from the United Kingdom

Reflections on Finding Marmalade Lane

For the past 20 years I had lived in London – in Camden no less – that mecca of aliveness, of “where it’s at” – a mix of peoples and cultures and just a couple of miles from London’s theatreland, art galleries and shopping streets.    I loved it.     Yet the population was ever more transient, making it ever more difficult to know my neighbours.   Although my friends in London were plentiful, none were on my doorstep, and I began to recognise that as the years passed, if I did not make plans, I might end up feeling very alone.    Loving it was not enough, this was no place for me to grow old.

…….. sorry … there’s a knock on my patio door…. I’d better answer it.    

Oh – it’s Colin (aged 5¾) he’s back from school and he’s come to say hello to me……”hello Colin, how nice to see you, come in”.     Colin and I have a friendship which I treasure and which began three years ago when I and he (and his parents of course) moved in to our brand new homes in Marmalade Lane – he in one of the houses and me in one of the flats.   I do hope it’s not too near mealtime, or I’ll be getting us both into trouble with his mother, but I think I’ll take a chance and offer him a biscuit and a cup of “hot hot” (that’s his name for luke warm water in a mug}.   He stays just long enough to eat his biscuit and drink a little of his hot hot, then announces he’s leaving, hops back on his scooter and is gone.

Earlier in the day, having seen that my laundry basket was rather full, I sorted the light clothes from the dark clothes (I’m fussy like that), put everything to be washed into one of those blue Ikea bags, popped a soap capsule on the top and walked around to the communal laundry.    On the way I passed Ian – he and Jan have a flat on the top floor, with a great view over the communal garden.  Ian was outside his lock up storage unit (all the flats have one), absorbed in maintenance on his recently acquired “Brompton type” fold up bike, two of which had been purchased to accompany him and Jan on their travels in their also recently acquired caravan.    A few minutes’ catch up brought me up to speed on their latest escapades.   

On my way back from the laundry I bumped into Chiara carrying four month old Dario.  Chiara, together with Flavio and their other son Enrico live in a house on the West Terrace side of the communal garden.   We arranged to meet at 2 o’clock for a cup of tea and to chat about our respective chalk painting projects.     

I realise you might be thinking something of the order of – “seems like a really friendly neighbourhood” or “she sounds like a right busy-body” or even and perhaps more likely as I have had it said to me so often “don’t like the sound of this place – it wouldn’t do for me”.    The truth is that it is a friendly neighbourhood, I do love to know my neighbours and at the same time I also realise that this lifestyle is not for everyone.   But from the moment I was told about Marmalade Lane, I knew it was for me.   But of course, what I haven’t told you, is that this is no ordinary neighbourhood, this is a cohousing neighbourhood, or to give it its proper title, a co-housing community ……. an intentional community, created and run by its residents, in which each household has its own self-contained private home as well as shared community spaces.      The cohousing movement began in Denmark in the early 1970s and has gradually spread worldwide.    Its development in the UK began in the late 1990s and there are now 19 built cohousing communities with a further 60+ cohousing groups developing projects.   If you would like to know more about cohousing and cohousing communities, do take a look at the UK Cohousing Network website: https://cohousing.org.uk.  

I became involved in cohousing, around 9 years ago.    A friend had often spoken about the community group she had joined in Muswell Hill, North London.    I didn’t like the sound of it – being in some respects a little “conservative” (small “c”) it all seemed far too “alternative” for me.   However, when I finally let go of my prejudices enough to actually go along to a meeting, what I found was a group of very pleasant, intelligent people to whom I could easily relate and feel comfortable.   So, having been furnished with all the relevant information and shown the architect plans, all I could think was – I’m mad – this is great – and joined on the spot!       My future was assured – I would not grow old alone!    

Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men could not overcome a combination of rising property prices and thoroughly uncooperative developers – the group ultimately folded.    I retreated to my Camden abode – until some months later when I had a chance meeting with two of the group members, who had joined another cohousing community, in Cambridge.     This community not only had found land (generally the biggest stumbling block) but had developers and the council on board, in addition to that most elusive and precious jewel that is planning permission!    I had never considered moving out of London, but relocating some 65 miles from all that I knew, was suddenly of no consequence once I had checked the map and established that my daughter and family were still just an hour away – albeit an hour’s driving rather than the present hour in traffic jams.   Knowing first-hand just how much of a struggle it can be to realise the cohousing dream (anything up to 20 years) and still very much aware of wanting to secure my future, this seemed too good an opportunity to miss – within the week I had joined and reserved my flat.  

So it was that in December 2018, I along with about 30 of our full complement of 42 households (the rest at that time were unsold) moved into Marmalade Lane.    At last I had what I needed, for me the best of both worlds …… a private space which I share with no-one …. and a community space which I share with everyone.     There’s not much to be said about my private space, save that it’s a very nice two-bedroom ground floor flat, with a lovely big patio.   There’s much more to be said about the community space, our shared facilities – the so-called extension of our homes, the centre of which is the common house.   The common house is important – it is where we have meetings, meals and celebrations in its great hall and where we cook together in its fully equipped kitchen.   Babies and toddlers play in its playroom, visitors stay in its guest rooms and washing machines in its laundry are always in demand.    The North and South Rooms on the first floor are smaller meeting spaces, the latter being designated for adults only.   And then there’s the gym and the workshop – located on the far side of the communal garden.    There are also bike sheds, bin stores and a car park, in addition to a so-called long store, built for a member with canoes to accommodate who ultimately was unable to make the move to Marmalade Lane, the space amongst other uses, now being a community shop.   As I write this, I realise even more the enormity of the design task in which the early members took part – it was hard work and many did not stay the course.   As I joined shortly before building was due to begin, I missed much of the development phase.    However, what I did not want to miss was getting to know the people who would be my neighbours – so made the journey to Cambridge as often as I could for the monthly socials.   I did not want to risk moving into a community, only to feel alone.

