Tag Archives: social history

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Chiltern Open Air Museum Celebrates 40 years

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Chiltern Open Air Museum celebrates 40 years


Building the Iron Age HouseThe Iron Age roundhouse being built at the Museum.


The Chiltern Society and Chiltern Open Air Museum have a shared history. The idea for the Museum was born on 11th June 1973 when at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Chiltern Society one member, John Willson, reported enthusiastically on a visit he had made to the Weald & Downland Museum at Singleton.


It was suggested that the Society should consider starting an open air museum, similar to the one in Sussex, of old vernacular buildings: the past houses and workplaces of ordinary people – which would otherwise be demolished and disappear from the landscape entirely. The aims of the Museum would be educational as well as recreational: it would, the Society hoped, foster public interest in the architectural heritage of the Chiltern Hills so that they would come to recognise the importance of the buildings and become aware of the need to protect others like them in the future. Buildings selected for inclusion in the Museum would be typical of the domestic, agricultural and industrial ones found in the area, dating back to the earliest ones known, and would be used to demonstrate methods and materials through the ages as well as housing exhibits of agricultural implements, domestic equipment, furniture and local crafts to give a total picture of life in the past.


It was agreed that this scheme, although worthwhile, could only be contemplated if the right conditions prevailed; in particular, donation of suitable land where the buildings could be re-erected, and a person willing to donate a great deal of time and energy to establishing and operating the scheme. The idea was passed to the Historic Works and Buildings Group (HW&BG) for further consideration.


Members of the Society began to search for a suitable site and buildings whilst the Executive Committee visited and researched other open air museums (including Weald and Downland Museum, Avoncroft Museum of Buildings, Museum of East Anglian Life, Museum at St Fagans and various other smaller projects). Staff at the Museum at St Fagans told them in no uncertain terms that they would be mad to go ahead!


After much searching the team heard that Chiltern District Council had proposed the creation of a Country Park at Newland Park and that there might be a role there for a museum which would be managed by the Chiltern Society, through a charitable trust, with day-to-day management provided by a small committee of permanent staff employed by the trust.  Any profit made would be ploughed back into the Museum.


The Council soon abandoned the idea of a Country Park but the Society opted to continue the proposed Museum on its own. Work went ahead on every front, and it is quite amazing how much was done on a volunteer basis by people then who were also holding down jobs and looking after families (this dedicated volunteer support would continue long into the future).


The first rescued buildings were two barns at Hill Farm, Chalfont St Peter. The complex was surrounded by a housing estate but the buildings were listed (which had been overlooked by the developers and Planning Authority). Listed Building Consent was given in March 1976 for demolition of the farmhouse and two barns, on condition that they were moved to the Museum. Two medieval merchant’s houses on Watford High Street, threatened by an inner ring road, were also donated and were quickly followed by a granary at Rossway Home Farm, Berkhamsted (dismantling started with a little help from boys at Berkhamstead School). St Julian’s Tithe Barn from St. Albans, dismantled many years before and stored in the gaol there, was also donated to the Museum (which had to load and transport it). Permission was given to store all of these buildings at Newland Park, until the Museum had a lease and was listed as an entity on the understanding that if the project disintegrated everything would be discreetly cleared away!


By June 1976 the County Planning sub-committee, Chiltern District Council and the College had all approved the plans and fundraising began and on 20th November 1976, after 3 ½ years of labour, the first meeting was held of Chiltern Open Air Museum Ltd. On 21st October 1978, the Museum was officially ‘launched’ at a party to the press at the Mermaid Theatre.


1978 and 1979 were busy years and building work was intense, despite the fact that the Museum still had no lease: by October official permission to erect buildings, although again at the Museum’s own risk, had been received! Elliotts Furniture Factory was dismantled and moved; Wing Granary was moved in August 1978; the Watford Buildings were coming down; Rossway Granary was dismantled and re-erection commenced; Didcot Cartshed was being re-erected as the Museum’s workshop; a contract was awarded for the re-erection of Arborfield Barn and Manshead Archaeological Society started work on the first Iron Age House. Trees were planted; plans drawn up for the car-park and footpath diversion and plans were afoot for massive fundraising activity to supplement the small-scale operations carried out by volunteers and supporters. Most notably, the Museum’s first major grant was received: £15,000 from the Meaker Trust, which funded the re-erection of medieval Arborfield Barn.


Transporting Wing GranaryWing Granary being transported to Chiltern Open Air Museum.


