Volunteers’ Voice #5 – Gardening at MERL

In this month’s Volunteers’ Voice, Volunteer Co-ordinator Rob Davies gives some background on some gardening at MERL and enlists the help of our two of our gardening volunteers to explain how they have helped create bee-friendly habitats in the MERL gardens…

We have an outstanding volunteer gardening team who come, rain or shine, to tend to our gardens. We have a series of plots which have a different theme every year. In the past we have had a war-time garden, white borders and a myriad of tulips.

Tulips and  volunteers March 2012

Tulips and volunteers March 2012

Our volunteer garden team also have worked on the National Lottery Project ‘A Green Welcome’ which has transformed our dull uninviting front garden into a welcoming and wildlife friendly space. We worked with The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) on this project, they are an inspirational organisation who work with volunteers on sites across Reading. I certainly learnt a lot from them, in particular how to make hurdle!

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

This year we opted for plants that encourage bees. With the national decline in the bee population, we have themed our plots not only to attract and support bees but also to encourage visitors to the museum to do the same.

Below, two of gardening volunteers, Tony and Roger have described the work they have done but also talk about the Bee World project which is being coordinated by the Friends of the Earth.

The “Bee World” is an idea that is being promoted by Friends of the Earth. According to their website, Bee Worlds are havens of wildflowers in urban and rural spaces. They provide essential food and shelter for bees, and help reverse the trend of declining bee populations in the UK. To find out more about Bee Worlds, you can download a Bee World Information Pack from the Friends of the Earth website, or borrow a copy to use during your visit to MERL.

Our Bee Project at MERL has been set up to show you what you can do in your own garden to help bees – whether by leaving a part of your garden to nature’s care, or by growing a variety of flowers and vegetables that provide food for bees. Remember, bees are like people, they need somewhere to live, and regular meals.

Bee friendly plot

Bee friendly plot

Here are some of the things we have done to help bees in the MERL garden:

  1. Half-hardy annuals. After the first of three beds of roses, Bed 1 nearest to the main entrance to the gardens was used to grow flowering plants that were bought from White Tower Nursery at Aldermaston. These are mostly half-hardy annuals (raised under glass and planted out as soon as spring frosts are over) plus a few perennials. They all have one thing in common: they are attractive to bees of many species.
  2. Hardy annual mixtures. Bed 2 was divided into four sections and annual flower seed sown directly into the ground in early April. They were covered in permeable horticultural fleece to conserve moisture and maintain warmth in the early days of the spring. Four mixtures of annual flowers were grown: “Wildflower Honey Bee-friendly mixture”, “Butterfly mixture”, “Fragrant mixture” and “Fairy mixture”.Germination was excellent and by mid June many of the species in the four mixtures from Thompson and Morgan had begun to come into flower. The results were quite startling in the range of species, flower type and colour (we have still not identified many of them yet!). This wide range of species is a most important factor in supporting the population of various pollinating insects since the flowering period of so many species differs. The length of time that they were in flower was very satisfying and the later part of the summer weather was just what they needed. These beds in particular seemed to be alive with insect life for the whole summer. It is also a very inexpensive way of covering odd sunny corners of gardens with colour and interest. At the same time, they provide pollinating insects with a source of nectar and pollen during their most active period.
  3. Vegetables. We also grew runner beans, french beans and broad beans as examples of vegetables that bees pollinate. Difficult weather conditions this year meant that the early broad beans germinated badly in the wet part of the early summer and had to be sown again. The next sowing merely provided an excellent food source for black aphids as the hot weather tightened its grip. Detergent spray was used with a suitable level of outrage but ensured only cleaner-looking aphids. That’s horticulture!

You can see more pictures of the bee friendly beds at MERL on our Flickr page

New exhibition: ‘Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures’

The new temporary exhibition at MERL is now open to the public. Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures is largely comprised of objects drawn from the Museum’s recent Collecting Cultures project. This ran from 2008 until earlier this year and involved the Museum’s curatorial team selecting  items that connected in some meaningful way with  the twentieth century countryside or with perceptions of rural life. With the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, many of these things were then purchased for the MERL collection. This exciting departure has enabled the Museum to address new stories previously untold at MERL, as well as to acquire many materials we’re not particularly well known for holding. So, alongside the usual mishmash of smocks, ploughs, and wagons you will now find a rich mixture if advertising materials, posters, rurally-themed toys, and much, much more! You can read more about the wider project here and follow the early stages of the collecting process by accessing the original blog.

