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Winter At Spitalfields City Farm

February 28, 2021
by the gentle author

On the last day of February, I introduce the first of four features in collaboration with Contributing Photographer Rachel Ferriman, documenting the seasons of the year at Spitalfields City Farm

It was at the end of a long winter that I came to Spitalfields City Farm, the snow had only just thawed and the trees were still barren of leaves. There is a compelling poetry in the unexpected presence of agriculture in the city and it always makes my heart leap to hear animal cries in this urban setting, connecting me to the rural landscape beyond and reminding us how these fields once were before they were built up.

This has been a quiet and lonely winter at the farm without any school groups or visitors during the lockdown but, in spite of this, the life and work of the place goes on with farmhands coming every day, whatever the weather, to tend to their charges both animal and vegetable. Last Christmas, the donkeys did not get to feature in local nativity plays as they usually do, instead this has been a time for the farmhands to concentrate on mundane tasks of maintenance. Thus I felt especially privileged to be let in through the tall gates to visit the farmyard for my report and pay my respects to its inhabitants.

The Spitalfields City Farm is not large, just the size of the small city block between Allen Gardens and Thomas Buxton School to the east of Brick Lane. Yet once inside, it is all encompassing within a maze of pathways leading off between ramshackle sheds and greenhouses to paddocks and ponds where the resident menagerie are to be found. In the hazy distance, the towers of the City of London can be seen piercing the horizon but they recede into irrelevance when viewed from the vegetable garden.

It was the responsibility of Jenny Bettenson, Farmyard Manager, to care for the livestock during the recent cold snap. ‘We had to take buckets and kettles of drinking water to the animals when the temperature dropped below freezing,’ she revealed to me. ‘It got down to minus seven one night – the coldest I have known it in the thirteen years I have been here – so we had to do extra work insulating the animal houses and keeping them draught free. We made sure they had extra hay and extra food. We gave the chickens extra corn because if they have full bellies, they are going to be digesting and creating their own warmth. Some of the older animals have coats, the goats wear winter jackets and the elderly ferrets have heat pads that we put in the microwave to warm them up.’

I was fascinated to learn there is a parallel lockdown going on in the animal kingdom.  ‘While we have our pandemic of coronavirus,’ Jenny explained, ‘the ducks and poultry have their own pandemic of avian influenza, brought in by migratory flocks, so we have had to keep our birds under lockdown to protect them. It started in December at the same time as the human lockdown and the government will decide when they are allowed out again, so it really does mirror what’s going on with us. As the season progresses and the migratory birds leave, the risk will go down and the lockdown will be lifted.’

‘It has been tough not having visitors,’ Jenny admitted to me. ‘We are here to educate, to teach students about animal welfare, how to grow plants and mend fences, so we are looking forward to when we can offer those opportunities again. We can’t promise anything, but are hoping to hatch some rare breed chicks for Easter.’

While I am looking forward to spring and the end of lockdown – both human and avian – now I shall also be looking forward to my next visit to the farm to report to you on the progress of the seasons and the arrival of new life.

Distant towers of the City of London beyond

On a snowy morning, Holmes the pig only came out of his warm sty when he heard the voices of the farm team

A goat in a coat

Yurt in the snow

Sweeping the henhouse where the poultry live safe from foxes

Goats munching on Christmas trees

Tanya checking on vegetable seedlings in the polytunnels

Tess winter weeding the polytunnels

Tess harvesting the last of the Kohlrabi

Winter salad leaves – chard, kohlrabi, kale and fennel – aromatic and delicious

Bella the farm cat

Volunteer Yanne digging the manure heap, used in rotation once well rotted

Yanne adding compost to the raised beds in the polytunnels in preparation for sowing seeds

Yanne visits one day a week and volunteers with the team

Gold Sebright hens – the farm champions rare and rescue breeds

Goat keeping an eye on passersby in the farm yard which is quieter without visitors

The sheep in their ‘Worshipful Company of Woolmen’ shelter

Beatrix the one-eared sheep

Holmes the pig is very affectionate and likes to chat with people passing

Photographs copyright © Rachel Ferriman

Support the work of the Spitalfields City Farm

You may also like to read about

Lutfun Hussain, the Coriander Club

Spinach & Eggs from the City Farm

Sheepshearing at Spitalfields City Farm

Holmes & Watson, Spitalfields Piglets

21 Responses leave one →
  1. February 28, 2021

    A lovely story and beautiful photos. Some of the sheep look like they are smiling! It made me smile this morning to see this post.

  2. February 28, 2021

    Lovely bunch of photos. Made me smile too.
    It’s so warming to see happy animals !

  3. February 28, 2021

    What a treat! Delighted to see goats recycling Christmas trees with so much joy. I accidentally stumbled upon the Rotherhithe city farm a few years ago and can thoroughly recommend a visit, hard by the river in what was once a receiving station for smallpox patients.

