Small is beautiful at the Weardale Museum, County Durham
PUBLISHED: 08:33 04 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:07 20 February 2013
Dedicated to the area's lead mining past, Weardale Museum is the smallest in County Durham - and it's celebrating its 25th anniversary
What do you think this is? asked David Heatherington, Secretary to the Trustees of Weardale Museum.
He handed over a carved piece of wood, about eight inches in length, engraved with initials and a date in the 1800s. It has broad hook at one end and what looked like a short handle at the other with a hole though it lengthways, and it has a deep cleft in the wood.
There is usually a group of people in the space which is the main display room of what is the smallest museum in County Durham when David brings out this object (or another in the collection).
Its a bit of a game, said David. Each member of the group has a look at the object and tries to guess its origin or use. Most people manage to pick something up about it, and weve had some very imaginative guesses.
But the vast majority fail identify it - just like me.
The object (see bottom of the article for its origin) is one of hundreds of fascinating artefacts at Weardale Museum, which is this month celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Just off the main road through Ireshopeburn, west of Stanhope, one of the three main rooms of the museum is kitted out like a lead miners cottage in Victorian times, with furniture, clothing, books, ornaments, workaday items and all manner of interesting pieces, which have mostly been donated by local people.
There is an impressive fireplace, a beautiful grandfather clock and gorgeous wooden cupboard.
Most people in those times would have one or two nice pieces in their cottage - a clock, a book case or a table - and of course weve examples of them all, said David.
They have been known to turn down pieces though.
Someone offered us a period washing machine, but we had to say no. There just isnt room to accept and display everything sadly.
Unlike most other museums, those who visit are encouraged to touch and feel the artefacts - rummage though the cupboards and pick up the items arranged for inspection on the table.
The museum in inextricably linked to the adjoining quite lovely Methodist Chapel next door, which is itself celebrating its 250th birthday this year. In 1984 the Chapel was being renovated, but funds didnt stretch to what had originally been the Manse next door.
It had been unoccupied for 15 years and was in a sorry state, but it inspired a local miner, Bill Proud, to suggest it would make a fine museum dedicated to the area. Bill is no longer with us, but his widow Jean is still museum treasurer and his collection of crystallised mineral and fossils are housed in the upstairs room of the museum.
David and his wife, Jean, who live in Westgate, have also been involved since the start. And like all the other 30 or so trustees and friends, maintaining the museum is a labour of love - they are all volunteers and theres no paid staff - and there are no subsidies or sponsorships. About 1,500 people a year visit and it takes about 3,500 a year to run.
We are strictly independent, said David, and there is pride in the achievement of maintaining and running a museum which tells the story of the history of Weardale.
The other room in the museum is dedicated to John Wesley and the history of Methodism in the area. The adjoining High House Chapel - simply beautiful inside and out - is the oldest, continually used Methodist chapel in the world still to hold weekly services.
The museum is also home to The Weardale Tapestry - five panels of exquisite tapestry made by five local ladies. It was started in July 2005 and finished in February 2009 and depicts different periods of the developing history of the area.
And on the wall going up the stairs is a fabulous example of quilting made by Amy Emms MBE, a very well known Durham quilter. It is modern, but was made specially for the museum and represents the traditional Dales craft.
Although Jean let us into a secret. When Amy Emms daughter came to see it, she told us it was hung the wrong way round! But the reverse displays the wonderful quilting, and she didnt seem to mind.
Right way or wrong way, the quilt is part of a little gem of a museum in the middle of Weardale, which has a great deal to celebrate.
The mystery item is a knitting stick, made as a love token by a man for his lady - its her initials that have been carved into the wood. The cleft and hook goes into your belt and the hole in the handle is to hold one of three needles used to knit items such as socks. Now the cats out of the bag.
Weardale Museum is open in the afternoons excluding Monday and Tuesday, May to October; every afternoon though August and on Bank Holidays. There will be a celebration for stewards and supporters on May 14 in the Town Hall at St Johns Chapel and an open day - with free entry all day - on May 31. Crafts days are also planned - matting and quilting. Details from the website www.weardalemuseum.co.uk