Improved Open Access Library fully accessible again

The MERL and Special Collections Open Access Library is now fully accessible again! In this library, which can be accessed from the Reading Room, you can find reference works relating to our Special Collections and to Samuel Beckett, as well as the library collection of the MERL, consisting of about 50,000 books, pamphlets and periodical volumes. We have been working hard to improve the layout of these collections to make it easier for you to quickly find the items that you need. We have also been able to create more space for future purchases and gifts.

This is a summary of the changes we have made:

  • We have integrated our Landscape Institute collection into the main MERL Library
  • We have created a dedicated pamphlet room for MERL and MAFF pamphlets
  • We have turned a storeroom into an additional room for the MERL periodicals

We would like to thank our readers for their patience while the works were taking place.

Medieval Caxton leaf: on display from 10 May

University of Reading Special Collections Librarian, Erika Delbecque, with new Caxton discovery

Our discovery of a unique example of 15th century printed text by English printer William Caxton has led to considerable media interest. As a result, the item will be going on display in the University of Reading’s Special Collections department, within The Museum of English Rural Life, from tomorrow (10 May) and not 9 May as previously stated. The display will run until 30 May.

Landscape Education in the UK: past present and future

On Saturday 1 April 2017 MERL hosted a FOLAR (Friends of the Landscape Library and Archive at Reading) study day on the topic of: ‘Landscape Architecture and Management Education in the UK: past present and future’.  

The day included talks and a pop up display of archive and library material from our Landscape Institute collections.  FOLAR Chair, Penny Beckett, gives an account of the event:

Selection of material from our Landscape Institute collections

The best discussion we’ve had about UK landscape architecture education in a long while

So said one of those who attended the recent seminar at MERL organised by FOLAR.  Chaired by John Stuart-Murray (University of Edinburgh), this half day event had 4 speakers: Guy Baxter, the University Archivist, who spoke about the first English university course in Landscape Architecture set up at Reading in the 1930s; Jan Woudstra (University of Sheffield) on the development of English Landscape Architecture Education and after the tea break, former Reading senior lecturer Richard Bisgrove who spoke about the Landscape Management degree at Reading which ran from 1986 to 2009.

Our Archivist Guy Baxter speaking at #folar2017

The last speaker was Robert Holden (former University of Greenwich), who gave us much food for thought about the current state of landscape education in the UK. It appears to be in decline, while at the same time the demand for qualified landscape architects by employers outstrips the supply of home grown graduates. Much of the question and answer session after Robert’s talk explored why this might be the case when the situation seems very different in both the USA and other European countries. Earlier, Jan Woudstra had suggested possible reasons, citing the encroachment of ‘new’ course topics, such as ‘landscape urbanism’ into a subject area once occupied by landscape architecture alone. He mentioned too the lack of landscape research in the UK (though Sheffield boasts a healthy 45 PhD students!); the difficulty too of conveying a consistent image to the wider public, prospective students and their parents  about what the profession landscape architecture is all about. The irony is that the work of landscape professionals lies at the very heart of the current political agenda, while landscape architects and managers have long been used to the interdisciplinary working that is now essential in our 21st century world.

Selection of material from our Landscape Institute collections, 1930s journals

Guy Baxter’s talk made interesting links between the pre-war students at Reading and some of the members of the fledgling Institute of Landscape Architects (ILA) they helped to establish. The Institute’s archives deposited at MERL reveal the connections. The first ILA member, for example, ‘Member No. 1’ was Marjory Allen (Lady Allen of Hurtwood) the landscape architect who was an early advocate of the importance of providing for children’s play in our urban areas.

Selection of material from our Landscape Institute collections

Richard Bisgrove described the genesis of the BSc (Hons) in Landscape Management course he set up at Reading in 1986. It ran successfully for many years, training students who then went into various branches of the landscape profession. Lecturers on the course included Tony Kendle who later went to the Eden Project and Ross Cameron who moved to the University of Sheffield.

Selection of material from our Landscape Institute collections

One small downside of the day was that the full programme allowed little time to look at the wonderful display of archive material put out for us in MERL’s Reading Room. So to the MERL staff involved, can I offer both apologies as well as many thanks for helping to make such a thoroughly enjoyable and informative day. A video recording of the seminar itself will be posted on the FOLAR website shortly.

Penny Beckett, FOLAR Chair

You can find out more about our Landscape Institute collections, using our Reading Room, FOLAR or see tweets and Instagram posts from the event.  


