[Annette's note: This is the first in an occasional series of postings about cool history destinations in the USA and UK, drawn from my first-hand experience. I firmly believe that most of the "must see" places on American tourists' lists are actually disappointingly dull, especially for kids, to whom they rarely cater (don't even get me started on Westminster Abbey…), and that the memorable gems reward the small effort it takes to get to them, because they make an effort to attract visitors, especially families. I will be very interested in your comments: Do give me feedback about how useful and/or interesting these postings are for you. ]
Headed Up North…and Out of Time
It's 1913, the year before the First World War, in a small town in the North of England. A bleak drizzle falls from the cloudy skies, and mixes with the earthy smell of coal smoke belching from the chimneys of the houses and shops on the main street. Passengers shiver on the open upper deck of the double-decker bus. Kids just out of school visit the candy shop to buy freshly-made pear drops. Miners' wives from the nearby pit village stop in at the member-owned cooperative stores for groceries and supplies.
And you are there.
You've likely heard of Colonial Williamsburg, the world's largest living history museum, and you may have even visited it. But did you know that it's just one of many living history museums (also known as open air museums) across the world?
Beamish, The North of England Open Air Museum is the largest living history museum in Britain.
Why Visit Beamish?
Families, homeschoolers, and teachers: A visit to Beamish makes a great complement to your study of the First World War, Victorian Britain and/or America, the Industrial Revolution, and a reading of my novel, Don't Know Where, Don't Know When, which is partly set in 1915. Unlike most American living history museums, which focus on crafts, rural life, and/or the lives of the wealthy, Beamish focuses mainly on ordinary people living urban settings in the recent past. A visit to Beamish gives kids a chance to connect with a time and place that may seem at once similar yet very different from modern life in Britain and America. Situated near Durham and Newcastle, it is a good add-on to a visit to Britain that includes a rail journey between London and Scotland.
Everyone else: It's fun! Consider making it a stop on your railway journey from London to Edinburgh, for example. Allow two nights and one day in your journey. This is also your chance to mingle with Brits at a popular site that's off the American tourist trail.
Highlights (to get you excited about going)
Imagine Life as a Miner at the Colliery Village in 1913.
Put on a hardhat, and let a REAL former miner show you round a REAL coal mine (don't worry, it's not deep, but watch your head!)
Go to church: Miners' lives were unimaginably tough, and Sundays were among the few days when they could clean off the grime, put on nice clothes, and actually live: Check out the Methodist chapel, where mining families worshipped and maintained their self-respect.
Learn to Sit Up Straight and Pay Attention: Visit a Victorian elementary school, complete with desks in rows, and play with hoops and sticks in the playground.
Gatecrash a Miner's House: Enter the home of a miner and his family, and find out what it took to keep clean and respectable when coal dust was everywhere, houses were small, and families were large.
Shop in the North of England in 1913.
Don't miss the sweets! The sweet shop is always crowded, especially when school groups are visiting, so if it looks like you can squeeze in, do it, and fight your way to the counter! Most of the old-fashioned hard candies are mass-produced but still worth trying: Rhubarb and custard, lemon drops, sherbet pips, and mint humbugs are just a few of the interesting varieties available to be measured from large jars into small paper bags. In the back room, there are regular demonstrations of candy-making, with free samples. Yum.
See where Brandon served his apprenticeship as a dentist! If you have read Don't Know Where, Don't Know When, you may be surprised to learn that Mr. Gordon's home and surgery are in County Durham. I "moved" the house to Balesworth (itself a fictionalized version of Stevenage in Hertfordshire), after falling in love with it at Beamish. The building is largely as I described it, including the surgery and office on the second floor.
If you are 18 or over, have a drink in the pub. This friendly and tiny pub sells local brews, including a hard cider that is testament to Britain's love affair with the apple.
Return to 1825, and take the train.
Try State-of-the-Art Travel, 1825-style…Beamish is developing a new area depicting life in 1825. One of the first attractions is a working replica of the first-ever passenger train in the world! Nothing beats taking a ride in one of the open third-class carriages in the rain, as my son will attest...
