Mudchute: named for the dumping of rich Thames mud during the excavation of the Docklands area in the 1860s. It’s the kind of word that appears in poems by Tony Harrison, as the title of a novel by Martin Amis, as Iain Sinclair’s third chapter heading. It’s a coupling of fertility and construction, with undertones of the child at play, and the stronger sense of something wasted, gone, pushed out to sea.
But pass by this stop on the DLR with only a snigger and you miss out on one of the most glorious places of juxtaposition in London. Hidden among council estates, and trying in vain to defy the shadow of the Barclays Building and its neighbours, is Mudchute City Farm, London’s largest urban farm. Here you find rams who stay obligingly still while you marvel at his horns, pigs the size of sofas, colourful chickens and amusingingly ugly turkeys. They say there are cows, but I sadly didn’t spot any of these gorgeous members of the bovine ilk, with one end moo, the other milk.
Urban farming makes a lot of sense. We rarely know our neighbours, we distrust people we walk past on the pavement: in this kind of society farms allow us to build relationships around a common goal and a common curiosity. Financially, they can provide food – free range eggs, for example, from the Hackney City Farm – at prices comparable to the supermarkets. and far from being the lived-out dream of the country-sick, escapist middle classes, urban farms are almost always free, meaning that anyone can come. And they do. Mudchute is slap bang in one of the most disadvantaged areas of London, Tower Hamlets, yet it provides a bevvy or services and attractions directed towards children from over 70 local schools. Families were in abundance on my visit, with parents able to retire to the cafe while the children tried very hard to obey the ‘do not touch’ signs by the horses. They bite, apparently, as do the pigs.
That Mudchute is beloved by (and designed for) children was clearly evidenced on my trip: in the pet’s area, a small courtyard leading off from the horses’ stables, the children were at least ten times louder and more excitable than the ducks, geese, chickens, chipmunks, and rabbits. In fact, it all got a bit much for us childless twenty-somethings. We found ourselves quickly moving away, out towards the larger livestock, for fear of ‘accidentally’ squishing someone’s (awful) offspring. But a mental note was made that here indeed was a place that you could bring your children safe in the knowledge that they could behave as badly as a stuck pig and they still wouldn’t be the worst in the pen… they might even learn something too. And on reflection, as we meandered about the allotments, the childlike joy that only a gaggle of geese can inspire, is something to be thankful for.