Journalist, editor and producer covering society, business, architecture, tourism, rural regeneration, conservation. I work/have worked for The Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Business Insider, Reader's Digest, Icon Films and the BBC. I also provide consultancy services to international brands.
As children’s laureate, the author Michael Morpurgo travelled far and wide like a literary missionary for two years, persuading children of the importance of books, the power of great literature to inspire and to open new worlds. Now back at home in deepest Devon, he’ll be able to write more. And he’ll also be able to spend more time at Nethercott, the farm he and his wife Clare bought in 1976 when they founded Farms for City Children, a project designed to open up a particularly strange and liberating world: the countryside.
If your childhood summers were spent romping unchaperoned through fields and woods and leaping into rivers, you are either old, lucky or thinking of France. Few British children have any experience of country life these days. Most grow up in urban environments, their outdoor play restricted by lack of space and lurking danger. So we are an urban society, increasingly detached from our rural surroundings, but does that matter? Well, the government thinks it does. It decrees the countryside “an enormous recreational asset”, and has set the Countryside Agency to work on enticing ethnic minorities, the disabled, residents of inner-city estates and youngsters into enjoying its health-giving properties.
And there is a more urgent reason for reconnecting urban people and rural spaces. Urban voters account for more than 90 per cent of the national vote. The countryside’s future will depend almost entirely on people who have rarely, if ever, seen it. A bit of education would seem to be in order, as the Ministry of Education pointed out 40 years ago when it recommended farm visits for schools. Farms aren’t the countryside, but they cover 80 per cent of it so they’re a good place to start.
The Farms for City Children approach is a mix of muck and magic as one might expect with Morpurgo, Ted Hughes and Quentin Blake as co-founder, founding president and vice-president respectively. About 3,000 children – most from inner cities and aged between 8 and 11 – spend a week each year working at one of the charity’s three farms in Devon, Dyfed and Gloucestershire. The farm, while interesting in itself, is a mechanism, a means to engage the children, physically and emotionally. Out in the fresh air, busy and covered in muck, they have the freedom to discover the joys of the natural world.
The underlying aim is simply to restore the connections lost over the years, says Morpurgo: “A closeness to land, to the people that work the land; the opportunity to be in a place where they are literally in touch with the world around them, to be involved in the co-operative venture of working on a farm, to be doing something that is useful, that they can see is useful. The children wouldn’t express it that way, of course.
“One great problem is that we have become a nation of museum and theme-park goers,” he says, “rather than getting stuck in and seeing what lies underneath, what makes things go.” It is possible now to visit farms all over the country, but many, says Morpurgo, are “the agricultural equivalent of theme parks. I’m not sneering, they are terrific in one way and they broaden horizons, but the snag is that children will see but not do. Riding a tractor and having a cream tea does not increase an understanding of the reality of farming. It’s not as important as getting out and getting stuck in, doing conservation work, walking, rock climbing. Not as important as getting children cold, hot, in the wind and rain, exposed to it all. Sean Rafferty, a wonderful old poet, beautifully described children seeing the dark for the first time, cracking ice on puddles as they go down the lane to feed the calves.
“It’s about the little, not the grand; the stillness and the quiet. This chance the countryside offers them to just be who they are, to think liberally about what they are doing in the world, is very valuable. There’s precious little time for that in the city.”
Most children feel a sense of belonging in this easy, peaceful, contemplative place. “It seems ridiculous in a week but they do get into a farmer’s plod, pointing ‘that’s where badgers go through, that’s where bluebells grow,'” says Morpurgo. For the week at least they are reconnected to their rural roots and, for many, the intense memories of ice, rain, flowers, badgers and silage will last a lifetime.
“To give someone a love of the countryside is rather like giving them a great book to read. With an ordinary book you turn the pages and then it’s over, but a great book has echoes that go on throughout life.”
The fields and mansion of Nethercott must seem to be right off the pages of some particularly fantastical novel to the children I find wolfing down their lunch at Ted Hughes’ old table in the farmhouse dining room. Most have never been out of south London; one asked after three days if they were still in London and, when they saw sheep on the journey down, some had thought they were dogs. For the first few days they were worried about getting mud on their clothes, and when they first smelt the cowshed, one or two felt physically sick.
It’s a few days into the children’s visit and the talk’s all farm talk. Orphaned lambs had been fighting for milk, Farmer Tom had let someone put their thumb in a mole trap, someone else had fallen flat on their back in the mud. They’d seen a dead rabbit, a lamb’s tail, newborn calves and blood, and touched an electric fence. Details of their labours had been recorded in farm diaries (‘We don cleaning cow’s poo and cleaning the yard it took an hour and a hlaf’, ‘I done a stok check’, ‘Done mixed animals like chikens and geses’).
“When they first arrive,” says Barry Searle, the farm manager, “they do not know one vegetable from another. Pull up a carrot and they’re wide-eyed. They’re amazed to see the milking. Some cuddle a baby lamb and say they’re going vegetarian and we explain if they weren’t kept for food, they wouldn’t have a life at all, and they can see it’s cared for and looked after.” Gradually they get the hang of the farming lark: “They sow seeds, harvest the food, cook and eat it; pick apples in the orchards, sort them, press them and take the juice home.”
Studies published in the Journal of Environmental Education suggest the more personal children’s experience with nature, the more environmentally concerned and active they are likely to become. They may not emerge wanting to be farmers (“a hard job and a very stinky one,” says Morpurgo), but the sort of eminently satisfying hands-on experience offered by Farms for City Children might just be enough to spark an ongoing interest in protecting a rural way of life.
“It’s a way to begin down that path,” he says. “No one cares about these things until they value them. It’s no good telling them in the classroom; children have to realise they have a place and an investment in this world, and they will only begin to understand that if they love it.” As the American naturalist John Burroughs said. “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.”
SORREL DOWNER / FINANCIAL TIMES