Subtitle: Imagination taking power

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A powerful tale of What If in action.

One of the best things about having written ‘From What Is to What If’ is the messages I get from people talking about how they have used it in their own lives and how it has been a catalyst for very real change. This story is from Rikey Austin (on the right in the picture above) in Lyme Regis, who tells the story of how she used the ‘Time Machine’ exercise set out in the book at an event she organised. She later wrote “People still stop me now and tell me how powerful those four minutes were. One man told me that he didn’t want to come back from that other Lyme and a wonderful older gentleman took my hand, his eyes swimming and said that he needed me to get a move on because he was already eighty two and might not have fifteen years”.  Here is Rikey’s story.

“The day that our lives changed forever was a very ordinary October day. Not especially windy or cold. There were no extreme weather conditions but I was picked up, spun around and dropped onto an alternative path that would have had Dorothy nodding knowingly.

On that day I met a young woman and her daughter. She’d sought me out because I had some little connection with our local food bank and she needed help.

Her story wasn’t unusual. A working mom, my guess is a cleaner, something seasonal anyway and I think two young children but I only met her daughter that day and she looked about six. But please, don’t take my word for it. I have three strapping adult sons so all little girls look really, really little to me.

She began by explaining that they were often just fine. When there was work they had money. Never enough to save but they got by just fine. When things were tight it wasn’t so bad. They ate a lot of jacket potatoes and beans but that was ok too. But there hadn’t been any work for a while and she had applied for benefits. Of course, that’s when the phone rang and she was offered two days of work and of course, they clashed with her appointment. She told me that you made it to the top of the list by always being available. Saying no could drop her down that list and mean more than just those two lost days so she took them and tried to reschedule her appointment. That resulted in six weeks with no money at all.

The night before we met, her children had been too hungry to sleep so she had made them mugs of Bovril with toast to dip in. Just enough to fool their bellies so that they could drop off.

She was too ashamed to go to the foodbank. Lyme is a goldfish bowl like so many small towns. She felt that if she asked for help she’d be branded. Tongues would wag and she couldn’t, months later, grab a bottle of wine at the end of a busy week without people judging her as a scrounger. She was proud, way, way too proud for that but she had hit rock bottom.

We sorted out what she needed and I asked her if there was anything she wanted, a treat. She told me she missed fresh fruit. Strawberries to be precise. They were her daughter’s favourite but just too expensive and she could feed them all for two meals for the cost of a punnet of strawberries.

That night my husband found me sobbing at our window looking out over the town. They were out there somewhere and lots more like them. He took me down to the kitchen, made me a big mug of tea and we sat at our old ten-seater table that until recent years had always been busy with family.

He asked me what I wanted to do so I told him. I want to sell the house, buy a plot of land and teach people like her how to grow her own food because hey, strawberries are like  weeds once they get going, right?  He agreed. Of course he did. We’re in our fifties and I’d asked him to give up the house we’d spent fifteen years making our home and where we’d planned to spend the rest of our lives, to set up a free community plant nursery. Me who runs a teddy hospital and him, the museum geologist.  There wasn’t even a moment’s hesitation. Just a hug and the exclamation that being married to me is like being dragged through life by the nostrils. I’m still not sure how to take that one if I’m honest.

I emailed Charles Dowding and he agreed to come give us a free talk in January. He was my bait. I had one hundred free spaces and they filled up fast. I was given a local church hall to hold the meeting and intended to explain the idea of Lyme Garden Growers. A community group sharing plants and seeds, ideas and experience.

This is where you come in Rob. We were preparing to put the house on the market and I was up a ladder. A really quite tall ladder actually over a stairwell, when I began listening to ‘From what is to what if’ I stopped painting and just sat there, on the ladder, occasionally dripping magnolia paint on the stairs.

I threw out everything I’d intended to say and I created a time machine. I co-opted six people including the Baptist Minister and my son and wrote them a script. I created a soundtrack and when people were sitting, ready to hear all about No Dig gardening I explained that first, we needed to go fifteen years into the future to see one possible outcome of that night’s meeting. We turned out the lights and I made them stamp their left foot.

I took them to an alternative Lyme Regis. I walked them down a high street with a farmers market where our excess fruit and veg could be bought with little wooden tokens. Those tokens could be bought, swapped for produce or discreetly given to those on low incomes meaning they always had access to free, locally grown and seasonal veg. We also visited the community shop which had once been Tesco. It sold our produce and we bought whatever else we needed collectively. Upstairs was a community kitchen where we taught food preservation and made meals from produce about to go over.

The whole thing took less than four minutes. When we had returned to our meeting, this time by stamping the other foot and the sound of the market had faded we went straight into Charles’ talk. The feedback at the end was wonderful. People had been transported. They’d been moved. Thank you so, very, very much.

We accepted an offer on our house just two days after it was valued and then the pandemic hit. But we were ready. We began handing out little bags of seeds and sowing egg tray after egg tray with seedlings. We also offered to become a pick up point for compost. Expecting to maybe take in a couple dozen bags each week. I’ll attach a picture.

At this point we have over five hundred members on the Lyme Garden Growers Facebook page who each reached out and found at least one neighbour who doesn’t ‘do computers’ to support. We have given out thousands and thousands of free plants. In fact, people who can are planting a little extra and we just can’t give them out fast enough. Sometimes we open the door to pots and pots of donated plants, not always labelled so we have regular surprise plant handouts. Tomato surprise (variety unknown) and sprabbages (definitely either sprouts or cabbages) being amongst the favourites. Each week now we take fresh fruit and vegetables to the foodbank and as our harvest grows, we’ve been offered a weekly stall at the town mill.

People have also offered to share their knowledge of growing, pruning, composting jam making, canning, bee keeping, natural pest control, farmscaping, water management and vermicomposting so we’re setting up a classes and workshops calendar. We found an acre site, right in town which belongs to Dorset Council. We just need to persuade the gentleman that holds the lease to let us buy it. We’re hopeful. He’s an older gentleman in declining health and he’s moved to Cheddar. What makes this site perfect is the two semi derelict buildings which sit alongside the land and we can buy. They would become our home, a permanent nursery and workshops.

In the meantime, we’re keeping busy. We’ve linked up with the medical centre and retirement homes to offer social prescribing opportunities and we’ve begun putting in community herb and berry beds. Three so far but Magna Housing association have given us permission to approach all of their residents about communal growing sites and the town council are eagerly identifying land.

Last week I met with the Woodland trust after sending them a plan to regenerate a quarter acre allotment in Slopes Farm, a wonderful if underused and hidden little woodland in the heart of Lyme Regis (main crops horsetails and dog poo!). They’ve offered us the whole ten acre site and our guerrilla gardeners are planning to turn it into a forest farm.

We’ve come so far and the energy is wonderful. I would love, with all of my heart for you to come talk to us. We have a self contained airbnb you could use if you wanted to stay over. Take us on another journey maybe. Help us to create a plan so that we don’t end up knotting these wonderful, bright ribbons of possibility into something that looks like a Maypole silent disco with everyone dancing to Punk, The Waltz or the birdy song!

Fingers crossed.


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© Rob Hopkins 2017-2020