CASE STUDY: keeping local areas distinctive

The UK’s most successful NGO is based in a Dorset village, with no members or PR team. Paul Kingsnorth meets the duo behind it…

Picture the scene: it’s the early 1980s, and the rising tide of Thatcherism is sweeping all before it. Big is beautiful, markets are the arbiters of both economics and morality, and the times are symbolised by road-building, downsizing and shareholding. In the midst of this bleak landscape, two women look around them and don’t like what they see. They don’t like the way that this rising tide of übermaterialism is drowning so many things that seem important, from green fields to small shops, wildlife to local character. But they are uncomfortable because many ‘environmentalists’ seem to be falling into the same trap as those they oppose.

‘We felt that the environment movement had got a bit lost’, says Sue Clifford. ‘One of the things that we were worried about was that people were getting written out of it. The complications of talking about physics and nuclear power and all the rest of it had just left people behind.’

‘So unless a place had special and rare things in it,’ adds Angela King, ‘it wasn’t of importance, or worth fighting for, and the people who cared about it were left bereft.’

Sue Clifford and Angela King met whilst working at Friends of the Earth during its inception in the 1970s. King was its first wildlife campaigner, Clifford was on its board, and both of them wanted to reach beyond it. With writer and environmentalist Roger Deakin they did so by founding Common Ground in 1982.

Common Ground is an environmental campaign group with a difference. It focuses on the small rather than the vast, the particular rather than the general and the possibilities rather than the dangers. The tools of its trade are not direct action, letter-writing or hard-hitting reports, but art, poetry, sculpture, and the creative impulse in all of our lives.

‘We always felt very lonely out there’, says Clifford, smiling. ‘People would give you that kind of sideways look. But from the beginning we knew in our hearts that unless we argued for the commonplace and made our everyday surroundings the best we could make them, that we would always lose the special and the endangered in the end, because they would be left as islands.’

The belief that ordinary people can make ordinary places matter – that ‘everywhere means something to someone’ – is what has driven them ever since.

‘You’ve got to try and help people say how much they love things, and what it means to them’, says King. When they first got started, neither of them were quite sure how to do this. But they knew they wanted to bring people and their places together, and use creative means of showing them how to express their feelings for what they call ‘particularity’.

The results of this desire have been fascinating – and entirely unique. They have also been influential. Take one of their earliest projects – Parish Maps. In the early days of Common Ground, Clifford and King mulled over practical ways in which people could begin to take the pulse of their place. How could local communities express what mattered to them, and start looking after the things they valued locally? They came up with a simple idea: what would happen if members of each parish – the smallest measure of locality there is – were to begin making community maps of their surroundings? Would it help reconnect people and place? Would anyone be interested?

They floated the idea in Common Ground’s first book, Holding Your Ground, in 1985, and were soon contacted by people all over the country who wanted to have a go – or were already doing so. Often such projects would start with just a couple of people, and mushroom to engage the whole community. People began to understand that they valued, and knew, their locality better than they thought they did.

In Elham, in Kent, for example, people started off small. They planned simply to map all their local footpaths, but the more they talked and planned, the more ambitious they became.

Their parish map ended up as a wonderfully detailed, eightfoot- long painting. In Easton, Bristol, the multi-ethnic community held a doubledecker bus tour to get everyone involved in their map, which is now on permanent display. In Sunderland, 21 schools got together to map their local stretches of the River Wear and turn the whole into a knitted map of what the river meant to them. Hundreds of parish maps have been made since, directly inspired by Common Ground, every one of them bringing communities closer to each other, and to the places they inhabit.

Or take Apple Day. Clifford and King have long been fascinated by calendar customs – dates in which specific events or celebrations, from May Day to cheeserolling, have embedded themselves in the unofficial folk calendar of the nation. So in 1990 they had a shot at creating one of their own. Apple Day was to be on 21st October, a celebration of our native fruit, the apple. England grows more varieties of apple than any other country – more than 2,000 (around a quarter of all the apple varieties in the world) – and the orchards they grow in are some of our most remarkable, and endangered, landscapes.

