I visited the Black Country Living Museum last month, which is just outside Dudley near Birmingham. It’s an interesting mix of museum and reconstructed town with actors, reconstructed shops, an old mine and a canal with tunnels. It’s huge and really deserves a whole day to see everything and I reckon it’s perfect for families and kids.
Before you are released into the outside areas, there is a small but really informative museum about the Black Country area, which encompasses Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell. It gives in depth information about the industries that emerged and developed in these areas: coal, iron, steel and more specifically chains, locks, glass, springs, equestrian and railway equipment. The areas really became the driving force of the industrial revolution and the museum is designed to give you an overview of what was produced in the Black Country before you walk into the reconstructed town.
Outside the museum there is a small transport museum with cars and engines from the era and there is a working tram which you can take to get around the grounds, although I didn’t take that up myself. On a nice day (which this was!) it’s a genuinely nice place to have a walk around. There’s a small park and the lanes and cobbled streets that run through the town are so quiet it is easy to imagine you are back in the nineteenth century. There are over fifty reconstructed houses, shops and workshops which you can explore, and actors in period costume give you information about how people used to live. On that note, the actors have got the balance quite right: they are not too pushy and unnerving and they won’t overact or refuse to come out of character. I normally don’t like actors at historical attractions but the people working here were pretty friendly without being overwhelming.
Walking around the town it is easy to see why the Black Country Living Museum is such a good place for kids. There were several school parties there when I visited and they seemed to be having a great time playing Victorian games like hoop rolling on the cobbles. There is also a reconstructed school where we could see the kids being given an authentic Victorian lesson in the classroom. Once they’ve put up with the educational side, there’s a reconstructed funfair with authentic old arcade games and rides which although slightly creepy is probably good fun if you’re part of a huge group of children.
Other highlights of the experience include a reconstructed coal drift mine which you can explore in a group led by a guide. It’s pitch dark and very narrow and uneven so gives you as good an idea of the mining conditions of the time as you you’re going to get in a museum. Miners tended to work twelve-hour shifts, some could be as young as ten years old and casualties and deaths due to flooding, falls and collapsed mines were common. This tour was one of the most interesting parts of my visit to the museum and I recommend you check the tour times early to be sure you don’t miss the opportunity to go.
The Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute is another really interesting building in the town. The interior of the building is set in 1935 and the information, photos and artefacts inside explore the British labour history. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1910 chainmakers’ strike, there is an exhibition about Mary Macarthur, secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. I might explore her life in more depth in another post.
Again if you check the times early and pay a little extra, you can take a canal trip through the tunnels and it really is worth it. When I went, it was the last trip of the day so we were the only ones on the boat and had a private tour from the guide. The tunnels are some of the longest in the country and were built to transport cargo and to give access to mine limestone from the hills. The guide we had was really interesting and showed us fossils in the rock and even better there is an audio-visual display half way through the tour which incredibly shows you the geological history of the Black Country from the Big Bang to today!
Finally don’t forget to check out the Bottle & Glass Inn, which serves traditional food and real ale. Unfortunately it was closed when I got round to visiting it, but I did visit the authentic Hobbs and Sons Fish and Chip shop which was excellent, and serves pickled onions and pickled eggs!
The Black Country Living Museum is well worth a visit if you’re in the area and is a particularly good day out for kids. The adult price is £14.95 which isn’t too bad considering the size of the place and the amount to see there, so I would say it is worth it. If I had any criticism it would be that I would’ve liked to find out a little more about how they set up the museum in the first place, what was there before and how much of the buildings are original and exactly what the reconstructed parts were based on. But leaving aside the history of the museum itself, it does give a great overview of British industrial and labour history in the Black Country area, and I certainly learnt a lot and have a much better feel for the period than I did before I visited.