A clean break

For years Findhorn was known as a hotbed of free love. But, as Gillian Bowditch found out, people now visit in search of something altogether different
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The Independent Travel

Here's the deal. You show up in the north-east of Scotland in February with an apron and a pair of dungarees. You spend a week scrubbing other people's toilets and fridges, you eat only vegetarian food, the bar is open once and you pay £95 for the privilege. It may not sound like the holiday of a lifetime but there are plenty of people prepared to consider it.

Here's the deal. You show up in the north-east of Scotland in February with an apron and a pair of dungarees. You spend a week scrubbing other people's toilets and fridges, you eat only vegetarian food, the bar is open once and you pay £95 for the privilege. It may not sound like the holiday of a lifetime but there are plenty of people prepared to consider it.

Welcome to The Findhorn Foundation, the Vatican of the New Age. Spring Clean Celebration ("a time of purification and renewal" in which participants align their "bodies, minds and spirits in an annual ritual of cleansing and celebration") might not be the most popular course on offer but it reflects much of the ethos of the community. At Findhorn, cleanliness really is next to godliness, even if the god in question is Pan.

For years Findhorn had a reputation as a place where people with an attachment to love beads, beards and brown rice went to explore their inner consciousness and each other's sexuality. The tatty caravans, the weird and wonderful people and the rather risqué sounding courses meant that the inhabitants of Morayshire treated the Findhorn residents with a mixture of hostility and suspicion.

Now that has changed. A concerted effort by the community's elders to reach out, coupled with a greater acceptance of ecological issues and New Age beliefs, means that Findhorn has become an important part of the economy of the north-east of Scotland. A recent report by Moray, Badenoch and Strathspey Enterprise (an organisation established to promote commerce in the area) says that the Findhorn Foundation is worth £5m a year and supports 300 jobs. That figure is set to rise following the Channel 4 series The Haven, which questions preconceptions about one of the most successful alternative communities in Europe.

Findhorn's reputation as a place where pretty much anything is tolerated is also being challenged. These days you are more likely to detect the scent of Cif rather than spliff. Drugs are forbidden. Sobriety is the norm, with the bar open only on a Friday night for visitors, while foundation members have to sign a contract agreeing not to have sex with the guests. Hugging everything from trees to shamans is a normal part of everyday life - anything more intimate is less acceptable.

I arrive at Findhorn on a gloriously sunny November morning to be greeted by Michael Hawkins, the public relations man. More than a decade ago, Michael swapped the stresses of life as a PR man for Birmingham City Council in favour of a more tranquil existence at Findhorn. A committed Catholic, he found himself increasingly drawn to the place. Today you can see why; the few remaining caravans are out of sight and the woodland and seashore that mark the community's boundaries are resplendent.

Michael is charming and open and there is nothing remotely cultish about him. He takes me for lunch in the café. Guests normally eat together in the dining hall where great metal trays of steaming veggie fare is laid out, the chefs having asked the vegetables' permission before slicing them up. In the commercial café, attached to Universal Hall - a state-of-the-art theatre made of stone, stained glass and wood - I opt for quiche and salad. It's good and the giant cappuccino which accompanies it would not be out of place in Starbucks.

Michael fills me in on life at Findhorn before I go on a tour. The foundation has only about 130 members (it takes a year to become one and several thousand pounds to pay for all the required courses, after which you receive a salary of about £200 a month for your labour). But the wider community numbers 400 and there are 30 eco-friendly small businesses affiliated to the foundation.

Findhorn has one of the best collections of ecological architecture in Britain. The first eco-homes date back to the 1970s and there are examples from every decade since. It is only a matter of time before they become listed. I had been expecting a rag-tag of eccentric hovels with comfort and aesthetics sacrificed at the altar of recycling and energy efficiency. Instead, the buildings would put most British builders to shame. Plots of land sell for around £50,000. Some of the timber houses cost £200,000 to contruct. These are not eco-houses, they are eco-mansions. With their pastel façades, they give Findhorn the air of an up-market Amish community. Earlier buildings are made from scrap car tyres filled with earth or concrete. Others have walls made of plastered straw bales. It's as if The Three Little Pigs have gone to school and come out with architecture degrees.

In fact there is something of a fairy tale quality about the whole place. Michael takes me to "the barrel cluster", a set of small hobbit-like houses made from giant wooden whisky vats. Inside they are small but cosy, with proper kitchens and bathrooms. All the waste from Findhorn is processed in "The Living Machine," an innovative, ecological sewage system housed within a giant greenhouse and covered in plants.

