Category Archives: Buildings

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The history of Garston Forge

In years gone by, every town, village and hamlet would have had a blacksmith’s shop at its heart. Here at the Museum, we saved and re-erected a forge from Garston. In the middle of the 19th century, Garston was a hamlet to the northwest of Watford.

Garston Forge

Garston Forge in its original location in 1982.

From the late 1850s until 1926, this forge in Garston was run by the Martin family. Early in 1859, blacksmith George Martin with his wife Susannah and their children moved from Chiswell Green to Garston. The St Albans area had been the home of generations of blacksmiths called Martin going back to the 17th century in the villages of Park Street, Nap Hill and Leavesden. The 1861 census shows George and Susannah in Garston with seven of their eight children, one of whom had died in infancy. They would later have four more children. The house where they lived had a grocer’s shop within it and at the rear, a large garden where the forge was built. The house had been called Church Cottage in what was then Church Lane, since it stood opposite All Saints Church.

A country blacksmith made and repaired hand tools and repaired farm implements as well as making horseshoes. A blacksmith in rural South Wales in 1892 is recorded to have done the following work: mended a ploughshare and coulter, made a new hatchet, mended an oven, banded two wheels, mended scythes and made gate springs.

The Martin Family

The Martin Family

An important job was the making and fitting of metal tyres for the wooden wheels of carts and wagons. Outside our Forge can be seen a tyreing ring platform where, with the old tyre removed, the wheel would be clamped, the new tyre heated on a fire and then dropped onto the wheel. This was then cooled with water, thus shrinking the tyre and clamping the wooden wheel securely. The blacksmith was an indispensable member of the community. He provided all the metal tools and implements required by the local people.

In 1890, an examination and registration system was introduced for “shoeing smiths”, a measure made to protect horses. From 1975, only registered farriers may shoe horses. Farriers would often visit stables where horses needed to be shoed and in our blacksmith’s shop we have a travelling forge and half-size anvil which the blacksmith or farrier would take with him.

The tyre ring being moved from it’s original location.

The Forge closed in 1926 and by 1982 the forge and the house were scheduled to be sold and demolished. The Museum learned about this and obtained the right to preserve the Forge. In November 1982, volunteers from the Museum dismantled it and during the summer of 1984, it was reconstructed on its present site.


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Shepherd Vans and Lambing

Nowadays, people might mainly think of shepherd’s vans as romantic holiday hideaways or useful garden offices but, during the nineteenth century, they were an important part of farming life and were regularly seen dotted around the countryside.

It’s tempting to think that they were rarely used before about 1800 but this may just be because very few old ones survive. In fact, a farming book dating from 1596 refers to them: ‘in some places the Shepheard has his Cabbin going upon a wheel for to move here and there at his pleasure’ and, even older, an illuminated manuscript from 1480 clearly shows an image of a wheeled hut.

Shepherd's living van

The Shepherd van at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Obviously, shepherd’s vans could not be used on mountainous or swampy land but they were ideal for use on lowland farms and were common throughout the east of Wales and the south of England. They were also widely used in other countries in different forms, sometimes being so small as to be little more than a hutch in which a shepherd could lie down out of the rain!

In the early days in England, there was no standard design for the vans and a farmer might ask the local blacksmith to build something. This might have been extremely rudimentary, with no lining or insulation and hardly enough space to stand up properly – just somewhere to keep tools. However, medium scale farmers could afford something better and, often, vans were bought from suppliers such as Farris Brothers or Tasker Ltd, who followed a standard design. Increasingly, after 1829, vans were made from corrugated iron but wooden ones were also still popular. They had substantial wheels with a front steering axle. This raised the van above ground level and, together with a timber lining meant it was much warmer and more comfortable than earlier, more basic versions.

Inside, the furnishings were simple but usually included a cast-iron stove which allowed the shepherd to dry his clothes and heat food. It also meant that he had hot water for washing – very welcome after he had completed some of the dirty tasks that his job required, such as scraping larvae and maggots out of scabs and infections, picking out sheep’s hooves or clipping manure-covered wool from sheep’s behinds. The van also included a simple raised bed, made of just a wooden platform and a straw-filled mattress. Under the bed, a small gated pen was often included, in which the shepherd could keep any sickly lambs that he was nursing.

