Creating countercultural space in Totnes – adult education, groups, and Birdwood House

This extract summarises some of the ways in which increasing numbers of  ‘countercultural’ social spaces were created in Totnes in the 1970s. It also highlights the importance of Birdwood House in providing a physical site for many of these groups.

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Adult educational courses played a part in the circulation of countercultural ideas and it was during the 1970s that there were increasing numbers of courses were held in Totnes. Yoga courses in Totnes started in 1971 and received an ‘amazingly good response’, with over 50 people attending. Throughout the nineteen-seventies there was a regular stream of craft based courses as part of the adult education programme within the town. As the decade wore on these were augmented by a number of courses with links to alternative lifestyles including Grow your own food (Sept 1975); Self-sufficiency (Jan 1976); Wholefood Cookery (Jan 1978); Towards Total Health (Jan 1978) and Tai Chi (Sept 1978). Obviously these courses were one way in which people could begin to experiment with alternative lifestyle practices.

Group meetings and public talks also provided another form of countercultural social space which facilitated the circulation of new ideas. A range of different groups became active in Totnes during this era reflecting the different strands of countercultural politics. Thus there were social movements groups (Friends of the Earth, Anti-Nazi League, Ecology Party, Totnes Women’s Group); alternative health groups (Natural Childbirth Trust; Co-counselling; Towards Total Health); alternative spiritualities (Totnes Buddhist group, Sanyassins, Quakers).  Therefore throughout the 1970s growing numbers of meetings were held in Totnes covering a range of topics.

Many of these were held at Birdwood House. Arguably this has been one of the most important countercultural spaces in the town. Birdwood House itself has Dartington connections, it was given to the town by Douglas and Leila Mitchell, who had Dartington connections and settled in the town in 1950s. Their son Chris Mitchell, was one of the people behind Sherrack and also ran an antique business, which McRobbie (1997) suggests was another popular line of ‘hippy’ enterprise in the 1970s. Birdwood House had been at the service of the town since the late 1950s and offered meeting space, office space for groups and a gallery for local artists. During the 1970s it was used by the Quakers, Hood Faire committee, the Anti-Nazi League, Towards Total Health Group, Friends of the Earth, the embryonic Steiner group and for talks on Buddhism, alternative technology, Baha’i faith, and Trancendental Meditation. Geographically, Birdwood House is right in the middle of Totnes, next to the market and thus put such topics and groups right at the ‘heart’ of town, not out on the periphery, or out of sight. Other venues in town tend to be linked to various traditions of Christian worship and may not have been open to the practicing and promotion of alternative spiritualities, so the fact that it was a non-religious venue was significant. Birdwood House was therefore a neutral space, and one which, being central in Totnes provided alternative sub-cultures with a visible and accessible venue. Although its users have changed Birdwood House has continued to fulfil this role within the town, during the 1980s and early 1990s as the home of the Community Office which was involved in a number of projects and activities such as LETS, TILT and permaculture and since then as the Birdwood Bureau, a shared office facility for the Totnes Development Trust and the Devon Lane Credit Union amongst others. It still also functions as a meeting space and an art gallery for local artists through which they can exhibit their work at a low cost.  Finally, in the early 1980s the Anti-Nuclear Alliance, a coalition of different local anti-nuclear and peace groups, also publicised their politics by having a stall outside Birdwood House on Saturdays. This practice which is continued on a weekly basis in the present day by the Totnes Genetix Group (ToGG) anti-GM campaign group.

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