Discovering the Landscape: Book now for a place on FOLAR’s Landscape Education study day

Landscape Architecture and Management Education in the UK: past present and future

Delegates at the 2016 FOLAR study day browsing a pop-up exhibition of landscape library and archive material in the MERL Reading Room

Delegates at the 2016 FOLAR study day browsing a pop-up exhibition of landscape library and archive material in the MERL Reading Room


This year’s FOLAR (Friends of the Landscape Library and Archive at Reading) Seminar deals with the origins and history of landscape architecture and management education in the UK, past, present and the future.


Speakers will include Guy Baxter, the University of Reading Archivist, on the history of the first landscape architecture course in the UK, that at Reading (1930-1959). Then Jan Woudstra will survey the origins and growth of landscape courses nationally. Richard Bisgrove will outline the story of the BSc Landscape Management at Reading (1986-2010). Finally Robert Holden (formerly University of Greenwich) will review current trends, speculate about the future and in particular look to the past to see lessons that can be applied today. The chair will be John Stuart-Murray of the University of Edinburgh.

The FOLAR AGM is from 10.30am-12.00pm, and all (members and non members) are welcome from 10am onwards, lunch will 12-12.30pm and the afternoon seminar will run from 12.30pm-4pm. Duplicate books from the LI collection will be on sale.


Saturday 1 April 2017



MERL (Museum of English Rural Life), Redlands Road, Reading, RG1 5EX


Please complete this FOLAR booking form and return it by email to or by post to the address on the form.

Cost: for FOLAR members £15 incl. lunch (a £35 payment on the day would include FOLAR membership renewal).

For non members the cost of the seminar incl. lunch is £25.

PLEASE BOOK EARLY FOR THIS EVENT as we have a limit on numbers – 50 maximum.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Melissa Harrison: At Hawthorn Time

Written by Dr Paddy Bullard, Associate Professor in Literature and Book History at the University of Reading. @MatWitness


Melissa Harrison is a novelist, photographer and nature writer based in south London. Her first novel, Clay (2013) established her as a leading voice among the new ‘urban naturalists’. Her second, At Hawthorn Time (2015), is a powerful and ambitious attempt to find voices for several different kinds of modern country-dweller: the itinerant causal labourer, the middle-class incomer, the rooted but economically marginalized rural twenty-something. Melissa also writes non-fiction, including Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, published by Faber in 2016 in association with the National Trust, and contributes to the ‘Nature Notes’ column in The Times.

On Tuesday 17 January Melissa visited Reading to open the MERL/DEL Visiting Speaker Series, a new programme of lunchtime talks organized by the University of Reading Department of English, in collaboration with The Museum of English Rural Life. The theme of the series this year is ‘The Intangible and Tangible Countryside’. Over five talks our speakers will look at different aspects of rural life and culture. The talks focus on how the stuff of the countryside ­– the land, its flora and fauna, its products and artifacts ­– is bound up with all sorts of elusive, immaterial things – with sounds and stories, memories and inheritances, skills and crafts. The series showcases five diverse experiments in disentangling the tangible from the intangible when we describe rural life, or when we imagine what rural life might one day be.

HawthornMelissa read three passages from her novel At Hawthorn Time, and responded dexterously to questions from the audience, and from me as session chair. Over the course of the reading we got a strong sense of the themes and ideas that preoccupy her, and that lie behind her fiction. Cultural and social ownership of the countryside – the perennial question of how to balance the interests of different occupants of and visitors to rural spaces, of whose interests should preponderate – is an especially important subject. For Melissa, conflicts of use and conflicts of meaning will always dominate the public conversation about green spaces and natural environments. In her fiction she sees rural spaces as test spaces for social pluralism, where the incompatible interests of people from different classes and backgrounds can be held together meaningfully, and in spite of that incompatibility.

The MERL curatorial team responded especially warmly to the passages that Melissa read, and to her commentary on them. There was a real sense of sympathy and shared purpose here – after all, the recent redesign of MERL has been all about opening up the collections to tell stories of the different groups of people who have lived and worked in the English countryside. As a novelist Melissa shares with the MERL curators a desire to describe and to narrate an English rural heritage which is vivid and meaningful to the widest possible range of people today, young and old, in both town and country. We all hope that this is only the first of many visits that Melissa makes to MERL and to Reading.

Our next speaker in this free series will be Tanya Harrod, the author of the prize-winning The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century. She will be speaking at The MERL on Tuesday 31 January, 12-1pm. Click here for more information.

Melissa exploring the museum and signing copies of her book.

Melissa exploring the museum and signing copies of her book.

