Easy living: The truth about modern communes
Today's communes are a far cry from the free-loving, dope-smoking hippy havens of the Sixties. But can they really solve the problems of the modern world?
Saturday 10 July 2010
It was on a summer's afternoon in 2005 that Paul Wimbush made his decision. He'd spent the day celebrating Lammas, the original Celtic harvest festival, with friends in a field in Pembrokeshire; as the sun began to fall, a group of them sat down to discuss the implications of a proposed local planning act known as Policy 52. If this neatly titled initiative were to get the go-ahead as hoped, there would – for the first time since the introduction of the Town and Planning Act of 1947 – be a piece of legislation in the UK to support the kind of "low-impact communities" that many believe could hold the answer to a number of very real environmental and social problems faced in Britain. "It was," says Wimbush, now 38, "simply too good an opportunity to be missed."
At a time when the fight against climate change, rising levels of unemployment and the breakdown of national industry were high on the political agenda, environmental campaigners argued that the possibilities of this potentially groundbreaking policy must not be under-estimated. And so, convinced that the new law would be given the go-ahead, those present in the field that day wasted no time in setting out their masterplan. By employing systems of permaculture – an agricultural method that originated in Australia in the 1970s which maximises land productivity by emulating natural eco-systems – they would build a brand new rural community that would, among other things, massively increase bio-diversity in the local area, as well as boosting the output of organic food and land-based produce, and cut carbon pollution.
Over the following months, the group pulled together details for an ambitious eco-village called Lammas, in an area of mixed pasture and woodland on the edge of the Pembrokeshire National Park. As well as offering a workable alternative to the heavily fossil-fuel-dependent and "fundamentally unsustainable" way of life which continues to typify most of the Western world, the new community would create opportunities for affordable housing and the development of new rural livelihoods, while simultaneously preserving and protecting the natural landscape and its precious bio-systems. And Wimbush and the other members of the collective didn't stop working away at their idea until they had every inch of the proposed site accounted for.
By the time Policy 52 was finally passed in 2006, Lammas was all but ready to go. But even with the law theoretically now on their side, it would be three years before they saw their plans put into action. Part of the problem was that some critics of the project couldn't get past the words "community living", which immediately conjured up images of 1960s-style acid-fuelled love-ins: "Not in my back garden!" came the response from those expecting a sudden influx of soap-averse drop-outs – and such concerns also drove a pocket of officials, who seemed intent on challenging the development on the slightest detail at every stage.
While this reaction may not have been entirely surprising, the basis of the opposition on both counts was misguided. Firstly, the free-spirited hippy communes of old and the new type of highly focused community represented by Lammas are diametrically opposed. If the old-school commune was about creating an escape from reality then this new, environmentally-driven community is about facing up to it; it's not just about accepting that we need to find another way of doing things, but actually taking the steps necessary to effect that change. And that involves a hell of a lot of hard work. Secondly, from the beginning, every single detail of the project – from the dimensions of the buildings to the topography of the soil – was laid out in minute detail. If anything, Wimbush and other similar communities could be accused of being too rigorous in their planning: nothing would be left to chance. Today, regular progress meetings attended by the project's accountant, managers and outside shareholders monitor even the smallest potential developments and how they might be funded.
Fortunately, as well as amassing its fair share of critics, the Lammas project attracted a lot of support, both locally and at a governmental level, with volunteers offering help with all manner of tasks. Finally, after a gruelling three-year battle with the authorities – which culminated in a public hearing, in which the group showcased more than 1,500 letters of public support for their project – the project was given the green light last year. From that moment on, it has been onwards and upwards. A few months later, Lammas won a £350,000 UK Government grant to build an education centre at the heart of their eco-village, which would act as a focal point for the research and promotion of low-impact development. Over time, the cooperative borrowed £210,000 from supporters in order to purchase their little corner of Wales, but has since recouped the money – plus enough extra to fund part of the infrastructure – by issuing 1,000-year leaseholds to tenants.
Five years after its inception, those who'd opposed the project on the grounds that the land would simply be turned into a doss-house for work-shy hippies may feel relieved that their fears have been misplaced.
