Harvest of history
Nicki Household visits a working Victorian farm. Asked what they think a shepherd might use his crook for, young inner-city visitors to Acton Scott Historic Working Farm have come up with some inventive ideas, including "to grab sheep by the neck" and "trip up burglars". But a more considered look at a sheep's anatomy and the crook's very small loop eventually yields the right answer to catch a sheep by the foot. They can then practise the technique happily, not on one of the farm's unsuspecting ewes, but on a little wooden lamb made specially for the purpose.
What makes Acton Scott, situated high in the Shropshire uplands, different from the general run of farm attractions is that it is both a working farm and an agricultural museum. The buildings, the machinery, the livestock and crops, the farm labourers, dairy maids, shepherds and visiting craftsmen are as they would have been in Victorian and Edwardian times. Furthermore, the 23-acre farm has not been falsely "created", but simply returned to what it was in the pretractor age.
"We haven't had to make any history up here," explains education officer Jayne Speakman, "because we've got the diaries, farm records and census returns of the people who lived on the Acton Scott estate at the time".
The only make-believe elements are the period costumes and the words spoken by the people inside them, who have been trained to give historically-accurate accounts of themselves and their work. Otherwise, this is an authentic turn-of-the-century farm. Wagons are pulled by horses, cows milked by hand, and crops grown in four-course rotation on land cultivated and planted by horse-drawn implements. The animals, too, are historically correct: Tamworth pigs, Shropshire sheep, short and longhorn cattle, Dorking hens, Aylesbury ducks and Norfolk Black turkeys. Dairy maids make butter and cheese by hand and the farmer's wife cooks on her range.
Although the demonstrations are to some extent "staged", there's remarkably little deception since the farm is genuinely self-sufficient. The land is fertilised with its own farmyard muck, the animals fed on home-grown root and forage crops, the milk for the dairy products produced by their own cows. So any work in progress is something that really needs to be done.
Leased and run by Shropshire County Council, Acton Scott offers school parties a choice of two main tours the Historic Farm Tour or the Historic or the Modern Farm Tour which compares Acton Scott with an adjoining modern farm. There's also a Tot Tour aimed at children aged three to five and an Environmental Tour. The horses are worked and butter is made every day, while working craftsmen, blacksmith and wheelwright come on specific weekdays. Visits can also include hands-on sessions using original artefacts and the museum can supply a wealth of preparatory back-up material.
Acton Scott does not portray Victorian rural life through rose-coloured spectacles. Ask any of the farm labourers about their work and they'll tell you it's hard and poorly paid. "The thing that amazes most town children is the amount of muck they love it!" says site manager Tim Speller. "And they're even more surprised to learn that all the farm's human effluent used to be spread on the fields along with the animal manure. We've had some very interesting discussions about whether it's better to recycle sewage on the fields or send it out to sea!" Further details from Jayne Speakman, Education officer, Acton Scott Historic Working Farm, Wenlock Lodge, Acton Scott, Nr Church Stretton, Shropshire SY6 6QN. Tel: 01694 781306781307.Open from March 29 to October 31 1995, except Mondays. Prebooked parties: adults Pounds 2.50, children Pounds 1.25