THIS is the story of a woodland sanctuary in Somerset. My wife, Francesca, and I set it up with the sole purpose of offering refuge to people going through a period of crisis in their lives.
We hoped to emulate a community that we knew in Dorset: a place that was a haven for those struggling with addiction, bereavement, separation, depression, penury, eating disorders, homelessness, PTSD, and all the other ailments, illnesses, and misfortunes that beset us in life.
It’s more than five years now since we came to live in the woods, and, in that time, there have been so many mishaps and miracles, so many characters and escapades that it seems a lifetime ago. Those years have been gruelling, exhilarating, exhausting, uplifting, exciting, depressing, joyful, rewarding, and, always, eye-opening.
The learning curve has been so steep that it has often seemed almost vertical. Human nature is constantly fascinating, and over the years we’ve seen all sorts, from the admirable to the far less so. When you have an open-door policy, the whole spectrum of humanity will roll up: rough diamonds and smooth talkers, the overbearing and the underwhelming.
We’ve had fantasists and fundamentalists, seekers and attention-seekers, wanderers and wayfarers, hippies, heroes, dreamers, diggers, flakes, and, sometimes, saviours. Normally, once guests have been with us for a day or two, our children give them a nickname. We have had Roadkill Kev, Inappropriate Ian, Trevor Whatever, Mary Poppins, The Busker, Marshmellow, Virginia Creeper, and many more — from a one-legged Dane wearing half a pair of leopard-skin tights to a seven-foot cross-dresser called Simone.
We’ve had well over a hundred strangers living in our woodland shelter — some staying for just one night, but most for many months, and a few for more than a year.
OUR small community is neither a closed cult nor a loose label. But, beyond that, it’s extremely difficult to explain quite what it is. We don’t even really know what to call it ourselves. “Commune” sounds too hippie or dated, “community” sounds like half a village, and “fellowship” is, for some, overly religious. We sometimes call it an “extended household”, because it’s first and foremost a family home, where we lay half a dozen extra places at the table and provide half a dozen extra beds.
We’re doing it because we believe that communalism can be an antidote to many of the sadnesses and sorrows of modern life. Not just addiction, say, or homelessness, but also the issues that lie behind those more explicit ones: problems such as loneliness, or simply dismay at modern life.
Communal living offers the chance to find belonging instead of rootlessness; commitment in place of impermanence; and purpose rather than despair. It allows a deeply satisfying, paradoxical combination of anarchism and traditionalism, of counter-culturalism and conservationism.
Communal living has invariably been a form of resistance or defiance, a way to set yourself apart and offer a coherent, hard-lived critique of the so-called “real world”. From the Diggers (the agrarian socialists of the 17th century) to the Doukhobors (the persecuted, spiritual pacifists of Imperial Russia), any conscious congregation of humans living deliberately beyond the norms of society has been an act of dissent.
But it’s also traditional, because, in living together and learning ancient crafts, you necessarily draw on centuries of accumulated wisdom, and borrow from ancestors’ ingenuity and sagacity.
Communal living, it seems to me, is an alliance with the past to critique the present in the hope of a better future. That’s one of its great attractions: a community is a gathering not just of people, but of generations; a way to pass the torch from one age to the next.
ABOUT ten years ago, I wrote a book, Utopian Dreams, to which my new book is, I suppose, the hard-bitten response — a sort of Utopian Realities. Utopian Dreams was a quest to find the ideal way in which human beings might share their lives, money, meals, possessions, and ideals.
We visited and stayed in dozens of different communities, both in Britain and Italy, and were fortunate to find, in an isolated hamlet near the Dorset coast, the Pilsdon Community.
Founded by a maverick Anglican priest and his wife in 1958, it’s a working farm that welcomes life’s walking wounded, and those on the margins of society — anyone bruised and bloodied by bad luck or bad judgement. Twenty to thirty people live there, working the land and reflecting on their lives.
There’s something about the rhythm of life that feels healthy and wholesome: there is hay to cut, and there are cows to milk, logs to split, and vegetable beds to weed. It’s exceptionally hard work, but somehow relaxing, too. The mix of people living there at any one time sounds like an explosive cocktail of characters, and yet it’s hard not to be blown away by the gentleness of the place.
Although everyone is united by some kind of sorrow, it’s surprisingly cheerful, with a great deal of banter and laughter. Nobody, I thought, felt like a “charity case”, even though people were working at gradually putting their lives back together.
There’s a monastic simplicity there: days are punctuated by bells for meals or prayer. Its compassion is contagious. It’s a place where they believe in the survival of the weakest.
PILSDON’s founders, Percy Smith and his wife, Gaynor, had been inspired to start the community by the example of Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of Little Gidding, in the 17th century. It was Little Gidding, of course, that inspired T. S. Eliot to write his famous poem of the same name — one of the Four Quartets.
Ferrar himself had been persuaded to start his unusual household by the radical monasticism of the Early Church. Throughout the 20th century, people did something similar, gathering together to work the land and offer hospitality to those in need: in Nomadelfia, in Tuscany, and at the Community of the Ark, in southern France, as well as at the Bruderhof, L’Arche, Emmaus, and Camphill communities.
If you sit at the dining table at some of those places, the chances are you’ll be sharing the meal with all sorts — perhaps an asylum-seeker, an ex-offender, a jam-maker from round the corner, a recovering addict, or a wayfarer. You may well be sitting between a bricklayer and a bishop. There are very few places in Britain where you get that degree of inclusiveness and variety.
