Transition in the Heart of England
By Steph Bradley 30th June 2014
The final stage of my latest Transition Tales tour took me to exciting new territory; the Cotswolds. Here I was to find plenty of Transition activity and some very enthusiastic and inspirational people.
The region between Oxford in the east and Cheltenham in the west is high land; a plateau with big skies and plenty of farmland. It is also land of idyllic villages rising up out of the ground very much as if they have been fashioned from clay from the potter’s wheel of the earth; warm honey coloured Hornton stone in the region of Hook Norton and Deddington and the cooler buttermilk shaded stone of the Cotswolds themselves reflecting the geology of the area. Any building not fashioned out of the vernacular of the place stands out like a sore thumb looking most out of place and hinting at what has gone wrong the country over with our sense of place. Once we stop using the natural building materials found around and about the site where we are to construct, bringing in materials from other places, the intrinsic connection with the place is lost and we feel less a part of it.
The venue for my first storytelling is Holycombe; an example of what is possible when we allow the dreams of our own heart to lead us rather than falling for the poor tricks of our society to believe the prevalent story (if one is to read anything the media puts out) that it is difficult to transform people and places and that all is doom and gloom.
Holycombe, a veritable gem of traditional architecture with state of the art eco-design, well insulated, well lit and exuding well-being, was built over ten years on the site …of a used car scrap heap.
Talking to its dreamers Andy and Sally Birtwell is a lesson in just how simple transition really is; see a bright new future, dream how it will be, notice opportunities as they arise and then work single-mindedly towards making it come true. For many years the couple had dreamt of a place where people might come to be nourished by connection to nature, by celebration, and by the deeper facets of all of our natures.
When Andy came home to say that the old scrap heap that lay on the edge of Whichford was for sale Sally thought him mad and would have nothing to do with the seemingly hare brained scheme. The site went to auction and nobody wanted it. Like Sally all they could see was the surface ugliness of the site with its ugly huts and mounds of rusting metal.
Andy, however, had seen something else and eventually persuaded Sally to go and take a look. She walked along behind him dragging her heels…until she stood at the site and looked out across the surrounding countryside and felt the natural energy of the place. Within seconds she had said ‘Yes’ and the place was secured.
The small honey stoned mansion house that now exists stands at the gateway to what they discovered was an old Norman fortress. The moat had always been there; filled with the sludge of industry. Now it is filled with reeds and bulrushes and shines in the dappled sunlight from the overhanging trees. Just beside it, in the mound that once must have housed the fortified dwelling, where once before no doubt stood earlier structures serving a more spiritual purpose, are placed 8 large stones that have been erected to mark the points of the compass and the significant times of the year; when to plant, to sow and to reap and when to rest. To stand in this place is to feel the ancient power of our land unblemished by the trappings of a human constructed world gone mad.
The gardens of Holycombe also contain a labyrinth, a willow bed, and a fully productive vegetable garden maintained by volunteers. There is an area for camping, with yurts and a tree house, and in and just outside the sun filled conservatory are long tables where people can eat together.
Inside is the room where yoga, pilates, dance and music events can take place. It is here that we have our Transition Tales story circle.
As well as tales of all the amazing events that have taken place in this most idyllic of venues, including workshops led by Totnes’ own Susie Prater, the gifted community choir leader, come tales from some of the people of this area. First in response to one of my favourite tales of Cambridge’s herd of cattle that have had grazing rights on Midsummer Common on the banks of the river that runs through the centre of the city for hundreds of years, comes the welcome tale that it is the same in Oxford, upon Port Meadow. For me it is crucial that we remember as we transition that it is not only a question of what we can innovate but also of celebrating the things of our past that have been successfully retained.
I hear of community pig projects and community orchards, of a plan to write a modern herbal, and of just how valuable an experience young people find traveling around inspirational places working and learning as they go.
There is the tale of the small group that have just set up in order to ensure our bees are not destroyed by the Veroa parasite. The veroa was brought to the UK by the monk of Buckfast Abbey in Devon that is also well known for doing so much about bee keeping in our country. Sadly, as if often wont to happen when anyone becomes sufficiently egotistical to believe they are an expert, obsessive behaviour is likely to cloud good sense in the end and the good Brother, not satisfied with what he had already achieved, decided to improve the strain of his bees yet more and brought from over the seas a queen bee and a few workers that exhibited qualities he wanted to introduce into our bees.
