Old bus and motor garage
Culture & tradition,  England,  History

Stepping back in time: living history at Beamish

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.

View of farmhouse and other buildings
The Home Farm

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.

Display of old-fashioned sweets
The sweetshop

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.

Old-fashioned photography studio interior
The photographer’s studio

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.

Display of old-fashioned household cleaning products
Wooden shelves with rolls of fabric
Inside the Co-op

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.

Old-fashioned classroom interior
Inside the schoolhouse

We skipped the band-hall and chapel – there is just too much to see here for one visit. And we don’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.

Man in cloth cap in front of row of cottagesSepia photof of a man in cloth cap in front of row of cottages
‘Miner’ in the pit village
Sepia photo of girl in old-fashioned clothes
In the pit village
Sepia photo of man in a garden with a shed built from old signs
In a pit cottage garden

Sepia photo of man standing by a tram
A Beamish tram-driver
Sepia photo of man and woman
On a street in the pit village

And I did the same with some of the vehicles, including the tram and buses.

Sepia photo of a tram approaching with trees beyond
A Beamish tram
Sepia photo of old bus
A Beamish bus
Old-fashioned green painted steam rollerSepia photo of an old steam roller
Steam roller in the 1900s town

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.

27 Comments

  • the eternal traveller

    What a fabulous and extensive living history museum this is. I really like it when there are people playing the part of the residents too. It really brings the whole experience to life. We have a wonderful place in Victoria, very similar to this, set in the time of the gold rush. Thanks for the link to this post.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for popping over to check this out 🙂 Yes, I love this sort of museum and the ‘living history’ enactors definitely add to the experience of visiting. There were fewer than usual due to Covid restrictions but it was great to see the ones that were here!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank for playing catch-up 😀 The main difference at Beamish at the moment is that they don’t have interpreters INSIDE the buildings. One of them explained to us that if they did that it would attract too large a group of people to linger close together inside. Also, a few smaller buildings are still closed. On the plus side, it is quieter than usual so easier to avoid people in modern dress spoiling the illusion in the photos!

  • Dhirendra.S.Chauhan

    That was a great treat to the eyes as you took us back in time on a virtual tour to the 1900s pit village & 1940 Beamish town!Through the photos,we could visit the House farm,farm houses.cottages,motor & cycle works,photograghers studio,school teachers house,workshops,maids room,chocolate store &the Groceries store(where I could see Lifebuoy bathing soap on the racks which is still popular in India).I really loved the post& enjoyed the visit though a virtual one!Thanks for sharing, Sarah 😊

  • Nancy Gordon

    I’ve never seen a town and reenactments done on such a large scale. It looks like a wonderful place to visit. I also like the period of time being reenacted so you can image what it was like even better. My favorite are the old vehicles, they’re all in such good condition. It would be fun to ride in a tram or bus.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Nancy – it was a great place for our VT outing as there’s something for everyone here! We may try to tack an extra day on to the meet next May to come here so if you manage to get over you could join us perhaps? I think you’d love it!

  • Tanja

    Very interesting.the only similar place I have ever visited was a National Folklore open musem in Oslo where they had houses from different periods and a regions and a reconstructed town center from 19th

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Tanja – it does sound as if that place in Oslo has some similarities with Beamish. I’ve been to folklore museums elsewhere too that are broadly similar, although of course the buildings vary according to location.

  • Rose

    These kinds of places are so profoundly educational to visit. It’s a fun experiment; trying to deeply imagine what life was like, and then try to guess what the future may hold based on how things have changed, from then to now. And it is weird to look at ‘history’ and see things from your own life, indicating we may be older than we realized? This happened to me at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. And as MARGARET21 mentioned – her grandson dressing up for a ‘history’ project about the 1980’s – wasn’t that just a few years ago?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Rose. I think one thing that’s apparent in these places is how much faster the speed of change is now compared to, say, the mid 20th century. There were things in the 1940s cottages that looked familiar to me and my similarly aged friends, even though none of us was born until the next decade. I wonder how many designs from the 2000s are still around, unchanged, today?

  • margaret21

    I love that place! And a return visit is well overdue. As you say, well over a day is needed, so I’m planning next year sometime to stay up that way with the grandchildren who will probably be as fascinated with the story told as my own children were. And as you say, our own lives apparently incorporate much that’s now become ‘history’. (My grandson recently had to go to school dressed up a la 1980s for a history – history! – project)

  • Yvonne Dumsday

    A wonderful recreation of the day we spent at Beamish, with items you mention that completely passed me by – so many thanks for “filling in the gaps”. I shall take more note of what I missed when I make my return visit (the joy of having annual pass).

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