The Rural Coffee Caravan and the economy of the common good

By Jill Segger
September 8, 2017

The countryside and villages of Suffolk are archetypally English. Gentle hills, broad-leaf woods, a landscape plotted, ploughed and planted with the seasons; its villages pargetted and pink-washed, its churches historical and architectural jewels.

But rural life is often observed through a haze of sentimentality by those who do not live it: loneliness, isolation and deprivation are not made easier because the views are pleasing. In 2003, Canon Sally Fogden, a rural chaplain, was running a helpline for the Farm Crisis Network (a national charity providing support for the UK farming community) when she came to realise the depth and spread of rural isolation.

Together with some colleagues, she came up with the idea of a mobile community cafe and information centre. They bought a caravan, “gathered some relevant information, made some cakes and took the caravan into rural Suffolk”. It was the beginning of the the Rural Coffee Caravan.

The project has not looked back. Over 14 years, it has gathered more financial support – from the small change of pensioners to an anonymous donation of £10,000 and through varying degrees of funding from local authorities. It has acquired a camper van in addition to the caravan, a vehicle which complements the provision of information and advice which is just as much part of the organisation's ethos of community as is the café aspect of the caravan. During 2016, 185 visits were made, bringing companionship and information to small rural communities. It has built relationships with other community groups and agencies and has supported some of those who visit it in becoming 'community champions' for their own villages. Advice on benefits, providing a place where people can discuss their anxieties with local police officers, meet representatives from organisations such as Age UK, Samaritans or council officials in a friendly and informal setting, helping to set up a mother and toddler group – all these activities are invaluable in building communities and combating isolation.

Speaking of the deprivation which is increasingly common in rural communities, Ann Osborn, Director of the charity said: “ You should be able to move around your environment and take part in your local community. Bus services have been cut, shops, community centres and pubs have closed. This is doing real harm. Whole villages have come to think no one cares. How are people expected to do it all for themselves? Especially if they're elderly. They've been robbed of so much.

“There's a sense of shame about loneliness”, she continued. “We try to make our visits personal for people. It's sometimes just things like remembering how many sugars they like, what's going on in their lives. The things that make them feel valued.”

The Coffee Caravan does not ask for any money from the people who use it and in partnering with organisations which have a similar ethos, it opens a door into a glimpse of an alternative social economy. In October last year, it took part in a pilot 'Share Fair'.

Share Fair, an initiative of the Eden Project Communities , poses these questions: “wouldn't it be wonderful if there was somewhere to take the whole family that was absolutely free? An event with no hidden costs for food and drink, entertainment or goods? What if this event was not only absolutely free, but also helped towards caring for the environment by reducing waste, and caring for the community by bringing people together to learn new skills?”

Answering its own questions, the organisation held a Share Fair in Milton Keynes last year and the Coffee Caravan went along to serve tea, coffee and cakes. Activities, games for children, food, music, swaps of goods, produce, knowledge and expertise, were all provided by volunteers who gave their time and skills without charge. The food was provided (rather confusingly) by Fair Share – the organisation which redistributes foodstuffs which have become surplus dues to short shelf life or overproduction, to charities and community projects.

It is this kind of non-transactional economy which has the capacity to build a better, more equal and compassionate manner of life. This is not an Utopian fantasy – of course money is needed somewhere along the way – but as a starter motor, not as an end in itself. When interactions of this kind are uncoupled from profit and status, what is built is community, not society – big or otherwise. Giving is no longer condescension or patronage; receiving is not a signifier of inadequacy.

When the caravan was stolen during the night of 9-10 July 2017, the charity's staff and volunteers were “dumbfounded and devastated”. But the relational economy which it had built over the years swung quickly into action. A crowdfunding page was set up, a local Building Society received donations in its branches and three weeks later, a new caravan was on the road.

This went largely unnoticed beyond Suffolk. But my Twitter-feed was alive with it. Ann Osborn replied personally to every expression of horror and sympathy, thanked every contributor and kept up a flow of information on the progress of the appeal. This was the small society in all its strength, the Commonwealth of the common good coming into its own.

I asked Ann Osborn what she would say to David Cameron – or any other politician – who used the 'Big Society' trope as a means of absolving governments  and policy makers of responsibility for the framework of lives less privileged than their own. She chose her words with care, making the anger far more effective than any rant could have been: “ I'd say 'you need to come out with me and discover what community is now. It's too easy to say everyone can do it for themselves. They can't. We aren't a happy society. You need to help us to be happy'. That's what I'd say”.

Let us hope they listen.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen







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