Great British events and attractions that bring you ‘Living History’
Visiting historic attractions is getting more and more exciting as new dimensions are added to the experience, and buildings and locations are re-awakened through specialist performers and historical interpreters.
On this special focus on Britain’s living heritage our contributors Kindra Jones and Jane Sarlius, as well as Val Baynton, look at some exciting museums and amazing events to enjoy, and take a detailed look at the wealth of industrial heritage and social history to be found in Shropshire and the Marches.
Unlocking the past
There’s a growing number of places where energy and enthusiasm are producing enhanced visitor experiences that capture and celebrate Britain’s heritage. As well as the more famous permanent living history attractions, lesser-known places are now also providing colourful and insightful recreations of the past.
Set on 50 acres of Norfolk countryside, close to Dereham, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse brings to life the history and story of the people who resided there. Experience the Victorian Workhouse and discover something new about the daily drudge of those unfortunate souls who were forced there. Stepping out of the spartan interior, the grounds hold plenty for you to explore. Browsing the old village shops, the care and attention to detail are sure to evoke memories of times gone past.
As the name suggests, there is also a working farm demonstrating traditional, rural life from the beginning of the 20th century. Keeping to its theme of local history, rare East Anglian breeds of sheep, cattle and pigs are kept, and the fields are worked with Suffolk Punch horses. As well as offering groups private tours and talks, Gressenhall has joined forces with the Mid-Norfolk Railway to offer a unique package including a railway trip on the heritage train. There’s a range of events running throughout the year and discounts apply for pre-booked groups of 10 or more.
Step back to 1913 and walk through one of Great Yarmouth’s historic rows at Time and Tide. Ambling along the narrow cobblestones while local voices advertise fresh fish and kippers, close your eyes and imagine yourself back a 100 years. Maybe stop and peer at the wares on sale through the windows. What’s this, a door that has been left open? Stepping into a small front room, admiring a photo on the mantlepiece, it’s easy to forget this is a museum and not a real home and that the owner may walk through the door any minute. The fresh fish and kippers become all the more real as you step into the fish wharf, where an unmistakable smell lingers, a lasting tribute to the delicacies that were cured there. Discounts for groups of more than 10 apply.
Travel back 3,000 years at Flag Fen near Peterborough to get up close to our prehistoric ancestors. Focusing on the immense archaeology at the site, Flag Fen offers the chance to gain a deeper understanding into our history. The initial timber that prompted the excavations was part of a platform the size of Wembley Stadium! Within just one trench over 300 items of metalwork were found. Flag Fen is an active proponent of experimental archaeology, and to this end there is both a Bronze Age and Iron Age roundhouse. Fast forward to the Whitsun week, and from 28th May to 2nd June the Bronze Age will return to Flag Fen. Stepping inside the roundhouse, see up close the ancient building techniques and come gather round the hearth, quite literally central heating! Demonstrating various crafts and experimenting with technology from three millennia ago, historical interpreters will be experiencing what it really meant to live in a roundhouse!
Acton Scott in Shropshire is a must see for both fans of the ‘Victorian Farm’ series and those who wish to see the traditions of rural farming remain alive. Unlike many other places that simply offer a glimpse of our history, here, history is lived. The 18th century buildings form the heart of this historic working farm, as daily life continues around them much as it would have done at the turn of the 19th century. There are daily demonstrations of traditional skills and the land is worked by heavy horses, painting a picture of what life was like on a Victorian country estate. Visits from the wheelwright, farrier and blacksmith adds another element to this fascinating peek into the past.
The world famous open-air museum of Beamish in north east England retells the story of life during Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian England. Surrounded by beautiful County Durham countryside, there is plenty to keep the whole family interested for the day. The whole site is split into individual areas, giving the visitor an interactive experience of past life, meeting different characters along the way. For those with a sweet tooth the traditional sweet shop is sure to delight, while walking the coal mine is an educational experience that is nigh on impossible to understand in any other way. Discounts apply for pre-booked parties of 15 or more people.
For those who are interested in vintage cars, bikes and aeroplanes, Brooklands Museum in Surrey is the place to go, and there are discounts for groups of 15 or more. As the birthplace of British motorsport and aviation, Brooklands is home to some of the greatest technologies of the 20th century. Constructed as a motor course in 1907, many of the original features and buildings survive, adding to the feeling that this is the true home of British transport engineering. For those of us who remember the retirement of the Concorde, but never did get the chance to fly in one, there is the chance to experience a virtual flight. Brooklands also preserves another of our lost national treasures, the London Bus, and this is just one of an extensive display of around 35 buses and coaches. It tells of the remarkable timeline from horse through to the iconic routemaster.
With a dark history of incarceration from 1071 until its closure as a prison in 1996, Oxford Castle opens its doors to young and old to learn all about crime and punishment throughout the ages. Learning about real people and events from the castle’s troubled past, is sure to make the hairs on your back stand on end. There’s an unlikely link to children’s entertainment through the dark humour of the hangman in Punch and Judy, who was modelled on the public executioner Jack Ketch. Each of the castle’s costumed guides brings the castle’s history to life, adding their own story into the mix.
In England’s capital city, become part of a gruesome history at The London Bridge Experience. Uncover the dark secrets haunting this city’s past, as you explore beneath the world famous bridge. All the senses are engaged as you meet some of the most terrifying characters from England’s turbulent past, each of whom had a role in the events that shaped this great city. Your journey starts in the inky darkness of an old railway tunnel before suddenly plunging you into the midst of heated battle 2,000 years ago. As you face execution, fire and the London underworld you will need to have your wits about you to survive! Winner of the Screamie award for “Best Year Round Scare Attraction” for four consecutive years, this is not to be missed. There’s discounted entry here for pre-booked groups of 10 or more.
