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Malcolm Rigby looks at our county's past at the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury

PUBLISHED: 12:56 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:44 20 February 2013

Hens in the orchard

Hens in the orchard

Malcolm Rigby investigates our county's agricultural past at the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury

Malcolm Rigby investigates our county's agricultural past at the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury


When you think of Somerset and farming, most of us naturally think of dairy produce; after all, we're certainly known for Cheddar cheese. Ponder a little further and you'll likely come up with cider apples, maybe you'll think of strawberries and honey, possibly even teasels. It's a mixed bag, but dairy produce is certainly one of our finest assets.

According to David Walker, the Keeper of Social History for Somerset Heritage Service, who is based at the Rural Life Museum, it's our climate that is responsible for our dairying reputation. "The important thing is the rainfall. We have high rainfall and that's good for grass, which is good for dairy. The other factor is the height ranges; you've got everything from nearly sea level with the Levels, to the Mendips and Exmoor, which suggests quite a range of agriculture, and it's also based on different soil types so it's quite diverse. But the biggest sector is dairy, it's what Somerset is famous for - milk and cheese."

The nature of the agriculture affects the look of the rural landscape, so, for instance, in Norfolk, with its drier climate and the focus on arable farms, there are large fields. Meanwhile in Somerset with livestock there is a need for smaller fields with barriers, which translates into enclosure by ditches on the Levels and dry-stone walling on the Mendips.

Technology has also had an impact on the nature of farming. The arrival of the railways allowed a massive growth in the strawberry industry in Somerset, allowing swift shipment of the perishable produce to the towns. It goes without saying that the greatest development has been the replacement of the horse by the tractor, finally hastened by the Second World War and then the horrendous winter of 1947. This in turn led to a change in the appearance of the countryside - making fields wider and gate openings larger.

The oddity of Somerset's agricultural produce is perhaps the teasel. This prickly fellow was primarily grown to raise nap on high-quality woollen and worsted materials, and more recently on the baize of snooker tables. Production centred around several villages east of Taunton, lasting a couple of centuries before dying out after the Second World War.

All of these elements of our wonderful farming heritage can be explored at the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury. The great charm about this place, established in 1976, is that it is about ordinary people and ordinary things. The philosophy seems to be to illustrate the life of ordinary people in Somerset through the 19th century and up until about the mid-20th century; to reflect on the communities, the farm labourers, the crafts people, the working women, the children; to explain what life was like in the countryside.

John Hodges (1828-91) was an ordinary person and the upstairs of the farmhouse part of the museum is devoted to him. Three rooms are used to tell the life story of this one farmworker and his family from the nearby village of Butleigh. Documents from the parish records outline the stepping stones of his life: his birth, marriages (the wedding register is marked with a cross), children and his death. This might seem dry but it comes to life with the objects and photographs from the museum's collections that have been used to illustrate his story. In particular there are the basics of a Victorian school, objects of superstition, a police report from 1867 about a man charged with stealing seven swedes, and most popular of all, a wooden toilet seat for three people - two adults and a child.

The domestic history approach is continued in the farmhouse kitchen where its cast-iron range and homely rag rugs attempt to capture the atmosphere of an 1890s kitchen.

The working life of rural communities is the focus of most of the rest of the museum. The tearoom doubles up as a cheeseroom with all the necessary paraphernalia like the double cheese press, and the galleries in the cowsheds illustrate with objects and photographs, the processes of familiar Somerset trades such as cider making, peat digging and basket making.

Outside in the Victorian courtyard there are old wagons and a lone tractor from the 1940s, whilst sheep and hens laze in the pretty orchard. But the pice de resistance is, of course, the wonderful and iconic 14th-century Abbey barn, home to a couple of wagons but largely left empty for events.

Since the museum is focused on educational needs and the national curriculum in particular, David says that in the future they would like to build a seminar room where classes could meet to discuss their findings. However, heritage resources are being spent elsewhere at the moment so it remains a long-term dream. In the meantime work is taking place this winter to update the cowshed galleries, in particular to provide audio-visual material.

Meanwhile the museum team are aware that changes are taking place rapidly in agriculture through farming diversification, and correspondingly in the rural landscape. As David says: "One of the most important issues for rural communities over the next 20-50 years, one of the big unknowns, is how rural communities are going to survive and how they are going to evolve and how the landscape will alter, because traditional farming will continue along certain patterns but more people want to live in the countryside for really quite diverse reasons.

"How people use the land gives it a different look as well. There are changes and the changes reflect what people are doing in the countryside and how we work with these people, because you don't want to kill the thing you love. But things have to be sustainable, so how do you get the best of it all?"

Whilst the rural and political communities try to find the answer to this rather enormous question, at least there will certainly always be a place for showing how we used to live here at the museum.

Somerset Rural Life Museum, Abbey Farm, Chilkwell Street, Glastonbury, BA6 8DB. 01458 831197. Admission is free. Open: 4 November to 31 March: Tues-Sat 10am-5pm. 1 April to 2 November: Tues-Fri and Bank Holidays 10am-5pm, Sat and Sun 2pm-6pm (Closed Good Friday).

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