Mudchute sounds like it ought to be the ugliest part of Tower Hamlets. Go back to the end of the 19th century and it was. A 30 acre spoil heap used for dumping silt dredged from the nearby Millwall Docks. The mud was fed through a pipe running under East Ferry Road and slid into ponds contained within a rim of earthen banks. Few lived on the Isle of Dogs back then, so nobody minded, and the pollution continued until just before the first World War. Inadvertently an area of fertile, hilly land was created, which in 1915 was turned over to allotments. Eyeing up the area in the mid 1970s, the GLC earmarked the Mudchute for a high rise housing estate, which it would be today had not the locals kicked up merry hell. A heartfelt campaign led to the creation of a public park, which survives to this day as the biggest inner-city farm in Europe.
Mudchute City Farm is terribly easy to miss if you don't know it's there. The bottom end of the Isle of Dogs isn't somewhere that many Londoners go, unless it's nipping by on the DLR, and you can't see it from that. Mudchute's the nearest station, obviously, or you can wander in from the back of the car park at the Asda supermarket. It's like stepping from the town to the countryside, quite unnervingly so, as a large undulating meadow stretches out before you. Sometimes there are livestock roaming free within, although currently not, with a herd of sheep penned up one end into a sloping corral. What's most weird is the combination of farmyard animals in the foreground and Canary Wharf rising to the rear, which allows for the taking of entirelycontradictoryphotos.
It's a proper farm too, specialising in minor mammals and rare breeds. Sure there are rabbits and chickens and geese, like a normal city farm. But follow your nose to the central ring and you'll find pygmy goats, Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs and ooh, blimey, llamas and alpacas. If you're lucky and the latter wander up to the fence you can have a proper close encounter, but read the safety notice first and mind they don't spit. There are lots of such notices scattered all about, most of which boil down to "oi, you, now wash your hands". That's because this is a very hands-on farm, although they'd prefer children fed the animals with appropriately sourced feed and not something from their lunchbox.
Head to one corner of the site to find the heart of the farm. The stables, where horses named Poppy and Nokia peer out over two rows of half-doors. A small arena where local children take proper riding lessons ("come on, hold yourself upright Sarah"). Pets Corner, which takes the view that ferrets and chipmunks are fair game too. The farm shop, stocked with child-sized treats rather than the usual agricultural produce. The Mudchute Kitchen, whose cuisine is several steps above your normal jacket potato and paninis, and which was very well frequented yesterday. And of course the hand-washing facilities, because you have to.
But it's the extent of the site that most impresses (if you're visiting without children, that is). A "nature trail" runs round the edge of a water meadow (although if you head to the very end you'll have to clamber over a fence to escape). An ack-ack gun has been restored for clambering as a reminder of the area's important wartime role. And a network of paths encircle the perimeter, some following the original banks used to keep the original mud in place. I spent five minutes following one semi-overgrown path overlooking Millwall Park, brushing through snails and butterflies and very damp grass, trying very hard not to slip down the slope into a patch of nettles. It beggared belief that this was Tower Hamlets... more Hamlets really. But then Mudchute City Farm's not your normal city farm, it's a level up.