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MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

September has come around again and so has the Royal County of Berkshire Show. I spent this Saturday helping out on the University of Reading’s stand, where this year’s theme was fruit. There were Berkshire varieties of apples on display, single-variety apple juices to sample, old films from the MAFF Advisory films service about pruning fruit trees and storing apples to watch, a ‘bumble-arium’ with live bees buzzing around and a bee-expert on hand to answer all the bee-related questions, and fun activities including making a bee hotel (or should that be a Bee & Bee ?), making a fruity fizzy drink and pedalling your own smoothie on the smoothie bike. The stand was really popular and did really well again – winning two first prizes at the Show.

When not helping out with the activities and telling people about MERL I had the chance to wander around the Show and take a look at what else was on offer. The Show is absolutely massive so I barely got a chance to see anything but I did come across some really interesting things which I wanted to share – although I’m sure you’ll notice a bit of the usual craft-bias coming through…

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice...

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice…

Having just catalogued the thatching collections at MERL (we’ve got about 200 thatching objects, mostly tools), I’ve developed a bit of an interest in thatch. There were two Master Thatchers at the Show, and I managed to have a quick chat with both of them. One, Jack Challis of Little Thatch, specialises in scaling down the thatched roof for smaller structures such as garden sheds, dog kennels and even bird boxes – a great way to experience thatch if you don’t live in a thatched house! The other, Ben Fowler of Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers, let me have a quick go at thatching their display roof… not sure I was quite up to scratch but definitely the highlight of my day!

I also met a Cotswolds dry stone waller. What differentiates Cotswolds dry stone walling from that in the north of England is the shape of the stones used – they tend to be much flatter and squarer, giving the wall a distinct stratified appearance. Mark Roberts has been building the wall at the Newbury Showground for the past fifteen years or so – he only works on it for the two days of the Show each year but it continues to grow and most be over 100m by now.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

There was also a coracle maker – Peter Faulkner – who specialises in making coracles with a skin/hide covering. I find there’s a certain romanticism attached to the coracle and I’ve long been tempted by a coracle-making course at the Weald and Download Museum, but am yet to go on one. We do have two here at MERL (one of which we’ll be getting out for the pop-up exhibition on Friday 8 November) but ours are very different from Peter’s.

We were also keeping an eye out for apple presses for MERL’s Apple Day on Saturday 19 October, so were alert to all things apple. We came across a really interesting stand called My Apple Juice. I hate waste, especially wasting food, and was told that 90% of apples in private gardens go to waste – I was shocked! Richard Paget, who runs My Apple Juice, wants to recreate the Italian village olive press and have one communal apple press every twenty miles to address the issue of waste. He runs a service where you can take your apples and have them pressed, bottled and pasteurised, and even labelled with your own ‘brand’… MERL apple juice anyone?

So all in all, a fun day out with lots to think about!

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Crowdsourcing in the Cottage Inn, Upper Bucklebury

On Tuesday the Sense of Place team had another visit to the Berkshire village of Bucklebury to meet the local history group. This time we were joined by Rebekkah, MERL’s ‘Historypinner in Residence’, who has been helping us upload our content to Historypin and develop a Historypin App for Bucklebury which draws on the content from our Historypin channel and from the Bucklebury History Group’s channel.

We met up with the Bucklebury History Group in a cosy pub in Upper Bucklebury and set ourselves up for an afternoon of ‘crowdsourcing’. Crowdsourcing is a form of distributed problem solving, which basically means putting a problem into the public domain for anyone to solve. In our case, we were using crowdsourcing to find out more about our Bucklebury photographs from the History Group.

We selected about 20 Bucklebury images – some taken by Philip Osborne Collier, a Reading photographer who was active 1905–1960s, and some taken by a former resident of Bucklebury in the 1950s. We chose these images for several reasons, e.g. because we wanted to know where they were taken, because we wanted to know who was in them, because we thought they were nice photographs, because we thought they might spark off interesting discussions etc. We were particularly keen to get more detailed information on where the photos were taken so that we could pin them more accurately to Historypin, and thus paving the way for making use of some of Historypin’s other functions, such as taking repeat photos which allow you to fade between historic and contemporary photos of the same view.

One of the Collier photos we crowdsourced, showing the houses near Turner's Green and George Lailey's hut.

One of the Collier photos we crowdsourced, showing the houses near Turner’s Green and George Lailey’s hut in the distance.

The session was a great success! We had been planning to work in two smaller groups to try a couple of different ways of looking at the photos and recording the information, e.g. looking at the photos on laptops and on print outs, and recording the information on blank pieces of paper and on prepared forms. However, we ended up working together, gathered around a big screen onto which we projected the images. I acted as a scribe, scribbling down as much as I could about what was being said; Felicity sat with a map next to a very knowledgeable Bucklebury resident and recorded the location of each photo; and we had a dictaphone running to record any information we missed. The great thing about this was that everyone could pool their knowledge together and looking at digital images meant we could zoom in on particular areas of the photos (which were very high resolution) which we wouldn’t have been able to do had we been using printed photos.

