Leaving the Victorian Farm

· culture ·

I've finally caught up with the last episodes of Victorian Farm, and it remains one of my favourite documentaries of recent times. It ended up being quite wistful at the end: you could tell that all three participants felt genuinely sad to be leaving, and while I'm sure that they were looking forward to modern luxuries like hot showers, they would miss the Victorian life.

I think one of the best parts of the series was seeing people who still practice traditional crafts. I find it fascinating watching people doing anything that takes skill and practice -- from recompiling a Linux kernel to shoeing a horse -- but there were some unusual skills featured that you very rarely see. I loved watching the wheelwright fit a new metal 'tyre' on a cart wheel, and the iron hinges the blacksmith made for the gate were a work of art, but my favourite was the basket weaver. I didn't write his name down, but he was one of the few people (perhaps the only person) still making baskets using thin strips of oak rather than the more usual willow wands. I could have watched him make his baskets all day, because the technique was so interesting, and he was so skilled at it. He made a solid rim to the basket by heating a wooden rod in water and bending it in to shape, then split oak logs, and boiled them to soften them and make them pliable. He then split them again (by hand!) to make thin strips to weave the body of the basket. I think one of the first things you'd have to develop in that trade is a resistance to splinters and a high tolerance for getting your hands scalded: the strips were still really hot when they came out of the water, but had to be worked with his bare hands straight away. The end result was absolutely gorgeous in its functional simplicity and very strong: Ruth was able to stand on top of the upturned basket without any sign of damage to it. He said that the baskets can last 50 years, and even then, they only need a bit of minor repair, rather than replacement.

I also liked the insights into what it was like to live in the period which could only be gained by actually living the life. For example, they commented that the kind of fatty, offal-rich food they ate would ordinarily seem rather disgusting, but after working hard outdoors in the cold weather, they actually craved fatty foods and found them delicious. They also shed light on the etymology of some common idioms. For example, when they were getting a poster printed on a traditional movable type press, the printer demonstrated why it was important to hold the 'stick' (a metal holder in which you assemble the type to form a line of text) the right way around, so that you can place letters in the correct order (even though each letter is back to front), working away from your body. He showed a practice print by an apprentice who hadn't grasped this vital technique, which had the letters in reverse order: this is where "getting the wrong end of the stick" comes from. I had no idea that was where the phrase came from, but it makes perfect sense.