Rodwell House 1977 -1978

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Rodwell House 1977 -1978

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We sat by the last hearth in the world

With the first force which blew there

Gusting still beyond the doors and shutters,

Whilst we within revolved around some newer magic.

Rodwell House, Suffolk 04.11.1977.

I don’t know whether we ever seriously said to people that we were a commune, but certainly I felt at the time that we were at least a 1970s counter-cultural student version of one. It was my first experience of living in Intentional Communities, and it was very different from the decade old student housing that I had experienced previously in my year on campus. For a start, we lived a good twenty five miles from the campus, well away from big towns on a B-Road in the next county. And it was a smaller mixed group of friends and acquaintances which had chosen to live together in this lovely historic red brick house in the Suffolk countryside rather than the large group of over a dozen guys which had had a whole storey of one of the six modern tower blocks at the university park but which had been random in its make up of occupants.

We were six young men and two young women, nearly all of us undergraduates. Four of the guys were computer studies students, which dictated some of the character of the house, at least to what stuff was left lying around. (I have never lived with so many bits of computer hardware – and the hardware of the late nineteen seventies was fairly big.) Otherwise three others were humanities students, one of them a graduate doing a post-grad course, and there was a friend who wasn’t a student. Most of us had made friends during the previous year living on campus where, even if the student flats were large and thrown together by chance, there had also been a sense of community. In that year, we had formed a campus student clique that called itself “the anarcho-frivolists”, inspired partly by the Gong band and their ideas of floating anarchy, partly by the Merry Pranksters.

The house belonged to the family of one of the computer students, and the elder members of his family had had connections to many members of the Bloomsbury Group. It was wonderful to live in a house where many of them had been and there was some sort of guest book in the house where many Bloomsbury people had written things. Around the fireplace there was a beautiful mosaic done, I believe, by Boris Anrep.
In addition, there were a number of other smaller works by members of the Bloomsbury group, and a wonderful, old clockwork gramophone. It was definitely a good place to start my experience of living in groups. It was a real gift to have the chance to live in this amazing place and pick up the vibrations and see some of the things left by previous occupants.

Most of us moved in at the start of the autumn semester 1977 and I lived in a attic with sloping sides directly under the roof. It was more or less undecorated and unfurnished. It was cold, and there was a gap under the window where the wind blew in. I blocked it up and plastered it over, but the result was neither very professional, nor particularly beautiful. It bulged like a grey beer-gut. The wind no longer blew through it, but the room was still very cold. Indeed, it was only possible to sleep there in winter if you had your clothes on inside a sleeping bag inside the bed clothes. I think that the only heating in the house was the open fire in the sitting room and an AGA cooker in the kitchen. I decorated the plain white plaster in my room with moon, stars and flying saucers executed in lamp black using a lighted candle as my paint brush. When my friend’s mother discovered my attic artistic experiment in a house full of “real art” she was not amused. My friend’s father was rather more relaxed, although maybe he just did not show his irritation. On the other hand, I believe that he had grown up with some contact to the left-liberal, lively and sometimes scandalous folk of the later Bloomsburies.

Although I liked our “landlady”, she was, like Queen Victoria, “not amused” a number of times while we lived there. I don’t think she entirely trusted us not to completely muck up the house or break things. And it is true that we were not always very caring towards this wonderful house. One night we nearly burnt it down when embers from the fire set the antique hearth rug alight – ruining what I imagine was a valuable heirloom. And we were not very good at cleaning, which meant that one weekend, when most of the others were away and my friend’s parents came to visit, I spent quite a long time on my hands and knees with his father scrubbing the brick tiled kitchen floor which we had managed to turn black with the mud of the autumn and winter. However, it must really have been clear to her that a bunch of people in their late teens and early twenties were not going to be particularly house trained.

We were quite a wild bunch and so were our friends. We were not much influenced by the “serious” intentional communities of the time, although we knew that Findhorn existed, and that not so far away there was a large community at Old Hall in East Bergholt which had started a couple of years before. And of course, we knew about Christiania in that time before it became a tourist attraction. Mainly, though, our influences were musical, especially bands like “The Global Village Trucking Company”, Gong, The Incredible String Band, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, who we had heard lived communally. But also “Are you experienced?” by Hendrix (Well, we were trying to be!), Pink Floyd, Arthur Brown, Eric Burdon, John Martin and Roy Harper and american West Coast bands such as the Doors, Love, and Country Joe and the Fish. Some of us had worked together on the student radio station and we were fairly regular participants at Free Festivals such as Stonehenge and early Glastonbury, so we loved Hawkwind, Sphynx and Here and Now too.

