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Builders in the past were very selfish people. They put their buildings up without considering for one moment that, one day, their structures might inconveniently stand in the way of a new road, town centre development or shopping centre.
Fast forward to an intriguing museum on the South Downs in West Sussex, near the village of Singleton. It is a museum of historic buildings – not reproductions – real ones. And what’s particularly special about the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum is that all of the approximately 50 structures thoughtfully placed for you to look at have been rescued from destruction someplace else, each one painstakingly dismantled into numbered parts on their original sites, transported and carefully – very carefully – rebuilt. Their ages range over about 600 years, from the 13th to the 19th centuries, and they come from all over South East England – Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire.
Often, more modern alterations have been stripped away, leaving the building as it was first conceived and used. It is like stepping into a bygone time. A whiff of wood smoke, creak of a door and you’re inside a real medieval house, the fire smouldering under a hole in the roof because chimneys had not been invented, no glass in the shuttered windows and perhaps a table laid ready for a long-since vanished family to return to their meal. Outside, a garden has been set out as it might have once been, with such flowers, herbs and vegetables as would have been familiar to the original owners or tenants. No potatoes or tomatoes or maize before someone brought them over from the New World.
I have visited the Weald and Downland Museum many times and like it very much. Each time, there is something new to see. It covers more than 40 acres of chalk downland, with woods, a small lake, inspiring views and plenty of places to stop and sit. Take a picnic. You need to allow half a day, at least, anyway. There’s a market square – a kind of developing medieval village – with other properties dotted at intervals along a path. At each building, information boards offer historical background, and often include fascinating photographs showing the place as it was before it was moved.
Guides dress in the context of whichever building they are attached to, which adds a whiff of atmosphere and fun, and these good folk are normally a source of fascinating bits of knowledge. Many of them are engaged in demonstrating traditional crafts, trades and activities, from forging and metal working to cooking, weaving, milling – you name it. The museum also stages events and even offers adult education courses up to degree level – for example, an MSc in Building Conservation.
We are fortunate in Britain, having a ridiculously large number of heritage attractions. But most of these are grand homes and palaces, country piles and castles. Survival has depended on a mixture of wealth, materials, location and accident. Stone, expensive and less plentiful in the south-east than elsewhere, survives better than wood (of course). The remains of houses lived in by unwashed peasants are mostly located by archaeologists discovering post-holes, where wooden supports have rotted, and tracing the lines of walls in the ground. Surviving timber-framed buildings, in-filled with wattle and daub (wattle – a lattice-work of thin strips of timber; daub – a mixture of soil, straw, dung and hair daubed over the wattle and smoothed), are mostly from the Tudor period onward and belonged to the growing middle or professional classes upward. No one thought about preserving buildings for posterity to enjoy and learn from. No, our ancestors were casually cavalier about destroying anything from palaces (like Nonsuch in Surrey) to the grotty hovels that most of them called home.
The concept of rescuing buildings appeals to me – though you might justifiably claim that this is indicative of a civilisation with few serious problems and too much time and money on its hands. Dismissing that argument as one that is far too serious for today, the idea that you could dismantle and move an entire building to somewhere safer strikes me as one of those brilliant notions that border on genius – like traffic lights or roundabouts. It’s not new in Britain – and I have seen a church that was moved by people pushing it on rollers in the United States – but the man behind the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum was a gentleman called Roy Armstrong (1902-1993). Just ponder, for a minute, the huge leap from being appalled at the destruction of medieval buildings to the stage where you have enough land, resources and a plan supported by other people to do something about it. He must have been a remarkable chap.
In any event, the museum was established in 1970 and the rest, with pun intended, is history. You should pop along to visit the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum (I’m not getting paid for this, honestly) – and for more information there’s a link to the Weald and Downland Museum website from their directory listing on A Bit About Britain.
One final thought: I’m wondering whether the museum is going to stop in the 19th century. If I visit in a few years, will I find a reconstructed Victorian mill owner’s mansion and a row of back-to-backs? 1930s mock Tudor? 1945 vintage pre-fab? 1970s classic boring box? If it’s decided to redevelop Canary Wharf one day, will they rebuild the 50-floor Tower on the South Downs just outside Chichester?