In The Press

Jamie’s Farm in The Daily Mail

By Bel Mooney
 

Sometimes you can walk straight into somebody’s dream. I did it a few days ago.

Ten children from tough areas of South London sat around the dining table in my friend Tish Feilden’s converted barn, in a beautiful spot just outside Bath.

Under her skilful prompting, they were coming up with a personal goal for the week — things about themselves they’d like to change.

‘I got too much attitude,’ said a ten-year-old girl; ‘I need to be kinder to people,’ said a 13-year-old boy, and so on.

They didn’t find it easy to articulate their feelings.

 
Offering rural respite: Tish Feilden and her son, Jamie, at their Somerset farm

Offering rural respite: Tish Feilden and her son, Jamie, at their Somerset farm

After all, people don’t usually listen to what they have to say — you can be sure of that. These are kids who are used to people expecting the worst of them.

If we are to believe the latest report, these children are members of a tragically underachieving generation.

A vast survey carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has just ranked British teenagers the worst off in the Western world, in terms of ‘risky behaviour’ and aspiration. As a nation, we have to ask ourselves some tough question about why this is — and what we can do about it.

Mother-and-son team Tish and Jamie Feilden have already come up with one solution — stepping in to change what kids expect of themselves. The children I met around their table were about to have a life-changing experience — yes, with the help of pigs, horses, dogs, sheep, cows, chickens and even vegetables.

Tish’s son Jamie, 28, is the founder of the charity Jamie’s Farm — with its inspiring motto, ‘cultivating change’.

In May I wrote about its launch in my Saturday column and many generous readers sent support — and donations.

So I wanted to report back on the progress of this exciting project which aims to give inner-city kids a taste of a different life, through farming, family and therapy. I wanted to see Jamie’s dream in action.

mucking out

Mucking out: A cheerful chore

Many people would be daunted by the kids (aged 10-14) around the table, just because they’re noisy, unsettled, giggling, unsure.

They’ve come here because they have all sorts of problems and the merry homeliness of the Feildens’ place is unlike anything they’ve seen. The long drive down the narrow, leafy lane which leads to Sheephouse Farm Barn was their first shock.

‘Where’s the shops?’ they asked in astonishment. No shops nearby — and no TV, MP3 players, junk food or sugar allowed, either.

Life on Jamie’s farm is about living as a family (eating good food around a table and all helping) and hard work (chopping wood, mucking out, pulling potatoes and peeling them etc).

They have to obey the family rules — and go for walks, for example, rain or shine. They might be from single-parent or chaotic homes, carers of younger siblings and/or parents with mental health issues, excluded from school — you name it. Most have never even been outside their London borough. This is life on another planet.

Tish Feilden is a psychotherapist, educationist and artist.

When the kids talk over each other, her voice becomes quieter and quieter.

She tells them that if you listen to somebody, making eye contact, they know you respect and like them.

‘But if you talk when I’m talking, I think I’m not saying anything worth listening to and that makes me sad.’

They fall silent. A simple lesson, but their response is amazing.

Darrell is 14 and back on his second visit.

 

The first time he was disrupting lessons, confronting teachers and involved with a South London gang. He was at risk of being excluded from school.

But after that first visit his behaviour changed, he left the gang and focused on school work.

Now he’s back as a ‘mentor’ — and thrilled: ‘I mean, it proves Jamie rates me!’ I watch him brush down Tish’s horse as if he’s been doing it all his life.

Nearby, 13-year-old Lauren is about to accompany staff member Ruth Carney (an ex-teacher who is the brains behind the charity’s research and fund-raising) to the veggie garden to see what might be ready to pick for lunch.

Lauren looks like the typical, ‘edgy’ London teenager. She’s been excluded from school three times, for angry behaviour.

She explains: ‘In my head it’s just, like, noise all the time. I get stressed. But here it’s peaceful.

‘You think you’re going to be bored, but you’re not ’cos there’s so much going on.’

You might wonder how five days of family and farming and attention can turn troubled children around — but it does.

 
Chicken and eggs: Farm life is fun for these youngsters

Chicken and eggs: Farm life is fun for these youngsters

When 12-year-old Chantella said to me wistfully ‘I like the way Tish listens me… I want to act different when I get back’, I believe her.

Perhaps something of the magic comes from a framed photo on the wall behind Tish. This handsome, smiling man is Richard, Tish’s late husband.

She and Jamie see Richard as the guiding spirit behind all the good that happens in this place.

