Having previously confessed devotion to DIY television shows, mostly on PBS, it should come as no surprise that I also have a touch of a weakness for the BBC. Not Sherlock, not Dr. Who, and definitely not Downton Abbey, but Tales From the Green Valley, a documentary series about a team of historians and archeologists recreating life on an English farm in the 1620s. TFGV dedicates one half-hour to each month in the farming year, explaining the tools, technologies, and processes at work. It came out in 2005, and is available pretty much in full on YouTube.
I stumbled across it via a later spin-off show, Tudor Monastery Farm, discovered through the urban homesteading blog Root Simple. TMF itself is really just one branch of the rabbit hole, however, as TFGV has spun off half-a-dozen shows, including Wartime Farm, Edwardian Farm, and Victorian Farm. The format for each is a kind of modified reality show: what happens when four historians are locked in a thatch-roof stone house, dressed in weird woolen underwear, fed a 17th century diet, and forced to work for their supper? It is unclear the extent to which the participants are actually living the lifestyle 24/7, as the show is edited a series of explanatory segments.
Tales From the Green Valley, just like This Old House or anything else of its genre, is hokey and stiff, made perhaps more so by the fact that it's British. Silly accents! Ponderous narration! A disturbingly deep knowledge and brief filming of Tudor bowel movements! Grating soundtrack of trilling flute! I can never fully shake the sense of adults playing dress-up, and keep waiting for someone in modern clothes to walk into the frame and tell everyone to pack up.
But then there's the work, and it's fascinating to see how it all gets done with the most primitive technologies. All tools are wooden, with only a few having cutting edges of iron or steel. All food is harvested over a few acres, using intensive, organic, rotational techniques. All buildings are timber-framed or stone, with thatch roofs and wattle-and-daub infill walls. Wood is a precious resource, and the forest is carefully managed to produce sustainable amounts of firewood, building timber, and fencing. And it was all done on a diet of bread, various stews, and beer.
British buildings of the period made for damp, drafty living. Heat was distributed poorly from a massive hearth, which was also the primary light source after dark. Even during the day, there was hardly enough light inside to do any sort of fine work like sewing. Since there was already a house, they build a cowshed in a few episodes by way of example. The side walls are stone, topped with a timber-frame gable roof and thatch. First an undercoat of bracken -- thorn-like brush that grows wild -- then a top coat of wheat straw, brushed flat with a crude rake and pinned with hazel-wood staples. The roof shed water great, insulated pretty well, was a fantastic habitat for mice, and was flammable as hell. An end wall was wattle-and-daubed, weaving thin coppiced wood around vertical posts and packing that substrate with a mixture of clay, sand, and cow dung.
The English exported wattle-and-daub here, but it fell out of favor quickly because there was so much wood in America it wasn't necessary to be so efficient. Coppicing involves cutting a young tree down, but leaving a big stub of stump. In the spring, it sprouts dozens of small branches, which are selectively pruned and allowed to regenerate, making for a near-endless supply of thin, flexible branches used for pegs, baskets, walls, and fencing. Coppiced hedges are made by cutting partway through young trees, bending them over, and pinning them to the ground. Eventually, they all grow together into an impenetrable, pig-proof bramble.
Tales From the Green Valley, like all DIY shows, is an escapist fantasy, predicated on the premise that we all dream of doing something similar one day. Legions of other shows and books have sold well on those same vapors of idle ambition. However, being historical in nature, it removes some of the pressure to actually follow through on any actual example project.
In the meantime, I enjoy seeing how to do so much with so few resources, at such a high cost in labor -- a cost that quickly illustrated why we won't be feeding the world on organic, rotational, small-farm techniques any time soon. Perhaps I will even attempt some green-wood furniture building, or at least true peg construction, without the benefit of power tools. Or maybe not. It's just a TV show.