A day of time travelling with grandchildren 9 and 6 years of age, proved a delight for all concerned one day last week. Beamish in Co.Durham has been ‘The Living Museum of the North’ since its foundation in 1970 and now covers some 350 acres. To me it represents all that’s best about the region’s culture; by the people, for the people and of the people. Worth the wait to get in once we’d parked up. A number of visits are required to get any feel for the whole. Today we started off with the 1900’s pit village reassembled on site – church, school, silver band hall, cottages with gardens etc. For me though the latter part of our visit was the most poignant and atmospheric…a time where the seemingly unchanging agricultural world really did start to give way to the Industrial. The 1820’s late Georgian period saw great social, political and economical changes. What they’ve managed to create at the Pockerley site beautifully captures a world where intense manual labour with horse and oxen was giving way to a multitude of iron engines powered by coal and steam.
Comfortably situated atop a small hill, Pockerley New House was built in the early 1700’s and sits next to (but is not physically connected with) the Old House next door, which dates from the 1440’s and was originally a pele or bastle in the age of Anglo-Scottish raiding. Along with the extensive farm outbuildings they are the only original buildings on the Beamish estate. The Pockerley was still the centre of a tenant farming operation right up until 1990. The delightful stepped front garden is on three levels – flower & herb, vegetable & orchard – giving way to a patchwork of small fields under ‘rig (ridge) & furrow’ cultivation alongside traditional meadows, partitioned by split oak or thorn hedge and hazel hurdles.
The old house is dark and cool. As a former defensive structure it has massive thick walls, small windows, a cheese press, worn flag floors, large undercroft. The new hall by contrast oozes a modest prosperity. Wonderful lived in feel, mix of best (carpeted parlour) and everyday (large flagged kitchen & entranceway) settles and rag rugs, artifacts and decorations, worn & warm, coal fired kitchen range, lots of small interconnecting rooms, creaking narrow stairs, simple and sufficient…Feels as if the inhabitants had just stepped out and were to be expected home any moment.
I imagine that stout political reformer and countryside advocate William Cobbett calling by for lively state of the nation conversation with the tenant farmer which we would later read about in one of his ‘Rural Rides’. His contemporary Thomas Bewick was born and grew up in a similar yeoman farmhouse by the banks of the Tyne at Cherryburn. The great naturalist and printmaker would have been equally at home in such a setting, which he might have come by on one of his many long walks about the north-east. Beamish has a great advantage over the National Trust and country house owners who open their properties to the public in making nearly everything they have on site is as ‘hands on’ and experiential as it can be. The atmosphere created is as charged and realistic as the steam engine we see & hear slicing its determined course through the otherwise peaceful pastoral scene. In contemporary art terms: more of a Turner landscape than Constable is animated before our eyes.
The Pockerley Waggonway allows non stop comings and goings of a prototype mine locomotive, ‘The Steam Elephant’, which has benn reconstructed on site from an original oil painting of 1815. It tears through the rural topography at a steady 5mph, returning at end of day to the 1825 engine shed it shares with a replica of Stephenson’s famous ‘Locomotion No 1’. We queue patiently to ride the rails, peering from the open carriageway at the young volunteer engineers, blackened like medieval imps, taking the revolutionary grease black creature through its steaming piston pushing paces….Only a short run there and back but worth every moment!
We finished today’s ventures into the 1820’s with a visit to the nearby recently opened Joe the Quilter’s Cottage. (The first building to be complete in their £11million lottery funded ‘Remaking Beamish’ project). Joe Hedley, a cottage industry quilt maker whose work was known and admired beyond his native north-east was brutally murdered at home on or about 3rd January 1826. The crime was never solved, despite the public outcry and reward offered by the crown. Joe’s original humble cottage just down the road from us at Warden, by the confluence of the north & south Tyne rivers, was demolished in 1872. But those clever people at Beamish, together with community volunteers, working from an original print of the place and official post murder inventory managed to identify its site and remove the original flagstone floor. The distinctive local sandstone and oak used in building walls and roof frame along with tons of heather for thatching were all sourced in Northumberland. Beamish’s blacksmiths made door locks, hinges and candlesticks. The broadcloth quilts old Joe produced at home were of the highest quality (example pictured) and much sought after by the gentry. Living alone in such a relatively isolated spot the poor man was clearly a vulnerable target for those intent on robbery with extreme violence.