West Midlands

Bank Holiday Weekend Part 3 – Dudley: The Black Country Living Museum

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After spending a diverting afternoon at the Pen Museum, we hurried over to the Black Country Living Museum, as they shut at 5, and it was already approaching 3.  The Black Country Museum is a living history style museum, with old-fashioned shops, that attempts to portray what they call the “unique culture” of this former mining region. However, after the “greeting” we received, there was really no conceivable way I was not going to be salty about this place. The woman working at the admissions desk was clearly pissy about the fact that we had a 2 for 1 coupon (though I’m not sure why, since it’s not like it was cutting into her pay, and secondly, why would they even have the offer if they don’t want people to use it?), and informed us, rather snottily, “We recommend you spend at least two and a half hours here.  It’s on twenty six acres.”  I glanced at my boyfriend, and replied, “Well, we’ve nothing better to do, so we may as well stay here.”  She then handed my boyfriend his annual pass through Gift Aid, and told us, “One of you can come back for free, but not both of you since you only paid for one ticket,” glaring at me the whole while.  I wish I could pretend that the old biddy didn’t sour me on the place, but I hold grudges, so of course she did.  Of course, if the museum had ended up being amazing, I probably would have come around, but sadly, that was not the case.

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As you can see, it was still pretty damn cold, since there was actual snow still on the ground, so it probably wasn’t the best day to come.  Furthermore, the admissions biddy failed to mention that the real reason it was a bad time to visit (other than the twenty six acres), was because all the shops closed to have a 15 minute tea break at some point between 3 and 4.  There are many things about English culture that I still don’t understand, and this is one of them.  If you’re leaving at 5, why on earth do you need a tea break at 3:30?  I’d just as soon leave 15 minutes early, without putting the extra pressure on my abnormally tiny bladder.  It’s not like anyone working there was doing much besides standing around their respective shops anyway, so couldn’t they have just drank a cup of tea whilst doing that?  I guess I shouldn’t begrudge them their break just because I’ve never been allotted a tea break in any of my crappy jobs, but I feel like someone could have mentioned it to us, as it severely restricted the available activities.

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I do feel like the Black Country Museum was largely intended for children, as the few shops that were open had activities geared towards them (I suppose the same could be said for Blists Hill, which we visited the day after, but there was still plenty for us to do there, as you’ll see in my next post), so the main diversions available to us consisted of buying sweets from the limited selection at the sub-par sweet shop, or choking down some of the soggy chips from the village chippy.  Another thing that annoyed me about this place (it’s a long list), was the lack of historical continuity.  I suppose it’s because the Black Country Museum has the rather vague goal of showing what a vibrant region the Black Country was, but it just resulted in this bizarre historical mish-mash where a bus ran through Victorian town,  and a 1930’s picture house stood next to an Edwardian tailor shop.  It may well have been set over twenty six acres, but most of that was empty space, so there were really only a few buildings from each of the disparate eras.  We wandered around the place a couple times, which only took half an hour, and were kind of at a loss as to what to do next, until we spotted the mine tour.

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Random 1940s interior

I’m so glad we went into the mine, because it was the one saving grace of the whole experience.  We put on the obligatory hard hats (for good reason, those ceilings were low!) and followed our guide inside.  The tour consisted of stopping at various points inside the mine, where wax figures (score!) were stationed, and a recording would tell us their story, with occasional amusing commentary from our guide.  It was surprisingly scary, as we had to bend over most of the time to avoid bumping our heads, so it felt really closed in, and it was dark in there, since we were only given one torch per four people.  I could barely see the path in some areas, and was genuinely worried I was going to trip and knock out a tooth or something (I’m so paranoid about my teeth), but I managed alright.  In addition, the stories of the miners were accompanied with some loud sound effects; I’m pretty scared of sudden loud noises, and I could sense some were forthcoming, which only added to my sense of foreboding.  That said, there were loads of children on our tour, and they seemed fine, so if you’re not a complete weenie like me, I’m sure it’s not scary at all.  It was still fun though, and the best activity there by far!

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The mine tour took half an hour, so afterwards we popped up the hill to go in the only building we hadn’t before, which was filled with a small assortment of vintage vehicles. We didn’t see any reason to stick around after that, so after a poke around the gift shop to buy some postcards, we left after only an hour and a half. (Two and a half hours, my ass, as I said obnoxiously loudly within hearing of the admissions biddy at the time.)  I’m sorry to be so negative about the place (well, not really, under the circumstances), because I do genuinely want to enjoy every place I visit, especially if I’m paying good money for it (a hefty £15.50 without the 2 for 1).  To be fair, even if the lady hadn’t set me off at the start, I still wouldn’t have thought the Black Country Museum was a great example of a living history museum (though I have to say, it was better than Hale Farm in Ohio, where I had the misfortune of working as an intern for a brief period one summer).  It lacked direction, as though it didn’t really know what kind of attraction (or historical period) it wanted to be.  It’s difficult for me to recommend it when Blists Hill so far surpassed it, and is only an hour away. Plus I never even got to see the Crooked House pub, which is also in the area, such was my haste to get away from the Black Country Museum.

