Beamish: A Journey Back in Time

Beamish – Fireside fun

Suffragettes campaigning for ‘votes for women’, a First World War solider home from the front, and a hairdresser styling a chignon in a 1950s salon – these are just some of the sights you’ll see at Beamish open air museum.

Beamish Museum is my favourite tourist attraction in the North East of England with its cast of historic characters, heritage buildings and reconstructed history.

There’s nowhere better for a social history experience whether it’s riding on its trams, shopping in the 1900s town, taking a ride on a steam railway or discovering life in a pit village.

Now Beamish has moved into the modern period with the opening of its 1950s high street. I set off down Memory Lane to discover why the new Beamish is better than ever…

1. The 1950s – The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years

Shake, rattle and roll as you enjoy a slice of post-war life in the newly rebuilt 1950s high street.

It’s an experience which is within the living memory of most older visitors whilst the younger generation will enjoy the vintage vibe.

At Elizabeth’s Hairdressers, I watched a woman have her hair done, bought fish and chips up the street, and sat in the booth at John’s Café listening to the retro jukebox. It’s a weirdly moving and nostalgic experience.

Photograph – A re-imagining of Norman Cornish’s house in Spennymoor, County Durham.

I enjoyed eavesdropping inside the terraced home of famous North East artist, Norman Cornish. A gallery of pictures catches the eye as you descend the stairs – mostly images of northern miners, ordinary folk and local landmarks.

The 1950s street is part of the exciting “Remaking Beamish” project which includes over 25 new attractions.

Another highlight is the characterful John’s Café, recreated from the original in Wingate in County Durham. It’s intriguing because it tells the little told story of Italian immigrants who set up ice cream parlours in the north.

Eventually Front Street will lead visitors into a new housing “estate” which is currently being created brick by brick.

It will feature red brick semi-detached homes based on the Red House estate in Sunderland, police houses from Gateshead, and prefabricated ‘Airey’ houses from Kibblesworth.

Also coming soon is a classic cinema, formerly the Grand in Ryhope, which will enable visitors to experience a trip to the movies during the 1950s. I can’t wait!

2. The Home Front – The 1940s

Photograph – WW2 sentry box, the 1940s farm and an outdoor ‘netty’ at the wartime farm.

On the other side of Beamish there’s a chance to go even further back in time to the 1940s at a farm which has typical period fixtures.

Once inside, you can sit down next to the roaring log fire and make yourself at home. It feels just like the owners have popped out for a few minutes, leaving everything as it was. A slice of life captured in time.

It’s great fun looking at the old domestic gadgets in the kitchen and utility room, from an antiquated washing machine and mangle to bog standard mops and brushes. There were few mod cons and time saving appliances in the 1940s.

You can get a flavour of the war time experience with a trip below ground in the outside garden. The Anderson shelter is just like the one my grandma used to have at the top of her street in World War Two – now long gone.

It’s dank, dark and claustrophobic inside the tiny shelter – and makes you realise how terrifying air raids must have been for anyone living through that dark period in history.

Photographs – Air raid shelter, out-buildings and sheep farming at the 1940s farm.

3. Miners and Pit Villages – A Rich Vein

Coal mining played a massive part of the history of North East England, and its industrial legacy is celebrated in style at Beamish.

One of my favourite attractions at Beamish is the pit village and its cottages which illustrate how people lived and worked in the 1900s. Mining communities had a strong sense of community, and this is reflected in the exhibits.

The Francis Street cottages were brought to Beamish from Hetton-le-Hole, having been built by Hetton Coal Company in the 1860s. Pop inside for a warm fireside welcome from one of the costumed staff.

A cast of characters demonstrate the lost art of ‘proggy mats’ (rug making) as well as telling you about traditional Geordie cooking. Sniff out the smell of bread making – it’s simply wonderful!

Over the road there’s the school, originally from East Stanley in County Durham. You can practice the ‘3 Rs’ in the class room or pop outside to the playground to try your hand at traditional games. Anyone good at metal hula hoops?

