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What is Chanukah?

Chanukiah

Chanukah, or the Festival of Rededication, is an eight day festival in the Jewish calendar. It celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by the Seleucids (who were one ruling Greek empire after Alexander the Great’s) in 164 BCE. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and usually takes place around December, at the time of year when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere.

Beginning in 167 BCE, the Jews of Judea rose up in revolt against the oppression of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire. King Antiochus had enacted many oppressive rules, including prohibiting the practice of Judaism and enforcing the sacrifice of pigs in the Temple. The military leader of the first phase of the revolt was Judah the Maccabee, the eldest son of the priest Mattityahu (Mattathias). In the autumn of 164, Judah and his followers – the Maccabees – were able to capture the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been turned into a pagan shrine. They cleansed it and rededicated it to God. This event was observed in an eight-day celebration, which was patterned on Sukkot, the autumn festival of huts because they had not been able to celebrate it earlier in the year. The events are described in the first and second Books of Maccabees which are in a collection of texts known as the Apocrypha.

This miracle of being able to practise one’s religion at this time by overthrowing the oppressive rule of King Antiochus IV was a cause for celebration. However, there was another story which was also passed on that celebrates an even more remarkable miracle. When the Maccabees came to rededicate the Temple they needed specially made olive oil to light the Menorah (the Temple’s seven branched candelabra). They searched the ruined building and found just one container of oil which would only last one day. They needed much more in order to have time to make new oil. In an act of faith, the Jews used the oil to light the Menorah nonetheless and by a miracle, the oil lasted for eight days. In celebration of this miracle and that of the protection of Jewish life over 2000 years ago, Jewish people around the world light a special menorah (candelabra) which has eight branches and is sometimes called a Chanukiah. Each night of Chanukah a ‘helper candle’ is lit and used to light the candles: on the first night, one candle is lit; on the second night, two candles; and so on until on the eighth night all the candles are lit.

The festival of Chanukah has become even more popular because it often falls around Christmas time and other festivals of light, including Diwali. In the middle of the winter months, the increasing light of the Chanukiah gives us hope that the days will once again start getting lighter and that there will be a time for everyone to celebrate their faith in freedom and without oppression.

So is it Chanukah, Hanukkah, Chanukkah or Chanuka?

The word is a Hebrew word which means dedication and is also connected to the Hebrew words for education – because when we learn we dedicate ourselves to understanding the world around us. Hebrew is written from right to left and the opening sound is similar to the ch in loch. The word looks like this:

There are lots of ways to transliterate the Hebrew letters into English. But no-one will be offended if you write to wish them ‘Happy Chanukah’ or ‘Happy Chanukkah’ or ‘Happy Hanukka’, they will just be delighted to receive your greetings!

Chanukah candles

Candles

The chanukiah, if safe, is placed in the window to ‘publicise the miracle’ of Chanukah. The candles are lit at night and the shammash (the helper candle, slightly separate from the others) is used to light each candle. The candles are put into the chanukiah from right to left and then lit from left to right. An extra candle is added each night. Some families have one chanukiah and some have one for every member of the household. The Chanukah candles are not supposed to be used for anything – they are for the purpose of being reminded of the miracle and nothing more. Each night one begins by lighting the shammash, and while holding it one says two blessings. The candles are then lit.

Driedel

Dreidel, Doughnuts and gelt

The Dreidel, also known as Sevivon (spinning top), is a form of dice game which originates in the middle ages. The sides of the spinning top are the letters ‘nun’ ‘gimmel’ ‘hay’ ‘shin’ – which stand for the Hebrew phrase: “nes gadol hayah sham” (A great miracle happened there). In fact, there was a German dice game with the letters: N, G, H and S from which the Hebrew letters were most likely adapted. N = Nichts (do nothing); G = Ganz (player wins all the tokens); H = Halb (player wins half the tokens); S = Stell Ein (player puts a token in).
It is customary to give children pocket money, known as Chanukah gelt, after the lighting of the chanukiah. This practice of giving gifts has grown in the last few decades, probably under the influence of the commercialisation of Christmas. As with all Jewish festivals, charitably giving is an important aspect of celebration and children are often encouraged to give to charity as part of their giving habits.

Doughnuts for Chanukah

 

It is traditional on Chanukah to eat foods fried in oil as a reminder of the miracle with the oil. Ashkenazi Jews, whose origins tend to be from Eastern Europe, eat potato latkes, or pancakes, while another custom is to eat sufganiyot, jam-filled doughnuts. Sephardi Jews, whose origins include from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East, will often eat sweet cheese pancakes and bumuelos (puffed deep fried fritters).

