© Simon Lee
Talking Tree – Staines CEC talkingtree.org.uk by Suzanne O’Hara In early 2020 a disparate group of individuals met through their shared interest in the environment and sustainable living. The group wanted to take positive action to tackle climate change in Spelthorne, focusing on actions to minimise waste, reduce consumption, preserve natural open space and raise awareness and understanding of environmental challenges locally. The volunteers agreed that having a physical space would be a key priority, and so the idea for Talking Tree was born. A founding volunteer explained, “We were inspired to name the venue the Talking Tree after the Saxon word for Spelthorne which meant ‘speaking tree’ – a place where different groups would meet to discuss important issues.”
The group registered Talking Tree as a Community Interest Company to ensure all assets are ‘locked’ and profits generated are used for the benefit of the community. Having drawn up a business plan, the group approached Spelthorne Council in May 2020, requesting help finding an appropriate building. Spelthorne Council were owners of a vacant retail property in the heart of Staines High Street. The premises had been empty for an extended period and the council saw the benefit in supporting the project to repurpose the building as a positive community space. The team took possession of the keys to the property in early November and the ensuing months have been a flurry of activity with a core group of volunteer labour hammering, plumbing, plastering and painting, to turn a dark betting shop into a versatile community venue.
The venue, which opened on 21st June 2021, centres around an on-site café serving a vegetarian menu ‘with vegan aspirations’, using surplus ingredients whenever possible. The main exhibition and performance space will provide an inspirational programme of arts, film, talks and music performance, while an adjacent meeting room and workshop will host local community groups and classes in practical skills to help participants live more sustainably. A community fridge will give residents access to surplus food from local suppliers and there are plans for a ‘library of things’ in the not-too-distant future.
The entire refurbishment has been completed on a shoestring with appliances, furniture and equipment mostly donated or salvaged and most labour being donated free of charge by volunteers who support the Talking Tree ethos. Chairs and lampshades were recovered using discarded fabric samples and the beautiful fascia was crafted from the wood hoardings that blocked the doorway of the once derelict building which Talking Tree has transformed.
The Talking Tree volunteer community has already grown to 60+ individuals of varying ages and backgrounds, sharing a huge variety of skills from cooking to plumbing and website design.
While COVID delayed the opening of the venue, the team did not wait to start making an impact: Talking Tree Community Kitchen swung into action taking surplus produce from local supermarkets, and delivering cooked meals free of charge to the community. The Biodiversity Team began a planting project to help increase species diversity and in late March volunteers launched their first Craftivism campaign, creating a swarm of giant handmade fabric bees, highlighting the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. They also hosted a series of online events including a tree themed art exhibition, a virtual music night, a waste reduction cooking class and book club nights on environmental topics.
Written by Ruth Allen, Ben McCallan and Suzanne O’Hara, and edited by Rachel Bailey. Ruth Allen co-organises the CEC project with Pete Phoenix. Rachel Bailey is a member of the TRAd (Transformative Adaptation) network: www.transformative-adaptation.com