I first discovered the brickworks by accident as I was researching things to do for the Easter break. A brickworks you say? Sounds dull. And yes, it could be, in the wrong hands. But this museum is run by volunteers, and they are possibly the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers you’d ever have the pleasure of meeting. Not just for Fred Dibnah Fans, the Brickworks has made a huge effort to appeal to families and children – no easy task given that the brickworks were abandoned in 1974 and left to decay for 2o years.
Founded in 1897 the brickworks closed in 1974, being too expensive to convert them to meet modern Health and Safety Regulations, and in 1990 the Grade II listed site was sold to Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust for the token sum of £1.
They were saved because of their unique history. For some reason the Victorian brickworks were never updated and when they closed the men working there were working in just the same way as their Victorian and Edwardian forefathers. The site has been recognised nationally as one of high significance and is the only steam driven brickworks left in the country.
The Brickworks were turned into a museum in 2007 and in 2012 received a Heritage Lottery Grant of £660,000 to help create a fully functioning museum open on a regular basis. The works are due to complete in 2015 and various works in progress can be seen around the site.
We visited on Father’s Day which happened to be the Country Fair Gala Day. Gala days are held once a month on a Sunday and each have a different theme. The admission on a Gala Day is a £1 extra on top of the ordinary admission fee, and the museum is normally open on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
On arrival we were confronted by a man dressed as a cow unicycling and playing a bugle which was highly amusing to the 5 year old and slightly alarming to the 1 year old. The site is an old industrial site, and as we had been warned to expect, the paths and flooring are uneven and you need to take care. Crossing the narrow gauge railway line we passed the miniature railway to get to the reception and soon realised that we should have brought some cash with us. Having become accustomed to museums including all attractions within the entrance price we were caught out when we realised that we would have to pay extra for the train rides on either railway, and that there were stalls which would only take cash. The children, having already spotted the trains were determined to ride, and so a quick trip back to the car and search for a cashpoint ensued for my husband whilst we amused ourselves with a large collection of vintage penny slot machines which take old pennies. I happened to have a little bit of change with me which allowed me to obtain five old pennies to use on the machines.
My husband returning triumphant we commenced our tour of the brickworks in the only sensible way possible with two small children, by feeding them in the café. There are tables in the café and also out in the adjoining room which contains the slot machines and outside overlooking the playground. There isn’t a lot of room and large pushchairs will get in the way (as we discovered with our enormous 3 wheeler), but there are two highchairs and the food is reasonably priced, with a choice of sandwiches, jacket potatoes, pasties and sausage rolls. We sampled the sausage buns, and promised ourselves we would go back for tea and cake later, having salivated over the display of home made cakes.
Suitably fortified we wandered off into the brickworks. Initially, the museum reminded me of the museums I visited as a child, with large display boards and explanations but little in the way of interaction. This improved as we went around the displays, and it was possible to see where the museum is headed in terms of making the brickworks more appealing to younger visitors.
The museum tells the story of bricks and brickmaking from the early days right through to industrialisation. The idea behind the route around the museum is to take visitors through as if they were a lump of clay being turned into a brick.
We were rewarded with gasps from the children when we got to the brickmaking machine and the first signs of interactive displays, as there was a box of plastic cogs for the children to play with and experiment with and it allowed me to discuss with the 5 year old how the machine worked.
My son, who is 20 months and a fan of all things moving and mechanical simply stood and stared, fascinated at the moving parts of the machine.
There were volunteers on hand giving explanations and if I had been allowed to listen (children not being particularly patient) I am sure it would have been very interesting.
Moving into the boiler room we met a volunteer who offered to let us try the model steam engine, and explained how it all worked and then told us a little about the history of the boilers. My daughter was more willing to listen here as she could touch the miniature model – touching things being a necessary part of looking at them when you are five.
At this point we nearly missed the next section of the museum as it wasn’t obviously marked but we made our way into a room with further display boards and a video playing. I had no time to take in any of these exhibits before my daughter ran off to examine the model office complete with manual typewriter and old style telephone. She was rather taken with the typewriter but more impressed with a wooden box filled with sand with odds and ends hidden in it including bolts and cigarette cards. I couldn’t see anything explaining the contents, but quite possibly missed this as my daughter darted between displays with a typical 5 year olds attention span. Also in this room were a blackboard and an invitation to try to work out wages in todays money and a spinning wheel setting out a typical day for a worker in the brickworks.
The rooms led to the drying room and past the recently installed lift. This is the only lift in the building and is labelled as a disabled lift. There was nothing on the lift to say whether or not it could be used for pushchairs but having checked, you can indeed use the lift for pushchairs without having to notify staff you are using it.
We came out of the brickworks into the courtyard next to the Kiln and found stalls, country and western singing, dogs to pet, a working blacksmith and tractors for clambering upon. There were also a large selection of vintage cars on display. Having amused ourselves exploring those, I kept seeing children carrying small clay animals and bricks around and determined to try and find out where these came from as I hadn’t spotted any signs. I eventually found this in a room adjacent to the café with a door leading into the courtyard. On offer was a free clay modelling activity, and a brick making activity for which it was suggested you donate a £1. My daughter spent quite some time making an elephant before abandoning it in favour of making a brick. Also in the room were rabbits and guinea pigs on display, being groomed by their keeper.
No visit would have been complete without a trip on the train which is priced at £1 for an adult and 50 pence for a child for one trip or £2 per adult and £1 for a child for three trips on either railway. The tickets can be used on either train. We tried the miniature railway first, which is of the ride on variety, which takes you on a short run around the back of the brickworks and back again. The narrow gauge railway has carriages and takes you up to the car park the reverses back to the station, and past the carpark on the other side of the road before coming back to the station. The volunteers explained that they would like to build a circular track eventually and that would certainly improve the experience. Both railways are short rides but very enjoyable. All the monies charged goes towards restoring more narrow gauge locomotives.
I discovered, just as we were thinking of leaving, that there was a craft fair on upstairs and more exhibits. My son was asleep at this point in his pushchair so I took my daughter up the stairs and found lots of interactive games for children to play upstairs. I did feel it was a real shame that this wasn’t better highlighted as I had almost missed it.
The small playground is suitable for children aged 3-9 although my son had a fine time whilst supervised. The toilets are clean and there is a baby changing table in the disabled toilet.
We enjoyed our day out and I do have a clay brick now, with my daughter’s initials stamped into the side, which will take pride of place, er, somewhere… Real effort has been made to make the Brickworks appeal to families and if Sunday was typical of a gala day then it is a good day out. The museum has potential to be better and undoubtedly it will be, given that works are on-going to improve it, and we will definitely go back on another Gala Day.
If you’re planning a visit, make sure the children have sensible shoes on and check the events on the website. The next Gala Day will be on the 20th July 2014 ‘Around the World and Brick Again!’ and will be a celebration of other countries based on where the bricks were sold – and you are invited to come in fancy dress.