Villages of Utopia 1

It has always been part of the communal utopian dream to set up village scale intentional communities, – in the past couple of decades the talk has been of Eco-villages, even Eco-towns. But it always seems that the transition from talk to reality is the greatest challenge.   This was never more so than in the 1970’s.

In December 1972 a ‘freak from Dublin’ wandered into the BIT information service office on Great Western Road in London and handed over £1250 to set up an ‘Alternative Society Ideas Pool’. The idea was to get people to send in proposals for projects that they wanted to set up and the best ones chosen by a panel of ‘Ideas Pool Attendants’ would get a share of the money. Nic Albery from BIT organised and ran what was billed as a ‘Revolutionary Co-operative Competition’ from January through to April 1973 and over 300 entries were sent in. There were various different categories of entries, ranging from Kids & Free schools, through Arty-Arty-Crafty-Drama- Music projects, Religious & other freakishness to projects for ‘the Old, Lonely, Housewives etc …’ In among these was a section for communes, new villages and towns, and a section on unusual structures and living spaces. Trogwell Commune in Bradford sent in a proposal for a “Floating Island for 30 people built of scrap”, someone called Brown sent in a series of watercolour sketches of “Live-in-the-sky-balloon-sausages”. A young architect, Will Alsop, sent in proposals for eight different model communities based on different types of derelict sites across the country. Each proposal was accompanied by an aerial photo of the site, a layout map and a futuristic drawing of the proposed structures and dwellings. There was a commune for 5000 people in a derelict china clay works at St Austell in Cornwall, a commune in an old vehicle dumping yard in Leicester for 250 people, a community in an old granite quarry in North Wales, a ‘Lunatic-TV-Station-Commune’ in an old brickworks in Bedfordshire, a ‘research commune in the trees’ in a disused open cast coal mine in the North East and a futuristic women’s commune with computerised body suits and a communal memory stored on the communes central computer.

Illustrations for: Car Dump Commune, Tree Village and Women’s Commune Will Alsop A Book of Visions 1975
Illustrations for: Car Dump Commune, Tree Village and Women’s Commune
Will Alsop A Book of Visions 1975

EA Book of Visionsach entry was judged by a number of criteria; Was the money really needed? / Would the person(s) do it themselves? / Was there activity there already? / Was it be likely to become self- supporting? And would it have lasting results? The dedicated ‘Pool attendants’ ploughed through the piles of entries. None of the grand commune schemes got any funding, but all the entries were put together and published in July ‘73 as A Book of Visions, complete with a cover illustration by Cliff Harper. While these plans were just visions of possible future utopian villages. There were others trying to work out how to make similar ideas reality

The main obstacle to setting up a new village scale community has always been finding a suitable site in Britain with enough space and where the planning authority would countenance the establishment of a new community. During the seventies a number of sites were identified and attempts made by a number of different groups to get a large scale community together. One potential sort of location was abandoned villages. On the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula, in North Wales was the abandoned quarry village of Porth y Nant.

Port Nant abandoned village 1970's
Port Nant abandoned village 1970’s

Quarrying ceased during World War Two and the village had been empty since. Parts of it were occupied by a group calling themselves the New Atlantis Commune, who had connections with Sid Rawle’s Diggers. They caused considerable damage burning much of the timber as firewood. In 1974 while researching his Alternative England & Wales book Nicholas Saunders stumbled across the village and put forward a proposal to buy the village. It was eventually purchased in 1978 by the Nant Gwrtheyrn Trust and has been turned into a Welsh Language Centre.

Other sites that were thought to be suitable for setting up new villages included run down holiday camps and surplus military camps. Following a number of Free Festivals in Pembrokeshire between ’73 and ’75, known as the Meigan Fayres, a group hoped to set up a community on the site of the at the time somewhat run down Penlan holiday village at Cenarth. Serious proposal were put forward in 1976 by a group called the ‘The Association for the Development of a Craft Village and Centre for Charities’ to transform over 200 large wooden barrack buildings at the Park Hall Army Camp outside Oswestry in Shropshire into a village sized community.

Park Hall Camp Oswestry
Park Hall Camp Oswestry

A planning application was submitted to turn the 260 acre army base in to a craft village with workshops and accommodation for craft workers, “… each having his own living accommodation, workshop and (share of) a retail shop.”

Sketch of Park Hall Camp Craft Village
Sketch of proposed Park Hall Camp Craft Village

While the idea was given support by council meetings at both District and County levels it was turned down at a County planning committee meeting by 13 votes to 11. The participants were left somewhat stoical at coming so close to realising their dream commenting afterwards:

 “We have learnt several lessons from this failure: (1) that it’s no use sending out a huge well-produced glossy report to councillors, they won’t bother to read even the summary. One’s time is much better spent going to visit them in their homes. We left this to` the last minute, and of the dozen we had time to visit, almost all voted for us. Only by a personal visit can one discover their fears and misconceptions … on the whole it has been a sobering experience, and makes us realise that without the same sort of pressure that lead to the Garden Cities movement and the New Towns Act – that without some equivalent New Villages Act – we don’t stand much of a chance.”               Rural Resettlement Handbook

(To be continued)


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