At Chiltern Open Air Museum, we have a traditional shepherd’s van, dating from around 1915 and thought to have been originally used at Boot Farm, Little Kingshill. It was donated to us in 1985 and, since its restoration, has been used for its original purpose, allowing our own shepherds to remain on-site during lambing. The van is typical of the design of its age, being built of rebated feather edge boards, with diagonal tongued and grooved boards internally, which brace the structure. The wheels are cast-iron and the barrel-shaped roof is covered with corrugated iron. The van is painted in battleship grey, which was its original colour. Internally, the cast-iron stove was too badly damaged to be used but has been replaced with a similar one.

During lambing, one of our shepherds stays overnight in the van, following traditional methods as far as possible. There is no electricity, so lighting is provided by candles and lanterns (supplemented by torches where necessary!) and heating comes from the cast-iron stove which is also used to heat water used for sterilising equipment.

The two priorities of the shepherd are to help the ewes give birth and to care for the newly-born lambs. During the night, the shepherd wakes every two hours to check them. Two hours is the longest that a ewe should be left in labour without help. Ewes can usually deliver without assistance but our Oxford Down sheep tend to need more help than other breeds, partly because of their size. If they are in labour too long, the shepherd will check for problems such as poor presentation of the lamb: lambs need to be in the ‘Superman’ position, with nose and two front feet all facing forwards.

Oxford Down Lamb

An Oxford Down lamb at Chiltern Open Air Museum

New-born lambs are very vulnerable and it is important that they get enough to drink and are warm enough. The shepherds keep a detailed lambing diary which includes information about how often each lamb suckles and for how long. If there seems to be a problem with feeding, the shepherd will pass a tube into its stomach and feed it with lamb-formula milk. If a lamb needs to be kept warm, infra-red lamps are used, rather than the lamb being put in a box of straw by the stove. Concessions to modern ways are important when a lamb’s life is at stake!

Plenty of stamina is needed for shepherding! It involves broken sleep, physical exertion, worry and considerable strength; however, these are more than outweighed by its rewards. At the Museum, the work provides a welcome chance to get close to the old ways and understand how Victorian and Edwardian shepherds might have felt in the fields with only the sheep and their dogs for company. Our shepherds talk of the peaceful, special feeling they experience in the lambing folds. They become aware of the wildlife that comes out when the people leave the Museum, of the sun rising above the cherry trees and the birdsong at dawn.

The shepherd’s van is so much more than just a curious wooden hut on wheels. It is a connection to tradition and to nature and we count ourselves lucky to have one.

Written by
Paula Lacey
Museum Volunteer


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Caversham Toilets and Social History

Edwardian toilets at Chiltern Open Air Museum

COAM Caversham toilets and social history

The Museum is rightly proud of its Edwardian public conveniences. These were originally situated at the south-east corner of the bridge over the Thames at Caversham, for use by passengers of the Reading tram which operated from 1901 until 1939 and terminated at the bridge.

The conveniences were opened in June 1906. Built of ornamental ironwork, they originally provided 3 WCs for ladies, 3 for Gentlemen and 8 urinals. The exterior walls consisted of cast-iron panels which slotted into cast-iron poles and were held in place with putty. Each had five rows of panels of different heights and patterns, with most of the top row being latticed for ventilation. The whole structure was topped with a clerestory to allow light to enter; this was supported on four cast-iron pillars and finished with a cast-iron cap with decorative finials. Internally, the walls were constructed in the same way as the external walls but with no pattern except on the top row. The individual components were all standard catalogue parts, but the building as a whole was custom-built to conform to the detailed requirements of Reading Council. The total cost of the building, including erection, was £1051.

The conveniences were open each day from 6.00am until midnight to avoid people ‘committing nuisances at a late hour’ because the public urinals were closed. An attendant was always present and, for the penny that it cost to use the toilets, would provide each customer with a freshly-laundered towel in a sealed wrapper.

Caversham toilets in their original location

By 1980, the toilets were no longer required and, as no other practical use could be found for it, the now-derelict building was marked for demolition. However, it was of particular interest to COAM, partly for its historical value and partly to provide much-needed toilets on site. Therefore, in 1985, the building was dismantled by a team of volunteers and re-erected in its current position. The toilets were opened in 1991 with the final finishing touches – the cast-iron MEN and WOMEN signs – being added in June 1999.

When you look at the pictures of the sad, dilapidated building in Caversham and then at the smart, useful toilet block as it now is, with its wonderful Edwardian detail, you realise exactly what it is that the museum achieves. However, more than this, the building represents a much greater issue in our social history. Had it been erected a few years earlier, there would have been no need for the ‘WOMEN’ sign because public toilets were generally not provided for women in Victorian Britain.

