‘Everybody looks after each other!’ Fifty years of the commune that began with a Guardian ad | Life and style

Miriam Burns has had a busy day. It is only the early afternoon and she has already milked the cows and made lunch for dozens of people – a feast that included a giant tortilla, vegetables from the garden, carrot soup, and piles of perfect (and still warm) wholemeal rolls. She did lunch single-handed today. “You do kind of get in the swing of it,” she says. Supper tends to be more of a two-person job. “You’re more likely to have to go out to the garden and dig something up.”

Burns, 61, lives at Old Hall, a vast manor house with 26 hectares (65 acres) in a Suffolk village, along with 51 others. On the day I visit, crisp and sunny and wintry, many people are out at work. “I think it’s healthy that most people have jobs, so they have a life outside,” says Burns, who works for the local NHS mental health team. Other residents are working on and around the house. Some are clearing beds in the garden, and a small group, one wearing a harness, are chain-sawing branches off a big tree by the grand front door. There are a couple of people in the post room, a few more in the laundry room.

Miriam Burns in the kitchen after preparing lunch at Old Hall. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

Burns has lived here for 20 years. “It feels comfortable to be with lots of people,” she says. But the size of Old Hall means “it’s not too intense. If you want to give someone a bit of distance for a while, you can. I visited other communities before I moved in here, which were generally smaller.”

It is huge – a little worn and ramshackle in places, but charming. Wisteria covers the wing where the dining hall is. Painted a pale pink and with watery light flooding in through huge windows in a curved wall, the room is home to overwintering banana plants. It is also where yoga and singing workshops are held. There is an ornate ceiling in the library, and huge staircases throughout the rest of the house. It has, incredibly, a beautiful deconsecrated chapel, sometimes used for dancing or badminton. Attached to that are two smaller chapels, one of which is used for open mic nights, the other with a box full of roller-skates and a rail of dressing-up clothes. It feels as if there are miles and miles of panelled corridors, too tempting not to run up and down.

Fiona Mullins collecting eggs from the orchard at Old Hall, with her handmade willow basket. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

Then there is the organic farm comprising vegetable gardens, fields of sheep and cows, multiple barns and an orchard, home to free-ranging chickens. There are workshops for metal and woodworking. The lawned area around the house has a trampoline and large playhouse, and there are ponds and attractive corners of the garden, where you can find some solitude, should you need it. I feel like applying for one of the “units” – the name given to the private rooms – on the spot.

Daisy Lees, 49, grew up here from the mid-1970s to the mid-80s; six months ago, she moved back with her 13-year-old daughter. When she was a child, there were about 25 children roaming the house and land. “It was a really free and creative childhood,” she says. “We’d bring schoolfriends back, and they’d get lost. One of the other children would probably take them off somewhere. I think there was a pile of mattresses that we would jump on, and there was a roller-skating club in the chapel until we noticed that the floor might get damaged.” She says she spent more time with that group of children, “than I did with any adult, including my parents”.

Daisy Lees, who lived at Old Hall as a child and has now returned to live there with her daughter. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

They had a children’s tea each evening, separate from the adult meal. But there were also adults around all the time, to help look after the smaller children, or help the older ones with homework. “It was a very wide pool of skills, expertise, interests,” she says. There was always someone who was good at maths, or English, to help.

Living in a community can be challenging, she says, “but the rewards are huge, and for children, it’s the same”. Lots of the children who grew up at Old Hall still live locally, “so we’re very much in touch with each other, there are lifelong friendships. There is a bond there.”

The Old Hall community was established in 1974 by a small group of families. The manor itself was rebuilt in the 18th century by a banking family, painted by a young Constable in the 19th century, then became an abbey and home to nuns. The army took it over during the second world war, then it became a friary, and, finally, when the manor house came up for sale in the early 70s, a group of idealists took it on. They had to convince people in the village they were not a load of free-loving drug-addled hippies. They were, they wrote in a 1974 advert in the Guardian, seeking other members, “mainly middle-class socialists”.

Jill Cole joined a year later, having heard about it through a friend of a friend one night at a pub. The building was “terrible” she says. “A lot of people spent a lot of time just repairing it. It was cold, we didn’t have central heating or anything like that. We managed, and we had a lot of enthusiasm to make sure it worked.” She says she was used to living in cold houses, and she was a single parent with four children, so she was also used to hard work. “Everybody looked after each other, cared for each other a lot,” she says. It’s similar now, though those early days were different. “It was this pioneering enterprise, we all went into it together with the same sorts of ideals. It still works and it’s so good, but it has changed from how it was.”

Jill Cole in her unit at Old Hall. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

It’s a society-wide change, she says. “Everything was very free, we were very relaxed about everything. Now there’s a lot more bureaucracy, and people get worried, ‘Oh, you might get sued by someone’, or ‘That might be dangerous.’ We were never like that in the early days, the kids just were feral.” She laughs. “Sometimes I find it difficult now, because everything’s so careful and controlled.”