Today, lammas stands in a picturesque pocket of north Pembrokeshire, a 20-minute drive from the nearest train station, Clunderwen. On a bright Saturday morning in June, the site – all 76 acres of it – is a hive of activity. While the natural landscape throbs with birdsong, insects and wildflowers, ducks and geese splashing in and out of a central millpond, some 300 visitors have descended for a tour of the community, which is in the process of a mind-boggling transformation; some have travelled across Britain to learn from the work taking place here; others simply can't resist the chance for a snoop, to see what all the fuss has been about.
Either way, the first thing that strikes visitors – other than the sheer scale of the place – is the extent and intensity of the construction process. Just 10 months after work began, the landscape is undergoing a massive reshape and restructure, with a new network of track-ways, ditches and reservoirs in the process of being built: by the time the project is complete, which should be some time in 2012, the community will be sourcing its own water, household fuel and electricity, and it is already producing the majority of its own food.
The Welsh Assembly is one of the few authorities in Europe which has an in-built statutory duty to sustainable development, and Jane Davidson, the Minister for Environment, Housing and Sustainability in Wales, has been supportive of Lammas from the off. She describes it as a "demonstration community", one of a number of models the Welsh government is hoping to roll out across the country as part of its new environmentally focused One Planet Development scheme (the details of which will be announced later this month), which looks at ways to create new housing that "enhances or does not significantly diminish the local environment".
More than anything, Davidson says, the value of Lammas is to "build links with and inspire existing local communities". So in some respects, open days like the one taking place this morning are every bit as important as the work going on around the guests taking the two-hour guided tour of the site – the huge land diggers and teams of men and women beavering away on a series of carbon-neutral homes, barns and greenhouses, which stand in various stages of completion. Each of the houses, visitors are told, is pioneering a different system of innovative technologies and techniques, including passive solar-heating systems and willow-fuelled domestic appliances, some of which are demonstrated along the way.
The open day is just part of the agenda this morning. Paul Wimbush – who now acts as the group's business manager – spent the early hours working in the fields before a meeting with the organisation's accountant. In that department, things are looking good: before Lammas bought it up, this land was worked by a tenant sheep farmer, and pulled in just £2,500 a year. By year five, Lammas is expecting to create £108,000 worth of produce on the same area. And that's just as well. Maximum land efficiency is not just a bonus, it was one of the key conditions set down by the Welsh Assembly when the project was approved.
Accordingly, each of the families here must contribute to a communal kitty by providing some sort of land-based produce – be it farming worms, growing soft-fruit or making craft or textile products – half of which is sold at the Lammas visitor centre, in local shops, at market and online, while the rest is consumed by the community itself. If anyone wants to hold down another job outside Lammas, they are free to do so, and keep any income from that for themselves. The other part of the agreement is that anyone who lives here must substantially provide for their household needs – including food, income, energy and waste – from the land.
As long as they abide by these conditions, residents can stay here as long as they like without so much as attending a meeting or a single group meal. "We're not a hippy commune," Wimbush insists at several points. "We operate according to a conventional village model; when residents are ready to move on, they can simply sell their leaseholds on the open market." And they can rest assured that there won't be any shortage of takers. Ever since plans for the Lammas development were first announced, the community has been over-subscribed.
Originally, it was proposed that as many as 20 families should live here, but having consulted the residents of Glandwr, the next-door village, which is itself only home to around 50 families, this was reduced to nine families – a figure the existing community felt would be appropriate. Now Lammas has roughly 40 residents, with children ranging in age from six months to 18 years; some attend the local comprehensive, others go to a nearby Steiner school, with one family home-schooling.
Each household has its own private area, spread apart at some distance and divided by a series of ancient or newly introduced hedgerows and trees. At the top of the hill stands the only house now fully completed. It belongs to Simon Dale and his wife Jasmine; Simon is an established figure in the natural building world, known for his spectacular Hobbit-like woodland homes which pioneer the latest low-impact design and building techniques – and with its sculpted organic forms and exposed round-wood timber jointing, their place has certainly set the bar high.
Further down the site, Katy and Leander, who moved here from a terraced house in Liverpool and had no previous experience of low-impact living, have just started construction on their timber-framed roundhouse. In financial terms, if nothing else, Lammas seemed like as good a place as any for them to start a new life. After all, the average set-up, for what amounts to an eight-acre holding, costs approximately £80,000. That includes an 1,000-year lease, building costs (you have to construct your own home, but there are plenty of experienced builders on hand to offer help and advice), and the means to set up your own business.
