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History & CommunityA Rural Walk Back in Time

A Rural Walk Back in Time

A visit to Somerset Rural Life Museum sends Margery Hookings on a nostalgic trip into the past, as it tells the story of how things used to be in the countryside.


Many years ago, I visited Somerset Rural Life Museum as a child.

Or at least I think I did.

I have a vague memory of an enormous tithe barn and rows and rows of dusty, rusty farm implements. Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me. Maybe that’s just an image I have inside my head of what a rural life museum should be like.

Today, I’m heading across country to visit the museum, which reopened in June last year following a £2.4 million redevelopment. I get lost in the lanes around Glastonbury and then emerge on the Levels, the wonderful Tor rising from the mist above a field of grazing cows.

You can see Glastonbury Tor from the museum, where a life-sized horse called Punch, made from reclaimed metal by artist Harriet Mead, stands silently in what used to be the farmyard.

Strictly speaking, the museum is outside the Marshwood Vale Magazine’s patch. But it tells the story of Somerset’s rich rural and social history.  And as a tenant farmer’s daughter from Donyatt, it’s right up my street.

Wandering around this restored gem of a place, I’m transported back into rural life from the 1800s, submerged in the county’s heritage through landscape, food and farming, working life and rural crafts.

I’m struck by a display of wassail cups, one of which bears the words of a poem I know by heart and takes pride of place in many a rural home in this part of the world.

I put on a pair of headphones and listen to a short documentary about Cecil Sharp, the founding father of the folk-song revival in England in the early 20th century. It begins by telling the story of how Sharp and his friend, Charles Marson, the vicar of Hambridge, embarked on a five-year song collecting trip around Somerset after hearing gardener John England singing the folk song, The Seeds of Love.

I hear the voice of my late uncle, George Withers, singing the thwarted lover’s song which set Sharp off on his collection travels.

There are many stories contained within the museum’s rooms. A display on beliefs and superstition is captivating. A walk through rural social history in the new galleries in the former cow stalls reveals the hard life experienced by those who worked the land, in stark contrast to those who owned it.

Outside, there’s a cider orchard and a First World War allotment, fenced off to stop the sheep getting in and wrecking the carefully-planted rows of vegetables.

The museum is housed at Abbey Farm, which was built in 1894 by Stanley Austin, a prominent local landowner whose family made its fortune as sheep farmers in Australia.

From 1917, George Mapstone was tenant of Abbey Farm and lived here with his wife Louisa and their family. As well as dairy cattle he also kept sheep, pigs and hens.

When George retired in 1938 the tenancy passed to his son Bob Mapstone. In 1942, Bob bought the farm outright, together with 160 acres. It was bought by Somerset County Council in the 1970s and now comes under the South West Heritage Trust’s umbrella.

The site is dominated by the Abbey Barn, which was completed in the 1340s to store produce from the Glastonbury Abbey estates. Its stonework, fine carvings and magnificent roof reflect the abbey’s great wealth during the middle ages.

Exterior carvings include the symbols of the four evangelists (St Mathew, St Mark, St Luke and St John). At the gable ends are statues of the Virgin Mary and the figure of an abbot. The barn is mostly built from locally-quarried limestone.

The roof is made of oak, elm and chestnut and is one of the crowning achievements of West Country carpentry. Two tiers of crucks (naturally curved timbers used in pairs) support a covering of heavy stone tiles.

At harvest time the barn was alive with activity. Wagons were brought in for unloading through one of the huge doorways and left by the opposite door. Sheaves were stacked high to the roof, the many holes in the walls providing essential ventilation. During autumn and winter a stone floor that spanned the porches was used for threshing and winnowing the crops.

The abbey was dissolved in 1539, but the barn continued in use as a farm building until 1972.

Today, lighting and sound transforms the barn into a cathedral to rural enterprise. The original Mapstone wagon has been restored and is on display.

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