16 July 2007

The Beauty of Thrift

I spent the weekend camping in rural Hertfordshire. I suppose it is difficult anywhere in the home countries to feel really in the countryside, but we were in a meadow full of wild flowers with a woodland and vegetable patch nearby.

Lydia has created utopia in a small patch of the South-East. Thrift Cottage is named after Anne Thrift, who left to Lydia the right to inhabit a small patch of Welwyn which she had enjoyed since before the passing of the Town & Country Planning Act in 1948. It so aptly describes the approach Lydia, and more recently her husband Robert, have taken to building the home they share with Scarlett.

Regular readers will wonder about my scatological tendencies, but I none the less need to share my excitement with Lydia's bathroom. Her toilet is a long-drop compost loo. You sit on a beautiful piece of retrieved hardwood which is always warm to the touch. You sprinkle a small quantity of fragrant sawdust, rather than flushing away your shit. All this takes places in an environment of tranquility, with wooden bookshelves and built-in wooden cupboards.

The whole eco-house exemplifies the attitude towards life that we need to foster to live in balance with nature. Opportunism is a key feature, with bricks, slate and wood scavenged from local skips and building sites. This is the Robinson Crusoe approach to building—making use of what your local environment provides—rather than driving to a builders’ merchant to buy building materials made elsewhere in the world—who knows where? I recently saw building stone wrapped in cling-film. It seems superfluous to mention the embodied energy both in the manufacture of bricks and blocks, and in their transport.

Other highlights included an outside bath: fill first and then heat by lighting a fire underneath, a summer pudding made with fruit picked in the local fruit patch, and a relaxing time spent on the turf roof.

Due to inept maintenance of the tracks and unfriendly timetabling I was forced to spend three hours of my homeward journey in Stroud. It was like a journey from the heights of the human spirit to their miserable depths. While I confess it is hard to imagine what the vernacular building style of Swindon might be, I cannot believe that it could be worse than the uniform blockwork, steel and glass, interrupted by mislaid tent-like structures, that is the landscape of Swindon today.
I made one of my increasingly infrequent visits to Tesco to buy an apple and noticed that the local media story was of a local murder by a young man of his mother and father. It felt possible to understand how somebody living in that degraded environment could be driven to such a level of cruelty and despair.


  1. Sadly, the UK's chockablock with Swindons, Lutons, Coventrys, Stevanages, Watfords, Wolverhamptons, etc. and with fast-paced economic cleansing of smaller, more rural, more human scale settlements leaving them museums for the rich more people are living in these traffic-trodden wastelands of urban grot. Worse, speculation has made even the grimiest clone towns of the north and midlands far more expensive than the limited incomes of jobs in those areas suggest.

    You mention, 'Before the 1947 planning act', which first brought in the idea of not being able to develop land owned. Should we introduce a loosening of planning restrictions for those who want to build extremely low impact dwellings?

  2. what is the density of the local "green " community??
    what are you gonna do with the other 50 million ,much less those newly arrived??
    are you hinting at the solution??

  3. Hello to embutler

    I'm not quite sure where you are coming from. Is it that this is too far out for most people so we should pull back closer to the midpoint of the culture? I feel each person has their role and mine is to share my excitement for a sustainable alternative future. I remember when organic food, or even wholefood, seemed freakey. If we are up to 10 million by your reckoning we are doing really well. I've been surprised at recent events where I've been talking at how many people are already sympathetic to this message about major social and economic change--actually quite excited about the potential.