Beamish, ‘The Living Museum of the North’ is an open-air museum in the north-east of England. The tagline claims it’s ‘world-famous’ and if it isn’t, then it should be.
Head to County Durham by road from north or south along the A1M. At Junction 63 take the A693 towards Stanley for 4 miles where there are plenty of signs. Coming from the west you can take the A68 to Castleside and follow the signs along the A692 and A693. There are buses from Newcastle City Centre, Gateshead, Birtley, Ouston and Chester-le-Street, which is also the closest train station.
In COVID times Beamish is open 10am-5pm and visitors must pre-book a timeslot. Normally you can book online or queue on the day, and queue you will! Like any big museum with wide appeal it is always popular but once you’re inside you can see why. If you’d like things a little quieter, then go during the week and in the autumn or winter.
At Beamish you can buy a ticket and can use it for a whole year and trust me, you will want to come back. To really take in everything properly you would need a couple of days but also, the ‘living’ parts of the museum change throughout the year so you can go in the middle of summer and have a completely different experience from Christmastime! If you think you might go during the next year then buy a ticket now to help them out. An adult is £19.50 with discounts for over-60s, under-16s, students and families. For not much more you can become a ‘Friend’ which includes entry, discount in the shop and a free quarterly magazine, I am and it’s well worth it.
Beamish smells like my great-nan’s house, in a very good way. It isn’t musty or dusty but you have old wood, oil, house-coal and horses. The museum is one large side with smaller ‘villages’ set around a circuit, which you can walk along, ride old buses or trams. Unless you’re very fit you’ll want to ride at least some of the way. There’s no particular order to do it in. I suggest you pick clockwise or anti-clockwise and go from there.
All the staff are dressed like they stepped out of a hundred-year-old picture and it really isn’t just a turn of phrase to say that to enter Beamish is to step back in time. Everything is done on such a large scale but also with so much detail that you are immersed in it. After a while you even loose focus on all the other visitors and forget you’re even in a museum. Beamish takes the line between conservation and the modern world and plays jump-rope with it. You ride on trams, look upon objects not through glass cases (except the potions in the chemist!) and the only informative labels are on things you can buy. This ranges from food in the various canteens to sweet treats in the bakers to flat caps in the haberdashers, enamel dishes and carbolic soap in the hardware store.
Two things really set Beamish apart. First, the staff who are all dressed in their contemporary attire, all utterly passionate and most of all massively informative. The museum tells its story through immersing you in sights, sounds and smells and whenever you’d like some detail someone is on-hand to help. Many are volunteers and my new dream is to volunteer there some day.
The second thing that sets Beamish apart is the sheer scale which is hard to put into words. As you walk along one of the streets you are in a time capsule of buildings surrounding you. Then you move to a new area, each with a different theme. From the 1940s farm, the 1900s colliery and pit village to 1820s rural life. You go into shops, a bank, a band-hall, terrace houses and even a church and think how well done each reconstruction is. On my first visit I half-expected to stumble across a wooden strut propping up a shop front, like in the old cowboy movies. The thing is that Beamish is the real thing, these buildings have been saved from demolition, taken down piece-by-piece and put back up again here in this small corner of County Durham. It is a phenomenal (and very much ongoing) feat. When you realise it is also the buildings they are preserving, everything clicks into place.
On the way out is a plaque to the museum’s founder, Dr Frank Atkinson. In the 1950s as a young museum assistant he had realised the north-east of England was rapidly losing its industrial heritage, along with the communities that served them. He wanted to build a museum that could show the way of life of ordinary people and bring the region’s history alive. Safe to say this mission has been a success. There really is something for everyone. You see children in awe alongside their parents and grandparents. Beneath it all is a subtle message that is probably imperceptible to most. It is not done through signs, talks or branding but through practice. That the preservation of the past can be more than show and tell or ticking boxes, can transcend one room or even one building and that the museum itself is a living thing which the visitors are only passing through. Most of all Beamish tells us that though we might never understand the past, we can do our best to experience it.
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Joe works as a freelance family and house historian and is an AGRA Associate (the Association of Genealogists & Researchers in Archives). Currently he is a PhD candidate researching the social history of early modern England at the University of York. He is also on the outreach committee of the British Association for Local History.