A Visit To The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley.

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It is one of those ‘getting to know you’ questions that sometimes gets asked at parties: “If you could go back in time, what period would you most like to visit?”

I always say early 1800s England, purely because I’d like to live in the Big House, wear expensive flouncy dresses and be called Lady Tara. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Knowing my luck, I’d more likely be a servant girl, sent upstairs at 4am every day to clean and set the fires.

Anyway, never did I think I would actually get chance to step back in time but that’s exactly what it felt like visiting the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley.

The first thing I saw was a beautiful old bus trundling its way along the road followed by two ladies in long skirts, hats and knitted shawls walking down a street dotted with old houses to explore.

I was enchanted from the word go (as was my camera).

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I always expected to like it. My lovely mother-in-law works at the museum – although she enjoys it so much I’m not sure it can be classed as work. Whenever she talks about it she always has a big smile on her face. She’s like a walking, talking advert. During our visit west this summer, she offered to show us around and we got to see exactly why she loves it so much.

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How did the Black Country get its name?

It’s not the most romantic tale. It dates back to the 1830s when the region became the “first industrial landscape in the world”.

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While Britain had other industrial centres, none were so extensive as the Black Country, an area rich in coal, ironstone, limestone and fireclay. It “played a vital role in the nation’s industrial history”.

Once upon a time the air would have been black with smoke belching from thousands of forges, furnaces and foundries  – hence the name.

In the mid 19thcentury, 22% of Britain’s total output of iron was produced in the area. As a hint at its importance, according to the museum guidebook (well worth the money), Black Country manufacturers supplied “the cast-iron pillars and glass of the Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, made the anchors of some of Britain’s most famous ships” including the Titantic. “…and in 1829 supplied the United States with its first ever steam locomotive”.

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So, where is the Black Country exactly?

Before I met Mark, I had no idea there was such a thing as the Black Country but one day I described him as ‘Brummie’ and my education began. As I understand it, a Brummie is someone from Birmingham. The Black Country is very different (it even includes its own dialect and vocabulary). What’s slightly confusing is there doesn’t seem to be a definitive boundary. According to the museum guidebook (again) it includes about 20 towns, including West Bromwich, where Mark was born. And they are rightly proud of their heritage.

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And the museum?

In the 1960s manufacturing dwindled, the once bustling canals were deserted and railways closed. A more modern landscape started to take its place with new houses, shopping malls and hotels. During this period of change, the idea for a museum to protect and promote the region’s heritage was mooted.

In the 1970s a site was secured for an open air “living museum preserving skills with the buildings and the artefacts demonstrated by costumed demonstrators”. It opened in 1978 and now comprises 26 acres and features some 80,000 items in the collections including cars, buildings, books and photographs from the 1800s to the 1940s.

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What’s there?

So, SO much. Too much to put into one blog post but here’s a sample.

Together with costumed characters to chat to, there are original shops and houses to explore. If you’re brave enough (and not claustrophobic like me) you can even go underground and visit the drift mine. There’s also a fairground with traditional attractions and St James’s School, where you can ‘enjoy’ an old fashioned lesson.

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I love learning new things and visiting the reconstructed Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute was fascinating.

In the 19th Century, the Black Country, and particularly the Cradley Health area, became well-known for its chain making, with smaller chains made by women and children. They worked extremely long hours, often in horrendous conditions for very little money, meaning they were forced to live in poverty.

The Trade Boards Act of 1909 passed a minimum wage in four low paid trades, including chain making, but employers tried to find ways to avoid paying the money, which for some women was double what they earned.

In response the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), led by Mary Macarthur, a Scottish suffragist and trades unionist, called for a strike in 1910. The women downed tools to fight for their right to a living wage.

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With the help of mass meetings and the media, the strike became big news. Donations for the cause poured in from all sections of society. Within a month 60% of employers had signed up to the scheme and within 10 weeks they all had. The women fought and won.

As there was a surplus of funds, the excess money was used to build the workers’ institute, which became a centre for educational meetings, social gatherings and trade union activities in Cradley Heath.

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In 2004 the building was threatened with demolition and the museum was approached to save it. It was taken down and reconstructed with its original interior layout, which now contains offices, a news room and a cafe.

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Is that it?

No way. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a pub, cake shop, sweet shop and very popular 1930s fish and chip shop (the chips are normally cooked in beef dripping so make sure you talk to staff if you’re vegetarian to see about alternative options).

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If you get tired of walking you can even catch one of the old buses. Freya liked it so much that we had to go around twice.

What did you like?

Everything. I’m not even kidding (as you can probably tell by the number of photos). There’s so much to see and do. But the museum is much more than a nostalgic look back at the past. While everything is neat and clean now, the life back then isn’t glamorised. Living and working in this period was hard and often dangerous and that aspect is covered.

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How can I find out more?

I’m sharing this post now because I know some schools are on half-term this week. If you’re looking for something to do in the West Midlands, I highly recommend this museum. Please visit their website to find out more.

Top tip: Cut through the tunnel next to Preedy’s and you can visit a late 1930s kitchen plus head upstairs to see more period rooms.

Come on then, if you could go back in time, what period would you like to visit?

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A Trip Down Memory Lane at Ipswich Museum.

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I drove by my grandad’s old house, simply because I could.

Usually when we go back to my home town of Ipswich it’s just for a couple of hours to visit my parents or, even when we go back for several days, we have plans. There’s normally no time for a trip down memory lane but this occasion was different. I had time between dropping my mum off at the hospital to visit my poorly dad and picking her up again, so I went the long way home.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. The same deep purple window ledges, the name ‘Sorrento’ engraved on a wooden plaque above the front door, colourful prize-winning dahlias peeping over the garden fence.