Written By Rabbi Neil Janes


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The Vicarage Room from Thame

Vicarage room from Thame

Thame Vicarage Room

November 28th 1896 was an important day for the population of just 3,000 then living in the little town of Thame. A Great Western Railway train arrived at Thame Station that day with the parts for a new building which was to be erected in the vicarage garden next to Lashlake Road. The Rev. J.J.Cohen, vicar of St.Mary’s, had ordered a prefabricated building in which he could hold meetings for his parishioners. When the building was being re-erected at COAM in 1990 three labels were found behind the dado paneling inside the hall. One was the address label for the consignment: Rev’d J.J.Cohen, Thame Vicarage, Thame Station, GWR.

original cladding sample

The new building was used for many kinds of meetings: lectures, socials, Bible classes, the Church of England Temperance Society and the Church of England Men’s Society, amongst others. In 1912 a larger hall was built and John Millburn, an Auctioneer in Aylesbury, bought the old one, re-erected it in his garden and used it as a showroom and later to store garden produce.

The material from which the building was constructed was a relatively newly invented material created by Douglas Allport in about 1881. An article in “The Lancet” in 1896 relates how the inventor combined a steel wire gauze with papier maché to provide large sheets. These were then coated with waterproof paint and used to make the walls by stretching them on a wooden frame. The same material could also be used for roofing. “The Lancet” relates that Derby Royal Infirmary adopted this method of construction for a temporary operating theatre and an ophthalmic ward. This new material was manufactured by the wonderfully named Wire Wove Waterproofing Company of London.

Vicarage Room in original location

The Vicarage Room in its original location

When COAM acquired the building, the walls were too damaged to reuse and so a modern substitute material was found for the outer covering of the walls. It is believed that only two buildings still exist in the country in their original form, one in Bicester and another in North Wales.

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer


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Why were there so many furniture makers in High Wycombe?

High Wycombe Furniture Factory

If you had lived in High Wycombe during the 1800s and early 1900s you would certainly have had friends or neighbours who worked in the chair or furniture industry. Even before 1700 there are references to “turners”, men who turned wood on a lathe to make various household wares. In 1725 Daniel Defoe, the author of “Robinson Crusoe”, refers to them in his diary. In the early days production focused on chair parts which were sent to London to be “framed up” into chairs, but by the end of the 18th century more and more landowners were making land available to allow this process to happen in High Wycombe.

But why did all this happen in High Wycombe? Because of the plentiful supply of wood from the forests of the Chilterns and also because other forms of employment were not readily available. Between 1800 and 1860 the number of workshops grew from just a few to 150 and the streets of the town must have been full of the smell of wood shavings and sawdust. Nobody knows exactly how many furniture making workshops and factories there were – estimates range from 200-400. By 1875 it is estimated that 4,700 chairs per day were being made, resulting in High Wycombe becoming the biggest producer of chairs in the country. Despite the closure of many small firms after World War 2, even in 1968 the Wycombe area was producing nearly 80% of the country’s entire output of chairs.

Bodgers
From the earliest days of the trade most of the lathe-turned chair parts were made by itinerant turners or “bodgers” living in the villages surrounding High Wycombe. Historically, the turning skills required by the chair industry had been applied to the production of bowls, spoons and other items, which provided a pool of skilled labour from which the chair part turners developed. The use of the term bodger to describe these craftsmen is probably a 20th century usage, and certainly it is not used during the 1840s and 1850s when the number of turners working in the Chilterns reaches its peak.

The turners worked by buying stands of trees from estate owners at auctions, which were then felled and converted into chair stretchers and legs. Some worked in rough thatched shelters in the wood where the trees were felled. The majority worked in sheds nearer to home. The turner’s most famous piece of equipment, the pole lathe, was powered by a long, flexible length of sapling, and was used to cut the finished design onto the chair part. The finished article was then sold to the Wycombe factory owners. The metal framed treadle wheel lathe was widely used as an alternative to the pole lathe.

Between 1861 and 1881 the number of turners in the area almost doubled, from 186 to 340, reflecting the still-rising demand for chairs. Stokenchurch and Radnage remained two of the most important centres, but were joined by Beacons Bottom, and then overtaken by High Wycombe; all four settlements had 395 resident turners in 1881. Three villages still had all their chair employment in turning and are found in a cluster about five miles north of the town – Bryants Bottom, Stoney Cross and Prestwood.

Have a look at this BBC archive video on ‘The Chair Bodgers of the Chilterns’

Why was there suddenly such a demand for chairs? This was the period of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, the population was growing fast, and hence there was an ever-growing market for chairs. Moreover, this was also the beginning of large public meetings of many different kinds during which people wanted to sit down! For example, there were special commissions from the evangelists Moody and Sankey for 19,200 chairs, 8,000 chairs for the Crystal Palace and 2,500 rush-seated chairs for St. Paul’s Cathedral. In the late 19th century and the early 20th High Wycombe had become the second largest furniture manufacturing town in the country.

