Border Lines

From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

Stories abound in unique Belford museum, Northumberland

A man with trench foot rescued from a morgue and resuscitated by a disobedient nurse. A woman who extracted her teeth to make way for a wedding gift of a false set. A 16th-century highwaywoman. What do they all have in common?  The answer IS: Belford.

Belford & District Hidden History Museum, tucked into two rooms and a corridor, is a treasure trove of information. Check out the visitors’ book and you’ll find entries saying, “Fascinating”, “Beautifully laid out”, “A model for other places to do the same”, “A wonderful little museum”.

Mike Fraser, one of my tweeting buddies, recently began extolling its virtues on Twitter. Intrigued, I met Mike at the newly established museum. We spent a happy time reading stories of Belford – like the day the suffragettes stopped off en route from Edinburgh to London. They received a warm welcome – unlike the jeering they endured in Berwick.

Mike, whose project on Sir William Beveridge led him to the museum, was so taken that he took on social media and marketing on its behalf. He says, “It’s unique in Northumberland. There’s no other village museum.”

But how do you create a museum from scratch? Fiona Renner-Thompson holds the key. Fiona was born nearby and can see the museum from the window of her quirky townhouse – the former stables of the Blue Bell Hotel. She is rather inspirational. She says things like, “Well you just get on with it, don’t you?” And, “It’s about little history, not just kings and queens.” And, “If we don’t record peoples’ stories they’ll be lost.”

Belford has had its ups and downs. In 1639 someone wrote, “In all the town not a loaf of bread, nor a quart of beer, nor a lock of hay, nor a peck of oats, and little shelter for horse or man.”  By 1763, with the advent of the post and the Blue Bell Hotel, it was “a neat post town having an exceedingly good inn.”

Recently Belford’s high street has struggled. And in 2008 Fiona conducted a grant-funded survey to find out what residents wanted to do about it. She included the question, “Do you think Belford should have its own tourist attraction?” 80% of respondents said “Yes.”  Fiona gathered old photographs and took new ones of buildings needing attention. She had an artist create an impression of what Belford could be like. It all came together in an exhibition in the empty bank.

“As a result,” Fiona says, “a couple of shop fronts were spruced up in heritage colours, people started planting flowers. And people began telling me their stories. That’s when it struck me that this could be the basis of our tourist attraction.”

Armed with a recorder, Fiona listened to peoples’ stories, took more photos, and gathered memorabilia. She uncovered tales of lost houses – from tiny cottages to piles such as Twizell House, demolished in 1969/70. A trunk of clothes under a friend’s bed turned out to be those of the wife of one of the richest industrialists on Tyneside.  Four themed exhibitions followed – one a year. “They weren’t just my exhibitions,” says Fiona. “You’d go along and find that someone had added a folder, or photo.”

The bank was sold and the exhibitions moved to the empty Spar shop. Retired teacher, Eric Gassner, now on the Belford Community Group, recalls the agriculture-themed exhibition, “They wrestled a plough down the high street and put it in the window. Brilliant!”  Others, such as historian, Jane Bowen, came on board.

When the shop was taken over, Fiona’s gaze turned to the Reading Room. Always intended as a community resource, it was closed and unused. Permission was given and, with grants from the Lottery Village SOS Fund, the AONB Fund (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and James Knott Trust, the Reading Room was spruced up and kitted out. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s the stories that make the museum. I wish I could tell you more – like the Old Year’s Eve when Eva Walker led Black Swan customers (including the village policeman) in a conga round the market place to get rid of them… Sadly, there’s not enough space. You’ll just have to visit.

Belford & District Hidden History Museum, the Reading Room, Market Place, Belford, NE70 7NE. Open daily 10am-4pm. Free entry.

(A version of this article was first published in the Berwick Advertiser)

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