I am so struck by arriving in the town of Lewes a month after leaving Totnes. It is so similar! Even the description of Totnes as the town that is not too big and not too small with a river running through it and a steep, steep high street with a castle at the top could just as equally refer to Lewes as Totnes! It is in no way the Lewes of my imagination. I am thrilled by its old roots, its sense of history, its pride in being.
I love too its name; it means place of mounds and has three remaining ancient mounds, like Silbury Hill, with spiral pathways leading up to the top.
Lewes has its famous person too; Thomas Paine. This visionary, amongst other things, said;
“We have it in our power to build the world anew”
According to Transition Lewes he gets more popular locally by the year, in part they wonder, because of his appearance on their celebrated Lewes currency. They even have a Tom Paine festival in the town now. He certainly seems to be a figure whose time has finally come, some 200 years after his death.
Sue Fleming, transitioner, heart and soul, and food group representative as well as womanning the TTL office, is wearing a T shirt brandishing his image, and the group gathered to share some transition tales in the Subud House, (including a charming elder, a lady called Audrey, who turns out to be Ben Brangwyn’s mother!) swear he is smiling more nowadays!
I have been staying here in Lewes with Transition Lewes founder, Adrienne Campbell, who says she followed Rob Hopkin’s transition handbook to the letter in getting the initiative going here. Adrienne is passionate, enthusiastic, fun, and a visionary. I feel honoured to share time with her. She has organised the storytelling gathering where I learnt that “Sussex won’t be druve*” (*driven). Those gathered are proud of this old Saxon saying, telling me that inhabitants Lewes are a feisty lot, going back a very long way. They were the very last county to become Christianised, remaining pagan long after their neighbouring Kent, who were the first to be converted. Apparently there is a geographical reason for this; the area between Kent and Sussex was bog land, and then there were the downs to cross; one would have had to travel all the way to Winchester to get round!
I am regaled with example tales of Lewes feistiness; it is a delight to hear of empowered people standing up for what they believe in; in the past as well as today. Amongst their modern triumphs; the boycott of the Lewes Arms when it was taken over by the Greene Man brewery who wanted to stop selling Harvey’s, the local brewery beer, and only sell their own. Locals stopped frequenting the pub, they boycotted it, they picketed outside it, and very soon the pub was losing money hand over fist. After 6 months of this the brewery capitulated and sold to another brewery, who did agree to keep selling Harvey’s. I think of this in the context of one of the transition challenges of Tesco’s opening up in towns where they are not wanted. Quaker Paul Gibson very astutely said that if when an unwanted store came to town nobody used it it would sooner or later close down. I wonder what it is that makes people still shop in a store they are fundamentally opposed to? In Lewes they have recently lost the battle to have a small Tesco’s expand when the local council granted permission. I suspect it won’t do too well for so very long if the inhabitants of Lewes have anything to do with it!
By now I imagine every transition initiative in the land knows the fabulous story of the Lewes Pound but just in case, I shall briefly recount it here as I heard it from the very founders themselves. As Totnes experienced there was not a little apprehension and a tinge of playful naughtiness about whether or not creating one’s currency was actually allowed. Like Totnes, the plans went ahead anyway. What was really exciting about the Lewes pound was that the media got wind of it when it was still in its planning phase, which spurred it on to the spectacular launch, televised, amongst others, by CNN news. The Lewes currency is more ambitious than the Totnes project currently is. They have several denominations, £1 £5 £10 and …£21.
The local brewery, Harvey’s, who have been brewing beer in and for Lewes for hundreds of years, brewed a special beer in honour of the new currency, Quids In, and accept Lewes pound in payment. Harvey’s are a special brewery; they refuse to deliver further than a 30 mile radius, still use much traditional brewing equipment, and have barely modernised at all. A truly resilient and well supported local business! (Riverfords …take note!)
Hundreds of people turned out for the launch of the local currency; many not even aware that it was a transition spawned project. Adrienne and I talk about what is important is that transition happens; not that people know it’s called transition. I recall one of our most successful public events in Totnes; our Winterfest – many people didn’t known it was a transition event, but they certainly came along to the big market in the civic hall with the really, really free clothes stall, the straw bale storytelling area where families could hang out, the home baked cakes cafe, and the stalls shouting the wares of bicycle projects, willow basket making, the heart and soul visioning the future we’d like corner, the seedy sisters seed swop; and thoroughly enjoyed discovering what was going on in their town.
The launch of the Lewes pound was a fabulously successful event too; a real celebration of what can be achieved and the real joy we all feel when something local is acknowledged and supported. Lewes have plenty of opportunities for celebration of this type. In many ways it felt to me as if they were already living in the transition future we are working towards.
I am taken to visit the North Street Industrial Estate. It is here that I experience life in the future. The Lewes Community Land Trust came about as the result of an open space organised by Transition Lewes to talk about what to do with the old industrial estate. There were plans afoot for an 850 home residential complex which nobody but the developers wanted! Lewes were successful in fighting this and as a result the land was officially recognised as river flood plains and cannot be built on ever again. The existing warehouse buildings are being rented out to local artists.
Phoenix Rising is the project that led to the open space discussions. The land was originally the Phoenix Iron Foundry before turning into an industrial estate. A group formed that decided they wanted to regenerate the land for community use. The public consultation has just taken place and I visited the exhibition of what was wanted. An urban farm is one of the ideas.
I am so inspired by what has already been done. Adrienne takes me to a small garden next to where the land backs on to the river; two months ago this was a rubbish tip. A small group of keen gardeners have already transformed this into a peaceful oasis of raised beds, a living willow and turf bench, straw protected pumpkin mounds, and brick bordered paths recycled from the pile of bricks someone had dumped right beside the garden!
