Ruskin Mill and my work

There is a lot to say about Ruskin mill. It was a textile mill in the industrial revolution. (England has a History that goes far beyond South African in years, and this is what makes it interesting.) It is now a college taking in 16-20 year olds who have dropped out or been referred by a school for any number of reasons, and need some adjustment towards a working or independent life. The essential ethos is based on Rudolf Steiner and is run biodynamically. In the earlier days, they received semi criminal students, but now deal mostly with asbergers syndrome and autistic spectrum. Each student has unique combinations of issues, and a teaching body decides what is the best form of therapy for them. They are then each assigned a support worker, who helps them to achieve their goals, many of which they decide themselves. The course is 3 to 4 years, and will involve them in many activities. Ruskin mill trust operates 5 colleges and one school, each of which has a different flavour depending on their main activity but all for students who struggle at “normal” schools: The glasshouse does glassblowing as its main craft, the Freeman college has metal work and jewelry, and the other two colleges are land based, doing farming type activities.

Each college runs like a business, essentially using all things made within the college and selling excess to the public. The main focus is the use of them for education into skills necessary for working independently.

At ruskin mill college, where I am,  we have a biodynamic farm, a woodland, a trout farm, as well as a bakery, forging and a coffee shop open to the public. Each feeds into the other in a self sufficient way. The woodland makes charcoal used in the forge, the forge makes items used elsewhere, the farm feeds the shop and café and so does the bakery. The students help with everything led by a tutor. They also learn various crafts and do other therapeutic things like drama, singing and crafts like pottery and leatherwork.

We are 2 volunteers who help to complete the jobs that students often start but don’t finish, as the entire enterprise has to work as a functioning unit. There are also a few biodynamic apprentices who are learning about biodynamic farming who help with this. We are assigned a timetable that takes us through different areas of the Mill and we do a craft as well. That’s a bit of background.

My day starts with a long walk from my home base  2 miles (a bit longer than 2 km) away to ruskin mill. I am getting very fit, as Nailsworth is in the Cotswolds which is made of hills that go up and down quite dramatically, so there is no easy walk, but it is truly lovely and thus far the weather has been fantastic. When I say fantastic, it is never really hot. This is autumn, and there is always a chill in the air, especially as there are so many trees that it is always shaded. The only way is to wear layers, as activity makes you hot and sitting still makes you cold.

The college only starts at 9am. Most schools in England start at 8.30 or 9..even 9.30, but then they go on until 4. We get a lunch and tea break, and food is provided for everyone. Some of the students naturally don’t like the food, and bring their own sandwiches. Our lunches use the produce on the land and are highly nutritious and delicious. This is fish and chips on Fridays with a curry sauce. 20151009_130603 I cook my own supper, but often don’t feel like anything, and just snack when I get back at about 5pm. I have a little bedsit cottage overlooking Nailsworth. 20151002_172010Very quiet, no streetlights. Its equivalent to Bishopscourt, but you always have farmland inbetween and people keep cows and sheep and chickens. When I say quiet, you don’t really hear birds frogs and insects. I am not sure why, perhaps it is related to the season. This is the view from my door.20150929_073751


Before anyone deals with children at all in England, you need to be cleared to do so, and so have a long and intricate form to fill in. Then they also train you in working with aggression. I wish I knew this before. Everyone has to know how to de-escalate aggression appropriately, and so there is a calmness that pervades the atmosphere. Some students cant stand this and spend the day singing and talking. This is one of the best therapeutic effects. There is also no haste to do anything. Everything has no time limit and we all break for tea and lunch in the middle of a task. This is a lovely social affair with some fighting over biscuits and toast.

The students don’t work in large groups..usually only 2, but with the volunteers and support workers (who also have to work) and the tutors, it makes about 6-7 at a time. Support workers have to keep their students within eye range at all times and always know where they are. The students are not really aware of them. They report any progress after each session, and set goals together with their support worker. Sometimes, the tutor will spend time explaining the background and theory of an activity, and this is where they learn the theory from the activity, and most places have some computer where things can be shown, eg how charcoal is made, or the theory of bow bending for archery or knife making.

Although they have some mechanical tools, much is done without. They have 3 heavy horses that pull a small plough. The horses are calm and beautiful. Just their presence is therapeutic.20151009_150647


I do something different for every day of the week. Mondays is in the market garden sieving compost, cutting flowerheads. Tuesdays is hard work on the farm doing everything from tagging sheep to cleaning hen houses. There are no “labourers” here, and I felt for vanesssa as I mopped the toilets.20150929_103324 This is the barn where we painted the walls and shifted tons of winter feed.

Wednesday is baking day, and I have made everything from sourdough breads to focaccia, baked in a wood fired oven. This is Luisa, my co-volunteer making a harvest bread for our Michaelmas festival. 20150930_143831

here are some other photos from Michaelmas, which is essentially a harvest festival.20151002_143333

This is  weird scupture in the forest that the students decorated with flowers just for fun. There are lots of these odd areas with unexpected things.  20151002_135105

They also do face painting of something you fear, and it is about facing your fears (the dragon). Here I have a couple of spiders painted on my face. one of my selfies.


Thursdays is horticulture on the biodynamic farm. Here we are filling cow horns with fresh cow manure to make biodynamic preparations

Fridays are woodland management. Here we are cutting up a HUGE fallen branch from an enormous ash. We make charcoal from much of the wood, used in the forge, while we also send branches for greenwood turning, and otherwise spend a lot of time chopping wood for fires.


This is me picking lots and lots of HUGE Black berries. My namesake, and nickname given by Athenkosi. These berries look good to eat but have vicious thorns that fester for weeks if they pierce your skin.20151008_151829


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