During 1979 the Museum opened exclusively to members of the Chiltern Society on several days, which were well attended and boosted everyone’s confidence for the future. On the 3rd May 1981, with a field for a car park and a footpath running right through the site, with a small shop in the ticket office caravan and teas served from another caravan, with Wing Granary, Didcot Workshop and the Iron Age House completed and work well advanced on Rossway Granary and Arborfield Barn, the Museum opened on a pouring-wet Sunday afternoon and 95 people braved the elements to support it. We were in business!


Since then a number of other buildings have been acquired, rescued from the threat of demolition and saved for future generations.  The Museum now incorporates 33 buildings, with 15 more still in store awaiting the funding to re-erect them (each will cost at least half a million pounds) and the 45-acre site has been further developed with the creation of a working Victorian farm and the addition of rare-breed livestock; hedges laid in the traditional local style; apple and cherry orchards and heritage crops.  A newly-refurbished Tea Room and adventure playground inspired by the historic buildings provide refreshment and entertainment for visitors, and activities to enthuse visiting families include opportunities to dress up, play with historic toys and games and even recreate the Museum’s buildings through lovingly-created scale models. On 2nd – 3rd July the Museum will be holding a small event to proudly celebrate the fortieth anniversary since its incorporation in 1976, and visitors are welcome to attend and help us celebrate.


Today the Museum, now employing 10 full-time and 6 part-time staff, is going from strength to strength.  Around 50,000 visitors are welcomed annually, with one third of these being schoolchildren enjoying an award-winning, immersive education programme. The Museum won ‘Gold’ in the Best Small Visitor attraction in the South East and ‘Bronze’ for the Best Small Visitor Attraction in England in 2013 and 2014.  A community hub, it is also supported by over 200 volunteers who in 2015 contributed 27,000 hours to the Museum. Museum staff and volunteers remain immensely grateful to the members of the Chiltern Society, who have continued to assist with its conservation work throughout the last 40 years through project funding, advice and support and, in thanks, are delighted to welcome Society members to visit the Museum with a two-for-one discount.



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Haddenham Croft Cottage

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Haddenham Earth Cottage

Haddenham Wychert Cottage

The cottage was originally built in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, in the 1840s. The cottage was at risk of demolition in the 1970s because it didn’t comply with modern building regulations.  It was saved and brought to the Museum, but was in store for many years as we didn’t have sufficient funding to put it back up.  Rebuilding started thirty years later in 2007.


A volunteer helping with the reconstruction of Haddenham cottage.

The walls are made of a special type of local earth called wychert. Wychert is only found around Haddenham in Buckinghamshire and owes it’s composition to limestone, when mixed with straw and water is creates a concrete like material. The earth walls are built on top of a plinth of limestone blocks called grumplings, these prevent rising damp and allow rain to soak away freely.

A 1910 bedroom in Haddenham Cottage

Haddenham Cottage’s 1910 bedroom.

The cottage’s reconstruction was carried out by volunteers led by the Museum’s Buildings Manager and the help of some specialist consultants. The reconstruction was a community project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The building was completed in 2015 and it cost a total of £59,000 to reconstruct. The cottage was a bit of a learning curve because a whole wychert house hadn’t been built since about 1939.

The Interior
The interior of the building is interpreted to show three different time periods in the buildings history; the 1840s, 1910 and 1977. The ground floor consists of a living room, parlour and kitchen and upstairs there are three bedrooms. The parlour has been left unfinished to show the structure and the different stages of the construction of the building. The toilet was outside in a shed like building.

Haddenham garden was planted in 2020. There is a vegetable and herb garden on one side and on the other side flowers and shrubs that would have typically been grown in a garden like this have been planted.

A Video Tour of Haddenham Cottage

Find out a little bit more about our Haddenham cottage by watching this video – make sure that you’ve got the sound turned on.

Haddenham Heritage Fusion Project

Haddenham Heritage Fusion was a very special project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund Your Heritage programme from 2013-2014. The grant enabled us to fund a Community Learning Officer to get the  local community involved with Haddenham Croft Cottage.

During the project

  • 70 volunteers learnt historic building techniques and our 2014 visitors helped build a traditional wychert wall.
  • 7 community groups from all nationalities joined in the project, sharing their own skills in return.
  • 2 historically inspired handcrafted quilts involving no less than 13 quilting groups.
  • 2 celebrations with over 120 community members including the original cottage owners.
  • 2 Bay City roller posters, 1 historic smelling washing line, 1 historic settle, 2 antique pillow cases were just a few of the artifacts donated and acquired by the local community.


