Saturday, June 13, 2015

An Odd Day Out


There is a splendid museum in a place called Amberley that contains an eclectic collection centred around Britain's industrial and rural heritage. If you're interested in Edwardian light bulbs, brick making or 1930s fire engines, I can thoroughly recommend it.

I'm not, but I still loved it.

On busy days, dozens of odd-looking families visit the museum, all armed with tupperware packed lunches and SLR cameras. Sometimes I hear snatches of conversations, usually conducted in a slightly nasal accent: "Of course these were the last D759s to be manufactured in Northampton, but the D80 was basically the same engine..."

Many of the exhibits are really quite boring, but in a sense that is part of their appeal.

The machines that operated the hidden infrastructure of daily life - telephone exchanges and power station control panels - have an unexpected beauty about them and it's hard not to feel impressed by their complexity and elegance.

Artists have paid homage to the machine age, but in the end it is the machines themselves that have ended up becoming works of art in their own right.

I may be a philistine, but I would rather look at a display of antique telephones than a gallery of Greco-Roman sculptures, with their uniform blank expressions and unfeasibly small genitalia.

However, I'm not just there for the knobs and dials. On quieter days, the place becomes more like a post-apocalyptic theme park, almost completely deserted, full of rusting, abandoned machines and makeshift settlements:


This is a camp for itenerant bodgers, making chair parts from unseasoned wood, usually for a pittance. The last bodger bodged over 50 years ago, but the craft is being revived by a small group of devotees.

The shelter looks as if it could belong to the future as much as the past.


With a little tweaking, the whole place could be relaunched as a Walking Dead-related theme park. It would be more exciting than the current exhibition devoted to electricity substations (although I suspect that the school visits would dry up).

I was rather taken with the makeshift camps and imagined making a rabbit stew on a chilly autumn day, listening out for the ominous crack of a twig, but my post-apocalyptic fantasies were bought to an abrupt end by the appearance of some beautiful damsel flies.

I think some of them may have been mating. It's hard to tell.


Amberley Museum is set in some beautiful surroundings, but the idyllic setting belies the fact that the place once looked like a poor man's Mordor, with smoke bellowing out of the local lime kilns. Limestone was quarried from these cliffs and burned with coal to make lime, which was then used to make the acidic soil of other counties more fertile.


The traces of a railway line next to the kilns can still be seen, compounding the sense of dereliction.

However, I'd be doing Amberley Museum a disservice if I over-egged the post-apocalyptic pudding.

The museum should appeal to anyone who is even vaguely interested in social history and although some of its galleries are a bit on the 'specialist' side, there are others that are remarkably evocative.

I loved this reconstruction of an early 20th century office, where nobody would have been required to be a "team player" or feel "enthusiastic" (whatever happened to diligence, honesty and punctuality?).

I also enjoyed being alone in this Southdown Buses booking office, below, trying to picture myself in the 1930s. If I'd been 10 years old, I would have had no problem losing myself in a fantasy about being a gentleman detective, but sadly I've lost the imagination I once took for granted.

Amberley Museum has a particularly good Science Museum-esque electricity gallery, with hands-on displays to entertain younger visitors and a collection of household appliances to jog the memories of older ones: 

This prewar electric bar fire is remarkably versatile. Not only can you use it to make toast, but it also heats up a copper kettle for a nice cup of tea. It never caught on. I suppose some health and safety killjoy pointed out that electricity and water weren't a good combination. Either that, or someone came a cropper as they were preparing their afternoon tea.

I recognised several things from my past: a spin dryer, a television with three channel buttons, an old radio with evocative names like Athlone, Moscow and Paris on the dial and, more suprisingly, a late 90s Nokia mobile phone. Each one transported me back to a particular time and place.

One day, 18 years ago, I left work and got in my car, placing a carrier bag in the passenger seat. After a minute of seraching for the right tape to listen to on the journey home, I became aware of a tiny voice emanating from the carrier bag. It was saying "Hello? Hello?"

I tried to reconcile the reality of the voice with the impossibility of anyone or anything being inside the bag. Was I going mad? I didn't feel mad, but I suppose the truly insane rarely do. The voice continued: "Can you hear me?"

It was my wife's voice. Somehow, she had been shrunk down to the size of a toy soldier. There was no other explanation.

At no point did I ever consider that I might have accidentally phoned my wife on my new Nokia phone. I'd never owned a mobile phone before and was unaware that it could do this. I felt very silly afterwards and forgot all about it until I saw the phone again. It looked so big.

But I digress.

To return to the point, Amberley is a gem of a museum, thoroughly eccentric and quite unlike anywhere else I have been, with the added bonus of being set in beautiful surroundings. Even the dullest displays had their own strange appeal and I enjoyed the feeling of being immersed in a quieter, bygone world.

In an age when so many places have been fully 'monetized', with overpriced chi chi cafes and movie franchise-related displays, it's a pleasant surprise to find somewhere that isn't afraid to be boring. Long may it remain that way.

21 comments:

Tororo said...