Food takes first prize at the Berkshire Show

Science engagement officer, Robyn Hopcroft, gives a recap of a busy weekend for The MERL at the Royal County of Berkshire Show. Photography by Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

I don’t think there’s anything quite like the Royal Berkshire Show. It’s a weird and wonderful melting pot of British culture. In amongst dancing sheep, pygmy goat competitions, Beatles-themed flower arrangements and wellies galore, The MERL was excited to take part in the University of Reading’s ‘Food Chain and Health’ stand.

Images of prize winning cattle and stunt motorcycles at the Royal Berkshire Show 2016. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

So much to see at the Berkshire Show.

Stunt Motorcycles

A large group of museum staff and volunteers worked across the weekend, having valuable conversations with show-goers about food and nutrition and raising awareness of The MERL and its upcoming reopening. We’re proud to have played an important role at the University’s stand, which was awarded ‘Best Trade Exhibit’ and ‘Best Large Trade Stand’.

University of Reading: Image of trophy and award given to University or Reading Stand at the 2016 Berkshire Show. Copyright Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

University of Reading: Berkshire Show Champions! © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

From soil detective work, to cheese making and taste perception experiments, the university was keen to get people talking and thinking about the food chain and health by encouraging them to get involved with a variety of fun activities. To complement the university’s dairy nutrition research, The MERL had a great time helping children to design and make their own milk cartons. We also enjoyed running activities exploring themes from The Crunch – getting people talking about the importance of fibre in our diets, and the future of food. From this, we learned that most people aren’t great at working out which foods are a good source of dietary fibre, but they are very open to snacking on insects and to talking about how we might feed a growing population. One of the most rewarding aspects of the weekend was the high quality of conversations that were had about food.

An image of our edible insects area at the Show. Copyright Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

Having a chat about edible insects and the future of food. © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Greer Pester, a visual artist living between Mexico and Glasgow, developed a wonderful piece of food art throughout the weekend which proved to be one of the most engaging aspects of the stand. The work served to draw attention to the future of food and examined the uses, properties and history of amaranth.

Greer has been working with First Food Residency – an artist-led organisation focused on opening up debate about food through creative engagement with a variety of audiences. First Food Residency is currently actively involved in various projects at the university, and is even growing and using a beautiful crop of amaranth in one of The MERL’s experimental garden beds.

Image of child handling amaranth (A.K.A. 'love lies bleeding') at the Show. Copyright Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

Getting up close and personal with amaranth (A.K.A. ‘love lies bleeding’). © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

It was fascinating to hear about how amaranth – also known as ‘love lies bleeding’ – was once a staple in the Aztec diet, but was banned by the Spanish conquistadors for its use in rituals, where sculptures were made from popped amaranth seeds, human sacrificial blood and honey. The subsequent decline in popularity of amaranth and its recent resurgence as a nutrition-packed ‘superfood’ demonstrates how our eating habits change over time and will continue to evolve in the future.

Drawing inspiration from amaranth’s rich history, Greer sculpted an Aztec-style pyramid from popped amaranth seeds, which worked as a sort of altar to food. Visitors were invited to make their own contributions in the form of paper offerings which were pinned to the pyramid. In this way, people of all ages and backgrounds were able to share their thoughts, wishes and pledges centred on food, and to share their favourite foods worthy of an altar.

Image of Greer Pester working on the amaranth pyramid sculpture at the start of the day. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Greer at work. © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Image of a child pinning a paper offering to the amaranth sculpture. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for The First Food Residency.

© Anna Bruce Photography for The First Food Residency.

Image of a close up view of the amaranth sculpture. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

© Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Image of Greer and visitors working on the amaranth sculpture. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

© Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

It was fitting that the work appeared towards the exit of the University’s marquee, leaving people in the right frame of mind to reflect on the sacred qualities of food and to consider how they might cultivate a more positive relationship with food, health and nature.

Image of the completed amaranth sculpture entitled: 'When your love lies bleeding squish it into joy'. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

The finished piece, entitled: ‘When your love lies bleeding squish it into joy’. © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency

If you missed The MERL at the Berkshire Show, don’t forget to catch us at our Grand Opening Festival on 22 October.

Pledge your apples!

Do you have an apple tree? Do you hate to see rotten apples on the ground going to waste? We have a solution!!



At our Grand Opening Festival on October 22nd, Richard Paget from ‘My Apple Juice’ will be pressing apples into delicious juice. Richard is on a mission to reduce food waste and bring communities together to turn our fruit harvest into delicious juices, and we need your help!

If you have an apple tree in your garden, on your street, or at your school or place of work, or know of a neighbour or friend who has excess fruit from their garden trees, pledge now to bring your fruit to the MERL on Thursday 20th or Friday 21st October and we will turn it into juice at the Festival. In return, you’ll receive bottled, pasteurised juice after the event!*

The aim is to create a database of fruit trees and ‘pledgers’ who can be contacted every year, so that in future as little as possible is wasted.

