The nation’s rural past revealed in Britain on Film: Rural Life

Discover vanished rural life on film across the UK with more than 750 archive films added to BFI Player as part of Britain on Film.

Haymaking - Trebettyn, Cowbridge (1949)

Haymaking - Trebettyn, Cowbridge (1949)

The BFI today announces Rural Life, the release online of over 750 films from 1900 to 1999, many unseen since they were first shown. The films form part of the BFI’s Britain on Film project, that reveals hidden histories and forgotten stories of people and places from every corner of Great Britain from the UK’s key film and TV archives, available for free on BFI Player via an interactive map. The archive films will also be visiting over 125 locations around the country for special screenings and events.

Rural Life charts the changing countryside and rural life, highlighting activities, pursuits and traditions still surviving today, as well as customs, trades and skills that have since dwindled or disappeared. Viewers can enjoy a whistle-stop tour of Scotland’s lochs and mountains in 1924, learn about ‘Hot Coppers’, the 150-year-old-custom – now extinct – once practised in the ancient town of Beaumaris (1929), explore Northern Irish countryside – tranquil and beautiful even as the Troubles rage elsewhere – and see a youthful Gloria Hunniford performing in 1986, there is also a rare glimpse from 1946 of the now globally threatened bird, the mistle thrush.

Robin Baker, Head Curator, BFI National Archive said:

“These films offer an unrivalled record of our rural heritage in all its richness across the 20th century. It’s an immersive experience to watch them, and often deeply moving. People who live and work in the countryside will be fascinated to see how their forbears used to live. Like many other city dwellers, I was born and bred in the countryside, and this collection of films offers all of us an extraordinary and very real social history of the British countryside. It’s a very potent portrait of an often neglected cornerstone of our national life.”

The films in Rural Life date from 1900 to 1999 and are drawn from the collections of the BFI National Archive and the UK’s Regional and National Film Archives, with content spanning the whole of the UK. Anyone can explore Britain’s rural past through the Britain on Film map, which reveals films shot in almost every county. Since Britain on Film’s launch, over 6 million people have accessed their country’s film heritage through BFI Player and social media channels. With this new collection, there are now over 5,000 films to see online – 97% of which are free. By 2017, thanks to National Lottery funding and the support of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, 10,000 film and TV titles from 1895 to the present day will be newly digitised and available to view.

West of England (1951)

West of England (1951)

Rural Life presents an illuminating and moving record of Britain’s changing countryside and its people, highlighting staple traditions like village pageants, farm shows and harvest festivals, Morris Dancers and Queens of the May. Rural Life also sheds light on local peculiarities such as Somerset’s Punky Night lantern procession, Bacup’s coconut dance or Ardboe’s Wishing Tree. There are fairs, fêtes and festivals as well as countless other seasonal celebrations, while that great British institution, the village pub, features throughout. The gorgeous heritage of rural pursuits is captured in films about sporting events. Hunting (and hunt saboteurs) and horseracing feature alongside newer additions like motocross. Idyllic country holidays are captured in evocative amateur films, while travelogues offer enticing sights to lure more hikers and ramblers. There are also films exploring the varied history of farming and agricultural techniques, from sowing to harvesting. These are films which give a rich historical insight into the way we lived outside of big towns and cities, with landscapes and people who could have walked off the pages of Thomas Hardy, Walter Scott, John Betjeman or Catherine Cookson.

The BFI will also release, on BFI Player as well as DVD and Blu-ray, Peter Hall’s unjustly neglected Akenfield (1974), which features several Suffolk villages. To mark this release, three special screenings will be held in the woodland ‘theatre’ on Jimmy’s Farm near Ipswich on 8, 9 and 10 July 2016 with accompanying BBQ and bar.

National Film Archive highlights

Northern Ireland – Song of Ulster (1986): These idyllic scenes in Ulster, including a sun-dappled Lough Erne, were shot at the height of the Troubles. A youthful Gloria Hunniford entertains guests in the Slieve Donard Hotel.

May Fair (1960): This enchanting portrait of Ballyclare’s annual fête see horses take over the main street and the sounds of bumper cars compete with the gospel meeting at the May Fair. Fancy dress and fairground rides steal the show despite the sober song of the congregation.

Scotland – Auld Ayrshire (1930): Enchanting stencil-coloured footage of the beauties of Burns country, including Alloway, Loch Doon (“The outstretching lake embosom’d mang the hills”), and the Vale of Stinchar.

Wales – Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy/The Bandits of Mawddwy (1935): The legend of red-haired robbers who were notorious in Mawddwy in the 16th century, as dramatised by a gifted amateur filmmaker with help from the local community.

On the Isle of Anglesey Topical Budget (1929): A Topical Budget newsreel from Beaumaris. What made the Anglesey Hunt newsworthy was its observance of a 150-year-old custom – the throwing of heated coins, known as ‘Hot Coppers’, to the locals at the end of the hunt.

