My personal perspective on homelessness in Glastonbury
I have lived in a shed. Actually I’ve lived in several sheds. One was a homemade shed built on the side of a caravan on a traveller site on the Somerset Levels. I lived there for about two and a half years until the Spring of 2012. I had two wood-burners, one in the caravan, where I slept and cooked, one in the shed, which was my living room, dining room and office. I bought the odd ton of wood that was delivered on a flatbed truck, the rest I foraged. I took pride in chopping my wood with an axe into burner size pieces, and producing kindling little larger than matchsticks. My shower was a 12v camping shower that I hung outside off the back of the shed, I stood on a pallet to avoid the nettles. In Winter I would wash in a large blue plastic bucket, or in the bathrooms of house dwelling friends in town, generally while I was doing my clothes wash in their machine.
There was no running water on the site, so I collected it from the White and Red Springs in Wellhouse Lane, several water butts at a time. The toilet was a basic composting arrangement in a separate cubicle behind the shed, thanks to layers of woodchip it didn’t smell. Willow trees formed a hedge alongside the shed, with the odd bough reaching over the caravan. Sometimes the wind would howl over the flat land of the Levels, levelling trees as it went, on those nights I would sleep in the shed, feeling it creak and twist around me, rather than taking the risk of a bough crashing through the thin roof of the caravan onto my bed.
The builder of the shed, my erstwhile neighbour, had also constructed a treehouse above it, on which he could perch, overseeing the Levels. Tempting as the view might be, I wasn’t brave enough to climb up there, which was fortunate as, one windy day, the platform crashed to the ground.
Outside space is as important, if not more important, than inside space to me. Living in a shed the barrier between the two is thinner, and so it seems the distinction is not so great. Particularly as the outside often crept in, in the form of huge spiders, slugs, mice and the occasional flying bird, throwing itself repeatedly against the window glass. Birds would fly around the cabin on occasion and every Winter flocks of starlings would fly over the site in their thousands, only a few feet above my head. I would lie in bed watching goldfinches flying from branch to branch a couple of feet away outside the caravan window.
People often asked, in sympathetic tones, if I was cold in the shed in Winter, I generally answered that I was probably warmer than they were in their expensively central heated homes. This was true, except it was almost impossible to keep the burner in overnight, so I would wake up in the mornings to frozen toothpaste. Two duvets and two hot bottles kept me warm in bed. One Christmas the site was covered in snow, my gas bottle froze and the roads into site became ice rinks, with deep ice filled rhynes on either side. I retreated to my mate’s house in town for a week. The next Christmas was unseasonably warm, on Christmas Day we contributed a dish or two each to the communal roast dinner, I cooked with the door open, enjoying the sunshine and listening to the kids playing on the trampoline.
In Summer I would often come home to a barbecue, the site held a loose community of shed, caravan and truck dwellers and we would get together on warm evenings, grilling sausages, drinking wine and watching the ducks on the lake that neighboured the yard. One Autumn another shed dweller was given a giant puffball mushroom, bigger than her head, it was cut up into large slabs and distributed around the site.
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It was four miles thereabouts to town, which took about 12 minutes to cycle. The first mile might be cold, but after that I was warm enough. I loved the snaking path of the Sustrans cycle track, after the bridge over the River Brue. Once I was cycling home from the pub with Tim, who managed to slip off the road and into the rhyne. He emerged, holding his bike aloft, dripping with pond weed and declared “I meant to do that, it was very refreshing’. His clothes smelled of pond water for ever after. He admitted to having done the same before, only on a motorbike, which he left submerged, the headlight illuminating the inky water.
I often saw herons rising up from the rhynes and swans flying overhead. A shortcut took me to the nature reserve in a few minutes, I went out there in all weathers, taking photographs, watching the starlings, and trying in vain to spot otters. Occasionally I would come across deer or a fox, once I found a fairytale land of glow-worms at dusk.
Electric power for the 12v batteries for my LED lights, phone and laptop came from an 80W solar panel perched above the front door. I had a generator for emergencies, which I used once, just to check it was still working. I had an internet dongle with a whole gigabyte of data a month so I could work. I managed to coordinate several festivals from my shed.
Living in the shed was cheap, the rent was about £20 a week and my only expenses were food, wood, a refilled gas bottle every 6 weeks or so (the gas powering the hob and fridge), a bit of fuel for the van for my occasional trips into town for water. Yet my motivation for living in the shed was not simply economy. I enjoyed the self sufficiency of it, and the simplicity. The resourcefulness of eking out the last of the wood, using as little water as possible. Even drinking a cup of tea depended on me having fetched the water, chopped the wood, cycled back from town with milk and sugar in my rucksack.
I imagined myself a writer, a modern day Thoreau, filling notebooks with descriptions of life in the shed, yet never intending to share them. It was not until 2016 that I realised my dream, starting this blog with no expectation that anyone would read it.
Living off-grid, travelling, organizing and working at festivals has made me resilient and given me a unique set of skills. Given a natural disaster, myself and my friends could probably cope better than most, naturally community minded we’d be helping others, not just ourselves.
Yet the box tickers of the world tend to assume we come only with problems, not solutions. At worst we are feared, at best patronized. Given land, access to finance and permission we could build our own eco-friendly homes, construct our own co-housing communities, freed of the necessity to hide we could properly employ our time and considerable skills to enrich the wider community.
