Inside the new Countrymen Club for older men... (it's not what you think)

·10 min read
One organisation is offering an unconventional approach to later life... - Naomi Wood
One organisation is offering an unconventional approach to later life... - Naomi Wood

Once upon a time there was a cow named Clover Moon, who lived on a farm in Dorset. She had a happy life, eating and hanging out with the other cows – and eating some more – and she was very content.

One day, though, Clover Moon woke up with a sore foot. Luckily, a man called Ken was visiting the farm. Spotting her sore foot, he waved his arms around and pointed at Clover Moon, and said, ‘Foot! Foot!’ quite a lot.

The farmer had a look, saw that Clover Moon’s foot needed attention, and rang the vet, who came and filed her hoof a little. So the cow felt better, and the farmer was happy, and Ken was probably the happiest of all.

That’s the end of the story, but it illustrates in a simple way what is special about the project that brought Ken, and many other men like him, to the farm. Because while Ken helped the cow get better, the cow – along with all the other animals on the farm – helps Ken and his friends to feel better every week.

Rylands Farm occupies 30 acres in the village of Holnest, south of Sherborne in Dorset. It is a small-scale dairy and beef operation, and at first glance the only slightly unusual features are the range of additional animal residents – geese, goats, a pair of Kunekune pigs and a trio of donkeys – that share the premises with the herd of Simmental cattle.

Many members are retired farmers or agricultural workers living with Parkinson’s, dementia and other health conditions - Naomi Wood
Many members are retired farmers or agricultural workers living with Parkinson’s, dementia and other health conditions - Naomi Wood

On closer inspection, though, the farm has been subtly but significantly modified to accommodate the needs of some special visitors. It is the home of the Countrymen Club, a service that enables men who, through force of circumstance, have lost touch with their outdoor existences to re-engage with the landscapes and creatures that have previously meant so much to them.

Many of them are, for example, retired farmers or agricultural workers living with Parkinson’s, dementia and other health conditions that make it difficult to go out.

The scheme was founded by Julie Plumley, the owner of Rylands Farm, and while the pandemic posed obvious challenges to expansion, there are now 11 farms in the Countrymen UK network across Britain.

Julie, who is 59, is herself the daughter of a farmer who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and suffered the anguish of being separated from the land and life that he loved.

“My mother looked after him, and of course she did her best,” she recalls. “But often she’d insist that he stayed indoors for his own good, when what he wanted most of all was to be in the open air, with the grass under his feet.”

Julie Plumley, the owner of Rylands Farm and founder of the Countrymen Club - Naomi Wood
Julie Plumley, the owner of Rylands Farm and founder of the Countrymen Club - Naomi Wood

She points out that, because of greater longevity among women, men are often outnumbered in care homes and retirement villages by women, enduring a daily routine that often features too many soap operas and too much discussion of the royal family.

“It’s just not what men are really interested in, as far as I can tell,” Julie says. “Especially if they have been outdoors most of their working life, getting their hands dirty and being around animals all the time. If they can do that kind of thing, and still be safe - that’s magic for them.”

Ken Barnes, who helped with Clover Moon’s hoof, is a former dairy farmer who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 21 years ago. He is 67 now, and has a stick to aid his balance. He remains lively and engaged but his speech has been badly affected and he relies a great deal on his wife Sue for assistance.

Twice a week Sue drives Ken the 40 minutes or so from their home near Shaftesbury to the farm so that he can spend an afternoon among the animals, enjoying the company of other Countrymen and helping the farm staff in any way that he can. “I tell them what to do!” he admits.

He’s certainly well qualified. Sue explains, while Ken nods emphatic agreement, that he knows a thing or two about cows, having for many years nurtured a dairy herd of Holsteins until the advancing Parkinson’s made that no longer possible. Now, he says, twice a week he wakes and knows that he has an afternoon he can look forward to: “Farm today!”

Club member Ken Barnes was a dairy farmer until Parkinson’s made that impossible - Naomi Wood
Club member Ken Barnes was a dairy farmer until Parkinson’s made that impossible - Naomi Wood

An afternoon on the farm costs the Countrymen £20 each (most self-fund though some rely on charity funding and NHS social prescribing). And while Ken is communing with the cows or digging in the vegetable patch, Sue gets a couple of hours of leisure time - often spent having lunch with another wife, Sue Pollard, whose husband Andy is another regular Countrymen attendee.

“I’ve made great new friends here, and we really look out for each other,” Sue B says. “It has been a life-saver,” Sue P agrees, watching with a smile as her husband, who has Parkinson’s and dementia, climbs with deliberation onto a sturdy, farm-suitable mobility scooter called a Tramper.

During the Covid lockdown Andy was admitted into hospital with an infection and Sue wasn’t allowed to visit him. Cut off from his family, his condition declined rapidly. “I was beside myself,” Sue P recalls. “The isolation was killing him.”

She called friends in her Countrymen network, one of them a health professional who intervened and arranged for Andy to have a hospital room of his own, where Sue was allowed to visit. His health improved, she says, once he understood that he wasn’t alone.

