South Downs sustainability centre hopes for change that lasts

6/5/14    ''The Sustainability Centre in East Meon. Pictured is Christine Seaward chief executive''Picture: Paul Jacobs (141367-17) PPP-140605-144606001
6/5/14 ''The Sustainability Centre in East Meon. Pictured is Christine Seaward chief executive''Picture: Paul Jacobs (141367-17) PPP-140605-144606001
Picture: Shutterstovk

The whole of this area is now housing

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In our modern, temporary culture it’s easy to be focused on the here and now. LINDSAY WALSH meets the team at the Sustainability Centre, who are looking to share their knowledge about how we can live in ways that make a positive difference to everybody’s future.

With some warmer weather arriving, it feels like there’s change in the air – making this the perfect time to visit the Sustainability Centre, a place focused on making changes for the better.

6/5/14    ''The Sustainability Centre in East Meon. Pictured is one of the Yurts''Picture: Paul Jacobs (141367-13) PPP-140605-144519001

6/5/14 ''The Sustainability Centre in East Meon. Pictured is one of the Yurts''Picture: Paul Jacobs (141367-13) PPP-140605-144519001

Built on the site of a former naval communications base in the South Downs near Petersfield, the centre has change at its very core, transforming a dull, strictly-ordered military facility into a place bustling with life.

The Sustainability Centre’s whole focus is on making a difference and centre chief executive Christine Seaward looks to incorporate the essence of sustainability into everything the centre does.

‘There are three pillars of sustainability – economic, environmental and social – and they inform everything we do and try to be,’ says Christine.

The centre’s ethos is founded on the idea of incorporating economic, social and environmental needs into practical solutions for day-to-day living.

6/5/14    ''The Sustainability Centre in East Meon. Pictured is one of the Yurts''Picture: Paul Jacobs (141367-14) PPP-140605-144531001

6/5/14 ''The Sustainability Centre in East Meon. Pictured is one of the Yurts''Picture: Paul Jacobs (141367-14) PPP-140605-144531001

It aims to educate people about these solutions, enabling them to make positive changes in the way they live.

‘You hear so much about what’s wrong in the world but you aren’t empowered to make a change,’ Christine says.

‘We give people the information they need and then we give them the opportunity to do something about it.

‘We run a whole set of courses including wild food foraging, low-impact building techniques, beekeeping and training people to become Forest School teachers.’

Forest Schools allow children to learn hands-on skills in a woodland setting and school groups from across the county attend the Sustainability Centre to take part in this unique form of learning.

Christine explains: ‘It’s really important for all of us to have a picture of our role in the environment and the natural world, but it’s hard for some children to do that because many don’t live in a place where they have access to the natural world and some don’t even like being outside.

‘Forest Schools are about working in nature and learning about nature by being in it. They’re immersive. Learning here is active and outdoors, the children don’t just sit down and listen to something – they do it.’

In addition to learning opportunities the centre also embodies sustainable principles in the running of the site.

‘We try to be what we talk about. At the centre we immerse people in a sustainable lifestyle. For example we have a shower block on our campsite which has solar-heated hot water and is built of straw bales with a timber roof.

‘We also have a compost toilet system and manage all our sewage on site, turning black and grey water into a good-enough quality to be returned to the aquifer.’

The centre’s campsite features yurts complete with woodburning stoves, teepees, a pizza oven and its own orchard where campers can enjoy fruit straight from nature.

There is also an outdoor classroom, built from timber felled no more than 500 yards from the structure, which can be hired for events including birthday parties and funerals. The centre even has a natural burial site set in a tranquil patch of woodland.

Despite this wide range of projects showing sustainability in action, it can often be difficult to share these positive, life-changing ideas.

‘An important part of our work is breaking down the preconceptions about sustainability – a lot of people don’t think it’s for them,’ says Christine.

‘People say “I can’t do that. I don’t understand it. I’m too busy. I’m too poor,” but it’s not just for people with money and time.

‘Everyone can do something. What we do is build a bridge from where people are to where they can be and that bridge is only one step. We see people transform their attitude to “I can, I will and I do” .’

As part of this mission to make sustainability accessible, the centre hosts the annual South Downs Green Fair which takes place tomorrow.

Christine says: ‘The Green Fair is about bringing a community of interested people together – people who want to find out more about what we do and meet others that feel the same.

‘It’s a celebration as well with music, food, beer and free family activities.’

The day will also feature fire jugglers, belly dancing, samba drummers, performance poetry and the chance to try bushcraft and clay sculpting.

The Green Fair is one of the centre’s biggest events, but Christine thinks that small actions lie at heart of a sustainable lifestyle.

‘We don’t all want to do the same thing, but each of us can do a little and that can amount to something big. Through a seemingly small action you build a mosaic of people doing what they can and it has a massive effect.’