Beamish, ‘The Living Museum of the North’ was founded in 1970 by Dr Frank Atkinson, formerly the director of the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle; he had been inspired by visits to Scandinavian folk museums in the 1950s, and realised that there was both the need and the opportunity for something similar in the North East of England. Beamish wasn’t the first such endeavour in the UK: the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum/Living Museum predates it by some three years and others have, or had, existed previously. Beamish, however, holds a special place in my affections; I used to live within easy (off road) cycling distance of the museum and would regularly ride over, sometimes just to buy treats from the Jubilee Sweet Shop.
The museum focusses on key eras in the area’s history, and all buildings (rescued from demolition in local towns and villages, then lovingly restored on site) are fully furnished: and with their own individual stories to tell. The earliest landscape to be recreated is that of the late Georgian 1820s, with ‘new’ houses, and innovations such as early railways and their predecessor, the waggonway, built in close proximity to a much older farmhouse and a medieval church.
Visitors are able to travel around the 350 acre site on foot, or can move from one landscape to the next on restored buses and trams, which follow a circular route around the site. A range of other period vehicles can also be seen on the roads, acting as transport for museum staff and equipment.
My favourite era: the late Victorian and Edwardian period from 1900 to 1914 is very well represented at Beamish by both the 1900s town (including the Co-op from Anfield Plain where I briefly lived, and from where I cycled to the museum) and the 1900s pit village (which has the best fish and chip shop I’ve eaten at in many years).
In recent years, the museum has expanded to encompass later decades within the 20th Century, with a 1940s farm already established, and plans for a 1950s town in the near future. Fortunately for those of us who don’t want to miss anything and worry about fitting all that into one day, there are also plans to recreate a Great North Road coaching inn of the Georgian era, where visitors will be able to stay overnight.
My most recent visit to the Museum was on the 14th of September 2017, when I travelled up to Chester-le-Street by train, and then caught a bus to Beamish itself (spotting a traditional gypsy carriage calling at the local hostelry for its passengers to get a bevvy in, as I boarded my transport). The museum offers a discount on the entrance fee for visitors arriving by public transport, although my prime motivation in leaving the car at home was to get a bit of a rest on the journey in order to have more energy available for walking around the site.
Due to the excitement of an agricultural show taking place close to the 1820s Pockerley Waggonway, I didn’t see everything the museum had on offer that visit; however, my ticket is valid for a full twelve months and I plan to return (with a visiting US friend) in the spring. I did, of course, call at the 1900s town to compare some of the interiors of the larger terraced houses there with the work I’m doing on my own house, as well as the 1900s village, with its smaller terraced cottages and most excellent fish and chip shop (well worth the long wait in the queue to be served).
I have high hopes for the new developments coming to Beamish in the near future, and am planning to get in touch with the curators sooner rather than later to offer them a few 1950s items I have in store here, which would be of far more benefit to them than they are to me right now. Anyone interested in the development of open air museum in the UK might like to read this article from 1973 by Dr JR Armstrong MBE, founder of the Weald and Downland Living Museum.