Step back in time at The Beamish Museum


The school holidays. An endless stream of requests:

“What can we do now? Can I have an ice cream? Can we see someone? Can we go to the park? Can I have something to eat? When can we go? Where’s the toilet?”

This last week alone I have taken my children ice skating, to the park, to the beach, to the ice cream shop and into town – and everywhere we went I heard parents and grandparents counting down the days until school starts again. In one major department store in Newcastle this week the poor shop assistants visibly winced as yet another screaming child approached the cash tills. The small boy, strapped firmly into his pushchair was in the middle of a rampant attack of what we affectionately refer to as’ The Gimmies’ after the brilliant book, The Berenstain Bears Get The Gimmies by Stan and Jan Berenstain (

It’s enough to make anyone yearn for a time when things were simpler. When entertainment didn’t cost the earth and when children were allowed to get bored – and then think of ways to entertain themselves without the need for 3D glasses,- high-speed broadband, litres of brown fizzy stuff and an endless supply of sweets.

Although sweets are nice. In fact, being given a bag of  sweets is perhaps one of the nicest things that happens when you are a child. It certainly was a very nice thing to happen a hundred years ago when a mountain of sugar was poured into an enormous metal bowl with a good glug of water and the mixture was set upon a roaring stove and stirred occasionally so that the sweet scent of warm sugar filled the room and wafted up eager nostrils like a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

That’s what happened at The Beamish Museum this week on a day when there were no cries of “Can we go now?”, or “What can we do now?” but instead we were bombarded with “Why did that happen?”, “What are they doing?” and – most memorably – “That was their toilet!!!??” as the door opened on a wooden outhouse in the Pit Village.

A shed in the pit village

Watching the sweetie makers at work we marvelled as the boiling hot sugar mixture was tipped out onto a steel tray to cool then whipped up into a shiny mass of light as raspberry essence was poured into its transparent depths. Imagine the smell of Nigella Lawson on a summer’s day after an afternoon of baking and you’re getting close to the heavenly scents of that back room. Grandmas and small children jostled for space as the confectioners threw handfuls of cornflower over the mixture which they had kneaded into a mass the size of a Christmas Turkey. Chopping great lumps of the mixture off into manageable pieces the next stage of the process was the moulding machine which was hand rolled and which pressed the mixture into sheets of sweets like upside down ice-cube trays. These were left to harden on the counter as the crowd began to push forwards in the hope of a better look. There was no need to push. As soon as the mixture had all been shaped one of the confectioners picked up a raspberry pink ‘ice cube tray‘ and smashed it against the steel counter, shattering the pieces into lozenges and sweeping them into a wicker basket which he then passed into the crowd. The still-warm sweet glued itself against my teeth as the sharp raspberry tang filled my mouth. “Hmmmm.” we nodded to each other. “Very good.”

Picking the remains of the sweets from our mouths we walked up the pathway of the dentists house, a swirling townhouse filled with William Morris greens and lace edged everything. Upstairs in the surgery a lady sat beside the foot operated drill and explained to the cowering crowd before her how the drill in those days made maximum speeds of 600 rotations a second whereas modern drills work at half a million rotations a second. This fact went some way towards explaining why the dentist’s chair was covered in deep red velvet. “To hide the blood”, she explained, cheerily.

Dental equipment

Outside in the fresh air (I confess to going a bit green at the sight of the above tools) the children ran riot in the village park which was lined with the most glorious flower beds and held that most precious of prizes – a hidey hole beneath a big tree.

Flowerbeds in full bloom

An hour later the huge rain cloud that had been dancing over our heads for most of the morning seemed to making a beeline towards us and so we hopped on a tram to continue our explorations.

The number three tram

The tramstop was outside one of the latest additions to the Beamish Museum, a Masonic Hall which boasted the most beautiful stained glass windows and stonework.

Stunning stained glass

The brickwork of the Masonic Hall

The next stop was the farm where millstones lay in courtyards and pigs snuffled around enormous sheds. A coop filled with chicks and bright yellow ducklings delighted the children who were outraged at the cheek of the pigeons who were daring to feast upon the smaller bird’s food. In the farm kitchen a gentleman in full costume told visitors to his ‘home’ about how the farm had come by its latest porcine addition, “Wandering at the side of the road she was .. the RSPCA called and asked us if we had room for one more”. “Perhaps the owners had thought they were getting one of those little Vietnamese jobbies, you know, like that George Clooney’s got.” The visitor laughed, ” They must have had a shock when it grew and grew!”

The farmyard and doves

Apple trees and storm clouds

I think in all we managed to see a fifth of what is on offer at Beamish, we decided to save the trains and tram garage for a return trip with an older brother. Between us we learned how lace was made, how children learned to read and write (and one of us even burst in to tears at the authentic banging of desks that the ‘teacher’ in the classroom demonstrated), how sweeties were made, what people used to wipe their bottoms after they’d been outside to the toilet (a source of great glee), what lardy cakes are and – most of all – how lucky we are that we can come home to houses with washing machines, electric irons and central heating.

Are we there yet? I think we jolly well are.

Outside the sweetshop, getting off the tram


3 Responses to “Step back in time at The Beamish Museum”

  1. Hello Katherine, just to say thank you again for the wonderful review and pictures. Hope to see you (all) back again soon! 🙂

  1. 1 Tweets that mention Step back in time at The Beamish Museum « wildmanwrites's Blog --
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