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The Rural Life Centre, Tilford

Founded: 1973        Governance: Independent Trust        Scope: Vernacular architecture, local history    Visited: Spring 2016

On the website of the entirely fictional Framley Museum it states "The museum was founded in 1882 when objects of local interest began to gather in the field where the museum now stands, due to the natural action of the wind and rain", and wandering around the extensive site of the Rural Life Centre at Tilford might give you something of the same impression. In fact it was all a bit more deliberate than that. The idea of rescuing buildings that illustrate vanishing ways of life, especially rural, 'folk' life, and re-erecting them in open-air museum settings, started in Scandinavia a very long while ago. The idea was transplanted to Britain at such institutions as the National Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagans (1948) and the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum (1967). What began life as the Old Kiln Museum at Tilford, founded by Mr & Mrs Jackson, was a bit of a latecomer in the field, and always had more local ambitions, its collection consisting of a variety of  buildings from the immediate few miles around. Nowadays these are enlivened by a small light railway which chuffs around the site, a steamroller, and a smattering of animals for children and others to coo over.

It has to be said that after a strong start with a post-war prefab - I'd never been in to one before, and visiting Tilford's was a decidedly odd experience - things were not looking good. The whole area around the Old Kiln itself needed a bit of attention: its displays of gently rusting farm equipment and bewildering labels were a little taxing even to the interested. We went on an excursion to the relatively new WWII Polish refugee camp and though you could see what they were getting at that was a wee bit flat as well. But the experience picked up when we met one of the volunteers at the very newest exhibit, a cycle repair shop from Frimley Green, redolent with the aroma of grease and oil (and the shop, ho-ho), and thereafter we found the buildings increasingly atmospheric and the colossal collections of stuff in the shed-like display galleries fascinating if somewhat overwhelming. I had no idea eggs were once sold in wayside vending machines as an act of rebellion by a group of farmers against the Egg Marketing Council, but now have seen one of the mechanisms in the flesh and my life will never be the same. We had some pretty nice cake at the end of the visit, too, quite worn out with rural bygones and peopling the buildings with imaginary residents.

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