Wednesday, January 26, 2011

John Seymour and self sufficient communities

A couple of days ago whilst hunting through the news I came across an article on the Brecklands that borders the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk, a rather desert like heath landscape you drive though. It has Thetford Forest as part of its territory and of course also Grimes Graves, prehistoric mines. Only of note in the archaeological record is that the scotch pine trees are being cleared from around the mines.

I had known it from years back, when we went to excavate at Castle Acre priory, but it was here that John Seymour lived for several years in a large rented cottage with his then wife and daughters.

He is the great guru of the self-sufficiency movement, and his books are classics. In them you will find the whole armoury of making things, be they baskets, blacksmithing, growing food, killing your produce and farming on a small scale. It is surprising really that he chose to live in this bleak landscape, its fertility quickly drained away through the porous sands, and he did eventually move on to Wales, the home of self-sufficient escapists, still today of course.

It brings to mind Tony Wrench in his roundhouse under the Preseli mountains, a hard life for most of us and still living on borrowed time from the council and eviction.

Being self-sufficient is hard work, if you want wood you have to find it and chop the logs for winter, growing your own means that there is a limited amount of greenstuff in winter, and unless you are prepared to give your chickens some light in winter – no eggs. Yet living lightly on the Earth is important, that is what the whole green culture is about, it probably only suits a very small number of people but some communities like Tinkers Bubble in Somerset have been going for quite a while.

Sally Seymour, John Seymour's first wife illustrated occasionally for his books, and perhaps it is these illustrations that capture the essence of relying on ones own skills, they are packed with information, given a brown overtone to give the impression of 'old worlde', at least that how it seems to me.  She was also a potter, and her daughter lives near to Carn Ingli, running a small printing press with her husband given over to her parent's work.

 Of course this is a favourite part of my world, Preseli Hills with its bleak air and prehistoric sites, and Tony Wrench's roundhouse is not too far from here either.  There was also another settlement being planned in the Pembrokeshire countryside as well a few years back, though whether it got off the ground I never found out.  But I remember giving a lot of my green magazines and books to a young American in Bath, where he lived with his wife.  He had a very gentle manner, and was very appreciative of the books, noting in passing that I had given up on my dreams!

I had advertised them in Freecycle, which is probably another offshoot of green ideas, it means that stuff can be recycled into the community.  My first offering was a bike with tyres that needed fixing, a young man  collected it, and the very next day he came back, tyres had been mended, he had cycled into work that morning and he was as pleased as punch with it.  Books went, but also my very large loom as well, which I did not expect anyone to want, but one saturday a woman turned up with a  spacious estate car and we managed to get it in, she was starting some sort of business, though weaving of course takes up a lot of time.

Sometimes I wonder if it was a green 'stream of consciousness' that flowed through the veins of young people from the 1960s onwards, or perhaps that mind stopping moment, when the spaceship looked back at our earth and photographed that living blue planet, making us all so aware how fragile our Earth was. Yet today we are still plundering its resources with a recklessness that will be our undoing

To close for the moment, the Seymours reminded me of the American couple Scot and Helen Nearing on their land in Vermont, I have only read two books by them, and it is mostly Helen Nearing I remember, as she built built her 100 foot stone wall round her vegetable garden to keep the rabbits at bay, and the book 'Loving and Living the Good Life'.  Scott Nearing chose to die, at about a 100 years old I think, and simply stopped eating, just occasionally drinking some juice now and then,  Helen tended to him throughout this period accepting that he had grown tired of life.  He was a pacifist at the time of Vietnam, and had lost his job as a lecturer of economics because of his views, and I expect was a rather outspoken and grumpy person.


  1. I'll return to this later (off to Doc's shortly so must dash). John Seymour was a hero of mine - such an inspiration.

  2. I was reading this with great interest but not much connection until the names Scott and Helen Nearing jumped at me.
    The Nearings first bought property in the hills of Southern Vermont near that of my husband's grandparents. J's mother's family taught the Nearings to make maple syrup.
    My late mother-in-law, though of a different philosophy in many ways than the Nearings kept at least occasional contact with them until a few years before Scott's death.
    Having grown up in frugal farming families I suppose we were rather tolerantly amused when in the early 70's our area of Vermont became a refuge for "Hippies" who hoped to live off the land. Most of them hadn't a clue and drifted away after a year or two.

  3. Hi to you both, It's a fascinating story the 'back to the land movement', and very coincidental MM that your mother- in-law knew the Nearings. I remember maple syrup time, it must have been written about in one of their books
    I think the 'hippy movement' was stronger in America to be quite honest but as John Seymour was our English self-sufficiency guru, Wendell Berry must have been the American one.