I meet Chris Rowley and get a lift to Ambleside with him. He is driving to work today as he has large boxes of books and files to pack up and bring away ready for the move to the Lancaster campus next week and the closure of the beautiful one I am about to revist. Normally he would cycle or car share with the local book shop owner.
Seeing the Charlotte Mason campus is a time tunnel for me. I was a student here from 1983-5. We go to Hilltop hostel, where I lived for my first year at the tender age of 18, never having been away from home before. It was a hostel full of Christian girls and the first thing they told me was that an old man had burnt to his death in his bed in my room. Hilltop is used for lecturing now and upstairs where our bedrooms used to be are offices. I take a peek in and see the window under which my bed once lay. Weird.
In a supreme act of mismanagement of funds the university saw fit to build a large and costly extension to Hilltop house in recent years; I really do begin to question the wisdom of allowing large sums of money to be allocated to any official bodies who make financial decisions alone. What experience of real life do they really have that qualifies them to choose how to spend it?
Chris and I walk to the main college building, Scale How. Chris points out to me that Hill Top and the surrounding houses, including a long low cottage which is actually an original Viking long house, are situated on the site of the first settlement in Ambleside, high up on the fellside with spectacular views out to the opposite fells. The present day Ambleside nestles in the valley. How much I missed, as a young woman, of the story of the place where I spent so much time.
We talk about education and philosophy, our shared passions, and I learn of others working in this field and of books I should look out for when I return, and Chris’ book “Living at the Edge” which he will send me, and that of his ex student just published this year, which challenges ways of looking at education and philosophy. Chris tells me to look up John Dewey, a much maligned education philosopher, who wasn’t on the syllabus when I was studying, not approved of, but whom, I suspect, will have much to tell that will be of use to us. He was dismissed as one whose books should be burnt by the minister for education in Thatcher’s government; reason enough to seek him out methinks!
Chris tells me about the Transition Futures group who have formed recently to ask BIG questions around transition thinking with the aim of coming out with the goals of Kendal and District SLACC transition town. There is to be a series of 6 bi monthly meetings.
The other piece of the local puzzle Chris is involved with is in encouraging local councillors to get involved and he has already succeeded in setting up an open meeting with several of them in Burgundy’s Wine Bar, where I once worked when I lived in Kendal.
After a spell sitting in Scale How’s famous airport lounge, so nicknamed for obvious reasons, with its low ceiling and rows of characterless chairs, but now with great wifi access enabling me to catch up on some much needed e mailing, we go off down into the town to the library where we meet two Janes. One, head librarian, interviews me for the local Ambleside news column of the Westmorland Gazette, and the other, Jane Durrant, tells me about what TT Ambleside are up to.
They are a vibrant active group that have organised a sustainability trail around the town; a large attractive display of which is still up in the library, which is exceptionally supportive of transition. It was while on this trail that Chris picked up the idea of getting the jora composter I had so admired. It turns out that he saw this piece of amazingly useful piece of kit in Jane’s garden. She is delighted to hear that this open house trail really works and people do pick up tips.
Jane the librarian takes us out into the garden. This is a small piece of ground just outside the back door. It was wasteland that has now been reclaimed by the library for the community. It is used by local school children and the elderly though everyone is welcome to come and sit on the bench in the sun and help to tend the plants that are now growing, there are strawberries, and a few assorted veg plants in and amongst the flowers. There is also a rather attractive rock garden made up of painted stones the children have made. It is a tiny patch, but already one they are very proud of.
Growing local veg is the biggest theme of TT Ambleside. They are called The Ambleside Allotment Association in keeping with Jane’s realisation that the first step to making links with ordinary people is in speaking their language and starting with a project that matters to them. She has gathered a steering group of diversity; a retired person, a young person, a builder whose family have lived in Ambleside for 300 years, an off comer who has been there 25 years, a councillor, and a keen gardener, she herself, like many of us in TTT, has only been around for a few short years. With this lovely mixture blended together the group have been ardently finding out how many people in Ambleside wish they had an allotment; there are no allotments in the town.
