Tony Jaques, resident warden at Othona West Dorset, reveals how a redoubtable prophet of the simple life laid the foundations for a unique retreat centre on the Jurassic Coast a century ago
On a late spring day exactly 100 years ago, a diminutive woman gazed across a stretch of Jurassic Coast fields between Abbotsbury and Burton Bradstock. Miss Adela Curtis had just negotiated – with difficulty – to buy 17 acres from Alexander Fox-Pitt-Rivers, the local landowner. This land would now be dedicated to her ideal of Littleness. Today we might call it Creative Simplicity.
The ground sloped steeply toward the sea, with a heavy clay soil and little more than gorse growing. It didn’t promise much agriculturally. But in her mind’s eye it could be farmed in pioneering ways. And what a remarkable mind’s eye she had! Author Aldous Huxley was to call her ‘England’s greatest living mystic’.
She published numerous books and leaflets. In How to be Happy on Nothing a Year she insists that all you need for self-sufficiency – in clothing as well as food – is “half an acre of land and an able pair of hands to work on it for three hours a day.”
A century later, you’ll find the land she bought still acts as a magnet for people who try – in very contemporary ways – to unite spiritual wellbeing with care for the environment. This is the Othona Community, which you might think both honours Miss Curtis’s vision… and has abandoned it. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back to 1921.
Adela Marion Curtis, at the age of 53, already had a CV most women in her day couldn’t dream of. She’d run a bookshop and vegetarian café in Kensington and published her lectures on poetry and spirituality. She was a respected teacher of meditation. She had founded an independent religious community in Berkshire; the Order of Silence, as it was called, had room for 100 members.
Worn out by her many projects, Adela came to Dorset to retire. To live the simple life with a housekeeper and two of her nieces from New Zealand. Well, that was the idea.
They began with basic timber ‘huts’ and then had a stone farmhouse built. But by 1930 a growing community, mainly of single women, was forming again around The Warden as they called Adela. Officially they were the Community of Christian Contemplatives (CCC). But the locals called them the White Ladies, because of the voluminous gowns they wove for themselves from undyed yarn.
One of the gifts of lockdown at Othona was time for research. Resident community member Liz Howlett already had a passion for family history. 'I’ve been delighted with the letters, diaries, personal histories and photos that have come to light recently,' she said. 'I have made contact with relatives of some of the sisters and they have been really helpful in providing information, which has helped us glimpse the lives of the members of the original community. Before, these women and men had largely been only names on memorial plaques in the chapel. Now, it is possible to hear their voices, for example, in moving letters written on the death in wartime of the young head gardener. Or listening in to the Warden’s reflections as she writes of her trials, sorrows and joys in her letters and diary.
'Most of these resources are on loan to us, but we are particularly thrilled that Othona has been given the beautiful pencil sketch of Adela Curtis which is thought to have been drawn by her artist brother George.'
Adela was a believer in total self-sufficiency, each woman with her half acre. This wasn’t just a recipe for living close to nature; her teaching was intended to stop all exploitation of other people. So, for instance, if nobody had coal fires, the danger and drudgery of mining could be done away with. (She’d probably regard our Fairtrade movement today, improving conditions for coffee-growers or garment-makers, as a very timid effort.
Living conditions were deliberately frugal. No electricity, no flush toilets and only rainwater for drinking or washing. But by 1937 the CCC attracted enough supporters to fund the building of a large chapel adjoining the farmhouse. This was the community’s heyday, with people coming from far and wide to study Adela’s teaching. But, as the 1930s drew to a close, rumblings of a war in Europe reached these peaceful shores, and would have a devastating impact for Adela and her community.
During the Second World War, the farmhouse and much of the land was taken over by the army, guarding the coast against invasion. So that put an end to students or other supporters visiting. And two young men closely involved with the CCC went to fight and lost their lives.
One particular incident showed how contemplatives are also active. A British plane on a training flight crashed in the field opposite Sister Evelyn’s hut. Seeing the wreckage on fire, she dashed to pull the pilot to safety, saving his life although he lost part of a leg. Only last year, Othona hosted a memorable visit from the surviving children and grandchildren of that lucky man.
After the war there were no young recruits. The dream of each woman with her half acre had never quite worked. Numbers dwindled, until Miss Curtis herself was the last surviving member of the CCC. She died in 1960 at the age of 92.
Imagine if she could visit the original 17 acres today. Would she recognise them? Much has changed. Ecologically the CCC had begun a transformation. From their few hedgerows, planted in the 1920s, there are mature trees and lush vegetation. Sought-after private houses with fine sea views have replaced almost all the little timber kit-houses of the Christian Contemplatives.
The central seven acres – with the original farmhouse and chapel – continue to house the Othona Community. Half a dozen residents – including Otto the cat – form the nucleus. Families and individuals come here to recharge their batteries, for retreats, holidays, courses and volunteer projects. Othona is a ‘second home’ and a spiritual haven for many. Based on Christian values but welcoming people of all faiths and none.
The austerities of the CCC are gone. Yes, there is electricity, mains water, flush toilets too! But Othona embraces, in a thoroughly 21st century way, simplicity and an ecological ethic. The grounds are a miracle of bio-diversity, with five species of wild orchid as well as a plethora of birds, bees and butterflies thriving alongside the orchard, fruit cage and vegetable beds that help to put food on the table.
During lockdown a £300,000 project delivered the Four Seasons Studio, a gorgeous new building with multiple energy-saving measures. What will it be used for? Anything from environmental studies to mindfulness meditation, children’s art workshop to a green wedding reception.
It signals Othona’s readiness for further evolution. Not just looking back to Adela Curtis and her 1921 vision, but forwards to new ways of life that unite spirituality and sustainability a century later.
Find more details at othonawestdorset.org.uk. If you have information about Adela Curtis and the CCC please contact email@example.com
Where does the name come from?
The name Othona is drawn from a very different coastline. On the edge of the Essex marshes there once stood a Roman fort of that name. Its stones were used to build what is now England’s second oldest Christian church, St Peter’s on the Wall. In 1946, Norman Motley who had served as a young chaplain in the RAF during the Second World War, set up a Christian community as a summer camp in a nearby field. That was the infant Othona Community. Its twin aims were reconciliation between enemies, and understanding between people whose faith differed. Othona, which went from annual summer camp to building a permanent centre in the adjacent field, flourished in Essex and soon began to look for a second centre. In 1965 – being a charity and sharing many of the White Ladies’ ideals – it received Adela Curtis’ derelict buildings and overgrown land in West Dorset as a gift - and Othona West Dorset was established.
The Natural Place to be Real Together
Othona may be small, but we’re part of the great unsung movement of groups and networks across the world gradually making a difference, seeking saner ways to live. Here are some of the ways you can connect with us here in West Dorset:
· Volunteers at Othona love an atmosphere where helping out is the norm. Where you’re part of an accepting community from your first visit.
· Mums and dads see the creative interactions their kids can enjoy. Honesty and good humour set the tone for the whole community.
· Adults encounter a sense of spirituality refreshingly free of dogma.
Learn more at othonawestdorset.org.uk.
Enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org or 01308 897130