Cathy Clark on the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, Sussex

PUBLISHED: 17:00 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 17:43 20 February 2013

Cathy Clark on the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, Sussex

Cathy Clark on the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, Sussex

A unique attraction in the heart of the Sussex countryside celebrates its 40th anniversary this month. Cathy Clark of the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum tells us why it is so special...

A unique attraction in the heart of the Sussex countryside celebrates its 40th anniversary this month. Cathy Clark of the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum tells us why it is so special...

For 40 years, the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at Singleton, near Chichester, has been delighting visitors with its fascinating collection of more than 45 rescued historic buildings which have been lovingly reconstructed in the heart of the new South Downs National Park.
All have been dismantled and carefully rebuilt, bringing to life the homes, farms and workplaces of the south east over the past 500 years. From its small beginnings, the Museum has become Englands leading museum of historic buildings and traditional rural life and a major regional visitor attraction, with around 130,000 visitors per year.
The Museum was launched in 1967 by a small group of enthusiasts led by the founder, the late Dr J R Armstrong MBE. It opened its doors to the public in September 1970. The aim of the founding group was to establish a centre that could rescue representative examples of vernacular buildings from the south east and generate an increased awareness and interest in the built environment. The Museums foundation coincided with a growing national interest in historic buildings which has resulted in strong support for the Museum ever since.
Since opening, the Museum, a registered charity, has welcomed visitors from home and abroad, who have been able to discover many fascinating aspects about the daily lives of our rural ancestors. They have enjoyed not only the steadily growing collection of rescued buildings (the Museum promotes the retention of buildings on their original sites unless there is no alternative) but also the collections representing country crafts and industries, building trades and agriculture, and of course, quite simply, the Museums tranquil and beautiful setting in the Sussex downland.

The exhibit buildings include historic homes ranging from a tiny 13th century flint cottage to a pair of timber-framed Victorian agricultural labourers cottages from the 1860s. Other houses include Bayleaf, a medieval farmstead that is a wonderful example of a timber-framed hall-house from the early 15th century; a toll cottage from 1807; and Walderton cottage, dating originally from medieval times but demonstrating modernisation to a 17th century building.
To demonstrate vividly how the original occupants may have lived many of the houses contain reproduction period furniture and furnishings, plus the tools and utensils of everyday life. Several period gardens complement individual homes and demonstrate the development of ordinary household gardens between 1430 and 1895. Period vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown to represent those which may originally have been used both for culinary and medicinal purposes in the household.
The Museum features farm buildings, including barns, a granary, cattle sheds and a stable. Youll also find places of work including an operational 17th century watermill which produces wholemeal stoneground flour sold in the shop and used in the caf; a market hall dating from 1620; a late 19th century carpenters workshop complete with period tools; a working smithy, and a working Tudor kitchen complete with cooks.

Children enjoy discovering the differences and similarities of our ancestors homes and workplaces compared to their own. They can even find out what life may have been like in the Victorian schoolroom! They will love the open space of the Museum, walking through the woods, seeing the traditional breed farm animals, watching the Shire horses and working cattle, and picnicking by the lake with its population of ducks who are always pleased to see
visitors with bags of grain bought from the watermill.
In 2002, the Museum saw the completion of The Downland Gridshell building, a spectacular structure housing the Museums conservation centre and collection of rural artefacts. This Gridshell was runner-up for the Stirling prize for architecture and the daily tour at 1.30pm each day the Museum is open has proved immensely popular with visitors. As well as safeguarding the future of the buildings in its care, the Museum keeps alive the skills and traditions of the countryside, many of which are disappearing increasingly rapidly from modern rural life.
There are demonstrations of countryside crafts and skills and special events throughout the year reflecting the life and times represented at the Museum. The Museum is a firm favourite with school parties of all ages offering a comprehensive programme of cross-curricular learning to meet the demands of the National Curriculum. It also offers a well-established programme of Adult Education in historic building conservation and traditional rural trades and crafts.

Getting there
The Museum is at Town Lane, Singleton, 7 miles north of Chichester on the A286.
The nearest rail station is Chichester.
It is on Stagecoachs bus route 60. Call 0845 1210170 for details.
Satnav: PO18 0EU

Celebrate with the Museum
There are many activities planned throughout this special year, involving the Museum staff and volunteers, schools, and visitors. The highlight of the year is a spectacular weekend of celebration scheduled for 4th and 5th September. Activities, with excitement for all the family, include a community carnival, arena events, rides, a horticultural show, music and entertainment. There will be an evening lantern parade and bonfire party on the Saturday. Tickets for the anniversary weekend must be bought in advance from the Museum.

Other activities include the production of a 40th Anniversary book covering the Museums development over the last four decades, and looking forward to the next 40 years. The Museums Adult Learning Department will be holding a conference on Tuesday 28 September entitled Building Conservation Comes of Age. This will explore building conservations journey from avant-garde to mainstream.

The Schools Services Department has created a display featuring memories of school visits since the Museum opened and is also running a Schools Ruby Garden Competition. The Interpretation Department is creating a Museum-inspired patchwork quilt under the guidance of professional quilt maker and artist Effie Galletly, which will be raffled on completion to raise funds for the Museum.

The final celebration will be a Ruby Anniversary Charity Ball on 27 November, held in the award-winning Jerwood Gridshell Space. This event will raise future funds for the Museum, helping it to safeguard the buildings in its care, and also supporting the Museums valuable research, conservation and education work in support of our rural heritage.

For further details of the Museums 40th Year, including ticket information for the Anniversary Weekend, Conference and Charity Ball, please call the Museum on 01243 811363 or visit www.wealddown.co.uk

Latest from the Sussex Life