Saturday, 28 July 2012

A Day Out In History

The Black Country Museum from the Chapel steps

          I visited the Black Country Museum the other day.
          It’s an open air museum, dedicated to the industrial history of the Black Country, with many reconstructed buildings, illustrating what life was like in the area from the late 1700s to the 1930s.
          We chanced on a day  when many steam engines were chuntering around the site, and as we stepped from the entrance building, we breathed in coal-smoke, and ash I hadn’t smelled in many a long year.  It was the smell of my childhood. (Davy, a Scot and country boy, started coughing immediately, and said that he wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in Ye Olde Blacke Countrie.  My family lasted, but it’s true that we have generations of bronchitis, severe coughs, sinus trouble and catarrh behind us.)
          We saw the ‘nodding donkey’ Newcomen engine steaming away.  It’s one of the oldest surviving engines, dating from 1712, and originally built to pump water from Lord Dudley’s mines, only a couple of miles from where it stands now.
          From there we visited the mine.  It’s a ‘fake’ mine, but within the constraints of not actually injuring or killing visitors, an effective one.  As you go round, tableau are illuminated, and a recorded voice – supposedly that of an old miner – tells you about the work done by the miners in the 19th century. 
          The low, narrow, dimly lit tunnels give a very real sense of the claustrophobic, awful conditions: and the mock ‘blasts’ and roof-falls are scary.  We emerged into the daylight profoundly grateful, yet again, for having been born in the 20th Century, and not having spent a childhood crouching in total darkness, to open air-doors.
          The mine also provides a vivid impression of the dangers of the Black Country’s famous ‘thirty-foot seam’ (9 metre seam) – the only place in the world where you climbed a tall ladder to cut coal.  Bringing the roof down was no game.
'The Ghost Wife' ebook by Susan Price - Art by Andrew Price
          Walking around above ground, I pointed out the dark ‘Staffordshire Blue’ bricks that topped most of the walls, and made the pavements and roadways.  I realised that the red and blue brick, the grey smoke and the greenery in the gardens made up the colour palette of my childhood – as my brother has so well captured in his cover for my ‘Ghost Wife’, set in the Black Country.  I hadn’t realised that until I visited the museum.
          We joined a lesson in the school, chanted our times tables, and practiced our handwriting on the slates, and we toured the 1920’s fairground with its helter-skelter and swingboats.  We went into the cinema – we got two of the better seats, avoiding the hard benches – and watched a showing of Chaplin’s ‘Getting Acquainted’, which I have to say I found completely incomprehensible, though Davy was chuckling.
The Dudley canal tunnel
          But what Davy really wanted to do was go through the canal tunnels under Dudley’s hill.  So we joined the narrow boat and were taken into the dark, dripping tunnels that have been there since 1792.  It’s not very comforting, when you have a whole hill hanging above you, to think that the boat battered brickwork around you, seeped through with calcite from the limestone, is 220 years old.
          It’s a memorable – if wet – experience, as your boat passes the sinister openings of old limestone mines, or floats from darkness into a brilliantly lit, green basin, open to the sky and birdsong.  In many places the walls of the tunnel are hung with beautiful calcite ‘curtains’ of crystals in glittering lacy folds.
          After the boat-trip, we visited the ‘Bottle and Glass’ Inn, where they will serve you a pint of old ale – but the place was grimly comfortless compared to a modern pub, even in the saloon bar (and no respectable woman would have crossed the threshold).  Opposite the pub, of course, was the Methodist Chapel, which is used for carol services at Christmas.
          There are several shops, of different dates.  Davy liked the one displaying old motorbikes, and I always enjoy Emile Doo’s Chemist’s.  The grocery shop was being swept out by a woman in Victorian dress.  A visitor called out to her, mockingly, “I’ll have ten pounds wuth of grey pays!”
          The shop-keeper replied, tartly, “I doubt yo’ve got ten pounds to yer nairm, madam – look at the sight on yer – wearing a mon’s trousers, and on a Sabbath!  Yo should be ashairmed!  Out on it – goo on!”  The visitor was laughing too much to think of asking why the shop was, disgracefully, open on the Sabbath.
A Black Country pike
          I was sorry to miss the magnificent shire horses which are sometimes to be found on site (at other times they’re at the Sandwell ValleyFarm) but there were a couple of very happy Gloucester Old Spot pigs grubbing around in a cottage garden; and the stretch of canal down by the old lime kilns has become something of a nature reserve.  Davy, a fisherman, was much impressed by the clarity of the water and the big fish (including a small pike) – and I liked the moorhen and chicks.
Happy pigs
          All in all, a good day out and one which, if great lumps of imagination are used, can give you a glimpse of the old Black Country.  But the real thing, it needs to be pointed out, was much grimmer, dirtier and far more cruel.  The men who worked those lime-kilns, for instance, were blinded: and there was no ‘nanny-state’ either to change the conditions that caused the blinding or to look after them once they were blind.


madwippitt said...

Open air museums are wonderful places aren't they? Sounds like you had a good time. Staffordshire blue blocks also used to be the flooring of choice in quality stables too - I remember learning this when I was training!

Good to see Blott back again!

Susan Price said...

I keep meaning to visit the open air museum of old buildings that's near me - but it's poured all this summer.

madwippitt said...

That's one of the good things about open air museums - if it's wet you simply dodge from the shelter of one building to the next! Next excuse? :-)

Joan Lennon said...

"chunter" ... I do like the word "chunter" ... Writing should involve more chuntering and less frantic thrashing, I think!

Susan Price said...

How about 'mowing', Joan? As a child, I was always being told to 'stop mowing about the place.' It seems to mean, 'to pace restlessly or distractedly.'
I was never sure if the reference was to mowing, as in mowing grass, or to the 'mopping and mowing' that ghosts do. (I always thought a mopping ghost would be an interesting one.)

Joan Lennon said...

And useful!

Jenny Alexander said...

I love this post! Read it on a choir outing to South Wales at the week-end and it felt just right!