Enter the Tipi: Inside the UK’s original eco-community

Enter the Tipi: Inside the UK’s original eco-community

This is not a lifestyle. It’s a life. — Tipi Valley has thrived as a community for over three decades with no rules and no councils, blazing a path for alternative living – hardcore style.

“No. It’s no good. I can’t do it.”

We’re perched at the top of a frighteningly steep precipice. Debbie – photographer, fellow blonde and my partner in reporting crime – is gripping the steering wheel so tight her hands are blue. A narrow path winds down to the sanctuary of flat ground. To the left is a sheer drop. All around is a dense blanket of impassable trees and bushes. There is no other way down. Are we at the summit of an epic Welsh mountain?

No, we are lost, cold and scared whilst trying to find our way to Tipi Valley, the UK’s original eco-community. If it hadn’t been for the mercy of a local farmer – “Don’t worry, angels, I’ll get ya sorted” – we’d still be marooned in a ditch somewhere in Carmarthenshire, our back-to-nature winter Hajj abandoned.

We eventually do arrive at our destination, though by the time we pull up at this picturesque farmhouse with semi-built tipis scattered about the yard (“This must be it!”), we’re physically and emotionally exhausted. A bright-eyed 23- year-old called Rush offers to take us to Big Lodge, the site’s guest quarters. As we drop down into the lush green valley it’s like entering a parallel universe.

Canvas structures in perfect harmony with their natural surroundings dot the hillside. Posses of wild-haired kids roam about playing in streams and squelching in mud. Men with long bobble hats and baggy raver pants push wheelbarrows loaded with solar panel-charged car batteries. A rotund pig squawks urgently, and in the distance it’s possible to make out a field of wild horses.

“It’s beautiful,” exclaims Debbie. “And the challenge of the journey makes being here all the more rewarding. You have to really want to come otherwise you’d probably never make it.”Picture 11

The discourse of ‘green’ has gone mainstream and there’s no escaping it. It seems spin-doctors and marketeers alike have got hold of the term and just won’t let go. Sustainability is a buzzword bandied around lefty press and the market place in a battleground of bamboozling certificates – Fairtrade, Locally Produced, Carbon Neutral, Biodegradable Capacity, Ozone Friendly, Planet Balanced, Dolphin Friendly, Badger Friendly, Recycled Paper, whatever.

In the wake of all this, it’s not surprising there’s been a swelling of people wishing to dedicate themselves in a way that goes much deeper than buying hemp socks, a biodegradable surfboard and a ‘I’m Not A Plastic Bag’ shopping bag. Across the UK and Europe more people than ever are banding together to form co-operatives and eco-communities, all with their own aims, objectives and degrees of ‘hardcore-ness’.

Diggers and Dreamers is the online nucleus of the UK’s burgeoning subculture of eco and co-operative communities. To date the site has just under 100 communities listed, ranging from old mansions with forty residents growing their own food and generating electricity to townhouses occupied by six care workers. A good example is Tinker’s Bubble in Somerset, where residents have been living off the land since 1994.

Power tools are banned and all food – vegetables, grains, meat – is produced as it would have been two hundred years ago. The residents of Steward Community Woodland in Devon, however, welcome modern power tools in their mission to live in and off the coppice woods.

Urban dwellings like the Hockerton Housing Project in Nottinghamshire and the Islington Park Street Community in London focus on a supportive, communal lifestyle with skill swapping, shared mealtimes and group-generated entertainment – drumming, chanting, singing, talking – replacing television.

Tipi Valley is the daddy of all UK eco-communities. Founded in 1976, it’s a 200-acre expanse of rolling countryside bought piece by piece from local farmers by its 200 or so residents (100 during the winter). The community includes families, singletons, activists, hippies, many ‘originals’, festival junkies, environmentalists, astrologers, artists, musicians and the like.Picture 6

The majority live in low-impact dwellings – tipis, yurts, caravans, huts, round houses – scattered across the idyllic valley. Others shack up in converted vehicles –buses, trucks, campervans – and a small number reside in cottages. The community has seen over sixty home births and there are families with three generations living there.

Many of the children born in Tipi Valley leave for the city but end up coming back after a few years. Rush was born in a village a few miles away from the valley, and his father was one of the seventies hippies that originally founded the site.

Aged twenty, he left the valley for a stint in Birmingham but returned after three years because city life made him feel like “a cog in a machine”. Compared to the bulk of newer initiatives, their ethos is refreshingly simple, the blurb on the Diggers & Dreamers website stating, “The idea is that we are part of nature, living within nature.”

Testament to how harmonious life can be without protocol and hierarchies, the community has thrived and survived over three decades with no rules and has always been autonomous with no big cheeses or councils. Everyone takes care of their own economy, and they never have group votes or business meetings. Instead, the community runs on “personal relationships and consensus”. On this principle, they’ve held massive free parties, fought numerous legal battles, expanded their land ownership and welcomed a steady stream of new and constantly evolving residents all with their own lifestyle ideals.