Having finished reading this, I felt reassured about your concern for having lost your imagination. A common concern - perhaps originating in one's sense of not having the same amount anymore as one once had or ceasing "to take it for granted", the same way as we all sometimes fear that we possibly don't possess as much hair as we used to? Both are misperceptions: really both still are there, only they don't grow in the same direction.

MikeP said...

Marvellous! Must make a beeline next time I'm in Sussex. There used to be a museum of smoking somewhere in the Shoreham/Goring/Worthing area - that was rather wonderful. Can find no evidence that it's still going, bit I'd have thought it would have a good nostalgia appeal these days. (PS your photo captcha can be a bit of a challenge, particularly when it involves sushi!)

Rog said...

Hurrah - great Post Steerforth!
What a pity your wife hadn't gone with saying "For pity's sake PLEASE get me out this bag someone!"

Steerforth said...

You're probably right and we have to change to survive as independent adults. But I miss the days when a small patch of grass could suddenly become an Amazon jungle for my toy soldier explorers.

Steerforth said...

Mike, I'd happily go to a smoking museum, but I bet it's been closed down. I can see why museums have to change - the King Leopold in Brussels was particularly contentious - but some of them have gained the world but lost their souls.

Steerforth said...

Rog - If she had, I might have run out of the car, screaming.

Kathryn Quinton said...

I raise you the Bakelite Museum in Somerset, which I came upon a few weeks ago. An astonishing labour of love.

Steerforth said...

Okay, you win - and if you make your next move on WWF, you'll win that too.

Kathryn Quinton said...

Thought it was your go...

Kid said...

Wait a minute - did I read you right? You're saying that the genitalia on Greco-Roman sculptures are unfeasibly SMALL?

Oh dear, I think I have a problem.

Steerforth said...

Well, the Greeks did seem to go for the Walnut Whip effect, making their figures almost hermaphroditic. I'm not complaining - better that than the alternative!

worm said...

my grandmother used to take me to this place when I was a child in the early 80's,looks much as I remember it!

Sam Jordison said...

Please write a book for me one day.

Nota Bene said...

Have lived in Sussex for 30 years, and never got to Amberley..shame on me. We did however head to Lewes this weekend to visit Anne Boleyn's house, which turned out to be Anne of Cleves', although she may or may not have ever visited it...

Steerforth said...

Worm - I'd be very surprised if it had changed.

Sam - I'd love to. I'm still mulling over ideas.

Note Bene - She never set foot there, so what you end up with is a rather odd collection of things in a house that wasn't visited by Anne of Cleves. I found it all a little disappointing, but I'm told it's improved since they received a bit of lottery money.

Martin Hodges said...

Excellent post, Steerforth. I won't be making a special effort to get to Amberley, but if I'm passing...

Anonymous said...

I cannot help but think that if your post is brought to the attention of the curators of Amberley, they will be hard pressed to decide if it's complimentary, or insulting...or both. I wouldn't necessarily expect to see 'As mentioned on...' appear on their website.

Steerforth said...

Anonymous - That's a fair point. I love the museum unreservedly, but I know that it isn't everyone's cup of tea - my wife usually makes an excuse not to go. Saying that a museum isn't afraid to be boring might sound damning, but what I meant is that it's not trying to be a theme park. The people who run it seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about the exhibits and made me interested in things that are ostensibly dull. That's its great strength.

I suppose my post was aimed at the people who wouldn't touch it with a barge pole, rather than preaching to the converted.

I would be disappointed if the curators took offence, but I agree that a quote on their publicity is highly unlikely!

Chris Matarazzo said...

Places like this are also great for keeping our present-centric egos in check. It's nice to be reminded that people of the past were, in many ways, more advanced than we are -- all of these advances inspired by necessity. Sounds like my kind of place. And, as you might have guessed, I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the old office setup and of the old office mentality.

Nick Peters said...

A great blog, thank you. I was led to it by a friend responding to a Facebook post of mine, in which I posted a link to a radio programme I made last weekend about the museum. I don't think the curator - the delightful Claire Seymour - would object to the boring tag, within the context you used it. There is beauty in the quotidian. If you have a mo or two, here is the link to my programme. Claire is the first interviewee. A point I made to her - with which she disagreed - was that a lot of the spirit of Amberley comes from the volunteers, mostly retired crafts- and trades-people who are the human link with the old industries on show. And that time is gradually thinning out their ranks....

https://audioboom.com/boos/3324175-shop-floor-with-bizfirstmag-talking-to-amberley_museum

Steerforth said...

Chris - I agree. Museums like Amberley make me feel an even greater respect for the ingenuity and resourcefulness of people in the past. In freeing ourselves from the drudgery of manual labour, we've also lost something fundamentally human, which is a pity.

Nick - Thanks for the link to a very well-presented piece about the museum. In hindsight I shouldn't have used such a provocative word as boring and I like the traditional no-frills displays. There's none of the usual "Here's a lime kiln, just like the one in *insert famous Hollywood film*. Instead, we're asked to accept the exhibits on their own terms and once we learn the human story behind them, they're no longer random objects, but an essential part of who we are today. I was interested to hear that the museum is self-funded - that must be why they maintain a gloriously independent spirit.