Bodenham Manor: How a Landfill Turned Into the UK’s First Crowdfunded Eco-park

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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.

Bodenham Manor: From Landfill...

Photo courtesy of WeTheUncivilized.org

All kinds of unimaginable items were unburied from the earth.

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

The solar shower shack: No usable piece of garbage went to waste.

Photo courtesy of BuildingMan.org

The solar shower shack: No usable piece of garbage went to waste.

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.

...to eco-garden.

Photo courtesy of BuildingMan.org

What will become of Bodenham Manor?

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.

18 thoughts on “Bodenham Manor: How a Landfill Turned Into the UK’s First Crowdfunded Eco-park

  1. Have any of you building man been back to bodenham? cos it doesnt look like anything you are saying.. its been left un loved, it almost looks like a tip again…the solar showers never worked and were taken down not long after the final gathering weekend..The concept of what you are trying to do is good.However organising it wasnt as good, lots of frustrated people at building man, people coming to learn left sweeping the floors, or doing nothing, people trying to teach told not to?or they dont know what they are on about? some positive things happened, like a compost toilet, a food garden (at the time but overgrown and buried by bindweed now)..having a contiuation of what your doing makes sense, else your ploughing money and energy into things which die. You cant really see the gardens at Bodenham anymore..they arent used…go visit.. see for yourself. dead

    • Hi Nan,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Quite a few Building Man volunteers have been back to the site, yes. I’m glad you think the concept is good – I originally came up with it! 😛

      Sorry to hear you didn’t have a particularly positive experience. Thankfully most people had said that in spite of everything they did have a really positive – many have said transformative – experience. 🙂

      I’d completely agree that the organising could’ve been a LOT better. And yes, much of the work we did in the garden is now hidden beneath weeds. Many of the on-site residents we were engaging with most have, for a multitude of complex reasons, since moved off site, and so, yes, they are basically abandoned now (as far as I know).

      But please bear in mind that was just the first experimental iteration of Building Man. It was organised on a shoe string (raised by 20 people who spent 3 weeks cycling over 1000 miles to raise the funds), in a matter of months, by relatively inexperienced volunteers who worked many many hours just for the love of it. Everyone and anyone was welcomed to get involved. Should you wish to get more fully involved in helping to organise the next event you are warmly invited to do so.

      However, given the far-from-optimal circumstances, i.e. a privately owned site with a relatively absentee landlord who wasn’t involved in the process, lots of different residents with different/ conflicting/ unclear/ unknown goals, the long history of bizarre social dynamics on the site, the lack of security of tenure for pretty much everyone etc etc, I’d say that overall it was a absolutely remarkable success!

      • My comment wasn’t ment towards building man i was sayin nan was prob one of the lazy god for nothing that lived here ive met mike and john and think there good guys also knew they put the kitchen in so get off your hi horses as for retard u fuckin strap on id love to have a face to face talk just to put you right on a few things the fact is to many ppl moved here did fuck all but take take take tel you what ill do ill put some pics on and show you all what ive done for £400 never mind ten grand ,four grand what ever amount it is this week

        • “My comment wasn’t ment towards building man”

          You did seem to imply in your comment that Building Man left the site worse than we found it, but OK, thanks for the clarification, Liam.

          “ive met mike and john and think there good guys also knew they put the kitchen in so get off your hi horses”

          Yeah, good guys. I’m not on a high horse, just setting the record straight. Without the benefit of your clarifications (and body language, and tone etc), I found your comment to be misleading and odd, given the fact that you have personally directly benefited from some of the work done.

          “as for retard u fuckin strap on id love to have a face to face talk just to put you right on a few things”

          I guess that is aim at Graham who posted that unfortunate remark, not me. Michael has spoken very positively about you, so would be a pleasure to meet in person at some point.

          “tel you what ill do ill put some pics on and show you all what ive done for £400”

          I’d love to see some pics of your work. I gather from Michael that your a strong and practical man so I’ve no doubt you can get a lot of good work done with very little money. Shame we didn’t have your help during Building Man itself – no doubt we’d’ve got a lot more done!

