Family feedback

During February half term we invited families to see how the museum has changed since we closed and to find out about our plans. Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer explains how the family forum events were a great opportunity to try out some ideas for activities and get feedback from family visitors too.

We didn’t realise quite how much we’ve missed our visitors since closing for redevelopment until we were able to welcome back some familiar faces during February half term. Some of our most frequent family visitors joined us for a Behind the Scenes family tour and for the first Family Forum meeting.

FF tour

It was really exciting to be able to show these families the dramatic changes that have taken place in the Museum since October and to share our plans with them. As regular visitors, they were familiar with the museum, and so were interested to see what has been going on over the last few months: there’s the building work going on at the front and back of the museum; the wagons have come down from their pedestals; most of the objects are carefully stacked down one side of the museum behind huge plastic sheeting; and others are covered with dust sheets. They were very good at guessing what was under each sheet – although it is hard to disguise a threshing machine! Some were surprised at how big the museum seems when cleared of objects whilst others couldn’t believe we’d ever got all those objects in!


The families were able to get closer to some of the wagons than anyone has been able to in the last 10 years as they have just been lifted down from the overhead rail, and learnt about the need for careful conservation (which involves hoovering the dust that has accumulated whilst they were inaccessible)

At the far end of the museum they were able to see where the new extension will be built to house one of the huge 1951Festival of Britain wall hangings and our conservator invited them to have their say on which one will be chosen to be displayed first – Kent or Cheshire?

Would you vote for Cheshire...

Would you vote for Cheshire…


...or Kent to go on display first?

…or Kent to go on display first?

Everyone had plenty of questions for us. The children asked about their favourite objects and activities from the ‘old’ museum, such as the rat trail, dressing up and threshing machine model and the Speed the Plough film. We were able to reassure them that there will be lots of new dressing up opportunities and that we’re spending a lot of time at the moment planning exciting new interactives which will make visits to the new museum even more fun and interesting. The adults wanted to know how we were going to encourage children of all ages to stop, look and think about the objects, which lead to useful discussion about the new gallery themes and types of text and labels we are thinking about.

The half term events were designed to enable families to find out more about our project, but we also wanted the opportunity to listen to their feedback and test out one particular aspect of our plans, so after the gallery tour the families took part in an object handling session. We’ve planned a session based on objects relating to shepherding and lambing which we needed to try out, and we were amazed at the positive responses. They understood why we have to be careful with the objects, why you can’t usually touch all the things on display, and were so good at working out what the objects were we might have to choose more obscure objects in future!

FF what do you think this is

We also happy to have reporter Chris Forsey from the Reading Chronicle at the first event! You might have seen his article in the paper?!

FF photographer



These were the first of our family forum sessions in which we will be testing more ideas and seeking feedback from regular visitors as well as those who are not familiar with the museum. If you’d like to be involved, please contact Danielle Eade.


“I read an interesting book about…”

In this post Project Officer Felicity Williams explains how she has amassed huge amounts of specialist knowledge by reading some very obscure books in the name of research. 

My work on the Our Country Lives museum redevelopment has involved a lot of research – using collections but also MERL’s wonderful archive and library. Apparently, in meetings I often start sentences with ‘I read an interesting book about…’ and follow it with a snippet about a bizarre or incredibly niche topic. I am eternally grateful for my ability to become fascinated by just about anything!



To honour the fact that today is World Book Day, it has been suggested that I share with you just a small sample of some of the books I’ve been encountering over the past months. Some are listed because I thought they were brilliant, some because they surprised me, and some because they are about amusingly odd-sounding topics. Hopefully I’ll have further chances to share with you some of the great books and resources and stories I come across during my research.


  1. Dictionary of Woodworking Tools by R. A. Salaman – I can’t quite convey just how much I love this book. Salaman lists, illustrates and describes the types and sub-types of tools used in an enormous variety of woodworking crafts and trades. It’s an indispensable resource for anyone learning about woodworking crafts. And it contains instructions for how to make a paper hat.

