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, 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

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