Reviewed by Jane Hopkins MBE
It had been some time since I’d visited the Black Country Living Museum, the last time my son was just 6 years old, he is 9 now so it’s a great time to revisit with his older perspective.
Opened in 1978, The Black Country Living Museum is a 26 acre open air museum in featuring rebuilt historic buildings. Located on former industrial coal mine in Dudley, close to Dudley Castle, Dudley Zoo and the canal network, there is a host of historical landmarks nearby.
To portray life from the 1800’s, historical buildings from the Dudley area have been relocated, brick by brick from their original sites to form this unique village made up of terraced houses and cottages, complete with pigsty and pig, all with inside furnishings to reflect the particular timeline and a collection of shops and community buildings. The first house you arrive at is prefabricated house, made from metal plates from World War II, it even has masking tape on the windows to show how they attempted to protect the people inside from the shattering glass after an explosion. Being able to explore inside these dwellings gives you a real feel for how it must have been to live in that time. It’s very much like walking through a Catherine Cookson novel. I am reliably informed by my mum who came too, that having a bathroom inside the house was very posh indeed; her family had to nip outside (in all weathers) to use the loo! I recommend taking someone born in the 1940’s or earlier to get your own personal running commentary of what life was like back then…
There is a street lined with shops, all with decorated shop windows illustrating all the products you could buy at that time from an ironmongers to a chemist, even a pawnbrokers and tobacco shop. You can go in and explore these stores which are a far cry from our modern shopping malls and supermarkets, you can buy ‘ye old sweets’ in the sweet shop, authentic fish and chips from the chip shop, we had lunch in the Worker’s Institute where back in 1910 they would hold social gatherings and trade union activities. Here we ate traditional faggots, mushy peas and potatoes, washed down with old style lemonade. We sat in the Worker’s Institute dining hall, on long tables and benches, listening to “White Cliffs of Dover” on the ‘wireless’. Certainly like no dining hall I’ve been in before.
Over the canal bridge you come to a second street of shops leading to the public house, in the street are traditional toys for kids to play with, from a huge skipping rope to metal rings for chasing down the street and various wooden toys to try. At the public house, you can buy a drink, choosing from a whole range of local, authentic ales. From the pub you can walk along more houses, visit the cinema and find the canal and even take a ride on a canal boat.
On the way back you pass the school where you can drop in for a lesson (a little scary!) as they demonstrate school life from the late 1800’s for children aged 5-11.
The “Living” part of the Black Country Living Museum is most apt, because as well as the school teacher giving lessons, in most of the shops you will find a shop keeper who is ready and able to give you information regarding the shop you are stood in, we learnt about how people washed clothes back then, how they coped in the war, how they ate, worked and played, from toys in the worker’s institute, to the 1930’s themed fairground complete with helter-skelter, swingboats, hook a duck, coconut shy and more.
Because of the huge area it incorporates, transport is well demonstrated; to help get you around the site you can hop on a tram from the early 1900’s, a Midland Red bus from the 1960’s, a trolley bus (a cross between a bus and a tram) from the 1960’s. Motionless exhibits include more trams, around 40 motorcycles, bicycles, and various other vehicles including a Model T Ford van.
The highlight of the trip for us was the underground mine tour. With my son being young before, he was adamant he didn’t want to do this but now he’s 9 he was all for it. There was a queue but with the above ground coal mine area to explore whilst grandma stayed in the queue it didn’t seem long. The tour lasts for 30 minutes, when it was our turn, we were asked to put on hard hats as there are low ceilings down there. They weren’t joking either, sometimes lower than 5ft so the kids had a great time laughing at us.
We were led down into the pit and at various points were asked to stand against the walls, where an audio commentary came alive with models of coal miners lit up by spotlights to illustrate the story we were hearing, of just how hard life was back then. It told us of wages, what the best paid miners had to do, and endure for their money. How long they were underground, how young they were when they started, a boy of just 12 years old was portrayed as having a role down there. They illustrated how the created explosions down there, with a loud bang which made the whole underground cave rumble, which made us all jump. They have created an incredible atmosphere down there and I have to say was relived to get out.
Life was clearly hard back then, we know that from modern day school education and TV, but here you can get right down into it and actually feel it for real. It’s a great place to go back to as the museum is constantly changing with new exhibits. It’s such a big place that even on a busy day, it doesn’t feel packed.
· If you want to do the underground mine tour I would endeavour to get there early though to try and miss the queue.
· Check the website out before you leave, it was a last minute decision for us to go and I didn’t check, but it turns out there was a trail for the kids to follow, but we weren’t told about it on arrival. We did wonder what the numbered rats were though as we explored the town. That would have made the trip 10 out of 10 for us.
· Before you buy tokens for rides at the fairground, check what you want to go on and how much you’ll need as there are no refunds.
Marks out of 10: I asked my son what on a scale of 1 to 10 he would give the day out, he said 9 and a half. I asked what they lost half a point over, he said it was a little scary at times. I think that’s a great reason to lose half a point!
Tickets cost from £7.95 to £45 (save money by booking online). For more information or to book tickets visit www.bclm.co.uk.