There has long been a distinction between city and country. The city is what we associate with a constant buzz of activity, roads, and towering buildings, with people always on the way to somewhere else. The country seems calmer, where things are at a standstill, bringing to mind vast expanses of fields and undulating hills. It’s not unusual to hear about people longing to steal away to the countryside for a retreat to escape the noise and rush of the city. For the busy university student however, even getting away for a weekend might seem to be a luxury that we cannot afford the time for. This is where city farms come into the picture, offering us a less frenetic pace of life for a short weekend on the afternoon.
It may seem surprising that there are not only fields and farm animals in London, but that there are 17 of them, most of which have been around since the 1980s, and just around the corner from places we’re familiar with. Due to their reliance on public donations and commitment not to charge any entry fees, the farms do not advertise much, and instead rely on recommendations to get word on their events out. A majority of the farms are community-managed projects to promote sustainable farming and gardening, but each farm has its unique collection of animals and activities, so there are plenty of choices to exhaust over many weekends.
My first farm adventure happened in the peak of summer on a day that seemed to beautiful to be wasted away indoors. My flatmates and I went on Google to search for new things to explore in London, and settled on Surrey Docks farm, intrigued by the very idea that there could be fields and animals in the middle of Canary Wharf. Nestled on the Southbank of the Thames Path, Surrey Docks Farm is the epitome of country beside city and we were not let down. It was a strange experience walking from a road like any other in central London then through a small gate which opened a whole new world to us. Graphite roads paved into cobblestoned walkways, and hand-painted signs hung all over the place. Was I still in London? I couldn’t be sure.
I spent most of the time at the farm trying to coax the miniature pony at Surrey Docks to come towards the wooden fence, though he stubbornly continued to graze far beyond my reach. Frusrating as that was in the moment, it reminded me of how a farm differs from visiting a zoo. The air is fresher, the environment seems less manufactured, and the animals move comfortably at their own paces. There are no shows that they have to put on to entertain you, no pens to force them to linger near the visitor’s gaze, and there is a sense that you have entered into their space rather than the converse. This in fact makes the animal’s choices to approach you all the more rewarding. The special attraction of Surrey Docks farm is a central pen where goats and little lambs roam free, where my friend earned the title of “Goat Whisperer” for somehow managing to coax all the animals in Disney-princess-fashion to surround her.
If the animals are not reason enough to visit the farm, perhaps the organic cafes at some of the farms may entice the foodie in you. The cafes under the name Frizzante have opened exclusively at these farms, where they serve full breakfasts, home made ice cream, quiches and cakes. The waitresses pluck leaves from potted plants around them to make mint and hot toddy teas, and a blackboard lists the specials of the day based on what they harvest from farms in Kent. Sitting inside the café overlooking the farm, I became aware of why people often retreated to the quiet countryside to relax.
Since then I have dragged groups of friends to visit Hackney City Farm (a more modest but centrally-located farm with 2 donkeys and a miniature petting zoo), as well as the rather impressive Mudchute Farm that boasts 3 llamas (no kidding, there are llamas in London), a ferret corner, and an equestrian center with beautiful horses. Discovering the unique quirks each of the farms offers is part of what makes visiting them such pleasure. While Surrey Docks and Hackney Farm are located slightly further away from central London (albeit well-worth the trip down), nearer options such as Freightliners Farm in Islington, Kentish Town Farm and Spitalfields Farm at Brick Lane can be reached with ease. You need not wait for a sunny day to visit the farms- in the cold winter months, the animals are swathed in blankets and the café serves up hot stews- so the next time you find yourself with a free day, or need some time away from the city, remember these city farms. Peppered all over London, these little pockets of the countryside will make you feel as if you’ve left London behind, if only for awhile.