Full throttle for Heathrow’s ‘happy place’ animal centre
A ‘happy place’ which enables disabled people to get up close and personal with animals in the shadow of Heathrow Airport has become even happier – thanks to new funding.
Heathrow Special Needs Centre was founded in 1986 and pays a peppercorn rent for a prime site next to the airport, which built the farmhouse, barn, stables and other on-site infrastructure.
People with physical, mental and learning disabilities do jobs including cleaning out stables, collecting eggs and feeding the residents, which include a horse, two donkeys, a pair of pigs and a gaggle of goats, chickens, guinea pigs and rabbits.
It has been able to employ an animal and visitor liaison staff member thanks to a £25,000 grant from City Bridge Foundation – a welcome boost according to Ken Tinslay, the 75-year-old retired policeman who has been the charity’s secretary since 2000.
He said: “When people come here it’s an important milestone in their week. They get to do things they couldn’t do anywhere else and their self-confidence improves as a result.
“Coming here, working with the animals and completing jobs gives them a sense of achievement, and that’s important. The main thing they get out of it is happiness – there’s no doubt about it – this is a happy place.”Ken Tinslay
The centre opens five days a week, accommodating around 20 people a day by prior appointment and via drop-in sessions on ‘Walkabout Wednesdays’ from 10am to 1.30pm
The centre also has a polytunnel in which staff and visitors grow vegetables for consumption by its human visitors and non-human residents.
Giles Shilson, City Bridge Foundation chairman, said: “Millions of people pass through Heathrow Airport every year, but few of them notice the hidden gem tucked away just by its northern runway.
“Thanks to the tireless work of people like Ken, Heathrow Special Needs Centre has been built up over the last four decades into a thriving community that is really treasured by the people who visit it.”
Case study: ‘I can finally fulfil my childhood dream’
Verity Jones, from Chertsey, started volunteering at Heathrow Special Needs Centre early in 2023 working with the animals and visitors to the centre.
She said: “Witnessing visitors enjoying riding, spending time with the animals and helping care for them opened my eyes to the huge benefits for everyone, including myself, in gaining confidence and discovering our own capabilities within the farm environment. As for me, I can finally fulfil my childhood dream of working on a farm.”
Film and photography enthusiast and YouTuber Jason Symons, from Staines, who is autistic and has fibromyalgia and dyslexia, is a regular visitor to the centre.
He said: “I found the people at Heathrow Special Needs Centre to be welcoming and friendly and I love going to see and film the animals – they make me laugh. After spending time at the centre I feel more relaxed when I leave for home.”