Wednesday 12 October 2011

The Visitors - A Transition Journey

I'm setting off today, catching an early train. I'm leaving Bristol Temple Meads, London Liverpool Steet, Machynlleth. I'm leaving Darsham by the marshes of my own home territory, crossing the city, negotiating bridges, underground tunnels, standing on a platform with schoolchildren, city commuters and old ladies going to the sea for a holiday. I'm on my way to visit the social reporters who live in different corners of the country, to meet the people I'm working with to create this new Transition communications hub. To find out how the places we live in influence our everyday lives and our initiatives, and how we all connect on a national scale.

Outside the window the flowers of the autumn flash past, skeins of travellers joy, stands of Michaelmas daisies, a resurgence of great mullein. The apples fall from the railway trees and form small pools of gold along the track. The jackdaws of Britain gather in the grey skies over a canopy of beech and oak. Outside the window the soils of the island shift colour from the red outside Totnes to almost black outside Cambridge, the arable prairies of the East become the green misty hills of the West. Rivers, valleys, house backs, allotments, distribution centres, sugar beet plants, ancient steeples, sprinkled cow and sheep, barn and spinney, the pattern language of Britain speaks its eloquent lexicon of brick and stone, tree and estuary.

One thing you do not expect: how beautiful it still is and how gentle. How, even with the knowledge you carry inside your mind about melting glaciers, population expansion, planning laws, species extinction, fracking, a morning in England can be so lovely. That the shape of the Chiltern Hills or the Sussex downs or the first glimpse of the Devon coast can still take your breath away.

I wanted to visit everyone on the project as much as was possible, the reporters who write during the week and the guest editors who write each Sunday. So today I'm meeting Jo in Finsbury Park, having a coffee with Rachel and her son and cats in her kitchen in Dursley, sleeping in a tipi in Ann's garden in Artist's Valley outside Macynlleth. I'm meeting Chris Wells (Communications) at the Transition Conference in Liverpool, Peter Lipman (The Big Picture) at Ed's house in Bristol, Tamzin Pinkerton (Food and Health) at Transition Camp in Sussex, Shaun Chamberlin (Economics) at the Uncivilisation festival in Hampshire.

Will you write a piece for us? I say and smile.

One key thing I remember from travelling for all those years. Visiting makes a difference to people and places. If you are visited your house is refreshed by someone noticing the small things you take for granted - the colour of your walls, how you plant your garden - enjoying your children, you. When you visit you see other vistas, other houses, other initiatives, something moves inside. You are surprised by the generosity of strangers who respond so positively to your presence. No longer good old (or not so good but certainly old) Charlotte. Visiting is how we engage in diversity and feedback, how we value, how we make connections.

Visiting is how I find out that Jay (Totnes) shares a love of Gary Synder's work, how Rachel (Dursley) works for ecotricity, how Martin (Cambridge) could talk about business with Jay, how Adrienne (Lewes) could talk forest gardens with Jo, how we could all visit Joe at Transition Heathrow and experience how TH run their meetings by consensus. How we could all visit Adrienne and see how TT Lewes have renovated the weekly market with small producers and social enterprises and via direct action helped a derelict school become a community space. How we could all benefit.

Because visiting is key to the art of communication. If we just stay in our own localised communities we forget the bigger picture. When we surf the net and peek into stranger's lives across the globe we forget about our own land, the value of the face-to-face encounter, what it feels like to wake up in another bedroom, to break up our own rigid routines and mindsets and not have everything under control.

When I stayed with Adrienne before and after the Transition camp she was on a "locovore" Sussex diet, which like the Fife and Cornwall diets means eating only food and drink that grows within your vicinity. Sussex is abundant in vegetables and fruit and beer, but crucial items from the larder were missing, including salt. So she had gone down to the coast to collect sea water and boiled it down until it crystallised.

But we have traded salt for hundreds of years, I said (there are salt routes all over Suffolk), as we discussed the challenges of eating strictly locally and seasonally. And no matter how peak oil and economic recession will affect our ability to travel as freely as we once did, we will still move because it is our nature to move and exchange, as much as it is to make roots and be stable. And travelling to meet people in this last month has shown me how vital that linking up is.

I have loved all my trips. I loved staying with Ed and jamming with him over breakfast, cherry tree in the garden, cat on my lap. I loved helping Ann and John in their market garden and going to dip my feet in a wild waterfall. I loved meeting Sarah in Belsize Park (People and Connections) and having a glass of Pinot Grigio in a London bar. I loved walking with Martin through the Cambridge streets and meeting Steve (Transition Ipswich) by serendipity on platform number 2. I loved travelling back to Paddington Station with the oldest member of the GrowHeathrow crew, as he told me how he became an activist and fitted all the glass panes for their greenhouses, so they could all live there. I loved talking with Adrienne, sitting beside her beehive in the corner of her forest garden at dusk as the moon rose over the hill. I loved hearing everyone's stories and telling them mine, about the things we do. The feeling that life is OK and there are people everywhere working towards the future in all the corners of this land.

But the best thing about visiting is coming home. When you come back you realise why you chose to be here in the first place. Thanks to fossil fuel and the industrial complex many of us are well-travelled people: we love the sea in Turkey, the countryside in France, Italian food, North African markets. We think nothing of going to Thailand or Australia, and take the places we live in for granted. But in Transition our world shrinks and we have to work harder to love our neighbourhoods and ourselves.

I have yearned for the physical experience of being in the desert or swimming in the Aegean, I have longed to live again in the Welsh hills, and be able to walk into a city cafe. To be up mountains, on the road, staying in a hotel in an unknown town. But as soon as we start approaching Manningtree and the train swings across the broad reach of the Orwell, something opens up. The light expands, the horizon goes on forever. I'm in big sky country again. Soon I'll be changing trains onto the Lowestoft line and the land will become familiar: shorn barley fields, craggy oaks, golden marshes, water meadows, fluffy-headed hemp agrimony gone to seed, the boats laid up at Woodbridge, painted chicken houses as I approach Darsham and Mark waiting at the station to greet me.

How did you get on
he will ask, picking up the suitcase, a turmeric plant I was given and my rocket stove. Let's go home and have a cup of tea I will say, and I will tell you everything . . .

Photos: walking towards the sunrise, Southwold: Jo in front of her teaching nursery garden in Finsbury Park; Joe and Transition Heathrow at Grow Heathrow; Chris Wells and communication strategy at the Transition conference; Jay at Totnes station; field kitchen at the Transition Camp


  1. Well Charlotte,
    We loved having you here, come back any time, plenty more weeding to be done!
    Ann & John

  2. Nice one, look forward to hearing about your adventures north of the border next time!

  3. Are we ever going to meet each other - the social reporters I mean? After reading this I feel we should. You have also whetted my appetite for going abroad (in the 1910s sense).