Escape to the country: from the city to the farm
PUBLISHED: 09:19 15 November 2016 | UPDATED: 09:26 15 November 2016
Michael and Clare Morpurgo’s charity Farms for City Children is marking its 40th anniversary, as Chrissy Harris reports
To see a child, born and raised in a high-rise in the middle of a city, suddenly sprint through a Devon field is a spectacular sight. It happens nearly every week at Nethercott Farm in Iddesleigh. Bus-loads of young urban dwellers arrive at this picturesque spot to spend seven days experiencing life in the country as a Devon farmer, working the land and looking after animals. There’s no TV, no iPads and everyone has to come together at mealtimes to eat freshly cooked, home made food. It’s a world away from the home lives of many of these kids, some of whom have never seen a cow before, let alone fed one. Many are nervous when they get here but they leave full of fresh Devon air and new confidence after a week spent way out of their comfort zones. It’s a simple strategy but one that has kept Farms for City Children, the charity that runs Nethercott, ticking over for 40 years.
Set up by Devon-based award-winning children’s writer Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare in 1976, the organisation has provided ‘muck and magic’ to expanded the horizons of thousands of children from towns and cities all over the UK.
“It’s the best story I’ve ever written,” Michael, author of War Horse, tells Devon Life.
“It’s been our life’s work, that’s for sure. You can write a book but you’re not there when the child’s reading it.
“I see these kids who have come to the farms all these years later and they tell me how much they enjoyed it. It’s quite clearly an unforgettable time of their lives.”
Teodora Alupului, eight, is certainly enjoying her time on the farm. She is here at Nethercott with her classmates from Weston Mill Community Primary School in Plymouth and has already fed sheep, been on a donkey walk and groomed a pony.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she says. “I loved feeding the cows and sheep but my favourite bit so far has been walking with the donkeys and ponies.
“It’s all much better than being at school. I like it because we all eat together.”
Is she missing TV?
“I feel amazing without TV,” she says. “I don’t miss it at all.”
There’s no time to think about it anyway, what with such a packed timetable. There are plenty of jobs to do during the day and the evenings are spent chatting, running around the fields that overlook Dartmoor, or playing board games.
It’s an idyllic set-up, based on the childhood that Michael, wife Clare and many of the staff here enjoyed, but that too many kids today seem to miss out on.
“A lot of parents are frightened to let their children out,” says Catherine Knight, farm school manager at Nethercott House.
“Children don’t get that feeling of independence. They need to learn how to be safe in a tree. If they hurt themselves, they’ll learn and it’s still better than keeping them in all the time.We’re committed to getting children outdoors and helping them be aware of themselves as part of a bigger picture and understand the places they live. I’m a firm believer that a child’s environment affects how they are. We did all our learning outside, going out lighting fires and fishing in the rivers.”
Catherine says many of the new arrivals– some whom come from the most deprived and built-up parts of the UK – are frightened of the sheer openness when they get here. Some are not used to eating meals sitting down with knives and forks. They usually eat takeaways with their fingers.
Catherine and the rest of the staff here “bang on a lot about food” and make sure cooking and eating home-grown produce is a key part of the experience – that and having the time of their lives, of course.
“I had one mum recently say to me her daughter is not the same girl that went away,” says Catherine. “She’s got so much more confidence. We’ve met lots of parents who say how different their kids are.”
We stand chatting in Nethercott House, looking out into the fields where a group of Weston Mill children are busy preparing the ponies and donkeys to walk up to the house. Catherine points out one little boy who she tells me was very homesick when he arrived.
“He doesn’t look it now, does he?” she says, as he skips about, waiting for his turn to pull a pony.
“You get to see a whole different side to them,” says Weston Mill class teacher Clare Evenden. “The ones that are not so confident in the classroom are far more confident here. It’s just a lovely place to be.”
To celebrate their 40th anniversary, the charity has organised a series of high-profile events this year to help spread the word and raise funds.
There was a War Horse Gala in February at the New London Theatre.
In July, Nethercott Farm hosted a weekend of events, including a storytelling session by Michael Morpurgo.
From 17th to 29th October, the author will be taking part in Exetreme Imagination – Exeter’s festival if writing for young people. See exetreme.org
On 2nd December, there will be a performance of The Best Christmas Present in the World at Exeter Cathedral.
Michael Morpurgo and Virginia McKenna tell the story based on the Morpurgo’s book, set in 1914 in Flanders when the famous Christmas Truce and football game took place between the British and German soldiers. See farmsforcitychildren.org