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Letter to Tom and Josie

St Columba Society retreat centre at Great Barn Farm, Chanctonbury Ring

Hi Tom and Josie,

As promised, I am going to try to put together some thoughts about how the concept of a retreat centre at Great Barn Farm, Chanctonbury Ring and how, in particular my involvement in it has been influenced by a number of very different things. Not least is the most recent, which is a growing interest in the poems of John Clare, but I will come to him last. It will be best, I think, for me to start at the beginning of my involvement especially because at the time I had no idea what I was getting into, how deeply I might get involved or where it would lead me.

As you know I have always been interested in the work of Ruth and Greg Valerio, Ruth for her interest in environmental issues, The Transition movement, her book “L is for Lifestyle”, the A Rocha International charity and more recently Tear Fund, and Greg for his work with Cred and Fairtrade Gold. I have been friends with them both on Facebook for a long time and had met them a few times especially when they visited Gaston Farm.

About a year ago Greg started putting on Facebook stuff about the St Columba Society and that he was looking for volunteers to help clear brambles on some pasture they were going to start using to graze the new flock of rare breed sheep they had acquired. I already knew about these particular sheep from another source (rather sad but for another time) the flock was being sold and what St Columba Society had manged to get were the last of the rather large flock, in fact and quite poignantly ‘the ones no one else wanted’, in fact about 150 altogether and a mixed ragbag of rare breeds all quite delightful. Anyway, I turned up spent a few days clearing brambles, met everyone, including the sheep and fell in love with them. I was astounded by the whole thing.

One of the first conversations I had with Greg, (which we had whilst driving around the county to various fields we had manged to find for the sheep, we had no fields of our own yet), was about why the “St Columba Society”? Who was St Columba and what is Celtic Christianity all about? He advised me that I should read John Philip Newell and one or two other things about Celtic Christianity, which I did. I found it fascinating particularly about how unjudgmental they are. It began to make sense then that all the folk in the society are from different denominations and were all in their own way rather disillusioned with the church often so disillusioned that they have stopped going to church at all, myself and Liz included. They are in fact ‘the ones no one else wanted’ a mixed ragbag of rare breeds all quite delightful, just like the sheep. However, they are all passionate about God the Creator of all things, about the need to pray and worship, about Jesus and that we are all disciples following Him. Importantly too they are all passionate about caring for creation, reversing the modern trends in farming and food production that are destroying creation, about Climate Change and importantly caring for one’s fellow man and social justice.

Greg and a few small group friends had begun to pray that should find a place slightly away from the crowd where they could establish a smallholding. A place to establish a routine of daily prayer, a place to have some animals, sheep, chickens and pigs perhaps and an organic garden. They prayed together and individually for a number of years and to cut a long story short were eventually offered the opportunity to acquire a lease on Great Barn Farm at Chanctonbury Ring on the Wiston Estate. This included a wonderful seventeenth century Tithe barn, some other outbuildings and twenty-three acres of organic farmland. In fact, an answer to their prayers. I was overjoyed to find them and join the group.

Eventually we hope to establish a chapel in the barn for daily prayer and celebrations, the buildings will contain a library, a kitchen, a coffee shop come café, some workshops, storerooms and most importantly retreat rooms and shepherd’s huts for visitors on retreat. There will be some residential rooms too for society members to stay over. The fields will have an organic vegetable garden, an orchard and a vast variety of trees, soft fruit beds and a polytunnel. We will also have our rare breed sheep, chickens and pigs. The idea is to supply the kitchen from spade to plate with organic food. There will be a meeting space for talks, music, art, dance and craft workshops and possibly regular film evenings. The prime instrument of our evangelism will however be people’s curiosity. Amazingly since I have been involved I have been astounded at the questions people ask about who we are and what we are doing and more importantly, why? This reflects a comment from Tom Wright’s book “How God Became King” where he says that he hopes his book will be “for those from all backgrounds as well as for those looking over the fence”.

