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, 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.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Are the natives friendly?

The locals had long been a source of concern. ‘They will think we are travellers,’ I wailed – and I didn’t think that wouldn’t be perceived to be a good thing. But more than being seen as an undesirable, I felt the biggest barrier we faced was a combination of resistance to change and Nimbyism. I was braced for hostility, anger – and racism – we were a mixed-race couple after all. But our early encounters showed that much of the prejudice we had to deal with, was coming from me.

Our field was on the main dog-walking route for the village and the fact we had moved a caravan on to it soon got around via the canine network. It wasn’t long before various faces appeared in the gateway, trying to work out what we were up to.

Some were bolder and drove on in their 4x4s to ask what we doing there. This led to some enjoyable and helpful encounters. The farmer who sat in our awning sheltering from the driving rain and laughed delightedly at our plans. ‘Truffles,’ he guffawed ‘I’ve never heard the like.’ But he wished us well and he meant it – and the next day he turned up unasked in his JCB and cleared part the hedge that we needed to widen the gateway.

We had made some tentative friends, but there was a long way to go. I felt desperate to reach out, which was as much to do with my intrinsic need to be liked as it was to try to garner support.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Like, the way we move

The time had come to move the caravan on to the field. It was a moment of great significance. Our strategy of being allowed to live on our field while we created a business was dependent upon not being stopped from doing so before we had actually managed to moved on. In the small hours of many a night, I had imagined our caravan wedged firmly in a narrow land, surrounded by enraged locals while someone called in the planning heavies who came and fenced us off from our own land.

But as we sailed along empty lanes on a sunny morning, all fears evaporated. Things, for once, were going swimmingly well. As we drove down the last and narrowest lane to our field, I felt we were home and dry. Then Gully executed a sharp 90 degree turn onto the field, and the wheels, as it were, came off. Caught in the dip that led onto the field, the back of the caravan came down hard on the road and sparks flew as its metal feet dragged along the tarmac. There it was, my night fears come true – a caravan firmly wedged at the entrance of the field while the car hopelessly strained, wheels spinning with the smell of burning clutch invading the fresh Devon air.

Worse still, it seemed, a large truck had suddenly appeared behind us and in my panic-filled mind my imagined traffic jam began to turn into reality. But then providence smiled upon us. The truck turned out to be our delivery of fencing materials. Its driver a man of little words but strong in the arm. Between us all we manhandled the caravan and towed it gloriously onto the middle of the field. Our saviour neatly craned our fencing posts over the high Devon hedge, and went on his way. Not once had he asked what the bloody hell we thought we were doing.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Land ahoy

I had been in Devon a week and still not seen my land – so when the time came for Zena to attend her new Brownies in a nearby village, I felt the time had come to tread on my own turf.

We set off in high spirits and in good time for Brownies. After a while the conversation in the car turned to aliens. Did they exist? If they did, were they on planet Earth? Matty contemplated this for a while, and reasoned that they might be on Earth, but not here, not in mid Devon – because here was too far, even for aliens. A long time and many miles later we were heading in the wrong direction, Brownies had already begun and the atmosphere was tense. As the car groaned up narrow lanes that inexplicably ended in crossroads with no signs, I reached the depths of despondency. ‘Who wants to live in this shitty, bloody place?’ I asked, possibly aloud. But answer came there none, even the children had been shocked into a stricken silence.

Brownies finally found, we headed to the field. More lanes – only even more narrow than before. This wasn’t the sticks – it was a death sentence. Finally we found the village – a few houses, bungalows with clipped lawns, no pub, no shop, no people visible under the age of 70. At the land, one child refused to get out of the car and whimpered. A brief respite in the gloom while the other ran happily over the field.

‘You’re very quiet,’ Gully said later that night. ‘It’s very, er, isolated,’ I said. There was more I wanted to say, like, why couldn’t we start a business and live somewhere a bit busier and more accessible – like, Ealing, for instance. But there was no point. I had bought my field, now I had to lie in it.

