The Tree has stood in the centre of Crawley for more than 700 years and has seen generations of townsfolk come and go.
It has been used as a private home, office, rent office and many other things in between and has been waiting patiently for a number of years to become the town’s museum.
As with all building work, there have been delays – man made delays involving funding and paperwork – but now Mother Nature has jumped on the bandwagon and thrown in a delay of her own.
Museum curator Helen Poole explained: “We’ve always wanted to make sure we have full wheelchair access throughout the building and the ramp was designed so it came off the Broadway in a very elegant U-shape down into the reception area. It was only about a fortnight ago that they started thinking ‘oh look, there’s a tree in the pavement. I wonder if it’s got roots’.”
It did indeed have roots. Helen added: “If you saw the roots, they are practically the same size as the tree, so it’s had to be massively re-thought!”
Helen has been the backbone of the project to move the museum from its hidey-hole, tucked away behind the Goffs Manor pub to the heart of Crawley in one of the oldest buildings in town.
My hope is the museum will be very much part of people’s normal thinking about Crawley, the same way that The Hawth is. Our aim is to make something Crawley will be proud of.Helen Poole Curator, Crawley Museum
She was assigned as curator on a two-year contract. That was eight years ago. With pressure building and so much red tape to hack through, a lesser person would have fled long ago!
Helen and her team of volunteers should have started moving into The Tree on Monday (September 19) but will now have to wait another four weeks.
They are not wasting their time, though. Artefacts are being carefully wrapped and boxed, and they are frantically trying to work out how they are going to get their prize exhibit – a 1903 Rex Forecar – into its new home.
Helen acknowledged the delay was “frustrating” but added: “To be honest, having waited so long, we’d rather have it done well than rushed.”
She has been a regular visitor to The Tree during the renovation and has watched it evolve from a fascinating but unlivable old building into a modern museum housed in ancient bricks and timbers.
She said: “I was there two days ago and the walls were painted, the flooring, the electricity was positioned but not actually finalised yet. There was a huge amount going on.
“Little details have been done really sensitively. We’ve got a lot of old woodwork. We’ve had dendrochronology dating and we discovered that the main timbers date back to 1328. I think there’s a little bit that’s older.”
Mother Nature caused another delay when experts were working with the timbers, but this time there was no happy ending.
Helen said: “There was a beautiful little bird’s nest that suddenly materialised. The bird had plonked itself in front of the woodwork and we couldn’t disturb it. Eventually, sadly, they came in one day and the nest was empty and there was a dead egg on the floor.”
Helen has been delighted with the good will shown to her and her team by the community at large, as well as the neighbourliness from the Morrison’s supermarket which faces the museum.
She said: “Morrison’s have been very supportive and helpful. We’re going to have two openings – the official launch and a grand opening – and they’ve very kindly offered to do the catering for it.
“It’s very exciting. What I do like is there is an enormous amount of good will. We talk to people, we’ve done public consultations, we go out and talk to groups and the good will towards the whole project is lovely.
“I went to St Margaret’s School the other day because they’re doing how to set up your own museum.
“I said before I answer your questions I’m going to ask a question – why do you think we have museums? And a little boy at the back, who must have been 10, put his hand up and said ‘well, it’s to show really interesting things and to get a feel for what the area’s actually like and appreciate it’. It was so sweet.”
Helen joked that her office was her favourite part of the new museum. In its current home, she and two others have to squeeze into an office barely large enough for one person.
If all goes to plan, the museum will be ready to open to the public in the spring, and Helen hopes to arrange for a fleet of vintage vehicles to wind its way through the town centre on the opening day. The plan is for it to be led by the aforementioned Rex Forecar, which was bequeathed to the museum when its owner Ron Shaw passed away.
As well as the car, Helen has a soft spot for a much older exhibit, a bronze sword which was found in Langley Green in 1952. The sword, which was fished out of Polesfleet Stream, dates from around 500BC.
Once the work is finished and the exhibits are in pace, the museum should be open each week from Wednesday to Sunday.
Helen said: “Obviously we need volunteers. My hope is the museum will be very much part of people’s normal thinking about Crawley, the same way that The Hawth is. It is culture with a capital C up to a point but it’s also going to be great fun and I think the more we can do to expand what we do, the happier I shall be.
“My guess is, from experience elsewhere, that the moment we open people will say ‘I didn’t know there was a museum in Crawley, would you like my collection of APV memorabilia?’”
She added: “Our aim is to make something Crawley will be proud of.”
To volunteer or find out more, call 01293 539088 or email firstname.lastname@example.org . Alternatively, get in touch via the Facebook group ‘Crawley Museum’ or @CrawleyMuseum on Twitter.
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