This photo was given to the History Group by Rod Bisset, who grew up in Bucklebury. Felicity has managed to pin this to Historypin - the small tree by the bench is now a very large tree!

This photo was given to the History Group by Rod Bisset, who grew up in Bucklebury. Felicity has managed to pin this to Historypin – the small tree by the bench is now a very large tree!

As a result of the crowdsourcing session, we now have much more accurate information on where the photos were taken and Felicity has been spending the day re-pinning the photos to the correct places. We’ve also generated some more contextual information about the photos, which Rebekkah is going to work on uploading as stories. We’ve also learnt how a crowdsourcing session actually works. Crowdsourcing is something Rebekkah does quite frequently for Historypin, but none of us had ever tried it before, so it was really good to give it a go and get some ideas on what worked well and what didn’t work so well, which can feed into other crowdsourcing sessions. I think that was probably the most positive outcome – that the Bucklebury History Group would like to do another session, so that’s hopefully something we’ll do in the spring. We’re also hoping to use what we’ve learnt to run a crowdsourcing session to look at some of the other photographic material we have at MERL – in particular, holding an intergenerational session with Young Farmers (and older farmers) to look at photographs from Farmers’ Weekly.

We had also been hoping to trial the Bucklebury App while we were there, but unfortunately I couldn’t get enough 3G signal for it to work reliably. I did manage a quick go using the pub’s wifi and was really pleased with what I saw. We’ve still got some more work to do on the App before we’re ready to make it public – including making use of the more accurately pinned photographs, and developing collections – but we’ll keep you posted on that.

Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to Helen Relf of the Bucklebury History Group for making the arrangements for the session, and to Rebekkah for coming along and showing us how to crowdsource! And, to end on a positive note, one of the photos from the History Group’s channel is Historypin’s ‘Pin of the Day’ for today (17 January) so be sure to take a look.

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Having reached the cataloguing milestone of finishing all 1300 or so records from 1951, I thought it would be good to share some of the things I’ve catalogued. 1951 contained several large collections of objects – the Lavinia Smith Collection, the H. J. Massingham Collection and the Shickle Collection of Friendly Society Poleheads – which definitely helped speed up the cataloguing.

Lavinia Smith was an American who lived with her sister, Frances, in the village of East Hendred in Oxfordshire (formerly in Berkshire) until her death in 1944, aged 73. She gathered objects from friends and neighbours in the East Hendred area, and even found some at the village dump, and displayed them to visitors, especially children from local schools, at their house in the village, ‘Downside’. When Lavinia died, the collection was bequeathed to Berkshire Education Services, and later transferred to the Berkshire Archives at MERL.

A view of Downside, where Lavinia Smith lived.

The Lavinia Smith collection at MERL contains over 400objects – including agricultural implements, animal traps, animal bells and shepherds’ crooks, horseshoes and harnesses, woodworking and metal working tools, fireside and cooking equipment, and much much more! Try searching for ‘Lavinia Smith’ in our online catalogue. Further Lavinia Smith material is held at the East Hendred Museum and details can also be found here. Our records at MERL also contain a list of many of Lavinia Smith’s donors, along with their occupations, which provides interesting contextual evidence – and could be an interesting avenue for future research.

The East Hendred Museum, housed in Champs Chapel.

So, having spent the best part of a month cataloguing the Lavinia Smith Collection, I had a really strong urge to visit East Hendred (and take my photo next to the village sign – but my arms weren’t long enough to fit me and the sign in the same photo) and decided to head off one sunny Sunday and see what sort of a place it was. As it turns out, East Hendred is one of the most beautiful villages I’ve ever been to! Unfortunately the East Hendred Museum was closed on my visit, but I spent an hour or two walking around and enjoying the sunshine, and I can see why it would have appealed – it was very ‘English’ and very ‘Midsomer Murders’. However, there wasn’t much sign within the village of the agricultural way of life that Lavinia Smith’s collection documents. Until this project, I’d never heard of East Hendred, and so had no idea what it was like and had no context in which to catalogue the Collection – visiting it has made it a ‘real’ place far more than looking at it on a map did.

Incidentally, East Hendred is one of those difficult places we’ve encountered which has been affected by changing county borders – from Berkshire to Oxfordshire – and is brilliantly illustrated in this ‘Best Kept Village’ sign from the 1970s.

From Berkshire to Oxfordshire.

And on the way back into Reading, across the Berkshire Downs, it was pleasing to recognise lots of place names that I’d encountered in the cataloguing. I’m from Cambridge and don’t know this area at all, but I feel that I’m slowly starting to piece together a map in my mind of where places around here are. So my visit to East Hendred helped me improve my ‘sense of place’ in terms of the context in which Lavinia Smith was collecting and of my geographical knowledge of the Berkshire/Oxfordshire area.

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