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A Pioneer of the 70s: Rice Lane City Farm

The concealed natural sanctuary native to Walton is looking optimistically into the next decade - but needs your support in order to sustain its crucial role in the community. Rice Lane City Farm launched a crowdfunding campaign this month to sustain and increase their impact in the lead up to its 40th anniversary, after recent financial difficulties have left uncertainty for the future of the farm thats enriched the lives of many generations.

First set up in 1979 by a group of local residents, who leased Walton burial ground from St Nicholas Church, RLCF was Liverpool’s very first ‘urban farm’. A pioneer of its era, it was only one of four urban farms outside London – playing a key role in setting up a national movement in the ’80s called Social Farms and Gardens, which still operates in support of urban farms across the county today.

“We brought the first animals in on 7 June 1981 and started from there. The church has been amazing with us and very supportive over the years – they can see what we’re doing.”

Scottie Press met RLCF manager Maria Hornsby in the site’s Grade II listed building. Starting as a youth engagement officer in 1979, Maria recalls Walton at the time experiencing the difficult effects of Liverpool’s declining industry and the beginning of Thatcher’s harsh reign. “It’s been quite an interesting journey for a lot us really,” she says.

The land of the cemetery lay abandoned, damaged and closed to the public when RLCF first began but, after fixing infrastructure issues, repairing buildings and improving the landscape, the site soon reopened to the public. Today the farm has transformed into a 24 acre site full of livestock and wildlife. “We started making it a place people could come again,” says Maria. “We brought the first animals in on 7 June 1981 and started from there. The church has been amazing with us and very supportive over the years – they can see what we’re doing.”

Rice Lane Farm march for Robert Tressel by Jane MacNeil

Maria explains that founding members Sue McLane and Lewis Lesley interest’s focused on the environmental aspects and therapeutical benefits of nature, whilst using their green assets to build community engagement projects. “Doctors are now starting to realise people need a social network of people around them to manage their depression or other diagnoses,” she says. “Green therapy and animal therapy bring people out more, so that’s the area of work we’re looking at quite critically at the moment”

When Maria began, her focus leaned towards youth engagement. “I’m very interested in community development and empowerment through knowledge so the community have an understanding of the issues and the choices they can make,” she says. “I believe in partnership work and voices coming together to be stronger, but you’ve also go to develop how to compromise when working like that.”

The array of animals at the farm are used to give young aspiring vets across Liverpool the practical experience required to study at university. “This is a unique space and service in the city of Liverpool for young people with career aspirations to work with animals,” she says, expressing gratitude for support back from students they’ve helped in the past. “It’s amazing, people who came here at 16 years old are now coming back ten years later and helping other young people learn from their own experiences,” she says.

Rice Lane Farm

The grounds are also used by local schools, who work with RLCF to produce nature projects for children, as well as bespoke programmes for people with additional needs. Alongside hosting artistic, educational and health programmes – whilst attracting dog-walkers, bird watchers and environmental enthusiasts – “We get a lot of pensioners who are expert chicken keepers from the World War II. They’ll tell us all about the chickens,” she adds.

The farm also draws social historians from across the globe, as a result of the heritage throughout the cemetery – notably the resting place of Robert Tressell, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. In memory of Tressell’s life and his renowned socialist novel, RLCF celebrates his anniversary each year through the support of trade unions and Walton CLP. Last year, the event fed 800 people and saw residents march alongside a brass band around the local neighbourhood.

Sadly, even today, the struggles identified in Tressell’s writing ring true for the lives of the many people in Liverpool. “I didn’t think in the 21st century we would be using food banks or young people wouldn’t have any where to go,” says Maria.

“Our youth club closed down seven years ago. We have dreams and ambitions to start it up again – we are reworking our business plan to look at how we can offer something else to young people who are being isolated because of the lack of facilities and choices. I took the managers job around eight years ago. We lost most of our city council funding. The council has been very good to us, but they were getting to stage were they had to make critical decisions. We understand it, but you still have to manage it,” she sighs.

Over the summer, the rustic chapel on the farm was renovated into a homely cafe and community space. So far it’s hosted music nights, social gatherings and is used as a meeting place for local groups. Maria also says, “Diet is important to us. We’ve got our gardens growing vegetables and fruits and we do home made jams for the small shops we’re developing.”

Even though the hidden oasis is secluded, down an offbeat dirt track in Walton, the pioneering farm of the ’70s is certainly not overlooked by the people of Liverpool. “We’re working with the fourth generation of families now – people come back to us because they trust us,” she says with a smile.

You can make a donation in support of RLCFs continuation here: www.crowdfunder.co.uk/rice-lane-city-farm-4-new-projects

Maria and her daughter