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Keeping rural skills alive
12:12pm Thursday 26th February 2009 in Going Green
“TODAY looks like a good day for ploughing, for cutting some furrows”, says Alex Langlands, on the overcast day we met.
Alex is one of a trio of archaeologists and historians who spent a year living as Victorian farmers for a BBC television series. His natural enthusiasm for the outdoor life is self-evident, as he explains that, as a farmer “you are constantly aware every morning of the weather”.
Since the year-long project of running a small tenant farm in Shropshire circa 1880 finished in August, Alex, who lives in a village near Salisbury, has returned to academia and Anglo-Saxon archaeology working at Winchester University.
I was intrigued to find out what had hit Alex the hardest when he returned to 21st century life.
“The traffic – it has become my pet hate. I want to ask everyone – do you realise how infected with traffic your lives are?
“Looking to the past is not about going back to the Stone Age, or wartime diets. A green future is about spending less time on the road and more time with your family and in the garden getting physically fit.” The television series finished in January and was a huge success, even topping Celebrity Big Brother for ratings in its first week. Alex puts this success down to the period they were living in.
“You are just that generation away, it is tantalising. Grandparents turned round to their children and grandchildren and said – ‘I did that’. It is so important that rural skills are not lost forever.”
Asked what he enjoyed most from his year and Alex says it had to be working with animals, and heavy horses in particular.
“Once you have worked with a Shire horse, it makes you completely rethink.
I would like to see Jeremy Clarkson working a team of shire horses and then see what he says about driving a Ferrari. Nothing compares to having two tons of muscle at your beck and call, the sheer power is amazing.”
Green living is nothing new to Alex. Having been brought up in rural Sussex surrounded by the rolling hills of the South Downs, his love for the countryside developed from an early age. “Sheep roamed the land that made England and I would like to see more sheep on the downs. I try to wear wool all the time, preferably from British-reared sheep.”
“Everyone can turn the heating down and put on a woolly jumper, it is so simple,” he says.
His cottage is heated by a woodburning stove, using wood that is ‘free to collector’ off-cuts and Alex cannot go past a skip without glancing an eye over it. “I am a great skip raider. I get this passion from my father, he is the suburban Robinson Crusoe and a real inspiration, never buying anything unless he absolutely has to.”
Alex has always had a keen interest in rural crafts, as has his brother Tom, who made the leather boots he wore in the television programme. “It was very wet in Shropshire but my boots stayed bone dry thanks to a Victorian recipe for waterproofing using tallow, beeswax and pitch, which I shall continue to use.”
Meeting Alex, you cannot help but be swept up in infectious enthusiasm for all things green and it is no surprise to find out that he stood as a Green Party candidate during the last round of elections for Salisbury district council.
“Climate change is a very real threat and we are only just waking up to the amount of energy we use. People should demand more from government and ask ‘Where does our energy come from’?”
In the 1890s market gardens surrounded towns and cities in Britain and Alex thinks this is another way forward. “We need to start supporting local produce and keeping money local.” “If we were to take the Victorian’s ingenuity and use it today, we would have a better, greener Britain.”