Roots and Pioneers

Chris Gathercole - Part 3

Chris Gathercole Whalley community locality Forest Gardens

Part 3 - Pioneering at Whalley Forest Garden

Chris was active with Transition Town Clitheroe and, over succeeding years, he brought about two projects in his home village of Whalley: the Whalley Community Hydro and Whalley Forest Garden. Both of these projects feature on our Northern School list of “must see” visits, to the constant delight of those who make the trip.

Chris has had a long and interesting career devising and supervising the care of people with disabilities. He has not been sitting back in retirement and he has caused these two ground-breaking projects to come to fruition. Although he is now “retired fully” and moved to Wales, when last we spoke he was getting excited about starting a re-wilding project there.

Before he left for Wales, he was interviewed by Angus Soutar. Part 1 of the interview explains how Chris got involved in community activity and sets the scene for the projects in Whalley. You can read it here. Part 2 covers community activity in general - read it here. Part 3 follows - read on.

At the PDC for Transition Town Clitheroe, 2010
Design team at The Pendle Club, Clitheroe, 2010

People Want To Do Something

Angus: Tell us more about the Whalley Forest Garden project.

Chris: Talking about people, one of the issues that always concerned me was that there is a lot of labour involved in a three acre forest garden. It's too big really and there were never enough of us. We did occasionally draw on the network and sometimes we would have a day with five or ten people who'd come down and we would have various jobs to do.

Other forest gardens, like the one at Middlewood, run regular days or weekends when activities are scheduled and people come from miles around. That's admirable, you need something like that, but I never had the energy to organise it well, nor did the others. It does take an awful lot of planning with materials and the tools and supervising people. Usually, they all have their own ideas and some will say “I have been a gardener for 50 years and nobody needs to tell me what to do”. There’s an educational side to it and we need to provide close supervision. And it needs to be on a regular basis. There is a big issue about the relationships and the organisation, sometimes lack of organisation: do we do it formally or informally? It needed a lot more input than we were prepared to give.

“Whalley in Bloom” on the other hand, has a weekly work party that goes out and does stuff. Interestingly, some of those workers say that most people only turn up for the social interaction. They have tea and cake and so on, and that's a good thing to do, but I'm not the right person to organise that sort of thing. If we could find someone who likes this work, then that would be great.

Angus: These are skills that need to be available. But we have a success story with Whalley Hydro. I would argue that Whalley is a relatively well-off area. People enjoy their retirement here and that pushes you towards that successful team building, which is so important for any project. It's interesting comparing the Hydro which is very successful, to the Forest Garden which is still emerging. Mind you, the forest garden at Middlewood was left completely to nature for several years and then Ruth Theobold went back in and and got it back into good shape. Now Mike and Debbie Pope supervise the volunteering and that keeps it all in good fettle. There are certain roles that have to be fulfilled. But I think that it's better for Whalley to have a half-finished forest garden rather than half-finished community hydro.

The real transition is going from talking about it to getting the project moving and making things happen on the ground. At one end of the spectrum there are people who are happy to turn up and do something, anything, and have tea and cake, and at the other end there are those who just want to talk about it all the time. There is then a gap to be filled where we need a people to manage the process.

Chris: I think this Transition process is very interesting. I remember that Rob Hopkins did some training with Rod Everett, Rod was one of Rob’s early mentors. One of Rob’s guidelines was “let it go where it wants to go”. This sounds like a very Buddhist type of approach. Some people want to be very managerial and organised. They ask “How many projects have we got” and “Who is the team leader for each project” and “Can you report back to us monthly on progress?” This becomes very managerial in that sense. Another way to do it is to say, “Well, what are you interested in Angus? Yes, you go off and do that”. Let’s not try to control people. That way everyone is putting their energy into what they want to do, and that's the way I went about the Hydro.

I'm not the sort of person who wants to be reporting to people about what we're doing. I’m happy to do that, but the idea of a central controlling body like a politburo that organises everything is not very attractive one to me. Over the years and through my work I have had an interest in these sort of things and I've had opportunities to learn from other people through the work. It was all about community care or community living, so there’s a lot of lessons that one could learn from that.

