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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Faraway Files - Untold Morsels
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Leaving On A Jet Plane, Again.

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“I miss your brother,” Freya commented about an hour after we dropped him back at his hotel. 

He had flown to Holland from the US on business and had popped over to Norwich for two days on his way back. We’d had a lovely time with him but, knowing it will be a while before we see him again, I was certainly feeling a bit maudlin.

“I miss him too,” I said.

“It would be good if he could live in Norwich.”

“It would,” I agreed, although I know that’s not going to happen. His life (and family) is there.

“We could see him all the time.”

“Yes, maybe.”

“You could do things with him.”

“I could. We all could.”

“And now he’s gone.”

“Now he’s gone,” I agreed.

Then, with typical five year old aplomb, she shrugged her shoulders and said: “Circle of life, I guess.”

Not quite, little one, but it certainly made me chuckle.

~

You’d think I’d be used to him leaving by now. He has lived in the states for many years. At first there was no FaceTime and phone calls were still expensive so we really only caught up when I went over to visit each year, pre-Freya.

If it was just me – and not my parents too –  he would pick me up from Dulles International and, in a bid to stave off jet lag, we would drive to the local Barnes and Noble, in whatever neighbourhood he was living, and I’d look at pretty journals (you couldn’t get them over here then), browse the books and enjoy a hot chocolate at a certain coffee shop chain (also not over here then).

If you know me, you know I’m addicted to peppermint hot chocolate from that very chain (now practically everywhere) but I’ll let you into a secret; at least part of the reason I always like going there is because it reminds me of him. It’s the little things.

I’m lucky in that although he is gone, he isn’t gone. I can still email him, send him quotes from Ferris Bueller and get a response (no one else in the family gets that film) and see him via FaceTime. He has always been an amazing brother and I know if I needed him he would drop everything and come but I think I’ve almost got used to not needing him, as sad as that sounds. It’s just easier.

I was thinking about what Freya said later that night and maybe the five-year-old approach has some merit. While it’s not quite the ‘circle of life’ it is certainly ‘life’. There’s nothing to be done about it, I can’t make him stay – and wouldn’t want to as I know he wouldn’t be happy – so we just need to make the most of it while he is here and the best of it while he’s not.

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Do you have relatives who live abroad? How do you cope with missing them?

The One Where Freya And I Share The Honeymoon Suite (A Weekend Adventure In Felixstowe).

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“And when I turned to look, Freya was trying to wash her hands in the bidet,” I laughed, as I explained what happened to my mum on the phone. 

That wasn’t even the worst part.

My goodness, what a weekend. My brother, sister-in-law and nephew came over from America (on a ship) and were staying with my parents in Ipswich, which was absolutely wonderful. I haven’t seen my sister-in-law (in person) for probably 10 years because she doesn’t like flying (completely understandable) and I was last able to hug my nephew and brother three years ago. It was a lovely, happy reunion – especially for Freya, who was delighted to see her only cousin.

As the house was full up, I booked me, Mark and Freya into a hotel in nearby Felixstowe, a seaside town we used to visit all the time as children, so we could be close and spend as much time as possible with them.

I used my birthday money to treat us to a night at The Orwell Hotel, one of Suffolk’s oldest and best known seaside hotels, so it felt like a little holiday for us too. 

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The hotel was designed by the influential architect John Shewell Corder and built in 1898 to cater for the influx of visitors who came by train to the fashionable resort.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel fairly extensively, staying in every sort of hotel you could imagine – from the five star St Regis Grand in Rome to a no star hostel near Gare de Nord in Paris.

The Orwell reminded me of a much-loved stately home; one that had seen generations of the same family happily grow up within its walls. Somewhere along the line, the family fortune was lost – probably gambled away by a drunken heir – and now the present generation has to overlook that it’s all a bit, well, frayed around the edges.

I was completely charmed by it. 

The communal areas had an almost otherworldly elegance. I felt like I should be dressed in period costume (certainly not jeans) to step into the library, let alone sit on one of the chairs and read.

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Our room was huge and had the added bonus that all the fixtures looked like they were older than me (or certainly Mark who was born in the ’80s). It was great. Like stepping back in time.

 

So often these days, hotel rooms are boringly uniform. Not so at The Orwell (although it was sold earlier this year and I believe it is being gradually refurbished).

While the furniture was “traditional”, shall we say, the sheets, towels, carpets etc were spotlessly clean (as was the room itself) and the toiletries rather lovely.

 

But, just as I was happily soaking in the atmosphere… (ok, using the free wifi) the music started.

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I can’t even claim ignorance. Not only are you warned when you book that the hotel hosts functions and some guests might be disturbed by the entertainment but there are multiple signs up when you arrive at reception too.

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How bad could it be? That was my thought at the time of booking. 

As it turns out, pretty bad.

Our family room was on the second floor and I can only assume above the wedding reception. All we could hear was thumping base. When 9pm came and Freya was still wide awake, I rang down to reception to ask when it might go off.

Maybe 11.30pm but probably nearer midnight, the very nice lady said (in fact, all the staff were polite and as helpful as can be).

I’m not sure if I groaned but she must have sensed my displeasure because she said: “We are almost fully booked but we do have the honeymoon suite available.” She assured me this would be quieter so, dressed in our PJs, with Freya wrapped in a blanket, we all trotted along the corridor to the new room. The alternative was going to be leave and sleep on the living room floor at my parents house, which I would have been so sad about (not least because I would have wasted all my money).

 

Thankfully, it was blissfully quiet… but only had a double bed. As Mark goes to bed later than Freya and I, he volunteered to stay in the old (party) room while we took the new one, which was bathed in a glorious orange light from the setting sun.

The nice lady said there was no extra charge, which was a relief.

While Mark and I were talking about what bags needed to be transferred to the new room, Freya had put herself to bed and was already nearly asleep.

Knowing she gets up at 5am no matter what, I tried to get off to sleep myself – even though I really wanted to explore the suite. It was set across two main rooms plus a bathroom and separate toilet with the same faded glory apparent in the first room.

As it happened, I found it hard getting used to the new noises (including the lift next door going up and down). I’m the same in every hotel. The strange thing about this one was that I didn’t hear another person. No voices in the corridor, no doors closing. I’m not sure whether the walls are just thicker or the guests more considerate.

Freya woke up with a tummy ache at 1am and then she needed to use the bathroom a little while later before, as predicted, waking for the day just after 5am.

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You can see me (fully-clothed) reflected in the tap *wave*

It was as I was attempting to work the shower (“turn on the cold water first and then gradually add in some hot” sounds simple enough but turned out to be a fine art) that she said she was going to wash her hands…and I turned just in time to see her turning the taps on the bidet.

“Noooooo!” I screeched, before trying to explain what a bidet is. She looked really confused, as well she might.

Once we had finally showered I took her to a very nice play area by the sea before returning to meet Mark for the buffet breakfast in the decadent restaurant at 8am. IMG_2736

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Would I stay there again? If there wasn’t an event on, sure. I guess if Freya was older and we stayed out later it wouldn’t have been as much of a problem – although it really was loud.

Was it worth the £128? For the two rooms we had, definitely. For one on its own, especially with the noise, I would say no.

As I only seem to pick noisy hotels, I’m going to let Mark do the booking from now on.

Still, all was well in the end – and it’s probably the only time I’ll ever stay in a honeymoon suite!

Oregon Girl Around the World