LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Living in a Yurt - Martin Johnson with Alhena
Date of photography: 21st April 2017
Martin is raising his daughter, Alhena, within the Grow Heathrow Intentional Community, opting out of many child-rearing conventions while inculcating in her growing consciousness the notion that there really are alternatives to materialism and the rat-race. People who live in big conurbations have largely forgotten how to live close to nature; indeed, they often don’t see themselves as part of nature at all, and the consequences of that alienation can be very serious. Lots of folk are obliged to live in those infamous little boxes, made of ‘ticky-tacky’ where, for their entertainment, they watch flickering, room-sized screens that parade before them an endless stream of nature programmes - superb though these may be, they display wonders of nature that most viewers will never see for themselves, or feel, or touch, or smell. No longer do many people see themselves as part and parcel of Mother Earth, sharing in the magic of creation. At least Martin is giving Alhena a childhood experience that is radically different, where she gets to appreciate nature at first hand, to see it all around her and her Dad.
I met Martin Johnson during my visit to Grow Heathrow, a self-styled, ‘Intentional Community’, in the middle of the village of Sipson, a historic community that will be substantially demolished if approval is granted this year (2017) for the construction of Heathrow Airport’s Third Runway. Martin is a tall man with what strikes me as a deliberately ‘alternative’ appearance; though he has a friendly smile, he doesn’t look like someone you’d mess with. He introduced me to his four year-old daughter, Alhena, who is clearly a happy child who wanders around amongst the other members of the community, chatting confidently and smiling - evidently, she sees herself as a member of this extended family. They both live on the site in what they describe as a ‘yurt’, tucked in amongst the trees, in tranquility that is altogether surprising, given that the Heathrow Terminal buildings are not far away. Martin kindly agreed to be photographed in front of his home and I followed him; Alhena ran ahead of us, leading the way, and occasionally playing hide and seek behind the bramble bushes. She seemed completely unfazed by my presence, and I was a total stranger to her - the Grow Heathrow community welcomes visitors and Alhena is clearly accustomed to seeing lots of unfamiliar faces.
Martin’s yurt is broadly based on the principle of the famous Mongolian original, a tent used by many of the nomads who roam the steppes of Central Asia, but instead of being covered with animal skins, the skeletal structure of Martin’s version is covered with plastic sheeting and thick insulation. It is tucked under what remains of an old greenhouse, once part of the large nursery that grew vegetables and fruit here many years before. The trees that have now grown through the old glasshouse structure, and the climbers that have embraced it, have created what is almost the effect of a pergola, giving an enclosed, cozy feel to the place. I photographed father and daughter in front of their unconventional home and the closeness of the bond between them was plain to see. At one point, Alhena was keen for me to photograph her standing, balanced on her father’s shoulders, with him having his hands outstretched, a pose she quickly and naturally adopted - she is certainly a little performer.
Before I could interview Martin, Alhena needed to get ready for her nursery class; this was conveniently situated just outside the perimeter of the community. So Martin went off to the nearby shower building to light up the wood burner that here they call a ‘rocket stove’ and, within just a few minutes, Alhena was able to have a warm shower and get herself ready for her class. The Grow Heathrow community of fifty or so people is largely ‘off-grid’ and as self-sufficient as possible, given their suburban location and the constraints of the site: they generate their own electricity, grow most of their vegetables themselves and aim to live a carbon-neutral existence. Of course, they are also here in protest; together with the remaining local residents of Sipson, they oppose the further expansion of Heathrow on purely environmental grounds. (To learn more about this extraordinary settlement and what its members stand for, do please take time to read the webpage dedicated to the
Grow Heathrow community which is also part of this project. )
With Alhena now safely at her nursery school for the remainder of the afternoon, Martin kindly agreed to tell me something about the personal journey that had brought him to Grow Heathrow. “I am a Cheshire boy, born in Chester, and my father worked on the food markets. While my mother was essentially an old-fashioned, stay-at-home mum, she would also lend a hand in the market when she was needed - it’s traditional in these kinds of businesses for the family to pitch it and help. Both of my parents had been married before and they’d both brought existing children into their new family so, after they’d had the three of us so, we were a family of nine children. I tell you, there was never a dull moment! When I was six years old, we moved to Ashford in Kent and that's where I spent most of my childhood, until I was in my 20s anyway. Sadly, when I was 16, I got into a fight with my dad and got myself thrown out of the family home as a result. I was an angry teenager and without the anchor of home, I just drifted. Sometimes, during this period, I did not have work, and occasionally I was homeless too.”
“Around the year 2000, I moved to London and spent about six months living rough on the streets - not an easy time. Then I joined a large squat in a disused maternity hospital on the South Bank, not far from the London Eye. I sold the Big Issue occasionally, I claimed benefits when I could, and sometimes I also worked in a shop in Camden.”