King’s National Roll Scheme
After the First World War there were vast numbers of badly injured and disabled men who were fearful of never being able to find work again. Therefore, the Government set up The King’s National Roll Scheme whereby companies undertook to train disabled men to be able to work and support themselves. James Elliott & Son took part in this scheme and a certificate to that effect hangs in the factory.

Elliott and Sons Furniture Factory in 1978 in its original location.

Elliott’s factory
The earliest record of an Elliott as a chairmaker is of Thomas Elliot (one “t”) in West Wycombe in the 1851 census. The 1871 census shows a James Elliott, fifteen, who by 1875 was married to Ann Harman and living in Hambleden as a chairmaker framer. The firm of Elliott’s was founded in 1887 with James’ sons Harry and Frank working there. The factory was at 14-16, Shaftesbury Street and closed in 1974. It was founded for the assembly of Windsor chairs, but during the First World War it produced ailerons for aircraft. Sadly, Frank Elliott died in France of the Spanish Flu one month after the end of hostilities. During the Second World War the factory helped the war effort by producing fire-proof furniture for the Royal Navy.

Types of chairs that may have been made in the factory.

Windsor chairs
This type of chair is a form of wooden seating in which the back and sides consist of multiple thin, turned spindles that are attached to a solid, sculpted seat. It has straight legs that splay outward, and its back reclines slightly. The origin of the name “Windsor chair” is confused. It seems to have been used as a description of a particular design of chair from 1710. There is a legend that King George III (or King George II) was one day sheltering from a rainstorm in a peasant’s cottage near Windsor Castle and was given a multi-spindled chair to sit on. This so impressed him by its comfort that he had his own furniture maker copy the design. An alternative version is that it was a type of chair used in the grounds of Windsor Castle.

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer


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Jess the sheepdog at 14 months

sheep dog working sheep

 

The last time I wrote we had progressed into driving the sheep up and down the field and she was now familiar with her commands. Time to move to a bigger field and some different sheep, this is most important as the dog and sheep will get used to each other and there will not be the testing times where learning can take place.

I have a friend who kindly lets me train on his sheep and this is where we moved on to bigger outruns, working steadily up to about 150 yards and trying to insist on her lying down on command at a distance (one of her weaknesses at any distance) the sheep were less obliging and tendered to spread out rather than flock together due to them not being used to a dog so she had to work hard on pushing from each side alternately.

Jess was now becoming a useful working dog and we expanded her experience by penning the sheep on a regular basis for checking there health so Jess would begin to understand what was expected of her which is ultimately what we are striving for, a working partner.

Oxford Down sheep

 

We are coming to the end of her basic training and one of the last jobs I teach her is to separate sheep, known as the shed, this is completely opposite to her natural instinct of gathering. We do this by having the sheep between us and waiting for a gap to develop, this is best done with plenty of sheep so they feel safe when separated. Once there is a decent gap I call Jess to me and hopefully she runs through the gap causing the sheep to move further apart and lesson ends. After a few times I ask her to walk towards one lot by my body language, so I turn that way and call her on, later I develop this into just a gesture with my arm and a command and she will push away the selected packet. Pretty much the final lesson is the turn back, a command to turn around and go and fetch another packet of sheep, this is taught whilst we are doing the shed, we have split the sheep in two and walked one lot away, the dog knows that the other lot are still behind her so I turn around and ask her to do the same then ask her to gather up the other packet. I now apply the command “look back” that she will learn to associate with this action. The primary reason for this exercise is to have a dog that will turn off the sheep it has gathered and go and look for more, this is required when gathering on large areas where sheep may be hidden and missed on the first outrun.

Sheep grazing

 

That’s pretty much it for the basics, now it’s all about fine tuning, months and months of it!

Written by Steve Stone, Volunteer Shepherd at COAM


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Gardens at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Want to know more about the gardens at COAM? Volunteer, Paula speaks to members of our gardening team about what it is like to look after our historically inspired gardens.

Leagrave Garden

Leagrave garden at Chiltern Open Air Museum

COAM’s first Gardens Day, delayed for a year because of COVID, was held in late June and, thanks to the enormous amount of hard work put in by the museum’s gardeners, was an opportunity for visitors to appreciate our gardens at their very best. People delighted in the colourful flowerbeds and the neatly-kept vegetable patches and appreciated the chance to chat about the plants and the gardeners’ work. Now, some weeks later, the gardens are past their early-summer freshness but still looking wonderful and perhaps this is a good time to think differently about them and look beyond the flowers and vegetables. By considering some of our gardens from various periods in history and talking to the people who care for them, we can understand a lot about their place in people’s lives.

