Upon arriving at the ferry port in Hollyhead, Wales, I boarded a train with my destination to be Chesterfield, England. The train snaked its way through Wales, where all the signs were once again in two languages, English and Welsh (another form of Gaelic). At first we followed the coast, where many off-shore wind turbines were situated. Why do we have such difficulty siting them in Vermont? Believe me, the tourists still come (one of the arguments against them), and clean electricity is generated. It’s a win-win situation.
During my time in England I’ve been hosted by Quakers. On my first Sunday I attended the Chesterfield Meeting. That was a treat, since I hadn’t been to Meeting for more than a month. Each home I stayed in was modest, with small refrigerators, no dryers, and incredible gardens. The generosity of these Friends is very much appreciated. John and Alison Newton of Chesterfield (who don’t own a car), Marian Liebmann and Mike Coldman of Bristol, and Sue and Bill Northrup of Epsom, I thank you all for feeding me, taking care of me, humoring me, and putting up with me.
Photos: (left) John and Alison Newton, my hosts in Chesterfield; (right) Solar electric and hot water at John and Alison’s home in Chesterfield
While in Chesterfield I developed an infection that needed care. Alison walked with me to a Sunday clinic. I was seen, diagnosed, given a prescription that I took to a pharmacy, and got the antibiotic. And guess what? None of it cost me a penny. No one asked about insurance. They knew I was a visitor and there was still no request for fees or payments. Wow! That’s the kind of insurance I want and I’m willing to pay for it with my taxes.
Transition in Chesterfield
Chesterfield has a population of about 100,000 and was first chartered in 1204. Transition Chesterfield started about 3 or 4 years ago, with film showings and talks and offering of chances to get involved. There are now about 400 people on the e-mail list. The core group officially has 5 people, but 8 to 10 people come regularly to the monthly meetings. Some activities to date include the following workshops: skill sharing, jam, bread, beer, and wine making, chicken keeping, knitting, darning, wild food harvesting, vegetarian Indian cooking, and making bio-fuels.
One project I was particularly enchanted by was the work of the “abundance group.” At harvest time the abundance group approaches home dwellers where there are fruit trees growing in their yards (already carefully scoped out during the year). The people are asked whether they would like the group to harvest the fruit, give the householder what they want, and give the rest to people in need. What an inspiring way of sharing the bounty!
In January every year the Chesterfield council lets Transition Chesterfield have an empty shop for a day. Many varieties of organic seed potatoes are purchased from Scotland and sold at a low price. People can pre-order and get an additional discount. This January they sold out by late morning, including the new products of garlic and onion sets. This turns out to be a good fund-raiser for the initiative and a way of promoting home-grown veggies.
In addition, Transition Chesterfield holds Harvest Swaps (wines, jams, cakes, etc.), and Clothing Swaps (called a SWISH) where books, DVDs, and CDs are included. They received a grant from Climate Friendly Communities for bicycle training for adults, bicycle maintenance training, and a workshop on how to build a cargo bike. The initiative has close links with the Chesterfield time bank and Chesterfield allotments (community gardens). Transition Chesterfield has a demonstration garden plot allotment, emphasizing sustainable, organic gardening.
I spoke with Steph Futcher and Peter Darling of Transition Chesterfield (photo right). Being interested in the ecological movement for a long time, living in communities and being self-sufficient, Steph is really drawn to the Transition movement because there are really nice people involved. Although she had lived in Chesterfield a long time, she didn’t really know many people there until being part of the initiative, which has introduced her to many more of her fellow city dwellers.They have a “green drinks” social event at a pub each month, where they get to know each other informally.
The results of a values exercise that Steph steered in the community resulted in the following values being recorded as core to Chesterfield residents (not in order of importance)--community, science, future generations, cooperation, open and honest communication, and openness to change (flexibility). She felt they had many values in common and it encouraged her outlook for Chesterfield’s future. Steph’s vision is about moving along step by step, not knowing where it’s going, but hoping that it snowballs. She wants to see more local agriculture being practiced and supported and hopes that people will be willing to readily reduce their energy consumption. She does think there’s a global vision emerging, though she’s not sure it will be called Transition. She noted that the Transition idea came along at a great time and boosted the change along. It might look completely different in the future.
