Nestled in the West Sussex countryside, in the South Downs National Park, the Weald and Downland museum is a collection of beautifully preserved historic buildings rescued from across the south east of England. If you’ve always wanted explore quaint English houses and learn about traditional English life, then the Weald and Downland open air museum is the place to do it.
Read on to see what to do at the Weald and Downland Living Museum and find out what we got up to when we visited the annual Living History festival. It was an awesome day!
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About the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
The Weald and Downland Living Museum, as it’s now called, was first opened in 1970. It’s a charitable trust, founded by Dr J.R. Armstrong MBE and its aim is to preserve historical buildings and increase awareness of England’s heritage through these buildings.
While the museum tries to preserve most buildings on their original site, this isn’t always possible. So, some buildings scheduled for demolition have been painstakingly preserved and reconstructed at the open air museum; and it’s these that you can explore today.
The buildings cover a time period from about 950 years ago, right up to the present day’s contemporary architecture.
The great thing about the Weald and Downland museum is that it’s so hands-on. You’re able to go into all the buildings and touch some objects; and even if there’s not a special event running you’ll be able to speak to costumed staff who can tell you more about the history of each building and/or the crafts associated with it.
All of this means that looking around the museum will take you the best part of a day – there’s always something to distract you so the time flies by!
What to see at the Weald and Downland Museum
The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum is beautifully laid out across a large green area just outside the picturesque village of Singleton in West Sussex. There are about 50 buildings in total so unsurprisingly we didn’t go in to every building here during our visit, but I’ll tell you a little about some of the main homes that we managed to see. Each building has an information stand outside or inside, or there’s bound to be a member of staff nearby who you can ask about it.
The buildings come from very different time periods but they’re arranged in a way that makes you feel as though you’re walking into a small village community. The gardens and outside spaces are also set out traditionally and the whole effect is a complete immersion in the past. The buildings are filled with preserved and/or replica furniture or equipment so you can picture what life would have been like.
The first thing you see is a large pond which feeds a working watermill and the main market square, so you immediately feel as though you’re in a real lived-in village. Many of the other houses and buildings are fairly close to the main square, but there are a few set further out along woodland trails.
In the market square you can see examples of communal buildings, like the lovely market hall in the top photo. There’s a timber framed shop at the far end of the row of houses; when we visited it was “selling” traditional paintings and artwork. On the far side of the mill pond you’ll find craft and industrial buildings, including a working water mill which grinds the grain grown on the museum’s farmland. You can often see crafts or skilled demonstrations in these buildings.
Make sure you walk up the paths past the Victorian houses in the market square to see Bayleaf farmhouse which is one of the biggest and best buildings here. Bayleaf is set out as it would probably have looked in about 1540 – so right in the middle of Henry VIII’s reign, although the building dates from about 1405.
Bayleaf was lived in by a fairly well off family, although the only heating was an open fire in the middle of the main room and there was no glass in the windows – I can’t imagine how cold it would have been in the winter, but it was pleasantly cool on a hot summer day. Downstairs you can see the stores and food prep rooms as well as the main living space, and upstairs there are two large bedrooms. I’ve no idea if this was usual for the time or not, but there’s an ensuite of sorts in the main bedroom!
Nearby there’s a Tudor kitchen where you can taste Tudor food, and plenty of stables and farm buildings and equipment. Weald and Downland also has working farm animals and grows some crops by traditional methods – you’ll be able to catch glimpses of this as you walk around the site.
We carried on further up the path to Pendean, built almost exactly 200 years after Bayleaf. Technology had moved on and instead of an open hearth Pendean has a large chimney and fireplace but still no glass in its windows.
Inside is a great example of a dairy, full of equipment. The kids loved the upstairs with its higgledy-piggledy doorways which I had to duck to walk through.
We looked around several more houses, some older, some newer. The kids were interested in climbing the narrow, crooked staircases and exploring all the rooms, although neither wanted to live in any of the houses – they didn’t fancy sleeping on straw and scratchy wooden blankets – but more importantly they said there’s no TV, no toys, no books!
Weald and Downland Living History Festival
We were lucky enough to be near the Weald and Downland for its biggest annual weekend: the Living History Festival. We made sure we arrived for opening time and the festival was already buzzing when we walked in.
