On a cold February morning I opened a door and stepped into another world... that of the elderly donkey living at Axnoller Farm. It's not every day that something catches you unaware, but this was one of those moments as I took in the sight of around 50 donkeys standing side by side along the feeders eating their breakfast almost in silence. Each and every donkey wearing their winter rugs to offer them further warmth.
In this barn is a very special donkey that I fell in love with many years ago during one of my holidays to the Sanctuary. Her name is Panda and this is my journey with her to the present day.
As a supporter of the Sanctuary, long before I joined as a member of staff, I had been travelling 300 miles from my home in Essex to spend a week in the company of donkeys and like-minded people. I was a lot younger then and looking back now I still remember the very first time I walked with donkeys as if it was only yesterday. What came from that first year are personal friendships that have become my extended family. How many holidays can you say that about?
In 2007 I joined the growing number of "10 yearers" of donkey weekers and I, along with others, were given our "red sweatshirts" which we all wore proudly. The best bit of all though was still to come... we were taken to meet our "donkey weeker" donkeys! My donkey is 19 year old Secret who lives here at the Sanctuary down on the main yard and each year I get a Christmas card from her.
For the 10 years of enjoyment the donkeys had given me, I was looking to give the Sanctuary something back in return. As I already had donkeys of my own, I came up with the idea of painting 100 horseshoes and selling them at Donkey Week with all proceeds given to the Sanctuary.
I had a good source of horseshoes - my farrier who came every 6-8 weeks to trim my donkeys' hooves - and he willingly handed over supplies of old rusty horseshoes when he visited!
100 horseshoes didn't sound at the time very many, but every single one of them had to be rubbed down by hand to remove the rust and old nails before I could spray them all with undercoats and glossy topcoats. I gave myself a whole year to paint them so paced myself and the week before I was due to travel down to Devon for my 10th donkey week, I finished painting my 100th horseshoe.
This is where Panda came into my life... my pièce de résistance was a painting of Panda who I had completely fallen in love with at Axnoller Farm the year before and she kept me going at times when I thought I wasn't going to reach the target I had set.
At the end of my 10th Donkey Week, I auctioned Panda's plaque and this on its own raised £150. It was a very emotional moment as the culmination of my hard work paid off. In total, I think my painted horseshoes raised just over a £1,000 for the Sanctuary. In comparison to what the donkeys have given me over the years, that has been priceless.
So I end my journey with a photo of Panda taken earlier this week of her eating breakfast with her best friend Nettlepot. She's now in the twilight of her years at the grand old age of 41. Each visit I make to Axnoller Farm finds me looking for Panda and spending precious time together.