Welcome to The MERL

The Museum of English Rural Life explores the history of the English countryside and its people. The museum is free to visit and is one of the best things to do in Reading. Whether on your own or with friends and family, discover our  galleries, research our collections, refresh in our café, browse our shop, or relax in our garden.

We are a part of the University of Reading and work with Reading Museum as the Arts Council England-funded Museums Partnership Reading.

What's on

Community voices

Exhibitions

  • January 4 - December 31
  • Museum opening hours
  • Free

INGRID POLLARD: THERE-AND-THEN

Exhibitions

  • July 26 - December 22
  • Museum Opening Hours
  • Free

TAI CHI WITH SPORT IN MIND

Events and workshops

  • September 14 - December 21
  • Weds, 3.30-4.30pm
  • Free

Did you know

...city families used to pick hops on holiday?

Hop picking holidays allowed city families to earn money. Pickers were paid with tokens, which were used in local shops or exchanged for wages.

Did you know

...Elizabethan mattresses were used for both childbirth and corpses?

Mattresses, plaited from sedges, were made to support a mother during childbirth or a corpse after death. After use it would have been burned.

Did you know

...farmers used to sow seeds by fiddle?

Sowing by hand can be slow and inaccurate. Seed drills were developed in the 1800s to sow seeds quickly in a straight line at regular intervals.

Did you know

...Lady Eve Balfour (1898-1990) was one of the earliest organic farmers and co-founded the Soil Association?

Women continue to play a key role in this movement, with organic farms employing significantly more women than chemical farming.

Did you know

...Suttons Seeds invented the seed packet?

The local Reading firm, founded in 1806, popularised paper packets of seeds for gardeners.

Item from the Suttons Sees Ltd. archive collection

Did you know

...villages often used to run their own fire services?

The National Fire Service was only created in 1941.

Did you know

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Our Country Lives - Latest Blog Posts

Our blog explores the people, places and issues of the historic and contemporary English countryside and rural life, uncovering and exploring our collections, the exciting activity around the MERL and the people we with.

MERLy Christmas: begin the festive season this year at The MERL

On 27 November 2022, for Museum Shop Sunday, we’re beginning our Christmas celebrations this year with MERLy Christmas – an annual day of festive cheer in the museum shop and café, complete with Christmassy crafts and carol singing from a children’s choir at the University of Reading (Universal Voices)!

In this blog, join Angela (The MERL’s Visitor Services Supervisor and shop manager) as she shares several ideas for gifts you can find in our shop this Christmas.

The MERL shop decorated for Christmas.

Christmas must-haves

Christmas is always an exciting time of year in the museum shop. We have been busy behind the scenes getting ready for a while, contacting suppliers across the country as we source a range of unique, quality, and charming products unlike any you’ll find elsewhere in Reading. From locally sourced honey to toys, homeware, and sweet treats, we’re so excited to be sharing these products with you and finally have them up on our shop shelves!

High among our festive favourites are the gorgeous advent calendars produced by illustrator and printmaker Angela Harding. Working from her studio in Rutland, Angela creates beautiful artworks that portray the animals and landscapes you can find throughout the British countryside. In fact, you may even recognise Angela’s style from book covers; she has had a long and distinguished career of providing art for international publishers. Each year, Angela creates an advent calendar with a different theme. This year’s theme is curlews: wading birds well-known for their long beaks. We only have a small number of the items remaining, so if you’re after an advent calendar, look no further!

An advent calendar.

Much like advent calendars, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a hearty stock of cards, and we have a great range available depicting wintery places, scenes, and animals. Many of the cards we source are produced by independent artists, and you can find information about each card’s maker on the reverse! Plus, we also make our own cards featuring highlights from the collections at The MERL and the University of Reading Special Collections (which share our building). If you have followed us on social media over the years, you may well recognise this unusual lobster-riding mouse (a Victorian artwork) who returns in our Christmas line once again, among other gems from the collections.

Christmas cards in The MERL shop.

