Travel: Travel: Where you absorb the essence of time and place

From watermill to Victorian cottage, at the Weald and Downland open-air museum in Sussex you mooch your way through four centuries of rural life.

SOMETIMES YOU get faintly photocopied pieces of paper passed round an office that list spoof courses. I thought I had found the rural equivalent when I picked up a leaflet at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex. I read about "Heavy Horses: Shaft and Pole Work", "Continuous Hurdle Fencing" and then my eyes strayed to an "Introduction to Charcoal Burning" that included the "Webster Retort".

Far from being a joke, they are some of the courses this innovative museum runs throughout the year. If you're really serious, you can enrol for an MSc in Timber Building Conservation, in partnership with Bournemouth University. But we had come for a leisurely mooch through the preserved buildings re-sited here at Singleton, to the north of Chichester. The only course we took on a chilly winter day was the circuit around the museum site, to clamber in and out of its 40 or so historic buildings preserved on a 50-acre downland setting.

I didn't realise that lath and plaster, tiles, bricks and different types of thatch were so interesting, but starting the visit in an 18th-century barn you are given an easy-to-digest survey of the type of building materials to come. If the children start tugging at your coat to move on, you can have a wry laugh a few buildings further on where they get to play with bricks. Trying to form a Flemish Bond kept them absorbed for long enough for the parents to sneak a chocolate bar and a cup of coffee from the Thermos flask.

Then it's off to the Watermill, transported here from Lurgershall, to watch grain being ground into flour. For lovers of obscure milling phraseology, you can learn about wallowers, stone nuts and shoes vibrated by a damsel. I was reminded of Chaucer, but my wife in turn reminded me that we had promised the children they could buy a bag of grain each to throw at the ducks on the millpond. I could have lingered longer over this ancient technology.

You're never quite sure what you are going to get when you enter a house, cottage or Victorian school room. What you do not get is a heavy dose of history set out on display boards - rather, you absorb the essence of place and time. Some buildings have log fires going, and unobtrusive volunteers who will answer questions. Others have recordings of what it was like to be a skilled practitioner of some once-important craft, and an explanation of the tools such tradesmen used.

On the edge of a cluster of buildings, that form a sort of village square, there is a pair of adjoining Victorian cottages. You enter one of them, and the entire place is left bare to show you the stages of its construction. When you walk through into next door, you are in touch with simple life. Four furnished rooms show you what it must have been like to bring up five children in cramped conditions. Today, ironically, these cottages would be prized and modernised as second homes, by those escaping the cramped conditions of late 20th century city dwelling.

When you think you are tired of the minutiae of domestic architecture, Bayleaf Farmstead with its 15th-century Wealden house and adjoining barn and gardens, is the place to visit. Here wallow large, gold-coloured pigs, friendly chickens and passing shire horses pulling hay carts. Inside the house, in the family bedroom, the children discovered the en suite garderobe.

In one of the barns was probably the highlight of the visit for my younger son. An exhibition on lead work and plumbing featured a Thomas Crapper flushing toilet. Not for him the fascination of a charcoal burner's kiln, or the memory of seeing a treadwheel for raising water. What got him giggling, and still does, is the mention of that famous Victorian plumber.

The museum is still growing. The latest addition is the late 16th-century Poplar Cottage, which you can see being restored in a workshop on the site. A recent pounds 1m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has taken the museum a stage closer to the realisation of its ambitious project to build a conservation centre and shop. The wooden structure will be the largest of its kind in Britain.

It was dusk when we left the museum. We had spent almost four hours treading merrily through four centuries of social and architectural history. And, by the way, did you realise that the gearing ratio between the watershaft and the mainshaft in the Mill is roughly 1:3? Not many people know that.

The Weald and Downland Museum (01243 811348) is situated just off the A286 Chichester to Midhurst road at Singleton, West Sussex. Buses to Chichester, Bognor Regis and other towns stop at the entrance. Winter opening: to 28 February, Weds, Sat and Sun only, 10.30am-4pm. Rest of the year: 10.30am- 6pm daily. Adults pounds 5.20, children pounds 2.50 (under-fives free). Family ticket (2+2) pounds 14

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