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Transition in Northern Devon

Transition culture may be flourishing in the south of my county – Devon, we have Totnes there after all – but how is it progressing in the seemingly distant and rather overlooked north? Well, I offer the following sketch perspective.

I live in the market town of Bideford, near the mouth of the river Torridge. It isn’t an official Transition Town – not yet at least – but it does have an associated organisation, the Bideford Sustainability Group (BSG). It was formed 3 years ago following a screening of The Age Of Stupid, held by local Quakers. In the spirit of Transition, the optimism of action trumped the pessimism of thought that night.

The group’s initial foci were food and skill/resource sharing. With the latter, regular and diverse talks and workshops have been held, including Making Eco-Living Fun and Gardening for Bees. These have often utilised, indeed celebrated, the talent and knowledge common, I feel, to any locality. Similarly, BSG was able to acquire charitable status by merging with another compatible but dormant group. This enabled it to spearhead a Big Lottery bid in partnership with 7 other bodies and win initial funds to map local resources addressing future food, energy and water needs.

The original emphasis on food has already manifested two heritage micro-orchards on the Tarka Trail as it passes through Bideford (in partnership with North Devon Biosphere Reserve), as well as another that is the first phase of a community garden at Morwenna Park, in nearby Northam. The Tarka orchards are now seeding themselves along this beautiful trail, others recently being established by community groups in the villages of Instow and Fremington. The foodie focus has also nurtured a charming little eco-café and inspired a pilot kitchen hub for small-scale producers, their creators having been involved in BSG discussions from the start.

A new focus has been energy, no surprise given rising costs and associated fuel poverty, but also reflective of new member interests. The weekend of the 18/19th May will see BSG hold its first Seeing Green event, when anyone interested in renewable energy and energy conservation can visit local homeowners (over a dozen) who will explain the costs and benefits of a wide range of alternative energy solutions. For me, such initiatives are vital. Making solutions as visible as possible, affording people the experience of what our better vision actually looks like, will, surely, facilitate the widespread unleashing of Transition. (For this reason I joined the crowdfund for Transition Free Press, also sponsoring a year’s supply for Bideford.)

BSG’s energy focus is shared by a second local Transition-inspired group – North Devon Transition Forum (NDTF). This was gestated in neighbouring North Devon (as opposed to Torridge) District. Conceived as a conversation on Transitional possibilities about a year ago, it has quickly joined forces with 361 Energy (named after the road joining Barnstaple and Ilfracombe, the location of households for their founding project). This new social enterprise is actively tackling energy issues in northern Devon by empowering individuals, giving no cost behavior adaptation and physical fabric and technological guidance. They recently pitched successfully at the Devon offshoot of The Funding Network (TFN) – the Dragon’s Den (or Angel’s Audience) for social change projects – securing funds for an exciting pilot project intended to empower those in fuel poverty and maximise opportunities borne of the Green Deal. (Incidentally, the TFN giving model inspired a spectacular unleashing of generosity recently in Totnes, at the 2nd Local Entrepreneur Forum, and there are thoughts of one day echoing that here in the north.)

Adding to this excitement, NDTF host regular film nights and actively support the marine conservation events run by local surf culture. They are also engaging increasingly with local planning issues, such as supermarket provision in Barnstaple and the Atlantic Array, offering open and informed discussion leading to appropriate citizen action. Unsurprisingly, BSG members are never far away.            

Historically somewhat divided – geographically, culturally, politically – northern Devon is finding it increasingly difficult to ignore its commonalities. Indeed, the same could be said of planetary society. Here, reconnection has been nurtured by 10 years of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status, with its ecosystem mindset, and it’s now being aided by the collaboration between NDTF and BSG, whether via Facebook or energy projects on the ground. Divisions are dissolving and people are rediscovering that it’s good to talk, especially with authentic intention – ‘Gentle Action’ often flows soon after. Local dialogue has also actively involved our southerly neighbour Totnes, with NDTF being unleashed by Rob Hopkins and Frances Northrop, and Jay Tompt to visit Bideford later this year to speak to local business interests about Totnes’ inspiring Local Economic Blueprint. Devon seems more whole for it.

Such connectivity is partly responsible for the Transitional behaviour I see springing up everywhere. Our movement is growing sustainability synapses. Recall Paul Hawken’s suggestion of humanity’s immune response in his book Blessed Unrest. But what about the pseudo-Transitional behaviour that actually results from selfish motivation, borne of austerity? Take falling petrol consumption figures. Does this still count? Well, it’s my perception that, increasingly, people are open to, indeed reveling in, the wellbeing benefits that accrue from more sustainable, connected lifestyles. I evidence the phenomenon of collaborative consumption, along with a conversation I overheard in my local launderette. To paraphrase: ‘Had to sell the car. It’s odd, don’t miss it’. There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come, as the saying goes, and our Great Transition seems all the more inevitable.

Across northern Devon I see a resurgence of community spirit. It’s reflected in artisan collectives, ethical business, wellbeing centres and community shops. Ilfracombe has, for instance, its community-run gardens and drop-in sustainability centre. South Molton has an established recycling social enterprise and a community-run pool. If space would allow I could continue.

But I’d like to end by returning to perception. It’s my belief that how we perceive the world around us is how we in fact receive the world in our everyday experience. If, for example, you perceive (place attention upon) scarcity or conflict, then that’s what you will probably receive. Conversely, if you see abundance and collaboration, then that’s what you will most likely experience (reinforce). Put simply, the world’s a mirror to us. I could offer justification from spirituality or quantum physics, but this is how it works for me.

Altering our reflections means altering our choices of course, and I accept that this can often require great courage. And yet, in my work within the social change movement, I am constantly inspired by those more courageous than I whose stories, borne of genuine hardship, tell of the enduring hope for humanity’s gentle resolution.

My thanks to Jane Williams (BSG), Steve Baker (NDTF) & Thomas Store (361E) for their contributions to this article. 

Pete Yeo is an ambassador of The Funding Network, lives in Bideford, and is active in a variety of transition activities in North Devon.

Images: Making nest boxes for solitary bees; Orchard Planting on the Tarka Trail; Open Space event at Bideford; Morwenna Park Community Garden

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