INTO THE WYLD
In feudal times, you either owned some land or your worked on it. With the rise of the mercantilism of the Renaissance, the middle-classes grew and the fields began to empty as the city became the ticket to wealth. Yet still the hierarchy of rural England remained, the lords lived in their manors and their servants worked in them. Now, in the 21st century, anyone can be a lord of the manor – anyone who happens to have a couple million pounds going spare. As long as you’re among the 1%, you’re entitled to a title. But if you’re part of the doomed 99%, you may as well put down that copy of Country Life and start planning your AXA pension – as the chance of living in a country estate is nothing but a fairytale.
Or is it? Enter Monkton Wyld Court, a 16-room Victorian mansion sat in 12 acres of landscaped garden and farmland in the rolling hills of east Dorset. Only a ten minute drive from the majestic Jurassic Coast, this beautiful house and grounds can be yours for the princely sum of zero pounds and zero pence. All you have to give is your labour.
Monkton Wyld is owned by a trust which currently ’employs’ seven people. Each ’employee’ is paid £50 per week, furnished with a private room, has their food provided, and is charged with managing one aspect of life at the site. There’s a kitchen co-ordinator who plans meals and orders stock, a carpenter with a fully equipped workshop who makes repairs on the buildings, a gardener who grows herbs and vegetables, an office manager who deals with Bed & Breakfast bookings and a housekeeping coordinator who ensures the house is clean and ready for guests. In short, Monkton has everyone it needs to run its mini-economy. Someone collects food, someone cooks it, someone arranges for paying guests to visit, someone accommodates them, and someone ensures the whole place doesn’t fall to bits. The community earns money through its Bed & Breakfast and by offering courses on such rural/earthy topics as bread-making, beekeeping and botanical drawings – and that income pays for their food and wages.
If you want to live at Monkton, first you have to volunteer. Of course, planting a thousand potatoes or preparing large meals twice a day are strenuous jobs, so volunteers are the perfect way to supplement the workforce. These visitors pay nothing to stay at Monkton, but must work from 9 – 5 for their board and bed. I was one. The work is varied – mornings making soup, afternoons picking rosemary – and there’s plenty of time for tea breaks.
Volunteers also serve another important purpose at Monkton Wyld: change. With seven new people joining the community every fortnight, the residents are never without the opportunity to socialise with someone new. In fact, the permanent residents of Monkton probably meet more new people a year than the average UK citizen. Moreover, these visitors are more likely to share their interests than not: most of the volunteers are interested in alternative living, environmental awareness and building things with their hands – but they’re not homogenous. I visited alongside an Italian journalist, a French engineering tutor, a British accountant, an Australian backpacker and an American ex-serviceman photographer who lives in Barnsley.
One of the central tenets of the community is to maintain an environmentally low-impact lifestyle. They have their own well, a reed-bed filter system, and two compost toilets. They use wood burning stoves to keep warm instead of central heating, and some buildings have solar panels. But there’s no limits to how much electricity you can use and there’s continuous hot water.
Despite its green credentials, saving the environment isn’t everyone’s number one reason for living at Monkton. For some, the estate acts as a refuge from the complex economic and social machinery one must navigate in order to live in contemporary Britain. At Monkton Wyld there’s no commute, no tax, no rough-looking teens on the corner. There’s no redundancy packages and no bumping into your ex in the biscuits aisle. But there’s also no wider conglomerate in which to hide, no escaping the morning meeting and no avoiding the many menial duties which need day to day attention.
For others, Monkton is a place to live out their independent ecological mission. One couple have developed their own straw-bale house – which they keep extending as their children grow – and have built two award-winning compost toilets on site. They measure the amount of electricity they use each day from their solar panel – and if they run out, they run out. But this is their choice, and it’s totally self-imposed.
Another community member recently took over Monkton’s garden. After living in a different community for three years, he travelled to Dorset for a change, and found a new challenge in improving the yield of the vegetable garden to make Monkton more self sufficient.
The couple who manage the small dairy farm aren’t official members of the community, they rent the farmland from the trust and don’t get the £50 a week. They make cheese and yoghurt for the other residents, and run a business which imports hand-scythes from Austria and sells them to environmentally conscious hay-makers in the UK. They also run a magazine called The Land which focusses on how the general public’s lack of access to the land is a key cause of inequality, and tells of different initiatives around the world that relate to how land is being used, who’s using it.
But what is Monkton Wyld Court really for? Its main purpose seems to be a sort of unpolished golden cage. You either go there to escape, or you go there to make, but either way by forgoing the chance to save money you financially imprison yourself in beautiful surroundings. £50 a week is pittance. What happens when you need to visit the dentist? What happens when you you’re too old to work in the garden or in the kitchen – do you still get fed and a bed? The other issue is children. It may be easy enough to raise your kids on a beautiful farm, but what if they want to go on a school trip to France – where do you get the money from? And now, with tuition fees for university, they may be able to get a loan to study if they wish to, but with the debt they will graduate with, how can they – if they so desire – move back into a community such as Monkton if they’re expected to pay that £20,000 back to the government?
My biggest fear when I arrived at Monkton was that I wouldn’t get on with the people. I imagined there would be pressure to take part in some uncomfortable rituals; that I might have to worship a new god. Disappointingly, this didn’t happen. I wanted to go on this adventure to push myself out of my comfort zone, but in fact everyone was lovely, and endless cups of tea while reading Ted Hughes by the fire is a ritual I’m already quite familiar with. My most revelatory thought about the community was a simple one: why isn’t every country manor in Britain owned by a trust and open to stay at for free, in exchange for working on the land?
In short, Monkton is a very British commune. You keep yourself to yourself and do your duty to the community by diligently fulfilling your work role. If you want to be greenest family in Dorset – fine. If you’d rather spend your fifty pounds on tobacco and chocolate – so be it. Monkton Wyld is a community of people who look after a big old Victorian house, deep in England’s green and pleasant land. They’re peaceful and their kind, and their home makes for a perfect two-week break from modern life. But if you’re looking for radical social change and holistically different ways of being, then you might have to travel a little further abroad.
Monkton Wyld Court: http://www.monktonwyldcourt.co.uk/
The Land magazine: http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/