Womens sign on historic toilets

Public conveniences began to be provided from 1851 onwards, largely following the Great Exhibition held in that year, but they were only for men. One explanation is that this was because women were too modest to answer the call of nature when away from home; certainly at this time they were seen very much as living in the ‘private sphere’, staying at home, submissive to their husbands.

However, the lack of public toilets greatly affected the extent to which women could leave their houses. They had to plan their excursions to include areas where they could relieve themselves and so often travelled no further than the homes of family and friends. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘urinary leash’, a form of control of women’s activities.

From the 1850s onwards, the Ladies Sanitary Association campaigned for the provision of women’s toilets. They had some success as women’s toilets slowly began to be opened throughout Britain. Interestingly, some of the first were opened in the West End of London in the 1880s to allow women to shop for longer. However, erection of women’s public toilets was often opposed by men who objected to them being placed next to men’s toilets and sometimes took to sabotaging them. It was not until the advent of the First World War, when women began to work in the public sphere that the provision of women’s toilets really began to be taken seriously.

Written by Paula Lacey, Museum Volunteer


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COAM Opening Day 3rd May 1981

The Chiltern Open Air Museum ticket office in 1981

Chiltern Open Air Museum’s ticket office in 1981.

Imagine the scene on the morning of Sunday May 3rd, 1981. The volunteers who had been working on the development of Chiltern Open Air Museum since the land was acquired in 1978 were making last minute preparations for the formal opening. Hand-painted notice-boards were being erected around the site, the twenty wardens were being given last minute instructions and cakes were being delivered by the caterer. This was the culmination of months of planning and hard physical work and, with five buildings complete, or in progress, everyone was excited and anxious. Would visitors come? Would it all have been worthwhile?

COAM ticket office 1981

Visitors waiting outside the museum’s ticket office in 1981.

Unfortunately, by the scheduled opening time of 2pm, heavy rain and strong winds had set in but, despite this, a substantial number of people did brave the weather to support this new venture. On arrival, visitors parked in the field that was acting as the temporary car park and bought their tickets at the old caravan which served as a ticket office for the first six years. On opening day, these tickets were 50p for adults, and 20p for children and over-65s; the price had been kept low to reflect the limited number of buildings on display.

Once they had their tickets, visitors walked along the side of what is now Thomas’s field to the museum entrance, at the site where the Forge now stands.

The first building that they would see was the Wing granary, a baker’s flour store dating from the 1820s. This building had not been dismantled to move it to the Museum and apparently had caused quite a stir as it was transported across Buckinghamshire on a low-loader!

Rossway Granary in 1981

Rossway Granary under construction in 1981.

Close to the Wing granary, visitors could view the slightly older Rossway granary. This had been dismantled for its move from a farm near Berkhamsted and, although its re-erection was progressing well, it was still incomplete.

Nearby, was the Arborfield barn, thought to date from around 1500. The thatching on this cruck barn had been completed in April although, at the time of opening, the woven oak in-fill of the walls had not been put in place.

Arborfield Barn 1981

Arborfield Barn in 1981.

Not far away was the Iron Age House. This, of course, had not been moved there but was a reconstruction built by the Manshead Archaeological Society, based on archaeological finds around the Chilterns. Access to it was made slightly difficult by the fact that, at the time, a public footpath ran through the museum site. The path had to be fenced on both sides to stop walkers wandering into the museum and a warden was stationed at a gate to allow visitors through to look at the Iron Age House.

Chiltern Open Air Museum's Iron Age Roundhouse in 1981

The Iron Age roundhouse in 1981.

The final building on display was the mid-Victorian Didcot cart shed, located at the rear of the site, by the old car park. A second caravan stationed here provided refreshments.

In addition to the buildings, visitors could view an exhibition of old tools and farm implements which were awaiting repair, and enjoy a Nature Trail through the beautiful Chiltern countryside.

Was the opening a success? The Chiltern Society News* records that 100 people braved the elements to visit the museum on that opening Sunday and all claimed to have had a lovely time. The next day, Bank Holiday Monday, the sun shone and 500 visitors arrived.

Chiltern Open Air Museum carpark in 1981.

The Chiltern Open Air Museum car park in 1981.

The plan was to open every Sunday afternoon and Bank Holiday Monday throughout the year. The weather seemed determined to ruin this plan as it rained almost every Sunday that year and Spring Bank Holiday was a washout. However, despite the weather, the difficulty people had in finding the Museum through a lack of sign-posts and the very muddy car-park, by mid-June the museum had recorded 1500 visitors. By the end of September, this had risen to 6000.

