I am feeling rather ashamed having been watching the BBC's latest reality TV offering, "Victorian Farm". In it 3 intrepid historians/archaeologists are taking on the challenge of spending a year living/working/farming the Victorian way on a traditional farm in Shropshire.
It's a strange ménage-a-trois - a female expert on Victorian housework busying herself with laundry, poultry-keeping, preserving, embroidering, foraging and preparing food on an authentic Victorian coal-fired range, while 2 other blokes do farm maintenance, ploughing, sowing, harvesting, chaffing, milking, shepherding, raddling and general "animal husbandry".
The reason for my shame is nothing to do with my penchant for reality TV - I'm really quite brazen about that, nor is it the puzzle I have in my mind about the conjugal relations or otherwise of the programmme's participants. Neither of these is making me pink with embarrassment. No, what is making me shrink behind the cushions on my sofa is how damn hard these people have to work – and how alarmingly skillful they have to be just to get by from one day to the next.
Take the laundry for instance. I whinge when I’ve got to put washing in the washing machine and switch it on, leaving it to go merrily through its cycle while I go off and enjoy myself. I then huff and puff when I’ve got to take washing out of the washing machine and either bung it in the drier or peg it out on the line. And as for ironing! I’ll stare at the ironing basket for days before mustering up the energy and inclination to get on with it. The maximum amount of time that the whole washing/drying/ironing cycle needs to take in my house is about 4 hours, whereas that poor woman on the telly took 4 days to get through all hers the Victorian way, before having to start all over again.
Then it showed her plucking the Christmas turkey – which she had personally slaughtered, having hand-reared it from the egg and named it Evie. All I need to do is go down to Asda and pick up an anonymous packet of diced turkey, and all the skills I need to do it are driving my car and reading the words free-range on the wrapper.
Meanwhile, out in the yard the blokes are learning how to build stone walls using traditional Victorian tools and methods, so that they can provide a home for their two Tamworth pigs before winter sets in. They’ve already had to master ploughing a field using a horse-drawn plough, driving a horse and cart using a genuine Shire horse, painting the chest of a horny ram with red “raddle” so they could tell which of their ewes had been “tupped”, and growing and harvesting their own animal feed. And all this after restoring the farmhouse to a livable standard.
Phew – I’m worn out watching it! But I am also filled with awe at how hard life was for my farming ancestors, and with gratitude that amongst so much hard graft they didn’t neglect the business of procreating and raising kids – otherwise I wouldn’t be here.
It also has me reflecting on our modern “skills for life” educational initiatives, and makes me wonder whether we would be better served learning some more of that self-sufficiency stuff that the Victorians knew so well, instead of literacy, numeracy and how to drive computers and cars.
I shall certainly think twice next time a roll my eyes at having to do the washing, or load the dish washer or pour the raw ingredients into my bread-maker.
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