Friday evening on July 15th 2016 at the Farms for City Children’s 40th Anniversary was one to be remembered for many reasons.
Firstly, it was the celebration of 40 years of the Farms for City Children charity set up by Michael Morpurgo (yes the very same; incredible author!) to give those children who were living in big cities the chance to experience life on a farm for a full week. Giving those children the opportunity to work on a real farm, to rise at dawn, muck out the stables, feed the cows, the pigs, the horses, collect the eggs, help in the fields, be part of making meals. It sounds like an awful lot of hard work but it is the best kind of hard work. Life affirming, self esteem building, confidence building, respect instilling, educational hard work! The Farms for City Children has now been running for a wonderful 40 years and I am honoured to have been able to visit with my primary school for 2 consecutive years 26 years ago! I am an alumni sister!
Secondly, it was one of those rare opportunities which come up in life when you are able to revisit somewhere that you hold so precious in your heart. Somewhere that you sometimes question whether you in fact dreamt it all; whether this place of childhood magic really exists.
Thirdly, I was able to be in the presence of Mr Morpurgo, this master of Children’s Literature, this wordsmith, once again so many years after my first meeting with him; an encounter which has shaped my life and fuelled my desire to write.
Fourthly, the unique attendance at a special one off event, where we were treated to a reading of War Horse from Michael himself accompanied by a wonderful musician, Ben Murray, who together in the huge marquee, created an atmosphere where you could have heard a pin drop. The moment when an entire audience is hooked on every word that is read. Those times where you don’t know the song the musician is playing but after hearing it once, the entire audience can sing along the chorus and hum the melody. Spine- tingleingly magical.
Fifthly, that not only was I returning but I was taking my family with me!! My Twins have heard endless tales of my Nethercott residentials and every time Michael Morpurgo has appeared on TV or radio I have piped up with…’Do you know I’ve met him?!!’ and then I continue with the story of when, where and how!!
So, as soon as Twins had finished school for the day we bundled the entire family of (now!) 5 into the family wagon and headed off for this magical farm hidden deep within mid Devon countryside. Hubs driving, I was navigating – and I’m usually pretty good but I think the excitement got to me and I missed a turning! OOPSIE!!
Nay matter, we were soon on the right track, just a bit further down it than we had intended to be! As we headed down Devon lane after Devon lane following giant milk lorries, horses and cyclists, I began to get a feeling in my tummy. Those little butterflies that tell you instinctively that you are so nearly there. The Swallows were swooping about in the early evening sunshine and I felt as though I could be a character in a Morpurgo classic!
Then, there they were, the gate posts I remembered so well! In we drove, parked up in the field and as I turned around I saw the house; Nethercott House. My eyes prickled with tears, my throat filled with emotion and my heart pounded! I was back!!!!
The house hadn’t changed at all, it’s symmetrical front still stood looking down across the field where at the bottom we had used the mud to make little clay animals! I walked up past the marquee and beyond the hog roast to the door which I recalled led into the dining room (which tonight was being used as the bar). Inside here I met a lovely lady working for Farms for City Children and I tentatively asked her if we were allowed to look around the house. Her response ‘Yes of course! Wander wherever you like!’ I did not need telling twice! Grabbing the Twins we swept out into the hall way and stopped in our tracks at the beautiful staircase with enormous window. Those very stairs that I walked down every morning to the most delicious aromas wafting from the kitchen, those very stairs which I recall lugging and heaving my weary legs back up, at the end of every activity filled day.
The Quiet Room.
I led the boys into this room which as its name suggests, was where we could go to ensure peace and quiet, reading our books, playing chess or draughts, drawing pictures or writing our letters home (we could post letters every day to our families as there was a post box not far from the house. My Nan still has her letters which I set all those years ago.) It is this room that holds one of my fondest memories – Michael Morpurgo came one evening and sat in front of the open fire (I can still feel the heat of the fireplace on my windswept cheeks). He had in his hands one of the stories he was working on at the time and we were treated to a reading of his work. I cannot remember which story it was but I remember the feeling of being totally engrossed, lost in the moment, with pictures dancing in my mind.
The Noisy Room
This was where we would play table tennis, table football and generally let off steam (this was a room popular with the boys in the groups it has to be said!)