We love putting up the Christmas decorations (you may have noticed from our photos that the shop is looking rather festive), and we have a fabulous choice of rural-themed ornaments in stock: from our delightful tractor snow globes to hand-knitted sheep and reindeer made by the Mewes Knitters (the museum’s knitting group). And for extra cosiness in wintertime, we have a range of diffusers, tea lights, and advent candles, with scents including include winter thyme, orange and cinnamon, and embers (the smoky notes of a woodsmoke fire). They’re lovely products and will all make perfect gifts.

Christmas decorations in The MERL shop.

HAVE YOURSELF A DAIRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS

The history of cheesemaking is depicted in The MERL galleries (indeed, Reading has a rich dairying past), so it only feels right that we should stock some cheese in the museum shop. And besides: who doesn’t love a good excuse for buying some cheese?

This Christmas, our cheese selection will feature several festive flavours, brought in from cheesemaking regions across the UK. We have a range of waxed truckles from the Cheshire Cheese Company and the Snowdonia Cheese Company, with flavours including Christmas cranberry and sticky toffee. We are also getting some Lancashire Bombs (Lancashire cheese covered in black wax, very reminiscent of the ACME bombs of Roadrunner fame). We’ll have these at MERLy Christmas, so come and look!

CELEBRATING 200 YEARS OF HUNTLEY & PALMERS

2022 has been a big year here for biscuits. Throughout the year, Reading has marked two hundred years since the opening of a family bakery on London Street in 1822 that soon grew into Huntley & Palmers; a biscuit-making company that became the largest in the world, placing Reading on the global stage in a way we hadn’t known since the dissolution of Reading’s royal abbey in the 16th century.

We are thrilled to celebrate this major Huntley & Palmers anniversary in our gift shop through a new line of merchandise, featuring iconic H&P designs and branding from the University’s archives and collections.

Huntley & Palmers products in The MERL gift shop.

Explore the range in our shop and take local history home with you; the ideal gifts for anyone with a passion for local heritage (and biscuits)!

A tea towel featuring Huntley & Palmers' Christmas biscuits.

At the same time, we’re always continuing to build on our merchandise options inspired by our varied collections. This year we introduced a range of products depicting vivid details from our wall hanging by Michael O’Connell, and new items are on their way, including pencil cases featuring O’Connell’s delightful portrayals of cows and tractors, as well as stationery for children!

These complement many more products in our stock inspired by our viral social media posts (including, of course, the Internet’s most venerated sheep).

Two new pieces of MERL merchandise available on the Art UK shop.

SHOP AT THE MERL THIS CHRISTMAS

We are very excited ahead of MERLy Christmas this Sunday. It’s a chance to explore our range of gifts and enjoy a warm and festive atmosphere. The event is free to attend, and everyone is welcome. Plus, all proceeds from sales go towards supporting our work and helping to make possible everything we do. We’d love to see you there!

Find out more about MERLy Christmas, learn how you can shop with us in person and online, or explore our other events taking place throughout the festive season below.

Takeover Day 2022 at The MERL

I always feel happy when I wake up in the morning and I remember that I’ll be going to work at The MERL that day.

Friday 18 November marks Kids in Museums’ Takeover Day, when museums invite young people to take over jobs normally done by adults. The theme of Takeover Day 2022 is wellbeing.

This year at The MERL, we have been thrilled to welcome a Ways into Work supported intern to our museum team. Ways into Work’s supported internships are study programmes for young people aged 16 to 24 who have an EHCP (education, health and care plan), combining studies alongside time in the workplace.

In this blog, our intern talks about her work at the museum and highlights how it is supporting her through the five ways to wellbeing. Through her words and pictures, here is her story!

Introduction

I study at Addington School and they have a programme called Ways into Work, which allows Addington students and all the other school students to find their way into employment by giving them work placements, introductions and interviews to prepare for adulthood.

What are you hoping to gain from being involved in Ways into Work, and why did you choose to do it at The MERL?

The reason I chose to do Ways into Work at the museum is because I’ve always been interested in history, art, and nature and The MERL combines all three of those. I’m hoping to get more people skills, like being able to help them if they are in trouble, and improving my communication and listening skills in general as well. And I also like to learn more about how a museum works, and how many different people are needed to keep a museum ticking over.

What are you hoping to gain from being involved in Ways into Work, and why did you choose to do it at The MERL?

I’ve done several pictures depicting everything I’ve been doing at the museum as part of my Ways into Work.

