We Plough The Fields And Scatter...

| 11 October 2001

By David Viner

GM crops, foot & mouth disease, battery farming - if you read the papers the list of what's wrong with agriculture goes on and on! But there's still much to enjoy in the way we farm the landscape and care for its past as well as its future.

In the West of England, lots of rural life museums rescue and display old tools and implements from 'the ways things were' locally. These are not just relics of past times but an important and fascinating record of a different way of life for those who cultivated the land, year in and year out.

In this trail, you can visit some of the best collections in the West country, see how things were done and put our present-day preoccupations into a wider historical background.

Each museum has been carefully chosen to show the agricultural heritage of its own special part of the West Country, from Gloucestershire to Cornwall.

Our trail starts in the heart of the Cotswolds at Northleach, where a fine old prison building has become the Cotswold Heritage Centre.

This museum looks after one of the biggest collections of old farm tools and objects anywhere in the region and shows the best on permanent display and in special exhibitions.

There is a Seasons of the Year display and the Cotswold Land & People gallery reveals specialist skills needed to work the land and the achievements of landowner, tenant farmer and farmworker. There are regular exhibitions by today's rural craftspeople, and a fine collection of farm wagons and carts, beautifully made and each with a local story to tell.

The Forest of Dean is another part of Gloucestershire altogether - west of the river Severn, it is its own special place and the Dean Heritage Centre at Soudley tells you all about it.

In a group of historical buildings at Camp Mill, the museum is a focus for craft activities and its displays show how Foresters lived from prehistory until the recent past.

There is a cottage reconstruction and an agricultural gallery with tools and implements, including several locally made wagons. From here you can visit the woodlands and quiet places of the Forest between the Severn and Wye rivers.

North Wiltshire was traditionally dairying country, with lots of small farms and butter and cheese-making activity.

Further south the arable farms of the downs grow some of our best crops. Learn about both in the Museum of Agriculture and Rural Life at the Lackham Countryside Centre near Chippenham, founded over fifty years ago and a centre for the study of rural life in the future as well as the past.

The displays are in a large timber-framed barn moved to this site, and two 18th century granaries: on stilts!

There is barn machinery, the tools of the wheelwright and blacksmith and a guide to the Victorian farming year, plus some rare breed farm animals and an historic walled garden.

Star attractions include a shepherd's restored lambing hut and a portable steam engine of 1899 by Brown & May of Devizes.

Life in rural Somerset through the 19th and earlier 20th centuries is the theme of the Somerset Rural Life Museum at Glastonbury.

In the shadow of Glastonbury Tor you will find the magnificent 14th century Abbey Barn, an adjoining Victorian farmhouse and farm buildings.

The buildings display relics of traditional farming practices and the local industries of peat cutting, withy growing and cheese and cider making.

Here you can follow the life of farm labourer John Hodges and his family in the 19th century and wander in the cider apple orchard: also home to beehives and rare breeds of sheep and poultry.

The Somerset town of Chard boasts "a local museum on a large scale". There's a lot to see of the town's history and especially of some local industries which produced agricultural machinery and tools.

The name of Dening of Chard is well known amongst collectors, and the museum has a good many implements. The firm produced hayrakes, rollers, chaffcutters (do you know what they were for?), cider presses and saw benches.

Left, page from a catalogue published by Dening of Chard.

The Phoenix Foundry turned out everything from pumps to cast iron urinals for railway stations! This is the museum to visit if you want to see how a market town provided a mass of services to its large rural community - and Chard like so many other towns still does, of course!

Devon is a large county, with lots of museums. One of the biggest agricultural history collections is at Tiverton Museum of Mid Devon Life, housed in an old Victorian school with over 25,000 objects.

The agricultural hall shows farming processes plus cider making and sheep farming. There's also some frightful mantraps used to catch poachers in this district!

Other galleries include childhood & education, factory life and leisure & transport. The museum's pride and joy is its collection of Devon farm wagons and carts, one of the best in the West Country.

There is also a study centre where you can research your Devon ancestors and an archive of old photographs - where you may find them too!

Dartmoor is another special place and the Museum of Dartmoor Life on the northern edge of the moor in Okehampton is the place to appreciate moorland history.

There are galleries on three floors of a stone-built 19th century granary. Farming is a key theme - after all the moor has been farmed for 5000 years and it has always presented a real challenge.

Today we might call it living on the margins. The museum aims to preserve evidence of this distinctive local way of life, still within living memory but in danger of being lost as times change.

So again the past meets up with the present and looks to the future - this is one of the key themes of this Trail. Like Tiverton there is a family history study centre here - do your own research or use skilled staff to check parish registers, census returns, maps and much more.

Charles Laycock was a pioneer collector in his day (he died in 1943). In his Devon home at Moretonhampstead on the edge of Dartmoor he preserved a traditional farmhouse kitchen and devoted his time to rescuing a disappearing way of life.

His efforts are rewarded with the redisplay of his collection in Torquay Museum, where you can see four rooms and a linhay (small barn) of a Devon Barton farmhouse of about 1860.

It seems primitive to us, with an old settle seat and a ladder to the sleeping loft upstairs. But it's just right and full of nostalgia for a lost way of life in Devon with cob and thatch barns, comfortable old farmhouses and a local dialect. Here you can see many of the 1600 items Laycock collected and he's there too (as a life-size model) still involved with his life's work.

In Kingsbridge, the Cookworthy Museum of Rural Life in South Devon promises "everything from costumes to carts."

One of its displays is a Farm Gallery showing a whole range of agricultural artefacts collected since the museum was established thirty years ago.

The steep hills and narrow lanes of South Devon have influenced both farming practices and the design of machinery. Wagons - not in use hereabouts until the 17th century - had to be light and easy to move around.

There is an almost complete collection of horse power on the farm plus implements powered by hand. The main focus is Langmans, a typical south Devon farm, showing how it has changed since 1842. Much of the advice for the museum came from Hubert Snowdon who farmed there for many years. There is a good photographic archive - another place to seek your ancestors!

Travelling over the county boundary, Helston Folk Museum tells the story not only of this ancient town (it's had a charter for exactly 800 years) but also of this part of Cornwall.

The museum was founded over 50 years ago and its galleries in the town's old butter and meat markets include displays of former crafts and industries which flourished here in the 19th and 20th centuries.

There is a typical Cornish farm wagon, a range of the special tools used by cooper, wheelwright and carpenter and especially the blacksmith. A magnificent cider press, dating from 1750 and weighing five and a half tons is a prized exhibit. Amongst the kitchen and domestic items is a fine example of a typically Cornish range, another reminder of "the old days".

This trail was sponsored by the South West Museums Council and illustrates just a few of the many museums of rural life and social history which you can visit in the English West Country. Although it is not necessary to visit them in this order, they are listed from north-east to south-west, from Gloucestershire to Cornwall. You could just as easily tackle them in the opposite direction! Click here to find out more about agricultural heritage in the South West from the South West Museums Council.

David Viner is a museum and heritage consultant and a freelance curator and writer.

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