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.
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.
In this post our curator, Ollie Douglas, introduces us to explore shoes issued to members of the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War and invites us to visit our new online ‘Land Girls’ exhibition. He describes some simple, hands-on (and ‘feet-in’) ways for us to learn about the footwear given to ‘land girls’, encouraging us to think about the lives of people who struggle to gain the recognition they deserve.
Today we’re going to step into the shoes of a ‘land girl’, this being the popular name for members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA). The WLA was established during the First World War to meet food security challenges and keep the UK farming when many workers were fighting abroad. The WLA was reformed in the Second World War. Membership was initially voluntary but later bolstered by conscription. As with military service, members were issued with a uniform and adhered to strict rules governing how it should be worn.
Imagine coming to live and work on a farm for the very first time. How might you feel? It was not until much later that these brave women received medals to thank them for facing this challenge. This new online exhibition features portraits of a handful of the women who deserve our gratitude. You can find out more about relevant collections and discover how to share your own WLA experiences with us here. You may also be interested in this resource, which reveals many additional WLA histories. In recent decades much has been done to highlight the wartime experiences of people whose stories have been sidelined or have been ignored. Many land girls remain unknown to us.
To follow this handling from home activity you’ll need to examine the footwear in your house. This could be yours, or it might belong to another member of your household. Remember to ask permission and to wash your hands after handling footwear! We’ll be using your own boots and shoes to help us think about how WLA footwear was made, what it might have been like to wear or work in, and to reveal a few more secrets about life as a land girl. So, grab some footwear and let’s get started.
1. What types of footwear do you have in the house and what are they made from? Land girls were issued with a pair of shoes and – depending on when they enlisted – a pair of gumboots (wellies) or strong boots for wet weather. In this striking image land girl Amelia King wears a pair of 1940s gumboots. We’ll return to Amelia’s story below so read on to find out more. As well as wellies and waterproofed boots, standard shoes formed part of the uniform as well as being designed for farm use. What hard-wearing footwear do you have in your house? Would the same footwear look good as part of a military uniform?
2. Let’s think about materials. How much of the footwear in your household is made from natural materials and how much from synthetics? Many modern wellies are made from PVC but in the 1930s and 1940s they were made from natural rubber. In 1942 a shortage of natural rubber imports meant they were sometimes hard to source. The problem was even raised in parliament and the decision was made to provide strong leather boots to many land girls instead. Like the shoes, these boots were made from leather, another naturally-derived material.
3. You can tell if footwear has been used by looking for scuff marks, dirt, and wear on the soles. Has all the footwear in your house been heavily worn? The WLA boots had hob-nailed soles, meaning the leather was studded with metal to make them tougher. This pair at The MERL was made by Coles of Burton Latimer, Nottinghamshire. As you can see from the photo, the soles remain unmarked. This has nothing to do with the tough hobnails. Some land girls later recalled how uncomfortable the boots were, which almost certainly explains why this pair was never used!
4. Look at footwear belonging to different people in your household. An individual’s gait (the way they walk) causes footwear to wear in different ways. Leather boots and shoes can be hard to ‘break in’ but over time their fit improves. This may be another reason why the boots were never worn. Footwear grows person-specific over time. The MERL holds several pairs of WLA shoes – also made by Coles – that belonged to different land girls. Each pair reveals a different pattern of wear. It’s like a signature, telling the story of the women who wore them.
5. Have any shoes in your household been treated or repaired? They might have new soles or laces, or may have been been polished or waterproofed. One pair of shoes at The MERL has no shoelaces, so they either wore out or were taken to lace another pair of shoes. Another belonged to Gwen Hayes who had them re-shod (had the soles replaced). A third pair, which belonged to Mrs I. E. Davies (née White), features the words ‘please grease me’ inscribed on the sole. These are useful reminders that we should look after our footwear. This recent exhibition explores ‘make do and mend’ during wartime and today’s trend for ‘fast fashion’.
6. Sometimes things can’t be easily mended. As we learned when we used t-shirts to think about smocks, when some things get old we just throw them away. As a result of this The MERL has no examples of WLA-issue gumboots like those worn by Amelia King in the image above. Indeed, one of the few pairs of wellies we do have belonged to the founder of Glastonbury. A different history altogether! The fact that land girls kept their shoes reveals how we treat different types of footwear differently. We know that leather shoes can be easily repaired so we are much more likely to keep an old pair of those than a pair of leaky rubber wellies.
7. Have a good look at the footwear in your household. What markings can you see? There might be a brand name or a size. It might state the country of manufacture. How much of the footwear in your house was made in the UK? The Coles company name appears on all the WLA shoes and boots at The MERL. They also have the year they were made. If we look carefully we also find another mark that looks like an arrow. Sometimes this has a W and D on either side. This is a War Department mark. So, if you ever see an old pair of brown shoes (or unworn black boots) in a charity shop or a jumble sale, check them for a secret little arrow symbol, just in case….
Now, it’s time to put your own footwear away and wash your hands. While you do this try to think yourself in the shoes of those who wore WLA footwear. Think about those who receive our thanks for their hard work and those whose stories have been (and sometimes still are) overlooked.
Finally, let us return briefly to stories that are absent from The MERL. Amelia King (pictured above) was initially refused entry to the WLA because of the colour of her skin. We don’t hold her gumboots and the image above actually comes from Wickham History Society, but her experience is one that still deserves to be more widely known. She faced racism for offering to help and her efforts went under-acknowledged just like those of her fellow land girls. So, in this extra blog post, Tamisan Latherow brings more of Amelia’s fascinating story to light. We’re also taking this opportunity to encourage you to take a look at The Lost Land Girl, which takes a creative approach to exploring the need to acknowledge the contribution of people of colour during the Second World War. Supported through the BFI Network, this new short film tells the fictional story of two Black British sisters who become land girls. Watch the trailer here and keep an eye out for screenings, which should be coming soon.
We know who wore the WLA footwear we hold at The MERL but for us it stands for all other land girls, and the brilliant work they did no-matter who they were.
Wickham History Society has a local history board outside Wickham Community Centre (Mill Lane, PO17 5AL) referring to the WLA and to Amelia King’s successful struggle to join. The site is close to Frith Farm where she worked. We are grateful to the Society for allowing us to reproduce the image of Amelia King above.