We’re walking down towards an old wagon way, although we have no intention of paying them a visit. To our left, beyond a patch of woodland, the colliery lies in stasis: it has done for as long as any of us can remember. A family of deer run, seemingly shocked by something, up the bank, past us. We watch them as they sprint past, before turning back and going about our business as before.
We’re sitting in the bandstand, eating sandwiches; the tram has pulled up behind us and begun the process of disgorging its volume of passengers upon the pavement. A dentist has his office across the street, and there is a pub, with its own stables a few doors down. The flowerbeds are tended well; the train blows its whistle in the distance. We are in a real Victorian town. However, it is 2019.
Beamish: The Living Museum of the North. Of England. It is somewhere I have been popping to once in a while since I was a small child. However, it has been far more of a regular place to visit since we had children. It is an extraordinary place to take children, partly because it feels so real. We can walk along real streets, amongst real buildings, smelling the smell of coal burning. It’s a museum, though.
The sensation of the town is that of a real place; some of the doors open: the pub sells beer – I had a half of shandy here with my dad when I was in my youth – and the café above the co-op sells a good cup of tea and a decent meal. And yet, the people walking about the place are not going about their business, and they are not in Victorian garb: they are tourists in the high performance fabric of people intent on being outdoors for the day. And their accents are frequently from “Down South”.
We wander through an old hall; the home of the lord of the manor, and possessor of the local farm land no doubt. The smell in the air is coal dust mixed with decaying fabric. When a previously locked door opens, and you see a 20th century staff room, with health and safety notices, and fluorescent lighting, it is simultaneously disconcerting and fascinating. A man puts on the kettle for his break.
A pig grunts loudly in its pen, casting a scent about the place to which the twenty-first nostril finds itself repelling against. A cow lows moodily in its pen, sick of being gawped at by a never ending stream of human beings, with their gaudy leisurewear. It protects its calf and we all move on.
New bits are currently being added: a Georgian coach house, replete with rooms for people to stay in a museum overnight; a 1950s town, pulled together from buildings soon to be lost, funded by the promise of access for local people with dementia: giving them access to memories of their youth.
I don’t know how I feel about these developments: on one hand I am very excited to see things expand, to see the pen of history writing new chapters in front of my eyes; likewise I hope that the new bits bring in an influx of new people, so that the financial future of Beamish can not only be secured, but expanded upon; on the other hand I feel the need to preserve the past of the museum, the same way that they are preserving our past: I hold the place in my own nostalgia. It’s stupid.
I worry that the new bits are going to be too brilliant, because then this thing which was ours will be lost to us in a sea of tourists. And yet, I know that if people don’t come to see the marvellous works which they’re doing, then it could all be lost forever. I can’t have it both ways. I feel that I should just keep my mouth shut and accept that I will always love a day out with my family at Beamish.
Recently Beamish has begun to remind me of a sandbox video game; there are always unexpected bits to unlock. At the steam works, beyond the train station – it only looks like a backdrop for the action of the game, but it is real. Through a door, around a corner, away from the activity of the fairground is a small room, looking on to a set of trains. A rather old video loops endlessly to itself.
When we get to the wagon way we do what we came here to do: we knew that it was closed for the day, but that the toilets would still be open. Then we noticed another door we had never walked through before. Behind it, banked high up the chimney was a fearsome coal fire, keeping the cold at bay. Beyond that lies a room where the rolling stock resides, strewn with Latin slogan. Dark heat.
A doorway at the colliery leads to an odd parade: a row of machinery of various kinds sits, awaiting who knows what. It collects dust from who knows where, and holds the smell of a lifetime of coal fires about its every pore. We walk, mute, through the scene, in appreciation of the fact that these machines all have homes; unsure how it fits in to the living heart of a purportedly working town.
Some people clearly go just to Beamish to walk their pets. That, to the mind of someone who has to spend a good forty-five minutes getting there, is an untold luxury. You see, if you go to Beamish once, you can go back again and again for a full year. A lot of places are doing this, and I really like it. Yes it means higher initial costs, but going back to an attraction again and again is hugely fulfilling.
Everywhere you go on the colossal Beamish site you can hear the clang of metal on metal. Not the late industry which once ruled these valleys: they’re as dead where I live as they are here. The sound is that of the school yard, of parents and kids alike trying to keep a ring of steel moving with a rod. It is fiendishly difficult, but its noise carries through the museum, along with peals of laughter.
The line is longer than I have ever seen it before, but I know that it will be worth it. It is always worth it, and I know it. I look in disbelief at the sign telling us that it will be an hour before we are at the head of the queue, but my partner hides her head in her coat. We creep forward slowly. The smell greets us first, taunting as we wait for it: Truly the finest fish and chips in the North East of England.