200 Years of Time Travel: the Beamish Open-Air Museum

Beamish is an immense open-air living history museum in the North of England. I had the great pleasure to be driven there by a friend of mine from York and spent a gleeful day exploring the many buildings of the site. I visited in mid-January 2018, on a Saturday, and was shocked and pleased at both the number of visitors and costumed staff in what I would traditionally consider the off-season for such sites. Beamish makes a strong case for the potential to have these sites open year round, if the demand is there! Beamish portrays several different time periods, all separated by some distance along a road. Each is its own self-contained little village or manor house. They are: a house, church, and grounds from the 1820s; a village of coal miners in the early 1900s; a prosperous town in the 1910s; and a farm community in the 1940s – the home front of the Second World War. The site is very good at providing an immersive experience and evoking the feeling of Northern England during the time periods they portray.

Overall, I was very impressed by the depth of knowledge their costumed interpreters had, and they inhabited their spaces as historical figures would, going about their daily tasks, including unpleasant ones like scrubbing tables. It didn’t feel like they were lying in wait for visitors to show up. They were almost always embroiled in a particular task when I encountered them, really providing an immersive experience for me as a visitor. I heard costumed staff interpret in many different character styles.  Some were entirely first person, fully in-character, such as a dentist in the 1910s who explained the latest in anesthetic breakthroughs to me. Others were in third person (“this is where coal workers would live in 1900…”), providing clear but interesting information about the site. I was very interested to hear where buildings had originally come from, for example, and how many were deconstructed and rebuilt stone by stone in their new location. Other interpreters used a mix of the two styles, breaking character if necessary, or employing hypotheticals such as “I would have used a machine like this to…” There was an excellent mix and I was always learning something new! Interpreters really do bring sites like Beamish alive.

There were quite a few small restaurants throughout the site, so we had no difficulty satisfying our Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and finding a place to eat. My friend and I ate lunch at the British Kitchen (in the 1940s), which I am given to understand would have been a typical type of establishment during that decade. They really worked the wartime rationing theme, something I find a fascinating part of British history at that time that didn’t have as strong an impact on Canadian history during the same decade. Plus, their food was absolutely delicious and not too pricey! (Also, I as a Canadian didn’t know that Bovril wasn’t just a base for a broth or sauce but can actually be drunk as a hot beef flavoured drink?) We also had a pint of locally brewed beer at a pub called the Sun Inn, which is a fully functioning bar in their 1910s street. I love that their eating establishments also provided an immersive visitor experience, serving food and drink roughly equivalent to that served in the time periods they represented. Why go for generic hot dogs and hamburgers when you can use restaurants to reinforce the themes and aesthetic of your historic site?

Beamish is a large site. There is a ring road that goes around to the different time periods, but it can take 10 or 15 minutes to walk from place to place. In the summertime, I am told there is a steam train, which wasn’t running when I was there in January. However, even in winter there were historical double-decker busses and streetcars running very frequently for visitors to use. There was no additional cost on top of admission to use historical public transit on site. Also, there are great views of the different historical buildings from the top of these amazing vehicles.

One of the things I was super impressed by at Beamish was that they have their artifact storage space open to the public. Highlights for me include an iron lung, used by polio patients! They’re also currently gathering artifacts from the 1950s for an additional area of the site currently being developed and not yet open to the public. I suppose I’ll have to return in a few years to learn more about the 1950s!

In many respects, there were elements of Beamish that reminded me strongly of the narratives we tell in historic sites in North America, such as the hardships of the past (though minus the typical new world pioneer narratives), feelings of community, and changing technologies and social mores through time. A lot of the daily activities portrayed on site were not unexpected, though they were handled expertly by the costumed staff: handicrafts like rug making and quilting, cooking in wood burning stoves, and caring for livestock. Many artifacts, too, were familiar to me from my time as a historical interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park. But one of the things I’d never seen before at any other historic site are gigantic cheese presses. I found several of them at Beamish and I’m not entirely sure what they’re for. Something to do with the cheese making process? I imagine that they’re the kind of artifacts that do survive the centuries relatively intact, being large in size and solid in construction.

A man stands between two irregular curved posts forming a gate over a path.
This odd-looking gate outside Eston Church in the 1820s area may be made from a whale’s jawbone. One of many fascinating things to see at Beamish!

Even though my friend and I arrived only 10 minutes after the park opened in the morning and stayed until just before closing time, I feel we only got a brief overview of the site. I think it would take several days to truly explore and get a real sense of the place. If you find yourself in Northern England, I highly recommend you step into the past and visit Beamish.

Further Reading

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