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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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Jess the Sheepdogs Training Continues

It’s been a while since I updated on Jess’s progress and that’s because until a couple of weeks ago there wasn’t any! Our early training had come to an abrupt halt when we sort of hit a brick wall trying to get her to go round the sheep rather than straight at them as she was pretty intent on getting hold of one. This is obviously not acceptable, although many sheepdog pups have a tendency to try and bite the sheep which we term as “gripping” and as a trainer it’s our job to protect the sheep from this by the methods we use, however Jess was proving hard work which I put down to a lack of confidence. I therefore decided to stop things altogether and let her mature a bit more as she had also become a bit disobedient and was not listening to me. We embarked on what turned out to be a 2 month break and concentrated on building a better bond and establishing who was boss!

Jess the sheepdog working the sheep

We took plenty of walks just working on getting her to come back when called and to lie down when told, starting with a long 30 metre leash before letting her run without one. Once I was happy she was obedient enough I reintroduced her to the sheep and to my great relief I noticed a difference, back on her long leash for safety I allowed her to have a bit of slack near them and it was immediately noticeable she was keeping off them and giving them a bit of space. In a larger paddock the following week we tried to get to the first important stage, getting her to the far side of the sheep without scattering them. It took a while manoeuvring wary sheep and excitable dog around until we got there but once we achieved it she was away, walking nicely on to them and keeping herself exactly on the opposite side to me, moving left and right instinctively to balance them. In these early stages this is done without commands as she doesn’t know her left from right yet and we want to bring out this natural herding or balancing instinct.

Jess sunbathing while keeping the sheep in check

Now we are getting somewhere and we can begin to expand her abilities and knowledge week by week a little at a time, so from a point of despairing a couple of months ago I am now very excited and looking forward to the next few months and hopefully many useful years.

Written by Steve Stone
Volunteer Shepherd at COAM

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History of the English Cup of Tea

‘Britain and the Tea Trade’

Tea is now ubiquitous in Britain. We are known as a nation of tea drinkers, and together we drink millions of cups of it each and every day. Breaks taken during the working day are often called ‘tea breaks’, and we have even christened a meal ‘tea’. But how did this happen? Why did tea emerge as our drink of choice? How long has this love affair lasted?

Cup of tea

The vast majority of the tea we drink is grown elsewhere, especially in China and India. The truth is that tea was never uniquely British. It has been drunk in China for thousands of years, and it arrived in other European countries at roughly the same time, or perhaps slightly earlier, than it arrived in Britain. When Charles II’s Portuguese wife Catherine of Braganza brought with her a small consignment of tea as part of her huge dowry, most Britons had probably never tasted tea because it remained expensive and its supply was irregular. At this stage, in the 17th Century, tea was a curiosity and most coffee houses sold more coffee and hot chocolate than they did tea. Samuel Pepys was not even moved to give a verdict on tea when he recorded having tried a cup in his diary.

In the 17th Century and beyond, the British East India Company was almost solely responsible for importing Chinese tea into Britain. The Company was an astonishingly powerful organisation, and it took full advantage of the virtual monopoly which it held on the trade of various commodities, including tea. What began as a trickle gradually became a flood, and, as the 18th Century wore on, tea drinking amongst Britons really began to take hold. The government stood to gain a huge amount of revenue by virtue of the tea trade, and high taxes encouraged widespread smuggling and adulteration of tea. Indeed, it was estimated at one stage that ten percent of government revenue was provided by tax paid on imported tea.

By the time the 19th Century began, the tax regime had been rethought and legally imported tea became more affordable. The British East India Company continued to import tea, but unscrupulous merchants and possibly even those connected with the Company itself were using the profits from illicit opium sales to finance the purchase of tea. This led to the First Opium War between Britain and China, and thereafter the ceding of a number of Chinese ports to the British gave merchants a firm foothold in the region and a base from which to export tea. Meanwhile, in the years which followed, the Company began to look towards India as a further source of tea production, given that India was at that time a British colony. Assam tea borrows the name of the Indian province in which it is grown.