Peter is interested in Transition because he found a group of people who are interested in doing the kinds of work he’s been doing on his own, like saving energy, economizing resources, eliminating waste as much as possible, and living “a sort of green way of life.” He likes working with these like-minded people. Peter sees ways he’d like things to change, like more green energy, less waste of energy, and much less use of internal combustion engines, but he tends not to think in terms of the far future. He wants to work on the immediate, local problems. He likes being reminded that there are others in the world sharing the same goals and facing the same challenges. But he still sees the work as individual communities instead of a world movement.
I was offered a ride on Sunday after worship (it was pouring rain outside) to a meeting destination by Valerie Farrow, who is the Spire Infant School gardener. She needed to stop by her project for a moment on the way, which brought me to a magical place. She’s been working on the school grounds for seven years. The school has received several grants and awards, which are well deserved in my mind.The children form gardening clubs and also work in the gardens. There’s a forest garden, a bog garden, a “secret garden,” vegetable gardens, a memorial garden, a forest walk, and much more. It’s really incredible, and the only way to share the great work she’s doing is to include a batch of photos with this blog post, which I’ve done. Valerie is an artist whose designs are whimsical and practical. I’m sure the children love to be out in these gardens.
Photos: (left) Valerie Farrow in her school garden; (right) The vegetable garden at the school
I next took the train to Bristol. Remember how Paul of Transition Tramore suggested that we meet in a pub for a pint? Well, Angela of Transition Bristol suggested we volunteer on a Transition-supported CSA for a day! Quite a contrast, I’d say, but it did add to the variety of experiences I’ve had. Angela Raffle, Paul Baker, and I headed out one morning to the The Community Farm, a 22-acre CSA. According to their website (www.thecommunityfarm.co.uk):
A Community Farm is a not for profit project which links local people with the farm where their food is produced. Food is produced in an environment, which reconnects people with how and where their food is grown and invites you to become part of that process and help build a sustainable future. It is a farm which encourages participation in all aspects of growing - a place to work, to learn and to have fun. The Community Farm was started by Luke Hasell, Phil Haughton and Jim Twine, who all live in the Chew Valley. Luke and Jim started The Story Group a few years ago and supply organic beef and lamb to the local community. Phil runs The Better Food Company, which is an organic supermarket in Bristol, and he has been growing vegetables locally for the last 7 years. All three have a lifetime’s commitment to the principles behind organic farming. They have a shared vision to work with people from Bristol and the Chew Valley and hope to play a small part in reconnecting the local community with agriculture. (Photo right: Our work for the day at The Community Farm, Bristol)
TCF got started because locals contributed money to get it going, and it now serves 400 “veg box” customers within a 15-mile radius. Andy Dibben, farm manager and head grower, greeted us and gave us a quick overview of the farm. Luke Hasell (see above) took over the 50 acres from his father and converted it to organic. TCF now leases the 22 acres, with hopes to expand that in the future. There are 5 paid farm workers and all the rest of the work is done by volunteers, many of whom commit to one day a week. This year is the third year TCF has farmed there. Our job for the day was to weed between the plants after a cultivator had finished the between-the-rows weeding. Having only a small backpack for 2-1/2 months of travel, I did not bring along gardening clothes, but Angela found some boots for me to use. After the morning’s work, I realized the boots were hurting my foot and already-injured knee, so I didn’t do much weeding after lunch. I concentrated on asking questions and getting my interviews. It was a beautiful, warm day and the farm offered many grand views of the surrounding countryside.
I did get a chance to talk at length with Charlie Haughton, son of Phil, who one of the founders. He’s 20 years old and just finished his first year of university (which he called “uni”), where he is focusing on environmental studies. He is one of the paid workers for the summer. Charlie says this is the best job he’s had, especially on a beautiful day, but even when it’s raining. He had just finished exams and had spent a month mostly sitting inside, so he was liking to be outside and feel the effects of hard, physical exercise. The last year or so he’s been getting into cooking and loves growing vegetables. He likes understanding the work of growing organic. He thinks Bristol has a great opportunity to focus on local foods, local entertainment, and more, since there’s already so much good work going on. He’s a bit pessimistic about the world changing, since he’s encountered climate deniers and the like who hold back progress. On the other hand he has read about many good projects in distant places and hopes it’s a sign of better times coming. I think with young people like Charlie working for change we have a real chance for a healthy future.