Hat instructions

  1. Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape by Oliver Rackham – if you can only read one book about the British countryside, I suggest you choose one of Professor Rackham’s. He writes about the natural and social history of landscape with an engaging enthusiasm and terrifying depth of knowledge. He made me challenge what I thought I knew about trees and woodland.
  2. Cannibalism and Feather Pecking in Poultry by MAFF – because apparently chicken glasses are a thing. Seriously – little red spectacles for chicken, used to discourage the feather pecking and cannibalistic behaviour described in this bizarre but fascinating little Ministry pamphlet.
  3. Make a Meal of Cheese by The Cheese Information Service – a 1970s recipe book designed to encourage British consumers to use cheese in their cooking. Whilst the recipes have odd names, some of them sound pretty tasty (I’ll definitely be making ‘Savoury Welsh Surprise’ – leeks wrapped in bacon covered with cheese sauce). Others sound and look pretty revolting (peanut butter and cheddar biscuits, anyone?).
  4. Country Doctor by G. Barber – one of many books of the reminiscence genre in the MERL library. This one was written by an Essex country doctor in the 1930s. Some of the passages are amusing, some horrifying. Particularly those on the topic of early-twentieth century rural dentistry, which it’s worth sharing with you:

‘Once a week the local doctors used to give gas for their patients who were having extractions at the dentist’s, and we usually had to do half a dozen in the half hour which meant a fairly quick turn over, and hygiene was completely lacking… The face piece was all in one and the technique was to get the patient sufficiently far out so that all the necessary teeth could be extracted before he or she came round. This needed fairly precise judgement which only came with practice, and it meant that the dentist had to work as fast as he could. One with whom I worked longest was a really expert extractor indeed: he fairly whipped the teeth out, and he threw them wildly over his shoulder and made no attempt to do more than kick them under his bookcase before the next patient came in. I remember the look of absolute horror as a rather fastidious lady came in to have a tooth out and skidded on a bunch of recently extracted teeth which he had not had time to clear up’ (p. 49).

On a final and slightly silly note, one of my wonderful volunteers came across this absolutely essential article in a 1950s issue of the magazine Country Fair. Who knew that there was a type of rock garden known as ‘the almond pudding’, or that the ‘devil’s lapfull’ type was regarded with such disdain?

Rock garden

We’d love to hear about any books you’ve read about the English countryside that inspired you, or made you think, or made you laugh. Leave a comment here, or on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

Sew Engaging! The first ‘man stitch’

In this week’s Sew Engaging! project update, Jane visits Cotswold Woollen Weavers at Filkins and gets the first ‘man stitch’

It was dark. I got up this morning and lit the wood burner, glad of my sweater, the brown one I was wearing to launch the ‘Sew Engaging’ project at the Riverside Inn on Valentine’s Day. It has a hole under one arm. I bought my sweater in Filkins two years ago, and have worn it practically every day since. I put another log on the fire and wash the soot off my hands; ‘Real stuff for real people’, time to search for a new sweater.

Filkins lies just off the A361 between Lechlade and Burford and is home of the Cotswold Woollen Weavers. The village is of Saxon origin, now with a population of about 450, two churches built 800 years apart, a public swimming pool given by a Chancellor of the Exchequer, a village lock-up and a very fine pub. The area is home of the ‘Cotswold Lions’ or their modern descendants– flocks of woolly sheep.

Cross the threshold of the Cotswold Woollen Weavers (mind your head) to feel the warmth of natural fibres and feast your eyes on their beautiful colours. The Main Shop is full of garments, accessories and knitwear; a visitor from Oxford adds a stitch to the needlework in the Weaving Shed. She has not heard of the Museum of English Rural Life but will visit when we re-open in 2016.

Sew engaging last loom

‘The last of the looms’ – the fabric is now woven off site.

Director, Richard Martin, at his desk in the Design Studio, is surrounded by the ephemera of the textile industry. ‘What do you love or hate about the countryside?’ I ask. We talk about the project while he puts the first ‘man stitch’ in the ‘tapestry’. I make my purchase, leaving Richard making history, but there is no time to work more than a few stitches. I steal away via the coffee shop and come home.

