Open air museums bring history closer than ever – either by carefully and lovingly preserving, or recreating in immaculate detail historic homes, workplaces, and even entire towns
If you fancy getting in touch with your heritage and imagining life in a bygone era, then immersing yourself in an open air museum is one of the most exciting ways to do it.
Here’s our pick of some of the best, in no particular order…
West Stow Anglo Saxon Village
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
West Stow is a fascinating reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon village, on the site of a former settlement and with buildings recreated using ancient techniques. Throughout the year, living history groups come to immerse the village in all the sights, sounds and smells of everyday Anglo-Saxon life. The indoor galleries reveal incredible archaeological finds from the site whose treasures are still being uncovered, as well as the wider West Suffolk area.
Weald and Downland Living Museum
Chichester, West Sussex
From joineries to animal pounds, this spectacularly picturesque museum is made up of more than 50 historic buildings rescued from all over Southern England. The exhibits include houses, working buildings, public buildings and farm buildings spanning more than 600 years – most of which are open for you to explore and imagine how the original occupiers would have lived and worked. The museum is also home to a stock of farm animals and has traditional crops – the wheat is threshed annually at the museum’s Autumn Countryside Show using a gigantic steam-powered threshing machine.
Beamish, The Living Museum of the North
An amazing, vast time capsule of the Industrial Revolution, the 300-acre Beamish is populated by vintage vehicles, rescued buildings, costumed performers and livestock. The museum was the vision of one man, Frank Atkinson, who saw the way of life of ordinary people working in the North East in coal mining, ship building and steel manufacturing disappearing. He wanted to illustrate the communities and bring their history to life, and Beamish’s grand exhibits now include a 1900s town, pit village and colliery, a 1940s farm, and an 1820s village.
Black Country Living Museum
Dudley, West Midlands
From humble 1970s beginnings, Dudley’s 26-acre museum remembers the smoke-filled infancy of modernity in 19th century West Midlands. Built on former industrial land, Black Country Living Museum includes preserved mine shafts, lime kilns, a canal and early 20th century village, all honouring the Black Country’s claim as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Narrowboats, trams, trains and buses are a few of the ways to get around this anachronistic place and give yourself a steam-powered thrill.
St Fagans National Museum of History
A vast homage to the culture and history of Wales, St Fagans uses 100 acres of parkland to reconstruct the historic Welsh homes and workplaces of different people from a variety of backgrounds and eras. Preserving welsh rural life, and including some of the industrial working life that followed, the museum houses Welsh native livestock as well as traditional craftsmen, including a blacksmith, potter, weaver and clog maker.
Blists Hill Victorian Town
Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire
Arguably Britain’s most faithful recreation of Victorian life, Blists Hill transports you back to the year 1900, to a small industrial town full of the sights, smells and sounds of the late Victorian era. The site has every shop and service you might expect to find in a typical Victorian town, including a bank – where you can trade in your cash for some pounds shillings and pence – a chemist, butcher, baker, chip shop, post office and loads more. There’s even a seasonal fairground, because even the Victorians liked to have fun once in a while. Blists Hill is just one of ten fantastic Ironbridge Gorge Museums, all exploring the area’s important industrial heritage; while you’re here be sure to stride across The Iron Bridge the world’s first cast-iron bridge, above the River Severn.
Ulster American Folk Park
Omagh, Northern Ireland
Built around the childhood home of Thomas Mellon – the Irish born American who founded the Mellon Bank, which today forms part of the world’s largest custodian bank – Ulster American Folk Park has over 30 buildings to explore. Revealing three centuries of Irish emigration and telling the stories of those who chose to build new lives across the pond, the museum is divided into the Old World and New World sections. The Old World features entire streets of original Ulster buildings including houses, a school and printing press, and The New World contains buildings shipped all the way from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The two are linked by a dock housing a full-sized replica of an immigrant sailing ship, the Brig Union.
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Chiltern Open Air Museum
Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire
Situated on the edge of the Chilterns, a stunning Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Chiltern Open Air Museum is a delightful mish-mash of 35 rescued and preserved buildings from Buckinghamshire and the surrounding area. The exhibits include a replica Iron Age roundhouse, a prefab tin chapel, a working forge, post-war prefab house as well as an Edwardian public toilet block – all saved and restored back to their original glory. There’s also working farm housing rare breed livestock, which uses historic buildings, skills and machinery.