Apple Day was intended to raise awareness of this fact, and to do something about it. There were no rules, and no one had to ask permission. It was an experiment. The first event was organised by Clifford and King in a marquee near their then office in Covent Garden. It contained orchard photographs and rare apple displays, and around 1,600 people came to see it. Clifford and King were amazed at the interest that was shown, but not as amazed as when they watched their new calendar custom take off nationwide over the next few years. This year, Apple Day was celebrated in more than 260 places across Britain. Mulled cider was served in Sussex, apples were pressed in ancient wooden presses in Worcestershire, draughts was played on a giant board using red and green apples as counters in Oxfordshire, a ‘longest peel competition’ was held in Cambridgeshire, guided orchard walks were held in Cheshire. And at every event, people came away with a wider and deeper knowledge of their locality – and a feeling that, in the end, it was theirs after all.

Apple Day has been so successful, in fact, that many people now think it is actually an ancient custom – which is fine by its originators. ‘I don’t know if many people would necessarily trace things back to us’, says Clifford. ‘What’s happening now is that people are going off in all sorts of directions with the things we helped to start rolling. And we know that many of the things we’ve done have really affected how the Countryside Agency go about their work, how lots of local authorities go about their business. We constantly come up against our words, and our way of looking, in reports from counties, planning policy guidelines… it’s out there, and it’s embedding.’

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Common Ground is that it continues to innovate, continues to develop, continues to move on, and yet its underlying philosophy remains the same. That philosophy is summed up in a phrase coined by King and Clifford, and which now, like so many of their other works, is beginning to take on a life of its own: ‘local distinctiveness’ – the idea that every place is different, special, unique, and that this is what makes it live. It is a rallying point against the homogenising power of the global consumer economy; and all Common Ground projects, from orchards to maps, apples to rivers, trees to street names, come under this umbrella.

‘It’s about letting people define for themselves what’s special about a place, and what matters about it’, says Sue Clifford. ‘That’s the key. Government agencies and large bodies can’t stand this. They want to define things, they want to keep tabs. But we’ve always been rather anarchic in that way, knowing that if you can turn people on and let them control things, they’ll do much better than if you say, “Here’s a way of doing it, and it’s the only way”.’

Time and again, Common Ground has been proved right in this regard: people value their places, and, given the confidence and the inspiration, they will fight for them. As their influence spreads (from swimming against the tide 20 years ago they are now, says Clifford, ‘dog paddling as fast as we can to keep up’), there’s surely no doubt that we need them. Who else would encourage whole communities along a river to participate in writing a libretto about otters? Who else brings together sculptors and farmers, poets and market traders, musicians and fishermen? Who else would write a Manifesto for Fields? Who else produces documents that look at least as good as they read, that are a work of art in themselves? Who else pays this much attention to detail, because they know that detail is what matters?

Fortunately for us, Clifford and King are busier than ever. Their new book, England in Particular, a celebration of particular, ordinary things and places all over the country, came out this year, and they are busier than they have ever been. And the first weekend of December is Tree Dressing Day, another Common Ground innovation, which began the same year as Apple Day. Back in 1990, Clifford and King decorated a group of plane trees in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, with huge numbers, to show that ‘every tree counts’. This year, people will dress trees all over the country with everything from ribbons to messages in bottles. The ordinary will again become special, and more people will begin to notice where they are.

Twenty years ago, it seemed that Clifford and King were howling in the wilderness. Today, with the local, the seasonal and the ‘sustainable’ firmly in fashion, much of what they say has been vindicated. But there is still a long way to go. There probably always will be.

‘One of the things that really gets my blood up’, fumes Clifford, ‘is people saying “Isn’t this all just nostalgia?” Completely missing the point that we all live in history – we’re surrounded by breeds of cattle and sheep and buildings and connections, and all sorts of things that are from other places and other times. We’ve just never thought about it in that kind of way. The whole point is that one’s trying to look forward in an engaging and positive way. To look forward to a future in which we can nurture the commonplace and understand its value.’

In an age of placeless globalisation, this has become a radical message. And, if Sue Clifford and Angela King have their way, it’s one that will be heard louder and louder.

Common Ground Gold Hill House,
21 High Street, Shaftesbury,
Dorset SP7 8JE.
Tel: 01747 850820,

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2006

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