The strange truth is that without the heartbreaking tragedy of his sudden death, Jamie’s dream of helping at-risk children through farming might never have come into being. Richard Feilden was one of Britain’s most talented (and multiple-prize-winning) architects, known and admired for his idealism, energy — and ‘green’ credentials.

Tish fell in love with him at 18 and they married when she was 20.

At the beginning of January 2005, she found her beloved husband lying crushed to death under a tree he had been felling, in the woodland he loved.

He was 54, at the height of his career — and left three children.

Jamie had just returned to London to his teaching job when his mother phoned with the terrible news.

One of the closest, loveliest families I’ve ever known was shattered.

They buried Richard where he had been working that day.

And now, each time Tish and Jamie welcome a party of ten city children (from Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham or London) for their five-day stay, they take them on a walk to the peaceful glade, and tell them about the man who built the farm.

In 2005, Jamie was teaching (on the Teach First scheme which puts the brightest graduates into the toughest schools) in Croydon.

Five or six months after his father’s death, he was brooding on how little contact urban children have with the natural world.

On an impulse, he took two new lambs to the school and the pupils looked after them for a term.

‘It diverted their attention from fighting and gave them a sense of responsibility,’ he says.

Between 2005 and 2008 he brought down ten school parties to the home where he’d grown up and Tish discovered that the hole left by Richard’s death was partially filled by doing something he would have believed in.

So the idea of Jamie’s Farm was born.

Now it’s a full-time reality for Jamie and his talented young staff. And Tish the essential mum, of course.

Each day the children are divided into four tiny groups.

They’ll take turns at that day’s activities: looking after the horses and learning to ride, pottery, cleaning out the pigs, feeding the chickens, tending vegetables and picking them for lunch, and visiting a neighbouring farmer’s sheep to learn about them.

The land around Tish’s home only amounts to 15 acres, but neighbouring farmers have lent Jamie another 100 acres.

 
Glorious mud: Pigs get a helping hand

Glorious mud: Pigs get a helping hand

Which proves they must rate this inspirational young man as much as he rates the children who visit.

The one-to-one time with Tish is crucial.

She and Jamie believe in expecting the best of kids who are used to the world yelling at them — and expecting them to shout back.

‘They sleep here in my own home, full of my paintings and my possessions, and nothing has ever been broken, never mind stolen,’ she explains, passionate in her belief that even excluded children can ‘change their train track’ if given encouragement and praise.

‘I’ve seen huge, strapping lads from Brixton stop suddenly in the valley and say: “Man, this is so bew-ful.”

And when they leave they sometimes give Jamie a hug, with tears in their eyes because they don’t want to go.’

The idea of ‘care farming’ isn’t unique to the Feildens.

It’s a growing phenomenon in the Netherlands, and now this country’s National Care Farming Initiative is asking Rural

Affairs Secretary Hilary Benn to champion the principle.

Farmers work with health and social care agencies to provide basic farming activities for adults suffering from a wide variety of problems, as well as disaffected youths.

It has proven success.

Where Jamie’s Farm is unique is the concentration on intervention while children are still at school — and also the small size of the groups.

I saw for myself how quickly they buckled down — learning that you have to brush the horse carefully and clean his hooves before you get the thrill of sitting on his back.

Can the Jamie’s Farm experience work, after just five days?

Tish points out that when something wonderful happens to you, it stays in your memory for ever. The evidence so far is staggering.

For example, 91 per cent of students have fewer behavioural problems on return to school, 83 per cent have reduced truancy rates, 100 per cent show improvements in confidence, communication and empathy.

But things are changing down on the farm.

Jamie is fund-raising like mad (not to mention going capinhand to the bank) to buy a wonderful old farmhouse, with 60 acres, just five minutes away, as a permanent base for the charity.

They show me pictures of the new place — and Tish teases her handsome, still-single son that he’ll need a wife to share it.

You can be sure that when Jamie finally gets his own dream farm the first thing he’ll do is put up a portrait of his father. Sitting with me — the busy cries of children outside — he talks with quiet emotion about Richard Feilden’s legacy.

‘He always instilled in me the idea that you work for positive reasons, not just for money. And the reason I can stand up and talk confidently to 500 people about the charity is because he’d have done it. He was passionate about education and — yeah — I do all this because of the way he lived his life.’

• THE children’s names have been changed for this article, payment for which has been donated to Jamie’s Farm, Sheephouse Farm Barn, Warleigh, Bath BA1 8EE. See www.jamiesfarm.org.uk