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Inside CAFT, the Altrincham farm providing a special haven for 20,000 kids a year

For the past 35 years, The Children's Adventure Farm Trust has provided a home-from-home for disadvantaged, disabled and terminally ill children.

Ask a child for their favourite place in the whole wide world, and you’d no doubt get an assortment of answers ranging from the exotic (a holiday water park, perhaps) to the more mundane, like a preferred toy or sweet shop.

For almost 20,000 kids each year, however, the answer could well be a 10-acre site bordering the M56 at the far reaches of rural Altrincham.  

There may be no water park here, but for disadvantaged, disabled and terminally ill children over the past 35 years, Booth Bank Farm - the home of the Children’s Adventure Farm Trust (CAFT) - has been a truly special haven.

And on a two-hour tour round the farm one Saturday in February, I discovered exactly why these undulating fields of Cheshire countryside have come to play such an important role in the lives not only of the children, but of their siblings and parents. 

As CAFT chief executive Ian Eccles tells me: “Unless you've got a child with additional needs it's hard to understand exactly how it can affect just going out and doing even simple things. CAFT shows you that you’re not alone.”

CAFT is based on a 10-acre site at the far reaches of rural Altrincham

The story of CAFT starts in 1985, when former Piccadilly Radio breakfast show presenter Tim Grundy - the son of broadcaster Bill Grundy, best remembered for his expletive-filled interview with the Sex Pistols - set out to create a place for disadvantaged, disabled and terminally-ill children to have a break.

Mancunian Tim, who died at the age of only 50 in 2009, had been inspired while donating toys to local children. After asking whether the children needed anything else, he was told: “What these children need is a holiday, but they’ll never get the opportunity.”

Aided by a band of influential friends, Tim embarked on four years of fundraising and in 1989, they successfully bid at auction for Booth Bank Farm, a 17th-century farmhouse, at a price considerably smaller than it would fetch today. Three further years of renovation followed, and in 1992 the first children arrived at the farm.

Fast forward to today, and CAFT is thriving. It has referral schemes in place for day visits from schools not only across the North West, but further afield in Derbyshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and North Wales. Local authorities and the NHS can also refer children who they think would benefit from a visit.

Individual families can visit, too, and indeed on a busy summer’s weekend there can be 120 families on a single day. 

CAFT chief executive Ian Eccles

The cost? Absolutely nothing for the family, assuming the child meets one of eight criteria which loosely cover various categories of additional needs, from terminal illness to additional social, emotional or behavioural needs, which covers conditions like ADHD and autism. 

“The children who come here would have trouble sitting at a desk for six or seven hours a day,” says Ian, who ran his own travel business before taking the top job at CAFT in 2019.

“We get people who aren't in formal education for whatever reason, so just being around other children and having normal play experiences can have a big impact.”

Ian leads a team of 28 staff, but there are up to 400 volunteers - or ‘CAFT crew’ - who help to ensure that every child’s visit is a special one.

There is, quite literally, something for everyone. 

In the farm zone, children can get up close to alpacas, sheep and donkeys

Early on in the tour we walk through the farm zone, where children can get up close to an array of very tame alpacas, sheep and donkeys. “Animals are non-judgemental,” says Ian. “Very often we'll have children who have never been anywhere near a farm animal, and they help them to build confidence.”

A short walk down a path and you encounter a playground, complete with wheelchair-friendly equipment that Ian says will hopefully be soon getting an upgrade. On a neighbouring field is a football pitch with nets, before we move into the forest, replete with everything from marshmallow-toasting fire pit and craft area to a rabbit obstacle course and den-building zone. It’s a wooded wonderland. 

The den-building zone in the forest

“The kids can just be themselves here,” says Ian. “If you have a child with special needs it can be a worry when you go to busy places. Here they can do what they need to do.”

Wet days are happily accommodated over at the sports hall, meanwhile, where a giant bouncy slide can be inflated at the first hint of a raindrop, but which can also handle catering on a mass scale - last Christmas, 3,500 children enjoyed a Christmas lunch in this space.

Residential stays are also accommodated in some of the historic buildings that dot the site, and planning permission has been secured for a further 20 beds.

Visiting the homely living quarters, as well as some of the games and immersive play rooms, you get a sense of the respite that parents must feel when they visit - as well as the relief at meeting and befriending other parents who have similar domestic challenges.

To raise the £1.1million required to keep CAFT going each year, it hosts a number of events throughout the calendar and has benefitted from the patronage of the likes of Noddy Holder and Sir Bobby Charlton, who was President for 23 years until his death in October.

“He loved it here,” says Ian. “I think the thing he particularly loved was that he could be anonymous - none of the children knew who he was, and he could just be himself.”

CAFT is in secure health financially, but as Ian urges: “You can never sit back... you also want to expand and do more.”

Donations - whether financial or through volunteer hours - are greatly appreciated by a charity that Altrincham is lucky to call its own. 

“We're not really aware of anywhere else that does exactly what we do, especially free of charge,” adds Ian.

Long may the fabulous work of the CAFT crew continue.

Photography: Laura Marie Linck