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How a BBC TV Series About Farming in the 17th Century Was Made
Why make a TV series about life on a 400-year-old farm? That was my first question when I was asked to direct and produce a 12-part BBC series about five specialists working a Welsh hill farm as it would have been in the 17th century. I have to admit I was quite skeptical about the idea. Not only did it mean uprooting my family and moving to Wales for a year, but more than that, I worried it might turn into just another low-grade reality show in which the historical concept would be relegated to a back seat.
There have been a number of programs where an average family or group of people is dropped into an alien environment – the past – wrapped in period clothing, and stripped of modern luxuries and facilities. Sometimes they are understanding, but a large part of their time is spent on the personal, the arguments between “contestants” and above all the sensational ones. I wanted to try to do something very different – a series that was beautiful to watch, and most important of all, informative.
Instead of using only people from the street, we wanted our team of seasonal farmers to be experts, specialists in different fields. The goal was to take their learned knowledge and apply it, try to turn theory into practice. So we assembled our experts – Stuart Peachey, a historian of agriculture and food, Ruth Goodman, a social historian and clothing specialist, Alex Langlands and Peter Fonz Ginn, two young, strong, and above all practical archaeologists, and Chloe Spencer, an experienced archaeologist. about working with animals. We launched filming in September, the start of the agricultural calendar, with twelve months of farming on the horizon.
But what to film? For much of the year this question has been answered for me, as the schedule of farm activities is almost predetermined. The farmer’s annual, monthly and almost daily tasks are practically set in stone, dictated by the weather, the soil and the basic cycle of life. From the beginning this was one of the most significant lessons that hit our specialists. Of course they had some space to choose what to do and when. Some months, like January in the depths of winter, are relatively quiet times, with no urgent tasks to contend with. Time like this is a welcome respite for the farmer allowing him to catch up on repairs, maintenance, and take a breather before the onslaught of spring. The rest of the time, big events are arranged as a series of milestones: from September plowing and sowing, and fruit harvesting in October, to sheep shearing in June, and making hay while the sun shines in July.
As I planned our filming schedule, the main farming tasks were pretty obvious, but one area I hadn’t particularly considered in terms of farming activities was construction. In fact, a number of construction projects appeared during the year, from setting up a cabinet (wood shop), to replacing the property damaged by a February storm. One of the first important tasks that the experts had to deal with was to build a cowshed using only tools, technology and materials available in the year 1620. To put things in context, this was a time when the pilgrims sailed for. America, and James I sat on the throne, just a few decades before the civil war tore England apart.
It was a real joy to see the cow shed rising slowly but surely from the ground. First Alex and Fonz tackled a wall of bark and plaster, made of wooden sticks smothered in a mixture of cow dung, clay and straw. Then the whole team got to work on the roof, from cutting the beams to laying the thatch. It was probably the first time that I fully appreciated the deep and multiple qualities of a farmer of the time. Yes, he may occasionally call outside tradesmen and specialists, but those would be expensive and certainly not just a phone call away. It was essential to be able to do things myself. He had to be resourceful, inventive, and above all competent, who could turn his hand to almost any practical work.
Not only that, but the farmer had to be immersed in his local environment. While most of us today travel through the countryside simply admiring its rural beauty and charms, the period farmer saw it through very different glasses. For him the surrounding landscape was like a giant dining room and toolbox full of valuable resources, each with its own qualities and uses, from various forests to plants with medicinal properties. From father to son such peculiar knowledge of “bushcraft” – what could be useful, how it should be managed and when it should be collected – was passed down and learned.
I remember the time Alex was working on the cowshed. He excavated similar buildings from the era, but it was only when he handled the materials, splitting flexible hazel rods through the roof beams to create a mesh for the straw, that he gradually appreciated the various properties and therefore potential of his tool. .
Back in the 17th century, wood was a resource of utmost importance. It was used to such an extent, from charcoal making to shipbuilding, that it is estimated that there was half as much tree cover in Britain then as there is today. Faced with such an appetite, timber itself was cultivated, with most farms of any size having their own rolling mill, an area of woodland carefully managed with a perspective stretching decades if not centuries into the future. When we harvested wood from the farm’s grove, it was like walking through a giant DIY store, ready prepared, and easily labeled if you knew what you were looking at. Different species of tree, ranging in size from young saplings to giant oaks, were cultivated to provide sticks and beams in a variety of thicknesses and lengths. Whatever kind of wood was required, from making pegs, building a table, or replacing roof timbers, they were all ready at hand. It was an area of farming that I hadn’t even thought about before I started directing the series.
