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, 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