Rural Reads reviews: The Bees by Laline Paull

the beesRob Davies reviews our latest rural read.

This September we read The Bees by Laline Paull. The Bees is set within a bee hive and tells the story of Flora 717 a sanitation bee who rises up through the ranks. The Bees has many tropes of a classic dystopian novel: totalitarian regime, secret police, oppression and that one individual who stands out against the state.

Paull has evidently done extensive research into bees and hive workings. For many of us, bees are the lovely bumble bees that hop from one flower to the next during summer. Paull breaks that perception and reveals the inner working of hives, along with the various bees that all play an essential role. The group particularly enjoyed this aspect of the book and we feel we have all learnt something new about bees. Learning something new about wildlife or farming is a common occurrence with the books we read!

The story line was rather straight forward, set at an easy pace, but seemed to meander off course at periods. I personally felt it was rather predictable with no surprises along the way. We thought it was interesting that the bees were very much aware of the world and other species, including humans. However, we felt there were levels of confusion between the bees and their understanding of the outside world. Paull had created a folklore for their world, intersected with humans and our understanding of reality, but at times it became confused.

The protagonist Flora 717 was an interesting character, we were all amazed how she managed to survive through such hardship. Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, she is not supposed to be able to speak and is treated as a slave by the rest of the hive. Flora 717 however develops speech, free thought and has an inner will which drives her through so many disasters which would surely destroy a weaker bee.

Overall the group really enjoyed the book, finding it an easy read with many interesting points and found the bee facts fascinating. Paull managed to intermingle the complex and diverse world of bees with a dystopian story.

October’s read is Common Ground by Rob Cowen. Visit the Rural Reads plus web page for more details.

Rip Roaring Reading Room News: Full opening from Monday 28 September 2015

Our Reading Room

Our Reading Room

Great news everyone! We have extended our Reading Room opening hours. Up until now, although you have been able to visit our wonderful Reading Room Monday-Friday, 9-5, we have operated a restricted service on a Monday. This meant that, on a Monday, we opened later (10am) and we were unable to retrieve material from our store.

But we are delighted to say that from (and including) Monday 28 September – our Reading Room will be ready for your visit and fully accessible, open and with staff making trips to the store to retrieve material throughout the day:

Every Monday to Friday – 9am to 5pm!

Retrievals take place until 4.15pm, and we collect all closed access material in at 4.45pm.

(Allowing for a brief hiatus in retrievals from the store while our Reading Room staff take a hard earned lunch break between 1-2pm)

Our Reading Room

Our Reading Room

So why not pay us a visit?  You can find more information on using our Reading Room here.  If you have any queries or would like to order up material in advance, you can contact us at

The MERL Student Panel: now recruiting!

One of the most interesting aspects to the museum’s redevelopment is that we are having many conversations with different people from diverse and varied backgrounds. All of these discussions are helping us shape the museum’s future. Audience Development Project Manager, Phillippa Heath, gives an update on one of our discussion forums: the Student Panel.

As the new academic year gets underway, it is an ideal time to begin our preparations for the forthcoming meetings of the MERL Student Panel and reflect on the discussions we have had to date.

Having begun in 2013 when we recruited students to devise and manage a 1951 Vintage Night event for Museums at Night, the MERL Student Panel has continued to go from strength to strength. With the museum’s redevelopment, our panel has been involved in and had their say on lots of different aspects of the museum’s work. Discussions around our new displays, how we are planning to interpret our collections, museum interactives and museum facilities are all helping inform how we shape the museum for all our visitors but, in particular, those aged between 18 and 25.

Members of the Student Panel exploring museum plans and some of our objects with museum staff

Members of the Student Panel exploring museum plans and some of our objects with museum staff

Although many members of our MERL Student Panel are students at the University of Reading, this is not a prerequisite for membership and the panel is open to anyone between the age of 18 and 25. It is a great way of meeting new people and developing experience and transferable skills in diverse areas including communication, event and project management. Members also learn about work in the heritage sector generally. For many of the individuals on the panel, membership is rewarding and fulfilling. One of our members, for example, said:

“It has been a great chance to see and be involved in what goes on behind the museum scenes. To see how processes go on and to be a part of the redesign and gain an insight has been a privilege…. I didn’t realise how much of a contribution the students would be able to have.”

This year, for the first time, membership of the panel can count towards the University’s Red Award (the University’s employability and skills certificate).

Some members of our 2013 student panel.

Some members of our 2013 student panel.

Our meetings will be commencing on October 14th and we are looking forward to our panel members getting involved in lots of aspects of our work over the year such as marketing, events planning to preparing for the museum’s reopening in 2016. We are also recruiting new members!