A coloured drawing of Friday Fledglings at The MERL.

The first one is Friday Fledglings and chicken care. In this picture I have included plenty of younger kids because Friday Fledglings is a group for toddlers and babies and we have them playing with bubbles, chasing each other, painting, playing with the parachute, and I’ve also got Charlotte (session leader) on the left-hand side telling them a story. And then there is me in the middle looking after the chickens and holding up an egg I have found.

Every child that comes seems to genuinely enjoy it. Of course they are a little bit shy at first, especially if it is their first time coming along, but I think the fact that they have all sorts of activities for them to enjoy, the fact that their parents are allowed to stay with them, and there’s just the general atmosphere that kids pick up on and they like it. I’ve been in charge of the arts and crafts activities. Every week Charlotte sets special activities for me to be in charge of. So there have been things like weaving, painting, stamping, things like threading, and also recently making special autumnal creations such as conker twirlers, and leaf pictures.

The next picture is showing my work in the conservation studio with Victoria.

The conservation studio.

It shows a window leading into the main studio and a table with Victoria and I am shown cleaning a book from the 1700s. The book is open at my favourite map which is of Africa. And it’s also got loads of things set out as well. All along the wall we’ve got post it notes showing everything that I’ve been learning like how to repair paper, make book cradles, and how to use a scalpel safely. My favourite task has been book cleaning. It was fascinating learning about the microscopic bits of dirt that can get onto the pages and where they tend to gather most, and also learning about the different pests that might infest a book as well. So it’s been good fun learning how to prevent all that and get the book looking its best for any visitors.

The next picture is my customer service and front of house one.

Front of house.

Whenever I do front of house I sit at the desk near to the entrance of the galleries and I help out any visitors that come through. I’ve met all sorts of people. My favourite task is showing the children how to do the trails that the museum has and giving them a sticker afterwards. They love it! I also help out with the café. Mostly cleaning tables and helping anyone out who needs it.

This last picture is my gardening one.

The garden at The MERL.

On Wednesdays I do special outdoor work with Cathy (Gardening Volunteer Coordinator) and the other gardeners. I am depicted picking grapes with Don and I also show various troughs I have been working on like this one. It’s full of green manure which is going to keep the soil fresh and healthy until next spring. As well as harvesting pumpkins, strawberry and tomatoes, I’ve enjoyed the harvesting the best. It’s very satisfying when you see the things fresh and ready to be picked.

This year’s Takeover Day is focusing on the important role that museums can play in supporting health and wellbeing. What impact has Ways into Work at the museum had on your wellbeing?

I always feel happy when I wake up in the morning and I remember that I’ll be going to work at The MERL that day. I almost think that I prefer it to being at school on the other days. I’ve met amazing people along the way and I’ve learned so much about museums. It’s been amazing!

When I first came to the museum, I was excited but mostly nervous because I wasn’t sure what the staff were going to be like. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy the work there and I didn’t want to get anything wrong. I’ve found my footing now. I’ve made a few friends in the workforce and I’ve learned a great deal. I only occasionally feel nervous now, but that just goes with the territory.

How does your work connect with the Five Ways to Wellbeing (Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Learn and Give)?

Friday Fledglings

Fistly, Connect. As well as connecting with my fellow colleagues in Friday Fledglings you can connect with the children as well, and the children can also connect with us and with their parents and carers as well. Secondly, Be Active because Friday Fledglings is always outdoors, whatever the weather. You do have to run about a bit to keep up with the little ones.

Conservation studio work

Learn. I’ve learned a lot of new things about conservation and how we can keep objects and books in the best possible condition that they can be in. And also Take Notice, because there are little things that you might not notice before and you might not be a hundred per cent sure of how to deal with them, but there are ways around it.

Front of House

Connect. Because you can connect with any visitors and they can connect with me, my fellow colleagues and also with each other as well. And also Give because you’re giving help if they need it, you’re giving them the best possible time they can have there.

Gardening

Be Active, because gardening is outdoors and it can be quite hard work sometimes and you need a bit of muscle. Next one is Take Notice because if you look closely at anything you might notice that they look different from when you see them from a distance like for instance if you see a bit of funghi on a leaf that you might not have noticed before from about two metres away. And also Learning because you can learn so much new about gardening every time that you do it like how to deal with any insect pests without using pesticides, how to deal with mildew, moss and also being able to identify any plants and how to tell the difference between them and weeds as well.

