Chris Fautley explains the enduring appeal of an open-air museum that seems completely untouched by the 20th century
Whoever would have thought there was excitement to be found in bricks? Or sticks or straw come to that? If you are looking for ways to make buildings add a bit of puff to the national curriculum, you may be struggling.
Unless, of course, you know the wonderful Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at Singleton, near Chichester. Because if you want to know how people lived and worked from the middle ages up to the last century, this is one of those rare places which makes you feel as though you have genuinely stepped back in time.
Forty original buildings, have been carefully restored using traditional building skills and resurrected across a 50-acre site. There is nothing remotely contrived about the place, no theme-park style reconstructions. every building is a real building, which has a real story to tell: there's the Longport farmhouse which dates from 1554 and was rescued from the bulldozers who were clearing the way for the Channel Tunnel at Folkstone, and the simple, timber-fenced animal enclosure which was saved from the path of the M25.
The museum was launched by a handful of enthusiasts who wanted to restore buildings back in 1967 and it has transformed itself over time to an award-winning charitable trust. Its education officer, Sue Shave, says that while the museum aims to be at the forefront of building conservation, its chief purpose is to educate. This commitment was recognised last year when the museum won an "Interpret Britain" award from the Society for the Interpretation of Britain's Heritage, whose main purpose is to encourage historic sites to make the past come alive.
One of the reasons for its success is the authenticity of its refurbishments: when the mus-eum carpenter is called on to work on timber frames, there is not an electric sander or planer in sight. When a building needs rethatching, the job is done using thatch grown and harvested in a nearby field.
Throughout, there are no concessions to the 20th century. Why would a Tudor farm have a lightbulb? Or a glass window? The footpaths are not smoothly paved but rolled chalk and flint.
Among the splendidly-restor-ed structures there is a tudor market place; a medieval stronghold; more modest straw huts and cow byres; a watermill, which took four years to restore and which now grinds flour daily; and a smithy. The latter is one of the museum's younger buildings and dates from around 1850. It was donated by the son of the last blacksmith to work in it.
The sheer scale of the place means it is difficult to see everything in one day; especially if you add a couple of workshops such as Tudor cookery, candle dipping, Victorian laundry or spinning and weaving. To get the most out of it, the education office suggests that teachers choose a theme, such as medieval times, or water and wind power.
It's an approach adopted by Pam Brullhard, a teacher at Rose Green junior school, near Bognor. "You've got to have a very clear focus of what you want," she says. But she is none the less "hooked" on the place. "It fits in beautifully with our Tudor topic because so many of the buildings here are of that era. We can look at the building materials and begin to envisage the way that people lived."
Her school visit began in a 19th-century Surrey joiner's shop, which houses the building materials workshop. Here there is the chance to try timber framing, roof rafting, medieval peg tiling and constructing a model of a 15th-century house.
Rose Green's next stop was a workshop on Tudor cookery. Here the children made bread and drop scones, while museum volunteers prepared a Tudor potage of vegetables and edible weeds from the garden: Good King Henry, bristly ox tongue, cabbage, onion and leaf beet.
But it is the museum's star attraction that offers the best insight into Tudor life: Bayleaf is a farmstead which recreates the living conditions of a wealthy farmer in 1540. Inside a fire burns in the middle of an open hall and the absence of a chimney resulted in some delicately kippered 20th-century visitors. Here there was the opportunity to use replica Tudor furniture and handle implements such as leather jugs and wooden plates. With its Tudor garden, orchard and barn, Bayleaf alone offers scope for a whole day's research.
As the day drew to a close Pam Brullhard's only regret was that they could not return the following day - there were still so many buildings she wanted to see. "We've been coming here year after year," she said. "I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. You could bring infants, you could bring secondary children; it doesn't matter which key stage."
That Weald and Downland makes such an impact is not surprising: a living place bereft of gimmickry, it's more a way of life than a museum.
The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, Singleton, Chichester, West Sussex. PO18 0EU Tel: 01243 811363. www.wealdown.co.ukAdmission: pound;2.20 per child; tudor cookery pound;12.50 per group of 16 children; building materials workshop: pound;10 per group of 20 children. The museum also runs brickmaking and blacksmithing courses for schools and a part-time MSc in timber building conservation, or seven-day timber framing from scratch workshops, for adults