A Wyld experience! www.monktonwyldcourt.co.uk

Most photos in this blog courtesy of my friend and esteemed photographer at Monkton Wyld, Lucre Camiletti http://500px.com/LucreCamiletti (This is not her by the way ;) )

Most photos in this blog courtesy of my friend and esteemed photographer at Monkton Wyld, Lucre Camiletti http://500px.com/LucreCamiletti
(This is not her by the way 😉 )

At Monkton Wyld Court I walked straight into a relaxed and friendly environment that made me feel immediately at home. If I reflect on why I felt like this, I would highlight two characteristics of the place: Humility and Structure. Low impact living developments usually spring up out of a reaction to mainstream society; its excesses and blinkered ‘carry on as normal approach’ to the big challenges facing humanity. But rather than being perceived as a beacon of hope and inspiration to the rest of society, often they can be perceived as being so far removed from anything normal and mainstream that people don’t feel all together comfortable engaging with them.

I know for myself I have felt uncomfortable on more than one occasion simply by being in the presence of people who are vocally and overtly vegetarian or vegan, or spiritual, more connected to the elements, less dependent on fossil fuels, more engaged in activism, more prepared for peak oil…. I still eat meat, although less than I used to, I am open to ideas on spirituality but have not found any philosophy or practice that calls me to put my stake in the ground. I like to have a pint of ale after work, I drive a car and a digger (it has been my livelihood), I have marched on the streets but I have never been arrested… but I still want to fight for change and I want to explore what this means for me personally. We are, all of us, plugged in to the incumbent unsustainable system to some degree and I believe we are all on a journey of change. Some are already engaged heavily and are truly awake to the anthropogenic crisis the Earth is in. Some are in denial and some are doing all they can do alongside life’s many other challenges (We can’t all live in off grid intentional communities!). I guess what I am talking about is shame and the resulting state of conflict that it can create. To evoke this feeling is of course unintentional and the vast numbers of people involved in exploring alternative ways of living are more interested in inspiring change and leading by example than alienating people. But there is a balance that needs to be sought if a low impact community wants to go beyond being an isolated intentional community and really inspire the world. At Monkton Wyld, they have created a beautiful balance of Sustainable, low impact living with a warm hearted humble welcome to people of all walks of life. This outreach comes in a variety of forms: Bed and breakfast, hostel, campsite, WWOOFing, local lunches, forest school summer camps, family weeks, practical educational courses, the Land Magazine’s headquarters, they have a licensed bar in the form of an intimate garden shed with pub benches for an authentic ale house experience:

The Pub Garden where local brew is sold to guests and volunteers!     (Camiletti)

The Pub Garden where local brew is sold to guests and volunteers! (Camiletti)

Above all, the people are gentle, caring, hospitable, and interested in you! You can learn new practical skills, work on the land or in the house and kitchen, relax in the beautiful gardens and meadows, or simply use it as a base for a holiday in the area!

The community at Monkton offers a diversity of ways for people to come and experience the place. Many of those ways that I have just mentioned also offer financial return which adds stability to the community. Each community member is tasked with a specific responsibility: Kitchen, Office, House Keeping, Land, Maintenance, Garden, Agricultural and Volunteers. There is very little switching between roles and as aresult each of these areas is run well by people who are familiar with them. When volunteers come to work in the Kitchen, or the garden, the tasks are clearly explained and demonstrated leaving no doubt as to what needs to be done and why. This is all done in a gentle, patient and informative way and for me as a volunteer; this level of organised working creates a good environment for learning, connecting, getting things done and getting things done right!