And it wasn’t just the field that was disturbing me. This didn’t feel like a brave new world, it felt like a backwards step. Hadn’t I left Devon in triumph many years before for London? Why now was I back in Exeter sitting in its endless traffic jams, walking its rain-soaked dreary streets again. I felt no sense of coming home, no affection for the city – its familiarity, far from being welcome, was instantly tedious. What on earth had I been thinking?

Monday, 13 June 2011

Privy counselling

Over the next few nights, two items dominated the conversation. Caravans and loos. The caravan was exercising my mother. ‘You need to shop around,’ she said. But we didn’t have the time or money to shop around. We needed to be out of her house and on the land before the children trashed her new furnishings any further. Moreover, the cats were now lodged in a cattery – a very nice one, with lovely scenic views over the Haldon hills, but the equivalent of Colditz to two animals used to acres of fields in which to play and hunt.

My mother was not on the internet – and we were discovering how very hard it is in 21st century Britain to get things done without being connected to the world wide web. I spent what time I could trawling for caravans on Ebay at the charity shop around the corner, which doubled as a local internet cafe. But times were hard and demand for its services was high. As I continued my search, the queue grew chatty. Queuer number one, it transpired, desperately needed to apply for a job online while queuer number two was waiting to wire money urgently to an orphanage in Nairobi. I picked up my pathetic sample of ‘could possibly afford’ vans and fled.

We’d had a budget of £1,000 for two caravans. In February, that would have got us two old, but perfectly reasonable vans. Now, in early June just before the school summer holidays, the price had gone up. It was not the time to be looking for a caravan in a hurry. At one point we were poised to drive to Shepton Mallet in driving rain to pick one up from a friendly archaeologist called Dave, but Dave’s storage facility had closed for the weekend. So we headed in the opposite direction to Plymouth and parted with £900 for a leaky old van with mould issues. Still, we were used to mould.

That left the loo problem. This was a subject I was, and remain, squeamish about – even three children’s worth of nappies had done little to dampen the ’ick factor for me. My idea of getting close to nature was to lie in a field, preferably following the consumption of several glasses of wine, and gaze thoughtfully into the trees. But when it came to sanitary arrangements I required the privacy and comfort that a flush loo, luxury toilet roll and a locked door provided.

I blamed my childhood. Back in the day my parents and friends had debunked every year to a farm near Cheddar, where the only facility was a rusty tap. The first job for the adults was to dig the pit that functioned as the loo. This was always done with what I thought then was unnecessary jollity, but realise now was drunken Dunkirk spirit. Over the pit, they would erect a bar fashioned from a long, thin log. The idea being you rested upon this while you contemplated nature and concluded your business. Being only eight, if I sat on the bar I couldn’t rest my feet on the ground, involving a precarious balancing act which was not conducive to health nor safety. So, when I felt the call of nature, I had to go into the forest clutching loo roll and a small gardening trowel. It was on one such foray, that I discovered that what I had thought was an isolated part of woodland turned out to be the main thoroughfare for the local riding stables.

So, I was somewhat exercised by the problem. Over the course of the following evenings, after dinner and sometimes, to my mother’s chagrin, during, we discussed how we were going to solve it. Eventually the plan was to have a composting toilet, but we needed an interim measure. So we talked at length about Portaloos and the mechanics of them, we contemplated hiring portable toilets from a building hire firm, and I wondered for a brief while if we could simply avail ourselves of public facilities, a solution not helped by the fact that the nearest public conveniences were several miles from our field.

I took to asking random people their advice, which concluded with an unfortunate man from a tool-hire firm, demonstrating how a portable loo worked in the sunny street outside my mother’s house. ‘Standing our ’ere, talking about potties,’ he said sheepishly and red-faced. In the end, for reasons I’m not clear about, we went for a portable loo – possibly because one happened to come with the caravan. We found a local campsite that sportingly agreed to allow us to empty it and have the odd shower – this solving two problems in one go.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A moveable feast

‘As a rule of thumb,’ my friend Melanie advised – too late, much too late – ‘how ever long you think it takes to move, it will take at least five times longer.’