Grace, a fellow northerner and Adrienne’s friend, and I learn about why straw is important for growing beds; it keeps the moisture in the soil, even after the long dry spell we have had.
The three of us go off to Zu next and have a shared dream! Zu is where the Phoenix Rising exhibition is being shown. We meet Martin, pirate like in appearance, planning to take a sailing ship across to South America to trade for chocolate for his local corner of East Sussex. He makes us herbal tea and we sit in the sunshine outside the disused warehouse we have just visited. My faith in the regeneration of industrial areas is born! I have spent 40 years feeling sick to the pit of my stomach at the sight of factories and industrial sites. To see this one decorated with works of art, an upstairs storage area lined with brightly coloured blankets and colourful drapes, pictures of icons and symbols of different traditions, the different rooms full of nooks and crannies filled with art of all sorts from celebrations of the Lewes pound to all manner of weird and wonderful expressions of creativity, brings about a sense of hope I have never before felt in such an environment.
As we sit and sup new people arrive and before we know it a dreamlike quality descends; there are the 3 of us in our bright coloured spring sunshine clothing, Martin, pirate like, yet gentle and wise, Sebastian, a young Polish man with curly golden locks and sporting an old flying cap with sunglasses perched on them like goggles, and another young man of South American Indian roots, sitting around talking about a breatharian that Martin recently met, and a new technology where less energy is needed to produce more energy by a new system that has been written about in a book just published by our Indian companion’s friend (unfortunately he did not understand how it worked and though the others had heard of it and could explain it it is beyond me to repeat it – Adrienne, if you read this please could you comment and tell people what it is called?!).
Then Stefan arrives. I had spotted a piano and stool amongst the seemingly random items around and about the entrance of Zu, the decorative hanging basket ware, colourful objects, paintings, interesting bits of boat and other paraphernalia, but I was not expecting what came next.
Possibly one of the peak experiences of my life; besides sailing across the Atlantic with dolphins playing and swimming at our side, & setting out from Chichester cathedral green and walking into Arundel by the river with companions only just met and a feeling of kinship normally fostered over months if not years. Martin calls over to Stefan
I think he is joking; it would be a wonderful irony to ask for such sublime music outside a disused warehouse, but Debussy is exactly what we get! Piano music for me is a divine pleasure. Debussy played beautifully; naturally arising out of the moment, sitting in the sunshine, is an experience that will stay with me forever. How can I be so fortunate? What are the chances of such a thing occurring? It is the type of experience one can collect up and at the moment of death think back, ah, a life full of good things, remember when you heard Debussy played so divinely outside a warehouse in Lewes back then in transition times.
It is Grace that describes the scene as a dream and we all agree, and also that it feels as though we are already living in the future we want if such things are happening! Our Indian looking friend takes us next door to show us another reclaimed space where they run gigs and a cafe. Again I am astounded by the ingenuity of what is being done and everything is using recycled stuff just found lying around; we live in such times of abundance things are simply discarded.
Transition Lewes have their own office, which I don’t visit, as it is open only part time. They have many working groups; heart and soul, food, energy, to mention just a few, all working hard and doing great things. They also live in a town that is full of lots of other exciting projects too, and a generally supportive council. They present me with a Lewes pound to take onto the next place, and I give them the DVD of Transition Chichester singing The Peak Oil Song to the tune of “Imagine”; a sneak preview of the film they will make available to all for their awareness raising evenings. Watch this space for news of when the full version of Transition Chichester’s night of BBC skits is available for your film night!
I am thrilled in Lewes, as I was in Brighton too, by what Martin Grimshaw described as Shared Streets, and what Adrienne calls Living Streets; a European concept, reclaimed from how all streets used to be before we all gave our power away to cars. The idea is that the street, often a busy thoroughfare, is taken back and redesigned so that the only way of knowing where to drive, cycle or walk is in the different coloured surfaces. No other barriers exist, no signs tell you what to do, how to drive, where to walk. What happens is almost magical; cars slow right down and give way to pedestrians, people walk in the middle of the road, and the whole flow of movement through the street slows right down, becomes organic, self organising, safe, and respectful. Adrienne says that when she has occasion to drive down this street she feels embarrassed to be driving, slows right down, gives way to people, and it really makes her think about her use of the car. Adrienne walks or cycles everywhere she can and I’m quite sure she doesn’t drive for unnecessary journeys, but I am delighted by her sharing her insights into what happens when you are a driver on a shared street.
My vision for our transition future begins to get clearer, not only will we have the lovely grassy tracks and cycle paths next to all roads and pavements across all the land, linking each and every place, but all settlements will have shared streets! It seems a brighter world already just knowing those images are out there, the intention set!
Thank you Transition Lewes for sharing your stories; you are an inspiration to us all! May your latest project, of reviving the local produce market in the original market tower, be as successful as all else you have tackled, and may you continue you in your strength of integrity to hold on through the communication challenges you are currently facing in the Market Project Group. I admire your response to this; that every triggering encounter is simply holding a mirror up for you to see yourselves more clearly, and that conflict is part of the strengthening and bonding process in a group achieving their purpose.
We’d love to hear how you set about resolving the current challenge, there is learning in it for each one of us, and know that we are also supporting you through it in your sharing of this difficult moment. I for one am thrilled to hear conflict being accepted in with as much gratitude as the easier flowing projects. Owning the difficult along with the simple feels to me like a step towards the ending of the old “us and them” paradigm we have lived in for so long.