There was something about Pilsdon and comparable communities that seemed ancient, but also visionary. They offered a way of life that was “so old that it looks like new”. It was that, probably, that attracted us to Pilsdon and to similar shelters. They were low-tech, sometimes deliberately Luddite, and yet appeared strangely futuristic, because they were surviving with very little; and that, after this age of abundance, is what the future might be like.
WE FELT a very strong vocation to emulate Pilsdon. It wasn’t the stereotypical calling you might see in a film, with a booming voice or a bolt of lightning from the sky. But it was, none the less, a very precise summons, an insistent suggestion that we were expected to do something similar: to turn the Sermon on the Mount into a manifesto for life.
Now, I know that I risk forfeiting the sympathy of secular readers if I confess a religious inspiration behind what we’re doing. And I know, too, that, over the years, many potential guests have been put off by our description of “traditional Christian hospitality”. But at Windsor Hill Wood actions are more important than beliefs; the fruits more important than the roots. We’ve had guests who are Muslim, Baha’i, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Pagan, agnostic, and, most commonly, atheist.
Very rarely has anyone complained that our inspiration is from the Gospels. We happily, although rarely, talk about religion; but, when we do, it’s never with the intention of proselytising. We don’t need to, because those who live here already believe in what we’re doing. They understand it; they get it. And we share so much in our life together — money, silence, food, work, and so on — that the beliefs that we don’t share are less divisive than they are intriguing.
THE most important job we did that first year was to create the chapel. There was a sturdy stone outbuilding, a hundred yards from the house, that we had been told was “the explosives chamber”. It was, apparently, where they kept the explosives for the quarry. Since those days, a vaguely ecclesiastical stone window, perhaps pilfered from a church ruin somewhere, had been cemented in.
The explosives chamber was little more than a shed full of the accumulated junk from previous owners: old sinks, broken tiles, rusty bikes, and wonky ladders. We used it to store chicken feed; so it was covered in chicken shit, too, as the free-range birds would wander in and out to pick up the scraps. The place felt decidedly solid, but humble.
A FRIEND and I had felled an ugly Lawson’s cypress, and planked it up into four-inch slabs with a guest from Warminster. We carried three of them into the explosives chamber, setting each one on two upturned tree-stumps. The three “pews” were then arranged in a small horseshoe around a table with a candle and a rusty cowbell.
Calling that rustic arrangement a chapel sounded presumptuous, and we toyed with other, less religious descriptions: “Meditation Room” or “Quiet Space”.
I particularly liked “House of Silence”, because one of our models for an inclusive, sacred space was the House of Silence at Neve Shalom, also known as Wahat al-Salam (which mean, in Hebrew and Arabic respectively, “Oasis of peace”). It’s a village in Israel which tries to usher in “peace, equality, and understanding” between Arabs and Jews.
But everyone here in Somerset, from committed Christians to convinced atheists, thought those fluffy labels rather absurd, and insisted that we stop bending over backwards to be ecumenical and just call the chapel a flipping chapel. So that’s what we’ve stuck with.
We meet for a quarter of an hour’s silence at 7.30 a.m., the same at 12.30 p.m. before lunch, and for compline — the lullaby of the liturgy — at 9.15 p.m. Nobody is obliged to come. But what was obvious almost immediately was that many of our guests were yearning for silence.
Not everyone came, of course, but plenty did. Differences became irrelevant in the periods of silence. As Pierre Lacout, a Carmelite monk turned Quaker, once wrote, “Words scatter, silence gathers together.”
That first year was the calm before the storm, and from then on our woodland community would often be extremely noisy or turbulent — so busy that it felt as if a flock of birds were pecking at you, constantly wanting a piece of you. There were always demands, questions, and accusations.
BUT the discipline of observing even those very short periods of silence gave us an internal redoubt to which we could retreat. It was a way to put some distance between ourselves and the unremitting disturbance. It meant that we weren’t always buffeted and bruised. It gave us a background silence to the day, offering equilibrium and stillness in a place that was often neither stable nor calm.
It also changed, very subtly, the way we spoke. After those short, elective silences, the tongue started to seem extremely powerful, so easily able to wound. For the first time in my life, I began to be reticent rather than loquacious.
I enjoyed rereading the chapter “On being taciturn” in the Rule of St Benedict, and began to understand why even the kindest people in the communities we had visited seemed to be a bit gruff or self-contained. Keeping my counsel became a way to maintain a degree of distance, or precious privacy, in what was often a pretty claustrophobic setting.
Many guests, though, couldn’t face it. Some came and found it, paradoxically, too traumatic or noisy, as if the quiet were a dangerous vacuum filled by the voices in their heads, or the diversions in their hands. They were so used to distraction and movement and restlessness that stopping really threw them. They didn’t know how to sit still, to listen to their breathing or the sound of the wood pigeons. The quietness could be unsettling for many, even rather frightening.
One woman said that she couldn’t sit still for that long. Another guest came and spent the whole time desperate for distraction, constantly looking at the screen of her mobile phone.
“I find it unnerving,” she said to me, afterwards.
“What’s unnerving?” I wondered.
“The way you all sit there in a trance, not saying anything.” She looked at the chickens that were pecking the ground around her ankles, and shrugged.
“I thought you were entranced, too,” I said.
“Wasn’t. I was checking my phone.”
She left soon afterwards.
This is an edited extract from A Place of Refuge: The story of Windsor Hill Wood by Tobias Jones (Quercus, £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-1-84866-248-3).
Tobias Jones will be “In Conversation” at St Paul’s Cathedral on Saturday 3 October, 1-2 p.m. Free tickets available through www.eventbrite.co.uk.
In next week’s issue,Tobias Jones writes especially for the Church Times about the challenges of “Community”.