There is a lot to do during what will be a really exciting time for the museum as we prepare to reopen in 2016.
If you, or anyone you know, may be interested in becoming a member we would love to hear from you. Please email me (Phillippa) on for more information.

Discovering the Landscape #19: From New York’s High Line to London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (MERL and LI joint annual lecture on 22 October by James Corner)

Written by Claire Wooldridge, Project Senior Library Assistant: Landscape Institute

James Corner's New York High Line

James Corner’s New York High Line

We are delighted to announce that cutting edge Landscape architect James Corner – renowned for designing New York’s much loved High Line and the South Park Plaza of London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – will deliver a lecture here at MERL on Thursday 22 October, as a joint MERL and Landscape Institute Annual Lecture.

Named by TIME Magazine as one of the ‘Top Ten Designers in the World’, James Corner is now working on several high-visibility urban projects around the world, such as San Francisco’s Presidio Parklands and London’s Battersea Power Plant Development.

The unrivalled library and archive of the Landscape Institute are currently being made available at the Museum of English Rural Life.

Here are the details, we look forward to seeing you for this exciting joint venture:

  • Thursday 22 October
  • 7.30pm (Doors open at 7pm)
  • Great Hall, London Road campus
  • Free admission
  • Booking required as places are limited
  • To book, please email or call 0118 378 8660

Members of the Landscape Institute only: Follow this link to book your tickets for the Lecture and AGM

Image credit: High Line project © Iwan Baan

Discovering the Landscape #18: From Devon to Derbyshire, the Shell Guides to Great Britain

Shell Guides on the shelf

Shell Guides on the shelf

Written by Claire Wooldridge, Project Senior Library Assistant: Landscape Institute

The Shell Guides, published between 1934 and 1984, were designed to be light hearted but engaging guide books to the countryside and historical sites of Great Britain for the growing number of mid twentieth century car owners.  Published by the Architectural Press and funded by Shell-Mex (more driving = more fuel…) the Shell Guides were intended to tag along with day-trippers, being less than 50 pages long they were ideal for a glove compartment.  Bold and visual, each guide contains an introduction to the area covered and descriptions of each place or landmark to be found there.

From Dorset to Derbyshire, Cambridgeshire to Cornwall, the guides covered most regions of Great Britain.  Different regions were studied by different writers, including a host of well know names including John Piper (artist, 1903-1992, writer of Oxfordshire published in 1938) and Paul Nash (artist and painter, 1889-1947, writer of Dorset published in 1935).  Paul Nash went to live in Swanage for a year to work on the book, suffering from shellshock from WW1, this was an opportunity for Nash to find peace in the countryside.  Sir John Betjeman (poet, writer and broadcaster, 1906-1984) edited the series and also contributed several titles, most notably Cornwall (1934).

Selection of Shell Guide covers

Selection of Shell Guide covers

We received several editions of the Shell Guides from the Landscape Institute library, some which were new to us and some which are different editions of titles we already hold.  Several of these were presented by Shell-Mex and B. P. Ltd to the Landscape Institute.  These new additions to the collection will sit alongside our existing ones in our Printing Collection (part of our Special Collections) with Landscape Institute provenance recorded in the catalogue records.

Shell-Mex presentation book plate in Shell guides received from the LI library

Shell-Mex presentation book plate in Shell guides received from the LI library

The guides have an enduring popularity (such as being the focus of books and two TV series, one featuring Richard Wilson and another with David Heathcote, a cultural historian who has written about the Shell Guides) and are very collectable today.  Thirteen Shell Guides were published before the outbreak of WW2 and were reissued after the war.  Different editions within the Shell Guides series, with contemporary typography and images, were published in later decades – making collecting all the different copies something of a challenge!  The Shell Guides from the Landscape Institute Collections make a wonderful addition to our existing holdings.

For more information see David Heathcote’s (2010) A Shell eye on Britain: The Shell County Guides 1934-1984 (Libri).

Rural Reads Plus book review: The Prodigal Summer

Rob Davies reviews The Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kinsolver

During the humid month of July we read The Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, a suitably clammy read for the climate. This book is a mammoth read set within Zebulon Country in America, following three narratives that are tenuously connected to one another but tell the story of the land.

The Prodigal Summer is a perfect read for Rural Reads Plus; it is packed with contemporary rural issues that span agriculture universally. Kingsolver used the narratives to explore these themes such as hunting, genetics, isolation within the countryside, inheritance and family, along with many other smaller but still significant themes.