The trip down the Mahogany Drift Mine is a highlight of the colliery village, not least because it’s one of the few buildings at the museum located where it originally stood.

Sadly, the underground mine is currently closed post-pandemic, but I did manage to visit a few years ago. It’s a claustrophobic and cramped experience, but tricky for anyone with a back problem.

In 1913, there were 165,246 men and boys working in County Durham’s 304 mines. Conditions were dangerous, dirty and back-breaking.

Although the mine is currently shut, you can see the pit ponies who also used to work underground and learn about the role they played in the mines. Sadly they were very reluctant to have their photos taken when I visited.

Photograph – Leasingthorne Miners Welfare Hall.

Having skipped the pit, I headed to the new attractions including the Leasingthorne Colliery Welfare Hall which brilliantly captures life in a northern mining community.

The hall is a replica of the Leasingthorne Colliery Welfare Hall and Community Centre, built near Bishop Auckland in 1957. You can also learn about the history of the NHS in the adjoining rooms with items from the 1950s and ’60s.

It’s like a time capsule… and it’s strangely moving to step back into this recent period in history.

4. Toilets and Back Yards

Beamish is the perfect place for toilet history and humour!

From the Geordie traditional ‘netty’ to outdoor toilet blocks, it’s fascinating to learn about the history of the humble toilet.

Some think that the word ‘netty’ originates from the slang used by Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall, and later became the word ‘gabinetti ‘in Italian. But nobody knows for sure!

5. The Age of Steam

The North East of England was the birthplace of the railways so it’s no surprise that Beamish has rebuilt an old Georgian waggonway where you can take a ride on a replica of an early steam train.

Jump on board the Puffin’ Billy (replica engine) for an atmospheric ride along a section of track with steam swirling high into the skies and the sooty smell of the engine filling your lungs.

Engines operate mainly on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays… it’s a short but steamy ride!

6. Trains, Trams and Trolley Buses

Beamish is a dream day out for anyone who loves vintage transport , from trolley buses to trains and old cars.

There’s a choice of transport to take you across the Beamish site – simply hop on and hop off wherever you want. I’d recommend sitting on the top deck if you want to get a panoramic view.

Buses and Trams

The Northern General Transport Bus Depot houses the museum’s fleet of historic buses, a must for ‘bus buffs’.

If you love old railways and the golden age of steam, a trip to Rowley Station is highly recommended. It looks like a film set for “The Railway Children” or a Harry Potter movie.

This Edwardian station, with waiting rooms, a signal box and goods yard, was originally located in Rowley village near Consett.

It was the first building to be relocated and opened at the museum when it was unveiled in 1976 by poet and railway enthusiast, John Betjeman.

Don’t miss a trip to the signal box to see how the control room workers ensured that everything ran like clockwork.

Trains run along a short length of track and you can take a short ride most days in the main season.

Vintage Cars and Bikes

Cars are also well catered for in the Beamish transport collection– and there are regular vintage car events.

An Armstrong Whitworth replica car is also available as a limousine whilst a fleet of cars and vans from the 1920s to 1960s can also be seen around the museum.

Video: Beamish’s main 1900s high street.

In the Old Town, fans of vintage vehicles should check out the cars, motorcycles and bikes at the Beamish Motor & Cycle Works, which is a replica of a typical early 1900s garage.

There’s something really special about the ‘whiff of old car’ – leather seats, oil and petrol – which you don’t get with modern vehicles.

7. Sign of the Times

Looking around Beamish, it’s fun to play ‘spot the advert’ as there are dozens of brilliant advertising signs and posters.

From a 1950s hoarding for cigarettes and much earlier posters promoting perfumes, potions and lotions, there’s much to admire about a simpler age of advertising.

Even the old road signs have a character of their own, hailing from an era before mass transportation and ‘rush hours’ were the norm.