Gorgeous bread rolls in the making!     (Camiletti)

Gorgeous bread rolls in the making! (Camiletti)

Monkton Wyld is a wonderfully interconnected community. It consists of many elements each of which serve a multitude of functions. The Victorian Gothic house houses the guests and offers financial capital as well as social and cultural capital. The walled garden supplies fresh organic fruit and veg for the kitchen as well as an opportunity for visitors to learn about growing. Waste food from the kitchen is composted and given back to the garden or to the chickens and the pigs. The chickens provide eggs and an occasional meat supply. 2 elegant compost toilets harvest human deposits from all residents and visiters which are then allowed to decompose through a hot composting process leaving harmless nutrient rich material which feeds back into the fruit trees and onto the land to improve soil quality. One of these toilets won, (trousers down 😉 ), an award for the best looking compost toilet in the country! Honestly, you felt like royalty doing your business in this!

Award winning Compost Toilet!

Award winning Compost Toilet!

The throne inside the palace!

The throne inside the palace!

Water is pumped from a well which supplies the whole house and all the other structures on the site. Flushed toilets then feed the water into a reed bed system which treats the water as well as creating a thriving habitat for insects and plants. A large portion of the 11 acres of land is leased to tenant organic dairy farmers, Jill and Simon who work entirely without machines. They provide Milk and Cheese to the community (partly, or wholly as rent I am told) by farming three Jersey cows. Just look at the difference between these two fields: One shows a field of cows I passed somewhere between Salisbury and Dorchester, the second shows a field of cows at Monkton Wyld.

A densly populated field

A densly populated field

Space and time to chill :)        (Camiletti)

Space and time to chill 🙂 (Camiletti)

Jill and Simon provide opportunities for WWOOFers to learn skills such as Scything, milking, and cheese making in the on site dairy. They edit and write for the Land Magazine: http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/ as well as being well respected advocates of Low impact living initiatives and land access rights. They offer WWOOFers and visitors the chance to experience farming the way it used to be before the era of fossil fuels and agricultural gigantism put traditional small scale dairy farming largly out of business.

Sheeting up the hay and carrying it on our backs.

Sheeting up the hay and carrying it on our backs.

Jill rhythmically relieves the cow whilst gently talkng to her.    (Camiletti)

Jill rhythmically relieves the cow whilst gently talkng to her. (Camiletti)

We now live in an age where a single dairy farmer can use a machine to milk hundreds of cows without so much as a ‘hello how are you today?’ At Monkton I get the sense that there is a more intimate relationship with the land because it is worked by humans, not machines! Even when heavy jobs like ploughing and harrowing need to be done…never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can make a difference!

A harrowing experience!

A harrowing experience!

Each individual resident in this community contributes a unique depth of knowledge and experience to the stability and development of life at Monkton. They work hard and well with each other, the volunteers, the land and the wider society to create an apparently very harmonious low impact community. I was struck by this elegantly interconnected system because I have always felt that interconnection is a principal indicator of something being sustainable. In the natural world we see systems and cycles. Reciprocity and connectectedness provide ecosystems with strength and stability. When we mimic these structures we are in effect harmonising with our natural environment. From a sustainability perspective, what is attractive about this structure is what is reciprocated. Benefits are reciprocated. There is always a beneficiary when we connect elements, resulting in mutual support and the concept of waste diminishing.

I began to draw a causal/functional loop diagram to illustrate the complexity of this elegantly interconnected system. Here is my attempt, but alas I had to give up because the pages weren’t big enough and the connections were too many:

Attempted causal loop diagram of Monkton Wyld

Attempted causal loop diagram of Monkton Wyld

I connected with many good people at Monkton and made some good friends. I had my first taste of scything and loved it. I milked a cow for the first time, I learnt to make jam and won a pub quiz (which I have never done before!)

I would like to say a big thank you to Lucre Camiletti for providing me with most of the pictures I have used for this blog post. She is a very talented photographer and I highly recommend you to check out more of her pictures at this site: https://500px.com/lucrecamiletti Here are a couple I really like:

The milking trolly that is pushed up the hill twice daily full of fresh Milk       (Camiletti)

The milking trolly that is pushed up the hill twice daily full of fresh Milk (Camiletti)

Unfortunately the camera is not edible!    (Camiletti)

Unfortunately the camera is not edible! (Camiletti)

Thank you Monkton Wyld!