Sew engaging first man stitch

Making the first ‘man stitch’


What do you love or hate about the countryside? Some people are ‘Sew Engaged’, they have spent hours working on the canvas at home. Elaine and Bambi show off their ‘pet hate’ at Woolstone Farm Livery in Vale of White Horse:


Sew Engaging horse



Sew engaging pet hate


The ‘Sew Engaging’ project, funded by The Ashley Family Foundation, is giving people an opportunity to enjoy working with the ‘real stuff’- up-cycled needlework kits and a rainbow of tapestry yarn. Please contact Rob Davies at the Museum of English Rural Life if you belong to a group that would like to take part in the project. Previous sewing skills are not needed and we supply all the materials free of charge.


Next time, Jane goes to a Community Craft Fair in Slough.

Our Country Lives update: Bringing our wagons down to earth

Alongside finalising gallery layouts, coming up with exciting ideas for interactive displays and filling in foundations for our extensions, our biggest update for you this week is the removal of our wagons from their monorail.

Designs for the gallery and possible objects for display are coming together

Designs for the gallery and possible objects for display are coming together

wagon move 1

wagon move2












We managed to finish the job in one day with the help of a specialist removal company, a fork-lift truck and much bated breath. If you haven’t been to the Museum before, for the last ten years we have had several wagons raised from the floor on a monorail running down the length of the galleries. Each wagon was attached to its own beam which was first removed from its supports and brought to the floor; once the wagon’s own wheels were supporting it, the beam was then lowered from the wagon itself and taken away. One main worry was that since the wagons have been off their wheels for so long, and their wood so desiccated from the dry atmosphere of our building, that they may be a little brittle when on the floor again. They all, however, came down without a hitch and are now waiting with the rest of the collection to be redisplayed.


The reasoning behind their removal is that the wagons currently take up precious space in the rafters where we would like to build a new gallery for our ploughs. The Wagon Walk, where the majority of our wagons and carts will now be, will allow us to show our nationally important collection at its best. As well as exploring the craftsmanship and technical complexity of a wagon’s construction, we will also be delving into personal stories of those behind the wagons and how they used them. We will reveal how these wagons are intimately tied to their landscapes but also to local building traditions, and how the geography dictates the size, shape and construction of every single one of our unique wagons.



Volunteers’ Voice: Student Volunteering Week

We celebrate Student Volunteering Week with a post by Katie Wise who talks about the benefits of volunteering and the opportunities that her experience at MERL has brought.

Katie Wise at MERL fete

Katie volunteering in the tea tent at the MERL Village Fete

As a student on a humanities course, one thing I have a lot of is time. What’s a good way to spend it? Instead of pigging out watching Netflix, I decided to volunteer at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL). Volunteering is the best way to gain experience, develop skills, meet new people and discover a new passion.

When I started volunteering at MERL in September 2013, I began by researching one of the objects in the collection and although I had, and still have, little interest in wagons, it showed me just what I could achieve. It also gave me a chance to blog about my research and add a new section to my CV. After that I started volunteering on reception which is a great way to develop communication skills – greeting visitors and dealing with phone enquiries. I have had a lot of customer service experience and I’m super organised so this role was perfect for me. For both of these jobs I was only giving up 2 or 3 hours per week so I still had plenty of time for my studies and to relax.

I also got lots of opportunities to help out with events that were run by the museum. These included small workshops, such as bread making or crafts, and large events such as the May Fayre. This was an amazing event to be a part of as each volunteer and staff member worked together to put on a great day for a huge number of visitors and it was so satisfying to see everyone having an amazing time. Even just being on washing up duty, I felt like I was an important part of the team and had contributed to the event.

Due to the financial situation museums are under, some places use volunteers as ‘free labour’, only interested in keeping costs down. However, I have never felt like I have been taken advantage of in this way and MERL are definitely interested in the development of their volunteers and helping them achieve. My skills and interests were used to find a role that suited me and that I would enjoy and they are always willing to help me to develop skills, build up my CV and give me incredible opportunities.

You never know what volunteering can lead to. I was very lucky as a temporary weekend post at MERL opened up and, as I was already volunteering in that role during the week, I was suggested for the post. As I had museum volunteering experience, I was also able to apply for another museum job which I have been working in for nine months now. When I started volunteering, I never imagined that I would have two paid museum jobs by my second year of university.

