Follow the brown signs
Somewhat ironically the Museum of English Rural Life does not lie nestled among rolling hillsides and wheat fields with poppies, instead it sits rather self consciously on a busy main road in the middle of the urban sprawl that is Reading, Berkshire. However, despite the interesting juxtaposition of subject matter and location this excellent museum manages to completely immerse visitors in all things rural, leaving you longing for the days of hopping on wagons for a lift down the road and great big picnics in fields at harvest time. Wagons are suspended from the rafters, scythes and man traps are gruesomely displayed behind bars and photos, videos and interviews bring the artefacts and the people who made and used them to life.
It was opened in the early 1950s when farming techniques had changed dramatically; horses no longer pulled the ploughs, mechanised methods had replaced man power, demand for traditional craftsmen was on the decline and outdated farm tools and machinery were being discarded. It was a small group of dedicated scholars from the agricultural studies department at the University of Reading who came to the rescue of these soon-to-be-redundant things and began the collection by amassing farm equipment, making films of tradesmen at work and cataloguing material to preserve a record of bygone English country days.
I think the best museums are the ones that get you involved, so I was very happy to see this little box at the entrance…
I took my clip board and stripy yellow and black HB pencil and began my discovery of all things English and rural.
The museum has 5 collections of national importance, my personal favourite was the butter pats and stamps collection. I think we’d all be happier people if we opened a new pat of butter in the morning and found “TALLY HO” stamped into it.
The collection of farming smocks was also up there in my favourite collections and to my joy you can even try one on and look like just this slightly bemused farmer in the picture you see here.
My sister was mortified that I would actually get into a Victorian smock in the middle of a museum and said she wouldn’t take any photos of me even if I did, so I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with an imagined hilarious picture of me all dressed up.
There are an impressive number of events run at the museum to get all ages involved in the work the museum does, educating visitors about rural issues and trying to bring back the important link of production to table, from toddler time with games, stories and hands on activities, to talks, workshops and exhibitions for the grown ups. I was most excited about the showcasing of rural crafts, especially the basket making; it made me realise just how much I really HATE plastic. I am inherently suspicious of anything that I couldn’t make or achieve myself with my own hands, and I know I couldn’t knock up a plastic box in my back garden if I needed to (or build an aeroplane or pump oil from the seabed to fill my car or get my most intimate thoughts out to millions in space of milliseconds… the list goes on, I digress). In fact I think this point is exactly what this museum stands for; traditional crafts and the way of life in small communities, playing a hands on role in producing the food we eat and the things we use simply doesn’t exist any more, it has been replaced by large-scale convenience and charmless production. Amazing leaps forward in industry and science has spoilt us, at the cost of leaving quality and tradition behind.
One of the activities designed to get you thinking about these things is a paper based question and answer session, (perfect time to utilise your yellow and black HB pencil here) which you can stick on a notice board for all to read. Some of the answers on them were SO sweet, here are some examples…
What does the countryside mean to you? If you go to the country you get the fresh air and you get the peace and quiet and there are lots of animals to watch and it’s a different environment – Harry (So true)
Are you concerned about rural issues? Bees – anonymous (Me too)
Which is best town or country? Country is best because we get food from there and there are lots of different houses – Craig, aged 5 (Obviously both these things are extremely important to Craig, and should be to everyone, probably).
Predictably I left The Museum of English Rural Life a very happy lady, hell bent on starting my own veggie patch and with the best intentions to build my own willow structure for the garden as soon as I get home… I’ll keep you posted on progress.