Entering Amberley Museum feels as though you are entering a time capsule. As you walk from the entrance across the Village Green, you are very likely to see a 1930s Southdown Bus and hear a carefully-restored steam train making its way along the narrow-gauge railway.
In the background, an old engine chugs, while in another direction, you might hear a wheelwright tapping a spoke of oak into a sycamore hub or see a bodger creating a chair leg with a wooden lathe. You are drawn in and soon find yourself immersed into a celebration of many of the rural crafts and industries that kept our county working and moving for generations.
The old chalk quarries at Amberley, in which this open museum is situated, were operational for over 100 years until the 1960s and their mortar and cement were transported by river, road and rail across the south east. As this industry came to an end, its wealth of Victorian architecture and artefacts were, thankfully, recognised to be worth preserving and the museum was established in 1979.
Over the years, the museum has expanded dramatically and has become nationally recognised for its industrial railway collection, the de Witt lime kilns and the Southdown bus collection dating from the inter-war period.
It has opened a centre for wood turning, a tools and trades workshop and houses collections from the South Eastern Electricity Board and BT, with strong links to the Worshipful Companies of Paviors’ and Plumbers.
In the print workshop, you will find an impressive 1856 Columbian Eagle flat-bed press and a magnificently complex Linotype machine used in newspaper production.
Everywhere you go, the exhibits are working and this is possible only because, at Amberley, there are people here who can make them do so. Every workshop is staffed by volunteers who are skilled in the industry on display, and perhaps one of the museum’s greatest achievements is that it provides a place for all these highly-talented people to keep their skills alive and share what they have learned with others.
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has interfered with school groups coming to see and learn from these experts but Louisa Jones, learning officer, has been developing new initiatives to ensure the museum is continuing with its longstanding commitment to education.
In the meantime, the Friends remain very active through the leadership of Martin Pigott and this has undoubtedly helped to preserve the powerful sense of friendship and community that greets you when you visit.
Indeed, it is this sense of community that has led to the development of an ambitious project to encourage those who have become isolated and lonely to participate in the daily life of the museum. As director Valerie Mills explained, volunteers do not need to have specialist skills but they are greatly valued and quickly find they are able to make new friends and connections.
The trustees and their team have been able to ensure that this tremendous asset in the heart of West Sussex is on a sure footing for 2021. And I join them in looking forward to the end of the pandemic so that, once again, they can introduce us all to the sights and sounds of traditional Sussex industry.
For more general information visit www.amberleymuseum.co.uk or phone 01798 831370.
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