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

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.