mumsnetBack along, my family and I swapped a house for a three-acre field in Devon and a leaky caravan where we lived off-grid for two years. Sadly, we failed to get the planning permission we needed to stay. We are now back within four walls, with a proper loo and everything in a cottage in Dartmoor. So this is now a blog about living ethically amid a fabulous landscape with our home educated kids while we adjust to being 'normal' - for a while... and what we plan to do with our land next

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Reed warbling

I visited a nearby 'green' community recently, which I've been wanting to visit for a long time because it is founded on ecological principles and is an interesting model for sustainable living and permaculture.

I wanted to move in, of course. It was so welcoming and homely and the grounds are beautiful. The large warm kitchen was painted a sunny yellow and smelt of home-cooked pizza and apple cake with top notes of oregano and cinnamon. Industrial-sized tubs of things like couscous and bulgar wheat sat on fat wooden shelves, while several buckets variously destined for hens or compost made the disposal of a teabag slightly intimidating. I slid into the window seat behind the huge communal table and wondered if they would notice if I never slid out again.

Later I was taken around the grounds where I inspected the composting loos (still can't get over my obsession with other people's droppings - see Potty Mouth), the veg plot, the furnace and the communal workshops filled with arts and crafts, woven baskets and drying cob bricks. It was truly inspiring.

Of particular interest were the reed beds. All the household waste, including the contents of the flushing loos, drain into these, filtered through two reed beds and finally into a pond, which is home to frogs and newts and must therefore be good clean water, since newts are fairly picky about their habitats.

Reed beds utilise the common reed (Phragmites australis) which is able to transfer oxygen from its leaves, down its stem and rhizomes into gravel around its root system creating a rich population of micro organisms. There are horizontal – or surface – systems and sub-surface and vertical systems. Since I can see you beginning to twitch, I will not go into their inner workings in detail – but basically the vertical systems take up less room and can deal with stronger effluent than the surface ones.

Since our eventual reed beds will be dealing with grey water and liquid effluent – well, wee - we will have three sub-surface systems that will clean it all up and make it resuable. It's a lovely system – so green and satisfying. No nasty waste or chemicals going out to sea or into our rivers, just nature filtering away. It does mean you have to be careful what you use to wash the dishes, or your hair, with, but that's no bad thing.

Interestingly, one of the objections to our planning application cites our reed beds proposal raising the possibility that they can fail in freezing conditions. I had to search very hard to find any mention of this – which just goes to show that if you are determined enough to find something negative, your efforts will be rewarded.

Yes, they can have problems – just as sewage pipes can crack, for which there is much more plentiful evidence. But since our beds will be sub-surface, these problems are unlikely to occur and the instances where they might fail are in extremis – trying to object to them on that basis is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water – and goodness knows how a reed bed would deal with one of those.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

They laughed like a drain

The thing I knew would surely happen, surely happened this week. I and my wheelbarrow fell victim to the mud slick at the gate.

This, of course, happened on Sunday while I still had the vestiges of decent clothes on having arrived home from work. We turned up and unloaded the usual bags of shopping and water containers out of the car and into the wheelbarrow (see, Like Glastonbury, but without the fun). This I started to push up the small slope leading to the field – however, a weekend of heavy rain meant that the wheelbarrow remained stationary while the force I was exerting upon it propelled me downwards. Very slowly, with comedic grace and timing, my boots gave up the fight for a grip and I slid to the floor until I was lying prone in the mud, arms outstretched still clutching the handles of the barrow, while assorted items of shopping fell gently around my head.

Witnessing their mother in such a position the boys, of course, doubled over with laughter then sauntered off empty-handed leaving me in situ. Zena, my eight-year-old daughter and main ally in the family, started busying herself picking up shopping and asking anxiously if I was alright. And I wasn't alright – I wanted to cry; I had hurt my knees, the french stick I had just bought was covered in mud, my only decent trousers were caked in slime, and I was tired after the habitual two hours' sleep I generally manage to get on a Sunday morning.

Back in the caravan, with the kettle on, I cheered up a tad. 'You've got to admit, Mum,' said Zena. 'You did look funny.' And I did admit that, yes indeed, I must have looked funny – but I still felt a bit weepy.

That is until I noticed the Thing that has revolutionised my life this week. For Gully has installed drainage from the kitchen sink. This takes the form of a short pipe that leads to the pitiful vegetable patch – like that needs watering – but it's a very permaculture thing to do. Hitherto, drainage from the sink has been achieved by picking up the washing-up bowl, negotiating a steep step down from the caravan, balancing precariously while trying to put on welly clogs, then sliding through the quagmire outside the tent before depositing the bowl's contents in the field. This was often done in driving rain.

Now, all I have to do is tip the contents down the sink. This is a small convenience, but one that has given me great reason to be cheerful – but only, if I'm honest, when I've finished washing up. It doesn't help with the bruises on my knees or my damaged trousers.

Still, it has made the chances of the other mishap-waiting-to-happen less likely, namely falling over while holding a heavy washing-up bowl full of dirty water while small boys point and jeer.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Drought? Not in this bit of Britain

'If you can see Dartmoor, it's going to rain; if you can't, it is raining,' one of the village characters told me on our first meeting. I took this to be a joke at the time, but the facts appear to bear this out – there have been few days that haven't rained since our arrival. Or maybe it just seems that way.

So I was somewhat surprised recently when I heard on the news that much of the country is in drought. Apparently, lack of rainfall means groundwater levels are falling and one water company has been granted a permit to pump extra water into one of its reservoirs and others are having to use more river water to top up supplies.

'The ground below our feet is still dry, and at this time of year we would expect it to be fully saturated,' said Trevor Bishop, head of water resources at the Environment Agency. Well, if Trevor, ever feels the need to remind himself what saturated ground looks like, he's very welcome to pop round.

In the course of researching my blog on the curious incident of the worm in the launderette (All in a lather, Nov 2nd), I happened across an interesting nugget of information from the ever useful Devon County Council. 'Crediton,' it said on its Devon Town Focus 'lies in the heart of an area of outstanding natural beauty, with a unique climate thanks to its position in the rain shadow of Dartmoor.'

A rain shadow, as defined by Wikipedia, is apparently a dry area on the lee side of higher ground. I don't know where this dry area is meant to be, but we are clearly not in it since we appear to be over-blessed on the precipitation front. We are on high ground between Dartmoor and Exmoor, which I am sure has something to do with our climate and explains the current saturation under foot that poor Mr Bishop so yearns for.

Very soon, so I am told, when the trailer has the curved roof that Gully has spent long hours working on, we will have more water than we can deal with. This is because guttering will channel it into barrels where we can harvest it. I am guessing that the point where we affix the guttering is the point where we suddenly encounter a long, dry spell.

We have so far been getting water from various sources – kind friends and relatives – which we bring home in five-gallon containers and ferry precariously across the field in a wheelbarrow (see Like Glastonbury, but without the fun, Oct 28th). We get through three to four of these of week and since they require some effort to obtain, I have become a miser with water – hoarding and recycling as much as I can. I recycle the same water for cooking or steaming all the vegetables; when I wash up I stop halfway through, remove the water from the bowl and reheat it; if we have hot water bottles (a rare occurrence on account of the water take-up) I empty them back into a saucepan in the morning and use them for washing.

According to our old friends, the Environment Agency, in a survey of London households from 2004/5-2008/9 the five-year mean average water use per person was 161 litres per day. Ours is around 79 litres for the week - for a family of five. Now don't fret, I haven't got my preachy face on, but it does go to show that if you have to work a bit harder for your water and conserve it more, then there are big savings to be made.

We do, of course, use more than that away from the caravan. We go swimming – and the average swimming pool contains around 16,000 gallons of water. And we use other other people's flushing loos (average eight litres per flush). Then there's the launderette (65 litres per wash), and you'll be pleased to hear that we have showers too (at around 40 litres a go for a gravity shower); and my monthly bath is a whole 80 litres, a figure interestingly close to our weekly domestic water consumption.

And I am fully aware that once we have something as sophisticated as running water, our domestic use will go up. I remember trying to conserve and recycle water before in those heady days when we had a dishwasher and a bath, and very soon got tired of the whole process. As we progress with the farm and our plans, obtaining water should become easier – although we still plan to stay off-grid and harvest rainfall. But I am hoping that no matter how convenient its use will become, I will never again take water quite so for-granted as I once did.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

'I want croissants for breakfast,' demanded eight year old Zena earlier this week. 'I haven't got any,' I replied. 'Well you can make some,' she said. 'I wouldn't know where to begin,' I said. 'Well,' she reposted 'that Raymond Blank can do it.'

Raymond Bloody Blanc, if you please! This is what my daughter expects of me with my tiny temperamental oven in an overcrowded four-berth caravan. Still, this exchange did have the effect of rendering me speechless in what had hitherto been a voluble morning conducted at volume.

It has to be said that there are times that all is not peace and harmony in our wee living space. Mornings and evenings tend to be particular flashpoints, entailing as they do the putting away – or getting out – of beds and bedding. Children have to be ejected from sleeping bags and chivied to stow them away before anything meaningful can be achieved. This, they are reluctant to do. Then there is the squabbling that starts first thing – and for which I am hopelessly ill equipped to deal without the benefits of several cups of tea and a sturdy breakfast. So soon, too, I am behaving like a child shrieking and carrying on in the grip of low blood sugar levels while the morning hours tick away.

