SURREY DOCKS FARM
by Hilary Peters (part of her ediary)
More than a century ago, Jung moved from the country, where he had been brought up, to go to university in Basle. He noticed that people in the city – all of them - were neurotic and he quickly realised that this was because they had lost contact with nature.
He felt that losing contact with nature was, in itself, enough to make people neurotic.
I had the same feeling, differently expressed, when I started Surrey Docks Farm in the 1970’s. The dreadful alienation of people in the abandoned docks wasn’t just the result of unemployment. They were alienated from themselves, eachother, and their surroundings.
When I started to dig the silt and graze my goats and poultry in Surrey Docks, I was surprised by the urgency with which everyone wanted to join in. And joining in made a real difference to their lives. Kids who had only been interested in destruction wanted to make things. People who had never related to anyone or anything started to relate to my animals. The farm grew, mainly not due to my efforts at all, but to all the people who recognised that the farm met some buried need in them.
How could I not realise that it isn’t just the natural world that suffers from our indifference to it? We are also maiming ourselves. We are part of the whole package. People flocked to the farm to tell me that kids think milk comes out of bottles and quote vandalism statistics and sociological theories. They set about using the farm in all sorts of wonderful ways I would never have thought of. Suddenly, I had created an educational resource.
And that was great as far as it went. A few hundred or thousand people in SE London had their lives enriched to some extent. But this was just an isolated pocket. Society was still going the other way. Factory farming was still in the ascendant. The Foot and Mouth year brought home to me how completely industrial farming had subdued the nation and how mindlessly it was accepted.
The farm has come a long way since I first grazed my goats on the scrub of Dog and Duck Passage, Rotherhythe, in 1975. (I told the story of those early years in Docklandscape published by Watkins 1979)
Now, there is a farmyard where the public can meet the animals, luxury animal housing for goats, sheep, pigs, cows, donkeys, poultry, a classroom in the shape of an enchanted forest, (one tree is the history tree) a flat where Daphne the teacher, and John who works on the farm, live with their 2 children and 2 Jack Russells, a forge where Kevin the blacksmith does some very creative ironwork and holds evening classes, a dairy and workshop where Sarah runs a training group, a whole Siegal building housing a cafi, a bee room with inspection hive, a yurt room, and a room where James runs the Green Leaf Scheme for people with learning difficulties to grow vegetables and flowers. The entire site is only 2 acres, densely used. There are fields for grazing, a vegetable patch along the river, a herb garden, a compost area, a duck pond, a wild life patch, at least one yurt (the yurts go out to schools), a willow walk housing the bee hives, a poly-tunnel, an orchard full of geese, and sculpture everywhere. Kevin the sculptor does extremely inventive work with local children collecting grot off the beach and making re-cycled wonders – mainly portraits of the farm’s animals.
The farm is a place that opens up a different world, which most visitors recognise as a vital missing part of themselves.
I want it to do more. (This is my personal ambition.) I want it and other city farms, to make farming and food production part of the curriculum, so that every child has the opportunity to learn about farm animals, to practice crafts connected with them and to have actual contact with live animals.
A start has been made on this.
A scheme called GROWING SCHOOLS (www.growingschools.org.uk), run by the government and the Federation of City Farms (www.farmgarden.org.uk), is beginning to involve inner city schools in growing vegetables and tending animals. So far, this is a gesture of support for the Curry Report. It can be more. I want to see every school child adopt a farm animal, learn about it, and have contact with it. I want everyone to have the opportunity to produce some of their own food.
Dot Boag, who has just died, came to my farm on a wet winter evening. She saw hardly any of it, but still enough to get its message. Dot was an artist and she saw through images. As she scratched the head of a sheep in the dripping barn, she said how vital it is for people to be able to get this close to farm animals. She commissioned a sculpture of a goat from Kevin.
Dot was one of the converted. She didn’t need Surrey Docks Farm, but she recognised its purpose. She inspired me to write this diary. She also said someone should write a book cataloguing the mistakes of the Foot and Mouth year. She believed that if people knew what had gone on (and what still goes on), change must follow.