One of Wales’s most popular heritage attractions, and offering free entry, St Fagans Museum stands in the grounds of a magnificent castle – a late 16th century manor house.
A living museum, craftsmen demonstrate their traditional skills in workshops and as many sell their produce there’s an opportunity to take home a unique gift or lasting memory. The traditional Welsh clogs are also still made here, offering an insight into this national item. Over 40 original buildings are on this site from the Celtic Village through to ones dating from the 20th century. The real treasure, though, is probably St Teilo’s Church, not only a beautiful building, but also reconstructed with bright murals, painting and carvings, evoking the colour of the past.
More than just a Museum – where history is really uncovered!
The Three M’s – military, motoring & maritime
The British Isles have a rich military history, with war frequently a catalyst for innovation that has led to artefacts now worthy of museum display. Our museums catalogue not only these objects, but are increasingly displaying these iconic items in their social contexts, which really helps to illuminate the past.
Royal Armouries is Britain’s oldest public museum, home to the nation’s collection of arms and armour since the 17th century. There’s an action-packed calendar of events spread over four sites. This summer Line of Kings at the White Tower, Tower of London is a new permanent exhibition of armour displayed on wooden horses, inspired by the first public display of its kind in Britain back in the 1680s. At Royal Armouries Leeds, take a look at the type of weapon used to murder King Richard III, cheer on the jousting and marvel at the ancient art of falconry. Fort Nelson in Fareham is a Victorian Fort complete with ramparts and underground tunnels, with daily gun-fire. Entry is free at Leeds and Fort Nelson. Book ahead for events, tours and seminars.
For the world’s best collection of tanks, don’t miss the Tank Museum in Dorset. Be guided through the history of this formidable machinery, climb into vehicles and hear from soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan. Pre-book for a group of 15 or more for 30% off. Bletchley Park, near to Milton Keynes provides an insight into another aspect of the wartime effort, the work of the World War Two code-breakers. Through the many displays housed in the original huts find out about the many top-secret endeavours to crack the Enigma cypher codes, and also discover the birthplace of the modern computer.
In the far south west of Britain the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, Cornwall, has been inspiring visitors for 10 years. Focusing on maritime heritage of the area as well as the land, the museum has 15 galleries over five floors illustrating the past, present and future. The exhibits honour polar pioneers such as Shackleton and Scott, and the work of the rescue services is revealed in the blockbuster Search & Rescue exhibition. Experience the drama of a rescue and even climb aboard a Sea King helicopter, re-visit rescues from the past and discover what it takes to bring you home safely when the worst happens at
sea and around our coast. Ascend the 100 foot Look-out Tower and see Falmouth’s famous harbour from the skies, then descend into the depths of the tidal zone to appreciate one of only three natural underwater galleries in the world – and the sea life that passes by its epic seven metre high tidal windows.
Curating the nation’s creativity
Many of our museums hold fabulous collections of ceramics, metal work and textiles, or are based in the former home of a distinguished individual. With specialist curators on hand to give in depth talks to suit the interests of your group, these are good venues for a visit.
Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum won Museum of the Year 2012 after a 10-year refurbishment project. There are stunning new displays revealing Devon’s rich history, world culture galleries and all mod-cons for visitors. Admission is free, or there’s a small fee for a group tour. Don’t miss the hidden gem of St Nicholas Priory, once a Medieval monastery and Tudor home to a local family.
The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle in County Durham has
recently completed a £12 million transformation with new galleries and upgraded visitor facilities. The most famous exhibit is the unique Silver Swan musical automaton, played once daily, but its important textiles and fashion collections have recently been redisplayed using state of the art exhibition techniques. There are discounts for groups of 12 or more who book ahead and guided tours by specialist curators can be arranged.
Finchcocks Musical Museum in Kent is set in the beautiful Georgian home of concert pianist Richard Burnett and his wife, Katrina. Guests are invited to play the instruments that make up this private collection of more than 100 keyboard instruments. Groups of 20 or more can book a tour and an entertaining recital from Richard or one of his prestigious musical team. There’s also a restaurant using local and garden produce.
For a different musical experience, the Musical Museum in Kew was recently re-housed in a purpose-built museum with the help of lottery funding, and celebrates its Golden Anniversary this year. There’s a concert hall, tea dances and silent movies featuring the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Book a group tour with a demonstration and refreshments.
In the south west, the Fashion Museum Bath has opened up its stores for this year only, to reveal its extensive costume collection dating from the late 1700s to early 1900s. There’s a group offer for 20 or more with a joint saver ticket for the Roman Baths or Assembly Rooms. For 25 or more, you can book ahead for a personal guide.
Another museum exploring health and medicine is the Thackray Museum in the centre of Leeds. Through various exhibitions the story of medicine, from the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of inner cities like Leeds to the incredible surgical advances of modern times, is told. The sounds of pain, and the gruesome sights of pus and blood are all vividly recreated in this specialist museum with some innovative interpretations to bring home the horrors that people 200 years ago had to face. New for 2013 is a Magic and Medicine exhibition. Groups are very welcome and parties of 10 or more qualify for discounted rates and there is on-site parking. A variety of catering options and themed talks and tours can also be booked.