Britain has a lot of history, and heritage coming out of its ears, but it’s not all stately homes, worthy-but-dull museums and nerd-heavy battle re-enactments. The booming nostalgia industry throws up some fantastic participatory experiences. Here’s five of our faves.
Beamish, County Durham
Britain’s best open-air museum puts you right in the middle of daily life a century or two ago, with painstakingly reassembled buildings and re-created streets showcasing the years 1825 and 1913, from manor house to pit village. Any puzzling questions (What was that used for? What age can my kids start down the mine?) are fielded by costumed guides who share an absolute passion for their regional history, whether they’re driving the steam locos or serving in the sweet shop.
Wartime Weekend, Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester
The 1940s go with a real swing, from the afternoon tea dance to big band night, in Ramsbottom’s fabulous annual dress-up-and-join-in wartime festival. Steam trains on the East Lancashire Railway heritage line take enthusiasts right back to the days of starched uniforms and flouncy dresses (vintage gear is de rigueur), complete with jive competitions, marching bands, church coffee mornings, wartime markets and sassy troop entertainers. This is one place where you do mention the war.
Kentwell Hall, Long Melford, Suffolk
There’s only one place to get the lowdown on sixteenth-century fashion, or hear about the latest, newfangled farming implement, and that’s at Kentwell’s meticulously observed re-creations of daily Tudor life. It’s a full-immersion experience, with living, working, talking Tudor folk, rich and poor, going about their daily lives – right down to a steadfast incomprehension if asked about anything from a later age. Want to learn about spinning? There’s no app for that so you’ll have to listen carefully.
Eastbourne Victorian Festival, Sussex
Relive the glory days of the Empire in Eastbourne, when Britannia ruled the waves, bodices were big and whiskers even bigger. The town’s annual Victorian festival is an excuse for dressing up and showing off, whether you’re joining the icy sea-dip or attending music-hall gala night at the theatre – and Queen Victoria herself arrives by train to be met by singing schoolchildren and local dignitaries.
Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience
Sword-fighting sailors and roaming press gangs add a real whiff of authenticity to Hartlepool’s eighteenth-century seaport, where the oldest British warship still afloat, the HMS Trincomalee, takes pride of place. Quayside guides in period get-up point out the highlights, from a dramatic sea battle in the Fighting Ships show to good old-fashioned games of hopscotch and skittles. Cause any trouble, and you’ll be on eighteenth-century community service (that’s rat-catching duty, landlubbers).