  4. February 28, 2021

    What a lovely way to start my birthday to see this lovely little farm with the animals so well treasured – ajewel in the crown indeed! Thank you

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 28, 2021

    Love those designer hens… it looks like someone has been busy drawing around their feathers with a black pen!

    I hope your next report will be able to include children enjoying the farm.

  6. February 28, 2021

    lovely piece…beaitiful creatures…

  7. Barbara Hague permalink
    February 28, 2021

    Wonderful pictures – will show them to my grandchildren.

  8. February 28, 2021

    what fine animals and lovely to see, thanks

  9. February 28, 2021

    Bella certainly deserves her name. Love the goats, and Holmes, of course. Can anyone go by without chatting with Holmes?

  10. February 28, 2021

    Wonderful photos by Rachel Ferriman. I loved looking closely and deeply into the wise eyes of these animals, thanks to her photos. These images, and your essay, provide such calm assurance that the animals are getting the best of care — and I call THAT a “good news” story for this Sunday morning.

    Keep us updated — I look forward to our next visit to the Farm. I am quite smitten with Holmes. Such charisma!?

  11. Amanda Bush permalink
    February 28, 2021

    Beautiful photographs. I visited regularly when my granddaughter was small.
    Is the other pig, Watson, no longer there?

  12. Robin permalink
    February 28, 2021

    Oh wonderful. Just wonderful!
    Holmes in particular is a charmer.

  13. paul loften permalink
    February 28, 2021

    Holmes has put paid to the phrase “pig ignorant”. Such an intelligent fellow . Thank you, Rachel and the Farm for the photos

  14. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    February 28, 2021

    These photographs really gave me a lift today. All these creatures seem to have a definite personality (creature-ality?) and a sunny outlook. What a treasure!

    Thank you, G.A.

  15. melissa delano permalink
    February 28, 2021

    LOVE all the critters!!! and the humans are HEROS!!!

  16. Jane - Vancouver permalink
    February 28, 2021

    How this lifts us from the COVID funk! Fills our hearts with love and awe.
    Thank you so much for this beautiful post and to all the people who support this lovely place.

  17. February 28, 2021

    Unbelievable that these Animals feel so comfortable in the middle of London, as you can clearly see. Adorable!

    Love & Peace

  18. February 28, 2021

    Hi, I loved taking the photos for this story!
    Thank you to Spitalfields Life for such a wonderful assignment 🙂

    Spitalfields City Farm is such a special place, and the farm team and volunteers are all so passionate and dedicated, knowledgable and generous, and doing such heroic and wonderful work keeping the farm going during the pandemic when the farm must be closed and many of the volunteer team cannot help.

    A couple of the team mentioned that the animals miss all the many visitors, and school groups that usually come! They are all very friendly, I really enjoyed petting a couple of the beautiful brown sheep, and the goats.

    Holmes the Pig – he seems to offer a conversational grunt to anyone passing by, but a huge delighted squeal when his favourite team members stop for a hug and an ear scratch! Watson the pig died at a grand old age last year, but the team told me Holmes is doing fine without him.

    @Judy Stevens – Happy Birthday!

  19. mlaiuppa permalink
    February 28, 2021

    What a wonderful place. I hope it is protected from all of the insensitive development going around. I would hate to read that petitions and hearings will have to start to save this wonderful farm as well. Such a valuable resource in the community.

    We have something private on a smaller scale in my very large city. Not quite a city block, maybe half of one. My local organic nursery has a “petting zoo” but you can’t really pet anything, just watch. It’s basically a rescue. There is a cow, two goats, a turkey with his harem, two small donkey’s, a horse, geese, ducks, chickens, rabbits, parrots and in a separate area some red eared turtles and in an above ground pond, fish. Many are rescues. Bill could never say no and people would bring him the odd animal needing care. That’s how he got over a dozen of the turtles. I’m sure children’s pets that either got too big or their caretakers got too old. The family that owns the nursery lives on the premises and have a cat and dog as well. But the animals are also part of the “farmily.” There are eggs from the chickens and milk from the goats. I believe they keep some of the turkey chicks to raise for Thanksgiving. They also provide classes in husbandry of bees (they have hives) and chickens and sell chicks in the spring. They come to mind because the nursery is called “City Farmer’s Nursery.” It is so much more than a nursery. Bill was always charitable with his time and expertise and he donated and installed gardens in many of the schools in the area to encourage

    It is a shame that every community cannot have a “city farm” or at least a community garden so that people have a place to work the earth, grow their own food, and enjoy the company of animals. I think both would go a long way to healing what is effecting human beings and their treatment of the environment and each other.

  20. March 1, 2021

    Thank you so much for this blog. Your blogs uplift my spirit, give me hope, I am so glad to see the farm and animals doing well. And the people working there.

  21. March 3, 2021

    Beautiful story and photos. How I would love to spend each and every day there taking care of the animals, but instead I’m stuck in my office

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