Transition Bristol, started about 4 years ago, has faced the challenge of how to be a Transition initiative in a big city of more than 430,000 people. Their answer was that each parish would create its own, independent Transition initiative, and there are now ten functioning initiatives. Although Transition Bristol might be considered a hub group, they do not have any oversight of the surrounding initiatives. They instead publish a monthly e-newsletter for an e-list of about 500 people, maintain a website where all activities can be posted, and host open “sofa sessions” monthly, which often draw new people. At the beginning of next year, after much research and work, they’ll be launching a local currency for Bristol. They also host the annual “Bristol Food Trail,” when producers are open for visits and visitors are provided a map to find them.
Transition Bristol has a big advantage over other initiatives since the city council commissioned a Peak Oil Study. Wouldn’t that be a boost to our work? According to the website (www.transitionbristol.org):
The Bristol Partnership and Bristol City Council have welcomed the report of the Peak Oil Study, presented at the Partnership Board meeting on Thursday 15th October, 2009. The study was commissioned by the Bristol Partnership and the city council to consider the implications for Bristol once global oil production has peaked and production is in decline. The comprehensive 108-page report spells out the potential impact of “peak oil” on every aspect of Bristol life – transport, food, healthcare, public services, the economy, power and utilities.
Bristol is the first city in the country to take action in this way by commissioning the study, which is intended to be a starting point to help the city to prepare for the future oil crunch and the impact it could have. The city already has a reputation as being a leading environmental player and last year received many awards and accolades, including being short-listed for a European Green Capital award, being crowned the UK’s most sustainable city in a Forum for the Future assessment, and being named the country’s first Cycling City.
Angela Raffle (photo to right) is part of “Sustainable Redland” (Redland is a parish of Bristol with 4,000 households), which has also adopted the Transition handle to help build the Transition network. Angela also serves on Transition Bristol’s core team and is working to reduce her own ecological footprint. One way she does that is to bicycle everywhere around town, including the 12 miles out to TCF. Angela likes that the Transition movement is getting on with ways to live with less fossil fuels and she likes the fact that it’s positive, not a protest or just against something. She believes that “if more people are more knowledgable and accepting of the fact that more of the same is not an option, and they therefore turn their creativity and ingenuity to how do we all live fairly and putting the really important things first--water, food, taking better care of the environment, living in a way that’s fair to everybody--a vision will emerge.” Her vision doesn’t go beyond fairness, truth, justice, and focusing on what really matters in life--the things we can’t do without. She doesn’t believe that a world vision is emerging or that some global governance will guide the way. She instead believes that each locality needs to prepare itself for what may come.
Paul Baker (photo to left), also part of the Transition Bristol core team, is part of this work because he’s interested in how we create a sustainable future and Transition seems to offer some hope to how that can be done. He does hear the good talk that’s being done, but doesn’t feel that people are really addressing what he thinks needs to be a major focus--reducing our consumption. He doesn’t know people who are truly living ecologically sustainable lives. When I asked whether he thought he was a pessimist, Paul said, “no, I’m a realist.”
I’m leaving England now but will return for the U.K. Transition Conference in early July. Two days after my visit in Bristol, Louis and I were reunited in London. He has come for two weeks while I travel to Belgium, Netherlands, and Sweden. It’s really great to be sharing experiences with him. What a difference it is to travel with someone you care about instead of alone!
Ruah Swennerfelt is a member of Transition Charlotte, Vermont. She and her husband and live in an off-grid house, making their electricity from solar energy and growing much of their own food. Ruah has embarked on a search for answers to the question of how our civilization will survive the current “perfect storm” of peak oil, climate disruption, and economic contraction. "Like a quilt, each piece (each initiative) is unique and beautiful on its own, but the finished quilt is something greater than the parts. I hope that my research will reflect this whole as a blueprint for our necessary transition," writes Ruah. Her search will take her to Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Europe, and North America. See her recent blog entries >>