Compost toilets don't smell!!      (Camiletti)

Compost toilets don’t smell!! (Camiletti)

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Cycling on the Revolution!

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England is a small and beautiful place. Even the south of England and particularly the South East, which is usually associated with massive overcrowding and urban encroachment, can still surprise even me, and I’ve grown up, lived and worked here for 30 odd years! A big part of this journey has always been about the time spent travelling between communities. For this I decided to travel by bicycle, a Dawes Karakum to be precise affectionately named ‘The Revolution’! For every revolution of the wheel I travel approximately 2.4m. Given my average speed is roughly 12mph; I calculated that I travel 5.3m (just over 2 revolutions) in a second. Compare this to a car travelling at 60mph, at this speed you cover approximately 26.7m in a second! At this speed you are travelling so fast that you can’t even focus on what is right in front of you, you have to look further away or you get dizzy! At the slower pace you can see everything, you have time. Combine this with the fact that for every turn of the wheel you feel your muscles work, your heart pump, and your body sweat. You hear everything from the roar of rubber wheels to the sound of birds in the trees. You feel your face hitting and splitting the wind. You can smell the pine trees, the freshly cut hay and the fumes of cars as they accelerate past you: It is a whole body experience that grounds, roots and connects you to the reality that you are on the move.

One of the great things about cycling across the south of England on a bike is that you have to find appropriate routes. Heading in to London on my way to Grow Heathrow I couldn’t use the M4 or the M40, but instead had to take in towns like Windsor and Maidenhead, before crossing the M25 to get to the community.

Crossing the M25 very close to the resilient community of Grow Herathrow

Crossing the M25 very close to the resilient community of Grow Herathrow

Heading out West from London I couldn’t use the M3 or indeed many of the dual carriage way A roads. It can be very hard to find small direct roads so the way usually includes a kind of zig zag across the country. For me it also means that I see a lot of new places in an area of England I thought I knew like the back of my hand. One revelation was the canals. On a three day cycle trip to Lyme Regis in Dorset I discovered the Basingstoke canal and decided to cycle along that for a while. It wasn’t direct but it did mean that I didn’t have to look at a map every few minutes, or face the stress of noisy tin boxes overtaking me every few seconds!

Nearly impassable swans that nearly had me turning back with their aggression!

Nearly impassable swans that nearly had me turning back with their aggression!

Canals offer a different path on which to travel across the land. I have often said that I know very well how to navigate the South of East of England, but after spending time alongside canals I realise that actually what I know is how to navigate the roads in the South East. On a canal it is like being in a completely different place. You are positioned lower down and surrounded by nature. I spent one night pitched beside the canal and woke up to these glorious surroundings the following morning:

A cool mist at 6.30 am after free camping next to the Basingstoke canal

A cool mist at 6.30 am after free camping next to the Basingstoke canal

Another delightful find was the village of Fair Oak on leaving the beautiful, but painfully hilly South Downs on the second day of this particular ride. They have a Scarecrow festival every year and many of the residents set to work on creating the most beautiful and elaborate scarecrows you could possibly imagine.

Not much of a choice!

Not much of a choice!

As I was cycling through I reflected on just how much local tradition and culture exists in all these tiny places on this crowded little island that people just never have the time or inclination to find out about. I felt so grateful to have passed through this unassuming but humorous village which reinvigorated my tired legs and put a smile on my face.

Fantastic!

Fantastic!

That very same day I entered the new forest, just as light was fading. Despite having ridden around 80 miles through and between two national parks over the course of 9 hours, it felt so good to be on the flat heath lands of the New forest. Wild horses, the smell of pine trees, and a blanket of blooming Heather soaked the landscape. It was like being in a dream. I cannot express how tired my legs were at this point, but somehow this glorious landscape and the satisfaction that I had pedalled to this place I have been so many times before made me feel utterly joyful.