8. Hidden Lives

Look closer inside some of the buildings in the 1900s town and you’ll spot a few oddities and a side of life, often little seen in museum collections.

One of my favourite places is the photographer’s studio and developing rooms where early technology was used to create portraits and family photographs in an age before selfies. mobile phones and Instagram.

Post-pandemic, you can only peek inside the studio space but usually it’s open for photo shoots and visitor portraits.

Another oddity is the Masonic Hall which provides a unique insight into the mysterious world of the masons. I’ve always been intrigued by what happens behind closed doors at a masonic lodge, and now I know.

The secret ‘hand shake’, the symbolic robes and bizarre ceremonial objects are all on show in a surprisingly revealing series of displays inside the lodge.

The Masonic Hall was transplanted from its original site at Park Terrace, Sunderland with the help of Durham Masons. The hall was built in 1869 for St John’s Lodge, number 80, and was used by the Masons until 1932.

9. The Classic 1900s Town

Everyone remembers their first ever trip to Beamish and I’m no exception, even though it was more than 30 years ago.

At the time, I was gobsmacked by how much everyday heritage had been saved and painstakingly rebuilt, often brick by brick.

Many of the buildings had literally been transplanted in thousands of bricks and pieced together… it was a miracle of heritage reconstruction.

On my first visit, I remember going shopping on the 1900s high street, complete with the authentic Co-operative Society store uprooted from Annfield Plain in Country Durham.

There was also a terraced street of houses and a bandstand which is still one of my favourite sections of the museum today.

You can visit Ravensworth Terrace, brave a trip to its dentist’s surgery, visit the music teacher’s house, and stroll around an Edwardian solicitor’s office. The street once stood in Gateshead and it’s hugely popular with visitors.

The 1900s town has expanded massively over the last 30 years with recent additions including a bank, masonic hall and motor garage as well as an extended tram line.

Don’t miss going inside the buildings which are furnished in period style including everything from furnishings to personal items belonging to former inhabitants. It’s a tour de force of storytelling.

The sweet shop, haberdashery, clothes store and chemist are particularly impressive with brilliant attention to the smallest of details.

My guilty pleasure is buying a sweet treat from the confectioner’s, whether it’s pear drops or a packet of sherbets.

10. Agriculture and Cottage Industries

One of my favourite places at Beamish is Pockerley Old Hall which is one of the few original buildings on the site.

The stone built house was once the home of a tenant farmer and looking around provides a glimpse into his family’s lifestyle. It sits cheek-by-yowl with the original ‘old house’, which dates back to at least the 1440s.

The earlier house is one of the oldest buildings at Beamish – stepping inside feels like stepping back into a different ‘pre-agricultural revolution’ era.

The interior is dark with a burning log fire whilst thick walls provide a defensive protection against raiders. It’s more like a bastle tower designed to protect livestock than a traditional farm house.

Photograph – Pockerley Hall and Manor.

It’s brilliant that Beamish is expanding its 1820s countryside area around the old hall and manor… and it’s taking shape really nicely.

Nestling in the picturesque landscape is a medieval church, St Helen’s, brought here from Eston on Teesside. The 12th Century church was due to be demolished until it was saved and rebuilt at Beamish, stone by stone. It’s an astonishing achievement, made possible using a whole raft of craft skills.

Take walk through the surrounding landscape and you’ll be taken right back to the Georgian era. The farm land is characterised by dry stone walls, oak fences, and traditional breeds of animal.

Photographs: Cottage crime document, Joe’s Cottage drawing and reward poster c/o Northumberland Archive.

The Quilter’s Cottage is a new addition to the Beamish building collection. This traditional thatched cottage was located in Warden near Hexham, but has been recreated at Beamish using traditional techniques and local materials.

A quilter called Joe Hedley once lived and worked at the cottage, but he was tragically murdered by an unknown intruder in 1826. It was a terrible crime that shocked the nation.

Once inside the house, there’s a chance to learn about early cottage industries whilst outside there’s a vegetable garden and chickens being reared in a coop.

