“ …. an ark is a symbol for a refuge in a time of trouble. Noah was warned of the disasters ahead; we also will require an ark in the time to come, and there is a small group of people now in London that has started building one …. There are great disasters ahead of us and we’ve got to prepare for them. There will be wars, political unrest, revolutions and all on such a scale that everything that humanity has managed to build up may well fall in ruins.”
Maurice Nicoll in conversation with Kenneth Walker 1924 1
On the surface of it there would seem to be very little that individual spiritually based intentional communities have in common with each other – except perhaps on a superficial level; they often have a charismatic leader/founder, vaguely similar practices; dance, meditation etc and there are only a limited number of psychical forms that any community can take. But when it comes to the philosophical ideas and backgrounds that underpin each community they can seem like chalk and cheese to each other. However in studying the history of a number of 20th century British spiritual communities I began to be intrigued by particular patterns that began to emerge when looking at them from a distance so to speak – or when looking at them in comparison to each other.
It all began reading a book called Venture with Ideas by Kenneth Walker published in 1973 which is a record of his time spent studying the ideas of the Armenian mystic G.I.Gurdjieff in the period just before and after WW2 with others at Lyne Place at Virginia Waters in Surrey. As early as 1923 Gurdjieff had prophesied that there would be another war and that humanity would fall into ruin, he had spoken to his followers urging them to form arks in the event of a ‘flood of evil engulfing the world’.
As Neville Chamberlain delivered his message to the British Nation on the 3rd of September 1939 that they were once again at war the residents of Lyne Place were escorting their children to a heavily timber reinforced basement that they had prepared, in the distance the wail of sirens could be heard. Plans for their ‘ark’ had been in place for some time. In the grounds of the house the group had dug a large underground concrete bunker to store food in, it was well stocked with provisions of every kind: hams, dried fruit, jars of salted butter, sugar, oatmeal, flour…. Arrangements were in place for as many women and children as possible from the London connections of the group to be accommodated in the house and in the various cottages on the small estate.
Lyne Place had been bought in 1936 by Mr. and Madame Ouspensky as a base to carry out plans for an esoteric school teaching ideas and practices that both of them had learnt from Gurdjieff. The newly acquired property in Surrey came with extensive gardens, rhododendron walks, a small lake with a boathouse, a farm, greenhouses, pigsties, barns stables and a vegetable garden. It was in a poor state of repair and required three months of renovation before it was fit for anyone to move in. The Ouspensky’s plans for the new venture were to, ‘so far as was possible’; create a self-contained, self-supporting community.
The permanent residents set about learning how to grow their own fruit and veg in the extensive kitchen gardens and orchards. At weekends the numbers were swollen by visitors from London with as many as a hundred people sitting down to meals. By the end of two years in residence the group were growing their own wheat, milling it themselves into flour and baking their own bread. They had constructed a shed containing fruit drying equipment and expanded their work into managing the woodland on the estate; felling timber and converting it in a ‘Heath Robinson’ sawmill that they had built themselves. Other members were kept busy with sheep and dairy farming. The core of residents of the new community were Russian – the Ouspenskys, the Savitskys, Mme Kadloubovsky, plus a handful of St Petersburg pensioners. Some of Ouspensky’s senior English pupils had been drafted in to manage the household and grounds. By the autumn of 1937 the new community was thriving and Oupensky’s work attracting the interest of a younger generation of the English intelligentsia. Including the likes of Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard , Christopher Isherwood, and a young Denis Healey.
All this activity was thrown into confusion by the outbreak of the war. As the esoteric refugees bunkered down in their Surrey Ark Ouspensky meditated on the state of the world and came to the erroneous conclusion that: Germany would quickly win the war and this would spark a Europe wide revolution supported by the Soviet Union and that only America would evade the clutches of Communism. London meetings were eventually cancelled due to the frequency of air raids and work at Lyne became harder as members were called up for national service. By 1940 with the Battle of Britain raging in the skies above Lyne and the Blitz having destroyed their London flat the Ouspenskys decided to emigrate to America leaving Lyne Place in the hands of trusted senior members of the group.
What really intrigued me about this story was the use of the imaginary of the Ark which continues to reappear throughout the work of Gurdjieffs’s followers during this period. Dr Maurice Nicoll, a Harley Street psychologist who had studied with Gurdjieff at the Château Du Prieure at Fontainebleau in France and had been given permission to teach the ‘system’ in England by Ouspensky, for some years in the late 1930s ran weekend courses and lectures at Lakes Farm at Rayne, near Braintree in Essex.
