The last time I went to Weald and Downland Open Air Museum was on a school trip more than 20 years ago. I remember loving it but as I think I may have spent half the trip wrestling with a teenage crush I had on one of the boys in my class, I remember little else about it!
It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit as an adult, especially as it has evolved and grown since that school trip. My husband and I were wracking our brains yesterday morning trying to think of something to do and after dismissing the same Isle of Wight attractions we’ve been to a million times, we decided to throw caution to the wind and leap on the next available ferry. The decision was made at 9am and by lunchtime we were in beautiful West Sussex.
Whilst I hadn’t intended this to be a research trip for my Tudor dollshouse, I thought I might gain a little inspiration whilst indulging in my love of medieval and Tudor history. However, I got more than just a little inspired and armed with my husband’s DSLR camera, I was snapping away at every room and every piece of furniture.
For those who haven’t been to Weald and Downland or know what it is, I’ll attempt to describe what it’s all about. In very basic terms, they have saved historic buildings from the bulldozer by carefully pulling them down and then rebuilding them within the most breathtaking rural setting of the west Sussex Countryside. These buildings date from the 13th century onwards and rather than being the grand manor houses you may be used to visiting, they are all the homes and working buildings of ‘ordinary’ people. This, to me, makes them more special.
There are some 50 buildings on the 40 acre site and each one tells the very individual stories of the people who would have lived and worked in them. Each time you step into one you genuinely feel like you’re stepping back into history and that, at any moment, the medieval farmer or Elizabethan merchant might return home and catch you there!
The surroundings allow you to totally absorb yourself. You can’t hear or see a single road, or car. Despite the car park being stuffed full, it never felt crowded. The houses are mostly spread out (be prepared to walk ALOT!) so that you can see them within the context of their original settings, against a backdrop of rolling sheep-filled fields, or nestled within equally ancient farm buildings and animal pens. You feel as much as if you’re THERE as it’s possible to be.
A real highlight for me was “Bayleaf”, a Wealdon House presented to the museum in 1968 by the East Surrey Water Company. It was originally built in the late 15th/early 16th century and has been set within a farmstead, including a barn dating from 1536, to show how it may have looked in about 1540.
As I entered the building I realised I was the only person in there. It’s a big space, and so atmospheric when it’s not full of visitors! I stepped into one of the upstairs rooms and I was utterly transported to 1540. I looked out of the window to see geese running across the grass and outside I could hear a cow mooing and the metallic ‘tap tap tap’ of a blacksmith shoeing a horse. As someone who loves history and makes every effort to absorb myself in it as much as I can, it was really a magical feeling.
At the other end of the scale is Poplar Cottage which is believed to have been the home of a craftsman or “landless husbandman” dating from the early to mid 17th century. Whilst in no way is it as grand as Bayleaf, it is no less magical. The interior furnishings are recreated in such a way that you expect to turn a corner and see the original inhabitants at their work. It gave me goosebumps.
As far as “research” goes, well it was very fruitful. It’s given me some great ideas for the affluence level of my Tudor dollshouse, who may have lived there and how they may have used the space. I’ve discovered that bunches of lavender tied to the walls and ceilings of each room are a must, that I need lots of pots and baskets and that a truckle bed is the best choice for the bedroom! I have a shopping list for miniatures as long as my arm!
I’ve come away from Weald and Downland having had a truly special experience and I’m adding it to my list of absolute favourite places to be! If you love social history, or indeed any kind of history, you have to visit this place. And if you’re researching a miniature Tudor family home it’s an absolute must! If you’re doing both, then you’ll be utterly in your element!
To find out more (and I suggest you do!) visit the Weald and Downland website.