Building Your Dreams
While wardening at Puttenham Bunkhouse Barn last weekend, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Meeks, its founder, who spent many years as editor with Cycling UK, (Cyclists’ Touring Club), and who, aged 16, was the youngest elected member of the YHA’s management team here in the south-east.
Sitting relaxed in the sunshine, amid butterflies and flowers, wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Wilderness not woodchips”, Chris continues to share his passions.
He’s an astonishing example of how one person can inspire a generation. The bunkhouse began life as an idea: finding a place, negotiating the lease with Guildford Borough Council, raising £130,000, removing a huge cattle trough and digging out the floor to lower it by 50 cm. The eventual opening in 2005 was achieved thanks to enormous input from a team of volunteers, including John Bannister, an alternative technology expert.
Chris tells me, “It was born out of the environmentalism of the 1990s. I’m good at ideas and romantic vision, while volunteers such as Betty, Ben and Tish bring organisational skills”. As we chat, volunteer Hazel is busy planting pink geraniums into a cast-off wheelbarrow and David is checking out maintenance jobs.
A conscious choice was made from the outset to create an exemplary eco-project. Underground pipes are therefore made of clay rather than plastic, despite the extra expense involved. There are solar panels on the bike shed and solar water panels too. There’s underground water storage for recycling of wastewater…and Wi-Fi. Popping fresh mint leaves into a teapot, Chris muses: “The North Downs Way hostels are really important. We’re like a traditional Youth Hostel.”
Prices are kept to a minimum and accommodation is basic- the ethos is, “Rich and poor-same door”. Visitors are rewarded with a discount if they are not travelling by car. For my first stay I cycled the pleasant 20 mile route along the Downs Link path from Horsham with a group including five young children.
Other visitors have included a blind man walking the North Downs Way alone, (guided by audio) and a solo disabled cyclist hardly able to walk.
A family of four could stay for a weekend for under £130 and create very little impact on the environment. Two of the sleeping platforms have been replaced by bunks, but the third was retained due to popular demand from the children!
Despite original local opposition, Chris is not one to get disheartened. As a Quaker, he has learned, “It’s better to light a candle than complain about the darkness.”
The community he has created around this project really is a low-emission beacon of light. Chris’ romantic vision is now real.
Written by Morag Warrack