In a nutshell
Over 50 historic buildings from across the Weald and Downland area of Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey and Kent have been dismantled and then reconstructed across a lovely 40-acre site in the South Downs national park. The collection of buildings represents almost a thousand years of rural life in south-east England: furnished just as they would have been in the past – complete with roaring fires – the homes, farms and public buildings. There’s a sense of exploring a real village as you stroll between them along green paths, stopping to climb the stairs of a 17th-century craftsman’s cottage to lie on the straw bed or sheltering from a shower in a smoky, 14th-century hall.
In the Tudor kitchen of the Bayleaf farmstead, visitors can taste some of the stranger sweet/savoury taste combinations enjoyed in the 1540s: beef with prune pottage and walnuts, and unusual green leaves such as lovage, fat hen, coleworts and nettles.
Best things about it
It’s an interactive experience, so you can clamber up a ladder into a gypsy caravan one minute, grind flour in the 17th-century watermill the next, and just hang out in the properties, playing. A tiny schoolhouse brought from West Wittering and dating back to 1712, for example, is laid out with wooden desks where kids can contemplate school life before the arrival of digital whiteboards and apps. We spent ages pretending to be a farming family in a thatched cottage, “cooking” in the kitchen and making up stories in a rocking chair by the fire.
Everything is subtly displayed, without gaudy signs, and the attention to detail is impressive. The museum’s Historic Clothing Project ensures staff are clad in traditionally produced clothing, to the extent that Tudor and Stuart garb is hand-sewn and coloured with vegetable dye, while Victorian-era stuff is machine stitched and chemically dyed. There’s loads going on, too, especially during the frequent events and fairs, with demonstrations of blacksmithing, dairying and spinning flax, plus noisy steam-powered timber saws at the wood yard.
What about lunch?
A picnic in the wild flower meadow or one of the pretty period gardens would be top preference, or at tables in the medieval house or Building Crafts Gallery if it rains. There’s a decent cafe, beside the millpond at the entrance (be warned, it’s a long walk back if you’re caught at the far end of the site at lunchtime). Good local suppliers such as Hairspring Watercress are relied on for a varied menu including soup (£4), panini (£5), goat’s cheese salad (£7.50), lemon and courgette linguini (£8.50) and steak pasty (£4.50). Kids’ options include fishfinger sandwich (£4), half a jacket potato (£4) or a “wattle and daub” lunchbox (£5) with sandwich, juice, fruit and cookie.
Exit through the gift shop?
It’s beside the entrance/exit but easily dodged, though it would be a shame to miss the nicely curated, tat-free stock of historical toys, Shire Library history books, children’s clothes, costumes, Gränsfors Bruk’s Swedish axes and bags of wholemeal flour from the museum’s mill.
The Stagecoach 60 bus service from Chichester to Midhurst stops five minutes away at Grooms Yard, Singleton. The nearest railway stations are Chichester (7 miles) and Haslemere (15 miles). The museum is on Town Lane in Singleton, reached via the A286 from Chichester to Midhurst. Parking is free and there are disabled parking spaces opposite the museum shop.
Value for money
Yes. It’s not cheap but it’s a special experience that easily fills a day. Plus it’s a valuable cause worth supporting. Adults £14, children 5-17 and students £6.50, under-4s free, family £38 (2+3) or £25 (1+3).
10.30am-6pm in British summer time (late March to late October), 10.30am-4pm rest of the year.
10/10. A captivating attraction that helps you imagine rural life centuries ago.
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