The Sun Inn is by far the best customer for The Stables Brewery’s range of traditional, simple brews, but there’s a very good reason for that. The Sun Inn isn’t your average pub. It prides itself on tradition and authenticity.
Next door to Best Western Beamish Hall Hotel is the most visited attraction in the region – the phenomenal Beamish Museum, the ‘Living Museum Of The North’. Walking across the road and into its fields I’m immediately entering a pastoral scene: a young man in a flat cap ploughs a field on a 1930s tractor. Rounding the corner I double take at a full-sized Edwardian train station before, a little further up the hill, an ornate fairground carousel. Lost in a kind of dream world, I’m woken by the sound of a bell and then the unmistakable clunk of a tram cresting the hill. This isn’t like any tram I’ve ever seen though – it’s a real, working tram line with a 1900’s tram on it, complete with a jovial, moustachioed conductor. The experience moves from excitement and awe to something more like actual time travel. If the train station made me stare, the sight of a thriving Edwardian high street invokes a full on Back to the Future moment.
Beamish was founded in 1971 by Frank Atkinson, a life-long museum curator and with a passion for preserving the past, especially rural life, in what seemed to him a fast-changing world. Inspired by the 1950’s ‘folk museums’ of Norway and Sweden, Beamish was a long time in the making and drew significantly on the local community for donations. Those donations ranged from teapots and sewing machines to whole buildings from across the North East. Every structure on the high street at Beamish Museum – from houses to shops – has been meticulously removed from its original position and reassembled on this spot, a staggering achievement that pays rich rewards. One of those buildings is The Sun Inn, a pub from Bishop Auckland that typifies the type of community hub that John referred to as the beating heart of every town or village. Starting life as ‘The Tiger Inn’ before becoming The Sun Inn around 1850, it served the miners of Newton Cap Colliery and surrounding area for a century or more.
Stepping over the threshold and I’m greeted by an open fire and a warm welcome from barmaid, Victoria. Instantly I recall something John said earlier: “Sit by the fire and have a pint of our beer at The Sun Inn and you could be sitting in 1913.” And for a few minutes, I’m right there, reading the antique newspaper, drinking in the history of the place. I’m thoroughly and delightfully transported.
Beamish might be a visitor attraction but it’s clear the locals see it more like a real town. Over 55% of the 600,000 visitors last year were local and there’s definitely a few characters tucked away in the dark confines of the snug during my visit. The other barman, Martin, beams away as he tells me about Bill, an 89 year-old who walks here every Tuesday. “If he arrives before midday he has a cup of Bovril; if it’s after that then it’s a pint of beer.”
While leaving the pub I overhear another patron excitedly exclaiming that they are definitely applying for a job here. And why wouldn’t you? The staff get to live and breathe the history; from the pub to the sweet shop, the bakery to the bank and even down to the coal-fired fish and chip shop in the Pit Village, job satisfaction clearly comes with the territory.
After a stroll back across the road and through the beautifully landscaped parkland of Best Western Beamish Hall Hotel, I’m talking to hotel manager, Kerry. Kerry and the rest of her team are just as excited about my trip to the Beamish Museum as I am, even though they’ve been ‘a million times’. “We’re so lucky to have all this living history on our doorstep,” she says. “Not only at the hotel but at the museum too. It surprises people, but there’s so much going on in this little valley.” I couldn’t put it better myself.