JUST south of Cirencester, in Wiltshire, a chain of flooded gravel pits collectively and euphemistically known as the Cotswold Water Park, sprawls for several miles; and in the middle of them lies a unique enclave: the 350-acre Ashton Farm, run by the Cotswold Community.

Groups of one kind or another have flourished on this site for more than half a century, ever since the farm was taken over in the Thirties by the Bruderhof, a body of German Christians who had fled from Nazi Germany. It was they who converted some of the original buildings for residential use - and very well, too - before moving on to South America to avoid internment during the Second World War.

Next the place became a government approved school, one of many in vogue at the time; a kind of junior borstal in which young offenders were put to work on the land and learnt new crafts and trades well away from the pernicious influences of towns and cities. In that incarnation, the farm was owned and managed by a charitable body, the Rainer Foundation, which sold it to Wiltshire County Council for pounds 400,000 in 1973.

Since then the community has been run on fundamentally different lines. It is still a home for difficult boys, but its aims and methods are therapeutic, rather than corrective. The children who come here now, though not mentally impaired, are emotionally some of the most severely disturbed in Britain, and need continuous help to establish themselves as individuals.

Forty of them live in four small houses, each with its own garden and territory, looked after by roughly the same number of staff. The settlement is, in effect, a village on its own, centred on the attractive old farmyard, with its own playing field, swimming pool, school, meeting hall, postbox and farm buildings. Gardening is encouraged, and individual vegetables, nurtured with loving care, sometimes attain spectacular dimensions.

The scale of the place seems exactly right. The buildings are the right size for their purpose, and set at a comfortable distance from each other. There is no form of containment - no fences or gates - and no system of punishment, beyond the possibility that part of a boy's pocket money may be withheld to help pay for repairs if he causes wilful damage.

What fascinates me is the role that the farm plays in helping the boys grow out of their problems. In this difficult task, the community has a strikingly successful record; according to the principal, John Whitwell, it restores boys to normal lives and produces fully functioning citizens in 80 per cent of its cases.

The influence of the farm in this restorative process is clearly vital, even if it cannot be precisely measured. At the most basic level, the land acts as a physical buffer or cordon sanitaire. If boys run away, as they quite often do when unable to cope, they generally head out into the fields, hang around for a bit, and then come back with their equilibrium restored - an infinitely better alternative than being immediately swept up in the maelstrom of a city.

More than that, the farm has a positive effect on wellbeing. Most boys, when they arrive from urban environments, are profoundly ignorant of the country: they are scared of open spaces, of animals, of the darkness at night and of nocturnal noises, particularly at this time of year, when foxes are mating. Yet newcomers soon settle down as they learn about their surroundings.

Work on the land is no longer compulsory. Boys who volunteer to help are welcome, and many take part in farm activities, particularly feeding the 14-strong herd of suckler cows and their calves, or the 250 ewes. In summer haymaking is especially popular, and the farm retains an old-fashioned baler, making small bales, purely so that the boys are able to handle them. But nobody is forced to go out hedging and ditching in all weathers, as in the old days.

For Dave Cooper, the farm manager, volunteers are a mixed blessing. All need to be closely supervised, and usually it would be quicker for the adults to get on and do the jobs themselves. But against any loss in efficiency he can set the visible gain in confidence that boys derive from contact with animals, and from completing tasks successfully.

Just as Dave himself is drawn to farming by his feeling for the land and for the rhythm of the seasons, so the boys respond to deep, primeval instincts of which they are scarcely aware. For youngsters who have supposed that milk tankers obtain their supplies from conveniently sited filling stations, a visit to a dairy farm down the road is a revelation.

Many staff derive benefit simply from living in the middle of the farm. As Mr Whitwell puts it: 'We bring a lot of emotional problems into this place, and we have to contain them by means of our own emotional health. Even on a bad day, when it feels as if the boys' disturbance is going to swamp us, it's a terrific help just to see a tractor trundle past, doing something basic and sane and ordinary.'

Now the existence of this excellent establishment is threatened by the monster that has already eaten away the land all around it: gravel. Goaded by shortage of funds, Wiltshire County Council has decided to sell 87 of the 350 acres for gravel extraction.

Not only will the sale make the farm less viable in agricultural terms; digging, due to begin at the end of 1994, will also bring major disruption - lorries, noise, dust and mud - to within 150 yards of the buildings and destroy the tranquillity that is the community's hallmark.

This, moreover, is only the tip of a far bigger problem. From next year a new government regulation will require local authorities to assess the real value of their assets and charge rent accordingly. If the farm is assessed not on its value as agricultural land, but on the millions of pounds'-worth of gravel that lie beneath it, the rent will become astronomical.

At present the community is entirely self-financing. The cost of keeping each boy there is found by the local authority that sends him, and the community pays the council pounds 45,000 a year as a form of rent, although it is actually a mortgage repayment on the loan with which the council originally bought the property. A rent based on gravel might easily be four times this amount, and it would inflate costs so sharply that other local authorities might feel unable to use the community any longer.

The time has surely come for the place to be officially recognised for what it is: a national, rather than a local, institution. Historical accident has placed it in Wiltshire, but its function is now nationwide - a truth made evident by the fact that at the moment there is no boy from Wiltshire in the home. There

is one from neighbouring

Gloucestershire, and the other 39 come from every corner of the United Kingdom.

Behind the community buildings there rises a modest hill called Ashton Down, scarcely 50ft (16m) high, but enough to offer a view over the surrounding country. Already the farm is hemmed in on three sides by water, and if the proposed sale goes ahead, it will become an island in an inland sea. A visitor can hardly fail to see that it is an island not merely of farm land, but also of sanity, and as such is of incalculable value in a world going ever more mad.

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