The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth is, quite simply, wonderful. It is a haven of calm and tranquility quite unlike anything I have experienced before. Turns out it isn't just a sanctuary for donkeys, but also people. It would be fair to say it has been the best three days Jenson and I have ever spent together.
The sanctuary is nestled within the beautiful South Devon countryside; its rolling hills and tumbling valleys envelope all who walk through them and they are reluctant to let you go, (or perhaps it's the other way around.) I can see why the donkeys like it here.
Let us put the gorgeous setting to one side though because it's the donkeys who truly steal hearts. These gentle, docile creatures exude love and warmth to anyone who is lucky enough to come into contact with them. These captivating, characterful, inquisitive and intelligent animals make life feel very simple, which in today's chaotic world, is a wonderful trait to possess. They are endearing, enchanting and extremely funny. We are so fortunate that they should still wish to love us, when some folk treat them so very badly. That they should still tolerate us is testament to their wonderful temperaments. We could learn a lot from them.
It was a bit of a last minute trip that I had decided to embark on while at our holiday house in North Devon last week. I had come across a fantastic website https://www.awarenessdays.co.uk/ and as I casually glanced over what sort of awareness events were coming up I stumbled across International Donkey Week. Although sceptical about the costs, I gave the Donkey Sanctuary a call and was surprised to find out that the whole week was free. I'd just have to source accommodation and clear my diary, which I frantically did whilst sat on the beach with minimal reception looking like a mother totally uninterested in her own children!!
A trip for just Jenson and myself had been in the back of my mind for a few weeks. He had been complaining about how noisy he was was finding everything, including Daddy and Wren. He also told me how noisy he had found school, which was part of the reason for his dislike of it. He'd never told me this before, perhaps because he was simply unable to. He had also been saying he wanted to spend more time with just me, not fantastically realistic, but Wren is still so young and Simon convinced me it might do us all some good.
So our trip started on Wednesday morning. Jenson and I set off on our adventure at 7am and by 9am we had arrived at Slade House Farm: the heart of the Sanctuary. Proceedings were opened by Mike Baker, Chief Executive, who like us, was a Donkey Week first timer! He gave a great welcome to everyone, who you'll notice are all about six decades older than Jenson!!
We listened to many tales, but the most touching story was about Dora. The sanctuary rescued her from Mexico, where they had witnessed her neglect first hand. She was being led down a hillside along with another donkey carrying heavy water bottles when she collapsed. The lady walking her didn't notice and so Dora ended up being dragged along the ground. Turns out Dora had foaled just a few days before. The sanctuary stepped in, brought her back to Devon and she is now enjoying retirement very much!
Jenson sat through the opening speech really well, he became a little fractious towards the end, but as the chief exec said, if the children are getting bored it's a good indication that it's time for him to stop talking!
We missed the first trailer ride to the neighbouring Trow Farm so played in the fields while we waited for the next one. We had a wonderful time messing around with my camera. Jenson was in his element: a free spirit able to do whatever the hell he liked. A far cry from school.
The tractor ride was brilliant. Despite the chilly air temperature, the donkeys gave us a warm welcome! As luck would have it, we'd hitched a lift with a South Korean film crew who are quite famous in their neck of the woods apparently. They were granted unrestricted access to the donkey fields so Jenson and I followed them closely and also blagged our way in. I think Jenson is going to be a big hit in Korea.
It isn't just the donkeys who are warm and friendly; the staff are as equally forthcoming. We soon got chatting to Pete, whose passion and enthusiasm was infectous. He was kind enough to point out that all of the boy donkeys wear red collars and all of the girls wear yellow collars. Any with green collars on have special dietry requirements and blue collars mean they have special medical needs. Jenson and I got a glimpse inside the feed shed and Pete even let Jenson groom best buddies Spartan and Viera!
We spent a good few hours at Trow Farm. As well as getting up close and personal with the donkeys, including the gorgeous and very hairy Poitou breed, we also got lost in the maze and ate vast quantities of cake at the very comfortable restaurant. We eventually hauled ourselves onto the next trailer ride back to Slade Farm.
When we disembarked from the trailer Jenson made a bee line for the car to replenish and warm up before our final activity of the day.
