It’s unusual to come across an open-air museum, especially one that stretches across 36 acres of picturesque English countryside. But that’s one aspect of the Amberley Museum, located at the foot of the South Downs, that makes it such a pleasurable place to visit.
The museum opened to the public in 1979 on the site of former quarry and chalk pits which date back to the 14th century. After the pits closed in the 1960s the land was purchased by West Sussex County Council and leased to the Southern Industrial History Trust which hoped to develop the site into a museum. Today Amberley is devoted to conserving and displaying the industrial history of the South East of England. It’s also the home of resident craftspeople who work with traditional methods.
Walking through the entrance into the courtyard feels like stepping back in time. Dozens of small buildings, each housing an exhibition of one kind or another, are dotted around the sprawling site. With umpteen phone boxes, park benches and picnic areas, the place feels more like a small village than a museum. Limeburners Restaurant dominates the horizon, as does a Dando wind pump which spins gently beside it.
With so much to choose from it’s difficult to pick where to start, but the clanks and bangs coming from the print workshop arouse curiosity. This working exhibition puts on an impressive display of printing machinery. It’s refreshing to see machines come to life in a realistic setting, and this is just one of many working exhibits at the museum.
Another exhibition, donated by two dedicated museum members, shows how communications developed throughout the 20th century. On first impression it feels dark and cramped, and the sheer volume of telegraph, radio and telephone equipment packed into a small space is overwhelming. But the display is split-up into different time periods and is easy to navigate.
The atmosphere is cosy, with clocks ticking in the background and wartime songs playing on the radio. There’s even an amateur radio station for keen enthusiasts to try out. As the collection moves through time it expands to include the first television sets. Although the exhibits could do with more room, visitors should not be disappointed as they meander around this assortment of Morse transmitters, public telephones, switchboards, receivers and military equipment.
Some of the other displays are a 15-minute walk away, but those looking for a more leisurely mode of transport can either hop on a bus or ride the workmen’s train which travels along the narrow-gauge industrial railway.
The Tools and Trades History Society endeavours to further the knowledge and understanding of hand tools and the people who use them. Its display at Amberley contains a range of tools for working in a wide variety of materials including metal, wood, leather and stone. Visitors can, with permission, handle the exhibits.
Wandering about the site eventually takes you past an award-winning replica of a 1930s village garage, and a municipal engine house. The railway exhibition is part of Amberley’s narrow-gauge collection and includes a working area for restoration of artefacts. It is one of the most varied collections, in terms of types of locomotive and wagon, of industrial narrow-gauge railway items in the UK. Four steam and diesel locomotives form part of the display which also includes more than 80 railway items.
There’s simply far too much to see and do at Amberley in a single visit, so I concluded the day by squeezing in a quick look at the electrical collection. This showcases a variety of equipment, ranging from heavy engineering plant for the mains supply system to small domestic appliances. The centrepiece, a Belliss & Morcom high-speed steam-driven generating set from the old Wills tobacco works in Bristol, steals the show.
Amberley’s exhibitions are extensive, and the place is full of charm and bound to please younger and older visitors alike. There are also many events taking place throughout the year, such as the ale festival and hands-on learning activities for children.
- Amberley Museum is open until 30 October. Admission £9.80. Visit www.amberleymuseum.co.uk for more information.