Anne walks with me through the centre of Chesterfield and the bustling market place; I feel nostalgia rising, though I would not go back to the eighties when this market town and its surrounding settlements were reeling from the beginning of the end of the coal industry, still this town provided some of the highlights of my life at the time. We pause for me to gaze fondly at the crooked spire and I realise how little I had really taken in of my surroundings at the time when I had lived here.
Chesterfield has had a market since 1165, and I am again reminded of how intrinsic a market place is to the sense of wellbeing of a place, and feel for William Barron in Derby grieving the clone city centre feel of Derby centre. In Chesterfield the clone shops have moved in but they are relegated to their own street, running parallel to, but not imposing upon the traditional shops and market stalls of central Chesterfield. This feels a good way of doing things; to integrate the new, not to allow it to stifle the life from what went before.
Anne leaves me at the start of Chesterfield canal which I shall follow out of the town as I wend my way northwards heading for Sheffield. The canal starts from the other side of the busy road that cuts off a part of the town, linked by two footbridges but nonetheless having an impact. The footbridges direct those on foot or cycle to go the way the planners have dreamt up, not the way they would naturally walk given a choice. I recall my ex-husband who lived for a time in Japan, telling me that when a new outdoor public place was opened over there are no footpaths put in at all for 12 months. In that time the planners simply observe where the people walk and then after a year when clearly visible footpaths have been walked into the landscape they pave them and designate them the official footpaths. Very civilised; I am reminded of the permaculture way of observing the land for a year before planting.
Chesterfield canal is the process of being regenerated. It already has the very pleasant tow paths reinstated and clear information boards at regular intervals explaining the history, and there are plans to replace all the old disused industrial buildings with new housing. I feel hopeful that other places too are planning to rid our landscape of these soulless buildings. It is a shame though that the planners have no thought to include gardens for these new houses, for they will surely need them.
As I walk along the canal, gradually leaving behind industrial wasteland I marvel at the variety of people using the new path; two old men sitting chatting on one of regularly placed benches, a young couple with their young son, couples of all ages some holding hands and others walking with the air of those who have been together some time and feel no need to demonstrate affection, three young boys off on a cycle adventure, little rucksacks on their backs, a very attractive middle aged man, tanned, long wavy hair, and tattoos on his strong shoulders and upper arms, sunning his back as he sat fishing; mobility scooter by his side… He looks up warily as I pass and then down again as he sees I pose no threat and I wonder what thing befell a man such as this in his prime.
He isn’t the only fisherman, a little way along a whole row of them, each in their separate numbered bay, sitting on their stool, equipment at the ready, long black cylindrical devices into which their rods fit, little plastic trays upon tiny tables, full of multicoloured worms and maggots like a sweet shop for fish, all sitting intently gazing into the still muddy looking waters of the canal with the same air of expectancy. They are of all different ages and I wonder if some of them are ex miners and feel glad they have an outdoor pursuit but also cannot help wondering at the array of equipment they apparently need; my father would always have a lovely wicker basket for his kit and to sit on, a long canvas bag for his rod, and a few old tobacco tins for the bait; and flies he would make himself from exquisite silks, as well as the obligatory maggots.
I reluctantly leave the canal which I discover I could have followed all the way to Leeds had I chosen a different itinerary. I can feel a real fascination with our waterways as travel ways developing.
I head off into New Whittington, and realise later that I have missed seeing Revolution House in Old Whittington, where the plan to overthrow James II was hatched. New Whittington has nothing remarkable about it that I see but it does take me nicely along pavemented roads to the back roads and lanes towards Ford, the tiny hamlet in the very north of Derbyshire where I am to meet Transition Sheffield for a walk into their city via their new community farm.
I am pleasantly reminded of the quiet Rutland roads again and relax into my walk arriving at the rendevouz at the Bridge Inn on time. After a pint of fruit juice and water I am ready to continue the journey; I have walked 10 miles and am about to do another 6 but now in company. I meet Jenny Patient, Ruth Ben Tovim (who first invited me to Sheffield on a chance meeting in Ben Brangwyn’s car both getting a lift up the hill out of Totnes and sharing tales of our projects; my walk, her community diversity project in Dewsbury), Jo, Heather and Marc. It feels lovely to have these immediate friends waiting for me to show me the delights of their city and it surrounds.
I have heard many good things about Sheffield as I have been involved with this tale gathering project; great to hear especially because the first thing I heard came from a very disillusioned young storyteller who came on the Transition Tales Training course we ran in March was that Transition Sheffield was no more; disbanded, a failure. I determined then to see what had happened and am delighted to learn that Transition Sheffield hub disbanded; because they had realised that the way to transition a city effectively was to decentralise, to return to the original settlements and re-establish their identity before returning to look at city wide issues. It is wonderful to hear this; it seems like so much common sense to m,e and a relief to know that in Sheffield there is not one but several transition initiatives.