Feeding the donkeys was a special, pre-paid ticketed event that Jenson absolutely loved! He fed a gorgeous little donkey called Twiggy, who we had met earlier in the day, and another called Baby Dunc. Turns out donkeys love ginger nuts and polos, although Twiggy and Baby Dunc's buckets were slightly thin on the ground in the biscuit department thanks to a certain little person!!
Some weren't too pleased at being left out of feeding time...
...while others waited patiently.
Some just watched on from behind closed doors.
It was a short drive back to where we were staying in Branscombe - the walk from the car park through the buttercup fields to our beach chalet felt a lot further! It was a beautiful, but hilly hike, and it took us three trips to get all our luggage moved. I wonder how many others have lugged their desktop iMac's across the fields, through the kissing gates and onto the beach to the chalet beyond?
Once inside, Jenson was clearly exhausted from the strenuous activity of watching his mother toil the Devon countryside. I found him flaked out on his bed like this. Oh the life of a home ed kid!!
He did eventually recover enough to unpack his suitcase and bless him, he very carefully laid all of his clothes out in the storage compartment underneath his bed. He's a perfectionist at heart and I couldn't fault his attention to detail. My bag in contrast was hurled into the spare room and remained there for the rest of our stay.
This is what I had been waiting for: a glass of wine, (or two) with that view!
Breakfast time came around far too quickly but I must admit it was very easy with just Jenson. He has been a reformed character: no shouting, no anger, no mood swings. Just a kind, polite, normal, nice child. We enjoyed a super breakfast together before heading onto the beach.
It was only 8am and I still remember back to when Jenson was at school and what we would be doing at this time of the day. It normally involved a screaming match about brushing his teeth and finding his school shoes, let alone putting them on. But this is why we opted to home school, and I forget so easily why we chose this path when there is still so much shouting. It feels like nothing has changed sometimes. This break has been good though. Just getting a little space and time to reflect and recharge and remember why we are doing this. Some people really don't get home education, and that's cool; sometimes I don't get it either. The problem I had when Jenson was at school was that it was so mundane. It felt so bland and purposeless. A childhood filled with homework and testing is no childhood at all and I wasn't prepared to compromise. I wasn't prepared to accept that his childhood could be squeezed into a weekend or the occasional holiday.
It was a very easy hour spent. The sun was just breaking through the clouds and the beach was deserted. Jenson was happy simply lugging large lumps of wood around in preparation for our BBQ that evening. These are memories that I want him to treasure - they're certainly ones I'm going to.
Thursday saw us head over to Woods Farm, where there were more tractor rides plus donkey walking too! Here Jenson is with Rainbow!
We pulled into the car park and were immediately greeted by these gorgeous guys! I know Jenson is tall, but really, compared to these animals, he looks quite small. On more than one occasion he was taken by surprise when one donkey started snuffling in his back pocket while his attention was turned to another! They're very cheeky!
Another day, another tractor ride and this time it was through the rolling South Devon hills to the donkey fields beyond. We spotted deer jumping fences, pheasants basking in the early morning sunshine and buzzards soaring. If it sounds idyllic that's because it was. School falls well short.
When we reached our destination, we weren't disappointed. The most mesmerising views awaited us, not to mention a Mr Whippy ice cream van, which Jenson took great advantage of!!
Even the tractor drivers were caught enjoying a sneaky ice cream!
Obligatory cone on the nose shot! He's becoming quite the poser...
...but still not a patch on these two who definitely weren't camera shy, or perhaps they were just attracted to his smell, which I don't doubt, is more potent than most!!!
They say donkey's make strong friendships, as Ernie and Jerry demonstrate here, and what a lovely example to set for Jenson. Jenson is himself a quiet soul who, despite his rather brash demeanour, is actually a really gentle giant who would rather bond with just a few special people than lots of random nobodies. He's much like a donkey, and I mean that in the best possible way: loyal, genuine and full of warmth. He's a real giver when everyone else is taking, but he's not afraid to make some noise when he's disgruntled at something he doesn't like! The thing about donkeys is they're there for each other and I think that is what has shone through for us these last three days.
I think it would be fair to say that Jenson could not get enough of these brilliant beasts.
Although understandably nervous on the first day, by the second you could see he was more relaxed and able to let them nuzzle him a little more.
