Embercombe: How A Special Place Helped Us Get Real

Late on a Friday afternoon after a few hours of driving through Glastonbury and the South West countryside of England, we arrived at Embercombe where our four-strong family had been invited to spend a weekend.

This general area of the country, especially around Totnes, is conventionally regarded as home to some of the more alternative British communities. Totnes is particularly known as the place that the Transition movement was founded – a now worldwide network of Transition groups based around the idea that we can learn the skills to transition from a culture relying on oil and fossil fuels to a more resilient future.

The directions to the place were confusing at best so I arrived feeling a bit rattled and drained from the drive. The hectic vibe faded very quickly however on realising what a beautiful place we had come to. Embercombe is a residential, educational, working farm situated on the edge of a wide and rolling valley with views from the top of the property generously extending for miles around. Once you move along the dirt road a few metres there’s a tent or two on the lawn and then a small car park. We ditched the car and sauntered in on foot to the barn and dining yurt: fire circle out front; views breathtaking.

First impressions were of a lovely and well organised space with the capacity for many different uses. The herb garden directly outside the kitchen planted in old truck tyres is lush and practical, the long tables lining the deck hint at communal dining and the circle of stones around that fireplace beckon me closer.

One delightful vegetarian dinner and a great sleep in the yurt village later, we awake to a divine and misty morning as well as another beautiful, community-made meal in the dining yurt.  Our sleep was certainly aided by the fact that our host had built a fire for us to warm our space before we arrived that kept us toasty well into the night. And I really enjoy it when we all sleep in the same space, even if it does mean usually having at least one child in the bed with me by morning. Maybe it’s the eskimo in me (well, the fantasy eskimo at least).

The day began with a fire-circle. All 25 of us sat around the morning fire on benches and one by one we spoke honestly of how we felt to the other wiling listeners. It was a powerful briefing: Tim Mac Macartney, Embercombe’s founder, has been charged with spreading the story of the Children’s Fire, a compelling philosophy arising out of Native American wisdom. Briefly the Children’s Fire idea is based on a concept that all leadership and major political decision-making is based on what would be the best possible future outcome for our children. It means putting the concerns of our young at the centre of our consideration. Fittingly as we were talking around the fire our kids played openly in the field beyond occasionally screaming or laughing as if to agree with the idea.

It was a heartening experience to sit around an open fire at the start of the day with no other purpose than to tell the truth about how you are feeling to group of people with a similar intention. I was moved to tears more than once to hear what was really going on for the other residents of the temporary community. From deep and important transitions and chance to the most basic of grateful sentiments, I loved the feeling of openly and warmly receiving people’s truths in this way. I was able to compassionately hold the spaces that each person presented as their own and take a moment to honour them for sharing it.

Next we worked. We chose jobs from a list of things that needed doing, split into groups and went off to toil on the land – digging trenches, farm maintenance, cleaning toilets, cooking or gardening. I found it didn’t really matter what I was doing so much as the act of doing physical work with a group of people that was important. This is a rare experience for a city girl like me, and one the dormant hippy in me thoroughly appreciated.

The whole day, our kids continued to play. With barely a stick and a rock at hand, still they found games. The pine-log play equipment occasionally took their fancy and they would swing on the hand-built swings, or the younger ones would jump on the ‘pirate ship’ and go sailing the high seas. My three-year-old daughter recruited a lovely young woman from London to come on her adventures with her and spent much of the next day or two in fantasy-land reminding her new adult friend how to play like a toddler.

Around mid-morning our 12-year-old went for a walk by himself. When he returned my husband (his step-dad) suggested they walk together so he could show him what he had discovered. Our boy talked about some things that had been going on for him after our recent relocation from Australia and his transition into high school. My husband, with our boy’s permission, told me what they had discussed and we were able to hear him in a way we would not have been able to at home.

Somehow the space away from the day-to-day and the lake and field themselves helped him to get honest with us and for us to hear him as an equal, respect him for his words. Even during the week following our visit I felt the closeness that this honesty created between us. It was lovely to re-learn him amongst all these internal and external changes he is experiencing at the moment.

Conversations amongst people over the weekend tended to be more open and hearty than usual. Some of us did some singing on Saturday afternoon, our voices ringing out into the valley in complex harmonies. It felt so wonderful to be in a harmonising group, which very quickly become a pretty good choir. Things seemed more possible out there.

Things seemed more possible. And this fascinates me, that a change in context and some contact with nature can shift our perspective so much. These combined with an intention to actually behave as a temporary community with its own rules and routines for the weekend, one in which there is a concern for one another and a communal reliance to get the meals cooked, the bathrooms cleaned, the beds made. It worked so well.

Coming away from the weekend was bittersweet. I was exhausted and ready for home, unused to the intense concentration of real conversation and communal activity. It was also incredibly heartening to see the people that run Embercombe striving to provide people with an alternative, another way of existing – one which involves truth, connection with the land, connection with each other. I was able to bring kernels of that experience into my life at home and enjoyed a sense that these ideas and experiences are more accessible than we are often aware.

Well done Embercombe, I’ll be back.


Alena Turley is an Australian mentor for mothers. Founder of the pioneering blog, the Soul Mama Hub, her wellbeing membership offers a powerful pathway for mothers ready to go from over-extended, stuck in the daily grind, to empowered, inspired and energised so they can become the CHANGEMAKERS they dream of being.

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