Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945

Organic nationalism

Gazatteer entry


" We must plant ourselves again in the Universe." D.H. Lawrence

From far and wide they came bearing salt, earth, sulphur and lavender to the edge of Cranbourne Chase to dedicate 'a centre for the gathering and training of men and women for the weal of Wessex.' The Springhead Ring, centred around the young blond Rolf Gardiner, wished to spark off a rural revival, 'from herb to the hymn', to restore England from the perilous state it had fallen into since the end of the First World War. Springhead consisted of a group of mill buildings arranged around a courtyard on the edge of Gore Farm owned by Gardiner's uncle. This was no romantic rustic revival that was envisaged - this was hard-nosed pragmatism. The plan was to `rebuild a hill-and-vale economy along modern organic lines', restoring the ancient breeds of sheep to the Downs and reviving rural industries along with the traditional rural festivals.

From Austro-Hungarian/Jewish/Scandinavian background on his mother's side and with a British father, the young Rolf Gardiner was educated at the Bedales co-educational school in Derbyshire and as a young man became involved in the thriving Europe-wide youth movement of the time, having contact with the German Wandervogel and becoming something of a roving European ambassador for the Kibbo Kift. He saw hope for a renewed Europe in the "self-supporting communities" of young people that he saw "springing up all over Europe today." He met and corresponded with the novelist D.H. Lawrence.
'I'm sure you are doing the right thing, with hikes and dances and songs. But somehow it needs a central clue, or it will fizzle away again. There needs a centre of silence, and a heart of darkness--to borrow from Rider Haggard. We'll have to establish some spot on earth, that will be the fissure into the underworld, like the oracle at Delphos, where one can always come to. I will try to do it myself. I will try to come to England and make a place - some quiet house in the country - where one can begin - and from which the hiker, maybe, can branch out. Some place with a big barn and a bit of land--if one has enough money. Don't you think that is what it needs? And then one must set out and learn a deep discipline--and learn dances from all the world, and take whatsoever we can make into our own. And learn music the same.' D.H. Lawrence Letter To Rolf Gardiner.3 December, 1926 .

English social leadership
Springhead camp PictureGardiner set up the Gore Kinship and organised study groups and camps. This little group would turn into the Springhead Ring upon the purchase of Springhead Mill by his uncle and the work of building a movement for the revival of rural England could begin in earnest. Throughout the 1930s the Springhead Ring ran numerous camps with the aim of combating the effects of the depression years by creating a `reinvigorated stock of countrymen' from the unused material of the towns. Gardiner wrote a report for the Minister of Labour on the camps in which he gave details of a 'Harvest Camp' at Springhead. Sixty-nine young men and women `from different walks of life' spent a number of weeks gaining `a direct experience of community by thinking, playing and working on the land'. The 'different walks' included; teachers and social workers, one farm girl, three public schoolboys, six university lecturers, two house painters, two miners, a brass engraver and a cinema operator. Also taking part were twelve members of the German Youth Movement. Quite what this cross section of the nations unemployed made of the heady mix of activities on offer at the camp we are not told. As they progressed the camps developed a regular pattern. Rising at 6.30 to `the rhythmic beating of a mellow-toned gong' the campers would run barefoot behind the camp chiefs in single file snaking in and out of the tents in `circular evolutions' mimicking the twisting and turning rays of the rising sun coming to a rest around a central flagstaff where they sang a hymn to the dawn, whilst the Cross of St George with a Wessex Dragon emblazoned across it, flew above. After breakfast they worked on the farm, clearing neglected woodland, dredging the silted up millpond or planting willow for the revival of rural basket making. The afternoon was for quiet study and contemplation with singing or folk dancing at 4.30. An early evening lecture would be held on the subject chosen as a theme for the camp such as the Tradition of English Social Leadership or Land Settlement and Regional Reconstruction. The day would end by torchlight with everyone standing arm in arm singing:

The Earth has turned us from the sun,
And let us close our circle now to light,
But open it to darkness, and each one
Warm with this circle's warming,
Go in good darkness to good sleep
Good night.

At which point the camp herald would extinguish his torch and the members of the 'ring' would retire to their tents.

