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Culture, Crafts and Communities

culture event at COAM

Culture, Crafts and Communities

Visit Chiltern Open Air Museum on 1 April for our By Donation day and discover how our historic buildings evoke memories for different communities living in the Chilterns.

Anna Pool from the Learning Team writes about how all communities find resonance in our wonderful collection of historic buildings from the Chilterns.

Do you ever go abroad and feel like you are at home in the surroundings? It’s funny how certain environments, buildings or objects resonate with our own personal histories and often visitors to COAM experience this. Perhaps it is because we all share a common experience of everyday life as human beings, despite our age, country of origin, mother tongue, religion or any other factors which can be seen diversive.

Certainly when I first took my Mum on a tour around the Museum I was fascinated by how many memories it brought back for her, particularly the 1940s Prefab. We spent a lot of time in there while my Mum relayed many memories of visits to her Aunt’s Prefab home in the 1950s; of washing clothes in a copper boiler just like the one in the kitchen; of listening to the wireless and of course photographs of my mother, as a baby, being pushed in a pram just like the one in the back bedroom. Sometimes it can be a particular object in a building that holds a personal memory. For me it is the highchair in the prefab’s sitting room which evokes special memories for me, as my Mum had kept a similar one which she used for my brother and I back in the 1970s, and I later used with my eldest child who is now 16. Every time I see it I am transported back in time!

It’s not just visitors from Britain that recognise the economic design of our Prefab. While showing a visitor round recently, I was surprised to hear that she had seen many Prefabs still being used as family homes in rural Russia.

Just next to our Prefab is a Nissen Hut, a military type of building of which there are some examples still around in this area. I have been lucky enough to hear many of our visitors recall memories of their own experiences of these unique buildings.

A similar Nissen Hut was used as a synagogue by the Jewish community in Haversham, near Wolverton, Buckinghamshire during WW2 until it was closed in 1947. The South Bucks Jewish community will be joining us on our opening day at COAM and will be holding their Shabbat service between 10 am – 11 am. Visitors are more than welcome to join the service and I hope to hear one or two stories from the group later in the day!

culture round house

While running education workshops I often hear both adults and children describe how they have seen or done something very similar in their home countries. The Iron Age Roundhouse seems to be a magical place of memories where visitors describe how their grandmother in India still grinds grain using a rotary quern and bakes her bread in a clay oven just like the one they see in the roundhouse. Others have walked towards the building declaring that they are ‘back in Africa’ where round homes are still built using wattle and dorb with a thatched roof.

Even during ‘wash day’ workshops I have talked with visitors from Poland and Czechoslovakia who used to help their mother wash their clothes using a wash tub and wash board; and then there is the unmistakable smell of carbolic soap which can transport any of us over a particular age, right back to our childhood!

I am sure that as you are reading this you are thinking of a building or an object that you may have seen from our collection that has special meaning for you. Please do come along on Saturday 1st April, to see some of the stories and memories we have collected from local community groups who will be joining us to support this spectacular event. And if you have not yet visited COAM then I invite you to come along to our opening event and find out which building evokes the most memories for you! To mark the opening of the Museum for the 2017 season the 1st April will also be a ‘by donation day’ for this day only we are waiving standard admission prices and allowing visitors entry to the Museum by paying a donation only.

Look out for the West Indian Story teller performing during the day at 12 pm, 2 pm and 3 pm, as well as craft demonstrations with opportunities to join in from 11 am – 4 pm including traditional weaving, Iron Age cooking, basketry and traditional thatching demonstrations in our Medieval barn.

We look forward to welcoming you to our multi- cultural day of sharing stories on 1 April, the first day of our new 2017 season.

This special multi-cultural event is kindly funded by Arts Council England.






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André the Giant

Andre the Giant

Scenes from Sky Art’s film André the Giant filmed at COAM

Chiltern Open Air Museum recently played host to a Sky Arts film about Samuel Beckett and the famous wrestler André the Giant. The film featured ‘Shameless’ star actor David Threlfall and aired recently on Sky Arts; if you missed it, it’s still available on catch up.

