Words Amicia de Moubray Photographs David Bullivant and Paul Grover
Farm Work Play is a brilliant 21st century answer to an increasingly common 21st century problem: how to work, manage young children and stay sane. These days, the majority of couples with young children both work, and consequently child care is often a huge problem.
The increasing trend for working from home sounds a highly attractive option, but as anyone knows who has ever tried it, domestic life manages to worm its way into every crevice of the working day. ‘Walk me,’ says the dog with imploring eyes, the mound of washing waits to be ironed, the pot plants need watering…. It is well-nigh impossible to concentrate 100 per cent – especially if there are crying children in the background.
Thank goodness for the innovative Farm Work Play. Set up just over two years ago by Vanessa Lott and Jo Jell, it offers both flexible working space and child care in an idyllic rural setting between Faversham and Whitstable. It is what is known as a ‘co-working nursery’ in contemporary parlance. The childcare is focused on outside play. There are piles of little gumboots in the corridor and the classroom windows are hung with paper plate mobiles decorated with leaves.
The concept is simple. Desks can be rented on a flexible basis and your child/children can be looked after in the adjoining nursery. It is open from 7am-7pm all year round on weekdays with the exception of a week at Christmas and Bank Holidays.
Jo and Vanessa originally met at NCCT classes in Faversham. At the time, Jo was a theatrical agent working in film, TV and theatre in London, and Vanessa was Head of Learning and Development for Clinton Cards and was always travelling all over the country. After their maternity leave finished, like so many other first time mothers they grappled with childcare with inflexible working hours and the commute. Vanessa signed up for a conventional nursery with set hours, but quickly realised that it wasn’t the answer, partly because her husband, a policeman, works shifts in Thanet. This meant that they found themselves often paying for childcare when he was at home, and could have been looking after their daughter.
The nature of Jo’s job meant that she was frequently travelling to London to attend screenings and plays. ‘I had a lovely job but a much lovelier daughter. It wasn’t easy to walk away from my career.’
‘Neither of us had any experience of childcare,’ admits Vanessa. But it gradually dawned on them that there had to be a solution.
Many readers will remember Monkshill when it was a satellite of the Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate. It was a much loved place for parents to bring their children, offering popular activities such as feeding lambs and chickens. But Monkshill closed in 2015 – sad but fortuitous for Farm Work Play as the complex was ideal, being equipped with a kitchen, an education block with classrooms and plenty of loos as well as an outside play area and plenty of parking. ‘It is in the most stunning location, on a hill surrounded by miles of countryside,’ says Rosina Sharrock, who is a co-worker.
Jo and Vanessa launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the enterprise, opening in 2017 with nine children. Today 60 families are on their books with 35 children. There are 12 staff. People come from as far afield as Rochester and Ashford but the majority are from the Faversham/Whitstable area. ‘We are the only co-working place outside London in the South East,’ says Jo.
It is not just women who rent working spaces. The day I visited I encountered only men typing away at their computers.
One of the great advantages of co-working at Farm Work Play is that everyone can pool knowledge and bounce ideas off each other. Freelancing from home can be a lonely business. As Jo observes: ‘The transition from working full time to part time with a small baby can be a vulnerable time. We have several mothers breastfeeding. One said to me recently, “I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go back to work so quickly if it hadn’t been for Farm Work Play”.’
As if Wi-Fi, printers and other like-minded folk aren’t enough to entice one to Farm Work Play, the other draw is the delicious food on offer. Every day the children have a freshly cooked lunch prepared with local ingredients. Until recently Hannah Perkin of Vegan Perks cooked the food, but she has recently been elected as a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Swale and has had to give up. Mighty Fine Things have taken over: they are also based in the complex of old farm buildings at Monkshill.
‘Many of the children have food intolerances and are vegan. Vegans are all too often palmed off with a jacket potato and beans,’ says Jo. This is far from the case at Farm Work Play where everyone eats a variant of the main meal on offer. The adults can buy take away boxes of delectable sounding meals.
I suspect that it is only a matter of time before Farm Work Play clones are springing up all over the country.
Text: Amicia. Photographs: David Bullivant and Paul Grover