Would you recommend Ways into Work to others? And if so, why?

I would. Especially if you like either history, art or nature or all three in my case. The museum combines all of them like I said earlier and its always a lovely atmosphere in museums. You can always learn something new in a museum and make great friends along the way.

Why do you think kids should get involved in museums?

Well, up front they might think that museums aren’t terribly exciting like they might be boring, dusty, damp, and dark. Well it’s not that at all. Kids should go to museums because they can learn something new about the past. The past is a place of magic and intrigue, always full of stories.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to continuing my internship here and eventually going away with a really good skill set to enable me to be very well employed in the future.

Find out more

To learn more about opportunities to develop workplace skills at the museum, including joining our Youth Panel, please see our work experience and career skills page. To discover more about the museum’s health and wellbeing programmes, visit our Thriving Communities page.

Pumpkins, partners, and plant sales: our autumn garden updates

The museum garden is gorgeous in the autumn. You find deep reds and oranges everywhere you turn: from the leaves of the trees dappled by the crisp autumn sun (the resplendent Liquidambar in particular) to the host of pumpkins and seasonal veggies grown and cared for by our talented team of gardening volunteers.

In this blog, join Cathy–our Assistant Volunteer Coordinator (Garden Projects)–as she shares the latest news and updates from the many beds, spaces and plants throughout the garden.

The gorgeous red Liquid Amber tree in The MERL garden.

Autumn colours in full swing

It has been wonderful to see the garden refreshed and revived after the fierce drought conditions of the summer. Plants have started to grow again, and flowers and produce are much more evident.

We have had tiny Jack Be Little pumpkins in the Suttons flowerbed as well in the Young People With Dementia raised flowerbed. Elsewhere, the annual grass, Panicum Frosted Explosion, sparkles on chilly, dewy mornings.

A display about Little Bo Peep in The MERL herb garden.

The grape vines have been bountiful this year, and little hands have been squishing them to make juice during our Friday Fledglings sessions for the museum’s under 5s.

An enormous thank you to all our ‘Watering Heroes’: volunteers who went above and beyond to keep the garden alive during this very tricky summer. It has been especially challenging when watering by watering can, not hosepipe!

The theme of gardening at The MERL this summer has been keeping the plants alive! The heat and drought took its toll, but with lots of extra watering shifts from the volunteers, most things survived, though if we had been relying on produce from our recreated WW2 'Dig for Victory' bed to keep us fed, we'd have gone hungry! Let's hope for better growing weather next year.

Don, one of our gardening volunteers

Community group beds

Students from Reading Community Learning Centre were able to come and harvest their produce: huge pak choi, spring onions, tomatoes, radishes and lettuce, as well as picking flowers. They have re-sown their bed with autumn salad leaves, which look very happy and healthy. Meanwhile, Cranbury College‘s Sensory Bed is a feast of texture, scent and colour!

Autumn in the garden.

Propagating and plant sales

Our Hear Our Voice gardening group has been busy propagating – growing plants for free (i.e. from cuttings or seeds)! Since Tuesday 25 October, the produce they have grown has been available for purchase via an honesty box at The MERL café entrance (for as long as stock lasts). All proceeds support our projects throughout The MERL garden, so please come and take a look!

Flowers grown by the Hear Our Voice volunteers.
Our Hear Our Voice gardeners.

Visit the garden

Everyone is welcome to visit, explore and enjoy The MERL garden. Our wonderful Ways into Work student says being here means ‘being surrounded by plants and wildlife – it is a place of happiness’. We would love for you to join us and experience this for yourself. Plan your visit right here on our website.

Join Our Community

Good morning from @TheMERL, where we are hear all day with Crystal Wishes, bookmarks and suncatchers for sale, as the perfect gift or stocking filler. Email crystalwishdesigns @hotmail.co.uk for more info. 🎁 💝 🧧 🎁 🎄 https://t.co/gA9JESdvXM
  • The Museum of English Rural Life

    University of Reading

    Redlands Road

    Reading

    RG1 5EX

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