Tinkers Bubble – a visit

The following was originally posted on the Transition Hertford website blog after our visit to Tinkers Bubble in Somerset in November 2010.

Last Friday, Wenderlynn and I went down to Somerset for a much-needed weekend getaway. When we realised that our B&B was only 3 miles away from the eco-village Tinker’s Bubble, we phoned ahead and arranged to pay them a visit.
Leaving the B&B in the drizzle, our little Polo protested as we rattled along ever-narrowing roads that grew bumpier and bumpier (past Bagnell’s B&B – we should have stayed there!) until we saw the delightful hand-painted sign that told us we were there, and parked up among fallen apples.

We could see a couple of figures moving around in some sheds, and with some trepidation, we walked towards them. We were both aware that the inhabitants here (let’s call them the Tinkers) were very much living literally in their own bubble, and although we were fascinated to find out how they lived, and see what this community has achieved, at the same time, we didn’t want to intrude on their lives. We also felt that we wanted to avoid coming across as tourists. These are people who have taken low-impact living almost to its ultimate conclusion, by building their own self-contained, sustainable and largely off-grid community.

Essentially though, they hold the same values that we do, the difference being that they have chosen to go further down the road than we have. Wenderlynn and I both wanted to convey this spirit of kinship during our visit, which is why we unanimously and unspokenly (is that a word?) chose to leave the camera in the car. In any case, we were not there to take photographs – we were there to learn, to discover what it is like at the sharp end of sustainable living. We joined Transition Hertford partly because we wanted to take the next step up from using low energy lightbulbs and not running the tap when you brush your teeth. By extension, we had come to Tinker’s Bubble to see what life is like when you carry on taking the steps we had started to take, beyond having an allotment, beyond walking to work or pledging not to fly, because for all this, we still go home, and switch on the heating and the TV. What happens when you fully commit to sustainable living? We were about to find out.

We somewhat nervously approached the first person, a lady sorting through apples. Once we had introduced ourselves and explained why we were there, she told us her name was Karina, and started showing us around the area in which she was working. This was a big barn with bottles and sacks of apples, as well as various vegetables including some superb-looking cabbages. Behind this barn was another, filled with timber, outside which a man was cutting wood. Karina explained that the sawmill is run off a beautiful old steam-powered engine. This amazing old machine, housed in a strawbale-lined barn to reduce noise, really was a sight to behold, and allows Tinker’s Bubble to generate an income by processing timber from the Douglas Fir woodland in which they live.

Karina invited us to carry on walking around the site, and we chose to continue along the pathway to our left. We were greeted by a 40 year old orchard, the trees bending and twisting as if to reach the countless apples that lay at their feet. These apples provide the Tinkers with another income through the cider and juice they press themselves (although unfortunately this has to be done off-site for the usual eternally vague “health and safety” reasons). To our right was a steep, wooded slope. Somewhere up there, hidden in amongst the trees, was the settlement of houses where the Tinkers lived. Looking to our left, nestled among the apple trees, was a cob-walled building, made with timber and old pallets with a fantastic sky-lighted roof. This housed an apple press, and scattered on the ground around the outside were some glass demijohns. To the side of this building was a small shelter, protecting sacks of apples. This whole scene felt so much like a scene from the past, yet viewed in the context of our dwindling resources and financial collapse, we couldn’t help feeling that this is actually a vision of the future.

We continued to our right now, climbing the hill up through the trees. We passed the toilets, housed in strawbale shelters, and walked on a little way until we started seeing the houses. There was beauty and comfort in the ramshackled strawbale and cob wall shelters that the Tinkers call home, it was nice to see that nothing was perfect about them. No 4x4s, no fancy gardens, nothing to tell anyone that “I have a more important status than you in this community” – they were put together simply using what nature had provided, true to their principles of not using fossil fuels.

We were very aware here that we were wandering among people’s homes, and did not want to intrude, so we cautiously skirted around the houses, keeping as much distance as we could from the buildings, until we saw someone who spoke to us for a few minutes about how he and his partner had arrived at Tinker’s Bubble, and about their life there. We learned that everyone contributes 1-2 days of communal work a week (gardening, forestry work etc) and another, domestic work day, when they clean communal areas, cook for everyone, wash up and so forth.

After a brief chat, we moved on, past pots, pans, plates and cups that were stacked and hung as ramshackled as the homes in which they were used. This could have been a scene from our summer camping trips. We wondered why we go camping to do this very thing, to get away from the humdrum, the grind of work, the mortgage noose around our necks, and society’s restrictions on our lives, wanting to be outside and free, why we do this for a few days, only to then return to our bricks and mortar? We close the front door and our connection to the earth is largely lost, but at Tinker’s Bubble, people are living it daily, close to nature with no frills, no modern home comforts, but with a real sense of belonging and purpose.

