Photograph: Katharine Davies

Photograph: Katharine Davies


Jo Denbury, Features Writer  

Within 12 months of his retirement, Julie Plumley’s father – a dairy farmer of 56 years – was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Julie searched in vain for day centres that could satisfy his longing for field and sky. And so, unable to find suitable care for her father, she founded The Countrymen’s Club. 

There’s just been a Waitrose delivery at Rylands Farm. Not the kind you would usually expect, but of scraps intended for pigs, who can be heard squealing with anticipatory delight. Several men, most of them in their seventies, are bent over the waste food, chopping it up for its impatient porcine recipients.  Meanwhile, in the barn, the soldering iron has been set up to make signage for the upcoming Holnest Country Fayre. There is banter and merriment as the men get on with the work in hand. It may feel more like a youth club than a day centre but, in fact, all of these men come here because they have developed a degenerative disease. Rather than give up their rural lives altogether, they have chosen to pull on their boots once or twice a week and come here, to Future Roots at Rylands Farm. >The project aims to help vulnerable or isolated people of all ages, or those who are struggling with transitions in their lives. Its founder, Julie Plumley, was brought up on a farm herself and felt that the environment could be beneficial to many. “To start with, we opened as a care farm for young people with special needs. When my father, who had been a dairy farmer, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s we looked for somewhere for him to go. At every day centre they were all shut in – that didn’t suit Dad, because he had spent his life outdoors,” she says.  “Dad wanted a place where you could feel the weather and the changing of the seasons – he wasn’t interested in sitting indoors, playing bingo. When I spoke to the mental health teams about this, they said there was nowhere for people like that to go. So I set about forming The Countrymen’s Club,” she continues.  Despite her farming background, Julie trained andspent 25 years as a social worker. The Countrymen’s Club is run along the lines of the ‘Resilience’ care base model, encouraging a sense of self and identity, through achievement and belonging. “My job is to make them feel valued again,” she explains. “If you have Parkinson’s disease and have lost the use of your legs, you still have your knowledge and experience. All of these men have something that they can share with our young people here.” One man, Bill, has been coming for the last few months. After suffering a stroke, he spent nearly a year in hospital and geriatric care. He is now able to get about on his mobility scooter. “I have always worked in the outdoors,” he says. “I was in the building trade for a while, then I moved down to Maiden Newton where I kept sheep and bees. I had 10 hives at one point. But the countryside here doesn’t have the flora it used to have that is needed for bees. Now Dorset has large fields of maize. Suburbia is a better place for them,” he explains.  Bill’s passion is still for his two springer spaniels, which he used to work on shoots across the county.  “I was out stalking when I had my stroke,” he tells me.  “I was lucky. I felt funny and was able to ring on my mobile for help, but if I had been further down in the valley I wouldn’t have had a signal.” Bill clearly misses getting out with the dogs, but he enjoys coming to The Countrymen’s Club. “It gives me something to look forward to and different people to chat to. What would I do if I didn’t come here?”

Better still, the physical nature of the club has helped with his recovery and already his left side is responding far better through use. As Julie puts it, “The NHS will fund a gym membership for certain medical needs, so perhaps there could be a way of finding funding for more people to attend this club – and even open more across the UK.” For the moment, members are obliged to self-fund their attendance at the Countrymen’s Club and, for people like Bill who live too far away to be picked up by the club’s minibus, are reliant on lifts from family members.  This is also the case for Geoff, who had to give up his driving licence following his diagnosis with a rare form of dementia. Not only does it mean rural living becomes almost impossible, but he’s also restricted from using machinery and driving tractors. ‘That was the hardest part,’ he says. Rylands have a two-seater tractor at the farm so, after a risk assessment, he is able once again to drive across the land and fields, something that has meant so much to him over the years.

Up until the end of last year, Geoff was still in dairying and contract farming close to Fifehead Magdalen. “I used to get up every day at 5.30,” he says. “We had 95 Holstein Fresians and I knew every one by name. But dairying is hard. We tried going into bottling for a while and ran a milk round, but you are only as good as your roundsman and it is hard to get a reliable one.”

Geoff is a fourth-generation Dorset farmer. Born in Shaftesbury, he spent 26 years in Stour Provost and another 25 in Fifehead. He was obviously fond of his herd. “Some you needed to get out of the way of,” he smiles, “and there was a pecking order of who would go into the milkshed first. We even had one as a pet, Penny. She was a lovely cow, so sweet-natured the children could ride her. But she had to go with all the rest when we gave up. I miss them like hell.”

This is why his wife, Rose, drives him to The Countrymen’s Club every Friday. “I come for camaraderie and the cows,” he says. His bond and skill with the animals is evident as he gently ushers the heavy Charalais cattle across the yard by tickling them at the backs of their bellies. The animals are reluctant to go, but his quiet, persuasive gestures encourages the heifers to move on.  Much has been written about the importance and preventative value of sensory stimulation for sufferers of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, as well as isolated aging communities in rural areas. In many ways Julie is a pioneer, who has taken a new approach to geriatric care. As Geoff says, “We now have a freedom we didn’t have with cows, because you always had to work and milk them twice a day, no matter what. We’d often miss a family party because of that.” He smiles and walks to over to the barn to see where else he can lend a hand.