The camps were successful and attended by a wide variety of people including the comedian Jimmy Edwards and the composer Michael Tippet who provided music for some of the camps. Music and dance were important features of the camps with a strong emphasis on English folk songs. For a couple of years from 1932 the camps were extended to East Cleveland where Gardiner ran them for unemployed Ironstone miners creating allotments. Gardiner was highly critical of the other major example of rural revivalism of the time at Dartington Hall where he himself had been educated in silviculture, bemoaning its lack of soul and suggesting that it needed to "add an expert in social affection, an engineer in community joy" to its collection of experts on rural regeneration.

Phantom swastikas in the woods
Other more shadowy organisations were active in the Dorset countryside at the same time with similar aims as the Springhead Ring. The combative sounding Wessex Agricultural Defence Association and the much more overtly nationalistic English Array each with links to Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists. Each tried to woo Gardiner into their ranks. But whilst Gardiner was sympathetic with their talk of regenerating `English stock' and praise for unpasteurised milk and the cottage pig, he disagreed with the methods they chose to pursue their dream of an English revival and repeatedly distanced himself from their activities. This did not stop his name becoming associated with far-right politics and this along with his connections with the German Youth Movement, which he continued to support even after it was overrun by the Hitler Youth, meant that he became the target of rumours and smears at the outbreak of the Second World War. The most persistent rumour was that he had planted trees in the shape of a swastika to guide German bombers. And perhaps because of his blond hair and Scandinavian good looks and fondness for wearing lederhosen it was reputed that Hitler had him marked out as a local dictator for Wessex following an invasion. The great irony in all these myths and rumours was of course that given his mother’s Jewish heritage Gardiner would not have lasted long at all under Nazi rule. He himself considered the Nazis to be figures from some Wagnerian nightmare and later admitted he had been mistaken and misguided in his pre-war views of Germany.

Work camps continued at Springhead during the war years and groups of German prisoners came to work the farm. Gardiner inadvertently adding to the rumour mongering by greeting them in German when they arrived. The war also threw up an opportunity for a further venture in rural revival. In 1929 Gardiner became involved in developing the Wessex flax industry utilising a derelict flax mill at Slape in West Dorset. From this base Gardiner oversaw nearly 400 people as the government’s agent for flax production in the West Country. With a core of experienced flax workers and a host of school children, Women's Land Army members and even troops drafted in at harvest time, he tried to create a thriving rural craft industry based on independent growers, processors, spinners and weavers with the aim of organising them into a regional guild under the slogan `Wessex fabrics from Wessex fields'. He tried to instigate flax feasts and harvest festivals with accompanying folk song and dance, but was thwarted in his attempts by the Home Flax Directorate who wanted to see a highly mechanised, centrally controlled flax industry and in the end left Gardiner no choice but to part company with them in 1942.

Rolf Gardiner's achievements on his uncle's farm were impressive. He had taken over the running of the farm in 1927 aged only 25 and carried out a mass reforestation programme planting in total some 3 million trees. He believed that upland planting would raise the falling water table even on the porous chalk downs: a belief borne out when in the 1970s drought years Gore farm remained green whilst all around turned brown. His forestry management was way ahead of its time with methods pioneered on the Dorset Downs in the 1920s only recently being taken up by the Forestry Commission as good practice. The farm was (and still is) managed on organic lines long before it was fashionable and Rolf Gardiner was a founding member of the Soil Association on its establishment in 1945. Springhead is now owned by the Springhead Trust, set up by Gardiner's widow with the help and encouragement of Fritz Schumacher after her husband’s death in 1971 and is run as a conference centre hosting the like of the Other Economic Summit, the Soil Association and Voluntary Services Overseas.

Rolf Gardiner never did manage to totally shake off the tag of being a Nazi sympathiser with Springhead visitors still asking, 'Is this where the Nazi lived?' He never planted a swastika in trees on the Dorset Downs. How could he have done? He had carried out his reforestation programme in the 1920s long before the rise of the Nazis. He did however plant a different symbol on a Wessex hillside, Balflour's Circle, a ring of evergreen trees, each one a different North European species, marking the site of his uncle Balfour Gardiner's interred ashes and perhaps marking in the circle of diversity a different vision of Europe.

Links : See also http://www.springheadtrust.co.uk
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