Roots and Pioneers

Angus Soutar

This is where we make space for our permaculture pioneers and founders to share their experiences, wisdom and guidance. These individuals have provided the soil from which permaculture design in the north of England will flourish. We intend to keep track of our roots and our heritage, mapping where we have come from, so we can move forward with insight, confidence and skill. Let's turn to the voices and stories of our experienced practitioners…

In this first issue we are interviewing Angus Soutar who is the Principal and Founder of the Northern School of Permaculture. Angus has over 25 years experience of practising and teaching permaculture. This is the first part of the interview with Angus, another will follow in the next issue with more of the history of permaculture in the north of Britain. Angus Soutar

1. Can you tell us about your personal journey with permaculture?

It all started with a phone call from Neil Gulliver. There was a group of us associated with the Community Health Foundation that was based in an old GLC (London) school building in Old Street – it was in 1990 and Old Street was very shabby in those days, suitable territory for pioneers. Neil said that although we were all very interested in food and health, hardly any of us knew where our food came from. Apparently, there was a new course running at the Redfield Centre in Buckinghamshire which might provide us with some new insights.

I was fed up with “courses” at this point in my life, indeed I had recently told Krysia that I was never going to go on any more courses, ever again. But we all went to Richard and Marion Price's house for a viewing of “In Grave Danger of Falling Food”, which had recently been broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK as part of their “Visionaries” series.

This certainly stirred my interest and led to a long conversation with Simon Pratt who was convening the course. I quizzed him ruthlessly. Looking back on it, the course fee was the equivalent of £1100 in today's money and Krysia wanted to come too; the canny Scots side of my Soutar nature was much in evidence. But everything checked out well, and I remain grateful to Simon for the steady and helpful way in which he answered my questions. Every time someone asks me about a course, I try to give them the same attention and help as he gave to me.

The course ran over six weekends, which was a good format – plenty of time for reading and reflection in-between sessions. Redfield is now on the map with the Low Impact Living network, although it was all very “rough and ready” in those days. Andy Langford taught the course, ably supported by Simon, we had a good group, it set me up for the long road ahead.

This can't have been long after the first PDC, (Permaculture Design Certificate Course) to be held in Britain. I think it was at Venton Mill in Devon in 1988, (Graham Bell will know because he was there). Apart from a deluge of interest in 1990 after the TV airing of “In Grave Danger” (which mostly evaporated into nothing quite quickly), there was little interest or awareness of permaculture.

I joined the Association, which was at that time run from a converted pigsty up on Dartmoor by George Sobol. George had also graduated from an early PDC taught by Andy Langford. I visited the Association's office; to George's credit, it was a cosy corner that had converted from agricultural use very nicely. The Associations address was “P.O. Box 1, Buckfastleigh, Devon”. I thought that it was worth paying the annual “sub” just to see this on all the documentation. I still have some original Association papers, including copies of “Is there anyone out there (who).....?”, a newsletter that was published by George and Patsy, also the hoachin' wee set of publications from Graham (Bell) and Nancy that were the forerunners of Permaculture Magazine.

Of course, this was all pre-internet, so we all had to meet up to move things along, which we duly did. Maybe I'll say more about that later on.

Permaculture workshops at Rubha Phoil 2004
Pioneers often travel some distance in rough conditions to meet each other. In this snapshot, Goeff Forest and Angus Soutar travel to Rubha Phoil to do workshops on site with Sandy Masson, who secured this enchanting part of Skye after a brief chat will Bill Mollison at Ragman's Lane. Sandy and Geoff appear in the picture with two young workshop participants - Angus can't remember their names, but write in if you know them. Angus, of course, is on the other side of the camera. It is another characteristic of pioneers that there are often few surviving records of their work, at least few that are accessible.

Meanwhile, Daphne Watson, who graduated from the Redfield course with us, contacted me saying she had been asked to teach the PDC in London, and she would take it on if I was prepared to help her. This was in 1992. The venue was a flat in central London, about three floors up in a Georgian terrace near Euston Station. Lacking opportunities to see nature at work, we went for a trip to a nearby cemetery and visited the “abandoned” part - very educational!

The experience came in handy at the Bradford University summer school design course the following year, where, working with Bryn Thomas, we were able to take a short walk to study the woodland regeneration potential of brick floors in derelict buildings. They say there's nothing so good in learning your subject as when you come to teach it. The “Envi-Sci” department at the University was a market leader at the time and they had got some EU funding for “Permaculture and Environmental Design”. With a “proper budget” and a desire to supplement my own learning, I managed to bring in Andy Langford to teach as well as Bryn, and also George and Patsy all the way from Devon. Again, we had a great group of students (the participants included a youthful Andy Goldring).

Meanwhile I had been lucky enough to study with Bill Mollison when he came to visit Stroud and Ragman's Lane in 1992, identifying strongly with his experiences of village life - “nobody had a job”. Also, his view of what we have in common - “a strong sense of shared work”. It was here that I began to appreciate the breadth of his stories from around the world, some are still on tape, but the story about his experiences in the Turkish baths of Istanbul seems to have been lost forever ….

