Permacultural Anarchy at Dial House; A Compost Toilet Building Workshop in West Essex
CRASS were an anarchist punk band who may have failed in their ambitious bid to change the world, but succeeded in changing the minds of a generation. Now their house is opening up as a Dynamic Centre For Cultural Change. But one limiting factor needed to be overcome first… Graham Burnett tells how a permaculture approach turned a problem into a resource…
Dial House is one of best kept secrets in Essex. For some thirty five years or so, this rambling sixteenth century farm cottage nestled deep in the countryside fringing Epping Forest has been an anarchist-pacifist open house, the base of operations for a number of cultural, artistic and political projects ranging from avant-garde jazz events to helping to found the Free Festival movement. But perhaps the best known manifestation of the public face of Dial House was the band Crass. For those that didn’t grow up in the late seventies and early eighties, Crass were born of the musical and cultural mini-revolution that was ‘punk rock’. Taking literally the punk manifesto of ‘anyone can do it’, they combined the use of song, film, sound collage, graphics and subversion to launch a sustained and innovative critical broadside against all that they saw as a culture built on foundations of war, violence, religious hypocrisy and blind consumerism. However, unlike many of their contemporaries, they weren’t just about mouthing slogans or getting stuck in a dead end of paralysing despair. Crass never used the word ‘permaculture’, but their vision of an alternative to a society which is anything but earthright and sustainable, and where the potential beauty of the human spirit can be fulfilled in harmony with nature’s patterns, struck a chord with many people that I’ve since met within world-change movements. Diggers, dreamers, ‘New Age’ travellers, road protesters, animal rights campaigners, anti-globalisation activists and permaculture designers- there is a generation out there who one way or another drew inspiration from their central message that “There is no authority but yourself”.
Crass all but retired from the public eye after becoming a particularly irritating thorn in the side of Mrs. Thatcher’s Government during the Falklands War and the Miners Strike. Questions in Parliament led to a round of court battles and protracted not-so covert surveillance and harassment of the group that finally took its toll. Physically and mentally exhausted, they retreated to Dial House to recuperate before facing more personal struggles, particularly against land owners and property developers seemingly intent on encroaching into the last remaining green belt areas surrounding London. Over a decade later, this culminated in co-founders Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher buying the previously rented house at auction, a decision which left them £100,000 in debt, but at last securing a stable future for what they’ve now named a ‘Centre For Dynamic Cultural Change’.
The summer of 2001 saw a gathering at Dial House that was at once a celebration of victory over the suits, and a visioning event for the future of this space. Dial House has been described as ‘paradise’- certainly it’s an asylum from the madness that is early 21st century fossil fuel and war driven ‘civilisation’. Once past it’s rickety little wooden gate it’s easy to get lost for a while wandering amongst the vegetable plots, native tree plantings, fruit bushes and flower beds teeming with humming bees and birdsong, and the multitude of hidden shelters and sitting places adorned with sculptures and carvings. Turning each corner is a surprise- you never quite know what you will find. Then there’s the building itself, a crooked house maze of artist’s studios, rehearsal rooms, libraries and social spaces. The possibilities for the house are endless and many ideas were exchanged- art venue, healing workshops, jazz festivals, permaculture convergences, poet’s retreat, fireworks parties, willow sculpture courses… But one problem always brought any discussions (literally) back down to earth… Anybody who’s ever experienced a backflow of Dial House’s 16th century plumbed WC will know that clearing it is the least appealing aesthetic feature of the entire set-up. More seriously, this tendency to block and overflow at the most modest amount of over-use puts a very real limiting factor on using the house as a venue for gatherings of any sort of size or duration. In other words, the bog can’t take the strain…
Permaculture design is of course about turning such problems into solutions, and the answer here was obviously to create a compost toilet in order to open up the space to greater numbers, whilst at the same time closing the broken fertility cycle and creating a valuable humanure resource. Good idea! So now we faced the practical task of getting it built…
Ron Bates and I billed our two day compost toilet building workshop as a “hands on skills sharing and learning event”, which is kind of permaculture-speak for ‘none of us has got a clue what we are doing, but we sure are going to have alot of fun finding out…’ Actually, that isn’t really true, as we’d already carried out our client interview and had ascertained both the desired siting for the project, and that the most appropriate system for this location would be a ‘bucket and chuck it’ arrangement. This means that faeces is deposited into a plastic container to which soak material such as straw, sawdust, dry grass, etc, is added in order to absorb excess liquid, cover sewage solids, exclude flies, reduce smells and balance Carbon: Nitrogen levels. When full the bucket is removed and emptied onto a composting pile that is kept separate from other composting materials such as kitchen or garden waste.
We’d also done our background reading, including ‘The Humanure Handbook’, and the CAT published ‘Lifting The Lid’ and ‘Sewage Solutions’ books, as well as various Permaculture Magazine back numbers, which between them I reckon provide pretty much all the lay person needs to know if working on a small scale project. This would include considering the legal aspects (generally not a problem as long as you are nowhere near a water course and not causing a nuisance to neighbours), design considerations (is your system simple and easy to use and maintain? Does it look good? Do you feel comfortable or embarrassed at the thought of visitors using it?) and guidelines on tackling the possibility of pathogens (the risks are small but nonetheless real- true thermophilic composting can’t be guaranteed in the UK climate so leave compost at least a year to break down properly, don’t mix sewage compost with other compost, and use the resulting product on fruit bushes and ornamentals rather than your salads and veggie beds).
But the fact remained that we had no practical experience in this area, plus our building skills were, well, shaky to say the least… The week before the appointed date was probably one of the wettest in a July in living memory, and when Gee telephoned the night before to ask if we wanted to cancel the event, we considered it, especially when a further inch of rain was forecast… But our decision to ‘go for it’ was vindicated by two days of beautiful weather and a run of good luck that evidenced that there is indeed a God of compost loos, and that she was smiling down upon us…
Like all good permaculturists, Gee and Pen are avid recyclers, and their store of reclaimed wood and ‘bits and pieces’ meant that the total outlay for materials came to a princely £18 (the largest single item of expenditure being a wooden toilet seat bought at Epping boot fair for a fiver). A double lidded desk salvaged from a local school became the toilet unit itself, whilst floorboards, pallets, slates and feather edging from what used to be the kitchen roof all saw new life as our (if we might be so modest as to say so ourselves) amazing structure came together. It’s definitely at the more stylish end of the market and is built for comfort as well as practicality. We were even able to incorporate washing facilities by utilising a caravan footpump feeding from an adjacent rain barrel, complete with a classy porcelain sink. For a finishing touch it’s got a stained glass window, courtesy of a skip in Shoeburyness!
As we wound up the second day, tired and sharing a meal and well-earned bottle of wine, the local Tai Chi group were practising on the lawn. One of them came over and remarked to Pen that he was lucky to live at such a place. “Lucks got nothing to do with it”, he replied; “this house is built on hard work and shared energy”. Our compost toilet building workshop had been a good example of that. For me, completing this project also laid to rest a personal old ghost, that of the woodwork teacher who broke up the stool I’d worked on after school, and had me for years believing that I ‘couldn’t do carpentry’. It proved that when there is synergy, that old punk ethic still rings true; ‘ANYONE really CAN do it!’
Graham Burnett July 2002
This article originally appeared in ‘Permaculture Magazine’
For more pictures and details of the building, see the Gallery/photo-essay here or watch this short film