Saturday 21 March 2015

The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum by Imogen Robertson

There are many good reasons to visit Chichester. There’s a fine cathedral, some brilliant architecture, and a great second-hand bookshop. The library and its staff are also lovely. I know that because I was there on Thursday talking about historical crime fiction with Laura Wilson and Ben Fergusson. I was very glad to be invited, then became frankly over-excited when I realised I now had an excuse to stay the night and visit the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum the following day.

One of the things Ben, Laura and I discussed at the event was how, as historical novelists, we often have to find voices for people who didn’t leave much in the official record. It was a particular problem with my latest book, Theft of Life, which I’ve blogged about here, but it is common to writers of every period. If you want fully rounded, convincing characters who do not come from the diary-keeping, letter-writing, will-leaving minority you have to work a bit harder. That is what makes a place like Weald and Downland Open Air Museum such a god-send. It is a collection of vernacular buildings from the south east of England dating from the late medieval period to the late 19th century. It’s also a home for the preservation and investigation of the crafts which built them and sustained the people who lived in them.

We can still walk through some remarkable manor houses and stately homes, but the ordinary dwellings of the majority got over-written or erased from the landscape more often that not, just as the people who lived in them are often absent from the written record.  This place helps fill in the gaps. Each building at the museum is packed with careful reproductions; wooden plates, horn cups and spoons - there’s a working Tudor kitchen, beds complete with straw mattress and blankets made in the original manner and dyed onsite with locally grown plants. And because they are reproductions you allowed to touch. Feel the fabrics, the weight of a leather jug or the warmth from the fire. 

In Poplar Cottage, the windows are not glazed, but fitted with lattices covered in oiled linen. I’d read about these windows and wondered how much light they would be likely to provide but no informed guesswork is ever going to replace actually standing in the the room. Fascinating for anyone, but the novelist in me just kept wanting to hug people.

All the volunteers are knowledgeable and friendly. We quizzed Phillip in the mill about construction materials and millwrights, then just enjoyed the sound of the mill working - much quieter than I’d expected, but the whole building vibrates gently, and we ended up in a long discussion about what herbs to mix with the rushes to keep away flies in the Bayleaf Farmstead. Tansy, it turns out, is nature’s fly spray. Oh, and there’s a shire horse… 

Now this may be one of the times when my fellow history girls all go ‘oh, we go to that place all the time,’ but if any of you haven’t found it yet do go. You may well find me doing one or other of their rural trades and crafts courses. Any year where I can boast I’ve learned to mow with a scythe has got to be a good one. 


Carol Drinkwater said...

I haven't visited this museum. I had not even heard of it until reading your blog, Imogen. Thank you. As one who runs - battles to run! - an organic olive farm, I am always fascinated to learn of natural cures and to find plants that will combat this or that. I haven't been to Chichester for years but I would love to this visit this place. Huge thanks.

Leslie Wilson said...

Gosh, we were in that area this weekend.I wish I'd read this blog first. It sounds really interesting, and I hope I'll get there some time soon; since my English family all come from Hampshire/West Sussex. Thank you, Imogen!

Sue Purkiss said...

I've heard about it, but not been yet. One of these days! It sounds really good.

Imogen said...

It really is a wonderful place!