A farm in Shropshire is keeping alive
the old country skills. Jo Ind reports
crafts live on
Should you need to make a smock or a corn dolly, Acton Scott is the place for you.
Making a cake is one thing but making the butter to make the cake is taking home-baking to a whole different level. But for those who are keen – and plenty are – Acton Scott Historic Working Farm will be holding courses for people wanting to learn how to make butter, harnesses, smocks, corn dollies, sloe gin, oak swill baskets or plough with heavy horses this autumn.
The farm, near Church Stretton, Shropshire is part of the Acton Scott Hall estate where the Acton family live and have done so since the twelfth century.
In Victorian days, the home farm would have been the place where a tenant would have husbanded the land and provided hams, butter, eggs and bread for the family.
In its hey-day it was a place where those around came to learn about farming practices, being a model of, what were then, modern techniques and good practice.
Since 1975 the farm has been leased to Shropshire Council and is now a working farm museum where visitors can see farm staff care for traditional breeds of poultry and stock, the wheelwright and blacksmith produce goods for the farm, the farrier shoes the working horses, the woodland craft workers produce besoms and rakes, and the farmer’s wife churns butter by hand just as it would have been done between 1875 and 1925.
The farm was recently used as the location for BBC TV’s documentary Victorian Farm, screened earlier this year, where historical experts dressed as the Victorians learnt how to farm using the traditional techniques.
From this autumn anybody can have a go at learning some of the crafts of the farm. For example Owen Jones, one of the experts seen on the TV series, will leading a course in oak swill basket making. “It’s quite magical at the farm,” says Sarah Griffiths, who runs the education programme at the museum.
“The setting is idyllic. If you come you will see people in the cottage cooking, the horses out and about doing something, machinery that’s been restored, lots of pigs, Shropshire sheep, Norfolk turkeys, donkeys.
“Before all visitors could do was watch demonstrations but this year we have introduced courses so they can actually learn the traditional skills for themselves. We want to preserve some of those traditional skills so now people can have the opportunity to learn them and pass them on.”
Sarah says people engage at a variety of different levels. Some of the courses, such as bee-keeping, can be of direct practical use in the twenty-first century. Likewise the traditional brick-building course is of use to people interested in building or conservation.
Others are important because they enable visitors to have a better understanding of how people survived in the past.
“You never know what people will take from it,” says Sarah. “At the moment, we’re just offering these courses to people who can pay for them. In the future, I hope to be working with young people with learning difficulties or people who have been excluded from school and offer them these opportunities.
“If you’re feeling a bit low about yourself, walking behind a heavy horse and realising you can control that huge beast, can be very valuable in itself. It’s not all romantic, it’s pretty hard.”