Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Culture: Weald & Downland Open Air Museum

On Saturday, I went on an excursion to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Chichester with my students. This was the trip I was most excited about on the Winter School, as I haven’t been here for 14 years. One of my most vivid memories is of visiting the museum and being chased by a goose down a small slope when I was at primary school; I re-enacted this event to my students earlier in the week, to their great amusement.

The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum is a collection of buildings, from the 16th to 20th century, which were saved from the surrounding areas in the 60s when these precious old buildings were being torn down. The guide, Ken, told us that the museum has just been granted lottery money, which is going to be used to put up more of the buildings they have in storage.

I was really grateful to be able to ask Ken and the other guides lots of questions, as I learnt many interesting facts; for example, if a house was built after the Tudor period but in the Tudor style, it would still be called a Tudor house. This may sound obvious, but I assumed that if a house was built in 1610, it would be called a Stuart house – however, if it is built in the Tudor style, it would be called Tudor, even though the Tudor reign ended in 1603 when Elizabeth I died. Historians are also able to tell what people did, depending on whether the house had a plot of land attached; so, if there is no land, we can assume that the owner was, for example, a cobbler, as he would not have needed land for his trade.

Until this trip, I’d never really thought about how our livelihoods are portrayed by the houses in which we live. It makes me question what the future generations will conclude about the way we live now.

It was fascinating to go inside these old houses, which are furnished with real artefacts as well as realistic, recreated furniture from the appropriate time period, including beds, a toilet, chests and tables. For someone with a zealous interest in the Tudor period, I was extremely excited to look around a house from 1540; it fed my imagination about who would have been living here and what was happening at the time (in this year, Henry VIII married and divorced Anne of Cleves, then married Catherine Howard on the day Thomas Cromwell was executed for treason). I find that when I visit old houses and historic buildings, I like to touch the walls and woodwork; it probably seems really strange, but I like to imagine the people who have been there hundreds of years before me, in the very same place I’m standing.

Unsurprisingly, I was also excited to see the animals. There was a beautiful Shire horse, Mac, who was pulling a cart around the farm to collect the used straw in the other animals’ pen, as well as very friendly chickens, sheep, and cows, but my absolute favourites were the geese. They all waddled over to us in a line, with one very curious goose sticking his head through the fence to see if we had any food. I was really happy to see geese still at the museum, but also glad not to be chased this time. There was also a lot of ducks, which followed you if they suspected you had any treats for them!

Overall, I think this is an excellent trip out for any age group. They have plenty of helpers who are open to you asking as many questions as you can think of, as well as a cafĂ© selling delicious, homemade food and a well-stocked gift shop (I bought a wooden duck). It’s important to note that many of the helpers are actually volunteers, whom I really applaud for being so passionate about the museum and so helpful if the students or I had any queries.


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