“The Natural House Project” at Acton Scot
( … Saturday the 16th of June 2007 … )
I am sitting on a slightly damp bench by the wall of a large barn. I am surrounded by various types of domestic foul. My shoes and the bottoms of my trousers are mud-spattered and my nostrils are assailed by the gentle combined aroma of damp hay, muddy water and manure. There’s not a PlayStation or an MP3 player in sight. Bliss!
As I take in the sights and sounds and the lifestyle of the Acton Scot Historic Working Farm Museum, in the middle of the Shropshire countryside, my fears that one day urbanisation will encroach over the entire surface of the planet seem silly and unfounded. Sprawling global metropolis of concrete, plastic and glass? “Impossible,” snort the pigs, in the sty just ahead and to the left of me, which is separated into three sections, wherein the swine appear to have been filed according to precise measurements of size and weight.
My reason for being here (literally rather than in the philosophical sense) is to fulfil my role as assistant/bag carrier/passer-of-sandwiches to my girlfriend, a photographer, who has been given the task of creating a visual record of something called “The Natural House Project“. This is the first of a number of occasions where she will record the almost magical conversion of such naturally occurring substances as clay, straw and water into walls and bricks and ultimately into an actual house. Of the type one can actually live in. And such.
It seems amazing, by today’s standards, that such a thing is possible. The point of the project, however, is to show that this is exactly the way us humans used to make our houses, and they did perfectly well for entire families of people however many thousands of years ago such little-more-than-mud-huts were prevalent. But back to the present…
On this and on other days in other locations, workshops are taking place, in which members of the public can literally get their hands dirty, partaking of the process of constructing one of these natural houses – or at least part of a wall thereof. Of those being photographed at Acton Scot, I am afraid the first workshop passed me by. This is on account of the fact that I wished to spend a little time strolling around the farm, drinking in those delightful countryside – I mean, real countryside – sensations that have been conspicuous by their absence in the past three months, during which time my girlfriend and I have attempted in vain to convince ourselves that we could cope with the grimy urbanity of a residence in Birmingham – despite the fact that she is a Cornish-born lass and I spent a substantial portion of my childhood just up the road from Acton Scot, in the distinctly non-urban small Salopian town of Church Stretton. I have, however, managed to extricate myself from my rural meanderings (which has nothing at all to do with the fact that God has just decided to empty his bathtub upon this particular portion of Shopshire), to position myself in a relatively non-swamp-like section of the mercifully sheltered space wherein the rendering and so on is taking place; and, in a quiet, humble and writerly way, observe.
I observe the observer – my girlfriend, the photographer – who somewhat tentatively interacts with the leaders and the participants of the workshop. I say “tentatively,” not because she is, like myself, of something of a shy disposition, to whom humans other than oneself are often a strange and mysterious species – but rather because, due to the projectile nature of a high proportion of the natural composites in the vicinity, she is in fear of the prospect of her not inexpensive photographic equipment coming away from the experience in a decidedly less shiny state than that in which it entered. She nevertheless manages, with a combination of skill, determination and a deftly choreographed sequence of mud-avoidance manoeuvres, to garner the confidence of the workshoppers and capture a suitably vivid flavour of the event.
I stand at the sidelines, but there is a substantial part of me which wants to get stuck in. This is sadly not possible, due to the bag carrying, sandwich-passing and so forth (and also not wishing for my person to become a conduit of various types of rural muck between the farm and our car). I am, however, almost overcome by the reckless desire to fling myself headlong into the bucket of clay/water/hemp, take great handfuls of the gunk and slap it heartily onto the hay bales. There are tools available for this task, but when the participants awake from the realisation that cleanliness is about as compatible with its performance as a damp sponge is with a toaster, they are quickly abandoned in favour of hands, arms, and in one or two cases, so it would appear, legs, feet and heads. There is a particular young lad whose presence I am initially unaware of, until, as he moves away from the wall, I realise that he isn’t actually part of it. The desire for myself to become part of the wall is almost overwhelming! To the benefit of our motor vehicle, however, I resist the temptation.
I was last at Acton Scot an almost terrifyingly distant two decades ago. I was a boy in my teens, very much into the burgeoning green movement, and as such, I was helping to run a stall for Friends of the Earth, of whom I was a member (naturally). The stall was located, if my memory serves me correctly, where they now keep the old plough equipment and so forth, just around the corner from the pigs (not the same pigs who are there now, I wouldn’t have thought, but as I know little about the expected lifespan of pigs, I may be wrong). During my stroll, here in 2007, around the farm, I recalled the mindset of myself twenty years ago… I felt a kind of shame and regret at my dwindling conviction in the issues which seemed so vital in the days of my youth. So-called “green” issues. Recycling, sustainability, generally leaving a smaller, cleaner “footprint” upon the surface of the Earth. I admit that I have, in my maturity, become a bit, well shall we say, slack. I don’t re-use or recycle as much as I probably could, I don’t so vehemently avoid the consumption of meat, and organic products are merely an occasional treat. To witness the building of a house, using techniques more ancient than Rome, in a working farm, in one of the most rural counties of England, and to be impressed by the joyous and enthusiastic natures of the builders of such, puts things in a little perspective. How much do we need? I mean really need? How much can we make for ourselves? How can we, in the twenty-first century, live a lifestyle which has as little impact on the planet as possible? Hmm, I’d say there’s thinking to be done…