The filmmakers used the Museum’s rescued Haddenham Cottage and the beautiful Chilterns landscapes at the Museum to represent the French countryside where Samuel Beckett lived later in his life and commissioned a cottage to be built. The story is about André, the son of the French builder working on Beckett’s cottage: André, who has gigantism, is unable to go to school on the bus with other children so Beckett drives him to school each day in his truck.

The school scenes take place outside the Museum’s cast-iron Edwardian toilets and Astleham Cottage, which represent the French school in the story. Haddenham Cottage, which visitors to the Museum may recognise as the white cottage made from ‘wychert’ (a unique local building material), features in the first scene of this short film where Becket and André’s father are in the living room watching television. The Museum’s Victorian forge also makes an appearance as the home of André and his father, and some lovely night scenes showing the forge lit up were actually filmed early on Bonfire night, narrowly avoiding the sound of fireworks in the background!

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The Future of Volunteering

 The future of volunteering

The Future of Volunteering?

Some voluntary organisations have recently argued that there is a financial imperative to embrace new ways of volunteering. It is true that many Museums, assuming they receive any regular funding at all, are seeing cuts to their funding. If you presume that volunteers only create economic value, you could argue that volunteers may be a way to “save you money”. At Chiltern Open Air Museum we engage volunteers to “add value” to the Museum experience. This draws on the argument that volunteers produce value that is not simply economic; they produce private and social value (less tangible benefits for themselves, the organisation and society more widely). When volunteering focuses on the additional benefits of volunteering, rather than seeing it as a means to reduce costs, we make best use of volunteers’ enthusiasm, skills and knowledge.

One of these news ways of volunteering is microvolunteering, defined by Institute for Volunteering Research as “bite-size volunteering with no commitment to repeat and with minimum formality, involving short and specific actions that are quick to start and complete.” Although some organisations argue that there are clear benefits to microvolunteering, I believe that it has some critical flaws. It is suggested that the short duration and repetitive nature of microvolunteering allows organisations to target the demographics missing from their volunteer base, for example allowing parents with limited free time to volunteer. Unfortunately, this assumes that volunteering is the best use of time for those people who don’t currently volunteer. With Museums trialing new engagement strategies (see for example the Natural History Museum, who are advertising “visiteering” – a portmanteau of “visiting” and “volunteering”), I believe that they are eroding the foundations of both those activities.

The concept of “gamification” also emerges in microvolunteering: the idea that engagement can be encouraged by applying game design techniques. For example the Natural History Museum advertises: “You will be set a challenge relating to the collections”. This builds on the trend for phrasing activities as competitions, and emphasising the instant gratification that occurs with the successful completion of the “challenge”. By phrasing volunteering as “a game” or “a challenge” we are excluding those volunteers whose motivations are not aligned with this way of thinking, like those who are volunteering for social reasons or out of a sense of charity. At Chiltern Open Air Museum, we have found that value is created by consulting and working with volunteers and integrating them into a community.

It is argued that the “many hands make light work” principle applies: is it better for 100 people to give 5 minutes of their time, or for one person to volunteer for a day? When volunteering focuses on longer term aims, the relationship between the volunteer and the organisation is strengthened, and the volunteer is enabled to develop skills which cannot be cultivated when the focus is short term. While the economic value of the two situations above might be roughly equivalent, I would argue that the private and social value are much higher when the length of volunteering is increased: expertise and confidence take time to grow.

We need to become advocates of volunteering best practice before people’s expectation of volunteering is significantly altered by this trend towards microvolunteering and gamification. If we allow people to see volunteering as bite-size, informal and challenging, this does not bode well for the time when the “missing demographics” become our “core demographic”. We must ensure that volunteering opportunities have value and that the experience is meaningful.

George Hunt
Visitor Services Team Leader

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The Art of Yealming

Master thatchers at COAM

The Art of Yealming

Master thatcher’s Mark and Roger have done a fine job transforming Leagrave cottage with a new coat of longstraw thatch. I had the opportunity to have a go at thatching I started on the ground, trying my hand at the art of yealming. This is a job a great many of the building volunteers shudder at the thought of, having yealmed some of the thatch for Marsworth.