Needless to say, the ultimate reason to be from a farm is food. Four hundred years ago, without electricity, people had to find other ways to preserve food as long as possible without refrigeration. Of course it is still made in traditional ways today, in many places out of necessity and in other cases because the curing process adds to the flavor – like Parma hams hung for years at a time, smoked kippers, or vegetables pickled in vinegar. But it’s one thing to enjoy your favorite salami, another thing to actually see how it’s made.
From the moment we killed one of the farm’s pigs, a feeding clock was ticking. First you had to drain and use the blood, then you had to consume the offal, only then could attention turn to the rest of the pig. It was often said that the only part of a pig not eaten was its grunt. Certainly nothing was wasted. Back then gluttony was unheard of luxury. But it’s not a simple and straightforward job to process a whole animal from start to finish, especially for people used to buying their bacon ready cut and wrapped in cling film. It is a time-consuming but in many ways a fun and festive task, as it remains in many countries where entire families gather to kill and process one of their animals. It really is all hands to the pump. Just getting the sows off Arthur the pig, a boar-tamworth cross, about as close as we can get to the breed at the time, was a major undertaking. These pigs are incredibly obedient and friendly, but they are also incredibly hairy, as they must have been, living in the forest for a significant amount of time.
Today, the thin bristles of our almost bald pigs are removed in large tubs, but then farmers introduce another technique – pig fire. They couldn’t burn it too long or it would start cooking the corpse, but it had to be enough to burn the hair. Depilated, the soot then had to be rubbed off, only then was the skin clean enough for salt to be applied in liberal amounts to cure it. In our modern world where processed foods are all around, it’s refreshing to take a step back, remember where food really comes from, and appreciate the sheer amount of time it takes to prepare things to eat by hand, from picking chicken and fanning. wheat, to pudding-peas.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I have to say that Arthur’s pork chops were possibly the most succulent and delicious I’ve ever tried. One other highlight on the food front was the apples. These days, when we check out the fruit section of a supermarket, we might come across half a dozen varieties, bred to look pretty and last well. The orchards on our rebuilt 400 year old farm were loaded with apples I had heard of but never seen, from Cornish Aromas to Costards for cooking. The autumn saturation could not all be consumed at once so they were stored upstairs in the farmhouse, in an ‘apple loft’, where it was cool and airy. They had to be turned regularly, and checked for anything bad, but the vast majority survived in excellent crisp condition for six months – a good source of vitamins through the winter until spring arrived. While store-bought apples often seem to explode in just a few weeks these days, it was quite a shock to eat apples in March that we had picked the previous September, with no refrigerator in sight.
Standing behind the camera was fascinating to see the experts adapt so easily to a very different rhythm of life, and immerse themselves in tasks not seen in Britain for centuries. Throughout the year they were joined by a whole host of traditional artisans, bringing additional skills, many of them about to disappear in this country. Until a professional candle maker came to help the team, I had no idea that the majority of candles at the time would have been made from sheep fat. Before a master thatchmaker arrived on set with a 400-year-old length of straw rope and a “wimble” that was used to turn it, I would never have believed that you could make a strong rope out of something as light as straw. Until a wood burner came to help the team, I would never have guessed how slow and complicated the process of turning wood into something as essential as charcoal is.
It’s easy to look back on such a rural idyll with rose-colored glasses. In our busy, always-on lives, it’s easy to dream of a way of life that seems uncomplicated, slower, and more down to earth. It is too easy to forget the terrible diseases and low life expectancy, the physical exhaustion of manual labor, or the despair and hunger when a farm was in trouble.
Making this documentary series was one long learning curve for me. I no longer have any illusions about how much better it was in ‘the good old days’. I really like the idea of drinking only beer, up to eight pints a day apparently, because most people didn’t have access to clean water, and fermented beer is safe to drink. I do like the almost spiritual satisfaction that comes from spending a whole day working in the fields, and coming in exhausted to find a delicious dinner on the table. But after seeing Ruth and Chloe do the laundry in 17th century style, making their own washing liquid “levy” from ashes in the fire, using stored urine to remove stubborn stains, and then sloshing the lot on the rocks in a stream, me certainly wouldn’t want to turn back the clock and give up my washing machine.
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