There is something rather odd about living in a block on campus, or in a house on a street where everyday you pass by your neighbours, none of which you know particularly well. A community of people who don’t greet or get to know each other seems unnatural, even strange. Channel 4, on the other hand, thought the opposite, when they called their documentary in 2005 “The strangest village in Britain”. In Botton, everybody greets each other as they pass, and not only does everyone know their neighbour, they have a special, real relationship with them; and this seems anything but strange.
Botton may be a village hidden in a valley, protected by the rugged, raw and beautiful Yorkshire Dales, but the last feeling you have there is of isolation. It is home to more than 300 residents, half of whom have special needs due to conditions such as Down’s Syndrome and Autism, whilst the other half consists of co-workers and their families. But as David Adams, Senior Co-worker in Botton, who has lived there with his extended family for over 30 years tells me, with warm pride as he sits by the fire on my visit to Botton, “the distinction between the needs of people living here isn’t labelled like it would anywhere else. We all live together and Botton is just full of people who recognise that everyone has different needs by creating an environment which facilitates for that.”
It started as a social experiment in 1955 founded by Dr Karl Konig, an Austrian doctor who wanted to create a community for disabled children who benefited from special schools, but who then would not just be comdemned to institutions for the rest of their lives, so that as adults they could continue learning and developing.
It has since inspired the creation of 11 other diverse communities, all supported by the The Camphill Family Trust, soon to be created in the UK in both urban and rural areas. Worldwide, the Camphill movement has spread to more than 90 communities in 20 countries. Having generated such interest in this unique phenomenon, many co-workers travel from afar to come and work within the community; some stay for three weeks, two years or three decades. All volunteers, however, have a commitment to the integrity of the Steiner philosophy that the community was founded upon.
Rudolf Steiner was a unique 20th Century thinker who’s Anthroposophy explains humans as beings whose main goal ought to be nourishment of the soul through good relationships and ethical individualism. This is employed in Camphill Communities (of which Botton is the largest) to great effect by offering a sense of responsibilty to those with special needs that they wouldn’t necessarily be offered in regular society. The villagers have jobs such as working in carpentry, weaving, farming, produce making (jam, cheese, bread, juices) entirely from produce on the farms making them almost completely a self-sufficient, bio-dynamic community.
Jane, who has worked in the Inner Garden making compost and herbing, says “there is always plenty to do and I love being busy,” whilst her co-gardener Peter highlights just how important the emphasis on work is for adults who thrive on having such a purpose. “Working here is about fulfilling people’s basic need to give something to others and also about self-development which is why we have so many types of work. Providing opportunities for people to develop and find out where they belong is as important as the work itself.”
It’s not a home for the handicapped, but an environment with new social forms
The members of Botton who are thrilled to share with me what they are doing don’t even mention that they aren’t paid; it just doesn’t figure as relevant. The inner satisfaction of being useful and fulfilling your potential was a principle Steiner showed radically improves the individual’s condition and behavioural problems. Enhancing one’s personal dignity is, anthroposophists would say, is the most healing vocation one can achieve. Of course, this resonates most with people with special needs, given that it becomes a vehicle of freedom to autonomously implement meaning into their lives, when normal society offers very little alternative.
David also explains another interesting part of the work ethic and community in general, “there is no hierarchy or top-down management structure – the village is self-governing and responsible for its own running and development, but it does mean we have a lot of meetings to ensure funding and decisions on major issues are organised fairly!
“I am not the leader. I feel equal to everyone else here just as a co-worker,” he says, not in with a self-pitying or humbling appeal, but with experience and sincerity.
“Obviously carrying more responsibility in a community is an emotionally challenging task.” He stops and looks up briefly to see Felicity off to her Eurythmy dance class that she is being taken to by Melina, a student at a Steiner school in Hamburg, who is at Botton helping for three weeks. Felicity has Down’s syndrome and OCD related anxiety issues, but she made a damn fine Bolognese for our lunch with the help of her family at Hall South here. David and his wife Marie live here with five adults with learning difficulties and three co-workers. Their three daughters are grown up and either at university or working but visit regularly. Most homes are like Hall South in Botton, with house parents at the helm but anyone is welcome to pop in and have lunch at whoever’s house they like.
