Michael Morpurgo: “Devon is an extraordinary place”

When Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare moved to Dartmoor 42 years ago, it was to start their charity, Farms for City Children. As ex-teachers, both wanted to give children the learning experiences they saw were missing from the classroom, and Devon was a much-loved place that Claire knew well from her childhood.

Since then thousands of children have experienced real, hands-on rural life at Nethercott House, and the beauty of the countryside. Such surroundings have also inspired many of Michael’s literary works, including War Horse, which became a hugely successful film and stage play.

Michael told Visit Devon why today’s children must get away from the concrete and into the wild, and why he thinks Devon is such a special place. 

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“Hospitality and kindness are huge in Devon. And we should be very proud of that.” Michael Morpurgo

What is it about Devon that has inspired your writing?
It’s home, and I love it, and it’s where I belong. It’s where I know. I live a mile outside Iddesleigh and have been here for 42 years now. My children have grown up here, my grandchildren come here. It’s the place I like to be when I’m not traveling around doing book things. And because I know it so well, I write about it a lot.

That’s why I wrote War Horse, which is based pretty much here, on a Devon farm. I wrote that particular story from meeting an old soldier, Wilfred Ellis, thirty five years ago in the Duke of York pub down the road, when he told me about going the First World War as a young man.

And that in itself is all part of being in Devon – you get an idea of the rhythm of life. How we all have our place or time in this earth. There’s the church, and you maybe get christened there, and you may get married there, and you may end up in the graveyard there. I know the people who planted the trees and ploughed the land, where they live and where they work. And you don’t know that until you stay in the place long enough.

Did War Horse and the attention it received encourage people to visit Devon and Dartmoor, do you think?
Oh yes, I think so.  What’s really interesting is that War Horse, the play, is now in cities all over China. You’ve got Chinese actors acting out ‘Devon’ against a Devon background. They’ll be singing English country songs in Chinese – and it’s also toured in Holland, Germany, all over America, Canada and Ireland.

The spirit of Devon and what happened here during the first World War is now becoming very well known – and of course Steven Spielberg’s film helped do that. People across the world learn about Dartmoor, and Iddesleigh, and that’s lovely. I’m thrilled that it’s been instrumental in passing this message out to the world that Devon is an extraordinary place that’s different from everywhere else.

michael morpurgo dartmoor devon farms for city children 4sHow does being on a Devon farm affect those who visit thanks to Farms For City Children? Do you think they find the surroundings inspiring too?
I think so. First of all some find it strange – because it smells different, it looks different, and it can be a bit frightening when the wind blows and the owls hoot at night. They see a wild rabbit.  Not one that’s in a pen in a pet shop, but a wild rabbit in the field, or a hare, and fish jumping in the river. Those things which are part of the wild world, which are so important and which they don’t forget.

And inspiring? Yes, I hope so. Later on, whether or not they’re going to sit down and write some poetry about it, or paint pictures of it, you just don’t know. But what you do know is that it stays with them. They don’t forget it. It can be their first introduction to so much that’s new, and that’s what’s amazing about it.

Ted Hughes was our first president – he used to live nearby.  When we felt a bit depressed in the early days because the schools weren’t coming as quickly as we wanted, he said, “You must remember that every child that comes down here and walks this land, and feeds the sheep, and feeds the pigs, and helps milks the cows and talks to the farmers, and walks along the river has memories never to be forgotten.”

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You started Farms For City Children 40 years ago now. Do you think there’s even more of a need for children to experience nature in this way today?
Much more – and that’s to do with the fact that the vast majority of people in this country now are urban. They’re surrounded by high rise buildings, and tarmac, and noise, so this is a completely new world for them.

michael morpurgo dartmoor devon farms for city children sChildren come down here and smell and experience the country. 99% have never seen darkness before, as it is at dawn. A lot of them don’t know where berries come from, or where their milk comes from. They don’t know what work it takes to produce it – so they actually join in and help.

These are not lessons you can pick up by looking at the telly, or by drawings on boards or making little notes on the clipboards.  They’re doing it themselves and that’s what’s really wonderful about the experience.

michael morpurgo dartmoor devon farms for city children 2Was its Devon location initially important to the success of Farms For City Children?
Oh yes – because the people here in the village of Iddesleigh and all around have been completely welcoming of outsiders. That’s so much part of the children’s experience – to experience what we call Devon hospitality.

The children sometimes come from places in the city where people are not always friendly, and suddenly they’re faced with the people who work on the farm, and the people who work in the house, and the people you see in the village, who are cheery and have a smile and a few words for them – and it makes all the difference to their lives.

Devon is a very special county. People think that we’re miles and miles away, and not connected to their world – well, we are. And what’s really lovely about it is that people retain the best of human nature, I think. Hospitality and kindness are huge in Devon. And we should be very proud of that.