LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Communal living - Intentional Community
Date of photography: 21st April 2017
Grow Heathrow describes itself as an ‘Intentional Community’, formed originally to oppose the construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport. A splendid example of collective living, it is built on shared beliefs, common values and equal contributions to the operation and maintenance of the group. Grow Heathrow should be seen as part of that global movement of individuals who argue that if so-called advanced societies continue to develop along the same trajectory as hitherto, the planet that sustains us all will be destroyed. Eventually, the world will be so polluted that biodiversity will be damaged beyond repair and the very air we breath will poison us. Though Beijing is often cited as the most polluted city in the world, earlier this year (2017) London’s air quality actually fell below that of the Chinese capital. The members of Grow Heathrow are a band of people who harm no-one and who are unquestionably well-meaning; people who are trying, through their example, to demonstrate that all is not lost, that we can still hit the ‘pause button’, reverse our direction, repair the damage, rediscover the innate social connections we are in danger of losing and, above all, use the vast, collective knowledge we have gained through our long evolution to live in harmony with Mother Nature, not put a knife to her throat, rape her, and rob her of everything she has.
In the long shadow of Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports, lie the two small villages of Sipson and Harmondsworth and, like something from a 1950’s Hammer horror film, that long, menacing shadow could soon mutate into the dread, concrete form of the Third Runway, a monster that will eradicate everything in its path. The ancient village of Sipson has a history stretching back a thousand years; it is mentioned in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book; and it has been home to countless generations of villagers. But that will not stop the Third Runway bulldozers from razing it to the ground, compacting its fertile acres, and grubbing up its beautiful old trees. Our political masters, and their masters in big business, tell us endlessly that we cannot stand in the way of progress and that Heathrow must expand if we are to transform a lethargic old UK into a vibrant new Global Britain. People’s homes will be knocked down, the church will be demolished, even the King William IV, the village’s historic inn, is likely to be razed in a wanton orgy of destruction. Everything must go to make way for the planes, the planes that will be landing here, one every four minutes. Or will they?
As I drive through the village, the streets are empty, the gardens appear unloved, and the facades of the buildings look neglected. I am told that over the last twenty years, 80% of homes in Sipson have been purchased from residents, at inflated prices, by BAA; these were the villagers who simply lost hope, who despaired of the never-ending planning blight, and who no longer had the strength to carry on fighting the Airport’s ruthless plans for expansion. What once were the cherished homes of generations of families now offer shelter to a transient population of short-term renters, who come and go without commitment or care about where they live, other than its convenience for work at the Airport. However, just opposite the last (and only just) surviving local store and Post Office, there is a large mural, in rainbow colours, depicting Mother Earth, whose fields and trees are bringing forth in abundance all kinds of fruit and vegetables; in large, bold lettering, this image carries the legend, Beauty is in the Struggle - Save our Sipson, visual evidence that in the minds of some at least, all is not lost and resistance lives on. While the odds may be overwhelmingly against them, clearly not everyone has been crushed by that lurking monstrosity, the Third Runway.
This is why I am there today, to visit a remarkable community of fifty or so people who live in the very centre of the village, calling their community, Grow Heathrow. The media and some local landowners see them as squatters; some, amongst the more sympathetic, call them ‘Eco-Warriors’; while others dub their collective the ‘Eco-Village’; but I am advised that what they prefer to call themselves is the Intentional Community. The BBC recently described this very community as, Britain’s Best Loved Squatters. They have been on this site for just over seven years.
(For those struggling with what may be an unfamiliar term, I offer this helpful explanation: an ‘Intentional Community’ is a planned, residential community, designed from the outset to embrace a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork. Members of such communities typically share a common social, political, religious or spiritual vision and often adopt an alternative lifestyle.)
To attract someone’s attention, I ‘ring the bell’; this involves banging a steel pipe against a large, empty Calor gas canister, thoughtfully situated for this very purpose next to the richly-decorated, substantial and definitely locked gate. I am duly admitted and warmly welcomed by a cordial young man who goes by the name of Luke Green; he is highly articulate and has the look of someone who does not suffer fools gladly. He holds a mug of tea and kindly invites me to join him. We sit in a pleasant spot, partly covered by the remains of what used to be a greenhouse, where other members of the community are having lunch: two children are playing with computer games; a sleepy, black dog lies on the cushions of an old sofa, yawning; close by, in the background, someone is playing the piano; and another member of the community is sitting next to me, working on his laptop. It is a Friday and though this is a day of rest for the community, it is clearly not a day for idleness. I gather that I am exceptionally privileged to have Luke’s exclusive attention today because the community discourages Friday visitors, seeking to safeguard some time for themselves. Luke is keen to make it clear to me that, just because he has taken it upon himself to be my guide, he is not the leader: “We live in a community that aims to be non-hierarchical, meaning that we don’t have bosses and we refrain from telling other people what to do.”