“At one stage, I’m not quite sure why, I decided to become a bit more conventional: I rented a two-bedroom flat in south London and I even got married. We were both working hard, struggling to save all we could to put a deposit on a house of our own, but after about three years, it all started to feel to me a bit like living in a pressure cooker; so, before it exploded, we decided to call it a day - as we had no children, we agreed that we’d simply go our own separate ways. Clearly, I had discovered that I just wasn’t the sort of person who strives hard to build a conventional, successful life; I wasn’t in there with the majority. I had felt more comfortable living in alternative communities and now, even at 39, I still feel the same.”
“Then I met someone else, a partner with whom I found I had a great deal in common. We agreed to have a child and, about a year and a half ago, we decided to move here and join the Grow Heathrow community. I don’t consider myself a political animal in the usual sense of the phrase as, in my view, all the traditional options are narrow-minded, only offering a way to maintain the status quo. But I fully endorse the environmental aspects of the community here, and this style of living suits me down to the ground. During the period after Alhena was born, I was working flat our to provide for the family but then, when my partner said that she wanted to go back to work herself, differences began to surface between us. In the end, we decided to part company and she moved out. Of course, I then had to stop working full-time and, overnight, I became a single father. Alhena’s mother lives in a flat-share nearby, so Alhena is pretty much able to see her as often as she likes, whenever it’s manageable, but in practice, I’m now both father and mother to her, in our cosy yurt.” Indeed, at the time I interviewed him, Martin was busy constructing a large platform upon which he would soon be erecting a brand new yurt. This time, it would be located in a beautiful meadow and, constructed from all natural and reclaimed materials, it would offer them warmth and comfort. The new yurt would even have a partition wall, allowing them both to have some personal space.
I asked Martin if he believed that this was the right way to raise a child and, without any hesitation at all and with a little firmness in his voice, he replied: “I don’t think you can say that there’s only one right way to raise a child. Every parent will offer you a different opinion as to how best to bring up children but what I say is, ‘Take it all on board, select the ideas you think will work best, and have faith in your own decision. Believe me, I’d hate to be hemmed in by four brick walls, so if Alhena had to be brought up in a conventional home, I certainly wouldn’t be happy and surely that would have a negative effect on her. Occasionally, people tell me, a bit primly, that they think a little girl needs a female role model. If they only took a moment to observe the community we live in, and we are a close community, they’d see that there are lots of women here, offering all kinds of different role models, so how could this be an issue?”
Father and daughter live modestly, with few possessions - if you live in a small space, especially one that’s temporary, you have to learn how to live with less. In any case, our society shows us plenty of examples where the endless accumulation of stuff patently doesn’t lead to happiness or fulfilment. People who live in big conurbations have largely forgotten how to live close to nature; often, they don’t see themselves as being a part of nature at all, and the consequences of that can be serious. Lots of folk are obliged to live in little boxes, and for entertainment, they watch flickering, room-sized screens that in the corner, that parade before them an endless stream of nature programmes; superb though these may be, they displat the wonders of nature that most viewers will never see for themselves, or feel, touch, or smell. Too many people simply don’t see themselves any longer as part of magical Mother Earth. At least Martin is giving Alhena a radically different childhood experience, appreciating nature at first hand, all around her and her dad.
Perhaps all is not lost. Communal living is not for everyone but the trend for living an outdoor life, even if only for holidays and excursions, is increasingly popular, with little cottages in the woods becoming the dream destination for many townsfolk. The idea of escaping at the weekends, or for vacations, to a log cabin in the wild woods is well established in many parts of North America, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Some reckon this is pure escapism but, however you choose to see it, it is a way of escaping from the concrete jungle, away from the shopping malls, away from rampant consumerism and the never-ending rat-race; it offers some time to re-charge the batteries, refresh the spirit, reconnect a little with nature, and with one another, and reclaim some time for oneself. Through their example, Grow Heathrow are demonstrating for us what is possible and what human ingenuity and good faith can achieve when most of it isn’t exhausted by activities and pursuits that actually drive us further from our natural roots, and from one another too. Let us hope that some of these positive trends are allowed to grow; perhaps one day they may even become the new norm.
I asked Martin how he would see himself in 5 or perhaps 10 years’ time; smiling broadly, he says: “On board a 54-foot catamaran, I hope, somewhere on the Pacific Ocean. I have always dreamt of building my own boat and 10 years is just about the right time to practise building and sailing a few of them and then, when I’ve got the knack, to go sailing off into the sunset.” Watching Martin constructing his new yurt - a new home for himself and for his little daughter, Alhena - I can quite imagine that building such a boat is not beyond his skills.
I asked Martin if he was chasing a dream: “Perhaps I am; and yes, I consider myself lucky to be able to do it now. I am fairly self-confident and I know I will always find the way forward.” I didn’t ask who he’d be taking on board with him but I feel sure that he won’t be alone. Some might think him a grumpy old so-and-so - it’s part of his adopted persona - but he loves people, he is clearly a great person to have as a member of this remarkable community, and no doubt a marvellous dad.
Text Edited: 17th May 2017
Page modified: 25th March 2019