Dartington Now and Then Trail

‘For each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth’

This summer, Write to Freedom embarked on creating a written word trail around the Dartington estate that was launched during the Ways with Words festival in July.  Taking inspiration from Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst (who purchased the neglected 14th Century Dartington Estate in 1925) and their links with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), the trail sought to revisit the Elmhirsts’ original vision, and invite Dartington’s current workers to engage with and respond to their ideals.

Whilst researching archive material for the project, and requesting folder after folder of letters, articles, essays and notebooks, I was often stunned by the foresight of what I was reading.  For instance, Rabindranath Tagore (with whom Leonard Elmhirst worked closely in the 1920s) wrote in 1922: “A civilisation which has attained such an unnatural appetite must, for its continuing existence depend upon numberless victims”.

Almost 100 years later, and we have stretched that unnatural appetite to its absolute limit. Sweatshops, environmental devastation and vast social inequalities around the globe have become the norm.  These are bleak times, and it is too easy to be swallowed by them.  Dartington offers a haven of likeminded people seeking solutions to the many issues that haunt today’s world. This was very apparent when we ran creative writing workshops with various projects around the estate.

Dartington has always been a work in progress. It has morphed and transformed over the years; from an experimental school and rural community, to a seed-bed for visionaries, to a creative arts college; to the active social enterprises that it consists of today.  The thread that gives continuity throughout is the Elmhirsts; their passions, interests, ideals and legacy they left to the world.

I was amazed to discover that the 1945 post-war Labour manifesto was written here, at Dartington.  The manifesto that gave birth to the Welfare state and the NHS.  It’s author, Michael Young, attended Dartington school as a child – The Elmhirst’s original ‘Dartington Experiment’ in rural education.

Today, as the systems that our grandparents’ generations fought so hard to put in place are gradually broken down and privatised, it felt very timely to be reminded that even huge entities like the NHS began life as a dream; a vision for a fairer society.  Those dreams were realised by collective action, by humongous effort, yet they began life by being given the right conditions to emerge.  Working on this project has taught me how the Elmhirsts’ vision was to create a place where conditions were ripe for all sorts of new possibilities.  I hope that somewhere in Dartington today, whether it’s a child at Park school, a social policy advisor at Research in Practise, or a student at Schumacher College, that the seeds of new dreams are being planted.

Learning about Dartington’s history has undoubtedly deepened my experience of coming to work on the estate (our office is based here), and I feel grateful to the Elmhirsts for their legacy. Dartington is an incredibly beautiful estate, left to all of us with the intention of creating a more just, sustainable and creative society.

The Dartington Now and Then trail is running until the end of September 2015. Trail guides can be picked up from the Visitors’ Centre.


Guest blog by Nicky Puttick – Project & Development Manager