I felt certain tensions within myself as I decided that I had to learn about Forest Gardens, I had to learn about permaculture, read up about it, go and visit everywhere. Then after a year or two I had a clear idea of what is necessary to do. Then other people come along who perhaps have not been through all of that. They have their own ideas, wanting to do things in a different way. So, what do we do? We have the potential for conflict here. On the one hand, I want to be Napoleon and tell everybody that we are going to do it this way, but on the other hand I realise that that's not the best way to go about things. It's important to bring people on and as they say “let it go where it wants to go”.

That makes it more complicated. It's much easier to be a dictator. Or, on the other hand, to let anybody do whatever they want to do. To negotiate a way through all that, and to have each party feel that their needs are satisfied and that their interests are being catered for and nobody is being left out - that's much more complicated and very tricky. It takes a lots more skill than I’ve got.

People Want Some Care

Angus: One of the difficulties that I’ve encountered is this: many people do not have the training to manage themselves in a “let it go where it wants to go” situation. When we try to carry out that middle-ground approach that you are talking about, then we often find that there are a lot of people are looking to be told what to do.

Chris: Yes. Now one of the people from Transition Clitheroe who helped us with the forest garden was very interested in cooking. She loved cooking. She was really interested in that, not just for family but for other people. She and I had a long conversation because she had come across young single parents, mainly teenage women and they had no idea about cooking and nutrition. We don't teach “domestic science” like we used to do. So many young people have no idea. There's all the fast-food: pizzas, kebabs and all that, it's bad news. She had a definite drive to pass on her skills, enthusiasm and knowledge but she didn’t want to do it with a group. She preferred working with just one or two people. Immediately I had all sorts of ideas coming into my head, all sorts of possibilities. I knew where all the contacts were in Clitheroe. I knew where there were kitchens that she could have the use of, and so on. But she, she lacked confidence.

I've been incredibly fortunate with my life experience. Throughout nearly all of my 40 years of work I was making waves. When I started, back in 1960, there were very few clinical psychologists in those days and I never had a boss. I was always the first person to be appointed and I had to figure out what to do by myself, and then just get on with it. It took me in all sorts of directions, pushing the frontiers. Some you win, some you lose but I had enough successes that I was reinforced in my decision-making. I had satisfaction from things that I had tried doing, and when it worked out I said, “that's nice now let's move on and do something else”.

But my colleague hadn't had those sorts of experiences. She works in a shop, I'm sure she enjoys it, but she has a strong interest and talent and would make a success of it if she could be helped. She needed a mentor, someone to hold her hand through all the steps so that she could build up more confidence, to step out and take initiatives.

We had this conversation, but I was so occupied with the Hydro and with other things that I couldn't do the necessary hand-holding to help her onto the next stage. It needs someone who's experienced, someone who can give advice with a light touch. Someone to help those talented people to see what they can get on with, and then support them as they move on.

It’s an interesting way of looking at things but I was getting to the stage where I had a lot of energy going out. You can't do all the things that you want to do.

To be continued ...


Whalley Forest Garden started in the summer of 2011 when Chris and Doreen first set eyes on the site. A featureless and degraded field is now a wonderful wild area with rapidly-maturing fruit trees. Whalley Community Hydro opened in 2014 generating electricity from the flow of the Lancashire Carder as it falls over the weir near Whalley Abbey. At outputs of up to 100kW, the project was managed in its entirety by local people, raising the required finance of around £750,000 through a community share issue. Part 1 of this series explains how Chris got involved in community activity and sets the scene for the projects in Whalley. You can read it here. Part 2 covers the initiation of community activity - read it here. In future issues, Angus and Chris discuss community activity further.

At the PDC for Transition Town Clitheroe, 2010
Whalley Forest Garden, Autumn 2016
At the PDC for Transition Town Clitheroe, 2010
Whalley Forest Garden, Autumn 2016

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