Sorry Mr Bennett you may have won the battle of Yorkley Court Farm, but the spirit of Yorkley Court will live on! As an issue of business vs conscience – establishment vs activism – it must live on.
Yorkley Court Farm is – sorry, was – a farm with around 180 acres of land just on the edge of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. Since the death of the last owner some 80 or so years ago and their being no obvious successor, the land had been administered by a ‘trust’ and leased to a series of tenant farmers. In circumstances where there is no obvious inheritance, the law requires an extensive search for potential inheritors, and then if no-one is found, title is held by the government and is either held and used, or auctioned off. The trust controlling Yorkley Court however have made little or no attempt to find the descendants of the last owners – and who at the very least should have been in receipt of income generated by the farm – and generally behaved as if they owned it. It was during a break in farm tenancy that a group of environmental and socially conscious activists discovered this state of limbo and decided to use the site as the location to set up their vision of an alternative society.
Moving in as a squat, the group were helped in their setting up by a range of people including one Brian Bennett, a local businessman who provided the use of a digger to move rubble which had accumulated on the site. With such help the group soon established themselves and built rough made dwellings on the site around the farmhouse as well as occupying the farm-house.
The months passed by and turned into years, during which time the group did their own search for potential legal inheritors, alongside investigating the possible dodginess of the ‘trust’ claiming the right to administer the site. During this time Yorkley Court Community Farm became a fixture in the local community with members of the squat living out their ideals and engaging with the surrounding village communities. My invitation to visit, for example, had come through meeting three group members when they were volunteering in the gardens at Camphill Oaklands Hall. They had homes on the site, brought in personal possessions and were growing their own food with an area of land designated as the communal garden and a rota system evolved for its working and production of veg using organic and biodynamic methods.
All though was not plain sailing, and in particular the form of Brian Bennett re-appeared in far less friendly form. Having aided actions which presumably could be seen as depressing the value of the estate i.e. the introduction of squatters, Bennett attempted to buy the land, and, even before any sale, attempted an illegal eviction. No court, no paperwork, just bailiffs and hired hands. Somehow the community managed to fight them off and after a stand-off for 3 days and nights, the community were granted an injunction against Bennett for harassment – its all in the archives of local newspapers.
It was though a sign of things to come. When the community actually managed to find descendants of the last owners – and who said they were happy for the community to live on the farm – the trustees controlling the farm promptly sold the land and at well below any reasonable market valuation. And guess who to? The aforementioned Brian Bennett of course. Things were getting very complicated to say nothing of very dodgy!
An acrimonious legal battle ensued over right to sell and right to buy, with the squatters obviously limited by their access to finance but passionately believing the ‘trust’ had no right to sell land, especially as they had never found or contacted potential beneficiaries, and when they didn’t attempt to get the best price for those potential beneficiaries.
But….so much for the legal recognition of such a line of argument! Would you be surprised to know that the ‘trust’ won the court case? Well they did and to cut a long story very short Bennett was granted a possession order on the land early in 2015. Supported by local villagers, the community barricaded themselves in and waited. Though ‘Bennett’s men’ were seen regularly walking the surrounding fields and even buzzing the site with a helicopter, nothing happened for getting on a year. It was during this testing time that the community invited me in, behind the barricades, to document their food growing projects.
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[Double clicking on any of the images will open up the images up in a slideshow format which you can then run using ‘left’ and ‘right’ buttons. Full screen view can be opened with F11 – at least on my PC it is, actual key needed may vary. To get out of full screen its the same button, not ESC!]
Ultimately though, lose the battle of Yorkley Court Farm the community did. With just a few days left on the 12 month possession order, the community was overrun by hired hands, attack dogs, police, bailiffs, and “building contractors” actioned by Brian Bennett. Outnumbered and out gunned they saw everything they had created and owned destroyed, with a number also suffering beatings and dog bites – all the while the local police watched and assisted. The destruction was not limited to community property but encompassed wildlife and habitat, including large beech trees which were set alight. If you doubt the nature of the operation take a look at the video posted on Vimeo here.
You can doubt the wisdom of starting to set up home on disputed land, and you can believe that such a way of life is not for you, as is very much the case for myself, but the story of Yorkley Court Community Farm has to be a pointed indictment of the way society works, with personal greed and dodgy dealing succeeding over social and environmental conscience. It has to be a good thing if groups of people set up experiments in alternative living – the world is far from the perfection that doesn’t need such things. Surely its beholden on the rest of us to be tolerant of, and embrace, such experiments and to learn from them so that together we make the world a better place. Like the rest of us, such groups will have their imperfections, but greed succeeding over conscience cannot be good for anyone.
My visit to Yorkley Court Community Farm was a sobering and enlightening experience. The community was barricaded in to effect what resistance they could to police, bailiffs and the rest – and indeed were enduring such barricades also giving rise to serious access problems for themselves, such as not being able to easily remove waste – but they were friendly, cheerful and committed to living as if the future lay at Yorkley Court. They angles but neither are they freaks or louts, just people who choose a different way of effecting change than I do. Their motives are just the same and they are as human as I am – as reflected by the request to photograph someone’s pet dog so that they could send a picture home to mum! Why did they meet such a barrage of establishment intolerance?
What an irony that just a few miles away on the other side of the River Severn I had visited Wheelbarrow Farm where Arab and Jew have been happily married for over 20 years and are so embracive of others as to be selling Christmas trees from the farm. Why, when there are many acres of land to Yorkley Court Farm can society not promulgate negotiated compromise and tolerance?
The story is of course not over with eight of the group awaiting trial for various charges relating to the eviction. The law, though, will no doubt follow it supposed due process, whilst Bennett and his hired hands look to get clean away with it. But for me though, the strange and surreal experience of being inside the barricades, face to face with the squatters sharing their space and their hospitality, it seems clear that the commitment and the passion was just too strong to ignore. There has to be hope in it. Yorkley Court was one small battle which ultimately has to contribute to the winning of a bigger war. The Yorkley Court Farm Community members are still around. The dream is not dead, they will regroup. For all our sakes, lets hope for a more tolerant and constructive outcome. We would all benefit from it, would we not.
Footnote: This post may look slightly out of sync with other recent ones, it as got out of sequence somewhat as a result of the inevitable time consuming checking and cross checking of sensitive issues. I actually visited the site in the April of 2015.