Beamish could easily be a sentimental view of a past golden age – but refreshingly, it isn’t. Beamish is one of those places that once you hear about, you keep hearing about. It’s located near Durham and as such is founded around the area’s industrial development and coal mining past. The founder Frank Atkinson wanted to create something based on Sweden’s ‘folk museums’ and he was committed to preserving the North East’s history in a way that feels locally owned and valued.

There isn’t time in one day to see all that Beamish has to offer, and we spent our day in a drift mine and miner’s cottages, as well the reproduced 1900 village, boasting a bakers, (with excellent pies for lunch) confectioners, bank and park with travel by several impeccably restored trams.

But of course, for me it was the housing that was of most interest. Numerous houses have been painstakingly taken apart brick by brick and reconstructed here at Beamish so they will be available for future generations to explore and learn from (such as the miners cottages pictured left). But it’s not just the buildings. Loads of people are on hand in period costume and happy to answer the same old questions they are probably asked day in day out, which they do with immense patience and care.

I wanted to ask about the toilets and the overcrowding, but was also distracted by the waft of fish and chips being fried in lard coming from the shop opposite.

The miners’ cottages were tied to their work in the colliery:  there was a risk of the family losing everything if the miner himself were killed or seriously injured in the pit. Granny may have slept in the best room at the front with a potty under her bed. It must have been so cold to use the outside WC in the snow and not greatly comforting to use the squares of newspaper hanging on string on the rattling door.

Family and lodgers – possibly up to 12 people – would eat and sleep in the two downstairs rooms, with the kitchen at the back, with its range for cooking and heating water, used for cooking, washing, laundry, eating, and also serving as a bedroom and the loft room accessed by a ladder stairway. The curtain dividing the room could have barely provided much privacy and the last in the tin bath must have had a clammy, greasy experience.

These 1860 miners cottages in Francis Street were brought here from Hetton-le-Hole on Wearside, originally built by Hetton Coal Company. They have been painstaking reconstructed here at Beamish back in 1976; with great care, labelled and taken apart, rebuilt here, and then inside back together with period pieces. Outside the gardens are laden with growing vegetables, there are pigeon lofts, a back alley. It gives a sense of how things might have been. Beyond the outside WC (netties) and own the back lane are the coal houses, the ‘free’ coal miners received.

At another location in Beamish is Ravensworth Terrace, six of which were which were relocated here from Gateshead and originally built between 1830 and 1845, and by the 1970s was scheduled for clearance. Some beautiful homes were lost in area clearance programmes (perhaps more on that perhaps another time…).

The homes in this terrace are larger,  catering for wealthier householders than the miners’ cottages, including space for servants and even with inside bathrooms, still quite unusual then. They have gardens dedicated to beauty and natural styles – an influence of the then contemporary arts and crafts movement – and not just function of growing food (although that of course has its own beauty in my opinion). The local Redman Park provides community place for relaxation and meeting, and seen as important for people’s health (in the days before we had to have evidence to justify this clearly obvious fact).

It really is a great place to visit and a credit to its founder and all who are still involved.


All photographs:  Beamish Museum June 2017 © Jill Stewart

Source: The Essential Guide to Beamish

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