Shaping the Land – why is the first of our new galleries all about trees?

Written by Guy Baxter, Archivist

The introductory text

The introductory text

The first space that visitors to the new MERL galleries enter is deceptively simple. It contains one object (a timber carriage), one large picture (an oak tree) and one literary quotation. Thanks to the projected animation and immersive soundscape, visitors can also see and hear the seasons change in the woods.

The gallery was conceived to give visitors the idea of being out in the countryside – after all, the Museum is in the middle of a large town. This is where we hint at the idea of there having been a “natural” environment, before people came along and started “shaping the land”. The theme of woodland reminds us that a greater proportion of England would have been wooded in pre-historic times, and so our ancestors would have faced the massive task of clearing trees in order to grow crops and graze animals.

But the gallery also carries a number of smaller and more subtle messages. Let’s start with the oak tree. Not only is this a powerful symbol of England – it appears on the “English” version of the pound coin after all – but the image chosen is the first photograph ever taken of an oak, by William Henry Fox

The Fox Talbot tree and the timber carriage

The Fox Talbot tree and the timber carriage

Talbot. Of course, his connection to Reading is well known given that he produced The Pencil of Nature, the world’s first photographic book, in the town. His oak tree is shown in the winter, standing strong against the ravages of time. Longevity is another trait of oak trees that suits the context of the gallery: the “timeframe” here is one of centuries not years.

The second idea that we introduce is seasonality. This is done through our animation which effectively shows all four seasons in one day – not such a rare occurrence in England! The animation, made by the Netherlands-based firm ShoSho, shows a woodland and also some land beyond that has been cleared – but with a lone oak in the background as well. In this gallery we introduce the changing seasons in nature partly as a prelude to the next section, A Year on the Farm, which examines how the seasons relate to the food that we grow and eat.

The animals that occasionally appear in the animation include a gall wasp. This was partly inspired by Dr George McGavin’s amazing documentary on oak trees in which he notes not only the symbiosis between the gall wasp and the tree but also the subsequent use of oak gall in the production of ink. So much of what is in our library and archive – indeed so much of our recorded history and knowledge – owes a debt to that relationship between insect and tree.

In front of the animation stands the timber carriage – a large and constant reminder of man’s interaction with the land. The carriage itself, also known as a ‘timber jill’, was used for hauling timber by

Photograph of a timber carriage in use

Photograph of a timber carriage in use

the Hunt Brothers of Waterside Works, a firm of millwrights in Soham, Cambridgeshire. The donor, Mr Tom Hunt, requested that they be recorded as ‘in memory of Thomas B. Hunt, Millwright, of Waterside Works, Soham, Cambs.’ This was his father, who died in 1954 at the age of 95 and was working almost up to the last. It was given to the MERL in 1955 – the year that we opened to the public for the first time – so it’s appropriate that it should be “object number 1 in gallery number 1” as we re-open.

We have also displayed a photograph, from the Miss Wight Collection, to show a similar carriage in use. The photograph was taken around 1935 in Aconbury Woods, Herefordshire.

The quotation, chosen by Dr Paddy Bullard in the Department of English and American Literature, is from the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It comes from his poem Pied Beauty. We also considered another of Hopkins’s poems, Binsey Poplars in which he mourns the felling of trees in 1879;

The quotation and the images of leaves

The quotation and the images of leaves

and we looked at using a section from A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Houseman (verse 31) which describes the same wind blowing through the trees that blew on the Romans many centuries before.

Finally, we added some images of leaves – manipulated by our photographer Laura Bennetto to reflect the style of Fox Talbot’s early leaf photographs. The actual images were provided by the Dr Alastair Culham at the University Herbarium and show the following native English varieties: oak, elm, ash, beech, willow, hawthorn, hazel, elder and apple. The leaf motif has also been used to decorate the new areas of glass in the Museum’s introductory area.

This has been a really fascinating gallery to work on and – because of its seeming simplicity – also quite a challenge. We took inspiration from many places and, made some fascinating discoveries along the way – not least David Hockney’s brilliant Yorkshire Wolds film. It has also been a really collaborative effort and one that has, we hope brought out the best of our creative, technical and curatorial skills.

Focus on Collections: Dragons

To celebrate St George’s Day we decided to delve into the object collection for dragons.

IMG_8820Dragons are normally something you would keep well away from Museum stores. Messy eaters, far too large and prone to setting things on fire, they are possibly the least ideal animal to have in a storehouse full of dry baskets, wooden tools and straw samples.


And yet, some curator long ago saw fit to let at least a few dragons in. Our first three are fairly manageable, being altogether about ten centimetres long, made of corn and being – on closer inspection – actually quite cute. Modelled on the fierce beasts of mythology, these corn dolly dragons made by Doris Johnson appear to be aquatic rather than airborne, with only two legs, a spiral tail and no real wings to speak of.


