October is Stoptober here in the UK – Give up smoking and drinking for one whole month and raise a little money for charity at the same time. I have nothing but respect for those taking part – not just because it’s all in a good cause but knowing me, I’d probably end up a chain-smoking alcoholic if I ever tried. The moment I’m told I can’t have something, it suddenly becomes my object of ultimate desire : During my one and only (disastrous) attempt at a diet, I actually started dreaming of Mars bars. I don’t even like chocolate for heaven’s sake!
True to form, we’re back in the city and it’s only now I’ve started taking an interest in farming. Despite having lived for the past year surrounded by farmland, the extent of my agricultural experience consisted only of fleeing fields of over-friendly sheep. It never occurred to me to visit a real-life working farm but here in London, I can’t get enough of the various city farms to be found all over the capital.
The first London city farm opened in 1972 in Kentish Town, the brainchild of a local community arts group, the Inter-Action Trust, when they rented a disused timber yard and found the remnants of the old Victorian railway stables. Nowadays, the capital boasts 12 city farms, the most recent of which – Belmont Children’s Farm – opened just last year (The exact number of city farms in London is a moot point depending on your definition. I’ve been strict in my calculations, only including those that have both animals and a London postcode – No offence to Surrey or Middlesex intended!) Most have stayed true to the spirit of Kentish Town and are also run as volunteer community projects. Not only do they help preserve the local environment, but they offer an awareness of agriculture to those in inner city areas, some of whom might never otherwise experience country life.
Of all the city farms I’ve visited, my favourite by far is Mudchute Park and Farm on the Isle of Dogs. Whereas some were just a little too compact and concrete for comfort, Mudchute is set in 32 acres of beautiful, green parkland – In fact, it’s one of the largest city farms in Europe. Back in the 70s, the park was originally destined for high-rise development, but the community fought to save it and created instead the farm you see today. Whatever your thoughts on animals, it’s undoubtedly a magical spot. Absolutely peaceful except for the occasional ‘baaaa’, you can sit in the shadow of Canary Wharf and while away the hours watching the sheep graze.
That’s not to say it’s all about the setting: The animals can more than hold their own. There are over 30 different breeds across 20 different species at Mudchute, everything from cute’n’fluffy rabbits to Saddleback pigs and other rare natives and even a few foreign guests such as Llamas and Alpacas: The balance between petting zoo and working farm is carefully struck. All the animals have their own appeal, but for sheer personality, the pygmy goats are hard to beat. I still haven’t figured out whether they think I’m Mum or a Michelin starred meal – sometimes it’s all affectionate cuddles, at others they’re far more interested in eating my camera bag (For something far more appetising, check out the Mudchute Kitchen: It’s one of London’s best kept secrets for weekend brunch, partly I suspect because the TimeOut website claims it’s closed. Not true, but it is only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday 9.30am to 4pm).
It’s estimated around 3m people a year now visit the UK’s city farms. Whilst some are more obviously aimed at children, Mudchute seems to attract a far wider range of visitors than many – Maybe it’s the location or the fact there’s a busy equestrian centre on site. I’ve seen everyone from school kids to OAPs, local families to Japanese tourists. I’ve even watched a woman, still in her city suit, contentedly feeding the sheep, totally oblivious to her stilettos sinking into the mud. It was a crazy, comic moment and one which sums up perfectly why I love this little bit of countryside in the city.
It costs nothing to visit the Mudchute. Like most Londoners, I’m pretty cynical when told ‘the best things in life are free’ but in the case of Mudchute Farm, it might just be true.
Mudchute Park and Farm is open everyday from 9am – 5pm. However, do go early if you can as many of the animals are in bed by 4pm. The nearest station is Crossharbour DLR. There is no parking on site. For more information, see the Mudchute Park and Farm website