Is the boom in communal living really the good life?

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After 40 years, Dave Hodgson has a sixth sense when it comes to an aspiring communard. “If they take one look at our shared bathrooms and say they need a good scrub, or complain about having to put a jumper on when Old Dragon packs in, they won’t make it,” Hodgson says, referring to his commune’s biomass boiler.

Would-be members used to contact Bergholt Hall, one of Britain’s longest standing farming communes, at the rate of 70 or so a year: 50-something empty nesters looking for companionship; 30-something couples in pursuit of an idyllic upbringing for their children; 20-somethings keen to erect a yurt on the hall’s rolling Suffolk pasture. Since the Covid lockdowns, however, Hodgson admits, it’s been “bonkers”. “We had 70 applications in April and May alone.”

It’s a pattern echoed across the UK, with communes reporting being inundated by new applicants of all ages, driven by the Extinction Rebellion movement and its focus on low-carbon living and, more recently, by the glimpse that lockdown has offered of simpler, less consumption-driven, lifestyles.

There are more than 400 such “intentional” communities across the UK. Many are cohousing set-ups, in which residents live in individual dwellings with a few common areas and domestic functions; others are based upon a lifestyle or worldview (spiritualism, gender non- binarism, veganism) and feature a variety of communal labour arrangements and facilities.

A surprising number are longstanding country communes, such as Bergholt Hall, founded in the heyday of the 1960s and 70s back-to-the-land and self-sufficiency movements. It was an era when an ideological generation of “diggers” (named after the 17th-century English communards) sought to challenge notions of the sanctity of the nuclear family and opt out of “the grab-game of straight society” (as hippy bible Oz magazine put it in a 1968 article on the first London digger commune).

Members of the Heartwood community in Carmarthenshire.

“Sixties and 70s communalism was a backlash against hi-tech postwar societies,” says Professor Luke Martell, who teaches a module on alternative societies at the University of Sussex. “These movements had a grand vision to change society, often along lines of economic communism, and rejected social norms such as monogamy and the concept of traditional childhood. Of course, with the failure of the communist states, these revolutionary ideas lost currency, even as the communities they gave rise to live on.”

Helen Jarvis, a professor of social geography at Newcastle University, sees the renewed interest in communalism as one expression of a “neotribalism”. “There’s a groundswell of common yearning for connectedness and for a sort of radical alternative,” she explains. “This is about housing, but it’s also about how people are choosing to eat and to form human connections. There’s a recognition that the lifestyles of the past are permanently broken.”

“It was all about John Seymour [author of the 1976 bestseller The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency] back then,” recalls Hodgson, who lived in London squats across London during the 70s. He later settled at Bergholt Hall, a 19th-century great house with a Queen Anne function room, wood and metalworking workshops, dairy, orchards, and shared kitchen, laundry and bathroom facilities.

“We didn’t mind things being a bit rustic. Today’s generation, Thatcher’s kids raised with central heating in every room of the house, don’t expect our draughty corridors.”

It’s perhaps natural that there are tensions between old-guard communalists (typically referred to as “elders”) and those arriving to communalism in the wake of Covid, and as the climate crisis gathers pace. Long gone are the days when a rambling country pile could be bought for a few tens of thousands of pounds, and it can cost eye-watering sums to join a traditional rural commune. Many of the original communities, including Bergholt Hall, Canon Frome Court in Hertfordshire and Postlip Hall in Cheltenham, require substantial capital buy-ins from new members (a unit for a single person at Bergholt Hall costs from GBP97,809). Despite popular conceptions, it’s not a fall-back option if times are hard.

Financial barriers mean that more than 50% of intentional communities fail within their first two years says Chris Coates, author of Utopia Britannica and a moderator of Diggers and Dreamers, a communal-living networking group that has seen a quadrupling of its membership since lockdown to 14,400 members.

Daniela Zapf at Findhorn in Moray.

Motivations have changed over two intervening generations. Today’s 20- and 30-somethings are more likely to talk of post-carbon living or permaculture, in which ecosystems are viewed as inextricably interlinked, rather than self-sufficiency or communalism for its own sake.

Arran Skinner, 21, has lived at Erraid, a farming commune in the Inner Hebrides, since 2018. He came to communal living out of a yearning to live close to nature and minimise his carbon footprint

“Many of my friends were heading off to uni and I didn’t know what to do, so I came here as a volunteer and just stayed on,” he says.

Skinner believes many people in their 20s are excluded from communal living due to prohibitive costs, opting to travel between farms and communities as a Wwoofer (seasonal worker), or pitching up at of a handful of woodlands communities, such as Tinker’s Bubble in Somerset and Stewards Wood in Devon, where conditions are basic and residents live under constant threat of eviction. The Isle of Erraid, and its sister commune Findhorn on the Moray coast, are unusual in paying members for their community labour contribution in food and board.

A looming issue for enduring intentional communities is what Kirsten Stevens-Wood, who researches the subject at Cardiff Metropolitan University, refers to as “unintentional ageing”. Despite the original diggers’ hope of “automating out all drudgery, toiling and moiling… so every cat can do his or her own thing”, rural survival requires as much elbow grease today as it did in the 1970s.

“All of the things that these communities were doing 30 years ago – digging vegetable patches, splitting firewood – are much harder when you’re still there doing them in your 70s,” Stevens-Wood says.

