Trainees given a taste of the good life at rural museums

TWO East Anglian museums are working to ensure traditional skills and crafts are not lost.

The Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) in Stowmarket and Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum at Dereham in Norfolk, received funding through the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme to deliver over 80 traineeships between 2010 and 2015.

The project aims to provide an opportunity for young people and adults to develop knowledge and practical experience in traditional skills and to equip them to potentially develop a new career in the heritage and traditional skills sector.

As part of the project, over this summer the Museum of East Anglian Life has been running its Three Month Heritage Skills Taster Course. The eight vacancies, advertised in April this year, attracted applicants from a diverse background, including history graduates, career changers and long term unemployed.

In August the successful candidates began their three month training programme, which has covered traditional skills from willow weaving and bee keeping to heavy horse handling, steam engine driving and blacksmithing. Much of the training has taken place on MEAL’s 80 acre site in Stowmarket, but trainees have also had the opportunity to work at various other locations to gain the most effective training.

The training included time at the MEAL’s partner site Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum in Norfolk.

Over three days, the group worked with Farm Manager, Richard Dalton, to understand the vital relationship between a historic working farm and a tourist attraction that needs to support itself by appealing to visitors. He explained how the yearly farming cycle was adapted so that there was always some spectacle for visitors to see, such as ploughing demonstrations, cart rides, or timing the birth of livestock such as piglets, calves, or lambs. The activities then progressed to a series of tasks that a stockman would regularly complete such as handling sheep prior to weaning the lambs, cleaning and waxing the horse harness, and using a disc harrow with two of the working Suffolk Punch horses to prepare the ground for planting.

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Trainees have been learning first-hand about the progression from manual methods of food production to mechanisation and why this was so important for the general population of the country.

Trainees visited live retoration project Orchard Barns, Rushall, a centuries old timber-framed building. They worked on beehives with local beekeeper Tony Payne, and master willow weaver Jo Hammond.

Farming has always been a key staple of any society, but during and immediately after WWII the need to be self sufficient was more crucial than ever due to the difficulty in importing any foreign products. Mechanisation had taken over farming in a big way by the end of the war, and although the working horse still played a part, the tractor had become the cheaper, more efficient way to prepare and cultivate the land.

After being given a basic grounding in the history of farming and general techniques, the group had the opportunity to use two vintage tractors, namely Fergusons built in 1948 and 1952. Despite a lack of tractor experience within the ranks, two areas of land were transformed from muddy quagmires into perfectly ploughed and harrowed fields inside two days. All felt the experience was incredibly enjoyable and worthwhile, giving an insightful look into the most necessary area of rural life.

It’s not all about farming either; with many Suffolk buildings being made from wattle and daub it seemed only natural for the trainees to visit Orchard Barns in Rushall. Orchard Barns is a centuries old timber-framed building and a live restoration project; the Barn itself is being painstakingly restored using only the traditional crafts. All the trainees got a true ‘hands-on’ experience and enjoyed mixing daub with their bare feet and applying it to the walls, as well as shingle making and clay-lump forming.

The bee decline has been well documented and so the opportunity to learn this vital skill from local beekeeper Tony Payne was eagerly anticipated. The two day course dealt with the various types of bees and the different roles they performed within the hive. The trainees were taken to Tony’s hives and given a closer look, although too close for the comfort of some, as they donned the full bee keeper’s protection and inspected a series of working hives. This was a fascinating look into a seldom seen area of food production that has endured....and without a single sting between the participants.

With master willow weaver Jo Hammond, the group had a highly satisfying week of instruction in weaving and the history of basketry. By the end of the five days all of the participants had made two styles of basket: a stake and strand and a frame basket. Jo taught the group the uses of the different variations of willow, the manner of its production and the scope of the material. These skills were then compared to historic examples at the museum that are displayed in Boby Building. The group discussed with Jo how traditional willow weavers would have relied on this versatile material for their livelihoods, both directly via the manufacture of baskets for trade, and by those who purchased the products. This proved to be a well-received course with some of the trainees purchasing their own willow after the course to continue in the learning of the craft. The trainees will also have the opportunity to contribute to a project to restore the museum’s own Osier Beds, where historically the willow was grown.

The Heritage Skills Traineeship programme has been a fast-track route for the dedicated trainees to gain an insight into a wide range of traditional crafts. Where previously these crafts may have been left to naturally die out, there is now renewed interest in seeing just how important these crafts have been and can continue to be. The county of Suffolk and the nation as a whole have been shaped by the buildings, the farmland and by the crafts and skills the eight trainees have been so fortunate to learn. And while not all the crafts will be continued by all the trainees once the course is complete, it may be that just a few of these people will be the custodians of our traditional skills for the future and train others in years to come.