I tend to get overly upset about this and have to remind myself that even the most functional family might reasonably expect to be tested at times by our living arrangements. There is no privacy, no quiet place to go if you want to recharge the batteries, on top of which are the deprivations – screens, in the kids' case, and the internet and hot baths in mine. And I won't even get started on the mud.

I've been reading a useful little book called Think Yourself Happy, by Rick Norris. In it, he explains how easy it is to fall into a pattern of negativity – for instance, to remember only the disagreement we had at the end of what had up to that point been a lovely harmonious day.

Positive thinking is kind of essential in maintaining sanity. It's so easy to get bogged down by the difficulties – but actually it is overcoming those difficulties that makes this whole venture such a worthwhile exercise.

Back before we moved onto the land, I was explaining to an open-mouthed Guardian colleague that five of us, two cats and a dog would be living in a small caravan. 'You'll all go mad' he said – somewhat prophetically. At the time I quipped that on the contrary, while his world fell apart because the capsules hadn't arrived for his Nespresso machine, I would find happiness in something as simple as a hot tap.

In fact, this has turned out to be very true – I really do derive enormous pleasure and satisfaction from little conveniences. Today, for instance, I had my monthly bath – an event which I look forward to and savour. This particular bath is in a colleague's bachelor apartment – one of my roving Friday night crash pads. I love Ed's flat because it is the antithesis of my usual life. It is spacious, male, organised and uncluttered – guitars adorn the walls and interesting books are arranged in neat and pleasing symmetry. Lying in the bath this morning, I tried to work out how many caravans I could fit into the flat, and decided it would be about twelve. That's floor space, incidentally, not actual caravans.

What I need to do is adapt these positive feelings for those times when things aren't going so well and remind myself that when the children are exchanging blows, 'im indoors is being miserable and the cat's in the butter again, that this is all to be expected and perfectly in order.

But I'm still not making any bloody croissants.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Busman’s holiday

I’m on holiday at the moment. When I say ‘holiday’ – what I mean is I am off of work. It is not a holiday, in the sense of taking recreation and leisure. I am sure that I am not alone as a parent, and certainly as a home-educating parent with children always at home – in seeing work as a kind of respite. I love having my kids around all the time, but parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. There are no right or easy answers – despite what the childless, or people whose children have long grown up, think. It’s amazing how easily many days slip into unproductive chaos, so that at the end as I survey the mess through the tattered remnants of good intentions and patience, I feel that nothing has been achieved other than that time has creaked inexorably on .

Work, however, is different. I am a sub-editor. It is my job to package copy into a designated space, check it all makes sense, write a headline and picture caption and send it on its way. This is done to a deadline, which gives the work a beginning and a very satisfying definite end – at which point it is gone, yesterday’s news. It’s about as opposite from parenting as it is possible to be. No loose ends, no half-finished jobs, no sense of a hundred things left undone. It’s neat – and I like it very much, as I do my colleagues who are generally highly intelligent, witty and fun and don’t usually tell me they hate me, or that I am ruining their life merely because I suggest they should eat their mashed potato if they want any apple crumble.

I work part-time so I can be at home with my kids, which means that money is tight and time off work is spent at home, as opposed to say, horse riding in Patagonia. Therefore, I don’t view time off work with particular pleasure and sometimes actively wish I wasn’t on holiday at all.

This was most memorably demonstrated about a year ago. We had just got a new kitten who was being bullied by our older kitten – her brother from a previous litter. It turned out that all he wanted to do was pin her down and wash her ears, but at the time we didn’t know that and thought he wanted to rip her head off. Anyway, we had to keep them separated and the new kitten inside. I left the house one Friday off work to take my daughter to her dancing lesson. When I came back an hour later, the front door was wide open with no sign of the kitten. It was cold and there was already a heavy frost – and I had visions that the older cat had driven her away into the night where she would surely die of cold and starvation. I spent half an hour checking the busy road near the house for mangled bodies and then went off across the fields in the dark, looking for a black blob little bigger than my hand. It was after I stumbled over for the fifth time that the thought occurred to me that I would, all things considered, far rather be at work. For those who like a happy ending, the kitten turned out to be asleep in a drawer and is now a very contented cat.

So, time off work is not always successful – and this is no exception. I had originally booked the time because we should have now been planting trees. But there are no trees to plant as we are awaiting news about a possible woodlands grant, so instead we are carrying on with the trailer, which is being converted into living quarters. I, therefore, hastily convened a trip to friends in Bristol, which was a roaring success – too much so, in fact. My friends live in a warm, comfortable house in one of the city’s more salubrious suburbs. The children filled their boots with new friends and lots of screen time and I spent two days in a happy haze with good food, decent showers and people that I love. Then we returned home to our small, cold, electricity-less caravan that smells of damp in a village where we can’t help but feel a little unloved. ‘I want to go back to Bri-hi-hi-stol,’ sobbed Zena. ‘I want to live next door to Noah and Barney,’ she wailed.

I knew exactly how she felt.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

All in a lather

I’ve become something of a connoisseur of launderettes. Given that the vast majority of people nowadays have washing machines and tumble driers that leaves a narrow, but interesting, range of people who use launderettes and their availability says much about the demographic of a town. Exeter, for example, has quite a few – but it is a university city with a fair amount of other educational establishments such as international schools. Hence it has a large student population possibly in need of somewhere to do their washing. Our two nearest towns are Crediton and Tiverton. To my knowledge, Crediton has no launderettes whatsoever – the subtext being that everyone who dwells therein is in possession of a shiny washing machine. Poor old Tiverton, however, well it has about five – and that figures, it just feels a little more down at heel and deprived.

It’s a couple of decades since I had to use a launderette, but it is much the same – the usual mix of faulty machines, warm soapy smells, single men, foreign workers, travellers and people washing their double duvets. There’s a kind of camaraderie that exists – you can’t watch someone else’s smalls going round and round in the machine next to yours without feeling a little bond grow between you.

But that’s not always the case. Last Sunday, for instance, I was alone in the launderette stuffing mud-spattered clothes into a machine with little hope that they would come out much cleaner. About halfway through my laundry bag, I came across a long, plump and energetic earthworm. Now, I accept that most people don’t have earthworms in their laundry, but then most people don’t keep their washing in a caravan awning.

Anyway, I carefully placed the worm on top of the machine on a comfy glove and continued putting in my washing. At this point, three Polish men entered the launderette. They made a merry group as they arrived chatting and laughing, but this stopped as if by a switch when they saw me and my earthworm.

OK, I admit, I may have been talking to it at the time. I may possibly have been telling it that it was lucky not to be boiled alive on a hot wash and that I would find it a nice municipal bush if it would bear with me for a minute or two.

The men stood uncertainly at the door and then sidled around the shop perimeter, keeping me firmly in their sights. They were clearly not taking any chances with the crazy worm lady. Taking a leaf out of John Wayne’s book, I decided the maxim ‘never apologise and never explain’ was best employed in this instance. I shut the machine door with a flourish, set it on ‘start’, smiled boldly at the men, picked up my new friend, and left. As I drove away from the launderette, I looked in my rear-view mirror. All three men had come out into the street and were staring silently in my direction.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Winds of change

It’s not all rain at Charwood Towers – sometimes we get wind too. Earlier this week, we had rather a lot of it. I lay awake as it buffeted the caravan listening to the awning creaking and flapping. Occasionally, this would be punctuated by a loud crash as its sides were blown in with such force that shelves fell over and scattered their contents. For a while I thought I should get up and check to see that the dog wasn’t covered in shelving and assorted items, but became overwhelmed by fatigue and fell asleep.

In the morning, it turned out the dog was still alive albeit a little depressed. The tent floor was covered in an assortment of Barbie dolls, screwdrivers and tins of beans, which mingled with the mud that comes up through the supposedly waterproof membrane we put down as a ground sheet.

The biggest casualty was our tool tent. The very same tool tent I had just removed the skin from my fingers sewing up after the last gale (see A Rent in the Tent). It lay, flat and forlorn, its contents exposed through a large, gaping hole that is beyond my sewing needle or adhesive tent repair tape.

We hurriedly stored some of the more delicate items in our redundant second car, which gave up the struggle of our lifestyle shortly after we arrived on site. Now we have to work out how we can rehouse it all.

It’s not just the tent that needs rehousing. In the summer, our caravan clearly had leakage and water penetration issues. However, in the summer, the wind would blow, the sun would creep out for a bit and it would dry off. Now, it is clear that the water penetration is here to stay. The wall next to where I sleep is so wet it can saturate a tea towel in one wipe. We now have mould, which I am allergic to and isn’t much good for anyone else either.

This all means that turning the trailer into sleeping quarters has become even more of a priority than it was before. The trouble is, we have so many priorities. There’s the drive to sort out, the car to service, trees to buy and plant, weeds to be cut down, awnings to be dried, planning application drawings to be done – to name but a few. We circled in red all the things we thought most important on our long list of Things to Do, and there’s a lot of red on there.

But we have to take care of ourselves before we can take care of any of the rest of it, so we have started converting the trailer. By we, I mean Gully with some useful help from our eldest and hindrance from the other two. I see myself in a supporting role, which involves listing the attributes I wish the trailer to have – such as beauty, ample storage space – and room, ludicrously, for an electric piano that we don’t actually have any electricity to run.

