Part One: Tales Fuelled by Mr Popple’s Chocolate (Day 34)
On the day I leave the gathering I do a little storytelling to a very tiny group; it is lunchtime and raining. Ben Popple from Transition Stafford is there and tells me the tale of the Spring Fair he attended there. He left with two very positive experiences from having visited the many stalls sharing transition ways. From an older lady he learnt to use recycled containers to grow things in, he has a biscuit tin to plant his seeds in now, and Suzy Miller of Forest Row tells us of her penchant for odd wellies for growing flowers in. We extend our collective list of useful growing dispensers to include these things, and old sinks also.
The other thing Ben had come away with was a free energy consultation on his house, a shared house. They had low energy light bulbs in all rooms but the kitchen where they had spot lights, which they liked because they gave off good strong light for cooking under. From the energy consultation they were given an energy monitor, also free. With this gadget they discovered the terrible truth; the spots are using more electricity than all the other things running off electricity in the whole house put together!
Ben rushes off down to the nearest purveyor of low energy light bulbs to change them over immediately and in his rush buys the wrong ones. He returns them and when he exchanges them the cashier notices there was a mistake in the price and givers him a refund of all his money too! Not only is Ben thrilled that the decision to change over was synchronistically supported by this fluke, but also by the fact that it was a supermarket that made the mistake and supplied him with low energy light bulbs completely free of charge!
Mike tells us the story of how transition Forest Row started up, formed a very close knit bond between core group members, and had to then step back a bit as no one else then felt empowered to join in. This was not before a grand unleashing though and many fine projects had started up. Forest Row have amongst other things a strong heart and soul group as well as many other working groups.
Sue wonders why they can’t have more swopping events, lamenting that she is too busy to contribute much with children at the local eco school, and says she bakes too much bread to eat at any one time and would love to exchange it with others who make a surplus of things; sounds like a new project being born to me!
When I am about to set off Ben offers me a bar of his homemade raw chocolate bars in exchange for the tales I have told. I choose lime and chilli flavour and it keeps me going all the way to Forest Row and lasts throughout my stay. You too can try out Mr Popple’s chocolate, made in his own kitchen, from MRPOPPLESCHOCOLATE.CO.UK
Part Two: The Polars of Forest Row (Days 34-35)
I spend two days resting up in a room of my own, courtesy of my friend Mark Bedford whom I meet for a drink and discover he is off to Totnes on retreat the very next day. He offers me his room in the informal community at Broadstone in Forest Row. I am delighted to accept this bolt hole and escape the festival which would have been at one time right up my street but for now the opportunity of two days alone feels like the real treasure.
I arrive in Forest Row early evening after walking on quiet roads through the forest from Danehill. I have had to avoid the Ashdown Forest trails as it rained all night and they are very muddy. I have learnt that walking through mud, though advocated as great for the skin, is not conducive to healthy happy feet.
My first impressions of Forest Row? Fast roads, expensive restaurants, and Tesco’s! After eating dinner in the town centre, a strangely wild west type of centre; a street strung out between two sections of a fast road to London, I set out along Hartfield road to find my refuge. Almost immediately the air of wealth created by the plethora of international restaurants (you can find Italian, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese as well as traditional English food within the space of a 100 yards) with their well spoken, well heeled clientele, gives way to an air of poverty, of neglect, of hopelessness, & of men smoking outside pubs and boys hanging out on street corners.
As had been so noticeable in Brighton, because I had walked out of the city via the council housing, the polarised extremes of English society hit home hard, but here along the same street! There is indeed diversity work to be done if places such as these are to transition successfully. For the people with plums in their mouths in the restaurants, and those with the grey air of despair sitting cloudlike around their heads, there is much to be done to find a middle way. I flick through the pages of Cosmopolitan, a local lifestyle mag full of adverts for golf courses and expensive goods, and the Sun as I wait for my food, and the harsh reality of twenty first century living in all its different shades, nuances and extremes encroaches on my senses and I feel heavy, dulled, desperate.
I am not having a love affair with this place and I am happy to retreat to Broadstone and stay there. I sleep till mid afternoon, grateful for a comfy bed in a light spacious room in a house full of friendly people.
Forced out on a hunt for food I return to the town early evening. I peruse the selection of shops. I discover one very good reason why people might use a supermarket; they have no choice! I am forced into first the Coop, but leave on the discovery that they sell practically nothing that is not junk food and certainly nothing for vegans, and enter Tescos, who are marginally better in the range they stock, to suit different tastes and pockets. The face of shopping in Forest Row appears to be like that of the big city; local shops forced out by chains. I feel grateful I do not have to live here.
My walk back to Broadstone, an old country house lived in by its owners in one wing and let out to renters in the other wing, takes me first past a row of shops the like of which are often found in the outer suburbs of big towns; financial advisors, pet shop, fish and chips, carpet and flooring shop, peeling paintwork, and then up a newly tarmaced road marked private full of huge houses for the very wealthy. I wonder how it is the people of this town mange to live comfortably in such proximity with such paradox.
