Listen and learn from one of Britain’s finest voices at Uni Museum

SlimPanatellaOn Sunday 10 March renowned singer/songwriter Hilary James will take a Museum of English Rural Life audience through a witty romp of ancient and modern English comic song.

Described by BBC Radio 4 having as ‘One of Britain’s finest voices’, Hilary is also offering fans an unmissable opportunity chance to take part in a pre-concert singing workshop. Hilary will introduce singers to some beautiful folk songs as well as offer advice on style and technique.

The museum, which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, has been hosting Reading-based singer and musician Hilary James’ ‘Songs, stories & traditions’ folk series for several years, during which time fans have enjoyed guest appearances from celebrated performers across the folk scene. For this year’s first event, Hilary is joined by regular contributor, world-renowned mandolinist, Simon Mayor and multi-instrumentalist and raconteur Richard Collins.

Hilary said:  “This will be a day of sheer fun! Close to Mother’s Day, what better present could there be than to make your mum cry with laughter! If she’s a keen singer, why not treat her to a place on my workshop! We’ll have great fun – as well as plenty of tea & cake! The rest of the family can join us for the evening concert!”

The trio usually perform together as the recently reformed ‘Slim Panatella and the Mellow Virgins’ playing largely American country, old time & blues. However for this one-off concert they will turn their versatility to the story of English comic song, from bawdy ballads to modern ditties, Noel Coward to Jake Thackray and more!

Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer at MERL, said: “We are looking forward to a hugely entertaining day. Local singers should definitely take advantage of this rare opportunity to sing along with and pick up tips from Reading’s internationally recognised singer!”

Hilary James’ singing workshop takes place from 2 to 5pm and costs £35 (£45 including concert) and booking is essential. The concert starts at 6pm, (with real ale bar from 5.30pm) Tickets are £15 (£12 concessions) Booking is advisable but some tickets will be available on the door.  Further information and tickets are available from the Museum by calling 0118 378 8660 or by visiting the MERL website at


Minister contends that human intervention through partnership is the only way to protect countryside

Richard Benyon at the University of ReadingThanks to everyone who came to the MERL Annual Lecture last week to hear Richard Benyon speak on the future of the British Countryside. If you missed it and would like to know more about the issues he addressed, please read the write-up issed by the University…

MERL Annual Lecture – The British Countryside in 2030

Richard Benyon, Newbury MP and Minister for the Natural Environment and Fisheries, will explore the issues surrounding the future of the British countryside when he presents MERL’s Annual Lecture on Thursday 29 November.

Richard Benyon said: “In 2012, it could be said that the British countryside is in a state of imbalance. While many species have, within a generation, all but disappeared from the landscape, others are thriving and becoming increasingly problematic as pests or predators of endangered species. We face an unprecedented number of invasive and non-indigenous species, as well as the unwelcome arrival of new diseases in plants and animals. So we have to face it: for perhaps decades we have been getting it wrong. Now, we need to be braver about intervening to better manage our wildlife and countryside.”

Kate Arnold-Forster, Director of the Museum of English Rural Life says:  ‘We are delighted to be welcoming such a  distinguished speaker for this year’s lecture as part of  MERL’s  contribution to the national debate surrounding the future of the countryside and the promotion of wider understanding of issues relating to rural life’.

Richard Benyon has been MP for Newbury since May 2005. Before coming to government Mr Benyon served as a Shadow Minister for the Environment, Fisheries and Wildlife. Prior to this appointment he was a Party Whip.  He has also served on the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Mr Benyon lives in West Berkshire where he is a farmer. He is a former soldier and is a founder Trustee of the charity Help for Heroes.


The lecture is being held on 29 November at 7pm in the University of Reading’s historic Great Hall, on the London Road campus. Admission is free, although tickets are required. These can be requested by contacting the Museum at or calling 0118 378 8660. Further details are available on the MERL website at

Press Release: Ladybird books – icons of British childhood – under the microscope at MERL

Members of the public are to be given a rare glimpse of original artwork from one of the hidden gems among the University of Reading’s special collections.

The Ladybird Archive, held by the University’s Special Collections Services, contains thousands of individual items, including original artwork and cover designs from hundreds of Ladybird books – perhaps the most iconic series of books for children published in the 20th century.

Now the University’s Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) is hosting a new exhibition that looks at just one of these classic pieces of artwork – exploring not just the artistic, historical and social relevance of the work, but exploring what individual copies of the books tell us about their owners, and about how we can begin to explore the history and impact of this image through artefacts, other children’s books, and by simply looking at and thinking about it.