Luke continues: “I grew up in Wales, born into what was quite an unconventional, you might even say ‘alternative’, family, where my mother had taken the initiative and built a house close to nature. My brother and I are self-taught. As we’ve always lived close to the natural world, we both have a deep understanding that we are an integral part of it, despite the fact that human beings so often behave as if they were sole masters of it. As a teenager, I got involved with organising hippy festivals and, as these were usually held during the summer months, that meant living communally and I learned to love many aspects of this way of life. I became a carpenter and a commercial bee-keeper and, after seven years of bee-keeping in Wales, it was the bees that brought me up to London, so to speak: I came to work briefly for a company that had bee-hives on top of high buildings, ‘high-rise bees’, you might say!” Luke grins.
“As I’d always longed to try to live communally, that was what brought me here about two and half years ago. Though I am an an environmentalist, I didn’t really come here for that; I came simply because I’d rather live my life alongside others. I am neither an anti-aviation campaigner nor a climate change activist: I am primarily interested in the concept of communal living. But living here, under the constant threat of eviction, knowing that people’s homes might be bulldozed at any moment, the homes of people we know and like, this tends to draw all of us into the struggle. This year (2017) will be pivotal; it might well be the year when this entire place, the orchards, the fields, the homes, people’s lives and memories, all of it, will be swept away, to clear the path for the development of the Third Runway. But we fully intend to stand in their way; together with the villagers who still have the steel in them to fight back, to resist, we will argue and protest that there must be a better way, that people’s lives do matter, that nature and life are the only things we have, and once they are erased, the damage will be irreparable.”
Luke then took me on a tour of the community’s grounds, what used to be the largest, ‘under glass’ nursery in the whole area, where all sorts of fruit and vegetables were once grown. Though that was a long time ago, many semi-derelict glasshouses remain standing. Luke showed me the neatly organised plots, with raised beds where various vegetables are starting to unfurl their leaves, where spring flowers are already in full bloom, and where herbs for both medicinal and culinary use are strategically planted all around the area. “We do try to grow most of our own vegetables, and some fruit too, and we encourage the locals to have allotments alongside ours. Of course, we can’t produce everything we need so we also have to rely on collecting unsold, discarded fruit and vegetables from local supermarkets and markets, produce that would otherwise be destined for landfill. And yes, we do raid the paladins too, full as they are of food that is perfectly edible but no longer saleable, as it’s past its ‘sell by’ date. Food by the ton is literally thrown away every day by supermarkets and we try to make use of whatever we can.”
The topic is a live one for in the very week of my visit, a Parliamentary Select Committee delivered a damning report on ‘Food Waste in England’, with devastating findings about this hidden scandal. The report estimates that food worth £10,000,000,000 (£10 billion) is thrown away by households in England every year. The Conservative Committee Chairman, Neil Parish MP, observes: “Socially, it is a scandal that people are going hungry and using food banks when so much produce is being wasted. Environmentally, it is a disaster, because energy and resources are wasted in production, only for food to end up rotting in landfills where it produces methane - a potential climate-changing gas.” The Committee also suggests that the supermarkets should be forced to publish data on how much food they throw away. This is something, one imagines, that the big retailer grocers will try fiercely to resist, endeavouring to delay any legislation through the means of political lobbying, now such a potent force in Westminster. Is it not ironic then, that members of Grow Heathrow have been subject to harassment, and more, when all they seek to do is help themselves to food which would otherwise be thrown away?
Three central areas of Grow Heathrow are under cover and are reserved as communal spaces: these are the places where people come to eat, to socialise, to hold formal meetings and to work. The community is largely ‘off-grid’ for power and generates its own electricity by using photovoltaic cells and wind turbines that they have built themselves. The electricity generated is stored in large batteries, with rows of home-made racks holding shelves full of charging laptops and mobile phones. This might be an eco-village but it is by no means a technology backwater. They do have to depend on piped water supplies, however, as there is insufficient rainfall in the London region to make catchment sufficient for their needs, and they also rely on an internet service from local providers - after all, the internet is now the essential communication tool, allowing the community to keep in touch with events and with other intentional communities in Britain and abroad. This central area also contains workshops, both for arts and crafts and for repairs - locals even bring their bicycles to be mended here - and this is where the remarkable ‘rocket stoves’ are constructed. These ingenious stoves burn wood with optimum efficiency, supplying heat for hot water and for warming interiors.