The queen bee carried veroa, a parasite that has a symbiotic relationship to one particular strain of bees where it is native, but not with others. That was in 1903 and our bees, as with bees of many countries the world over who are not the type with whom veroa has a relationship, have been falling prey ever since and dying.
What the group here have found is that a few hives about the area have now learnt to fight back and bite the veroa. They now plan to breed this bee in the hope that it will teach all bees to be able to fight off the parasite.
All the way from Australia comes the tale of a network of small transition initiatives in the region of Byron Bay who got together to start a community garden some years ago that became so popular that people from all over started to come and now there is an annual festival there that celebrates permaculture and all things green.
For me this next story sums up how Transition moves from people in groups with good ideas to a way of life. When Christine, from Transition Hackney, moved to Whichford she wanted to do something transition in her own life. She and friend Maia took on a disused barn in the grounds of the local pottery Maia’s family has been running since the 70’s.
Together the two young women built a straw bale house using the original wooden structure of the barn and filling in the spaces. The straw was then plastered with clay from the pottery and painted with paints from there too. The long kitchen counter and other inner divides were made from oak and elm that had been discarded to be burnt on a bonfire. The 2 women rescued the wood and dried it out in the giant kiln used for firing the largest pots made. The finished straw bale house is right in every sense, not least because as Christine said, the year the building project took from conception to completion was just so much fun.
Inside the structure is a piano, a wood burner, a book case full of transition books, a charming collection of odd tables and chairs, including a long tressle table fashioned out of the pallets the roofing was brought in on, and a kitchen. This is The Straw Kitchen, a café set up to promote transition ideas. A copy of my “Tales of Our Times” is left out on the tables for people to browse through as they wait for their food, and the meals served, simple light lunches of toast topped with garden fresh delicacies and homemade soups and cakes, are made with produce from their garden. The next day, on visiting the café the girls are proud to display their first potato crop just harvested ready to go in the pan for the weekend’s menu, and as a gluten free alternative to toast with some of the delicious combinations. I eat broad bean and peas with feta cheese on toasted sour dough bread served with a fresh mint and salad leaf salad all drizzled over with lemon zest and juice.
The café has been running just 8 weeks and fills up with customers every day, often the most unlikely to find in such an alternative space, but all clearly enjoying the experience. Juices and cordials are homemade, free bottles of water are filled up each day, and fresh mint stands in a vase by the counter for tea. The hand written chalk board displays the menu and the till is simply a small laptop with a bookkeeping app on it. What is it like now the building is finished? Why, a lot of fun, of course, as the young women learn how to run their own business.
The toilet is next door in its own little structure; a compost loo which is worth many a photograph as it is full of lovely touches; pot plants, an attractive antique wash basin, and inspirational posters.
The visit is not complete until the potters next door have been visited. Here a slimly built man throws huge balls of clay onto his wheel to fashion in minutes gigantic terracotta pots that reach his shoulder in height. How does he do it; years of experience have taught him the skills he needs.
In the large village of Hook Norton I am inspired by the pig club; baby piglets are snouting around for roots and preparing the earth for planting. In the higher up section of the piece of field is a patch they prepared earlier; all planted up with the community’s vegetable garden. There a small garden marquee houses a selection of adults eating together in the sunshine whilst the children play with the piglets.
Outside the local pub the drey pulls up and I admire the pair of shire horses that pull it taking barrels and straw bales around the village. Old Roger, employed by the award winning local brewery to deliver the beer to local pubs says:
“I hate my job!” with a twinkle in his eye beneath his quirky black bowler hat, and proceeds to tell me of all the places he gets to visit each day and the people he gets to chat to as he does his rounds.
In the little village of Stretton-en-Fosse just outside of Shipston on Stour a Transition Midsummer Party is in full flow. There are many small transition groups, I hear, all about this area, and they have begun to create a transition network where they can all support one another. This evening they are celebrating this and sharing a local food feast with home brewed cider and the elderflower cordial Ben and I have made as our midsummer activity; an afternoon of picking the sweet smelling blossoms laden with pollen, before they droop and brown, and an evening of steeping them with lemon juice, sugar and water. The foods prepared are delicious, healthy and seasonal.
