My post-heroic journey: Hen Anderson

Hen Anderson

Hen Anderson established Spindlebrook No-dig Farm near Dartmoor and was part of the Save our Woods campaign which successfully prevented the privatisation of the public forest estate in 2012. She lives in a yurt on her farm with her partner Leo.

What’s your life like at the moment?

At the moment I’m living my dream, a dream I’ve had since I was about 13. I’m a veg grower and I’m establishing a no-dig market garden with my good friend Elliott and building a house with my partner Leo. It’s full on, exhausting, and wholesomely great. It’s taken me until I’m 42 to get here and it’s been quite a journey.

Where did your journey start?

I was born in Paisley in Scotland. I lived in a council flat with my mum and two little brothers. My gran lived down the road but she had a council flat with a garden. She grew roses and carnations in the front and strawberries out the back. I can smell the roses still and I can picture all the plants that were in the garden, especially the pyracanthas by the gate to the road that were always covered in bees! I always knew that I wanted more of how that garden made me feel, however I could get it.

I wasn’t very academic and there wasn’t much opportunity for someone like me in Paisley. We moved to England and things started to change. I got picked up by organisations like the Rotary Club that seek out working class kids to help, and I was shipped off on leadership and outward bound courses to the Brecon Beacons or Dartmoor. It was truly life-changing. It totally worked and I’m eternally grateful to them.

Then I found WOOFing when I got a bit older. So that was where I learned that you could grow food and sell it ecologically. And not be rich necessarily, but be happy.

The main farm that I latched onto was in the most unlikely place – Swindon. It was my first experience of community living, where four families shared the house. What an impact it had on me. They were extraordinary people. They taught me about permaculture and about hard and valuable work on the land.

Did you feel pressured to have a conventional life?

I grew up in a world of women who weren’t happy and men who were angry and lost. The two didn’t come together very well, and the children were … not ignored, but treated as if they didn’t require any sort of support.

I was always different from everybody else in my family. My mum gave me my first doll and a makeup bag and I basically destroyed them. My gran died when I was 11 and my dad disappeared off the scene completely when I was about the same age. That was the biggest wake-up call. I was like, “Hang on a minute, people can be here one minute and gone the next”. We used to do midnight flits, so I didn’t ever know if I was going to be waking up in the same house the next day. By the time I was 18 I’d lived in about 25 different places.

That sort of experience offers you the gift of non-attachment, but it also hurts, and it also teaches you that you’ve got to make the most of what’s there, while it’s there. I don’t feel like that’s a bad thing any more. I used to, but I don’t any more because I don’t think I’d be where I am now had I not followed my nose.

I had a corporate job once and it just made me feel like a failure. I felt stupid. I felt lazy. I couldn’t get out of bed. I fell asleep in the toilet and it made me think I was a lazy idiot.

That just wasn’t for me.

At the farm, I knew I was on the right track because I’d get up at dawn in the middle of summer and I’d work until it got dark. That was me whenever I was put in a garden throughout my life. So I knew that was where I ought to be.

How do you connect with the land?

Mountains have always been special to me, coming from Scotland. Paisley’s got the braes, which are small hills, a bit like Dartmoor. It used to be my favourite thing to disappear off there when I was a kid. When I was seven or eight years old, I’d go off into the braes and just explore. It was pure magic. That feeling in your belly. It’s a deep, intense feeling.

I can get that feeling from every natural landscape – but it comes to me quicker in the braes or on Dartmoor. That’s why I’ve ended up where I am. I live between Dartmoor and the sea.

If I feel crap I’ll go up onto the moor. It takes about half an hour and then I’m feeling that feeling in my belly. I don’t know what that feeling is and I would hate to give it scientific reasoning or magical reasoning. I just know that it’s definitely physical and definitely deep and definitely healing.

What is your concept of home?

The place I’ve lived the longest is five years and that was on my last farm on Exmoor. We had to leave, which broke my heart. So the longest place I’ve ever lived in I was forced to leave. We came here, to Spindlebrook Farm. It’s not as wild as our Exmoor farm was; it’s more of a place that we can make a living on. It’s spectacularly beautiful in places, with its ponds, meadows and little woodland and it’s just full of wildlife.