The Living History Festival brings together crafts, displays, tournaments and more from the last 1000 years of England’s history. We found costumed actors and craftspeople everywhere, mainly gathered together in groups of roughly the same time period, inside and outside of the appropriate buildings. Absolutely every actor we spoke to was knowledgeable and friendly, and put on a great act – kudos to the Victorian poor and the knights especially!
Historical re-enactment: a medieval jousting tournament
When we arrived at the museum we saw that tents were set up on the greens around the main square; milling around the tents were dozens of costumed historical re-enactors who had obviously been very busy all morning.
As the husband and the kids chatted to a lone Roman a procession of Tudors arrived on horseback. They were part of the jousting team who were re-creating a full day’s worth of events around a medieval tournament, including the joust itself. You were able to watch the whole process, if you liked, including medieval dining displays where you could see exactly what people used to eat and how they’d behave.
In the tents outside people were preparing food for the knights and their ladies. This was done accurately; cooking on open fires and using traditional and seasonal ingredients. I was a bit surprised to see figs and so much greenery on the plates, but there you go!
Other tents were either being used by knights and squires as they prepared for the joust, or displays were set out so you could try on pieces of armour, watch the cooking, or just have a chat with some of the re-enactors.
Jousting and more in the main arena
The main arena was hosting displays and events through the day. We heard the gunfire display while we were grabbing an early lunch in the nearby food village, and saw some of the British Percheron Display on life during WW1. Horses pulled uniformed soldiers along in carts while we heard letters between sweethearts separated by the conflict.
The main thing we wanted to see in the arena was the joust – a real highlight of the day. I’ve seen jousting before in our local town, Cirencester, but not anything on this level. We arrived as the knights and ladies paraded in in full regalia, and the tournament warmed up with some general knightly skill tests.
Could the knights take metal rings from a hook with their lances? Turned out that this was pretty tricky, even for experienced jousters. The second test was to decapitate a cabbage with a sword while riding at full tilt, and the third was to hit a board with the lance to make it spin around – the more spins the higher the score.
What was great about this part of the tournament was the fact that the women participated too – these ladies weren’t just window dressing. Each knight paired with a lady and they pooled their scores. Points were awarded according to skill, but extra horsemanship and skills points were awarded by another costumed lady who acted as a co-compere.
But of course the part that everyone really wanted to see was the joust itself and this didn’t disappoint with both knights shattering their wooden lances almost every time. Neither was unseated and this isn’t really the point of the joust, although it does sometimes happen. Points are awarded for the type of hit and if the lance breaks – the knight with the red lance scores maximum points in the above photo as his has shattered. I’m pretty sure this is called a targe hit, but I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong!
The kids thought the joust was great – they’d seen one before but couldn’t remember, and this one was spectacular.
There were more events in the main arena but we chose to move on after the joust and take a look at a few more things before we went home.
Crafts on display
The Tudor market in the market square was in full swing when we walked through. Here we were able to watch people working on Tudor handicrafts – we saw weaving with rushes, knitting and darning with wool, and the kids were fascinated by some men working on making thick cloth for armour.
Our daughter was a bit too young to work on plaiting rushes to make hats but several slightly older kids sat down and were shown how to weave them. Tudor kids from the ages of about 6 or 7 would have done this sort of thing.
Inside the market hall the kids had a good look at some Tudor toys and tried to work out the games Tudor children might have played. The boy was aghast at the thought of no toy cars, and while they were interested in the old toys, they were pretty adamant that they preferred their own!
England through the ages
Not including the Roman soldier who was stationed near the market place, the oldest time period covered by the Living History festival was Vikings and Saxons. We saw a Viking-like longboat and in the nearby tents craftspeople were working on carving oars. We took a closer look at more personal items like drinking horns, combs and tools made of antlers. The girl learned that animal sinew was used as sewing thread – again, she wasn’t impressed! Nearby we saw blacksmiths working at their forges and then went to see some of the working horses on the farm where we could show the kids horseshoes made by the smiths.
In one of the oldest houses at the museum we caught a talk on medieval medicine, where we learned about weird and wonderful “cures” for diseases and how some conditions were diagnosed. In the above photo you can see a chart for urine tests, although of course the failsafe way to diagnose a disease from a urine sample was to taste it. If you were feeling a bit forgetful, well then, the obvious thing to do was to strap a poultice made of pigeon poo to your head. Everyone knows that pigeons always remember where they are. It makes perfect sense.
