BEAMISH VILLAGE, England — The minute Derek Berryman sees his prospective miners dressed in matching checkered shirts accented by scuffed hardhats several sizes too large, he knows they could never work.
“I’m sorry to say, but you’re not old enough to be in the mines,” he tells about a dozen 7- and 8-year-olds from Bootham Junior School in York.
Berryman tries to stress that. And he tries and tries, but during the next 30 minutes and through the winding underground paths of the Mahogany Drift Mine — the students have none if it. Their stubbornness and childlike enthusiasm for gritty and dangerous manual labor is evident from the start.
“You know a coal miner’s shift is eight hours long,” Berryman tells them, as he sits on a stool next to an underground coal seam. “It’s hard work, much longer than school. It is in the dark. And there are rats that will nibble on your dinner.”
“But school is seven hours — that’s almost eight,” the kids retort.
Berryman chuckles at being nonplussed. He changes the topic.
Sometimes, even an open-air history museum that spans 300 acres and three distinct time periods isn’t large enough to contain an 8-year-old’s imagination.
But at the award-winning Beamish museum in Northeast England, that’s OK. It’s sort of the point. You get lost in time and young or old, the imagination runs wild.
About 420,000 people got lost in time last year. So, too, have the countless others who have walked through the museum since it opened in 1970.
The museum is ever-expanding and boasts detailed outdoor exhibits like the Colliery and Pit Village, but also an Edwardian town with an amazing sweets shop and a pub featuring tasty ales, as well as a working farm reminiscent of earlier times, and an Edwardian railway station.
Entrance costs 16 pounds (about $25.50) and is free for a year after one paid visit. Beamish is about three hours by train from London, and the trip is certainly worth it. Nearby Newcastle and Durham have plenty of hotels to offer overnight guests, and those road tripping across Europe and passing through the U.K. can use the museum’s own caravanning grounds.
It’s easy to walk to and from the different exhibits, and the museum itself is partly handicapped-accessible. There are also restored trams that run throughout the museum and replica buses from the early 1900s.
Trams arrive every 20 minutes and are colored by old-time stained-glass advertisements for Newcastle Brown Ale, newspapers long since dead and other local businesses of years past.
Conductors and drivers (as well as the entire town’s population) are dressed in period clothing and speak as if it weren’t a role. Inside the houses, shops, churches and outside in the gardens every little detail is fine-tuned to the ethos and atmosphere of that particular period.
With all that said, the mining shaft and pit village are a must-see and a good starting point. It’s about a five-minute walk from the museum’s entrance.
The mine tour starts at the lamp cabin right outside the shaft. A few yards away there’s a fully operational steam-run winding engine — which sounds out a whistle from time to time — signaling different things for the miners.
Down the dirt path, about 20 yards away, is the pit village, complete with chapel, schoolhouse and pit cottages that depict the lives of an Irish immigrant family, Methodist family and a miner’s widow.
Eileen and William Disley, from Wigan, and their 10-month-old Chihuahua, Jet, were standing in the garden behind a miner’s cottage. While the tiny dog was busy hopping about, Eileen took photographs of a hand-built cage containing several singing canaries. Her husband stood next to her and took in the Industrial Revolution-era atmosphere on clear day in the English countryside.
“Well, I don’t have a big social life,” he said. “When I’m not working, I’m looking at how other people worked and how they used to live.”
This is the Disleys second visit to Beamish, and for this trip they allocated a caravan trip and much more time.
Eileen and William both said they are hugely interested in the history of the Northeast, especially since it mimics that of their own in the Northwest. Coal mining and the rail industry are two things the regions have in common. And the region’s history of coal isn’t that dissimilar from West Virginia’s. Many of the same labor, environment and political issues all apply.
“Coal mining and the industry is old and established. It’s like a political or religious belief,” William said.
Back in the mine, Berryman tells students about how miners found seams of coal. He explains back then it was possible to load parts up with dynamite, setting off an explosion that would get miners closer to the seam.
He tells students the coal bosses preferred that method and generally had no regard for their workers’ health back then. But the miners still preferred the pickax and shovel to avoid the coal dust.
“And can we breathe in coal dust?” Berryman asks.
“Nooo,” the students reply in near perfect unison.
Since the museum opened, Berryman, a native Teesider, has explored the history of his father’s and grandfather’s era.
But he never expected to do that as an employee, helping young students learn about their history.
“I never actually thought about applying after I retired. I just saw an ad on the website and thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go for this,’” he says outside the mine, after the tour is finished and the students toss their hardhats back into the pile.
The only other job he applied for after retiring from the fire service was as a teaching assistant.
In a way he says he has the best of both worlds. He guesses he’s been down the mine shaft plenty of times, even though it’s only his 10th week on the job he absolutely loves.
“I wanted something to do after I retired, but not stressful,” he said. “I wanted a challenge, to do something different and to have fun.”
His tour with the students is almost at an end, so at the closing moment, 50 feet below ground in a dark and damp shaft — lantern still glowing — Berryman finally indulges the youngsters and announces:
“We have an opening for two lads here in the mine.”
There’s an excitable commotion upfront.
“Oh, oh, oh, oh! I’ll do it!” pipe up several excited voices in the darkness.