Close encounter at Wellies-On (and I do realise it’s not a goat)
It wasn’t until I encountered my third goat that I began to spot a trend, but I have now visited quite a number and variety of farms and gardens that provide programmes and services that might be broadly termed therapeutic. Given that some 72 per cent of the land area of Essex is devoted to agriculture, and with significant urban populations not just within the county but also over the border in Greater London, it’s not surprising that small farms, in particular, should be used in this way. An example is Wellies-On, a 40-acre social or care farm at Abberton that has been providing therapeutic and educational services since 2005. As well as offering visits that might include helping to feed and groom the animals, and work in the vegetable garden, Wellies-On also has a ‘flat pack farm’, complete with chickens, goats, Shetland pony, sheep, and farm dogs, that it takes to care homes and schools, including the Heybridge Co-Operative Academy that I wrote about recently. Rainbow Rural Centre at Barnston, near Dunmow, provides a similar opportunity for people to interact with animals and nature on an organic farm.
The idea of putting farmland to positive social use has been around for a long time. The Salvation Army’s Hadleigh Farm was started by William Booth in 1891 to provide training for young men from the East End of London, with the idea that they would then be equipped to seek a better life in the Empire overseas. The role of the farm changed after the Second World War and in the 1950s it was used for training former youth offenders and boys on probation. In 1990 the Hadleigh Training Centre opened in conjunction with the farm and it now provides facilities to train people with special educational needs, some of whom go on to regular employment. It is spectacularly sited overlooking the Thames Estuary, with a public café and access to the neighbouring country park, as well as a rare breeds centre to visit.
Somewhere I was particularly keen to visit was Circles Farm, near Stock, because I’d heard about them when sitting as a magistrate in the Youth Court. There was something appealing (to me) about the rather scruffy and ramshackle collection of buildings at the far end of a bumpy track: a mix of old farm buildings, new ones that had been, or were being, built as part of the farm’s activities, and donated portable buildings clad in black weatherboarding to satisfy the planners. It’s an environment so far removed from home or school as to be unthreatening and therefore nurturing for the young people who come here, and although there are plenty of animals around there is also an engineering workshop and a beauty salon, with the opportunity to earn BTEC qualifications. The atmosphere is happy and relaxed, but serious work gets done too.
Lambourne End Centre similarly offers alternative provision for young people struggling in mainstream school, with courses leading to City & Guilds qualifications in animal care and estate maintenance. As well as being a working farm (complete with shop that sells meat from their own animals as well as eggs as other produce), the 54-acre site also has a range of outdoor activity equipment including a climbing wall and zip wire, and all within the M25. It was odd to walk round there on a rather cold morning and then drive five minutes down the road and take a Central Line train to Holborn, with plenty of good Essex mud on my shoes.
Wilderness UK TurnAround graduates at their celebration in February
There are animals too at Abberton Rural Training, although not permanently resident; but if there are animals at Wilderness Foundation UK, they are wild, not domesticated, and I failed to spot them. Wilderness’s Essex base at Chatham Green is what they call a 400-acre living classroom, and I’ve already written about the excellent work they do with women offenders. I returned there in February to celebrate the successful completion of another TurnAround project: eight young people with problems of one sort or another who have been helped over nine months to come to terms with their lives with the help of a range of activities and mentoring, mainly in Essex but including challenging outward-bound expeditions in Wales and Scotland. The results are impressive, in terms of building confidence and skills. The sad reality is that such intensive programmes are available to only a tiny number of people, and there are many more who would benefit from it.
A warm welcome at Dig4Jaywick community garden
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that you need hundreds or even a single acre to provide nature-based opportunities for improving health and wellbeing. One of the places I have enjoyed visiting most is the ‘Dig4Jaywick’ community garden. I saw it briefly on a wet Sunday in August following a beach clean along Jaywick Sands. As there was no one around I made a point of returning a couple of weeks later, taking with me a rose for the garden. I was a bit overdressed for the occasion (I was going on to a Firebreak parade at Clacton Fire Station, but that’s another story), but I had a very friendly reception and in return for my rose came away with a bag of tomatoes and onions. Jaywick gets a bad press as being ‘the most deprived area in England’ (news stories usually accompanied by out-of-date photographs of unmade roads), but anyone who’s been there and talked to residents will know that it has a very strong community spirit, and the garden is an excellent example of that.
Inspecting cuttings with green-fingered Dave