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My personality has always included a healthy dose of stubbornness. For richer or for poorer, I’m not sure there is an awful lot I can do about this, other than be aware of it and mindful of how it might affect others in my vicinity! One positive outcome of this trait is a bloody minded, don’t give up, and push through the pain approach to physical challenges! So, when I cycle up a hill with 20 Kilos of Panniers and a tent on the back of the bike, I am not easily able to surrender, get off and push! I say this is positive because the feeling you get when you look out from a stunning Devon hill top at undulating green hills dressed with fluffy clouds and blue skies as far as the eye can see; as you gradually regain normality to your breathing and face colour, the feeling of knowing you pedalled yourself to this inspiring place fills you with a sweet shiver of pride and delight. And then there are the down hills! As I rolled into Sidmouth town in Devon I did something I have never done before:

Yes!!!

Yes!!!

I reached 42 mph on a push bike! With my helmet pulling the chin straps against my chin like it was a parachute, pedalling like an absolute madman, I entered Sidmouth, breaking the speed limit by 12mph, screaming at the top of my lungs…Yes! Yes!! Yes! What exhilaration!

It is not just the hills that go up and down when on a bike. I have found that my mind clicks through a whole assortment of gears from the positively pumped feeling of strong muscles working with ease in a body bristling with determination, to feeling like every revolution of the wheel is an eternity of struggle followed by another eternity of struggle! This isn’t just dependent on the incline; it seems to be affected by so many things. Even a large granule asphalt (found on A roads) combined with a slight breeze can send me spiralling and descending into a deep forlornness, compounded by the disbelief that you are going so slowly despite going downhill!

It is truly an emotional roller coaster when touring by bike. But at the end of every day’s cycling, whether I have done 30 miles or 80 miles, I am filled with an enormous sense of satisfaction and joy. Having stopped whenever the mood takes me, to smell the flowers, identify a tree or simply take a swig of divine Adam’s ale, I have experienced a day’s worth of electrifying views and painful ordeal to reach a resting place I could have probably driven to in under an hour. A physical tiredness fills my whole body and makes the feeling of being horizontal and not sitting on a saddle simply delectable. I just checked my speedometer and it tells me I have cycled 530 miles over the course of the last 2 months. One thing I have learnt on this tour is this: While a fast speed is exciting, productive and satisfying, a slow pace is fulfilling, eye opening and enriching to the very core of my soul!

Seeing it all!

Seeing it all!


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Grow Heathrow: Part 2

Grow Heathrow listens to John Stewart talk about the importance of activism and avoiding being marginalised by government and industry through staying connected to wider coalitions of groups who share the same goals.

Grow Heathrow listens to John Stewart talk about the importance of activism and avoiding being marginalised by government and industry through staying connected to wider coalitions of groups who share the same goals.

As far as off grid low impact community projects go, grow Heathrow is probably one of the most politically controversial as well as being one of the most well known. When a group of people decide to reject consumer capitalism, start growing their own fruit and vegetables, generating their own energy and opting for community living over the daily grind in an increasingly alienating and individualistic society, it does indeed turn a few heads. But to do all this on someone else’s land on the edge of the small village of Sipson (a town ear marked for demolition should Heathrow airport’s proposal for a third runway get the go ahead), puts Grow Heathrow right inside the belly of the beast as a spiky change making activist thorn! They are a peaceful and steadfast presence in the area and have been for around 5 years since a group of ‘anti airport expansion’ activists decided to usurp the untended plot known as Berkley Nurseries (it used to be some kind of garden centre). They have cleared 30 tonnes of rubbish from the site, built eco structures, and attracted thousands of people through its courses and workshops on permaculture, activism and spirituality. They are the physical expression of Transition Heathrow driven to bolster the resilience of Sipson, Harmondsworth and other villages fighting against Heathrow expansion.