I have heard spoken many assumptions about life in a cohousing community – the most frequent being that we are a “commune” which seems to allow for any number of unwholesome imaginings – we have been referred to as “bunny huggers” – that there will be no respect for privacy or freedom of choice ….and many more.   From my experience, none of these nor indeed most other assumptions are true.         

One thing I forgot to mention is that the Muswell Hill group was senior cohousing, for those aged 55 and over.    Marmalade Lane is intergenerational – embracing all age groups from 80+ years down to ……. well three new arrivals are due to be born early in 2022.    I know that for me, I am so much better off living in an intergenerational community than I believe I would have been in a senior group, not least that it is a reflection of what I would call real life.    That said, being seriously senior myself, I must confess to one fleeting moment in autumn ’21 when I flirted with the idea of moving to an over 55s cohousing group which I believe had little or nothing to do with the increasing number of children and much more to do with the decreasing number of senior members, three of whom, women in their 70s had decided to sell up and locate elsewhere.   That although there are others of their age in the community, their impending departure, announced in quick succession, was unsettling and for a short while, left me fearful that without them, I would feel alone. 

That life is unpredictable was never so clearly demonstrated as when Covid-19 struck and a mere 15 months after moving in, the country went into lockdown.     Community living changed overnight.    The common house which had been at the very centre of all activity was now out of bounds.     Over those 15 months there had been much hard work to equip/furnish and to make use of our spaces and facilities.    Working groups covering all aspects of the community had been set up for this purpose, with the expectation that everyone be an active member of at least one group.   The Common House Working Group (of which I was a member) bought chairs and tables for the great hall whilst the Food Working Group sourced equipment for cooking and dining, and then organised communal meals once and then twice a week as their popularity grew.    Furnishing the common house, workshop and gym became a wonderful combination of buying new furniture and members offering their own possessions, as they divested themselves of much “stuff” surplus to requirements in their new homes.   The quantity of donations was amazing – and to this day we have not spent a penny on sofas for the Great Hall, nor on most of the beds in the Guest Rooms and the Laundry was up and running in next to no time with four donated washing machines, which we knew would not stand the test of time but it gave us a great start.    The South Room, having been designated as an adult only space, could be furnished a little more elegantly, to be used for small gatherings and meetings, celebrations and the Friday evening “pub” – whilst the North Room was left unfurnished, to accommodate yoga and pilates classes, as well providing a space for children too old for the Playroom.   With the common house out of bounds and strict rules about meeting up even outside, meetings and coffee mornings moved to Zoom and a timetable was created so that everyone could take it in turns to get fresh air and exercise in the garden.   In those early days of lockdown, as my neighbours on their “time-allotted” garden strolls would stop for a “distant chat” – them on the path and me on my porch, I so appreciated my good fortune in finding and moving to Marmalade Lane.   I cannot begin to imagine the lockdown aloneness I would have experienced had I remained in Camden.    And I came to bless the design which had furnished me with a large outside patio area, as from May when lockdown rules began to ease, I found it was more than adequate to achieve a modicum of my kind of normality by serving socially distanced cups of tea all summer long.

Then there’s “Slack” – a 21st century version of neighbourliness.   Slack is an “app” – a communication platform – with “channels” for everything – announcements, working and interest groups, visitor parking, laundry-users etc. etc. and a channel called “Jam” for general chit chat.   Slack is both a blessing and a curse.    The curse is the sheer volume of messages which can feel overwhelming, to the extent that one or two members have deleted the app.   But it can be a blessing, both for the trivial “my recipe needs an onion – can someone lend me one?”, and for the not so trivial, as when I had something of a medical emergency and unexpectedly had to get to hospital without delay.   Not wanting to drive or go alone in a taxi, a message on “Jam” brought offers of help and lots of lovely messages when I returned home.

I hope I haven’t painted a picture of my life in Marmalade Lane as being some sort of communal idyll – it isn’t – rather it’s a microcosm of real life – but real life lived closer to another 41 households than would usually be the case.    As a result, there are occasions when I feel warm, happy and positively joyful as well as occasions when I struggle with feeling anything but.    There is of course so much more I could write to show how my cohousing community functions – the nature of our decision-making process, the accountability of Working Groups, who takes out the bins each week, how come we got chickens, how parking is organised, who is in charge and of what, the hidden dynamics and hierarchies, the pros and cons for each age group (including the underlying issues that might have led three members over 70 to leave) …. I could go on and on.     But this was never intended as a treatise on cohousing but merely my response to the theme “we are not alone” which resonated strongly with me and to which I found myself wanting to respond.   

For I can say with great certainty, that living in Marmalade Lane means that I am not alone!

(Community members included with permission – names changed as requested)

Vivienne Barnett
January 2022

I am a Gestalt counsellor, psychotherapist and supervisor – in practice in London for 25 years, before retiring in 2018 to live in Marmalade Lane Cambridge UK.
Email: [email protected]

This page first appeared in the UKAGP Newsletter. View the Newsletter here.