My visit to Amberley came about when a friend suggested a cultural outing, which we hadn’t had together (for obvious reasons) since the Postal Museum at the end of February. Though I know he’s been taking public transport, I’m still not comfortable with it (though I have a dentist appointment on the day this post is being published that I’m going to have to take a train to, so I’m going to have to get comfortable right quick), so I suggested an open air museum that Marcus and I could drive to that would have the added benefit over traditional museums of being mostly outdoors once we arrived. There are three open air museums within an hour and a half drive of us: Chiltern Open Air Museum, the Weald and Downland Museum, and Amberley Museum. I was leaning strongly towards the Chiltern Museum and its Edwardian toilet block with carbolic soap, since I was thinking that’s exactly what I would need to scrub up mid-visit, until Marcus discovered that part of A View to a Kill was filmed at Amberley, and that decided it, since I am far fonder of the Moore and Connery Bond films than I should be (given how sexist and racist most of them are).
I had only seen said friend once since the pandemic started (when he came and sat in my back garden and I talked to him from inside the back door), but Marcus had been spending time with him, so I had to accept that like it or not, we were probably already in a “bubble” with him (though can anyone explain how the bubble system actually works, because I sure can’t), and if Marcus was exposed to him, I essentially was anyway, so I might as well hang out with him too and just try to keep my distance (this was back in August, before things started to tighten up again). I had booked our tickets in advance as instructed by the website; you have to book for one of three time slots: 10-11:30, 11:30-1, or 1-2:30. All this means is that you have to arrive at some point within your time slot, but once inside, you can stay until the museum closes at 4:30 if you wish. Tickets cost £13.60 per adult. I booked a few days beforehand and all the time slots except the earliest one were still available, so we ended up with the 1-2:30pm one since it was an hour and a half drive away and I’m not a particularly early riser on a Saturday (or any other day for that matter, unless I don’t have a choice).
Amberley Museum is built on the site of a former chalk quarry, so it is a lot more industrial in nature than some of the other living history museums I’ve visited. I was honestly pretty underwhelmed for the first section, since it just felt like we were passing through room after room full of machinery and tools that I couldn’t care less about. Though it is an open air museum, it of course has a lot of buildings you can go inside, and more mini-museums than I was anticipating, so we ended up spending more time indoors that I had envisioned when I suggested it. Amberley does require masks inside the buildings, and everyone was complying as far as I could see – they also only allow one group at a time in the smaller buildings, and most of the living history demonstrators are not currently there, I guess to ensure that we were the only people inside the buildings at one time, though they are still running the narrow gauge railway. The cars have open sides, and they only seat one family group per set of seats, but I suppose you ride at your own risk.
The site is bigger than it looks at first appearance, so I would recommend arriving no later than 1pm to have time to see everything before they shut, since we were a bit rushed towards the end of our visit. The quarries were initially owned by a father and son team whose surname was Pepper, and for some reason, the museum just kept referring to them as Pepper and Son without telling us what their first names were, which led to a lot of amusing speculation on our part as to how stupid their names must be for Amberley not to tell us. Finally, at the end of our visit, I discovered they were called John and Thomas. How disappointingly boring (though admittedly funny when put together)! Although the museum started strictly as an industrial museum in the 1970s (the pits closed in the 1960s), it acquired a lot of crap from other sites over the years, and today houses a number of small museums, such as a TV and radio museum. I would pooh-pooh the slight sexism of the intent behind the adorable parrot, above right, which was meant to sit on top a record player to make it more palatable to the “lady of the house”, but I do love it and would totally have it in my house, so I guess it’s accurate despite its sexism, at least where this lady is concerned. As we would see throughout Amberley, this museum had way, way too much text to read everything, especially as a lot of it was boring and technical, so we skimmed at best.
