A version of this article was written for the local magazine, and a slightly different version was written for visitors to enjoy. This is closer to the visitor version, but you can read the more local-history focused one by finding pages 8,9 and 10 of issue 65 at the Leintwardine Life website:

 

http://leintwardine.wordpress.com/leintwardine-life/

 

Where Are We?

 

Wheatstone House is in the village of Leintwardine, in the county of Herefordshire, very close to the borders of Powys (Wales) and Shropshire. This 7 acres is called Earthworm Housing Co-operative, but it's been known longer as Wheatstone House or Wheatstone Commune. The older villagers mysteriously refer to this place as just “The Commune”.

 

To go back to the beginning though, we have lots of pre-Victorian deeds and conveyances, detailing the leases of many small farmers on our fields. The first mention of buildings doesn't come until 1845, when there's a “dwellinghouse”, which must be the small stone lodge, right on the road. Then in 1910 “House, garden, land, stabling and Lodge” are valued at £2,800. Our prettily labelled gutters suggest that the big house was built in 1909.  We have various reasons to believe that the conservatory, events room and toilet and laundry were added later, finished by 1912 from when our earliest photograhs date.

 

A Work of Art Deco

 

At that time there were some very renowned Arts and Crafts builders, designers and artists active in the counties hereabouts, but we still haven't found out who designed our beautiful stained glass, fireplace tiles or the whole unique architectural plan of the house. Archietctuarally, sme people have described our home as an "arts and crafts kit house" meaning that it is made of several distinct and often very pretty elements, all patched together.

 

There are so many second hand tales I could tell, but to launch right into a simple history, the label 'Commune' officially arrived in 1975, because Wheatstone was purchased by two men, representing an informal trust of at least 4 people.

 

This was very unusual, and the reputation for oddity was not alleviated by an article in Woman's Own, all about this place, entitled “Is love really all they need?” This daft little money-earner focused on free love in its tone and introduction, but its broader content makes it clear that this place was actually all about hard graft, gardening and keeping livestock and children, 'free range!'

 

The kids had an absolute ball, but by all accounts the adults were too cold, very muddy, and stressfully talkative (with endless discussions about the political implications and assumptions behind who should clean the back steps!).

 

Hard Times in the Good Life

 

Despite the hardships of the 1970s recession and some extremely cold winters, over the next few years Wheatstone was part of much to be proud of, hosting seminars, encouraging the development of other co-ops and also helping with the planning and networking for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the years of its major revival; the CND membership increased from 4,000 to 100,000 between 1979 and 1984.

 

Wheatstone itself had no firm structure of membership until 1989.  Throughout the 70s and 80s this place was a loose, income-sharing trust with no legal lines drawn between residents, visitors, members, guests and squatters. From the many stories we have heard, it seems that kindness and permissiveness led all the way to total robbery and dereliction. The crisis peaked in 1988, when all of the pitch-pine parquet floors had been ripped up and burned, lots of tiles and glass sold, and lots of machinery and plumbing weighed in as scrap.  Spinning wheels, farm machinery, saddle stands from the tack room and untold treasures were lost from the communal dream, into departing private gain. The original founders had failed to make their informal arrangement into a solid legal form and as the structure degenerated more scavangers (or 'Oppurtunivores') moved in.

 

A Co-Op is born

 

In 1989 though, Wheatstone gained a new legal structure to protect itself when it became managed by the specially created "Earthworm Housing Co-operative Ltd”, a fully mutual organisation (every member pays rent, and every member is a director, deciding how that rent is spent) that has been managing the resources ever since. The determination required in the early years was bolstered by a tight ethical vision of veganism (no use of animals or animal products) and anarchism (mutual aid, and a minimalisation of hierarchy, for example, all decisions being made by consensus of all members).

 

The meaning and practice of striving for anarchy is very hard to practically pin-down, but I believe the strict identity of an animal-cruelty-free existence, helped to hold the group tight enough to conquer some of the challenges ahead.

These challenges were both physical and mental including rebuilding much of the drainage and sewage system, rebuilding the roof, relaying many floors and evicting squatters. Those are the events that are easy to summarise, but what impresses me most from that era is how successfully the group managed the change from a culture of unregulated sharing to a culture of rent, and the fair division of work and responsibility.  Through these years most members claimed housing benefit, and channeled all that money into the co-op.  They also remortgaged the house to repair the roof, which had been leaking since at least the 1950s!

 

Back To The Land

 

By the mid 1990s, Earthworm's kitchen garden was providing a vegan-organic, food-based livlihood for 8 adults. Lots of sustainability specialists first heard of the place in 1994-96 when it hosted the 'permaculture convergence', and it also hosted Animal Rights gatherings, women's health gatherings, Earth First, Queer Pagan Camp, Dragonfest...

 

Though the co-op has been managing the land since 1989, it was only in 1995 that the land was finally conveyed with full legality, from the names of the 1975 Wheatstone men (by then living in Spain and Kent), to the non-human entity of Earthworm Housing Co-operative. This enabled the final eviction of the squatters on the land, and the residents finally had enough security to relax and focus on gardening.

 

This trend had gone to an extreme by 2010 though, when the land had residents, but the buildings stood empty. I visited in April 2011 (for a meeting about resistance to the new wave of genetically modified crops in Britain,) and seeing the emptiness, I asked to come back for much of the summer to get things a bit clearer in the en-wilding kitchen garden. I'd helped out back in 2008 and 2009 there, when the 3 polytunnels and the other food growing spaces were just about under control, and I was sad to see all that work growing wild. I didn't imagine at the time that I would ever become a member.

 

That's how I happened to be around when the then-members were making a plan for getting new people to manage the buildings.  I just hoped to keep visiting to help out, and I put some good friends in touch (with the departing members), but now many meetings later, I'm living here with those friends and we’ve taken on this whopping responsibility!

 

The Future

 

At the end of 2011, the co-op had its first ever full change of members, and the new team reoccupied the house and started making plans to make it more sound and efficient. We don't have the tight group-identity of all being vegan, or minimising the use of concrete, motor-vehicles or electricity – our new “co-op secondary rules” are a shorter document than the version we inherited - but we do have a shared commitment to an evolving plan including business space, co-housing and a housing co-op. We also have a strong background in making co-ops, small businesses and food-growing work, and personally I'm committed to live here until 2019, to get these plans to fruition. In 2020 I’ll make my new 2020 vision, which may well end up being more of the same, right here.

 

We don’t yet have a full plan for the land, but our plans for the buildings are firming up. We reckon we want 12-15 adult members in the long run, with as many kids as come with those.

 

Once we have accommodation sorted out for ourselves as twelve to fifteen, we will turn our energy into sorting out commercial space. There will be a ground floor bunkroom and bathrooms to complement the camping, outdoor toilet facilities and Events Room (gathering space) that already exist, but aren't very accessible or appealing to a lot of people!

 

So, do come and help, or maybe even consider joining!

Sincerely

The Friendly Membership Officer and Happy Archive-Rummager

 Jed

 

PS, if you want to have the the text of the AWFUL 1979-84 woman's own article e-mailed to you, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. telling us why, and we will consider your application!  The reason to not just publicise it here is that it includes the real names of real people, but is generally misleading!