Findhorn, for example, has an average resident age of 55, and Bergholt Hall has taken to curating its intake to balance ageing residents with young families and, like other 1960s and 1970s-established communes, is exploring financial instruments to enable incomers with little access to capital to join the community, such as shared ownership and loans. This means that single applicants to Bergholt Hall who are in their 50s and 60s (who represent over half of approaches) are likely to be disappointed. But it also means “elders” tend to step back when it comes to decision-making by consensus. “There’s an awareness that new families are on their way in, and we’re on the way out,” Dave Hodgson adds.

Rory Hodgson, 43, is Dave’s son and grew up with his mother in “a typical semi in Ipswich”, but spent idyllic summers as a teenager at Bergholt Hall. As an adult, he found himself priced out of his father’s commune and now lives at Redfield, a housing co-op in Buckinghamshire established in 1978, where a 19th-century mansion and 17 acres of grounds and mature fruit orchards are owned in trust. Residents pay rent and dabble in organic farming, but typically work two to three days a week outside the commune to cover their outgoings. “Redfield isn’t about private ownership and what’s me and mine,” Hodgson says.

In his view, new recruits to communalism are more pragmatic than boomer diggers, such as his father. “Feeding yourselves from the land year-round with no money coming in like that 1970s fantasy is bloody hard work,” he says. “At Redfield the kids go to normal schools and we have paid jobs. These days there’s a desire to have the best of both worlds.”

Founding ideologies are not, however, fully a thing of the past. Tensions emerge in rural communes around fault-lines such as diet, says Jenny Pickerill, a professor of environmental geography at the University of Sheffield who has studied intentional communities around the world. “I’ve known of secret breakaway meat-eating groups in communes that are technically vegan or veg,” Pickerill laughs, adding that whatever their age British communards often exhibit what she terms a “deep green-ism” in comparison to their counterparts elsewhere.

Staci Sylvan, 42, a birth doula, lives in Heartwood, set up on the principle of non-violent cooperation. Heartwood is in Carmarthenshire, a region of Wales that’s historically attracted Britons keen to live alternative lifestyles, but where feelings can run high about English incomers. Sylvan welcomes a recent flurry of interest from younger would-be communards, many of whom, she says, have arrived at alternative living through Extinction Rebellion and climate camps. “I came to communalism through protest groups in the 1990s. When I first joined Heartwood I was in my 20s and would thrash about trying to change things in the commune. Now I accept all the compromises that this kind of living requires.”

Andrea Jones, whose PhD focused on intergenerational relations in communes, believes emotional literacy is the secret of older communes’ success: “For communal living to work, individuals need to put in the emotional labour: being tolerant of each other’s foibles, for example, and being willing to let go of petty grievances.” One reason spiritual communities such as Erraid thrive, says Stevens-Wood, is that they “have something that unites them and promotes considerate behaviour, whereas a wave of communes set up in the 1990s on purely ecological grounds collapsed, in many cases, into infighting”.

Arran Skinner arrived at Erraid in the Inner Hebrides

Bob Fromer, 78, lives at Birchwood Hall – a green and feminist commune in the Malvern Hills that was established in 1970 – with his partner Lynda Medwell, 70. Also a veteran of the 1970s London squatting scene, Fromer briefly set up his own community before joining Birchwood Hall in 1984 and loves Birchwood’s communal meals, views and the camaraderie on the monthly maintenance days, when they work on upkeep of the gardens and buildings. For Fromer, tolerance and “a robust constitution” are the requisite qualities in a successful communard. “We get a lot of applicants who need looking after, but we are not a therapeutic community, so we need members who are self-sufficient. If you’ve come from a nuclear family and can’t shake the privacy that comes with our way of living, or are very house-proud, it generally won’t work.”

Daniela Zapf says that Covid has redoubled her ambition to live in a large community. Born in Germany, she arrived at Findhorn aged 22 and originally planned to stay for a few weeks. Six years later she’s still there. Zapf lives in Bag End one of a cluster of wood-built homes in the Findhorn ecovillage site. “The best part for me is the bonds we have here, like these ancient tribal bonds, not quite family but something much more than friendship” she says, talking about what keeps her there as a young person with a biotechnology degree and the world ahead of her. “This is something I wouldn’t want to miss in my life in future, even if I leave here.”

A proposed Leeds-based urban cohousing project, Chapeltown Cohousing, is now working to make its members representative of the community, with rented units and quotas for minority groups, but diversity often proves difficult for rural communities, despite the lip- service many pay to opening out to BAME and less physically able members. Quite apart from capital and labour demands, there’s a cultural expectation to contend with, says Stevens-Wood. “You need a certain approach to life to live in a commune. At heart this is a white, middle-class dream.”

For all of the challenges, the applicants keep coming. Bergholt Hall is fielding hundreds of applicants for its two available units and Heartwood, Canon Frome Court and Redfield are currently closed to new applicants, although they are receiving inquiries from as far afield as Hong Kong. “Many will be disappointed,” says Chris Coates. “But some will break ground on new projects. That’s why we’ve called the community diggers and dreamers, we’ve always been a mixture of the practically minded and utopianists.”

Stevens-Wood hopes the growing interest in alternatives to nuclear family dwelling will prompt overdue changes to English housing policy, “so it’s less laser-focused on nuclear families and home ownership”. For Fromer, sharing labour and resources as a communard is as good for the planet as it is our sanity. “This is a much cheaper way of living that gives you the good life yet frees you up to work differently and work less,” he says. “Whether you’re 20 or 60, that’s a pretty good deal.”

Findhorn and Erraid are open to short stays. For more information, go to findhorn.org and erraid.com

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