If reassurance were needed that life in a commune really is a plausible alternative to more conventional ways of existence, remember that for years several of these places have been proving their viability across Europe. And one of the most established of these, Brithdir Mawr, is just a short distance from here, on the other side of the Pembrokeshire National Park.
On the northern edge of the Preseli Hills, set against the slopes of Carn Ingli – or Mountain of Angels – stands a 19th-century smallholding. In one direction, unspoilt hills roll on for miles; in the other, forested land stretches as far as the eye can see. Brithdir Mawr's founding members bought this spot as a ruin back in 1994 and have since restored the main residence, a rambling grey-stone farmhouse, to its former glory. Members either live here or in one of the outhouses set across 80 acres of lush countryside and unspoilt woodland, from which a small river leads to the sea about a mile and a half away.
There are goats, ducks and chickens moseying around the site today, taking a break from producing enough eggs, milk and cheese to supply the 11 adults and four children who live here. This morning, some residents are busy baking bread and making gooseberry jam and chutney. There are no fridges or freezers, so it's all stored in a cool room heaving with shelf after shelf of jars.
At first glance, the only sign of modernity comes from a series of polytunnels, used to produce organic fruit and vegetables. But on closer inspection, there are DVD players, wireless broadband and power-tools, all of which are used sparingly and rely on self-generated electricity – the site is intentionally off-grid. Heating the homes and generating hot water requires a number of solar water-heaters and wood-fired boilers, sucking up as much as 36 tonnes of wood a year; at the moment some of this comes from off-site, though having just established a 4,700-tree coppice plantation, Brithdir Mawr expects to be completely self-sufficient in this respect by 2018.
Paul French, one of the community's longest-serving members, has spent his morning tending to the horses used in the process of hay-making and for carting around wood for fuel (and for the craftwork to be sold for profit). He believes the key to Brithdir Mawr's longevity is that it operates according to the systems of the outside world (it is a limited company with all the necessary bureaucratic systems in place to allow easy communication with the authorities) and maintains "a good balance between communal things and personal space".
There's a collective budget set at a group meeting – last year it was roughly £30,000 – which goes towards general costs, like fixing faulty equipment or buying the lentils, chick peas and olive oil served at communal meals, of which there are between three and five a week. As far as possible, the community is self-sufficient, growing 80 to 90 per cent of its own vegetables as well as producing eggs, dairy products, bread, honey and jam, and generating 100 per cent of its renewable resources from wind and water turbines and solar panels.
Unlike at Lammas, which Wimbush says is not so much a commune in the traditional sense as a group of individuals with their own private space working together for the sake of maximising land efficiency, French is quick to emphasise the importance of living as a community. Although residents at Brithdir Mawr are encouraged to have their own personal space (each unit has its own kitchen, sitting room and bedrooms, while the bathrooms are shared) "by working, eating and laughing together", he believes they can ensure their "ecological footprints are as light as they possibly can be".
Dan Thompson-Mills, a resident at Devon's Steward Wood community, which is currently celebrating its 10th year, agrees that the solutions to some of our most pressing predicaments lie in the basic concept of sharing and mutual cooperation rather than the selfish individualism that got us into this state in the first place: "Where we go from here in terms of facing environmental issues," he says, "is as much as anything about rediscovering the art of community."
Wimbush, however, seems reluctant to talk about his community in terms that might be interpreted as off-puttingly "New Age". And one can easily understand why. In his view, there is so much at stake – and if we are to create any sort of future for ourselves, we need to embrace "a complete, radical restructuring of virtually every aspect of society". It's all very well calling global summits and stroking our chins, he argues, but the reality is that we already know what we need to do, and communities like Lammas are proving that it can be done.
At the same time, these very modern pioneers seem to be providing invaluable new possibilities for housing, employment and industry in Britain. And if that isn't incentive enough, Wimbush concludes, looking out of his window at the rolling countryside below, you might try asking yourself what's really important: "For me, living in a beautiful forest garden, surrounded by my family, is infinitely more rewarding than living in the rat-race could ever be. And that is a choice open to everybody..."
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