Old Ways

Which is the Best Rural History Museum

As could be expected from a country so rich in history and innovation, Great Britain is also rich in museums of all kinds.

Whatever your interests – railways, Romans, coal mining or advertising, there’s somewhere that you’ll happily be able to while away a morning, afternoon or  even the whole day. Our rural history is well represented too. There may be a museum local to you and if you find yourself in the area, the following are all well worth a visit.

Opening times vary, so its best to check before making the journey.


The Museum Of English Rural Life

Run by the University of Reading, and situated on Redlands Road, the MERL is dedicated to exploring the history of the English countryside and the people who’ve helped to make it what it is.

Admission is free and it houses the most comprehensive national collection of objects, books and archives relating to the history of food, farming and rural living.

The second gallery of the Museum of English Rural Life, focusing on the main tasks and events during the farming year. This view shows, from right around to the left, the sections on Summer, Autumn and Winter.

The museum’s archives are extensive and include papers from individual farms and large estates, as well as the institutional archives of major countryside organisations and the trade records of agricultural firms.

There are over a million rural photographs, films relating to the countryside, tens of thousands of engineering drawings, and the personal records and journals of farmers, farm workers, land girls and evacuees.

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The MERL library  is considered to be the most important nationally for the study of the history of British agriculture, the countryside and rural society. It contains 50,000 volumes, most of which are available to  everyone.


There are uniquely accessible, extensive runs of historically significant journals from the nineteenth century onwards, along with a large number of rare books and specialist collections. The museum is also home to a large and fascinating collection of rural life related items.

This includes many unique and early farm tools, as well as everyday and more unusual tools and objects connected with rural crafts and trades, and rural themed artwork. The first item acquired when the museum was founded in 1951 was a simple animal bell and the collection has been continually added to ever since, largely thanks to donations.

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There are now almost thirty thousand individual objects, mostly dating between 1850 and 1950, but the aim is to cover the period from 1750 the present day. As much of the collection as possible is on display, with the rest held in stores which are open for browsing by visitors.

A very full programme of special events inspired by the collections are held over the summer months, normally from May to September and it’s worth checking out what’s coming up.

Gressenhall Farm And Workhouse

Just outside East Dereham in the heart of Norfolk is Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, sitting in fifty acres of unspoilt countryside. In the grounds are a river valley, water meadows and country trails.

Visit this Victorian workhouse, set in 50 acres of beautiful countryside, to hear the true stories of its inhabitants. Head down to the traditional farm to see rare breeds and heavy horses and let of steam in the woodland adventure playground.

The building itself is a former workhouse which opened in 1777 as a ‘House of Industry’. It is now an extensive museum, exploring what life was like for those who lived and worked there.

You can get a real sense of the days of workhouse through projections of staff and inmates, as they tell their often tragic, yet inspirational stories.

These projections, the archives and the largest workhouse collection of exhibits in the country, bring the building’s past into the present and give a fascinating insight into what rural life could be like in Victorian Britain. Gressenhall is also home to The Museum of Norfolk Life.

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The Collections Gallery is in what was the men’s dormitory in the time of workhouse ad contains over two thousand objects related to rural life. Every item was either made, owned or used by someone in Norfolk and helps to build a picture how life was in the county over the last two hundred years.

Most of these exhibits are permanent, but there is a temporary space which changes every year. The First Farmer’s Gallery takes visitors further back in time, exploring the early history of farming.

There are displays of artefacts of bone, antler, flint, stone and bronze, used by the Norfolk farmers of around 6000 years ago. The Land Girls and Lumber Jills Gallery is not to be missed.

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This tribute to the forgotten heroines of the British Home Front during two world wars, tells the story of the Women’s Land Army and Timber Corp, looking at how life was for land army girls in Norfolk.

Village Row should also get a mention. Here you can browse around a general store, fully stocked with household items from the past.

Next door is a post office and there is also a farrier’s forge, where you can learn about the vital role played by the village blacksmith.

A reconstructed seed merchants helps tell the story of Taylors, a local family business that produced and sold seeds from their King’s Lynn shop.

