The genuine vegetable garden looked like something out of Beatrix Potter.
The Town at Beamish represents a typical North Eastern market town in the years leading up to the First World War. Beneath what would be brand new street lighting, guests can find terraced houses containing a music teacher, dentist and solicitor, a traditional pub, a printers, a transportation depot, a toilet block, a bank, a Masonic Hall, a motor garage, a clothing store, Co-Op, general store and tea rooms. Nearby is the municipal park, and beyond that a Victorian fairground and railway station.
Just like Disneyland, the post box really does get collected.
The building on the right is a restroom block, known locally at the time as a 'netty'.
Inside the terraces are the family homes, dentist, music school and solicitors. Most rooms inside the building allow you to enter the room, but rope barriers stop you exploring more than around six feet.
The inclusion of a music teacher and dentist are particularly interesting: these same two businesses are the sources of background noises from upstairs windows along many of the Main Street USAs.
Behind the high street is a transportation depot, containing a barn full of motor vehicles and carriages, and stables next door.
Period signs and advertisements are everywhere - Beamish often has so much stuff that it borders on cluttered. In a dedication to period more extreme than Disney would ever dare go (quite rightfully), cartoon advertisements containing 'Golliwogs' are still displayed, a blackface minstrel character now considered racist.
The Beamish Motor & Cycle Works displays new and second-hand cars, motorcycles and bicycles, along with headlamps, horns, and two-gallon cans of petrol.
An old motorcycles is parked outside the garage, with a gentleman motorist in period costume conversing with passersby.
The Beamish Branch Office would serve as a newspaper distribution point and a printers upstairs. Now it additionally contains a small boutique selling postcards, stationary and books.
The display board posters give a sense of the major news stories of the time.
The highlight of Beamish for many children is undoubtedly the old fashioned sweet shop (candy store). With sugar and cocoa flooding in from the Empire, shops such as this sprang up packing shelves with glass jars of sugared almonds, toffees, sour plums, chocolates and other treats.
The shop sells everything on display, including many sweets adults last saw in their childhood.
But what makes the shop stand out is what's in the back: guests can watch hourly demonstrations of candies being made the old fashioned way.
Sugar is boiled up on the fire to the left, mixed with flavorings, then poured onto the center table.
When it has cooled somewhat it becomes pliable and can be kneaded like bread to get rid of air bubbles.
It is cut into chunks and fed through a press which shapes the mixture into traditional sweet shapes.
The result is strips of candies which when fully cooled and hardened can be simply dropped onto hard table surface, shattering the strips into the individual sweets. The brass contraption at the back is called a polisher, and rolls the sweets like a cement mixer to dull the sharp edges.
Numerous stamps are available to shape the sweets:
Further down the street is the bank, an 1896 Barclay and Company bank with a Swedish 'Imperial Red' granite front.
Downstairs, guests can see the vaults and storerooms ... including the rats!
Next door is a Masonic Temple, a common site across North Eastern towns.
In the main hall hangs an impressive portrait of Queen Victoria.
The commercial hub of the town begins with the Co-Op (Co-operative), comprising of grocery, drapery and hardware departments.
The grocery departments bares a distinct resemblance to Disneyland's Market House.
The drapery department displays fashions of the time...
... and even allows guests to try on some of what's on display.
The "If you offer it we will collect it" policy was especially apparent in the photo above: the shawl once belonged to my great-grandmother Hannah Smith.
The hardware department supplies mangles, polishes, paints, pots and pans, lamps, shovels, tools and candles - especially important when pitmen had to provide their own gear.
A highlight of the Co-Op is the overhead Lamson-Paragon Cash System - a 'cash railway'. Not yet trusting counter employees with money, payments and change were placed in wooden balls which were hoisted up the ceiling with a pulley then allowed to roll along tracks to a secure cash office. Here, change was counted, then returned with a second chute.
Interestingly, Disneyland Paris's Emporium actually has a working cash railway, although it is a distinctly decorative element.
The overhead cash railway still works, and is often demonstrated to guests.
At the edge of town is the municipal park centered around ornamental flower beds and a Walter MacFarlane & Co. bandstand. The horticulture easily keeps a standard of quality on parallel with Disney.
Just around the corner is a favorite for young and old: a 'Gallopers', or steam roundabout - more commonly known as a carrousel - which is powered by a genuine traction engine. Nearby are some hand powered boat swings and a coconut shy. I remember coming here more than a decade ago when there was also a helter skelter (spiral slide) and mirror maze, but I don't know where these have now gone.
At the very outskirts of town is Rowley Station, a typical northern station of around 1910 - never lit by gas electricty, always relying on oil. Accessed across a wrought-iron footbridge or level crossing, guests are able to take short shuttle trips aboard the train.
