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Readers preparing to enjoy a comfortable Christmas in the Oxfordshire countryside could find much to make them count their blessings at Waterperry Gardens’ Museum of Rural Life.
The walls of this converted granary are hung with many sadly expressive objects, such as a child-sized stone rake and some truly fearsome man traps, which remind the visitor that our lives, even in these recession-hit times, can only be described as luxurious compared with the misery of the 18th and 19th century rural poor — particularly in winter.
The museum celebrates its tenth birthday in May next year and throughout its first decade has had a devoted curator in Gordon Dempster — a familiar face to those who remember the early days of Waterperry’s first shop, set up in the mid-1970s.
Gordon ‘retired’ 13 years ago but is as busy as ever, displaying and cataloguing acquisitions, hand-writing the labels, and still adding to the collection which began with a gift of tools from a shop customer, Vic Hawes of Chinnor.
It included a set of chains — a linked series of iron rods with a brass handle at one end — with which his grandfather had measured areas of land.
“When they wanted to use them they would throw them forward” said Gordon. “There is an art, too, in folding them up afterwards. Most people will tell you a ‘chain’ is 22 yards — hedge layers still quote in chains — but there are 50 and 100-yard ones too.” The museum building, though small, is an attractive one, with an agricultural history appropriate to its modern use.
“It was originally open for carts underneath – where the sides are now glassed in — with the grain bins upstairs,” Gordon told me. “There was stabling outside for horses working on the Waterperry estate.”
The layout makes the most of the space, using the white walls and ceiling to hang the kinds of things, such as hay rakes and pitchforks, that lend themselves to suspension. Other objects are grouped, more or less thematically, in cases.
The domestic side of country life is well represented, and covers a wide time span, beginning with pieces of Brill pottery — such as a rather spectacular large 13th century ewer — found during excavations inside Waterperry House, and taken to be evidence of another, earlier, building on the same site.
Gadgets — which Gordon loves — are everywhere in this section. Among them are a vacuum cleaner with a hand-operated bellows and a machine resembling a miniature lathe, which turns out to be for putting jam into doughnuts.
The Victorian housewife, or her milliner, might also have made use of the kit, incorporating moulds and irons, which shaped fabric into leaves and flowers for the decoration of hats. The mouse-trap with a built-in mirror was another useful innovation.
“The mouse comes tripping along,” explained Gordon, “sees a nice piece of cheese with a mouse looking at it and thinks ‘I’ll get there first!’”
A rather puzzling exhibit, at first sight, is the ‘modesty lock’.
“Not what you might think,” said Gordon – and indeed it would be very difficult to imagine how this six-inch long rectangular brass box might operate as a conventional chastity belt.
In fact, far from being an instrument of male oppression, it enabled the lady in whose bedchamber it was installed to control the opening of the door via a string. Gordon also loves brass, and nowadays has so much of it on display that he needs volunteer help to clean it. One large box, whose use, like that of many others here, you would be hard put to it to guess, is actually a racing pigeon arrivals clock.
“The rubber identification ring comes off the pigeon’s leg and goes in this thimble-shaped hole, you click the handle round and a needle records a row of pinholes showing the hours, minutes and seconds.”
Objects used in other traditional countryside occupations and pursuits, such as farming, shooting, gamekeeping — and drinking beer — form the nucleus of the museum.
Recalling the long era of horse-powered agriculture are several cart horse belfries.
“The bells were made by the church bell foundries” said Gordon. “Ideally they were tuned to a key, otherwise it was a hell of a noise for the poor old horse.”
The display of traps conveys the well-known, but still shocking, barbarity of some land-owners. Even kingfishers were regarded as legitimate targets, as the tiny, heartbreaking, little mechanism for their capture makes clear.
The gamekeeper’s human quarry — a family man, perhaps, desperate to feed his children — was subject to wounding, or even death, from a range of really nasty devices, such as the anti-poacher spring gun on show.
“It was hidden in the bushes and had trip wires attached: the first wire the poacher touched would swing the gun in his direction, while the next one fired it.”
Less vicious and equally ingenious is Gordon’s favourite exhibit, the 1888 Hall’s Patent Clock Gun — a clockwork crow scarer — which relies on clock hands periodically cutting knotted cotton threads to release weights which fall on cartridge pins and set them off.
“Some poor lad had to go out on a cold morning and tie knots in the cotton with frozen hands!” said Gordon.
Treen is another category from which come many things fitting Gordon’s criteria for inclusion in the museum — that they be “interesting and different”.
He showed me a beautiful wooden ruler intriguingly designed to measure amounts of beer — pin, firkin, kilderkin, barrel, hogshead, puncheon or butt — with the vessel either on end or on its side.
Other beer-related exhibits include barrel bushes (brass rings hammered into the sides of barrels to retain the bung) from 80 different breweries. Local ones, such as Hook Norton, Morland and CA Hanley, are well represented.
All these, and other delights, such as the tiny brass railway reading lamp, complete with matchbox and peg, and the ‘curator’s worry beads’ (a rope strung with polished laburnum wood bobbins, of increasing size, with which plumbers made bends in lead piping), lead one to the reflection that compared with the solutions found by our forefathers to the problems of their day, designs in the 21st century often show a rather low level of imagination and craftsmanship.
Waterperry Gardens, Waterperry, near Wheatley, OX33 1JZ. Museum open Tuesday–Sunday and Bank Holidays, 2-5pm. Closed Christmas/New Year. Admission free — donations welcome. Call 01844 339254