Reflecting on Permaculture, wellbeing and community change week at Othona


Situated in a beautiful, tranquil and rural setting, Othona is a Christian community based next to one of the oldest Christian chapels in England. St Cedd founded St Peters on the Wall in 654 AD on the site of a former Roman fort called Othona at a strategic point on the east coast of Essex.

During the week at Othona in August we covered a range of subjects related to Permaculture, wellbeing and community change. We had guest speakers interspersed with tours and practical activities at the Othona site.

Graham Burnett provided an overview of the history of Permaculture, helping to bring to life the key values: Fair Share; People Care; Earth Care. Permaculture is a toolkit for designing a way of living, both physical landscapes, relationships with others and the principles can be applied to ourselves as a guide for life.

Graham delivers a talk at Othona

Whilst Permaculture was designed initially in the 1970s, the principles are increasingly relevant as an approach to life as we consider our response to the ecological and climate emergency as well as the mental health crisis that many face. ‘Produce no waste’, ‘Use and Value Renewables’, ‘Catch and Store Energy’ and ‘Obtain a Yield’ all underline the importance of considering our consumption, particularly as we look to go carbon neutral. Our understanding of ourselves and living alongside and celebrating others are emphasized by the principles of ‘Using and Valuing Diversity’ and ‘Using Edges and Valuing the Marginal’. The positive, strengths-based approach advocated by Permaculture are not imposing, as they encourage observation, creatively responding to change, and using small and slow solutions. Imagine if we had government and leadership that understood and applied Permaculture principles to policy, what a different world we would live in.

Kamil delivers a talk at Permaculture week in Othona

Kamil Pachalko talked about the concept of Transition Towns. This was an exciting idea when I helped co-found the Southend in Transition thirteen years ago, as it provides a positive vision for the future, with much less reliance on fossil fuels and a town in which people are working together for a green, collaborative future.

Totnes and Brixton have become beacons of the approach, with local pounds helping money stay in the local economy. We discussed how the Transition Towns movement seems quieter than before, the main manifestation being a community allotment in Southend and networking drinks in a local pub. Extinction Rebellion and the more heightened climate emergency debate have taken prominence, but the Transition approach still has a lot to offer, particularly in offering a way of life that is positive and better than life today, rather than a doom and gloom scenario where we are prevented from flying, driving, and consuming, which for many feels like a backward step in our continual drive for ‘progress’.

Royston Kymberley, Mental Health Training Manager at Trust Links, gave a fulsome talk about the neuroscience behind wellbeing. Tips were given to manage our own wellbeing, including thinking about a ‘stress bucket’ – how it can get full, and sometimes we need to offload things from our stress bucket before it overflows. Our responses to stressful situations can be fight, flight and freeze: how are we dealing with the current climate emergency and societal churn as we recover from the COVID pandemic?

People listen to a talk in St Peters Chapel

Rev Canon Imogen Nay from Chelmsford Cathedral hosted a session in the historic and atmospheric St Peter’s Chapel, which was founded by St Cedd in 654 AD. The workshop helped the group explore stories around climate change activism around the world. We shared what concerned us about the global crisis, then we talked about our dreams for the future, and set some actions to help make a difference to climate change.

Othona is off-grid and as such generates its own power. Over the last 2 years, thousands of pounds have been invested in a new system with a biomass boiler for heating the hot water, photovoltaic solar panels and a wind turbine. A diesel engine provides back up, should extra capacity be required; the community is seeking to raise £115,000 for a second and larger wind turbine, which would reduce carbon emissions further and harness the wind power that swirls around the coastal site.

Young people coppicing

A great way to learn is through doing. The day that the Youth came from Trust Links, we coppiced hazel in the woodland area, letting light in for other species and harvesting useful hazel poles for construction. We also harvested damsons, tomatoes, and figs and toured the site, which is increasingly abundant with herbs, fruit and vegetables in an attempt to be self-sufficient and carbon net zero. The experience opened the eyes of the young people who are from urban Southend-on-Sea, giving them time away in a green Christian community – a world away from their daily lives.

The concept and lived experience of community is both a challenge and an opportunity as we emerge from a period of enforced isolation and disconnection from community due to the COVID pandemic. Othona is a unique community. The communal kitchen, dining area, living area and central quadrangle provides ample shared space for people to be together and share living. In fact, there are few alternative catering options from these, short of walking to the pub half a mile away or escaping to the various other spaces around the grounds. This forces all of the people to come together three times each day, sharing a meal and a common experience. Prayers are said at each mealtime, offered up by a different person each meal. You indicate that you want everyone to be quiet by raising your hand and being silent, then as others notice this they copy and very quickly everyone is quiet, awaiting the prayer and notices. We quickly adapted to the Othona rhythm, chatting to new people, engaging with the nature around us, having time for prayer, reflection, learning and being.

Final campfire on the beach at Othona