The 19th Century saw the fascination with tea in Britain grow. High society ladies enjoyed taking tea together, and the 7th Duchess of Bedford became accustomed to drinking tea and enjoying delicate finger sandwiches and sweet pastries. It is the Duchess who is often credited with inventing ‘afternoon tea’ in the 1840s, since she was one of the first to make this meal a social occasion. This meal had a practical advantage though: it served to fill the gap between breakfast and dinner. Soon the Duchess’s fashionable friends were also asking for refreshments at 4pm, and ‘afternoon tea’ became a popular pastime. Consequently, the ‘afternoon tea’ is perhaps the most British of all the tea-drinking ceremonies. Its popularity has endured, and nowadays hotels and tea rooms often offer either an ‘afternoon tea’ or a ‘cream tea’ which is a West Country variant. The ‘afternoon tea’ has been transformed into a celebratory treat often enjoyed as part of a day out.

Block of tea leaves

Once the taking of tea had become popular amongst the upper- and middle-classes, tea sets became highly prized and much-envied possessions. Sets included tea pots, ornamental jugs, and sugar bowls. Drinking tea with sugar, though, was a British preference; the Chinese usually drank tea without it. Sugar was imported large-scale from the West Indies, and it helped to make the black tea with which it was mixed more palatable. New mid-19th Century technology brought tea leaves from China to Britain in record time, and although the age of the tea clipper was brief, it captured the attention of the public like nothing else. ‘Cutty Sark’ is a later tea clipper, although she struggled to compete with steam-powered vessels which were less reliant on large, elaborate sails.

Even before the excitement of the ‘Great Tea Clipper Race’ of 1866, tea consumption amongst the working classes had firmly taken hold. The poorer British citizens proved themselves extremely receptive to tea, and it was drunk not only for aspirational reasons but also because a cup of tea provided a measure of warmth and comfort. Because of this, householders were prepared to make tea one of their more expensive acquisitions. Even in difficult times, a small supply of tea could be eked out with more water; tea leaves could also be dried and reused if necessary. Whereas the wealthy elite at tea parties used elaborate tea sets laid out on specially-made tables, and were determined to showcase their best manners, the working classes cared less for these customs and contented themselves with the drink itself.

Nowadays, the majority of the tea drunk in Britain comes in tea bag form. Our tea bags are the modern forerunners of the small, silk bag used in America to carry enough tea to allow the customer to sample a particular variety or blend. Although much of the ceremony originally associated with enjoying a cup of tea has disappeared, tea drinking is so prevalent that today the National Grid has to engage in complex planning to ensure that the mass switching-on of electric kettles during TV advertising breaks does not interrupt the electricity supply to our homes. The health benefits associated with tea, and the seemingly endless varieties and blends which have been developed, mean that the age of tea drinking in Britain is not yet over.

Written by Museum Volunteer, Nicholas Cumberworth.

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COAM Craft Ideas for the Easter Holidays Part 2

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In this final installment of family learning resources, we’re providing you with some fun Springtime inspired craft ideas to try during the Easter Holidays. Download the resource below to find out more about the crafts and how to make them. 

Download: COAM Craft Ideas for the Easter Holidays Part 2

A big thank you goes to our wonderful Terrific Tuesday volunteers for providing the craft ideas for this instalment. Our Terrific Tuesday events are always planned with our volunteers’ help and support and we all hope that we’ll be able to welcome you back on site for more fun at some point this year.

We hope you have enjoyed this series of family and home learning resources. Did you miss any? You can find a complete list of the resources here: https://coam.org.uk/learning/home-learning-resources/. If you did enjoy these resources or if you have any comments or ideas for future resources please do let us know as this helps us to develop new ideas with you in mind. We are currently working on planning safe onsite Terrific Tuesday event days for May half term and the Summer Holidays. We hope to see you then, so long as COVID guidance allows us! Make sure to keep an eye out on social media and the website for more information when it becomes available.


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COAM Craft Ideas for the Easter Holidays Part 1

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Flower Easter craft

For our second to last installment in this series of family learning resources, we’re providing you with some fun Springtime inspired craft ideas to try during the Easter Holidays. Download the resource below to find out more about the crafts and how to make them.

Download COAM Craft Ideas for the Easter Holidays Part 1

Easter craft bookmark

A big thank you goes to our wonderful Terrific Tuesday volunteers for providing the craft ideas for this resource. Our Terrific Tuesday events are always planned with our volunteers’ help and support and we all hope that we’ll be able to welcome you back on site for more fun at some point this year.

We hope you enjoy this week’s craft ideas. Make sure you come back next week for our final resource in this series of home learning resources where you’ll find more fun springtime inspired craft ideas to make at home.

See more home learning resources

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