Shift Bristol header image

By Laura Corfield


Hello Permies! I’m Laura Corfield, Creative Director of Shift Bristol - a not for profit organisation that has been providing innovative and practical training in permaculture and building resilience since 2010. I first discovered permaculture around 18 years ago, when I was burning out from activism, searching for how to make a positive difference in the world, and feeling lost about who I was. When I walked into Sarah Pugh’s Intro to permaculture course in 2006, I was struck by the power of the permaculture ethics; it was the first time that I was taught the importance of balancing earth care with people care; and that people care actually meant looking after myself as well. Through a systems mindset I also grew to realise the importance of niche within the ecosystem, and the truth in Power through Community. It was a lightbulb moment that we all have a role to play - and we play it most powerfully when it’s aligned with our unique attributes and gifts. 

Shift Bristol Observation
Building the roundhouse

Fortunately for me, a spot opened up in Sarah’s ecosystem and I became her course facilitator, and it wasn’t long before we were calling each other ‘work wives’. Sarah’s tenacity, charisma and fearlessness mixed with my ability to spin plates, listen and capture details, created a dynamism that led us to set up Shift Bristol in 2010. We launched ‘The Practical Sustainability Course’ that Autumn, after visioning what an expanded full permaculture design course would look like - an adventure into a woven curriculum of subjects and experiences, designed to engage the heart, head and hands of the students. And then rustling together a band of over 40 of the most expert (and slightly bonkers) tutors and practitioners willing to help teach with us.

The PSC has gone from strength to strength, and is now teaching its 13th cohort; having taught almost 400 students - who affectionately go on to become known as the Shifties, as they integrate out into the wider networks. Their pathways beyond the PSC range from setting up their own enterprises, beginning apprenticeships, finding jobs in the green sector, writing books, becoming sustainability journalists, buying land, setting up smallholdings, and more - the list is as varied as it is impressive! Every year each cohort raises on average £100,000 from student course fees for the Community Interest Company, that is then reinvested into those who teach and facilitate, the community spaces we hire, the materials we use to grow and build infrastructure during our practicals, and the nuts & bolts of running the PSC. Surplus is used to run events that build and grow community networks - such as Proper Job! which focused on regenerative job pathways in a circular economy.  

proper job
Sarah Pugh

The PSC is unaccredited (bar the prestige of gaining a Permaculture Design Course Certificate), and this enables us to remain agile when faced with unexpected challenges. During the Covid pandemic the PSC was able to change its teaching format and was delivered ‘on-line’ (with some very arduously organised in-person meet ups between legislation changes). By recognising the essential ingredients to the success of the project we are able to retain and apply them in new and innovative ways. This same approach was taken when very sadly Sarah contracted brain cancer in 2020 and passed away in 2022. Sarah spent a lot of her last remaining energy ensuring that her key ingredients for successful permaculture teaching were passed on to those she loved and trusted in her community. Through this she taught us the importance of passing on any lineage of hard earned wisdom throughout our networks; so even when we lose a person, lose a project, lose land, we keep the knowledge alive and ready to spore again. I propose we use the model of seed banks or libraries to do this, and find a place for  storing lived human experience. 

Sarah, a low-income single parent herself, was an advocate for creating educational opportunities that serve and are accessible to those with the least and the most in need. Every course Shift Bristol runs, has the option to pay on a sliding scale of three tiers, with the option to pay in instalments. The amount of study hours on the PSC are designed so that people are able to claim both Universal Credit and a discount on their Council Tax. The PSC timetable follows the pattern of the school terms, so that parents are able to study with us, with minimal disturbance to the school pick-ups. Other courses are run in the evening or over weekends, so that those that work can find them accessible. The cost of our courses are kept low by having minimal overheads - we don’t own a Hogwarts, and instead choose to rent and do practicals in the community. This ensures the impact and investment of learning stays within our networks. The students also benefit from connecting and learning from those active ‘on the ground’. Having a large in-take of 30 students each year on the PSC helps spread the costs of course fees among many - and increases the learning edge, by having more diversity of personalities and perspectives in the room.  

Although the PSC is evolving into a different kind of shape, now that the organisation is growing through different people, the essential ingredients still remain, and the Sarah-life force can be felt all around. I am now blessed to be working with the wonderful Kizzie Fitzwilliams; the warmest and most capable course facilitator that Shift could wish for. She joins the students in-person each day, and ensures the smooth running of the ambitious timetable - holding all the threads together! I also have the joy of working with Danny Balla, our Group Dynamics tutor, who is instrumental in the Bristol Commons movement at the moment - which offers huge potential for collaborating with Shift Bristol to emulate our style of education, and offer alternate educational pathways on a much larger scale - watch this space! 

Shift Legacy
Shift Bristol Apple tasting

The PSC covers ten modules: Permaculture Design, Soil & Ecology, Group Dynamics, Woodland Management, Green Energy, Organic Horticulture, Community Engagement, Green Building, Relocalisation and the Resilience Toolkit, and like any system, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. By exploring and integrating these subjects together simultaneously over a long period of time, we are able to traverse my different learning layers and applications, and we can more easily join dots and see patterns. For example, by observing how nature recycles materials in a forest garden during the Soil & Ecology module, we can apply those same circular economy principles to retrofitting our existing housing stock in the Green Building module…and then if we take this theme into our Group Dynamics module, we can explore what social norms limit our agency to play with the literal building blocks of our buildings; and so it goes on as we develop our holistic Permaculture Goggles to see this web of connection. 

Arguably our ability to collaborate well with others will be the deciding factor for whether we make it as a species in the future. The opportunity to learn group dynamics should be included in all offerings of education, regardless of the subject matter. Everything that is needed to manifest a better world; all the attributes, the skills, imagination, problem solving ability, creativity, expression, already exists within us; we’re just seeds waiting for the right environment to sprout.

On the PSC we heavily invest in cultivation of a fertile sprouting environment, through our mix of guided facilitation and collaboration with students to create a culture that is transparent, open, curious and empathetic. This well designed course container and learning culture builds a rich and mulchy playground for us to try new things; to be vulnerable in front of others, practise compassionate accountability, lean into other’s strengths - celebrate, fail, try again - discover who we are, and how we relate to others. There is something truly magical about co-witnessing the journey of people changing and growing with the seasons, and I can truly say I Iove my job! 

Shift Meadow

Booking for the Shift Bristol Practical Sustainability Course are now open! Click on the button below to find out more about this and Shift Bristol's other fantastic offerings.