The Broader Picture: University of life

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THIS IS Bramdean Common, near Winchester in Hampshire. There are some quite grand houses behind the trees, as well as Volvos and horse boxes. People run their dogs here first thing, or walk off big lunches on Sunday afternoons . . . And this is the Dongas Tribe, whose members wear clogs, keep polecats, and have no time at all for lavatory paper. ('Bleeargh] Yuuuuuk]' they shout together at the thought of it.) They moved in a few weeks ago, put tents up in the drizzle, lit their fires, got their bongos out.

Bramdean is a Neighbourhood Watch area, so the neighbourhood watched. A discovery was soon made: these shaggy newcomers were not like the ones on the television. They weren't going to stage festivals, or be sick in the village hall. They were, it seemed, rather young, polite, articulate. They were - Bramdean realised - rather like one's own children. They phoned home.

So these aren't crusties. These aren't New Age Travellers (The Dongas Tribe only has one car, and is suspicious of people who pollute). They don't do drugs, and they drink mead only modestly. There are no dogs-on-strings. The Dongas Tribe isn't even especially unclean. Far sprucer than crusties, these are, say, dusties - at most, musties. Many are highly educated, many are middle class. They came together last spring, in an impassioned on-site protest against the M3 extension around Winchester, which will chew its way into Twyford Down. They took their name from the place where they were camped - an area which had somehow adopted the Matabele word for gully. While battles were fought in the courts, the Dongas Tribe made an honourable nuisance of itself on the ground.

The campaign failed, the bulldozers came. But the Dongas community seemed worth preserving. It moved to Bramdean. Paul (from an army family, and with a past in furniture sales), says: 'We came together because of a road protest, but then discovered the whole earth was sick, and we discovered this life . . .'

The life is simple, communal and cheap. Some of the Dongas sign on, some don't. Some busk. There's a kitchen tent, and a 'lounge'. On a Sunday afternoon, Rosie, who is just out of sixth-form college, is disembowelling a pheasant in the kitchen; innards flop out, and the vegetarians try not to watch. Tea is brewed. Roll-ups are rolled. As would be expected of a community of 20 or so educated people in their early twenties, this encampment most resembles a student house. It's cleaner, of course, but there is the same urge to put curry powder into everything, the same worry that parents may visit (they do) - and the same tension between earnestness ('Look, the earth could end, seriously, before next Sunday'), and a jokiness, an exuberance, which comes from having managed to make an independent life that actually works. The Dongas's New Age is fiercely green, but it's also quite jolly.

It can withstand a little irony. Asked to describe the best thing that could happen - the Dongas dream - the answer comes from a woman called Fraggle who wears something vast and multi-coloured which is neither coat nor charity quilt. She says: 'Cake]'

Someone interrupts: 'The best thing? If the greedy people in the world disappeared . . .' 'No, seriously.' says Fraggle quietly. 'Cake.'