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Piecing together the puzzles of the past
Tucked away just past the Goodwood estate near Chichester, the Weald And Downland Open Air Museum has been quietly preserving the region’s architecture and history for the past five decades.
From its beginnings as an experimental 1960s archaeology project launched by a group of enthusiasts, the outdoor museum now features nearly 50 examples of Weald and downland building, dating from the 1300s up until the 1900s.
All items have been “saved” from certain fates, dismantled and painstakingly reconstructed on land leased from the Edward James Foundation. Marketing manager Carole Richmond describes the museum as an “impossible village”.
It’s the sort of place that inspires a poetic view.
I meet museum historian Danae Tankard at Hangleton, a cottage in a remote woodland clearing on the edge of the site.
It was reconstructed from the remains of two 14th-century longhouses discovered when the “lost” village of Hangleton, two miles north of Hove, was excavated in the early 1950s and in the dappled afternoon light, it seems a mirage. Inside, there’s a faint smell of wood smoke, dried herbs hanging from the rafters and oyster shells abandoned on the table. Who cares that the scent is evidence of an earlier visit by a historical interpreter and the “cheese” hanging in muslin from the wall is a block of wood? This is the closest most of us will get to time travel.
There are, of course, dozens of properties to visit here, but Hangleton is one of Tankard’s favourites. While Bayleaf, a grand, late medieval farmhouse with vaulted ceilings, a banqueting table and separate kitchen is the undisputed centrepiece of the museum, she prefers the modest 13thcentury cottage, which she has extensively researched.
Aside from the morbid satisfaction she derives from knowing the conclusion of Hangleton’s story (the Black Death is believed to have led to the desertion of the village), the project is an unusual one because so little data exists for this period.
Hangleton the house is, to some extent, “a piece of fiction”, says Tankard. The dig provided them with a below-ground footprint of the dwelling, but they have had to make educated guesses as to its height, its windows and its roof structure. They will never know how close they have come to the truth but every single detail is debated for weeks, from the tables – stake leg, as shown in contemporary drawings – to the type of bedding the inhabitants would have had (in the end, they plumped for an unwieldy bale of straw).
The building is being brought back into the spotlight this summer because it is 60 years since the Hangleton dig. Talks and demonstrations will take place there, along with an exhibition on the original excavation, where visitors will be able to handle the fragments of pottery and tools discovered there. Tankard shows me a handle from a handmade 13th-century clay jug, the indentations of its maker’s fingers still visible around the edges.
Elsewhere on site, work has begun on the long-awaited Tindalls, one of many houses that has been in storage since the 1970s. I can’t quite get my head around the idea of “storing” a house, but Tankard explains it’s just a small matter of dismantling the timber frame bit by bit and marking how it all slots together for future reconstruction. It’s probably not a project for those of us who struggle with Ikea flatpacks.
Tindalls was taken down in 1974 due to the construction of Bewl Water Reservoir, near Ticehurst in East Sussex.
Timber-framed with a large stone and brick chimney, it contains two rooms on each floor plus an attic, and dates from the late 17th or early 18th century. There is great excitement at seeing it brought back to life but it will take time.
Like all the properties at the museum, it is subject to council planning regulations and must be built exactly like any house; the foundations are being dug when I visit. It will take around £100,000 to construct and furnish it, a cost that must be met through fundraising.
While it’s sad to think of the number of houses languishing in storage, it’s clearly unavoidable.
Such costly projects require serious justification, and debate over which to focus on next has a tendency to become heated.
We take a stroll to Bayleaf and, as promised, it’s impressive.
Again, there’s a sense of intrusion, of having stumbled into someone’s home by accident. Burnt-down candles on the long table hint at last night’s dinner party, while a perilous journey up the shallow staircase reveals beds that look like they’ve been made this morning. I’m surprised to see a pull-out mattress on the floor next to what I assume is the master’s bed, but Tankard says this seemingly modern invention was a regular fixture of 16thcentury life. They were used to put up guests or, less commonly these days, servants. The notion of privacy was rather different then, she adds. There are even reports of adultery trials where servants were called to give evidence having witnessed the adultery first-hand from the foot of the bed.
In the separate kitchen that accompanies the house, we meet two interpreters who offer plates of food made from medieval recipes and cooked using traditional methods. There’s a dish of broad beans and bacon and another of spiced pastry pieces soaked in honey and, despite initial misgivings, they’re delicious. I’m struck by how dark it is in the kitchen, the monumental cooking equipment and the heavy wool of one of the interpreter’s outfits. It looks a hard life, and these were, presumably, some of the better jobs available at the time.
We reach the end of my tour and I exit, of course, through the gift shop.
Back among the retail parks and traffic of the outskirts of Chichester, it’s hard to believe a place like the Weald And Downland Museum exists. But how wonderful that it does.
*The Hangleton Exhibition takes place at the Weald And Downland Open Air Museum in Singleton, near Chichester, as part of the Festival of British Archaeology from July 23 to 27. For opening times and admission prices, visit www.wealdown.co.uk or call 01243 811363.