Haddenham garden

Haddenham garden at Chiltern Open Air Museum in 2020

Haddenham Cottage is one of our gardens representing the Victorian period. It contains a mix of traditional vegetables and herbs, together with a small lawn edged with a border of perennial flowers. The garden was largely developed by Rachael Maytum in the spring of 2020. Because this was during the lockdown, she was unable to visit any garden centres to buy plants, so obtained them from the other gardens in the museum and feels this was very much in the tradition of gardening; it reflects a sense of community, with people sharing their plants and making use of items that are available in the neighbourhood. This tradition is reflected in the garden in other ways: the lovely stone planter in the lawn is a font donated from next-door Newland Manor; two Victorian dolly tubs, sourced from the museum store, now perform a new function as barrels holding herbs by the back door; a newly-planted damson tree is protected by a fence of woven hazel, obtained after coppicing in the wood. Even the initial fertilising of the soil was carried out using a gift of horse manure!

Asked what she thought might be the most important plant in the garden, Rachael opted for the lavender. In the Haddenham Cottage garden, a border of lavender edges the path to the back door. Its purple flowers are beautiful in themselves and clearly a great source of nectar for bees and butterflies, but lavender is so much more. For centuries, it has been appreciated for its medicinal purposes, for its fragrance and for culinary uses.  A truly hard-working plant, it fully deserves its place in any garden.

Volunteer in museum allotment

Volunteer, David Ray, in the Dig for Victory allotment

Moving to a more recent time, the garden at the Amersham prefab and the allotment reflect the Dig for Victory and Dig for Plenty campaigns during and after the Second World War. The vegetables grown there are those that people would have cultivated for food and, almost without exception, are heritage varieties that people in the 1940s and 50s would have been familiar with. For example, marrows, not courgettes, are grown and the peas are the traditional variety, not mange-tout. The choice of vegetables has been influenced partly by the needs of the museum’s catering outlets and the income from these, together with the sale of surplus vegetables and the production and sale of jams, jellies and juices make a significant contribution to the museum’s finances. In this way, our allotment fully reflects the way it would have been used in the 1950s – being of practical use to provide for the needs of the family and perhaps bring in a little extra income. The allotment also gives great pleasure to visitors who like to look at, and discuss, the vegetables and offers a chance for children to experience the sight (and flavour!) of fruit and vegetables growing.

Marrow growing in allotment

Marrow growing in Dig for Victory allotment

The flower border at the allotment follows the same principle of including traditional flowers. These are mainly perennials and reflect the sort of plants that people would have grown. There were no garden centres to allow people to buy annuals and, anyway, there was no surplus money to buy them so plants would have been split and shared amongst neighbours or grown from seed. David Ray, Volunteer Gardener, loves the irregularity of the herbaceous border. There is no colour scheme – as he says, you don’t get colour clashes in nature – and plants just live happily together in a random way, reflecting how amateur gardeners of the past would have gone about their gardening.

Dig for Victory allotment at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Dig for Victory allotment at Chiltern Open Air Museum

What is David’s favourite flowering plant? He chose an unusually tall dianthus, partly because it is of interest to many visitors and partly because of its history. The previous gardener, Les, once found an unidentified pack of seeds and asked David to try germinating them. This attractive and unexpected plant was the result. It is the story that adds to its value. Similarly, David chooses the tomato plant, tomato Montello, as his favourite vegetable, partly because it is so healthy and prolific but also because of the memory of how he and Les discovered it.  As so often among gardeners, the memories and associations add to the value of the plant.

Whereas the allotment and prefab gardens date to a very particular time, the newly-established garden at Leagrave Cottages is different. When the garden was being developed, it was impossible to choose a specific time period to represent because the cottage had been inhabited for over two hundred years. Therefore, the plan was to produce what might be a typical cottage garden with a mix of vegetable patches and flower beds. Dawn Akerman, Volunteer Gardener, chose the hollyhocks and foxgloves as being among her favourite plants in the Leagrave Cottages garden, simply because they are so traditional and typical of an English country garden. She identified the benefit to mental health that comes from working in a garden and, also, the feeling of camaraderie amongst gardeners. In the Leagrave Cottages garden we can appreciate this particularly and imagine the hard-working cottager sitting under the apple-tree, appreciating the fragrance of roses and sweet-peas after a hard day’s work.