For those not knowledgeable in longstraw terminology (and there is a lot of it, often particular to each region), the yealm is a bundle of straw about 13cm deep and as wide as the thatcher can happily handle – this makes up the basic unit for longstraw thatch that the thatcher fixes to the roof in courses.

Before I started yealming, Mark had already made up a large yealming bed of straw, dampened it, and placed a board on top to keep it a little compressed. From the bed, I pulled out handfuls of straw and placed them in front of the bed so that most of the stems were going in the same direction to make a smaller pile of straw about 10cm high.

The art of yealming

Mark and Roger sitting down on the job in front of a yealming bed

You want most of the ears on one side and the butts on the other but a slight mix is inevitable. Starting from one side of the smaller bed, I separated as much of the straw as I needed to make a yealm, and brushed the back of my hands through it to take out some of the smaller stems and leaves and make doubly sure the majority of the stems were going in the right direction.

When I was happy with how it looked, I picked up the yealm fairly loosely and gave it a tap on the ground so the end of mostly butts started at the same place. This is very important as this is the end that will be exposed on the roof and what you want to achieve is a smooth hole-free surface of thatch.  Any stems that don’t drop to the bottom when tapping the yealm you can picture as holes in the coat of thatch – not what you want at all!

The yealm is then stacked up into piles of four or five, which is called a bundle, and tied up ready to be taken up to the roof. Piling them up in different directions is enough to prevent the yealms from merging.

Bundle of Yealm

A tied bundle of four yealms

Straw is unlike most other building materials I can think of so it really took a while for me to understand what it was I was aiming for when preparing and fixing it in place. I only really understood the difference between a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ yealm once I had compared fixing one of my early yealm attempts to fixing one of my later ones where I knew what I was doing. One was a patchy mess, with many holes; the other seamlessly (almost) blended with the thatch already in place. Essentially the work had been done properly on the ground so that I didn’t have to play around with the straw as much on the roof. It all sounds quite simple but, like any craft, takes a while to get a feel for and many a year to master.

Written By Sam Rowland-Simms
HLF Buildings Trainee at COAM




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The Pleasure of Volunteering

The Pleasure of Volunteering – A New Volunteer’s Endorsement

It’s a bitterly cold winter’s day. The sky is grey and the increasingly heavy rain is threatening to turn to snow.  The icy wind’s tentacles feel their way through every gap in my clothing. I am working alone.

A relatively new volunteer on the Museum farm, I am working at the side of a field today, adding the binders to a nearly completed laid hedge. My hands in my saturated work gloves are cold and the rain is creeping through those not so waterproof parts of my old rain jacket.

One year previously I would have been sat in my warm and dry office feeling pity for the wet and cold workmen on the building site opposite. But today I am happy. In fact, I am far happier than I was in my office going about my stressful managerial role. I am enjoying myself in these inhospitable conditions. Thank you Fate that gave me the early retirement opportunity to stand here on such miserable day!

So what attracted me as a volunteer and why am I happy to be wet and cold in a muddy field today? I had previously worked with another voluntary group that occasionally helped the Museum farm with specific projects. This gave me an insight into the Museum and its people. I had noticed the enthusiasm and dedication of the staff and other volunteers and their welcoming nature, and thought that one day I would like to become a regular volunteer.

The opportunity came and I took it. Over six months on, I am thoroughly enjoying my small role and remain enthused by the positive environment. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. There are no targets or expectations other than your own. You can dedicate as little or as much time as you want. Of course volunteers want to do a good job and be effective in their own way. One word of warning though – it’s addictive!


Volunteers can choose to bring their own skill sets to their role. They often volunteer in areas they have an interest in such as building construction or gardening. Others, as I have chosen, do something completely different to their skills and interests. And what is so encouraging is that the staff and other volunteers give you the time, patience and encouragement to help you learn new skills.

Working in a cold wet field on my own today is entirely my choice. The task needed completing and the farm is short of volunteers today. So I just get on with it. But I am not unusual. Far from it. The Museum has many volunteers working on the farm, maintaining the Museum’s buildings and gardens that will also be out working in all conditions to help run and maintain the Museum – and enjoying it!

