Oxfordshire

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Many of you will no doubt already know that it was Open Farm Sunday yesterday. Along with friends and family I made a somewhat last minute plan to visit one of the places participating in this scheme. The site in question was Sandy Lane Farm, near Tiddington, Oxfordshire. Here we enjoyed a tour by tractor and a series of talks delivered by the farmer, Charles Bennett, as well as indulging in the obligatory cup of tea and slice of cake. There was also much more on offer and, all in all, our visit provided us not only with a great afternoon’s entertainment but also proved to be highly informative.

Charles Bennett explains his potato crop

Charles Bennett explains his potato crop

It struck me during the afternoon that there is really no substitute for a genuine ‘onsite’ sense of place. In other words, for me at least, being ‘in’ a place is always going to be more powerful and enlightening than being at a remove. Even the very best interpretation in the world cannot replace the multi-sensory feeling and direct material engagement of actually being there, in a place where rural lives both did and still do play out. In a similar and more obvious vein, a muddy and oily Ferguson tractor that kids can clamber on and pretend to drive is always going to win out over the sanitised but sacrosanct TE20 that we have on display at MERL. On the flip side of this, jumping around in the hay – as my kids and those of my friends did yesterday – is not going to explain how meadows were managed in the past, or enlighten them as to the people or technologies involved in hay production past or present. It takes intervention and an interpretive voice, whether this be the onsite words of the farmer or the gallery-based musings of a curator.

Jumping in the hay

Playing in the hay at Sandy Lane Farm

Simple as these observations may seem, I think they raise significant questions for museums, most of whose collections are inherently connected with a whole series of other places. So, the next step on from this Project and its process of re-connecting museum-held things to original contexts of manufacture, use, and collection has to be one of deepening contextualisation. It has to be a process of engagement with the people now in (or once from)  these original contexts. It has to be a process of reaching out to the rural people whose heritage is housed and represented in the Museum. It has to be an invitation to members of these ‘source communities’ to help MERL (and by proxy the wider public) to better understand the rich depth and complexity of rural history as a whole. It has to deliver inventive and creative mechanisms through which to communciate how the seemingly static holdings of the gallery and store actually connect to a whole host of dynamic and vibrant external sites and places, where rural life continues apace.

Thanks to all at Sandy Lane Farm for a great day out and a very nice cup of tea, for giving me food for thought and a fun way to exacerbate my hayfever (yes, I am a farmer’s son who suffers from hayfever!). Oh, and I checked the database and MERL has only one artefact from Tiddington, this being a type of chain used to hold restless cattle that dates to the mid-19th century. Mr and Mrs Bennett and their family appeared to dabble in farming pretty much everything but cattle. However, I still think it would still be interesting to hear what their thoughts are on this object and on the ways in which life in Tiddington has changed since the 1840s when this object was made, the interwar period when it was first acquired by H. J. Massingham, and 1951 when it came to Reading.

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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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I was pleased to hear from my friend that he had been reading this blog, even proving keen enough to sign up for the RSS feed. As well as coping with the stresses of what can evidently be quite a harrowing commute, this particular friend has a busy work schedule and three young children at home. As such, I am surprised that has found time in his busy life to explore what we are up to. I guess it’s entirely possible that he is just humouring me, or perhaps he browses the web on the coach en route to London! Either way, as a roundabout way of thanking him for taking the time to look, I’ve decided to see if I can chart his commute in some way using artefacts, archival materials, and historic photographs from the museum’s collection. My motivations are not entirely altruistic. This is really an experiment to see if I can find interesting things that connect to and perhaps help to contextualise his route.

Here goes… As I don’t wish to reveal my friend’s precise address, I’ll start with a central feature of his home town Watlington, as depicted by Phillip Osborne Collier (1881-1979), a commercial photographer and postcard publisher who worked in Reading from around 1905 onwards. The Collier collection comprises circa 6000 glass plate negatives of places in Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire. These were produced between 1905 and the 1960s. Unfortunately, these Collier negatives have not been digitised in their entirety so for ease and rapidity of reproduction here I simply photographed them on a light box and inverted the image using editing software. They are therefore in quite a raw state but will hopefully give you some idea of the places depicted. So, lets imagine that my friend begins his day somewhere near to that central staple of English rural communities, the church:

The church in Watlington, as depicted by Collier

The church in Watlington, early 20th century

This prolific photographer’s glass plate negatives will lead on through the town and into the surrounding countryside. but the church is a nice way to start. My friend lives quite close to it and my family joined his on a visit to see the Christmas tree displays there last December. This provides me with an excuse to add in this Christmas card produced by Collier and featuring scenes from around Watlington:

Christmas card of Watlington, from the Collier collection

Watlington Christmas card, early 20th century

Turning back to my friend’s actual commute, it seems likely that he emerges, bleary-eyed, and cycles out into Brook Street:

Brook Street, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Brook Street, Watlington, early 20th century

Because I’m uncertain as to where precisely on the modern-day Brook Street we are in this image, here’s another shot which I think may even show the exit from which my friend most likely emerges of a weekday:

