The good ancestors: squatters go back to land to save wilderness centre

Tony Gosling tony at
Sat Feb 25 00:59:42 GMT 2012

The good ancestors: squatters go back to land to save wilderness centre
Occupy veterans join movement to stop selloff of 
Forest of Dean centre and inspire sustainable communities
Steven Morris -, Thursday 16 February 2012 19.59 GMT
Stephanie prepares a hazel stick to build a 
hurdle while other activists build a roundhouse a 
hazel stick to build a hurdle at Plump Hill 
wilderness centre near Mitcheldean, 
Gloucestershire. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt
The notices the county council has pinned up 
demanding that Tom and his fellow squatters leave 
– and threatening legal action – do not dampen the mood.
Tom – who prefers to be known by his first name – 
has found a decent-sized mushroom in the forest 
that will liven up the evening's vegetable stew 
and is looking forward to getting on with 
building a cob "Celtic roundhouse" that will be either a henhouse or a sauna.
This is the Wilderness Centre at Plump Hill in 
the Forest of Dean, formerly a council-run scheme 
that taught children and young people about the 
environment, nature and the woods. As part of the 
public spending cuts, Gloucestershire county 
council shut the centre and intended to sell it 
off – until Tom and others turned up and squatted.
It is a sort of rural Occupy and some of the 
squatters at the Wilderness Centre are veterans 
of the movement. But they say they have more 
specific aims. Tom and his friends dream of 
maintaining the centre to inspire young and old 
to create communities that live in a more sustainable way.
"We're here to make sure this centre remains open 
and in use," Tom said. "The council looked likely 
to sell it off. It could be turned into houses, 
flats, a big hotel, a leisure complex. Having 
this place turned into a Center Parcs or a 
retreat for corporate team-building is wrong."
The squatters have invited specialists, from 
horticulturists and farmers to blacksmiths and 
basket-weavers to share and exchange skills with 
anyone, young or old, who cares to come along to listen and learn.
Tom and the others believe that within a few 
years it will be impossible to guarantee food 
security in the UK. It will become important, 
they believe, for people to know how to grow 
their own food and to live in a more environmentally friendly way.
"It is clear that how we live now is not 
sustainable. We need to get the information out 
to people about how to grow things, how to get 
back to the land," he says. "Most people in the 
world know how to do things like light fires. 
Many people in this country have forgotten that."
James, who joined the Occupy camp on College 
Green in Bristol this winter, said the Wilderness 
Centre bunch were "reluctant" to be associated 
with Occupy. "The Occupy movement was very 
general. That was its strength to begin with, but 
its weakness in the long term. It opened up a 
discourse, which was great, but we want to be 
more specific about what we are doing. There is a 
danger this could be seen as some sort of retreat 
for Occupy activists and we don't want that."
James has been living in a replica Saxon house, a 
smoky, draughty building. "It's not just about 
inheriting wealth and resources. We're borrowing 
it from the future. We want to re-introduce this 
idea that we have to be good ancestors."
He understands that times are tough for the 
council and that cuts have to be made. "But if 
they are serious about investing in the community 
you don't do that by cutting off education 
resources. There will be a short-term gain, they 
might get £4m for this property, but that would be quickly spent."
Rebecca arrived not from the Occupy movement but 
from the world of mental health care. She 
believes many people would be happier, less 
disturbed, if they were more connected with 
nature. "We don't understand how far we have been 
abstracted from the natural world," she said. 
"That causes a lot of psychological and emotional problems."
She dreams of creating a community more in tune 
with the natural world to help people through mental illness.
The squatters are pleased at the reaction from 
many local people. Farmers and residents have 
delivered supplies and good wishes. Even the 
police have been friendly, perhaps because they too have suffered cuts.
The chief constable, Tony Melville, made 
headlines when he said his force was on a "cliff edge".
Gloucestershire council insists it has to make 
difficult decisions to make ends meet. 
Maintaining the centre was expensive and it saw 
the sale as a way of bringing in much-needed 
revenue. It put the centre up for sale – but had 
to take it off the market when the squatters 
moved in. It said it will now try to take back the centre through the courts.
Charlotte and Sam, from London, were among 
visitors when the Guardian was shown around. "It 
looks as if they are looking after the place," 
said Charlotte. "If there are people here willing 
to put the time and effort into making it work, 
why not just let them get on with it?"

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