My favourite part was probably the Electricity Hall. There were so many fun retro things in here, from neon anthropomorphic lightbulb signage, to a bizarre “portable bath” (as you can see below left, it was neither small nor light, and was invented in the 1950s, when indoor plumbing would have been reasonably common, so I don’t understand the point), and allegedly the world’s first vacuum cleaner, invented in the early 20th century (I definitely remember seeing older vacuums at the Hoover Historical Center, but maybe they weren’t technically vacuum cleaners if they weren’t self-powered?).
I learned a number of fascinating things here, not least the existence of a thing called the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, and the fact that my friend is apparently grossed out by “museum cheese.” To start with the former, the Seashore Electric Railway was a viewing platform built on top of skinny legs that ran along a railway track that actually went into the sea. It was built in the 1890s, and rather creepily nicknamed “Daddy Longlegs” on account of its appearance. It initially only ran a few hundred metres, but they eventually extended it to a couple of miles. It sounds like a wonderfully weird bit of Victoriana, and though I’m slightly freaked out by it, I’m also sad that it doesn’t still exist! The museum cheese thing (as in the fake cheese they put inside old timey food displays in museums) was less of a surprise, since I knew my friend hates actual cheese, but I didn’t think anyone could actually be freaked out by fake cheese (I’ve already asked my learning officer friend if she has any museum cheese in her handling collection that I can borrow to gross out my other friend the next time I see him). This museum also had a tonne of interactive stuff, which I wasn’t keen on touching in the current situation, but other people were. I guess at least they had hand sanitizer dispensers situated at strategic points throughout the building.
There was also a railway exhibition that my friend was very excited to see, but I was much less enthused, so I basically just left him to it and wandered through the museum until I came across a display on the filming of A View to a Kill, accompanied by a clip from a 1985 BBC film programme that showed some of the filming and interviewed Roger Moore whilst he was sitting in Amberley Museum. I happily stood there and watched the entire thing whilst waiting for my friend to catch up.
Of course we had to then go over and see the actual filming sites. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the film, but the scenes showing the outside of Zorin’s (the baddie, played by Christopher Walken) mine were filmed here, as you can see above right, and they also still have the mine carts painted with Zorin’s logo, and the pit that the annoying “geologist” Bond girl that does nothing but helplessly scream “James, James” the entire film climbs out of to escape from the mine, and I was obviously pretty excited about all of this.
I also adored the mannequins in the oddly named “Connected Earth” display (which frankly sounds like a health food shop or something), which were some of the creepiest ones I’ve ever seen. The one with the braids honestly looks like she could be some kind of East German Bond villain herself! This exhibition also had interactives, including a particularly annoying one where you could set off various alarms. I was convinced there was a fire alarm going off somewhere until I saw the display – they might want to rethink that one!
By the time we’d seen all these exhibitions, it was getting close to closing time, so we kind of rushed through the craftspeople’s village and a couple buildings with information about the quarries, which was fairly easy to do since there weren’t actually craftspeople on site, so not a whole lot to see (it does look as though you can normally buy some of their wares though, should you be so inclined). There is also a sculpture trail, and you will probably pass some of the sculptures as you make your way through, but they’re really not a selling point, as they were some of the ugliest sculptures I’ve ever seen, except for a few bird ones (they were so ugly I didn’t even take any photos to show you).
Although I was initially disappointed at the largely industrial nature of the site and the very text-heavy technical displays (the real old-fashioned small print text at that), the exhibition halls largely won me over, even though I ended up spending more time inside than I was planning on as a result. I think they had some sort of a sweet shop that we didn’t go in, but I was also kind of disappointed they didn’t have a ye olde bakery or chippy like Blists Hill (still my favourite living history museum), even though I don’t really think this is the same sort of place. If it wasn’t for the exhibition halls, I would have rated it much lower, but as it is, I’m going to give them 3/5 (though I think there’s probably some work to be done on their Covid procedures with all the interactives). We spent more time here than I anticipated, and I honestly kind of liked that there weren’t living history interpreters on site because I always find it kind of awkward to interact with them (especially the amateur actor kind that insist on staying in character), but I do think some of their text panels need an update, and I probably would have had a bit more fun if I had visited in the before times when I would have felt comfortable touching stuff.