Of course, for all this to work there is one unspoken rule: respect. As twenty-something resident of four years Shane (there is no place for precise ages and surnames at Tipi Valley) explained to me, “If there is any rule it’s respect. Respect yourself, respect others and respect nature. That and take your shoes off before entering a dwelling. No one wants muddy bulrush matting.”Picture 3

Big Lodge is Tipi Valley’s majestic guest tipi with silhouettes of dancing figures circling its canvas. In keeping with the hippie tradition of welcoming guests of a shared mindset, it is permanently open with no booking required – you just turn up. No other UK community welcomes guests so freely, and it means those thinking of moving down can try out the lifestyle firsthand.

Lifting up the canvas ‘door’ we plunge inside onto the bulrush flooring to find José and Harvey, two long-term guests. Harvey is cocooned in his sleeping bag sheltering from what had been a freezing January night. With a full bed head on, José is positioning sticks into a pointed triangle in the centre of a large circle of stones preparing to light the first fire of the day. “Tea anyone?”

They tell us the tipi used to be a café on the free festival circuit. During the six months they’ve been here, they’ve seen a variety of guests come and go, including ‘John from Birmingham’ who went for a wash one morning and never came back, and a posse of nine female activists from Spain who arrived bearing an abundance of Ketamine. “Phreww,” says José, “those ladies were hardcore.”

Harvey is staying in Big Lodge until it’s time for him to start a new job as a doorman in the South of France, but José is about to build his own dwelling, a yurt. A yurt is a dome structure with a witch’s cauldron-like bulbous stove, as opposed to a fire, providing heating and cooking.Picture 1

Some of the families that live in the valley have three connecting yurts giving them a communal, adult and children’s space. Round Houses are the ‘new thing’ to build, their mud walls and turf roofs making them the ultimate low-impact dwellings as they camouflage into the countryside.

There are currently about thirty tipis scattered across the valley. The structures are amazingly resilient against the rain and wind-heavy Welsh climate, rainwater running down the side and winds of up to 100mph whipping past the huts. That said, even the most hardy tipi dwellers have experienced calamity.

Last week Tina, a sinewy lady with an impeccably run tipi who raised her now 15-year-old son, Max, within the community, had to dodge a falling tipi pole as 80mph winds ripped her home up around her. “Not what you need when you’re tucking into your morning porridge,” says Tina.

A true tipi has a hole at the top to allow smoke to escape. A smoke flap is attached to two poles (usually made of pine). According to wind direction it can be angled so rain doesn’t get in but smoke can still get out. To prevent land getting damaged, residents move their tipis every six months.

Tipis were originally made of animal skins or birch bark and were popularised by the American Indians of the Great Plains. Their portability was a huge factor since most Plains Indians were highly mobile, and tipis could be packed down when the tribe decided to move. ‘Tipi’ came into English via the Lakota language, ‘thi’ meaning ‘to dwell’ and ‘pi’ meaning ‘they dwell’.

The first tipi made in the UK in contemporary times was built by actor and filmmaker Chris Waite in 1974. A major player in the original free party movement, he and his then partner worked out how to create a tipi by looking at a rudimentary diagram in hippie coffee table essential The Last Whole Earth Catalogue, an amazing book cataloguing everything from medieval farming tools to yoga positions and cattle driving techniques.

They got the canvas made up in a sewing workshop in London and made the poles themselves with trees from local woodland, their self-taught ingenuity becoming the foundation of the UK’s entire tipi-building movement.

Chris is one of the founding fathers of Tipi Valley and remains there today albeit not in a tipi. “I did eight years of it,” he says. Instead, he now lives in a quaint farmhouse with open beams, a flushing toilet and a jar of alfalfa growing on the windowsill. Although not decked out in twenty-six-inch flares, his kill-you-with-kindness hospitality and propensity for saying ‘man’ gives away his background as one of the UK’s original hippies.Picture 5

Over herbal tea he waxes lyrical about the revolutionary nature of hippies in seventies Britain. “There was the establishment, and then there were us,” he says, highlighting how everything we take for granted in today’s society – sexual freedom, rave culture, the right to public protest, drug taking, youth culture, street fashion – was pioneered by them.

Expanding one’s mind with cocktails of LSD, marijuana and moonshine was a staple hippie pastime and, unlike today, drug consumption was an offence that would almost certainly land you in jail. “You never knew when the knock on the door (from the police) would come,” says Chris. “It’s not like we could blend in. We looked different, fuck, we even smelt different.”

This very real paranoia, combined with a desire to live a life more in tune with the earth, inspired hippies like Chris to hit the road in search of a piece of countryside ‘with heart’ to set up base. He spent four years trundling around the British and Irish countryside before landing at what was to become Tipi Valley. Via word of mouth, news about the hippie community spread and people from all over the UK started landing at the site.

