The simple life: stay on a farm

It’s not everybody’s idea of luxury. In fact, it’s nobody’s idea of luxury. But when I asked my brother-in-law if he’d like to bring his three boys to stay with me in a place with no electricity or running water, he said yes immediately.

David and his sons, Joseph, 11, Reuben, 9, and Zac, 7, had, like me, been gripped by the television documentary The Victorian Farm, which surprised broadcasters in the summer by attracting more viewers than Big Brother — and all five of us were desperate to stay in the authentically rudimentary dwelling where the show was filmed.

Henley Cottage is on the Acton Scott estate, in Shropshire, run by the same family since the 12th century. The patriarch, Thomas Acton, decided as a young man to preserve as much as possible of country life before the advent of motor engines; and, having collected a devil of a lot of cast-iron ploughs, threshers and suchlike, established a Historic Working Farm museum in the 1970s.

Now that we all seem to be dreaming of a smallholding on which to grow our own food, such a place has great appeal. No surprise, then, that the TV series is soon to be followed by a Christmas special.

On the farm, we harvested mangelwurzels bigger than our heads, made rope from hay (and used it for an ad hoc tug-of-war), pumped a bellows for the blacksmith while he made horseshoes, built a raging fire for the wheelwright to superheat a metal tyre (so that it expands, enabling him to slip it over a wooden wheel), watched threshing and winnowing, and worked for two hours and more cranking an apple press to make cider with Mr and Mrs Acton.

You may wonder that anybody would choose to do this kind of heavy work as a leisure activity — but to me it seems better than working out, pointlessly, in a gym. As well as these day-to-day activities, the farm runs specialist courses. I’d love to have learnt to bake my own bricks, as the TV historians did recently, or improvise a bodger’s lathe for turning green wood into chair legs.

Now, I’m delighted that somebody is keeping these specialist skills alive, but I had not expected to enjoy cutting and stitching leather half as much as I did. Then there was the livestock. The farm has plenty of signs advising children to wash their hands after touching the animals, to avoid contracting E coli and suchlike — so Joseph, Reuben and Zac were able safely to get close to sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys, cows, donkeys, horses and pigs (but not to the one-day-old piglets that slept under a lamp for warmth). The boys even shovelled manure.

It’s important to stress that this is a working farm. When Zac shouted out an order to the huge shire horse he was briskly scolded by the man in charge: “This horse is commanded by me!” But there were no hard feelings, and the three boys were ecstatic when the same man instructed them to be his sheepdogs, with just a few commands: “Come by!”, “Lie down!”. In less than a minute, they had rounded up his scattered sheep and moved the whole flock into the next field.

While many thousands of people each year are happy merely to visit the museum, dozens of others are, like us, satisfied only by deeper exposure to the Victorian farm life. Which is how we came to stay at Henley Cottage, lovingly restored by Mr Scott’s younger son, Rupert.

The first thing we needed to master, he explained, was the coal-fired range: the assortment of dampers and other valves for guiding heat to and from the oven and the hotplates feels no less baffling to the inexperienced than an old-fashioned telephone exchange or the organ at the Albert Hall.

All the same, we aimed high. We baked bread and roasted a chicken on our first night, and practically half a cow the night after. It was hard to tell, even after lighting all the paraffin lamps and a good number of candles, what colour the meat had achieved, but, as it turned out, both animals were cooked to perfection. Alas, we’d not been so careful with the vegetables: our jacket potatoes, instead of being soft and fluffy, had the crisp bite of an apple, while the roast carrots were like buttered timber. But nobody complained.

Nor did we mind that one of the metal tankards leaked steadily, and as we used those only in the near dark, we never found out exactly which one it was. Pouring yourself a drink felt a bit like playing Russian roulette.

Washing up after the meal was difficult for two reasons: first, you can’t see whether you have really cleaned anything, and second, you have only a jugful of water available at any given time. Not absolutely everyone in the house was willing to venture out into the dark, unaccompanied, to collect fresh water from the pump.

On our second day, we dis­covered that the greatest form of entertainment was, surprisingly, taking a bath. What could be fun about that? Well, pumping water from the well, lighting a roaring fire to warm it and —as a result — turning the chilly washroom into a sauna. Like real Victorians, we took turns to sit in the tin bath (as the last one in, I took care to pour a few extra jugfuls of clean water over myself before reaching for the towel).

In addition to bathing, we played charades — much more fun than that sounds, with the lot of us reduced, at times, to hysterics — and the boys got ahead on the business of writing up what they had done in their holidays, using fountain pens by candlelight. “How do you spell squeak?” Zac asked at one point. I guessed he must be describing piglets, but he was working up some atmospherics about the spooky stairs in our cottage.

On finally retiring, we slept on mattresses filled with horsehair and bedsprings that creaked even more than the stairs. And with only bare floorboards separating one room from the one below, even a shy mouse whispering could be heard clearly throughout the cottage — far more so somebody turning over in their sleep or rising to fill a chamber pot. (The pots were emptied each morning into a flushing loo in a nearby outbuilding.)

I could pretend that staying in a Victorian cottage was a form of endurance training or self-denying punishment, that it taught us to value the things we take for granted — electricity, running water, central heating. But that piety won’t do: the truth is, we just enjoyed it.

1118 words. First published 29 January 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.