This was Melanie’s third emergency trip to the house, this time to pick up a fridge shelf that had been overlooked when its new buyers took it away.

She surveyed the scene. It was early afternoon – the plan had been to be on the road by late morning. The contents of the house, shed and garage were still on the drive waiting to be packed into a Luton van. The task of how to fit it all in was one that clearly required the input of several physicists with an advanced grasp of molecular structure. My spatial awareness, which was lacking at the best of times, was not equal to it.

It didn’t help that our moving assistant had become wounded early on in the proceedings. I had, unwisely as it turned out, filled a large plastic container with heavy text books. In a show of gusto, Gully’s brother had picked it up and manhandled it by himself down the stairs. This had done for his back muscles, and he was now unable to bend – or indeed, walk. So we loaded him, stiff bodied and groaning, into his car and sent him home, where he stayed for the next two weeks off work and stuffed with painkillers.

‘How,’ I wondered ‘had it come to this?’ I had been neatly packing stuff away in boxes for months. Lovingly writing out labels so when things went into storage and we needed to put our hands on, say, a Charles Dickens novel or a Rough Guide to Azerbaijan, we could do so. I had been airily telling everybody that it was ‘mostly done’ for weeks. Why now was there so much left to do? Even now, it is a question I can’t answer – along with why did we have so much stuff? Over the weeks I had been carting bags to the tip and charity shops – pressing unwanted items on tolerant friends, giving away all my worldly goods on Freecycle. How was it we had so much? When we had moved before – in the days when we moved from one place with four walls and flushing toilets to another – we’d had sofas and beds and white goods. We’d fitted it all in before, why couldn’t we now, minus the consumer items? The fact was that every time we had moved, we had upgraded – from a flat to a terrace, from a terrace to a semi, from a semi to a detached farmhouse. And slowly, over the years, we had just accumulated more and more stuff. More books and games and CDs and cuddly toys – and even after we had weeded out the ones we could bear to give away, we still had an awful lot of it left, it appeared.

So, it was with great relief that Gully eventually told me to leave and take the cats and children with me. I felt a twinge of guilt as we pulled away leaving his lone figure perched on a packing case surrounded by boxes and spades and drill bits. I had half-heartedly said ‘no, we can’t possibly leave you to do all this alone’, protestations that were ruined by an unseemly dash for the driving wheel and throttle pedal.

I cried as we pulled away. Houses have always been more than bricks and mortar to me. Their rooms full of the ghosts of former selves and past times. In that house my children had grown – leaving an imprint of their younger selves behind. This is the perpetual grief of being a parent – children grow and change and the toddler who pointed delighted tiny fingers at planes or lorries no longer exists. When we came to that house, my youngest was only just two, now he was nearly seven. Our house had played host to his evolution from baby to child and there were memories of all of the children that would forever belong there. And I had loved it too for itself. It may have been freezing cold and mouldy in the winter, but for most of the year it was lovely and on this, our last day, it was at its best. The sun shone, the sky was blue and the garden was full of bird song – it was a fine day to leave an old friend.

We now had a 270-mile drive in front of us – just me, three children and the cats. Earlier that day, the cats had been given pills to make the journey more pleasant. Too early, in fact. Having been given an estimated time of leaving as somewhere just before lunch, I had administered the happy pills shortly after breakfast. These were not wasted, however, as the cats were imprisoned in the children’s bedroom in case they felt like going on one last murderous trawl through the undergrowth and failed to come back.

So, drugged to the eyeballs, they stretched out on the sunny floor and went to sleep. At lunchtime, I went back to the vets for more pills, which was ironic really, because if anyone was in need of them it was me. Back home, I re-administered them and later we stuffed the cats back into baskets and set off.