We walk into the city via the 9 acre field that transition Sheffield are to raise funds for to turn into a city farm to grow veg for a local veg box scheme. The farmer from whom the field had been bought by a Quaker investor, along with a three acre field on which he will grow fruit, is sympathetic and eager to see if the group will be able to sustain themselves financially. The group intend to raise the money by people buying in shares; they have 2 years to do this. They are very positive and looking at the whole project in a very pragmatic way.
It is heartening to hear and the field is just beautiful, south facing overlooking far off hills. We stop and honour the transition tradition of having fun by having a picnic together. Rohan, who was at the field already brews us tea, builders for the others and “herbal sand tea” as Jo jokes, for me.
We have walked through Poveys Farm to get here; they are keen to have contact with people and where the public footpath runs through their pig farm, they even have a visitor board where leaflets advertising a barn dance can be collected! This is the first friendly farm I have yet come across on my travels. Heather knows the farmers, as well as a host of others in this region of the Moss Valley, she is collecting oral histories from them and is a mine of information about the places through which we walk. We learn that the pigs here are all kept indoors in big concrete sheds because the soil here is clay and pigs treading on it would turn it hard like bricks which would do the land and them no good at all.
We talk about how it will be when people return to using land for the purpose it best suits , rather than trying to bend it to our will at great cost to the our pockets and to our environment.
Jo talks about an experience she had when she was in Canada and saw a piece of forest being torn down to make a field and for the first time really got that the landscape looks the way it does because of us, what we have done to it, Jenny mentions “The Making of the English Landscape” a fantastic book that I read before setting out, which talks about just that.
I ask how the field will be used and hear that it will follow permaculture principles but that for the time being at least plans are dynamic as they suggest things as a group and discover which things are possible or not and adapt as they go. I ask if they will have a forest garden, especially since this would have been woodland naturally. I learn the next evening that there are already wild flowers present that indicate this and its regeneration process that has begun.
We leave the field and Jo shows me how to tighten the shoulder straps of my rucksack; she used to work in a rucksack shop, I am delighted; it is the comfiest my pack had yet been!
I have many interesting conversations along the way and learn much. Marc tells me about the council’s plans to turn spare ground into allotments, shows me an article in the local press. He also recommends a book he has read “The Great Turning” by David Korten http://www.davidkorten.org/GTbook which talks about story as the thing we live by. He has realised since being made redundant in his fifties from big business that it is actually passion and love for what we do that drives us and is interested in the power of hobby and how those interested in the same hobby will share skills and resources freely amongst themselves. He has little money now but is happy in a way he never was before. His advice; follow your rainbow.
Heather tells me about the Zero Carbon Cabarets that she had helped to organise in Heeley and Meersbrook, her neighbourhood. Here participants share their songs, poems, and other acts in a completely carbon free environment so heating for example is generated by dancing. This project is also a way of addressing diversity in their area so they invited the local Muslim women to come and do henna painting and though at the last minute they could not attend because of a death in the family they have since invited Heather to come on a sponsored walk with them to raise money for school to educate the girls back home in Kashmir. They climbed Ben Nevis and those that made it to the top were thrilled at their achievement and Heather was thrilled to have been included and thinks this is the way to engage, to become involved with one another’s lives.
Jenny gives me the low down on Sheffield’s roots. It is a city of 7 hills and 5 rivers; the Don, the Sheaf (for whom the city is named), the Riverlin the Porter and the Loxley. A rich city indeed with all that water power potential and indeed I learn from Rohan the next day that an Archimedes screw type turbine is being made for one of them. Of course having many rivers can also have its down side and when the floods came two years ago parts of the city was severely affected.
Trade in Sheffield began with the local farmers making their tools from the iron rich ground; for example scythes which they made sharp using the river water. From this skill and resource eventually came the steel works, and the cutlery industry which even latterly involved skilled “little mesters” doing the fine work in their local workshops and the finishing process only taking place in factories.
Jo and I talk about living in community and group dynamics and I talk about how difficult a process it was to choose to come and do this walking project and having to wait two months for the community where I live to come to consensus about whether or not it was OK for me to go away for 6 months and still come back. We talk about the process and the learning that comes from waiting as a group for those slowest to accept change to be ready to accept it, and what the catalysts and early adopters learn in that waiting. For me personally it was about letting go of attachment to the community; to understand that if they could not accept my project then they couldn’t accept me, and at no point did I waver in letting go of my project. In the end consensus was reached and I understood that depth of emotional attachment and the pain of letting go were at the roots of any resistance to my going off. I wonder if there is a lesson there to learn in the process of transition and the challenge of engaging everybody?