Where we worked on a rota system of helping to make either the breakfast or dinner each day of our time there. The huge vat of porridge, the crispy bacon, the bubbling beans or the thick lava-like bubbles on the top of the macaroni cheese!
Then I saw the back staircase! I had completely forgotten about these! These are the stairs I ran up after our teacher had told us a scary story and I needed to get back to my dorm and my favourite ted!
I took the boys back along the corridor to the staircase and we went up taking in every detail. At the top the corridor split off leading to all the dorms. Instinctively I walked directly to the rooms where I had been on the 2 residential. Parsonage – the dorm I remember so vividly! My bed was still there! I’m sure it was the same wooden bunk! The feelings I had are hard to pinpoint but were this huge mix of excitement, nostalgia, happiness, tiredness, friendship, warmth and childhood. The smells that the building evoked were bacon, porridge, horsehair, open fires and wax jackets. Perfection!
As we headed back downstairs we made our way out across the lawn, collected the hog roasts for Hubs and the Twins and made a beeline for our picnic rug. Shortly the evening’s entertainment was to begin.
The evening kicked off with a charity auction led by a most entertaining auctioneer and with prizes from crates of wine, family attraction day tickets and a Christmas Turkey a good amount of money was raised. (Whilst Hubs was outside of the marquee with Bubs he sent a message via Twin 1 ‘I hope Mummy isn’t bidding for anything!’ Rest assured I hadn’t accidentally bought anything – the prices were somewhat out of our league – although the crate of wine was sooooo tempting!!!)The auction was wrapped up and over £2000 had been donated.
Then the main event. Twins came and sat either side of me. From what Twin 2 was saying they had been stuck at the entrance to the marquee because there was a man stood in the door way. They politely said ‘Excuse me’ and the man moved aside to let them come through. I turned to see how full the tent had become and in the doorway saw ‘the man’ who had been blocking the entrance….Yup! Mr Morpurgo! So proud of my Twins for their impeccable manners!
War Horse began. Michael walked down the centre aisle followed by Ben Murray carrying his accordion. They took their places on the stage to rapturous applause and so the story began. Performed over 2 halves with an interval it began at 8pm and finished just before 10pm. The atmosphere in that marquee was tangible. The story so heart wrenching and the folk music so haunting. I openly admitted to the Twins that this was The. Best. Bedtime story they would ever have. Bar none. Simply lit with side lights Michael’s reading was beautiful. At times I found myself drifting off with his voice engulfing me – just as when I was 10 and sat by the fireplace – as I gazed out of the marquee window, picturing Joey the horse ploughing the field right in front of me.
At the end , a standing ovation so rightly deserved given by an audience so appreciative of what they had been part of.
photograph from Farms for City Children twitter account
I hoped beyond hope that I would have been able to quickly catch Mr Morpurgo at some point in the evening. I had taken along the first book of his that I had ever read (I am a bit of a book hoarder so knew exactly where to find it before we left for the night!) ‘Why the Whales Came’. I had asked the lady who had introduced the evening, the fantastic Dr Tessa Stone CEO of the charity, whether he may still have been around and she suggested sending the Twins out around the marquee in opposite directions to locate him! Locate him we did! I was shaking! It’s not often you get the chance to meet your hero, your inspiration. Twice in your life. With a gap of getting on for 30 years! But I did. Oh how happy I was! Michael was so interested in me and the Twins, patting them on the head and shoulder and when he learnt that I had visited all those years ago he flung out his arms and gave me a huge hug! I felt like I was 10 years old all over again! He signed my book and noted that it wasn’t War Horse so I explained the significance of my choice. He seemed delighted! Clare (his wife) I had met all those years before and she was also here now too. I had such a lovely chat with her and she remarked how great it was for me to be able to return all these years later.
The evening drew to a close, Michael and Clare headed off and my little family headed off back to our snuggly home.
You may have noticed that Hubs wasn’t featured much! Well that is because darling little Bubs decided to have a meltdown! Hubs being the incredible man he is wouldn’t switch with me, wouldn’t have his turn inside listening to the performance. Nope. He wanted me to have this experience, knowing how much the place, the moment and the memories meant to me.
What a man! Thank you my gorgeous Hubs!
The Aloha Mummy 🌺
For more information on the 3 different locations for Farms For City Children visit their website:
Plenty of opportunities to become a volunteer and lots of fundraising events too!