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Tilling with the Tudors

PUBLISHED: 13:57 28 October 2013 | UPDATED: 14:22 28 October 2013

A feast fit for a Tudor

A feast fit for a Tudor

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If you’ve visited the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum near Chichester in recent months, you might well have come across the unexpected. A weary peasant or two, perhaps, dressed in doublet and hose, scattering barley in the fields. Period musicians and street traders milling around the marketplace. 
And even the odd camera crane jutting out incongruously over a Tudor roofline.

Yes, you’ve guessed it, television is in town. Lion Television, to be precise, the production company behind the BBC’s latest ‘living history’ farm series, which returns to BBC Two this November in its latest guise, Tudor Monastery Farm.

If you’re a fan of the long-running series (and if you are, you’re among millions around the globe), you’ll have avidly followed Ruth Goodman and her co-presenters experiencing life on a Victorian, Edwardian and wartime farm.

This time round, Ruth, archaeologist Peter Ginn and his new sidekick, fellow archaeologist Tom Pinfold, are donning peasant garb for a taste of life in Tudor times, and the museum, which boasts the largest variety of 15th and 16th century buildings in the country, has proved the perfect location.

“They’ve primarily used the museum’s iconic flagship building, Bayleaf, which most people associate with us, as well as the adjacent Tudor kitchen at Winkhurst, Cowfold barn at the back of Bayleaf, and Pendean farmhouse, which, though it dates back to the early 1600s, suited the film-makers’ needs,” says Julie Aalen, the museum’s office administrator and fundraising coordinator.

“I think they were also drawn to our breathtaking downland views. I mean, externally you might have found another building that looked vaguely like Bayleaf, but where else would you have found such a stunning backdrop? Not a single electricity pylon hampers the view.”

The project came about partly through a chance remark made by the museum’s director, Richard Pailthorpe, to Ruth Goodman several years ago. “Ruth has been visiting the museum for a long time because she has taught courses on period clothing here and runs a historical re-enactment group,” he says. “So when she co-presented the first series, Victorian Farm, back in 2008, I did say, tongue-in-cheek, that perhaps one day they could film a Tudor farm series here.”

Needless to say, he was delighted when his wish came true, though the museum had initial concerns about the upheaval filming might cause. “The TV crew arrived in April and have been filming solidly for the last six months,” he says. “Luckily, the buildings are furnished roughly in accordance with the period the series is set, so little needed to be done – which was ideal from our point of view. We were also worried about restricted visitor access, but most of the filming has taken place in the early morning or late afternoon, so disruption has been minimal.”

The series will open in the year 1500 – a great turning point in British history. After centuries of war and plague, the nation was enjoying newfound stability and prosperity under the reign of its first Tudor king, Henry VII. But it also marked the 
last decades of the monastic system that had controlled every aspect of life for centuries.

For almost a thousand years monasteries had dominated the British landscape and were at the heart of the medieval way of life. No less than a quarter of the landed wealth in the kingdom was owned by the Catholic Church and much of it was rented to farmers such as Ruth, Peter and Tom.

“The title of the series says it all really,” says Ruth, who joins me after a long day’s filming dressed in a kirtle (a working garment typically worn by Tudor country women). “It’s Tudor, but early Tudor. Right at the beginning. Long before the Reformation. And that’s another part of the title – we’re linked to a monastery. This is a world in which the Catholic religion is like breathing. It’s not necessarily something you think about or question.

“People thought there would always be a Catholic Church, there would always be monasteries; that this way of life was forever. But unknown to them, it was about to change and I find that moment in history very exciting.”

For Ruth, a leading specialist in Tudor domestic life, making the series has been enormous fun. “If I’m honest, I’ve always been a Tudor girl!” she laughs. “Of all the periods in history, it’s my favourite. That’s partly because it’s so different and you have to make such an adventure into the past to understand it. Everything you thought you knew has to be learnt again and you see the world through different eyes.”

