What happened to the self-sufficient people of the 1970s?

By Claire Bates
BBC News Magazine

Image source, Seymour Family
Image caption,
Anne (seated on the floor) pictured with her parents John and Sally and siblings

Forty years ago a new book offered city dwellers a way to escape the rat-race and go back to the land. The author of the "bible" of self-sufficiency, John Seymour, convinced thousands to change their lives.

"I have met people who said my father ruined them," says Anne Sears.

Anne's father, John Seymour, was an author and idealist known as one of the fathers of self-sufficiency. His books published in the 1960s and 1970s urged readers to return to a more traditional way of life and be less reliant on the outside world. He believed this would free people from their dependence on a damaging industrial society.

"It is going forward to a new and better sort of life, a life which is more fun than the over-specialised round of office or factory, a life that brings challenge and the use of daily initiative back to work," he wrote.

Seymour had put his principles into practice and set up a farm on rented land in Suffolk, driving a horse and cart instead of a car. His books and articles, which are thought to have helped inspire the BBC sitcom The Good Life, urged others to follow his lead.

Image source, Corgi
Image caption,
The guide was published in 1976 and explained how to rotate crops, sink a well and keep bees

His message met a receptive audience. A global oil crisis and striking coal-miners in Britain had made the public realise how reliant they were on fossil fuels to heat and light their homes. The environmental movement of the 1970s had also made them more conscious of green issues.

People were so inspired by Seymour they would turn up on his doorstep.

"One woman turned up who had left her husband and children after reading the book. She wanted to help out and live in our stable. My parents let her but later my mother persuaded her to go back and sort herself out," Anne says.

During the 60s and 70s dozens of alternative communities sprang up around Britain. However, many who tried self-sufficiency found the labour-intensive way of life too tough.

"People sold up but then couldn't make it work. It was probably harder than they thought it was going to be," Anne says.

Yet while most of the communities folded over the years, a handful are still running today. One of them is Laurieston Hall in Scotland. Patrick Upton, now in his late 60s, joined Laurieston in 1973. He had seen an advert in Time Out magazine when he was a trainee teacher living in London.

"There were 10 adults and seven children at the start and we were all under 30. Most of us had no agricultural skills," he says.

Image source, Patrick Upton
Image caption,
Laurieston Hall and some of its grounds

The group lived in an Edwardian mansion, which had 12 acres of land. Although full of enthusiasm they lacked the necessary knowledge to create a sustainable community.

"Our first potato crop turned brown - we were surprised because none of us knew about blight.

"There have been many challenges living here from working out the ancient plumbing to keeping the tractor going. We've had to learn everything we've had to do."

Image source, Seymour Family
Image caption,
John with his wife Sally, pictured here in the 1970s

John Seymour's book, The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, provided welcome advice. Published in 1976, it covered everything from how to plough a field to how to kill a pig and sold more than a million copies.

"It was great because self-sufficiency wasn't accessible for beginners at that time. My parents had been novices so they understood the challenges involved," Anne says.

"We built our first goat pens using Seymour's books," Patrick says.

"We soon learned goats were cunning and agile. One time they got out and ate the rhododendrons, which are poisonous. I had to make them ill with warm oil and stay up with them all night."

Image source, Seymour Family
Image caption,
John Seymour's books and articles helped inspire the BBC sitcom The Good Life

The community at Laurieston flourished over the years. Today the community keep cows, pigs, hens and bees on the 135-acre estate and grow most of their fruit and vegetables. Stream water is used for toilets and baths, while a spring provides drinking water. A hydro-system generates the estate's electricity while wood from the forest is used for heating.

"I have a real sense of place and belonging here. I've planted woodlands that we are now using 20 years on. I think we had the right mix of people at the right time, and there is enough space here to fall out but come back together again. We're a family."

The children living at Laurieston faced their own challenges. They went to the local school where at first they were teased for being English and living an alternative lifestyle, but Patrick says this decreased over time. His own daughter lived at Laurieston until she was 17 but didn't enjoy it.

"She didn't like the rural-ness of it or that you needed the car to get to the nearest small town. She lives in a city now and loves it there."

Seymour's children also found life difficult when the family moved from Norfolk to a larger more remote estate in Wales.

"I used to resent the lifestyle - it interfered with my education and I felt I had only been born to help out! Our neighbours thought we were mad as they were desperately trying to get away from the land and thought progress was working in an office," Anne says.

"It was fun at first but we were always struggling for money because of the large mortgage and dad would go off and do TV interviews about rural issues. We used to have strangers over all the time who had read his books or seen him on TV. They would help a bit around the farm but dad would never ask them for money. It caused a lot of arguments with my mother."

Image source, Patrick Upton
Image caption,
Patrick Upton with his daughter

Anne's parents later split up and Seymour decided to set up his own self-sufficient community called The Centre of Living.

"He came to think that self-sufficiency was too difficult to achieve in a family unit."

However, the centre wasn't a success and folded after three years.

"My father was a lousy businessman. There were about 20 people there and he meant to charge them but forgot. He needed to write to fund it, but he couldn't delegate. Someone would always step in but they varied in experience."

John Seymour would continue to write and to produce TV programmes about rural issues and later moved to Ireland. He returned to the farm in Wales for his final years, dying aged 90, in 2004. He was wrapped in home-made blankets and buried in a nearby field.

Image caption,
Some of the recent produce from Anne Sear's garden

Anne continues to receive emails from people inspired by her father's books. She still lives and works on four acres of the original farm with her husband. "We aren't textbook self-sufficiency. We have occasional pigs and chickens and a big garden where I grow most of our vegetables and fruit."

This "do what you can" attitude is common among those practising self-sufficiency today. Rosie Beat and her husband Alan run courses on self-sufficiency and smallholdings at their home in Devon. They do what they can to live a sustainable lifestyle, using wood from hedging thinning, keeping farm animals and growing their own organic vegetables. Rosie also knits jumpers with wool from their pet sheep Humphrietta. However, they stop short of growing their own fodder or crops and buy in what they don't produce.

"We're practical about it - we don't have a 'hair shirt' attitude," she says.

Thousands of volunteers choose to work for a few weeks on an organic farm or smallholding. Known as Wwoofers they provide practical labour in exchange for bed and board.

"It's a great way for people who 'do the 9-5' to dip their toe in the water of a different way of life", says Scarlett Penn from Wwoof UK.

Image source, Rosie Beat
Image caption,
Alan Beat shears one of his sheep. Rosie uses the wool to knit jumpers

The community at Laurieston has also relaxed its approach over time. While the first residents lived in one big group in the mansion, the majority now live in their own cottages because "people mostly now want their own front door". They also shifted from working on the estate from full-time to part-time.

"I think of it as self-efficiency not self-sufficiency. We do what we can but we're not perfectionist about it. You can't be," Patrick says.

Follow Claire Bates on Twitter@batesybates

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.