It was with a fabulous sense of timing that Oscar set himself free. I had just joined the M25 at rush hour when something black, furry and, despite the pills, neither happy nor calm catapulted onto my lap. This cheered the children up tremendously, who shrieked with laughter as Oscar reverberated around the car. ‘Concentrate’ I told myself fiercely while issuing bellowed instructions for windows to be sealed. After a few minutes, Oscar, settled down. This was the cat who always jumped into the car to greet me when I came home from work at four in the morning. He quite liked the car, and once he had got the hang of the fact that it moved, he became quite equable.

Which was more than could be said for me. The problem was I couldn’t stop. Even if I pulled up on the hard shoulder, I needed to get out of the car to go round the back and retrieve the abandoned basket. This would be hard to perform without letting the cat out of the car, from whence he would clearly streak across three lanes of fast-moving traffic and be flattened in front of the children’s eyes. There was nothing for it but to keep going until the sanctity of a service station. Red-faced and highly stressed, I tried to ignore the stares and pointing from the occupants of cars, mesmerised by the sight of a cat looking with interest out of the window. Then Oscar discovered it was warm and cosy by the foot pedals and settled down for a little sleep on my feet while I frantically tried to kick him out of the way. After a while, he crept onto my lap, rested his chin on the steering wheel and had a nap. At last, a service station came into view and order was restored. He spent the rest of the journey with the door of his basket firmly wedged against the back seat.

Meanwhile, back at our old house, it was starting to rain. Nine long weeks it had been dry while the earth cracked and the wheat in the field opposite withered – then it chose to rain on the day our entire possessions were exposed to the elements. ‘How’s it going?’ I asked at 11pm, after we had arrived at my mother’s. ‘It’s raining and all the stuff is still on the drive,’ said Gully. I rang again at 2am. ‘How’s it going,’ I asked. ‘It’s still raining and all the stuff is still on the drive,’ he said.

I rang at 8am. A few hours sleep on the hard floor had revived Gully sufficiently to restore some optimism. ‘I’ll be leaving at 10,’ he said. I rang at 10 – ‘should be off by 12’, he said. This posed a problem, the storage place in Exeter shut at six and we estimated that even with a tail wind, the Luton would take several hours to make the journey from Cambridgeshire to Devon. Also, the van, which was already a day late, was meant to be back in Harlow by the end of the day.

‘Ah, it’s you causing me grief – again,’ said the storage manager as I begged for a one-off 24-hour access. The van hire firm was less friendly. ‘It had better be back here by 3pm tomorrow,’ said an angry-sounding man – his silent ‘or else’ left hanging over the phone lines.

Many hours later, with the near midsummer sun setting over the Exeter hills, our long overdue possessions puffed into the storage yard. Sticking precariously above the tail gate was an assortment of brooms, hoes, spades and gardening forks. It was an ignominious start to our adventure – but very us. We had convened a hasty working party of my sister and niece and nephew, although it was late and there was school the next day. The dog, who had been left to keep Gully company, hurtled out of the cab when she saw a welcoming committee. Had she been tall, slim and lithe, this would have been accomplished with grace and ease. As it was her 25 solid short-legged kilos became a hostage to gravity, and she fell hard on to her shoulder and developed a pronounced limp. Our toll of injuries was growing.

And our other problems were not over. It had taken nearly two days to carefully load a Luton-size van. Now, we had to unload it and reload it back into a Luton-size storage container. For a while we cheerfully unpacked. Contents were loaded onto trolleys, which were pushed into lifts with enthusiasm. The lifts didn’t allow people, so the procedure was to stand and press a button until it reached the top, then run up the stairs, push the trolley along several lengths of corridor, unload it, push it back, send it down the lift, run back down the stairs and start all over again. It didn’t take long for the cheeriness to dissipate and irritability to set in. As our helpers went home and the realisation that we still had half the van to unload dawned, despair set in. Once again, Gully was left sitting on a packing case surrounded by a hopeless mess, while I went home to my mother’s.

The next day we returned and paid for another large storage container. Our monthly bill for storage would now be running into the hundreds. So much for living rent free. This time I was left to pack it all away while the van headed back east – that silent ‘or else’ speeding it away.