Astleham Garden

Astleham Garden at Chiltern Open Air Museum

This sense of enjoyment is continued in the garden at Astleham Manor Cottage. This garden offers a completely different perspective, being a dedicated flower garden, based on Gertrude Jekyll’s principles of providing somewhere that is just a beautiful place to be, somewhere to be aware of beauty, scent and calm.  It was designed and developed in 2008/9 by Conway Rowland, the previous Estate Manager at COAM who took considerable care to adhere to Jekyll’s ideas. Typical Jekyll features include the use of low walls, rope swags and some of her favourite plants such as bergenia (elephant’s ears) and roses. It is a very sensual place and this is what Heather Beeson, Volunteer Gardener, likes about it. Dotted around the garden are quotations from Jekyll’s writings and Heather chose these carefully to try to encourage people to think about the garden just as a place to be. Heather’s favourite plants are those which reflect Gertrude Jekyll and her principles – the iris, the lavender and the roses which embody the spirit of the garden.

So this is what our gardens at COAM reflect. If I had to choose just one word to sum it all up, it would be ‘connection’.  More than just collections of flowers, vegetables and herbs, the gardens tell us about community and sharing, about being a part of the natural surroundings, about the importance of memories and about a sense of belonging and peace.

Written by Paula Lacey, Museum Volunteer


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The history of Garston Forge

In years gone by, every town, village and hamlet would have had a blacksmith’s shop at its heart. Here at the Museum, we saved and re-erected a forge from Garston. In the middle of the 19th century, Garston was a hamlet to the northwest of Watford.

Garston Forge

Garston Forge in its original location in 1982.

From the late 1850s until 1926, this forge in Garston was run by the Martin family. Early in 1859, blacksmith George Martin with his wife Susannah and their children moved from Chiswell Green to Garston. The St Albans area had been the home of generations of blacksmiths called Martin going back to the 17th century in the villages of Park Street, Nap Hill and Leavesden. The 1861 census shows George and Susannah in Garston with seven of their eight children, one of whom had died in infancy. They would later have four more children. The house where they lived had a grocer’s shop within it and at the rear, a large garden where the forge was built. The house had been called Church Cottage in what was then Church Lane, since it stood opposite All Saints Church.

A country blacksmith made and repaired hand tools and repaired farm implements as well as making horseshoes. A blacksmith in rural South Wales in 1892 is recorded to have done the following work: mended a ploughshare and coulter, made a new hatchet, mended an oven, banded two wheels, mended scythes and made gate springs.

The Martin Family

The Martin Family

An important job was the making and fitting of metal tyres for the wooden wheels of carts and wagons. Outside our Forge can be seen a tyreing ring platform where, with the old tyre removed, the wheel would be clamped, the new tyre heated on a fire and then dropped onto the wheel. This was then cooled with water, thus shrinking the tyre and clamping the wooden wheel securely. The blacksmith was an indispensable member of the community. He provided all the metal tools and implements required by the local people.

In 1890, an examination and registration system was introduced for “shoeing smiths”, a measure made to protect horses. From 1975, only registered farriers may shoe horses. Farriers would often visit stables where horses needed to be shoed and in our blacksmith’s shop we have a travelling forge and half-size anvil which the blacksmith or farrier would take with him.

The tyre ring being moved from it’s original location.

The Forge closed in 1926 and by 1982 the forge and the house were scheduled to be sold and demolished. The Museum learned about this and obtained the right to preserve the Forge. In November 1982, volunteers from the Museum dismantled it and during the summer of 1984, it was reconstructed on its present site.

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer


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Jess the sheepdog at 10 months

Sheepdog Jess working the sheep

Jess is progressing well at 10 months

Well, it’s been a while since I updated you last and there are two reasons for that, firstly with summer coming finally my spare time has decreased considerably, the garden taking most of it, secondly the training of a sheepdog goes through phases, and this one is a bit monotonous! Some are due to the dog maturing and suddenly catching on, and some are dictated by me. An example of this is the second stage of training which we were entering when I last wrote. The first stage is to get the dog running around the sheep and then getting her to stop on the opposite side to me. Once we have worked on that for a few weeks then stage two involves a lot of me walking backwards doing figure of eights around the field as the dog naturally moves from side to side balancing the sheep on the opposite side always keeping the sheep between us. During this stage we start the session by encouraging the dog to run out from my side around the sheep to the other side, only a few yards away initially but this is the beginning of the out run that maybe developed into many hundreds of yards and in some cases half a mile or more up in the dales and mountains.

What we are trying to instill within the dogs brain is the desire to go out and gather the sheep and bring them back to the shepherd so this involves weeks of repetitive work walking up and down the field very gradually increasing the distance she has to run to get behind her sheep. So this is what I have been doing for a large proportion of the time throughout May and June and so there hadn’t been much to tell you really. However during this time the dog is maturing and gaining confidence and I am constantly commanding her one way or the other which she slowly begins to understand and respond to, I can then use less body language and movement and more simple commands. She still makes plenty of mistakes as she reacts to the movement of the sheep rather than my command but as time goes on she makes less and less errors.

