It’s the summer holidays, very hot weather, and I enter Amberley Museum with my excited 9-year-old daughter. She is fizzing away, as she has heard there is a narrow-gauge railway (pictured at top) in this open-air mechanical playground. There is also a rumour that the museum café provides chips! While inwardly groaning about yet another bumpy train ride and more potatoes, I am also intrigued, as I have not been here for over 35 years. I have vague memories of my grandmother taking me to Amberley to stare at some rusty machines covered in chalk, in what was a dull part of West Sussex, south England.
Formerly known as the Amberley Chalk Pits the site of the Museum was a working chalk quarry, run by the Pepper family, from the 1840s to 1960s. It’s in the middle of the South Downs National Park so it’s hard to imagine it was once a place of dusty, heavy industry amongst the now twee country lanes, fields and woods that surround it. Today, there is also the occasional whoosh and hoot of the nearby modern electric commuter trains.
In the 1970s the chalk pit site came up for auction and a group of architects, planners and curators persuaded West Sussex County Council to buy it. These activists saw this site as a perfect time capsule of Victorian industry, with original kilns and buildings which were rare to find in Sussex. It was also a unique place to show other industrial collections, not trapped in display cases but allowed to rumble, hiss and steam around a 36-acre site. It opened to the public in 1979 and it gradually acquired an eclectic mechanical collection, from telephones to fire engines!
After the ticket desk and map giving (adults £14.40 and under 16s £7.00) we are plunged into the dim and cool temperatures of part of the original lime kilns. There is not much time to enjoy this area, as we can hear and see a rattling 1930s Southdown Bus moving away from a village green. The green is surrounded by displays of old and new bikes as it’s a Retro Wheels event (remember Chopper bikes?) My daughter hears the whistle of the narrow-gauge train coming to the station and we join the queue of bouncing kids, tired parents and jolly grandparents all eager to go on the train. It’s not the usual steam train but a diesel train, because of wildfire safety regulations. We don’t mind, especially as we receive great card tickets from the conductor which reminds me of similar British Rail tickets from the 1980s (when the commuter trains were far more comfortable).
For about 10 minutes the slow train twists through a lush green woodland further into the old chalk pit. Suddenly, below us tin roofed huts (like an American Gold Rush scene), show crafts people demonstrating how to make useful items out of wood and stone in what is called Greenwood Village. My daughter is convinced they are making bows and arrows and wants to visit. The train shudders on past a tall signal box and a chap waving a tea towel at us (“very English”, I mutter). We pause at the tiny station of Brockham before we go into a large curve into Cragside station and everybody gets off.
Cragside is the site of the Electricity Hall and the British Telecom ‘Connected Earth’ buildings. I have no idea what to expect in these halls of wonder as I don’t remember them in my last visit. In the 1990s, the South Eastern Electricity Board and British Telecom donated their historic objects and vehicles to Amberley. The Electricity Hall is a mixture of giant generators to electrical appliances like early fridges and some thought-provoking interactives. The most popular interactives for kids are found in ‘Connected Earth’, as they contain the old telephones. You know, the circular dial phones. My daughter and other kids are fascinated with turning the dials, especially to contact the old Police phone box. Meanwhile, I meander around familiar old GPO (telecom) vehicles. But I am overwhelmed with exhibition labels that remind me of old butterfly collections. We find the snack hut and sit down outside, near Brockham station, only to discover James Bond memorabilia.
Did you know Amberley Museum appeared in ‘A View To Kill’ starring Roger Moore, Christopher Walken and Grace Jones? And Amberley was buzzed by an airship? A series of external panels, near Brockham Station, explain Amberley’s entry to Hollywood stardom. Part of the chalk pit and narrow-gauge railway was used as a ‘stand in’ for a Californian gold mine, all part of evil Max Zorin’s (Walken) plan to flood Silicon Valley. They also filmed an airship flying over Amberley as part of the plot.
Singing the Bond theme tune, we walk to the tall signal box, as a volunteer is keen to show us the power of the tea towel! We climb up the long wood steps into what was once the signal box at Billingshurst in Sussex. It was moved over to Amberley after digital technology replaced Victorian steel technology. Another did you know fact is that tea towels were used by signalmen as an extra grip as the slippy steel signal metal bars (that were pulled up in the cabins) had no covers. So next time you look at period interior railway photos see if there is a tea towel around.
Down another path we find the old De Witt Kilns. This has a different interpretation from the other Amberley displays. We meet outside these huge kilns life-size sculptures of men and a horse who would have worked here pre-1930s. Inside one of the kiln buildings is a Lottery Heritage funded display called ‘Life and Lime’. It has simple text and great photos to explain why chalk was burnt here (for agricultural, housebuilding, pharmaceutical and steelmaking, to mention a few). From a professional point-of-view I love the low word in these panels. It feels there had been a real effort to research visitors’ attention spans (unlike in the ‘Connect Earth’ displays). Then we discover nearby a friendly pottery shop with a cheap activity (£2) of making a clay shark – perfect to slow down a child and engage in some craft techniques.
As we finish our aquatic monsters we smell and hear something like a farting Gruffalo on the road nearby. My daughter runs towards it and stops in astonishment. She yells “It’s a steamroller!” Yes, a restored grunting machine slowly pulls visitors who missed the bus or the narrow-gauge railway. And boy, it must be hot driving that beast in the afternoon heat. On this road there are more buildings including a bus and fire garage and a period cycle shop. The shop is open, and another friendly volunteer asks my daughter to try the different types of bicycle bells. Great simple interactive and got her thinking about vehicle sounds. My favourite display has to be the old red and gold fire engines looking ready to go. The 1920s Dennis fire engine from Hove looks splendid, it must have taken hours polishing all that brass! We can see more low-level buildings for the Tools and Trades History Society, Worshipful Company of Plumbers and a Broom Maker. But, we are really hungry so go to the Limeburners Café, near the Wind Pump, for chips.
Just when we are thinking about leaving there are curious signs at the café about a BMX display past the playground. Nobody else was walking up there so we did not expect much except for the building called ‘Paviors Museum of Roadmaking’. But out of the shade of the wood we step into a sunlit BMX cycle course with stunt riders. Much to our surprise we are the private audience watching mature riders showing us their flips, skips and wheelies. It is a great way to finish the day. I knew we had missed other buildings, and a nature wood walk. However, we had spent 4 hours in this chalk pit, which was a family visitor attraction record. This visit gave me that rare appetite to want to come back again to this chalk playground.
While I am impressed with Amberley’s approach with volunteers and visitors (and its obvious nostalgia hit) my ecology siren was cranking up. On the drive back, my daughter and I discussed the long-term impact these classic vehicles and burning chalk had on climate change. As energy sources are a huge debate, could the Museum management invest in a new eco-display, involving the local community, to show the next jump in industrial technology? Why not include an exhibition about the manufacture of the wind turbines that can be glimpsed south of Amberley? This is the Rampion offshore wind farm, the first of its kind on the English south coast. Amberley Museum has the logo of four different types of industrial wheels, perhaps in the future one of them could be replaced by wind turbine rotor blades?
To find Amberley Museum best by car, between Storrington and Arundel sat nav BN18 9LT. If you have the patience, you can try the main line train from London Victoria to Bognor Regis. Check with Network Rail for details about access at Amberley Station.
* * *
Hamish has worked for over 30 years in museum exhibitions and interpretation. He is now evolving into a freelance story guide, helping volunteers discover forgotten stories in archives and museums. He is fascinated with the crossover of horticultural and social history since working for projects at the National Trust and Highdown Gardens. He visited the Garden Museum in October 2022.