Regional Film Archive highlights

Eastern England – The Village Pet (1931): A heart-warming newsreel introduces Billy, the ‘pet’ seal as he tentatively accepts a fish supper from his adoptive family – the good folks of Warham in Norfolk. Billy was caught in the Wash and rehoused in the village pond.

Suffolk Show from a Woman’s Angle (1973): This Anglia TV showcase of activities for female visitors of the Suffolk Show in Ipswich (presumably while their husbands or fathers are checking out the livestock or agricultural machinery) is unintentionally hilarious. Highlights include a Woman’s Weekly fashion parade, plus there are demonstrations of weaving, macramé and tapestry making.

North East England – O’Er Hill and Dale (1937): This classic early documentary, filmed on a farm in the Cheviot Hills bordering Scotland, is a tender account of a day in the life of a shepherd, Mr Martin. In one scene he deploys some canny trickery to dupe a sheep into adopting a lamb.

Tyneside Vagabonds (1960): A Northumberland cyclo-cross ride on the wild side with the Tyneside Vagabonds. Mired in mud, cyclo-cross riders with true grit are more off the bike than on in this quirky winter sport, captured on film by cycling fan Milton Newton.

North West England – Postman Plus (1970): Join rural postman Maurice Stout on his 25-mile route from Penrith, in the scenic but often challenging terrain around Ullswater. This is a ‘small scale’ service, but it is a vital lifeline for isolated customers.

Fair Hill (1975): Unseen footage of Appleby Horse Fair, an annual Horse Fair still held each June. The quiet market town of Appleby erupts into life as thousands of gypsies and travellers gather for this unique event.

The Midlands – Whitwell Twinned with Paris (1980): Footage from Whitwell village in Rutland, which ambitiously twinned itself with Paris. All the clichés of France are on show, from Citroens to onions, while Can-Can girls and some dodgy accents suggest this ‘twinning’ is more a product of the saloon bar than the international diplomacy table.

Canal Bargee (1966): From Norbury Junction in Staffordshire, Jack Roberts travels the Shropshire Union canal and remembers the days of the fly-boats, the high speed canal system that tried to compete with rail and road. It might not be the fastest way to travel, but as one of the final canal bargees using a horse, Jack’s is a way of life that’s under threat by 20th century progress.

South East England – A Honey Country (1950): The hives of Hampshire are the centrepiece of this tour of the county, ranging from Aldershot to Bournemouth.

Kent Hop Farming (1930): The September hop harvest in Kent was the cause of a huge annual migration for more than a century, as tens of thousands of workers, mostly from East London, descended for a welcome rural break. This fascinating film, shot around Goldwell and Biddenden, showcases a ritual long lost to mechanisation.

South West England – Hexworthy and the House Built in a Day (1969): The story of Jolly Lane Cott, a stone cottage built in a single day on Dartmoor National Park in 1835. According to the unwritten laws of the moor, if a house could be built in one day, then the builder of such a house could remain, obtaining the grazing rights to the open land on the moor.

Village Life In Somerset (1934): This unnamed village looks almost too quaint to be true, with its cycling postman, ambling cows, ducklings, shire horses and piglets. The film may feature more than one village and perhaps was intended more as a paean to the delights of 1930s village life than a record of a particular village.

BFI DVD and Blu-ray releases

Sir Peter Hall’s Akenfield (1974) features a cast of non-professional actors drawn from the communities of several Suffolk villages and traces three generations of one Suffolk family and their lives in the farming industry. Loosely based on Ronald Blythe’s acclaimed book Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, the film offers an authentic depiction of country life over the changing seasons.

The film will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in a Dual Format Edition on 18 July 2016, followed by a screening at BFI Southbank on Wednesday 20 July with an on-stage panel discussion afterwards. Three special screenings will be held at Jimmy’s Farm near Ipswich on 8, 9 and 10 July 2016 in the woodland ‘theatre’ with accompanying BBQ and bar.

Pat O’Connor’s A Month in the Country (1987) adapted from J L Carr’s novel, is set during a 1920s summer in rural Yorkshire. Tom Birkin (Colin Firth, in his first lead role), a destitute World War I veteran coming to terms with the after-effects of the war, has been employed by a village church to carry out restoration work on a medieval mural and forms a close friendship with fellow veteran James Moon (Kenneth Branagh). A Month in the Country will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in a Dual Format Edition on 20 June 2016.

Andrew Grieve’s On the Black Hill (1987) is based on Bruce Chatwin’s award-winning novel and depicts the life of a rural farming family set in the beautiful Welsh Border country. Starring Bob Peck (Jurassic Park) and Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones’s Diary), and will be released on DVD on 22 August 2016

UK-wide activity

The BFI Film Audience Network (FAN) will be staging over 160 screening events in 129 locations. Full details and how to book these events can be found at

Northern Ireland – Beyond the City: Archive film of rural crafts and Northern Ireland will be shown with music at a number of venues over the summer including the Unesco Heritage Site – Marble Arch Caves and on an island on Lough Neagh.