Looking back forty years later, there is no question about whether the Chiltern Open Air Museum is a success. There are now 37 buildings on show with another 15 in store awaiting erection. The Museum is a popular place for school-trips and holds a large variety of events and experience days every year. In 2019, it welcomed more than 56,000 visitors. During 2020, although the number of visitors was reduced, it offered a very welcome respite from lockdown – a place where people felt safe and relaxed and could still enjoy the beautiful location. Bring on the next 40 years!

Written by Paula Lacey
Museum Volunteer

*Chiltern Open Air Museum was started by a group from the Chiltern Society.


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Christmas Advent in our Prefab 1952

Volunteer, Richard Martin, tells us what Christmas was like when they lived in a prefab in 1952.

The arrival of Christmas was a much quieter affair when we lived in the prefab than nowadays. The nearest church was a 3 mile walk away, not that my Mum and Dad had time to be religious, there was no television and our radio was what was called a ‘wireless’ which I never understood as it was full of wires and valves and things. This was used for football results on a Saturday and the comedy hour around our Sunday midday meal which we called dinner!

So, the lead up to Christmas was truly seasonal, foggy November was replaced by a cold and icy December which signaled that the anniversary of the birth of Jesus was just around the corner. Once I started school the rehearsal for the nativity play was the first indication that celebrations were at hand. My participation in this was small until one year I was chosen to play the part of the Christmas tree that had been overlooked in the forest because it was too small. Then a poor family with some happy children came along and dug me up then took me home to make me the centre of their Christmas. Not sure I or the tree ever recovered from that!

1940s prefab living room dressed for Christmas

The 1940s prefab at Chiltern Open Air Museum

The first moment that my sister and I realised something Christmassy was at hand was about mid-December when arriving home from school there would be a large canvas wrapped parcel sitting on the fold down kitchen table. It was sealed with wax and coarse string and covered in the most amazing array of coloured stamps with pictures of kangaroos, koala bears and a large bird, the kookaburra. Our parcel from Australia had arrived!

My aunt and uncle had moved to Sydney in 1947 on a £10 passage and set up a business selling ‘lollies’ as they were called but sweets to us. It went very well and they generously shared their success with us at Christmas. This was a mixed blessing for my parents as they could have been part of the story but were not prepared to risk leaving everything and going to the other side of the world

Many types of food was still on ration in the UK in the early 1950s and this meant we saw very few special treats, so tins of pineapple, apricots, ham and those lollies created huge excitement at number 153. We were told to keep our good fortune to ourselves as many others were not so lucky. The parcel was put out of sight ready for a ‘surprise’ on Christmas day.

Christmas preparations would now begin in earnest, we made paper chains from strips of coloured paper which were gummed at each end, these tasted awful when licked. They broke easily and would come unstuck in the damp cold front room and we would get up to find them spread on the floor in the morning.

There really was not much money about and Dad would acquire a Christmas tree from somewhere and bring it home on the bus. We would hang out the kitchen window waiting for him to turn the corner. He would appear with the tree over one shoulder looking like one of the seven dwarves heading home from work.

The decorations were kept from year to year in a box on top of the wardrobe, the fairy for the tree was a rather stiff hard plastic beauty who had lost most of her hair so was adorned with a make shift tinsel tiara. She stood at attention at the top of the tree with a rather limp wand and ruled all she surveyed. The supporting cast of decorations was a ragbag collection of small animal characters and glass balls which smashed into a thousand pieces when they fell onto the lino floor.

There were no tree lights but we had an ancient collection of clip on candle holders with a metal frill to catch the wax. Few of the candles matched and these were never lit for the risk of fire. However, with strands of tinsel and ribbons of crepe paper we thought our tree magnificent especially with the lights out and the flickering flames from the fire in the sitting room.

This was the only form of heat in the whole prefab and heated the water for the once a week bath we shared. It was very cold and on Christmas morning Dad was up first and lit the fire to warm the house through.

In fact, my sister and I had been awake for ages in expectation of the day ahead, we each had a large woolen sock of Dad’s which was filled with nuts, a few sweets and a tangerine to open first. Next came a pillowcase of presents mainly from Father Christmas and aunts and uncles which we all opened together in front of the fire wrapped in our thick dressing gowns.