Again I return in my mind to the idyll of the Isle of Purbeck where the children came up to me to offer their pets for me to play with in the village square, where the farmer’s son brought the village bacon into the pub for sale…and where the new headmistress thought it fun to bring Tesco’s catalogues into the primary school to show the children, and where the district council want to close the middle school to save money. Transition cannot come quickly enough if we are to be in time to stop the hopelessness and comfortably numb disregard of places like Forest Row from permeating the places that still have their local resilience.
Part Three: Tales from the Village with a Girl who Lived in a House with a Little Red Door (Days 36-37)
Forest Row finally reveals itself to me in all its shining glory and I see a village that I can fall in love with. I feel a sense of shame that I misjudged it so badly, and shock that I was able to miss its charm simply by coming in through the wrong door.
My change of fortune starts out by my meeting Charlene Collison, transition core group, and storyteller in the Swan for tea. We talk of many things but what strikes me is the conversation we have about roads. You see it was the road (the A22 to give it a name) that first enabled my poor judgement of this ancient little village to form. I was rushed along it by the traffic, almost rushed clean through in fact, so that I ended up on the outskirts headed for London almost before I realised it. The one thing sticking in my mind the Esso station and the express Tesco’s right on the High Street.
Charlene explains how this road is divisive in Forest Row; it splits the village in two and dissuades people from stopping to chat as it is such a fast road; it carries Londoners to the seaside at weekends.
I wonder how long it will take everyone to realise that making a choice of place to live must be founded on passion and love for that place, and not through considerations such as earning money, good schools, or because that is where circumstances have left you. It is only when we all do that that we will discover that not only do events conspire to give us a livelihood right there in the place we have always wanted to be, but that we will work with the community to found just the school we want for our children, and our energy put into the local community will help it to thrive rather than both you and your favourite weekend or holiday refuge feeling slightly exploited as the place takes your money in order to have something in exchange for the deluge of folk swamping it out of its sense of self.
I share my experience of shared or living streets and we imagine how it would be if the High Street of Forest Row were to be that kind of road.
My companion asks me how I walked into town and I describe how I had decided against following the national trail in because it seemed to enter the village at a rather random place rather than its old original centre so I had chosen to follow a B road that led straight to the church; this generally has been the way to discover a place’s roots. But Priory Road had brought me, past the church admittedly, but then straight onto the High Street with Tesco’s prominently the first shop to be seen and straight out again! Charlene describes the cottage where she first lived when she came to Forest Row; the oldest cottage in the village, and how to get there, and the old village spring that still gives fresh drinking water.
I go there immediately, down Gilhams Lane, find the lion head’s well with its copper tongue, and follow the stream that feeds it all the way along the lane to where it meets Priory Road. I see how I missed it – from this road it looks like an urban pathway down a few steps, paved, no signage. I retrace my steps and enter Forest Row again, this time coming in past the oldest cottage, past the village water supply, and into town …to see a view of the church, community hall, and old Swan inn, all nestling cosily in a triad around a village green that is no longer there, but can be discerned none the less when gazing at the village from this angle.
I cannot help it; a well of love surges up from within me, I take photos, feel deeply regretful for my misrepresentation. I have seen Forest Row, I have felt the sense of place, its identity, and it is redeemed. I am struck by how often we say “first impressions count” but wonder how much we really appreciate the impact a first sight can have upon us and our response to the places we encounter. I do not think it is only about the cosmetic either; yes I was thrown by Tesco’s prominence, but once I had come in by the right road, I hardly saw it at all; I saw the inn next door, and the old community hall right across from it, and it faded into insignificance. Somehow seeing its roots had enabled me to touch the soul of this village; as we are all wooed by the charisma of a person who is being truly authentically themselves. We underestimate the power of this recognition of a place’s deepest being at our peril.
Charlene tells me about the EDP (Energy Descent Plan) that Forest Row got funded to produce. Initially it started out life as a series of prioritized bullet points until she realise that it needed a story. Once the community engaged in the process of creating a story the vision began to live. I realise as I present her with the pair of black silky knickers that Transition Southampton gifted Transition Forest Row that this EDP story is something I should carry on with me to another place. I ask Charlene what the story would be that she would have me carry onto the next place and she says it would be this story that they created, and the process they all engaged in to create it.
I talk about the story of the knickers, Southampton felt their traditional trading item would have been fish, but as this wasn’t practical they wanted to share a project one of their transition team had started. She had been concerned with the lack of integration of some of the refugee women in the city, and that they were not empowered and didn’t have the means to earn any money. She started off the company “Who Made Your Pants” and taught these women to make beautiful silky lingerie using recycled fabrics. These knickers were then sold, and the company is doing really well so that now can barely keep up with the orders.
As the theme of the wool trade had so struck me in the first part of the journey, so this innovative and creative use of what we find around us is so much the theme of this second stage; from the recycled hand made knickers, to the creative Peak Oil Song, and the Lewes pound; all these initiatives have not been fazed by loss of the old; they simply create anew.
