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Countryside Museum

How we used to live

The museum features a huge collection of exhibits that mirrors changes to village life, farming, horticulture, social history and rural crafts during the early 20th century.

Alongside sits the R. A Lister Co. display of portable petrol and diesel engines found at the heart of many agricultural and industrial processes for more than a century. Our two cinemas feature films looking at the developments in agricultural machinery and history of the R/A. Lister Co. There is something uniquely eclectic and informal about the diversity of exhibits that greet visitors to the Bicton Countryside Museum.

Even in rural Devon in the early 20th century the effects were being felt, particularly in agriculture, where mechanisation and the need for greater productivity and efficiency was threatening an end to horse power and manual labour.

These changes were apparent to one man who decided something should be done to document traditional farming methods and country ways for future generations.

That man was NDG (Noel) James, Land Agent to Lord Clinton, then the owner of the Bicton Estate and one of the most prolific landowners in south Devon.  James took on the task of visiting the several hundred tenanted estate farms to search out redundant and surplus everyday items. He collected tools, household items, farm machinery and the paraphernalia of rural trades and businesses.

Everything from the mundane to the magnificent was the subject of James’s quest to document more than a century of rural life and, as word spread, it was not long before he was being offered items from further afield. Nothing, it seems, was declined, and although the majority of the collection is founded on locally sourced exhibits, others have found their way to Bicton from across the  UK, including the Home Counties, East Anglia, Scotland  and Ireland.

The James Collection, as it became known, was housed on the Bicton Estate. When Bicton Park was opened to the public in 1963, following several years of restoration, a permanent structure to house the collection was constructed. In 1998 the Park came into private ownership, since when its custodians have ensured the range of exhibits continues to grow.  Major investment in the museum to enhance the visitor experience, and the ceaseless acquisition of purchased and donated items, ensures Noel James’s legacy is secured for future generations. In addition, several films are on play in the museum including an overview video, the history of the Lister Engines and a video providing additional knowledge to a large collection of miniature steam engines. 

Apart from the museum, James had other ties with Bicton Park. He was a prolific author of books on forestry and arboriculture drawing inspiration from Bicton’s world-class collection of trees and shrubs. He wrote several of the early visitor guidebooks to Bicton Park. He was President of the Royal Forestry Society of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and President of the Chartered Land Agents Society, and was awarded the OBE for ‘services to forestry’. He died in 1993 at the age of 81 and is buried at the nearby St Mary’s Church, Bicton.

No visit to Bicton Park is complete without time spent in the Countryside Museum. It is a source of wonderment for younger visitors, a valuable educational resource for school field trips and, for visitors of a certain age, it is somewhere to reflect on gentler, simpler times with exhibits that will stir memories and emotions at every turn.

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