“In that way, at that time, Countrymen saved Andy’s life,” his wife says. “Now it brings him happiness every week, and while he’s here I know he’s enjoying himself, and he’s safe, and I don’t have to worry about him. That does wonders for my own mental health.”

Countryman Mike Barrington with a volunteer - Naomi Wood
Countryman Mike Barrington with a volunteer - Naomi Wood

Leaning over in the saddle at an alarming angle, yet radiating serenity and confidence, Andy zooms off aboard his Tramper in the direction of the pigs’ field. There, he joins forces with Mike Barrington, 68, a retired colonel in the British Army, and Tony Clarke, 84, formerly a footballer with Yeovil Town, who has Parkinson’s. The three of them are on a mission to feed the Kunekune pigs with bowls of chopped vegetables.

The pigs - Sweetheart and Star, respectively grandmother and grandmother - have a brief but lively row about who should have first go, resolved in grandmother’s favour.

“That’s proper,” Mike observes. One has the impression that he likes things to be proper. The Countrymen get into a slight tangle reversing their vehicles, then trundle off back through the farmyard and up a concrete path, laid recently to suit their electric transports, to their next feeding assignment – the donkey family.

There is nothing especially unusual about a farm that cares for humans as well as animals. The most recent estimate, by national support charity Social Farms and Gardens, suggests that there may now be as many as 400 Care Farms in the UK.

Around three-quarters of these invite adults with learning disabilities, while almost two thirds work with children. (Young people also visit Rylands Farm as part of a ‘Future Roots’ programme, a long-established social enterprise for under 18s who are struggling at school, socially, or with their mental health.)

What marks the Countrymen apart, however, is the focus on men over 50, an age group that Plumley feels is often overlooked by the care world. Recent research by the charity Independent Age shows that older men are more socially isolated than older women, with significantly less contact with their children, family and friends than older women.

Rylands Farm remains a working operation - Naomi Wood
Rylands Farm remains a working operation - Naomi Wood

That it’s an all-male club is not apparent at first glance. Teenagers mill around the farmyard (many of them are on the Future Roots programme follow their own animal care agendas), and wives and volunteers move in and out of the open-sided barn that serves as the Countrymen’s daytime HQ.

Their clubroom, furnished with a tea table and battered chairs, is hardly the Garrick or the Reform. There’s a workbench where, on a rainy day, they bash away constructing bird feeders. Or they can just sit with a mug of tea within earshot of the farmyard.

Back outdoors, Ken heads to the vegetable patch, hoe in hand, to make himself useful. Andy steers himself into the polytunnel greenhouse, where the aroma of ripening tomatoes is almost intoxicating. Farm staff are on hand to provide discreet support, but it is part of the point that the Countrymen can take on whichever activities they choose, commensurate with their abilities and interests: they are safe, but never nannied.

Mike and Tony, meanwhile, spend time with the resident donkeys, Milly, Max and their son Murph. With impressive automotive skills. Tony parallel-parks his Tramper against the paddock rails, and holds out a handful of apple to Murph, a lively young fellow with a skewbald coat. He was a lot of trouble, Julie observes, until he was castrated.

“Makes sense,” Tony agrees. “When that happens to you, you’ll do anything.”

Murph nibbles the apple from his hand with large yellow teeth. “Isn’t he lovely?” Tony says. “You just look in their eyes and it’s wonderful.”

Tony has been in this area most of his life since he was posted to Sherborne while on National Service with the RAF.

“I met my lovely wife Angela here, and we’ve been married for 60 years.” He is smartly dressed for his day at the farm, in an immaculate black jacket and Chelsea boots.

“I was a footballer, you see,” he says. “Footballers always look after their feet…” The great advantage of the Tramper, he adds, is that he can feed the donkeys without getting his suede boots muddy.

The men are offered 'trampers' to help them traverse the farm's terrain - Naomi Wood
The men are offered 'trampers' to help them traverse the farm's terrain - Naomi Wood

Mike, meanwhile, sports a tweed field coat and has something of the air of the gentleman farmer.

“I went to Sandhurst, then into the Army,” he explains. “Full colonel. After that I was an engineer. And we farmed near Axminster. Dairy. Jerseys. You get more money for the milk from Jerseys. Now - are we done here? Where shall we head next?”

He is keen to inspect the vegetables in the polytunnel and have a look at what Ken is getting up to in the vegetable patch.

As with all the Countrymen, there is a hint of mischief; a willingness to test boundaries. Ken has been known to give the farm volunteers the slip and head into the cows’ enclosure on his own to check up on them; Andy was recently, and not without some difficulty, installed for a while in the driver’s cab of the farm’s full-size tractor and had to be gently dissuaded from heading off across the fields.

Eventually the day is over. The Countrymen assemble back to the farmyard and clamber off their Trampers - all except Andy who scoots on through to the cows’ enclosure, leaning at a crazy angle, his flat cap askew. He says nothing but he looks rapt, alive.

The others, meanwhile, assemble in the clubroom. “I always look forward to coming here,” Tony says, settling down with a cup of tea. “This is life. Not just sitting somewhere all day. This is life…”