There are a number of museums that were firm favourites of mine as a child and the Amberley Chalk Pits Museum in Amberley, West Sussex was one of them. I remember the first time we ever went – the car park is right beside the train station and I as excited to wave to everyone on the train and my dad, who had been involved in the typsetting industry spent pretty much the entire day talking to the volunteer in the old printing works.
Even as a child I loved everything that was old, machines that smelt of oil and reminded me of our old sheds at home, things that transported me to another world, a time past that seemed so much simpler than my own and a time when you could travel on steam trains and ride on really cool buses, where people sat making things out of wood in little wooden houses they’d build themselves in the forest, round camp fires. What wasn’t to like! 30 years later and it’s still a firm favourite and now I have the joy of sharing it with my little boy, William.
We’re very fortunate that in Great Britain we have a number of really excellent open air museums which keep alive the traditional crafts, as well as our rural and industrial heritage, and are able to save and reconstruct buildings for future generations to learn about their cultural past and communities other than their own. As a keen historian, I’m always eager to seek out new museums and experiences and pass this onto my son.
Set in 36 acres of the South Downs, the museum is dedicated to the industrial heritage of the South East of England. Although some might not think the south down were alive with industry, in fact not that long ago there were mines, quarries and pits busily working around the whole area. The museum opened in 1979, and doesn’t reflect a set period but reflects a number of industries from 150 years ago to the present time.
There is plenty to see and do for much of the day and is great for families of all ages. This museum is a throwback to the age of steam, old printing presses, craftsmen in shepherds huts, as well as more modern locomotives, vehicles and the old AA call box.
It’s just a lovely place to wander around, at a leisurely pace. There’s a nice woodland walk alongside the railway track which takes you down to the old kilns and to the pottery and brick making barn as well. The actual site was originally a busy Lime works and the buildings and kilns have been wonderfully preserved. The De Witt Kilns, built in 1905 are thought to be the only preserved kilns of their kind in the country.
Other buildings have been rescued and reconstructed such as the Fairmile café, originally built in 1939 and was once a popular and busy transport stop for motorists near Arundel. The Cafe is open for special events and does a lovely Cream Tea.
The museum is run entirely by volunteers, and if it wasn’t for the dedicated army of volunteers around the country, many of our museums and historical sights simply wouldn’t run and open for everyone to appreciate.
Throughout the year there are special events, and we often time our visit with one of these. Last weekend they had a special Miniature Steam event which had all sorts of wonderful steam engines, rollers, trains, and locomotives – many of which had been lovingly built by the hobbyists themselves. Years and years of dedication to recreating this wonderful period in our industrial heritage.
I love the smell of the oil and the steam – it takes me back to my childhood.
The miniature railways was also a favourite this weekend, and I could see William eyeing up the trains and wondering why his wooden version wasn’t quite so elaborate. Perhaps I now know what Father Christmas will be bringing!
There are several steam trains which run on the railway through the woods to the top end of the site and on some special event days you can even try your own hand at driving a steam locomotive! I have yet to do this, but it’s on the bucket list. This little adventure is great for children and there are a number of different carriages that you can ride on. The trip only takes 10 minutes or so, but you can get off at the far end or stay on it and go back to the station. The whistle blows and you’re off much to the excitement of the kids.
Last weekend in the old wheelwrights shop I learnt how they made the old wheels for the carts and even got a certificate for my effort! William was more intrigued by the rope as he was in full storytelling mode by this point. But the volunteer who is helping to rebuild an old cart was more than happy to share a wealth of knowledge about the job, its traditions, its history and their role within the museum to rebuild carts and wheels.
You get a sense that everyone there loves it. They’re all deeply passionate about this part of their history and the South Downs history and everyone is more than happy to chat and share their incredible knowledge with you.
It is also the home to a number of traditional craftspeople such as a potter, blacksmith, wood turner and printer. Each of the craftspeople sell their crafts as well, which we love and I always come away with something. The printers print a wonderful array of images, quotes, poems and sayings as well as bookmarks and scrapbooks. They’re inexpensive and I’ve framed a number of the little prints at home in my study. On some days you can also have a go at printing your own thing to take home with you, which children young and old love doing.
The wood turners have a wonderful array of beautiful bowls, pens, mushrooms and at this time of the year Christmas decorations. There’s also a walking stick maker and one of the craftsman does workshops as well.
This really is a great day out for all the family – well worth a visit!
Entry is currently £11.50 for adults and over 4’s are £7.00 Concessions are £10.50. Children under 4 are free. They also do Gift Aid admission prices which are slightly more.
Dogs are welcome on leads but not in the café areas.
They are open Wednesday – Sunday until the end of October, but check the website for exact dates and times as they are subject to change. There is also a list of all the special events that they are running throughout the year.
There is an annual membership which for a single adult is £29.50 so in 3 visits you would have already paid for it. Plus the membership gives you 10% off in the gift shop and the café as well.
Parking is easy and right beside the Amberley station and free!
For more information visit their website, www.amberleymuseum.co.uk