Eurythmy forms part of another crucially important aspect to the success of Camphill and the Steiner way of life; learning through creative activities. It is a new art of movement that looks like movement between dance and mime according to how sound resonates with the body and is very therapeutic, helping to balance mind and body to improve confidence. Melina says how it is “very beautiful to watch and the mood helps the dancers to unwind”.
Other cultural activities in Botton are based around Christian festivals but practising the faith is not imposed upon villagers at all.
“We try to be Christian”, says David, “but to live here you just need to be at ease with the principles. Christ is for all humanity, not just for churches and the preaching of Jesus to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is relevant outside of a religious context. We adhere to the importance of a change in attitudes that has its roots in ancient dogma and karma. In fact the actual site of Botton has an extraordinary history of revolutionary attitudes; the quakers who settled here in 1790s refused to eat sugar because it came from slave labour, and the Macmillan family have a great legacy here of compassion in the community. So, I suppose it evolved naturally with the resonance of its predecessors.”
It almost comes as a surprise that the community’s spirit is actually very little to do with religion, and that personal freedom is so much more important. Robert Meredith, a young co-worker explains whilst pruning wild bushes, how it is about “learning how to re-define your environment in terms of how you use it. Everyone in normal life uses council or government responsibility for, say, tidying leaves off the road, but in Botton we would just all muck in”. It’s hard not to smile at the risk of Rob promoting Botton as a bit of an ideal hippy cliché, but he is right that “you just don’t go around blaming people when things go wrong here, like you do in normal society.”
Of course, the difficulty lies in not trying to cap people’s natural tendency to want to be ‘promoted’ and the temptations of individualism. Gradually, people want a piece of glory with jobs and responsibility, but Rob says “it’s hard – you can’t. The glory is felt in other ways, through friendship.”
Dropping in on Falcon Farm’s morning tea break revealed some very good friendships. Coming in from a cold, damp morning’s work to chat by the log-burner, they were all getting excited for that afternoon’s Winter School, a series of talks about a topical subject. This one given by an old resident was about bees and how threatened their population is becoming. It was a fascinating insight into the extraordinary workings of a hive and the medicinal benefits of propolis. Some of the amusing slides provoked an animated and engaged response from the audience who were all eager to ask questions.
The Winter Schools are the community’s gentle way of intellectualising what would otherwise be a fairly menial daily routine. It is very much part of the Steiner philosophy to use science in its natural form and as a healing art. This forms part of the innovative social dynamic in Botton.
“It’s not a home for the handicapped, but an environment with new social forms. You can’t save the planet using less petrol,” David says, to explain how working with people with special needs is about them utilising their potential in the right way. “It’s about co-operating with individuality so it the success is enduring because what we do has a lot of relevance for the future. Botton is cosmopolitan and cultural but on a smaller scale. Here we have six to eight people we are really close to, whereas on Facebook you might have 800 ‘friends’.”
Many experts in the field of social care argue that environments like Botton are not conducive to real personal development because people with special needs progress best when integrated into society. But it seems the community is not marginalised because the quality of relationships within it compensate for any lack of generic social factors such as a cinema, shopping centre or a pub.
From the outside, Steiner lifestyle can look rather dogmatic, but it can be considered as just working with human freedom. Teachers in Waldorf schools help kids be who they want to be.
But doing this can be difficult in a country where more liberal education is greatly hindered by the governmental policy.
“There is a lot of red tape and it can be restrictive, but we don’t break the law. Legislation pushes for personalisation of social care, where adults are encouraged to get flats in town and care-workers become professionalized, where they’re just paid to look after people.
“Unfortunately, we are currently trying to avoid the implementation of managers who haven’t actually lived here into our communities.
“People used to make their own decisions and disgression used to be a good thing, but now you follow policy because you’re scared but it takes away your freedom.”
Ernst on the other hand, who has been a houseparent for 27 years, and works in the carpentry workshop, says he feels “totally free living in Botton. It is the ultimate liberation to not face money, capitalism. And you don’t miss those things. There is no pressure here, just spiritual support.”
And Ernst isn’t even concerned about the next generation who will continue to help Botton develop, “they’ll step up when we go!” he says confidently as he drops me at the nearest station. And as he fades from sight on the platform, I feel grateful, comforted and with a warm fuzzy feeling.
It’s nothing to do with religion, but there is a faith in Botton. And that faith will see through generations of villagers and co-workers who continue to wave at each other as they pass by and who really have a genuine care; a genuine concern for their neighbours, for many decades to come.