Salad days down on the farm

16th May 2003 at 01:00
At this time of year I remember the thing which I miss most about having a farm: the school visits. In our 10 years of running a small, organic, horse-operated old-fashioned farm we did, if I may say so as a proud wife, a damn good school trip. We liked doing it. We said "Yes!" to every request.

It reminded us of why we bothered with all these recalcitrant animals and wonky crops in the first place. And we very much liked the poems the children sent us afterwards, and have kept the one beginning:

"It was good to see close to me a big suffolk punch which had just had his lunch."

My husband, Paul, had a particular routine of harnessing up the working horses. He would get the smallest child to step inside the horse collar, to prove how huge it was. Then the two strongest were invited to try and lift it up, which dented any machismo they might have been suffering from.

Having established that the horse was enormous and very, very strong, he led the creature out, to general ooohs and aaahs, and finished the harnessing. All the kit, old and polished with decades of use, was handled by the children. The solid, leather and brass reality of it entranced them, even the big scornful ones.

The lambs were always good value, too, since lambs behave in a way thoroughly approved of by schoolchildren: leaping up on hay bales, running around in circles, butting their mothers, twirling their tails and staring fixedly at strangers. Cows are slightly less popular, because the closer you get (especially if you are small) the more worryingly angular they are.

Calves are better. But the star turn was the piglets. Ours were shiny, black and wriggly, and swarmed over the comatose sow like storm-troopers until she lost her temper, lumbered to her feet and swatted them away with her long nose until they went flying through the air, squeaking. We would point out that pigs, too, have a national curriculum, and that when she could be bothered the sow would supervise them in rooting-lessons, swatting any idle piglet which was failing to turn over its quota of earth with its little snout. We took a large piglet into the village school once, probably in defiance of all health and safety regulations, and let it career around in a pen made of desks laid on their sides, while Years 1 to 3 drew it and wrote odes to it.

Once, we had a camp. A school ran a thing called "field week" every summer term, when pupils and parents could choose between several sets of activities at different prices and degrees of adventurousness. Some went boating, some to adventure camps, the more nervous ones did day trips and the bravest embarked on crazy foreign exchanges (at least, it later turned out they were exchanges: in return for having one little eight-year-old girl kept up in restaurants till midnight by an extrovert Florentine family we found ourselves a year later housing two enormous 17-year-old rugby players called Diego and Valerio, who ate everything in sight and wouldn't get up in the morning).

Anyway, one of these field weeks was a cycle camp, which we installed on our top meadow under the harassed supervision of two teachers. Every morning a posse of a dozen assorted children vanished over the hill in a whirr of pedals, and every evening they returned, exhausted, to lean on the horses, pat the sheep, collapse surreptitiously in the hay-barn and make a gigantic campfire. You could hear the singing three fields away. On the last day the teacher-in-charge carried down two large Porta Pottis, and emptied them with ceremony into our septic tank (ah, what it is to be a versatile professional!). The whole thing was splendid, and for years afterwards that field was known as Ballentyne's Meadow, after the leader.

The other good thing was the year we got a tank-type swimming pool, and offered it as a stopover on a primary school cycle run. More puffing figures, more whirring pedals, and at lunchtime - with eight or nine miles under their belts - a cloud of children and teachers in Lycra shorts filled the lawn, unpacked picnics and hurled one another into the icy water for half an hour before picking up their litter and whizzing off again.

It was wonderful. I suppose it was a bit like grandparenthood: all the fun of young life without the unfading responsibility. I just thought you teachers might like to know that out here, in the sultry summer days, there are some hosts who probably look forward to school visits rather more than you do.

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