Roots and Pioneers

Chris Gathercole - Part 5

Chris Gathercole Whalley community complexity leadership Angus Soutar

Chris Gathercole 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.

Last year, before he left for Wales, he was interviewed by Angus Soutar.
Part 1 is here. Part 2 here. Part 3 here. Part 4 was about the challenges of managing community projects and complexity in general see here Now read on.

Whalley Hydro tour
Chris with a design team in Clitheroe

Funny Old Busy-ness

Angus: I’m trying to relate our experience on the ground and the day-to-day tasks of dealing with people and how all this connects to a bigger picture of things. I do feel that the problems that we are facing when getting local projects going are inhibited by our culture of busy-ness, but there are probably enough people out there who are open to them.

Chris: Oh yes.

Angus: There is busy-ness and there is also separation, and I see a longing amongst people to do things together, but most people have lost the art of it, just like we have lost the art of cooking a meal, we have lost the art of getting together with a few people and saying “Let's all tidy up that bit of wasteland”. Recently, it's been even more difficult to get people together.

What makes projects happen? Tell me about the forest garden. How did that how did that start?

Chris: The initial discussions for the Forest Garden or some sort of food production effort where within the transition group in Clitheroe and we did actually identify a site in the Castle grounds of Clitheroe Castle.

Angus: You took me there. I remember that there was...

Chris: … a lot of Japanese knotweed!

Angus: It wasn't a very exciting site and I think that the Local Authority wanted to get rid of it.

Chris: We even drew up a plan for digging it out and a design for how we would use the space. For one reason or another, it never came to fruition. But we were still looking for sites. We knew about the site here in Whalley, at the playing fields. My energies at that period were in Clitheroe because we called our group Transition Town Clitheroe. Some people wanted to cover the whole of the Ribble Valley but no, that was too big, we can't coordinate the whole of the Ribble Valley. I said to focus on a reasonable size of population. Clitheroe is the market town with a good catchment area, so I focused on that for a year or two but then it became apparent that things got harder to move one way or another.

Eventually I had the opportunity of the Hydro in Whalley. Then I got thinking about that John McKnight idea of “What is in your locality, where are you?”. I had always felt that I was never part of the Whalley community and I thought that I ought to be. I ought to know people here. I don't even know my neighbours! But, being retired, I could get to know people to meet them in the street, at the shops or in the library and I would get to recognise people and chat. I didn't want to put effort into Clitheroe, I am battering my head against a brick wall there. I’ll work where I am, locally, because I've got more opportunity for linking up with people.

So we knew of that site and when we walked up there we realised that the principle of the forest garden would work. It's a nice slope, not too steep, generally south facing, southwest, something like that.


Angus: Then you would need the team.

Chris: For a while I would go down and do a bit of this and that. We started having a couple of hours from the Clitheroe network. We had a number of people coming. We made contact with the Countryside Officer for the County Council, responsible for Spring Wood he was very helpful helping with resources like fence-posts and we got woodchip for mulching. He brought his quad bike and his trailer and we shifted loads and loads of woodchip around.

Then one day we were doing that and Trevor just walked on the site. That was brilliant! We'd never seen him before, we didn't know who he was, but he was terrific because he was such a good worker. Trevor was brilliant. He and I worked very well together for quite a long time and in fact he got so involved with it, he was putting in far more time than I was. Of course, being a younger chap he was far more energetic. He cleared the ditch. He obviously liked the physical activity.

He'd done the Permaculture Design Course Clitheroe [St Paul’s Church, Low Moor, 2012]. It was Derek and Ann Hardacre from Clitheroe, who were on your course with Trevor. They had been helping us on occasions. This is all networking! They said to Trevor, "Go and do some work at Whalley Forest Garden, come on, see us down there". Trevor turned up and it was brilliant.

Angus: This is music to my ears - as you know I like to get a broad spectrum of people as possible on our design courses. This is how I want them to work.

Chris: So, then we both did the weekend course with Martin Crawford down at Totnes. This was a great course with a very experienced chap, very knowledgeable. That was an introduction to Forest Gardening and then there was another course, an intermediate one for people already involved in Forest Gardens. Trevor went down to the introductory course there which was great.

And then, eventually, Martin (Nuttall) came on the scene. Martin took over on a regular basis and kept the whole thing going. We ordered some plants, they were only small, we have kept them here in our garden rather than plant them out, keeping them until they had got sufficiently established. But now that we are moving, Martin has picked them up and he has planted them round the place. He certainly enjoys it, I think he gets a lot out of it. Whether he is going to be able to continue putting in the time that he would like to put in, that’s another matter, because he is starting a new venture in Clitheroe.

Martin is a good thinker, he considers his own position in the great scheme of things and thinks carefully about what he wants to do. I think that Martin, Trevor and I, although we’re all very different people in all sorts of ways, we all have a shared sense of general direction for our own lives, and also for our own communities and even society to move in.

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.

Whalley forest garden
Trevor at at Whalley Forest Garden

In our final installment, Angus and Chris reflect further on the managing of community activity further, and Chris has some final thoughts on Whalley Forest Garden.

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