They now have a waiting list of 18 households, a newsletter which goes out monthly with all their news, and 3 potential sites on which to start growing. The local garden centre, Hayes, have offered one, they are about to clinch a deal with the council over another, fell side site, I am present at an impromptu meeting as we go to try and book a council room for the first AGM; it needs to be a large room, 55 people are on the mailing list and all are expected to show up. Whilst at this meeting Jane finds out that things are moving towards the goal of gaining the Kelsick site. The third desired piece of land is the triangular corner of the farthest reaches of the college’s front gardens. This site used to be kitchen gardens at one time, is beautifully walled on three sides, and open to the museum and open drive way to the road on the other, and also very close to houses. The wheels of college beaurocracy mean that no one is prepared to take responsibility for the negotiations and nothing is happening. Jane and her merry band are not deterred and keep on asking.
Meantime, while no site has been secured, AAA, or TT Ambleside, are not resting on their laurels; when Charlie the builder lamented his not being able to grow the group went round to visit his yard and very soon hit upon the idea that right there, in the builders’ yard, was growing potential. Charlie’s yard is now the triumph of the group. After 300 years of family in the town still didn’t entitle him to an allotment Charlie has taken back his power and planted up his yard. He has been moved to tears by what he has discovered amongst the builders’ waste and how it has enabled him to grow his own. The use once only bags which Edward Acland is using to make hay bales at Sprint Mill are growing Charlie’s veg, and redundant guttering and piping are growing parsnips and carrots.
Charlie doesn’t need an allotment anymore and the Ambleside pledge is now to grow some food where we haven’t before and to send in pictures to show everyone else.
Whilst at the library I pick up a SLACC booklet from Jane’s display, produced in association with cafs (Cumbria’s action for sustainability group). It is a green guide to Cumbria which is packed with really practical everyday advice for everyday folk on recycling, allotments, saving on energy bills, composting, tree planting, saving water, and making your business greener – it is down to earth, practical, easy to read, and to find your way around. It looks official enough to be taken seriously and advocates a really positive can do approach – full marks from me! It’s full of transition ideas and not a scary off putting word in sight.
I also pick up a Cumbria county council leaflet on waste and again am thrilled at how good these folk are at informing people about these issues in a really easy to understand form without a mention of peak oil, or climate change anywhere. No difficult graphs, no facts and figures, just plain English, cheerful, practical, accessible; great!
Jane tells me that when she first came across transition, in Lewes, where she was living, she didn’t understand all the things that were being discussed; she is not a graph person; I can empathize, for nor am I. Jane soon realised that if she didn’t understand, and she was passionately interested, then what hope was there of engaging those who were not interested. When she moved to Ambleside she started as near to the grass roots as she could get. What was needed? What did people want? To grow their own? OK, then that was the starting point; the other things could be introduced little by little as they became relevant. With this approach and a very friendly outgoing nature Jane has succeeded in bringing together sectors of the town that once didn’t like or trust one another, united through a common and achievable goal. I feel inspired by this approach, totally inclusive, totally accessible to everyone, not scary, and not intellectually elitist. I can see now that when this group get to the EDAP stage it will be the work of everyone.
Jane and I walk to nearby Rydal to visit the community garden. It is part of the Rydal Hall Christian Community, part of the Carlisle Diocese. This is encouraging, to see a really active positive and open contribution from an intentional community to the wider community.
Our walk has been stunning; I had forgotten how breathtaking the scenery is here. How could I ever have left, I wonder? The hills are covered in greenery, as they rise in their splendour up from the green fields; Shangri-la style. I want to breathe it in, become part of it, let myself dissolve into it; a glorious natural testament to all that is right in the world, untouched by the petty avarice of the human kind.
On arrival at the estate Jane takes me to see the hydroelectric building, Rydal Hall would have always got its power from the water that flows past in abundance in the river, and now it does again. Even these days of low rivers with the hot dry summer we are having has not deterred this river from its enthusiastic gushing. It is magnificent in its loud and energetic flow.
