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Rural tales

By Robert Holden
The Museum of English Rural Life has undergone a magnificent refurbishment and offers fascinating insights into rural life.

The new galleries at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) in Reading, which opened on 22 October 2016, are full of stories. Did you know that farm wagons reflect the landscape? In Shropshire, the tyres were wide to avoid sinking into the heavy clay of the county, and the bodies were big to carry the heavy root crops of the region. In Cornwall, wagons were small so that they could pass along the narrow roads of the county, and had light frames with rollers at the back for the ropes used to tie down the load when climbing steep hills. 

And farm wagons themselves (which have four wheels) are largely a product of enclosure landscapes, which led to increased production from the fewer, larger farms. Pre-enclosure, holders of open field strips used two-wheeled carts. Mind you, in Lincolnshire, they had ‘hermaphrodite’ wagons – carts to which a set of front wheels was added at harvest time.     

A collection of stories
MERL is a set of stories about English farming, (or rather of the stories of the southern counties, since there is little north of the Shropshire-Lincolnshire line). Note that in England any land which is hoed, rather than ploughed, tends to be called a garden, hence market garden or allotment garden.

The beginnings of organic farming are described in the life of Eve Balfour (1898–1990), who was one of the first graduates of the Diploma of Agriculture at Reading, and at the age of 21 bought a farm at Haughley Green in Suffolk. Later she published The Living Soil (1943) and co-founded the Soil Association. 

By contrast there is the history of George Baylis (1846–1936) who based his farming practice on research from Rothamsted Experimental Station (where work began in 1842). He started with just 160ha and was losing money. So he got rid of his animals and specialised in arable farming, using chemical fertilizers such as nitrate of soda and superphosphate to boost crop yields. This approach enabled him to build an estate of 3000ha.

The Women’s Farms and Garden Association
The Women’s Farms and Garden Association (WFGA) was founded in 1899 and later set up the Women’s National Land Service Corps in 1916 to replace men who were lost from farming. Later this became the Women’s Land Army in both World War One and World War Two. This was a time when food security was critical for Britain. The WFGA continues and notable garden and landscape design members have included Gertrude Jekyll and Brenda Colvin.

A heroine of cheese 
A heroine of the revival of British artisan cheese-making is Anne Wigmore who set up Village Maid Cheese in 1986, at Spencers Wood near Reading after a previous career as a microbiologist. Using unpasteurised milk from the Duke of Wellington’s herd of Guernseys at Stratfield Saye, she developed Wellington, a cheddar-style, hard cheese made with vegetarian rennet. Later she produced Wigmore, a soft ewe’s milk cheese. Anne Wigmore’s career is contrasted with 1950 photographs of Mrs Brown of Actress Farm, Gloucestershire who represents the old tradition. This was in the process of being overtaken by factory cheese, promoted by the Milk Marketing Board (1993–2002). But MERL also reminds us that it was the Milk Marketing Board that invented the ploughman’s lunch in post-rationing Britain.

The gallery is dominated by the massive timber-clad threshing machine of 1900 by E Humphries of the Atlas Works, Pershore. Threshing (aka thrashing) machines developed during the Napoleonic wars and were superseded by the combine harvester in the early years of the twentieth century.  

Roma and rural crafts
Other galleries represent the gipsy tradition in the English countryside. Rural crafts, recalling pre-factory production, are illustrated by the work of Owen Jones, the last swill basket maker who uses thin strips of coppiced oak. Then there was the workshop where George Lailey (1869–1958), the last traditional pole lathe bowl turner in the country, had his workshop at Turner’s Green. East Sussex. 

MERL has the contents of his workshop (which had no power and no water supply) including Lailey’s lathe. Robin Wood used the example of Lailey’s lathe to make his own and so he was able to revive the craft. 

Charcoal burning, wooden spoon making (using sycamore), rake makers (using ash) and hurdle makers all feature. Hurdles were traditionally used for sheep enclosures and are made with hazel coppice; now they are used in gardens and produce a cheap, traditional fence which lasts a dozen years.

Shepherds and Beecham Pills
Did you know that Beecham’s Pills (now part of GlaxoSmithKilne) was set up in 1842 by Thomas Beecham (1823–1907) a shepherd using his knowledge of herbal medicines? He began with a laxative using aloe, ginger and soap.

Upstairs above the galleries are cabinets of smocks, bonnets and baskets; collections of enamel signs such as ‘Robertson’s Highland Sheep Dip... approved by Departments of Agriculture of Great Britain and Ireland, Argentina and Cape Colony’ which suggests something of the diaspora from the Highlands of the late nineteenth century; while rows of rakes, forks and spades line the walls.

MERL represents our farming history and is worth a visit by all landscape professionals and landscape students. It is free. Reading is also one of our foremost agricultural universities. It was also the first university to teach landscape architecture in this country (from 1930–59) and more recently Richard Bisgrove ran the accredited BSc Landscape Management course from 1986–2010. 

The LI library and archives MERL is more than a collection of objects. It was founded in 1951, and in addition to exhibiting this fascinating collection, it also holds many farm and farm-related archives including the archives of the Landscape Institute and the LI library which was donated to MERL in 2013. In the past three years the LI library collection has been catalogued and can be searched on-line; some 200 linear metres of archives have been sorted and made available for researchers. 

The archives have grown with collections from Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, Dame Sylvia Crowe, Preben Jakobsen, Peter Shepherd and the Milner-White collection among others. Milner-White was the oldest practice of landscape architects in the country when Frank Marshall retired in 1995. It was founded by Edward Milner, who had been Paxton’s assistant at Crystal Palace Park, and who practised on his own account from the mid 1850s. Continued acquisitions are subject to space and funding. MERL’s role in conserving and developing the Landscape Institute collections is supported by FOLAR, Friends of the Landscape Library and Archive at Reading, and, of course by the Landscape Institute, which provides an annual grant.

Post-war dates in British agriculture
Over the entrance to the MERL collection, there is a list of significant dates in post-war agriculture. 1947 saw the Agriculture Act, which guaranteed farmers prices for their production; 1951 was the Festival of Britain which celebrated rural life as well as engineering and design; 1973 was when we joined the European Economic Community and the Common Agriculture Policy; the hot summer of 1976 led to crop failure; Dolly the Sheep was cloned in 1993; 2004 saw the ending of hunting with dogs and 2016 had the Referendum vote to leave the European Union. What will happen next to British agriculture and our rural landscape?

About MERL
The Museum of English Rural Life, the country’s first and most extensive museum dedicated 
to agriculture and rural life reopened last Autumn following a £3.3m redevelopment 
programme with £1.8 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

The Museum of English Rural Life was established in Reading in 1951 to capture and record the rapidly changing countryside following World War II. In 2005, it moved to its current premises in St Andrew’s Hall, a building designed by Sir Alfred Waterhouse in 1880 for local businessman Alfred Palmer of the Huntley & Palmer biscuit company. 

Following extensive refurbishment, the museum reopened with 341m2 of additional space including a gallery, social learning space developed in partnership with students from the University of Reading, an open access collections area; enlarged education studio, shop and reception area; and new features in the garden including a shepherd’s hut and community growing spaces. The new spaces were designed by Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects with Studio GuM.

Robert Holden is a landscape architect, academic and critic

MERL on-line database:
Webinar, Guy Baxter, University of Reading, Our landscape heritage – a journey into the past, a vision for the future. -

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