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, 20 December 2011

Reed warbling

I visited a nearby 'green' community recently, which I've been wanting to visit for a long time because it is founded on ecological principles and is an interesting model for sustainable living and permaculture.

I wanted to move in, of course. It was so welcoming and homely and the grounds are beautiful. The large warm kitchen was painted a sunny yellow and smelt of home-cooked pizza and apple cake with top notes of oregano and cinnamon. Industrial-sized tubs of things like couscous and bulgar wheat sat on fat wooden shelves, while several buckets variously destined for hens or compost made the disposal of a teabag slightly intimidating. I slid into the window seat behind the huge communal table and wondered if they would notice if I never slid out again.

Later I was taken around the grounds where I inspected the composting loos (still can't get over my obsession with other people's droppings - see Potty Mouth), the veg plot, the furnace and the communal workshops filled with arts and crafts, woven baskets and drying cob bricks. It was truly inspiring.

Of particular interest were the reed beds. All the household waste, including the contents of the flushing loos, drain into these, filtered through two reed beds and finally into a pond, which is home to frogs and newts and must therefore be good clean water, since newts are fairly picky about their habitats.

Reed beds utilise the common reed (Phragmites australis) which is able to transfer oxygen from its leaves, down its stem and rhizomes into gravel around its root system creating a rich population of micro organisms. There are horizontal – or surface – systems and sub-surface and vertical systems. Since I can see you beginning to twitch, I will not go into their inner workings in detail – but basically the vertical systems take up less room and can deal with stronger effluent than the surface ones.

Since our eventual reed beds will be dealing with grey water and liquid effluent – well, wee - we will have three sub-surface systems that will clean it all up and make it resuable. It's a lovely system – so green and satisfying. No nasty waste or chemicals going out to sea or into our rivers, just nature filtering away. It does mean you have to be careful what you use to wash the dishes, or your hair, with, but that's no bad thing.

Interestingly, one of the objections to our planning application cites our reed beds proposal raising the possibility that they can fail in freezing conditions. I had to search very hard to find any mention of this – which just goes to show that if you are determined enough to find something negative, your efforts will be rewarded.

Yes, they can have problems – just as sewage pipes can crack, for which there is much more plentiful evidence. But since our beds will be sub-surface, these problems are unlikely to occur and the instances where they might fail are in extremis – trying to object to them on that basis is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water – and goodness knows how a reed bed would deal with one of those.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

They laughed like a drain

The thing I knew would surely happen, surely happened this week. I and my wheelbarrow fell victim to the mud slick at the gate.

This, of course, happened on Sunday while I still had the vestiges of decent clothes on having arrived home from work. We turned up and unloaded the usual bags of shopping and water containers out of the car and into the wheelbarrow (see, Like Glastonbury, but without the fun). This I started to push up the small slope leading to the field – however, a weekend of heavy rain meant that the wheelbarrow remained stationary while the force I was exerting upon it propelled me downwards. Very slowly, with comedic grace and timing, my boots gave up the fight for a grip and I slid to the floor until I was lying prone in the mud, arms outstretched still clutching the handles of the barrow, while assorted items of shopping fell gently around my head.

Witnessing their mother in such a position the boys, of course, doubled over with laughter then sauntered off empty-handed leaving me in situ. Zena, my eight-year-old daughter and main ally in the family, started busying herself picking up shopping and asking anxiously if I was alright. And I wasn't alright – I wanted to cry; I had hurt my knees, the french stick I had just bought was covered in mud, my only decent trousers were caked in slime, and I was tired after the habitual two hours' sleep I generally manage to get on a Sunday morning.

Back in the caravan, with the kettle on, I cheered up a tad. 'You've got to admit, Mum,' said Zena. 'You did look funny.' And I did admit that, yes indeed, I must have looked funny – but I still felt a bit weepy.

