Downton Abbey star joins celebrations as iconic museum turns 50

Article by Gary Shipton

7th September 2020

Playing Lord Grantham in the global blockbuster series Downton Abbey helped Hugh Bonneville identify a little with the challenges faced by all those who love and protect the Weald and Downland Living Museum.

Speaking at a 1970s themed picnic to mark the iconic museum’s 50th birthday, Mr Bonneville — an ambassador of the venue — drew the analogy with the Downton role.

“Over the last ten years, on and off, I’ve played a character whose sole purpose in life was to be a custodian, a guardian of a great institution, albeit a fictional one, in Downton Abbey.

“Lord Grantham took on the mantle of the previous generation and did what he could to conserve and maintain the best of it and with a little help and nagging daughters nudged things toward the future without tearing up too many roots. So I can identify a little with what Jo [Pasricha, chair of trustees], Simon [Wardell, museum director] and all the team here are up to – protecting 50 years of inheritance, sustaining it for the next generation. So to them on behalf of all of you, the membership, the community, the friends, I say a huge thank you.”

The museum, located at Singleton north of Chichester, enjoys its own TV reverence. The BBC series The Repair Shop — an antidote to the throwaway culture — is filmed there. The Court Barn is the principal setting, though some repairs are carried out in the Victorian smithy and nearby wagon shed.

This ethos and national recognition would no doubt have delighted the museum’s founders who wanted to establish a centre that could rescue representative examples of vernacular buildings from the South East of England, and generate an increased public awareness and interest in the built environment.

Today, this extraordinary collection of historic buildings set in the most beautiful of Sussex’s countryside is a testament to their vision – ever evolving, and leading in the spheres of both conservation and education. It has played a pivotal role in so many people’s lifelong journeys.

Speaking to the picnickers — many dressed in 1970s garb — in the museum grounds, with pathos and humour Mr Bonneville recalled his own lifelong association with the museum which he said would chime with many others.

“I first came here in the late 1970s as a teenager when my parents first moved to near Midhurst. It looked a bit different then. In the 80s I can remember bringing family friends from overseas, that was always a staple, and they were absolutely entranced. I’m pretty sure I brought my fiancee here on a date — that would have been about 1996 or 97 — and possibly stole a kiss off her in the toll house when she was least expecting it!

“I remember bringing our toddler here in a buggy. I remember the thick smoke inside Bayleaf Tudor Farmhouse that swirled around him. The bread making, the talking to the craftsmen and women of yesteryear who always make it come alive. Watching the development and completion of the Gridshell – such a valuable and beautiful addition to the museum allowing it to ramp up its educational resource and outreach.

“When my boy was about ten I can remember holding hands with him, walking down here to the fields next door as we watched the steam engines, the ploughmen and the heavy horses all in action, and the stalls and the market traders demonstrating their crafts that always make this place hum with activity.

“And it doesn’t take much for this place to charm children of all ages — some as young as 90 like my late father who so loved coming here. I brought him to the opening of the triumphant Gateway project in the drizzle and he had a whale of a time.

“As for my son — the boy in the pram, the toddler, the lad I can still see watching the blacksmith at work, he’s now six foot seven and he won’t let me hold his hand any more!

“But the craftsmen are still here, and these remarkable buildings are still here, and like you I want them to be here when perhaps my boy in turn brings a toddler to visit one day.

“And this place has never depended on its beloved membership as much as it has this year. It’s the membership, the community, that has kept the museum pulsing through the months of its enforced bed-rest.”

The Weald and Downland Museums 50th Birthday celebrations, Chichester, West Sussex, UK. (Photo: Sam Stephenson)

He said that if 2020 had taught us anything it was about the value and importance of community.

“Like any community this is a living, breathing shifting collection of souls and stories. What makes this community extra special I think is it provides an experience that can transport imaginations back in time thanks to the conservation of the architecture and the commitment and inventiveness of the staff and volunteers who bring these buildings to life.

“The passion, imagination and energy of the founders continues today.

“Now 2020 may have been the worst of times, let’s face it, but it does mean that the best of times are yet to come. They are just around the corner, and for that I feel hugely excited.

“This community and this membership will grow and what the museum has to offer will grow. The Titchfield Market Hall project is now underway, restoring and repairing that. The endowment scheme supported by the Heritage Fund will be match funded. Every penny we give will be matched. Now these represent the museum’s current needs and future vision. We want our teenagers and our toddlers and our grandchildren not yet born to be able to enjoy this place as we have done. So long may your and their membership and generous support continue,” he told the picnicers.

“The Weald and Downland Living Museum is a remarkable, unique and much loved feature of the South Downs landscape. This is a place where memories are made. So please will you raise your glass to the next 50 years.”

Jo Pasricha had welcomed guests with a warm speech of thanks to all those who over the years and today had made the museum so special.

The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum was launched in 1967 by a small group of enthusiasts led by founder, the late Dr. J.R. Armstrong MBE. It first opened to the public on 5 September 1970.

The principal aim of the founding group was to establish a centre that could rescue representative examples of vernacular buildings from the South East of England, and generate an increased public awareness and interest in the built environment.

The museum’s foundation coincided with a growing national interest in historic buildings and this general public interest has resulted in strong support from its inception.

The museum promotes the retention of buildings on their original sites unless there is no alternative, and it encourages an informed and sympathetic approach to their preservation and continuing use. Only a small number of representative buildings can be brought to Singleton for inclusion in the collection.

As well as illustrating the history of original building styles and types, the museum has good collections representing country crafts and industries, building trades and agriculture. Objects from these collections can be seen displayed in buildings on the site, and in the open access store in the basement of the Downland Gridshell.

The museum is a registered charity and it receives no regular grants or subsidies. A large number of volunteers contribute to its daily running and many organisations have helped financially or in kind. If you would like to help, please contact the Museum Director.

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