History in the making

HISTORY comes alive at the Chiltern Open Air Museum – literally.

One minute you’re wandering past an 18th century house wondering about its former residents and the next moment a lady in period dress has popped out to fill in some of the details and answer your questions.

She is one of a small army of committed volunteers at the museum who love nothing more than bringing the past to life in a very vivid and engaging way, whether that means baking bread in the Iron Age roundhouse or taking part in a school workshop about Victorian life.

It’s the perfect place for a school visit, of course – but what can ordinary families expect to find?

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It’s the perfect antidote to anyone who finds traditional museums stuffy and offputting. There are no glass cases here, just a series of lovingly rebuilt authentic buildings dotted around the spacious 45-acre woodland site close to Chalfont St Peter and Chalfont St Giles.

It was founded in 1976 to rescue historic buildings threatened with demolition and so far more than 30 buildings have been saved and rebuilt on the site, with more in store, spanning hundreds of years of local history.

These range from medieval and Tudor barns to a toll house, forge, chapel, 1940s prefab and a working Victorian farm.

On a sunny day there’s plenty of time for a leisurely stroll around each of the different buildings – and there are a range of paths laid out in the woods for those wanting to get a little more exercise.

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For older visitors there are vivid reminders of the Second World War and post-war housing crisis, with a “prefab” from Amersham vividly capturing life in the late 1940s, right down to the Anderson Shelter in the garden and pictures on the mantelpiece of the family who lived in the building from 1948.

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Outside, despite the July heatwave there’s a flourishing and colourful vegetable garden and a Nissen hut salvaged from Bedfordshire fitted out as an RAF pilots’ briefing room, where guests young and old can try on military uniforms and gas masks.

Atmospheric audio tapes in some of the locations add to the period feel, while in others volunteers are on hand to provide more personal detail. Easy-to-read information boards provide an at-a-glance summary of key facts, with more information on the website and in a family guide available from reception for £3.50.

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We get the personal touch at Leagrave Cottages, where a volunteer is on hand to show us round the building, which started life as an 18th century barn in Bedfordshire and was converted into cottages in the 1770s.

Interviews with the Marks family who lived in one cottage from 1913 to 1928 have enabled the museum to present one cottage accurately as it would have been in the 1920s.  The other side is presented as it might have been in the 18th century.

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From here, we continue to wander through different periods of Chilterns history – from the atmospheric Henton Mission Room built in 1886 in Oxfordshire to an 1830s cottage from Haddenham with walls made of a special type of local earth called wychert.

We still haven’t got to the working Victorian farm – complete with a small selection of rare-breed livestock – and by the time we have chatted with volunteers about iron age baking techniques it’s too late for an ice cream at the tea room, which closes at 3pm on weekdays.

There’s still plenty to see, though – the blacksmith’s forge, the industrial buildings and the 1826 High Wycombe tollhouse from the London to Oxford road which was home to a family of five in the 1840s.

This is perhaps the museum’s greatest strength: its focus on the houses and workplaces of ordinary people that have gradually disappeared from the landscape, particularly in an area on London’s doorstep where the pressures of redevelopment are particularly great and where much of this heritage would otherwise have been lost.

The charity relies very much on the support of more than 200 volunteers (and its association of friends) and those individuals we encountered were relaxed, helpful and not at all pushy. You take a tour here at your own pace and you don’t get history forced down your throat.

You can host a party here, take part in a variety of organised workshops and experience days, or even get married, should you fancy a civil ceremony in the roundhouse, toll house or tin chapel.

But most families will doubtless just enjoy the opportunity to ramble around the extensive site at their own speed, piecing together snippets of local history and appreciating some magical insights into the ordinary lives of people living in this landscape all those centuries ago.

Full details of prices, options and a calendar of forthcoming events are available on the museum website.

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