Tinkers Bubble in Somerset is a long standing eco-community. Established in 1994 near Little Norton, they manage 40 acres without the use of fossil fuels or internal combustion engines; “the aim of the community’s 16 residents is to derive their livelihoods from the sustainable management of the land and its resources” (Laughton, 2008, p.145) and goods are moved around site using a horse and cart. They had a long battle for planning permission but are now a legal and established site.
Communal roundhouse and Teigwyn the horse
Woodlands and milk being stored and cooled in the stream
I went simply to see what it was like; I was not really intending on it being a part of this project, but had heard so much about it over the years that I wanted to take the opportunity to finally see it. I figured the most productive way to visit would be to go as a volunteer – that way spending several days there and contributing in return for a bed and food. While there I helped cook, carried wood for the fire, weeded in the garden, planted sweet peas, and learnt to scythe (though I have yet to learn how to do it without causing blisters).
There is so much to describe and say about Tinkers Bubble because it is so completely different to ‘mainstream’ life but I will focus on the place itself, the people and the buildings. For some reason I had not imagined that the houses at Tinkers Bubble were at the top of a surprisingly steep hill, deep in a Douglas Fir woodland. At times this made it feel rather dark, but after a morning gardening in full sun I was relieved to be in its shade and at night it felt rather comforting to be protected by the trees. Of course it has the added benefit of proving to volunteers just how unfit having an office job makes you. The gardens are at the bottom of the hill – divided up amongst residents – with a communal garden, horse and cow fields and orchard the other side of the woodland. In all three quarters of the land is woodland, with a stream (from where the land draws its name) and paths running through it. It has a very peaceful and English feel – rolling green hills, apple blossom, wildlife and changeable British weather.
What particularly struck me at Tinkers was the warm unreserved welcome. Hundreds of people must pass through, as visitors, volunteers, even temporary residents, but they showed no wane in friendliness and continued humour, politeness and curiosity as yet another stranger asked them (probably very familiar) questions. With about 12 adults and several children on my visit there were plenty of faces to get to know. I am sure on my brief visit I could not have detected any of the politics that doubtless exist, and as with all communities there is a reasonable turnover in residents – with several long-termers and various newer people of just a few years. However, the act of eating a collective meal every dinner, of having to work a ‘domestic’ day every fortnight (when you do the washing up and cook the evening meal) seemed to provide an important glue to the residents’ busy lives. I felt very at home very quickly, even though I knew no-one and did not know how anything worked. On my first afternoon I helped make dinner which was an education in itself in the outside kitchen – cooking on the open fire and washing up in the outdoors sink.
Fire pit and outside kitchen
Each of the buildings was different – a thatched roundhouse, a straw-bale insulated house, a cob/ cordwood/ strawbale/ pallet construction, roundwood, Douglas Fir shingle (or shake), and even a metal roof. Most buildings seemed to incorporate a canvas or tarpaulin. Even the glorious guest house – a timber-framed two-storey house – had a canvas liner inside. Living in an English woodland is damp and most buildings rotted more quickly as a result, hence needing the added protection of another layer. The houses were compact in size; some might consider them too small, but actually once inside you realised they were often perfectly designed for need – space for a chair, desk, bed and fire. Often the beds are on mezzanines high in the roof – creating fun sleeping platforms which free up living space down below. It is a useful lesson in what space we actually need.
Guest house and bath house
As Laughton notes “wood provides the fuel for all cooking, space and water-heating, and a wind-generator and solar panels provide enough electricity for lighting, stereos and laptop computers” (2008, p.146). That the fires had to be lit was quite noticeable considering it was May. But the houses do not have high thermal mass and do not benefit from passive solar gain (because of the trees); rather their main eco-features are that they are mostly made from natural material, onsite, built by the people living in them through a process of experimentation. This is true low-cost eco-housing using local free natural materials. Moreover they have a ready free supply of wood onsite. There also seems to be an ethos that it is important that buildings are temporary, that being low impact is also about being able to remove a house easily, and as such the houses should not be too solid, or too robust as that would belie their temporary design.
Timber-frame and straw-bale house
Compost toilet and PV array
I liked a lot of the buildings on site, with each being different and each had their endearing features. I particularly enjoyed the view from the compost toilet of the woodland below with deer milling about and ignoring your presence. It probably rates as one of the best toilet locations! They also have a great bath house – an asset I have not seen in other communities I have visited. There are perhaps two particularly inspiring houses. One is by Charlotte – she built a strawbale, cordwood, cob and pallet house by herself, without any prior experience of building. Taking only 11 months to build it is a beautiful, inspiring house perched on the side of the hill. Inside it has a large living space and then two different level sleeping platforms high into the roof. Dan built a green painted house cum workshop with a curved metal roof. It sits wonderfully in the forest like a colourful bunker that looks cosy and purposeful at the same time.
I was sad to leave Tinkers Bubble as I had only just begun getting know what it was like as a place to live, and there are things that I loved and other things that I struggled with. But I would encourage anyone who really wanted to know what a different way of living could be like to pay them a visit and help out for a bit. It challenged my assumptions about what we need to do and know to live in a more environmentally sustainable way.
More information about Tinkers Bubble can be found in Rebecca Laughtons book – Surviving and Thriving on the Land (Greens Books, 2008). Rebecca lived at Tinkers Bubble for 4 years and has incorporated much about the community into her work. See also an article on EcoNomads: http://www.economads.com/log20020524-20020531.php.
If you would like to visit please email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask if you can go and volunteer. Their address is Tinker’s Bubble, Little Norton, Stoke-sub-Hamdon, Somerset, TA14 6TE, UK.