Duncan the Transylvanian Naked Neck may be the ugliest little thing I’ve ever seen. He’s so ugly, in fact, that it’s almost cute.
The scrawny bantam chicken trips down the hillside near the entrance to Greave House Farm, on his way back to the holly tree where he sleeps.
“Duncan’s as low maintenance as they come,” smiles Barbara Bristow, as she shares a wry smile with husband Chris.
“He’s much hardier than a regular chicken, he just potters about the place and takes care of himself.”
I’ve chosen a good day to visit; the sun is beating down on my shoulders as I sit sipping water with Barbara and Chris on their huge property, tucked away in the Stocksbridge countryside. The couple took the farm over in 2008, along with mutual friends Paul and Ruth Smith. Together the foursome set about transforming the delapidated old 18th century dairy farm into a care farm, providing therapeutic work activities for vulnerable people with learning disabilities and mental health problems.
“Chris and I both have a youth and community work background,” explains Barbara, aged 58.
“We knew nothing about farming, but we had a clear shared vision of creating a place where people could work and grow according to their individual abilities. We wanted to provide supported activities where people could try their hand at things, we wanted to encourage them to be creative and inspire them to pursue interests. If someone wants to help with something, we try and enable them to put their skills into pratice. Learning, developing and growing are at the heart of what we’re all about.”
And the care work began as soon as the restoration did, with Chris project managing a team of volunteers and clients who became his workforce. Their first job was to convert the old 1700s milking barn into two houses, for each of the couples to live in.
“That was no easy task,” says Chris, aged 62.
“It had fallen into such disrepair that I think most people would have just torn it down and started again, but we wanted to keep the character and stay true to what had been there for the past 300 years. It sounds poncy to talk about the ‘story of the building’ but it’s true and we didn’t want to lose that. It took much longer doing it the way we did - five-and-a-half years in total - and cost more, but it was worth it.”
Barbara adds: “We had local residents showing up to take a look at what was going on and offering to help mend a fence, or move some bricks, or help out with the gardening.”
Today the ten acre site is transformed - and virtually unrecognisable from the dozens of ‘before’ shots Barbara keeps in a thick file.
There’s a big organic market garden, which was developed last year on a no-dig method, and an orchard bearing everything from apples and plums to pears and cherries, which Barbara and some of the volunteers make into jams and preserves.
“That’s a dayworker activity in itself - making the preserves, putting them in jars, writing the labels,” says Barbara.
“We have about 70 people now who visit the farm on a regular basis to take part in activities - whether it’s picking fruit, feeding the animals, making compost, planting seeds in the polytunnels, or helping Chris with building work, building fences, restoring old machinery - the list is endless.
“A lot of the people who come to see us from day centres like a set routine, so they’ll arrive on their specified morning and start by going to visit Albert the rabbit and give him some food and fill his water bottle, then they’ll go visit the sheep, then maybe help potting plants, or doing some weeding in the market garden.”
“And it’s not just the vulnerable we work with,” Chris adds.
“One young lad who came to us had decided to take a year off after his A Levels as he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He almost single-handedly built the front porch on our house, using the brick from the old coal shed. He went to university after that to do a degree in building surveying. “We’ve seen the effect our therapy work has, but this is also a great place for people to labour and learn lifelong skills. It’s very rewarding.”
And the site - managed by Greave House Farm Trust, which Barbara and Chris set up a few years ago - survives on a handful of small grants and donations, income from the fruits and vegetables grown on the land, regular fundraising events.
“It’s early days for this place,” says Chris,
“It has so much potential and we have lots of big plans; we want to build something that will be here long after we’re gone.”