I leave Oundle and set out across the smallest county in England; Rutland, nestling cosily between Huntingdonshire and Leicestershire. What a delight it is; a jewel set in the midst of our country; wonderful English countryside the way it is meant to be, traditional mixed farming, it has never changed its ways to meet shortsighted government 5 year plans, given in to subsidies, nor been taken in by the tantilizing false promises of the toxic agro chemical industry. It kept its received wisdom, believed, trusted, and learnt from its elders, and carried on just the way it always has.
What a relief it is to find that not everyone has a “poor farmer” complex, who can only now survive through subsidies; some have retained their common sense and taken no notice of money making schemes, and understood that farming is about producing food, not about producing money.
The quiet roads are an absolute delight to walk along; I can see transition future right here, right now, it never went away for some. In Rutland there are few cars on the road, and those that do drive past, every 10 minutes or so, you rarely see go above 40 miles an hour, why would they, they are not stressed, they are not trying to make more money than they need, content with life just the way it is. If a driver comes across a pedestrian they slow right now immediately and give you as really wide berth; people here still value human life above their time.
I am joyful; when oil prices go up will our roads return to this; I hope so.
Many people in Rutland seem to be happy with traditional things. I stop off The Old Pheasant inn in Glaston. I am spellbound with the villages I am walking through; gems in a gorgeous landscape of trees and people sized farms. After the vast tracts of monoculture that spread out from north of London all the way up to Huntingdonshire this is a breath of fresh air, of overwhelming relief; we haven’t all sold out to the American dream, some still value a different way of being.
Even the steep “Rutland Alps”, one and a half miles of one long steep down hill and then back up the other side to get to Glaston from neighbouring Seaton doesn’t faze me…why not? There are no cars on this road at all; there is a construction site in the bottom; it looks as if they are either restoring the old railway line to use or transforming it into footpaths; either way it is a good thing, and lorries are moving slowly up and down the road, they do not frighten me, these folk will not run me off the road in their desperation to make their life be over more quickly (I can’t think of any other reason for going fast).
To return to the Old Pheasant though; the young barman tells me this is the best place in the world to be, he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Near his grandfather’s farm, he tells me proudly, there is still a working mill, and it is normal to see hundreds of rabbits on the road at night and they are not frightened by anything. I have already been surprised to have seen a baby rabbit in the hedgerow today that didn’t run away from me.
The barman says this is the heart of rural England and the equally young manager, who has only been here for a few weeks, says he loves it too, that it is special. What a difference; I can feel my whole body relax from the tensions of walking through monoculture farming that doesn’t feel like being in the countryside at all; there is no vitality and I am shocked that we have come to believe that food grown in this way can possibly nourish us in any way.
There is another side to Rutland of course; nothing in life is two dimensional. There is an uncomfortable edge…some young people are clearly unhappy and angry – maybe because life as settled as this offers no scope for them to make their mark, and too much stability leads to stagnation.
Nick Goodman, on the steering group of an emerging Transition Rutland meets me at the library in the centre of Oakham, capital of Rutland, and we walk to his home. We pass a group of several teenagers, boys and girls, trying unsuccessfully to throw a full plastic bottle of fanta onto a shop’s guttering for sport; is seems a sad reflection on what we are leaving our young townspeople with; a sense of purposelessness so profound that this is all they find to amuse themselves with.
I learn that Rutland has a population of just 38,000. The steering group believe that they cannot transition Oakham without the rest of the county. It is the market town and the surrounding farms rely on it, and it on them.
In the evening we meet 2 others from the steering group at the Grain House, a local pub that brews its own beer in the cellar. This is a great thing to see but the acoustics in the place are totally unsuitable for conversation, obviously more suited to being a grain store! The noise of people talking really loudly almost deafens me and I feel intensely uncomfortable. In addition to this I cannot hear what James, originator of the group, Nick, and their friend from nearby Stamford are saying.
