Splendid isolation

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Meditating in the fields followed by Haiku poetry composition? A trip to the Magdalen Project can be a real eye-opener as Martin Whittaker reports

Nature is all very well in her place," says Flora Poste, the heroine of Cold Comfort Farm, "but she must not be allowed to make things untidy."

The Magdalen Project, a 52-hectare working organic farm and education centre in the West Country, couldn't be further from the blighted farm depicted in Stella Gibbons's classic satire on country living. The cows aren't called Feckless or Graceless, there is no cousin Amos, and there's nothing "nasty in the woodshed", unless you count composting toilets. The farm is set in glorious rolling countryside along the River Ax, and straddles the border of Somerset and Dorset. It's all very wild and eco-friendly, with five ponds, acres of woodland, a smallholding and walled vegetable gardens.

The centre has comfortable rooms for 36 visitors, teaching rooms and craft workshops. It is developing a campsite to increase numbers of visitors and it also offers learning resources across a range of subjects for primary and secondary schools. A central aim is to give young people hands-on experience of a working farm and get them thinking about the environment.

Pupils get to collect eggs and feed the pigs. They are shown the wildlife, and are encouraged to smell and taste herbs, pick vegetables and generally muck in.

"The whole idea of the farm is about rural land management," says the Magdalen Project's director Gyles Morris. "One of the things is to produce food. The other is to provide a very good educational resource and outdoor classroom. A third is to reconnect with some of the rural skills, like stonewalling, willow sculptures, or cheese making."

The centre has a range of activities and courses that are tailored to suit individual schools. Primary pupils can do living history courses, or a Ray Mears-style survival course where they build shelters and cook on a camp fire.

They can learn about renewable energies and sustainability. The centre's buildings run on solar power and energy and CO2 emissions are monitored.

Other practical activities include building Iron-Age huts, crafts including willow sculptures and candle making.

There are also geography courses for AS, A-level and GCSE students, as well as sessions on global citizenship aimed at all the key stages. The day I visited, 17 AS-level fine art students from Sir William Borlase's Grammar School in Marlow, Buckinghamshire were taking a weekend course designed by Gyles Morris and their teacher Chris Biddle.

On their first night they turned off their mobile phones and kicked off their trainers for a spell of quiet meditation in the woodland, followed by some Haiku poetry composition. They created pictures in the dark using sparklers and long-exposure photography. As the weekend progressed they made their own quills from willow sticks, used natural materials to make sculptures, and sat on walls and hay bales to sketch the landscape.

Another bonus is the food. All the meals are home cooked with produce from local organic suppliers as well as the farm itself. It is prepared by the farm manager John Woodward - once a regional finalist on Masterchef.

The farm does not shy away from messages that some young people might find unpalatable - that eventually a litter of cute piglets is going to end up as home-cured bacon.

"It's an opportunity for children to really think about where food comes from," says Gyles Morris. "Here we know that the animals are well cared for, live a good life, but at the end of the day they're farmed for food."

Prices start from pound;30 per pupil for an overnight stay and a full day's tuition

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