Country Roads, Take Me Home

3rd August 2018

Kathy Walton meets Sam Hatfield, director of Chiltern Open Air Museum, as he marks the end of his first year in the position

The opportunity to escape the 21st century and get in touch with your inner agricultural labourer or early hunter-gatherer is not far away. If you’re ever tempted to leave all your mobile devices at home and learn a few survival skills or start to master the art of medieval warmongering, then Chiltern Open Air Museum (COAM), tucked away down a leafy lane in Chalfont St Giles, is the place to choose. While you are there, you could also watch a living history re-enactment, have a go a making environmentally-friendly Christmas decorations out of straw, or even knit your own royal wedding characters. You and your fiancé(e) can even tie the knot in a reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse.

COAM occupies a magnificent 45-acre woodland and arable site, and is an enviably peaceful, scenic workplace for Chorleywood resident and new museum director Sam Hatfield, 55, who is just completing his first year in office.

We meet at COAM on a gloriously sunny day – with a view of sheep frolicking in the meadow under his window – and he admits that he can’t quite believe his luck. His daily commute is walkable (often with his dog in tow) and he says he is surrounded by colleagues who can’t wait to get to work. He became director in 2017, after spending three years as chief executive of the Cure Parkinson’s Trust (a cause he took up after his late father and a great friend were diagnosed with the disease).

“It’s a lovely place to work and a happy coincidence that I am here,” he says. “The previous director of the museum moved on after 13 years and I expressed an interest.”

Of course, being appointed museum director takes more than just ‘expressing an interest’, and Sam certainly has a wide-ranging career background that fit him for the post. He has previously worked as a corporate tax lawyer; in corporate intelligence consulting; and as a Foreign Office diplomat for nine years (among other postings, he was ‘our man’ in Nigeria and the Cayman Islands). He’s a keen amateur gardener, too, which comes in handy at COAM, and he says that his diplomatic experience also has its uses, not least because he is now in charge of a core team of 16 paid employees, 30 casual staff and more than 70 volunteers, a handful of whom have been there since the museum’s earliest days. (It was founded in 1976, so celebrations for its 40th anniversary in a couple of years’ time must already be in the planning stages).

Inevitably with such a dedicated team, people have very strong opinions about the museum and those opinions can lead to some very animated discussions in COAM’s offices. What to do with the pond, how to lay hedges, whether to allow a meadow to be grazed or let it grow for wildlife, even whether to leave gates open or shut – these are all subjects for debate, which Sam insists is a good thing.
“People really feel a vested interest in what we do. They notice little changes; it’s remarkable what the volunteers notice especially,” he says.

He explains that a key part of his role is to make sure the museum “washes its face” – it mustn’t lose money – and that it’s wonderful to work in the not-for-profit third sector “with no shareholders breathing down your neck.”

He continues: “I love that the museum is a great resource to the community, that it preserves Chiltern history and that the landscape is not overly worked.” Even HS2, which he says will inevitably impact the Chilterns, will just mean that COAM becomes an even more sought-after oasis of calm.

Visitor figures are increasing and COAM currently welcomes nearly 60,000 visitors annually. In addition to a huge range of weekend and holiday activities for all ages, COAM also hosts daily workshops during term time for approximately 200 schoolchildren, some with additional needs and some from pupil referral units, who come to take part in accredited outdoor learning, art and living history programmes.

“What works is that the pupils are in an unusual environment that is so not the classroom. Teachers report a big difference in them afterwards. It’s a really worthwhile experience,” Sam says, before adding proudly “You know, the Blue Peter dog learned his sheepdog skills here.”

COAM is one of a small breed of ‘working’ museums that are rightly proud of their role in celebrating their local heritage. Regular workshops in straw plaiting, willow sculpting and blacksmithing ensure that ancient skills are kept alive and, to date, the museum has rescued and restored 35 local vernacular buildings that would otherwise have been lost, and placed them in a sympathetic setting. These include a 16th century barn, a furniture-making workshop originally from High Wycombe, and a 19th century forge from Garston, along with a working farm, a toll house and a tin chapel dating from the Victorian age. In a thoroughly contemporary twist, the toll house and the chapel, like the reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse, are licensed for civil weddings and partnerships.

Acquisitions from a later era include a 1940s prefab home, which featured in BBC TV’s Call The Midwife; a WWII Nissen hut; and an Edwardian lavatory recently used for a murder scene in the ITV series Grantchester.

Hard to pick a favourite amongst such a rich, wide-ranging selection, of course, but Sam does admit that, most of all, he loves the Edwardian public convenience that graces the museum’s entrance. He likes it particularly because it is actually available for visitors to use, complete with original plumbing. The building was formerly the lavatory in a tram station in Caversham, with a cupola and huge finial on top and several cast iron lions’ heads for the outflow on the roof. Even after a year in the job, Hatfield still chuckles to think of the man who commissioned it.

“I have a vision of the tram station manager saying ‘I need a loo’ and getting out an industrial catalogue and deciding on seven urinals. Somebody designed it with great care and attention and made it pretty. It really tickles my fancy.”

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