Tales from the Green Valley
A BBC history TV series, Tales from the Green Valley, explores life on a British farm in the 17th century. This 12 x 1/2 hour television documentary, produced and directed by Peter Sommer, was awarded the prestigious Learning on Screen award by the British Universities Film & Video Council
For an overview of the series and reviews visit Tales from the Green Valley.
You might also like to see another recently published feature about the series - Tales from the Green Valley: A window on the past
The article below is copyrighted to Countryman Magazine.
How was a farm run in Britain 400 years ago? That’s the key question behind a new 12-part BBC documentary series, Tales From the Green Valley
As the start of a new agricultural year loomed in the autumn of 2003, five specialists attempted to turn back the clock to find out. They had to get to grips with a remarkable farm on the Welsh borders, restored to how it would have been in 1620, the reign of James I. For the previous 17 years an historical group had worked to restore the site - farmhouse and outbuildings put up using periods materials, orchards planted with fruit trees from the era, and contemporary crop varieties sown. Now a team of archaeologists and historians, Stuart Peachey, Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands, Peter ‘Fonz’ Ginn, and Chloe Spencer, took on the challenge of running it for a full calendar year (each programme follows one month), using only tools and materials available in the 17th century.
It was my job to film them trying to turn theory into practice.From the outset I knew what I didn’t want to do, which was to make another reality series, where the concerns would be ‘could they survive without shampoo?’, or ‘would Alex pair off with Chloe in the cowshed?’ What I did want to make, were programmes that delved as deeply as possible into the social history of the time, and that highlighted the experts battling with period technology rather than with each other.
Things didn’t start simply. To plough the main field in September, we brought in a pair of English longhorn oxen, Arthur and Lancelot, all the way from Yorkshire. They’re one of the only working pairs left in the country. Although horses are much faster than oxen, they are more expensive to feed and maintain (they need shoes for a start), and weren’t traditionally eaten in this country, so period farming manuals recommended against using them.
“If any sorance [injury] come to...an ox, and he wax old...then he is man’s meat...the horse, when he dieth, is but carrion. And therefore me thinketh, all things considered, the plough of oxen is much more profitable than the plough of horses.” The Book of Husbandry William Fitzherbert 1534
Theory into practice
As far as possible we tried to follow contemporary agricultural texts. They were a great starting point but often left out vital bits of information, probably considered obvious at the time. That’s where practice came in and history met reality. We had a replica plough built according to period descriptions and illustrations, but from the outset the team had problems making it work.
The ground was pretty hard, and they couldn’t get the plough to bite, it just skimmed the surface. When they finally did dig it in, there was a loud crack as the plough buckled under pressure. A few hasty repairs and they set to work again, finally producing their first glorious furrow. It wasn’t long before they ran into more difficulties as the field stubble clogged up between the coulter (the sharp iron pin that cuts the surface) and the ploughshare (the blade that divides the earth). It was a foretaste of how the whole year ahead would turn out, an enthusiastic first attempt then back to the drawing board. By adjusting the coulter and adding more weight to the plough, their method seemed to click, and the team’s faces broke into big smiles. Suddenly furrow mounted upon furrow. They were wonky, a bit shallow in places, and slow in coming - since an acre is the amount of land an oxen team is meant to be able to plough in a day, they were seriously behind schedule - but they felt like success.
It’s all about technique
Technique was perhaps the main watchword through the year. For most of the specialists it was the first time they had actually got their hands on period tools. They had read about them and knew the theory, but putting them into practice was something altogether different - whether it be digging with one of the heavy wooden spades, using a breastplough, or threshing grain with a flail. I can remember the magical moments when Stuart, Alex, Fonz, Ruth, or Chloe stopped using brute force and let a tool do its job.
One of my favourites was when Peter ‘Fonz’ Ginn was trying to winnow the chaff from the wheat. He was using a replica winnowing basket, a bit like a large wicker plate raised on three sides. The idea is to swirl the material around and give it a flick, allowing any breeze to blow off the light chaff. Unfortunately his grain started off flying all over the yard. Only after hours of practice, and with aching arms, did he crack it. His action became light, fluid, and easy and his satisfaction was obvious.
Slow but sure
Doing everything manually, without modern machinery, we all became painfully aware how much time was needed just to complete the most mundane of tasks - be it sowing wheat by hand, plucking pigeons, or building a dry stone wall. Winnowing was just one in a long line of processes required to make bread, and as Fonz poured his now clean grain into a sack, we realised that a farmer 400 years ago had to be a highly talented jack of all trades simply to get by.
The farmer’s wife
It wasn’t just the farmer who had to be multi-skilled. I was surprised to learn about the vital importance of the farmer’s wife. Theirs was an essential partnership. Without a wife, operating a farm was nigh on impossible. Period records show how a farmer who had been widowed, usually had another woman by his side in next to no time. It was a simple matter of time, labour, and economics. From running the dairy, brewing the beer, and managing the essential kitchen garden, the housewife was certainly no lady of leisure. Being the farm doctor was another of her roles. Since professional medicine was so expensive, she looked after the household’s health with homemade salves, pills, and brews made from herbs and plants from the garden.
“And for you, M. Apothecary, alas, I look not once in seven year in your shop...but for myself, if I be ill…
I take kitchen physic; I make my wife my doctor and my garden my apothecary’s shop.” Robert Greene, A Quip for an Upstart Courtier 1592.
Of course, nothing went to waste on a 17th century farm. The waste product from one process became the fuel for another. Ashes from the fire were used to make lye, the period equivalent of Persil, a homemade washing liquid to do the laundry. Any leftover food went to the pigs, the perfect ‘green’ disposal unit. Animal waste as today was spread on the fields, even human waste was reused. Human faeces composted in a privy were used as fertiliser, and a household’s urine was stored to make ammonia, an excellent stain remover for laundry. In fact urine was collected on a massive scale; piss-pots were placed outside pubs and the urine used to make saltpeter, a vital ingredient in making gunpowder, a burgeoning industry at the time. At a time when ‘organic’ and ‘recycling’ are key environmental issues, it’s fascinating to take a step back and learn some lessons from our past.
We filmed through torrential rain, snow storms, and blazing sunshine, watching the farm change through the seasons. Away from our cosseted urban lives it became apparent how much the farmer then and now is governed by the elements. Not just short term, but year after year, from the September ploughing to the August harvest, the farmer’s life is mapped out by the natural cycle. For a farmer in 1620, planning, ingenuity, and aptitude were essential for survival. Watching our experts’ hard graft, we wondered how long any modern people would survive if they found themselves in this environment. Although the Valley team came in from the fields sweating, bruised, and exhausted, they felt an overwhelming sense of pride in what they had achieved, a closeness to nature, and a very different degree of satisfaction from a job divorced from the soil.
Made by Lion Television for BBC Wales, Tales from the Green Valley was broadcast over 12 weeks on BBC2 in the autumn of 2005. The series was produced and directed by Peter Sommer. If you would like more information about Tales from the Green Valley please contact us.
As well as making documentaries and writing, Peter also personally leads a number of our escorted tours in Turkey each year.