Dorking the Town, Dorking the Chicken
An English town honors its heritage
Reading Time: 5 minutes
American poultry owes a lot to its English roots. Heck, the American Poultry Association Standard has a whole classification of English breeds. My husband Gordon and I set out for England to visit Mudchute Farm and the Dorking Museum to connect with poultry fanciers there.
A farm in the city
Mudchute Farm, although it appears to be a village farm that has existed forever, was created in 1977. It’s a testament to the power of local people who insist on preserving local treasures. From a piece of derelict land that developers envisioned as a high-rise apartment building site, it is now a verdant retreat of rural peace, recognized by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust for its heritage livestock.
We climbed the steps into what felt like a secret garden.
Mudchute Farm is on the Isle of Dogs, an oxbow island formed by the River Thames in southeast London. Remember East Enders, an English television series in the 1980s? Low income, unemployment, crowded living conditions. The docks that were the area’s economic driver were heavily bombed during World War II. Anti-aircraft artillery remains on the property.
Although London and the docks recovered, the advent of container shipping, which the docks could not convert to manage, ended that industry.
The docks closed down, throwing the area into mass unemployment. But acres of land with river frontage wouldn’t be long ignored in London. Politicians and business executives eyed it for development. Thus, the plan to build housing there.
Not so fast, local people said. Several stepped up to resist urban development. Eventually, they inspired enough support that the 32-acre site was turned into a Peoples Park. In 1977, they formed the Mudchute Association, which still governs the park today. https://www.mudchute.org/
Rare Breeds Survival Trust
The Association found a livestock leader in Tom Davis, the Farm, Park, and Open Space Manager. His enthusiasm for all the animals at Mudchute — donkeys, cattle, sheep, and pigs, as well as chickens, ducks, and geese — makes the farm a success. He and the other staff members welcomed over 30,000 school children in 2018.
For chickens, he’s got Red and Dark Dorkings (both single comb and rose comb in the Dark), large exhibition quality Light Sussex, Orpingtons, Silver Dutch, large Dark and Jubilee Indian Games, Silver Marans, Mille Fleur and Porcelain D’uccles, and various pet quality Polish.
He confessed to being more of a waterfowl fancier, keeping Runner ducks, Aylesburys, Rouens, and Calls. Two sweet Muscovy hens for hatching. He keeps Steinbacher geese as well as Brown Chinas.
He’s observed some unusual colors in his flock, such as these Yellow-Bellied Call ducks. He finds the lighter colors also have more delicate and fragile feathers.
His Middlewhite hogs were truly impressive. George, the boar, is new. Davis is hoping for piglets by Christmas.
A separate operation handles horses as part of an equestrian center.
The site felt enchanted, this oasis of green English farm on the edge of the city, with the skyline in view. We took a boat back to the hotel, up the Thames, past the Houses of Parliament, as the debate on Brexit continued. At night, sirens blared and emergency vehicle lights flashed as the police coped with Extinction Rebellion protesters.
Yet the farm itself, its presence and dedication to saving and showcasing historic breeds that are now rare, is a powerful asset. Every visitor learns something, connects with the poultry, the donkeys, the hogs. That influence will be invaluable in building support for the better world we all want to live in.
Dorking welcomed us as soon as we got off the train. We transferred from the train to a bus, where Canon Peter Bruinvels, Armed Forces Champion 11 X Brigade SE and HQ SE and Surrey CC Civilian-Military Liaison Adviser, happened to be on the same bus with us. He extended Dorking’s hospitality to us, and led us on a walking tour of some of Dorking’s many features, before leaving us at the Dorking Museum & Heritage Center.
He brought us through Dorking’s ancient lanes, the back way, to our destination. Visitors arriving at the front find their way guided by dinosaur footprints painted on the pavement, which gradually evolve into chicken footprints at the museum’s entrance.
A perfect invitation, as Dorking’s museum traces local history back to the Cretaceous Period, 130 million years ago, and its dinosaurs. Peter handed us off to Robin Cooper at the museum. He was our guide, well informed on every aspect of Dorking’s long and distinguished history.
The community has had a lively population continuously over centuries, and its local historians have documented it well. Dorking’s residents have industriously carried on, whether living under Roman rule centuries ago, on small farms, or the grand estates of the landowners.
“The big houses saved us, really,” Robin said. “They employed people year-round.”
Pilgrims left for the New World, suffragettes fought for the vote, they fought through two World Wars. Robin showed us his ration card, issued when he was a child.
Today, Dorking is represented in Parliament by Conservative Peter Beresford, whom we met on the High Street, as the country negotiates Brexit.
Peter told us that the MP’s visits to talk with constituents are frequent.
We strolled back to the train station along the High Street, soaking up the ambiance of this beautiful and classic English town. I felt guided by chickens, my Spirit Animal, on this visit of the heart. Angels found me along the way. Press on, Dorking Cockerels everywhere!
Across the Atlantic
I missed an opportunity to confer with Terry Dunk, an experienced Dorking breeder. We now connect on email. We will, I’m confident, meet someday. He notes that some issues, such as common predators, are different in England from the U.S. English foxes, which become quite tame around people, are the worst bane of English poultry keepers. I look forward to exploring the nuances of English and American poultry with him in the future.
Explore the Dorking Museum’s website, https://dorkingmuseum.org.uk/. Its Shop feature offers its books, maps, and other materials. If you can’t be there, enjoy reading and dreaming about it. My dreams of visiting started years ago, and came true on this visit. I plan to return to spend more time at both Mudchute and Dorking.
The museum has its own publishing arm, Cockerel Press, which has published 14 books, including The Dorking Cockerel, a history of its namesake chicken, and Time Gentlemen, Please, an account of its pubs, featuring an image of a Dorking cock on the cover. Dorking presently has only 18 public houses, down from a high of 104, Robin told us. The pubs also had pits for cock fighting, another popular pastime.
Originally published in the February/March 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.