Chiltern Open Air Museum
Chiltern Open Air Museum
This museum of vernacular buildings lets you visit a Victorian farmyard, a 1940's prefab, Medieval fields, an Iron Age house, or almost 30 other historic buildings. If, after all that, you need a break, just pop into the Edwardian public convenience.
This 4 acre museum was founded in 1976 to rescue and restore historic buildings throughout the Chilterns area that might otherwise be destroyed and lost forever. Rescued buildings are carefully taken appart, transported to the museum site, and meticulously reassembled.

More than 30 historic buildings are set within a mix of park and woodland countryside. The museum has just a few full-time staff and relies on over 200 volunteers to preserve and present their historic collections. The museum is regularly used as a location for filming, and was used in the popular BBC drama 'Downton Abbey'. It is also used as a venue for regular historical reenactments.

What to See

The short version of 'what to see' is 'a bit of everything', for the museum covers such a wide array of vernacular buildings, covering every aspect of life in the Chiltern region over the centuries.

One of the most interesting features is a working Chilterns Farm, where visitors can see traditional farming methods and equipment in use. The farm buildings are laid out to show how a traditional farm might have looked over the years from 1800-1950. Farm buildings include a threshing barn, brought from Chalfont St Peter, a cart shed and stable from Marsworth, a cattle byre from Borehamwood, and a granary from Rossway.

Other highlight buildings include the brick and stone Toll House from High Wycombe, and historic forge from Garsham, and an 18th century barn from Leagrave, converted into a pair of cottages in the 1770s. Recorded interviews with members of a family who lived in one of the cottages in the early 20th century have helped restore it to show how it would have looked in 1920. The cottages are joined by a central stair, allowing visitors to go up the stair in the 18th century and come down in the 1920s.

Arborfield Barn (c) Basher Eyre
Arborfield Barn (c) Basher Eyre
Another highlight building is Astleham Manor Cottage, a medieval hall house from Shepperton, Middlesex. Henry VIII is said to have used the house as a hunting lodge. The cottage houses the museum's library, with archival collections on the history of the museum's buildings and on vernacular architecture in general.

Then there is a 16th century barn from Northolt, Middlesex, used for storing hay. Try your hand at building a timber-framed building using a scale model inside the barn.

Prefab Buildings

Another historic building is the late Victorian vicarage room from Thame. This prefabricated building was erected in the vicarage garden and used for lectures and church meetings.

Still on the subject of prefabricated buildings, look for the Nissen hut from Sewell, Berkshire. Originally used as a farm building, the hut has been fitted out as a WWII briefing room, and visitors can enjoy trying on RAF uniforms and gas masks. A later 'prefab' is a postwar bungalow erected on the Finch Lane Estate in Amersham. Intended as temporary accommodation to deal with a housing shortage after the end of the war, many of these 'temporary' bui;dings stayed in use for 3 decades. In the garden is an Anderson Shelter serving as a garde shed.

An Edwardian Loo

A popular building - for practical reasons - is the Edwardian public conveniences from a tramstop in Caversham, Berkshire. Built in 1906, it retains its original fittings, including wash-basins, wc bowl, and urinals. It also still fulfils its original puropse as a public toilet, and is stocked with carbolic soap to add an extra touch of authenticity.

One historic building is not moved from elsewhere; the Iron Age thatched roundhouse is a replica of a traditional circular Iron Age home, built using original tools and techniques.

Images are copyright as noted, republished with gratitude under a Creative Commons license