“Stan and Cherry drove a big red double-decker bus straight into a field,” he remembers. “We knew that there was strength in numbers. This was our world. When the sun went down we were free and we knew they couldn’t get at us here.” He then adds with a smirk: “Because they couldn’t fucking find us.”

Although the bulk of Tipi Valley’s residents today could not strictly be described as hippies, much of the community’s social activities are rooted in its ethos. At least a couple of free raves take place on the ‘cricket pitch’ every year and Jim Jams, a musical jam that takes place at Jim’s cottage, happen monthly.

On new moons, things take a decidedly more hardcore turn in the form of sweat lodge parties. A sweat lodge is a tipi filled with heated rocks to create a sauna. Clothes are shed outside in the moonlight and then a posse of around twenty people jump inside to jiggle around, chant, bang drums and whatever else they fancy (I say), before dashing out to jump in the nearby stream.Picture 9

Despite its long-standing existence and Tipi Valley residents owning the land, the community’s legal status has been the object of discussion over the years. The majority of the land has been purchased for agricultural usage with no planning permission for residential structures. The Valley people argue the land is being used for agricultural purposes, and as they move every six months, their dwellings are nonpermanent agricultural structures.

Brig Oubridge, a Valley dweller since 1979, is the go-to man for all things legal. He is the only Tipi Valley resident to have won a court case, confirming his three tents and one caravan are lawful, the process taking a staggering thirteen years. Proceedings started in 1993 when Oubridge applied for a retrospective lawful use certificate, which was declined.

Two years later, when he had occupied the land for over ten years, a public inquiry ruled in his favour although various secretaries of state tried to have the decision overturned. In 2006 he was finally issued with a certificate.

For all its naked sweat lodge action and tea drinking around roaring fires, life at Tipi Valley is hard graft. Although without the bureaucratic bullshit – bills, mortgages, rent – of mainstream society, come rain, shine or snow, firewood must be cut, water fetched and dwelling maintenance work – mending canvasses, inserting linings, fixing smoke flaps – must be done.

Everyone has their own approach to washing, some take year-round dips in the icy streams while others, such as couple Chic and Ann and their two children, use an old tin bath. During the summer the valley is full of flowers and wildlife but in the winter it becomes a muddy bog with howling winds and endless rainstorms.

Reverend Rik is one of the Valley ‘originals’, having lived there for over thirty years. From rainstorms that lasted 121 days to 100mph winds, he’s seen and lived through it all.

Despite his hardy constitution, he hates how the valley has become a mud bog. “It’s awful, summer never happened this year so nothing had a chance to dry out,” he says. Yet he feels he has been there too long to move to a more comfortable abode: “After all this time, I don’t think I’d feel right in a house.”

Besides battling the elements, the valley has a tendency of attracting wayward characters, its cutoff location and iffy legal stance meaning residents have to tackle them themselves. Last week Harvey and a posse of men had to escort out an axewielding psycho. “God knows where he came from,” he says.

As if that weren’t enough, single ladies have to be mindful of marauding nutters who’ve accessed the camp via the travellers section (where everyone lives in beat-up trucks and buses) on the other side of the valley. Tina says, “It’s safer than any street but because of the type of place it is you get all sorts passing through so you have to be wary. I can tell by your body language you two are fine so next time come in for tea.”Picture 8

After spending time at Tipi Valley, I’m struck by the variety of lifestyles, dwellings and characters harmoniously housed within it. From yogis holed up in tents on three-year retreats to families living in farmhouses running renowned tipi-building businesses and festivals such as The Big Green Gathering, it’s all here with no hard or fast protocol.

Some own cars, others don’t. Some grow all their own food while others shop in nearby town Llandeilo, pronounced Clandeilo. Some children are home schooled while others attend the local educational facility. Unlike other rule-dominated communities, at Tipi anything and everything goes and consequently it’s a hugely liberating place. I don’t think I’ve stopped grinning from the moment we arrived.

Back at Big Lodge two new guests have arrived – Roselyn and Marcus – to attend the night’s Jim Jam. As darkness creeps in outside and rain begins to fall, we introduce ourselves over the dreamy glow of a roaring fire. Biscuits are shared, tea made and stories swapped.

Roselyn is a flame-haired astrologer who “does a lot of work with Earth Magic” and a former Tipi Valley resident of six years. “I loved it here but eventually the winds got too much for me,” she says. “I missed my work as it was impossible to practise from a tipi. You can’t get phone reception, an Internet connection or ask clients to come down here for meetings.”

Her pal Marcus is a dashing, wavy-haired twenty-something musician with a knack for playing medieval instruments. His previous experience of Tipi Valley was during the summer when the sun, butterflies and flowers were out in force. “This visit is good for me,” he muses. “Now I’m able to contrast the harsh reality of living in the Valley with the beauty and idealism of it. It’s deep.”

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