Sunday, June 1, 2008

Surrey Docks Farm

Stritly speaking this may be slightly off-topic but I went up to say hello to Kath Whittam on Saturday afternoon at the Surrey Docks Farm. I couldn't believe how much it has improved since I was there a year or so ago. My first impression was of a happily chaotic jumble of parents and children all having a fabulous time.

I walked into the Farm from the Thames path and it was particularly nice to see the Thames-facing band of land in use for neat beds of vegetables (including some very healthy looking artichokes). And everywhere I looked there was something happening. After sitting and chatting to Kath, and looking at their new website which is currently under construction but looks excellent, I went and had a potter around.

It is a good time of year for visiting, of course, because there are so many young animals to see - lambs, a calf, the piglets and chicks of various different types. The donkeys that I saw in Stave Hill the other day were being fussed over by everyone, and the children were going weak at the knees over the calf. There are also flower and vegetable gardens, two greenhouses and a really lovely herb garden, which has a sign to explain which herbs are in which beds.

I have to confess to spending far too much time hanging around the pigs, which I love. A large sow and her piglets, all very active, appeared to be competing to make the most noise with any accessories that would assist, including a metal trough filled with bricks. One piglet was trying to dig her way out of the enclosure. I have lectured about prehistoric pigs in the past because they have a particularly interesting role in early economies. I'll spare you the details but they were first domesticated in the Near East and, like the donkey, sheep and goat, has spread successfully over huge distances. In the case of the pig this is particularly remarkable as, unlike sheep and goat, pigs are almost impossible to herd. I could bore on for a considerable period on the subject, but if you want a short introduction you could do much worse than the engaging "British Pigs" by Val Porter (Shire Publications 2002) or Lyall Watson's seriously entertaining book on the subject - "The Whole Hog" (Profile Books 2004, 2005).

The Surrey Docks Farm is one of those excellent and surprising urban oases that faces numerous challenges to survive. In order to replace sheds and portakabins with proper buildings they are about to gear up for some serious fund raising. The architects plans enable one to see how the Farm will evolve, and it is going to look very good indeed. Now, if every single person living on Rotherhithe were to put in a couple of pounds each it would be built in no time :-) Sad to say that fund raising is never that simple.

As well as money they need help - people to volunteer from everything from hands-on help in the farm to professional assistance with the business side of things including education, catering, finance, fundraising and personnel. If you have some time on your hands and feel that you have something to contribute this is a very worthwhile project.

If you fancy a visit, you'll find Surrey Dock Farm open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 5pm. Their address is South Wharf, Rotherhithe Street, London SE16 5EY and they can be contacted on 020 7231 1010.

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