Growing up in a village in the Midlands I was surrounded by farming. Many of my young friends lived on farms, and weekend walks would include much hanging over fences talking to sheep or stomping past herds of curious cows. And I loved these animals. For a while I resolved to become a farmer when I grew up, and then a vet (until I realised I would never make it through five years of veterinary medical school). At home, I watched sheep being shorn, the wobbly, naked-looking creatures staggering out of the pen back to join their flock utterly confused about what had just happened to their cosy fleece. I saw large, patient heifers being milked in parlours that gleamed and hummed with machines, and was also taught how to milk them by hand. I rode ponies and mucked out their stables, and enjoyed feeling their hot, whiskery lips gently take an apple from my outstretched, flat palm. From an early age I developed a particular fondness for pigs, and begged for one of my own. In fact, I was once offered my own tiny runt to take home, but one look from the Accidental Mother (who foresaw what it would do to her garden) and that particular dream was dashed.
When I moved to the city I resigned myself to only seeing such creatures when I went back to The Midlands to visit my parents. How wrong I was to be. Having lived in ignorance for my first few years in London, last year I discovered just how many city farms there are scattered about the place. From Houslow to Mudchute, there are tiny small-holdings and market gardens tucked into the most unlikely of places. In Kentish Town the city farm is surrounded by three different train lines, which weave beneath the collection of enclosures and allotments. A small group of goats scrambles up above the tracks, climbing over large concrete boulders, probably pretending they live in a small Alpine village somewhere.
Goats are pretty standard inhabitants of London's city farms, as are sheep, cows, and pigs; from the large pink variety to a rather fetching pair of small, curly-haired, marbled individuals, called Edward and Jenny, who live in Vauxhall. (Also at Vauxhall lives a rather incongruous alpaca, some distance from his Latin American roots.) Ponds also seem to be popular farm features, usually inhabited by ducks of different shapes and sizes, and maybe the odd goose. I visited Kentish Town City Farm one Sunday morning during frog mating season, and their pond - bristling with amphibious inhabitants - rang with vibrating calls, as if they were all taking part in their own weekly church service, singing their froggy hymns. Chickens often ramble freely, either by design (at Kentish Town City Farm) or when an over-excited, young visitor lets them loose by accident (I once watched a frantic parent chasing a clutch of them back into their coop at Freightliners Farm in Islington).
Most farms seem to have 'small animal' areas too. Outside London, where back gardens are more common, hutches of rabbits, guinea-pigs and even the odd chinchilla are nothing remarkable. But down here, where many of us live without the merest sliver of green lawn, we have to go to our city farms to see and stroke such furry friends. Freightliners Farm has built a lovely wooden town for its rabbits, although when I visited I found that a large tortoiseshell cat had moved into one of the colourfully-painted houses, kicked out the rabbity resident, and was snoozing soundly on a bed of straw. Vauxhall City Farm boasts quite the most enormous bunnies I have ever seen, with velvety ears five inches long. (When I visited, one of these monsters spent a lot of its time rushing around the rabbit enclosure trying to rape its neighbours, who were at least half, if not a third of, its size.) Vauxhall also had, as if to contrast the mega-bunnies, a handful of tiny, newborn guinea pigs which were utterly enchanting.
Some farms offer an adoption service, whereby visitors can adopt their favourite animal, contributing financially to the upkeep of the farms. Freightliners Farm, which operates such a policy, does stress however that sometimes its adopted animals may be 'retired out of London', rather like a weary former City banker who moves to a Cornwall cottage to grow roses when he's done with the city. All the farms I have visited are entirely free to visit, and survive on charitable donations, the help of volunteers, sponsorship and heritage funding. Maybe more funding comes from the allotments which exist in some farms, alongside the animal enclosures. I wonder who tends them, and envy them; what bliss to have a plot of land on which to grow flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables, surrounded by the chattering sounds of ducks and chickens and the smell of hay and, yes of course, manure. In fact I can think of no better neighbour for an allotment than a farm, due to the plentiful production of entirely natural fertiliser.
For this up-rooted, former country girl, these farms are a pleasing reminder of home. They are an opportunity to escape the whirl of city-life to exclaim over the fetching furry knickerbockers of bantam hens, and the adorableness of cheeky pygmy goats. And for even the most hardened city-dweller, I am sure that the sight of a cow staring lazily over a fence or chickens scratching around a yard as they whisk by on the bus to work, adds a little something different to the standard urban day.