Alternative communities

Noel Longhurst, a Steiner supporter from Norfolk wrote a PhD on alternative communities. There were several contenders from the most appropriate town in the UK to study in this context, and he chose Totnes. I have to admit, Totnes’s credentials are excellent, being officially twinned with Narnia makes it an even more suitable subject than Stroud.

Anyway, Noel shared his thoughts on the alternative communities in this part of South Devon in a blog called “Alternative Totnes”. The posts mainly take the form of excerpts from his PhD papers.

There are a few posts of interest. On the “Alternative Mileu” page the author gives five different categories of counterculture;

– Radical politics (i.e. attempts to change the political and economic system itself)

– Social movements (environmentalism, feminism etc)

– Alternative Pathways (attempts to build alternative institutions such as alternative health, education and agriculture).

– Alternative spiritualities (many of the Eastern philosophies which became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as practices associated with the new age

– Alternative lifestyles (back-to-the-land, co-operative living, squatting etc)


Of course any local people will recognise all these categories as prominent features in the Stroud area, and it’s interesting to compare.

In one post Longhurst refers to the term homophily,  “the desire to be amongst likeminded or similar people”. Someone apparently objected to the use of this term in another of his posts, about anthroposophy in the Totnes area.

The “Dartington Effect” is examined, and is so-called because the Dartington Hall Trust, set up in the 1930s has been a hub.

I have been visiting Dartington all my life, strolling in the gardens, hiding in the trees as a child, and returning with my own children. It is a beautiful place.

There is a Steiner school in the village, of course, and the progressive, notorious “Dartington Hall School”, closed in the 1980s, lives on to an extent in a nearby independent school.

Our equivalent would be Hawkwood college.

Totnes is the home of Transition Towns, and Stroud is “in transition” too. Local people are devoting themselves to preparing for the apocalypse after peak oil, by shunning industrial food and agriculture and focusing on local initiatives. There are interesting and worthwhile projects going on, but sadly anyone who did not favour using biodynamics, or was not happy paying for the bd veg, would not be taking part.

It is often said that Stroud has a diverse alternative community, but on examination it does not appear diverse. The infiltration of these by the Steiner community is widespread, to the extent that biodynamics is widely used and the produce sold to unsuspecting local people, anthroposophical medicine is used, and places for children and young adults in Steiner kindergartens,schools and colleges are being funded. Adult care is mostly Steiner too.

Perhaps it is the same in Totnes, Forest Row, and other towns in the UK. At least only one town can be twinned with Narnia though.



  1. Jim

    Why harrumph Helen? You’re surely not annoyed at being out-Steinered by Totnes?

    I quite like Totnes, we often stop off there on the way to Dartmouth. You pass the Steiner school on the way in but once in the town you don’t notice their influence so much, just a bit of a hippy feel. But maybe that’s how Stroud would seem to the casual visitor, we know it too well. I think Nick lives near Totnes so he would know.

    I suppose there is something to be said for living somewhere like Swindon – you’re not likely to be invaded by Steiners. ( Apologies to any Swindonians, but you’ll know what I mean ).

    • Helen

      No not annoyed at that, but surprised and disappointed someone could do a PhD on this, and I’m generally put out that it’s hard to support some of the more interesting projects around here without somehow winding up in Steinerland.
      As for Swindon I am sure you are right. Steiner do operate in cities but not there as far as I know, Stroud is the afflicted area.

    • Helen

      Thanks for that link. I had read the second part and linked to it in September last year, but not the first part. The Jarman family are active here too.
      Last week everyone here received a leaflet from Transition Stroud produced with support from Stroud Town council, and delivered by the council. Everyone should also receive a copy of your article, in my opinion.