Bill Mollison at Ragmans Lane Farm
Bill Mollison at Ragmans Lane Farm, 1992 with Nigel Stewart, Daphne Watson and many other pioneers present - photo by Angus Soutar

We have to blame Michael Linton for bringing us back north. In 1994 he invited us to join him in Manchester to work on trading systems and “local money”. That's another story, but through this, I developed some good contacts in Merseyside (yes you, Rob Squires, if you are reading this). We organised one of the first PDC's to be delivered under full-blown EU “regeneration” conditions. “Hi, my name's Tommy, and I've been trained to death” - as usual, there was a Liverpool rival to the quote-of-the-month from regeneration-torn Hulme; “The kids round here don't want a job – they want a life”.

This was now the era of Redbricks on-line, in the shadow of “Madchester”, with Pringle tubes augmenting the wi-fi signals round the Bentley Estate and the ability to watch Nig Stewart on a webcam as he alternately drove his keyboard and rolled cigarettes. Definitely a good place for a PDC which duly followed around 2000, with me working alongside the newly-qualified Rob Squires and Jenny O' Reilly (who was doing most of her work in South America). From this course the Leaf Street Community Garden was born, and possibly a revived Manchester Permaculture Network (although that had been around since the early '90s with the likes of Spencer Fitzgibbon and his “Benign Design” publications). Jo Tippett had returned from Lesotho and was teaching at the University, permaculture was certainly taking root in Manchester. There's a lot more to tell about people and specific projects in the 90's, and what happened with me after that, but that will have to wait until later ...

Hulme PDC visits Springfield Community Gardens "From this course the Leaf Street Community Garden was born, and ...
a revived Manchester Permaculture Network"

Mark Fisher shows the Manchester course round the Springfield Community Gardens site near Bradford, AD 2000 - early digital photo by Angus Soutar

2. How did the Northern School come about and what does it do?

The Northern School story is entwined with the emergence of the Permaculture Institute of North Britain. In the years between 2007 to 2009, there much hand-wringing and breast-beating over permaculture education and diploma systems and, as a result, a raft of proposals was floated, setting out for a new promised land where there were to be fruitful changes to the original designs.

I'd been working on our diploma system since 1997, (the year I got my own diploma) and by 1999 I had taken on the development in Northern England and Scotland as the regional representative of Andy Langford's Permaculture Academy. But Andy had decided to go to the USA to start up the Gaia University and there were a number of confusing debates about making permaculture education more acceptable to the mainstream education system, a desire to see rapid training of permaculture teachers, achieving a higher turnover of diplomates and a general feeling that things were "just not working properly".

I had already undergone my own long dark night of the soul around 2003, wondering if our diploma approach would ever work, and had considered that I should give everything up. But then I saw the proverbial green shoots poking through and I was happy to wend a way forward. I couldn't see any real problems with the designs that I had field-tested with The Academy, it was all a bit slow, granted, but I've never been keen on the “hot-housing” of anything more substantial than salads. Besides, I had discussed education in detail with Bill Mollison himself at the IPC at Motovun and everything I was doing seemed to check out.

Permaculure education - discussions at Motovun
A meeting in the sunshine at IPC7 in Morovun, Croatia with Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, Andy Langford and friends discussing the future of permaculture education - photo by Angus Soutar

In a way, permaculture was coming of age in Britain, diversity was increasing, and the systems were pulling in more energy. Rather than jettison the past, I saw that there was still a happy niche, and, with my like-minded friends, we established the Institute to replace Andy Langford's Academy.

At the same time, I realised that our training programme, the PDC itself, had also developed a more “northern” flavour as the years went by; we had allowed the regional cultures to influence our activities and practice. We have never forgotten that the aim of the PDC is to get people into action, not just any old action, but thoughtful and considered action. By 2010, thanks to debate of the previous years, we had clarity over what we were trying to do and how we were going to do it. The Northern School was going to reflect that clarity. It was Krysia who defined our approach: rather than debate about what should be done, we should all just get on with it and compare the outcomes. The Northern School would add to the diversity without compromising the whole permaculture system.

"We should all just get on with it
and compare the outcomes ... add to the
diversity without compromising the whole permaculture system."

Permaculture Academy at Braziers Park - photo by Angus Soutar
Permaculture Academy at Braziers Park

So, what, you ask, does the School do? It is our vehicle for delivering permaculture training, including the PDC - which we do under the auspices of the Permaculture Research Institute (PRI). We also run design practice events and supporting courses, and there are offshoots of commercial and not-so-commercial design consultancy. We support apprentices working towards the Diploma in Permaculture Design. We make best use of the internet to support apprentices based in other countries.

Our focus is on design work. We look at the impact of complexity on design and the importance of pattern in the permaculture design process. It's a wonderful integration of art and science. The techniques that we teach are about the creative act of designing, looking at design itself; we don't spend much time on the specifics of working with plants and people – that can come later. This takes us beyond mere “principles” and into the details of how we cause complex and rich systems to come about. We try to reflect the beauty of Nature herself throughout our daily work, no matter how mundane that work might seem at the time.

The Northern School comes out of a sometimes harsh landscape, where sometimes the social conditions can be harsh, too. “Sometimes” it's a slog, sometimes we seem to be going round in circles. But we do what has to be done to keep us moving in the right direction. We are indeed pioneers - I for one expect that I will remain a pioneer for the rest of my life. We don't just teach people “what is Permaculture?”, we help them to become pioneers. Then we can all share the experience of bringing new living systems into existence, regardless of the odds stacked against us.

Contact Angus

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