To that end, we have bought all we need and work is in progress. I have high hopes that we will be able to move in soon – then, who knows, we may live in sludge without running water, but if we can get the currently blown-up generator going we will at least have Chopin – well, OK, more likely the Darth Vader theme from Star Wars.

Like Glastonbury, but without the fun

We are living in a quagmire. Mud has invaded us, ruined our few clean and dry clothes and seeped into our tempers casting us down with gloom and weariness. Well, that’s the case with me anyway, everyone else seems remarkably chipper about it all – but then everyone else aren’t tasked with trying to keep all the other elses clean and fed amongst it all.

Britain had its warmest October day for 100 years this month. For a glorious day or two the sun shone, the crowds headed to the beaches and all was warmth and light. But generally, it has rained – generally being in Mid Devon and on our field in particular. There was one memorable day back along, where I left our field in heavy rain, on a mission to Exeter. There we met up with some fellow home educating families in a park where the children frolicked in lovely sunshiny mild weather. Five miles homeward we drove back into rain, which had clearly continued all day without ceasing. That’s the way it seems to be.

We have long ago stopped bringing the car to the tent. Every trip out had been heralded by one or other of us pushing the car along the track. This led to some comedy moments where the pusher became spattered in mud while the wheels span – but actually those sorts of things are only comedy when they happen to someone else.

So we have been parking the car at the gate. Between it and the caravan lies a couple of hundred metres of swamp, across which things like five-gallon containers of water, or heavy car batteries or bags of stuff must be transported. This is done by wheelbarrow, which for a start is nearly always at the opposite location to where it’s needed. Once in situ, it has to be pushed along the drive. This is precarious enough when it’s empty and easy to manhandle, due to the slick-like nature of the matter underfoot. But is assumes even more perilous proportions when conducted with a full and extremely heavy wheelbarrow in the dark, which because of the longer evenings is increasingly the case.

Something of a routine has developed around this. I pull up with a car full of heavy goods, shopping and children. We step gingerly from the car into the rain, and slide about for a bit opening back doors and groping around under seats for torches. I say ‘could you just ….’ to departing empty-handed forms who are now specks in the distance carrying the only torch. I then, with great difficulty and bad humour, deposit recharged car batteries, heavy full water containers, shopping, clean laundry and wet swimming things into the wheelbarrow. This, I then attempt to push up a little slope, while gently sliding backwards. I then pull the wheelbarrow (pushing is even harder) very, very slowly towards the caravan. At two points along the way, I always slip at one of the larger water-filled ruts that have developed and for a few seconds it’s touch and go whether I and the wheelbarrow will regain equilibrium. Sometimes, to add an extra frisson of danger, a cat – who I should add is black and therefore invisible in the darkness – weaves in between my stumbling feet.

Last Thursday, the combination of load, conditions, cat and misery meant that it took even longer than normal and I arrived back at the caravan a good 20 minutes later than the children.

‘I was wondering,’ I said acidly as soon as Gully was within snarling range ‘how long I would have to lie drowning in the mire with a broken leg before anyone contemplated even wondering if it might be worth seeing if I’m OK.’

‘Yeah, I was thinking that too,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Don’t forget to bring the water, I’m desperate for a cup of tea.’

Friday, 21 October 2011

Wasting away

This week we have mostly been having a crisis with our loo. Up until Tuesday, we still had the nasty little chemical loo that came with the caravan and which I have loathed from the outset. Fate must have trying to tell us something, because we had run out of the worryingly pernicious blue chemical that goes in it. I had half heartedly tried to replace this, but the only bottle I could find was £18 and would have lasted us a year – and we were hoping to get the composting loo going sooner than that.

Every week, Gully takes the loo to the accommodating campsite up the road to empty – a job that, for understandable reasons, he is reluctant to do. Only when the loo was unable to contain any more, er, entries, would he take it with much accompanying bad temper and moaning. This week, however, he managed to drop the small but extremely necessary screw cap that keeps the contents of the loo contained in the underground tank into which it was being emptied – rendering it completely useless for evermore.

This left us loo-less for that evening and the following morning – necessitating an emergency evening visit to the 24-hour Tesco in Tiverton to meet two of the children’s needs. The next morning Matty and Zena were hanging around by the gate when one of the regular dog walkers passed by and enquired innocently what mum and dad were up to. ‘Daddy’s gone to Witheridge to have a poo,’ the startled lady was informed, followed by a discourse on the problems, present and past, we had been encountering with our loo, with a great deal of extraneous detail thrown in. This conversation was recounted back to me in the caravan while I held my head in my hands, thankful at least that this particular dog walker possessed a sense of humour.

But the embarrassment of having our sanitary arrangements discussed with the village was the least of my problems – we needed a solution and fast. As luck would have it, we were attending a home education meeting that day at which I knew there would be two women with ‘alternative’ toiletry arrangements. In fact, it turned out that a third mum too knew a lot about non-flushing loos (who would have thought?), but despite this on-tap expertise, the best they could come up with was that we were sorely in need of some sort of bucket, which I had been hoping was not the answer.

I went off dispiritedly to one of those huge soulless great-outdoors type shops and found to my surprise that they sold a bucket complete with fitted loo seat and lid. I bought some straw destined for guinea pig hutches in a nearby pet shop (interestingly, Jewson’s were out of sawdust – not enough building work going on in the downturn apparently) and that was it – our loo problem solved.

It’s been installed and used for several days now – and Gully has set up the big barrel into which it will be emptied and eventually turn into compost. I wish we had bought the thing from day one. I feel so relieved – no pun intended – that we no longer have the chemical toilet. Loos, I feel, should either be highly functional – such as the flushing variety – or worthy – such as a composting loo, where one is happily aware that its contents are not going to pollute the sea and will eventually make a powerful fertiliser for the geraniums. Being neither, chemical loos, almost literally, fall between two stools.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

A rent in the tent

The structure which currently acts as our tool shed is my Mum and Dad’s old tent. As befitting my parents, who were seasoned campers, it is made of sturdy canvas built to withstand the elements. But it is also old, and the elements where we are have tested it to the limits. So after a particularly blowy night we awoke to find it had caved in at the front and had a large L-shaped rip along the seams.

‘We could buy a shed,’ I said hopefully. But such profligacy has been consigned to the past – we have embraced a ‘make-do-and-mend’ style philosophy, that also, it would appear, applied to broken tents. Thankfuly, I have a make-do-and-mend sort of mother – who tipped up one afternoon with a reel of stout thread and a needle and set to sewing up the rip. The tear itself is about 15cm long in both directions – but the canvas is so thick that it is hard going and even my Mum was happy to call it a day with just half of one of the four necessary seams done.

So I have taken over the mantle of stitching up the tent, a job I hated the idea of, and I have found the whole business exceedingly satisfying. It is, of course, not without its frustrations. Primary of which is the weather. The tent has to be dry in order to be stitched and so far it has been a rare day that hasn’t found our field being pelted with rain. But the main problem is the sheer difficulty of stitching the fabric. The needle has to be pushed in vigourously and dangerously with a hard object. At first, I was using a bit of Lego for this before investing in a thimble, which is less unwieldy but more prone to slipping and impaling my hand on the end of the needle. Then the needle has to be gripped with a pair of pliers to be pulled through the canvas.

This is as much of a pfaff as it sounds – and takes ages – it is still unfinished. But while standing out on a chilly early autumn afternoon sewing up a tent may not sound like a whole lot of fun, I find it hugely satisfying. I’ve tried to analyse why, and I can only surmise that it engenders a strong sense of self reliance. This is an interesting concept, because self reliance underpins much of what we are trying to do at Charwood Farm in terms of being ‘off grid’ and aiming for zero inputs. Maybe the basic need underlying our motivation to create the farm comes from wanting to be more in command of our lives and less at the mercy of forces we can’t control.

But that said, complete self sufficiency is Gully’s utopia, not mine. I am certainly not planning to spend the rest of my life free of bananas … or mussels … or those little bottles of perfume they sell in mixed cases at Christmas …or rioja … or cinnamon whirls … or …

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Best laid plans

We handed in our planning application this week. Well, when I say handed it in, we attempted to do so – foiled once again by the lack of communications, a printer and electricity. We’ve been writing this application virtually full time for weeks and weeks now. An exercise made all the more difficult by the fact that we have to keep going to the library to use its facilities and wi-fi. This we have to do with children in tow – and while they like the library, they don’t necessarily want to be there for six hours every day.

But after many hours of research, writing and rewriting we could at last say it was ready. We set off in high spirits and as usual to the accompaniment of Led Zeppelin – a compilation album my daughter recently bought with her pocket money and which we have been listening to, ad nauseum, ever since. As usual, the children chortled their way through the middle section of Whole Lotta Love. ‘Do you think he’s met an alien?’ spluttered Matty, while Robert Plant shrieked ecstatically in the background. ‘No, he’s seen a ghost,’ gasped Sam to shouts of laughter. ‘Or sat on a pin,’ quipped Zena. Yes, well, something like that.

