The Clearing is a vision of the future in the grounds of Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park

Caretaker report

2 July 2017

Bethan and Des

The past and the future

Last year we took a trip to the Jurassic Coast in search of fossils, unusual birds and sunshine. Whilst strolling across the soft chalk landscape we often encountered signs of prehistoric habitation - slight indents in the landscape, unnatural earthworks and even occasionally upturned stones which had been placed there by the collaborative efforts of a number of unknown people thousands of years ago, for reasons we can only speculate upon.

I often tried to strain my mind’s eye to imagine the lives of these prehistoric people, living off a fertile coastline with an abundance of wildlife and wood. The results were hazy and unformed - their existence always seemed on the edge of comprehension as someone used to cities and concrete.

At university, I decided to focus on medieval history. Unlike many of my fellow classmates, tales of courtly love and courageous kingship were about as uninteresting to me as doing a “proper subject”. Instead, I was desperate to understand how real people lived, the ordinary people (a term very hard to define even in the days of feudal lordship). What was it like to wake up and walk to work as an urban craftsman or rural agriculturalist? How did you mark the passage of time during the day, what did you eat, where did you shit, what events did you look forward to?

Personally, The Clearing represented an unusual opportunity to gain understanding of both the past and the future.

We arrived at Compton Verney in the heat, even by 10am rivers of sweat were trickling uncomfortably down my back. Our first big mistake was to try and make a fire to cook lunch, it being far too hot and we being very poor fire starters. After far too many attempts, we finally got a small blaze going, enough to make a cup of tea. This was the first indication of our skills shortage in this brave new world.

This was an apt introduction to a week where multiple gaps in our knowledge and understanding would be starkly revealed.

This all came as a bit of a shock to two of the most highly educated humans to have ever walked the planet. (I say this not to brag, but to highlight the fact that we, like much of the population, are extremely lucky to have been formally educated for decades.)

Staying at The Clearing was primarily a physically challenging experience. With no running water, we spent a lot of time carting it back to the dome. This ensured we were extra precious about our water usage, attempting to get away with minimal wastage.

Washing clothes was a particularly water intensive activity I attempted it once by boiling water, then adding the clothes and grated soap. This initially worked quite well until I had to wash out the soap, which took a lot of water and physical exertion…

The lack of heat was much less of an issue. We also suffered quite a lot with the warm weather, especially on the Wednesday when it hit over 30 degrees. This is when we realised domes are very good at keeping the heat in, but not so great at letting it out.

This prompted the thought that if rising global temperatures were to create extra hot British summers, we would have to drastically change a lot of our built infrastructure. Most British homes are built to retain heat effectively in colder weather rather than ensure cool spaces for inhabitants in heatwaves.

Once the basic tasks of survival and substance were out the way, we found ourselves with hours to spare. An unusual experience for anyone who works full time, has hobbies, friends, etc.

Des used his spare moments to start work on a large A/V piece which he hopes to complete by Christmas. I used mine to start work on a volume of poetry and my first novella, which hopefully will tie in with the narrative in Des' piece.

This imagined, but very possible, vision of the future may be regressive in many ways, full of both hope and hardship.

We will have to relearn many skills which were lost with the advent of the industrial revolution and the modern global economy. Who can honestly say that they at this present moment would be able to sow, grow and reap grain, build a house from timber (let alone even source and cut it) or scavenge enough food to live off from their local countryside?

My main takeaway from the experience is that we, in our normal lives, are used to a high level of material and physical comfort. The dome life lacked a lot of this, during the week I longed for my soft bed, a gas hob and a warm shower. Curiously, I didn't really miss the internet at all, apart from when we wanted to look up instructions on how to light a fire...

However, what I did experience at the dome was a much greater level of mental and spiritual comfort. I actually spent time playing, creating, thinking, resting, all without the pressures of a clock and rigid routine.

We were also able to immediately see the fruits of our labour - making a fire resulted in hot food, feeding the chickens ensured we had fresh eggs every day. All a thousand times more satisfying than getting another Instagram like or friend request.