The Northern England Outdoor Museum at Beamish is another fine reason to include Durham on any trip to England. It's a short bus ride, and the setting in June is beautiful: rolling green hills dotted with occasional stone walls and numerous sheep, with only a few rooftops visible to visitors entering the park. The museum recreates several aspects of life from long ago. Visitors are encouraged to chat with the staff, ask questions about whatever details might interest them.
Two time periods are featured: 1825 and 1913. The staff are dressed in period costumes. We began our visit with a ride on an old-fashioned tram car to the entrance to the Colliery Village, where coal mining of the 1913 period was displayed. Donning red hard hats, we followed our guide into the Railroad coal car drift mine, almost at once bending over because the ceilings were less than five feet high. Pitmen worked all day hunkered down and bending to get access to the seam of coal. The floor was wet, and soon the guide extinguished the small lamp to plunge us into darkness. One of the first jobs for a small boy in the mine was "trapper." Doors were installed to force the ventilation flow into the deepest recesses of the pit, and the trapper opened and closed the door with a string when workmen needed to pass through. Because he didn't need to see to work, he sat in the dark all day; those that overcame their fears Hoist gauges could graduate to the next level of mining.
Back on the surface we visited the Heapstead, where a a giant steam engine lifted and lowered coal carts -- down into the mine to be filled, up to the top where the ore is screened, stones picked out, and the coal dumped into railcars. The pitmen were paid piece work, so the engineman had to remain at his post to answer the bells telling him to swap another pair of carts. For his convenience, a chamber pot was built into his chair.
After one explosion when days passed before a correct count of the dead could be obtained, numbered tally disks were introduced; one for the miner to leave at the pithead on descending, another to carry with him. The second could be used to identify his body -- or to record his safe exit at the end of Railroad tram the workday.
Women no longer worked in the Northeast coal mines in 1913 (they still did in some Welsh mines) so miners became a tight-knit fraternity, willing to accept the risks for the higher pay. But 1913 was the year of highest production. The next 80 years saw the gradual decline of British coal mining into extinction. Some of our guides were ex-miners, and regretted the mine closures.
We strolled through the little village of miner's cottages and stopped at the school, where a classroom of present-day children, dressed in costume, were having a compressed Edwardian educational experience, writing on slates under the watchful eye of a schoolmaster. The little girls all wore white 1913 classroom mobcaps -- an inaccurate bit of clothing which the mothers nevertheless loved, according to the schoolmistress, who explained that the white cotton cap was a maid's cap, worn to prevent head lice from falling out into the soup!
We re-boarded the tram and rode to the next stop, the 1913 town, where the new automobiles and motorcycles were displayed, and the drygoods store had clothing and hats, and candy was being made in the candy factory. The museum had a nice collection of period signs and the goods on display represented the time quite faithfully. The shopkeepers explained the items on display to the visitors. Dry goods store
Pockerley Manor, a substantial stone house, illustrated the living conditions of a well-to-do English family of 1825 -- and attached to the manor house was an older (built at least by 1450) stone house, its thick walls a protection against the Scots who frequently rode down into the northern England countryside to steal cattle (and of course the cattle were re-stolen by the English as well). A young woman led a gentle packhorse up and down the lane, carrying goods for sale to farmsteads.
We'd been impressed already by the number of pieces of machinery (such as the pithead steam engine) that were lovingly kept in good working order, Pack pony and mistress but the engineering highlight was the replica 1825 railroad engine house. Perfect working models of the 1825 Elephant had been constructed, using old parts when available, and the museum crew took everybody on a short ride in the open passenger wagons -- in which seats had been fitted in deference to modern weakness! The industrial development of Northeast England was coincidental with the expansion of the railroads, which could economically haul coal and iron ore to the works. George Stephenson stands right next to God in the minds of these railroad enthusiasts.
There was more to do -- including working farms and railroads from the 1913 period -- and more is under development at Beamish, which opened 30 years ago. We felt that Beamish compared favorably with King's Landing in New Brunswick and the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, which are similar open-air museums. We're looking forward to a return visit -- on our next trip to England!