How does it feel to step back in time and immerse ourselves in the world our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents knew? There are places where we can do just that, living museums that collate and preserve not just objects but the buildings that housed them and the environments in which those buildings sat.
One such place is Beamish, in north east England. Here is a farm of the 1940s, its soil tilled by Land Girls. Here is a 1900s pit village, complete with colliery and mine office. In one of the cottages a miner’s socks are drying in front of the range. And here is a whole street from a 1900s town, with dentist’s surgery, car workshop, Co-operative store, park with bandstand, and of course a pub!
On the streets of the town and village you will meet the locals, dressed in the everyday clothes of their time. They are happy to stop and chat, or pose for a photo. A tram might pass by, or an old bus, and if your legs are weary you can hop on board to be transported, literally, to another time and place.
So come with me on a journey back in time …
The 1940s farm
Let us start in wartime – the Second World War, which impacted greatly of course on daily life in this country, including in rural England.
Inside the farmhouse we can observe wartime family life. Food (made from rations) is cooking on the Aga; there is 1940s music and news broadcasts playing on the wireless; and we can see ‘make do and mend’ in action.
The adjoining cottages are home to a family of evacuees and some Land Girls. One of the latter is working outside in the kitchen garden as we pass by.
The 1900s town
Here we are introduced to life in a North East town in the years leading up to the First World War. We can go inside several shops, and in some we can make purchases: traditional sweets from Jubilee Confectioners; fresh-baked bread and cakes from Herron’s Bakery; and bath salts and cold creams made from original recipes at W Smith’s Chemist.
At the photographer’s studio you can, in ‘normal’ times, have your photo taken in the style of the time. At the moment you must be content with a peep inside at the darkroom and studio set-up.
The Co-op store was moved here from Annfield Plain in County Durham. It is stocked with groceries; household goods; clothes and fabrics to make your own; pots, pans and hardware.
You can buy a pint in the Sun Inn, and visit the Beamish Motor & Cycle Works, which featured in the popular TV series ‘Downton Abbey’ (opened by Tom Branson after he left his employment as a chauffeur).
Ravensworth Terrace originally stood in Gateshead. You can visit the dentist’s surgery, the music teacher’s house and the solicitor’s home and office.
The 1900s pit village
At the heart of the pit village is a terrace of cottages, Francis Street, which originally stood in Hetton-le-Hole on Wearside. They were built in the early 1860s by Hetton Coal Company. No.2 is a Methodist family’s home; in No.3 live a family of Irish descent; No.4 is home to a widow who lost her husband in a pit accident; and the Colliery Pay Office is at the end.
Nearby is the school-house, which originally opened in 1892 in East Stanley, a couple of miles from the museum.
We skipped the band-hall and chapel – there is just too much to see here for one visit. And we didn’t walk over to the actual colliery, knowing the mine itself was closed due to the pandemic.
Elsewhere we didn’t have time either to see the 1820s area, Pockerley, with its steam railway, tenant’s cottage, church and ‘big house’, so that’s something for a repeat visit. Plus, they are currently creating a 1950s terrace here and I’d love to go back to visit that. Although it’s a bit unnerving to realise that I’ll probably recognise many of the items in the houses from my childhood. When did my life become history?!
The people of Beamish
As we explored the various areas of the museum we came across costumed interpreters happy to pose for photos, which I have enjoyed editing to give a period look.
And I did the same with some of the vehicles, including the tram and buses.
I visited Beamish in 2021, when the Covid pandemic meant that there were fewer visitors around to disturb the illusion of past times. On the downside, there were no re-enactors inside the properties, to minimise the risk of large groups gathering.