Some residents are happy to sleep collectively, in a number of dormitory huts - these are converted shipping containers - but most of the community prefer to sleep individually or in family units, making use of a range of accommodation, including wooden huts, benders, yurts, and tents, together with four quite substantial tree-houses. While most residents are young, a few are over 40 and I have also seen some elderly locals here who drop in for company, to share a cup of tea and to help with any tasks in hand. There is a shower block and drying room where water is heated within minutes using the marvellous ‘rocket’ wood-burning stoves. Ingenious high-level composting toilets are scattered around the site, concealed amongst the vegetation, and just like everything else, human waste is recycled. After two years, it is transformed into what they call ‘humanure’ and used as compost. There is even a washing machine, converted to operate without electricity - it is attached to a bicycle so, while you peddle your clothes clean again, you can read read a book, listen to music or just meditate.
My tour includes a visit to a large greenhouse, now fully waterproofed, where meetings and social events are held; visiting musicians come to play here too. For those who require space for meditation, for peace and quiet, or perhaps to say a prayer, a delightful straw-bale house has been constructed through a series of community workshops. This space is made out of non load-bearing straw bales, covered in ‘cob’, a mixture of sand, clay and straw. It is a magical spot, a haven of peace, set amongst the trees at the edge of a flower meadow.
Next on my tour was a hut that serves as a ‘Natural Apothecary’. The sign says: ‘Please feel free to heal yourself with these herbs’ and the place is full of jars of dried medicinal herbs, roots and potions, together with a selection of published herbals to help any doubtful patient decide what and how to use this wide range of natural remedies. I also saw the special enclosure where herbs and plants are dried - of course, most of them are common and grow naturally all around us, but some are deliberately planted and cultivated in special enclosures reserved for medicinal plants.
I asked Luke if any visitors viewed their lifestyle with suspicion, to which he replied unhesitatingly: “We are all too well aware that the very mention of communal living will evoke a negative stereotype in the minds of some people. Sipson was a traditional village community, tied originally to the cultivation of the land and to animal husbandry but that made it essentially conventional and conservative as well, with villagers having little exposure to any alternative ways of living. Generally speaking, I’d say that the locals here have only tended to harbour negative feelings towards Travellers and Roma people, who don’t settle, of course, and who come and go as the mood takes them, but that is the very reason why we welcome visitors; we like to show them who we are and how we live in an established community. For example, quite deliberately, we don’t drink or smoke during the day because those people who come here with a negative image in their heads could walk out saying, ‘Ah yes, exactly what we expected: everyone just sitting around all day, smoking and drinking, while giving lessons to the rest of us about the way we should live.’ We are keen to show honestly who we are and how we live; we are proud of that and we have no need to pretend to be what we’re not.”
Luke continues: “We have a steady stream of visitors through here, not just locals but also from all over the world. They bring ideas too and they take ours back to the open world. We continue to learn from one another. Once they’ve visited, lots of folk return, and bring their children too. Most people these days respect that we aim to live in a carbon-neutral way, that we generate our own power, and work positively with nature. We grow food and we consume it but we also take care to ensure that growth will be renewed next season. We recycle and re-use whatever this throw-away society discards and while we live modestly, without a huge number of possessions, we nonetheless lead rich lives. So many possessions are utterly superfluous, in terms of genuine human need, yet we humans spend so much time, working ever longer hours, largely to accumulate things that bring little real happiness to anyone. Sometimes, you can clearly discern a degree of envy in some visitors’ eyes; it’s almost as if they are making tacit comparisons with their own lives and see us here, leading a happy, fulfilled existence, but without having to be slaves to the mortgage. We don’t scrimp and save, we don’t have to service endless loans, we don’t chase pointless targets or struggle to achieve inane objectives. We take time to live and to enjoy the best things that life and nature have to offer.”
“We are often visited by elderly locals who just drop in for a cup of tea, bring in a cake for us, and chat about this and that with members of the community. And I think one of the best ways we can support the local village community is by ‘being a proper community’ ourselves. Outside of here, so many people seem locked up in their little boxes; they only communicate through other little boxes; and a lot of the time they spend staring into bigger, flickering boxes that offer them a completely unreal vision of the world, a magical world full of stuff that they can never inhabit themselves. Often, there is solitude too, because genuine local communities are now things of the past. Those that do genuinely exist are often exclusive: so many folk don’t quite fit in, or they’re not smart enough, or wealthy enough, or their skin is not quite the right colour. We welcome anyone here. Everyone is free to join our community, but there is only one condition, a condition of paramount importance: they must want to belong, to be part of the community, to participate and to contribute in any way they can. They must be willing to recognise that every person here has their own needs and expectations, and these must be respected by everyone else, be seen as every bit as important as their own.”