"Your attention please... the Disneyland Great Britain Railway now boarding for a one-way trip around the Magic Kingdom. All aboard!"
The station is very much a mirror of Disneylands, with luggage ready to be loaded up and posters advertising tourist destinations throughout country.
Even the signal box can be explored.
Beyond the station is the Goods Shed and coal office.
Re-enactors are employed or invited by Beamish Museum to wander the grounds, leading to the wonderfully immersive sight of seeing a Victorian lady shopping from store to store with a basket under her arm, or turning a corner in the Pit Village the come across three Victorian children racing each other on their bikes. That's right - children! After dressing up in period clothing, they are seemingly given bicycles and toys with which to play with throughout the museum. To them, it must be a spectacular playground; to the guests they add an unparalleled realism.
Other events throughout the year invite various specialised groups to Beamish. When I was there, they were holding the Beamish Great North Steam Fair which allowed me the opportunity to see dozens of traction engines and steam rollers (and I mean real steam), roaming the museum driven by their private owners.
Other events include;
- Beamish Agricultural Show with demonstrations of ploughing, country crafts, agricultural machinery and livestock classes
- Easter Celebrations with egg painting, scavenger hunts and religious services
- A Georgian Fair with travelling fairground rides and attractions
- Harvest Festival
- Sports Competitions including cricket, football (soccer) and quoits
- Regular choir and band visits
- Topic focuses such as toys, machinery or cookery
- And of course a traditional Victorian Christmas season
Perhaps the most Hollywood influence I came across was apparent in their upcoming Halloween offering: the plan to turn Beamish into the 'UNliving Museum of the North', complete with demon dentist, fortune teller, ghost stories and encouragement to don costumes, more akin to Knott's Scary Farm than a museum - but which will no doubt prove to be a success.
Food is available at the entrance 'Coffee Shop', Town 'Tea Rooms' and 'The Sun Inn', Home Farm 'The Cart Shed', and Village's 'Pitman's Pantry', candies at the Town's 'Jubilee Sweet Shop', while souvenirs are sold only at the entrance gift shop and Town 'Stationer's Shop'. Smoking is not permitted indoors, and while dogs are allowed inside the museum grounds they are not allowed inside the buildings (with exception to assistance dogs). Induction loop systems are installed at a large number of exhibits for those hard of hearing.
I cannot overstate how impressed I was with Beamish Museum. In a country in which service pales in comparison to its American equivalent and themed entertainment, immersion and storytelling is largely dismissed in favour of thrills, Beamish stands out with its Disney-quality operation, so much that I wonder whether a Beamish executive has consciously emulated Disney's practices to great effect. Every employee I came across was infallibly polite, friendly and warm, offering up information about the surroundings and their role, and always saying hello as you entered the room they were in. Outside, a number of employees would wave as the packed trams and busses as they passed by, just as the conductors aboard Disney's railroad do.
Despite a relatively small number of trash cans, I did not spot one piece of trash in the common areas of Beamish Museum. More thorough searching did uncover some trash in out of the way corners such as within the holes of dormant machinery, but this is no worse than similar findings at Disney parks. I never actually saw an employee pick up litter which makes me wonder why Beamish is so lucky in this regard when British theme parks are often deluged with discarded wrappers and paper cups. Perhaps it is the older audience; without thrills, the serene museum does not attract many teenagers or young adults (some would say most likely to litter). But beyond this, I think that the locals of the area feel a significant emotional connection and pride in Beamish: just as Disneyland locals will pick up trash that litters 'their park', many Beamish visitors do the same.
Nevertheless, there were a few differences to Disney. Attention to Show was predominantly very impressive, all the more heightened by its valley location surrounded by forested countryside miraculously devoid even of power lines and the genuine buildings meaning fire exit signs aren't required, but exceptions did exist. Whilst a boiler or some other modern contraption was hidden behind a fence, a modern van was parked next to it. The toy filled rear garden of a nearby house could be glimpsed at the edge of the Georgian landscape, and at one point (at the Farm) a public road actually passed right through the museum, although it was seldom used. Remarkably, this meant somebody could very easily enter Beamish without paying (there were no ticket checks here), and even a number of public footpaths passed through the grounds - unthinkable at a Disney park.
Even the occasional signposts are appropriate to the setting. This style of sign would be commonly seen along canal waterways.
Being a museum, Beamish hopes to educate and inform, so whilst the environment and costumes were accurate, when the employees opened their mouths it was most often from a 21st century perspective, and no taboo existed in discussing the outside world, discussing what an employee was up to when they finished work that night, or even answering my questions about the behind the scenes operations that went into running Beamish. There were however occasional exceptions to this. The printer would not hand a newly printed flyer to a young boy but would to a young girl, explaining with his tongue in his cheek that little girls look with their eyes, little boys look with their fingers and ink would end up all over. The dentist compliment a guest on her teeth, surmising that they must be porcelain and her assumed husband must be very well to do in being able to afford those for her. A faux miner asked me if I'd had a good shift when I handed in my helmet after descending the mine.
