An Early Modern Christmas at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, Singleton near Chichester, West Sussex
12/30/2016 in Uncategorized
Christmas at the Weald and Downland Museum, 2016
I know that Christmas has now been and gone as it always does with a slow anticipated wait then when it does finally arrive, it seems to go by in a flash and tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. So I apologise if anyone thinks that my post is out of ‘season’ but I wanted to share my trip to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum on Boxing Day when they were open for their “Christmas at the Museum.”
The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum is located in the Downland village of Singleton, 4 miles north of Chichester in West Sussex. As the name implies the museum collects buildings and artefacts from the geographical area of the North Downs, the South Downs and the Weald. The North and South Downs are chalk, while the geology of the Weald is made up of greenstone, sandstone and clays and was called the Andredes Weald by the Saxons – Andredes from the Roman place-name Anerida for Pevensey and Weald from the German Wald for forest as in the early medieval period the Weald was still a heavily forested area. There are three areas to the Weald, the high Weald which is in the centre on the sandstone, the low Weald which is located on the outside on the clay and the greensand ridge that is found around the north and west of the Weald. As a forested area, the Weald popular for hunting, while in the low Weald the clay made farming difficult. Arable farming was better suited on the dip slope of the Downland where the chalk provided better drainage of the soil.
My aim in visiting the Weald and Downland Museum was to visit the houses that had been dressed for an early modern Christmas. However, I first visited an old friend, the treadwheel from Catherington in Hampshire, which is a Downland parish as I grew up in Catherington and now live just down the hill from the farm where the treadwheel was located. The well shaft was over 300 feet deep and is most likely Roman. At different locations in Catherington sherds of Roman pottery have been found and the bank which runs along the north boundary of the churchyard of All Saints, the parish church from the eastern boundary right through to the western boundary at Catherington Lane has been dated as Roman. Some years ago the Museum of London built a replica of a Roman treadwheel and in addition to the well shaft that the Catherington treadwheel was built over, it is quite likely that the well shafts of the treadwheels at Beauworth, Hampshire (still in situ at the Milbury’s public house) and Saddlescombe Manor near Brighton – also Downland parishes, were originally dug out in the Roman period. The Catherington treadwheel and the un-daubed timber framed building in which it is housed are both seventeenth-century, no doubt built to replace an older treadwheel and building.
After the treadwheel I visited Tindall’s Cottage an eighteenth-century cottage from Ticehurst in East Sussex, a parish in the High Weald. It was the first time that I had visited this building as it was erected after my last visit to the museum. Tindall’s cottage which was built between c. 1700-1725, has a main room with a fireplace and bread oven and a second smaller unheated room that was used as a buttery. Behind the kitchen an outshot was built at the back of the cottage. This contained a Brewhouse with a built in copper and a smaller room that was probably used as the dairy for making milk, butter and cheese. When I was in the Brewhouse, two visitors remarked to each other: “Oh look there’s the copper for washing clothes!” I felt that this highlighted what I consider to be a major shortcoming as the museum has not provided any interpretation within the rooms of the buildings as to what features and the particular artefact assemblages within a room are. In the kitchen, a duo was playing music on recorders and the table was set for Christmas with a variety of crockery, food such as cheese and some greenery for decoration, very basic but nevertheless a Christmas celebration.
Next up was Pendean a seventeen-century yeoman’s farmhouse from Pendean farm, West Lavington which is a parish in the Weald near Midhurst. Pendean was constructed in 1609 and represents the transition from a medieval open hall house to an enclosed house with a baffle or lobby entrance opening onto the side of the main chimney stack that served the two ingle nock fireplaces. The wider fireplace in the end room contained a bread oven the room being used as a kitchen, while the smaller ingle nock fireplace heated the central room and one upstairs room was also heated by the chimney stack. The central room served as a hall or parlour while the room the other side of the hall, which was unheated would have used as a service room either a buttery or pantry. As Pendean was a yeoman’s house the Christmas spread was of a higher status than that which I found in Tindall’s Cottage. Not only was there a wider selection of food including a pie, but the ceramic / crockery assemblage was also of a higher status as was the table cloth. In the kitchen and buttery/pantry a domestic assemblage had also been set out again of a higher status of that of a yeoman’s household.