What I saw was almost unrecognisable. Aside from the structure of the house everything was different. The windows had been replaced, the colour-scheme gone. They’d even taken down the porch on the side of the house.

To be fair, it has been more than 20 years since he died so perhaps some change is inevitable but nothing seemed to be the same anymore – and not just his house.

Old friends have left, their parents moved from houses once as familiar as my own, my high school has been demolished, even my childhood bedroom has been replaced by an en suite (not that I’m bitter, much). With my previously indestructible dad in hospital, I was looking for something familiar to cling on to but it all seemed to have drifted off on the tide of time.

Until we went to Ipswich Museum. (Please excuse the quality of the photos, I only had my phone and wasn’t really thinking about blogging so was just randomly snapping things.)

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I dropped my mum at the hospital at 10am (Freya was too young to visit so my mum went up a couple of times in the day and then I went to see him at night while she watched Freya) and drove straight into town with a couple of hours to play with.

Having visited another childhood haunt, Christchurch Mansion, on a previous trip, I had always planned to take Freya to Ipswich Museum but had never found the time. My mum tells me she used to take me to the museum almost every week when I was small and I do have a strong memories, particularly of this fellow who seemed even bigger than I remember.

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Yes, he is a wooly mammoth! Or a life-size model, anyway. The species is believed to have lived in the area a long, LONG time ago. Freya was just as in awe as I used to be (ok, as I still was).

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Seeing him seemed to set something off inside me. I gleefully roamed the museum, pointing out things I remembered.

History.
Founded in 1846 at a property in Museum Street, its aim was to ‘educate the working classes in natural history’. It was originally run by a committee on behalf of subscribers but, after financial troubles in 1852, it was adopted by the Corporation in 1853. When the original building became too small, it moved to its current location in the High Street, opening in 1881. For a more detailed history visit the Wiki entry here.

It takes you on a “journey through Suffolk’s past from Iron Age to Romans and Saxons” and beyond.

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Galleries include Victorian Natural History, the Ogilvie British Bird Gallery, Suffolk Wildlife Gallery, British Mammal Gallery and the Suffolk Geology Gallery.

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I’d say the Victorian Gallery, with its exotic animals, was Freya’s favourite. She didn’t like the stuffed birds but we both enjoyed seeing the huge whale skull hanging above our heads, which was frankly mind-blowing, and the fascinating fossils. She spent some time looking at the human skeleton and also seemed to enjoy the treasures from abroad.

For me, it was more about the feeling I was left with. In stormy seas, it felt like an anchor. A very enjoyable anchor too.

It’s free to visit (although we left a donation). For opening times please click here.

Norfolk Adventures – Binham Priory.

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Even though we live in Norfolk and love exploring, last week I realised just how much more of the county we have left to discover.

To celebrate a special birthday, my mother-in-law brought three members of her family from the West Midlands to stay in a fantastic converted barn she rented in the village of Bale, which is about nine miles from the town of Fakenham.

There was even room for Mark, Freya and I and so we used the barn as our base and set about showing them some of the county’s highlights – and, my goodness, did we pack a lot in.

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Our bit was behind the hedge on the left.

With four generations to cater for I didn’t expect everyone to be happy all of the time but, actually, everything we did had elements that we all enjoyed.

We visited two stately homes, a wildlife sanctuary, the beach, a zoo and, the piece de resistance, my MIL walked alpacas along the coast as her birthday present from Mark and I. IMG_2428

However, it was as we were driving to and from the different places that I realised how much there is still to explore – especially when Mark decided to take little detours off the beaten track (yes, we were lost).

There were some proper “wow” moments, including driving through a picture-perfect village, turning a corner and coming across Binham Priory, looking glorious against the blue sky. Even Freya was impressed (although she thought it was an enchanted castle).

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I had heard of the ruined Benedictine priory before but I didn’t know exactly where it was. While we didn’t have time to stop then, I knew we would be back – and in fact we went back three different times.

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A potted history.

The priory was founded in the late 11th century – a massive undertaking by a nephew of William the Conqueror, Peter de Valognes and his wife Albreda. It took about 150 years to build so obviously they never got to see it finished. I imagine it must have been an impressive sight, rising up out of the countryside, once it was completed.

While it’s a tranquil place now, it has experienced its fair share of drama, including a siege in 1212 (see the links at the end of this post for a detailed history). It also suffered from:

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It was closed in 1539 after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was sold to Thomas Paston who started demolishing it. Stone from the monastery was reused in many local houses. Apparently, Thomas Paston’s nephew, Edward, started building a new house on the site but a workman was killed by falling masonry and the rest of the men refused to continue.

Today the nave of the much larger priory church has become the Church of St. Mary and the Holy Cross and is still used as a place of worship.

Missing Fiddler.

According to myth there is a tunnel running from the priory to Little Walsingham, which is said to have been the site of a strange disappearance. Apparently, one day a fiddler decided to explore the tunnel with his dog, as you do. Villagers could apparently hear his music as he ventured forth…until it suddenly stopped. His little dog came running out but no one dared enter the tunnel to look for him. He was never seen again. The place where the music stopped is now known as Fiddler’s Hill.

I wandered about on my own as the sun set and I have to say I felt perfectly content. It wasn’t eerie at all, just rather inspiring.

More info.

I did a short video of our approach to Binham Priory. It doesn’t really do it justice but you’ll get the idea (I’m sat in the back with Freya to get the best view).

There are some great sites with more info about the priory, including opening times.

Binham Priory.

Norfolk Archaeological Trust.

English Heritage.

Myths and Legends.

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