From volunteering I have gained research skills, IT skills, communication and customer service skills as well as experience working in large and small groups. I gained paid work and have discovered my passion and the career I want as well as having lots of fun. All this is definitely worth giving up a couple of hours a week and I would strongly recommend it.

Discovering the Landscape #12: Brenda Colvin

Brenda Colvin (1897-1981) was a founder member of the Institute of Landscape Architects and its first female president (elected in 1951).

In anticipation of FOLAR’s (Friends of the Landscape Library and Archive at Reading) study day focusing on Brenda Colvin here at MERL on Saturday 21 March, this blog post takes a look at Brenda Colvin and our Colvin collections.

From AR COL A/6/5, Folder relating to Little Peacocks Garden, Filkins [Brenda Colvin's home from 1960s]

From AR COL A/6/5, Folder relating to Little Peacocks Garden, Filkins [Brenda Colvin’s home from 1960s]

Brenda Colvin

Brenda Colvin (1897-1981) was a landscape architect, born in Simla in India.  Colvin trained under Madeline Agar in gardening and market work at Swanley Horticulture College.  Colvin and Agar worked together on Wimbledon Common.  In the early 1920s Colvin founded her own practice and by the late 1930s had advised on about 300 gardens.  One of her most significant early works was an extensive addition to the garden at Zywiec in Poland for Archduke Charles Albert Habsburg.  Until about 1965 she practised from an office in Gloucester Place, London, which she shared with Sylvia Crowe (though they never worked as partners).

Colvin designed for many high profile projects, including industrial and urban landscapes, such as the reservoir at Trimpley in Worcestershire in the early 1960s, the landscape of the University of East Anglia, landscapes around new generation power stations such as Stourport (from 1952), Drakelow (from 1963), Rugeley (from 1963), and Eggborough (from 1961) and the rebuilding of Aldershot military town from the early 1960s.

From AR COL A/6/5, Folder relating to Little Peacocks Garden, Filkins [Brenda Colvin's home from 1960s]

From AR COL A/6/5, Folder relating to Little Peacocks Garden, Filkins [Brenda Colvin’s home from 1960s]

In 1951 Colvin was elected the first female president of the Institute of Landscape Architects.   She had been a founder member of the institute in 1929, and from that date was re-elected for forty-seven years without a break as a member of council of the institute, a mark of her standing among her peers. In 1948 she was a British representative at the foundation of the International Federation of Landscape Architects.

In 1969, at the age of seventy-one, with several long-term commissions in hand, Colvin converted her practice into the partnership of Colvin and Moggridge. She was appointed CBE in 1973.

Adapted from Hal Moggridge’s entry on Colvin for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (


Copy of Gibson's 'Brenda Colvin' in our open access MERL library

Copy of Gibson’s ‘Brenda Colvin’ in our open access MERL library

The Brenda Colvin archive and library collection

The Colvin archive collection (reference AR COL) is catalogued and available to search via our online database.  Handlists have also been produced of the main catalogue and drawings.

Colvin wrote several books (such as Trees for Town and Country, written with Jacqueline Tyrwhitt and published in 1947, Land and Landscape, published in 1948, revised edition published in 1970 and Wonder in a World, 1977) which are available in our open access library.  We also hold several titles about Colvin, or with chapters about her work, such as Icons of twentieth-century landscape design edited by Katie Campbell and The Garden Makers by George Plumptre.


Colvin inscription to the Jellicoe's, in the front cover of a 2nd edition of her Land and Landscape.

Colvin inscription to the Jellicoe’s, in the front cover of a 2nd edition of her Land and Landscape.

Brenda Colvin study day: 21 March 2015

Please see here and below (or contact ) for further information on FOLAR’s (Friends of the Landscape Library and Archive at Reading) Brenda Colvin study day on Saturday 21 March.


Brenda Colvin; An insight into a founder member of the Landscape Institute

Saturday 21st March


£10 payable on the day

Some of Brenda’s drawings will be on display at the Study Day. Her practice partner, Hal Moggridge, will be giving a talk, as will Guy Baxter, University Archivist. This event has been organised by FOLAR; Friends of the Landscape Library and Archive at Reading.

For further information, contact


Sew Engaging!

