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To heal the broken

26 February 2016

Nicholas Sagovsky is impressed by a place for picking up pieces

A Place of Refuge: An experiment in communal living
Tobias Jones
Quercus £20
Church Times Bookshop £18


ONE of the problems that Tobias Jones has had to solve in the past five years is how to describe Windsor Hill Wood. Definitely not a commune. Nor, though Christian in inspiration, a religious community. An extended household? An experiment in communal living? Certainly, a place of refuge.

For ten years, he and his Italian wife, Francesca, have pursued a shared vision. After five years’ research, they bought a rambling house on a ten-acre woodland site in a former quarry that had been used as a rubbish tip. With two, then three, young children, they opened their home to a succession of guests who had only one thing in common: their need of a secure context in which to address pressing personal problems.

Under the care of the community, and over five years, the woodland has largely recovered. It now provides materials for building, carving, and keeping everyone warm. Along the way, they have learned, or re-learned, ancient arboricultural skills. The site has been transformed into a smallholding, with an outdoor oven, a pond, and a chapel. Now there are pigs, chickens, ducks, and abundant fresh veg. There’s a forest school, where primary-age children learn by relating to the natural world.

Some guests have crises and have to leave; others stay long enough to find new directions in damaged lives. Jones, who earns his living as a writer, describes how in the early days it was nearly too much: he went through a period of physical and emotional exhaustion in which he could barely function — but he emerged stronger by setting clearer boundaries. He describes real people, apparently without betraying confidences. “There isn’t anyone you can’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story,” has been a guiding principle. Windsor Hill Wood is, in all the rough-and-tumble he so vividly describes, a place of healing.

This is a delightful book, elegantly written, light in touch, with a profoundly challenging message. One of the saddest reflections is about the attitude of the medical establishment.

Jones describes how NHS professionals have been glad to refer on patients for whom they can do little more than prescribe medication. Not all have been willing to recognise, in an era of diminished resources, that, with more love and fewer pills, by treating people as guests rather than patients — all of which takes more time than they can offer — deep healing is possible. Jones doesn’t talk about a “therapeutic community”, but, if it doesn’t sound too clinical, it’s what I think he describes: a community that, in its humour, realism, faith, and hope, can truly be seen as therapeutic. Anyone interested in what Bonhoeffer calls “life together” should read this book.


Canon Nicholas Sagovsky is the Whitelands Professorial Fellow at Roehampton University.

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