Since becoming a mum my experience of the city has changed somewhat. Gone are the days of shopping till I drop, viewing the latest art exhibitions, cappuccinos in rustic cafés, catching an art house film at the Watershed and cocktail o’clock at a speakeasy bar.
Now it’s all about play cafés, mother and baby classes, swimming pools and kids attractions with good baby changing facilities (FYI, Bristol has got it covered). And I’m itching to tell you about the latest gem I’ve discovered that’s perfect for a family day out. Although you may have already heard of it, because it has been going for a whopping 40 years.
The place I’m referring to is Windmill Hill City Farm in Bedminster, just around the corner from East Street. I’m ashamed to say that in the ten years I’ve been in Bristol, I haven’t once stepped foot in it – until now. And having recently visited and seen how much there is to offer and the exciting things happening there, I feel I should shout about it to everyone else who has yet to visit. Apologies to those of you who already know it and continue to support it, because the most important thing about Windmill Hill City Farm is that it is a community farm for the people of the city, and it has managed to maintain this because of its supporters.
Windmill Hill City Farm is an independent, voluntary, community project, offering local people a wide range of social, environmental, educational, recreational and economic activities, with a footfall of over 130,000 people a year. It is governed by a voluntary Board of Trustees, a committee of local residents elected annually by farm members.
It all started in 1976 when local people came together to save a derelict piece of land in Bedminster from developers. The council had originally proposed to use this land for a high security lorry park, however this was met with widespread disapproval from the local people who wanted to see the space used for the benefit of the community.
Not only will the children’s menu get little ones’ lips smacking and keep them full of beans, but there’s no pressure to keep your children quiet – enjoyment is encouraged.
After many battles, the early years of the farm were held together by a band of volunteers, who, without money but with lots of imagination, hard work, grit and determination, begged and borrowed to create the city farm. Simone Dougall, marketing manager at the farm says: “They wanted local children in particular to have the opportunity to see animals and a slice of the countryside on their doorstep. In the 70s people felt disconnected with nature so these insightful volunteers strove to educate people on where their food came from.”
It started off as a farm with just a few animals and a vegetable patch but over the years it has evolved into what it is today, standing as a constant community resource. One of the key aims of Windmill Hill City Farm was (and still is) to provide local people, particularly children and vulnerable adults, with access to nature in the heart of the city. It is now the oldest city farm outside London, boasting four and a half acres.
It is open seven days a week and the best thing of all is there’s no entry charge. There’s plenty to see and do here to keep all ages occupied, so it works out as a fun and enriching family visit without breaking the bank.
It’s hard to know where to start when you arrive, but if you have children with you, take a walk around the farmyard and paddocks to say hello to the cows, pigs, goats, sheep, ducks, geese and chickens, not forgetting the wildlife garden where you can lift twigs and rocks to discover all about the habitats in these dark, damp places. Kids will relish the opportunity to dig in the dirt and get messy. You can also pick up a free nature trail from the reception on your way in – there are four to choose from and each one provides a fun challenge and a great way to explore the farm from a different perspective every time you visit.
If your little ones need to burn some energy take them to the play area where there are all sorts of obstacles to challenge them, as well as a sand pit and outdoor toys and games. There’s oodles of green space to walk around too – everyone is welcome in the urban oasis of the community gardens. There are allotments, picnic areas, ponds, a greenhouse, flowers and a special children’s area to enjoy.
As a working farm you’ll find farmers and volunteers busy at their jobs on a daily basis. As well as feeding and caring for the animals all year round, see them sowing, hunting slugs and planting during the spring; in the summer find them watering, weeding and harvesting; in the autumn enjoying the fruits of their labour and in winter taking cuttings, planning, pruning and tidying.
Right next to the farm yard is a cosy, child-friendly café serving homemade food using farm produce wherever possible. The menu aims to reflect the farm’s commitment to providing local, healthy and delicious food for the community, so you’ll see lots of families eating here. Not only will the children’s menu get little ones’ lips smacking and keep them full of beans, but there’s no pressure to keep your children quiet – enjoyment is encouraged – there’s even a toddler play area right outside.
From the café you can also buy fresh farm eggs, frozen meat, homemade preserves and home-grown farm produce (tip: take an empty egg box when you visit). It’s no wonder the café won the Bristol Good Food ‘Best Family Friendly’ award 2015.
Last but by no means least is the home-grown gift shop – an Aladdin’s cave of beautiful and interesting handmade products by local artists, designers and makers. From cards, clothing and jewellery to fine art, skincare products and baby and toddler goods, there’s something to suit all tastes and budgets.
It’s amazing just how much is happening on this site, and over the years thousands of people have benefitted from the services that the city farm offers, including: a 95-place daycare nursery; bike repair centre; indoor activity centre; all-weather sports pitch; volunteering opportunities for people with learning difficulties, mental health issues and in recovery; school visits; forest school sessions; conference facilities with in-house catering; art exhibitions; adult education classes and workshops (including willow weaving and yoga).
Despite being a bustling hub of community spirit for 40 years, the farm has certainly experienced some difficult times and has even had to endure the threat of closure on numerous occasions. However, when current chief executive Steve Sayers took on the role five years ago, he really turned it around. Simone says: “Steve made some much-needed improvements and managed to transform the farm into a successful business while still retaining its ethos and rustic charm. The farm is well looked after and so are the staff. We are always bringing in young people, training them up and building their confidence – and the same goes for our volunteers too.”
“Leading the city farm is the best job I’ve ever had,” says Steve. “It’s a huge challenge, honour and responsibility to be in charge of something so loved and needed by local people. We have to keep moving forward and developing what’s here to keep the place fresh, busy and relevant for everyone. It’s fantastic to have people support us by coming to visit and taking part in farm life.”
The farm needs the continued support and involvement of the community in order to provide its services, grow and continue to move forward for the next 40 years, and there are lots of ways you can get involved and help…
● Have your say and influence decisions that affect local people by becoming a Farm Friend (£10 a year). Members can also enjoy a 10% discount in the café and on room hire.
● Become a volunteer. Whether you want to work with animals, gardens or activities for the community, volunteering is a great opportunity to get experience and help the farm to flourish and run smoothly.
● There are great conference facilities and rooms for hire. I love the idea of hiring the barn terrace which is a covered outdoor space with a pizza oven, seating and bar area too.
● Farm adventurers: stay and play (for parents/carers and child under 5 years), Mondays 9.30am – 11.30am, £5 per family. Enjoy outdoor fun at the farm with your little one. There will be animal care, nature play, music and crafts.
● Farm adventurers (child only), Tuesday – Friday mornings, 9.15am – 12.15pm and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, 1pm – 4pm, £16 per session. Drop your child off for a morning or afternoon of nature play, animal care, music and crafts with the farm adventurers team.
● Willow weaving workshop, Saturday 27 February, 10am – 5pm (£45). Learn how to weave using willow and make a beautiful basket to take home.
● Animal husbandry, Saturday 6 February, 9am – 2pm (£35). Whether you are thinking of setting up a small holding, getting chickens for your garden or just fancy a day finding out how to care for farm animals, this workshop with the resident farmer will teach you all you need to know.
● Windmill Hill City Farm will be celebrating 40 years by joining in with lots of citywide events including Food Connections, Upfest, art trails and Big Green Week as well as a programme of events on site, including a farm-specific theatre project with Show of Strength. And you won’t want to miss the big birthday party on Saturday 11 June. Watch this space for more information…
For all the latest information and farm updates and news, follow Windmill Hill City Farm on Twitter: @windcityfarm or visit: www.windmillhillcityfarm.org.uk
Words: Samantha Coleman