There have been murmurings that plans for a third runway at Heathrow might be back on the table after plans were dropped in 2010 after a 10 year campaign battle was won by a coalition of activists, local resident groups and national environment groups under the umbrella movement ‘Airport Watch’ http://www.airportwatch.org.uk/. With yet more talk of airport expansion in West London, meaning hundreds of homes to be destroyed, Heathrow becoming arguably the biggest CO2 emitter in the UK, greater noise and air pollution and another 150,000 people under the new flight path, it is no surprise that when Grow Heathrow had its eviction notice given for 8 am on August 15th, they were going to make a scene!

The day before the eviction, around 200 friends, activists, campaigners, local residents and Grow Heathrow residents past and present filled in to show solidarity with Grow Heathrow and everything it has stood for over the years. They ran workshops on the airport expansion campaign, rights and legal standing for protesters and a workshop on trauma from direct action. I spent one hour listening to a local resident from Harmondsworth talk about her involvement with the residents group HACAN http://hacan.org.uk/ and the 70 year struggle to stop Heathrow from expanding. You could see that she was tired; tired of constantly battling, tired of the noise, tired of Heathrow lies and deception and tired of being referred to as a NIMBY. She has an elderly mother who lives in a cul-de-sac in Harmondsworth which under new Heathrow boundary proposals would not officially be up for demolition, but as you can see from this map:

Everything to the right of the red line is inside the airport. Note the cul-de-sac's position.

Everything to the right of the red line is inside the airport. Note the cul-de-sac’s position.

For all intents and purposes the people living in this cul-de-sac, would be living inside the airport! They will have Boeing 747s taking off not only in their back yards (which they have been doing for years) but now right on their front doorstep too! I had never been particularly aware of the resident’s plight around airports having been more concerned with the obvious environmental problem that comes with an insatiable appetite for flying and airport expansion. Now I have lived next to the airport at Grow Heathrow, listening to the regular roar of planes (which occasionally interrupted the workshops!). I have listened to local residents in the area, some of whom have been living there for generations (before Heathrow even existed). These are villages that face being torn in half. Half will have their homes bought for market price +25%, the other half will be left with nothing but noise. The only people who want to buy property in the area are landlords who will fill the houses with workers from the airport. This makes it yet harder for campaign groups like HACAN to drum up support in the community … they don’t even know who their allies are anymore.

This struggle is at the heart of what Grow Heathrow is about. They are also about showing what is possible when you chose to go off grid and live in a community, their very presence throws up big questions around land access and ownership. They call themselves a community project and I believe that their solidarity with groups like HACAN play an important part in staying connected to the community. But I would probably say that Grow Heathrow is more of a community hub for people who are already aligned with environmentalism or activism, and they come from all over the country to attend. They are a colourful sight, as one local resident said to me: “It makes us look more colourful!” But to forge really strong connections as a community project, I believe that Grow Heathrow would have to be less overtly different from its surroundings. People need to feel safe to get involved and unless you are a staunch activist anti airport campaigner, you are probably not going to take a wonder down to Grow Heathrow.

Who knows what the future of Grow Heathrow might be. I believe they have so much potential and should they manage to keep the plot, I sense that there will be a time of transition and re-establishing of collective vision. There has been tension and conflict within the community, some long standing residents have left, and there is a lot of work to do if they are going to become an invaluable connected part of the community. After an early start on the 15th, everyone was involved in something: Locking on to concrete blocks, making lunch, singing, planting outside the front gate…I was involved in making pedal powered smoothies for press and bailiffs, but the bailiffs never turned up!

The pedal powered Smothie maker

The pedal powered Smothie maker

Behind the main gate a piano barricade poured out fun tunes and songs were sung for several hours until it was decided that we had achieved the desired result. For now at least, Grow Heathrow has not been evicted!