Anyway, we got to the library where we spent £30 printing out the application, only to have it rejected because it didn’t contain the site drawing. This was on Gully’s laptop and created on a piece of software that, of course, no one else has. This meant we needed to physically plug the laptop into a printer, which sounds simple but wasn’t, since we weren’t allowed to do this in the library and no one else we knew had a printer that seemed to work. Anyway, after a few days spent ringing around various friends and driving over half the county we managed to get it printed and the application was finally in.

We didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves afterwards. The application has consumed every waking moment – not to mention moments when we should have been asleep – for weeks. We sat in the caravan and felt lightened of load but vaguely directionless – so we had a nice cup of tea or two. Then we decided the best way forward was to make a long comprehensive list of all the things we have to do – which turned out to be very long indeed. We stared at it for a good while and then circled the things we thought were priorities in red and then stared at it for a bit longer. And then we put the kettle on again …

Friday, 30 September 2011

Nervous ticks

A summer of fairly unremitting rain has done wonders for the weeds in our field, which have flourished amid the dung we so thoughtfully ploughed in. We have just about managed to keep what will be the vegetable plot weed free – but the rest of field is now so high with weeds that it is possible to lose the children entirely in amongst it all.

On a positive note, the bird and insect-friendly seeds that we sowed back in June have come up and we have an abundance of wild flowers. I’ve been checking on the few days that are dry and am gratified to note that these have a healthy amount of honey bees on them – as well as an assortment of butterflies, which may help to explain why I have no leaves left on my broccoli plants.

The jungle-like conditions are also of great interest to pheasants, which have very bravely set up home despite the predatory nature of our cats and eldest son, who is desperate to catch one. The dog too enjoys the opportunities the undergrowth provides, most notably as cover so she can sneak up to the gate and cavort and bound with passing dogs and their walkers.

Predictably, therefore, we had our first tick to deal with this week. I hate ticks and spent half the afternoon trying to convince myself that the protuberance from the dog’s belly was an unexpected new nipple. But after she rolled over for the fifth time for a tummy tickle, I could pretend to myself no longer and action was required.

Removing a tick is notoriously difficult. They attach themselves so firmly to the flesh that just simply picking them off is nigh-on impossible. The main danger being that if you do give it a good old yank there is a high possibility that its head will stay burrowed in the dog, where it will probably become infected and all manner of horribleness ensue.

There are a number of schools of thought on the best way to remove a tick. One of which is to apply a lighted match or cigarette end to its bottom, which causes it to release its jaws in surprise – as you would. However, I can testify that dogs do not generally enjoy having lighted matches or cigarettes applied near their flesh. I once worked for a gloriously chaotic press agency to which the news editor used to bring his large, shaggy and insatiably greedy dog, Siva (named after a famous India cricketer, not the god). Myself and a colleague spent one memorable afternoon – when we should have been flogging stories to the tabloids – torturing poor Siva with a cigarette trying to remove a tick from near her ear. Since she was not a willing party the tick removal operation was not a success.

I therefore vetoed that idea, not least because I gave up smoking a long time ago. Instead I liberally coated the tick in butter. Ticks are such efficient parasites that they have mastered the ability to breathe through their skin so their head can stay with the important process of eating. An ability I can see the upside of. Anyway, they’re not so clever that they can breathe through a thin film of dairy produce. The downside of this technique is that they have a tendency to drop off the host in order to recover, before attaching themselves to something new – like a child.

But I managed to catch it while it was still attached and less committed to eating, and pulled it out with a sharp twist of a pair of tweezers. It was then that I decided we should all look at the tick under a powerful magnifying glass. It’s a home education thing, nothing much gets past the magnifying glass – daddy long-leg wings, dead wasps, rabbit poo, mouldy teabags – they all go under. But take a tip from me, if you want to sleep well at night or enjoy eating ever again, don’t look at a live tick in close up. Basically, they are just mouthparts attached to an greenish/grey oval sac with nasty little black legs like thick beard stubble that wave around grotesquely – Dr Who has yet to come up with something so hideously terrifying.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Planning – it’s all the rage

It seems we are trying to build our business venture at a time when planning laws are very much in the news. This week, we have mostly been hearing about the proposed Dale Farm evictions and the rise of the shires against Tory proposals to relax the planning system.

It’s interesting that both issues should come to a head at the same time. Dale Farm, for those who live on another planet or are reading this when it’s long ago and forgotten, is a community of around 86 traveller and gypsy families at the site in Crays Hill, Essex. The site has two parts – one that has planning permission and has been home to around 40 families since the 1970s, and an adjacent site that does not have planning permission, but on which families have been living for many years. In July 2011, the culmination of a legal process ruled that Basildon Council had acted lawfully in refusing permission and an eviction notice was served. Since then, the travellers have mobilised a formidable PR machine that has seen their plight highlighted on Panorama and receiving support from entities as diverse as Jewish Solidarity, Fransican monks and Vanessa Redgrave.

Meanwhile, over at Tory central, cracks are beginning to appear and pressure is being heaped upon the unfortunate head of Greg Clark, the planning minister. Talk about a poison chalice – here is the man tasked with pushing through a policy that will have every Daily Mail reader and much of the core rural Tory vote spitting with rage. No wonder he is beginning to make soothing noises about being ‘open to suggestions’ from the likes of Sir Simon Jenkins, the National Trust chairman.

And now, to cap it all, Bill Bryson has marched into the debate in his guise as president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). I’ve been having something of a Bill Bryson fest of late. I’ve just finished reading his books on Shakespeare and the English language and am looking forward to embarking on his hefty tome At Home, which is waiting snugly on my bookshelf for me. And when I say snugly, I mean just that – it’s a brick of a book.

I’m feeling a bit let down by Bill – he is something of a hero of a mine and now I feel that he is just another of the legion of wealthy, rural-dwelling people who want to keep this green and pleasant land to themselves and through a combination of house prices and the current planning laws have managed to turn much of rural Britain into some sort of bucolic pastiche.

The fact is that Britain needs thousands of new homes. Property now is out of the reach of would-be first-time buyers – and rural properties particularly so, not in small part to people who have a second home in the countryside to which they travel from their ‘real’ life in whatever city in which they make their wealth. Where on earth, do people think these new homes should be built? Are they all, perhaps, to be crammed along the Thames estuary?

The British countryside is beautiful and needs to be protected – but the planning laws do that and will continue to do so under the Tory proposals. Meanwhile, people need affordable housing and somewhere to live – and why should they all be squashed on the fag end of our cities and towns? Surely a few new genuinely sustainable dwellings in each of our villages will bring fresh blood into communities and make the countryside a little more diverse. And diversity is key – rural Britain is, on average, wealthier, whiter, more religious, more heterosexual and older than the rest of the population. Recently, the producer of Midsomer Murders, Brian True-May got into a lot of hot water for suggesting that Midsomer wouldn’t work if it was racially diverse saying: ‘We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work.’

Research by the University of Leicester has backed this view up. They found opinions and values – which equate the countryside exclusively and unthinkingly with white Englishness – were far from uncommon amongst white rural residents and were in fact echoed in many rural towns and villages.

‘The countryside was, for a number of those we spoke to, the ‘last bastion’ of old-fashioned Englishness which needed to be preserved from the encroachment of the ‘evils’ of late modernity. Not only that, this idea of Englishness was essentially monocultural, in all its forms – white, heterosexual, middle-class, conformist, family-orientated, church-going, conservative and ‘safe’,’ said Jon Garland and Neil Chakraborti who conducted the research.

In the course of their research, the academics were subjected to a barrage of abuse and even death threats from people affronted by findings that all in the countryside may not be green or pleasant. ’For many people, notions of Englishness are very much bound up with images of an unspoilt countryside and its gently undulating landscape of farms, cottages and hedgerows, itself a very nostalgic form of national identity redolent of an England left behind many decades ago,‘ said Garland and Chakraborti. ’It also, of course, pre-dates the advent of post-war multiculturalism, and for some white rural residents this is the way that they want it to stay – whatever the realities of modern rural living may actually be.‘

The realities of modern rural living are that there are not enough houses to go around in this country and that the countryside is a place of work, not a chocolate-box idyll to be forever preserved as if on a National Trust tea towel. It needs to be more diverse in every sense and that won’t come with the present status quo of the retired and well-off buying their Ye Olde Coach House and its attendant slice of rural idyll and pulling up the rope ladder behind them.

However, sometimes a different view can come from the most surprising of sources. Recently, I was forced to wait in the road at a nearby village while a flock of sheep passed. I had always thought sheep were stupid, but not realised quite how much. My car was stationary, but they approached on block with caution stamping their feet indecisively, then en masse hurtled directly onto the front of my car. Anyway, after this comedy performance, their followed a small Asian boy who was clearly in charge and nonchalantly chewing on a stem of grass. ‘Cheers,’ he said casually as he walked past.

‘There must be another Asian family farming around here,’ I told Gully when I got home. ‘What?’ he said, appalled. ‘There’d better bloody well not be – I’M the only black in the village.’

Links: Rural racism rife reveal researchers

Saturday, 27 August 2011

An Englishman’s home is his pallets

‘Pallets,’ said Gully with a hint of the maniac in his eye. ‘They’re the answer to everything.’ He has hit on a rich seam of disposable pallets, and they appear to have become something of an obsession.

