This is a personal blog that will attempt to describe my experience of living in On the Brink, our co housing community, during the Covid-19 pandemic. I know that every person, wherever they live, will be having different experiences and challenges to their lives and their lifestyles and my heart goes out to you if you are having a difficult time.
This is my experience.
Lisa and I developed the symptoms of Covid-19 just after the middle of March. We had been observing the official precautions and it remains unclear how we managed to contract the virus. At one level we had a nasty time, Lisa more than me. Lisa was admitted to hospital when her symptoms worsened about two weeks after the start of the symptoms and was on oxygen for ten days before returning home. Phew!!! It was a horrid, frightening time for us. But living within such a wonderful, enormously supportive community has made the experience bearable.
We didn’t move to On the Brink in the expectation of needing care. However the lived experience over the last few months is that the love and support that we have received throughout this challenging time from our co housing comrades has been enormously moving and has sustained us. Thank you to all of our fellow co housers.
Listing all the ways that our co housing comrades have supported us would be a bit tedious but it includes leaving meals by our door, sending us flowers picked from the garden, WhatsApp messages, Zoom calls, telephone calls without number, offers of shopping trips... I don’t think any of this was coordinated, but certainly when Lisa was in hospital and I wasn’t well myself and couldn’t think of what to eat a delicious meal would magically arrive at the door unbidden.
I am welling up just thinking of those times and of the way that our comrades rallied round without any fuss. Within myself and for the first time in my life I found it possible to ask for the things we needed to live behind the closed door of flat 7. The worst of these for me is to ask for someone to take away our rubbish. It felt humiliating and exposing – but we asked and the task was completed as necessary without further ado.
The best thing for me was to receive cards and messages from the young people living here...
Here’s a sample:
Listening to the young people playing in the garden remains a major delight. They barrel around, swooosh down the drives in their mini vehicles, build dens, rearrange everything in the garden over and over and fill the airwaves with yells and whoops. Hearing and seeing them is as good as oxygen.
During this time there is a part of the garden where building work is going on. Our little balcony overlooks the site where the three new houses are being constructed. Of course there’s noise and dust – but there’s also tangible proof of a new future for On the Brink. Before our eyes the deliveries of stone and cement are being transformed into three lovely new living spaces. Each day the builders perform a ballet – moving around the site – carrying stuff, putting stone on stone, it’s great to watch. And it’s a real marvel to be able to watch the delicacy with which the JCB driver does the heavy parts of the work. What skill they all have.
More routine parts of the work of keeping On the Brink going are being adapted to these constrained times. Meetings are being held via Zoom calls and it is possible to join in discussions and decision-making even while being confined to barracks. Everything has changed but lots remains the same. We still need to talk with each other about finance and legal matters, we need to plan our future together and look forward to new developments within the community. Technology has been a great boon to these lines of communication – what would we do without it?
While Lisa remains inside our flat being ‘shielded’ I have cautiously started moving round the house, gardens and grounds and even on my bike for short rides around the neighbourhood. And the community has recently started to develop safe ways of re-establishing at least some of the social features that make living here such a delight.
Following government guidelines (and common sense), we have started to have social times together on the lawn where those of the community who are able to join in meet to eat or to celebrate significant events. We have celebrated Tanith’s graduation after three years of very hard work and also celebrated Mary Toon (Kate’s mother), and the 97 years of very full life that she had lived on this earth.
One of the wonderful things about living collectively is the inevitable coming together of our various experiences, cultures and interests.
Whilst we are still relatively young in our co-housing journey we've already already started to mark out the turning of the year with celebrations and events which in time will surely become On The Brink traditions. Creating these traditions out of our collective histories and experiences gives us a sense of belonging to this place and a personal connection with the ever evolving story of On The Brink.
Celebrating May Day is one of the times of the year that we embrace wholeheartedly. Last year we passed under a leafy archway, sang and danced in the garden and feasted together.
This year we were all a bit spread out due to physical distancing requirements, but it didn't stop us getting together and having a good sing!
Covid 19 Pandemic
Friday March 13th 2020
‘Hard Times Require Furious Dancing.’ Alice Walker, 2010
Is it time then?
Old Testament terror again?
We sit and squabble over little things and
The massive carries on.
Fists full of cancelled plans.
Empty 747s taking off and landing only.
To keep their landing slot.
Extend the airports, why not?
Sunday March 15th
Some members are already self-isolating – ahead of the news.