National Museum Of Rural Life

In East Kilbride, you’ll find Scotland’s National Museum of Rural Life, where you can enjoy the countryside, meet the animals on the historic working farm and uncover Scotland’s unique rural history all in one visit.

National Museum of Rural Life – Tractor Collection

The museum itself houses the country’s largest collection of tractors, combine harvesters and other farm machinery. The exhibits show how Scotland’s rural history has been shaped by the land, the people and their ways of working.

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Now open to the public, the Georgian Farmhouse which forms part of the museum was home to Lanarkshire’s Reid family for ten generations.

It’s a great opportunity to see rooms as they would have been in the 1950s, as well as a bothy, outbuildings and kitchen gardens.

Rural Life Living Museum

The Rural Life Living Museum in Tilford, Farnham, Surrey, is the largest living museum in the south of England. It doesn’t just tell the story of the countryside, you can live it by exploring the unique collection of re-located historic buildings.

Rural Life Living Museum
Located in the heart of Farnham heathland, the Rural Life Living Museum tells the story of the countryside, its unique collection of re-located historic buildings allow visitors to explore inside, complemented by one of the largest collections of farming machinery, agricultural implements and objects from everyday life.

There is also an impressive collection of agricultural implements, along with objects from everyday rural life. The museum has an interesting history of its own. In 1968, founders Henry and Madge Jackson unearthed a horse drawn plough in some woods in Waterlooville, Hampshire, which ended up at their home as a garden ornament.

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The plough started them thinking about how many of the agricultural implements that were used by previous generations were either being lost or destroyed.

Forty Thousand

They then made it their mission to save as many as possible and bought whatever they could at auctions and farm sales. Henry and Madge became avid collectors and also began to receive donations of wagons and tools from like-minded enthusiasts.

In 1973 the museum first opened, on Sundays only, as the Old Kiln Agricultural Museum. The collection soon began to grow and today there are over 40,000 items relating to farming and rural life.

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Henry and Madge both died in the early 2000s, but the Old Kiln Museum Trust was formed long before that in 1984, ensuring its future.

At the same time the name was changed to the Rural Life Centre, which rapidly expanded with new buildings and exhibits, paid for by grants and the hard work of volunteers. Today, many activity days and events are organised and again, it’s worth checking what’s on when planning a visit.

The Skye Museum Of Island Life

The Skye Museum of Island Life at Kilmuir is an award-winning attraction. It’s an old Highland Village giving an insight into life on the island a century ago.

Skye Museum of Island Life
Traditional Cottages in the Museum

The museum opened in 1965, primarily to preserve a township of thatched cottages, each one depicting as closely as possible what it was like to be an islander, as the 1800s drew to a close. These thatched houses were common in the Highlands a hundred years ago, but today very few remain.

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Within their walls, by the light of a peat fire, generations of  crofters would have preserved their oral history by telling stories and singing songs. Warm and solid, the croft houses were well suited to the unique landscape and climate of the islands.

Compared to the homes of today they were crude and basic, but the people who lived in them spent most of their time outdoors and had little need of worldly possessions or domestic luxury.

Somerset Rural Life Museum

Sitting just below Somerset’s iconic Glastonbury Tor, the Somerset Rural Life Museum is on the site of what was once the Abbey Farm.

Tithe barn
Glastonbury – Somerset Rural Life Museum. The Abbey Barn was built in the 1340s to store produce for Glastonbury Abbey.

It’s a showcase for rural life from the 1800s onwards and the county’s rich countryside heritage. The centrepiece of the site, the fourteenth century Abbey Barn is considered to be one of the West Country’s finest buildings. The farmhouse and former farm buildings now house galleries. The first of these, ‘The Working Village’, tells the story of working life in rural Somerset.

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It highlights rural trades, work that was done in the home and how the lives of the rich and poor were very different. The second gallery focuses on ‘Working The Land’ and explores the history of food production and farming in the county.

It’s a fascinating way to learn how Somerset’s varied landscapes have been home to everything from dairy farming to cider making and willow growing to stock rearing. This is another museum where many special one-off events  and activities are organised and they can make a great day out.

Whichever museum you visit, it’s going to be an enjoyable and interesting experience. You’re guaranteed to go away knowing more than you did when you arrived and maybe also with a gift shop souvenir or two.