          “never mind ten grand ,four grand what ever amount it is this week”

          You seem to be implying some dishonesty/ bullshitting on Building Man’s part here, which isn’t appreciated. But the source of the confusion/ Chinese whispers is likely something to do with the fact we raised ten grand for Building Man (just over, actually), but didn’t actually end up spending all of the money during the event (mostly because it people who attendeed decided against doing that the major works we’d originally intended to do, i.e. like putting a new roof on the school). I’m not sure exactly how much we did end up spending, but I’ll find out… and it’ll all be on the public record once the overstretched volunteers doing all the work get on top of the admin backlog.

  2. Nan you have no idea what your talking about the truth is your probably one of the ppl my dad had the misfortune to meet and give a chance of building your so called community when in fact it was you guys turning it into a landfill not a days work in you my dad is not impulsive just believes in giveing ppl a chance and all that happened was things like stealing and recking the place never mind tho its now cleaned up and sorted back to the way it should be thanks to my dad he only mistake was to be leave in ppl like your self who just took kindness for a weakness regards LIAM TAYLOR

    • Hi Liam, as I understand it you moved into the school building at Bodenham with your family shortly after Building Man was over. You couldn’t have done that unless we’d fitted a usable kitchen in there.

      As for your claim that we turned it into a landfill, that simply isn’t true. We dug out, transported and paid for the removal of literally tons of landfill from right beside the school. We’ve got the pictures and receipts to prove it. 🙂

      I hope you’re enjoying the new kitchen. It makes me happy to know that the hard work of our volunteers it is getting put to good use. 🙂

  3. Liam, I appreciate your view on things, but were you actually there when the Building man lot were? I was there for 6 weeks and saw a drastic improvement visually as a lot of junk was cleared out. Yeh the organisation wasn’t that great, and work could have been much more efficient if planning was more substantial, but it was an experiment. You need to take everyone’s view into consideration as it is impossible for one person be able to see things from every angle. Most people there who were volunteering had the best interests for the place, and most of the problems seemed to stem from the already ingrained politics of the place and current residents.

    Seems like most negativity comes from simply not knowing the whole story. It would be pretty hard to wreck something that was in such a shocking state to start with!!

  4. “the truth is your probably one of the ppl my dad had the misfortune to meet and give a chance of building your so called community when in fact it was you guys turning it into a landfill” – Liam

    How exactly could we have turned it into a landfil in a few weeks? Have you seen all the junk that was there already? Are you retarded?

    From this quote you obviously have no clue what you are on about!! And have kind of made this article into a joke, which is why I am not hesitating to post this completely useless comment as I just find it funny now. I’m glad I haven’t had the ‘misfortune’ of meeting you haha. Your dad seemed alright and it was good for him to give us that chance to do something good with the land but I don’t think he would agree with your comments. I think you’ve got issues dude.

    • Graham got abit carryed away there mate need to get the right end of the stick before becoming a web worrier mate could get u in trouble as it stands in a forgiveing man lol ill put u the pics on soon and show you what TWO MEN have done as for building man im grateful to all u lot did try not to jump to conclusions you guys weren’t the piss takers were you ??? The way you’ve all jumped onit ppl could be forgiven for thinking different

  5. * no offence Liam, if you ever read this, I don’t know anything about you, just seemed odd to say that we turned it into a landfill when we actually cleared a lot of the stuff out and sorted a kitchen out for you 🙂

  6. Hello!
    I used to live down the road from here and was very interested to read this article as I come back regularly…such a beautiful area. I had no idea what was happening here. I’ve noticed the tipi village and was under the impression they were here to stay…is that not the case?
    Also, is it true the Manor is now occupied? Any plans for the Building Man project to return?
    Thanks.

  7. I went to that school 78/84 our headmaster ginger ted sauders he looked after that school i went back 2yes ago the whole place looks like a tip and the building is a disgeace im ashamed to say i once lived there as a child

    • Hi dave i also was at the school at that time , my surname as changed since i was jason smith . your nae does ring a bell . Hope life is treating you well

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