her initial shyness. A bus driver gave her his hat to wear, and on the waggonway when I told her to sit properly on the seat I was told it was fine for her to stand up on it so she could see out over the top of the carriage. I presume staff are trained to be as friendly and helpful as possible, or perhaps chosen for their attitude, because it is striking how good they are. It really stood out when I met a miserable looking worker, this was in the sweet shop, and she was surrounded by a mass of school children so it was perhaps understandable. If you visit during term time it's not unusual for there to be groups of children on school trips, just make sure you don't get behind them in the sweet shop!
~The Pit Village and Colliery~
The pit village is based on an early 1900's mining village, the row of cottages were transported from nearby Hetton-Le-Hole. Inside, activities of one sort or another take place, perhaps cooking or rug making. On a recent visit my daughter was exhorted to take part in beating mats on the washing line in the yard - get the visitors working, why not. Opposite the cottages is a Methodist chapel where there may be a choir singing or a festival being celebrated. Next door to the chapel is the school. Inside are rows of little desks with slate and chalk, children can sit down at the desks and a teacher stands at the front. There are metal hoops on sticks which most people have a go at playing in the playground, apparently it's an old school game which I think was called Booler.
Around the back is Davy's Fried Fish Shop, our family had been eagerly awaiting the opening of this place all year, (it opened this July), and finally got a chippy lunch there on our last visit. It was lunchtime and the queue was huge, there was around a half hour wait. The food came in a cone with two layers of paper, the outer layer being a reprint of an old local newspaper on which it was possible to read police reports from 1913 whilst enjoying some chips. It cost around £7 for a large fish and chips, which wasn't particularly large. The chips were tasty but I did find the fish a little bland. A room full of long wooden benches and tables makes up the restaurant area, it was a bit messy in here. There are outdoor picnic benches too. If you don't fancy fish and chips there's also the Pitman's Pantry which sells a range of hot and cold snacks and drinks. There are picnic benches outside under the trees and there's also a cart here that sells ice creams.
The view from Francis Street cottages includes the colliery. This mahogany drift mine opened in the 1850's and worked for around a century. Regular guided tours take place. There's often a queue here, but we didn't wait long when we went down recently. The tour starts in the lamp cabin where a guide explains what would have been expected of the miners who worked here. Hard hats are issued and you need to bend down as the ceiling can go as low as 4'6". It's quite a quick tour, but it certainly gives a good idea of working conditions for the miners and made me glad I've never had to work in such a place. A pit pony used to live at the museum but sadly, Pip, who was thought to be Britain's last surviving pit pony died in 2009.
Outside you can climb up to see the colliery winding engine and water wheel. There's an exhibition shed with more history and tributes to mine workers. Also outside is an engine shed with early 19th century steam locomotives inside.
~Home Farm, the Fairground and the Railway Station~
Home Farm was originally on the site, had fallen into disrepair and was later restored by the museum. The grounds have a few stables, farm equipment, horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. There's also a little pond with a few ducks. You can wander around the Victorian farmhouse and perhaps try some examples of home cooking. There's also a cafe on the farm site, one I haven't yet been in - The Cart Shed has indoor and outdoor seating.
If you walk along the road past Home Farm you will come to the tram depot and the regional resource centre. There may be items of interest to some around here such as a huge crane, but we usually get the tram past this area down to the town. There's an events field and then the fairground. The carousel seems to be a permanent feature, while a couple more attractions appear in the summer months - shuggy boats and a coconut shy. Having a young child is a great excuse to have a go on the fair. It costs £1.50 a ticket for the Steam Gallopers, the cost is per horse, so only one payment for a parent who rides with a child. The roundabout goes surprisingly fast, has some interesting decorations and an organ which plays accompanying music. This is invariably a highlight of the day for my daughter.
The train station is a typical Victorian country station, it was originally built in the 1860's in Consett and was moved to Beamish to be reopened in the 1970's. There's a bridge over the tracks to the platform and waiting rooms, where you can visit the first class waiting room and toilets, see old notices and luggage on the platform. You can have a look in the signal box and at the wagons on display, visiting steam locomotives may also make an appearance.
~The Edwardian Town~
Past the fairground and the train station the tram pulls into the town. On one side is a row of terraces, there's a dentist's house, a solicitor's and a music teacher's waiting to be explored. Further along there's a pub and some shops, including the very tempting Jubilee Confectionery. I'm not sure I've ever made it out of Beamish without buying at least a quarter of sweets in here. In the back room you can watch the sweets being made and there will be samples on a tray. In the shop part you are faced with a choice from row upon row of sweet-jars and confectionery from yesteryear. There's a stationery shop from which you can buy books, postcards and toys, upstairs is a print shop where you can go and look at the press.
Across the road is a park with bandstand and glorious flower beds. A nice place to sit with an ice cream from the nearby kiosk. From the park you can access Dainty Dinah's Tea Rooms for self-service meals or snacks. They do a mean pie and peas, but they also have those annoying hot water machines for tea and coffee that don't fill the cup up properly. The tea rooms have been renovated recently to make access easier, (it used to be up a narrow staircase), and the room is bigger, but I seem to remember the tea used to be better, served in a proper pot rather than those horrible metal ones where the lid never stays down. Not all 'improvements' are improvements.
Also on this side of the road are the Co-operative Grocery, Hardware and Drapery Shops, a motor and cycle showroom and garage. Around the corner is a masonic hall, the world of Edwardian freemasonry no longer quite so secret.