Over my 26 years in Somerset my choice of accommodation has never been conventional. I prefer living in community, or failing that in a small self contained space. I have never gone on the housing list, figuring there are others who need social housing more than me. Besides, I’d rather live in shed than a poky flat with no garden.
I’m not suggesting that living in a shed is ideal. This was a ‘permitted site’ which basically meant the council was ignoring us because we didn’t cause any trouble. But we were still very aware that we might be turned off, by the landlord or the council at any moment. This made investing time and money in improving our living conditions a risky gamble.
I’ve lived in at least six shared houses in my adult life (my favourite being the Glastonbury Institute of Gracious Living), sadly this option is not available now. Shared houses having been re-designated as Houses in Multiple Occupation and legislated to the point that landlords simply can’t rent to groups of friends anymore. I’d happily live in a housing co-operative again, or build a house via a Community Land Trust but this requires enormous amounts of hoop jumping and paperwork to set up and I am simply too busy trying to generate enough income to live. There has been talk of a Community Land Trust in Glastonbury, but it seems to have been hijacked by the idea of reopening the Crown Hotel as a Kombucha Bar, I can only presume that those with such enthusiasm for this unrealistic and unnecessary project are already securely housed.
A Shepherd’s Hut In Shepton Mallet
I’ve lived in a cozy shepherd’s hut while working at a Christian Retreat in Shepton Mallet with people undergoing personal crisis. I occupied a chalet in the garden of a B&B I worked at in the centre of Glastonbury and a converted garage at the end of another garden in town. I’ve pitched up in friend’s spare rooms, in the days when people could afford to have spare rooms. Now those rooms are rented to AirBnb guests, whose cash helps their hosts to pay their rising bills and keep their place in Glastonbury themselves. I’ve sofa surfed on accommodating couches, which are seldom comfortable.
I’ve even lived discreetly in a van in Glastonbury’s car parks, for the odd night at a time, when I had to be in town for work over Summer but had nowhere else to be. In recent years a rising number of van and caravan dwellers, many of whom have chosen that lifestyle not through choice, but necessity, have filled up the verges and now the edges of residential areas in Town. Some of those van dwellers are working in the town, but are simply unable to afford to rent here. We have not yet reached the point of tents in the High Street as you see in many larger towns in the UK, but I imagine that is coming, There are many like me, living on the fringes.
Out of Sight
Much of my personal life in Glastonbury has been under the radar, necessarily out of sight, yet I’ve always been quite visible working in the community. I’ve spent years soft footing it around landlords, hoping we will stay friends, that they won’t sell up, that the Council won’t notice I’m there unofficially. Nowhere is secure and I am always anxious that I will find myself looking for another place to be in the depths of Winter.
Lately, unable to find anywhere in Glastonbury, I have had to take accommodation where I can find it, in neighbouring towns, commuting in to work in my van as it’s too far to cycle. I snatch photographs and snippets of Glastonbury news for Normal For Glastonbury while I am here, feeling like a fraud for writing about a Town that I only occasionally live in. All this moving is stressful, exhausting and dispiriting. It leaves very little time to develop my writing and business to the point that I might actually be able to afford a stable place to live.
I am not looking for sympathy, I chose this life, I’ve had the freedom to spend three decades of Summers working at festivals and Winters living in community. I’ve house, dog, cat and business sat many times in wonderful places, even running B&B’s so their owners can go on holiday, I’m always up for that if anyone needs a capable and responsible hand. I’ve not been stuck in a job I hate to pay the rent on a tiny flat with no garden. I’ve always worked, but in jobs that I loved and felt had real value, that brought colour and music and creativity into people’s lives. I made community a priority over making money. I foolishly believed that this would always be possible in Glastonbury’s bubble, that I would be able to take pride in my work and principles, not feel ashamed of my poverty and homelessness.
It’s not that I don’t want to live in a house, but as a self employed person estate agents won’t consider me for a home and I don’t have the benefit of wealthy relatives who might act as the required guarantor anyway. I see the meanest, pokiest one bedroom flat in Glastonbury now requires an income of £20k to rent, you can’t earn that on the minimum wage working 40 hours a week.
Yes, I have written a ‘manifestation’, a place on the Levels would be ideal, thank you. Some space and nature around me, a view of the Tor would be lovely. A safe, flat cycle ride into town, on the fringes of the town or just outside, four miles is probably my limit. A decent sized kitchen as I love cooking. The only trouble with manifestation is I feel I’m limiting my options to what I can imagine, and years of being rootless have shown me that there are wonderful experiences out there, but as I get older I find I don’t dare to even dream about them. If I’m to settle in a house I want it to be a house I love, with character, not just a box with a roof. I want a house I can live in, not one where I am filed away.
Homelessness and insecurity is becoming normal for Glastonbury
I’ve been anxious about publishing this for fear of judgment, but I need to say something. The solutions we used to find to live communally and cheaply have been legislated out of existence, I’m seeing so many good friends forced out of Glastonbury through lack of housing. Homelessness and housing insecurity is becoming ‘Normal for Glastonbury’. Unless we start helping people apply their own creative solutions to this nationwide crisis, I fear that many who call this unique and special town ‘Home’ will be forced out through lack of a home of their own.
If you found this post of interest, you may wish to read my observations on ‘Anti Social Behaviour’ in Glastonbury.
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