SARAH SINGLETON chats to Hilda Sheehan about how Swindon’s Richard Jefferies Museum is making a difference

Inside the hustle and bustle of modern day Swindon hides a pocket of 19th century rural England.

It would be easy to miss this old farmhouse, with its stone walls, thatched roof, old pig sties and mulberry tree.

A remnant of Swindon’s agricultural and literary past, it is the birthplace of Swindon’s famous Victorian nature writer, Richard Jefferies.

Stepping off the busy A4259 and into the grounds of the museum is like entering a secret garden, a place where the magic which Jefferies wrote about in his books still lingers, and where thousands of Swindon’s children, who might otherwise miss out, have a precious chance to connect with nature.

This year the Arts Council agreed to support Arts@Jefferies with a £55,000 grant towards the £100,000 18-month programme – and already local people are feeling the benefit. Within a few years, the museum has been transformed and now welcomes thousands of visitors for an extraordinary range of events.

“We’re working with young people from St Joseph’s Catholic College, those who are struggling to access the curriculum, for example, because of language barriers,” said Hilda Sheehan, the museum’s creative director, who runs the museum with Mike Pringle.

“Children from Goddard Park Primary School are also visiting the museum, and some of the pupils there could be described as coming from an area of deprivation. We really want to engage those who might not normally be exposed to the arts, and to give every child a chance to gain an Arts Award.”

As part of this project to give everyone a chance to engage with the arts, the programme includes lots of free events, including the series of Culture and Cream Tea Sunday afternoons – most recently a performance of As You Like It by the Handlebards.

“We are trying to make as much free as we can,” Hilda explained. “We have this beautiful museum with a wonderful garden, and lots of fantastic ideas we want to share. Richard Jefferies is an inspiring figure and it is important Swindon knows about him.

“He was a socialist and an ecologist and he believed in equality. When he was writing there was a lot of poverty, and he thought the world must be mad if children were allowed to live without a roof or food, yet now we still have children in that state.”

Jefferies, 1848-87, was the son of a farmer who spend his school holidays enjoying the Wiltshire countryside. As a young man he worked as a reporter – and indeed wrote for the Swindon Advertiser and was encouraged in his writing by the founder and editor of the paper, William Morris. When he married, Jefferies lived at 93 Victoria Road, in a building which bears a plaque in his memory.

Later he moved to London, and published a series of essays and books, drawing on his experience of life in the countryside and his deep passion for nature and his intense experiences of the natural world, including Wood Magic: A Fable, and Bevis: The Story of a Boy, which are based on many his own childhood memories of Coate Water, and its animal residents.

Now the Richard Jefferies Museum is giving children and young people a chance to tune into the world Jefferies described and to experience the world of Bevis.

“We want to engage as many people as possible into the arts, culture and nature, and to reconnect children with playing in nature,” Hilda said.

The mulberry tree Jefferies describes is still growing in the garden. The garden has a pond, a bridge and a boat, a little theatre area, a copse and an orchard, a play area with a den. It even has its own railway station – since the Coate miniature railway extends to the museum.

“It is a story landscape, and everywhere you tread is a story,” Hilda said. “Bevis had a boat to sail on Coate Water, and we have a boat. We use a lot from Wood Magic – it tells of the birds and animals that lived in the garden of this place. The main character is a magpie called Capchack, and there is a pigeon and they are at war fighting over the orchard. It is quite brutal so we do retell is sensitive to the needs of modern children.”

The museum is made up of the 17th century thatched cottage bought by the Jefferies family in 1800, as well as a later 19th century three-storey farmhouse. Owned by Swindon Borough Council, it is run by the Richard Jefferies Museum Trust, which took over the museum as a charity in 2014.

It has an extensive collection relating to Jefferies, including first editions of his writings, photographs and paintings. Inside, much of the house has been restored to create the atmosphere of a Victorian farmhouse, but it is also a vibrant space for art and creativity.

The museum is a venue for all sorts of events, workshops and classes, and works with diverse groups such as the Alzheimer’s Society, the Down’s Syndrome Society, Mind, community groups and libraries. It will also be the venue for the Swindon Poetry Festival, October 1-7.

“In 2012 about 1,000 visitors a year came here, and only 69 of those were children,” Hilda said. “Last year we had 8,000 visitors and about 5,000 were children. We are set to have around 12,000 visitors this year.”

Further interesting plans in the pipeline include an online arboretum – a tree collection going beyond the museum, encouraging children to respond to trees in a creative and artistic way.

Next up on the programme is an Apple Day (October 14-15), resurrecting an old Swindon and Wiltshire tradition with vintage machinery to crush, mash and press local apples in the first stage of traditional cider making, and then for Halloween, hot chocolate and stories around the fire (October 28).

For more information about the museum and its events, visit the website