A History of Ambridge in 100 Objects?

A post from Felicity Macdonald-Smith, following her paper on the same at conference in Sheffield this year.

I began my talk on the material culture of Ambridge at the Academic Archers 2019 conference in Sheffield by referring to Neil MacGregor’s Radio 4 series and subsequent book ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ (MacGregor, 2012), in which he ‘retell[s] humanity’s history through the objects we have made’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nrtd2/episodes/downloads, accessed 8 May 2019). The objects he chose ranged from a 2,000-year old Egyptian mummy, via a Roman silver cup, an Easter Island statue, porcelain vases from the Chinese Yuan dynasty, and an early Victorian tea set, to a 21st century credit card and solar-powered lamp.

The term ‘material culture’ was probably first used about objects like these by General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, writing in 1875, when he defined it as ‘the outward signs and symbols of particular ideas of the mind’ (Hannan & Longair, 2017). Pitt-Rivers donated his collection of ethnographic and archaeological objects to found the Pitt-Rivers’ Museum in Oxford. Other explorers and collectors were inspired by his gift and the museum now holds over 500,000 items, organised by functional categories, e.g. arms and armour, food and food preparation, medicines and medical instruments, coins and currency etc.

As a follow-up to my talk, Cara Courage suggested that the Facebook group might try to add to the list of Ambridge objects I had put forward, with the aim of getting to a total of 100. Not surprisingly, the group rose to the challenge with great enthusiasm, and 143 different objects were proposed, in 185 comments.

I made several attempts to reduce this to a round 100, using various methods:

  • Not including landscape and locations, however evocative of numerous life-changing events, based on an early definition of material culture as ‘that segment of humankind’s biosocial environment which has been purposely shaped by people according to culturally dictated plans’ (Schlereth 1985, my italics). I also excluded whole buildings, despite them being objects of cultural significance. [Lakey Hill, the motorway service station where Heather died, the village shop, The Bull, the urinals at the Cat & Fiddle, the bar from Nelson’s wine bar].

  • Eliminating animals (even stuffed) on the grounds that they constitute specimens rather than artefacts. [Captain, Scruff, llamas, Hilda Ogden, the badger shot by David, the dead fish found in the Am by Kirsty].

  • Rather reluctantly, I also omitted Joe’s Farmers’ Lung, on the grounds of intangibility, although I suppose an X-ray might have been possible (RIP Joe – although this has not yet happened at the time of writing).
    I merged suggestions where they referred to the same character, e.g. for Lilian – a gin bottle, her favourite gin glass, and a packet of fags.

I submitted a further enquiry to the Facebook group, about items which had been suggested, but I couldn’t clearly remember from my personal listening history. Other contributors were able to elucidate in a few cases, but where doubt remained, I omitted them, on the grounds that they were probably part of a minor incident and as such, not very memorable. My readers are free to disagree! [‘the locket’ - unspecified, may have been given to Lizzie by Nigel; ‘tree festooned with HeatherPet’s toilet rolls’ - not an actual incident, just a reminder of Ruth’s father’s occupation; ‘Fabrice’s CCTV’ - don’t remember any mention of this or any reason why it would be significant].

At this point I started to classify the items into groups. In the spirit of Pitt-Rivers, these were not chronological, but were categories such as ‘agricultural machinery/implements/vehicles’ or ‘food and drink’. This is when I realised that a significant number of the suggestions related to specific incidents, such as the Sid/Jolene shower scene (sorry!) or Shula playing the recorder on Christmas Day at the age of ten (someone clearly has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Ambridge history!).

This led to a complete rethink: what 100 items truly reflect the material culture of Ambridge, rather than the plotlines of the drama – oops! I mean events which have occurred during the timeline of the documentary? So here is my attempt at ‘A History of Ambridge in 100 Objects’. The numbers in brackets indicate where they were nominated by more than one person. I also had fun adding further objects in the process of categorising, because they seemed to be iconic and essential ‘signs and symbols of particular ideas of the mind’ (Pitt-Rivers, 1875 see above).

Agricultural machinery/vehicles/implements/buildings
Many of these items represent ‘traditional’ farming methods, rather than modern, intensive, factory-farming, and as such are a reminder of the origins of the programme, which was supposed to be an educational tool for the post-war agricultural community. One notable exception is the polytunnel, which has additional connotations, as a site for romantic encounters.

