Nine years old when she arrived at Dunhurst as a boarder, Alana Hurd’s imagination about what lay in store for her had been conditioned largely by reading the St. Clare’s and Mallory Towers stories of Enid Blyton. “Dad was an entrepreneur, an Australian with a habit of questioning most things, and I think that he liked the progressive, non-conditioning aspects of what he saw at Bedales,” Alana reflects. “We had been living up in London and moved down to the area around Bedales, eventually settling in Rake, but at the time that I started, there was only a boarding place available and I was quite excited about it.”
It took time for Alana to settle into her new environment. It was only really once I hit my teens that I started to discover myself a bit and feel comfortable. Later on, I became a bit of a mother figure to some of the younger, wilder Bedalians but in my early days at the school, I was learning to adapt and fend for myself.”
One thing that was never in doubt for Alana was the quality of the education that surrounded her. “I was always aware of that and the mutual respect that existed between teachers and students and I really appreciated it,” says Alana, who would go on to take A Levels in English, History and Theatre. “Graham Banks was a really important influence on me as someone who always listened and took your point of view on board and in History, which I was never great at, Ruth Whiting made so much effort with me, bless her. Ruth was strict but completely honest and she really cared about me. I used to have a weekend job in Guildford, which became a lot of my social focus, and Ruth was always telling me that I shouldn’t do it. Her point of view was that I was indulging in wilful independence, which she thought was slightly un-Bedalian, and that it would distract me from my studies!”
Graham Banks was a really important influence on me as someone who always listened and took your point of view on board
Elsewhere at Bedales, Alana was getting involved in the school’s renowned drama performances. “I absolutely loved the Drama Studio and one of the best things about Bedales was that it never set limits on you, never told you that you couldn’t succeed at whatever you really enjoyed,” she observes. “That sort of conditioning is so important and at so many schools, it’s a luxury, rather than an essential part of life. So I did drama, was totally unsporty, and got into the habit of working long days, which opens your mind up a bit. I do remember Jaw very fondly – it was there that I think I sub-consciously started off down the path that I’m on today.”
Alana left Bedales with a place at Leeds University to read English and Theatre but, in typically adventurous style, first decided to spend a gap year as a volunteer in Swaziland, a country in which Bedales has long enjoyed a charitable association. It was her first experience of a place that would come to loom large in her life. Back in the UK, Alana revelled in life at university as she nurtured her ultimate ambition to become a film and TV director. “Leeds was wonderful,” she recalls. “On our course, we were the lucky twenty students to be chosen out of around 20,000 applicants, which meant that we were a seriously tight-knit group, almost a pack of students who all got on unusually well.”
According to Alana, her subsequent progress through her television career owed much to good fortune. “Oh yes, almost every job that I did in TV, from drama to reality shows and documentaries, came about through chance,” she laughs. “It started with the first time I ever got on set – my father’s entrepreneurial streak had led him to sell a trampoline to a man who happened to be a stunt co-ordinator and he had invited me to have a look around. I went on to do loads of different TV jobs but all the time, Swaziland had stayed with me and my real ambition was to go back there and make a documentary about the country. I’d been reading Richard E. Grant’s book, The Wah-Wah Diaries, about his early life in Swaziland, and I decided that I’d write to him and ask him whether he would mind answering a few questions and giving me a few tips about filming in the country.”
The actor not only answered Alana’s questions but subsequently offered to narrate her documentary for her and even paid for recording and editing sessions at studios in Twickenham. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, really, and I mucked up the first cut so badly that we had to re-record it,” Alana remembers. “Richard was amazing, made the time to do it all again and over time, we worked together on a number of other Swaziland-focused projects. I guess I wanted to go into TV to give a voice to those who didn’t have one but I started to feel that I was looking in the wrong place if I really wanted to empower other people.”
One of the best things about Bedales was that it never set limits on you, never told you that you couldn’t succeed at whatever you really enjoyed
From her earliest volunteering days in Swaziland, Alana had met a number of disabled young orphans who had been abandoned in the main hospital of the capital, Mbabane. Six of the original eight that she had encountered had become too conditioned by their environment to be removed. However, the two youngest, named Siphiwe and Mzolisi, were still of an age where they would benefit from a purpose-built home to look after their special and specific requirements. Alana determined that the moment had come for her to quit her TV career and devote her time to raising funds that would allow a purpose-built home for eight disabled youngsters to be built, offering healthcare, community & happiness for as far into the future as possible.
