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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.

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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.

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Mary Macarthur, trade unionist and women’s rights campaigner.

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!

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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.

If you’re visiting Warwickshire, the two historical attractions that are most eagerly advertised are Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle and they are both worth a visit. However do not assume that they are similar as although they both have fascinating histories, the experience of visiting each castle is massively different. I have visited both and although the experience differs at different times of the year, from the perspective of somebody interested in history, I would recommend Kenilworth over Warwick any day, and I’d like to explain why. Firstly a short explanation of the history of each castle:

Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle originally consisted of a burh built in 914 to protect the small settlement of Warwick. A motte and bailey was then built by William the Conqueror in 1068 and the first Earl of Warwick, Henry de Beaumont was appointed and his family held the castle until 1242. During the 13th century the castle was rebuilt in stone and over the course of the following centuries several improvements were made. In 1572 Queen Elizabeth I visited the castle. James I granted Warwick Castle to Fulke Greville who was murdered in 1628 and who’s ghost still apparently haunts the castle tower. During the Civil War, the castle withstood a siege and royalist soldiers were imprisoned there. During the 18th century the castle was developed into a country house with extensive work done on the dining room, conservatory and gardens. Queen Victoria visited the castle in 1858 and in 1978 the Tussaud’s Group bought the castle.

Kenilworth Castle

The Norman keep at Kenilworth was built in the 1120s by Geoffrey de Clinton, Henry I’s treasurer, and it was greatly improved by King John in the early 13th century with the enlargement of the lake surrounding the castle. It began to be transformed into a palace by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and was a favourite of Tudor kings and most famously Elizabeth I. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester had the castle in 1563 and spent time and money radically developing it into an impressive Renaissance ‘prodigy house’ for the Queen to visit on her progresses. At the beginning of the Civil war the Parliamentary army took Kenilworth and in 1649 it was ordered that the castle should be dismantled to avoid its use by other armies. Over the following years the mere was drained, interiors stripped and buildings demolished and the rest fell into decay. In 1665 it was returned to the crown and given to Laurence Hyde, the son of the lord chancellor, the earl of Clarendon, and it remained with the Clarendon until the 20th century. Tourists began to visit the castle from the late 18th century and by 1937 it was a full-time tourist attraction.

Now the first thing to point out is that the information I’ve provided here about Kenilworth I found out on my visit, while the Warwick information I’ve had to grab entirely from the internet. My day at Warwick castle taught me next to nothing about its history as there were no information panels, audio guides or leaflets full of fun facts. Kenilworth castle provided me with a fantastically detailed audio guide with so many stops I almost ran out of time. There is also a museum in the old stables next to the cafe which tells you everything you need to know to get the best out of the beautiful ruined castle. I learnt loads at Kenilworth and when it comes down to it, that’s what I’m there for.

Warwick on the other hand is aimed at kids and designed as an ‘experience’ rather than a real historical castle. It has walks through the castle rooms and dungeons with models of medieval people everywhere, it has an 19th century section with amazing rooms and actors paid to pretend we’re all guests at some Victorian party, it has archery, tournaments, birds of prey, and when I was there, an entire marching band! So although I have a big problem with the lack of history, I can’t pretend that Warwick castle doesn’t provide a good day out, especially if you’re with children.

Then again, Kenilworth is a real ruin and when I was there children were playing hide and seek in the many nooks and crannies of the massive castle. To be honest, give a child a wooden sword and a ruin to play in and they can have more fun than they ever would with all the falcons, actors and costumes in the world.

So overall, while on paper Warwick offers far more attractions, if you’re interested in history Kenilworth castle is infinitely superior – you get to see more of the castle up close, you learn more, and you’re not distracted by entertainers. And on top of that, children will have fun there in a far more exciting, natural and cheap way. If that doesn’t clinch it how about this:

  • I visited Warwick castle in beautiful April sunshine; I visited Kenilworth castle in January with temperatures of -2 and I STILL prefer Kenilworth
  • Warwick castle adult ticket price is £29.40; Kenilworth is £8!

Warwick ultimate castle refers to itself as ‘Britain’s ultimate castle’ – a claim I’d definitely question. I reckon this might say something about the difference between Merlin Entertainments Group and English Heritage in how they choose to run a historical attraction.

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