Michael Bird checks out country life down on the farm with a group of city children
Out in the fields the sun is scorching, but the old threshing barn at Wick Court offers some shade. Animals seem to be everywhere - dozens of creamy, polka-dotted Gloucester Old Spot piglets, a voluminous turkey cock with a theatrical strut, geese ducks, hens, horses, cows, sheep - all looking blissfully at ease in their surroundings, which in high summer they have pretty much to themselves.
Come the autumn term, they will be sharing the life of this traditional working farm with school parties of seven to 11-year-olds who come for a week to enjoy the muck and magic of the Farms for City Children experience.
Wick Court in Gloucestershire opened earlier this year and has already proved a success with schools. "Can you bribe my headteacher into letting us stay again next year?" reads one of the many letters on the dining room board.
As at the two other Farms for City Children, Nethercott House in Devon and Lower Treginnis in Wales, the daily routine involves feeding and mucking out and a variety of seasonal tasks. The work offers many new hands-on experiences for urban children.
Wick Court is an organic farm specialising in rare breeds, but visitors also spend time at nearby Oldbury, a modern dairy farm. "This is one of the things that makes Wick Court different," says Brenda Southerden, who has led several school visits to farms from Miles Coverdale primary school in Shepherd's Bush, west London. "The children get the chance to learn about two very different sides of farming."
"During a school's week here, we're obviously concentrating on the hands-on side of things," says farm director Heather Tarplee. "But the children's experiences touch on most areas of the national curriculum, and we have plenty of ideas for follow-up."
Applied maths, for example, comes in the data handling involved in running a farm. An understanding of life processes is gained from nurturing the animals, seeing them being born and the life cycle. There's even creative writing - Ted Hughes's special Wick Court poem is inscribed above the parlour fireplace.
The moated manor house, where supposedly Elizabeth I once stayed, is the kind of storybook place any child would respond to. A few years ago it was on the verge of collapse, with its medieval rear and 17th-century front sections in danger of separating. Its restoration and conversion by architect Niall Phillips, supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, has preserved its period quirks and splendours, such as the airy timbered ceiling of the medieval solar (now a dormitory), the undulating oak floors and myriad doors.
"Any ghosts?" I ask. Assistant director Kevin Clark says he hasn't met one yet. "There are local stories, of course I but the house seems to be a really warm, friendly place. On a winter's evening, when all the windows are lit up, it's magical."
"A lot of schools go for summer bookings, but the winter months are good in a different way," he says, describing a walk across the fields after evening milking at Oldbury. No noise of traffic, no lights obscuring the stars. "We stopped, just to listen to the silence. Then the kids all shouted: 'Can we do it aqain?' " With spring and summer 1999 already heavily booked, winter may well be a good time for organising a visit to Wick Court.
* The cost, Pounds 114 a head, is subsidised by Farms for City Children. Contact Heather Tarplee, Wick Court, Overton Lane, Arlingham, Glos GL2 7JJ. Tel: 01452 741023. Clare Morpurgo, FCC, Nethercott House, Iddesleigh, Winkleigh Devon EX19 8BG. Tel: 01837 810573