From the storytelling circle many tales are heard from this place; the community orchard in Chipping Norton and the annual Autumn fair where people are encouraged to create new recipes from pumpkins, apples and things picked from the hedgerow. These are then tasted by those coming to the fair and the best selected. This year this fair will be combined with an energy fair too.
I hear that the pigs I have seen in Hook Norton are part of a pig club and community garden, and that there is also a pig club – called “Bacon and Eggs” because they keep chickens too – in Long Compton, by their permaculture orchard and that there is a Birds & Bees club in Stretton-on-Fosse where they are learning about keeping chickens and bees. I am thrilled too to learn of the Bodgers’ Ball, an annual gathering of green wood workers and pole lathing. Every year these skilled folk gather in a different part of the country to share and learn from one another and celebrate their craft. Recently they have begun to learn how to involve those who go to watch by handing over tools and getting them to have a go at making things.
From Cheltenham comes the tale of the church spire which eventually won its solar panels, so long as they had black rims, after a battle with planners who walked around and around the town till they had identified a tiny piece of spire that could be seen from the centre of a car park thus negating the permission required to put up solar panels. They worked out that if they were placed higher up on the spire they could not be seen. This success led to more; now a community of local churches have solar panels on their church spires and now the work is to begin to find a way to do the same on 6 more spires on churches in smaller villages.
The enthusiastic couple who tell this tale tell too of how they managed finally to build their own eco house and how they had had to battle at every turn with planners and in the end had had to hide their mobile home inside a barn rather than live in the damp derelict the planners wanted them to be in whilst they built and how they had not been allowed to use local stone in keeping with the area but had had to cover it over with a layer of bricks so that it looked like the house they had taken down.
The company talk of Stroud Co, dream of Nick Weir, which now has 25 local growers and producers of local products listing their produce on an online datebase, everything from as little as a bag of runner beans to large quantities of chickens or ducks, from where locals can order what they want and pay electronically, and then each week the producers take what has been ordered to the local school where the products can be collected.
They talk too of the most beautiful village in all the land; Chipping Campden, where one pioneering soul braved public opinion and put solar panels on his roof. Now things have settled down again and more people have followed suite. Transition Campden have been planting trees too in all the spaces they could find where farmers would allow them to.
The company are delighted to hear that the roots of Transition lie in the pioneers who went off to Wales in the 70s to found the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) and one elegantly dressed gentleman tells of how he has been personally resilient since that time, owning no car, but cycling and growing his own food. He tells too of a large estate on the edge of the village heated by means of a bio mass boiler fed by manure from his animals.
Another man recently moved to Hook Norton tells of how he was one of those early pioneers to work at CAT and his wife of how their son is delighted to be working there now.
It is a wonderful ending to my tour, this plethora of tales from the heart of our land; from Evesham, Stratford, Cheltenham, Chipping Norton, Hook Norton, Chipping Campden, Long Compton, Shipston on Stour, Stretten en Fosse and Mickleton.
I pass North Aston where the local veg box scheme began and where there is a small dairy herd just a dozen cows, just enough to supply milk to the locals and feel heartened that in every place we are already in transition and each day and with each project more and more people are leaving the old way of life behind and embracing this more resilient way of being and discovering that well-being on all levels lies in this direction.
Transition, fundamentally, is about the heart. When our heart is engaged anything is possible. The trick is to disengage the head until it is capable of following our dreams. There is nothing more complicated required but to see the gold seam gleaming out from every place of darkness and shadow and to cast a light there to reflect it more. For too long have we lived by the story that
“Two loves have built two cities: self love that despises God, the earthy city, the love of God that despises the self, the celestial city”
It is time we understood the relationship between the two. Nothing wonderful and intrinsically right is ever created by us without the joyful visioning that comes from our connection to and awareness of our relationship to the universal energy, nor religious and spiritual fervour without the simple pleasures of earthly living which accomplishes nothing but persecution, but when the two work hand in hand what we call miracles have always been, and still are, possible.
 See George Monbiot’s ”Feral” for wonderful descriptions of how easy it is for re wilding to take place. Nature hardly needs our helping hand, other than to leave it alone, but when we choose to work with it miraculously quick transformation is probable.
 St Augustine De Civititate Dei X1 ch 28 quoted in “Bodies and Souls” by Maxence van der Meersch 1948