Although there is no pressure, volunteers are very committed to the Museum and are usually more than happy doing something they might not really want to do. And when it’s done, they feel great!

Volunteering is critical for the successful operation of the Museum. Without volunteers there would probably be no Museum as funding would not cover the value volunteers bring. And this value cannot be brought. As well as skills and experience some volunteers bring, others just bring enthusiasm, dedication and determination.

So it is a win, win situation. Volunteers get to do something worthwhile which they enjoy and the Museum gets the additional resource it needs to maintain an enjoyable visitor experience.

So if you are interested in volunteering, to get an idea of the opportunities, visit https://www.coam.org.uk/get-involved/volunteering/ Maybe you will be joining me in the rain one winter – or on dry and sunny summers day!


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Summer Nights to Brighten the Winter Gloom



Taking a look back at our 2016 wedding season there are some amazing photographs of how wonderful our site looks when it’s alive at night.

In the darkness and gloom of winter looking back at our summer season is a good reminder of how magical evenings can be….when the darkness doesn’t descend at 4.30pm.




In addition to our weddings we run several events that allow you to roam the Museum in the evening. Our Enchanted Museum Event is one of them, and we will be running this very special event again on the 13th May 2017. The event has a magical theme and gives visitors the chance to explore the Museum in the evening until 8.30pm.














The unique and different ways that the Museum’s buildings can be used and decorated is fantastic, and the addition of tents, tipis and marquees offers lots of ways to personalise the space.

I’m very excited to be joining the amazing team at COAM as their new Events and Hospitality Team Leader. It’s been a pleasure to look though all these wonderful photographs of the site and I am very much look forward to making all the events and weddings this year as successful as they have been.

tipi-coam-wedding COAM-at-night






Should you have any enquires about weddings, we are currently taking bookings for 2018 onwards. We are always delighted to host such a special occasion.



Caroline Melia
Events and Hospitality Team Leader


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Goataly unpredictable

Goats at COAM


One of the pleasures for staff and volunteers alike at the Chiltern Open Air Museum farm, advises Farm Manager Conway Rowland, is taking the Old English Goats, Beverly and Crystal for their morning walk. Well that was what I was told as a rookie volunteer some months ago.  I guess he would say that to encourage volunteers to take their turn!

Goats were a feature of many traditional Chiltern farms of yesteryear supplying milk, cheese and the occasional meal. The Museum previously had rescue goats of varying varieties and behaviours. But a little after these had one by one passed on to cause trouble in a higher place than they had previously been able to reach, a decision was made to acquire two new goats.

But not any old goats. They had to be Old English, a breed that had been doing their job well for 5000 years only to be ousted from the late 1800s by higher yielding foreign goats from Switzerland, India and the Middle East and interbreeding became rife in the desire to improve goat productivity.

With low numbers of this traditional breed remaining, it was only right that the Museum’s goats, which arrived late in 2015, should be the Old English breed.

Visitors may see Beverly and Crystal in their night time pen outside of Hill Farm Barn, but more likely in one of the fields around the farm during Museum opening hours – assuming they have not escaped! So at sometime around 9-10.00am, someone has to escort the two young ladies on their daily walk from their pen to the field.

Goat Walking at COAM

With dog collars and leads secured, the walker is ready to depart on a circuitous route to what has in effect become a second breakfast opportunity for the goats, who have already demolished their buckets of dry food. The walk, at a relaxed pace (or not), gives the chance for Beverly and Crystal to enjoy, for much of the year, the nutritious hedgerow greenery including hawthorn, nettles and brambles. And even better, the late summer feast of sumptuous fresh blackberries and rosehips.

In fact just about anything goes, preferably from the most awkward place to get at and where the other goat and the walker do not desire to be dragged. Being dragged around is part of the fun of goat walking, particularly when Beverly wants to go one way and Crystal the other!

And watch out the goat walker who disagrees with Crystal. Those horns hurt! If she is in a mood and does not get her own way, a quick butt aimed at the offending goat walker can be delivered. So the walker must alert to deflect the offending horns and deliver a gentle reminder about who is (or thinks they are) the real boss.

