The Museum of English Rural Life is one of the best things to do in Reading. Whether on your own or with friends and family, discover our new immersive galleries, research our collections, refresh in our café and relax in our garden.
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.
Did you know
...villages often used to run their own fire services?
The National Fire Service was only created in 1941.
Did you know
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.
Press release: The MERL receives financial boost for digital engagement and programmes for local communities
12th October (13:00pm)
The Museum of English Rural Life has been awarded £74,248 as part of the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) to help face the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and to ensure they have a sustainable future, the Culture Secretary has announced today.
The Museum of English Rural Life is one of 1,385 cultural and creative organisations across the country receiving urgently needed support. £257 million of investment has been announced today as part of the very first round of the Culture Recovery Fund grants programme being administered by Arts Council England. Further rounds of funding in the cultural and heritage sector are due to be announced over the coming weeks.
Since its foundation in 1951, The Museum of English Rural Life has been internationally recognised as a pioneering source of curatorial insight into English rural heritage. Today, its diverse programming supports schools, local community groups, volunteers, and University students, and its innovative solutions for sharing rural history resonate online with a global audience. The Museum was required to dramatically reimagine its offer during closure and the coronavirus pandemic. This was achieved with huge success, but the absence of visitors had a significant impact on the Museum’s income generation. This additional Arts Council England support will enable the Museum to continue its much-loved programming with confidence, whilst facilitating additional opportunities for its audience to enjoy over the coming months.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said:
“This funding is a vital boost for the theatres, music venues, museums and cultural organisations that form the soul of our nation. It will protect these special places, save jobs and help the culture sector’s recovery.
“These places and projects are cultural beacons the length and breadth of the country. This unprecedented investment in the arts is proof this government is here for culture, with further support to come in the days and weeks ahead so that the culture sector can bounce back strongly.”
Chair, Arts Council England, Sir Nicholas Serota, said:
“Theatres, museums, galleries, dance companies and music venues bring joy to people and life to our cities, towns and villages. This life-changing funding will save thousands of cultural spaces loved by local communities and international audiences. Further funding is still to be announced and we are working hard to support our sector during these challenging times.”
Director, The Museum of English Rural Life, Kate Arnold-Forster, said:
“This is fantastic news for all of us at The MERL. Throughout this difficult year we have had to dramatically reimagine all parts of our offer – from changing how we share our collections for digital visitors, to moving our work with local schools and the community online, and adapting our events programme to this new world of Zoom and video-conferencing.
This has been an enormous challenge, but I am incredibly proud of the amazing work accomplished by all the Museum team. Since March, our innovative use of social media has led to our tweets and shares being seen almost 50 million times, whilst huge numbers of people continue visiting and enjoying the rich and varied content on our website.
This new funding will enable us to sustain and explore many new opportunities. Throughout 2021 we will now be running an extensive project called 51 Voices, celebrating 70 years since the Festival of Britain and the year of the Museum’s foundation through a year-long series of creative responses to our collections.”
Notes to editors:
Arts Council England is the national development agency for creativity and culture. We have set out our strategic vision in Let’s Create that by 2030 we want England to be a country in which the creativity of each of us is valued and given the chance to flourish and where everyone of us has access to a remarkable range of high quality cultural experiences. We invest public money from Government and The National Lottery to help support the sector and to deliver this vision. www.artscouncil.org.uk
Following the Covid-19 crisis, the Arts Council developed a £160 million Emergency Response Package, with nearly 90% coming from the National Lottery, for organisations and individuals needing support. We are also one of several bodies administering the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund and unprecedented support package of £1.57 billion for the culture and heritage sector. Find out more at www.artscouncil.org.uk/covid19.
Every Wednesday, The MERL’s group of gardening volunteers – the Wednesday Wheelbarrows – meet in the Museum garden. Lovingly and expertly, they tend to our many vegetable plots, raised beds, herb garden, and more, and support gardening projects undertaken by the Museum’s community groups, University students, and the under 5s of our Friday Fledglings.
After the outbreak of COVID-19, all this changed.
In this special guest blog, written for Heritage Open Days 2020 on its theme of hidden nature, we are joined by The MERL’s fantastic Gardening Volunteers Coordinator, Helen Kemp, as she revisits our lockdown garden, recalls what it was like to leave the garden before lockdown, and shares images from the wonderful landscape she found when she returned.
LEAVING THE GARDEN
At first, no one knew how long lockdown would be. So, in the final few days before The MERL’s closure, we rushed to make sure that everything would be ready for when we reopened. Various things were planted that we’d been meaning to. Our onions really needed to go in, for one, as well as the woad we would be growing for a museum project. I thought, ‘If we plant these now, they’ll have grown when we return in June’.
Little did we know!