My Million to One Swapsies was duly founded by Alana (the CEO), with Richard E. Grant as the new charity’s patron and a number of celebrities also pitching in to help Alana with her fundraising drive. The idea was to raise £1 million through a series of small donations from as large a range of people as possible, with the money to be placed in trust and the interest accruing from it intended to fund the home and all requirements every year, thereby making the capital sum self-sustaining. Over time the original eight youngsters would leave the home to be succeeded by eight more disadvantaged disabled youngsters. The concept ought to have been successful as originally conceived and might well ultimately have been so had Alana’s impossibly demanding schedule not finally caught up with her.
“Not everyone who said that they would make a donation came through and there was also a certain, quite British reaction, to it in some places that wondered whether the project was just some kind of scam,” Alana relates. “The upshot was that I didn’t come anywhere near the target that I’d set, I became anxious, worked a lot of really silly hours and eventually made myself thoroughly ill with the stress. I almost destroyed myself, looking back.”
In the midst of this health-related crisis, Alana had the good fortune to stumble across a pioneering therapist who was able to teach her how to relax without losing any of her formidable energy. “In retrospect, part of my problem was that I had always put pressure on myself to succeed in whatever I did, almost to prove myself the whole time,” Alana explains. “Now I had to learn to work in a way that didn’t sacrifice my own health and the steps I took made me feel reinvigorated and to approach the task of raising money for the Swaziland project in a completely different way.”
Among the most important changes that Alana instituted was to her own diet. “As I got better, I suddenly found that I couldn’t eat meat any more,” she says. “I’ve always been a huge believer in respecting the equality of all humanity but my experiences of my initial fundraising campaign also taught me a far greater awareness of the equality of all life, including animals, plants and the environment in which we live and which we so often treat so badly. Becoming a vegan gave me greater energy and was also the catalyst for my second attempt at raising the £1 million that we need to build Wild Anchor, the name that I have chosen for the home in Swaziland.”
Mission Milly was born in late 2018. Criss-crossing the UK in her camper van (lovingly named Milly), Alana has given herself three years on the road to raise the sum that she is looking for. Milly serves numerous functions: as a travelling vegan coffee shop, a plant-based, eco-friendly merchandise stall, a place of shelter or a safe haven and as Alana’s home for much of the year.
I’d been reading Richard E. Grant’s book, The Wah-Wah Diaries, about his early life in Swaziland, and I decided that I’d write to him and ask him whether he would mind answering a few questions and giving me a few tips about filming in the country
“I learned so much from my first efforts, even though they didn’t quite go as I had hoped,” Alana observes. “I’m much savvier now, I’ve learned more about myself, learned a bit of humility as well and I’ve worked out what it is I’m best at. I’m pretty good at sales, convincing people to be a part of something and never once believing that something is impossible. Bedales taught us all that – why shouldn’t you be able to achieve whatever you set your heart on if you really want to do it? Like a lot of Bedalians, I’m not very good at simply accepting authority without question. I almost got fired twice from my first job for not knowing my place, so my anti-authoritarian streak has caused me problems at times but overall, I’ve never regretted it.”
Alana’s ambitions for the future are as all-encompassing and inclusive as one might expect of her. “First, I want to achieve what I’ve promised in Swaziland,” she says. “But that is one strand of a wider ambition that I have. As a species, we’ve become so disconnected from the Earth and being a part of the planet is so important. I would like as many of us as possible to re-connect with nature because if we do, we still have the chance to create a massively powerful movement that will benefit all of us. We can do something about it; Wild Anchor is a beginning but it’s only the first part of a wider concept, which is to provide home, shelter, balance, equality and a way to live freely for ALL life.”
“I have this idea,” Alana concludes, “that I’ve called Pocket Protection. “A lot of business premises in the UK seem to have small (a few metres) patches of land that they can't do much with. ‘Pocket Protection’ accesses the power of individuals to collaboratively come together, buy (freehold) and protect thousands of these pockets under a contractual agreement that they be allowed to re-wild. They will be refuges within urban areas for struggling wildlife/pollinators, educating local communities on our responsibility to the planet as we do it and in a very open way that encourages involvement. It would restore the ecological balance that we so badly need and that’s where my future ambitions and my heart really lie.”
And with that, Alana is off on the road again – Wiltshire today, somewhere in the UK near you tomorrow. Be sure to stop and say hello if you see her.
Alana was interviewed in Spring 2019.