Next came the opening of the parcel from Australia but that curiously never seemed quite as plump and well wrapped as it when it first arrived! The contents welcome none the less and helped opened my eyes to another world of hope and plenty.

The stamps were carefully steamed and dried ready to go into my stamp album after Christmas, this was the joy there was always something around the corner.

My recollection is of a bright happy day always with the sun shining, although I am sure that was unlikely, we had a chicken for Christmas Dinner, a once a year event, probably traded for a couple of the rabbits that we kept. Winter vegetables from the garden and steamed pudding completed the fare

After dinner we had small presents from the Christmas Tree, a pencil, a Matchbox car and a diary, the reminder that school was just a few days away.

The evening was spent playing cards, sevens and Newmarket, port and lemon and beer for the grown ups and Corona lemonade for us.

Oh Happy days!!


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We need your support

We would usually open every year daily between the end of March and October. However the Covid-19 emergency means we haven’t yet had the chance to open our doors to the public in 2020.

As an independent museum and charity, we receive no government or local authority funding and have now lost all our regular income from tickets, Annual Passes, events, weddings, school visits, filming and our shop and café. This represents around 80% of our total income.

This loss of income is incredibly worrying. We have some reserves that will keep the basic essentials of the museum ticking over for a few months. However the reserves we have built up over several years mean we’re not necessarily eligible to apply for many of the Covid-19 grants available to museum and heritage charities. While it is good news that we have these reserve funds to keep us secure for a while, the real danger from the loss of income due to the forced closure is that we may not have the opportunity to generate enough income over the 2020 season to survive through the winter 2020-21 closure. Even if the government relaxes the rules allowing us to open in the summer, it is likely there will be restrictions on activities and visitor numbers for a further period which will inevitably limit our ability to recover the lost income.

The management team have reduced outgoings as much as possible and the majority of staff are now on the Government backed Furlough Scheme. Nevertheless a number of essential staff are needed to keep the museum going, to ensure the 45 acre site is secure, maintain the building collection, and feed, water and care for the livestock of goats, cows, chickens and a flock of sheep now increased by around 16 lambs in the last month.

Our beautiful site is a popular place for wellbeing, learning and calm and our museum, like many, is therefore appealing to the community, heritage enthusiasts and supporters for help. We’re asking people to pledge their support by buying an open ticket to visit the museum when it re-opens, to buy an Annual or Lifetime Pass, make a donation or sign up to be a volunteer.


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Ideal Gardens in the Prefab

At the close of the Second World War, as cities and towns were recovering from the devastation of bomb damage, there was a very real need to find homes for those who had lost theirs and for soldiers returning from the front lines. Luckily, the government was not blind to the problem and turned to an innovative and as yet little-known method of building – prefabrication. A quick fix was to build large numbers of temporary homes – or prefabs – that could be made in factories, speedily trucked across the country and bolted together by workers, often German and Italian prisoners of war, in a matter of hours.

1940s prefab at Chiltern Open Air Museum

1940s prefab at Chiltern Open Air Museum

More than 150,000 of these jaunty one-storey homes rolled off the factory production line (although Churchill had plans for many more). At first somewhat suspicious of these new-fangled homes, residents soon grew to appreciate their new digs – finally, a home to call their own. And what a home! Every prefab had two bedrooms, hot running water, an indoor toilet and often a gas-powered fridge: mod cons that many could only dream of in war-time Britain. No wonder, then, that the prefabs became so loved. They were meant to last just a decade – a mere stopgap as the country got back on its feet – but many of the prefabs are still standing, with residents often fighting to hold on to them.

Living room in COAM’s 1940s prefab

“The spacious bedrooms and living room, the integral drawers and cupboards, the huge windows the large garden and Anderson shelter coal shed were, to us, more palace than prefab,” recalls Neil Kinnock, who grew up in a prefab in Tredegar, south Wales.

Each prefab had a generous front and back garden and it didn’t take long for tenants to start using this new-found space to grow fruit and vegetables. The government encouraged this – How To Grow Food: A Wartime Guide helped people adapt to austerity, and the wartime Dig for Victory campaign was still on everybody’s minds. Also, growing fruit and vegetables was necessary – in 1947, bread and potatoes were rationed for the first time. Many supplemented their diets with apples, raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries and blackcurrants grown in their back gardens.

For those unfamiliar with gardening, help was at hand: the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) Garden Gift Scheme began in April 1946 to brighten and smarten up newly built prefabs, which often stood on little more than barren building sites or land only very recently cleared of bomb debris. Through the scheme, WVS volunteers collected plants and seeds from donors, often in the countryside, and delivered them to new residents.

