Green Valley Stories, a BBC television series, explores life on a 17th-century British farm. This 12 ½-hour television documentary, produced and directed by Peter Sommer, received the prestigious “Learning on Screen” Award for its rich historical and educational content, conferred by the British University Film and Video Council.
This article on the series was first published in the October issue of Retirement Today.
Why make a TV series about life on a 400 year old farm? That was my first question when I was asked to shoot a series of 12 episodes of the BBC, Green Valley Tales, and produce about five specialists working on a Welsh farm, as it would have done in the 17th century. I have to admit that I was rather skeptical about this idea. It was not just about uprooting my family and moving to Wales for a year, but more than that. I was scared that it would turn into another low-quality reality TV show that would bring back the historical concept background.
A number of programs have dropped an average family or group of people in a strange environment – the past -, wrapped in historical clothing and cut off from luxury and modern facilities. Sometimes they are enlightening, but their time largely depends on personal considerations, the discussion between the “candidates” and above all the sensation. I wanted to try to do something completely different – a nice series and especially informative.
Instead of just using street people, we wanted our team of ex-farmers to be experts and specialists in different areas. The goal was to apply and apply the knowledge acquired to put the theory into practice. So we have our experts – food and agriculture historian Stuart Peachey, society historian and clothing expert Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands and Peter Fonz Ginn, two young, strong and practical archaeologists and Chloe Spencer, an experienced archeologist. Animals. We started in September with the start of the agricultural calendar, with twelve months of agriculture on the horizon.
The agricultural calendar
But what should you film? This question was answered to me almost all year round because the calendar of agricultural activities is almost exactly defined. The farmer’s daily, monthly and almost daily tasks are virtually engraved in stone, depending on the weather, the soil and the basic life cycle. From the beginning it was one of the most important experiences of our specialists. Of course, they had time to decide what to do when. Some months, like the month of January in the heart of winter, are relatively quiet and do not require an urgent task. A time like this is a welcome change for the farmer, who allows him to carry out repairs, maintenance and respiration before the start of spring. In the rest of the time there are big events that are organized as a series of milestones: from September to plowing and sowing and harvesting fruit in October, shearing sheep in June and harvesting hay while the sun is shining in July.
When I planned our recovery, the most important agricultural tasks were quite obvious, but the construction was an area that I did not particularly consider. In fact, during the year there were several construction projects, ranging from the construction of a pavilion (a lumberyard) to the replacement of the building damaged by the building damaged by storms in February. One of the experts’ first important tasks was to build a barn using only tools, technologies and materials from 1620. To put it in context, it was a time when pilgrims took Sea America and James I were only a few decades before the civil war on the throne.
It was a real pleasure to see the stable slowly but surely rising from the ground. Alex and Fonz have come up with a wickerwork and clay wall of wooden sticks covered with a mixture of cow manure, clay and straw. Then the whole team started working on the roof, from the beam to the straw. It was probably the first time that I could really judge the deep and different qualities of a farmer of that time. Yes, he could sometimes call craftsmen and specialists, but that would have cost a lot and certainly not just a phone call. It was important that I could do something myself. He had to be resourceful, inventive, and most of all, a jack of all trades who could handle almost any practical task.
Not only that, but the farmer had to be immersed in his environment. Today, most of us travel through the countryside, simply admiring their beauty and rural charm. The farmer has seen very different glasses. For him, the surrounding landscape looked like a huge pantry and toolbox full of valuable resources, each with its own qualities and uses, from different woods to plants with medicinal properties. From father to son, this inherent knowledge of “Bushcraft” has been passed on and learned – which could be useful, how it should be handled, and when it should be collected.
I remember when Alex was working on cowhide. He had dug similar buildings at that time, but only until he pushed the misty trunks of materials through the rafters to create a net for the roof. He has gradually recognized the various features and capabilities of his toolbox.
The secondary strain
In the 17th century, wood was a resource of the utmost importance. So much was used, from charcoal to shipbuilding, that it was assumed that there were only half as many trees in Britain as today. In view of this appetite, the wood itself was cultivated. Most farms of all sizes have their own forest, a carefully landscaped forest with a vision that will last for decades, if not centuries. When we harvested wood in the grove of the farm, it was like running into a big, ready-to-use, easy-to-label hardware store, if you knew what you saw. Different types of trees of varying sizes, from young oak to gigantic oak, were selected to obtain trunks and beams of varying thickness and length. No matter what type of wood was used, whether herring, table or wood, it was all ready. It was an agricultural area that I did not even think about before I went from the Green Valley to Tales.
