Places to visit: Weald and Downland museum

Sean Coughlan

On a hot summer's day, getting children into a museum can be a sticky proposition and result in frayed tempers and arguments.

But the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Singleton, West Sussex, avoids this problem because, as it says on the label, it's outdoors, set in 50 acres of South Downs countryside.

It holds a collection of historic buildings from the south-east of England, dismantled from their original locations and re-assembled in the grounds. A pre-condition of these buildings being brought here is that they were at risk of destruction where they once stood - and so the museum operates as a kind of sanctuary for old buildings.

The buildings range from the medieval to the Victorian and are all examples of the everyday homes and work buildings that would once have been common across the southern counties. These aren't
the stately homes and big houses you usually see on the historic buildings tourist circuit, these are the real homes of ordinary people - and in many ways they tell you much more about the era than the homes of the aristocracy.

For instance, I was particularly taken by Poplar Cottage, originally from Washington, near Steyning. This two-up, two-down cottage had been built in the mid-16th century as the home for a family of landless labourers. It was beautifully crafted from stone, wood and plaster, and had its own kitchen garden.

The houses also show how buildings could be adapted continuously for centuries. A house brought from Walderton in Sussex appeared externally to be 17th century, but once dismantled, it was found to be medieval, and had been modernised into the style of the 1600s. This re-worked building was then divided up into smaller units in the 1830s, until finally rescued from demolition in 1979.

All these houses have character. Made without power tools and from materials locally available, they have a slightly off-centre, organic look that makes them sit very naturally in the landscape.

The museum shows how the materials used were made, with displays of brick-making, a blacksmiths' workshop, and information about carpentry. This pre-steam, pre-electric world depended on muscle, and in the beautiful 600-year-old Bayleaf farmstead a display shows how medieval labourers consumed twice the daily amount of calories we do today because of the sheer hard work they did.

What also makes this museum so much of a hidden treasure is its unassuming, low-key approach. It's run by volunteers and there's little of the commercial shakedown you expect in tourist attractions. And because it's spread out over so much ground, there's a relaxed, unhurried feel to the place - and even better, it's guaranteed to exhaust the children.

  • Picture: Elizabethan houses at the Downland museum
    • Singleton, Chichester, West Sussex PO18 0EU. Adults pound;7, children pound;4. Tel: 01243 811348

      A longer version of this review appears in this week's TES

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Sean Coughlan

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