A trip to England’s historical chickens.
Story by Christine Heinrichs, photos by Gordon Heinrichs.
We last visited England in 2019, before the Covid pandemic changed so much about travel. We returned to visit in 2022.
Mudchute Farm holds back the urban bustle of modern development in southeast London. Canary Wharf’s banks, insurance companies, tall office buildings, and luxury apartments tower in the distance over Mudchute’s peaceful 32 acres. It’s on the Isle of Dogs, an oxbow island formed by the River Thames.
Mudchute Farm appears to be a village farm that has existed forever. It’s actually modern, created in 1977, as the Docklands of southeast London was being developed. It takes its name from the mud dredged up over the past century at Millwall Dock in the 1890s. The smell was the subject of local comment. Football (known in the U.S. as “soccer”) players complained that they stank for weeks if they fell while playing on the old butchering field.
The docks were a bustling economic engine for London in the 19th and early 20th centuries and were heavily bombed during World War II. Mudchute became part of the Home Front, London’s defense against the Nazi Blitzkrieg. An anti-aircraft gun (also known as an Ack-Ack gun) remains as a reminder at the farm.
Although London and the docks recovered, the docks were made obsolete by container shipping, and the area fell into decline. But acres of land with river frontage wouldn’t be long ignored in London. Politicians and business executives eyed it for development. In 1974, the Greater London Council designated it as high-rise housing.
Residents organized and stepped up to resist urban development. Eventually, they gathered enough support that the site was turned into a Peoples Park. In 1977, they formed the Mudchute Association, which still governs the park today.
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 (RBST) for its heritage livestock.
The farm works with the RBST, a charity focused on saving heritage livestock breeds. Farm Manager Tom Davis leads the team, keeping a list of heritage poultry (and other livestock) breeds in a bucolic setting.
When we were there in late September, the chickens were molting and not their best look. Nevertheless, they are happy and healthy. Light Sussex large fowl and Booted Belgian bantams, Call, Indian Runner and Rouen ducks, Czech geese, and more. Beautiful and edifying.
Twelve volunteers from HSBC (a British bank) were working the day we were there. Their office building is located on the edge of the farm. Employees get days off to volunteer with charities of their choice, and these folks chose Mudchute. HSBC also supports Mudchute financially.
The landscape of England blends urban and rural much more tightly than does the U.S., so we were able to bump into and visit with locals who raise poultry on lots of small plots of land.
Charlotte Kok lives in the countryside near Dorking, an area that shares its name with an ancient breed of chickens. She moved there in 2013 to join her boyfriend. Couples always have to find ways to accommodate each other. In their case, Charlotte wanted to keep pets without setting off her boyfriend’s allergies to cats and dogs. She found a solution at the British Hen Welfare Trust.
This organization is dedicated to improving laying hen welfare. Among other efforts, they buy spent laying hens and adopt them out to new homes. Last year, they rehomed 60,000 hens, and Charlotte adopted three.
She warmed to them, but they didn’t have long lives, and she was much distressed as one died. Her interest in chickens now kindled, she looked into getting a more robust breed, even the one named for nearby Dorking. She had to go to the border of Wales to find a breeder, but she made the trip about three hours each way and returned with three Red Dorkings — a cockerel and two hens.
In the way of Chicken Math, she eventually had as many as 47 chickens on their two-acre homestead. She has reduced her flock to a more manageable seven — six hens and a rooster.
Along the way, she acquired some Cayuga ducks by swapping chickens and eggs for plants from a local gardening supplier.
Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza required all British poultry to be kept indoors in 2022. Charlotte and her birds are forbearing this difficult time, managing with a barn and a covered run outside.
Dorkings in the British Museum
Seeking to revisit nearly 2,000 years in the past means we rely on historical artifacts from which we intuit what life was like. At the British Museum, Patrick, a volunteer guide, gave us a tour of the Medieval collection.
I entered the gallery, looking directly into the back hole eyes of the Sutton Hoo helmet, a famous Anglo-Saxon artifact dated to 625 AD. That baleful welcome beckoned us back centuries.
On the wall above the display cases is a collection of mosaics that includes a chicken and a duck. The chicken appears to be a game. The duck doesn’t have webbed feet, perhaps an oversight on the artist’s part.
Those Roman mosaics attest not just to the poultry that Romans kept but to their bringing poultry to the British Isles. Dorkings, with their distinctive fifth toe, appear in other mosaics similar to these. These mosaics date back to the 4th century AD, from what is now Turkey. The Roman Empire extended far and wide, from Britain across North Africa to the Middle East.
The British have a long history with poultry, particularly chickens. It was lovely to return to England and see the chicken-keeping tradition persists.
Here are links to several of the organizations mentioned in the article:
Rare Breed Survival Trust.
The British Hen Welfare Trust.
The Sutton Hoo helmet.
CHRISTINE HEINRICHS writes from her home on California’s Central Coast. She keeps a backyard flock of a dozen hens: eight large fowl of various breeds and four Bantams.
Her book, How to Raise Chickens, was first published in 2007, just as the local food movement was starting to focus attention on the industrial food system. Backyard chickens became the mascot of local food. The third edition of How to Raise Chickens was published in January 2019. The Backyard Field Guide to Chickens was published in 2016.