The first narrative called ‘Predators’ follows Deanna who is a park ranger living an isolated life on the side of Zebulon mountain. Her voluntary isolation is broken when the hunter Eddie Brando walks into her life. This narrative isn’t just about the developing relationship between Deanna and Eddie Brando but also about the issue of hunting. As a group we had conflicting opinions on this narrative, I enjoyed learning about coyotes but the characters were too flat for me.

The second narrative is entitled ‘Moth Love’ and follows Lusa who was widowed one year into her marriage; she now finds herself lost in an enormous family who don’t particularly like or trust her, one of the reasons is because she is from outside of the county. To make matters worse for Lusa she has inherited her husband’s farm which is in a lot of debt and she refuses to grow the local crop, tobacco. This was my favourite narrative, Kingsolver writes about grief, loss and surviving so vividly, I was almost going through the emotions as well.

The third narrative ‘Old Chestnuts’ took the longest to warm up and develop. It’s about two elderly farmers who are neighbours with very different farming methods, in fact it comes down to organic vs GM crops. However, it’s also about disease within trees and the loss of species.

This was the second consecutive book we unanimously enjoyed and would recommend it to everyone. This August we’re reading A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair.

Discovering the Landscape #17: Sylvia Crowe

The ‘Discovering the Landscape’ series continues with a profile of Sylvia Crowe, ending with an overview of our Crowe collections.  Written by Claire Wooldridge, Project Senior Library Assistant: Landscape Institute

The landscape architect has to understand what the people want and to understand what the wild life wants, as well as understanding the function of whatever it is you are undertaking.  There is a great deal to think about…’

(Crowe quoted in Harvey, 1989, p. 51).

Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, AR CRO DO1 P 3

Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, AR CRO DO1 P 3

Dame Sylvia Crowe (1901–1997) was a landscape architect and writer.  She was a significant figure in the promotion of landscape architecture in the UK and internationally, through her involvement with the Institute of Landscape Architects (now Landscape Institute) and the International Federation of Landscape Architects.  Crowe was an active member of many prestigious organisations, such as being president of the Landscape Institute 1957-59 and of the International Federation of Landscape Architects in 1969.  She was granted a CBE in 1967 and a DBE in 1973 (at which time the last landscape architect to receive such an honour had been Sir Joseph Paxton in 1851).

Crowe trained in horticulture at Swanley Horticultural College (1920–22), going on to complete an apprenticeship with Edward White at Milner, Son and White (1926-27).  Crowe then worked as a garden designer for William Cutbush & Son’s nurseries (winning a gold medal at Chelsea in 1937) until the outbreak of World War Two.  In 1945 Crowe established her own private practice as a landscape architect.  Although they were not in partnership, Crowe was given a room in the offices of Brenda Colvin and in 1952 they moved together to 182 Gloucester Place where Crowe remained until 1982 with various staff assisting her over the years.

Drawing showing Cumberland Basin Bridges, Ashton Gate, AR CRO DO1_R2_1

Drawing showing Cumberland Basin Bridges, Ashton Gate, AR CRO DO1_R2_1

Crowe worked on a great range of diverse projects; from small gardens, to new towns, forestry initiatives and power stations.  She authored many influential books confronting the challenges of new landscape issues and garden design, such as Landscape of Power and Tomorrow’s Landscape in the 1950s.  Urban development Crowe worked on included Bristol in the 1960s.  Crowe also designed the landscape around Wylfa power station, Anglesey and Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, Gwynedd, Wales (at the top of this post).

In 1964 Crowe became the first landscape consultant to the Forestry Commission, a role she worked in until 1976.  During this period, Crowe revolutionised how the need for timber production can be balanced with retaining the beauty of the landscape, publishing Forestry in the Landscape in 1966.  She commented: ‘I think that aesthetic and ecological principles are inseparable, certainly in afforestation’. (Harvey, 1987, p. 34).

Sylvia Crowe signature in Dale's 1944 Towards a plan for Oxford City

Sylvia Crowe signature in Dale’s 1944 Towards a plan for Oxford City


Crowe, Landscape of Roads, 1960

Crowe, Landscape of Roads, 1960

The Sylvia Crowe archive and library collection at Reading contains drawings by Crowe and some of her staff, photographs and negatives, and correspondence.  The archive collection has been catalogued with the reference AR CRO and a handlist of the collection is available here.

Books from Crowe’s personal library have now been integrated into our MERL Library.  We also have books written by Crowe that she gifted to other prominent landscape architects, such as the copy to the above of her Landscape of Roads (1960), with the inscription to the Jellicoe’s reading: ‘To Geoffrey & Susan, from Sylvia.  A memorial to our battle of the roads?’.