Cole has now lived here for 49 years. She likes looking after the animals, especially the eight cows. “When I came, they’d just got cows. I had worked on a farm as a young girl so I knew a bit about them.” She’s been doing the cows ever since. Cole is 90 this year, so how does she manage it? “It’s what living at Old Hall does for you. If you can, you have to keep fit because there’s too much to do.”

David Hodgson, who has lived at Old Hall since 1988. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

Most people are generalists, happy to take on whatever needs doing, and those who are physically able to work sign up for jobs on a rota system. “People are supposed to do at least three rota jobs a week,” says Dorit Schnieber. “And then you’re expected to work 15 hours a week on the land or the building.” When we talk, Schnieber is taking a break from the lunchtime washing-up, her rota job for today.

She had always been interested in communal living. “I’m originally from East Germany, and community there was very important, and we needed each other,” she says. Schnieber is in her 50s and has been at Old Hall for two years. It is, she says, “like living the life that we should aspire to”, though she adds, she feels very privileged. “I’ve got a slight problem with that.”

It requires capital to move into Old Hall, and you can’t get a mortgage because, essentially, you are buying what is known as “loan stock”, not property. There are also no rental units available, though there are occasionally opportunities to live there on a temporary basis. The private areas of the house were originally split into 14 units (each comprising about six rooms), though over the years these have been chopped and changed, and full units no longer exist. Only a couple of units have their own bathroom or kitchen area – almost all members share communal facilities.

The value has increased along with the house price index and it costs upwards of £100,000 for a unit, depending on size (members also have a share in the rest of the house and land). “You still have to buy in, which is a shame,” says Schnieber, who sold her flat to pay for it, “but we’re working on that to make it a bit more possible to get younger people in.” This includes a loan scheme. Once members have bought in, the cost of living there is very affordable – about £250 a month, including all bills and food, most of which they grow themselves. It means many of the people who live here only feel the need to work part-time.

Dorit Schnieber in the long main hallway at Old Hall. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

Schnieber, a jeweller, loves it even though, she says with a smile: “Nothing is perfect, and it’s a bit messy and chaotic.” There are aspects of the community she disagrees with, such as the use of land for livestock (she is Old Hall’s only vegan, which surprised her). “It’s a community and there are always challenges,” she says. “But no regrets.”

You have to be “endlessly tolerant and get over yourself,” says Fiona Mullins, 59, who has lived at Old Hall for five years. “And we all definitely need our private space and our private time as well as time together.” Mullins was part of a group trying to establish cohousing in Oxford for years, but they were repeatedly scuppered by developers. “I gave up on that and had a look for existing communities and found Old Hall.” As a gardener, she loved the land it offered, and the fact that it was so intergenerational – there are babies, and the oldest member only recently died, at the age of 100.

“The best thing is living with all these people, but it’s also the worst thing,” she says. “It’s great learning, living in community, and great fun.” There are get-togethers, including music evenings and poetry readings. Mullins has started to learn to play the guitar. “Just lots of things to do together.”

Rob Connigale, 51, lived here first in 2009, then moved in a second time with his family in 2019. He likes the fact that living in such a large group makes it easy to do things for other people. “Unless you work in the public sector, or some sort of charity, then pretty much whatever you’re doing is for yourself. But here if you feel like doing something to help 40 people, you can.”

The downside for him (and most others I speak to) is the amount of group decision-making. There is a weekly meeting, where discussions are had, and there are smaller meetings to deal with everyday issues, including cooking, shopping and land management. “Anything that costs money, or that’s likely to affect other people, has to be discussed,” says Connigale. Decisions are made by consensus, rather than a majority vote, “which is great because it means if something’s been agreed, then everyone’s behind it. But on the other hand, it means that a handful of people can slow things down.” Or quash plans altogether – there is a feeling that it’s difficult to get anything even slightly radical through the process.

Rob Connigale, who moved back to Old Hall for the second time in 2019. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian

Different jobs are managed by “conveners” (Connigale is currently overseeing the upkeep and repair of the hall’s many windows). They are called conveners because they are not meant to make decisions, but bring people together to oversee plans in each area. In a community, do natural leaders emerge?

“I suppose there might be some people more likely to propose things and some people might be more ready to get on with a job,” says Burns, but there are measures in place to stop anything becoming dictatorial. There is a chair, a post that is sometimes shared and changes each year, who manages the weekly meeting. The conveners also change each year. The need for consensus “does encourage humility and compromise”, she says.

There are more empty units at Old Hall now than at any time since it was established. The residents here say that it is a similar situation in other communities and is probably a result of several things – the upfront cost and our increasingly individualistic and atomised lives being the main ones. When Burns applied in 2001, she had to wait nearly three years for a unit to become available.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Old Hall community. I hope it goes for another 50 years and more. As long as it can attract younger members, it is a wonderful example of what it looks like to share resources, skills and space – and to get on with each other. Cole is one of only a few early members still at Old Hall. “There was a sense of pioneering, it was very much a community. It is still,” she says. We’ve been talking on comfy old sofas in the library, a lovely big room looking out on to a lawn strewn with children’s toys. Another perk of communal living arrives in the form of a plate of flapjacks, still warm from the kitchen.

For information about Old Hall, visit: https://www.oldhall.org.uk

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