I’d driven past Old Hall in East Bergholt many a time, and not much could be gleaned from the glimpses beyond the large walls that separate them from the road. All I had to go on was some recollections that Ruth had about the place which added to the intrigue. Ruth also knew Dave Hodgson, a long time resident, and so arranged a meeting with him one afternoon in April to discuss some potential events for The River Stour Festival in 2019 and to see how things were going in general.
Upon arrival we met a man clad in an oily boiler suit stuck under the bonnet of an ailing car, but he kindly showed us the way into the labyrinth of buildings where we met Dave. He took us through the kitchen area and outside to a picnic bench before setting off to make us a cup of tea. Upon his return he apologised for the state of the building, which had a fair amount of scaffolding on it. Quite a bit of work was being done to replace the sewers which meant that there was no water supply in that end end of the building. They were also installing new flues in some of the chimneys and open fires.
Dave has been at Old Hall for nearly 30 years and seems very settled and totally integrated with the activities and people there. After chatting about potential festival events, and finishing our cups of tea, he took us on a tour of the building so we could look at the spaces we could use for the events. First we went to the library (a listed room) which was very comfortable, well used, full of books and perfect for a small writing workshop. After passing through a small kitchen area we found ourselves in the large Queen Anne Room, a space with wooden floors and lots of light which they regularly use for talks and yoga, and would be great for a day of talks.
The hall was originally built as a private residence but in the 1850’s it was taken over by an order of Catholic Carmelite nuns and a Chapel and other buildings were added. In May 1909 one of the nuns, a Margaret Mary Moult, jumped over the wall and ran away. Her book 'The Escaped Nun' captivated London society and led to the government introducing a statute which required all institutions to open their doors for inspection. That statute remains to this day. The nuns finally moved out in 1939 when it was procured by the army for the war effort. After the war monks lived there until 1970. In 1974 the building and land was purchased by the current owners and Old Hall Community was formed.
Ruth was particularly interested in visiting the chapel as Jules Pretty (who led one of our walks last year) had informed her that one of the stained glass panels, from 1853, features Hildegard of Bingen (founder of scientific natural history in Germany, amongst other things). Although Ruth couldn’t identify her specifically she did take photographs from all of the windows which were all in good condition. The Chapel also features an organ, but unfortunately it is not in a working state after the manufacturers bought it to salvage parts for other working organs. The chapel isn’t now used for any religious activities but is the perfect size for badminton court. The Chapter Room has a large glass ceiling and a pool table.
After a good walk around the inside it was time to head outside and wander around the grounds, which number 70 acres, and in some parts afford views of the river and its valley, especially Park Field where we discussed a potential outdoor food event. Dave brought our attention to two large trees in the middle of it, one of which had been blown over in a storm during 2017. ‘It’s a shame it fell over as Constable painted it.’ He showed us a large workshop which has just received a donation of lots of woodworking tools from someone who was a resident in the past. A huge cedar tree had also recently blown over and they were making good use of the wood. A large piece of the trunk has been earmarked to be sent to a mill to be turned in to more manageable sizes and shapes
As luck would have it lunch time arrived whilst we were there and we joined Dave, and some of the other residents in the fantastic kitchen where Charlie had spent several hours preparing the food for everyone. Everyone was friendly and welcoming of the new faces and we enjoyed our meal whilst chatting with Dave about the hall and other communities around the world.
The community are almost completely self sufficient and grow all manner of vegetables, keep a variety of livestock, generate solar power, get their water from a bore hole and all share the jobs that need doing throughout the year. There also seemed to be a good balance of social activity and solitude to cater for everyone, as well as a good diversity of people and skills, age ranges, families and individual people.