Country & Garden: City kids go wild in the country

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The Independent Culture
When children arrive at the farm on a Friday afternoon, they get very excited; but many are also frightened - of the open spaces and the animals. Oddly enough, it is the chickens that scare them most; the idea of touching feathers seems to have a horror for boys and girls brought up in the tower blocks and estates of Birmingham or London.

Even if, in winter, night has already fallen, they are sent straight out to work, feeding the cattle, pigs and sheep. The pigs are a shock. Story-book pigs are always small, round, pink and clean. Here the Tamworth sow is 6ft long, 3ft tall, bristly, plastered with muck and squealing like a banshee.

Yet Wick Court, near Gloucester, has an amazing effect on these primary school children from inner cities. Within two or three days their negative attitudes vanish, and they learn to work with each other in small teams. At the end of a week they go home different people, often having absorbed more in seven days than they normally do in a year. The idea of taking such children into the country was pioneered by Michael and Clare Morpurgo nearly 25 years ago. Both teachers - he is also the author of 60 children's books, several of them prizewinners - they were living on a smallholding in Kent when two friends suggested they should run a farm that inner-city children could visit for the day.

That first scheme came to nothing; but the Morpurgos were so keen on the idea that they set up a charity, Farms for City Children, and in 1974 a chain of coincidences led them to buy Nethercott, a Victorian mansion with land above the river Torridge, in north Devon. By the beginning of 1976 they had managed to furnish the house - not least with "some dreadful old bunks, ex-Syrian army, bought on the Brixton High Road" - and opened for business.

After a slow start, schools in London and Birmingham began to send parties, and by 1979 Nethercott was fully booked up. Yet it still lost money consistently, and Clare was obliged to become a fund-raiser - a role at which she turned out to be extremely proficient.

Then along came representatives of the National Trust with the news that several farmhouses in Wales were surplus to requirements. The result was that the Morpurgos took a lease of Lower Treginnis Farm, on a peninsula close to St Davids. To put the listed buildings in order cost pounds 1m, and stretched the couple's finances to the limit; at one stage, when the architect got ahead of the fund-raising, things became, in Clare's words, "quite alarming". Nevertheless, by 1990 they had the place in operation and now it is flourishing, thanks not least to the energy of Paul Raggett, a former Trust warden, who set up Friends of Treginnis to support children who cannot afford to pay. The fact that the community backs the enterprise so strongly gives some idea of how local people value it.

Before Treginnis was finished, the architect saw what he described as a "fantastic property" in Gloucestershire. Clare said: "I can't cope with any more - it's too frightening." To which he replied: "If you see it, you'll do it" - and they did.

Wick Court, at that stage, was a wreck. The house, a moated Elizabethan manor, incorporated some elements dating from the 13th century.

Since 1919 it had belonged to the Dowdeswell family, but the clan gradually dwindled until one elderly lady was living there on her own. After her death in 1985 the house stood empty; when the Morpurgos first saw it in 1991 it was, in Michael's words, "terrifyingly awful. The floors had all gone, and bits of the stairs were missing."

The architect demonstrated the state of the 30ft south wall by leaning against it; when he put his shoulder to it, the entire structure swayed.

Undeterred, the Morpurgos again swung into action, and took a lease from the Dowdeswell family trust. By then Princess Anne was showing strong interest in their work, and in October 1991 she came to the launch of their appeal for funds. Because the house was so dangerous, this had to take place in the cowshed, but it went off triumphantly.

Altogether they have now raised pounds 1.2m towards refurbishing the house and outbuildings, and purchasing 150 acres of surrounding farmland. (This last was financed by Sainsbury family trusts, after some passionate advocacy from the poet Ted Hughes, a neighbour of the Morpurgos' in Devon.)

Today, Wick Court is solid, warm and cheerfully decorated, yet still full of fascinating old beams, cubby-holes and secret passages. According to the farm director, Heather Tarplee, numerous ghosts, inside and out, do not worry the young visitors. After one girl had woken up to see a woman in white standing by a window, and Heather had asked her how she knew the figure was a ghost, she replied robustly: "'Cos it had no head."

The farm, all organic, is run by Jonathan Crump, who owns the livestock. An enthusiast for ancient breeds, he has Gloucester cattle, Old Spot and Tamworth pigs, and Cotswold and Jacob sheep. Chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and guineafowl are at large in the yard and the surrounding orchards.

The children, who come in batches of about 35, together with teachers from their schools, are immediately plunged into the life of the farmyard, not only feeding the animals, but mucking them out as well. In the autumn they make cider and perry, crushing the fruit in an old stone mill, and at this time of year they help with the lambing. Strangely enough, the sight of a dead lamb does not bother them. "In fact," says Jonathan, "if anything dies, they quite like it."

With 24 years' experience, Michael Morpurgo can see how profoundly the children benefit. "It isn't just that they learn where food comes from, and easy things like that," he says.

"It goes far deeper. Before they come to one of the farms, most of them have never been extended, physically or mentally. Here they simply have to work, and after three days they're knackered. But the gain in confidence is phenomenal: they go back able to tackle tasks that were beyond them before. With luck, they get some inkling of the fact that work is the thing from which you gain most satisfaction and fun in life."

The enterprise also has a broader effect - that of bridging the ever- widening gap between town and country. Most parents of today's primary school children never go into the countryside, and have no interest in what happens there.

Teachers tend to be just as urban. At least the farms are showing a few children that life on the land still goes on, and can be richly rewarding.

The cost of sending each child to a farm is pounds 114, of which the charity has to find pounds 50. Send contributions and enquiries to Farms for City Children, Nethercott House, Iddesleigh, Winkleigh, Devon EX19 8BG, tel: 01837 810573; fax 01837 810866