We walk up to the gardens after lunch in the cafe followed by deliciously moist dairy free cakes and in the little shed there is a sign:
“Pick whatever is in abundance and leave a donation”
We pick salad leaves and then we water the parched plants in the polytunnel. We have fun watering and talking, we talk about men, and where we are on our life plan, where we should settle down and live for the next stage in our life journey, in fact about all the things women find important. We talk about the pleasure of talking this way whilst working together for the benefit of all.
We go back outside and pick strawberries and just as we are about to leave we meet Ian Turnball, head gardener, who offers us even more strawberries from the large bag he is carrying, but we are replete, bags full of all we need; abundance… there is always more than enough when you believe that there is. Restricted belief results in restricted access; you can only get what you believe is possible, and if you only take what you need right now there will always be enough for everyone else.
Jane organises groups to come up to work in the gardens. Although the gardens are set up for everyone to simply come and take part many are simply not used to such an approach and don’t feel they can just come and garden and take produce. Jane and Ian discuss a sign making plan to label what needs doing at different times of the year; a “feed me” “water me” approach.
We walk back to Ambleside, Jane tells me about local Ashley Cooper who is working on producing images of global warming (http://globalwarmingimages.net/about.html ) and I am struck as I have been many times on this walk of how we are all here scattered about the country each with our part to play, putting together the plan of how we transition away from our greed and addiction and into a transition future of gaurdening the earth.
Back in lovely Ambleside we meet someone coming back from the new Knitting group. Jane has forgone this pleasure to be my guide. They meet every fortnight to knit and share, and I begin to see that the transition idea of working groups is very much happening organically all over the land, groups such as these are happening, have been happening for years and years in some cases, and we are simply pulling the threads together so we can see a clearer picture and looking to see how we all fit together in that picture.
I take a last short nostalgic stroll about this town that I once called home and join Chris on his home commute to Kendal. He presents me with a book “How Bad are Bananas” by local Mike Berners Lee to take on with me to Transition Lancaster and we part company, I am sure we will be in touch again.
I go off to meet Val Ferriman, my kindly host, and we trek off into the local Kendal woods, Serpentine Woods, to follow the alphabet trail that I learnt about in the telling of Kendal tales. We fail pretty dismally, due no doubt to the lack of an enthusiastic child or ten in our company, and our interesting conversation which perhaps distracted us rather from spotting the giant centipedes and butterfly sculptures we should be seeing in the trees!
We gain the top of the woods and sit looking out over the valley with Kendal nestling in the bottom and the far off fells of the other side. It is beautiful, and again I wonder what it was that led me away from this glorious place to far off South America. How lonely and lost I must have been to not see what beauty lay before me.
I muse at how fascinated we are all with the story of our adopted towns; so many transitioners have settled in new places and are avidly interested in what made the place; knowing far more than we would had we stayed settled in one place maybe. Val, native of Oxford, 7 year settler of Kendal, tells me the tale of Kendal’s two castles, the original castle hill we have climbed up to and over on our climb to the woods and this peak, and the newer 12th century ruin over the other side. She tells me the origin of the street name where I once lived; Beast Banks; where the cattle were brought down off the fells to market.
My heart almost cannot bear the exquisite beauty of this region of the lakes; How different a place it seems now that I am different. I contrast this with the changing face of the beautiful Charlotte Mason college which enhanced my love of teaching, perched on its hillside overlooking the stunning green tree covered fells of Ambleside and lament for the new teachers who will never again have the opportunity to study here, and muse on the terrible corporate business speak the University of Cumbria’s brochure uses to describe its future in the Carlisle and Lancaster campuses; the once highly reputable teacher training college specialising in “small is beautiful” is to be redefined as the largest teacher training college in the country. Who are they targeting with this business speak; what educators are they hoping to churn out, and with what end?
Charlotte Mason must be turning in her grave. Are there any modern day philanthropists out there who aspire to help guide our learning to create a resilient future? Here is a site worthy of housing transition skills share; a University of Transition.