And how… I end up in the house of Pupak and Peter Brinch for a delicious dinner that includes home grown salad, and rhubarb from a fellow transitioner’s garden, and see the work of the multitalented Pupak. She is an artist, focaliser of the living economy and livelihoods group, and founder of the Artisans Cooperative; the project that Charlene told me was the first concrete manifestation of the EDP vision story. Pupak is sad to relate that this cooperative is experiencing relationship challenges right now. From having a fabulously successful October launch where all the local artisans displayed their work, they have moved on to the stormy second phase of group building. I reassure her that others are experiencing this sometimes painful process, and that the alchemy that follows will be worth it.
She gives me a gift of an exquisite pair of her glass mosaic earrings “soul mates” to take on to the next transition place who want to trade. Her partner, Peter, also wants to contribute – his gift to the next place or places – 33 runner bean seeds grown locally and bio dynamically. I first met Peter at the beginning of the year at the 70th birthday party of the celebrated Bio dynamic cook and writer Wendy Cook where he spoke of his knowledge of growing seeds that will continue to produce plants that will produce seeds themselves.
I must relate the story of the rhubarb. When Pupak comes to meet Annette and I in Java and Jive, the local Italian cafe, she tells us of her new decision; to call people and not e mail them. It has had instant results for not only does she get the rhubarb, but she also hears more village news than she would have otherwise with a straight to the point email communication. I tell her about Lou Brown, TTT’s garden share coordinator, and how to my knowledge it is the largest garden share there is yet in a single town. Lou puts its success down to the number of personal phone calls she makes; the difference between having two or three garden share projects and more than 70! I take Pupak’s number so that I will remember when I am back behind my desk in Totes that although I have her email address, this is a real life human being whom I have met, and been hosted by, and who would appreciate a phone call far more than a business like e mail!
I think we would do well to remember, as our elders will tell us, that though the internet revolution has made the spread of transition, and many other wonderful organisations, so viral, it is in end our personal relationships with the people we know that make the difference in the end to the plants we get from the seeds we sow.
Annette Armstrong, core group member and storyteller, friend of Mark Bedford, my absent host, supplies a beautiful tote bag, one of Transition Forest Row’s very first projects, sporting their logo and the name of the village (without the word transition so as not to put anyone off), to put Forest Row’s gifts into. I feel I really am leaving this village bearing riches, in gifts and in friends.
My love affair with this village I had so badly misunderstood continued to grow. Not only, my hosts tell me, did their village campaign prevent a large Tesco’s coming to town, meaning only the tiny Express version got a foothold, but they have their own local bakery, butcher, fishmonger and Seasons, grocer, greengrocer and book seller that has been selling organic produce since the 70’s! I had not seen any of these as they are mostly tucked away down a tiny lane that cuts down between the High Street and Hartfield Road, a lane where Pupak and Peter live in a tiny cottage with an always open red door, immortalised in a tale about Forest Row told by Annette to the local school children.
The village of Forest Row takes on more and more life as its hidden village-ness is revealed and the slightly American style of the thoroughfare where everything is convenient for car drivers fades from view and prominence. I am delighted by the transformation. It gives me hope that all places have their own unique identity, we only have to rediscover them.
One thing I have heard from all of the diverse members of Forest Row, as the tale of the village in the forest with the girl with the red door unfolded piece by piece, was of the disparate groups and communities of people that inhabit the place; the Steiner community, the Storytellers, the very affluent for whom Forest Row is a commuter belt settlement, the locals whose families have been there for generations, and those of alternative thought.
All have said it is a challenge to engage each of those groups and get them to act as one. They had success in keeping the big Tesco from being built; but even so the very affluent, and the other end of the spectrum do not use local shops, but travel outside of the village for their supplies, though for very different reasons. I realise that it these two groups that I met when I arrived in Forest Row this bank holiday weekend. The other groups have their pockets of meeting but they are not so obvious to the outsider coming in without a guide, so that the storytelling community have the Emerson College, so recently saved from closure by a new group of local trustees clearing its debts, set high on a hill overlooking the village, the Anthroposophists centre around the Michael Hall school and other Steiner endeavours around the place, the artisans are busy trying to earn an honest living, and the transitioners live amongst and with all of these, and do their living in these worlds, and in the tiny hidden lanes where the village’s heritage is alive and well.
A success story they have is One Village, a gathering that Pupak and Annette tell me about over dinner; this is a joint mid- summer initiative with the local council and whose purpose is to celebrate diversity in the village; diversity of people, diversity of organisations working within the community. It is to be the highlight of the year after their disappointment of not being able to host the transition conference this year due to the threatened closure of Emerson.
I agree to come back in the Autumn to talk of my travels, my work in schools, and to be interviewed for Pupak’s documentary about people in transition; a project I had been too busy to give the time it deserved when she brought the idea to Totnes more than a year ago. I am learning much on this journey, about the value of spending time to really hear people; something our elders could have told us – had we been patient and stopped to listen!