Photographs – St Helen’s Church, Joe’s Cottage and the coffin shed.

Nearby there’s a strange shed housing a coffin wagon used for funerals, an old-fashioned equivalent of today’s hearses. It’s a reminder of the high mortality rates during the Georgian era when life expectancies were shorter.

In the distance, look out for the gibbet, an ominous sign of the harsh crime and punishment regime during this period. It’s easy to miss so keep your eyes peeled.

The Beamish Vision

Photographs – Scandinavian open air museums in Sweden and Norway inspired Frank Atkinson.

Beamish was the vision of Frank Atkinson, the museum’s founder and the man who wanted to “illustrate vividly the life of ordinary people” and the heritage of North East England.

Frank visited Scandinavian open air museums in the early 1950s and was inspired to create an open air museum in northern England.

At the time the region was losing its industrial heritage – coal mining, ship building and steel manufacturing were disappearing, and Frank wanted to preserve that heritage for future generations.

He did a remarkable job and his vision is still being carried through by today’s curatorial team. Long live Beamish and may it always continue to be a great innovator and tell important stories.

Cynics sometimes criticise the jaunty costumed characters and what they think is a rose-tinted, nostalgic view of North East culture.

But I beg to differ. This is important working class history which should not be forgotten or marginalised. Beamish does its best to be as authentic as it can be in its presentation. This is the story of real people, and their lives matter. ..

Photographs – The original 1900s town including a dentist’s surgery and a typical family house.

Beamish Museum – Planning your Visit

Here’s the full guide to what to know before you go… but check the Beamish website for any daily changes to their schedule.

Beamish is open daily 10:00-17:00 during the main tourist season, but closes on Mondays and Tuesdays in winter.

Visitors need to pre-book for 10am, 11am and 12pm time slots during the museum’s busiest times at present. If you are visiting from 1pm onwards, you can just turn up and don’t need to pre-book.

Allow plenty of time for your trip to Beamish – at least a half day, or a full day if you want to see everything. If you don’t want to cram everything into a single trip, don’t worry – your ticket is valid for repeat visits over the next 12 months.

Getting Around

Get a map! Pick up a site plan when you arrive at the museum or take a photo of the Beamish map on your phone.

Take a bus or tram to make getting around easier and quicker. Transport is included in the ticket price and you can chose from a variety of services although my favourite is the tram.

An Accessible Bus is on hand to take visitors around the museum and can carry up to four wheelchairs.

Wear sensible shoes… the Beamish site is extensive and there are many different areas to explore.

Food and Drink

Eat, drink and be merry. I can recommend the excellent fish and chips in the 1900s Pit Village but get there early to avoid the queues. Another fish and chippie has just opened in the 1950s town on Front Street.

There are also refreshment points including the ice cream parlour (1950s town) and the old pub in the 1900s town which is authentic and sells good beer. The Old Town also boasts a tea room which is always packed out.

Take a picnic. There are numerous picnic areas across the site especially by the recreation ground and events field.

Family Fun

Enjoy the fun of the fair on the recreation field which has plenty of historic rides and traditional entertainment for families with kids.

My favourite attraction is the carousel with its prancing horses, although the helter skelter also brings back happy childhood memories.

Special Events

Look out for special events especially at weekends, and these are often held on the main field near the fairground,

Recent events at Beamish have included a Morris vintage car day, a Meccano Weekend, the Tractors Assemble event, and a MG classic car show. Lovers of brass bands and choirs can listen to concerts, often performed in the park.

These events are generally free and included in the main ticket price. Check out what’s happening on the Beamish website.

New Additions – The 1950s Farm

Spain’s Field Farm, from Eastgate, near Stanhope, has been rebuilt at Beamish stone by stone as the museum’s example of a 1950s Farm.

The farm is only open on weekends and bank holidays to allow for the ongoing construction of the 1950s Town.

Watch out for further new buildings including the cinema.

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