Following Pendean, I popped into Bayleaf a fifteenth-century Wealden house from Chiddingstone, Kent, a parish in the Weald. As the term ‘Wealden House’ implies, this design of house was commonplace in the Weald and also in the Downland of southern England. A Wealden house consisted of three bays with the central bay containing the hall that was open to the roof, the front wall of the hall being recessed with a double height unglazed window. The upper storeys of the end bays were jettied out, the chambers above the rooms of the end bays reached by separate stairs. One end bay would be designated the higher status end and in the hall adjacent to the door to this bay, the high table where the yeoman sat would be located. The inner ground floor room of the upper bay being a private room known as a solar and used to house the owner’s bed and other high status furniture and goods. The lower bay was divided from the open hall by a screen and divided into two service rooms the buttery where barrels of beer and other drinking victuals were stored. While food was stored in the pantry next door. Like Pendean, the buttery and pantry in Bayleaf was laid out with a variety of ceramic and other artefacts associated with food and drink manufacture during the early modern period. The hall also housed high status furniture and a hanging behind the high table. The high table was furnished with a high status table cloth and a variety of high status dishes, plates (some of which were pewter) and jugs. The dishes contained a variety of foods that were commonly eaten at Christmas during the early modern period including walnuts and pies. The table was also highly decorated with garlands.
Bayleaf forms part of ‘Bayleaf Farmstead’ a group of farm buildings from the early modern period erected to show what a farmstead in the Weald and Downland would have looked like. The farmstead includes barns, stables and Winkhurst Tudor Kitchen. I have been a visitor to the Weald and Downland Museum since 1982 when I was 15. At that time the buildings were not furnished with furniture and artefacts but were empty. Winkhurst was located up on the Down not far from the treadwheel from Catherington. It was interpreted as a two bay timber framed house with one bay having an upper storey and the other bay open to the roof in the manner of an open hall. However, since Winkhurst’s initial interpretation and erection at the museum, further research has been undertaken into separate kitchen buildings and after 2002 Winkhurst was dismantled and re-erected and reinterpreted as a separate kitchen building to Bayleaf – i.e. Winkhurst was where the food was prepared and cooked away from the main house as a measure of fire safety. Dendro dating of the timbers from Winkhurst suggest that it was constructed sometime during the period c.1492-1537. The re-interpretation of Winkhurst as a kitchen is based on the observation that whilst one bay was open to the roof it lacks architectural features common to open hall houses such as double height windows as found in open hall houses like Bayleaf. I have visited Winkhurst on several occasions since it was re-erected and re-interpreted as a Tudor kitchen and on my visit on Boxing day it was evidence that the cooking and other processes that the re-enactors undertake in Winkhurst is ongoing research. On previous visits the shelves containing the ceramics/crockery was located on the south wall, but on Monday I noticed that they have been moved to the east wall and the south wall has a few artefacts and other items such as dried herbs hanging from it. The kitchen also contains several tables on trestles and benches, a bread oven and copper for brewing, along with a variety of cooking utensils and pots, plates and jugs. Winkhurst is always the highlight of my visit I love watching the re-enactors going about their chores. On Boxing Day, they were offering visitors gingerbread and ale and they were delicious!