Patchwork and Quilting Group outside Haddenham Cottage

Some of the community team that helped to make the patchwork quilts.

Girl outside Haddenham Croft Cottage

A former occupant sitting outside the cottage on the wall in it’s original location.

Haddenham Cottage Image Gallery




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The Happy Museum Project

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Green Ways from Yesterday

‘Green Ways from Yesterday’ was a Happy Museum Project that aimed to capture sustainable skills and practices from the experiences of older people, and celebrate the contribution these can make to a more sustainable future.

With a focus on 1940s ‘make do and mend’ thinking, the Museum worked with local community groups, charities, crafts people and food producers to share environmentally-friendly ways of living that are relevant to today.

How to…

Coming soon – Using top tips from Museum Friends and volunteers, the Young Volunteers Club produced a ‘how to’ video on being green around your home and garden.

Green Museum

Explore traditional practices around the Museum with our sustainability guide for adults or our ‘Go Green’ trails for kids. We have also created Eco Explorer backpacks for families through the project, which can be borrowed from our Visitor Information Centre.

‘Go Green and Carry On: 1940s Ideas for Today’

The project culminated in an event weekend in March 2013, which celebrated inspirational ideas on being green, traditional skills and local produce. As well opportunities to try a range of crafts and purchase delicious food, Vintage Sweethearts Harry & Edna presented exhibitions on ‘War on Waste’ and ‘Fashion on the Ration’ whilst Fiona Harrison, “A Voice in a Million”, entertained visitors and exhibitors with a 1940s dance.

With thanks to: Change4Chalfont, Rickmansworth & District U3A, South Bucks U3A, Little Chalfont Nature Park Action Group, Workaid, David Rodgers, Orchard View Farm, Ten Mile Menu, Cherish Chocolates and Chalfont Chillies.

The Happy Museum Project
Launched in April 2011, the Happy Museum Project is a pioneering programme that looks at how museums in the UK can build links between sustainability, happiness and wellbeing to leave a legacy of long-term cultural change within their organisations and communities. It is funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Arts Council England. Chiltern Open Air Museum is one of 12 museums commissioned to test out these ideas. You can discover more about the other projects by visiting the Happy Museum Project website.



Go_Green_and_Carry_on2 Go_Green_and_Carry_On3




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Library Image of Garston Forge Family

Vernacular architecture, rural life and building histories

  • Chiltern Open Air Museum has a small library and archive, looked after by a dedicated team of volunteers.
  • The collection includes books on vernacular architecture, farming and rural life; archived documents for each of the historic buildings; and photographs and slides showing buildings in their original locations.
  • Access to the library for research is currently by appointment.  Please contact the Museum Office on 01494 871117 or enquiries@coam.org.uk  The library may occasionally be open to the public during some events so that visitors can enjoy browsing the collections of books, journals and articles. Volunteers, Friends of the Museum and Chiltern Society members are welcome to borrow books for a deposit.

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About Us

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Museum in Buckinghamshire

A Beautiful Rural Museum in Buckinghamshire

Chiltern Open Air Museum in Buckinghamshire was founded by volunteers in 1976, and opened to the public in 1981.  The Museum is a charity that rescues threatened historic buildings, which would otherwise be demolished, and rebuilds and preserves them in a traditional Chilterns landscape.

The Museum now has 37 rescued historic buildings that were the workplaces or homes of ordinary people. Every building on site was once somewhere else and either lived in or used by our Chilterns ancestors. By bringing the buildings together at the museum we have built a timeline that helps to tell the story of the Chilterns – a special landscape of rolling chalk hills, traditional crafts and time-honoured ways of life that continue to inspire today.

The Museum also has a working historic farm with livestock that includes sheep, goats, cows and chickens. There are a number of small gardens, cherry orchard and Dig for Victory allotment.

Traditional Chilterns skills and living history are demonstrated through an extensive events and award winning school education program.

The Museum is a popular filming venue and has been used for filming Midsomer Murders, Downton Abbey, Mary Queen of Scots, Grantchester, Horrible Histories and lots more.

The Museum is a charity and receives no government funding. All operating costs are funded via admission charges, Annual Pass sales, private hire, filming, school visits, tea room and catering sales and donations. The Museum is run by a small team of staff and an amazing team of volunteers, fueled by cake and a passion for the Museum and its work.

Further information

Historic buildings
Working historic farm

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