Home is where the tent is

They don't like the cold or the mud. But the settlers of Tinkers Bubble have fought five years to live this way.
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The Independent Culture
Tinkers Bubble is a settlement of a dozen people who live with a horse named Samson under the boughs of the Douglas fir in deepest Somerset. Everyone but Samson lives in something called a bender - canvas stretched over hazel poles - and spends their days growing organic apples, chopping down trees and living without fossil fuel. If that sounds romantic, think again. This is a cold, muddy and hard-scrabble existence. There are no secret mod cons at Tinkers Bubble. In fact, forget about the mod and there are still no cons. I am lucky that there is a phone. It is listed under the name T Bubble. I ring up because T has just won a historic victory that could change the ways of the English countryside forever, and I'd like to stop by for a visit.

"Yeah?" says a voice. I mention the words historic and victory. "Yeah," said the voice. Clearly T is not letting the excitement go to his head. The voice tells me that the press has been inaccurate in the past. The press has said they live like pigs. They do not. The press has said they live in tepees. They do not. This was not about lifestyle - the voice curled round that word in disdain - but about larger issues. In fact, he insists that any article include the name of a brand-new planning paper about rural sustainability. I say that I wouldn't have it any other way, and an appointment is made. "After dark is best," he says. The day is for work, the night is for talk.

I arrive as the sun is fading over the hill that sits in the middle of the 40 acres owned collectively by the folks at Tinkers. Their land is part orchard, part woodland and very lovely, with ferns crowding the road and arching round a bubbling stream (thus the name). It is just up a dead- end road from Little Norton, a tiny picture postcard of a place lined with houses of warm yellow stone. It is awfully picturesque for a revolution.

In truth, there has been an almighty row over whether the Tinkers settlers should be allowed to live and work on their land. It has lasted five years. The original decision by South Somerset District Council to deny the application was changed on appeal but the then Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, used his powers to stop it. The folks at Tinkers lost in the High Court, twice. They then reapplied, as is their right, and this time things were different.

Last Thursday the vote was 10 to 6 in favour. The current Secretary of State, John Prescott, is not going to interfere. There is talk of a revolt and a judicial review but in the meantime the Tinkers Bubble people are legal. It is a first. The environmental campaigner George Monbiot says it paves the way for thousands of others who want to go back to the land.

Andrew Cato, a planning officer, would back that up. He has had so many calls that he has to take the phone off the hook to get any work done. Many are from other planning officers demanding to know just what is going on. The answer is that Liberal Democrat councillors decided that it was time to back up words with actions. They like the Tinkers Bubble project, they believe in rural sustainability. And so they broke all planning precedent and went for it.

Eric and Jean Dunkley are not impressed. They live in a detached house called Poppinjay in Little Norton. I knock on their door and say I'm on my way to Tinkers. They ask if I'd like a cup of coffee before the oak- leaf tea. What? "I'm sure that's what they drink," says Eric. He laughs. He used to be a businessman. Jean is a retired architect. We sit in their spacious front room. They are very up on the issues. "This is not an argument about lifestyle," says Jean. "It is a planning matter. We've nothing against the people. They are very personable, well educated." Eric nods. "But no matter how well intentioned, still have to comply with regulations. You cannot run a country on anarchy."

I excuse myself. Anarchy awaits but first there is a short drive through Arcadia. I am met in a little car park by Simon Fairlie, who turns out to be the voice on the phone. He is wearing a jumble of clothes and a tweed cap. He tells me to stay put as they are in the midst of conducting a sound test. This sounds technical but is simply a man banging dustbin lids together. He does this inside and outside a rather strange structure that might be a barn. Simon listens from across a field. He comes back. "Excellent. Excellent. There is a big difference."

I tour the quasi-barn. "If there was a competition in Britain for the most absurd building, I would vote for this," says Simon. The sides are made of straw bales, the ceiling of mattresses. Cracks are stuffed with old clothes. The entire thing is held together by miles of string. In the middle stands a bright green 1937 steam engine, next to a rusty-looking log belt.

This sawmill should be the main source of income at Tinkers but a noise abatement order means that it has been idle for 18 months. "We figure we could gross about 10 grand a year," said one man. "That would support three of us for the entire year." At the moment everyone at Tinkers pays pounds 12 a week for food and then an extra pounds 5 per week for capital investment. Everyone is intent on solving the noise problem so the community can get closer to supporting itself. They may be rural but they are not yet sustainable.

The light fades and work is over for the day. It is time for the interview, which is conducted in the dark. Occasionally, Simon lights a roll-up but this is not a great light source. It turns out that Simon is a planning expert. He didn't mean to become one, it just happened. He couldn't afford housing and joined Tinkers when it began in 1993. His methodical mind plugged away at the planning issues. He wrote a book called Low-Impact Development, whose first sentence is "Planning is boring.". The foreword is by Paddy Ashdown, who lives just over the hill.

Simon has lived in a tent for years now. I make the mistake of seeing this as rather romantic. "Good Lord no! I don't like it. We have to because we aren't allowed anything else," he says. It is cold and muddy. Many people here would be the urban homeless if they were not living in their rural benders. It is a practical thing, not a lifestyle decision.

"I don't like talking about the benders because it conjures up the idea of a hippie way of life. That is not what it is about. It is not about lifestyle. Journalists love to come up and take photos and talk about benders and tepees. But there are lots of people out there on little smallholdings who are doing the same thing, living off the land. They don't get the media attention. They are not so glam." Glam? I say. I look down. My feet are caked in mud. I am shivering on a straw bale in the pitch black talking about planning. Glam? "Well, sexy then," says Simon. "Lifestyle is a red herring."

Simon has to go feed Samson. There are also two goats. But first he takes me up the hill to the benders. The walk smells of cider-making and earth. The stars are brilliant. It is cold. In the roundhouse Simon attends to a long list of media phonecalls. I meet a woman named Mary Durling and her three-year-old son Joe, and a man named Trog and his son Glen. The boys are keen on jokes. "What is pink and wrinkly and hangs out your trousers?" asks Glen. He looks around triumphantly. "Mum!"

Mary invites me and a few others to her bender. We have a glass of wine. "People see the countryside as a quiet place to retire to," says Chris Black, who has been in on Tinkers since the beginning. "We see it as a place to live and work."

Simon then takes my notebook and writes down the name of his planning paper. He says it has a wonderful 18th-century subtitle. I am as good as my word, so here goes: the paper is called "Defining Rural Sustainability: 15 Criteria for Sustainable Developments in the Countryside Together with Three Model Policies for Local Plans". It is available for pounds 5 (pounds 3 unwaged) from Chapter Seven, 20 St Michael's Road, Yeovil. Simon then starts writing down the names of groups who have endorsed it. You have to draw the line somewhere and that is where I drew it.

The dinner bell sounds. We head out into the darkness. I fall over in the mud. In the roundhouse there are about eight men and three children. We eat a delicious tomato and rice dinner with bread pudding. The phone rings: it is the second production company from Channel Five that day. I say goodbye and the men call after me: "Don't forget to mention that we need more women!" But of course, I say. After all, it's such a sexy subject.