A few years back I was stood in a stubbly field in the depths of north London, hemmed in by a towering red brick wall and a rusty old rail track. “Wow Matt,” said a 10-year-old boy, part of a school city farm visit. “I can’t believe I’m this close to a cow!”
“It’s a pig,” I replied. I was amazed but not surprised, as I was well aware of the growing number of youngsters losing touch with our countryside.
Last month back in Durham, I turned
off Sacriston high street and reversed our truck through a seemingly normal playground, past ordinary classrooms
and then through a wooden gate. Mum
and I were there to pick up one of our tups (male sheep) that Mum had lent the local school, which had bought three shearlings from us a couple of years ago. Fyndoune Community College had borrowed Arthur to do the duties and produce spring lambs for the school’s farm.
In a hay-speckled fleece, aptly named farm technician Lyndsey Ramm welcomed us with a saddened smile. “We’re going to miss him,” she said. “He’s been brilliant for the pupils.” And what a holiday he’d had! He was waiting for our arrival, penned in the school’s immaculate corrugated shed on a bed of straw next to the chickens, ferret and rabbits. He too looked slightly subdued as his new-found fame and popularity was coming to an end, and looking around I thought to myself that I wish I’d studied in a place like this.
Lyndsey had attended this school. Back in her day the farm wasn’t quite as impressive – there were just a few chickens and a greenhouse for growing tomatoes – but she loved it. One of her proudest schooling achievements was her poultry handling certificate, and her love for the outdoors led her to Houghall Agricultural College, then to her current post, back where she started.
The school, which is federated with Durham Community Business College, has been awarded Humanities with a Rural Dimension status, and it receives funding to help support the farm. All of the students from both schools, aged 11 to 16, make use of it, but so do younger pupils from partner primary schools, and older students on training schemes come here to get their hands dirty too.
Before we loaded up Arthur, I inspected the vegetables the pupils were growing for the school canteen, together with flowers for the hanging baskets and pots around the school yard. But their green fingers blossom well beyond the school gates, as pupils sell their produce at Chester-le-Street market.
In today’s search for sustainability, the school is leading the way. It is also planning to open up a shop on the farm this summer, with the pupils themselves selling their own produce.
The farm is woven into their everyday school work up in the biology lab, as the animals help to bring science to life, and it is also threaded into the curriculum in other ways – the egg yield from the chickens is used in maths classes and the slug population is used in geography to support a study of human population movement! With a bright future for the Durham Federation School Farm, the aim now is to see it become a bit more self sufficient and get even more schools involved.
“I just love it. I love spending time with the kids and watching them interact with all the animals,” enthuses Lyndsey. And having left the school with Arthur saying his goodbyes, it seemed he was bleating exactly the same message all the way back to our farm.
This feature is taken from issue 23 of Countryfile Magazine. To make sure you never miss an issue subscribe today.
MORE FROM MATT BAKER ON WWW.BBCCOUNTRYFILEMAGAZINE.COM:
Bringing the countryside to the olympics
The perfect rural idyll
A childhood of adventure
Joys of spring
Meet the new team