Tented love

The 'bender' Brian Monger has constructed in a West Country field is his vision of a family home. He says it's a thing of beauty. But John Gummer will decide if it can be a joy forever. Report by Jojo Mayes. Photograph by Nick Turpin
"This one's a bit Mongolian, with shamanic overtones. It derives very much from the nomadic concept," says Brian Monger, gesturing towards his home. "It's the most complex one I've built."

Mr Monger's home, from the outside, resembles nothing so much as a rather large and faded tent, which squats with 15 others in the middle of a remote field in East Pennard, Somerset.

Inside, however, it is almost Byzantine in its splendour: its frame created by branches knitted together in semi-Gothic intricacy, spraying out from the centre and bearing its weight on sapling buttresses. Arranged around its wheeled centre are four rooms, semi-domes from which windows highlight small altars of curios. Heavy wall hangings, rugs and floor cushions give the room something of the air of a Bedouin tent, while the wood-burning stove in the corner and accompanying teapot suggest something a little more English. The smell is sheepskin, patchouli and wood smoke and, compared to the sharp chill of the open field outside, decidedly cosy.

"Some of the others are more functional," says Mr Monger, of his "bender", as he refers to his self-built, semipermanent home. "Especially those belonging to single men. But this is a family home."

Mr Monger, his partner Christine Boal and their two children have lived as part of the Kingshill Collective - a group of 20 or so "alternative dwellers" - for the past three years. Just over 20 months ago the Collective arranged a mortgage with a local farmer to buy a field, to set up an "experimental sustainable living system" which would minimise its use of the earth's resources, and provide its members and their children with what they see as a better, less polluted way of life.

"Only the very rich or the very poor get to live in a home they have built themselves," says Mr Monger, who previously inhabited a flat in Peckham. This is a truth oft repeated by other members of the Collective. But it is unlikely that homes built by the former would provoke their neighbours into erecting 20-foot illuminated crucifixes to ward against their "heathenism". For the Collective's emphasis on paganism and alternative lifestyle has elicited strong reactions from the villagers of East Pennard, and Mendip District council has refused the group - which includes musicians, social workers and tree surgeons - permission to settle.

But thanks to representation at the village school and in the cricket team, and a couple of "open days" in which villagers were invited to see the community at close range ("The people who looked inside the benders were gobsmacked," Mr Monger says happily) many villagers are now vocal enough in their support of the Collective to aid its appeal for planning permission. This has recently been "called in" for consideration by Environment Secretary John Gummer; the results, which are likely to form a precedent for alternative dwellers everywhere, are due within weeks.

The Collective's members admit that despite the beauty of their surroundings, their way of living is not for the faint-hearted. The key difference, says Mr Monger, who until recently worked for the parish council, is that everything takes longer. Water is collected from a borehole at the top of the field. Earth closets and compost toilets provide sanitary arrangements. Electricity, for those who choose to use it, is obtained from solar panels and wind traps, and communication to the outside world - accessible only by a muddy woodland track - is achieved via an old red telephone box which sits incongruously in the middle of the field. But this, and the children's bicycles and carefully tended gardens, lend the community a strange domesticity, while tin chimneys poking from the roofs send thin trickles of wood smoke into the mist: the only clue, from a distance, that the four-acre field is inhabited at all.

"Our primary reason for doing this is to cut down on consumption of the earth's resources. We want to live on the earth's interest, rather than its capital," says Mr Monger. "We know our way of living isn't for everyone. But I feel happier and more relaxed living on the ground and our home is a thing of beauty. Everything in it - even its shape - is a reflection of our family. How many people can say that?"