Highland Folk Museum
Newtonmore, Scottish Highlands
Set in the dramatic landscape of the Scottish Highlands, the Highland Folk Museum was Britain’s first major open air museum – first opened in 1940 on the Island of Iona to preserve the disappearing traditional highland way of life. The museum has over 30 furnished historic buildings illustrating life from the 1700s to the 1960s, including both replicas built from scratch by museum staff and rescued buildings transported to the museum for preservation. A clockmaker’s house and a post office are a couple of the once-endangered buildings standing alongside a grand agricultural collection, with a year-round programme including hands-on crafts and music.
Museum of East Anglian Life
A real community heartland which was once part of the home farm for a priory estate, Suffolk’s largest museum – covering 80 acres – preserves and displays rural objects, buildings and skills from East Anglia. As well as the picturesque woodland and river trails, the museum boasts a marvellous collection of Gypsy wagons, recreated domestic interiors from the 1900s and 1950s, a working watermill, and the last pair of cottages remaining from the original estate, furnished with the last owner’s belongings. The museum also has displays charting over 200 years of the history of the world famous agricultural engineering firm Ransomes, Sims and Jeffries.
Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet
Sheffield, South Yorkshire
With its 18th century appearance remarkably intact, Sheffield’s Grade I-listed hamlet – one of the country’s Scheduled Ancient Monuments – was once a powerful 18th century industrial works, and the largest industrial site powered by water. The site had been used for metal working for hundreds of years, and today the museum preserves Abbeydale’s heritage as a scythe and steelworks – complete with waterwheels, boring machinery (as in, making holes), dam and furnished 1840s worker’s cottage. The real claim to fame though is the UK’s only complete crucible steel furnace, which supplied the works with the quality steel it needed for making its tools.
Auchindrain Township Open Air Museum
First referred to during the 16th century, the township of Auchindrain was revolutionised into farm crofts during the 1770s, when the Duke of Argyll bought the land. Once one of many thousands of townships dotted across rural Scotland, Auchindrain was the last, having housed a community all the way up until the 1930s. The site was then used for farming until 1963 – a couple of centuries after most of the other townships had disappeared. These days the historic landscape and its building are preserved, to offer a glimpse into a past all but forgotten.
Amberley Museum and Heritage Centre
Arundel, West Sussex
This ex-quarry at the foot of the South Downs National Park is home to chalk-dusted pits, kilns and buildings from the mid-19th century onwards, and all 36 acres can be seen from the on-site vintage bus and narrow gauge railway services. The museum charts the history of Sussex industry, and has daily demonstrations by craftspeople, working on traditional crafts and skills such as pottery, woodturning, blacksmithing and printing. The on-site galleries house exhibits about radio, telecommunications and electricity – with the latter boasting a working tesla coil.
Flag Fen Archaeology Park
This special British archaeology site holds 3,500 years of living history, bringing the prehistoric era palpably close. The site, which has the remains of a Bronze Age wooden causeway thought to be used for rituals by the ancient inhabitants, is one of Britain’s most incredible and important archaeological discoveries. The section of the wooden causeway, which owes its survival to the particular qualities of the natural marshland of the Fens, has been uncovered, and treasures found beneath are on display in the on-site museum – including the oldest surviving wooden wheel ever found in England. You can also see Bronze Age log boats found at nearby settlement Must Farm being preserved, and step inside the reconstructed roundhouses.
Ryedale Folk Museum
Hutton le Hole, North Yorkshire
With atmospheric historic buildings dating from pre-history to the 1950s, Ryedale Folk Museum is set within six acres of the North York Moors National Park, in the beautiful village of Hutton-le-Hole. The museum boasts blacksmith, wheelwright and cobbler workshops, an 1800s photographic studio, a replica Iron Age roundhouse and several cottages exploring life in the 13th – 19th century. There’s also an art gallery, rare breed farm animals, as well as the intriguing Harrison collection of antiquities and unusual artefacts.
Butser Ancient Farm
Set in a beautiful Hampshire landscape, Butser Ancient farm lets you travel back to Ancient Britain and experience life in the late prehistoric era. The site was established as a working ancient farm, devised so that archaeologists could test the viability of their theories through working with traditional tools and materials. The museum features replica buildings based on Neolithic, Iron Age, Saxon and Roman times, as well as housing rare and traditional breed livestock in the working farm.
