Tobias Jones: The comfort of strangers

Tobias Jones: The comfort of strangers

The Guardian


Two years ago Tobias Jones decided to build a retreat for those with troubled lives. As his column for the magazine comes to an end, he reflects movingly on the pleasures and pain of offering sanctuary


lmost two years ago my wife and I bought a 10-acre woodland with the aim of making it into a refuge for those going through tough or troubled times. It was a pretty unusual idea and many friends made it quite clear they thought it was daft. We didn’t even know how to describe what we were doing. None of the labels – commune, kibbutz, community, care farm – seemed to fit what we wanted to do, so we just called it an unorthodox family home and got on with it.


Two years later the purpose of this place is still the same: it exists in order to offer shelter to those in crisis. But while that vision for the place has always remained the same, many other things have subtly altered as we’ve discovered how complicated it is to realise that simple-sounding vision. We’ve made many mistakes, taken quite a few hits and learnt many lessons.


One of the main difficulties has been – for want of a better term – the admissions policy. Since we were inspired by the Pilsdon communities in Dorset and Kent, we had always imagined that we, too, would be offering rest to those facing a period of personal crisis, be it bereavement, separation, addiction, homelessness, penury, depression and so on. And while those are, indeed, the people we’re here to serve, we’ve slowly realised that by far the largest niche of people who contact us are facing something less defined: they’re simply fed up with modern life; they’re disillusioned with superficiality and fads and lifeless living. They’re lonely, stressed or sad, but they don’t necessarily see themselves as "in crisis".


I used to worry that we were watering down our vision by catering for those with just a vague existential angst. But all visitors are valid and we’ve realised how difficult it is to quantify need, how hard it is to arrive at a waiting list according to the depth of someone’s need. Some who seem strong and confident are just the opposite and some who appear truly in trouble are actually in quite good shape. We used to tiptoe around issues, not really wanting to ask too many questions, but now we’re fairly upfront, wanting to know why people have come and what they hope to get out of their stay. If we had a motto here it would probably be "Sharp tools, blunt tongues".


We’ve had, sadly, to realise our limits. We felt unable to help one young man with acute psychosis and duly received hate mail and late-night phone calls for a while. One memorable evening, as my wife Fra and I were trying to cook for a dozen people and put three kids to bed, some crazy pastor from Hull called to say: "I’ve got a prostitute here who has been beaten up by her pimp. She has a serious heroin addiction so we’re sending her to you tomorrow." No you’re not, we said. We cottoned on quite quickly that some people saw us as a place to drop off their problems and we became rather hard-headed about who we could accept. But, at the same time, we’ve tried not to invite only the easy cases. We want to welcome tough, difficult guests, those who are overbearing or underwhelming, but not if it’s only to make someone else’s life easier.


It’s also proved very difficult to plan visits and stays. Because we’re not a hotel and don’t take bookings, it’s fairly random who turns up when. Many say they’re going to come and don’t; many don’t say they’re going to but do. We’re a tiny operation and very short on space, so it takes quite a feat to fit people in. And it can be frustrating. Quite often you listen to someone’s woes on the phone for hours and make arrangements for them to come down, but you never hear from them again. I don’t mind listening, but I’m sorry to have to say no to someone because I’m holding a bed for a person who never rolls up.


We’ve also discovered the importance of boundaries – and not just for our ever-escaping pigs. We have a public footpath that runs all the way around the outside of our woods and we had made a small gate with a sign saying that we welcome visitors. We also wrote, in large letters, that people should call before coming in because we’re often felling or shooting and because there are children and livestock running around. I left our number. It was as if we had left the gate wide open. People blithely wandered in asking, in as many words, "Where’s the party?" Dogs ran riot during courses. I even found one dodgy couple taking a felling axe to one of our trees. I’m sad to say we now have a sign saying "Private property, no trespassing". The nice welcoming stuff is in smaller letters underneath.


And our internal boundaries are pretty clear, too. Just about the only golden rule we have here – other than no drink, drugs or bullying – is that we close up our part of the house at 9pm. Even during the day no one comes upstairs unless invited. We never go in a guest’s room without asking first. Everyone needs privacy and a door they can shut. It’s not a free-for-all.


On which note, probably our biggest failing so far has been the inability to find a sustainable financial model. We run a lot of courses but, perhaps because we only started them in the autumn or maybe because we’re in a recession, we’re not exactly overrun with punters. We’ve found selling stools and chairs very difficult as they take days and days to make and even if we charge the minimum wage for our time, people still baulk at paying £100 for a chair when they can get one at Ikea for £10. We haven’t charged guests rent as we don’t want to exclude those with no income. All of which means the entire financial burden has been on my shoulders and, being a freelance writer, those shoulders are very narrow.