He was able to rest his head on their backs, feel their warmth and stroke their noses. In return, they snuffled his smelly old clothes and tried to graze from his hands in the hope of finding the odd polo.
We listened to the story about Georgie. He has such a sad past but hopefully a bright and happy future. He was rescued by the sanctuary after they found him in an old cattle truck, hidden under a blanket by his owners to prevent people from finding him. He was emaciated and close to death. He was unable to go to the toilet and his bladder was on the point of bursting. He was in excruciating pain. Much medical help was given and thankfully he is on the road to recovery, although he still receives regular check ups. He is still shy and nervous around people, but is at least now happy free ranging on the Devon hillside with his other donkey friends.
When you've had enough of grooming donkeys it is perhaps indeed time to groom oneself!!
Although nervous about the vast amount of donkey poo and the camera being dangled dangerously close to it, I let Jenson loose behind the lens again. Here he is getting some great shots of the donkeys and me!! There has been very little cropping and post production on my part, obviously I turned the first into black and white. He has a different eye to me, or maybe it's just his age.
Obligatory fist pump, which I think means he's having a good time!
We spent the most magical hour or so on that hill in the sunshine grooming and cuddling those donkeys, but eventually Jenson decided that he'd had enough and so we jumped on the next trailer ride and caught a lift back to Woods Farm. The driver was ever so nice to stop momentarily for us all to capure this viw.
We arrived back just in time to catch this cheeky donkey pinching an ice cream!
By this point it was about lunch time and Jenson was keen to get back to Slade Farm to try and get hold of a special '1st Timer' donkey week badge that had eluded us on our first day. Turns out this badge hunt would last the whole three days, although we did eventually track one down!
Whilst back at Slade Farm we explored the grounds a little more. We ended up walking the perimeter of the sanctuary which took us through various stables including those housing blind donkeys. We eventually found our way to the play area where Jenson spent a good hour or more playing quite contentedly by himself.
There was the most beautiful willow house. I'm not entirely sure how he managed to end up with a willow stick bar snapping it off, but he ran over to me clutching a willow fish he had made. I was thrilled he had actually remembered how to make a fish but a little hesitant as to how he had sourced the willow!
Slade Farm is in the most idyllic spot, abounded by buttercup and wildflower meadows, it is a haven not only for donkeys but many other forms of wildlife.
Jenson spent a great deal of time playing on an old tractor; pretending to clean it and make it fit for purpose! He told me how he had put more petrol in it, fixed the knobs, pumped the tyres, lit the engine using buttercups and old grass clippings, buffed the seat and tightened the nuts and bolts. He insisted on being bought a cup of tea with three sugars in before continuing with his work! Just before we left I took a picture of him sitting on the bonnet, thumbs up, feeling very proud of the job he had done. He then watched as other children played on it commenting on how much they were able to enjoy it because of all the hard work he had put in! He is a fascinating little character.
The day wasn't quite over. We still had plenty of time to get ready for our beach BBQ. I prepared the food and Jenson helped to carry it all down to the table he had erected earlier that morning. The stairs quickly became redundant in favour of climbing up the balcony and hauling himself over the railings!
Before I knew it he was changed in to his swimming trunks, had blown up the inflatable and was lugging it down to the sea!
We spent the evening eating chicken drum sticks, skimming stones and playing eye spy. It was a wonderful time spent simply doing not very much, but doing it together. And that's what counts. There hasn't been one raised voice or a single argument. He's just the most amazing little boy. He is so thoughtful and gentle, despite how he comes across. It's all just a defence mechanism to protect him when he's feeling shy or not able to cope or explain how he's feeling. All he really needs is quiet time and time to himself. He is a calm and reflective child who enjoys his own company far more than he enjoys other people's.
He is observant too. He notices when a light pendant isn't straight. He can appreciate how beautiful the sun rise is, as he did this morning, and he can notice if the floor boards are bouncy. He told me off for throwing a milk carton away today because he wanted to take it home to give to Wren so she could make a piggy car out of it. He knows it will make her happy. My point? He's sensitive. Super sensitive. Last night I ended up reading about Highly Sensitive Children and he fits the bill. He'll notice when Simon's had a hair cut even before I do. He tells me how pretty I look if I'm off out and he'll pick out random presents for people if we are out and about just because he thinks they'll like them. He seems to process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly than others.
