I’ve loved the Weald and Downland Living Museum for as long as I can remember. I first went there on a school trip from Primary School and was immediately captivated by the place. The Granary; the Tudor Winkhurst farmhouse; the 15th century wealden hall-house Bayleaf; 17th century Pendean; and the Tollhouse. They all captured my imagination. I assembled cardboard models of some of the buildings and very soon we had family outings there too, exploring the woodland and learning all about charcoal burning.
Open air museums such as this truly bring history alive. You can feel the buildings, smell the woodsmoke, peer through the darkness of a dimly lit room and wonder how people kept warm with no glass in the windows, managed to sleep on such rough beds and kept children safe round the open fires.
As the years have gone by we enjoyed taking our own children there too, where they had a go at ploughing with heavy horses and made corn dollies. The museum has been there now for 50 years and new buildings keep arriving. On my latest visit a couple of weeks ago I was able to see the new bakery and dairy near the mill and the structure of stables being erected near Bayleaf. But I also took the opportunity to revisit some favourites, among them the early nineteenth century school building from West Wittering. It is buildings such as these that help me to relate to my more recent family history. Having looked at Victorian school log books it is great to see the benches with inkwells and slates, the old school bell and the primitive looking stove.
I also paid a visit to the Victorian Whittakers Cottages, furnished as they might have been in the late nineteenth century for a labouring family. Inside, a reenactor was sitting darning socks. Such volunteers add greatly to the visitors’ experience, and I love the way that they talk to you in character, explaining what life is like for them. The reality of seven children sleeping in one bedroom is brought home seeing the size of the room.
It was the first time I had seen the new visitor entrance, and along with the lovely new café and shop there is a new gallery explaining the background. I saw that they have used the census to research who lived in some of the houses, and again that makes it all so much more real.
I have visited a number of other such museums, such as the Chiltern Open Air Museum, Beamish and Ironbridge, but I think that the Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton will always be special for me. What a great place for all ages to learn about their history. http://www.wealddown.co.uk/