Days out: Farming the past for rustic charm

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The Independent Online
Among the beech woods of the Chiltern Hills is a living celebration of rural life that takes the visitor back to a time before the Industrial Revolution.

Matthew Brace visits the Chiltern Open Air Museum.

The museum is a working model of a village dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. It houses a fine collection of rural buildings and traditions, the like of which are rapidly disappearing from the countryside. Many of the buildings have been saved from destruction elsewhere in the Chilterns and re-erected here.

You can wander through a working farmstead, watch historical re-enactments and craft demonstrations and try your hand at making candles and bricks, and at painting glass. Or learn about the development of the countryside and the encroachment of buildings and roads on wildlife and open spaces. Rural life followed the seasons, which were marked with festivals and folklore. The museum re-creates these traditions, with events such as Apple Day, to celebrate the apple harvest.

In an increasingly urban society, the museum offers a welcome and important break from town and city life and a taste of what much of England looked like before the spread of the suburbs.

The visitors

Matthew Brace talked to David Barnes, 11, Jonathan Feaver, 14, and Catherine Hall, 15.

Matthew: It was a freezing cold morning when I stepped aboard a Metropolitan Line train at Baker Street in London and headed for Chalfont St Giles. A short taxi ride took me to the Chiltern Open Air Museum. My first stop was Skippings Barn where the Hawk and Owl Trust have put up a good pictorial display of how the countryside has changed over the years, how animal and bird species moved as land use altered and wild, open areas disappeared under the weight of development. The school children I met were busy pushing buttons to play sound recordings of the hoots and cries of tawny, barn and long-eared owls. Others were looking through binoculars hoping to spot a rare bird.

Animals abound at the museum. A flock of sheep nibble at grass around a lime tree on the village green, heavy horses are used for farm work, and several docile dogs loiter around the farm buildings.

The museum found many of its buildings in various states of decay all around the Chiltern region. They dismantled them and reconstructed them here, creating a living record of the way our rural ancestors used to live. One of the most interesting is a granary from Pike's Farm in the small village of Haversham in Buckinghamshire. It is thought to date from 1835, and is supported 2ft off the ground by 12 saddle-stones to keep out the rats.

Throughout the year the museum puts on displays of old country crafts and customs. The day I was there I caught a blacksmithing demonstration in the forge. There is a children's playground, and a nature trail marked by giant wooden seats carved out of the trunks of mighty oaks.

Catherine Hall: I've been coming here for about 10 years now. My mother records old buildings so my sister and I have grown up being interested in these kinds of things. It's so peaceful up here. I love it.

I like the farmyard best. I know all the buildings have been moved here, but it feels like a real, authentic farmyard. They have got the traditional breeds of animal, and things like the forge, where you can watch the blacksmith doing his work.

I also like the woods and the Iron Age house. The cottages are nice, too; often they have real demonstrations going on, with people making gingerbread. We go several times a year, usually to the special events days.

The museum appeals to all ages, which is one of the nice things about it.

Jonathan Feaver: What's really good is the way they bring history to life on the open days that they have. There are quite a few over the year. They help you learn about life with all the characters. Everyone is dressed up, and if you want to know anything about their costumes or the buildings you can just ask them and they will tell you the story.

You get to see how other people lived at different times in history, and in some cases how they worked, because they've got a working farm and a working forge there. When I was here last summer I saw all the sparks flying in the forge as they were making a horseshoe.

It's a lot quieter than in Liverpool, where I live. There aren't any cars and not as many people, which is really good.

David Barnes: When I first heard about the place I thought - what's special about that? It's just a load of old buildings, isn't it? But when I came here it was great. I've been there a lot, I think about 50 times. My mum helps out here sometimes, so I can go with her whenever I like.

I like it mostly because they have a lot of hands-on activities. They have chickens, a calf called Dougal, two shire horses, a duck and two turkeys. The chickens are the hardest to feed, because they all come running at you when you carry the bucket of food and jump around you.

They teach you how to make things such as animals out of corks and bits of plastic. It shows you what you can make when you have only a few materials. I've made bears and horses.

The deal

The Chiltern Open Air Museum is at Newland Park, Gorelands Lane, Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire (01494 871117).

Opening times: the "season" starts in April, but the museum will be open during half-term (14-28 February) between 10am and 3pm and during weekends in March from 10am to 4pm.

Admission: adults pounds 4, concessions pounds 3.50, children (five to 15) pounds 2.50, family ticket (two adults, two children) pounds 12.

How to get there: By train - the Chiltern Line from Marylebone in London and the Midlands stops at Chalfont and Latimer or Chorleywood. London Underground runs to the same stations. The museum is a short taxi ride away. By car - turn off at junction 17 on the M25.

Facilities: These include the Wood End cafe, which specialises in seasonal Chiltern meals using old recipes that have been handed down through the generations. Nearby is a children's adventure playground.