Initially we got them to fashion a sort of outside kitchen area. This was because I expressed concern that cooking in the caravan in winter was likely to contribute to what is clearly going to be a mould issue. The idea is that the barbecue will go under cover and I can stand outside in winter in minus two centigrade cooking the dinner, which, as I am sure you can imagine, I can’t wait to do. As an added bonus, the cover will be a ‘sail’ made from a broken polytunnel that will be apparently be fashioned so ingeniously that it will cleverly harvest rain water which will drain into a series of water butts. So, not only will I be cooking in Arctic conditions but I will also be standing under a heavily waterlogged roof. Nice …

Anyway, I digress – so the pallets were for the outdoor kitchen and to make a couple of compost bins. Then Gully decided that we could use them to insulate and weather proof the trailer, which is to be our bedroom, by hammering pallets into place and stuffing them with insulation of some kind. This will look lovely – not. However, the look is apparently unimportant, what is important is that we are recycling materials that would otherwise be waste products and are, more to the point, free. I can see the power of this argument, but still have a dreadful bourgeois need for the trailer to be pretty.

But it turns out the trailer is the least I need to worry about and brings me back to pallets apparently being the answer to everything. ‘All of it,’ said Gully waving his arms wildly ‘we’ll build it all out of disposable pallets!’ This includes what will eventually be our house, which will be fashioned from regular-sized strips of pallet board that will be cut at either end at an angle and hammered in at the bottom of each strip. The reason for this is that they can then be simply removed and another one banged into place when they begin to rot, as they will surely do, which means we will eventually be living in a perpetually repairing house.

I have taken all this with what I consider to be remarkable calm. It all washes over me now – I have achieved a zen-like approach to the future that in some other life could only have been obtained in an expensive retreat. Or, less esoterically, I think ‘whatever’ and carry on going about my business. But I did have cause to have a wobble when I told my work colleague Lin about our plans for the global glut of disposable pallet boards.

Lin, who has run a smallholding and stables with her husband for years, has hitherto viewed our plans with gentle amusement. ‘Yes, pallet boards are very useful,’ she said. Then failed to hide her horror as I told her we would be living in a pallet board house. Later, the conversation turned to her new rabbits and what to house them in. ‘You could build a hutch out of pallets,’ I said, having through constant exposure acquired something of Gully’s mania. She looked at me with pity. ‘I wouldn’t build a fence out of pallet boards’, she said firmly ‘much less something to put the rabbits in – and absolutely, most definitely, not a house.’

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Potty mouth

Just to prove to ourselves what die-hard, rough-tough outdoors types we have become, we went camping again this week – this time to an even more fabulous campsite in Gloucestershire. This was mostly to catch up with my lovely friend Sophie and her gorgeous girls, but also to get out of Gully’s way so he can work on our planning application for temporary permission to stay on the field – on which so much of our future depends.

‘Wouldn’t you rather have a bit of luxury?’ asked Sophie as we discussed the various merits of campsites. ‘You know, proper loos and all?’ But in fact what we opted for was the amazing Thistledown – a green camp site set in 70 acres of the Cotswolds and as glorious as camping can be, providing you don’t want a swimming pool, or laid-on entertainment.

Thistledown has many things of interest – unexpected and lovely sculptures dotted around, animals, woodlands to explore, interesting information boards to read, fires to make. But for me, the main attraction was that far from having ‘proper loos’, part of its facilities include composting toilets – and of late I have begun to develop something of an obsession with all things toilet-related.

This has led to a level of familiarity with complete strangers that most people would take years to achieve. Nowadays, whenever I come across someone who is living in an alternative manner, I find the conversation turns to loo arrangements very quickly. I recently met some people in the next village from us who are living in a caravan on 40 acres and within minutes was inspecting their wooden composting loo, which I had initially taken to be a hen house. In fact, they are such experts on the subject that they make composting loos. Similarly, on finding out that another home ed family near us in Devon were doing a barn conversion and also lived in a caravan, the conversation soon turned to waste disposal. Last week, I traipsed up to the campsite reception to see if they sold milk (they didn’t) and was very soon discussing the merits of their composting toilet system.

As a quick and hopefully not-too-much-information guide, composting toilets come in a variety of guises, but basically work on the same principle of ‘managed aerobic processing’. They are dry, in that there is no flush, instead one does what one has to do, and then pours some sawdust on top, which helps the aerobic process, absorbs moisture and controls any unpleasant whiffs. Then what happens is that bacteria get to work breaking down the excrement and eliminating any nasty pathogens. To achieve this, excess liquid has to be filtered out and the whole process needs to be aerated in some way.

My friends have one loo for number ones and another next to it for number twos. Other people use a straw bale for wee, it being better if the loo isn’t overly contaminated with urine. The result of it all is interesting. I really expected to find these loos horribly smelly – not unlike, say, the pit latrines at Glastonbury. But actually, they barely smell at all and if you don’t look too hard down the loo itself they are very inoffensive and pleasantly satisfying (for want of a better word) in that one feels environmentally smug about answering the call of nature.

But that’s not necessarily the case where all are concerned. ‘Did you like that campsite?’ I asked the children brightly on the way home. ‘No,’ said young Matty, who had spent the entire time running around happily, playing in the giant wheelbarrows the site provides for transporting tents from your car, and generally having fun. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because it’s got disgusting loos,’ he shouted to vigorous agreement from Sam and Zena. ‘You open up the lid and you can see everybody’s poo,’ he added with face wrinkling. This, I should add, from the boy who not so long ago carefully covered a half-eaten mouse’s entrails with gold paint.

I drove for a while in thought – then announced that we too would be having that sort of toilet in the not-too-distant future.

‘Well, I won’t be using it,’ pronounced Matty. ‘I’m going to never-ever-ever poo again and then I am going to get bigger and bigger and fuller and fuller of poo until I burst – and it will ALL BE YOUR FAULT!’

So, there’s something to look forward to then.

Links: Thistledown; Thunderboxes 2 Go!; Composting toilet

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Farming today

I was struck recently by Gully describing how the landscape was changing in his native Kashmir. Being played out there is a rerun of sorts of the enclosure acts, albeit done on a more voluntary basis. For years, the landscape was a patchwork of smallholdings. The land was hilly and it was farmed, expertly, in terraces. But in recent years smallholders have been encouraged to sell their farms to bigger concerns. The terraces have been turned into huge fields growing single crops. The results are interesting – the land has major erosion problems and the soil has become depleted necessitating the adding of chemical fertilisers to get anything to grow. Meanwhile, the displaced small farmers have spent their money sending their children away to obtain university educations – now the children are back, highly educated but unable to get jobs in the cities, and with no land inheritance to fall back on. Moreover, the old system worked as a kind of family planning incentive – the land would have to be parcelled out between sons, so families were often small because no one wanted to have to divide their land into tiny chunks.

Monoculturefarming is common in Britain. I well remember driving through Cambridgeshire with my mother, when she suddenly clutched at my arm and shouted ‘Look!’. After I had bought the car back under control, I tried to find the object of her excitement and discovered that it was a field of black and white cows. ‘They are the first cows I’ve seen here,’ she said, by way of explanation. And she was right. Cambridgeshire is gloriously flat and lends itself very well to single-crop arable farming. Many farms there now grow only wheat or oil-seed rape. They used to have cows, but it became uneconomical to keep them with prices driven down by supermarkets and cheap imports​. Dairy farmers are on duty in all weathers 365 days a year from dawn to dusk – that’s a bloody tough way to not make any money.

In fact, so hard is it for farms to make money, that they are closing at an alarming rate – some figures suggest as many as two a day. Farmers, on average, earn only 9p per £1 spent on food in supermarkets. Many have little choice but to earn their 9p by monoculture farming, which enables higher yields and is more economical because production can be standardised and requires less labour.

But this comes at a high environmental price. Variety is lost because single crop farms do not only grow one thing, but grow only one variety of one thing. This opens the way for pests who multiply joyfully encouraged by a never-ending supply of food. This necessitates ever increasing amounts of pesticide, with all the resultant problems to the environment that they bring. Conventional farming replaces nutrients taken out of the soil, but with single crop farms the soil is depleted requiring more and more fertiliser – and aside from then environmental cost – that, as any farmer will tell you, does not come cheap.

In fact, it’s worth here considering the plight of the modern-day farmer. To gather a true picture, I asked my lovely friend Helen who runs a farm in Cambridgeshire with her husband Nick. Helen, who is also a qualified teacher, is one of the most positive people on the planet – and since farmers have something of a reputation for moaning, I felt her opinions would reflect a true picture.

The main problem, according to Helen, is that farmers are essentially hostages – to fortune, acts of God, big business, greedy landlords, and bizarre government practices. A farmer planting a field of wheat has little control over the price of the seed or the cost of the fertiliser he (or she) needs, or, ultimately, the price he sells his harvest for. He cannot, of course, control the weather nor can he completely safeguard against pests and disease. Meanwhile, he has to follow rules and procedures laid down by the pen-wielding beaurocrats at Defra, who, he feels, do not fully grasp the issues he faces – and, if he is a tenant farmer, split his profits with his landlord – and some of them can be pretty grasping and ruthless. Few of us do a job where we are uncertain what we will be paid at the end of the year – and whether that pay will cover the costs we have incurred along the way.

