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Visit Report – Chiltern Open Air Museum

Chiltern Open Air Museum – a walk through time

It’s not often that you can walk through thousands of years in the course of a day, but this is the wonder of the Chiltern Open Air Museum – forty-five acres of land with 37 rescued buildings that span 2,000 years of Chiltern architecture.  The history group looked forward to exploring a reconstructed iron age roundhouse, medieval and Tudor barns, a working Victorian farm, a toll house and forge, a tin chapel, a vicarage room and a newly-rebuilt ‘wychert’ cottage.  We arrived in the sunshine, and miraculously it stayed with us throughout the day, which proved to be relaxing, inspiring, and fun.  Splitting into two groups, we visited a selection of buildings with a guide, before dispersing for picnic lunches and individual exploration.

Of particular interest to many who had known buildings like it in their lifetimes, there is the 1940s prefab, a Nissen hut, and a furniture factory from High Wycombe.  Our excellent guide told us that the 1940s prefabs were very sought after, coming as they did complete with inside ‘sanitation’. Indeed, they would be desirable today: a spacious hallway leads into large rooms complete with big windows.  There is a good-sized airing cupboard and a well-equipped kitchen (for the 1940s, including a mangle and early tub washing machine).

At the other end of the timeline, the reconstructed iron age hut also has its ‘mod-cons’, such as a quern for grinding corn for flour, a loom, and a hole in the ground complete with cover, which was apparently used for keeping dairy produce cool.  It was interesting to realise how many of these domestic methods are still with us, merely evolved.

A lot of us recognised familiar sights from our past lives at the museum, whether it be furniture, crockery, or the shape and materials of a building.  For me, a shock of recognition came in the shape of the old Sunday school building from Gerrards Cross.  Dating from the First World War, this wooden pre-fab was re-erected next to St. James’ church in 1936.  I hadn’t recognised this edifice when walking to the end of the museum site, in its very smart Buckingham green, but it was the very same building to which I used to troop (somewhat unwillingly at times) each Sunday.  It seemed much bigger then and still has the words ‘Sunday School’ above the entrance: a reminder, if one were needed, to behave.

Also at the far end of the site is an old furniture factory from High Wycombe, to which bodgers used to bring chair legs they had made in the woods using pole and lathe.  These were then assembled into Windsor chairs in the factory.  During the First World War, factory workers made flaps for aeroplane wings, and then, in WWII, fire-proof furniture for the Royal Navy.  This building has an outside staircase, to save room inside and to allow workers to carry chairs up and down with ease.

Another site with both national and local significance is the working farm, which is laid out like a traditional Chiltern farmstead.  Here, old working methods are demonstrated from time to time, and there are barns with tools and objects from different periods of farming, such as a wall of scythes which were superseded by the mowing, threshing, and bailing machines on the barn floor, which could do the work of hundreds of men.  We marvelled too at impossibly long cherry ladders with their widened feet, which enabled pickers to reach the top, sun-ripened, and renowned local cherry varieties, such as the Aylesbury prune and Prestwood Black cherry.  Cherry festivals were an annual event, but the orchards supplying the famous Chiltern cherries have all but disappeared.  However, the museum has tried to preserve examples of these trees, with its own mini cherry and apple orchards, and varieties of trees native to the Chilterns.  There are some truly lovely gardens on site too, ranging from a ‘Dig for Victory’  allotment to an Arts and Crafts garden inspired by Gertrude Jekyll.  The iron age garden with its herbs (comfrey, rosemary, feverfew, soapwort) that would particularly have been used at the time, was especially intriguing.

This was a wonderful day of discovery and delight.  Many thanks to Liz Toms for her organisation.  I, for one, look forward to the next outing!

For more information about COAM visit: their website