Our new ‘Sew Engaging!’ outreach project has been launched on the banks of the River Thames at Lechlade, Gloucestershire. The project has been designed by textile artist, Jane McCutchan, and funded by The Ashley Family Foundation. Jane holds a Barnett Bequest Fellowship at MERL, and a doctorate from the University of Reading, and uses our collections in her work. In this series of posts, you will be able to follow Jane’s adventures as she invites people to ‘up-cycle’ unfinished needlepoint kits, and stitch designs which reflect their feelings about the countryside.

February 14th 2015

Quintessential wintry countryside; a bevy of snow-white swans grazes the water meadow, a lonely narrow boat leans against the bank, the willows are colouring against a leaden sky. Swindon is 11 miles and another world behind, I cross Halfpenny Bridge, turn left, and the carpark of the Riverside Inn is full.

‘What do you love or hate about the countryside?’ I ask the Manager, business-like in a red top covered with hearts. Apprehensively, I pull the canvas out of my bag; three up-cycled pieces joined together; ‘The Old Mill’ came from a charity shop in Dawlish, two flowery seat covers are tacked on upside down. Squint, and the one on the left will become an apple orchard, the other a vegetable garden. I order coffee and a sandwich. Will she let me sit here and stitch?

sew engaging watermill


‘Watch out for the pins’, the rural scene is littered with small pieces of paper, pictures of icons people hate; solar panels, satellite dishes, wind turbines, power lines, road signs, wheelie bins, plastic bottles, broken bottles, a shopping trolley in the pond. The plan is to work them into the traditional scene using the same vintage colour palette, and invite the public to add a stitch.

sew engaging2

Summer Lancaster, Manager at the Riverside Inn, Lechlade makes the first stitch


Sew engaging no fly tipping





‘What are you doing?’ Two women pause, interested, I explain. ‘What a wonderful idea, we love doing this!’ Another Jane sits down, she is from Bath. My sandwich arrives, it looks delicious but we are too busy to eat.  Marion from Bristol is my next customer; no-one has heard of the Museum of English Rural Life.

sew engaging3


Lunch is coming to an end, Alex comes out from behind the bar, ‘May I try?’ I haven’t done this before.’

sew engaging4


I tell everyone about my Blog and invite them to visit MERL, when it reopens in 2016 and see all the needlework in the ‘Sew Engaging!’ exhibition. Donations of tapestry yarn and part-finished kits are needed; please send them to the museum.

Next time: Jane visits Cotswold Woollen Weavers at Filkins and gets a first ‘man stitch’.

Your country lives and your museum

Assistant Curator, Dr Ollie Douglas traces the Museum’s history of building links with communities and invites readers to get involved in our current project

In the 1950s, when the Museum of English Rural Life was first established, countryside people were experiencing a period of massive change. Of course, the lives of people who live and work in rural areas have never been unchanging. It was this sense of transformation that the Museum set out to capture by gathering evidence directly from farmers and others connected with the countryside. The first curators tried different ways to build links with these communities. They visited agricultural shows and events, appeared on the television, and spoke to country people with links to the University.


The Museum’s stand at the Royal Agricultural Show, Nottingham, 1955

As a result of these early efforts, the collections, displays, and role of the Museum came to echo the interests and ideas of those who lay at the very heart of rural life and work. It rapidly amassed an amazing array of disused implements and equipment, information about traditional ways of working the land, and accounts of the social lives of rural people, past and present. These objects, archives, and stories were given to the Museum and have been held safely for the benefit of future generations.

As part of the Our Country Lives redevelopment project, we are keen to strengthen links with these ‘future generations’, including the urban people who live near the Museum and those rural communities whose heritage we still preserve. The project will transform the way both these sets of people can connect with their shared history through new displays, innovative interpretation and an exciting programme of activities.

In many ways there is little to separate us from the Museum’s founders. We still have a stand at the Berkshire Show every September and have made efforts in recent years to get out and about and build links with people who live, work, and use the countryside today. Like those early curators we are also keen to engage these groups in shaping our displays and activities. Do you have strong links to the countryside? Might you be able to help?