Vegetables in COAM’s prefab garden

The popular WVS scheme asked for flowers, vegetable seedlings, shrubs, trees and hedging plants. It was taken up with such enthusiasm that a prefab garden even featured at the Chelsea Flower Show every year from 1947 to 1955, exhibited by the Women’s Voluntary Service. The WVS prefab garden included a replica of a prefab made from felt and stucco and the approximate amount of land usually allotted to a house. The exhibits aimed to demonstrate to visitors the best way to gain the most from their prefab plots, while showing how the gardens could be used as a means of self-sufficiency. The prefab garden was planted with all manner of flowers, along with a vegetable patch that included herbs which, during rationing, really drew interest from the crowds. The prefab exhibits proved to be a tremendous success and helped spread the word about the Garden Gift Scheme. And in 1949, the Queen Mother even sheltered in the prefab when an inopportune rainstorm hit the Chelsea Flower Show.

Visiting prefab gardens was very much part of the royal calendar. On 30 July 1947, Princess Elizabeth visited bombed areas in southeast London with officials from the London Gardens Society. “She particularly admired the prize-winning garden of Mr WC Bodger, a railway foreman, and asked if she might inspect his prefabricated house,” reported the Illustrated London News on 9 August 1947. Queen Mary was a particular champion and often visited prefab gardens in London. The WVS even ran a competition, offering a silver trophy presented by Queen Mary to the best prefab garden. A Mr and Mrs Hale won the prize in 1947 for their prefab garden in Bethnal Green.

COAM’s 1940s prefab bedroom

By 1948, it was estimated that at least 15,000 homes had been helped in London alone though this scheme, and the idea had spread to 28 other towns and cities across the country. In 1949, Dorothy de Rothschild, from the Homes and Gardens Department of the WVS, wrote to The Times: “This scheme has brought us into close contact with thousands of tenants of temporary housing estates who had never had any previous opportunity for gardening. Owing to the encouragement brought by a tangible gift, many householders have planted their gardens and have been surprised and thrilled to see them flourish.”

By the early 1950s, with the fear of rationing receding, prefab tenants converted parts of their gardens into a play area for children or into elaborate flowerbeds. Slowly, front gardens were given over to lawns and flowers, a sure sign of social stability.

Vegetable plot in COAM’s prefab garden

Gardening became a shared hobby among prefab residents. Typical estate layouts, with footpaths, alleys and low fences, encouraged people to look at the neighbours’ efforts and there was certainly a healthy sense of competition. Best garden layouts and flowerbeds garnered prizes and residents were not shy about sprucing up their green spaces with wishing wells and even the occasional gnome.

Prefabs: A social and architectural history by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova, is out now, via Historic England, £20

By Sonia Zhuravlyova
Soniazhur@gmail.com


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Building the WW1 Nissen Hut

At the start of my last blog, I remarked on the three whole months that had passed since I last wrote something for our website. That blog was written in the early months of this year and published in March. That was six months ago – I appear to be getting worse!

Anyhow, moving swiftly on from my optimistically overestimated number of blog posts, to what the Buildings Team have been getting on with this year, and what I, the Buildings Trainee have been doing to get in the way. Since March, I have unfortunately had a significant amount of time away from the museum due to ill health, however since being back I am hoping to make up for the time that I missed.

The woodcarver, Colin, who I had hoped to meet earlier this year, kindly let me into his workshop last week for an initial visit. During our meeting, he showed me around the studio, introducing me to the projects that he and his team were part way through and also took me out on site for a quick tour around his current live project. As it was only the initial meeting I unfortunately don’t have any photographs to share, but if you are interested in the work of an extraordinary local woodcarver, check out the website www.lillyfee.co.uk

As it was my intention at the end of the last blog to explore the decorative side of conservation work, I have joined Colin and his team on one of their evening woodcarving courses with the intention of following up with some work experience.

Although it doesn’t look like much, this piece is the result of the first hour and a bit working with chisels in an official woodcarving capacity. There is a lot of refining to do, however I’m pretty pleased with the outcome so far…it looks pretty much how it’s supposed to!

