Communal living is a stately solution

30th anniversary of good living: Top is Mary Booth, who learned the ukulele growing up at Thundercliffe Grange, right is Mary with Nick Wilson and, inset, an idylic childhood - helping out in the hay meadow are Ben Jennison-Philips, Helena Christopher, Mary Booth and Nick Wilson.

"As a child I never used to tell anyone I lived at Thundercliffe Grange. Like every kid, I just wanted to fit in."

Mary Booth still doesn't readily discuss her roots, 30 years on.

"It's for much the same reasons I didn't as a child. I don't want people to think I'm bragging about some fortunate upbringing," she admits.

From the age of three, Mary's home was the Grade II listed Georgian mansion house built originally for the 3rd Earl of Effingham.

Mary's family weren't rich or members of the aristocracy; they were just ahead of their time.

They, along with five other householders, had the foresight and courage to set up what was to become one of the UK's most successful communal housing schemes - and breathe new life into the Earl's former home, Thundercliffe Grange in Rotherham.

"My upbringing was privileged, but not in the way people would assume," says Mary. "We didn't have any money and the house was uninhabitable for months. But I had the space to play and other children to grow up with.

"We learned so many things from the adults we lived with. They had dared to be different, do something others wouldn't and many of us adopted their can-do attitude."

Hindsight now tells her the kids at Blackburn Junior and Infants School had probably concluded posh was the last thing the dishevelled bunch of children who arrived every day with a different mother in charge were.

"We lived in what was effectively a huge building site. We didn't have much hot water and probably looked a bit scruffy compared to everyone else," she laughs.

Now curriculum manager at Learndirect, Mary was among the eight children embarking on the idyllic existence their parents had dreamed of - communal living, a sharing of skills, interests and support at Thundercliffe, a grand stone house originally built in 1777. It had stood empty since the late Seventies, when Trent Regional Health Authority closed the doors on its home for special needs children.

The consortium of librarians, civil and chemical engineers, teachers and local government and arts officers sold their homes, pooled their money and bought the house and land for 65,0000. A business loan covered much of the extensive renovations.

"Some thought it weird that we all lived together and labelled us a hippy commune," says Mary, who had moved from a terraced home in Clifton at the age of four.

"It probably WAS more like a commune in the early days. For the first seven months most of us lived in caravans, but that was only because much of the building was uninhabitable. The idea was always to carve it up into separate family flats, which took about two years to achieve.

Over the years more families joined the community, which functions like a tiny village. In total 16 children have grown up there, in apartments which would once have been the grand rooms of the Earl and his descendants, the servants' quarters, kitchens and stable blocks. Three, aged 23 to 18, still live with their parents and one original child resident, David Binns, has now returned with his wife Jo. They bought in when a flat went up for sale last year and are active members of the community's work programme alongside David's mum and dad, Mike and Pauline Binns. As they did in the beginning, residents carry out virtually all the repairs, improvements and gardening.

"It was a lovely upbringing. I can see why they wanted it for us," says Mary. "We had 24 acres of land to play in and all these adults looking out for us. That has continued throughout our lives. It made us very self-assured people, I think."

Nick Wilson, aged 30, agrees: "If I had been raised in a three-bed semi, I think I'd be a less independent and open-minded person today. The adults I grew up around taught me so much and made me see age as a state of mind, not a number," he says. "Our events were always multi-generational and today my friends span all ages."

Residents' interests influenced the children. Nick took up hockey while Mary became a musician. She learned to play the ukulele with her father Ernie, bass player with Sixties rock and roll band The Thunderbirds, learned piano and tenor saxophone and picked up a love of folk from Nick's musician parents Tony and Jacqui.

Ernie, Tony and Jacqui still live there, with many of the original group.

In 30 years, only four couples have sold up and moved on and last year the death of two much-loved original members, artist Janne Jennison and teacher Phil Downs, has left one flat unoccupied and on the market - a rare occurrence.

Nick now lives in a city apartment and has no plans to move. Mary, a member of Sheffield folk-blues band Little Robots, now calls a tiny terraced in Sharrow home.

"It will do for now," she says. "I love living in the city but this is not how I see myself living in ten years' time. I would like to go back to a rural setting and one day be more self-sufficient, like many of the Thundercliffe residents.

"Communal living is a very real possibility. A strong sense of community is really important to me. I like the fact the fact that it makes everyone involved equal. Plus it can be a more economical and ethical way of life, especially if you are giving a disused building a new purpose and utlilising its land.

"I've already investigated with friends and band members finding a place to set up something similar. The key to communal living is about getting the right place and the right people," she says.

"You need to have the same goals, the same enthusiasm and that can-do attitude. But you also need a mix of personalities and skills.

"Thundercliffe has grown and evolved over the years, but it is celebrating its 30th anniversary because it had that mix."

Nick agrees - and adds tolerance to the recipe.

"Thundercliffe has some very strong characters but they have adapted to each other and avoided major clashes through tolerance. Being set that as an example taught me a lot, too."

Mary must speak for all the ex-Thundercliife kids when she says: "I'm very proud of the foresight they all had and that they achieved what they set out to do.

"They created a community which has stood the test of time and preserved a beautiful old building."

For more information on communal living go to www.cohousing.org.uk

A staggering 84 per cent of Britons hardly know their neighbours, one in three people live alone and communities are rapidly being eroded.

But old-fashioned village life is making a comeback - via co-housing schemes.

A national conference last month brought together over 30 fledgling groups of people hoping to create joint home schemes all over the UK rather than live in boxes on faceless housing estates.

Many schemes already exist - and one of Britain's most successful is Thundercliffe Grange in Rotherham.

Celebrating 30 years this summer, the community is 25-strong with an age range of 18 to 75.

It was created in 1980, when communal living conjured up images of drop-out hippies, religious cults and communes. But the Thundercliffe people held out for the lifestyle they believed in - and wanted for their children.

"Most of the kids had no brothers and sisters, but we felt like we were family," says Nick Wilson, who was a few months old when he arrived.

"It gave me a brilliant childhood. We were welcome in everyone's flat - there was always conversation and food to be had.

"It was fun - we could have friends over to camp in the garden, parties were always huge and Christmas was always a joint event.

"And there was a feeling of safety. There were always adults around to look after us."Head rules heart for Ben

Turning his back on the chance of returning to the place of his idyllic childhood to raise his two boys was a painful decision to make.

And it took Ben Jennison-Phillips many months of heart-searching to make it.

After losing both his mother and step-father to cancer in the space of a few months, the grief-stricken 35-year-old yearned to move back to their Thundercliffe apartment to continue what they had started 30 years ago.

He wanted Oscar, 4, and Isaac, 2, to spend days making dens in the hay and wading through the stream, as he had done.

But he and wife Anna had settled in the south of England, their careers were flourishing and they were close to the children's surviving grandparents. In the end, head ruled heart.

"We decided not to move back and put the flat on the market," says Ben, a brewer with Battledown. "I was very sad at first; I felt like I was cutting myself off from all the people I had grown up with - my old family. But it is the right decision for my new one and hopefully it will allow another family to move to Thundercliffe and add another dimension to the community."

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