A few more yards and we arrived at the fantastic communal roundhouse. Outside, eating his lunch was Pete. Wenderlynn had spoken to Pete on the phone, but it turned out this was in fact “Pete 2”, who was very friendly and chatted to us for some time about Tinker’s Bubble. He explained that around 90% of their food is self-produced, with nuts, grains etc bought in bulk to supplement this. He showed us the roundhouse, a splendid thatched building built with their own timber, stone paved inside, which even has an electric light which runs off their own self-generated electricity of course. This building has a loft and houses the kitchen, although we only saw the communal living room area, which looked very cosy and inviting on such a wet day. Pete talked to us about how he came to be here, and said that some people had been living there for 10 years or more.

We thanked Pete, and continued through the woods, down to the gardens: even in mid-November, here was an abundance of produce in a large, flourishing organic vegetable garden, with chickens to one side and a battery of solar panels and a wind turbine to the other. One or two Tinkers were working on the land here, and, as with the apple press before, this seemed like a vision of the past and the future, simultaneously.

The locals nearby seem to have accepted Tinker’s Bubble, although a condition of their getting planning permission for their homes was that the buildings must be hidden among the trees, so that they are not visible. Pete 2 and Pete 1 both gave their views on this, Pete 2 saying that although it made it a bit gloomy at times, and strong winds made him nervous sometimes, living amongst the trees provided valuable shelter in the winter. Pete 1 pointed out that he spent most of his time down in the gardens, but enjoyed the shade the trees give him in hot weather. As we walked away from the gardens, back down the path towards the car, we looked back at the little world we were walking away from, and despite the persistent rain, we were sad to be leaving. A couple of Tinkers told us that they had been WWOOFers before moving into Tinker’s Bubble, and the whole experience has inspired Wenderlynn and me to plan a spell of WWOOFing ourselves in the near future, perhaps at Tinker’s Bubble if possible.

The one thing that came across to us more than anything else during our brief time at Tinker’s Bubble, was how happy people seemed to be, living in these 40 acres of woodland, pastures, and apple orchards, living in benders and cob houses, cooking on a wood stove fire, the low living costs mean that the Tinkers generally only have to do around one day’s paid work a day, often on their stall at a local farmer’s market, selling fruit, vegetables or crafts. These are not people living in depravation. This life is not for everyone, and of course there is certainly a degree of sacrifice in giving up the comforts of a conventional life in our society, but to talk of sacrifice ignores the positives of such a move – community togetherness, living towards a shared vision, avoiding the 9-5, enjoying the feeling that your time is your own, and the knowledge that you are not damaging the earth and exploiting other people every day.

Whether Wenderlynn and I could make such a move ourselves, I really do not know. Sacrificing certain things for a more simple life would not be a problem – TVs and dishwashers are nice luxuries, but we have already begun to scale down our usage of them in our home, and would rarely miss them I think. They are part of the whole process: relaxation aids to help you unwind after wasting another day of your life in a meaningless job, and I’d guess that the need for such things diminishes, the further you move away from a lifestyle that leaves you drained and spiritually unsatisfied.

There are so many questions we wanted to answer – what do you have for breakfast? What’s it like going to the toilet in the depths of winter? Are there times when you just fancy watching a film, or having a burger? Do family and friends visit? What do they think? – but we did not want our visit to be seen as an intrusion, an interview, or worse, an interrogation. If we return to Tinker’s Bubble in the future, and I hope we will, perhaps we will get the answers to some of those questions.

More importantly, there are also deeper, more significant questions to answer, such as: in a world in which Scottish salmon is sent to China and back to be de-boned, in which planning permission is given all the time for companies to replace fields and trees with concrete, in which cheap flights and 4x4s drain the world’s resources every day, how is it that this gentle, thriving community, that has decided to live in a way which does not damage the earth, should be treated as an oddity, an eyesore even?

However, the one overriding, nagging question that Wenderlynn and I both took away from Tinker’s Bubble is this: when the oil runs out, when there is no more gas, when fossil water has gone, who will be ready, who will be prepared? Will we all have to live like this?

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Due to its very nature,there is very little online information about Tinker’s Bubble.
This short film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jz7UXTDkfo will give you a feel for the place, however, what you will not feel by watching it is the positive energy of the place that captivated and inspired us.