We retire to a hotel lounge where we can order food as well. The group here remind me of the bright young things energy I felt with the Brighton group so it doesn’t altogether surprise me that they are having difficulties with the other half of their steering group who are older and have been in Friends of the Earth for years and want to start off small with little projects very locally. It is fascinating to me to see as I walk how groups who are very strongly bent in a particular direction meet groups of equally strong leaning in the other direction. Balance can only be achieved when we are able to see a middle way that is of benefit to all. It is quite remarkable to watch how we are provided with the opportunity to learn this from one another time and time again.
There is lots of eager enthusiasm to start Transition Rutland but no clear first small steps yet emerging. This doesn’t altogether surprise me. What the group have described to me about their challenge with their other members feels very much like the typical dynamic when the organic meets benign officialdom that doesn’t quite understand that structures cannot come before the organic has grown and developed, and that even then the structures must be infinitely fluid and flexible. Just from listening to these keen young men talk feels disempowering to those around them. There is a clear sense of “us and them” and what can be done to support “them”.
It feels very sad to me; frustration is obvious under the surface of optimism. I hazard a guess that the enthusiasm is coming from a stance of having understood the issues that face us in an academic way perhaps without having had the opportunity to really feel the impact deeply and been able to work through those feelings and come out the other side.
I sense beneath the surface of our conversations a strong sense of urgency and anger, especially from James, who is concerned about litter in the town, and from Nick a longing to control the situation we find ourselves in to render it safe for everyone. From their Stamford friend comes a scathing dismissal of the conversations in Transition Stamford about starting allotments. Why, he wonders, are they not doing something big and meaningful like Totnes is with its “Can Totnes Feed Itself” project. My feeling is that people plan great things using their heads which are then too large to be manageable when they have not fully connected with their feelings about the situation, often because the challenge feels too big and then a sense of urgency develops that overrides common sense and taking the small steps that lead to the bigger projects.
I am left quite exhausted after spending time with them, and with the realisation that there is a deeper of level of understanding about what transition really is that can take time to develop. That transition is so successful because it engages people, empowers them to make small meaningful steps, like starting allotments, and that large projects grow in time from those, that large scale projects cannot hope to be truly successful if they do not grow organically from people sized endeavours.
I am also aware of how valuable young people like this are who value structures and appreciate the purpose behind official bodies and are able to work well with them. This is key to the ultimate successful transition – the meeting of grass roots with our current structures and a blending of the two to take us forward. These people are ambassadors, if first they can embrace the concepts and take them on themselves at a deeper level.
I am encouraged greatly by their capacity to listen and begin to create new ideas; so we move from wanting other people to pick up their litter to the idea of a street litter picking party and BBQ event. One of the dangers inherent in working for a very structured organisation is the clear focus on setting up structures and in the doing so forgetting that people only really get engaged when they are passionate about what they are doing, and have fun and work together with others. Once everyone is on board and enjoying themselves there will be a coherent group to start thinking about structures that will work for everyone. Structures created by a few will only ever serve a few no matter how altrusitic their purpose might have been.
We talk about transition training and I suggest that maybe one of them and one of their Friends of the Earth members goes along and do it together as a way of forming a stronger relationship. Nick suggests that there might be funding for it through Learning Revolution or Greenversity in Peterborough.
A very exciting thing for Transition Rutland is to be a part of Transition Farms, they have been talking to Clare Milne about this 3 county project to look at how our farms might best serve the coming transition. Meeting a fledgling steering group has been a real learning for me and I only wish, as I wished in Brighton, that I had got to meet the others in the group too to have a more balanced picture of the challenge they face. It seems to me that some of our transition groups meet at close quarters the very paradox at the crux of our times and perhaps our greatest challenge to being successful, the meeting of very diverse groups all of whom are needed in a very meaningful way if only successful communication and deep listening can take place. I urge the Transition Rutland steering group to go along to the Transition Conference which takes place in Devon in June (http://www.transitionnetwork.org/conference-2010-uk) and where this is likely to be discussed by many people. Their contribution will be greatly valued.