Also planned for this year was starting the elm barn in Tewin, using the timber collected from the woods in December. I attended a course, coincidentally alongside previous HLF Building Trainee Sam Rowland-Simms, and had an amazing time putting in to practice some of my slightly rusty framing skills. Lots of photos were taken over the frantic week working among the sprightly Spring lambs in the scorching* sun and the following snow. I also had the opportunity to re-join the course leaders, including Sam, for two days the following week. We spent those two days going over the previous weeks work, correcting any minor issues and starting the remaining cross frames.
*mildly warm, but enough for no sleeves.

I had hoped to return to Tewin to continue assisting with the construction over the summer months, however my illness put the kibosh on that. The barn has since been raised and looks spectacular in the September sunshine. Hopefully, I will be well enough to return to help with the cladding, tiling of the roof etc.

Returning somewhat closer to home, the Nissen Hut project is well under way and construction has commenced. The panels which John, myself and the volunteers have been putting together since the end of last year have started to piece together like a jigsaw…ish.

With each passing day, the Hut has grown in some way or another. This is my first build with the Museum and has been so incredibly exciting to be a part of.

End of day one

Day two

Day three

Day four

Day five

It was also this day that I decided to treat the volunteers…to a table during break for the paper cups of tea. I do know how to spoil the team!

Day six

Day seven

Day eight

Part of the Hut build that I have had more involvement in is the linen windows. We knew from various records that these would contribute to the most accurate representation of the hut, yet none of us were 100% sure on how to do it. So after I researched oiled linen and oilcloth and determined what was useful for this project, the boss and I had a go at making windows.

This image shows the difference in the linen after one coat of a 50% boiled linseed oil and 50% white spirit mixture.

These images show the difference in transparency after two coats of the same mix.

After quite a while drying, the windows were then fitted just in time for out Meet the Tommies event weekend in September at the Museum.

Conclusion of the oilcloth window experiment is that it worked pretty well and lets in a surprising amount of light to the hut. Notes for replacement windows: make the canvas tighter as windows shouldn’t billow!

For the foreseeable future, completing the Nissen Hut will be our primary focus, with urgent maintenance and repairs fitting in as and when they arise.

The woodcarving course continues in to December, so I shall update you with my progress around Christmas time…no idea which Christmas it will be though.

Written by Jess Eyre
HLF Buildings Trainee


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A Buildings Team update

When I started at the museum, I had hoped to write a blog every month or so to let you all know what I/we were up to. This was seemingly quite optimistic as it has been about three months since my last post!

Here is a little bit of what I have been up to recently and since my last update…

Previously, I told you all about the doors to our Edwardian public conveniences, Caversham. These have since been fitted and I have encouraged all of the volunteers to go and gaze over the fabulous paint job. I don’t think they have gazed quite as I had imagined, but the doors are in, they work…mostly…and the rest of Caversham is hopefully going to get a new coat of paint later this spring.

I have also gone and completed my Asbestos Awareness training. This will prove to be invaluable when working with our old buildings, and also after I leave the museum, as asbestos was such a widely used material in pre-1919 buildings and continued to be used in construction up until the end of 1999.

Chapel Studio:

Since starting at the museum I have put some thought in to what I want out of my time here and what I have to offer the team. Having been very focused on more of the structural side of heritage buildings, I decided to take a look at some of the decorative disciplines within the industry.

From the end of November, and every Tuesday for the following 3 weeks, I spent the day with the team at Chapel Studio in Hunton Bridge. From my first day I was well looked after, fed chocolate whilst listening to Christmas songs, and introduced to the techniques and methodology used in making stained/leaded glass windows.

To start with I was offered the use of the clear glass. Given the prices of some of the coloured pieces, I was more than happy to stay away from those for a bit!

Step one was to create a template. I was advised to include both straight lines and curved lines to get used to using the cutters and this is the product of that lesson.

I had to amend the initial design slightly as I had neglected to take the thickness of the lead into consideration.

Step two was to select my glass and cut it. Although all of the glass I chose was clear and not coloured, I spent time choosing different thicknesses and textures. I ended up with a piece of frosted glass, some thick, modern, flat glass with a green edge, pieces with an embossed pattern on one side, and some very thin, delicate fragments with small air bubbles in.

After cutting the glass, the third step was to start leading the lights. This was a bit trickier than I had imagined and really showed the accuracy, or inaccuracy, of my cutting skills.

Once the lead had been fitted to the glass, and I was happy that it represented the template precisely, they were soldered in to place. This, obviously, is a vital part to get right as the risk is of the panel falling to bits under its own weight. I’m proud to say that this was executed almost perfectly! Although they could all have done it a lot quicker than me.

