Weald & Downland Living Museum, West Sussex: ‘Helps children imagine rural life centuries ago' – review

With its historic cottages, schoolhouse and farms, exploring this interactive family attraction feels like strolling through a real village

In a nutshell

Over 50 historic buildings from across the Weald and Downland area of Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey and Kent have been dismantled and then reconstructed across a lovely 40-acre site in the South Downs national park. The collection of buildings represents almost a thousand years of rural life in south-east England: furnished just as they would have been in the past – complete with roaring fires – the homes, farms and public buildings. There’s a sense of exploring a real village as you stroll between them along green paths, stopping to climb the stairs of a 17th-century craftsman’s cottage to lie on the straw bed or sheltering from a shower in a smoky, 14th-century hall.

Fun fact

In the Tudor kitchen of the Bayleaf farmstead, visitors can taste some of the stranger sweet/savoury taste combinations enjoyed in the 1540s: beef with prune pottage and walnuts, and unusual green leaves such as lovage, fat hen, coleworts and nettles.

Best things about it

Children playing traditional games at Weald and Downland Living Museum, West Sussex
Children playing traditional games at Weald and Downland Photograph: PR

It’s an interactive experience, so you can clamber up a ladder into a gypsy caravan one minute, grind flour in the 17th-century watermill the next, and just hang out in the properties, playing. A tiny schoolhouse brought from West Wittering and dating back to 1712, for example, is laid out with wooden desks where kids can contemplate school life before the arrival of digital whiteboards and apps. We spent ages pretending to be a farming family in a thatched cottage, “cooking” in the kitchen and making up stories in a rocking chair by the fire.

Everything is subtly displayed, without gaudy signs, and the attention to detail is impressive. The museum’s Historic Clothing Project ensures staff are clad in traditionally produced clothing, to the extent that Tudor and Stuart garb is hand-sewn and coloured with vegetable dye, while Victorian-era stuff is machine stitched and chemically dyed. There’s loads going on, too, especially during the frequent events and fairs, with demonstrations of blacksmithing, dairying and spinning flax, plus noisy steam-powered timber saws at the wood yard.

A blacksmithing demonstration at the museum; Weald & Downland Living Museum, West Sussex.
A blacksmithing demonstration at the museum Photograph: PR

What about lunch?

A picnic in the wild flower meadow or one of the pretty period gardens would be top preference, or at tables in the medieval house or Building Crafts Gallery if it rains. There’s a decent cafe, beside the millpond at the entrance (be warned, it’s a long walk back if you’re caught at the far end of the site at lunchtime). Good local suppliers such as Hairspring Watercress are relied on for a varied menu including soup (£4), panini (£5), goat’s cheese salad (£7.50), lemon and courgette linguini (£8.50) and steak pasty (£4.50). Kids’ options include fishfinger sandwich (£4), half a jacket potato (£4) or a “wattle and daub” lunchbox (£5) with sandwich, juice, fruit and cookie.

Exit through the gift shop?

It’s beside the entrance/exit but easily dodged, though it would be a shame to miss the nicely curated, tat-free stock of historical toys, Shire Library history books, children’s clothes, costumes, Gränsfors Bruk’s Swedish axes and bags of wholemeal flour from the museum’s mill.

A farm cottage in the middle of a field at the open-air museum.
A farm cottage in the middle of a field at the open-air museum. Photograph: Olaf Protze/Light Rocket/Getty Images

Getting there

The Stagecoach 60 bus service from Chichester to Midhurst stops five minutes away at Grooms Yard, Singleton. The nearest railway stations are Chichester (7 miles) and Haslemere (15 miles). The museum is on Town Lane in Singleton, reached via the A286 from Chichester to Midhurst. Parking is free and there are disabled parking spaces opposite the museum shop.

Value for money

Yes. It’s not cheap but it’s a special experience that easily fills a day. Plus it’s a valuable cause worth supporting. Adults £14, children 5-17 and students £6.50, under-4s free, family £38 (2+3) or £25 (1+3).

Opening hours

10.30am-6pm in British summer time (late March to late October), 10.30am-4pm rest of the year.


10/10. A captivating attraction that helps you imagine rural life centuries ago.



Gemma Bowes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Take the kids to … Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds
A world-class weaponry and armour collection, from rare swords to an umbrella gun, is on display at this excellent, free family-friendly museum

Phoebe Taplin

12, Apr, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Take the kids to … Chester: A Life Story, Cheshire
A new heritage attraction in Chester aims to tell the story of the city through its people

David Atkinson

02, Apr, 2019 @11:39 AM

Article image
Take the kids to … Windermere Jetty, Lake District
This new ‘Museum of Boats, Steam and Stories’ celebrates the heritage of England’s largest lake through exhibits, workshops and trips on the water

Phoebe Taplin

26, Mar, 2019 @11:10 AM

Article image
Take the kids to … Western Approaches, Liverpool War Museum
A reopened secret wartime bunker that was used by Churchill and staffed by WRNS and WAAF personnel offers an educational day out – and the cheapest cup of tea in the land

David Atkinson

08, Feb, 2018 @1:48 PM

Article image
Horniman Museum, London: ‘Interactive, intelligent and inspiring’ – review
The new World Gallery raises the bar yet further for this free local institution, brimful of music, nature and dazzling displays from cultures the world over

Gemma Bowes

28, Jun, 2018 @10:11 AM

Article image
St Albans Museum & Gallery: ‘A reason for locals to feel proud’ – review
It’s a bit of an oddball but this free museum brings the city’s Roman and recent past to life in ways kids can enjoy rather than endure

Emily Mathieson

28, Aug, 2018 @11:11 AM

Article image
Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum, Dorchester: ‘The youngest prisoner tried here was seven’ – review
This new Dorset museum lifts the lid on injustices handed down at the historic court with interactive guides and some grisly facts

Kari Herbert

07, Aug, 2018 @12:15 PM

Article image
Take the kids to … People’s History Museum, Manchester
A march through Britain’s political and social history may sound heavy-going but clever curation, family trails and interactive exhibits will delight visitors of any age

Jenny Elliott

27, Mar, 2018 @9:30 AM

Article image
Take the kids to … The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Treasures abound at this grand museum that, amid the ancient pots and classic paintings, has plenty to keep kids entertained

Oliver Balch

06, Aug, 2019 @10:43 AM

Article image
Take the kids to … Brooklands Museum, Weybridge, Surrey
Get driven to distraction at this celebration of cars and planes, bicycles and buses that makes for a high-octane day out

Isabel Choat

15, Apr, 2019 @12:27 PM