The final early modern building that I visited was Poplar Cottage from Washington, Sussex. Washington is a Downland / scarp foot parish on the north facing scarp slope of the South Downs and on the scarp foot where the Downs and the Weald meet. It has a Borstal (sometimes and in this instance spelt as Bostal) which is a steep path that traverses the steep scarp slope of the South Downs diagonally from the scarp foot and the Weald. The term ‘Borstal/Bostal” comes from the Old English burg-steall originally meaning an earthwork or hillfort but which in the case of a steep path up the scarp slope of the South Downs came to mean getting to such a place as an earthwork or hillfort. The term Borstal is particular to these paths up the north facing scarp slope and are not found on the top of the Downs, on the dip slope or south of the Downs on the coastal plain (Professor Richard Coates pers. com.). The Naturalist Gilbert White imported the term into East Hampshire when he had a path constructed up the side of Selborne Hill in the eighteen-century. Poplar Cottage was built down on the scarp foot on Washington Common and built c. mid seventeenth-century, and probably was an example of encroachment onto the common. It was built to house a landless husbandman or labourer and their family. Poplar Cottage was decorated not with Christmas decorations – an A board outside declared: “The Cancellation of Christmas 1647.” Inside the main room of the cottage was devoid of any examples of Christmas food or decorations and instead copies of posters detailing: “The Arraignment, Imprisoning and Conviction of Christmas.” These posters were distributed throughout the land in 1647 after Oliver Cromwell declared that Christmas should be banned. Although as a labourer’s home, Popular Cottage would have little in the way of furnishings the lack of even a small amount of Christmas food and decoration illustrated what life would have been like for people during the mid 1640’s. People who had been born during the later Reformation/Post-Reformation period and who had been used to celebrating the 12 days of Christmas annually, and who now suddenly in their world turned upside down were forced not to celebrate Christmas – the bleakness of this little cottage stood apparent in stark contrast to the Christmas celebrations found in Tindall’s Cottage, Pendean and Bayleaf.
Overall I enjoyed my trip through an early modern Christmas, but I felt that despite the displays it was hard at times to appreciate what the exhibits were attempting to convey. This was due to the volume of people, the museum was proving to be a popular attraction on Boxing Day well not everyone wants to engage in the instant convenience orientated throwaway society that we live in and hit the high street or out of town shopping centres and go to the Boxing Day sales. Clearly, many people were enjoying a wonder round the past. For me as an archaeologist and historian specialising in the early modern period the problem is how the past is presented- and many academics have discussed the question of how we present the past particularly when it’s in the vein of an idealised past or rather how the museum visitor sees and idealises the past. An event such as the Weald and Downland Museum opening on Boxing Day for the ‘Museum at Christmas’ is perhaps more about attracting visitors to give them an opportunity to escape and for the museum to have 2 successful days of visitor numbers in the middle of winter. I admit I see the draw of the escapism I myself talk about “getting lost in the sixteenth-century”, but in my case I’m getting lost in doing research not visiting an attraction to idolise the past. I mentioned the two visitors in the Brewhouse in the outshot at the back of Tindall’s Cottage who thought the copper was for washing clothes rather than brewing ale. They may have said this based on family tales of how their grandmother’s or great grandmothers heated up the copper in order to wash the clothes in. My own late mother frequently talked about how her mother in the 1930’s, as a married woman, while living with her own mother in a Victorian terraced house in Aldershot, Hampshire would heat up the built in copper in the kitchen in order to wash the clothes there being no such thing as an electric washing machine in those days at least not in a working class house. Its these kind of memories – oral histories that can shape people’s experiences when they visit an open air / living history museum and it needs to be acknowledge as an integral part of the visitor experience. For my part as an early modern archaeologist and historian.
I tend to find that when I visit this type of museum I study the way the houses and other buildings are furnished including the artefact assemblages – ceramics/crockery, pots, pans, jars, cooking utensils, furniture, seating, soft furnishings, bedding etc. then I come home and think about these items and how a particular house has been furnished, laid out and interpreted or not as the case may be. I feel that the Weald and Downland Museum could do more to provide on-site interpretation about how the jars, pots, pans, cooking utensils and other household items have been researched and chosen. The museum has a historic clothing project running which has already produced a small booklet, they need a similar project about the artefact assemblages. I also think they could run study days for academics engaged in research into say the medieval period or the early modern period on a day when the museum is quieter. A seminar could be held in the Downland Gridshell building and a tour of the houses along with some hands on with the Tudor food in Winkhurst. It is something to consider seeing if this could be organised in 2017! Overall presenting Christmas past in an open air museum is a good idea but the large numbers of visitors hinders the experience.