    • Jim

      As you say, it’s long – but interesting.
      One aspect which I imagine must have been very frustrating is that you were trying to engage with things you felt worthwhile but were put off by the Steiner involvement. I guess at a practical level you have to decide on a case by case basis whether the activity concerned merely happens to have some pro-Steiner participants or whether it is being fundamentally realigned with Steiner goals. But as the anthros seem unable to involve themselves in anything without co-opting it for their own aims what starts as one is likely to end up the other.
      But what do you do? Engage and resist or withdraw and leave it to them?

  2. David Clark

    Hi Helen,

    Many thanks for the “holophily” reference. Seems interesting. Speaking up for Swindon and other places, I was intrigued to discover the Wikipedia reference to “heterophily”. Closer to my chosen path.

  3. Melanie Byng (@ThetisMercurio)

    The nearby independent school – Sands, in Ashburton – has no links with Steiner or anthroposophy. It’s a democratic school. Some of the students at Sands have been at the Steiner school, my son was one of them. Steiner Waldorf is very far from democratic, of course.

  4. David Clark

    That’s clearly a fundamental point.

    Today, I will go to a local community cafe that is also run by a nearby State school as a Preschool group. What will happen today? Having visited it previously, I’m expecting very active and lively children at play in an informal zone close to their parents who will enjoying a welcome opportunity for conversation. Elsewhere, I’m expecting others from another generation like me who have come for lunch or coffee. Teachers are supported as hosts in the kitchen by a “home educated” child who is greatly appreciated and clearly learns a great deal from this wonderfully diverse and rich environment.

    Entering the space, I’m expecting a quality of relation. Indeed, by joining those present, I have entered into a kind of informal and tacit contract between the adults that implies mutual acceptance and caring.

    Yet I have also experienced other forms of encounter when representatives of the school express their concerns to other adults about business matters or regulatory requirements. In such conversations (outside of school hours) it is made quite clear that there are legitimate demands (in my view) that need to be met. In this way, I recognise that school representatives can make legitimate claims on other adults where the well-being of children is at stake. Of course, I do not have to accept this situation and may then decide to leave.

    From these limited experiences, I can draw several conclusions. Firstly, that human relation is a state that can be fostered among people, especially including children. Secondly, that democracy seems to be a value that I may fail to realise, especially when I don’t recognise others’ rights. Thirdly, that while both “relation” and “democracy” are concerned with rights experiences, relation seems connected with embodiment while democracy manifests discursively.

    Oops. Of course I meant “homophily reference” in my message above.

    • Jim

      David – I really don’t mean to be unkind but with some of your comments I have difficulty understanding what you are saying and what if anything it has to do with the post on which you are commenting. It’s as if you are musing to yourself on whatever the post happens to suggest to you.

      Please don’t think I mean that you should always bluntly state a fixed position and argue for it. It’s fine to be uncertain but it helps all of us if you could be clear what it is you are uncertain about and how it relates to the subject under discussion.

      • David Clark

        Hi Jim,

        To be quite clear as you requested. Living in a very diverse and urban community, I am highly sceptical of the reasons for choosing to live in leafy, rural areas. In my view, such selectivity and severance risk fostering a highly distorted view of people and community life. Well, you asked for my view.

        • Jim

          Well, I suppose that is clear, though not in relation to any of your previous comments. My reasons for living here are simple. I was born in Gloucester and although on leaving university it was not really where I intended to return it so happened that the most appealing job offer came up here. I have worked in the area ever since. About 30 years ago I found a house I liked in Stroud and here I remain.

          I have frequently encountered what I can only describe as smugness in those coming from a more diverse urban community ( mostly London ) when complaining about the lack of diversity in Stroud. Yet still they come. And among those coming are the anthros, who do seem to have a preference for the leafy, rural and predominantly white areas you describe.