Snoop in the Big House….At Pockerley Manor, a small manor house owned by a prosperous farmer, you might sample fresh Parkin (a kind of gingerbread) baked over the fire, watch candles being made, or find out what foods were stored in the bedrooms…
Don't Forget Beamish's Special Events…
Depending on when you show up, you may enjoy an early 19th century country fair, or cheer on the contestants in a horse-ploughing contest. Check out Beamish's calendar of events, because you may want to time your visit to coincide with one of them.
Interpreters at Beamish are dressed in period costume, but they don't pretend to be characters from the past. You will find that they are very friendly and knowledgeable, often have a great sense of humor, and are eager to answer your questions without boring you to death. In fact, if you have become used to being bored and patronized by interpreters at American historical sites (more about this theme in a future posting, because it's one of my pet peeves) you will be amazed at how fun and friendly a place Beamish can be! In case there's any doubt about this, Beamish is very kid-friendly. Alec, my kid testing assistant and son, has enjoyed two wonderful visits to Beamish in 2006 and 2007, and was impressed by how the staff often spoke directly to him, and answered his questions patiently and well.
American travelers: How to make it happen
Going to the UK?
Am I mad? Haven't I heard of recession and the plummeting dollar?
Sure: But I can help my American readers get over your fear of travel abroad, give you some tips for getting off the beaten track (and to venues that families will find more entertaining than boring old sightseeing at been there/done that tourist traps), and suggest ways to save money while you do it. And –for more people than realize it—it can be done without going into debt for the rest of your life. In a future post, rather than duplicate the work of some great travel sites, I'll get you started with a listing of those sites that help you plan your trip to get the most value for money.
For now, here are some useful tips. While they are certainly practical advice, the main purpose of these is to help you envision yourself as an independent traveler in Britain.
Beamish is near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, a major railway station on the north-south line from London's Kings Cross Station. Bus service is very affordable and frequent (but not fast!) from Newcastle to Beamish. That said, BE PREPARED with seat reservations, train times, bus times, and booked accommodation. See my upcoming posting, "How to Survive and Have Fun as an Independent American Traveler in the U.K." for web sites that let you plan easily in advance.
You should confirm details of opening times, public transport, etc, before travelling, since information may change with little or no notice.
By car: Beamish is easily accessed by car, and has plenty of parking. See the Museum website for directions and details. Some nearby hotels, such as the budget Premier Inns, may offer discount "vouchers" (coupons) for Beamish, as they did when I stayed at one near Durham in 2006: Just ask at the desk.
By public transport: Not easy, no, but certainly practical. Yes, I have done it! Take the train to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. If you're coming direct from London, you will need to spend at least one night, but there are affordable guest houses and bed and breakfasts (especially good deals for lone travelers and couples, since most are priced per person) from which you can walk to the bus station. The bus journey, while reliable, is an adventure in itself. The Beamish Museum site gives bus details, but you should also check the bus company site so you can check timetables (schedules) with their convenient journey planner. Be aware that there are two bus stations in central Newcastle, just a block apart, and that you probably need to catch the Beamish bus from the Eldon Square Bus Station, which has a lovely modern indoor waiting area: If in doubt, ask a local. To save money, make time as you walk past the Haymarket Bus Station (the one you won't be catching a bus from) to pop into the Marks and Spencers branch at 77-87 Northumberland Street, where you can pick up a picnic for lunch from their extensive range of ready-to-eat foods. As you board at Eldon Square Bus Station, ask the driver to give you a shout when you get to Beamish—He will. Here's the best part: Show your return bus ticket to the ticket office at Beamish, and you will get a huge discount that includes the cost of the bus travel.
And remember my travel advice for Americans in Britain: If in doubt, ASK. Almost everybody will be friendly and helpful, and you do speak the same language, after all. Well, sort of.
Special Note for Families & Teachers:
Stop in at the Gift Shop. Beamish Museum Shop (at the entrance) sells a wonderful and very affordable activity book, in which you affix stickers of characters from 1913 to photos from the Museum. The whole book then unfolds to make a long wall poster: It's a great souvenir!
P.S. If your travel plans don't extend to the North of England, don't despair. In future postings, I will highlight similar living history museums in other areas of England, and in the U.S.