Camphill Special School

Posted by editor 18/09/2012 0 Comment 2822 views


A week ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what yarrow is. Visiting Thornage Hall in Norfolk, I am picking these tiny purple clumps of flowers. “It adds nutrients the compost,” Sherrie explains.  Sherrie Bintein doesn’t profess to know bio-dynamic farming principles, leaving that to the farmer and head gardener. As Community Care Coordinator for the people who work on this 70-acre farm, she’s responsible for the coming and going, living and joining of everyone in this community.

“We all have a need to do meaningful work that is appreciated by others. This gives us dignity. Everyone has the need to give and not just to receive.” She is talking about 35+ adults with learning disabilities, mental health problems and special needs, as well as the team of gardeners, workshop leaders and carers who support them.  There is no “entertaining” going on here – this is place where real work needs to be done.

A few fields away, the tongue of a Red Poll cow curls around the long grass I offer over the fence.  “Live-in tenant used to wake up early and participate in milking the herd of cows but health and safety stopped that,” Sherrie sighs. “They can still help feed the alpaca, pigs and chickens, but we introduced the workshops over a year ago when some of the animal husbandry became off limits.”

She takes me to see the workshops. In the willow room, three people have woven wreaths and are sewing peanut shells in and around them: a Christmas gift for feathered friends. In the wood workshop, there are wooden baskets, bird feeders, and a hedgehog house with a hinged roof to peak inside.  The art studio has all types of paintings on the wall and prints pegged to a clothesline.  Squares of flowing colour make the windows of cards.  Some are wrapped up and ready for sale.

In the weavery, I stopped myself from flying a shuttle through the foot-treadle floor loom and adding a few lines to someone’s work.  Sherrie askes what I see in a woven rug produced by a gentleman fairly new to weaving: lines of naturally dyed wool in stripes of random colour with a thick neutral area in between.  It makes me think of a variety of pastures, poppy fields and sheep…maybe?  It turns out to be a clever design of traditional train lines, with fluffy tufts of wool as puffs of smoke.

Visiting Thornage Hall, it’s garden, farm, workshops, weaver, eurythmy hall, I feel like staying to help with the work. Tenants and staff are leading good and valuable lives. My notebook is filling up impressions of connections and events the community is part of.


If I had to say what encapsulated the provision making this Camphill Community an Answer to the social issue of care for adults with learning disability and special needs, there are 3 key elements to what is provided. Firstly, meaningful work. Only work that is valuable and meaningful to the community is done:  farming, gardening, cooking, baking, weaving, and constructing sellable products through painting or working with wood or willow. Both handcraft and outdoor work are therapeutic and address the need we all have to learn and to contribute in a way that our peers appreciate.

Secondly, human to human contact.  Staff show a deep interest in each person, listening for needs and interests and ready to care for needs. Preparing and sharing food is a daily opportunity to connect. Tea-time is sacred and everyone comes together. Residents participate in monthly meetings, finding out what is happening next and making suggestions. Festivals, eurhythmy, and singing draw the community together.

Thirdly, reverence. An ethos of reverence pervades Thornage Hall.  People are free to follow their interests when it comes to choosing work that suits them and are helped with any special needs they have. Reverence is modelled each time ‘thanks’ is said for food and for the work that went into growing and preparing it.  In work, caring for details also models reverence: minerals and nutrients are replenished in the soil, and animals are given freedom, security and healthy food. Buildings are well maintained. Interiors are designed for the calm that is provided by natural colours, materials and light. Water is cleaned through a reed bed filtration system. Living in a community that has reverence for everything and everyone, it becomes easier to know how to be kind to yourself and to others.

How is this done?
Rhythms and routines that follow the daily sunlight, the monthly cycles or the seasons in nature, connects us to the earth and bring mental health benefits and resilience. Patterns within each week and festivals shared together make the year both predictable and reassuring. Freedom. Everyone is encouraged to choose the work that suits them best. Freedom to choose work you want to do is dignifying.  Individuals develop their strengths in areas they have significant interest in. Focussing on weaving intricate designs on looms will work for some while others need to be moving about in the garden.

Living in Community Thornage Hall is like an extended family that works for each other and cares for individuals. It opens the doors to a wider community as well: local residents who pick up their weekly vegetable boxes, the organic produce market stall holder, the award winning grocery story that stocks their bio-dynamic produce. Families come to celebrate together, as does the town. This is a popular place.  Recently an older adult living with physical disability in Thornage joined in the work at the farm rather than go into an old age home.

An enduring image I have of Thornage Hall is of the woman picking camomile flowers. A tea I love to drink, but had never seen before. Not only could she tell the difference between camomile and daisies, she knew how to prepare them for tea. Vital or not, it feels there is so much more I have to learn.

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