Berks show Sept 2010 095

Gathering memories from visitors to the Berkshire Show 2010 on our MERL and The Archers timeline

To ensure that our plans are relevant, interesting and focused on the type of issues that are important to present-day rural communities, we want to consult a range of people with links to farming and the countryside. If this is you and you would be happy to get involved in our new ‘Countryside Forum’, please contact Phillippa Heath. There are many different ways in which you can be involved so please do not worry if you only have a little time to give. We’re interested in hearing what you think, whatever your connection to the countryside, whether you have a farming background, are studying agriculture, have always lived and worked in the countryside, have ‘escaped to the country’ or enjoy leisure activities in the countryside.

Volunteers voice: Meet Rhiannon

Hello, I’m Rhiannon Watkinson the new Assistant Volunteer Coordinator here at MERL. Having been in the post a little over a month now, and no longer getting quite so lost in the maze that is the museum, it seems time to introduce myself.

I’m a Reading local and have just returned to the area after completing a Masters degree in Nineteenth Century Studies in London and am loving working in museum that I was taken to as a child. I have previously worked at The Florence Nightingale Museum in Lambeth where I was involved in the presentation of an art installation entitled ‘And the Band Played On…’ which was focused around waxworks of wounded soldiers. I also volunteer for the National Trust as a room guide at Grey’s Court so know first-hand the joys, and unfortunately sometimes issues, that volunteers face.


Rhiannon knows the way to the volunteers’ hearts!

The best way to describe my job is to tell you all the things I most enjoy about it which centres around the different groups of people I get to work with. The best thing about working as a volunteer coordinator is the sheer variety in my day! Rob and I are responsible for not only MERL volunteers but those from the other University of Reading collections; such as the Ure Museum and the Cole Museum to name just two. I am already involved in training tour guides for the Cole Museum which is one of my favourite parts of the week; not least because I’m learning so many weird and wonderful facts about the animals on display there. For example, I bet you didn’t know that Giant Spider crabs have skeletons of such breadth that they would collapse if they tried to walk on land!

            MERL volunteers performing at Reading Library

MERL volunteers performing at Reading Library

Another volunteer group that I am enjoying working with are the Swing Riot group. During my time here I have been to several rehearsals of their self-penned play about the Berkshire Swing Riots, even stepping into a role when required! I was thrilled to get to see the play in its full glory with props and costumes (my favourite being an especially fetching knitted judges wig) when they performed recently at Reading Library. It is great that volunteers are still getting the word out about our local rural history even though the museum is closed. I’m also looking into us staging more performances of the play so keep a look out for that in the near future.

Having student volunteers from the University of Reading is extremely important for the museum and having been a student myself not so long ago I am really keen to give them the best experience possible. Some new student volunteers are helping with the Astor Project which will allow people to digitally search for items from Nancy Astor’s archive that we have here at MERL. As well the volunteers work being hugely useful the snippets of information thrown up through Nancy Astor’s correspondence are fascinating. We’ve seen letters asking for everything from support for the Tasmanian Temperance Society, requests to open village bazaars and correspondence about a meeting ominously entitled ‘Moral Hygiene’.

I’m really looking forward to meeting even more volunteers over the coming weeks and enjoying even more of the variety that my job has to offer. Finally, a big thanks to everyone, staff and volunteers, for being immensely welcoming and making me feel at home at MERL so quickly.

Discovering the Landscape #11: Great new seminar series

Great news!  Our fascinating new seminar series entitled ‘Discovering the Landscape’ kicks off on Tuesday 10 February with an overview of the collections (‘From garden space to masterplan: The Landscape Institute collections at MERL’) with our archivist Caroline Gould and landscape architect Annabel Downs.

In 2013, MERL received the archives and library of the Landscape Institute. Our Spring 2015 seminar series focuses on these collections as well as the figures and themes which have shaped the English landscape over the past 200 years.

We hope to see you all there!

  • 1-2pm, Tuesdays (and one Wednesday) in February & March, 2015
  • Free
  • Register
  • Conference room, Museum of English Rural Life

Please see the seminar web pages here for further details on the ‘MERL Seminars: Discovering the Landscape’ series.

Dicovering the Landscape: seminar series poster

Discovering the Landscape: seminar series poster