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

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 …