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Four Famous Houses at Beamish.

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Beamish Houses Are Amongst the Best.

By John Grundy (Spring 2004).

First published in the Friends' Newsletter Spring 2004.

I'm ashamed to tell you this but this Chair's letter is a rip-off. I've ripped off an article of my own that I wrote recently for the Durham County Magazine. It was an article about a man called Simon Jenkins who is an excellent commentator on architectural matters. He's been the editor of The Times and written books on politics. He's been the Deputy Chairman of English Heritage.

Well, five years ago he published a tremendous book called England's Thousand Best Churches to which he has just added a companion volume, "England's Thousand Best Houses".

County Durham is well represented. There are all of the expected jewels - Raby, Durham Castle, Lumley. Here are richly entertaining oddities like the Anker House attached to the parish Church in Chester-le- Street but there are also four houses included which I really didn't expect to find in there at all and whose presence tickled me not a little.

According to Simon jenkins, no less than FOUR of the best thousand houses in the country are to be found in Beamish Museum. He included two of the houses that make up Ravensworth Terrace at the end of the Museum's town street - the one that is now the dentist's surgery and the piano teacher's house.

This row of houses came from Bensham in Gateshead. They were part of a group of streets that was being demolished in the early nineteen seventies when they experienced the same fate as thousands of other pieces of North Eastern history - they went to Beamish.

It seems amazing to me now to think that as recently as the nineteen seventies we were still merrily pulling down houses of this quality. Nowadays we would be giving them make-overs and selling them as executive homes for hundreds of thousands of pounds but just a few years ago they were felt to be outmoded and useless.
Beamish knew better thank goodness and took them down brick by brick and rebuilt them exactly as they were.

It is the extraordinary attention to detail and the subtle brilliance of the internal decorations that especially thrills Simon Jenkins - the way each room reflects a particular person in that job and at that time. Some of the rooms are over-stuffed and almost oppressively Victorian, others are fresher and more sparsely furnished in the simpler tastes of Edwardian times.
All of them are cosy, beautiful and fascinating.

SJ is equally fascinated by the pit cottages in the colliery village and this really pleases me. In my recent book about northern architecture (no house should be without it) I have a moan about how rude most southerners are about northern working class buildings. I also noticed recently that in the introduction to the Durham volume of The Buildings of England, Alec Clifton Taylor describes the county's industrial housing as miles of unrelieved ugliness.

Fortunately other people have seen things differently. The founders and designers of Beamish had the sense to realise back in the nineteen seventies how important these simple buildings are to our heritage and our sense of identity and they had the taste to see the beauty in them, but it is still a delight to see them recognised by Mr Jenkins and placed by him on an equal footing with somewhat more substantial houses - with Castle Howard, for example, or Windsor Castle.

Simon is impressed by how roomy they are and how comfortably furnished and decorated, and he's right. The last time I was in one of them, on the day of our Chair's Christmas Treat, there was a fire on and I had to be forcibly ejected, so pleasant was it in there.

And finally there's Pockerley Manor, the fourth of Simon Jenkins' Beamish choices. Pockerley Manor is a wonderful house. One end of it is fifteenth century, the other charmingly Georgian. It's not a large manor house but it's richly architectural and full of atmosphere and it represents, alongside the urban houses of Tyneside and the pit cottages of the Durham Coalfield, another important aspect of Durham life - the ancient farmlands that exist among the coalfields and the industrial villages.

So there we are - four bits of Beamish chosen by a southern journalist to take their place in the pantheon of England architecture. I was jolly pleased and proud that our museum had received such recognition and I only had one mini moan. Why not five, Simon?

What's wrong with Beamish Home Farm?

John Grundy
Spring 2004


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