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A Visit to Beamish

The oth­er week­end I had the great oppor­tu­ni­ty to vis­it the Beamish open-air muse­um in Coun­ty Durham. I was stay­ing with friends near Sun­der­land for the week­end and their sug­ges­tion that we went there was a very good one. I can hearti­ly rec­om­mend the muse­um to any­one inter­est­ed in our indus­tri­al his­to­ry – and par­tic­u­lar­ly that of North­ern England.

Not only that, the Muse­um is cur­rent­ly offer­ing a spe­cial deal where for £16 you get a year’s admis­sion. Well, it’s worth that for just one vis­it – you need to allo­cate an entire day to the site (and still you won’t get round it all).

Both my friends have been involved with Beamish over the years and as a result they knew all the cool places to go. There are quite a few build­ings and oth­er items on-site, each hav­ing been painstak­ing­ly dis­man­tled, brought to the site, and rebuilt.

The cen­tre­piece, I sup­pose, is a rebuilt town street, set in 1913, with a ter­race of hous­es (includ­ing an ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry den­tist, a pianoforte teacher’s house and much more) and shops includ­ing a Co-Op, a sweet shop with sweet­ies made on the premis­es, a garage, a bank, and the most recent addi­tion, a Mason­ic Hall with a com­pre­hen­sive dis­play of arte­facts and regalia. There’s also an excel­lent cafeteria!

There’s also a Wag­gonway, set in 1825, where you can trav­el for a few hun­dred yards behind a repli­ca ear­ly steam loco­mo­tive (see below); a Col­liery Vil­lage cir­ca 1913 and an old Manor on the hill. The dif­fer­ent areas are linked by peri­od bus­es and trams.

The peri­od cov­ered is broad­ly Victorian/Edwardian, but some loca­tions (such as the Wag­gonway and the Manor, which are set in 1825) are set in ear­li­er peri­ods. Every­where there are staff mem­bers (in cos­tume) who will tell you about the old prac­tices and explain what you’re see­ing. I real­ly could­n’t fault them.

This is a real­ly tremen­dous place to vis­it and I can’t rec­om­mend it enough – I’ll be back as soon as I can.

I took some video while I was there and present them below. All three items are hand-held so I’m afraid they are a lit­tle wob­bly at times, but hope­ful­ly they will give you a feel for some aspects of the place.

This first one is of the Pock­er­ley Wag­gonway, where we trav­elled for a short dis­tance behind the “Steam Ele­phant”, an ear­ly steam loco­mo­tive. We see the jour­ney from an open coach and also from the track-side, and the trip is pre­ced­ed by some back­ground from a staff member.

Pock­er­ley Wag­gonway at Beamish Muse­um from Richard Elen on Vimeo.

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The sec­ond item is also from the Wag­gonway area: it’s a demon­stra­tion of a tra­di­tion­al Pole Lathe, used by a “bodger” to make things like table and chair legs and oth­er items that could be turned from wood. The oper­a­tor, William Slas­sor, describes its prin­ci­ples, oper­a­tion, and how it was used.

Pole Lathe at Beamish Muse­um from Richard Elen on Vimeo.

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And final­ly, a short video of a gen­tle­man play­ing a Ger­man ‘Har­moni­pan’ street organ in the main street of the recon­struct­ed town.

The instru­ment is hand-cranked, and turn­ing the han­dle both oper­ates the bel­lows that enable the pipes to sound; it also draws a roll of punched paper tape about 2in wide across a what we might call a “read­er”, con­sist­ing of a row of holes, each con­nect­ed to a pipe. The bel­lows pass air to the read­er, and where there is a hole in the tape, air pass­es through and off to the cor­re­spond­ing pipe.

The music is a med­ley of Amer­i­can tunes, and ends with quite a flour­ish. I was­n’t able to cap­ture the very begin­ning of the med­ley, but I got most of it and what there is effec­tive­ly cap­tures the feel­ing of this kind of street enter­tain­ment, com­mon in the Vic­to­ri­an and Edwar­dian eras.

‘Har­moni­pan’ Street Organ at Beamish Muse­um from Richard Elen on Vimeo.

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