Prospective new members visit.
Drinks offered, carefully, in the shared kitchen.
No shaking hands.
We have signs up now on all the doors,
(New soap and paper towels)
Wash your Hands.
Friday March 20th
Our regular chaotic Friday meals cancelled.
One of the joys - if you can find a chair and keep it J
Bring what you would have eaten any way,
Sometimes five soups, bread and one pudding, mostly feasts, always good.
Three new children living here, with two already resident.
The film shows, spontaneous chalking, singing, hide and seek,
House concerts, party room meetings
We have struggled to find ways to explain to 5 children,
the youngest five years old, what social distance means.
Building a new house for the snails can’t be shared.
We wave and smile when we’re hanging out washing in the front
and they’re on the swing. They run over,
We hold out our hands and smile,
They nod, sombre expressions,
and then get on with digging, running,
playing football with the dog.
We have gone digital:
Birthdays, dancing, meetings, singing – some time lag.
Can’t garden online, or cut hair, or….
Airports, borders, churches, schools, pubs, cafes
Tuesday March 24th
Lock down, protect the vulnerable.
Nurses and doctors say, stay home.
We stay home.
Friday, March 27
Here they are, three of the five
near the raised beds and greenhouses
with their mum and dad and a few others
building a fire out back.
It’s cold. Some singing, a lot of laughs.
The building site that will be their new home
continues. Diggers loom up to ground floor windows
Meanwhile, Heads of State
The Prime Minister, Chief Medical Officer and the heir to the throne
with symptoms or tested positive.
There’s a birthday tomorrow.
Digital furious dancing replaces the party room gatherings
We’re so good at.
We went out onto terraces, balconies last night
To ‘clap the carers’
‘Sometimes you just have to make a lot of noise.’
Apricity – old word meaning the heat of the sun in winter.
February 5, 2020, and we’ve got the sun at the back of the house until after 4.30.
We are half an hour’s walk from Sheffield city centre and the Peace Gardens, a bit more to the station. With the chickens now established on the front lawn of Brincliffe House, and the massive beech and sycamore trees at the back, it feels like a different and more rural world. Birds and green all around. Friends who hadn’t visited for over a year were astonished by the changes: ‘It was all brambles and nettles,’ they said. Some of it still is a wilderness and we hope to keep some of it that way.
We had a first grounds and gardens work day of the year on Sunday. Some of the kids constructed a building site complete with tip up trucks and traffic cones. Some of us tended the flower beds and pots that are such a joy in the summer; others extended the hard-core path so that it’s no longer a slippery, teetering kind of walk to the greenhouses and raised beds out back. Some of us cleared leaf mould from a long hidden path around the front lawn. The chickens enjoyed a couple of barrow loads of leaves and worms with ivy carefully removed.
‘Write something every day, even if it’s only a line, it will protect you.’ Says poet Elaine Feinsten.
How can words on a page defend us in this way?
‘Unless by strengthening our fierce and obstinate centres.’ (Feinstein, 1993)
Sometimes in cohousing groups, when the going gets tough, we might need our fierce and obstinate centres. When we are at our best here, celebrating Burns night and many other festivities, or all working together in the garden, it’s maybe less important to be ‘strengthened’. But writing something every day is a given with me. I started young and have maintained the habit. So I’ll keep going with catching thoughts and feelings on paper as spring blows in.
Feinstein, E. (1993). Muse: for E.T. In Sixty Women Poets. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books,
The Vegetable Patch at Brincliffe House: photos of the first year
There’s a lovely little area right at the back of the garden. These photographs show the area before any work was started.
We were given two greenhouses. One previously lived in Walkley the other in Crookes.
We also built a garden shed:
Together we built lots of raised beds:
Working together got a lot of jobs done!
And here is some of what we grew in our lovely garden!
Looking forward to growing lots more this year... with a little help from friends!
It is Monday in the week before Christmas and I'm in my flat with U3A film crew making a film about our community as we are now in our 18th month of living together.
'How's it going?' - this is the big question and I have to say it's everything I wanted it to be and more. The events of last week tested our spirits and resilience as a community. Some of us had spent many days and weeks door knocking, some singing songs of cheer and rebellion and some building a chicken shack in the garden for our 3 new hens! On Thursday evening our world was turned upside down by the landslide to Brexit and the devastation of a huge Labour defection. On Friday we grouped together to talk about our feelings and fears and then we rallied to prepare to welcome our newest members of OTB, a family of five arriving from Newcastle.