The Sun Inn is a snug little pub, originally from Bishop Auckland. What's that you say....prices? For a pint of ale, a half of shandy and a glass of cordial, we paid £5.95. I'd love to wander down this road of an evening and have more than a half in here.
~Pockerley Old Hall and the Waggonway~
On the road up to Pockerley Old Hall, an alarming notice warns poachers to watch out for man traps. Pockerley represents the home of a wealthy farmer in the early 1800's and parts of the building date back to the 12th century. There's a big kitchen and well stocked larder, a parlour with roaring fire and bedrooms to explore. In a storage room there are a couple of the aforementioned mantraps hanging up, off here is a smoke room full of cuts of ham. Next door, the barrel vault houses various fruit presses, there are bedrooms above, possibly servants quarters, candle making was being demonstrated here last time we visited. Outside are ornamental gardens, kitchen gardens and orchards. Flowers, shrubs and vegetables popular in Georgian times are grown here, children may enjoy using the water pump, it's details like these that help visitors appreciate the life of a servant in the big houses.
On the waggonway you can take a ride in one of three replica early locomotives; Puffing Billy, George Stephenson's Locomotion No.1 or The Steam Elephant. One of the drivers gives a talk while people get settled into their seats. It's only a short ride but it gives a feel for the early days of rail travel. Having sampled the delights of the first class carriage, 'Experiment', I have to say standards of comfort have certainly improved.
~Food and Drink, Gift Shop~
There are several cafes which I've mentioned although I haven't visited all of them. Davy's Fried Fish Shop and Dainty Dinah's Tea Rooms offer the most substantial meals but light bites and snacks make up most of the food on offer. There are also various shops, kiosks and carts with snacks and drinks for sale. One thing I find odd is that the prices differ in the different areas, for example on my last visit I saw the same cartons of juice for sale in different areas priced at 50p, 70p and 90p. A cart on the road up to Pockerley Old Hall seems to have the cheapest drinks. Opening times vary with the outlet; the chip shop shuts at 3pm with most of the others closing at 4.30, earlier out of season. I have turned up and been disappointed. The coffee shop in the entrance building is the last eatery to close, at 5.15pm.
I enjoy having a good look around the Beamish gift shop, as well as all the usual gifts like biscuit tins, sticks of rock and fridge magnets there are all sorts of interesting knick knacks to be found, including replicas of museum items such as cards, adverts, ornaments, toys and books.
It is possible to 'do' Beamish in a day, but it would be rather tiring, best to pick out those things that interest you most. I think a couple of visits at least are necessary to fully appreciate the experience. I also think Beamish closes too early, especially in the Summer months. Five o' clock seems too early to leave, it would be good to enjoy some evening history, a meal and visit to the theatre, (not that they have one - yet), followed by a pint in the Sun Inn and the tram home. There are some evening events actually; at Halloween and Christmas there are ticketed events, (these aren't included in the yearly pass), and the recent transport event, 'Power From the Past' also had evening tickets available, aimed especially at photographers.
There are various fairs and events throughout the year. September this year has seen the annual agricultural show and this coming weekend, (September 25), the Harvest Festival is celebrated in the Pit Village with a parade and special service in the chapel.
One aspect of past life in the North East was that everyone had a coal fire. Whilst this is part of the authenticity of the experience and can be cosy, it's also a bit smelly and I find my throat can get a bit irritated with it too. Once home from Beamish I always plonk my little one in the bath and wash the coal fire smell from her hair.
A review can only give an overview of what a visit may be like, small details and unexpected events make each visitor experience unique. Over the years (more than forty of them), Beamish has won many awards, most recently in September 2011, a Sandford Award for Heritage Education. It's obvious that a great deal of work and attention to detail has gone into building this outstanding museum. I particularly like to examine all the little signs and posters around the place, they can make for amusing reading. The fact that every house has a garden that reflects it's time and place shows some of the effort that goes into museum maintenance. On one of our visits earlier this year suffragettes demonstrated for Votes for Women in the town, on our last visit we were entertained by an organ grinder busking at the bus stop, although I was glad he didn't have a monkey with him. These are just some of the things that help make a visit to Beamish something special.
Further Details and Facilities:
*Prices: Adult - £16, Senior (60+)/Student - £13; Child (5 - 16 years) £10; Family (1 Adult + 2 Children) - £32; Family (2 Adults + 2 Children) - £46; Under 5's - free.
*Opening Times: Summer, (2/4/11 - 30/10/11) - 10am - 5pm every day; Winter, (1/11/11 - 30/3/12) - closed Mondays and Fridays.
Toilets can be found in all areas and they are all of a generally good standard with disabled access. Baby change facilities are available in three of the seven toilet blocks.
*Accessibility: Carers of people with disabilities are admitted free of charge, free wheelchair hire is available. The ground can be uneven and there are some slopes and steps, some of the buildings are not completely accessible for wheelchair users. There is a fully accessible bus, the J2007. Induction loops are available in several exhibits.
*Dogs are allowed at Beamish as long as they are kept on a lead, they can use the transport but only assistance dogs are allowed inside the buildings and catering areas.
*Getting There - Beamish is around 12 miles North West of Durham City and 8 miles South West of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and there are direct buses from both cities, see the, (highly recommended), website for details. It's also on the National Cycle Network.
Tel: 0191 370 4000 (9.00am - 4.00pm, Monday-Friday)
Summary: Outstanding Museum
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