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The John Seymour School of Self-Sufficiency goes on

I first met John Seymour back in 1991 at a dinner party in London held by a mutual friend John Papworth. I was very much looking forward to meeting John as I had heard a lot about him and enjoyed the down to earth wisdom and humour which I had read in his writings. I soon realized that John was much more remarkable man than I had been expecting. Of course he had a wide knowledge and experience of country life but he was also a very well educated with a simple but powerful philosophy with which I was soon enthused.

I had been brought up in the fifties on a traditional farm owned by my parents in Northumberland. I often used to feed the horses at the end of their furrows when I was walking home from the village school. There was great excitement on the farm when we got our first single cylinder diesel tractor, a Fowler, and we had to light a fire underneath before we detonated the 12 bore cartridge that started the great flywheel each morning. Sure enough as time progressed the farm moved over to more industrial ways and I decided to pursue my interest in the ways of the world by joining the Civil Service and moving to London.

At the end of the evening at John Papworth's, John asked me if I would like to become a partner at Killowen and help finance a project to setting up a School of Self Sufficiency at the smallholding in Ireland. I must admit the discussion stirred up some old feelings - I had retired from the civil service and was looking for a new direction to turn to. Perhaps this was what I had been looking for!

So a few months later I found myself astride my old BMW motorbike heading west towards the boat at Fishguard. I had telephoned to say I would be arriving by the end of the day. But this promise proved a temptation to fate as I had several missed turns along the narrow irish backroads one of which took me deep into one of the neighbour's manure heaps. As my heavily laden motorcycle crawled deeper into the black mire I had no alternative but to keep moving - the question was whether the slurry would get deeper still or finally slope up towards dry land! Fate was on my side or my story might have been very different.

When I finally arrived we enjoyed a lovely supper. A large ham was brought in from the storeroom and generous slices were cut, fresh eggs and mushrooms were fried and served with thick slices of home made brown bread and butter. It was all washed down with large mugs of home brewed beer which John and I quaffed while sitting in the tiny wood paneled living room which was called the "snug" because it was so small. We sat late into the night discussing plans to start the School and I heard more of John's story.

John had retired from farming in 1980 when he sold his farm to his children in Wales. He had got into terrible debt after his divorce from his first wife Sally. He was unable to buy another home for himself because of his debts but he had heard from a friend that there was a small cottage in Ireland which he could rent for £10 per week. This sounded perfect to John, here was a rural idyll in which to devote some time to writing.

When John arrived at the new smallholding there was no running water, no electricity and altogether the place was in a most dilapidated state with a leaky roof and a fine rats' nest above the front door! From the outset work began to make sure that the place was sorted out properly - it was extremely hard work carrying all the water up from the spring down by the river. John began immediately to clear the garden which was a mass of briars, brambles and rocks.

Before long hard work had turned the cottage into a clean and comfortable home where John was able to concentrate on his writing. Whilst at Killowen he wrote 15 of his books as well as making a major series of environmental films for the BBC. These documentaries were broadcast at the very beginning of environmental awareness amongst the public and they took John all over the world with the BBC film crews. Later John would spend 2 years travelling the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland giving talks to promote his books and ideas. It was during this time of hard graft on the road that John realized that just talking about better ways of living was not enough. What people needed were practical examples of good home and community economies and so the seeds were sown for what was to become the School for Self Sufficiency.

After 10 years of hard work John had cleared off many of the debts but he was still not in a position to raise enough cash to get a school started. A proper cowshed would have to be built, a cow purchased and there would need to be more tools and a rotavator. I was able to provide the financial assistance the School needed and I very much enjoyed my occasional visits to help get the project on the ground. As time went by and John's great strength began to fade with age I was able to give more of my own time to making the project a success. It was quite amazing how people from all over the world seemed to find out about the school and miraculously make their way to the bottom of our long muddy lane!

Eventually I decided to move over to Ireland. From 1993 onwards John and I worked together running the school. Unfortunately in the last years of his life John's health deteriorated. His hard years in Africa, India and fighting in Burma during the second world war had finally caught up with him. At the age of 90 he died peacefully at his old farm in Wales.

A month after John died we held a memorial service for him at Duncannon in Ireland. The church was packed with people; neighbours, friends and supporters from various environmental groups all turned up to pay their respects. John had already bought a burial plot in the churchyard and so it was there that we erected a memorial stone for him.

Sadly John is with us no more but his work certainly lives on, not just in his books and writing but also in the continued work of the School which he founded. Each summer we still run a series of courses which give our students a hands-on opportunity to sample a more self sufficient lifestyle.c The barrel of home brew is still put onto the heated pad every week and the deep freezes are full of wholesome organic produce from the animals and the garden. Although John is not here himself, his spirit is still imbued in everything we do.

Will Sutherland


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