“The house itself was old and had a delightful atmosphere. Along the back wall a verandah had been built where all meals were served during the summer. A long trestle table covered with gaily coloured cloth and equally gay china looked so delightful that it was a pleasure to sit down and eat the food that Mrs Nicoll provided.”2
Selene Moxon describing her first weekend at Lakes Farm
Gurdjieff’s ‘Work’ was an esoteric path to enlightenment, supposedly handed down from a mysterious Sarmoung Monastery. Originally shrouded in obscurity, partly due to secrecy surrounding it and partly due to unorthodox teaching methods utilised by Gurdjieff, the Work consisted of various techniques to be practiced by adherents. With names such as; self remembering, self observation, conscious labour, intentional suffering. The owner of Lakes Farm died in 1934 and bequeathed the farm to her goddaughter, Jane Nicoll. Soon after Dr and Mrs Nicoll came up with a plan for building a house on the land next to the Lakes Farmhouse that would be suitable for carrying out the group activities that were by then attracting more and more people down to the farm at weekends. The new house would have large activity rooms on the ground floor with bedrooms above for the weekend guests. Plans for the building were drawn up by young architect George Kadleigh and the ‘Work’ weekends were transformed into spiritual self-build weekends. The group tackled pretty much the whole range of building works from digging the foundations, putting up timber frames, lath & plastering, carpentry and even weaving their own stair carpets – almost the only work done by actual builders was the thatching of the roof and sinking a well. The finished house was named Tyeponds after the name of the field in which it stood.
The Nichol’s heard about the imminent outbreak of war whilst on holiday with a small group of friends in Normandy in August 1939. The group rushed back to Essex where other members of the group had already started organising the digging of trenches in preparation for expected air raids.
“ We all thought that London would be bombed immediately. Friends came down in crowds and we found room for them all. Some brought their babies, others their dogs. Some came laden, feeling that they had left their homes for ever; others brought no possessions.”3
Maurice Nicoll had always had in the back of his mind that Tyeponds would act as a refuge, or Ark, should Gurdjieff’s predictions come to pass. As well as the members of his weekend groups and their families the farm was allocated a large number of evacuees. These very quickly filled up the accommodation in the houses and further people were crammed in any available space. A group of a dozen or so expectant mothers were put up in the carpentry shed, the music room was turned in to a makeshift school room for the numerous child evacuees. The group rose to the task of looking after these ‘guests’. Nicoll spent his own money on whatever was needed; prams for new mothers, extra stoves…. Numbers reached fifty within weeks, children were enrolled in the local school and more suitable accommodation was found for the pregnant women at Frinton. Numbers were further swollen at weekends as the group continued with the group work courses they had run before the outbreak of war. Life settled down in for a few months until they were abruptly disturbed on 26 May 1940 by instructions that the area had been declared a military zone and that they had 24hrs to pack and leave the area. The following day as the group packed to leave, across the channel the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk began. Nichol and his small group found refuge for the duration of the war at a large Victorian house called The Knapp at Birdlip in the Cotwolds and after the war re-established himself not back at Tyeponds which had been pretty much destroyed by the military, but in a couple of locations close to London. First at a house renamed Quare Mead at Ugley near Bishop Stortford where as well as once again running weekend courses the small number of permanent residents started small-holding and when that proved too small at Great Amwell House in Hertfordshire where Nichol carried on the ‘Work’ until his death in 1951.
In the post war years Gurdjieff’s work was continued at another community set up by J.G.Bennett in the former British Coal Utilisation Research Association(BCURA) base on the seven-acre Coombe Springs estate at Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey where he had worked during the war researching coal-based alternatives to oil. Bennett started off running weekend courses at Coombe Springs in the immediate post-war years whilst still working for BCURA, but became increasing worried about the possible collapse of civilisation and a further global war. In 1948 Bennett and his friends started to look for a ‘Noah’s Ark’, a place where they would be secure from political, economic and social turmoil – somewhat strangely in retrospect they looked to South Africa as a possible refuge. Bennett went to Africa to assess the feasibility of moving there and setting up independent community. In South Africa he met the Prime Minister Jan Smuts – who was in the middle of issuing the Fagan Report that proposed relaxing the country’s racial segregation laws – the reaction to which would usher in apartheid.
In the end it was decided that Africa was not ‘the right place’ and Bennett his wife and ten of his closest pupils formed the core of a new ‘research community’ at Coombe Springs. Numbers were swelled at weekends by numerous visitors who came down to study not only the teachings of Gurdjieff, but over the years a whole selection of other esoteric teachers.
In 1956, inspired by Sufi meeting houses he had seen on a tour of the Middle East, Bennett embarked on the construction of a fantastic building in the grounds of Coombe Springs. Instead of going for a building in any traditional architectural style, either eastern or western, it was decided to base the design of the new building on the mystical geometrical symbol of the enneagram, claimed by Gurdjieff to have great cosmic significance.
The unique nine-sided fifty foot high hall was designed and built by Bennett and a group of architects led by Robert Whiffen. Money for the project was raised through loans from members. The construction work was also carried out utilising the largely amateur building skills of the membership. A small team of residents was swollen at weekends with anything up to forty enthusiastic volunteers. The physical labour was incorporated as part of the spiritual ‘Work’ of the volunteers. The central axis of the hall was laid out so that it pointed to Gurdjieff’s grave at Fontainebleau. The hall had three levels: a concrete base, signifying the material world; timber structure and walls, signifying the living world, and a copper roof, signifying the spiritual world.
