WRIGHT THINKING: Remembering the man who brought us Beamish

Frank Atkinson
Frank Atkinson

One of the saddest pieces of news over the Christmas break was of the death of Frank Atkinson, the man behind the Beamish Open Air Museum which became a magnificent success story.

Frank was 90 when he passed away in late December, and he was a fantastic enthusiast, still busy in his so-called retirement.

I had the pleasure of meeting him several times in my radio programme days and he was a broadcaster’s dream – bursting with infectious glee in everything he did and full of great stories.

I always remember him with a smile on his face and he couldn’t keep still – often grabbing you by the arm and saying “come and see this.”

That could have been a great slogan for this jewel of County Durham which became a fabulous home of our local history, built, appropriately enough, on a site vacated by the old National Coal Board. Places like this, where you are encouraged to actually touch the exhibits, are not that uncommon now, but Frank was a real trailblazer from a world of dusty glass cases and “do not touch” signs.

He set up the real working farm on site at Beamish and that was the source of one of my unforgettable chats with the great man.

We were presenting a BBC Radio outside broadcast and, wisely, I’d dressed for a mucky day rather than a session behind a desk.

It was just as well, as I soon found myself in the pig pen helping to bottle feed a young piglet.

We took to each other (quiet at the back) and Frank kindly named the young chap after me.

A bit later, we were back for another OB and I had a cuppa and a bacon sandwich with Frank before the live programme began.

I asked about the progress of Alan the Piglet, and he nodded towards my bacon sandwich.

He was right that it’s the reality of farming rather than a pet shop, but he still laughed when I couldn’t finish my breakfast.

Frank was actually born in Barnsley rather than in his adopted North East, and he had this amazing passion to really show us what life was like in recent memory, before it was all wiped away.

If you’ve been to Beamish, you will have seen the scale of his ambition and achievement and what’s there now is a million miles from some of the boring museums of my youth.

It really is what he wanted, a living museum, and he just cracked on to import whatever was needed to bring the past to life – a railway station, a church, a school – the list went on.

There were doubters when Beamish started, but there were queues on day one, and it’s remained a mighty powerful attraction for visitors close to home and around the world.

If you’ve never been, make it a promise to yourself to go soon and nod in appreciation to a great man.

If you have ever been to St Paul’s Cathedral, you will know that there is no flashy monument to its architect, Sir Christopher Wren.

Instead, there is a simple stone tablet in Latin which translates as “If you seek his memorial, look around you.”

Standing in the heart of Beamish, the words are also a perfect tribute to Frank Atkinson, CBE.