‘What to Look For? Ladybird, Tunnicliffe, and the hunt for meaning’ opens on Saturday 6th October and runs until April. It will explore different ways of interpreting a single image from the Ladybird book ‘What to Look For in Autumn’, written by E. L. Grant Watson and first published in 1960. The image is a watercolour of a rural scene by celebrated artist Charles Tunnicliffe.

Ollie Douglas, who is curating the exhibition, said: “The University is lucky enough to hold more than 700 boxes of original artwork from these iconic children’s books in the Ladybird Archive – but in this exhibition we’re focusing on just one image.

“We will be exploring how the picture was reproduced, not only in subsequent editions of the book, but also in multiple copies of the same edition. We’ll be looking at the things that it depicts and exploring the words that were written to run alongside it.

“Not only does every book tells its own story – some battered and dog-eared, others marked with inscriptions or scribbles – but every image and page within a book can tell us different things. This exhibition is all about the many different ways that there can be of ‘reading’ books.

“We hope visitors to the exhibition will be left not only with a greater understanding about Ladybird books, the history of their production and publication, and their depictions of rural life, but thinking about what books as objects can say about us.”


For more information or to organise interviews, contact Pete Castle at the University of Reading press office on 0118 378 7391 or

Notes to editors

About the Ladybird Archive: The collection comprises 700 boxes of original artwork, proofs and some documentation from the 1940s to the 1990s, including examples of the work of notable artists such as C.F. Tunnicliffe, Rowland Hilder and Allen Seaby. The collection covers the wide range of subjects Ladybird published, ranging from What to Look for in Spring to Transformers: Laserbeak’s Fury.

Ladybird books were first produced during the First World War by Wills & Hepworth, a jobbing printer. Initially they were simply children’s story books but after the Second World War the firm started to produce educational books which increased sales enormously.  Remarkably, the price stayed the same at 2s 6d from 1945 to 1971, a feat achieved by strict production rules and increasingly large print runs.

About MERL and Special Collections: MERL, the Museum of English Rural Life, is dedicated to the spirit of the English countryside and its people. A national centre for research and information, it explores life and work in the countryside over the last 200 years and includes a collection of more than 22,000 objects and an archive of over a million photographs, films, books and records that reflect the changing face of farming and rural society.

The University of Reading’s Special Collections include substantial and varied collections of rare books, archives and manuscripts. Two of the University’s collections – the Beckett Collection and the combined records of British publishing and printing – have been recognised as being pre-eminent collections of national and international significance.

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Press Release: University wins silverware at Royal Berkshire Show

University staff with one of the Berkshire Show awards

Interactive exhibits, home-grown food and fun activities helped the University of Reading to win two top prizes at the Royal Berkshire Show 2012.

The University’s display won first prize in the best large trade stand and the best local trade stand categories at this year’s show, which ran over the weekend of 15th and 16th September. The display showcased the University’s leading role in teaching and research in agriculture, food science and rural heritage.

Read more on the University of Reading website.

Press Release: Uni Museum brings rural past alive for families

With the school summer holidays approaching, the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) is launching new family tours as part of its exciting summer programme.

The Museum, which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, was recently nominated as one of the country’s top 20 Family Friendly museums by Kids in Museums, but far from being content with this achievement, the team at the Museum is constantly looking for ways of improving visits for its youngest visitors and encouraging families to come enjoy the Museum.

This August families will be able to take part in free, interactive tours specially designed to help them engage with and understand the stories behind the Museum’s collections.

Families will meet characters from England’s rural past, such as Alan the sheep shearer, Dave the blacksmith, Molly the dairy maid, Gabriel the farm hand and Maggie the Thatcher and visit the Museum with them as they bring to life what it was like to work in the villages, farms and fields of the past and tell their personal stories. Each 30 minute tour will be delivered by two characters from the team.

The tours have been developed by staff and volunteers in the MERL tour guide team with the aim of bringing to life the objects on display in the Museum and helping families get an idea of what kind of lives the people who used them might have lived.

Kaye Gough, MERL volunteer (Gabriel the farm hand) said: “We’ve had tremendous fun creating this series of family tours. We hope the visitors who join us will enjoy it as much as us. We hope visitors learn more about this fascinating museum and the stories it has to tell.”

Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator, said “Once again, our volunteers have surpassed themselves with their dedication and positive attitude to another project. Every character has been carefully researched and we are sure that visitors will have a fun and educational experience!”


The tours take place on 8th, 15th and 22nd August, at 11:30 at the Museum of English Rural Life, they are free but booking is required as places are limited.  To book, and for details of the tours and other events in the Museum’s programme of summer events for families, visit the website at or call 0118 378 8660 during opening hours.