For the humanities students our literary influences were books such as those by Carlos Casteneda, Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East”, Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test”, “The Doors of Perception” by Huxley, Persig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Undercurrents magazine and a few more recent issues of IT. I think that the members of the computer studies fraction were more into technical hand books and science-fiction.

Every old house should have a ghost. Whether Rodwell House really had a ghost is open to question. Certainly one guest claimed to have seen a lady in white on the stairs. I think she was seen twice while I lived there. On the other hand, the young man who saw her was the same guest who later took all the tablets of his four sorts of psychopharmaceutical medicine in one go (over a hundred pills!) and had to be taken to hospital and stomach pumped. Anyway, in the cold dark winter, on badly lit stairs, the atmosphere was the right one for a lady in white. Or for things that go bump (or wooooooo) in the dark. A lot of the time in winter we stayed together in the sitting room by the open hearth, listened to albums and marveled again and again at the mosaic. Going upstairs to bed was put off for as long as possible.

The house was set back a little from the road, with trees and shrubs disguising its presence a little. There was some local traffic, but long distance traffic was on the dual carriageway A road on the other side of the River Gipping. There was the occasional bus, and enough cars passing for us to hitch hike if necessary, but most of the time we went back and forth in one of a number of cars, sharing the price of petrol for the trips to the university. Depending on who had to go to lectures we would travel either in a Mini, an old yellow ex-post office Morris 1000 van, a Triumph Spitfire or an old Humber, which I think was a Hawk.

On milder days in autumn and winter it was pleasant to go for walks in the area. One possibility was to go up the hill to Upper Street Baylham and then towards Nettlestead and Somersham. Going along the Lower street was not so interesting, unless we decided to visit the local pub, The Bell Inn in Great Blakenham ,
which we did some evenings. The best walk, however, was to go a couple of hundred yards, past the garage/petrol station to the Mill Lane turning, and then over the level crossing. You had a raised foot path over water meadows and a bridge over the Gipping. On the other side of the Mill the road became no through road to a dead end, finishing at the cutting of the A45. Previously, in the more distant past, the road had continued to an ending on the Norwich Road. Then the dual carriage way was built. It was a bit of a risk to cross it, but over we went anyway at a sprint, into the safety of Tower Woods and Shrubland Park, avoiding the health clinic there, but looking round the grounds a little. Sometimes we just went round in the woods, finding the tower there quite an interesting place to visit; a six sided tower in the middle of the woods, a real “Folly”. Other times we went through towards Coddenham and Sandy Lane, or towards Barham. However, the afternoons were short and it was always good to get back to Rodwell house, to a fire in the hearth, and, on one occasion, to a mysterious black cat waiting by the front door. Wierd.

Quite a few of my experiences at the time were “wierd”, perhaps because they were mostly new and sometimes took me beyond what I had experienced in my family life and the year on campus. The increased freedom was also sometimes “wierd”. Parental authority and dependence on them was now really a thing of the past. I was twenty, had worked in a couple of jobs to get my own money, had a grant which was enough to live on, and had realised my dream of living in a group. I had a lot more freedom to experiment and some experiments were great fun – like finally losing my virginity. Yippee, hurrah for the sexual revolution! And some were unnerving. Despite paying attention to dose, set and setting, I had a couple of what might have been called bad trips if they had not been so educational and transformational. And some experiences were just a bit silly, like forgetting that we had three chocolate cakes in the oven and having to cut away the burnt outer layers before we could eat them.

In the end, it was the distance from the university which stimulated me to leave the house and the group. At some point in the early spring, my tutors began to complain that I was not attending enough lectures or classes and threatened to expel me if I did not improve. It was true that I had used the situation that one of the History lectures was at the same time as one of the Literature lectures to attend neither of them. And I really did have the excuse that travel was so difficult in winter weather. The university authorities decided that if I improved my attendance then they would call off the expulsion, and I was able to persuade them to offer me a student flat on the housing estate near the campus. So, with some regrets, I left the others living in that wonderful old house and moved. It had been an important and influential part of my life, and now, over 35 years later I still remember with pleasure and nostalgia this first real experience of communal life.

Notes

Rodwell House is a large grade 2 listed house in Baylham, Suffolk, near the River Gipping , between Needham Market and Ipswich. It is a mid-18th century, two storey red brick house with a plaintiled two span roof and a big garden.

Rowell House, at the time I write about, belonged to the Anrep family, which had had connections to the Bloomsbury group, many of whom had been there in the house over the years and left their impression on the interior of the house. I am very grateful to the Anreps that they gave us the possibility of living there for a year.

Nowadays the village of Baylham seems to be interesting because of the Baylham House Rare Breeds Farm and a proposed Solar Farm.

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