I’m giving it 2/5, and that’s only because I enjoyed the mine tour.

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Bank Holiday Weekend Part 2 – Birmingham: Pen Museum

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Most of the places I’ve featured on here recently have been fairly mainstream, so I’m going to remedy that now with a hefty dose of quirk.  After spending the night in Tetbury (and arriving too late to see the Police Museum and their collection of restraints, much to my sorrow), we drove up to Birmingham.  The Pen Museum wasn’t on our initial itinerary, but some of our original plans fell through, and we were looking for other unusual attractions in the city when we came upon the Pen Museum.  I joke around about wanting to visit the Pencil Museum quite a bit, so a Pen Museum seemed like a good alternative.  Did you know that prior to the advent of the biro (ballpoint pen), Birmingham was the centre of the pen industry?  You’ll learn all this and more upon stepping through the gates of this superb little museum.

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The pen museum was free, which was surprising, and amazingly nice, as I think they would certainly be justified in charging a modest admission fee.  When we first walked in, it appeared that the Pen Museum was concentrated in just one room, which I didn’t have a problem with, as that room was crammed full of display cases and pen-making machines.  However, we soon found out that there was another, even larger room in the back, thanks to the very eager volunteer who came over to tell us about the museum when we arrived.  The volunteers were the usual sort of passionate eccentrics you often find in specialist museums, which I think is lovely.  I always love to see people who are really intensely into some obscure subject, and I sense that I’ll end up as one of those eccentrics myself in about forty years time.  I didn’t ask many questions, mainly because I was a little overwhelmed at the sheer volume of pen paraphernalia, and I didn’t feel I knew enough about pen manufacturing to ask an intelligent question, but if you do have one, these are the people who’ll have the answer.

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The front room housed most of the actual pens, and had buckets of surplus nibs just hanging around on shelves.  They also had packaging that the various pens came in, including one for the “devil’s own pen,” which was a cleverly the model for lefties, due to the traditional association of the left side with evil.  One wall was lined with the pen making machines, with signs explaining each step in the pen making process, and accounts from children who had worked in the factory during the Victorian era.  They also had a small collection of Braille slates, which I thought was cool since Mary Ingalls (yes, Little House again) is described as using one, and it was nice to see the mechanics of the thing myself.  They had a little mock schoolroom set up in the alcove for children to practice their penmanship, which we passed as we were directed into a separate room at the back of the building.

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A man emerged from the depths of the pens, and offered to play us a short video on badge making, to go with an accompanying case of badges.  We acquiesced, as you do, and the video provided an unexpected spot of humour when one of the workers was describing the badge making process: Worker, “And now, we take them for litching.”  Interviewer, “Litching?” Worker, “Yeah, where we litch them.”??? So I still have no clue what litching is, but it was pretty classic.  I was especially keen on this room because they had interactives, and I love activities, particularly when there are no children around so I don’t have to be polite and let them have a go first.  There were a bunch of old typewriters set up to type on, which was so much more clicky and satisfying than a computer; and a table full of pens, ink, and paper, so you could try out your best handwriting.  I learned calligraphy in elementary school, and I obviously retained none of it, since I could only get the pen to write in a weird skinny line, though I did manage to smear ink all over my hand.  They also had a cool machine where you could see how fast you could stamp nibs, and I completely failed (the man working there helpfully informed me that all the children finish with ten seconds to spare, which made me feel even better about it), but I’ve always known I have lame reflexes, so no surprise there.

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There was another charming video in the calligraphy area, with a few elderly women describing working at a pen factory, and the one old lady was awesome.  She told some story about stuffing a banana with cotton wool to trick her boss, which cracked me up since she was in her 90s and adorable.  The rest of the back room was more cases packed with pens and pen accessories, like blotters and inkwells.  Almost everything in the museum was meticulously labelled, so if you actually stopped to read everything, you could pass quite a bit of time.  Foolishly, we had anticipated it not being that great, so we only paid for 90 minutes of parking, but in the end, I had to be dragged out, since there was still so much to look at.

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Bearing in mind that this is coming from a person with no particular interest in pens, believe me when I tell you that this place is incredible.  It’s a very old-fashioned style of museum (no computery things here, obviously, as that would interfere with the pens), and I adored it.  Please come here if you’re anywhere in the area, and make sure to leave a donation if you can, because this place deserves it.  They have great volunteers, and everything has been lovingly curated, but it seems like the people running it aren’t exactly getting any younger, so it would be a shame to see this place close.

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I’m giving it a well-earned 4/5.  The bank holiday series shall continue tomorrow, and don’t worry, my next post will be much snarkier, since I did not much enjoy the next attraction…

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