“We are a happy community and, despite the constant threat of eviction, I suspect that we have more real security than lots of people outside of these gates. If you rent, you can be evicted within six months; if you own your own home, and you fail to pay your mortgage, for whatever reason, the bank or building society may foreclose and the bailiffs will be round to repossess your house. It is also so good to live alongside people who are motivated by ideas similar to your own, who can often be inspiring and passionate about the causes you care about, and who work selflessly to improve the lives of others whilst striving to resist those things that destroy our environment, pollute our rivers and our soil, poison our bees, and make the very air we breath toxic and destructive to health.”
In the Grow Heathrow community, most issues are discussed collectively; ideas are kicked around, with every person’s voice being heard and their ideas considered. How often would this happen if you worked for a major corporation? The language of corporations is as distorted and mendacious as the language of our politicians. I ask Luke a bit more about the actual mechanisms through which the community operates; he replies: “As I said before, we have no bosses here but inevitably some individuals surface who are more prominent simply because they have specific skills, experience or talent, or because they are able and willing to energise others and to inspire them.”
“We have a steady flow of people who pass through but those who stay are expected to pull their weight, to take part, and to do their best without anyone telling them what they should do. Those who my mother would have called ‘freeloaders’ are pretty quickly exposed for what they are, and they tend to leave soon afterwards. As you might expect, there are always some people who find it difficult to fit in here and in these cases, we try to advise them about other collectives that might suit them better. Very occasionally, individual personalities can clash and their frequent disagreements become destructive to harmony and thus unacceptable; in those instances, we strive to act swiftly and fairly, and we have put in place a process for conflict resolution that has proved effective .”
Grow Heathrow’s cooking and eating arrangements are both collective and individual. At most lunchtimes, and in the evening too, there is a meal on the table to be shared. This is usually vegetarian or vegan but individuals are welcome to add additional ingredients to it, to suit their own taste, or do their own thing altogether.
“Some people have jobs in the outside world while others are fully engaged in the work of the community. We have environmental activists and campaigners amongst us, together with those who use the website, and other means, to ensure that we stay connected to organisations and bodies elsewhere that are seeking to advance the same causes we do. We even have a resident poet! Until recently, she lived for over a year in a small tent - she’s perhaps the only student who ever wrote a PhD under canvas,” Luke says, smiling.
Grow Heathrow should be seen as part of that global movement of individuals who argue that if so-called advanced societies continue to develop along the same trajectory as hitherto, the planet that sustains us all will be destroyed. Eventually, the world will be so polluted that biodiversity will be damaged beyond repair and the very air we breath will poison us. Though Beijing is often cited as the most polluted city in the world, earlier this year (2017) London’s air quality actually fell below that of the Chinese capital.
Unfortunately, human progress has been deliberately, and successfully, conflated with the economic dogma of continuous growth: this asserts that the growth of the economy, the continuous enhancement of GDP, must be encouraged at all costs and that this never-ending growth is the only way to improve the lives of the hungry and destitute. There is no doubt that this philosophy has enriched the few marvellously well, but such riches have been secured at an incalculable price, a price that everyone will have to pay. The only thing that the City traders and the big corporations worry about is what profit was accrued for the last quarter; very few are inclined to look ahead, to see that what we are doing is unsustainable and that even the lives of the mega-rich will come to a grisly end when all the water is poisoned and there is no air fit to breathe.
Leaving Grow Heathrow, I was soon stuck in a traffic jam three miles long - nothing new, of course, for this is what happens every day near the country’s principal airport. For it is almost entirely Heathrow traffic that is to blame, the endless procession of vehicles that drive every hour of the day and night between central London and its favourite point of departure. And this is before the Third Runway is even built, and Sipson village still stands. There are some who would say that I have spent my day in Nirvana, but I didn’t; I spent a day with a bunch of people who harm no-one and who unquestionably mean well; people who are trying, through their example, to demonstrate that all is not lost, that we can still hit the ‘pause button’, reverse our direction, repair the damage, rediscover the innate social connections we are in danger of losing, and, above all, use the vast, collective knowledge we have gained through our long evolution to live in harmony with Mother Nature, not put a knife to her throat, rape her, and rob her of everything she’s got. If we fail to understand the message that Grow Heathrow and its numerous sister communities are striving to convey, then we can only expect that the very nature we so thoughtlessly abuse will one day bring about the annihilation of our species.
Text edited: 2nd May 2017
Page modified: 8th April 2019