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Covid-19: 'Living with 50 people has been a blessing'

By Charlie Jones
BBC News

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image copyrightDavid Hodgson
image captionThe children in the community have enjoyed spending more time together, including dancing round the maypole in the sunshine

A farming community of 50 people who all live together said their way of life had "come into its own" during the coronavirus pandemic.

The group, which dates back to 1974, share a house in East Bergholt, Suffolk, where they live off 70 acres (28 hectares) of land.

They said they had seen a large rise in applications to join them recently.

Community member David Hodgson said it had been a "blessing" to live there and share their skills during the crisis.

"Within our group we have an incredible set of skills that are put to use for the benefit of us all," the 71-year-old added.

image copyrightDavid Hodgson
image captionThe house was a convent, an Army barracks and then a friary before it was bought in 1974 by a group of families who wanted to form a community

The community had managed to stay Covid-free by working together and being "careful and vigilant", he said.

Several of its members are classed as vulnerable, including one resident who is 99 years old.

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They decided to introduce their own social restrictions early in March, ahead of the national lockdown later that month, and have held regular meetings to work out how best to protect themselves.

Singing, yoga and philosophy groups which are usually open to the public have all been paused and they have imposed a strict cleaning rota.

Social distancing had been relatively easy due to the amount of space they have, with their self-sufficient lifestyle well suited to a lockdown, David said.

image copyrightDavid Hodgson
image captionThe children in the community have enjoyed playing traditional games like sack races this year

They said there had been a 300% increase in applications to join the community during the pandemic.

Members buy a share and pay an annual charge to live there. Most also have part-time jobs in the outside world, but must commit to about 15 hours of work a week in the house and its grounds.

They breed sheep and pigs, grow fruit, vegetables and wheat for bread, milk their own cows and make butter, cheese and yoghurt.

They also generate their own heat and electricity.

During the first lockdown, the members made face masks and opened their own tuck shop, while holding meditation sessions and enjoying socially-distanced campfire meals and maypole dancing.

"If something is needed from the shop or the pharmacy in the village then the request goes out on social media and someone in the community will take up the action," David noted in his blog about life there during the first lockdown.

image copyrightDavid Hodgson
image captionThe community has enjoyed many socially-distanced campfire meals this year

The community said it kept tight rules in place throughout the summer, despite the national easing of restrictions.

David said: "We cautiously allowed some potential members to visit the community and some friends and family between lockdown one and two.

"To accommodate this, we cleared a sheltered area under some trees, constructed a compost toilet and a temporary field kitchen so that our families could camp.

"Stays were limited to three nights. This enabled us to see family without letting them into the building."

The 16th Century manor house, which has more than 100 rooms, has also been a convent, an army barracks and a Franciscan friary before it was bought in 1974 by 14 families who formed the community.

image copyrightDavid Hodgson
image captionDavid Hodgson worked in the architectural profession before he moved to the community in 1989

David worked in architecture before he moved there in 1989. He brought up two children and worked locally three days a week as a design lecturer to supplement his lifestyle.

He retired early to spend most of his time working in the orchards and vegetable gardens.

He said members were looking forward to Christmas, and would have a socially-distanced meal on Christmas Day.

"The children here are enjoying daily advent activities running up to Christmas. Anything from a treasure hunt to biscuit-making to decoration-making workshops," he said.

He said they would not let their guards down over the festive period and would continue to protect each other, acknowledging that Covid was "by no means over" despite the start of the national vaccination programme.

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