1.       a pig ark (3)

2.       David’s toy farm (2)

3.       Bartleby’s pony trap

4.       farm implements belonging to the first generation of Archers: Dan (billhook and plough-horse harness) and Doris (lambing tongs)

5.       one of Jill’s beehives

6.       Tom Forrest’s shotgun

7.       Tony’s old Fergie tractor

8.       a piece of farm machinery salvaged and resold by Josh

9.       the chicken shed (‘egg mobile’) built by Bert Fry for the Fairbrothers

10.   a polytunnel

11.   a quad bike

12.   one of the caravans where the fruit pickers lived

Sadly, in light of current storylines (Ed’s involvement with Tim, and Brian’s contamination case), we should add to this category:

13.   a container of illegal pesticide

This category is a loose collection of places, buildings and other items which illustrate participatory aspects of village life.

14.   the tabard (and supervisor badge) worn by Susan in the village shop, run by the community (2)

15.   a copy of the Borchester Echo (2) – I imagine this to be a typical local paper, containing reports on school sports days, the flower and produce show, parish council elections etc.

16.   a copy of Borsetshire Life – a more upmarket publication, with photos of the Hunt Ball and ‘county set’ weddings

17.   a microphone from Radio Borsetshire

18.   Martha Woodford’s phonebox (2)

19.   Martha Woodford’s hanging baskets

20.   a bell from St Stephen’s, to represent both the bellringers and the bells that fell down from the tower

21.   the church flower rota

22.   a Loxley Barrett school photo

23.   ‘object to represent Borchester Land’ (AGM agenda?)

24.   ‘object to represent Rodway & Watson’ (house sale details?)

25.   the cricket nets and the single wicket trophy

26.   a women’s cricket ‘box’ – deserves a separate listing!

27.   a pantomime script, a cuttings book of reviews, and the ‘fake bum’

28.   a Brownie uniform (they were involved in one of Lynda’s productions)

29.   the maypole/maypole ribbons (maypole dancing also organised by Lynda)

30.   the local history book written by Jennifer Aldridge and John Tregorran (Tregorran & Aldridge, 1982)

31.   the ‘shop closed’ sign from Nelson Gabriel’s antique shop

32.   one of Brenda Tucker’s marketing leaflets

33.   a badge from the SAVE (Save the Ambridge Vale Environment) campaign

34.   a birthday card – always delivered by hand and in person

35.   the Freda Fry trophy from the flower and produce show

36.   a copy of the WI magazine

37.   a vintage cup and saucer from the tearoom

38.   the bunting (of course!)

The last two items in this category are not strictly ‘communal’ as they are situated in Lynda Snell’s garden, but they illustrate the villagers’ amused tolerance of the antics of incomers:

39.   the Resurgam stone – also commemorating the flood

40.   Lynda’s shepherd’s hut, built by Eddie to her design (more or less!)

“... people sediment possessions, lay them down as foundations, material walls mortared with memory, strong supports that come into their own when times are difficult and the people who laid them down face experiences of loss.” (Miller 2008)

41.   the Grace Archer window in St Stephen’s

42.   Debbie’s jewellery box, with the ballerina ‘that doesn’t stand up any more’ – reclaimed by Debbie when the Aldridges were leaving the Home Farm farmhouse

43.   the old sofa in the Home Farm kitchen – reminisced about as a centre of family life by Jennifer and Peggy on the same occasion

44.   the home-made Christmas tree decorations at Lower Loxley – the subject of a conversation between Lily and Rex

45.   the mangle which had belonged to ‘My Susan’, Joe Grundy’s late wife

46.   Ornament of a Staffordshire bull terrier, given to Jack by Peggy, in memory of Captain

47.   old toys: David’s farm (again), Henry’s rabbit, Ruairi’s Mousie

Food and drink
Not easy to include in a collection such as the Pitt-Rivers Museum, or the British Museum, but since the Ambridge museum is a virtual one, possible deterioration will be disregarded. Local produce and home cooking feature strongly in this group.

48.   a Borsetshire Beauty apple

49.   Borsetshire Blue cheese

50.   Bridge Farm kefir

51.   Label from ‘Tom Archer sausages’

52.   Freda Fry’s hotpot recipe/casserole dish

53.   Aunty Satya’s favourite recipe

54.   lemon drizzle cake and cake tin – preventative measures against Type 2 diabetes (Michael 2017)

55.   Jill’s flapjack – also comes under the heading of ‘community’, as used in activism!

56.   Carol’s ‘herbal’ teas

57.   a pint of Shires (3) – the preferred drink of most of the Ambridge male population and representing the pub as a social centre of village life

58.   Cider Club shed (and loo), cider press (2), glass of Tumble Tussock cider (“actually dissolves spoons” Banks-Smith, 2019)

59.   a few turkey feathers (from the Grundy pre-Christmas enterprise)

60.   a bottle of Scruff ‘craft’ gin

61.   the Brookfield aga – also fits into to the categories of ‘community’ and ‘agriculture’

62.   a menu from “the takeaway on the bypass”

63.   a box which once contained frozen pizza

Clothing and jewellery
Some of these items refer to specific incidents, but nevertheless can also be seen to typify cultural or community activities.