How it works…

1. To pledge your apples, email any time from now until October 19th, with the following details:

Full name
Address (including post code)
Telephone number
Type of fruit (apples (cooking or eating) or pears are fine)
Location of tree (your home address, school, neighbour etc)
How many trees or approx weight of fruit you think you can provide
(See FAQs below)

2. Bring your fruit to the MERL on Thursday 2oth or Friday 21st October, or to the Festival on Saturday 22nd by 12pm.
We will make a note of the quantity so that you will receive the appropriate number of bottles of juice in return.

3. Come to the Festival to see your fruit turned into juice, or wait for us to contact you about collecting your juice once it has been processed and bottled.

We can’t think of a better way to celebrate our abundant autumnal harvest and stop precious fruit going to waste, so pledge your apples now!



  1. When is the right time to harvest my apples?
    Different varieties of apples will be ready at different times between September and December – see next question!
  2. How do I know if my apples are ready?
    If they come off the branch with a quarter turn they are ready. They will keep longer if you pick them when they come off the branch within a half turn. Store them in a crate somewhere cool.
  3. Which varieties of apples can I bring for juicing?
    Any type of apple is suitable, including cooking apples, but please bring separate them and label the different varieties (you don’t need to know a name)
  4. Can I bring other fruits?
    Pears will also work, but please separate from apples.
  5. Is there a minimum or maximum quantity?
    Ideally, 10kg is a useful quantity. If you can bring 25Kg+ we can discuss having this pressed, bottled and labelled as your own ‘vintage’ for a small fee.
  6. When will I get the juice?
    You can either take bottled juice on the day (which must be consumed within 3 days) or wait until the juice has been pasteurised and bottled and collect it from the museum. This juice will have a much longer shelf life.



Fun and festivities at the Big Band Lunch

Science Engagement Officer, Robyn Hopcroft, reveals what we got up to at the Big Band Lunch on Sunday.

MERL Big Band Lunch Stand

Getting started at the MERL stand

Last Sunday we enjoyed glorious weather and fabulous big band music at the University of Reading’s annual Big Band Lunch. This was a chance to bring the University and local communities together over lunch, and celebrate the University’s 90th Anniversary year. A small team of staff and dedicated volunteers were in attendance and we had great fun running traditional fete games such as ‘splat the rat’ and ‘hook a duck’.

Seed Press in action

Our seed press in action. Apparently our sunflower oil was far tastier than the store-bought variety.

But the theme of the day was food and music, and we were especially interested in chatting to people about food. Where does it come from? What’s it made of? Why do we eat what we eat? By getting hands-on with activities devised for The Crunch programme, such as oat rolling and sunflower seed pressing, we were able to have some great conversations about the history and nutritious properties of oats and edible oils.

Ministry of Food 1946 leaflet with barley and oat recipes

Ministry of Food recipe leaflet (1946). Visitors were able to roll their own oats and take away some contemporary and vintage recipes for inspiration.

We even received some help from human nutrition staff and students and it was a great opportunity to find out more about some of the cutting edge research being conducted at the University. I was pleased to be able to meet and chat to scientists studying some of the potential health benefits of phenolic acids in oats. Phenolic acids are found in many plant-based foods and play a role in heart health.

Getting involved in these kinds of studies as a research participant can be great way of learning more about the work of scientists, especially given that we tend to receive sensationalised messages about nutrition and health research from the media. Unfortunately, I don’t qualify for this study – they’re recruiting male participants. But for any men who are reading: the PRO-GRAIN team are looking for some healthy males willing to eat oats for the sake of science.

Recruitment leaflet for men interested in getting involved in a study of the nutritional properties of oats.

Entomophagy: The consumption of insects as food

Edible Insects

Insects proved to be a popular snack choice for visitors to our stand.


Insect Taste Notes

Some mixed opinions on our edible insects.

Our edible insect challenge was one of the stand-outs of the day. We wanted to encourage people to think about the growing population and consequent increasing demand for protein. Edible insects are a cheap, nutritious, protein-rich food, and a common snack in many parts of the world.

Water Bug Tasting

This brave fellow ate one of our giant water bugs – not for the feint-hearted!

Insect farming uses a fraction of the energy, water and land needed to raise livestock. Who knows – perhaps bugs will become a regular part of the UK diet in the future? Fish and chips with a side of crispy bamboo worms…

But it wasn’t all about snacking on whole insects – wings, legs, antennae and all.  We also considered less confronting ways of consuming insects by holding a brownie blind tasting. People sampled brownies from two trays – one batch was made with wheat flour and the other was made with a mixture of wheat flour and flour milled from crickets.