Certainly, there are some farmers for whom we can find it hard to elicit sympathy – but if we are moaning about farming practices today, we as consumers have to take our share of culpability. We expect our food to be cheap and plentiful. We therefore get the agriculture we deserve.

Of course, it is disingenuous to argue that small scale farms have occupied some agricultural idyll. I once heard a contributor to a Radio 4 environmental programme who was angrily accusing the green movement of trying to drag us back to the middle ages. He had worked with peasant farmers in Romania and found little idyllic about it. ‘Subsistence farming,’ he concluded ‘better than being dead – but only just.’

But there are small-scale farms out there who are proving that it is possible to produce abundant harvests and make money – while not depleting the environment. Take the example of Dr Paul Benham (see links) who works what he calls a high biodiversity, low-carbon polyculture – through which he grows produce worth £20,000 a year on a mere 1.5 acres of land. It can be done – it just needs the will.

Links: Organic Fruit & Vegetable Farm; BigBarn

In the absence of anything-else-to-do

We went camping this week – at a rather nice little campsite in Kuggar, Cornwall. The Namparra site was just up our street – a big field with fairly sparse facilities with owners relaxed enough to allow real fires. It wasn’t up everyone’s street – not for those, perhaps, who like to take a regulation shower at 8.30am. But it felt like proper old-fashioned camping with the added bonus of a quirky little bar in a converted barn, which sold rather moreish local real ale.

But the most rewarding aspect of it all, was the absence of moaning or boredom. The children have now been without any electronic entertainment for several weeks and it shows. Whereas previous camping trips were fraught with post-electronic device lassitude (and this from children for which screens were limited), this one was amazingly easy.

We had stopped on the way there at McDonald’s. Yes, I know McDonald’s is the spawn of the devil, but we were very late and very hungry and very emotionally overwrought, what with having to stop off and put down poor Ollie, my sister’s aged cat, on the way – she being away on holiday at the time and he having gone downhill rapidly. So, anyway, we all had happy meals, which yielded a Smurf each as a give-away toy.

They played with those Smurfs all the way to Cornwall and for the entirety of our little break. The Smurfs came with us into the maize maze on the Lizard and helped us get hopelessly and happily lost. We went to the beach, where the Smurfs were buried, taken swimming in the sea and showered in what I very much hoped was a fresh water outlet on the beach. Then, the Smurfs helped us pack up the tent and kept the children amused all the way home.

The children have been doing this more and more, becoming completely engrossed in an imaginary world peopled by soft toys, Bionicles and even coloured pencils.

However, it’s not all Christopher Robin – for young Matty has taken to hanging his teddy bears. I’m not sure when his fixation on asphyxiation began, but I think it harks back to his birthday in June, for which he was presented with a very fine book on pirates by his uncle Ken. Sparing little on detail, the book had some graphic illustrations of the sticky end to which pirates could look forward – that is, swinging gently from a gibbet. Shortly after, I was startled one day to discover Kyo, Matty’s favourite teddy, bound to the scaffolding tower by a thick chain around his neck. The next day, Kyo was joined by Baby Annabel who had suffered a similar grisly fate (albeit one I secretly enjoyed). As many soft toys as chain length permitted were added over the following days, swinging weirdly and macabrely in the wind and buffeted by the rain, which never seems to stop. Soon, the Smurfs were dangling there too.

I am hoping this is a sign of a brilliant imagination – but am prepared to admit that it could be a symptom of some kind of serious derangement.

Links: The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development

Saturday, 30 July 2011


Reg, the enforcement officer, came back to see us this week. He’s a fair-minded sort of chap and is waiting for us to put in our planning application before – and if – he does any enforcing. But one thing he said really took me by surprise, which was that we will have to probably work harder and jump through more hoops because what we are planning is so different from the norm.

I thought about this some more after he had gone and felt vague stirrings of outrage. In fact, I am beginning to view our project through much more of a political lens than I had anticipated.

Initially, the driving force behind what we are trying to achieve seemed pretty simple. We wanted to build a business in the countryside – one that would not only sustain us and provide a living, but which would also be our whole way of life. Sort of Tom and Barbara Good go to business school. Yes, we wanted to be pretty much self sufficient in food, but we also wanted to marry this with some sound business principles too.

As we developed our plan, we became increasingly earnest about the environmental legitimacy of what we were doing. We wanted to prove that you can make money out of the land in a way that enhanced rather than depleted it. That you could take a small space and work it very hard, but in such a manner that it was better off – more fertile, more diverse, and a richer habitat. This was why we came to permaculture, because it provided a way for us to cater for all the elements – ourselves included – that would be part of the land.

So far, so all very environmentally aware. But now I am beginning to feel my inner peasant uprising. If you want an interesting exercise, obtain a copy of Who Owns Britain. After you’ve got over the surprise of how much of the country is owned by the Church of England, leaf idly through the section that lists the biggest landowners by country. What is particularly striking is that over the centuries the book covers, little has changed. We find that the direct descendants of lords who owned 13,500 acres in 1750 own very much the same today.

Much of the countryside is still owned by wealthy landowners who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and keeping it for themselves. Much of this goes back to the enclosures acts, which continued for nearly 700 years from the time of the Norman conquests until the 19th century. These effectively removed the land from commoners and small landowners and transferred it to large wealthy manors. The displaced peasants had little choice but to work for the lord of the manor and later, as the industrial revolution took off, were forced to find employment in towns as machinery took the labour out of agriculture.

This – and the rise of the motor car – left the door open for the creeping gentrification of the countryside – and with it the price of houses and the cost of land.

So, the long and the short of it is that if you want to live in the countryside, you need to be comfortably off. And if you want to start a land-based business even more so – for a ready-built house with a bit of land, you won’t get much change out of £500,000 in Devon – which doesn’t leave a lot of room for skills-rich, cash-strapped innovators – like us.

Which is why we have gone about things in a less orthodox fashion. This is not done lightly – giving up a comfortable house to live in the middle of a field in a caravan with the worry of eviction if you don’t succeed is not conducive to an untroubled night’s sleep. Years of hard work and costly mistakes lie ahead of us, during which we will have ploughed many hours of time and a considerable sum of money as we go along. If in the end, we obtain planning permission for a low impact, sustainable dwelling – well, it will have hardly been presented on a plate.

Thus we come back to those extra hoops we may have to jump through to justify our existence to the planners. We are lucky that we have planning laws that offer some flexibility to people like us and give us a chance to prove ourselves – and we most certainly need safeguards against rogue developers – but true innovation in the countryside needs to be encouraged, not slapped down and seen as some sort of threat to a rural idyll, that has largely been manufactured in the last 100 years. After all, it is through change and experimentation that the human race survived – someone once decided in a mad moment to cook something in oil on the fire to see if it improved its flavour – and thousands of years later, someone else took a punt on growing those new-fangled things called potatoes.

And what would life be without chips?

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Stoned again

This week, I have been picking up stones from my vegetable bed. When I say vegetable bed, what I am referring to is a semi-circular patch of about 400 sq m that has been nominated for the purpose of growing our food and herbs. I have some issues with this land – the first being that it is not particularly accessible to the living area, and thus falls short of the permaculture zoning principle.

In permaculture, the idea is to split up the land into zones (and in fact just about anything else you can think of – I’ve seen permaculture models applied to town design and life coaching). Very roughly speaking, zones go from zero to five, with zone zero being the area of the most intensive human activity, ie the house, and zone five being where rare or no human intervention is needed. Nearest the house – zone one – are those elements in the system that require frequent attention and need to be visited often – salad crops, bins and the greenhouse, for instance. This follows a more or less commonsense pattern through the zones. In fact, a recent new acquaintance dismissed permaculture as a pompous word for commonsense, which basically it is – but we like it all the same.

For me to attend to my veg plot, I currently have to walk out of the awning, collect tools from the tent-cum-shed en route, walk around the hideous trailer, walk past the veg plot to the field entrance to collect the missing half of the tools, which are currently deployed in gate-hole digging and stone-spreading activities, and then walk back to the veg plot otherwise know as a barren expanse of mud. We definitely need to work on our zoning.

So, as far as I can see, the veg plot is not in the right place – but I understand that when we have buildings with something as grand as, say, a door, we will be facing the plot and thus it will be nearer. This just leaves my other problem, which is the volume of geological matter it contains. For it is covered with thousands upon thousands of stones.

A quick trawl through Devon geological history on the county council website, throws up some fascinating facts. The distinctive red colour of the soil dates from the Triassic time period a mere 200-250 million years ago – when much of Britain was desert. I should add a caveat here, that I am on very hazy ground and for further information please see someone who knows what they are talking about, or visit Devon Geology.

Anyway, in layman’s terms, the red soil comes from Triassic rocks, which, apparently, were covered with a strata of greenish-grey mudstones and limestones. This is interesting, and demonstrates beautifully that time is a continuum in which nothing much changes, because my veg patch continues to have its own strata of greenish-grey mud and limestones interestingly mixed with what appear to be seaside pebbles.

Given less environmental principles and some ready cash, the answer to this would be to hire a digger and remove the top foot of earth and replace it with some nice topsoil from the garden centre. However, ours is an exercise in sustainability – as few inputs as possible and as little waste generated. Therefore the stones must be picked up by hand and reused elsewhere on the site. And with the amount we have, we could probably reuse them to build a small castle in the Norman tradition.