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Grow Heathrow Part 1: Rituals that matter with Star Hawk

Activist Dave Fuller laughs whilst on a visit to "Grow Heathrow" at Sipson, near Heathrow Airport in London

http://www.starhawk.org/
http://www.transitionheathrow.com/grow-heathrow/

My first weekend at Grow Heathrow consisted of a 2 day workshop on how to make rituals of meaning that matter to those that partake in them. At the time of signing up I was under the impression it was a permaculture workshop…this however was not the case! After having turned up to the community project the night before to a cup of tea, a tour and some heavy conversations with disgruntled residents talking of death threats and thieves on the loose, I had pitched my tent in a secluded spot right next to the M4 and the M25 interchange (peaceful!) and hidden my bike in the trees covering it with and an old tent! As people began arriving for the workshop I began to feel like everybody I met was either a Pagan, a Witch or a Radical Faerie…Not being particularly familiar with the ins and outs of any of these groups and not knowing much at all about Star Hawk the workshop facilitator, I sensed that I was somewhat unprepared for whatever was going to happen over the next 2 days! Let it be said that these were all lovely folk who, while at the same time as flexing my spiritual comfort zone, would also settle any anxiety I had about Grow Heathrow’s integrity and purpose as a place where people come to learn and be inspired to work towards positive change.

The workshop consisted of around 40 people and between us we were going to create a ritual that mattered. The fundamental principle for creating a ritual of significance is to be very clear on what the intention is behind the ritual. To understand the intention you need to understand what is present and pertinent to those involved. For example, if a ritual is held by a community to bless the land and ask for an abundant harvest, but the community, in reality, is riddled with conflict and tension which is preoccupying most peoples’ minds; then the ritual should be aligned to deal with those issues. ‘Intention’ is a fascinating concept and it becomes even more fascinating when a group of people must work towards discovering or uncovering their co-intention. It is probably the most important principle forgotten by most collaborative endeavours, but if a group of people are going to come together and co-create something of meaning, then it is worth understanding why they have all come together and what it is they want to work towards. This is not only true for rituals but for any organisation or group that would like to reach its full potential as the sum of all of its parts (or people!).

And so we spent the day engaged in trying to discover who we all were, what qualities were really present in our lives, what our hopes were for the future. We worked in small discussion groups, had deep conversations, in circle we expressed pain, celebration, anxiety, love, grief and fear. We touched each others’ auras, sang songs and had a wonderful lunch. Some of these activities I had done before and some it had never even crossed my mind to do before. All the while I had this sense of hesitation. How far was I able to go in revealing myself, my full heart and soul? Part of me really wanted to, part of me didn’t really know what that would even mean, and part of me wanted to retain the safe cynical/ intellectual view point. There is a great feeling of relief and ease when you relax your whole self, warts and all, in a safe container with people who you know will not judge you one way or another. More often than not I believe it is my own judgement I fear the mot, but in this environment, after 1 day knowing these people, my hesitation teetered. In the end the ritual was performed as several acts representing key themes that were represented in the group. I was part of the act on inner strength and growth. That part of the ritual included an offering and invitation for people to express and let go of their grief or mourning for someone. At this point I felt the connection strongly in the group. I was part of a circle of people holding a tribal chant of support for others to express their grief in whatever way they needed to. The pain, and the safe container for holding that expression of pain, could not have felt more real.

There is an air of humility in ritual. The rational, scientific world that many of us in the west exist in today tends to make us feel as if we are the architects of life on earth. We can manipulate, mould and synthesise the natural world simply by exerting our rational minds onto the task at hand. This sense of control is an illusion. Even the most distinguished neuroscientist will tell you that a complete explanatory theory of the human mind is not even on the horizon. I am sure there are problems out there that the world of science will indeed one day address, but there are also mysteries so complex that our good selves, as humble parts of the architecture, will never fully understand. This is why people pray, why people look up in wonder at the stars, why they send their heads spinning at the huge expanse of space and time. And it is why, in my opinion, people of all cultures have and will engage in rituals and blessings for a very long time.