After four days with the team, this was my finished product. I am very pleased with how it turned out and especially how much I leaned in those few days. The very specific and different stages that make up a leaded glass panel was interesting to discover and the labour that is required to make from new but also restore existing windows was not something I had really appreciated. At some point soon I hope to return to learn some more about the techniques and methods used for painting the details on to glass panels.

Elm Barn:

Just after my final day at the studio in Hunton Bridge, I returned to the more structural side of heritage buildings and made my way to a woodland just to the South of Cambridge. Here I helped a team of four collect the last few elm logs for the building of a timber barn. This was hard work to say the least and I was grateful for the buckets of tea that were supplied.

After a morning collecting timber, we headed back towards Welwyn Garden City where the brick plinth for the barn was in the final stages. Here our logs were added to the huge piles of previously acquired elm and larger pieces of oak, all of which are to be converted towards the end of February for use building the barn.

The main reason for my attendance here was to have a go at bricklaying and help with the brick plinth. I laid a few bricks while I was there and some of the other members of the team continued to mix lime while the sun set.

Nissen Hut:

Here at the museum, we have continued to make some headway with our current project, the new Nissen Hut.

Before Christmas the templates for our panels were being made in the workshop, and this year already we have stormed through 11 of the 16 floor panels. As with some of the previous projects, I have enjoyed drawing pictures on our whiteboard to try and keep all of the volunteers up to speed with the current part of the project. Here is my attempt at illustrating the many components of the floor panels…there is quite a lot missing still but I ran out of space.

Each semi-circular end of the hut is made up of five main sections: the central part of which contains the door, the sections containing the windows which flank the door, and the smaller panels on the outside edge. These outside edge panels, four all together, have now been completed.

For the 16 floor panels, each of them over 8’ long and over 4’ wide, we have had to individually prepare each floorboard. By this I mean we have had to:

  1. Remove excess sawdust, residue and resin from both sides – this can affect the machinery that we send the boards through and also give inaccurate readings for measurements if not removed.
  2. Check that each board is over 1” thick along the majority of the length – as the boards need to have a smooth, planed side, they need to be over an inch so that they can be planed to the same thickness.
  3. Cut each board to 5¾”wide – each panel consists of nine boards, 8 of which are this width.
  4. Check the grain for direction of cupping and determine the topside of each board – the boards are being placed on the panels so that any distortion lifts in the centre, rather than at the edges.
  5. Send the board through the planer/thicknesser, topside up – this gives a smooth top surface and makes all the boards the same/correct thickness.
  6. Create the tongue and groove – this entails sending the boards through the machine three times.
  7. Fit the boards to the panels.

For the 16 panels, this process has to be completed for each of the 144 floorboards!

Once the floor panels are finished, there are six more panels for the end walls to be completed, the ribs still need to be modified, the brick piers have to be built, and quite a few more bits and pieces….more to follow in later updates.

Over the next couple of months, I hope to explore the decorative side slightly more by visiting a local wood carver. I have also booked a week to help construct the elm barn by Welwyn Garden City, and I am looking at further framing courses at the Weald & Downland museum to broaden my understanding. The Nissen Hut is due to be finished and opened this year so I will be continuing to help with that along with the scheduled maintenance on the other buildings.

Hopefully, in there somewhere, I can get back to send you all another update of where we’re at…

Written by Jess Eyre
HLF Buildings Trainee


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10 things that you might not know about COAM

Amersham prefab at COAM

10 things that you might not know about Chiltern Open Air Museum

  • The Museum has seen an increase of over 90% in visitors over the last 4 years!
  • Over 21,000 school children visited the Museum for school workshops in 2017.
  • The Museum has over 200 active volunteers and we couldn’t run without them.
  • The Museum has 14 buildings in store waiting to be reconstructed on the site, we just need to raise the funds so that we can do this.
  • The 14 buildings in store are all stored flat packed within Glory Mill, which is one of our historic buildings. It’s like our own historic Ikea!
  • The Museum is a charity and any profits go back into the Museum so that we can continue the valuable conservation work that we do.
  • The Museum currently only has 7 full-time members of staff, 8 part-time members of staff and 2 Heritage Lottery Funded trainees. Due to the increase in visitor numbers mentioned in point 1, this will be changing for 2018 so keep an eye on our vacancies page if you’re interested in joining our team.
  • The Museum’s farm was used for filming in series 2 of Downton Abbey.
  • The Museum has been used for filming 35 TV programs/dramas/films since 2011.
  • Our buildings are named after the place that they were rescued from.

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