Back Home Again, September 2016.
It was forty years ago this October that Elizabeth Braund, with Rosemary Bird, first descended on East Shallowford Farm in a Ford Transit, carrying a motley bunch of young people from Battersea, London. She called her project, ‘A Lung for the City’, and in her dogged and pioneering fashion set about helping city kids breath a new life. Everything that was done at Shallowford was accomplished with the young people – developing the farming, building the outhouses, exploring the countryside, learning a host of new things, and mingling with the curious, onlooking local community.
Thousands of visitors later and the work is still progressing. Elizabeth passed away in 2013, but the project has continued, and even now Trustees are planning for the future.
But this last weekend in September was principally about remembering the past. Visitors from down the years came to represent their peers. Two of them had as young people been on the very first minibus to come to the farm, and reported that this was their best weekend for a long time. Visitors camped, squashed into the farmhouse or stayed locally.
On Saturday afternoon there was a story telling gathering, and in the evening a barn dance, to the accompaniment of the inevitable rain, and on Sunday a service of celebration, to ‘thank God for all that is past, and trust Him for all that’s to come’.
It was good to share stories and see and hear different presentations, that served both to underline the rich heritage of the past forty years and the importance of maintaining this link between town and country, indeed to keep breathing with this ‘lung for the city’.
Several of the visitors publicly spoke about the peace and stillness and richness of the place. In fact one of them, who first came in the early 80’s, has been texting ever since, and so wanting her own sons to come again. Many spoke of East Shallowford being a life changing experience.
Over the past fortnight I have spent much time at East Shallowford. I have slept under the eaves in the old farmhouse, I have huddled in a small tent while the storm raged overnight, I have watched under the stars before others were up, and I have sat on the bench in the farmyard and seen the shapes on and over Corndon change and become clearer in the morning light. Although each person experiences things differently, similar enriching experiences are what we are able to give to young people, brought up in a very different environment, concrete, man-made, impersonal.
In her latter years, Elizabeth Braund had a phrase to summarise what she saw as the value of the place. ‘The Heart of the Matter’ is that East Shallowford is somewhere people can make connections – connecting with and to the natural world, connecting with themselves, connecting with others, and ultimately to connect with God in Christ. The Heart of the Matter is all about making connections.
At the Saturday afternoon gathering, with apologies to John Denver, we sang along to this:
‘There’s a wind across the valley, clouds are rollin’ in, and the afternoon is heavy over Corndon.
There’s a tractor on the hillside, turning all the hay; let’s hope he gets it in before the rain comes.
Not far away from Shallowford our hopes are on the moors, Two hundred miles from London will soon be done.
There’s a fire softly burning; supper’s on the stove; but it’s the light in your eyes that makes us warm.
Hey, it’s good to be back home a-gain.
Sometimes this old farm feels like a long lost friend, Yes, ‘n, hey it’s good to be back home again.’
Lastly, the special tranquility and sanctuary of the West Webburn Valley. We are deeply committed to this valley and this place. The circumstances in which Elizabeth and Rosemary arrived here in 1976 was as of a door opening, and when during the period leading up to the refurbishment of 2009, it was discussed whether a different location should be found to solve the accommodation problem, the answer resoundingly came back that East Shallowford was where home was, and when we are most successful in this work it is when we grow a feeling among our visitors that they belong, that they are a part of this place. Belonging as you know leads to responsibility and to giving and sustaining.
Running alongside this is also the importance of making connections. ‘The heart of the matter’, as Elizabeth would say, is that East Shallowford is a place where people can make connections – connecting with and to the natural world, connecting with themselves, connecting with others, and ultimately to connect with God in Christ. I am sure that as a man with faith you can appreciate that. We are bringing people to engage very often for the first time with the natural world.
Feedback from the 40th
Jill: “Want to thank you for [an] amazing weekend. I have had the best weekend probably since my 50th birthday. Our life is consumed with stuff that matters but shouldn’t take our life over. Spending time with you all made it so transparent. I will see you on 1st of the month and thank you once again.”
Chantelle: “We had such an amazing time in Devon. Everyone was so lovely. Thank you. And Debbie was so amazing with the boys. Such a great lady. Would love to send a thank you card and donate some money to the farm at the end of October is that’s ok.”
Margaret: “Oh it was such a good weekend. One of the best.”
Kids: “like East Shallowford Farm because it is away from the hustle and bustle of London. Also I have my GCSEs and when I’m there it takes the stress of it away from me as it’s very peaceful. Lastly the people there are very kind and friendly and welcoming.”