Why Wick Court is such a special place
Everyone loves a party. I come from a big family, work with amazing colleagues on the farm and know lots of outgoing people at Countryfile, so I get more invitations to parties than I can hope to attend. I know how fortunate I am in that respect. But sometimes an invite arrives in the post which it’s impossible to turn down. That’s exactly what happened a few months ago. So I replied immediately, marked the big day in my diary and set up a reminder on my phone. There was no way I was going to risk being double-booked.
The invitation came from Wick Court, a centuries-old farm on the Arlingham peninsula, an idyllic part of Gloucestershire where the River Severn forms its famous horse-shoe bend. I was to join the author, Sir Michael Morpurgo, as guest of honour at the 20th anniversary celebration of the charity Farms for City Children opening Wick Court as a residential centre for urban school kids. They say the best ideas are the simplest ones and since 1998 that’s certainly been the case at Arlingham; children and teachers from schools in London, Birmingham and elsewhere spend a week living and working on a genuine farm. For inner-city youngsters the experience of feeding and caring for cattle, sheep and pigs or tending veg plots and salad crops can be life-changing.
Before Farms for City Children brought its distinct brand of inspiration to the farm, Wick Court had been run for decades as a family farm, finally inherited by two sisters, Ella and Alex Dowdeswell; neither had married, they rarely left Arlingham and their farm was a sort of living time-capsule of a bygone era. So much so that by the 1960s, when virtually every other beef and dairy farmer had modernised, the Dowdeswells were still raising seriously unfashionable Old Gloucester cattle. But thank goodness they were.
For me, Wick Court is a special place because it marks the beginning of the Henson family journey in rare breeds conservation. My dad, Joe, got to know the Dowdeswell sisters when he was still gathering together his first collection of British native farm animals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He bought two Gloucester cows from them, which we christened Ella and Alex in honour of their original owners but which we later discovered the old ladies had nicknamed ‘the kicker’ and ‘the barrener’. Then in 1972 the Dowdeswells decided to sell all their cattle, the last surviving herd of pure bred Gloucesters, and dad was there at the auction with a handful of fellow enthusiasts on a mission to save them from almost certain extinction.
That story was told again at the Wick Court birthday party as more than a hundred people enjoyed afternoon tea, delicious cake and live entertainment in glorious sunshine beside the famous old farmhouse. Tucking in were some wonderful farming folk who’ve played a huge part in my life and in the success of the Gloucester Cattle Society; among them the High Sheriff of Gloucestershire, Charles Martell and the great champion of our local breeds, Eric Freeman. The Wick Court archives were on show too and I spotted a newspaper cutting of a very young Matt Baker visiting the place during his time on Blue Peter. I must remember to rib him about that next time I see him!
Much of the success of the last two decades is down to the tireless work of the Farm School Manager, Heather Tarplee. In his anniversary speech, the founder of Farms for City Children, Michael Morpurgo, magicked up the perfect tribute; “Heather has grown this place as if it were a cabbage. She has fertilised this cabbage for 20 years in all sorts of wonderful ways, making the children look at the world anew, to see and hear and breathe things they never have before.”
And away in the distance, I’m sure I heard a Gloucester cow moo in agreement.
The house at Wick Court