As the Transition Towns movement reaches his hometown, Jeremy Williams reports on the beginnings of Transition St Albans.
It's 8pm on a Wednesday night. It's raining and I'm trying to locate a slightly obscure Quaker meeting house round the corner from the station in St Albans, the next big town down the tracks from where I live in Luton, England.
I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude to St Albans. I was born there in its now-closed hospital, and I lived there until I was five, when my family moved to Africa. I returned twelve years later, on my own, to finish my schooling. I didn't really fit into its sprawling suburbs, and had little in common with the people I met. As an outsider, it always struck me as a pretty but empty place, very wealthy, and somehow detached from reality. I never quite felt at home among its big houses and wide suburban streets full of BMWs.
But here I am, back in St Albans, to give something back. Tonight is the first meeting of Transition St Albans, a grassroots initiative to prepare the city for climate change and peak oil. Tonight we'll be meeting each other for the first time, those who have caught wind of the Transition Towns movement and want to see something similar right here.
St Albans is rich with history. It was the Roman capital of Britain during their brief occupation. The huge and imposing St Albans Abbey is visible for miles and has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. There's the Abbey School, which was founded in 948. The city is full of culture, theatre and classical music, and has more pubs per square mile than anywhere else in the country. Every Wednesday and Saturday there's a vibrant and colourful market on the High Street. It is a place with its own identity and heritage. There should be a healthy interest in making such a place future-proof in an age of peak oil and climate change.
However, if I had to pick one word that defines St Albans, it would be ‘affluent'. Just twenty miles north of London, it's a commuter town, full of bankers and lawyers and businessmen. It's a leafy and elegant town within an hour of the capital, with lots of room for big houses and gardens, and big cars to match. This is the land of patio heaters and SUVs, weekend shopping trips to New York. When the WWF commissioned a report into the comparative footprints of 60 British cities, St Albans came 59th - the second worst ecological footprint in the country.
It's also large. At 63,000 people, it's bigger than most Transition Towns, and eight times as big as the first Transition Town, Totnes. Public transport is poor, and the car is everything. On the street where I used to live there was a family of three who had two cars each. As a dormitory town for London, work in St Albans relies on cheap transport, with thousands of people driving or taking the train every day. Such a place presents a unique set of challenges to sustainability.
I've found the meeting house, a modest building off the street with a welcoming glow, and there at the end of the corridor, Transition St Albans.
We're a mixed group of people, around twenty of us, and a variety of ages and backgrounds. There are more of us than we all expected, and there's a buzz in the room. Introductions are made around the circle, seasoned environmental campaigners, and people who just heard about peak oil this year and wanted to do something. There are a couple of teachers, an accountant, an architect, a gardener, a storyteller. The range of skills in the room is impressive. It strikes me that there are just the kind of combinations you need to get the creative and holistic solutions that typify the Transition movement.
Two hours later I'm on my way back to the station, my head a whirl of half-remembered names and half formed ideas. I've met a roomful of passionate people, and their enthusiasm is inspiring. I can't help but be excited at what we might achieve, and what we can come up with together.
Of course, there's a long way to go, and we barely know where to start, but there's no denying the Transition people are onto something. As a positive vision of life after cheap energy, it harnesses the energy of ordinary people and empowers them to act in their own communities, taking small localized steps towards sustainability.
It's 10pm, and I'm on the station platform. I've stood here a thousand times, but my hometown looks different somehow. It's still raining, but there's a certain hope in the air.
We'll be following the progress of Transition St Albans as it develops. You can also follow it as a Celsias project here.