One significant tonal change did manifest itself compared to Main Street USA: while Main Street USA presented a rose-tinted, candy coated view of America's past, where everyone is a friend, each business booms and realities of unemployment, crime and hardship are exorcised, Beamish takes no shame in presenting a seemingly sensationalised (although no doubt accurate) view of the past, focusing on the dangers, peculiarities and titillating taboos of the era. A ride aboard the Pockerly Waggonway was accompanied by the tale of tenant miner who, after failing to mine the required amount of coal for his landlord, would be fired, lose his house, resort to thievery, arrested and them executed and displayed as a warning. The dentist freely divulged tales of gruesome dental practices, and recounted how false teeth would be inherited down the family - so that if someone of the time said you had your mother's smile, it might very well be literal. Stories in the mine made no secrets of the difficult working conditions, resulting health problems and numerous accidents and collapses. More than once I came across parents or grandparents telling young children "we didn't have computers when we were your age, we were put to work" or some similar comment about freezing tin baths, outdoor toilets or the school cane.
My only criticism of the museum was the occasionally bad guest control (many similar criticisms are levelled against Disney). Queues for the transportation or mines were often unregulated, and whilst the guests generally organised the queues themselves (they are British after all!), confusion occasionally arose. At the dentist, one elderly couple found themselves fumbling against the direction of the crowd after understandably missing the awkwardly placed 'Exit Only, Entrance Next Door' plaque beneath the door they came in through (I suspect its positioning was to minimize its impact on the immersion).
The museum has a number of plans for expansion. Already under construction when I visited was a backstreet, coal-fired fish and chip shop in the Pit Village, whilst a Photographic Studio in the town had recently been trialled and was set to return. Other plans include a bakery, shopping arcade, dispensing chemist, fire station, police station, gasworks and early cinema, as well as more cottages, pubs, rail stock and so on.
There are a number of reasons I liken what is presented at Beamish to a British Main Street. The most obvious of course is the time period: just as Main Street USA diverts a couple of decades each side of its 1901 setting, so too does Beamish average at a turn of the century date amongst its timeline which stretches from 1825 to 1913. Second is what is represented: many of the shops, houses and businesses included correlate directly with those on Disneyland's introductory land. Goofy's Candy would be sold in a corner sweet shop, guest dining at the Plaza Inn would be transplanted into the Pub serving traditional rural dishes, and guests would shop for souvenirs within the Co-Op. But third, and most importantly, is the feeling of the place: I have never lived in a town or village like Beamish, but I imagine I could have. Despite the sensationalized information peppered throughout the museum, Beamish is without a doubt a place you think you would like to live amongst. Beamish has created a nationally ideal community that I would suspect resonates within any Brit, where mentions of Queen, Country and Empire tug at the heartstrings and infuse each subject with a glow of patriotic pride - even, bizarrely, within an Americophile, British-republican like myself.
If Disneyland had ever been built in the United Kingdom, it is this that we would see: cobblestone streets laced with tram tracks and trafficked by penny-farthings, omnibuses and puttering motorcars. Where instead of every day being the Fourth of July, every day is Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee - June 20th 1897 - as revealed by the banners of Union Jacks strung between the lamp posts. A red telephone box on the corner leads to the sweet shop, the newspaper office, the bank, the garage, the Co-Op, the tea shop, and the local pub. The brass band would play 'God Save the Queen' from the iron bandstand surrounded by a bed of roses, poppies and poseys, gazing up the Victorian street to the stronghold of King Arthur Castle: a fortress hiding St. George's Dragon within its dungeons, and which is perched upon pure, shining white cliffs reminiscent of Dover's.
All of these thoughts and considerations revolve around one key question: with Disneyland being so quintessentially American, just what would Disneyland have been like if Walt Disney was born somewhere else - disregarding the many complications and imagining the same capitalist opportunities and industry developments had prompted Walt's pleasure park to be constructed within another nation's boundaries and based on another nation's culture? I imagine a British Main Street not in expectation of it ever becoming a reality (though every British theme park must be crazy for not building this already), but to prove that such a localised reinterpretation of Disney's Main Street USA must be possible in most, if not all, countries. I am not so arrogant as to think Britain's history is the richest - it is just the one I am most familiar with. Any other country must provide a wealth of material to replicate this conversion, and provide to locals of internationally located parks the same feelings of homecoming as Main Street USA provides to Americans.
What would a Main Street Japan, Main Street France, Main Street Hong Kong or Main Street China really look like? I would love to hear from other international Disney fans what a Main Street would like for their country; Beamish is certainly a great example of what a Main Street Great Britain could be.