Ruth tells me about the various art and engagement projects which the group she founded, Encounters http://www.sharrowencounters.org.uk/index.htm works on. I am excited about visiting one of them in a few days time when I reach Dewsbury. One of the projects she tells me about now is the little patch of ground project which she set up with environmental artist Anne Marie Culhane, and which has been run now in several places and is currently happening in Doncaster. In this project people grow things in very small found containers and as they do so share their stories in response to simple open ended questions, the veg containers then become part of art exhibitions and the personal stories that Encounters collect in their various projects are constantly recycled in different ways and shared .
I also hear that the roots of the famous Abundance, project of Grow Sheffield, a kind of sister organization to Transition that I have heard tell about all the way from Poole in Dorset are with Anne Marie, who I am looking forward to meeting when get to Lostwithiel, where she has now moved, in September. Abundance, which involves sharing produce collected from fruit trees all over the city and redistributing it, continues in Sheffield with Stephen Watts, co-founder, and is being coordinated by Daniel (can anyone supply his surname?). To find out how to get Abundance started in your town, village or city click here http://www.archive.org/details/Abundance-GrowSheffield for the free downloadable information packs.
Grow Sheffield was started by Anne Marie in 2007 and does wonderful things all about urban food including the amazing Allotment Soup which the group tell me about as we walk though the 400 allotment site in Meersbrook. We cross the Meersbrook itself and I am told that I am now officially in the North!
Allotment Soup was a project that involved the various allotment holders having a kind of open allotment day where they performed to the passer bys; there was a human juke box who would sing a song they selected as they went past his allotment, there were folk who had decorated all the trees in theirs, all manner of weird and wonderful experiences to be had as they walked around. It might be an enormous allotment site but it has a cosy intimate secret garden feel to it with each plot having it own hedge and tall wooden gate; all recycled from their former uses as shed doors, wardrobe doors, front doors, all different colours, shapes and sizes, and some plots even had tiny house like sheds up on them and the remains of old boiler houses; were they once used to provide heat rather as greenhouses do?
Heather is slightly unsure about this quite territorial attitude to the allotment plots; she has seen ones elsewhere which are much more communal and has joined with several other women in Transition Heeley Meersbrook to form a communal allotment there with a couple of neighbouring allortment patches to which they extend an open invitation to anyone who would like to join them for a weekly shared gardening morning.
As we get further into the greenest city in England, which certainly lives up to its reputation, people begin to head off to their homes. Jenny takes me to see the Heeley City Farm that has been going some years; the land was cleared, homes demolished to make way for a major road that residents protested about and eventually won – but by this time the land had already been cleared and residents claimed it to set up the farm. It is a fabulous example of urban regeneration, constantly struggling for funds to pay its staff, of whom Jenny is a new member, and is a centre for school and community groups to visit and learn about the animals (they have chickens, ducks and goat),fruit trees and plants. It is still possible to see where the old roads were and the energy centre, which teaches locals about how to reduce their energy usage and costs where Jenny is based is an old pikelets factory (NB pikelet – a type of yummy flat crumpet).
I reach the house of Ruth and Ben where I will be staying and find we have lots more in common than our initial brief encounter and project synopsis exchange had brought to light. We have a common interest in movement therapy and 5 Rhythms dance, and Ruth, Ben and daughters are moving to Totnes in the autumn to be around more like minded people. We talk about engaging people on all levels, past, present and future, and of how it is possible to go as deep with people as the facilitators themselves are prepared to go. We have noticed in our work that those who speak on behalf of others…
“We don’t go deep in Sheffield” a gem from one council worker
Are more often than not speaking about themselves and should not be taken as accurate spokesperson for the group. It is this type of person that often holds up the progress of a group and a more responsive approach would be to explore that person’s fears with them. Encounters work is all about exploring safe ways for people to look at the challenges and joys in everyday people’s lives and I am excited at the possibilities of exploring Encounters work in conjunction with Transition Tales and Heart & Soul work.
I have my second conversation about intentional communities of the day and we discuss how hierarchical structures are built on restrictions that are set through fear of collaboration and how this is true of all community structured in this way.
In response to this, and to sum up this lovely day, I refer to the title of this blog; “people run on pleasure”*, a quote I should gratefully like to acknowledge Jo’s fridge for!