As mentioned above, Crowe had many connections within the world of landscape architecture; for more information on our Sylvia Crowe, Milner White, Geoffrey Jellicoe, Susan Jellicoe or Brenda Colvin collections please

contact us at

For more information please see Hal Moggridge’s entry on Crowe in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Harvey, Reflections on Landscape (1987) or Collens & Powell, Sylvia Crowe (LDT monographs 2, 1999).

Discovering an unknown opera

With such vast and varied collections, we sometimes come across hidden treasures. Adam Lines, Reading Room Supervisor, tells us about a discovery he made recently.

One of the most invigorating aspects of my role as Reading Room Supervisor is the wealth of knowledge about the collection that I accumulate on a daily basis. Often researchers draw my attention to the significance of items in the collections through their enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, their subject.

A few weeks ago I received an email from an academic eager to see the original manuscript of a mid-eighteenth-century performance piece called ‘The Charnwood Opera’. They supplied the file number, D MS 1093/12/19, and I set about retrieving the manuscript. When I looked up the file number in the catalogue, the description offered was simply ‘documents related to enclosure’ – nothing, at first glance, directly referenced ‘The Charnwood Opera’. Upon finding the folder I found an envelope and as I carefully emptied its contents I discovered the manuscript I was looking for.

'The Charnwood Opera' - D MS 1093/12/19

‘The Charnwood Opera’ – D MS 1093/12/19

Measuring approximately 39×31 cm, this manuscript is the only known surviving copy of ‘The Charnwood Opera’. It is dated 1752 and was written by an unknown author. The piece was written as a protest against a local landowner, William Herrick, who attempted to enclose areas of common land in Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire and develop rabbit warrens for private use. It is an entirely unique piece of contemporary evidence in song of the rural struggles against enclosure. The manuscript suggests that it might have been performed at a tavern in Charnwood Forest known as the Holly Bush.

'The Charnwood Opera' - D MS 1093/12/19

‘The Charnwood Opera’ – D MS 1093/12/19

Although set in the immediate context of William Herrick’s attempts to enclose common land in Charnwood Forest, at the time the piece was written around half of the villages in the county had been enclosed and ‘The Charnwood Opera’ encapsulates this county-wide unrest. During the early eighteenth century, nine out of ten people lived and worked in the countryside. For them, the difference between cultivated (private) and uncultivated (common) land was more meaningful than that between the town and the countryside. For the commoners, enclosure meant becoming labourers and working for wages whilst their traditional livelihood of catching rabbits was outlawed. ‘The Charnwood Opera’, through a mixture of seven songs and dialogue, plays out the events of the confrontation between warreners and commoners. When a bribe offered by the gentry fails, many of the commoners are arrested and the landlord turns to hired thugs to pacify them. The piece concludes with the commoners anticipating further troubles ahead.

'The Charnwood Opera' - D MS 1093/12/19

‘The Charnwood Opera’ – D MS 1093/12/19

How did a performance piece related to the enclosure of land in Leicestershire find its way to Reading?

The manuscript is one of hundreds of documents that form part of the William Tate (1902-1968) archive. He was a much celebrated historian and antiquarian, called many things from a ‘scholar’ to a ‘maverick’. He had many academic interests, but his main passion was for the history of enclosure in England and he spent over thirty years researching and compiling the details of enclosure for all English counties. What Pevsner is to buildings, Tate is to enclosure acts. Much of his collection of papers was deposited at the University of Reading by his wife after his death, including many manuscripts of unpublished works.

And it was this very archive that presented the treasure I discovered tucked away in an envelope. It is thought that William Tate first discovered it when a bookseller in Nottingham alerted him to its presence when he found it loose in a book. Whether Tate was aware of its significance is unknown, but he was clearly fascinated enough by it to save it.

You can find out more about the William Tate archive here.

Thank you to Gerald Porter for sharing his research and for shedding light on such a fascinating piece of rural history.

Porter, Gerald and Tiusanen, Jukka (2006) ‘Performing Resistance to the New Rural Order: An Unpublished Ballad Opera and the Green Song,’ The Eighteenth Century, 47 (2): pp.202-232.


Work experience in a Museum? Really?

Katie completed a week’s work experience at the museum and during this time planned her own mini exhibition, helped with a VIP visit and press photo shoot and attended a social media planning meeting! Here are her thoughts on her week – it looks as though she might be a convert!