Expanding her experience involves changing sheep and field if we can, so when we moved last years lambs into Skippings field with plenty of longer grass it was the ideal time to increase her outrun distance and with the sheep hiding under the trees it makes her use her brain to work things out. Trees are also useful for helping with this as you can set up the situation so that she has to go out around the tree to get to her sheep thus keeping her distance from them. A sheepdog must go out in a sort of pear shape ideally to get to the back otherwise if the dog ran straight at them the sheep would take off into the distance. This was the first time she had run so far and she went beautifully out and round them the first time of asking even ignoring the cows who, much to my relief, seemed equally uninterested in the little dog racing by them. She was however happier to run on the right side rather than the left so plenty of work on that side with lots of encouragement has eventually pretty much cured that and she’s now fine on both sides and we just practice practice practice!

During May I began to introduce whistle commands along with the verbal ones so that she began to associate both with a certain instruction and she now responds well to both. For the last couple of weeks I have been stepping things up by the biggest change to her training yet. Up until now it has all been about the dog gathering sheep, bringing them to me and holding them against me, which means she can always see me for reassurance. During June we began the attempt to do the opposite and introduce what we call driving, that is pushing the sheep away from me and therefore working for the first time without me in sight. We start gradually by stopping her going round and asking her to walk at the sheep whilst at the side of me, I will walk alongside her for encouragement until after a few days I can walk directly behind her so she cannot see me but I am still talking to her all the time to reassure her. Over a week or so we increase the distance until she can go from one end of the field to the other and then I can ask her to go around them and bring them back. We also get a bonus during this exercise as she cannot gain any clue as to which way I want her to move so she has to rely on my voice or whistle and therefore begins to really take notice and learn them properly. So now after 3 months we have a dog who can go and get the sheep, bring them to me, hold them in a corner and take them away in whatever direction I desire, well more or less anyway.  Although there are a few more things I need to teach her we now enter another period of regular exercises involving all the things she has learnt so far to really make sure she fully understands what I expect.

Written by Steve Stone volunteer shepherd


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Shepherd Vans and Lambing

Nowadays, people might mainly think of shepherd’s vans as romantic holiday hideaways or useful garden offices but, during the nineteenth century, they were an important part of farming life and were regularly seen dotted around the countryside.

It’s tempting to think that they were rarely used before about 1800 but this may just be because very few old ones survive. In fact, a farming book dating from 1596 refers to them: ‘in some places the Shepheard has his Cabbin going upon a wheel for to move here and there at his pleasure’ and, even older, an illuminated manuscript from 1480 clearly shows an image of a wheeled hut.

Shepherd's living van

The Shepherd van at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Obviously, shepherd’s vans could not be used on mountainous or swampy land but they were ideal for use on lowland farms and were common throughout the east of Wales and the south of England. They were also widely used in other countries in different forms, sometimes being so small as to be little more than a hutch in which a shepherd could lie down out of the rain!

In the early days in England, there was no standard design for the vans and a farmer might ask the local blacksmith to build something. This might have been extremely rudimentary, with no lining or insulation and hardly enough space to stand up properly – just somewhere to keep tools. However, medium scale farmers could afford something better and, often, vans were bought from suppliers such as Farris Brothers or Tasker Ltd, who followed a standard design. Increasingly, after 1829, vans were made from corrugated iron but wooden ones were also still popular. They had substantial wheels with a front steering axle. This raised the van above ground level and, together with a timber lining meant it was much warmer and more comfortable than earlier, more basic versions.

Inside, the furnishings were simple but usually included a cast-iron stove which allowed the shepherd to dry his clothes and heat food. It also meant that he had hot water for washing – very welcome after he had completed some of the dirty tasks that his job required, such as scraping larvae and maggots out of scabs and infections, picking out sheep’s hooves or clipping manure-covered wool from sheep’s behinds. The van also included a simple raised bed, made of just a wooden platform and a straw-filled mattress. Under the bed, a small gated pen was often included, in which the shepherd could keep any sickly lambs that he was nursing.

At Chiltern Open Air Museum, we have a traditional shepherd’s van, dating from around 1915 and thought to have been originally used at Boot Farm, Little Kingshill. It was donated to us in 1985 and, since its restoration, has been used for its original purpose, allowing our own shepherds to remain on-site during lambing. The van is typical of the design of its age, being built of rebated feather edge boards, with diagonal tongued and grooved boards internally, which brace the structure. The wheels are cast-iron and the barrel-shaped roof is covered with corrugated iron. The van is painted in battleship grey, which was its original colour. Internally, the cast-iron stove was too badly damaged to be used but has been replaced with a similar one.

