Five things to see at the Weald and Downland Living Museum

Weald and Downland Museum, Singleton. Photo courtesy of the Weald and Downland Living Museum

Weald and Downland Museum, Singleton. Photo courtesy of the Weald and Downland Living Museum - Credit: Courtesy of the Weald and Downland Living Museum

Everything you need to know about the open-air heritage museum as it celebrates its 50th birthday, from what buildings to see to its role in The Repair Shop

Today the Weald and Downland Living Museum is familiar to audiences nationwide as the location for the BBC’s gentle surprise hit The Repair Shop. In fact, according to museum director Simon Wardell, one in three visitors express an interest in the programme.

For those who haven’t seen it, the show sees experts repair and renovate treasured heirlooms and present them, good as new, to their owners. There are disarmingly moving moments and legions of fans. Last year Pointless host Richard Osman happily outed himself as “weeping at The Repair Shop, as usual.”

While visitors to the museum aren’t likely to meet the presenters or conservators when they visit - and the Court Barn building is closed due to filming – they will discover much of the same ideology. The 40-acre site is home to 53 historic buildings, dating from as early as 950AD - all of which have been rescued from falling into oblivion and reconstructed on the site.

This month the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary of opening to the public on 5 September 1970. The extraordinary endeavour began when founder Roy Armstrong set out to stimulate interest in historical buildings, increasing awareness of traditional crafts, trades and industries. He was inspired by open-air museums in Europe, including two in Norway. To begin with, it was very much a shoestring operation, says Simon Wardell: “There are some amusing photographs of thatched cottages being rescued on a low-loader, being driven through the gates and popped down in situ. We probably wouldn’t be allowed to get away with that these days.”

Visiting the site today, with its £6m entrance and visitor centre unveiled in 2017, it is hard to believe but the project was initially almost entirely volunteer-driven. The land was provided at a peppercorn rent by the Edward James Foundation on the West Dean Estate. “Many people who were involved in putting the buildings up originally were practising a trade in doing that, very often not charging the museum or charging a very reasonable rate to do it,” says Simon. “At one point, volunteering of that nature and giving so generously of your time was fairly common practice. We still see it in the fact that we have 400 volunteers who act as stewards and interpreters of our buildings.”

The permanent collection consists of 53 structures, ranging from a tiny West Wittering schoolhouse to the timber-framed Bayleaf Farmstead from Chiddingstone. Together they tell the story of this region through its vernacular buildings, providing a real insight into how normal people lived. There are also six historic gardens, all planted to reflect the way they would have been used when the house was built. “We work hard not to create an artificial environment, so when you walk through the door of a 300-year-old house, not only does it look 300 years old but it also smells and feels 300 years old,” says Simon. “There are nods to modern facilities around the 40 acres – we have discreetly hidden wifi aerials in thatched roofs, for example – but fundamentally you’re stepping back a good few hundred years.”

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The particular qualities of the museum – its large, open-air site and well-ventilated buildings - have proved to be a huge boon in these unpredictable times. “I didn’t anticipate a global pandemic when I took the job two years ago,” admits Simon, ruefully. “But as a green space we were able to open slightly earlier and we have regularly been hitting 500-600 visitors a day, which for us as a medium-sized museum is exceptionally good news. The additional social distancing measures have been welcomed and we are approaching visitor numbers not dissimilar to this time last year.”

The organisation has the benefit of an endowment trust set up two decades ago: “That’s how we have been able to survive the current situation as well as we have,” says Simon, who adds that “quite an exceptional amount of our funding” comes from legacies left in wills – a mark of the esteem in which the place is held. Nevertheless, 80-90 per cent of revenue comes from admission fees and the museum lost £700,000 of revenue due to closure over lockdown, so getting visitors through the door is key to the museum’s future.

Since the early days, the promotion of research and learning in the field of vernacular architecture has been central to the museum’s mission. Today it runs a range of courses in traditional rural trades and crafts, historic building conservation and two MSc programmes as well as workshops aimed at schools. The spectacular Downland Gridshell building houses a conservation centre plus a 15,000-strong collection of tools and artefacts from rural life.

When Roy Armstrong achieved his ambition of opening the museum to the public on 5 September 1970, he tapped into a growing interest in how the lives of normal folk have shaped our island story. Visiting now, as we inhale the scent of medicinal herbs, stop to admire the working animals or feel the heat of the forge’s roaring fire, it’s easy to feel our connection to them, and to our land.

Here’s to the next 50 years of rebuilding history.

Five things to see on your visit

Lurgashall Water Mill

This mill is for grinding corn, for flour and animal feed. The waterwheel provides power for two pairs of millstones, a grain cleaner and a sack hoist. Some parts of the building probably date from the 17th century, and it was in use until the 1930s. Flour produced in the mill can be purchased here and in the museum shop.

Smithy from Southwater

Built in the 19th century, this would primarily have been used for shoeing horses, as well as the manufacture and repair of tools. Today you can see demonstrations and experience the heat of the smithy fire as the metal is worked.

Bayleaf Farmstead from Chiddingstone

This timber-framed hall-house dates from the early 15th century. The central hall, heated by an open fire, is flanked at one end by service rooms and at the other by rooms for the owner and his family. The farmstead is decked out with replica furniture and equipment, as it might have been in the 16th century.

Market Hall from Titchfield

The timber-framed, open-sided market would once have occupied a central spot on the High Street, but over time it had been added to and moved to a less valuable location. This striking building, with its temporary lock-up or cage for offenders, now occupies the museum’s marketplace, the centrepiece of a group of town and village buildings.

Downland Gridshell

This modern, award-winning structure was the first timber gridshell building to be constructed in the UK. Constructed in 2002, architects still travel from around the UK and further afield to view this unique example of the technique, which harnesses the shape and strength of a double-curvature shell, but made of a grid instead of a solid surface.

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