A couple of years ago a friend shared a Facebook post from North Hayne Farm Holiday Cottages, a children’s farm they had previously visited with their family. This holiday farm with a difference, had just been awarded Autism Friendly Status by the National Autistic Society. And I was intrigued!
I think the fact that the NAS was mentioned AND the fact that the farm was in my home county of Devon (snuggled under the southern edge of Exmoor), meant it really caught my attention. I visited the website and I was immediately convinced. This was a place for us. We booked for the week over New Year (28th Dec to 4th Jan) 2018. And we loved it so much we also went back this New Year (2019).
North Hayne positions themselves as a ‘Children’s Farm’. This doesn’t mean they farm children (can you even imagine!????) but rather that they provide accommodation and farm facilities especially for children (and their families) to experience. It was definitely a unique proposition as far as I was concerned.
The idea is simple. Provide comfortable and family friendly accommodation, alongside a small farm, which the children can immerse themselves as much as they want (or are able to cope with). And when you consider animals rely on routine, you can start to understand why such a holiday might work for all children, but in particular those with additional needs, such as Autism.
Autistic children can often struggle when going on holiday. A change in location, strange sensory experiences, a complete disregard for the usual routine; it can be too much and derail a holiday before it’s even begun. Because North Hayne feed the animals to a strict schedule twice a day, it gives the children an opportunity to put a few pillars of certainty back into their days. The idea then is that the rest of the holiday can hang off these bones.
I understand that might not be enough for some children, but for Oscar it was perfect. He knew that at 9 and 4 he would be feeding the animals. And always in the same order, at the insistence of the farm, meaning he knew exactly what to expect. Rabbits and Guinea Pigs first, followed by the hens, the sheep and alpacas, the goats, the pigs and finally the ducks. Always the same. When it came to our second visit he even remembered the order (and of course it hadn’t changed).
The routine continues after feeding with donkey rides every morning. Oscar adored riding on Abbott or Frosty and the donkeys were so patient with the children.
Following every afternoon feeding, the farm offer an activity. This could be anything from having a cuddle with a guinea pig to talking Blackberry and Crumble, the farm’s friendly goats, for a walk. But as with all activities these are all advertised well in advance, to give parents chance to prepare children who may need time to process.
The accommodation comes in the form of cottages, most of which are fashioned from existing farm buildings and barns (except the purpose built Jeremy Fisher cottage). Every cottage is self catering with a well appointed kitchen and there are a range of cottage sizes, accommodating from between 3 to 10 people. Some of the cottages are set over multiple floors which isn’t ideal for anyone with accessibility needs. However, there are single story cottages available and all cottages come equipped with safety gates.
Both times we’ve visited we’ve stayed in a 6 bed cottage, which allowed us to invite friends to join us, which was just fabulous. Both cottages were over three floors which allowed us plenty of space for four adults and two children. The touch we ALL loved the most though was the hot tub! All the cottages come with their own private hot tubs and Oscar (and his visiting friends) adored splashing around in the bubbly warm water. However, there was little better than putting the kids to bed and relaxing in the evening (with some bubbles 😉 ) with your favourite grown ups. Especially when it was -2°c outside!
But the farm is more than just the animals and a place to stay. There are areas to explore, gardens to wander in and play equipment to have fun on. There’s the ‘Play Barn’; two rooms full of toys and games and books and a pool table.. And there’s space. Space to run, space to be, space to breathe. And as an SEN parent one can never underestimate the absolute importance of a friendly, understanding and safe environment.
However, one of my favourite things about North Hayne was not having to explain Oscar or his needs over and over. Just knowing that we had been heard was a blessing. It was never quibbled as to whether our boy could join in the New Years craft workshop. Or whether Farmer Roger was happy to have him on the Farm Hands session (a fun two hour session learning about animal husbandry for the over 6s). Farm Hands proved to be a massive hit the first year we went. The second visit he had had enough by half way through. And that was fine too.
The farm is, and has been, run for the past 15 years by a family team. Husband and wife Roger and Cheryl Dixon (Farmer Roger and Farmer Cheryl) work alongside their extended family to ensure guests feel like they’re visiting their own family. Welcomed and cared for. From the hug when you arrive, to the drinks and nibbles provided in the cottage, and the beauty treatments offered by their daughter in the onsite Therapy Room. You’re bought in and made to feel one of the family. Whatever your needs. It’s no wonder nearly every other guest we met was a repeat visitor.
Accommodating families with additional needs is not always the first thought of those in the hospitality industry. But places like North Hayne Farm have proved how simple it can be to make small steps towards something more understanding. We’re not the only ones to think this, at the end of 2019, North Hayne won the 2019 Visit Devon Gold award for ‘Accessible and Inclusive Tourism’. By making small changes and looking at their offering with caring eyes, Cheryl and Roger have created an amazing and unique place to visit. For everyone.
We paid for our holiday ourselves and I was not asked to write this post. All opinions are my own.