Excursions: Coal comforts: The Black Country Museum is an oasis of nostalgia amid environmental desolation. Edmund Bealby-Wright reports

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The Independent Culture
Most people aren't even sure where the Black Country is, beyond having a vague idea that it is somewhere outside Vienna. Quite a long way outside actually: on the borders of Wolverhampton. But if the great mass of mankind is indifferent about the Black Country, there is one group for whom it is a land of myth and legend: the Black Country people themselves. The Black Country Museum is a symptom of their enthusiasm.

Never has so much local pride been lavished on such unpromising material. When you go there you can't help asking, 'Are we here yet?' Before you know it there's a sign pointing the other way indicating that you have just passed your destination. You haven't missed it - that's all there was. There are no bypasses here: the towns have been considerately demolished to make way for the roads.

The Black Country has no central point and no easily definable boundary, and appropriately the Museum is the same. It's scattered over a sloping site littered with industrial sheds. You can't tell what is Black Country and what is Black Country Museum, except that the museum is running backwards through time. Outside they are slowly demolishing every last factory and workshop, while inside they are painstakingly reconstructing them.

The backward spin through history extends as far as 1712, the date of the first working steam engine. To anyone whose experience of steam is confined to cappuccino machines, Newcomen's engine is a startling sight. As the beam lurches into motion, its pipes dripping with condensation, its escapement clanking, it exudes a black smoke that clogs the sinuses, like snorting pure arabica. Black Country folk who knew the place before the Clean Air Act stand inhaling deeply in a state of exquisite remembrance.

A 1950s trolleybus shimmers to a halt outside, silently reproachful at being consigned to history. Jumping on, you realise that we are not going back to a specific date but to something called The Olden Days. You glide past an Edwardian fairground and an 1840s schoolhouse, inside which a group of children are being told off by a Gradgrindian schoolma'am, and loving every minute of it. After class they'll be sent down the mine, with hard hats and torches, for a computer-controlled son et gloomier.

At the end of the trolleybus ride is a village that has been brought here brick by brick. There is a pub fitted out exactly as it was in 1913, where you can buy a pint and a packet of pork scratchings from a barman who looks like Jude the Obscure, but sadly not at 1913 prices. You can't buy anything at the hardware store along the street, however. This 1930s shop is the only building in the village with electricity, but much of the stock consists of equipment for pre-electric illumination: filigree gas mantles and filaments for hurricane lamps. Amongst these fragile treasures is a box of WHITEHALL SPERM CANDLES - Pure and Odourless. Despite the demand for these excellent candles the manufacturers went out of business, owing, presumably, to the reduction of sperm in Whitehall. Such has been the fate of many Black Country firms.

This village is inhabited by 'talking labels': museum staff dressed in costume, but thankfully not obliged to pretend to be 19th-century people. Spared that embarrassment, they obviously enjoy sharing memories with visitors who have come for some nostalgia therapy, or showing wide-eyed children the astonishing absence of bathrooms and television. Loquacity is an essential qualification, and so is an enthusiasm for local history. Such people are not difficult to find in the Black Country - the museum hardly ever needs to advertise for staff.

The Black Country Museum, Tipton Rd, Dudley, West Midlands (021-557 9643); 10am-5pm daily, pounds 4.95 adults / pounds 4.45 OAPs / pounds 3.40 children, family ticket (2 adults & 3 children) pounds 14

(Photograph omitted)

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