A View from the Edge in a ‘Transition’ B&B
Transition has strong roots in the permaculture movement and permaculture recognises that edges are often the most productive part of a natural ecosystem. Good examples are the rich and productive margins between water and land. Just think of the life that abounds at the edges of healthy rivers, ponds and the sea. Edges are where one system meets another and they come in all shapes and sizes. The meeting points between different cultures – when not polluted by racism and bigotry – are fertile junctures. Scientists talking with artists, atheists and agnostics meeting believers, carpenters collaborating with masons and metal workers, all give rise to something more than just the sum of the parts.
Guests from Germany and China enjoy breakfast
So what about the edges of our Transition initiatives where we come into contact with other people? Are these also fertile areas? Three years ago Karen and I decided to turn part of our home into Bed & Breakfast accommodation. Departing children meant that we needed to use our large home more efficiently – or move. So we became Bird’s Rest B&B and invited guests to stay in what our website describes as a ‘Transition household’. What does that mean? Karen participated in a Transition Streets group and a local permaculture project and I’ve been involved in Transition Town Totnes for around six years. Our home is stuffed full of sheep’s wool and hemp insulation, solar PV and hot water panels cover the roof, the front garden is full of fruit trees and the back has raised beds, a polytunnel and chickens. Breakfasts rely heavily on local produce, bedding is organic Fairtrade cotton and we provide cycles for guests to use. It’s a few steps in the right direction and by calling ourselves a ‘Transition B&B’ we draw attention to these steps and have the opportunity to talk to our guests about what the Transition movement is trying to do. There’s no preaching but conversations come up naturally.
The edges here are between Karen and I and our guests and also between guests. They all share the same breakfast table and it’s a real pleasure to hear the conversation and laughter that result and, just a few times, the guitar music and singing! In three years we’ve had guests from over 25 countries including Transitioners from all over the UK and around the world. People visit Totnes for all sorts of interesting reasons. Some come to see what Transition Town Totnes are up to, others are visiting the network offices. They study forest gardening with Martin Crawford, mushroom cultivation with Adam and Eric at Fungi Futures or do courses at Schumacher College. There are also tango dancers, tai-chi practitioners, journalists and film-makers, piano movers, demolition workers and families in search of sun, sea and sand.
So what comes out of this rich mix, what do the edges produce? We learn a great deal. Our very first guest had travelled from Transition Burlington in the US and was touring Europe to learn about coppicing so naturally we learnt a bit about coppicing as well. Other visitors from the US have taught us about permaculture gardening, repairing computers, why they talk about the end of economic growth without ever mentioning the ‘C’ word*. Guests have joined us for meals (they often end up cooking), glasses of wine, walks on Dartmoor and the coast, and paddled canoes with us on the river Dart. One even stayed here to keep an eye on our children while we went on holiday! And always there is conversation and learning. Our children and ourselves are constantly reminded that people from all over the world are just like us, simultaneously different and alike. Some people can be irritating – but so can we - happy and sad, fearful and optimistic, thoughtful and thoughtless, friendly and social or happier keeping their distance. People are human wherever they come from and whatever their character and it’s great to have our prejudices (we all have them!) constantly challenged.
People often come to Totnes when their own lives are changing, or rather, they are changing their own lives and exploring possibilities. We've had guests on the edge of abandoning corporate careers, looking for new directions after raising families, looking to move from urban to rural environments or trying to face inner demons that have constrained their lives so far. It's always a privilege to share time with such people and we count ourselves lucky in encountering so many of them.
Our horizons grow with every visitor and with every new vista comes new possibilities for what we might achieve in our own lives. From our home we can now see the growing transition movement in Portugal and Spain, examples of the gift economy in Ireland, environmental leadership in South Africa and Brazil, social entrepreneurs and eco-builders from Germany. Huge projects and small initiatives but all capable of inspiring us. And it's great to see people inspired by the things we've achieved in Totnes.
Our best experience? Shared meals and bottles of wine with visitors who muddy the boundaries we try and set between guests and friends!
The worst? Surprisingly few negative experiences apart from guests who request scrambled eggs - I hate cleaning the pans! One guest who stayed with us on four different occasions left without paying after his last visit and then ignored our messages. That felt like - and was - a real betrayal of trust. We later discovered that he had a gambling problem and had just been sacked so our unpaid bill is fairly insignificant compared to his problems. All in all a pretty rich experience.