Crich Tramway Village
Stocked with city trams which have been rescued and lovingly restored, the mile-long tramline at Crich takes visitors back in time to travel on the working trams which would have been found in many of our towns and cities just 100 years ago. By the 1960s, most of the country’s tramways had closed, and the museum has saved and preserved more than 60 of these lovely vehicles – mostly British, although some exhibits have come from as far afield as Berlin and Sydney – dating from between 1900 and 1930. The Century of Trams exhibition houses the rest of the museum’s collection, and the workshop viewing gallery allows visitors to watch the museum’s talented mechanics maintain the fleet, and bring trams in need of extensive restoration back to their former glory. A reconstructed period village can be found at one of the tram stops, complete with pub and sweet shop.
Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings
England’s first open-air museum, founded in 1963 to provide a safe location for a dismantled 15th century building now known as the Medieval Town House, Avoncroft now has more than 30 buildings and structures, all of which have been rescued and reconstructed on the museum site. Exhibits include a post-war Arcon V prefab house, a working windmill, a 17th century dovecote and even a privy. If this weren’t enough, the museum also houses the UK’s National collection of telephone kiosks, with fully working examples of each of the different K series kiosks powered by the museum’s own 1950s wooden telephone exchange, as well as a selection of emergency call boxes provided by the police, RAC and AA.
Rural Life Living Museum
Preserving the history and culture of rural village life, the Rural Life Living Museum is set in 10 acres and has a host of historic buildings and artefacts relating to everyday life and work in the countryside. The museum has more than 30 buildings, including post-war prefab housing, a schoolroom, air raid shelters, a cricket pavilion, a granary and an early holiday chalet. There’s also the 20-seated Eashing Chapel, a pretty little wooden prefabricated chapel built by a group of Eashing residents who became alienated from the congregational church. Additional exhibits on show include traditional and rural crafts, agriculture and shepherding. The museum even has a small arboretum established in the 1950s by the museum’s founder and containing more than 100 species from around the world.
Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life
The museum is named for the Summerlee Iron Works which operated on this site for almost a century, and the remains of the blast furnaces – today a scheduled monument – can be seen from a viewpoint in the main exhibition hall. Summerlee tells the story of Scotland’s industrial past and boasts a working heritage tramway – the only one of its kind in Scotland. There’s also a miners’ row to explore, as well as a recreated mine, exhibition hall with working machinery and a preserved section of the now disused Monkland Canal.
Little Woodham Living History Village
Truly bringing history to life, Little Woodham is a unique and immersive peek into 17th century life. Nestled in a picturesque area of woodland, Little Woodham invites you experience the everyday lives, stories and crafts of a typical 17th century community. A cast of history-loving volunteers welcome you to their homes and businesses and on any given day you could meet anyone from the village seamstress, wheelwright, blacksmith and button maker to the scribe, potter and sawyer. Visitors can explore a whole host of rural occupations and traditions and hear stories and folklore from the villagers for a fascinating and insightful look into life in a small English village more than 300 years ago.
Castell Henllys Iron Age Village
Situated on the very spot where they would have stood 2,000 years ago, the reconstructed roundhouses of Castell Henllys Iron Age Village bring to life the history of the Demetae tribe, who lived in this part of Wales before, during and after the Roman invasion. Here you can meet costumed reenactors who demonstrate the daily tasks, challenges and rituals this community of around 100 would have experienced, from spinning and weaving to baking and weapon making. A unique barefoot trail invites you to remove your shoes and walk in the footsteps of Celtic warriors across the terrains they would have experienced when defending their territory against raiders. It includes eight different surfaces like flint, clay and woodchips and ends at the river’s edge for a quick dip to clean off.
Isle of Man
This small village on the southwest tip of the Isle of Man is a site frozen in time, preserving Manx rural traditions. Here, a cluster of small crofters’ cottages, set into the idyllic Manx rural landscape, reveal the simple way of life experienced by tenant farmers in this remote settlement. Cregneash was home to a small community of farmers and crofters in the 19th and early 20th century. Visitors can see plough horses, Loghtan sheep, shorthorn cows and Manx cats and explore inside some of the historic buildings, including the cottage once home to Harry Kelly, one of the last Manx speakers on the Isle of Man. Visitors can also see the former home of Edward Faragher, known as Ned Beg, a talented poet and composer of hymns in the Manx language. Though Manx Gaelic was declared distinct in 2009, today there is a renewed interest in the dialect, and it is being spoken by a new generation of native speakers determined to keep it alive.