Although Crystal’s behaviour is much better as she is maturing, a tactic of keeping Beverly between yourself and Crystal can be a good idea. And no, the reason is not to let Beverly be the recipient of a butt. Crystal would not dare as the smaller Beverly is the dominant goat. However, this tactic can have its problems when the larger Crystal decides to climb over Beverly to get at some tasty treat and the leads get tangled up. Trying to untangle two goats from yourself with absolutely no cooperation from the goats can be interesting!

goat walking at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Both Crystal and Beverly are friendly, gentle goats that on occasion can display nothing worse than a petulant child might. Well they are still ‘kids’ at heart! If they have had a late start to the day and should you come across them on their daily walk, do not be concerned. Well only for the walker!

Please visit them in their field. They both enjoy attention and a good chin rub can make you a friend. But watch out for the electric fence. It’s the only way to keep them from escaping. And please, do not feed them yourself, whether voluntary or involuntary!

And the evening’s walk. Nothing more than a sprint back to their pen where their supper awaits them.

By Julian Stanton
Museum Volunteer





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The Ansome Ransome

Pink Percy the Thresher

The day was cool the sun was bright
When Keith came thundering up the site
Upon the Fordson clean and blue
It shone, it gleamed, it looked like new!

Fordson tractor at COAM


Out of the Mill up to the Farm
(Trying not to do much harm)
Into the yard no bumps or squeals-
Mind the paint on orange wheels!

Stalled to a stop with a little bound
Keith on top looked proudly round.
Volunteers gather with grins of pleasure
The Fordson tractor looks a treasure!

But serious work is close at hand
To tax the skill of this happy band
It’s Harvest Festival this weekend
And Management thoughts are wont to bend
On something special for people to view:
A ‘Ransome Thresher’ with working crew.

The barn doors open wide and clear
(Someone raised a little cheer)
As “Perce” the thresher slowly drew
Into the yard all bright and new.

Ransomes thresher at Chiltern Open Air Museum


It’s many a year since he cropped a field
Of corn or barley at harvest yield
With fans and shuffles and bags for feeds
And acolytes to serve his needs.

A goodly vision in Pink and Red
With “RANSOMES” bold, across his head
But now he stands both proud and tall
Ready again to give his all.

Keith manoeuvres into line
Main drive is fixed – it’s almost time
Into Gear!  Engage the drive!

Pink Perce the Thresher comes alive!
The wheels start moving belts rotate
(Why are some in figure eight?)
Big ends move upon a shaft
Working ‘Shuffles’ fore and aft.

Jogging cranks and drums and fans,
(Mind your clothing, watch your hands)
This machine is fairly old
Wasn’t meant for fingers bold!

But stand afar and watch it act
Fans and ‘Walkers’ hum and clack
Awner, Chubber, Shoes and Riddle
Move about down in the middle.

The whole machine does move and sway.
Said Chris and John: “That makes our day-
To see the work of two long years
Swept along without its fears.”

So Visitor, when first you gaze
Upon Pink Perce, you’ll be amaze-d
Let child and adult look with awe
‘Pon this machine from days of yore.

By Bryn the Bard
Museum Volunteer





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December on the COAM farm

Although the Museum was closed to visitors much of December, it was not a quiet month on the farm – far from it!

Like the rest of the Museum, the farm can usually enjoy some respite during the winter months, taking the opportunity to catch up with outstanding tasks, do some housekeeping and plan and prepare for the season ahead.

The goats, sheep, cows, horses and chickens still needed looking after and this meant that farm staff and volunteers had to come in every day of the Christmas holidays to feed and care for them all.

Cows at Chiltern Open Air Museum


Then there are the winter tasks that need to get under way in December such as hedgelaying. On many Chiltern farms of yesteryear, hedgelaying was an important task before the advent of wire fencing to keep boundaries maintained and stock in the fields. The winter months provided a little more time for the farmer and farm workers to complete this time consuming work. It is also the best time of year to avoid disturbing nesting birds (today hedgelaying must not take place from March until September).

So December is a great time to get on with this important job at the Museum and the farm’s volunteers have certainly spent some profitable time doing this, completing one side of an arable field. Good going in light of other disruptions!