Home for the team has largely been Bayleaf, a timber-framed Wealden hall house from Chiddingstone in Kent, typical of the period 1500-1540. “This time round we’re definitely not at the bottom of the pile, but rather, perhaps, at the top of the peasantry because we’ve got a pretty big house to live in,” laughs Ruth.

“This is not the house of somebody living on the breadline because we’re managing a large parcel of land and a sizeable workforce, some of whom live in and some of whom come in on a daily basis. This is a big commercial operation, though it’s not our 
land – we’re renting it from the monasteries – so we pay our rent in cash and in goods.”

Farming, of course, was the basis of life at this period and almost everybody farmed, even if they had a craft. Ruth, Peter and Tom have been no exception and have grown a crop of field peas and barley, driven oxen, sheared sheep and even built a 
Tudor pigsty.

One of the museum’s biggest contributions has been allowing Peter and Tom use of their working cattle, though this proved an uphill struggle. “Our cows, essentially our Tudor tractor, had been broken in to work, but they’d been on a retirement package for the last year or two, so it was a bit of a struggle getting them going,” says Peter, who joins Ruth to rest his weary limbs. “Eventually, however, they worked like a dream and we harnessed them to the plough, harrow and cart. It’s amazing how much they helped us out.”

As for Tom, who sidles up last, he admits harvesting the barley with a sickle has proved an exhausting business. “You have to keep the stems neat and together, so you can just cut at the base, before binding them into sheaves and leaving them in the fields to dry further,” he says. “It’s back-breaking work.”

The museum also played an invaluable role in clothing the experts and extras who feature in the series, a job which fell to Lesley Parker, the museum’s domestic life interpreter and coordinator, who also oversees its Historic Clothing Project.

“It has been quite a challenge because our clothing is designed for around 1540, the date we interpret our Tudor buildings, and the programme opens 40 years earlier,” she says. “We’ve been diligently tweaking our outfits to look slightly earlier, though I’m sure there’ll be clothing experts muttering that they didn’t have front-lacing gowns around then!”

Back at the farmhouse, Ruth has been getting to grips with the realities of life in a Tudor kitchen. “Seasonality in cooking is something we take for granted, but back then they would have used lots of seasonal herbs – sometimes as many as 30 in a dish,” she says. “Nevertheless, the Tudor farmer’s diet was generally very mundane, largely comprising bread and beer.”

Not that Tudor peasant life was always frugal. On high days and holidays they laid on a banquet for their workers, something the trio re-enacted with relish at Bayleaf. Peter describes Ruth’s spit-roast lamb as among the best food he has ever tasted and the crew were only too happy to gobble up the leftovers!

For this and other set-pieces, museum staff and volunteers happily pitched in as extras, notably in the market square where the museum’s 16th century Elizabethan market hall takes pride of place. “They used the square for quite a few sequences, particularly market-day scenes,” says Richard. “They also filmed the friar, monks and clerics from the monastery preaching to the crowd.

“Staff from our Historic Clothing Project participated a lot, including administrative staff who don’t normally dress up. Even I was inveigled to don a monk’s tunic when they were a man down – though I’m afraid they chose me because my balding head looked the part!”

David Upshal, the executive producer, is in no doubt that one of the great joys of the series has been breaking many of the received conventions of factual television. “In the past, ‘living history’ was a kind of endurance test, which primarily asked whether it was possible to survive without modern conveniences,” he says. “We’ve taken a different approach, relishing the challenge of mastering the crafts and tasks of the past.

“It’s a formula that has proved immersive and curiously aspirational for viewers. There’s a kind of empowerment in being reconnected with the lives of our ancestors; in discovering that history doesn’t have to be about kings and queens and battles. It’s also about what life 
would have been like for the likes of you and me.”

Richard admits it’s going to be strange seeing the museum and many of his colleagues on the small screen, though he can’t wait to see the finished result. “It’s a great showcase for us and we certainly hope it will create a bit of interest,” he says. n

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