Most memorably, we had a chat with some of the Victorian poor. They were brilliantly in character, but adapted instantly to our young kids as they were a bit wary. The lady on the left has a bucket full of “pure” which she would collect from the streets and sell to keep out of the workhouse. Our daughter couldn’t guess what “pure” was, and was horrified to find out. In probably one of the worst jobs in Victorian England, “pure collectors” picked up dog crap from the streets and sold it to tanneries to keep the leather soft. Anything was better than the workhouse.
Overall we thought the Living History festival was fantastic – you could just soak up the atmosphere if you wanted, but any questions we had were fully answered by staff and everyone we spoke to was really passionate and enthusiastic about what they were doing. This made what might on the face of it sound like a dry day out (what the husband thought it would be) into something really special and memorable (the husband has been raving about it since). It was a fantastic learning opportunity for children, even our very young ones. The kids loved the gruesome and disgusting facts they learned – I think they’ll remember them!
I wish we’d been able to see more of the talks and hear some of the stories that were being told but there was so much going on that we were bound to miss out on some things – all the more reason to go back next year.
More Weald and Downland events
The Living History festival might be over until next year, but there are plenty of other events and demonstrations going on throughout the year.
Still to come this year is a Working Animals weekend, a Steam Fair weekend, and a Harvest celebration in October. Activities are put on throughout school holidays, such as family friendly experiences every Wednesday in August, and seasonal events like Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night.
Check the Weald and Downland website to see what’s on for your visit.
Know before you go
Weald and Downland opening times and tickets, facilities and directions
Weald and Downland museum is open almost every day of the year except at Christmas and New Year. The museum opens at 10.30am until 4.30pm in winter or 6pm in summer. Sometimes the museum closes early or parts of the museum are off limits if filming is happening. It’s best to double check online before you visit.
You can buy tickets on the Weald and Downland museum website before you visit or at the ticket office when you arrive. Tickets cost £15.50 for adults and £7.50 for children aged 5 and up including a gift aid contribution. You can also get family tickets and other concessions.
There’s a cafe on site but on this visit we didn’t use it as we ate from the food tents that were set up for the Living History festival. You can also bring a picnic if you like.
The museum is easy to find – it’s located on the A286 between Midhurst and Chichester, just outside the village of Singleton. Follow the signs once you reach Singleton, or use postcode PO18 0EU for your sat nav. If you’re arriving by public transport, then take the train to Chichester and a bus to Singleton; or a bus from Haslemere train station, changing buses in Midhurst.
Where to stay near the Weald and Downland museum
The nearest places to stay are either in Midhurst or Chichester. Midhurst is a fairly small town but it does have some rare medieval buildings, similar to some of the buildings at Weald and Downland. It’s also home to the Cowdray estate (above) where there’s a ruined castle and polo tournaments. Midhurst is a good base to use if you want to see the South Downs national park and nearby places like Arundel Castle and Petworth House, as well as exploring some of the pretty surrounding villages.
The top place to stay in Midhurst is the Spread Eagle. This is a coaching inn dating from 1430 and as you can imagine, it’s full of character and charm. As an added bonus, there’s a fantastic spa on site. Click here to check prices and availability.
Just over the road, the Swan Inn is highly rated. It’s also set in an historic building and has an onsite pub. There are plenty of restaurants nearby. Click here to take a look and book your stay.
If you’d prefer to stay in an apartment then try Upper Deck Apartments which are in the town centre and have views over fields to Cowdray ruins. There’s a family apartment, so more room for the kids. Click here to check prices and book.
Chichester is a much bigger city near the coast. Chichester has an historic centre which is good for shopping, and a large cathedral as well as its famous Festival Theatre. It’s also the home of Goodwood estate and racecourse which runs lots of events through the summer, including the motoring event Goodwood Festival of Speed. Nearby beach West Wittering is one of the best beaches along the south coast of England, and the bohemian city of Brighton isn’t that far away.
Lockgate Dairy B&B is a luxury property between Chichester and West Wittering beach. It’s got beautiful rooms including family accommodation, and serves a cooked breakfast. Click here to check prices and availability.
Right in the centre of Chichester, UK South Coast Apartments are perfect for a family stay as they can accommodate up to 6 people. Beautifully furnished and fully equipped for self catering, they also come with Netflix and freeview TV. Click here to book your stay.