The Open Road by H.J. Deverson (MERL 2010/142)

The Open Road by H.J. Deverson (MERL 2010/142)

It was always hoped that the opportunity to acquire new (or perhaps we should say ‘slightly old and largely unfamiliar’) artefacts would lead to fresh avenues in the exploration of our rural past. The book shown here is a perfect case in point. It superseded another text by the same author entitled ‘The Map That Came To Life’ (1948) and both volumes were illustrated by the graphic artist Ronald Lampitt. His striking work also adorned the pages of many Ladybird books and, although largely unrecognised for these extraordinary illustrations, he now has a small but rapidly growing following. Both of the books can be seen on display in the new exhibition. However, what the labels won’t reveal is that MERL has recently opened a dialogue with Lampitt’s grandsons. So, as with these books and very much like the English countryside itself, this exhibition should be read as far more than the sum of its parts. We hope to use the varied collections within it to find new points of departure, innovative approaches, and exciting dialogues through which to champion the people whose powerful ideas and creations have helped to shape the way we come to know and understand the English countryside.


The exhibition will serve to help the Museum explore how best to incorporate more recent histories and ideas about rurality into its displays as part of the new Our Country Lives project. As well as exploring how we interpret and use the countryside, the exhibition asks you as a visitor what you think of the issues and events of the 20th century and how the museum can best act to record and communicate them. Feel free to comment on the blog, or visit the exhibition itself to leave your own opinions!


What would you collect to represent your idea of the English countryside? What do you think the future might hold for rural life in the UK? What would you like to see in a redisplayed MERL?

Picture of the month #4: Picking up the last of the Harvest

As our Photographic Assistant is on leave this week, I thought I would try and use our database to find a suitable harvest image. I have to admit I usually run straight to my colleagues in the reading room when I need something from the archives, so I was really pleased that the terms I used (MERL, archive, harvesting, Farmers Weekly) to narrow my search revealed (amongst many others) this beautiful – and local – picture… That was the extent of my researching ability, however, and University Archivist Guy Baxter came to my rescue to delve more deeply and find out more about the image… (Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer)


Picking up the last of the Harvest P_FW_PH2_H29_3 (2)

Picking up the last of the Harvest P_FW_PH2_H29_3 (2)

This photograph, by the Reading based photographer Eric Guy, shows “lodged wheat” being gathered up by hand in 1945. When a crop is “lodged” it means that it has been flattened by the wind, making it difficult to harvest. Eric Guy gave this photograph the caption “Picking up the last of the Harvest” but this particular print was not found in his own collection at MERL, but in the Museum’s Farmers Weekly’s picture library collection. In fact, the image was used in Farmers Weekly on 19 October 1945, with the following caption:

“The “Indian Summer” has enabled crops to be rescued in many parts of the country. This lodged wheat, on a farm in the Streatley Hills, near Basildon, Berks, was too much for the binder, but now it has been safely hand-gathered.”

A binder is a machine for reaping crops – now largely obsolete, as the combine-harvester does the job of both the binder and the threshing machine. For details of the binder on display at MERL, see the entry in our database 

Although at first glance the crop is being loaded onto an old farm wagon, a closer look reveals rubber tyres, and a tractor rather than a horse at the front.


Focus on Collections #3 – Baskets

written by Greta Bertram, Project Officer.

Anybody who’s been following the MERL Projects Blog over the past eighteen months will know that I love all things basket-related. My obsession began three years ago when I was writing my dissertation about craft as heritage, and needed to choose one craft to use as a case study. I’ve always been fascinated by baskets and how they are constructed so it was an easy decision. I interviewed several basketmakers and watched them at work in their studios; a few months later I went on weekend course and made two baskets; and then I was then lucky enough to get a job at MERL, where I’ve been able to bask in baskets!

Basketry and Beyond studying MERL’s collection of baskets from the south west.

Basketry and Beyond studying MERL’s collection of baskets from the south west.

MERL has one of the most significant basketry collections in the UK, with over 600 baskets, basketwork objects and basketmaking tools. The collection includes baskets for agricultural, industrial, fishing and domestic use, mostly from England but also from other parts of the UK. It also includes over 200 objects from Emily Mullins, a Reading basketmaker, who made numerous baskets specifically for the Museum. The collection was studied in the 1960s by Dorothy Wright, author of The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry and an authority on baskets. She produced detailed catalogue records for the collection, which are available to view online, and also played an important role in acquiring baskets for the Museum.

