In December 2012, Marcus Letts, 26, and Joe Reid, 28, found themselves stuck in Istanbul, their ambitious Camden-to-Cape-Town cycle trip having come to an urgent halt, as all hell had broken loose throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. But they would not sit idle: Having stopped by many of Europe’s most remarkable eco-communities and permaculture-themed project sites along the way and deeply inspired by the Burning Man festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA, over the course of which people essentially build an art-laden city and take it back apart, leaving absolutely no trace, the concept of the Building Man cooperative started to take shape in their heads.
They were soon surprised to discover online that a 36-year-old British social activist called Josef Davies-Coates had a very similar idea and had blogged extensively on it since 2005. It was only a matter of time until Marcus and Josef would meet and co-found Building Man: an initiative of “building eco-structures and establishing permaculture-driven communities in suitable places” around Great Britain.
A historical place with a haunted history
Except when Marcus proposed Bodenham Manor in Herefordshire, a county close to the Welsh Border between Bristol and Birmingham, as their first target, Josef hardly found it suitable – understandably so. A historical place of astounding beauty, the Manor estate comprises a Tudor style country villa dating back to 1843, built on the verdant green hill slopes overlooking the nature reserve of the Bodenham lakes. However, its owner, the wealthy yet impulsive Guy Taylor, though emotionally attached with the place, has long been indecisive on how to best exploit it. Lately a vast landfill, the ill-reputed property has previously served as a paintball site, occasionally been rented out to host bachelor parties, while various unrelated groups – among them a shamanic community called “Wolf Paw” – had taken up residence in its semi-wrecked establishments with Taylor’s consent. Right now, there are plans to turn it into a “Haunted House” theme park.
When the team of founders and recruits came together for a planning weekend on site in early February 2013, Marcus’ proactive enthusiasm and the natural attractiveness of the estate defeated Josef’s last reservations. He recalls: “The sense of ownership and self-engagement in the cause was moving – I could really sense they were going to give everything they had. And, admittedly, poor Bodenham needed all the help it could get”.
Crowdfunding the UK’s first eco-park with a bike ride
The meeting’s outcome? A sum and a plan: they would need £10,000 and, to raise it, they would embark on an unprecedented crowd-funding venture: Brake the Cycle. Conceived and planned by Joe, Brake the Cycle saw 20 dedicated cyclists on a relentless ‘End to End’ cycle trip from the southernmost point of Britain through to the northernmost, namely from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in Scotland, dropping by Britain’s most notable eco-communities on the way. The trip successfully raised £10,027 over its course, from March 28 until April 17, and would make Bodenham Manor the first ever crowdfunded eco-park venture the UK has seen to date.
Having also crowdsourced a good part of their building equipment in the meantime, the team (30 regulars, as many as 50 contributed overall) was ready to start work on the 88-acre plot by May 2013 – with Taylor’s permission. Over the ensuing three weeks, the Manor estate was virtually transformed. First off, they took to the tons of multi-layered, towering garbage that had amassed over almost a decade of landfill operation: deserted old cars, mounds of car tyres, TV sets, old furniture and a couple of missile heads of unknown origin. That’s right: missile heads.
From landfill to perma-garden
As if the volume were not intimidating enough, they were determined to recycle everything recyclable while finding an appropriate use for the rest. Scrap metal worth £400 was conveniently sold to a yard, an extraordinary exhibition of curious findings was put together, and all items collected were meticulously categorized and recycled accordingly – those that could not somehow found their place in the repair works that followed. The roof and windows of the property’s stables were partially mended and, for the needs of the community, a compost toilet, solar panel powered showers and a new, fully functional kitchen were built.
At times, the task seemed like a mission impossible. “It seemed improbable that anything would come to ever grow back on this soil, let alone anything of permacultural design. It got to a point when we would use sieves to clear the debris, after we had seen pile after pile of junk unburied from the ground” Anna, a 24-year-old regular, remembers. “But when we saw the first few blossoms in our own new little perma-garden – nothing could beat that sentiment”, she concludes.
What will become of Bodenham Manor?
After a few months of relative standstill – most team members had to shortly return to their regular business or were involved in other projects – following the intensive restoration work in May, the community has to carefully lay out the next steps. The ownership of the land is the most burning issue: Bodenham Manor’s future availability is anything but certain and this is causing frustration among some of the more engaged people. Relocation to some strictly community-owned land is an option that is considered with skepticism, as some find it is directly conflicting with the very mission of Building Man: To engage sites in great natural plight, instilled with a spirit of open sharing and cooperation. They have approached Taylor to involve him as a stakeholder, possibly leasing the property long enough to pave the way for some of Building Man’s further-reaching aspirations.
One such passionate aspiration is to open an education center, raising awareness about environmental and social issues, teaching permacultural practice, demonstrating natural restoration work and promoting cooperative organization. It would be housed in the ‘school’ building, the most privileged of all the site’s buildings as far as the view over the slopes goes. Indeed, until 1987 there also was a reformatory school in Bodenham Manor that the community intends to re-establish. Reformatory? Josef winks as he explains the term: “A school for unruly kids: Sets them on the right path.” Indeed, an intriguing coincidence: In some subtle sense, this is the purpose Bodenham Manor will continue to serve.