Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Victorian Farm

 One of the boys favourite documentary series is the BBC production 'The Victorian Farm' featuring historians and archaeologists Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Alex Langlands living for a year as Victorian farmers.  As a result we had long been planning to visit the location where it was filmed, and I was really excited when I heard that my good friend and very talented former colleague was the Education Officer there.  Last week we finally got there, as we were travelling up to the region to visit family.

The series was filmed at Acton Scott working farm near Church Stretton in Shropshire.  Opening the farm as a working museum was the brain child of Thomas Acton and although the farm has been open to the public for more than 40 years, the family still live in the beautiful house overlooking the farm, although the farm itself is managed and funded by Shropshire County Council.  Thomas Acton wanted to preserve the farming techniques he had grown up with at a time when the traditional ways were being swept away in the rush to modernise.

The farm is home to a glorious collection of historic machinery and wagons, plus a growing population of farm animals, including the ever curious chickens.

We're big believers that a child's own eyes and ears are their best teacher and that by supporting the things they learn at home (or school) with opportunities to experience things first hand they develop a deeper understanding of their topic.  Visiting the Victorian Farm, seeing the buildings, talking to the hugely knowledgeable staff and handling the exhibits was a far more immersive way of learning about this period of history than anything we could provide indoors.

 The land is worked using traditional skills and visitors can accompany the shire horses or donkey as they perform the age old rituals of ploughing, sowing and hoeing.  The children all had a chance to feed chickens in the farm yard, and give the pigs in their stone sties a good scratch behind the ears.

The farm has a collection of interesting old buildings, including shepherds huts and a road menders wagon, which provided plenty of role play fun.  Simple additions such as the besom for sweeping and the boys were transported in their minds into the role of a 19th Century shepherd.  They spent a lot of time running around chasing wolves away (in their heads the role of shepherd is firmly woven into the story of the boy who cried wolf).

 More role play was to be had in the re-created Victorian school room, complete with the diary of the school that was built on the site in the late 1800s by Frances Stackhouse Acton.  It was amazing to read the neat ledger containing notes such as that there had been several children absent one day due to heavy rain, some of whom would have had to walk through four or five fields to get to school.

Toby had great fun shouting at Ollie to get on with his work quietly or he would get a whack!  I think they're both glad really that teaching methods have moved on.

The original building now houses a lovely cafe.  Converting the school house to a cafe was a perfect use of the beautiful building, which is a treat to visit with very generous children's lunch boxes and nice touches such as fresh flowers on each table. The memory of the old purpose of the building is displayed as school dairy entries printed onto the table mats - we couldn't resist passing ours around so we got to read all four examples on our table.

The small play area with it's wooden toy horse cart and gypsy caravan was a big hit with the boys.  It was almost their favourite part of the visit and we returned to this part a couple of times before we managed to drag the boys away.

The wool room was a real treat, with a series of spinning wheels and looms on display, along with examples of the effects to be achieved with a variety of natural dyes and mordants.

I also enjoyed the kitchen garden stocked with historically interesting varieties of plants, including ancient beans, with good information boards giving the vegetables provenance and interesting facts.

The boys were very interested to see the cider mill they had watched being used in the documentary series, with it's 'flat tyre' where the mill stone was thought to have been originally used as a whetstone for sharpening tools.
 One of the most magical parts of the visit was when the boys were asked if they would like to hold a four day old chick.

 They also had the opportunity to feed some of the biggest and happiest-looking lambs I've ever seen, and to be gently licked and nibbled by a friendly pedigree calf.
For Ollie though his favourite out of all of it (and I think mine too) was the mischievous grey donkey.  Not content with being in his barn for a rest after pulling the hoe to weed a row of mangelwurzels, he delicately nosed open his gate, had a wander around investigating the farm yard (while being adored by Ollie), then headed over to the lamb's field, where he again used his nose to open a latch and let himself in.

Toby's favourite thing was looking for the fairy doors hidden around the site.  He decided that it was a good place for fairies as they had plenty of places to hide and they most probably lived in the beams in the roof of the cafe.

This is a real gem of a place, and despite the publicity that must have come with its use as a filming location, and it's really reasonable entry price, it was also fairly quiet.  Museums are really struggling at the moment with all the budget cuts, so it is vital that if we want to be able to continue enjoying them we get out there and visit them this year - without our support they just won't be there in a year or two.  If you don't live anywhere near it, I can vouch that for us the 250 mile trip up there was well worth it as Shropshire is gorgeous and the farm is just one of dozens of fantastic days out to be found there.

The site has pretty good accessibility considering it's age and purpose, and a mobility scooter is available to borrow.  There is ample free parking, good accessible toilets and babychange facilities, a well stocked gift shop and a good cafe.  Due to budget restraints on staffing it is now open five days a week to the public, and is closed on Thursdays and Fridays except for pre-booked groups of more then 20 people.  Opening times and dates, and entry costs, are here.

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