For the past two years I have followed the life of a community who are striving towards totally self-sufficient and ecologically sound living. The group comprised of nomads, city squatters and eco-farmers firmly believe in total equality and an absence of hierarchy.
In June 2012, a small group of eco-farmers moved onto an area of scrubland known as "The Strip" near an old derelict farmhouse and surrounded by fields. The land, with an unclear history of ownership, had previously been mined, tenant farmed and briefly used by the Ministry Of Defense. In the absence of clear ownership a trust was formed. When the last tenant farmer left in 2004 the trust was reduced to two solicitors. In March 2013 the possessory rights of the land were sold to local multi-million pound property developer Brian Bennett, who had previously shown support in the early days of the group's settlement. There is speculation that Bennett's encouragement for the group to occupy the land was to ensure the value of the land would be greatly reduced.
This is a story of land-grabs and a twenty-first century battle between the powerful and the people.
I arrived on site for the first time on the 28th of June 2014; five days after the first eviction attempt. In the early hours of Monday morning residents were woken by bailiffs and private security contractors, sent by Brian Bennett to remove them and their possessions from the land. It was immediately clear that this was an illegal eviction attempt and the residents succeeded in moving the contractors and bailiffs back to the main gate, where a 48 hour standoff followed. Social media and the websites of activist groups and eco-farming communities were flooded with requests for help.
The community was emotionally exhausted. I was offered tea and the hot water was dispensed from one of two "Dragons" - large thermoses regularly filled by a kettle boiled on the stove. There wasa large table piled high with the remains of last night's feast, a wood burning stove and sink fed by water from the stream. Tilo, one of the founders of the community, told me that all food on the table was communal and I was welcome to any of it. I was extremely grateful for their generosity, but hesitant. I didn't feel I had earned the food that they had worked hard to prepare.
As the weather grew colder, fires were lit and searching for the best burning wood became a daily necessity. Regularly walked paths fast became swamp-like. Some were virtually impassable by midwinter. In our modern lifestyles we take for granted how simply lighting a dark room or street increases our productivity. Here, as days get shorter so too do the number of hours you are able to work. The dark evenings and need for warmth often bring the community closer as they try to find entertainment to fill the dark hours.
Here, refuge is provided for those who need it and a purpose in life for those who have lost it. There is a common feeling among them that there is more to reality, more grittiness to be found in life than the mundanity of a 9-5 job and commitment to rent or a mortgage. They are brought together by the desire to regain a connection to the land which has been so lost with continuous commercial and industrial growth.
Of course, such ideals after often met with contention and the community often feel that they are branded as lazy, miscreants of society. They see the media's portrayal of squatting and the reality as very different. The vast majority find empty, derelict places to live. The places that are going to waste, owned by people with more than they need or with no clear history of ownership. There is a fear in western civilisation of those who choose to live outside of society. The vast fortunes of a few rely on people buying their services, who are, in turn, entirely reliant on those products to maintain and improve their lifestyle. As people disconnect themselves from the financial system and begin to look after themselves and their communities they become stronger and not so easily divided.
In western civilisation we promote institutions of dislocation, through media, economy and ideology. As a result we experience a vast disconnect from the land and deepening confusion about what it means to dwell on the earth. In an attempt to undo past actions and regain a little of this lost connection, there are a lot of environmental campaigns and actions that happen all over the world. But, to many of us the "climate" is an abstract concept. It isn't until you live on the land and are truly reliant on it that you can hope to reconnect to it.
Frank White, one of the founders of Yorkley Court Farm and a significant driving force behind their agricultural vision told me why he chose this life.
“The reasons I do what I do are a sense of injustice, an inability to compromise on how I spend my time and a drive to maintain hope in the possibility of change for the better.... I concluded some time ago that I was happiest working outside, doing physical things, working with nature and growing food... Living at YCCF has been a massive life changing experience, I have had the opportunity to lead the life I can imagine, the chance to create the social interactions I desire, build a home, a life and a livelihood that I like. I have learnt about myself, about how to live in nature and how to live in community with other people.
I hope you never have to go through it but it is the most unpleasant experience to be attacked in your own home, to have someone enter your home, take you and your things out, make you homeless and then demolish your home. This was the reality of our experience last year.
The legal cases in the land registry, the planning office and in the courts were very draining on our resources and now they have all failed. We are fully illegal, we do not own the land, there is an eviction notice against us, our houses, kitchen, communal areas are all illegal, to be there is to be in contempt of court. So in the true sense of the words we are outlaws."
On March the 10th the group were evicted. A 2.a.m. tip-off alerted them to the police and bailiffs who came later that morning with bulldozers and dogs. With little time to prepare more than, at most, a bag of essentials, people were scattered and some forced off site quickly. Since the initial eviction attempt two years previously, the community had built substantial watchtowers and blockades to make access in an eviction difficult. A handful of people locked to these structures with the chain link wristbands that they had worn for months.
Once access was gained, bulldozers and security teams violently destroyed people's homes before the occupants could retrieve any possessions or essentials. Some were piled together and set alight. Old and established trees were torn from the ground to quickly destroy tree houses. One particularly large tree with a wonderful, hidden tree house was set alight. Mattress springs hanging in blackened branches are all that remain.
The disbanded group gathered in the pine woods bordering the south side of the site. It is a place they know well and as it is forestry commission land they were not in breach of the eviction order. The ground is littered with pine needles, which provided some comfort during the first night when many slept out in the open. For five days, the group stayed in the pines to recover as many possessions as they could from the wreckage of their flattened homes and search for the cats that had been lost in the chaos.
With tents and tarpaulins strung between trees, the temporary camp became a little more comfortable and allowed for a much needed rest. The previously tranquil woodland was filled with the constant sound of bulldozers, chainsaws and cracking wood and the community listened to their homes being destroyed. With the opportunity to finally reflect, feelings of shock and powerlessness set it. But communities like these are notoriouslystrong and give far greater value to their friends and common ideologies than the possessions they have lost.
When ten members of the security team found the group in the pines and harassed and threatened them, they decided to move on. Several scouting teams went out for a day to find the next temporary site that would allow them to recuperate for a few weeks and provide fresh water and good access to a local village.
It took just a day to move the entire temporary camp from the pines to a new site a few miles away, where friends were already staying and took them in. The future of this community is largely uncertain. They have disbanded slightly but the core group have stayed together. In the short term they will not be returning to the original site, which is still guarded by a security team with dogs. They have lost the battle for that piece of land, but they will find another place to live and grow sustainably. Their spirit and ethos of totally self-sufficient and ecologically sound living has not changed, if anything, it has only grown stronger.