A home for all the families

Communes in Britain are no longer the preserve of hippies. People from all walks of life are fleeing the cities and setting up their own utopias. Robert Nurden meets a group of devotees in Buckinghamshire
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The Independent Online

For many people, the word commune still conjures up images of stoned hippies. But the alienating aspects of modern life - the bleakness of housing estates and the break-up of families, for example - are now giving fresh impetus to the idea of communal living. Being part of a larger family, while maintaining your independence, is seen by many as a better option than living in a street where neighbours never talk to one another.

For many people, the word commune still conjures up images of stoned hippies. But the alienating aspects of modern life - the bleakness of housing estates and the break-up of families, for example - are now giving fresh impetus to the idea of communal living. Being part of a larger family, while maintaining your independence, is seen by many as a better option than living in a street where neighbours never talk to one another.

The 21st-century community is a different animal from its Sixties counterpart. Sturdy, brick-built houses have replaced the wigwam, and social workers and computer programmers have stepped into the shoes of long-haired layabouts. These modern-day extended families pay their council tax, take part in village affairs, drive cars, and even - occasionally - shop at Tesco.

Redfield, a community of 26 people - 18 adults and eight children - is typical of this new breed of self-constructed family. Married couples, partners, single mothers and the unattached all live together in this rambling Victorian mansion near Winslow, in Buckinghamshire. Set in 17 acres, with gardens, orchards, fields, woods and a tennis court, it has in the past been a private home, RAF accommodation during the Second World War, and an old people's home.

Chris, a town planner with the local council, Chrissy, an accountant, and their children, Joy, 12, and Franz, six, recommend community living to anyone who feels hemmed in by the world of mortgages. "We come home and we can choose to stay in our unit or enjoy the grounds without having to worry about the children and traffic," says Chris. "You can't live here if you work full-time, which suited me, because I wanted to work fewer hours anyway. You are supposed to devote two days a week to Redfield jobs."

The community, only three of whom are vegetarian, has a flock of Jacob sheep, chickens (a fox recently killed half the clutch), bees, and numerous organic vegetable gardens and polytunnels. One of the outlying buildings houses the Low-Impact Living Initiative, a loosely affiliated organisation that makes an income from running weekend courses on sustainable living.

Each adult is responsible for at least one community task: managing the livestock, cleaning out the cesspit, co-ordinating the kitchen garden, ordering the food, doing the accounts and so on. The rota switches every October, and twice a year there is a maintenance week in which everyone's time is devoted to refurbishing the property. Every Thursday evening there is a community meeting with an agenda, at which, some residents were at pains to point out, discussion can become extremely heated. "You never know what's going to happen," says Lisa. "For instance, we had £34,000 to invest and it took us only five minutes to choose the right financial institution. But then we talked for hours and nearly came to blows trying to decide the right colour for the kitchen."

Everyone eats together, but here the rota scheme is abandoned in favour of volunteers putting their names on a blackboard - adults cook twice a month. The chef for the day has sole control of the kitchen before the evening meal, but the clearing and washing-up are shared.

"All sorts of different people live here, and there's no ideology, but the one thing we have in common is concern for the environment," says Taryn, who lives in a spacious apartment on the first floor with her partner, David, and their two children. "You couldn't be here if you didn't have that belief. The selection process is rigorous, with applicants being asked to come and stay several times before a decision is made. We often turn people down - they have to fit in. If, say, one resident objects to an applicant while every one else wants them to join, we'll try to persuade them, but there's got to be a real consensus. Being here definitely changes you as a person. You learn to be more tolerant, but you also become more forthright. You can learn new skills, too, because people have time to teach you."

Residents acknowledge that children benefit hugely from living in the community. And teachers at the primary school in the village attest to the fact that pupils from Redfield are well adjusted and better at communicating with adults. Lynne, a single mother, is the newest arrival and loves life at Redfield. "I feel relaxed about my children's security," she says. "There's a huge play area, and there's always a free baby-sitter on hand."

Redfield is a fully mutual housing co-operative, in which members are both landlord and tenant. This means every adult pays £130 a month towards expenses such as heating and lighting, £55 for food, and a small rent, depending on the number and size of their own rooms.

The downsides? "I miss having friends for a meal," says Mary, the treasurer. And David says: "Sometimes when I'm trying to gets the kids' breakfast, it's pandemonium in the kitchen, with the other children shouting and rushing off to school. Then I wish I was somewhere else - but that feeling doesn't last long."

Sounds like a good idea. What do I do?

Each community is different. Some are ideological, others not. Some are heavily agricultural, others less so. In some you buy a unit, in others you rent. To enable people to get a feel of what it's like, Redfield runs "living in communities" weekends, visitor days and maintenance weeks. You can also work as a volunteer with the organisation WWOOF (Working Weekends on Organic Farms, www.wwoof.org.uk) - though you have to be a member.

Useful contacts:

* Redfield: 01296 713661; www.redfieldcommunity.org.uk

* Diggers and Dreamers is best guide to communal living: www.diggersanddreamers.org.uk

* The Ecology Building Society for "green" mortgages: www.ecology.co.uk

* Radical Routes is a network of co-ops: www.radicalroutes.org.uk

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