So, I started to worry away at a small corner – picking up just the surface stones of an area about 2x2 metres took hours. Then, I had a bright idea and employed a rake. This produced more stones because the prongs dislodged rocks lying under the surface – and I now had as many as before I began. I realised that here was the sort of exercise they used to make prison inmates undertake in the Victorian age – a monotonous, repetitive task with no end in sight. Apparently, a villager told me, people used to think the stones grew, because no matter how many they picked more always appeared.

It was at this point that I abandoned all hope of planting anything in the immediate future. The ground needed some serious cultivating. Not only were the stones a problem, but new plant matter was beginning to spread across it, and none of it welcome. Ploughing the ground had activated all sorts of floral activity that needed to be stopped in its tracks. Furthermore, my horticulturalist brother explained that pests lived in the soil of pastureland that would dine happily on anything I planted. Organisms such as leather jackets and chafer grubs, that would normally chomp away on grass roots, but would be equally happy tucking into a brassica or two. They needed to understand that the time had come to move on – encouraged by a little starvation.

This tallied with advice from my new friend, Alan. Mr Titchmarsh comes in for some heavy criticism from various quarters, but I have to say he knows how to explain this gardening milarkey with clear use of the English language. I had taken The Kitchen Gardener out of the library and been disappointed to read that his recommendation with pasture or rough grassland was to do nothing with it for several months except fork it over and hoe to allow weeds and pests to be removed over time.

Although I am desperate to provide food for the table, I can see the wisdom in not growing anything for a while – and serendipitously this ties in neatly with next year’s growing season, when if I keep whittling away at the stones and the weeds and the pests, I should have a decent bit of ground in which to begin planting. Moreover, it gives me time to get my head around what I am going to plant and how. I like the idea of mixed vegetable – or polyveg – planting, but can’t quite divorce myself from the idea of crop rotation and neat beds in straight lines.

So, I shall be picking up stones and digging for several months almost single-handedly. I have an offer of help from my youngest, Matty – who has negotiated an eye-watering rate of tuppence per stone. He very quickly picked up ten very small stones. ‘No,’ I said – they have to be bigger. ‘How big?’ he asked. ‘Just bigger,’ I said, uncertain of the answer but sure that I was not going to be done out of 20p for a handful of pebbles. I shall wait with interest to see if his innate indolence overcomes his desire for new bits of Lego – meanwhile, back to work…

Saturday, 23 July 2011


Fridays are transition days. On Fridays I get up early, pack my travel bag, wash and brush my hair and choose clothes from that part of the wardrobe that is reserved for non-caravan me. This is by any standards a scant collection, but it is sacrosanct in that it only comes out when I head for work, or accompany my daughter, as I did this week, on one of her many social engagements where I have to deal with people who live normal lives and don’t walk around continually spattered in mud.

This week, the choice from my sparse collection was larger than usual, because some of the items had recently encountered an iron, thanks to my lovely Mum, increasing my usable capacity by about 50%.

So on Fridays I dress differently, I certainly smell better than during the rest of the week, and even while I am still in the field a part of me is already in a different sphere. I ignore the children and the pestering cats as I pay attention to the Today programme a little more avidly and try to recall a week’s worth of news.

My post-childbirth life has always felt split – as I guess is the case with most working parents. But being a stay-at-home mum half the week and a working mother desperately trying to hold onto some sort of career the rest has created a weird demarcation which I have always felt hard to marry up. Now I feel this even more. Geographically I am around 200 miles from where I work – but emotionally the distance is far greater. It seems almost inconceivable that I can wake up and leave my family behind on our small, muddy patch of land and three hours later having jostled my way from Paddington to King’s Cross be walking through the revolving door of King’s Place into the calm space of its latest foyer exhibition. Back there in the Devon sunshine – or, more usually, rain – are the people I would die for; here is an essential part of me that I can’t allow to die. Working on a distinguished national newspaper is something I had wanted to do since my early teens – and even though the dream has given way to the cynicism and banalities of familiarity, I am still pathetically grateful every time I walk through that revolving door.

Maybe it is because of this parallel life, that Friday has become my sad day of the week. The one time that I feel homesick for the more predictable and ordered life I had before. What I miss is not going home at the end of the working day. So far, I have been spending Friday nights spreading myself around family and friends – and it’s lovely to see them all, but I want to be at home kissing the children goodnight and tucking them in, scratching the dog, tickling the cats, and going to my own bed with a good book.

And some of my early stay overs were a little too close to my old life for comfort. Waiting for a train to take me out of King’s Cross to Cambridge I could see my old commuter train and I wished that I could get on it again and walk back into my old life. On that journey to Cambridge, I could see the familiar lights of the Sandy television transmitter, which for nearly six years had been a symbol for me of home-coming – now it had become a symbol of a life I no longer had.

This rampant self pity is all compounded by the difficulty of getting where I want to be. Mostly, I stay with Gully’s brother’s family in Harlow. It takes an Underground journey, the train and two buses to get to their house – the latter involving a short wait in the town’s bus station for a connection. On my first visit, this was depressing. The music from a nightclub thumped across the streets while rain pattered steadily through the bus shelter onto my clothes and feet. Hunched in the rain, wearing only shirt sleeves underneath a knife-proof vest stood a lone security guard, who stared forlornly across to the multi-storey car park lights – he summed up how I felt.

But – at the end of it all was a warm welcome and a cup of tea with people of which I am very fond. So, I guess I had a home-coming after all.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Gate expectations

Digging the hole for the gate post has been a Herculean effort for Gully. Six inches below the surface of the soil, it appears that our field is virtually solid bedrock – which explains the inordinately large amount of stones that lie on its surface.

Gully needed to dig a deep hole in order to bury the large post on which our new five-bar gate would hang. Over the days he worked – and worked – away. Passing dog walkers stopped to look on with interest, our friend with the JCB turned up. ‘I’ve got a device on my digger that does that,’ he volunteered, having spent some enjoyable minutes watching Gully sweating in his hole with a hammer and chisel.

‘Well, what the bloody hell am I doing this for?’ Gully asked. ‘Ah,’ said our friend knowingly. ‘It won’t go through that lot.’

As the hole slowly deepened, Gully diminished in stature. We became in danger of running over him whenever we drove in and out of the field on our way to shops and activities. The kids became inured to seeing a three-foot high daddy standing at the gate. ‘Look,’ I would say marvelling at my own wit as we came and went. ‘It’s Lord Farquaad.’

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Digging ourselves into a hole

Given that we are trying to do most tasks on the land without the aid of unnecessary expenditure or machinery, things tend to take a long time and assume medieval proportions. These last couple of weeks we have resown the field with a highly expensive and dubious-looking mixture of bird and insect-friendly seed. This was meticulously weighed out and the field roughly divided, so the seed was even. Gully then scattered it over the field by hand, claiming he had some kind of system, but which appeared to be pretty random. None of which mattered in the final analysis, because of the pigeons.

I was first alerted to their presence one day at dawn. It was, in every sense, a rude awakening. ‘Fucking hell,’ exploded into my eardrums. I opened my eyes to see Gully already heading outdoors. ‘Fucking pigeons,’ he bawled by way of explanation followed by frantic arm waving and a strange noise that I later discovered he thought sounded like a crow. This worked very well, the birds squawked in alarm and flew up into the air – by the time he had walked back into the caravan, they were back pecking contentedly at the seed – all £158 of it.

Gully stayed on pigeon patrol for the rest of the morning. That day the kids spent happy hours covering themselves and the caravan in permanent ink marker, drawing monster faces and replica cats on balloons that were supposedly going to deter the birds. They didn’t work – and neither did Sam’s ingenious scarecrows fashioned out of redundant polytunnel poles and balloons that he spent the next few days constructing. Meanwhile, Gully had taken to waking up noisily pre-dawn and banging on the caravan window making crow noises. This would be interspersed with a head count and embittered exclamations. ‘Twelve!’ he would snarl. ‘Twelve of the bloody things.’ Thus was my sleep disturbed. Either the pigeons were going to have to go, or I was.

We still have no answer to the pigeons that doesn’t involve a 12-bore – but early one morning I was aroused from the pigeon patrol to find Gully pushing a small seed into my face. I stared at it blearily, wondering how it was that insanity had crept in so soon. Then I realised that what I was staring at was in fact a small germinating seed. Fantastic, now we were sprouting for the pigeons.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Trailer trash

We’ve been concentrating less on the land and more on our living quarters in the last couple of weeks. We are on the land to literally grow a business, but since we are taking a permaculture view of what we are doing, we and our pets are inextricably part of the system, which also means we have to take care of our own needs and establish an infrastructure in order to be able to take care of the land.

To that end we finally have electricity of sorts – once Gully had rectified the little problem of flames shooting out of the back of the new generator which threatened to set fire to our storage tent – and the battery that refused to recharge. All of which meant that in a week of monumental newspaper history – the closure of the News of the World – I could only listen to the reams of analysis against the backdrop of burning canvas, petrol fumes and loud throbbing.

We have also brought on to the site those items that we think we need to house us and our equipment. As secondary accommodation we are going to convert an unused catering trailer that Gully built. A thing of immense ugliness, it is big and bulky and black. Eventually, I am assured, it will be clad in wood and be less, er, black – but it will still be big and, if anything, bulkier. Inside, the plan is to turn it into our sleeping quarters, enabling us to use the caravan as a sitting-room-cum-office.

