The ‘Dartington effect’ – the evolution of an alternative culture

If you ask people how Totnes became an ‘alternative’ place many people will cite the ‘Dartington effect’, the impact of the Dartington Trust and its related activities. Certainly in the interviews that I did it was one of the most commonly cited explanations. For this reason it seemed necessary to unpick exactly what the Dartington effect was, and also to see whether all strands of alternative activity could be traced back to Dartington. I have been writing a chapter on this and am going to post some extracts over the coming weeks.

My central argument is that there are two key aspects to the Dartington effect. The first is that, for a variety of reasons, Dartington was primarily responsible for creating a local intellectual culture in which many of the ideas of the counterculture could flourish. The second aspect is then the way in which this localised culture began to have an impact on Totnes itself during the 1970s and then into the 1980s. This post summarises some of my thoughts on the development of the alternative culture and its relation to Dartington.

During the 1960s and into the 1970s ideas a range of ‘alternative’ ideas emerged across a range of fields which rejected mainstream thinking. These alternative ideas covered (amongst other things) economics, technology, agriculture, education, medicine, politics, spirituality and housing. Collectively they might be referred to the ideas of the Alternative Society, having many common threads, not least a rejection of technology, rationality and often the large scale. After the failure to light the revolutionary sparks of the late 1960s, some people’s attention turned instead inwards and to attempts to build practical alternatives to the mainstream. The ideas of the Alternative Society were one strand of the wider counterculture, of which other aspects also flourished in South Devon such as some social movements (feminism and environmentalism) and aspects of new age thinking.

There are a number of reasons why Dartington was a place where such ideas could flourish, not least the history of experimentation and open-mindedness, its progressive ethics and its connection to other places. The fact that there was no strong over-arching philosophy was also significant. However, the anti-rationality of many of the ideas of the Alternative Society cut against the grain of scientific experimentation that had previously underpinned the Dartington and its work.

I am suggesting that there are four important drivers  to the development of alternative culture in the area:

1) Top down from the Dartington Trust

Certainly some people at the head of the Trust, such as Maurice Ash and John Lane, were interested in some of the alternative ideas that were in circulation. However, it seems to me that during the 1970s, following the deaths of the founders, the Trust was struggling to renew its purpose and direction. There was therefore a lack of consensus about the extent to which Dartington should engage with such ideas. Such ideas were also controversial amongst the wider Dartington community, making efforts to unite and create a sense of common purpose all the more difficult.

2) People, Businesses and Departments around Dartington

Therefore whilst some ‘top down’ engagement did happen, it was somewhat limited. Instead, it was the people and activities around Dartington, itself a largely decentralised entity in those days, which had a greater impact in circulating and promoting alternative ideas. These ideas were promoted not only through their day to day work but also through their wider activities. People such as Pat Kitto (instigator of the Natural Health Centre) would be a good example of Dartington related people who actively promoted alternative ideas.

3) Other people attracted to the area because of Dartington

People came to the area who were not directly connected to Dartington but were here beacuse their friends or family were here. Some of these then got absorbed into Dartington and had an influence, such as the Canters who rang the Cranks businesses and moved to the area because their daughter went to Dartington College of Arts and settled. Other people came for the school or the college itself.

4) Other factors

There were also some other factors which supported the development of an alternative culture which were completely unrelated to Dartington. The proximity to Dartmoor and Torquay is significant, as will be explained. Plus, the development of some significant activities such as the Hood Faire and the Steiner School had not direct connection to Dartington in their inception, but no doubt benefited from the culture that it had helped to foster.

Overall then I would argue that the impact of Dartington was to create a local culture that was sympathetic to the ideas of the Alternative Society and in which they could flourish. That culture began to express itself in ways which the Trust itself could not control and actually feedback into the work of Dartington.

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One Response to The ‘Dartington effect’ – the evolution of an alternative culture

  1. lizi jamal says:

    hi noel…i read about your research in the paper & am interested to read what you have written….
    i came to dartington in 1969 as an art student . I left the the area briefly , returning when my three (later 5 )children, were of school age as i wanted an alternative education for them . i recently did an interview for soundart radio as part of a series about visions for the 21st century. i have a very strong vision that is outlined on my website… in that interview i realised how much the ethos of dartington has influenced my thinking & my subsequent work. i have a written outline if you are interested.
    lizi jamal

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