We’ve been here for four years now and I don’t want to leave. I don’t know what it feels like to have a home, but I think this might be it because we’ve got planning permission to build our house here now and we’re making our living here growing no-dig vegetables. Our crops feed our community, and us too.

I think that what I’m starting to feel here might be that sense of place. That sense of home. I’m recognising the geese that come back at this time of year. They arrived a few days ago and are settling on the pond to raise their young. I’ve watched three different sets of goslings being raised here now. It’s things like that, that give me a sense of connection to this place, and it feels settling. It feels like putting down roots. I don’t know what home is but I know that this feels good. It’s starting to feel safe. I’m feeling confident and stronger. 

Do you feel like life goes in spiralling directions sometimes?

Definitely yeah. I got distracted by music and was in a band for ten years. I got offered a record contract which I turned down because I said I didn’t want to leave my band. But really, I just didn’t want to do it … going to America and becoming a singer … I wouldn’t have survived very long. So I chose this path. 

Are you living with a community on the farm now?

Not really; three of us do live here though. One of the things I learned through visiting lots of communities is that when you force it, it doesn’t really work. So if a community is going to happen here then it will happen organically and it will take a long time.

Do feel that you’ve had allies support you on this path?

There’ve been so many people throughout my life who have appeared out of nowhere. I’m thinking of one person. I have no idea who he was, what his name is, where he came from or where he went. He appeared at my lowest point in life and sorted me out. It took him ten minutes. It was a bizarre experience. I hate to use the word angel but that’s the only way to describe him. He appeared and then he went and his impact was life-changing.

At the time I was sofa-surfing with friends and I’d been out all night. I was pushing through the crowds who were trying to get in to Reading Festival, trying to get home. My bike was broken – the tire had come off and wrapped itself around the chain, which is why it wasn’t moving properly, and I was so out of it I didn’t understand. After what seemed like an age of pushing through crowds and shouting, everything seemed to quieten and all I heard was, “Can’t you see she needs help?” Then this guy took the bike off me and pushed everyone out of the way, carried my bike up the road a bit, and then took me to the side and fixed it.

He chatted about the weather or something and I just stood staring at him. With a big smile he gave me my fixed bike, and off I went home in a daze. That sounds like a really lame story but it was a pivotal moment for me. I was dangerously floating about in life and he came and snapped me out of it with his kind, loving, no-nonsense action.

I remember a little light going off in me and that was it. I was determined to change everything. It set me on the right path, if you know what I mean. I met the right people after that … I met my partner Leo. And then I started on my education on how to grow things properly. 

Another person who I think probably swung it is Karen Wilde who I met on Twitter when I lived in the yurt on Exmoor, on my farm there. We started a campaign called Save our Woods alongside Hands Off Our Forest in the Forest of Dean, and led the charge to stop the privatisation of the public forest estate – and we won. It was an extraordinary experience.

Rich Daniels and Karen Wilde, among others, were my partners in crime with that, and together we’d go to parliament. We’d have secret meetings with Lord What’s-his-face and Baroness Whojimmy. We’d have to stand up and speak about the ecological and cultural value of trees and publicly owned forest land, in a room full of these powerful decision makers at the highest levels in Westminster. It was quite an expansive experience and gave me the confidence to start my own business, which is what I’m doing now.

Do you connecting with any particular myths or fairytales?

It’s not a traditional fairy tale but as soon as I could read I read The Neverending Story. If I couldn’t get out to the hills or to my gran’s garden then I’d be in that book and it would be a world of magic and triumph. It’s about a young boy who escapes his life into a book. It’s a proper adventure. I was also obsessed with the Grimm fairyt ales, although all I knew at the time were the sanitised versions. I now have the original, gory, versions and love them still.

Do you feel like you’ve created your own adventure with your life?

Absolutely. I might not be the most happy-go-lucky person any more but I’ve definitely driven my own life. Ultimately, my dream is just to grow food for people and live happily with the people around me. I don’t really want more than that.

Who else should we interview for this series on the post-heroic journey? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below. 

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