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A visit to Braziers Park: School of integrative social research

braziers park

http://www.braziers.org.uk/

Braziers is a conscious experiment in living together. It was founded in 1950 to explore how a group could develop more harmonious relationships and more effective group structures. The founder of Braziers, Norman Glaister (a social psychologist) had a vision of substituting organisations of knowledge, understanding and sympathy for organisations based on power, avoiding too great a concentration of power in a few hands. Needless to say this was somewhat ground breaking for that period of time.

Amusingly, six people answered the door! They were curious about who could have knocked on the door since no one ever did that! I introduced myself and they did the same, everyone smiling and happy to introduce me to the people I needed to speak to regarding all the practicalities of staying there for a few days. It’s incredible how any pre-meeting nerves can dissipate so quickly just as soon as the present takes hold.

What I want to share about Braziers Park is simply what stuck in my mind in the short time I was there. For all the details about the history, main areas of responsibility and details on their publications ad research see the website (above).

I had hoped to stay for 2 or 3 weeks but was told that they were full at this time. Despite not needing a room in the beautiful Strawberry Hill Gothic house (see pictures in gallery), as a volunteer I would be eating food and using electricity, all of which adds to the strain on the community’s finances. I was visiting instead as a paying member of the annual summer school on ‘Understanding Groups. Most of the volunteers were young Europeans, there to experience community living and develop their English. Braziers has a long history of hosting young foreign volunteers who want to learn English and in my opinion it is a great asset to the place having all these different cultures mixing within the community. The summer school coincided with a reunion which brought past residents and volunteers from as far back as the 50s together again to celebrate, remember and work once more within the community.

At Braziers Park decision making is by consensus with agreed levels of autonomy. They meet twice a week as a community, in the sensory meetings they ‘contemplate’ any issues on the contemplanda and on Thursdays they have a decision making meeting informed by the feelings of the Tuesday meeting. There are also daily morning meetings where the community checks in by sharing anything on their minds, followed by an allocation of the practical tasks for the day.

My, perhaps stereotypical, view of these kinds of communities was of groups of young people living together pioneering alternative social models and practicing low impact living. It had not occurred to me that there would be communities whose members and residents are of much older generations too. Of course Brazier’s has been in existence since the 50s so one might expect this to be the case. There are children and young adults, families and one lady in her 90s still resident in the community. It is a beautiful thing to see a community able to support its residents through the full cycle of life.

In the opening phases of the summer school it was great to hear some of the reunion participants speak of their time at Braziers. One Japanese artist lived in the community for 17 years (1985 – 2002). About Braziers he said: “I had the best time and the worst time of my life here in this community”. He now lives happily in Japan, alone! Another lady said that when she comes back to Braziers she just feels like she can be herself. Despite all the talk of difficulty in living communally, the fact that there was tension and confrontation clearly on display in one of the morning meetings I attended, and even the opening question asked at the summer school on the theme of how we deal with conflict and difficulties in groups; people love this place. They keep coming back to revisit the place, see old friends and remember how special the time was spent in this community.

One of the most fascinating parts of the summer school was a workshop on Empathy. It had been mooted that ‘empathy’ as a quality whose power to ease conflict, dispel fear and shift perspectives could go a long way to solving many of societies current social problems. Indeed one lady spoke of the need for everyone to be injected with 7 doses of empathy on a daily basis! We watched a fascinating Ted Talk by Roman Krznaric:

http://www.romankrznaric.com/outrospection/2014/01/28/2213

Following this we took one of the themes of the talk which was about striking up a conversation with a stranger. We broke it down into the conditions which act as a barrier or an aid to doing this. I have included a picture of the list that we came up with. We then went into a series of exercises. I’ll only talk about the one which had quite a profound effect on me.