And so it seems apt that I should be so reflective on an evening where I was privalidged to see a similar reflection off the sea. I stayed up until quite late, well after the sun had set, just trying to work out what is best for our family and our children.
Meanwhile Jenson slept.
And finally today, we drove over to Brookfield Farm to see the new veterinary hospital.
It began with a talk from one of the sanctuary's vets. Jenson listened intently throughout, much to my surprise. She explained how they put the donkey's to sleep standing up and let them fall down by themselves in a cushioned room before taking them round to theatre.
I love this picture. It's a mock up of what a donkey looks like on the operating table! The shot was taken from behind glass, so I had to position myself in such a way so as to minimise reflection. The scene also seemed to capture Jenson's imagination because he drew a little heart on the window using the condensation from his own breath. When I asked him what the heart was for, he pointed at the donkey. It was the sweetest little gesture. I was desperate to take a photo of it but I could feel the glares from about twenty pensioners burning a hole in the back of my head, clearly unhappy with the slobbery mess Jenson had made on the glass!!
Here is the dental room. The contraption looks like something out of a horror film but we were assured the donkey's are well cared for!
And finally, before we left to go home, there was just enough time for one more photo of Jenson grooming this young female donkey.
The last three days have been very special. Rarely do I get to spend time with just Jenson, (Wren, your time will come) but it has been much needed for both of us. We are very alike; we both get very passionate, are very sensitive, extremely strong willed and enjoy time by ourselves. We don't care much for the company of other people, we'll take it if it's there, but we don't rely on it. We are as happy just being quiet, enjoying space and time to think. To ponder over our own thoughts. I don't think we said a single word to each other during the two hour car journey back home today.
It was great to hear Jenson say that he missed Wren, because, deep down, he does love her a great deal and I've no doubt when they are older, they will be like a rock to each other. They will give each other much strength when the other lacks it.
As far as schooling goes, I don't know the answer. Jenson says he misses his friends but doesn't like the boring jobs. I don't blame him. He certainly doesn't want to go back anytime soon. Learning should be something that blends seamlessly into his childhood, not something that spoils it. The intensity of learning at school has no place in his life. A school that has the best interests of its children at heart is one that allows each individual to learn at their own pace and not that of the latest curriculum guidelines. Learning should be much more gentle. Expecting 5 year olds to be able to do the work of 7 year olds is down right stupid. Just because some children can do it, doesn't mean they should. What about the ones that can't? It proves nothing and only fuels unhealthy feelings of failure.
Jenson was left wilting and bereft of his interests, so tired was he from the intensity of the classroom. It is clear now that he was also very overwhelmed by the school setting. This noise thing is a real issue. He seems suer sensitive to over stimulation, be that large groups of people or noisy environments. Perhaps a much smaller school would suit him better or one nestled by the sea so he can still get that space he needs to internally process things and achieve that calm, quiet time he clearly craves. Perhaps school has no place in our lives at all. With the curriculum the way it is there seems very little room for calm and creativity. There is too much pressure, too much pace and too much pushing too young too soon. I don't think school benefits children in the way most teachers and parents would like it to, how can it when so much emphasis is placed on testing. School should compliment and enrich a childhood, but it was just ruining Jenson's. Home ed is by no means an easy path but there is at least a path that Jenson is able to take at his own pace.
There are some who breeze through life, like Wren, and then there is Jenson, who always seems to be at loggerheads with it. Everything feels like a battle for him. The biggest thing I can take from our escape to donkey wonderland is that it felt like a truce. He was happy. Really happy. It's not a food thing. It's not an anxiety thing. From what I can make out it's to do with having time to himself. Quiet time. Time with Mummy. School can't give kids that and not all kids need it, but for Jenson it's imperative.
The donkeys have been brilliant therapy. I've never seen Jenson more at ease than around these creatures. Despite how some people treat them, they just keep on giving. Some may raise their eye brows at me when I say I home educate, but it's a far more varied life than the monotony of the classroom. Donkey Week wouldn't be an experience Jenson would be privy to if he was at school but what a memory for him to cherish. That's how I want him to remember his childhood; as something that we embraced and prioritised, rather than squeezed into his spare time. His childhood is his time, no one else's, and I'm going to make sure he enjoys it to the full.