Christmas pudding, Christmas crackers, carols, sugarplums and cider punch. It was the good old Victorians who invented the Christmas we all know and love, and I am one of its faithful followers. When I knew I was going to be visiting a working Victorian farm to learn how to make a Christmas angel and stay in the cosiest cottage in the land, my festive cheer was near leaping-about point.
Anyone who watched the hugely popular Victorian Farm series will be familiar with the Acton Scott estate, a sprawling 1,500 acres of glorious Shropshire countryside near Church Stretton.
The estate is home to the Acton Scott Historic Working Farm, where captivated audiences witnessed the Victorian Farm team lovingly restore the dilapidated Henley Cottage and live a year of farm life, as experienced in the 1880s.
Victorian sights and smells
To wander between Acton Scott’s farm buildings and cobbled courtyards is to step back 130 years. Dedicated workers dressed in 19th-century garb dart about the place operating vintage machinery, milking cows by hand, feeding the pigs and chickens, and baking drop scones on the range in the kitchen. There’s no trill of a mobile phone, no glint of a flashy wristwatch, no whiff of aftershave. All I could smell was the homely tang of buttermilk and carbolic soap.
Ascot Scott is an actual working farm – all of its produce is supplied to local shops and cafés. As well as being a museum, Acton Scott also offers courses in traditional, forgotten rural skills such as Victorian plastering, patchwork and making dyes sourced from the hedgerows.
I’m not the most dextrous person in the world, so I thought attempting something as fiddly as making a corn dolly would bring on the stress sweats. But my tutor Margaret Newsome kept me at ease with her patient instruction and cheeky wit.
Using straw grown on the estate, she showed my friend and I the art of plaiting and twisting and knotting to make a charmingly rustic angel to be placed on top of the Christmas tree. She even taught me a new knot for keeping the angel’s wings and limbs secure, which she called the “fireman’s knot”. I quizzed her about it. “Let’s just say I got to know a fireman pretty well who taught me a few things and leave it at that,” she said with a grin.
Even with my slapdash approach to anything handicraft-related, my angel corn dolly looked pretty (right), especially after Margaret taught me how to lace some festive red ribbon through its skirt.
Cosy christmassy cottage
After a hearty lunch of sausage pie at the farm’s café, it was time to see my accommodation for the night: Henley Cottage.
Rupert Acton, the estate manager and gentleman in every sense of the word, showed me the ins and outs of the cottage – how to fire up the range, how to light the kerosene lamps and how to pump water from the well.
Everything about the cottage was authentically Victorian, from the copper pots to the horsehair-stuffed mattresses. Well, almost everything. There was a surprise waiting for me in the outhouse – a very snazzy 21st-century shower and toilet. I tried to pretend I hadn’t seen it.
The coal range was easier to use than I thought – my friend and I managed to whip up a tasty broth made from vegetables we picked in the garden, though we did have a few mugs of tepid tea because we got impatient for the kettle to boil. Amateurs.
It was only when it started to get dark that the Victorian experience really set in for me. I lit the lamps, sat by the fire and poured myself a tankard of local ale. I even sang a chorus of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, much to the bewilderment of my friend. My only regret was not having a vintage nightie to wear to bed.
How to get there
Acton Scott village lies just off the A49 between Church Stretton and Craven Arms.
Acton Scott Historic Working Farm
Acton Scott, near Church Stretton SY6 6QQ
01694 781 307
The museum is closed from October to March but the
farm runs courses throughout the year. It is also holding Christmas open days on 5 and 12 December, where you can learn how to make festive decorations, feed up on mince pies and sing carols.
Acton Scott Estate, Shropshire
0845 268 0785
This former farm labourer’s dwelling sleeps up to five people, has a tin bath for bathing by the fire and a vegetable and herb patch that guests are welcome to use.
Acton Scott Estate, Shropshire
Have your own eco-friendly encampment in the woods
with an outdoor hot tub, wind-up gramophone and discovery
tent for children and the young at heart.