We were asked to go out of the room and then return in silence. We took our seats as an audience on either side of the room. A scarf was laid across the centre of the room and we were told that it represented a water course that 2 volunteers would have to cross as they walked their life’s path (from one side of the room to the other passing each other at a certain point along the way). Without any guidance as to how we should cross the water course or the pace at which to walk, people would just use their imagination, for example by role playing a rowing boat to take you across the river. Being my usual sceptical self I was not first, but last in a pair with a lady called Sue. As I walked quite slowly towards the river (for me it was a river and I was pretty sure I was going to swim across it because I love to swim!) I could of course see Sue walking reasonably slowly towards me on the other side of the river (if indeed it was a river for her). I looked at her mainly to acknowledge her from a distance and to begin to get an idea how we might pass one another. Would there be an exchange, a friendly smile and nod, or would we just walk past each other without acknowledgment. Sue was not looking at me. She was looking to the ground. When I arrived at the river I tested the water, jumped in and swam across. When I stood up on the other side Sue was just approaching. We shared a gaze and I offered a passing smile whilst continuing to move along my life’s path to the other side of the room. After just passing her, my eyes swept round to face my destination once more. I had noticed something in the way Sue was behaving, she was hesitating and she looked anxious. I had a rapid realisation that she was in need of help. I made the decision to go back (not knowing if that was against the rules or not!). Not knowing what the problem was, I offered her some help to cross the water course which seemed to be troubling her. With a hand to lift her across she was on her way and I continued on my way.

At the end of the exercise Sue had tears in her eyes. For her it had reminded her of the difficulty she has faced with asking for help. I felt as if someone had just put a mirror up to my behaviour and showed me something quite revealing about myself. You see, in silence, in the middle of an imaginary exercise in front of 12 onlookers, I had connected with Sue. But it might not have happened. Had I not walked slow enough, had I not paid enough attention by being preoccupied with my own actions as opposed to trying to understand Sue’s, or had I not been feeling strong enough to break the perceived rules of the game, then I might not have turned round and the moment would have been missed and gone forever. This simple exercise slowed down a daily occurrence and made me realise how many opportunities to connect go sliding by (too fast in real time to turn back!). It forced me to ask the question: What will I do to stop these opportunities to connect from passing me by in the future?

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Early days!

There is always some trepidation when going into a new community. I don’t think it particularly matters whether that community, is a new work place, a new club, a new city or any place that requires you to exercise your social skills, bring your whole self and begin to connect with other people. Cycling towards Braziers Park in Oxfordshire I had this feeling that I was going too fast, I didn’t want to get there too soon as I had only (2 hours previously) set out on my bike on my little adventure and I needed some time to reflect and mentally prepare for arriving at this first community.

Ever since I was very small I have had a problem, like so many others, with shyness, or as I have come to call it out of respect for the disabling effect it can have on a person’s life, Social Anxiety. With help from many people and a good deal of mindless optimism that this strange affliction would not stop me from forming deep, meaningful connections with people, I have started to gain the upper hand in this battle. All I really mean by that is that I have learnt to recognise, understand and redirect patterns of thought that lead me towards an anxious debilitating state; in essence, being mindful of individual thoughts and flows of thought and exercising control over which ones dominate my head space. I would be lying if I said that it works all the time though!

I write about my Social Anxiety problem because it is an important lens and filter through which I am experiencing Community and Connection. I believe it is something many people deal with even if only mildly at certain points in their life and it is mostly hidden to the casual observer. My hope is that readers of this blog will personally relate to how I describe certain experiences and perhaps more so with this filter in mind.

So, a short distance from Brazier’s park I decided to stop and have a rest by the side of the road. I wanted to collect my thoughts, reflect a little on why on earth I have decided to embark on this crazy journey…mostly so that I have an answer when someone asks me that obvious question! I tried to meditate a little but my head felt like it was hosting Notting Hill Carnival! I don’t know how long I might have stalled there by the side of the road, but fortunately something got me moving again. A car pulled up and a lady was asking me if there was a way to get to Checkendon village without going up a steep hill or along a main road. I grew up close to the area so I was able to help. I made the point that Checkendon was on much higher ground than where we were so she would have to go up a hill at some point, but there were a few options. This simple exchange with a stranger needing help from me calmed me and without further ado I rolled down the hill to Braziers Park, my first community, and knocked on the door.

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