Mucking in to muck out
Last year ended well for the charity Farms for City Children. A Pounds 330,000 National Lottery grant secured the future of their third farm, Wick Court, a beautiful medieval manor house on the banks of the River Severn in Gloucestershire. This year has started just as promisingly, with Michael Morpurgo, one of the charity's founders and directors, winning the Beefeater Children's Novel Award for his latest book, The Wreck of the Zanzibar.
Stimulating children's imaginative lives as much as their understanding of the countryside is part of the philosophy of Farms for City Children. While Morpurgo's novels explore the affinity between childhood and nature, the farms show how children, who may feel alienated from their everyday surroundings, find a new sense of purpose when working with animals.
More than 2,000 primary children every year are already enjoying visits to Farms for City Children in Devon and Pembrokeshire. They stay for a week in term time in groups of up to 35 and work with the farmers for five hours a day.
It can be confusing at first, as well as physically and mentally demanding, but they soon get used to the animals and the daily routine and discover the satisfaction of knowing they have a real contribution to make. "How do they manage without us?" they ask their teachers at the end of a stay.
Children for whom English is a second language particularly benefit from a farm visit, says Paula Dean, a Section 11 co-ordinator from Tyssen School in Hackney. They gain confidence in their language learning from practical tasks and have a chance to excel in ways beyond the classroom.
Many schools have used the farms regularly since the charity began 20 years ago, so a visit to Nethercott in Devon or Treginnis in Pembrokeshire has become a landmark in the school calendar and a shared experience between year groups and families, remembered long after the children have left. But to widen the net for new schools, another farm had to be found. Wick Court near Stroud was just what they were looking for.
It stands on a moated site, surrounded by ancient pear orchards. Niall Phillips, the Bristol architect who won four awards for his conversion of Treginnis and is restoring Wick Court, describes it as "English heritage in its truest sense".
The various architectural styles and periods of the house mean that the children will sleep in the medieval solar; read and study in the magnificent 17th-century long gallery with views over the river and orchards; and eat at a long table by a wood burner in the Victorian kitchen. The outbuildings include a dairy with old cider and cheese presses and the haybarn is listed in its own right.
Wick Court was part of the Earl of Leicester's estate and, according to local legend, Elizabeth I once stayed there.
While conservation purists might prefer to put the children in the barn and preserve the house as a museum, Michael Morpurgo believes it would be nonsense not to let them experience such an exciting building.
The medieval plasterwork and windows, the fine oak doors with their original fittings, and the many other historic features will all add spice to a visit, he says. The architect's aim is to make as few changes as necessary for the house to be safe and comfortable for the children.
Wick Court's last owners were the Dowdeswell sisters, who kept Gloucester cattle, a practice that has been maintained by the current farm manager, Jonathan Crump, who has made local rare breeds his speciality.
The children will visit a traditional farm with Gloucester cows, sheep and pigs as well as rare breeds of chickens, turkeys and ducks and a two-year-old cob, which is being broken into harness ready to work with the children.
There will be no shortage of jobs, says Jonathan Crump, whose own interest in farm animals started when he was still a young child. He kept bantams, ducks and geese while other children kept guinea pigs, and was only 12 when he bought his first Jacob sheep. This was as a result of a visit to the Cotswold Farm Centre, where he was later to work after an OND in countryside recreation at Merrist Wood agricultural college.
The children will help with feeding and mucking out, looking after the poultry, checking the animals in the fields, chopping wood, cheese- making and seasonal jobs such as picking fruit.
In case they think all animals are reared in such idyllic surroundings, they will visit a neighbouring farm where a milking parlour for 150 Friesians is under construction. "We don't want to give a romantic vision of farming, " says Jonathan Crump. Children have to see where their food comes from, but Wick Court will show them traditional, extensive farming methods which produce high quality products such as the Gloucestershire cheeses.
The restoration of Wick Court will not only save an historic building, it will give it a new lease of life as a place where children's eyes are opened to farming and the countryside. Careful modernisation will bring it into the 20th century (the horseshoe bats in the attic won't be disturbed) but much of its original purpose and character will be preserved.
By next January Wick Court will be ready for a new generation of farmers.
Further details from Clare Morpurgo, Farms for City Children, Nethercott House, Iddesleigh, Winkleigh, Devon EX19 8BG. Tel: 01837 810573 Michael Morpurgo's children's books are published by Heinemann. Royalties from Muck and Magic: Stories from the Countryside, edited by Michael Morpurgo, will be donated to Farms for City Children