Beamish Museum with PhotoSoc: Where History Lives
Last week, the newly-established Photography Society at Durham took a trip to the Beamish Museum for a historical journey back in time.
One of the earliest examples of what we now call ‘open-air museums’, at Beamish you can explore and experience the snapshots of history of North East England, stretching back from the 1820s at the foundations of the industrial revolution, until the Edwardian times and the Second World War. Beamish offered us a way to “visit” history away from the boring textbooks and enclosed artefacts. This, of course, provided ample opportunities for the cameras to shine!
We arrived at Beamish with relative comfort, taking advantage of the last direct bus from Durham before winter. The entrance did not reveal much, but upon stepping through it, we were immediately transferred back in time into the 1920s.
To my delight, we were greeted by buses and trams that circulate the massive site, all restored in the livery of its heyday of the early 20th century. As a transport enthusiast, I immediately embarked on a mission to ride them all: a mission that would ultimately prove unsuccessful but to make us run for and then miss numerous trams.
It was great to have the pros here, taking great photos of the buses and trams!
Coal mining played an extremely important role for villages communities throughout the North East, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Beamish is home to a former coal mine and colliery, completed with a pit village, all restored to their 1920s glory.
Armed with industrial helmets we put ourselves through the mines walking down the pit.
I am used to my height as a hindrance, however as we descend into the mines it became one… because surprisingly I was too tall. As the mining work was mostly done by teenagers and ponies, the ceiling was built very low, perhaps 4′ 8″ at its highest. You cannot help but applaud the miners, who laboured in harsh circumstances, working on a single candle-lit lamp. Despite the existence of modern emergency lighting, I have still managed to smash my head onto wooden planks on more than one occasion. How did the miners back then managed it, I really have no idea.
We then made our way (by bus of course) to the Victorian/Edwardian town, frozen in the years leading up to the first world war. Most of the features in the town were all historical buildings from elsewhere in the North but moved and meticulously reconstructed (“translocated”) for the museum.
More importantly, the shops on the high streets were not mere artefacts but real shops selling real stuff: the bakery baked fresh bread using 1900s tools, while all the confectionary delights from the history books could be found in the sweet shop.
It even had a working pub! (which I believe is the only one in the country that shuts before 6) Unfortunately, the pints were not sold at 1913 prices…
There’s a railway station at the outskirts of the town, built in the style of the North Eastern Railway. As a railway buff, I raced literally to catch the steam train as it was about the depart. The journey last barely 5 minutes, but it is always a delight to see any working steam locomotives.
Photo for a steam train leaving a station? Check.
For lunch, we naturally went to a chip shop, 1913 style. However, in 1913 fish and chips are not fast food: for the coal-fired fryer worked a far more pedestrian pace. Combined that with the half-term crowd it equated to a rather long wait.
However it was worth it: after 45(?) minutes I had in my hands one of the largest pieces of fish and chips I have ever had, certainly better than what I have expected in a museum. In true 1913 fashion, it was soaked in beef drippings. While it was amazing I tried not to think too much about its health indications…
After lunch, we travelled even further back in time to the Pockerley Old Hall, of the 1820s. The farmhouse was spacious and far more pleasant than most student accommodation, to the point that I almost thought about moving in and commuting to uni, until I realised that there’s no wi-fi.
Outside of the farmhouse lies a waggon way, a prototype of locomotives. With its top speed at about 5 miles per hour on a journey even shorter than the steam trains earlier, it was probably the slowest train journey of my life (although it was still faster than modern trains on a ‘signal failure’)
Beamish is so vast that we haven not even managed to visit all the era: disappointingly the Home Farm in 1940 did not make the cut. In fact, we barely had time for a pint at the end before we had to make our way back to Durham. Nevertheless, this is definitely a worthwhile trip and the photos we have captured are stunning!
Photo Courtesy of James Boobier and Kyle Wong.