For more information about the MERL’s summer programme, visit or call 0118 378 8660.

For more information for media, contact Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer at the Museum of English Rural Life on 0118 378 8660 or Pete Castle at the University of Reading press office on 0118 378 7391 or


Notes to editors:

MERL, part of the University of Reading, draws on and adds to the University’s unique research into agriculture, history and rural practices, and has collections permanently open to the public at the University’s historic and recently refurbished London Road campus.

Press Release: Celebrating our sporting heritage as Olympic torch arrives

As the crowds gather to welcome the Olympic torch to Reading, the Museum of English Rural life at the University of Reading is reflecting the influence English country heritage has had in world sport – including helping provide the spark for the modern Olympics.

The torch will come to Reading on Tuesday evening (10 July), carried along the A4 London Road between 6.14pm and 6.34pm, before an evening celebration at the Madejski Stadium, where the flame will be kept overnight before continuing its journey around Britain the following morning.

Just yards away from the official route, the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), part of the University of Reading’s London Road campus, will stay open until 9pm on Tuesday to give anyone coming to the area the chance to visit the exhibition Playing Fields: Our Sporting Life in the Countryside. The exhibition, which runs until 16 September and is free of charge, takes a look at the rural sports that changed the world – and one or two that didn’t.

The opening ceremony of the London 2012 Games will feature the British countryside and farmyard animals, acknowledging the importance of rural life in shaping modern Britain. Playing Fields is an opportunity to look back with pride and to enjoy and explore a peculiarly rural, and peculiarly British, take on sport. It also showcases the influence of rural life and rural sport on the Olympic movement. For instance, the Olympic ideal owes much to the market town of Much Wenlock, Shropshire, a quiet English parish in which a local agricultural society promoted the idea of an Olympian Class prior to the re-establishment of the modern Olympics by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896.

With items drawn from the museum’s diverse collections, Playing Fields takes a light-hearted look at major sports like football and cricket, the roots of which lie partly in traditional rural contests. It also sheds light on less familiar but equally fascinating activities, from the thorny challenges of competitive hedging to the little-known ballgame knur and spell.

Guy Baxter, of MERL, said: “We were delighted to discover that Danny Boyle, the director of the Olympic opening ceremony, had singled out the influence of rural life in Britain as the key message of the opening event. MERL is about recording our rural past and helping people to learn about it.

“Rural sports, from cricket on the green to tennis on the lawn, have had a massive influence on our culture, and on the wider world. It’s great that we can celebrate these sports, in Olympic year, with a free exhibition that is both fun and informative, and we’re even more pleased to be able to extend our opening to coincide with the arrival of the Olympic torch to Reading.”

This display forms part of a project co-ordinated by the Heritage Sports Network to showcase the wealth of sporting history in the United Kingdom. This national exhibit explores the huge contributions made by British sportsmen and women over the last century.


For more information about the exhibition, visit or call 0118 378 8660.

For more information for media, contact Pete Castle at the University of Reading press office on 0118 378 7391 or

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Notes to editors:

MERL, part of the University of Reading, draws on and adds to the University’s unique research into agriculture, history and rural practices, and has collections permanently open to the public at the University’s historic and recently refurbished London Road campus.

Press Release: University recognised for giving volunteers a great experience

volunteer Gerry Westall

The University of Reading Museums and Special Collections Service (UMASCS) has been recognised for the outstanding opportunities and support it offers its volunteers.

UMASCS has been awarded the Investing in Volunteers Standard from Volunteering England, marking it as an organisation committed to good practice and of volunteering excellence. The news coincides with the start of Volunteers’ Week, an annual campaign which celebrates the fantastic contribution that millions of volunteers make across the UK.

To achieve the Standard UMASCS’ volunteer programme was closely scrutinised. Volunteer England found that UMASCS ensured volunteers were well-treated, supported and encouraged to develop further skills and that they enjoyed the time they generously give to the University.

Gerry Westall, from Woodley, is UMASCS’ longest standing volunteer. He has given up his time for over twenty years and he continues to come in every week.

Read more on the University of Reading website.

Press Release: Join the Jubilee fun at Museum fete this June!

child enjoying last year's MERL feteFree craft workshops, morris dancing and pedalling your own smoothies! These are just some of the attractions families can enjoy at this year’s Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) Annual Village Fete on Saturday 9 June.

MERL, which is owned and managed by the University, has been hosting the popular event on their Redlands Road site for five years. This year the fete has a special Jubilee theme to coincide with the Queen’s 60th anniversary celebrations.

Read more on the University of Reading website.