Our next dragons are similarly flammable but, since they were made in 1787, have managed to survive. They are known as Housen, and are pieces of decoration meant to be attached to a horse’s collar. They both depict a pair of dragons in the centre, mouths set against a globe. The style of both pieces is very reminiscent of Nordic designs, and yet these two pieces were collected from Twyford. Their origin is obscure, but they may have developed from the guard attached to the front of the saddle to protect the groins of a knight in armour, which at least gives them a flavour of St George.

The lack of wings, however, make us wonder if these even do depict dragons. Are they in fact heavily stylised lions?


My Favourite Object #6: ‘Check Rein’ and Blacksmithing Tools

This post was written by Christina Avramakis, Project Assistant for our Sense of Place project.

My role at MERL has been to accession and catalogue new objects coming into the Museum, and so I have been very lucky to get up close and personal with many interesting objects and stories. For this reason, it was difficult to choose just one object and in the end I have settled on two horse-related accessions (although the queen honeybee artificial inseminator was very tempting!).

The objects I have chosen are a ‘check rein’ (object number 2012/387) and a set of blacksmithing tools (object numbers 2012/455/1-3 – 2012/459).

A pair of hammers and a pair of tongs (MERL/456-459)

A pair of hammers and a pair of tongs (MERL/456-459)

I think that the check rein is particularly special as this style of driving horses on the farm was very rare, only employed in a small part of Yorkshire, near Hull. The check rein was used by Ron Creasey, who was one of the last horselads (as the men who worked with the horses on the farm were known), working with horses on the farm from 1946, at the age of 17, until 1960.

Common horse reins consist of two lines which the driver uses to direct the horses or stop them. A check rein only uses a single line and so the driver controls and directs the horse using the rein in combination with verbal commands. Depending on the pull on the check rein, the horse will turn right or left, but the horse will only stop at the verbal command of the driver. For this reason, the horselad had to be both highly skilled to handle the check rein to ensure that the horses moved in the right direction at the right time, and sufficiently commanding that the horse would respond to its orders. It was for this same reason that the use of the check rein did not spread further; because of the reliance on verbal commands to manage the horses, some farmers simply considered it too unsafe, for if there was an emergency and the driver could not use his voice, there was no other way to stop the horses.

The 'Check Rein' (MERL/2012/387)

The ‘Check Rein’ (MERL/2012/387)

The blacksmithing tools, specifically a number of pincers and cat’s-head hammers, were used in Hampshire. They are just a small selection of blacksmith tools, but I like them for four reasons – their testament to innovation, sustainability, skill and endurance.

The pincers appeal to me for their ridged texture; but they have these ridges because of the way that they are made. They are an excellent example of innovation and recycling – they are made from used, worn-out rasps which,  as they were no longer fit for their original purpose, have been fashioned into something  different and given new life.

The cat’s-head hammers have a small prominent bulge on each side of the head which, it has been suggested, almost have the appearance of two ears, and so may be where the name comes from. One of the small bulges is used to create clips on the horseshoe, although the use of these hammers is now uncommon. For me, the skill, dexterity and precision required to shape the metal by striking it with just this small bulge is highly impressive.


Finally, what struck me as I learned more about these tools and their makers, beyond the specialised skills involved, were the unbreakable links between these people through a system of apprenticeships and mentoring that extended from the early 20th Century to the present day. Particularly at a time when there is a greater emphasis on an academic l education at school and university, it is both fascinating and reassuring to know that the traditional and unique skills and knowledge of the countryside have not yet been lost but have endured, with generations of blacksmiths passing on the tricks of the trade.

My Favourite Object #3: Horse overshoes, or lawn slippers

written by Claire Smith, Weekend Supervisor/Learning Assistant. To learn more about Claire, see her previous post.

Horse overshoes (MERL\59/392/1-2)

Horse overshoes (MERL\59/392/1-2)

Before the invention of the lawnmower in 1830, grass would be cut with a scythe, or animals would be allowed to graze on the lawn to keep it short. From the 1850s, horse-drawn lawn mowers were introduced. In order to prevent the horse’s hooves from damaging the lawn as the mower was pulled, the horse was fitted with lawn shoes, or slippers. These could also be made to measure for donkeys and ponies. The horse’s feet were simply strapped into the leather overshoe. This spread the pressure of the foot more evenly and prevented the shape of the horseshoe from being imprinted over the lawn.

There are several pairs of lawn shoes in the MERL collection, mainly for horses, but also some smaller ones which were probably used for donkeys or ponies. The pair shown above are made from leather, and padded on the inside with wool. They would have been strapped around the horse’s hooves and fastened with the buckles.

Horses are not the only animals to have shoes – when turkeys made their three month long walk to market, they would wear special leather boots to protect their feet. Pigs would wear knitted boots with leather soles. Geese wouldn’t allow themselves to be shod, so their feet would be dipped in tar and covered with sand. Sadly we don’t have any examples of pig or turkey shoes in the museum, but I think the horse slippers are lovely enough to make up for it!