Since our mantra is to reduce, reuse and recycle – we are kind of wedded to making do with what we have – and so the tool shed is my mother’s old tent and the bikes are being housed under a defunct polytunnel cover supported by two redundant scaffold towers.

All of which is very environmentally friendly, but the site is beginning to resemble a small popular music festival – and I couldn’t help but be worried about what the neighbours think. And the neighbours were exercising me.

Right from the start, I had prophesised that we would be loathed and abhored by all in the village. In fact, quite a few people were very interested and open minded about what we are doing and some were actively helpful and friendly from the beginning. But as time went on and it became apparent that we were planning to stay on the land, we could sense hostility was beginning to grow, which I found upsetting – since, like most human beings, I just want to be loved – or at least, liked.

‘But you knew this would happen,’ said Gully. And he was right, everything was going pretty much as I thought it would – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Ask any first-time mum-to-be what she knows about childbirth – and she will tell you that her understanding is that some pain is to be expected. But it’s not until those contractions really take hold that she will truly realise what she has let herself in for. Likewise, my advance musings from a safe distance of several counties away, had not equipped me for the reality of snubs and stares and gossip. So, when it came to the subject of neighbours, my hide was thin and my impulse to pop over to B&Q and buy a neat little shed fashioned like some Swedish chalet and festooned with a rose-covered trellis, was strong.

Link: The Permaculture Association

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Communication breakdown

I’m sure I did ask myself what sort of modern conveniences I would most miss most when living in a tent. It’s the sort of question it would be remiss not to ask since it is somewhat vital to the deciding-what-to-take process – but I am not sure I gave it the thought it needed. I guess I naturally assumed that I would find it difficult to live without electricity, or a loo and a washing machine, or any kind of running water. Somewhere along the line, I must have deliberately decided that I wouldn’t be able to live without my slow cooker or breadmaker – since they were in one of the few boxes clearly marked with writing big enough to stand out on an advertising hoarding.

It turns out that living without electricity in the height of summer is ridiculously easy – and fabulously freeing, removing at a stroke any stress I felt about how much time the children were spending in front of screens. We all go to bed when it’s dark, and wake up to light mornings. I missed Woman’s Hour, Sandi Toksvig and Eddie Mair – but found that life inexplicably continues without the gentle rhythm of Radio 4 programmes marking out the day.

I discovered that when you have fewer clothes you make them last longer and don’t have to wash them so often. The days when I would toss random items hung on the floor back into the wash bin regardless of whether they had been worn or not were consigned to a wasteful and profligate past. And, if it is the case that in space no one can hear you scream, is it equally possible that in a field in Mid Devon, no one can see a mud- and egg-encrusted jumper?

I loathed the portable chemical loo from the start and initially refused to do it – finding excuses to pop out for suddenly urgent provisions that could only be obtained in shops with loo facilities. But, over the weeks I became inured to it, and if I and the potty did not exactly become friends, we learnt to get along together.

No, what utterly sent me into orbit, was the inability to communicate with and receive information from the outside world. Much guff is talked about living in a digital, 24-hour age. Every so often, some media type pops up on the radio or in the Saturday newspapers gushing on about how they deliberately disconnected themselves from Twitter and their iPhone for 48 hours to rediscover their children, or tantric sex, or poetry. I used to put all this down to a media obsessed with itself and its narrow circle of compulsive information gatherers.

I had never considered myself a digital junkie. I have the lowest-grade Nokia phone it is possible to buy and view the snake game as plenty diverting enough on a train journey in the absence of a good book, knitting or a newspaper. I sneered at Twitter and used Facebook sporadically. But the truth is, that in 21st century, it’s actually bloody hard to get anything done if you are not connected to the world wide web.

The problems began early on when we stayed with my mother. My understanding is that the older generation, as well as having the temerity to have embraced free university educations and cradle-to-grave welfare, had taken to computers in droves to do whatever it is that people with time to indulge their interests and passions do. But my mother wasn’t one of these and owned neither a computer, nor a hyper-speed broadband connection. To link our laptop to the internet via the mobile phone required dongles and bits of unfathomable equipment – but without the aid of the world wide web it was difficult to know exactly what we needed or buy it.

And even when we had assembled all the dongles and bits and pieces, it didn’t work. Loading internet pages was painfully slow. Trying to carry out a Paypal transaction via a link that kept breaking resulted in my account being frozen. Buying a generator off a bloke on eBay went from being a simple click to a whole evening’s exercise in anger management.

The fact is, that if you want buy something, mug up on how to grow spuds, find out when the swimming pool is open or obtain directions to an electrical cable supplier, you need to be on the internet. In an incredibly short time, the net has become the supermarket giant of the information world. Just as once we bought our bread in the baker and our bacon at the butcher, so we obtained our information and goods from a range of sources – the library, phone directories, newspaper small ads. And just as the big supermarkets have largely killed off the small independent traders, so the internet has rendered the old ways of obtaining information if not obsolete – at least astonishingly creaky. If you want an exercise in futility, set yourself ten things to look up in a telephone directory and see how long it takes before you want to punch something.

And you find you have to talk to people too. This, clearly, has its charms – but it’s time consuming – and expensive when the only mobile provider that works in the field is the one on the crappy Nokia pay-as-you-go. The text and email allow one to master the art of brevity and succinctness. One can be short and to the point because what an email or text does is provide a no-frills preamble to future contact. A simple message – ‘need 2 use yr wsh mchine, b there 11’ – implies that I am terribly busy right now, and I suspect you are too, so this message is strictly on a need-to-know basis and we can enlarge further on world peace at some later point in time. One simply can not do that on the phone – it’s bloody rude. One has to ask after weather and health and children and hang up 10 minutes and £8.50 later having completely forgotten to ask if one can use the washing machine.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Thinking outside the box

These early days were a test for us all – but particularly the children. We had uprooted them from their friends, their routine and their home, given away or stored their toys and flung them into chaos with no running water or electricity. They had responded remarkably well, all things considered – but they were not without their low points.

‘I want to go home,’ they said as I felt sick with guilt. I wanted to go home too – but it wasn’t the house I missed. Although I had felt sad at leaving it, what I missed was our friends, our little town – our familiar weekly routine, the feeling of belonging that we take so for-granted, until it’s lost.

‘I feel homesick and I miss our old friends,’ said Sam gently, his beautiful brown eyes full of quiet sincerity. Sam doesn’t waste words and rarely talks about feelings, so such sentiments coming from him felt like a knife wound. I wanted to hold him and make it all go away, magically restore us to some semblance of order and normality – but I had no idea what normal would look like and when it would come.

But sometimes a chink of light would fall and I could glimpse the sort of future we had dreamed of – the reason why we were taking this mad gamble. On the edge of a field there was a little wood and in the rare intervals between the showers, they would run off there to play. On one joyful afternoon I stood outside the tent, listening to their voices from the wood – completely free-range, adultless, imaginative, fabulous play. This was it, this was the way it was meant to be.

Then there was the afternoon the generator arrived in a large cardboard box, The following day and the one after, they played some inexplicable game in that box while I glowed internally – who needed electricity when you had a large cube of cardboard. Wasn’t this what it was all about – the simple things in life, making your own entertainment, enjoying the moment and making use of what you have.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011


We had inherited a muck pile that could be seen on Google Earth. It was big and deep and wide and our intention was to have it spread and ploughed in.

We had employed a local farmer for the task and to lime the field. Truffles require a soil with a high pH and it was necessary to spread 30 tonnes of lime in order to bring it to the right alkalinity.

But his first job was to shift the shit. And, boy, did he shift. He expertly and quickly stacked the huge black sacks we had inherited then scooped up the loose muck and distributed it over the field, which was later liberally applied by the children all over their clothes and the interior of the caravan. Offers of tea were politely refused with a look that seemed to suggest that drinking tea when there was work to be done was not to be countenanced.

Later that day, the fencers we had employed to bang in our posts turned up. Despite the driving, torrential and cold rain, they chatted oblivious of the weather to the farmer while Gully hunched under the brim of his hat and his waterproofs and suggested they repair to the awning. They looked at him sorrowfully – one of the fencers was in shorts. Here was clearly a soft townie. ‘Look,’ he explained. ‘I’m a builder – when it rains we sit inside drinking tea – all day, if necessary.’


‘Turned out nice again,’ said Gully as we lay listening to the pelting rain at six in the morning. It had rained every day since we moved on. Not just any old rain, but violent downpours that rang on the roof of the caravan and frightened the cats. Rain so hard that it sent up mists of spray as it landed on the roofs of cars.

As the miserable weather continued, the field gradually become un-negotiable – the car sticking in the deep tractor marks at the entrance and sliding around the field on the spread muck and wet grass.

There was no radio, no TV, no internet and no newspapers. Isolated in our field I began to wonder if our village had its own micro-climate, Years before, I remembered someone telling me that they lived on a part of Dartmoor on which official rainfall measurements revealed that it nearly always rained. We could see the moor from our field, perhaps we too had bought into an area blessed with it own permanent cloud system.

Back in the wider world, my sister-in-law in Essex informed me that they too had been experiencing torrential downpours for days.

‘Thank heavens for that!’ I said.