64.   Nigel’s gorilla suit (2)

65.   Jolene’s country & western outfit

66.   Eddie’s hat with horns

67.   Joe’s trick trousers that the ferret got stuck in

68.   Molly Button’s tap shoes

69.   Brian’s/Nelson’s cravat

70.   Shula’s cream cardigan

71.   a pair of running shoes (Usha’s/Annabelle’s/Alistair’s?)

72.   the necklace Helen claimed to have made at evening class when she started seeing Rob

73.   Nigel’s mother’s brooch (given to Lizzie) and brooch given to Ruth by Jill

74.   Pat’s wedding ring (an eternity ring)

75.   the bracelet Pat had received from Helen, which she gave to Natasha for Christmas (5)

This last item deserves special mention, because it was – perhaps surprisingly - the most popular of all those mentioned by members of the Facebook group. In terms of material culture, I think this incident tells us quite a lot: it reflects Pat’s belief that gifts given and received should be of similar monetary value (she was embarrassed that Natasha had brought lavish presents for all the family); it shows that she doesn’t want to appear ungenerous to her son’s girlfriend, or possibly that she doesn’t want to lay herself open to criticism by Natasha; and could also be interpreted by future historians as illustrating the acceptability of the practice of ‘re-gifting’, although Helen certainly did not find it acceptable.

Although this grouping contains items representative of specific village characters, they can also be seen as representative of class, attitudes, hobbies or occupations.

76.   Nelson Gabriel’s black satin sheets (2)

77.   Mr Snowy ice-cream van (2)

78.   Eddie’s guitar

79.   Clarrie’s dresser, damaged in the flood and unsuccessfully restored by Eddie and Joe

80.   a piece of furniture ‘upcycled’ by Fallon

81.   Lilian’s gin bottle and cigarettes/ashtray

82.   a book on ‘choosing a name for your baby’ in which Lilian has written ‘Mungo? Seriously???’

83.   Jim’s classic Riley

84.   Kate’s smudging sticks

85.   Information leaflets on having a baby by AI (Helen) and surrogacy (Adam & Ian)

86.   Photo of Mrs Antrobus with her dogs

87.   Kenton’s bouncy castle

88.   Ben’s airgun

89.   Lily’s Gwen John painting (left to her by Nigel for her 18th birthday)

90.   Freddie’s secret stash

91.   Russ’s multi-temperature kettle

92.   Susan’s chilli con carne recipe

93.   Jennifer’s kitchen: special sink, taps, food mixer, wine fridge

94.   Thor’s hammer (Mjolnir) made by Chris Carter

95.   the ‘fairy’ doors constructed in the woods as part of one of the Grundy money-making escapades

96.   Usha’s Hindu statue (installed at the vicarage, to Shula’s dismay)

97.   Walter Gabriel’s leech jar

98.   Fabrice’s scissors

99.   Cutlery Derek Fletcher used to juggle with at village shows

100.                        Leonard’s sketches of snowdrops

Thank you to the Academic Archers Facebook community for your suggestions: comments and further ideas always welcome!


Banks-Smith, N., ‘The Archers’ Joe Grundy: farewell from me and the ferrets’, The Guardian, 25 April 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/apr/25/nancy-banks-smith-on-the-archers-joe-grundy-farewell-from-me-and-the-ferrets [accessed 20 June 2019]
Hannan, L., and Longair, S., History through Material Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017).
MacGregor, N., A History of the World in 100 Objects (London: Penguin, 2012).
Michael, C., ‘The Ambridge Paradox: Cake Consumption and Metabolic Health in a Defined Rural Population’, in C. Courage and N. Headlam (eds), Custard, Culverts and Cake: Academics on Life in The Archers (Bingley: Emerald Publishing, 2017).
Miller, D., The Comfort of Things (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008).
Schlereth, T.J., ‘Material Culture Research and Historical Explanation’, The Public Historian, 7:4 (1985), 21-36, p.21 [cited in Hannan and Longair, see above].
Tregorran, J., and Aldridge, J., Ambridge: an English village through the ages (London: Borchester Press, 1982). [Really written by William Smethurst and published in association with Methuen by arrangement with the British Broadcasting Corporation.]