The basketry collection is one of our most popular and most visited collections at MERL, by basketmakers and non-basketmakers alike – visits since I’ve been here have included Basketry and Beyond researching baskets from the southwest for their festival in May this year, and from the University’s archaeology department to look at fishing baskets. I really enjoy supervising these visits – it’s great to look at the baskets more closely and to have the chance to find out more about them from people who know what they’re talking about, and I always try to feed this information back into the museum catalogue.

We’ve also had very exciting basket news recently – MERL has been awarded a grant from the Radcliffe Trust to run a project, Stakeholders, which will see us working closely with basketmakers to explore the collection and commission pieces to fill gaps in the collections. Click here to find out more.

However, while we have this amazing collection, there are actually very few baskets currently on display in the galleries. This is something that we hope will change as part of the Our Country Lives re-development, and we hope that the Stakeholders project can help inform this.

MERL 2006/54. One of my favourite baskets at MERL, an oak swill basket made by Owen Jones.

MERL 2006/54. One of my favourite baskets at MERL, an oak swill basket made by Owen Jones.

Since being asked to write this post I’ve been thinking long and hard about my favourite baskets at MERL – there are so many to choose from! I think one of my favourites has to be the Owen Jones oak swill basket (MERL 2006/54). Owen is the only person in the country making them professionally. He was featured in MERL’s Rural Crafts Take Ten project, and you can watch a video of him making his basket online and in the Museum. I could watch him working for hours and when I had the chance to meet him in May it took me a while to pluck up the courage to speak to him. There are also some really unusual baskets that have to be on my list – we have a basket that was used as a casing for artillery shells in WWI (MERL 90/43), and a pannier basket that was used  to drop supplies to the troops from the air during WW2 (MERL 60/449 & 63/70).

I hope I’ve managed to convey some of my passion for baskets! When you love baskets, MERL is one of the best places to be – now I just need to find the time to have a few more goes at making baskets myself.

MERL 90/43. An artillery shell basket, used to protect shells during the First World War.

MERL 90/43. An artillery shell basket, used to protect shells during the First World War.

Rural Reads review #1 – Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

MERL’s book club, Rural Reads, has been running for three years. We have read an incredible range of novels, poetry and non-fiction, all with either a rural setting or related to the countryside. In this new feature, Rural Reads regular, Rob Davies, will share his personal views and the group’s reactions to the book they read each month. 

August’s choice of read was Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. It is a short book of fewer than 200 pages that reads well and is a thrilling page turner. Rogue Male tells the story of the anonymous narrator who is on the run from a sinister agency that has imprisoned and tortured him. Having escaped from their clutches, first of all he heads for London but after a close encounter he makes for the remote countryside of Dorset. Finding an area in the countryside that he believes suitable for his survival, he creates a small hovel which he shares with a wild cat, and the two intrepid survivors learn to find solace within each other. The story culminates with a head on battle of attrition between our protagonist and the agent who goes by the name of Quive-Smith –  I won’t tell you the outcome in case you would like to read the book.



It is clear that this book, written in 1939, is a forerunner to the great spy novels of our time, in particular those written by Ian Flemming and John Le Carre. Household served with the intelligence services during the war and has poured his training, maybe even experience, into the novel.

The rural themes of the novel are based around survival and using nature, the countryside and inhabitants of rural communities as a method of survival. It explores the reality of living rough and being exposed to the harsh milieu that is the countryside, removing the reader from the rural idyll which we automatically conjure up in our minds when thinking of the English countryside.

It is fair to say that Rogue Male is quite different from the usual books that cross our laps at MERL’s ‘Rural Reads’ book group! Yes, it is set in the countryside but this is tale of a British gentleman on the run, with nothing but his survival skills and raw human instinct to save him from a persistent hunter. We felt as a group it was very much a “boys own” book but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we didn’t like it!

Reviews from the book of the group were varied; we all enjoyed it and thought it was a quick read. However some felt it was claustrophobic and found it difficult to read, not because of the style of writing but due to the intense situation the author was describing. I personally enjoyed the book, again it is not the usual style of book I usually read (but that’s the point of book group). I thought it was an easy page turner, with a tale that will grip you by the hand and drag you along.

The book to read for this month’s meeting on September 26th is The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis (Read a review in The Guardian here). Don’t worry if you haven’t been before, everyone’s welcome and we’ll even offer you a free cup of tea and a biscuit on your first visit if you mention this blog post!

Further details are on our website, where you can also find a full list of all the books we’ve read since the club started in 2010.  All the books were chosen by the group members – often the discussion about what to read next takes just as long as the review discussion, so if you have some ideas about more books to read, just bring along your suggestions and be prepared to argue your corner!

Rural Reads books from the MERL library

Rural Reads books from the MERL library