  5. Nick Nakorn

    Jim, yes – very frustrating. What I’ve found is that a large number of environmentalists and environmental organisations do not have a scientific perspective and are very suspicious if anyone asks for data concerning any project that they might be undertaking. Many environmental decisions are a case of designing technological and economic systems that are the least worst choice. Sometimes those choices have positive and negative unintended consequences and some of those can be quantified and provide useful data for the future. But the New-Age influence has meant that environmental campaigns (often backed by Steiner organisations and/or people close to Steiner organisations) often gain unstoppable momentum prior to any data being gathered or analyzed. The consequences have been dramatic and mostly negative for the environment. So there’s not much a campaigner like me can do. Firstly, I want to feel safe and find out who is an Anthroposophist in the group I’m working with and why they do not feel racism is not a deal breaker for them. Secondly, I want to see some kind of positive pro-rationality policy so we don’t all waste time on impossible or pointless projects and, thirdly, I want to see some kind of democratic accountability in which votes are made on rational, evidence-based criteria. I compromised on those issues professionally a great deal between 1986 and 1997, and again a few years late,r and those years of work (often 100-hour weeks) have had the effect of green-washing some serious issues and not progressing the issues much, if at all. Anyway, I’ve ended up feeling quite upset about how the green movement has progressed in the last 30 years and much of it is the Steiner influence.

    • Helen

      Writing this blog has opened my eyes to what goes on in local politics and it is not a pretty picture.
      I’ve voted Green in the past but I know a lot more now.

      • Nick Nakorn

        Helen, I joined the Green Party when it was called The Ecology Party in the late 1970s and left after a while. I then joined again in the early 1980s and it was a shambolic mess locally with many members turning up to meetings stoned off their heads. I joined again in the late 1990s but then moved back to Devon and was not involved for years. I joined (I’m still a member) again a few years ago but local meetings were heavily connected to Anthroposophy/Steiner, Transition Towns and, very locally, Buck The Trend. I wrote several times to Green Party Head Office concerning science policy and equality policies in regards to Steiner and received no replies (at that time they were recommending Steiner Schools as a policy – they’ve now dropped that policy). I mentioned it at one of the two local Green Party meetings I attended in Newton Abbot and, again, no reassurances were made. Incidentally, even in Brixton (London, early 80s) I was the only non-white Green Party member and even when attending the National Conference of Local Authority Environmental Co-ordinators in the late 1990s only 2 of the 350 delegates were non-white; me and another.

        I think things have probably improved somewhat since though the inability for Green Party and Environmental groups locally to formally disassociate from Steiner simply tells me they care more about the Steiner/Anthro vote than about basic civil rights. I’m sure if, for example, Steiner’s system put women at the bottom of the hierarchy there would be many feminists who would question their positions within that milieu – especially if the men at the top of the local groups refused to stop supporting the hierarchy. But with non-whites being only 55% of the population generally and less than 1% in rural areas, there is no incentive (other than ethical and moral) to act to make non-white people welcome.

        The reason why I need to ‘feel safe’ as a non white is the same for women who have experienced sexual or domestic violence from men; I have been too often physically attacked by people who have no written racist spirituality. So feeling safe in the company of people whom I know to have a written racist spirituality is not something I’ve experienced. Once one has been in several life threatening situations it’s very difficult to shake off one’s caution – indeed it would be foolish to do so. That heightened caution is very common for non-white people of my generation. When I first moved to London in the 1970s there were still signs in windows, “No blacks, No Jews, No dogs”. Though I’m a light skinned Anglo-Thai, I still got told to “go back where you came from Paki!” when on the bus or tube or walking down the street. These are issues I still have to live with every day but in usually a more hidden form – though I was last seriously threatened only a few years ago in North Devon.

        I thought it worth fleshing out the issue a bit because for many people the racist nature is a theoretical injustice; but for those who experience the visceral nature of racism, it’s much, much more threatening. I’ve often been told that I’ve nothing to fear from nice middle-class people such as Anthroposophists but I can tell you from experience, that is not the case. My experience is of course not proof of a general case but The Runnymede Trust, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and many other sources have data that makes the general case very well. The Devon Guide to Rural Racism (see ) is one such study of minority experiences in rural areas.