Now that’s quite a lot to be going on with for now but it is coming together. We are now in February 2019, just about to sign a lease on the 23-acre smallholding, in fact we should have our own land in the very near future and the buildings in a few months. I could go on and on as there is so much more to tell but how does John Clare fit in to all this? I will attempt very briefly to explain. I have become very interested in the injustices done over may centuries to the ordinary working-class people of our land. A huge proportion of the land in Great Britain is owned by the landed gentry in their obscenely large estates.  Before what is known as the Enclosures Acts, much of that land was common land which could be freely used by ordinary farm workers and labourers for growing crops and grazing livestock. When it became profitable to keep sheep for their wool much of the land was enclosed by the wealthy and eventually laws were drawn up to make them the Landowners, hence the vast estates. To put it in a nutshell the land was stolen from the common people. Ordinary folk were turfed out of their homes and made to move to towns in search of work. The hardship imposed on ordinary farm workers was unimaginable and many of them starved.

John Clare Museum – Helpston.

John Clare was born in 1793 in Helpston. He was the son of a farm labourer. The cottage in the picture above is the house where he lived, now the John Clare museum. He lived here, probably in only part of this house with his parents and whilst there was sent to school until his father could no longer afford the fees. He left school at the age of twelve to go labouring in order to help with the bills. However, the schooling he had was enough to inspire in him a love for poetry and he immediately began writing. He apparently was remarkably prolific and wrote hundreds of poems. He described in them the beauty of the created world which teemed with wildlife, birds, animals, trees and flowers. He wrote about the people close to him, fellow workers and others. He wrote about the enclosure of the land and the terrible devastating effects it had on the place he loved.

In 1820 he was persuaded to publish his work in order to try and prevent the eviction of his family from the cottage. His publisher was very helpful in editing and correcting his work for which Clare was grateful. In a couple of years, he had published two books and been recognised by a very discerning readership as being a huge talent. He is now thought to be one of the best of the romantic poets along with Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley.

He was also a satirist and he wrote of his observations of the effects of the enclosures on the working classes. He wrote a very long epic poem, “The Parish”. It is a wonderful poem which is full of description of the people he observed in his daily life. Much of the imagery is drawn from the farmyard and the dung heap:

A dirty dog that on the puddles brink,

Stirs up the mud and quarrels with the stink,

The Parish by John Clare

‘Dirty’ is used throughout the poem to describe the behaviour of the rich. He said the poem was, ‘begun and finished under the pressure of heavy distress, with embittered feelings under a state of anxiety and oppression almost amounting to slavery…’

In ‘The Parish’ Clare doesn’t hold back, he hates the double dealings of the rising middle classes. In much of the poem he is writes descriptions of real people but has changed their names, just reading the names demonstrates his dislike of their morals. Miss Peevish Scornful, Young Farmer Bigg, Young Headlong Racket, Dandy Flint, Farmer Cheetum, Old Saveall, The Ranter Priests, Doctor Urine and not least Young Bragg. You can imagine from the names that Clare had a dim view of them all. He was never scathing about the Lords and Ladies, the genuine royalty noblemen. He was however ruthless when describing the hypocrisy of the rising middle classes. 

Clare was advised not to publish The Parish in his lifetime as it contained a great deal of inflammatory material. Gladly it was eventually published in 1986 and is probably his best poem. I think It is wonderful, from my point of view it sums up beautifully everything we are trying to do at ‘Great Barn Farm’. This I will now explain.

He was a Christian, brought up an Anglican but during his growing up he tried made denominations finding for one reason or another that they were all lacking. There was one vicar however who was worthy of his praise. This gentle man lived in a cottage near the church and kept it neat and tidy. He tended the churchyard and most importantly for Clare never turned anyone away, especially the poor and needy.  The cottage the said vicar lived in was always fully of people needing help. In “The Parish” Clare describes many church leaders, vicars and priests who are all far too proud save one, he describes him like this. After describing how the prouder religious leaders behaved he writes the following, which for me sums it up and describes I think what we are trying to achieve in St Columba’s Barn.

Yes – there was one who priesthoods trade professed ‘one whom the wretched and the poor knew best’…

…There lived the vicar once in days gone bye When pride and fashion did not rank so high…”

…Still there are some whose actions merit praise

The lingering breathings of departed days

Though in this world of vainness thinly sown

Yet there are some whom fashion leaves alone

Who like their master plain and humble go

And strive to follow in his steps below

Who in the wilderness as beacons stand

To pilgrims journeying to the promised land

To give instruction to enquiring souls

And cheer the weak above the world’s controls

To tend their charge and wanderers’ backs restore

To rest the weary and relieve the poor….

The Parish by John Clare

I hope you enjoy this,

Pete xx

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