Our communal Friday night meal was special with nearly all our community round the table, the joy of children excited to meet new friends and adults exploring each others histories and tastes. Playing music and having fun into the evening.
I take reference from Africa; it takes a whole village to raise a child and today it feels like we are a village. Things fall apart but we will regroup and hold together. For me Cohousing is my glue; it is why I am here to live together through the hard times and to share and protect our love for humanity.
Stained glass seems to be an important feature of Brincliffe House. When the first OTB members looked round in 2015 the magnificent stained glass window above the back door was one of the most attractive features of the house.
And in the front lobby the NHS had mounted a couple of original art deco windows.
And after we bought the house, as we explored the attic and cellars we came across more stored stained glass. Some of it was in a terrible state.
Kate, Paul and Charlotte restored these pieces and we are now looking for a place to exhibit the finished piece.
It is not always clear where the stored glass has come from. A rectangular piece has now been reshaped and fitted to the back door where it seems at home.
Quite a few On the Brink members have become interested in learning about stained glass making and have created some new designs for the doors of Brincliffe House. here are a few examples
Bird box making and decorating proved to be popular
We have tried to put the different designs of boxes in places where we have already observed that species... It appears that different birds will only nest in boxes where the opening holes are of their particular chosen size. Who would have thought birds were so picky!
Hey how did that one get so high up in the cedar? It's for owls. It seems unlikely that owls would ever nest in a structure like that... but it's what it says in the books. The young owls, apparently, leave the nest before learning to fly. They spend quite a time crawling round in the foliage being fed by their parents and going back into the nest (big box), at night.
Here are the owl boxes during the construction process. And below here are the bat boxes in situ...
Our wonderful Project Manager, Oliver Chamberlain, has retired (sort of). He’ll still be our guide and mentor, but we need a new Project Manager to take us through all the steps involved in building four new living units here at Brincliffe House. Please think about people who may be able to do this job for us. Share with other networks if you can.
Here are some of the job details:
On the Brink Cohousing Community Ltd (OTB) wishes to contract a Project Manager (PM) to assist in its second phase new build cohousing development at Brincliffe House, Osborne Road, Sheffield. The first phase involved the refurbishment of Brincliffe House and the building of a new Coach House totalling 12 new living units. The current proposed new build programme is for a further four new build living units over the next 2 years. More information about the organisation can be found here: https://onthebrink.community/
To view the current planning application on Sheffield City Council planning portal follow this link: https://bit.ly/2U5Mxaf
The PM tasks envisaged are:
Please download the application form to apply from this link: https://bit.ly/2FONXCa
Completed application forms should be returned to AejazOTB@gmail.com with Project Manager Application as your subject header. The deadline for applications is midnight on Sunday 17th February 2019
Our beautiful old house and brilliant new Coach House are now fully occupied: the first members of the group moved in on 2nd May and the last a month later. We’re now settling in to the rhythm of life here – but one outstanding feature has presided since we moved in: the weather has been amazing, and we hardly know what it’s like to feel a bit chilly or what happens when it rains here.
We are all too aware that this summer’s weather is two edged, as it represents a change in climate which may be lovely for us as we bask in sunshine and sit out in the courtyard after dark, but that it has far different consequences for countries experiencing drought, floods and fires. So we are trying to work out ways of minimising our own footprints. We have learned about the capricious bus routes, some of us are feeling slimmer and fitter as we walk more, we are sharing cars as much as possible for essential journeys. We are saving water to water the plants in the thriving garden, where we are composting, re-using as much material as possible and already growing substantial amounts of food. We have new solar panels on the roof, which supply electricity to the Coach House. We are learning from each other and from friends how to minimise the impact of our living on the environment.
We have had two gorgeous parties marking significant birthdays, and welcomed our neighbours in for tea and cake and a good look round. We are planning more events- we will be inviting the past NHS workers to come and see the finished building, and will host more events as time goes on. Several of us have hosted visitors and everyone agrees that we have a really lovely place to call home.
Working parties have cleared large areas of the garden, sealed the cleaned tiles in
the entrance hallways, and chosen decorations and pictures for the walls of the shared spaces. There’s lots more to do…
And for the next major bit of work – which we are calling Phase 2, we are about to submit a planning application for four new dwellings which our architects are working on as we speak.
Watch this space!