The country's sole surviving town gasworks are about to let the public in after dark for Museums at Night. They're good at dispelling glumness with nostalgia
Retorts, condensers, purifiers and gas holders – these are the salvaged wonders of the Gas Museum in the small Norfolk town of Fakenham, where “somebody with a little bit of forethought”, according to Chairman Mike Bridges, sought to save objects from the smalltown gasworks being closed around Britain during the 1970s.
It was an idea as bright as the lamps destined for redundancy following the emergence of natural gas. With the National Grid as their landlords and a 100-year lease still to go – the museum has outlived and drawn exhibits from London’s now-closed Bow Gas Museum, and has a collection which could eclipse the National Gas Museum, in Leicester – a rare late opening for this nostalgic setting will provide a warm glow of science and history.
“The only connection I had with the museum was contaminated land,” says Bridges, who was “into soil science” and working as a researcher in the Netherlands before “sticking my head round the door” after retiring in 2000. He offered to steward at the museum, but was Chairman of the Board within a year and has only recently resigned from the position, sensing a need for a break after passing his 80th birthday.
“The attitude I observe from people coming in is that the blokes are very interested in the technology, which is basically Victorian. The works as it is at the moment was built in about 1910, not very long after Queen Victoria died, but we stretch a little point there.
“Ladies come in looking a bit glum. They think ‘gasworks, that’s not really interesting.’ Then they see all of the appliances and get all nostalgic.
“The ones of 50 and over used gas appliances when they were growing up. We’ve got a range of interesting cookers. They’re like an electric cooker today.
“The old ones are cast iron. I can remember my grandmother had one. The modern ones are grey, shiny and posh-looking.
“They go out with a smile on their face, which pleases us tremendously, as you can imagine.”
Volunteer-run, the museum only opens once a week beyond the summer, with the vast majority of visitors coming from outside of Fakenham.
“We usually say to people to leave about an hour-and-a-half,” says Bridges.
“Some people spend three hours here.
“We hope to get plenty of people in for Museums at Night. It gives those who would normally be working a chance to come in and have a look.
“We have got an old gaslamp which is in a little courtyard. We light it up. Last year I recited Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, The Lamplighter. It has quite a nice atmosphere in the dark.
“It looks like an old gaslamp – rectangular, glass-fronted, a box on top of a pole. The gas burner is inside, but it’s modified to use natural gas.
“We’ve got all the equipment for determining the calorific value of the gas, that kind of thing.”
They also have displays on World War I, the expansion of the area – as seen through dozens of maps, carefully collected over decades by Bridges – and the demise of local boozers.
“Pubs are disappearing all over the country,” he rues.
“Publicans are undercut so much by the supermarkets that you can buy a can of beer for a pound in the supermarket, while in the pub it costs you £2.30, £2.50 or probably even more in London. They can’t pay their rent and there’s nothing left over for a salary.”
A typically unusual part of the evening, devoted to marlpits, will reveal that one commonality around the county remains curiously prevalent.
“Every field in this area has got a hole in it. It was part of the agricultural revolution 200 years ago. They used to dig chalky clay out, then spread it on top to outline the fields and make them more fertile.”
As the only surviving town gasworks in England and Wales, this Scheduled Ancient Monument will hold more stories in store this May.
- Lighting up the Gas Lamp is on May 15 2014, 6.30pm-9pm.
Hundreds of events take place for Museums at Night between May 15-17 2014. Visit museumsatnight.org.uk and follow the festival on Twitter @MuseumsAtNight.
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