After living in London for nine years it is a shameful admission that I never visited a city farm, until yesterday.
My excuse? I felt that I already knew what a farm was. I’ve been privileged enough to know their smells and noises in “the real world”. Perhaps conceitedly, I considered a city fake filled with yummy mummies and chubby bunnies beneath me. I certainly doubted that such a visit would serve to assuage my hunger for something natural in the grey metropolis.
But years of city living have eventually eroded this puristic outlook. Richard Louv’s Nature Principle suggests that “the nature we need is the nature nearby”, and indeed, life is too short to wait for my 25 days of annual leave to leave London for the “real thing”. After all, catching an autumn leaf mid-air or being hit on the head by a conker are arguably as good for the soul as being lost Austen-stylee on the top of Dartmoor in the driving rain.
So in an effort to cherish my nearby nature, I tried to put my prejudices aside. Stranded in central London, city farms are much of my nearby greenspace. If anywhere in the concrete jungle could reconnect me to the natural world, surely it would be within these havens of hutches and hessian? A website’s promise of “a taste of country life” sealed the deal.
First stop – Freightliners Farm. After sauntering along Upper Street and then through leafy Liverpool Road, we reached our destination. Sure enough – my suspicions of pushchair traffic and overfed rodents were justified. But I was surprised at the large number of “farm experiences” housed (comfortably) in a rather small space, ranging from pigs to a greenhouse to chicken coups. Vanguards of volunteers were roaming around in wellies and there was even some mud. Families and young adults were oohing and ahhing over the assembled livestock, clucking at the chickens and stroking stray cats. The number of visitors was a sure sign of the farm’s value to Islington’s residents.
Often considered posh, Islington is actually the Capital’s tenth poorest borough, with the least greenspace in London. So the need for such a site is imperative. Yet on leaving the site, I remained undecided as to whether the “farm” served more in connecting residents with one another, than with nature. While a friendly and welcoming place, the site, understandably, bore very little resemblance to a real farm. (One cow in particular was so fat I didn’t even recognise it as being bovine on first glance).
While gluing together a community is unarguably vital, as is the provision of greenspace –does a glorified petting zoo establish the ethereal value of nature in a child’s mind? Or are we kidding ourselves thinking a well-planned quarter acre can solve an issue as crucial as nature deficit disorder. More crucially, is our nearby “nature” actually worth cherishing?
With these thoughts in mind, we wondered south east, through Cannonbury and south Hackney to Hackney City Farm.
It was here that everything started to make more sense.
Now south Hackney may have many good qualities, in abundance, which I don’t know about. But it is undeniably, a little grim in appearance. In contrast, Hackney City Farm provides an oasis of potted plants and golden goats. The green trees of the park in which the farm sits were the first hint of photosynthesis we’d seen in a while, and the painted sign beckoned us towards a gate framed by children and straw. While peering in at a donkey, a small girl barged her way past my camera and squealed “oh-my-god-it’s-the-cutest-thing-I’ve-ever-seen-in-my-whole-entire-life”. Her friend wasn’t listening because she was engrossed watching a sow.
It was the clanging contrast between Hackney City Farm and its surroundings which made this farm precious. While Freightliners Farm obviously served a purpose to the local community, it was only in Hackney that the need for nature to be simply signposted, let alone explained in full, became so urgent. Realising this urgency gives city farms a relative victory in painting a picture erased by an urban upbringing.
The moral of the story is relativism. No, these city farms are not that great at providing an accurate account of rural and agricultural systems. But they may be able to stave off the onset of many young people’s disconnect with nature. Moreover, while they’re not the Peak District, they’re certainly a space; a space in the landscape to think and reflect. The value of experiencing the “great outdoors” is arguably the same.
In conclusion – yes, I will cherish my nature – both near and far and yes, I will keep on trying to connect with the world, alongside mummies and bunnies alike.