        • Helen

          Thanks for the explanation, and I completely agree that for you it must be impossible to feel comfortable in a group where the tenets of spiritual science are seemingly acceptable. As a white person I should in theory have no problem with working alongside these Steiner followers and maybe even, as Jim suggests, confronting their opinions and trying to influence things in a rational way. But it is enough for me to know that if the “core” as it has been referred to, the *true believers* hold prominent positions in a group such as the Green party or Transition, I cannot be part of that group.
          Those on the periphery, but who happily stir the pots of dung for the biodynamic veg, or support the kindergartens etc without knowing too much about spiritual science, are a different matter, and some of those are my friends or acquaintances. They either do not believe the criticisms of Steiner, and think we are making it up, or they think it doesn’t matter. As you once pointed out, would they still be happy taking part if the “movement” they were supporting was the National Front? No, they would not.
          So there is either denial or lack of understanding.
          The point you make about feminism resonates with me too, and you are right, there would be no support for Steiner whatsoever if it was women who were suffering discrimination rather than non-whites. We have come a long way with respect to women’s rights. Fear is still there for women physically though and I guess always will be; I enjoy walking along the tow-path to town instead of along the busy road, but I can’t do that on my own any more. I met a man coming the other way who for some reason frightened me without actually doing anything at all, but I felt sick with fear, and realised how vulnerable I was in that lonely situation. No man would feel fear on seeing a woman approaching, and it is a fact that if I had been attacked people would have asked why I was walking there alone.
          The Greens and other groups are missing out by not providing a safe environment for you Nick.
          I admire our local Labour party candidate David Drew for standing up to the Steiner movement in town although he knew it would cost him votes. That is an admirable way to behave in politics, and in my view the local Greens have behaved badly by not opposing the free school which goes against much of what they stand for as a party.

  6. David Clark

    An interesting and valuable conversation. In my response to Jim, I was perhaps brief and personal. Very deliberately so. Some years ago, I came across a helpful book with several writers and a wide range of important themes. The book is entitled: “Rural Racism” and is edited by Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland. Published in Devon by Willan Publishing, my copy of the first edition (210 pages) was published in 2004.

    Chakraborti and Garland were academics at the Department of Criminology at the University of Leicester (and may be still?). Other contributors come from other areas of the social sciences especially human geography, sociology or applied disciplines such as social work. For me, the book is especially noteworthy as specialist contributors have deployed a range of methodologies including: structured interviews, narrative enquiry and discourse analysis, to name but few.

    I reckon the Foreword by Ben Bowling – King’s College London and The University of the West Indies – is quite telling. I quote: ” … The research set out in this book will chime with the experiences of black and brown-skinned people who have, like me, grown up or live in the British countryside. … As has long been accepted in the urban environment, diversity of physical appearance and cultural practice are also part of the rural landscape. … The book challenges the curious belief that there cannot be racism in rural Britain because there are relatively few people of colour resident there. … ” (“Rural Racism” Page ix)

    • Jim

      David – clearly rural racism exists, maybe it just has fewer opportunities to manifest itself. The question is whether there is something special about it or is it just lagging behind in the acceptance of diversity because it is less exposed to it? As a white middle aged middle class etc man I’m probably not best placed to speculate but can’t help trying.

      Most of the non white immigration was to urban areas because of the nature of the work involved so those areas went through hostility to varying degrees of acceptance. This has not happened to the same degree in rural communities though I think we are seeing something similar now happening with the eastern European migrants who are more drawn to agricultural work. The same old fears of the unfamiliar and loss of jobs to the incomers are at play.

      I don’t know if Nick would agree but I think there is a difference between the racism born of fear, poverty and lack of education and that pseudo-scientific racism preached by Steiner. I have some hope that the former may be overcome by familiarity ( seeing the person, not the skin ) and improving opportunities for all whereas the latter seems to be a wilful and self justifying blindness.

Any thoughts?

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