Who are we?
We are a group of families and individuals who have chosen to live together in a large old building, with 70 acres of land, in rural Suffolk. There are approximately 40 adults and 10 under 18s living here, though that can vary from year to year. A number of the founder members from 1974 still live here and, although people come and go, we are a fairly settled community. We see ourselves as part of the wider community rather than separated from it – our children attend local schools and several members have jobs locally, in nearby towns or London. We have a ‘no dogs‘ policy.
There is no single ethos for living at Old Hall – beliefs are as diverse as the individuals living here. Generally however, we share a concern for the environment and a desire to live an egalitarian, co-operative and healthy lifestyle. We attempt to farm the land, rear our animals and grow our food as organically as we can. Decision making is by consensus.
We are located in the heart of Constable country in a large village which has a few shops, pubs and a post office, plus play groups, a primary and secondary school (up to year 11). Sixth forms are in Colchester and Ipswich, both about 10 miles distant. There are three trains an hour to London from Manningtree, a commuter town three miles away. Buses to Colchester, Ipswich and Hadleigh stop at our gate. A nearby trunk road (A12) links the village to major towns and cities in the region.
Originally a manor, then a convent, an army barracks during the Second World War and latterly a Franciscan friary, Old Hall was purchased by the community in 1974. Legally we are known as Unit One Suffolk Housing Association (UOSHA). The building covers about two acres of ground and is divided into private and communal areas. Much of the interior has been altered and improved over the past 40 years. Many facilities are shared – these include a large kitchen/dining area, sitting room, sewing room, ballroom, library, washrooms, showers and laundry room. There is also a separate cottage. Some of the many buildings have been converted into workspaces – these include a wood and metal workshop, a garage and a space for repairing bicycles. We also have a deconsecrated chapel and a lay chapel where we occasionally put on events. There is wheelchair access to most communal areas. A book describing the history of the building is available for £3. A book describing the history of the community is available for £5.
When members join the community, they purchase loan stock in the housing association which entitles them to private living space (known as ‘units’) and a share in the communal facilities and land. Unit sizes vary according to need and the amount of loan stock bought. A full-size unit comprises approximately six rooms, or roughly the size of a family house. Heating is mostly provided by wood stoves, with some communal spaces and one or two units centrally heated thanks to our biomass boiler and ground source heating. People decorate their units according to personal taste. Structural alterations have to be agreed at a weekly meeting.
We own 70 acres, which we try to farm organically. We have vegetable gardens, orchards, woodlands, soft fruit patches, and a large lawn and play area, plus pastures and arable farmland. We grow wheat for our own bread, oats and other crops for animal fodder. We have a flock of Lincoln Longwool sheep and dairy cows (Jerseys and Redpolls) which are milked by hand. We make our own butter, cheese and yoghurt. We are largely self-sufficient in meat and some vegetables, although we do buy in whole foods, fish and other foodstuffs. Some of us are vegetarian. We also have chickens, geese, bees, pigs and cats. In the past we have also had ponies, goats and turkeys. What livestock we have at any particular time depends on who is willing to manage them.
Decisions are reached by consensus at a weekly meeting. Each year we elect a committee to run the housing association with a chairperson, treasurer and secretary. In addition we have convenors for the land, domestic matters, energy, volunteers, recycling, use of water, our social life and building maintenance. These sub-groups have regular or occasional meetings and make recommendations to the weekly meeting.
Commitment and work
Most people have part-time paid employment outside the community. There are also several members of retirement age. Regardless of job commitment, members are expected to put in a share towards the running of the farm for the community – an estimate is a minimum of 12-15 hours of work a week. Domestic work – cooking, bread-making, cleaning, washing up, etc – is done via a rota system and forms part of the 12-15 hours commitment. Secondary school children are expected to do one rota job a week, adults three. Although some work is done communally – such as the potato harvest – people usually take on individual responsibilities of their own choice. A certain amount of commitment, drive and stamina is necessary for happy co-existence.
Social life and communal activities
Most social activities are informal and spontaneous. We do sometimes have big parties and hold events open to the public. Christmas, New Year, and our summer birthday are celebrated in grand style. We also have an annual summer camp for children plus Maypole dancing and a pantomime. Living in a large group of people has its joys – and its difficulties. Not everyone gets on all the time and decisions can be frustratingly hard to reach. However, on the whole we are a bit like an extended family. At the same time, despite the number of people, it is always possible to find peace and quiet.
Old Hall is owned by UOSHA Ltd a non-profit housing association. There is a monthly ‘maintenance’ payment linked to space occupied and the number of people living in that space – this space covers all of the bills related to the building (maintenance, gas, electricity, council tax, etc).
There is also a standard monthly charge that covers all of the costs associated with producing the food and eating meals, as well as the use of such consumables as washing powder, tea, coffee, flour, etc.
The actual amount paid every month varies; but it is always considerably less than it is possible to exist on in the real world.