Farm flung

20th April 2007 at 01:00
Fancy swapping the classroom for cows, sheep and muddy wellies? A former deputy head tells Jan Trebilcock what 'the good life' is really like

On a typical morning just 18 months ago, John Anderson would be seen riding his tandem to work at Birkdale Preparatory School in Sheffield with his young son Tom on the back. Today, he is more likely to be seen clad in a muddy boiler suit and wellington boots, herding the dairy cattle in for milking at his farm.

John, Fiona, his wife, and their four young children have exchanged the hustle and bustle of the city for "the good life" of calm and rural tranquillity on an 850-acre farm close to the beautiful Isle of Man coastline. They've swapped urban grime for enchanting gorse and heather-clad hills and glens leading down to spectacular cliffs, miles of unspoilt sandy beaches, and sparkling sea, where giant basking sharks can be seen in the summer months.

Managing a farm with a dairy herd of 180 cows and 900 sheep, couldn't be further removed from 47-year-old John's old life as deputy head of the Pounds 2,000-a-term private school, which was founded at the turn of the 20th century and has a strong Christian ethos.

But John is putting the lessons learned as a teacher to good use in his new life. School inspections are a thing of the past, but the experience has proved useful in dealing with inspections for health and safety, hygiene, animal welfare and record keeping, which crop up on the farm every 18 months.

"Experience of dealing with school paperwork has been handy," he says. "And I've applied my deputy head people- management skills to managing the five staff on the farm." But while there are no more parents' evenings, reports and marking, there is a down side. "At school we got 17 weeks' holiday, plus weekends off," says John. "Now I'm lucky if I get four weeks and every other weekend off. And looking after livestock, you never switch off. You will find me checking on the animals at 10.30 at night."

John and Fiona made the decision to move to the Isle of Man when the opportunity came up to run John's family farm. But it wasn't an easy choice.

"I love teaching," says John. "And we were happy and comfortable in Sheffield with well-established friends. But we were open to new challenges and this is a good place to bring up children - they can stay young for longer."

John has not abandoned teaching altogether though. Every Friday morning he strips off the boiler suit and dons a shirt and tie to teach science, RE and PE at a small primary school two miles away.

"I want to keep my hand in, and it is also partly financial. This will probably come as a surprise to many teachers but I earn more teaching than farming," he says. "Also, managing a farm can be a bit isolating. While I didn't miss the preparation and the marking, I did miss the contact with children, parents and teachers.

"Even though my own children can sometimes join me while I'm working on the farm, I don't get to see as much of youngsters during the day as I would like. There is nothing like a classroom full of children - I missed being surrounded by all those positive, enthusiastic, energetic young minds."

And 43-year-old Fiona, a secondary geography and outdoor pursuits teacher, has returned to do some supply teaching after a 14-year break. "I hadn't missed it, but it does give me quite a buzz - it's an adrenaline rush," she says. "It's a great feeling when you know you have got a point across to your pupils. And we needed a bit of extra cash."

The future is uncertain in farming and finances are tight, says John. "I am still not sure if we have done the right thing. There are a lot of farmers who have full-time jobs and farm at the weekend, so we will need to diversify to keep the farm going," he says.

Eleven-year-old Tom is doing his bit. He has started a small poultry business selling the eggs produced by his 30 free-range hens and already has plans for expansion. His sisters, Zoe, 13, Kate, nine, and Amy, six, are more preoccupied with riding ponies in their spare time. They have all settled in happily to their new lifestyle.

John and Fiona are planning to put their years of experience in education to good use - including looking at ways the farm could become an educational resource.

Work is starting on their new environmentally-friendly home. They are rebuilding an old farmhouse dating from the 1750s and hoping to include solar and wind power in the plans. And the walled garden will be used for a vegetable plot.

"We will be able to have schoolchildren visiting and teach them about the environment and the importance of conservation," says Fiona. A class of primary pupils has already visited the farm to enjoy seeing the lambing.

Two lower-ability groups from Fiona's school made a working visit and got involved in everything from clearing gorse and building up a footpath, to constructing a drystone wall. "It's been good for their self-esteem," says Fiona. "The drystone wall builders were very excited when they found a name and date - 1807 - on one of the stones. When John came back from a break, he found they'd engraved their own initials on the stones."

Another group of pupils from the school will be planning, digging out and stocking a wildlife pond on the farm as part of a John Muir Trust Award - an environmental scheme focused on wild places.

"There's lots of potential to become a kind of educational centre," says John. "Especially in the light of recent news that thousands of children believe cows lay eggs and bacon comes from sheep. The Government wants children to visit farms."

The new house will have three double rooms for BB guests and there are plans for two self-catering units. "That means we will be able to have up to a dozen visitors at a time, staying in our four or five-star accommodation," says John.

"By 2008, all the work should be completed and we will be able to welcome visitors. Maybe teaching colleagues will use it as a retreat and the chance to do something completely different, such as learning how to work with a sheepdog or joining us for a barbecue on the beach."

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