By Jeremy Miles
It’s Sunday afternoon and Amanda Pearson, James Burgess and I are chatting over a cup of tea and slices of Battenberg cake in a smart farmhouse kitchen.
Amanda is a lively dark haired woman in her early forties who works for the Health Education Trust, James is a 59-year-old former accountant. It’s about as normal a scene as you can imagine.
This will come as a surprise to some people. For we’re at The Threshold Centre, a North Dorset co-housing project which has long been regarded by certain folks with a degree of suspicion.
“I’m afraid that no matter how hard we try to persuade people that we’re not a bunch of hippies with weird ideas, there are still those who think we must be rather odd,” says Amanda (left). “In fact we’re very normal indeed. Just a group of people who choose to share their resources and live a greener, more sustainable life.”
She stresses that The Threshold Centre, based on a former dairy farm just outside Gillingham, is nothing like a stereotypical 70s style commune.
She gestures out of the window to a courtyard garden with a spacious lawn, shrubs, trees and a glorious crop marigolds and sweet peas. The houses - mainly two or three bedroom units - are arranged around this central recreation area.
There are several buildings including two terraced blocks one containing new-build eco-efficient residences, the other converted from the old cow sheds. All have impressive energy-saving specifications.
“Fundamentally the principals are that everybody has their own front door,” explains Amanda. “They have their own house with their own kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and living room but they also have access to shared facilities.”
There are 14 separate homes at Threshold currently housing 21 men, women and children each also has free use of the 300-year-old farmhouse
“We call it our Common House. When you buy or rent here you’re not only buying your own home but a fourteenth share of this house too.”
Co-housing, which has long been popular in Scandinavia and America, aims to encourage residents to share resources and thereby minimize their carbon-footprint.
The Threshold Centre started in 2004 when six like-minded people pooled their money to buy the old farmhouse, seven holiday cottages and two old barns. It took four years to achieve full planning permission and final building work was only completed in January this Year. Two of the houses are currently for sale - one is a two bedroom property priced at £130,000, the other has one bedroom and is offered through the local housing register on a shared ownership basis.
In addition to the houses, Threshold has an on-site laundry and communal freezers plus a vegetable plot complete with poly-tunnel.
The residents also pitch in with baby sitting and even dog walking and operate a one-car per household policy, sharing wherever possible. There’s a bio-mass wood-chip boiler for heating and photovoltaic solar panels to generate electricity. “We ask that each resident gives four hours work a week to the community. We have a good mix of people and a wide a range of skills. We play to people’s strengths. Some people love cooking, others hate it. Some people like gardening, others don’t.
“I know this kind of lifestyle wouldn’t suit everybody but we see it as middle way between the extremes of living on a full-blown commune and the isolated, alienated life experienced by so many people who live in big towns and cities.”
As we talk we are joined by John McMann, a 52-year-old single dad who came to live at Threshold after visiting one of their regular open days. John, a mental health worker with the NHS, is about to start peeling potatoes for the regular Sunday evening communal dinner. The group make a point of eating together twice a week. Tonight’s meal freshly harvested from the vegetable plot will be ratatouille, marrow and the aforementioned spuds. Food miles? Barely 50 yards. The communal meals are always vegetarian but residents are free to cook anything they like in their own kitchens.
John says that his two years of living at The Threshold Centre has been highly enjoyable. “I like the meditation and the fact that everyone has a spiritual path,” he tells me. “ I also like the hugs. We all meet up at ten to eight every morning and have a friendly hug before going to work. Hugging’s good. You should have five fruit and veg a day and five hugs a day. That’s what I think”.
Amanda, who has done such a good job projecting an image of utter normality, momentarily looks just a little embarrassed but explains: “We are quite spiritual people here but not in a proscriptive or dogmatic way. John is a Buddhist and there other people who are Sufi or Christian or Pagan but we are basically non-denominational.”
At this point James reveals that as well as being a former accountant he teaches sufism and astrology. He likes it at Threshold. “Everyone seems nice.” he tells me. “It’s got a good atmosphere. It’s very mellow and relaxed.”
He’s not a full-time resident yet but has been staying at the Common House to see whether he is a Threshold Centre kind of person.
“It’s a two way thing.” says Amanda.”Anyone who wants to live here has to spend two weekends as our guest. That way they find out if they like us and we find out if we like them. We then have a community meeting and discuss how we feel about that person. It’s not foolproof but at least it weeds out the complete horror stories. We have had people visit and at the end of the weekend we all heave a big sigh of relief. Interestingly you never hear from those people ever again.”
The current residents who range from “community elder” Caroline Sharman who’s 73 and a six-year-old child, seem to get on famously. ‘We’ve been very blessed with the people we have living here. There have been no serious problems,” says Amanda.
One of the founder members of The Threshold Centre is Michael Giddings, a 63-year-old who spends half his year in Southern India as an assistant guest master at a monastery.
He laughs when I ask if he’s a Buddhist or a Hindu. “I’m from the west so I tend to use christian terminology for my spiritual journey.” he tells me patiently. “I am just someone who believes that we all learn from each other.”
Living in a community, he says, requires a sense of humour and patience. It can be frustrating.” He points to a fence. “For instance it took us two months to decide the shape and height of that fence. You could see that some people were thinking ‘For goodness sake just make a decision’ but you can’t always do that. Things take time.”
*For more information about The Threshold Centre go to www.thresholdcentre.org.uk or ring Amanda Pearson on 01747 835633