During lambing, one of our shepherds stays overnight in the van, following traditional methods as far as possible. There is no electricity, so lighting is provided by candles and lanterns (supplemented by torches where necessary!) and heating comes from the cast-iron stove which is also used to heat water used for sterilising equipment.

The two priorities of the shepherd are to help the ewes give birth and to care for the newly-born lambs. During the night, the shepherd wakes every two hours to check them. Two hours is the longest that a ewe should be left in labour without help. Ewes can usually deliver without assistance but our Oxford Down sheep tend to need more help than other breeds, partly because of their size. If they are in labour too long, the shepherd will check for problems such as poor presentation of the lamb: lambs need to be in the ‘Superman’ position, with nose and two front feet all facing forwards.

Oxford Down Lamb

An Oxford Down lamb at Chiltern Open Air Museum

New-born lambs are very vulnerable and it is important that they get enough to drink and are warm enough. The shepherds keep a detailed lambing diary which includes information about how often each lamb suckles and for how long. If there seems to be a problem with feeding, the shepherd will pass a tube into its stomach and feed it with lamb-formula milk. If a lamb needs to be kept warm, infra-red lamps are used, rather than the lamb being put in a box of straw by the stove. Concessions to modern ways are important when a lamb’s life is at stake!

Plenty of stamina is needed for shepherding! It involves broken sleep, physical exertion, worry and considerable strength; however, these are more than outweighed by its rewards. At the Museum, the work provides a welcome chance to get close to the old ways and understand how Victorian and Edwardian shepherds might have felt in the fields with only the sheep and their dogs for company. Our shepherds talk of the peaceful, special feeling they experience in the lambing folds. They become aware of the wildlife that comes out when the people leave the Museum, of the sun rising above the cherry trees and the birdsong at dawn.

The shepherd’s van is so much more than just a curious wooden hut on wheels. It is a connection to tradition and to nature and we count ourselves lucky to have one.

Written by
Paula Lacey
Museum Volunteer


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Caversham Toilets and Social History

Edwardian toilets at Chiltern Open Air Museum

COAM Caversham toilets and social history

The Museum is rightly proud of its Edwardian public conveniences. These were originally situated at the south-east corner of the bridge over the Thames at Caversham, for use by passengers of the Reading tram which operated from 1901 until 1939 and terminated at the bridge.

The conveniences were opened in June 1906. Built of ornamental ironwork, they originally provided 3 WCs for ladies, 3 for Gentlemen and 8 urinals. The exterior walls consisted of cast-iron panels which slotted into cast-iron poles and were held in place with putty. Each had five rows of panels of different heights and patterns, with most of the top row being latticed for ventilation. The whole structure was topped with a clerestory to allow light to enter; this was supported on four cast-iron pillars and finished with a cast-iron cap with decorative finials. Internally, the walls were constructed in the same way as the external walls but with no pattern except on the top row. The individual components were all standard catalogue parts, but the building as a whole was custom-built to conform to the detailed requirements of Reading Council. The total cost of the building, including erection, was £1051.

The conveniences were open each day from 6.00am until midnight to avoid people ‘committing nuisances at a late hour’ because the public urinals were closed. An attendant was always present and, for the penny that it cost to use the toilets, would provide each customer with a freshly-laundered towel in a sealed wrapper.

Caversham toilets in their original location

By 1980, the toilets were no longer required and, as no other practical use could be found for it, the now-derelict building was marked for demolition. However, it was of particular interest to COAM, partly for its historical value and partly to provide much-needed toilets on site. Therefore, in 1985, the building was dismantled by a team of volunteers and re-erected in its current position. The toilets were opened in 1991 with the final finishing touches – the cast-iron MEN and WOMEN signs – being added in June 1999.

When you look at the pictures of the sad, dilapidated building in Caversham and then at the smart, useful toilet block as it now is, with its wonderful Edwardian detail, you realise exactly what it is that the museum achieves. However, more than this, the building represents a much greater issue in our social history. Had it been erected a few years earlier, there would have been no need for the ‘WOMEN’ sign because public toilets were generally not provided for women in Victorian Britain.

Womens sign on historic toilets

Public conveniences began to be provided from 1851 onwards, largely following the Great Exhibition held in that year, but they were only for men. One explanation is that this was because women were too modest to answer the call of nature when away from home; certainly at this time they were seen very much as living in the ‘private sphere’, staying at home, submissive to their husbands.

However, the lack of public toilets greatly affected the extent to which women could leave their houses. They had to plan their excursions to include areas where they could relieve themselves and so often travelled no further than the homes of family and friends. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘urinary leash’, a form of control of women’s activities.