Scotland – Sensing Place: The Sensing Place project will work with archive film to explore stories behind the films and strengthen access and understanding for rural communities.

Made on Our Land: The project will access some of Scotland’s remote rural screening venues in the Highlands and the islands in order to screen local archive films with post screening discussion.

Wales – Cinemaes Eisteddfod: Screening of Welsh language film from the archives and workshops at the world renowned cultural festival of Eisteddfod at Abergavenny from 29 July to 5 August.

Archive on Wheels, Wales and Western England: A substantial programme of rural archive screenings across Wales and the West Country will tour Agricultural Shows and Festivals. Archive on Wheels will be screening archive films – in the places they were filmed – at agricultural shows throughout the area. Confirmed dates include:

  • 17 to 19 June – across three county shows in Malvern
  • 18 and 21 July –  Royal Welsh Show, Builth Wells
  • 6 August – Oswestry Show
  • 20 August – Minsterley Show
  • 10 September – Kington Show
  • 17 September – Ellesmere Festival

Eastern England – Sounds of Silents, Norfolk and Suffolk: Archive film of rural Norfolk and Suffolk will be brought to life by a young, live band at the Folk East Festival in at Glemham Hall, Suffolk on 21 August and the Octagon Chapel, Norwich in October.

Akenfield and archive, Suffolk: The iconic and well-loved film of rural Suffolk life makes its digital premiere at Jimmy’s Farm this July as part of a special weekend of archive film. Both Akenfield and Babe will screen from 8 to 10 July with accompanying bar and BBQ. Follow link for ticket information at

Our Rural Heritage, Norfolk and Suffolk: A programme of archive film showcasing newly digitised rural archive films will be screened across the Creative Arts East Village Screen Network and at rural focused heritage venues such at Gressenhall, Norfolk and Stowmarket in Suffolk.

North England – the North on Film: Rural, Yorkshire, Cumbria and North East: A new touring programme with film shows, screenings and events in venues from festivals to local village halls, taking place across Cumbria, Yorkshire and the North East of England to be announced in the coming months. The events will offer audiences the opportunity to find out more about Britain on Film from curators at the regional film archives.

The Midlands – Central Shorts, Central England Counties: New short compilations of Britain on Film: Rural Life footage will screen before feature films in venues across Central England in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire.

South East England – Moving History, Rural South East: Compilations of films showing our changing rural landscape will be shown over a number of days at each of three County Shows and at the History of Hop Farming exhibition at the Museum of English Rural Life.

South of England County Show at Ardingley, West Sussex – 9 to 11 June: A programme of archive film with music showcasing the changing nature of our rural landscape over the last century and the changes to traditional farming and rural craft practices used by generations before the mechanisation of agricultural farming.

New Forest Show, Brockenhurst, Hampshire – 26 to 28 July:  A programme of archive with music showcasing footage from Wessex Film and Sound Archive (WFSA).  This programme will reflect the rural life of the Wessex sub-region in the 20th century, particularly the changes following the two World Wars.

Kent History & Library Centre, Maidstone, Kent – September/October: An exhibition devoted to the history of hop-farming in the region, using films from Screen Archive South East, will run for two months and be free to the public. Hosted public screenings for special interest groups will take place throughout the autumn.

The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, Berkshire has embarked on ‘Our Country Lives’, a Heritage Lottery Funded redevelopment project, that will engage a new generation with rural heritage through themed displays, innovative interpretation and an exciting programme of activities. Following the new galleries re-opening in the summer, MERL will show films from Wessex Film and Sound Archive and Screen Archive South East.

South West England – Equinox, City Farm in Bristol: In September, a focus on rural myths and legends supported by SWFTA archive at City Farm – a key rural venue in Bristol with archive being screened in a pig pen as part of an immersive walking trail of archive driving the audience to the Britain on Film map ahead of a ‘Wickerman’ and archive film screening.

Making Hay, across the South West: South West Film & TV Archive will present some archive compilations supported by talks and music offering an insight into how we lived our lives across the rural counties. ‘Making Hay’ will tour a number of County and Country Shows across Devon, Dorset and Somerset between June and October. Confirmed dates include:

  • 1 to 4 June – The Royal Bath & West Show
  • 23 July –  Mid Devon Show, Tiverton
  • 10 August – Camelford Agriculture Show, North Devon

Made in Cornwall – A distinctive Cornish contribution with edits of rural themed archive footage including sports and pursuits, aimed at young audiences, at a mix of Shows and Festivals across Cornwall including the Tropical Pressure Festival 15 to 17 July with a focus on films about West African and Caribbean immigrants.

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    Britain on Film

    1,000s of films, beautifully preserved. 120 years of British life, unseen until now.

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