That is until I noticed the Thing that has revolutionised my life this week. For Gully has installed drainage from the kitchen sink. This takes the form of a short pipe that leads to the pitiful vegetable patch – like that needs watering – but it's a very permaculture thing to do. Hitherto, drainage from the sink has been achieved by picking up the washing-up bowl, negotiating a steep step down from the caravan, balancing precariously while trying to put on welly clogs, then sliding through the quagmire outside the tent before depositing the bowl's contents in the field. This was often done in driving rain.

Now, all I have to do is tip the contents down the sink. This is a small convenience, but one that has given me great reason to be cheerful – but only, if I'm honest, when I've finished washing up. It doesn't help with the bruises on my knees or my damaged trousers.

Still, it has made the chances of the other mishap-waiting-to-happen less likely, namely falling over while holding a heavy washing-up bowl full of dirty water while small boys point and jeer.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Drought? Not in this bit of Britain

'If you can see Dartmoor, it's going to rain; if you can't, it is raining,' one of the village characters told me on our first meeting. I took this to be a joke at the time, but the facts appear to bear this out – there have been few days that haven't rained since our arrival. Or maybe it just seems that way.

So I was somewhat surprised recently when I heard on the news that much of the country is in drought. Apparently, lack of rainfall means groundwater levels are falling and one water company has been granted a permit to pump extra water into one of its reservoirs and others are having to use more river water to top up supplies.

'The ground below our feet is still dry, and at this time of year we would expect it to be fully saturated,' said Trevor Bishop, head of water resources at the Environment Agency. Well, if Trevor, ever feels the need to remind himself what saturated ground looks like, he's very welcome to pop round.

In the course of researching my blog on the curious incident of the worm in the launderette (All in a lather, Nov 2nd), I happened across an interesting nugget of information from the ever useful Devon County Council. 'Crediton,' it said on its Devon Town Focus 'lies in the heart of an area of outstanding natural beauty, with a unique climate thanks to its position in the rain shadow of Dartmoor.'

A rain shadow, as defined by Wikipedia, is apparently a dry area on the lee side of higher ground. I don't know where this dry area is meant to be, but we are clearly not in it since we appear to be over-blessed on the precipitation front. We are on high ground between Dartmoor and Exmoor, which I am sure has something to do with our climate and explains the current saturation under foot that poor Mr Bishop so yearns for.

Very soon, so I am told, when the trailer has the curved roof that Gully has spent long hours working on, we will have more water than we can deal with. This is because guttering will channel it into barrels where we can harvest it. I am guessing that the point where we affix the guttering is the point where we suddenly encounter a long, dry spell.

We have so far been getting water from various sources – kind friends and relatives – which we bring home in five-gallon containers and ferry precariously across the field in a wheelbarrow (see Like Glastonbury, but without the fun, Oct 28th). We get through three to four of these of week and since they require some effort to obtain, I have become a miser with water – hoarding and recycling as much as I can. I recycle the same water for cooking or steaming all the vegetables; when I wash up I stop halfway through, remove the water from the bowl and reheat it; if we have hot water bottles (a rare occurrence on account of the water take-up) I empty them back into a saucepan in the morning and use them for washing.

According to our old friends, the Environment Agency, in a survey of London households from 2004/5-2008/9 the five-year mean average water use per person was 161 litres per day. Ours is around 79 litres for the week - for a family of five. Now don't fret, I haven't got my preachy face on, but it does go to show that if you have to work a bit harder for your water and conserve it more, then there are big savings to be made.

We do, of course, use more than that away from the caravan. We go swimming – and the average swimming pool contains around 16,000 gallons of water. And we use other other people's flushing loos (average eight litres per flush). Then there's the launderette (65 litres per wash), and you'll be pleased to hear that we have showers too (at around 40 litres a go for a gravity shower); and my monthly bath is a whole 80 litres, a figure interestingly close to our weekly domestic water consumption.

And I am fully aware that once we have something as sophisticated as running water, our domestic use will go up. I remember trying to conserve and recycle water before in those heady days when we had a dishwasher and a bath, and very soon got tired of the whole process. As we progress with the farm and our plans, obtaining water should become easier – although we still plan to stay off-grid and harvest rainfall. But I am hoping that no matter how convenient its use will become, I will never again take water quite so for-granted as I once did.