From the 1850s onwards, the Ladies Sanitary Association campaigned for the provision of women’s toilets. They had some success as women’s toilets slowly began to be opened throughout Britain. Interestingly, some of the first were opened in the West End of London in the 1880s to allow women to shop for longer. However, erection of women’s public toilets was often opposed by men who objected to them being placed next to men’s toilets and sometimes took to sabotaging them. It was not until the advent of the First World War, when women began to work in the public sphere that the provision of women’s toilets really began to be taken seriously.

Written by Paula Lacey, Museum Volunteer


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COAM Opening Day 3rd May 1981

The Chiltern Open Air Museum ticket office in 1981

Chiltern Open Air Museum’s ticket office in 1981.

Imagine the scene on the morning of Sunday May 3rd, 1981. The volunteers who had been working on the development of Chiltern Open Air Museum since the land was acquired in 1978 were making last minute preparations for the formal opening. Hand-painted notice-boards were being erected around the site, the twenty wardens were being given last minute instructions and cakes were being delivered by the caterer. This was the culmination of months of planning and hard physical work and, with five buildings complete, or in progress, everyone was excited and anxious. Would visitors come? Would it all have been worthwhile?

COAM ticket office 1981

Visitors waiting outside the museum’s ticket office in 1981.

Unfortunately, by the scheduled opening time of 2pm, heavy rain and strong winds had set in but, despite this, a substantial number of people did brave the weather to support this new venture. On arrival, visitors parked in the field that was acting as the temporary car park and bought their tickets at the old caravan which served as a ticket office for the first six years. On opening day, these tickets were 50p for adults, and 20p for children and over-65s; the price had been kept low to reflect the limited number of buildings on display.

Once they had their tickets, visitors walked along the side of what is now Thomas’s field to the museum entrance, at the site where the Forge now stands.

The first building that they would see was the Wing granary, a baker’s flour store dating from the 1820s. This building had not been dismantled to move it to the Museum and apparently had caused quite a stir as it was transported across Buckinghamshire on a low-loader!

Rossway Granary in 1981

Rossway Granary under construction in 1981.

Close to the Wing granary, visitors could view the slightly older Rossway granary. This had been dismantled for its move from a farm near Berkhamsted and, although its re-erection was progressing well, it was still incomplete.

Nearby, was the Arborfield barn, thought to date from around 1500. The thatching on this cruck barn had been completed in April although, at the time of opening, the woven oak in-fill of the walls had not been put in place.

Arborfield Barn 1981

Arborfield Barn in 1981.

Not far away was the Iron Age House. This, of course, had not been moved there but was a reconstruction built by the Manshead Archaeological Society, based on archaeological finds around the Chilterns. Access to it was made slightly difficult by the fact that, at the time, a public footpath ran through the museum site. The path had to be fenced on both sides to stop walkers wandering into the museum and a warden was stationed at a gate to allow visitors through to look at the Iron Age House.

Chiltern Open Air Museum's Iron Age Roundhouse in 1981

The Iron Age roundhouse in 1981.

The final building on display was the mid-Victorian Didcot cart shed, located at the rear of the site, by the old car park. A second caravan stationed here provided refreshments.

In addition to the buildings, visitors could view an exhibition of old tools and farm implements which were awaiting repair, and enjoy a Nature Trail through the beautiful Chiltern countryside.

Was the opening a success? The Chiltern Society News* records that 100 people braved the elements to visit the museum on that opening Sunday and all claimed to have had a lovely time. The next day, Bank Holiday Monday, the sun shone and 500 visitors arrived.

Chiltern Open Air Museum carpark in 1981.

The Chiltern Open Air Museum car park in 1981.

The plan was to open every Sunday afternoon and Bank Holiday Monday throughout the year. The weather seemed determined to ruin this plan as it rained almost every Sunday that year and Spring Bank Holiday was a washout. However, despite the weather, the difficulty people had in finding the Museum through a lack of sign-posts and the very muddy car-park, by mid-June the museum had recorded 1500 visitors. By the end of September, this had risen to 6000.

Looking back forty years later, there is no question about whether the Chiltern Open Air Museum is a success. There are now 37 buildings on show with another 15 in store awaiting erection. The Museum is a popular place for school-trips and holds a large variety of events and experience days every year. In 2019, it welcomed more than 56,000 visitors. During 2020, although the number of visitors was reduced, it offered a very welcome respite from lockdown – a place where people felt safe and relaxed and could still enjoy the beautiful location. Bring on the next 40 years!

Written by Paula Lacey
Museum Volunteer

*Chiltern Open Air Museum was started by a group from the Chiltern Society.


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