“…I was asked to give a name to the building, and chose the word Djamichunatra, taken from Chapter 46 of All and Everything, where it is used to describe the place where the soul receives its spiritual nourishment.” 4
The group at Coombe Spring continued through until 1965 when, in a move with echoes of Ouspensky’s renunciation of his own teachings, Bennett persuaded his followers to hand over the property to Idries Shah who promptly sold it, reputedly for £100,000, to a developer who flattened the whole estate; the main house, the amazing Djamichunatra, everything, in order to build luxury homes on the site.
“ ……..we were asked individually to complete a survey which included the question, “What do you think Coombe Springs is?” I answered that it was a spiritual supermarket, you paid your money and took your choice. Whereas leaders of other groups focussed on a single discipline, Mr Bennett was predisposed to ‘try anything’, and in later life even became a Catholic. Like me, perhaps, he was always looking for an authoritative and authentic tradition to which he could commit, and never found it. Or perhaps he discovered that no such tradition existed, and that all traditions were equal in efficacy.”
Alan Tunbridge Coombe Spring resident 1966
Bennett later continued his spiritual research work buying the rambling semi-derelict Sherborne House in the Cotswolds and in October 1971 and with the help of his wife and several assistants he launched the International Academy for Continuous Education.
Bennett thought that the old world was likely to disintegrate before the end of the twentieth century, but that the seeds of a new world could be nurtured in experimental communities and that the Academy could be a place where people who were starting to become aware of the coming changes could be “trained to perceive, to understand, and to withstand the strains of the world process.”
To do this a year long course was devised utilising Gurdjieffian techniques and ideas alongside material from other sources.
“The derelict state of Sherborne House provided plenty of work for the trainees: cooking, washing, and heating facilities were inadequate, and much had to be improvised. Students who had fancied themselves in for a few months of utopian dalliance in agreeable countryside surroundings were rudely awakened. Uncomfortable conditions, hard physical work, lectures, the Gurdjieff movements, discussions, psychological exercises, and conflict were the order of the day. The First Course lasted some ten months; Bennett graduated his first “class,” whom he encouraged to return home and share what they had learned with small groups.”
Eric Tamm in Robert Fripp – From King Crimson to Crafty Master
Bennett oversaw three of the year long courses as part of a five year program after which his intention was to invite back the best pupils and take the ‘next step’ with them. It would seem that the next step was to be some kind of self-sufficient community made up of Sherbourne graduates.
Due to the increasing price of land in England Bennett started to look to the USA as a possible location for a community that could continue his work. As the fourth annual course started at Sherbourne in October 1974 an agreement was signed between the Institute and The Claymont Society to lend them $100,000 to enable the purchase of Claymont Court, a farm and mansion on four hundred acres in the Shenandoah Valley, Jefferson County, West Virginia for the foundation of a psychokinetic community. Bennett would never see either the end of the five year program at Sherbourne or the development of the community in the States. He died aged 77 on 13 December 1974.
Sherborne House continued with the fourth and fifth courses of its five year programme after its founder’s death, but no long term community was to emerge from its work in the UK.. A childhood friend of Bennett’s, Pierre Elliot, who had also worked with both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, was chosen to head the American Society for Continuous Education based at Claymont where they would endeavour to carry out Bennett’s vision without the help of his guidance. Claymont has published many of Bennett’s works, and holds a collection of his taped lectures. The community/school is known today for its distinctive ideas around early childhood development and education. Bennet’s ideas have continued to be influential long after his death. Rock guitarist Robert Fripp, who attended the fifth Sherborne course, used Bennett’s ideas to set up his ‘Guitar Craft’ school and samples of Bennett speaking appear on his 1979 solo recording ‘Exposure’. Anthony Blake, one of Bennett’s leading pupils and editor of his published works, served as a consultant on the 1990 ‘Biosphere II’ project.
“Continuous Education is founded on the principle that human beings are capable of unlimited self-perfecting from birth to death and beyond. Self-perfecting is three-fold: bodily, mental and spiritual. It gives meaning to our lives as individuals; but there is also a continuous education of the human race to enable us to become truly human ….It is hoped that the project at Claymont will be the forerunner of similar communities in other parts of the USA and also in Europe, it may also be possible to help in the development of a prosperous village life in the developing countries, nearly all of which are threatened by the flight from the land. If mankind is to have a future, it must be based on respect and love for our Mother Nature”
J G Bennett A Call for a New Society. Sherborne House November 1974
In some ways it is not surprising that a generation that had grown up in the shadow of one world war and just lived through a second should be driven by thoughts of impending doom and of founding refuges and ‘Arks’. What is perhaps more surpising is that this mood of communal apocalyptic thinking would be sustained by the cold war through into the 1960’s and ‘70’s casting a shadow over another generation of spiritually based communities that started in that era. (To be covered in How Many Arks Does it Take? part 2)
A version of this blog appears as an essay in: Spiritual and Visionary Communities – Out to Save the World. Ed. Timothy Miller