The 14,000 people who visit Findhorn each year don't come for the architecture though. It's the inner life - Findhorn has no set creed but is big on "the God within" - not the outer surroundings that have drawn celebrities such as Burt Lancaster, Shirley MacLaine and Ruby Wax here. Mike Scott, the lead singer of The Waterboys, moved to Findhorn in 2002 and the band recorded their 2003 album, Universal Hall, in the Findhorn theatre. The hall, which stages regular concerts and productions, has been instrumental in drawing local people into the life of the community. The other big attraction is the shop.

The Phoenix Stores sells one of the best ranges of organic produce, particularly cheese, in the Highlands. It is well stocked and the produce looks appealing. The shop was sold off three years ago in a community buyout when Findhorn faced financial crisis. "Things were very shaky," says Michael. "We were badly hit by foot and mouth disease." Redundancies were made and a £60,000 deficit in 2002 was transformed into a surplus of £239,000 last year. It helps, of course, if you can print your own money, and Findhorn now trades in Ekos, a banknote bearing the picture of the community's wind turbine.

Some years ago the foundation purchased the Cluny Hill Hotel in nearby Forres as accommodation for those attending courses (although some of the eco-houses also offer bed and breakfast). In the 1950s, the hotel was run by Findhorn's three eccentric founders: Eileen and Peter Caddy and Dorothy Maclean. Findhorn was established in 1962 after Peter, acting on "divine guidance" from Eileen, chopped down some trees to make a landing strip for alien spacecraft and all three of them promptly lost their jobs.

The "divine guidance" told the trio to move to a caravan nearby and get in touch with the angels or "devas" in the plants they were growing. The results were the legendary 40lb cabbages that drew visitors from all over the world. The vegetables at Findhorn are now disappointingly normal, but the original caravan has been preserved and the angels are a core belief.

Eileen, a frail 87 year-old who looks like Mary Whitehouse, still lives at Findhorn. Dorothy, now in the US, still visits to give workshops. Peter Caddy, a former RAF officer and a difficult character by all accounts, died in a car crash in Germany in 1994. He divorced Eileen and left Findhorn in the 1970s, and his many affairs (he married five times) gave the community its reputation as a hotbed of free love. It's not like that any more, according to Michael, although many marriages and relationships break up here. Women outnumber the men two-to-one and the average age is 40.

Most visitors stay for a week and attend one of the 200 courses that include Experience Week, the basic introductory course for Findhorn. At £330, which includes full board, it costs as much as a cheap package holiday. What's more, guests spend their mornings working for the community, either in the kitchens, gardens, maintenance department or home care. One of Peter Caddy's legacies is the military standard of cleaning.

Experience Week offers an introduction to the spiritual principles on which the community is based and includes meditation, sacred dance and instruction on how to commune with nature. It is Findhorn's most popular course and has to be completed before some of the other courses can be started. These include Twentysomething: The Age of Empowerment (£385); Astroshamanic Healing and Soul Retrieval (£395); The Gay Man's Inner Journey (£425); Women Revealed (£425) and Creating Joyful Families.

Findhorn has become much more commercially orientated in recent years and now offers both business courses and management training. You can also participate in the daily life of the community without enrolling in a programme for around £14 a day. In fact there is something for just about everyone. Except, perhaps, rationalist carnivores with an aversion to being hugged by people who talk to vegetables.

'The Haven' is broadcast on Channel 4 on Monday at 8pm. For a list of Findhorn B&Bs call 01309 690311 or email enquiries@findhorn.org. A full list of courses is available at www.findhorn.org

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The closest airport to Findhorn is Inverness. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Gatwick, Manchester, Orkney, Stornoway and Sumburgh. Eastern Airways (01652 680600; www.easternairways.com) operates flights from Birmingham and Manchester. BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.co.uk) flies from Heathrow, and easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick and Luton. By rail, Findhorn is close to Forres on the Inverness-Aberdeen line. National rail enquiries: 08457 48 49 50.

VISITING THERE

Other local attractions include Kinloss Abbey ( www.kinlossabbey.co.uk) and the Findhorn Heritage Centre (01309 690349). The heritage centre, which is housed in former salmon fishery huts and traces the history of local salmon fishing, is closed until next Easter. However the 12th-century abbey is open year-round and is free to visit.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Findhorn Foundation (01309 690311; www.findhorn.org). Visit Scotland (0845 22 55 121; www.visitscotland.com)

Sophie Lam

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