Blind Tasting with normal and cricket flour brownies

Which ones are cricket flour brownies?

Tasters were asked to guess which plate contained cricket flour brownies. I can now reveal that it was PLATE A! We’ve tallied up the responses and found that 60% of people made a correct guess. Most people, myself included, seemed to think that while the wheat brownies and cricket brownies tasted different from each other, they were both delicious and there wasn’t an ‘insecty’ taste to the cricket brownies.

All in all it was great day out.  We were busy but we had lots of fun. Many thanks to everyone who was involved.

And the fun fact that I learned for the day? The people of Reading are well up for the challenge of munching on insects!

Learn more about edible insects at The Crunch.


Discovering the Landscape: World Landscape Architecture Month (#WLAM2016)

April is World Landscape Architecture Month (#WLAM2016): an international celebration of landscape architecture.

Read on to find out more about #WLAM2016 and how you can get involved.

Celebrating World Landscape Architecture Month at the University of Reading's  London Road campus, Clock Tower Memorial Garden

Celebrating World Landscape Architecture Month at the University of Reading’s London Road campus, Clock Tower Memorial Garden

Established by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the purpose of World Landscape Architecture Month is to celebrate landscape architecture in our public spaces.

The aim is to highlight how the open, public spaces we inhabit every day are shaped by landscape architecture and the impact this has on how we feel about (and use) these spaces.

WLAM is truly international – people are invited to take part in a social media campaign, by sharing images of designed spaces using the hashtag #WLAM2016. Entries have been received from all over the world via twitter, instagram and Facebook.

ASLA have even created a card which you can print out to feature in your landscape photos.  You can download the card here.

Here in the UK the Landscape Institute is encouraging participation.  Just post or tweet using #WLAM2016.

A Scottish contribution to #WLAM2016 - posted to twitter by Landscape Institute Scotland (@LI_Scotland).

A Scottish contribution to #WLAM2016 – posted to twitter by Landscape Institute Scotland (@LI_Scotland).

A picture of Central Park, New York for #WLAM2016

A picture of Central Park, New York for #WLAM2016

Though we may be the Museum of English Rural Life, as many landscape architects work on projects around the world, our Landscape Institute collections have an international edge.  James Corner, who designed  New York’s much loved High Line and the South Park Plaza of London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, delivered a lecture here last year.

Landscape architects that we hold collections for, such as Geoffrey Jellicoe, Peter Shepheard and Brenda Colvin, completed projects in the UK and abroad.  You can find our more about our Landscape Institute collections here.

Take part in and follow #WLAM2016 to celebrate World Landscape Architecture Month.

Claire Wooldridge: Project Librarian (Landscape Institute) 

MERL at Tractor World Show

Written by Caroline Gould, Deputy University Archivist

Jonathan Cave, Anthony Brennan and Adam Lines pictured with the earliest MG crawler on display and the trophy for the best in show.

Jonathan Cox, Anthony Brennan and Adam Lines pictured with the earliest MG crawler on display and the trophy for the best in show.

MERL was invited to the Spring Tractor World Show which took place weekend by the group creating the 80th anniversary display of Ransomes MG crawlers and implements. The display, formed of around 35 Ransomes, won best in show!

MERL was keen to attend to promote the archives that are held at the Museum.

Our stand included two Ransomes films:  A 1951 promotional film of the MG5 in use throughout the year and a second film entitled Speed the Plough (A day at the Plough Works) dated 1952. The films created a phenomenal amount of interest. The Museum holds at least 100 Ransomes films in its collection. We also took examples of trade literature, drawings, photographs and catalogues from some of the other collections we hold at the museum including: David Brown, International Harvester, Massey Ferguson, and Charles Burrell. We had many conversations about other related collections of steam manufactures held in the Museum archives: John Fowler of Leeds, Wallis and Steevens, Clayton and Shuttleworth, and Marshall Sons and Co.

The MERL stand

The MERL stand

We spoke to over 230 people over the two days and were thrilled to meet so many people who had contacted us in the past for information and were keen to visit the museum when it reopens in October 2016.  Keep checking the website for further details.

Fantastic MG Cakes

Fantastic MG Cakes

The Tractor World Show was held at the Three Counties Showground, Malvern, Worcestershire,  27-28 February 2016. The stands also included a display to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ferguson T 20 tractor and Zetor tractors.

Many thanks to Jen Glanville, Caroline Benson, Jonathan and Patricia Brown, Felicity McWilliams and Adam Lines for attending the show and for Anne who made the MG crawler cakes!