Brook Street, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Brook Street, Watlington, early 20th century

I’m sure there are short cuts to be had but as I’m not privy to that fine-grained residential ‘sense of place’ I’m going to guess that from here my friend might turn left into Couching Street, perhaps even using the junction shown in the following photograph (if you look closely you’ll see that its signposted to Lewknor!). However, I suspect he doesn’t travel with a cyclist’s assistant like the distant subject of this image:

Brook Street and Couching Street, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Corner between Brook Street and Couching Street, Watlington, early 20th century

My friend’s commute takes him down Couching Street or in that general direction:

Couching Street, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Couching Street, Watlington, early 20th century

My friend almost certainly passes close to the old town hall and market place. Collier’s work includes two different views of this particular site, which also reveal subjects relevant to the navigational theme sthat I’m exploring here. The first shot features a horse-drawn vehicle:

Town Hall, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Town Hall, Watlington, early 20th century

By comparison, the second shot of this site shows early motor vehicles:

Market Place, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Market Place, Watlington, early 20th century

From here, both Collier and my friend head out into the surrounding countryside. For my friend to have a hilltop perspective like that shown below would entail an inconvenient detour (and possibly more sensible footwear again) but I’ve added this in anyway. It’s not often that the commuters amongst us have the time to take in a vista of our departure point, so I thought he might apppreciate the opportunity, even if the scene appears to be a little hazy as a result of my rushed digitisation:

Watlington from the hills, as taken by Collier

Watlington 'from the hills', early 20th century

My friend is now out into open countryside, cycling along the B4009 to Lewknor in order to make his bus connection. On the way he passes farmland that is representative of the agricultural community surrounding Watlington. An image (MERL P FW PH2/C108/62) in the museum’s Farmers Weekly photograph collection shows combine harvesters traversing a field close to the nearby village of Britwell Salome. This is not on my friend’s direct route but perhaps helps to communicate something of the kind of farming activity one might have seen in this area during the early 1950s.

Back to our route, Pyrton is situated part-way between Watlington and Lewknor, northwest of the B4009. Somewhere beyond it lies Clare Hill, which was almost certainly the location of a place once called Clare Farm. The museum holds farm records related to this site, including a receipt book dating to 1922 and bearing the name of its then proprietor, Charles Hall:

Detail of ledger from Clare Farm, Pyrton

Detail of ledger from Clare Farm, Pyrton, 1922

This set of archival papers also contains details of the sale of this same farm in 1923:

Sale catalogue for Clare Farm, Pyrton

Sale catalogue for Clare Farm, Pyrton, 1923

This is probably enough between Watlington and Lewknor (and I may well have exhausted the museum’s holdings relating to this particular area). Suffice to say, the museum appears to hold significant materials associated with the approximate route so far. From here the road takes my friend onwards between the fields to the centre of another nearby agricultural community at Lewknor. The museum holds an artefact – a musket – that was probably once used by a farmer in this very place:

Accession form for musket

Accession form for musket associated with Lewknor

This brings us to the end of my friend’s cycle ride and the beginning of his coach journey, which follows the motorway from Lewknor all the way to London. I suspect that there are probably numerous artefacts associated with different places situated along the route of the M40. However, my friend will probably have to wait until the project team have worked their data-enhancement magic and we have mapped these holdings in an easy to visualise way!

Lewknor detail on M40 planning map, 1960s

Lewknor on M40 planning map, 1960s

For now lets hope my friend is happy enough to learn of the fascinating papers that the museum holds concerning the impact planning for (and subsequent analysis of) this stretch of motorway, dating to between the 1960s and 1990s. These stem from the rich and detailed archives of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (now the Campaign to Protect Rural England), which include maps showing the intended route as well as papers and correspondence pertaining to the projected impact on the rural area affected:

Wider shot of Lewknor position on M40 map

Map showing proposed route (from Lewknor) of the M40, 1960s

Perhaps later in the project I will revisit this exercise to see what further material has come to light in relation to the M40 route. For now though, let me close with the obscure and limited content I managed to find to link to Shepherd’s Bush, which is more or less where my friend’s morning commute comes to an end. The museum catalogue reveals only a single archival item connected in some (unknown) way with this place. This is a drawing from the archive of the engineering company Charles Burrell & Sons Limited, the catalogue entry for which reads ‘Proposed Power House for Rolling Track (Shepherd’s Bush)’. This particular drawing relates to a rival engineeering firm making it even harder to determine what (and indeed where) this machine was intended for. Here is a detail of the drawing, which does not reveal a great deal more than the catalogue entry:

Detail from engineering drawing

Detail from engineering drawing

It is nice to end on an item linked with transport, as well as on something about whcih the museum does not currently know a great deal. If anyone knows more about how this vehicle would have been used please comment. The notion that underpins much of what this project (and indeed this exercise) is seeking to achieve is one of empowering the museum’s ‘source communities’ and harnessing the rich body of knowledge and ideas that the wider public can bring to bear on complex collections like thise held here at MERL.

Now I’m heading off to catch my train…

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