The result is I’ve often felt like an absent leader. Instead of working alongside people in the woods, I’ve been at the computer desperately trying to earn the money to pay all the bills. Either that or I get up in the middle of the night to write so I can get outside and alongside during the day. Trying to look after three children and various guests as well as writing two books and reviewing dozens more has been no small burden and I’m feeling shattered. Every day seems to have the intensity and mild chaos of Christmas, with loads of people around, loads to do and loads of laughs, but also tensions and things that don’t go according to plan.


That’s why we are, finally, about to decide on a more formal legal structure. Having run this place simply as an unorthodox "extended household", we’ve realised we need to put things on a more sustainable footing. I had resisted it because of an innate fear of bureaucratisation and institutionalisation, but we need the support and oversight of trustees or committed consiglieri. We need to have a charitable organisation that can raise funds. Most of all, we need a few lines drawn in the grey area between what is ours and what is the charity’s, if only so people can be sure they’re contributing to the greater good, not just to the Joneses.


Although it has been predictably tough so far, it’s also been rewarding and immensely enjoyable. We have never doubted our vision. We’re more convinced than ever that this is what we are called to do, that this is the way we want to live. And we’ve been exceptionally lucky with the guests who have come. We’ve probably only had two dozen so far, staying for anything between one night and six months, but they have enriched our lives hugely.


We’ve never felt like we’re nobly helping out the needy, because those guests help us as much as we help them. We’ll find someone else has done the cooking or the shopping or the washing up. Someone else has lit the fire or laid the table. The house and the woods have been full of music and chat. For all the difficulties of communal living, we would really struggle to go back to the ghetto of the nuclear family.


It helps, paradoxically, that the people we share our lives with aren’t chosen in the expectation they will become friends. We don’t start out – as many communitarians do – thinking we’re all going to be best mates, happily hugging every day. We get close, certainly, and a couple of guests who have been here many months really do feel like they’re family, but that intimacy evolves. It’s an unexpected bonus. Our starting point tends to be merely that we’re going to get by rather than get on. We know all about the "crooked timber of humanity". Expectations are low and, that way, the surprises are invariably pleasant.


It’s been uplifting to see that the wider we’ve opened our door, the more amazing things have come through it. Instead of feeling cut off from the world (and living in the sticks at the end of a cul-de-sac it wouldn’t be hard), we’ve felt deeply connected to it. Whatever it is – karma or chance or serendipity – it’s been extraordinary to see needs met with a precision and timing that verges on the incredible.


I’m not even talking about sophisticated stuff, just the raw basics that allow a place like this to keep going: a cockerel or some chisels, a bed, some chairs, a dozen pallets and so on. Often when we invite some random visitor to stay for a meal we get chatting and, usually unprompted, they’ll offer us something that we’ve been desperately needing for weeks. It affirms not just your faith in human nature, but also in something more mystical, something to do with casting your bread upon the waters. And it’s taught us that the way to solve the financial difficulties here isn’t to earn more money, but to spend less. We’ve learnt how cheap life can be when your door is open.


And although I’ve felt the financial burden very acutely, many of the other burdens have evaporated. There are various areas round here where I am, thankfully, the deputy, not the sheriff: someone else is in charge of the workshop, someone else is head swineherd. I don’t feel weighed down by responsibility because other people have taken over. If I could just delegate all the shopping and washing up, things would be perfect.


Most importantly, the only aspect of this "extended household" that really concerned us has been a source of great joy. We never really worried about the possibility of things getting broken or stolen, but we’ve always been very aware of the dangers to young children presented by a constant stream of strangers. We’re fairly hawkish about looking out for those dangers, but actually, so far, the children have probably been the main beneficiaries of this place. Someone teaches them elementary knife skills or how to play the mouth organ. Someone makes them laugh by eating bizarre food combinations. They learn strange songs and new words in new languages. A woman from a kibbutz makes them think by listing all the things she can’t do on a sabbath.


They invent funny nicknames for everyone who comes: Bagel Dave, Curry Pete, Neil Somebody, Miss Banksy and so on. They go to bed asking excitedly, "Who’s coming tomorrow?" and the main sorrow for them is when someone leaves. They ask questions about bereavement or booze or melancholia and we tell them what we can. Their lives are an adventure even though they’re at home. They are, in a small way, getting a glimpse of the joys and tragedies of life.


It feels as if there’s still a colossal amount to do. We’ve still got to build a tiny chapel, convert the explosives chamber, plant an orchard, dig a pond, build a sauna, make the compost bog, sculpt a cob oven, create an outdoor shower and, most importantly, find a snooker table. We want to put a massive tarp over a natural curve in a clearing and have an amphitheatre for concerts and classes and workshops. One day we’ll have an alternative festival here called Windsor Hill Woodstock. But the most important thing will always be offering fellowship and sharing shelter. That’s the reason we’re here.