‘Start by doing what is necessary…’
Christina Juppe visits Hilfield Friary, where it is not just the land that is nurtured and renewed
Published in February ’12
A feeling of relaxed hospitality and friendliness is one’s first impression on entering Hilfield, the Franciscan friary near Batcombe. The provision of shelter for homeless men used to be one of its main concerns; over the years, however, resources began to dwindle and patterns of homelessness started to change. Nine years ago the brothers came to realise that the Friary needed a new purpose. They decided to re-focus on their Franciscan roots, whose vision can be defined as ‘Care of Creation with a passion for peace and reconciliation’.
A visiting Dorset County Council countryside warden contributed to this decision by remarking upon the outstanding beauty of the land that surrounded them. Greensand, chalk downs, clay, meadows and woodlands in various stages of growth allow intense biodiversity. Furthermore, the brothers were aware that a considerable number of people visited them with a desire not only to share their vision but also the idea of living in a community. Those people could not be turned away and working together for a common purpose could be beneficial to all.
The various considerations slowly came together and in 2006 the Hilfield Peace and Environment Programme was founded. It was not an easy decision for the brothers. Actively inviting others into their lives would require numerous changes: families would need to be accommodated, as would foreign visitors. The brothers’ daily rhythm of prayer and worship and the values of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Ecology, provided the framework for this program.
Today the Hilfield Friary Community consists of seven brothers and seventeen lay members, the youngest of whom is but a year old. The land is managed by Richard Thornbury and tended to by the brothers and resident volunteers. Some of the principles of permaculture are followed, aiming towards (agri-) culturally productive, non-polluting and sustainable human activities by using companion planting: placing different crops in proximity to one another in order that they benefit mutually from nutrient uptake, pollination or pest control.
The recent acquisition of two Shetland cows and their calves, and a small flock of poll Dorset sheep provide the Friary with meat. The latter also keep the grass short and, unusually, lamb in the autumn, thus further assisting land management. To the wider public, Hilfield Friary is particularly known for one of its wildflower meadows, which has seven types of orchid, along with many other flowers.
A neighbouring meadow is now being sown with wild flowers and, in this and other matters, the Friary works in close co-operation with Dorset Wildlife Trust. Sir Ghillean Prance, a Lyme Regis resident and prominent British botanist and ecologist, is as likely to be a visitor as The Earl and Countess of Sandwich, who planted a young oak tree on the occasion of the Friary’s Open Day on 18 June 2011. An earlier oak sapling was planted in 1950, a gift from wounded German ex-soldiers among whom brother Douglas had worked in the post-war years. Today, the oak’s wonderful spreading branches are symbolic of the close relationships with many friends from Germany; its acorns are collected to be planted, with young saplings given out as ‘peace’ oaks.
Many people are drawn to Hilfield Friary; they help out in the library, in the fruit and vegetable gardens, in the office and with IT, in the many gardens, in the shop or even taking care of the sewage. Friends from around the area – as well as the longer-term visitors – gladly give of their time with a shared sense of delight in nature and living together in peaceful harmony.
The brothers at Hilfield Friary recognise the interconnectedness of all creation: humans, animals and the land/environment are treated with the utmost respect and care, as evidenced by the fact that improved insulation has now halved the gas usage of six years ago; public transport, bicycles and shared transport are used whenever they can be and Fairtrade products are bought wherever possible. No artificial fertilisers are used on the land and animals are lovingly cared for until it is time for
their final journey.
Anyone who visits the Friary is given a warm welcome – the Peace and Environment Programme is open to all – and most volunteers stay for a year, some even longer. At a time when many are disillusioned with the mercenary life outside, more and more people are seeking serenity and the simplicity of life to be found within the Hilfield Community; it is a place to find sanctuary, renewal or rehabilitation. Often life at Hilfield Friary results in the acquisition of other skills being practised ‘on site’: catering, gardening or IT. The members of the community so empowered are thus able to find work and perhaps a changed lifestyle once their stay at the Friary is completed.
In some senses the life of the Friary is coming back full circle; in the early days of the Friary the brothers worked with homeless men and local supporters to look after what was then Flower Farm, producing food for sale at Dorchester Market as well as providing for the needs of the community.
Prior to the arrival of the brothers in 1921, Flower Farm was the home of The Little Commonwealth – a radical school project established by Homer Lane, an American educational psychologist – from 1913 to 1918. Homer Lane’s idea was to rehabilitate adolescent boys and girls, most of them from inner city areas, by sharing the responsibility of running the school with them. The farmyard and its barns were converted into a schoolroom and shop, other houses were constructed by the pupils using the local flint and thatch style, coins were minted for the school’s own, internal currency and a parliament involved everyone in the decisions of the Commonwealth. One could argue that Hilfield Friary does much the same now, but for people of all ages.