Needless to say, the ultimate reason for a farm is food. Four hundred years ago, without electricity, people had to find other ways to conserve food as long as possible without refrigeration. Of course, this is still done in the traditional way, in many places, out of necessity and in other cases, because the hardening process adds to the taste – like the Parma ham, which for years has been hanging smoked meat or pickled vegetables. But it’s one thing to enjoy your favorite salami, another thing to really see how it’s done.
Processing of pork
From the moment we killed one of the pigs on the farm, the countdown started. First the blood had to be drained and used, then the intestine had to be consumed. Only then could attention be focused on the rest of the pork. It was generally said that the only part of a pig that was not devoured was its squeak. Certainly nothing has been lost. At that time, the magic of eating was an incredible luxury. However, treating a whole animal from start to finish is not an easy and straightforward task, especially for people accustomed to buying bacon wrapped in plastic wrap. It is a long but funny and serious task, as is the case in many countries, where entire families come together to kill and transform one of their animals. It’s really about the pump. Bringing only Arthur bristles to the pig, a Boar Tamworth cross that we get as close to possible was a big undertaking. These pigs are incredibly nice and friendly, but they are also incredibly hairy as they should be and live very long in the forest.
Today, the fine silks of our almost-naked pigs are cooked in large vats, but at that time the peasants used a different technique: the pork steak. They could not burn it too long, otherwise the carcass would start cooking, but that was enough to burn their hair. Then it was necessary to decolorize the soot, then clean it, then the skin was sufficiently clean so that salt could be applied in large quantities to cure it. In our modern world, where processed foods are ubiquitous, it is refreshing to take a step back, remember where the food comes from, and appreciate the time it takes to do the work by hand. Picking wheat, picking and pimicking, turning into peas. The proof of the pudding is in the food, and I have to say that Arthur’s pork chops were perhaps the juiciest and tastiest I’ve ever eaten.
The Apple Loft
Apples were another highlight on the food front. Nowadays, when we look at the supermarket of a supermarket, we find half a dozen varieties that are successfully farmed. The fruit plantations of our 400-year-old farm were full of apples that I had heard of but never saw, from corn herbs to costumes for cooking. The autumn flood could not be consumed all at once. They were stored in the farm in an “apple loft” where it was cool and airy. They had to be returned on a regular basis and to check everything that went wrong, but the vast majority of them survived six months in excellent condition – a good source of vitamins in winter to spring. While purchased apples often go out in a few weeks in the last few days, in March it was quite shocking to eat apples that we picked up last week without a refrigerator.
In front of the camera it was fascinating to see how easily experts adapt to a completely different life rhythm and immerse themselves in tasks that have not been seen in Britain for centuries. Throughout the year, a number of traditional craftsmen joined them to provide additional skills, many of which were threatened with extinction in this country. Until a professional candle maker came to help the team, I did not know that the majority of candles on a farm at that time were in sheep fat. Before Master Thetcher arrived on the set with a 400-year-old straw rope and a “wimble” used for filming, I never thought anything as light as straw could make a strong rope. Until a coal burner came to support the team, I never thought how slow and complicated it was to turn wood into something as vital as charcoal.
Pink tinted glasses
With pink glasses you can look back on such a rural idyll. In our busy and everlasting life, it is easy to dream of a lifestyle that is simple, slow and down to earth. It is too easy to forget the terrible diseases and the low life expectancy, the physical exhaustion of manual work or the despair and hunger, when a farm was in trouble.
Modern luxury goods
The creation of this documentary series was a long learning phase for me. I have no more illusions about what was better in the good old days. I like the idea of only drinking beer, apparently up to eight liters a day, because most people have no access to clean water and can drink fermented beer. I like the almost spiritual satisfaction that comes from working in the fields for a whole day, exhausted from a hearty dinner on the table. But after seeing Ruth and Chloe wash seventeenth century clothes, they foamed their own foam of ashes. They used urine to remove stubborn stains and break the stones in a stream. Of course I do not want to go back and leave my washing machine.