A HAVEN FOR WILDLIFE
I’ve thought hard about putting into words my feelings when I returned to the garden four months later.
It was simply so alive.
In the summertime, our lavender often swarms with bees. This year, there were more than ever. They were everywhere, and the garden was loud with their buzzing. There were huge numbers of little birds, too, hanging out among the flowers. Blue tits, I think.
I found the same experience awaiting me in the woodlands walk. There were blackbirds everywhere! And the walk had grown thick and dense in our gardeners’ absence. Brambles tangled wildly over the path we’d carefully maintained. I really had to hack my way through to progress.
Whilst humans had been gone from the garden, I could clearly see where foxes had settled in near the hazel. One day, a few weeks later, whilst I was having lunch, a young fox appeared from the thicket. More a fox teenager than a cub. I managed to take a quick video, before it scrambled away.
Lockdown turned the garden into a haven for wildlife. I think because it had been such a long and unprecedented stretch of time in which there were simply no disturbances. The birds felt comfortable – that it was their space – that they could have a little snack among the lavender, and that they won’t be rushed or interrupted. And the plentiful bugs and berries have clearly been a hit. The pigeons have certainly enjoyed their share of our mulberries!
THE GARDEN THAT THE GARDEN GREW
The grass was certainly longer. It wasn’t like I was having to wade through it, but the difference to the norm was noticeable.
I was really amazed by the number of plants that, from previous years, unexpectedly, had returned. In the time between us leaving the Museum and coming back in July, an enormous quinoa plant had grown. We grew quinoa last year, and they’re filled with tiny seeds that scatter everywhere. We didn’t intend for it to grow. It simply self-seeded and took the reins itself.
Sunflowers rose and bloomed on their own, and I’ve left a few of them in, as did last year’s ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ bed. Lots of scorpion weed grew, a long, thin flower. It would have looked incredible a few weeks back. By the time I returned, the flowers had gone, but their skeletal structure remained.
Meanwhile, many of the plants that we had purposefully sewn had grown well too. Some had even grown, bloomed, and finished all whilst we were gone. The alliums we planted in the herbaceous border near the shepherd’s hut are one example. These would have looked stunning in full-bloom. They had finished by the time I returned, leaving behind their wonderful structures of seed heads. We had clearly had some massive ones. The ‘Dig for Victory’ bed that several of last year’s Museum Studies students began as part of their final year project had been successful too, with onions, potatoes, carrots and beetroots ready to harvest.
All summer, I had been worrying about our woad. We had been advised by Sigrid, the artist we were working with on the indigo project, to prevent the plants from going to seed, and to pull them out if they started flowering. Whilst at home, I kept thinking: ‘Oh my goodness, it will have all gone to seed, and we’ll never get any indigo’! When I returned, I found three or four little woad plants had grown. And it was still very nice to see.
We had a remarkable crop in the herb garden, both on the ground and in the air! Last year, the apples weren’t good at all, but this year we have had loads! There are two crab apple trees with little crab apples, which we leave for the birds. And then cooking apples and eating apples too, and they’ve done well.
A LOCKDOWN, OR A REWILDING?
In the build-up to our reopening, I thought: ‘We’ll come back in and get everything back to normal. In no time at all, it’ll be like it used to be’.
But as I walked through the garden and discovered what it was like, so wild, so filled with life, I almost didn’t want to change a thing.
In The MERL garden, we have always been careful to strike a balance between nurturing the garden and letting it grow naturally. Especially around the back in the woodlands walk. I suppose during lockdown, the balance tipped in nature’s favour a little more than usual!
In a different sense, I think that the benefits of being in nature have become clearer than ever to us all, whilst so many of us have been stuck in our homes. There have certainly been lots more people working in their gardens. Whilst walking through Reading, I’ve noticed lots of stands outside houses with spare plants available for people to take, plant swaps, and things like that. There’s been lots of online information about little gardening projects, too, such as planting cumin seeds from your spice cupboard and giving gardening a go.
Whilst we’ve been stuck in our separate homes, the opportunity for gardeners to share advice and learn from each other online has also been a real comfort. It’s meant that gardening has remained a really communal and creative activity, despite us all feeling so far away from each other.
Now that the Museum has reopened, we can’t wait to welcome you back to the garden in person. As you might expect, it’s had a little bit of a trim since these photos were taken, though a gentle one, including new socially distanced circles mown into the lawn for different groups of visitors to use and enjoy.
It’s been beautiful to see how the garden changed whilst we were gone. And now that we’re back, we’re excited to get cracking on with new projects, as we return in person to Reading and garden once again with our friends across the community.
From the 8th September, The MERL is now reopened for visitors! We’re free to visit, and you are now required to book in advance. Learn more about booking your visit to The MERL, and find out what we’ve changed so that the Museum is safe and welcoming for everyone.