Hedgelaying is not a quick and easy task and requires skill and patience. One of the characteristics of the Museum is the willingness of staff, assisted by experienced volunteers, to teach skills to new volunteers. So all members of the farm team and other Museum volunteers get the chance to take part in this popular activity.

Hedge and tree maintenance tasks including coppicing, are also best done during winter. This activity provides stakes and binders for hedgelaying, materials for hurdle making and logs for the Museum’s buildings’ fires.

The Museum also can benefit from skills brought along by volunteers. Farm volunteer, Steve Davis, who works in an unrelated full-time job, takes annual leave to come and help with tree maintenance. Steve has invested his own time and money in chainsaw use management.  His help significantly benefits the farm team in completing work that would take much time and effort using traditional hand tools or valuable funds if contractors were needed.

During December the farm was to experience major disruption. On a minor note, the chickens were confined to quarters for a month as a precaution due a new strain of avian flu that put all birds at risk across the UK. Not a major disruption, but the chickens were mighty put out by being shut away!

Goats at Chiltern Open Air Museum


Also not so happy were Beverly and Crystal the Old English goats. They were evicted from their home in one of Hill Farm Barn’s outer buildings. The two goats like to keep an eye on comings and goings around the farm from their prominent home, but they had to spend much of December in temporary accommodation in the more isolated lambing folds.

This was because of three weeks of preparation and filming that took place on and around the farm for a major TV drama. Farm buildings including Hill Farm Barn, were required as set locations. And the production company did not want Beverly or Crystal to have starring roles – their loss!

Few of the artefacts housed in Hill Farm Barn or around the farmyard were wanted for filming. So as well as not being able to get on with many of December’s planned tasks, the farm team spent days clearing out the barn and tidying up the farmyard. This required moving artefacts large and small including farm machinery such as the threshing machine, wagons and other machinery.

Although this additional work and restricted access to the farm disrupted farm manager Conway Rowland’s plans for December, Conway appreciated the benefits to the Museum from this opportunity stating; “Revenue from filming is a useful source of additional funding for the Museum. As well as underwriting the day to day running costs, it provides money for projects that help the Museum progress its plans. Hopefully the farm will benefit from some of this extra money!”

Although a useful source of revenue, the Museum wants to minimise the impact such activities have on the visitor experience. So with the Museum closed to the public, there was no disruption to visitors, the production company got the time and space they wanted and the Museum some additional funding.

So with animals and artefacts restored to their normal accommodation, the farm team is ready for January. And another major plus for Conway, “It made us give the barns a good clear-out and tidy up. With a busy schedule throughout the year, it is easy to put off such activity, but when forced to, you realise it was worthwhile!”

Written by farm volunteer Julian Stanton

Pictures by Charles Abbott




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How to fold a cabin

The building team have just returned from a tough two weeks dismantling not one, but two buildings – another Nissen hut, this one to hopefully be used by catering, and a folding portable cabin, to be used by the Education team.

The Nissen Hut

New nissen hut

The Nissen hut came apart willingly enough – starting with prising off the interior fibreboard and exterior corrugated sheets to reveal the ribs beneath.

inside our new nissen hut

nisen hut frame

The ribs and purlins unbolted nicely with the help of a bit of WD40.

The Folding Cabin

The folding cabin on the other hand started as something of an unknown quantity – we knew that the left and right sides folded into the central area and worked out the rest from there.

Folding cabin

Here you can see the left and right sides and the central compartment into which everything folds up.

side of folding cabin

For each side, the roof was slightly lifted in order to lower the end wall.

Then both the end wall and the floor were hoisted up together.

Where the four of us were confronted with this sign…

Folding floor sign



The side walls swung in easily and the roof slowly lowered back down


With the four lifting lugs revealed, next came the slightly daunting task of lifting the cabin.

Inside the folding cabin

Chains were hooked on to the lifting lugs which and lifted up through a hatch in the roof to the loader crane hook above.



We all watched apprehensively as the chains snapped taut and the cabin slowly became airborne.

Fortunately it stayed together long enough to be set down on the truck and transported back to COAM!









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