Countryside Forum: gathering stories

In her latest Activity Plan update, Phillippa Heath (Audience Development Project Manager), describes the fascinating conversations the team have been having (and are set to have) with farmers and individuals with different connections to the countryside, across the UK.

One of our ambitions for the Museum of English Rural Life’s redevelopment is to draw out and bring to the fore the fascinating stories from our objects and collections. Some of these stories might highlight how an object worked or how it was made, but many will hint at the people behind the objects, enabling us all to understand more about their lives. These stories will be appearing throughout the museum galleries as part of our new interpretation and visitors will have the opportunity to learn about a range of individuals: from historic figures represented in our collections (such as rural mid-wife Jean Young) to people widely associated with aspects of rural life today (such as Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis).

As part of this work, we are also keen to speak to as many individuals as possible who work or have associations with the countryside so that their stories too can be represented. Over the course of the last year, the Activity Plan team have been meeting with a number of individuals from across our local area of Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire area talking to them about their practices and experiences.

CF - William Cumber
Livestock farmer William Cumber of Manor Farm, Abingdon

Since the beginning of this year, however, their reach has spread to include individuals from a further afield to ensure different localities as well as different viewpoints are represented in the stories which we will be sharing. In February MERL was ‘On Tour’ in Cheshire, Shropshire and Lincolnshire with staff being privileged to speak to a range of people with rural connections.

CF - MERL staff on the road
MERL Activity Plan staff on the road

Some of these individuals were farmers. Phillip Winward, Shropshire Dairy Farmer with a small herd of sixty cows, talked about how he and his fellow local dairy farmers are overcoming the pressures currently experienced by their industry through the formation of an informal advisory group. He described how the group acts as a support and sharing network in which members compare approaches to declining milk prices and how they can increase efficiency and sustainability on their farms.

Phillip Winward, Shropshire Dairy Farmer
Phillip Winward, Shropshire Dairy Farmer

Founder of the British Quinoa Company, Stephen Jones, although from a farming background, was at the early stages of farming an arable crop not previously farmed in the UK – quinoa. He spoke about the fascinating story behind the development of his business from his early crop research trialling to now being in the position where he is managing a thriving national business working with a diverse range of growers and suppliers.

Stephen Jones founder of the British Quinoa Company with his new product sample, quinoa muesli
Stephen Jones founder of the British Quinoa Company with his new product sample, quinoa muesli

Two of our interviewees were retired farmers. James and Joyce Greenfield are both Lincolnshire born and bred and still live in their farmhouse though no longer have the responsibility for farming the land. They talked to us about their fascinating personal histories in pastoral farming, shared some wonderful anecdotes from their farming lives and treated us to a wealth of knowledge and information. Mr Greenfield, an avid collector of farm machinery and rural heritage, also gave us a tour of his fascinating collection many items which were similar to the ones that we have at MERL.

James Greenfield and his seed fiddle
James Greenfield and his seed fiddle
Joyce Greenfield guiding us through her collection of domestic rural items
Joyce Greenfield guiding us through her collection of domestic rural items

Not all of the individuals we interviewed were practising farmers. Polly Gibb is Director of Women in Rural Enterprise (WiRE). Founded in 1988 and based at Harper Adams University, “WiRE is a national business support network; promoting, supporting and developing its membership of rural businesswomen. WiRE offers practical business support which includes access to the 50 WiRE networks across the UK where women in business share expertise and knowledge, build new skills, help boost confidence and support each other to build better businesses”. Polly spoke with great enthusiasm about the diversity of businesses she now has the pleasure of representing across the UK and the importance of her role in liaising with government department in ensuring rural businesswomen’s views are represented.

This week our conversations are set to continue as the Activity Plan team set off on their aptly named ‘Dartmoor Dart’. Visiting individuals across Devon, the team will be regularly updating social media so keep an eye on MERL’s facebook and twitter feeds to find out more about who they are meeting and what stories they are discovering.

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    The Museum reopened in October 2016, following a major redevelopment, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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    The Museum of English Rural Life

    University of Reading

    Redlands Road

    Reading

    RG1 5EX

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