This week I have been doing my Year 10 work experience week at the MERL (Museum of English Rural Life.) This has exceeded my expectations of museum work and I have been given the opportunity to explore the background and workings of a museum – from social media and marketing to learning about the archives and different objects in the museum and how they are preserved! I have been reminded that a working environment can be fun and here at the MERL there is a strong relationship between staff members and volunteers. With a coffee break at 11am every day staff members are given the ability to catch up on each others’ work and socialize. I love the idea of bringing people together as they may not see each other throughout the day with such spread out offices throughout the museum.

The museum is currently undergoing a redesign and extension of its original galleries, with a grant of £1.7 million from the Heritage Lottery fund. The museum’s aim is to attract more visitors from the general public with a wider range of new audiences from different communities and ethnic backgrounds, with an exciting new opening of the building in 2016. I am confidently certain that they will be able to achieve this aim; this is just by working alongside them for one week and seeing all the hard work that they put into the MERL and the future plans.

Rural Life clothing exhib

Katie chose to focus her exhibition on rural clothing as she felt it was something that may not automatically spring to mind when speaking about the countryside. Smocks, baskets, a tailoring bag and even goffering irons; which were used for creating decorative crimps and frills on women’s clothing, would all be included

What intrigued me the most at the Museum of Rural Life is their use of social media; as well as the general use of Facebook, the MERL is also on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and even has a YouTube channel, you name it! With regular posts on each social networking site, followers are able to keep up to date with the ins and outs of the museum, with many pictures, gifs and hashtags included in posts, such as ‘#throwbackthurdsay’ and ‘#ilovemuseums!’ The social media and marketing team are devoted to these social networking sites and work hard to keep them going by researching the most popular hashtags and ones that are to do with the countryside, along with the themes of the museum. I think that the social media really benefits the museum in many different ways especially as most people nowadays are on at least one social networking site!

I have enjoyed my time at the MERL and plan to visit when it reopens in 2016!

My favourite object: the Shaplands and Petter sideboard

As she comes to the end of her internship (where did those 6 weeks go?!) Lisa has discovered an object from in the MERL collections which has special personal significance…

Being proud to call myself a Devonian (I moved to Reading for university), I was determined when picking out an object from the collections to find something relating to my hometown of Barnstaple in North Devon. Interestingly, I came across an oak sideboard made around 1905 by Shapland and Petter of Barnstaple. Shapland and Petter was a prominent furniture company and has been for over 100 years the town’s largest employer up until recently, with the company having quite a personal meaning to me which I will explain later.

Shaplands factory

Here you can see the factory in Barnstaple as it once was

The company was originally set up by Henry Shapland, a cabinet maker who joined forces in 1865 with Henry Petter. From manufacturing wardrobes to bookcases and chairs, the company’s products were sold both around the country and Europe. In addition, it also had a shop in London and even created furniture for the writer Edgar Wallace. Known for their high quality craftsmanship, they catered for the popular tastes of a burgeoning urban middle class and later merged to form Shapland Leaderflush in 1998.


This oak sideboard was acquired as part of the Museum’s Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures project and was designed by William Cowie who had been a student at Barnstaple School of Art. Designed in the ‘Arts and Craft’ style that was popular at this time, it is a beautiful example of craftsmanship, with its focus being on rural romanticism. The relationship between the town and countryside can be seen with this object particularly; the farmhouse dresser at the beginning of the 20th century had become a fashionable piece of furniture for the urban Edwardian home. It has three glazed cupboards, along with decorative metal work, a geometric arch and cut out hearts.

The Shaplands factory in Barnstaple has a personal meaning to me as not only did both my parents work there for many years when I was younger, but also my grandparents. I even have vague memories of my mum dropping my dad off at the factory at 7:30 when he would start work. (I hated having to get up that early!) Sadly, the factory closed in 2012 due to the effects of the recession, with the company moving the manufacturing side of the business to Nottingham. Hundreds were affected by the factory closure, with many people having worked there their whole life.

Plans are already underway for the building of an Asda where the factory once stood. Along with a supermarket, a hotel, 350 houses, shops and cafes will also be built on this site. Whilst this will create more jobs, there is already a huge Tesco five minutes away from this site which raises the question, why do we need yet another supermarket? You can even see the Tesco in the background of this photo which shows just how close the supermarkets will be! Perhaps this is simply me not wanting my hometown to become a concrete jungle and my inner ‘countryness’ raging out of me, not looking at the positives that it will bring. But in all seriousness, is it right that the countryside is being inundated with more supermarkets that we don’t need at the expense of a town’s heritage and landscape?

Shaplands site
Nonetheless, it was lovely to find an object in MERL’s collection that relates so much to me and where I am from, it’s just a shame that the factory is no longer standing.

Click here to find out more about the sideboard on the Collecting Cultures blog.