Adam Henson: From the city to the farm

Wick Court, Arlingham

Wick Court, Arlingham - Credit: Archant

There’s a small corner of Gloucestershire that is probably better known to the children of inner-city Birmingham or Manchester than it is locally

Old Spot at Wick Court

Old Spot at Wick Court - Credit: Archant

There is a small corner of the Gloucestershire countryside which is probably better known in parts of London, Manchester and Birmingham than it is in the county itself. Now I know that seems unbelievable but this place isn’t only inspiring, it can also provide a life-changing experience for young people from those big cities.

Wick Court is a 140-acre traditional livestock farm which sits on the famous horseshoe bend of the River Severn at Arlingham. The house itself is an impressive building which dates back to Tudor times with its own squared-shaped moat and a gaggle of geese who live beside the five-bar gate that leads to the stable yard. It’s also close to the heart of all rare breeds enthusiasts because it’s where the last pure-bred herd of Gloucester cattle were discovered in the early 1970s.

But what makes the farm even more special is that today it’s run by a remarkable charity called Farms for City Children and it does exactly what its name implies; it provides a week away on a working farm for children from urban areas. This year the charity celebrates its 40th anniversary and in that time well over 100,000 youngsters have visited either Wick Court or the two other Farms for City Children; a mixed dairy, beef and sheep farm called Nethercott House in Devon and a 700-year-old Welsh sheep farm on the Pembrokeshire coast called Lower Treginnis.

Every year, schools from all over country send their pupils (and a few teachers) to these farms to give them first-hand experience of life on the land. What’s really important is that the children don’t just stay on the farm watching adults do the work; they get stuck in and feed, water, fetch, carry, plant, harvest, shovel and dig. So just like full-time farmers, they get dirt on their hands and muck on their wellies!

What impresses me is that the concept is such a simple one. We have all heard those worrying reports about the lack of food knowledge and stories of children not realising that sausages come from pigs or that milk comes from cows. Well here’s a direct way of connecting kids with the food they eat while at the same time getting to grips with farming, conservation and nature.

Farms for City Children was the ingenious idea of the children’s author Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare. They were both teachers and realised that while city kids are the same as other children, their horizons are different because they live in a world that’s largely made of concrete and tarmac without much fresh air or wide open spaces. So in 1976 they founded their charity with the notion of ‘learning through doing’. Michael is passionate when he explains the difference it makes: “If you can enrich a child’s life early on and give them positive memories, make them feel useful, responsible and happy… then you’ve got a really good chance of turning lives around.”

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Of course Michael and Clare’s charity isn’t the only one connecting children with food or farming and there are several organisations and initiatives with similar aims. But 40 years in the same, safe hands is a tremendous achievement that’s certainly worth celebrating. What’s more, to have one of the farms on our doorstep in Gloucestershire is something we should be very proud of.

There’s something magical knowing that those inner-city children have the opportunity to tend sheep, cattle, pigs, ponies and poultry for the first time in their lives. But the one animal at Wick Court that they all want to look after is Valentine the Old Spot sow. Why Valentine? That’s because her birthday is February 14 and one of her spots is heart-shaped. Now if that doesn’t make a youngster fall in love with farming, nothing will!

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamHenson