Purpose

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, 7 December 2012

The dead of the night

Finally! After two years of pouring food and affection into a vacuum, the cats have covered themselves in glory.

Stumbling through the awning in the dim light of early morning, I nearly stepped on a large dead rat deposited with love and pride near the caravan door.

I say love, but I am not convinced, we are generally treated with disdain by the cats although one of them seems genuinely fond of the smallest boy. Aside from that they will suffer to be stroked briefly and then only when it's feeding time. Once fed, any hint of previous intimacy is erased like the memory of an embarrassing boyfriend. I am fairly confident that if some unfortunate accident befell me, they would be more than happy to tuck into my liver.

So just pride, then.

We have, as mentioned before, a gaping hole in the bottom of the door that leads to our sleeping area. The cats fashioned this themselves and use it to come and go when they please and to bring in small live mammals in the middle of the night, which they thump and crash about killing.

I have observed that they do this differently. Oscar, the boy cat, makes much ado about the whole thing. He heralds the return of the hunter with a loud mewing, then shows off, flinging his unfortunate victim around flamboyantly and with much accompanying noise. Once it is incapacitated, he frequently becomes bored of the whole scene and wanders off, leaving someone else to finish the job for him. Meanwhile, Tanny, the female cat, comes in quietly, dispatches her prey with ruthless efficiency and eats it quickly. I can't help feeling there is a metaphor for the difference between the sexes being played out here.

More to the point, it is being played out where I sleep. With the dead rat in mind, I have over recent days had cause to shudder at what might have been. So it is somewhat ironic for the cats, that the day they finally fulfilled their brief was also the one they sealed their banishment from the trailer. It's a bit harsh – but that's OK. They don't really love us.



Monday, 26 November 2012

Going off message

'You seem to have left not just the office, but the planet too,' observed my friend Lin in an email.

Well, I may as well have done. My transition from commuter to full-time field dweller has been less than smooth.

First there was the little incident of the filched Blackberry. This was the result of a mix up in a London bar after my last day at work. My friend and I had identical smart phones and she mistakenly went home with mine during a farewell exchange rendered extra confusing by the fact we were both very drunk. So far, so not too much to worry about. This could easily be remedied by the trusty post. Sadly, though, when the mail was delivered I received an empty Jiffy bag, devoid of any phone. Not such a trusty post then.

So I spent much of my first week on the telephone to the Royal Mail, which was magnificently disinterested in my missing phone, even though it had gone astray while in its care. 

The loss of my phone was a bit of a catastrophe; we have no landline and we are not in a 3G area, so dongles are useless. Thus my Blackberry wasn't just a useful communication tool, it was a psychological connection to the outside world away from a small village in deepest Devon where the inhabitants don't like us much.

Still, I didn't have long to dwell on this misfortune because the next week the car broke down in the middle of a country lane, so that took care of that week.

Since then, we have been enjoying the effects of nearly a fortnight of torrential rain, which has led to flooding and general misery - again. We seem to be having a lot of weather in recent times. I can't help but wonder if there is something driving our climate, some sort of change perhaps. But, surely not; why else would our government appoint a climate change sceptic as the secretary of state for energy?

Our little encampment is at the top of a slope about 190m above sea level. This is not luck, we discounted an awful lot of plots that were low lying. We believe in climate change, even if Mr Davey does not. Thus although it is extremely soggy, we aren't actually having to wade around our home - unlike many others. But we have been affected at times when the roads around have been flooded.

It does feel somewhat as if the fates have combined to test quite how isolated I can become before losing my marbles. I think I'm doing quite well, all things considered, but Lin disagrees: 'I must admit, your decline to a mad woman in a field has been more rapid than I predicted,' she wrote after receiving an illegible email typed in haste without the benefit of spectacles. 

Still, not quite drowning yet - just about waving ....





Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Careering off track


'Why don't you wear the brown dress that looks like a carpet? '

I hadn't, hitherto, been aware that I owned such an item of apparel, but thanks to Matty's intervention I certainly wouldn't be wearing it again.

I don't often fret about dresses, it's a rare day I vacate my jeans and wellies but this was an extra special occasion because I was scrubbing up for my leaving party from the Observer newspaper.

I have worked at the Observer for 12 years. Some people see work as a necessary evil, but I loved my job and I liked working with clever witty people – so I was lucky. Sadly, however, the newspaper industry is shrinking rapidly. People are buying fewer newspapers and have instead migrated online to read for free what they once were happy to part with 80p-odd for. The result is a massive contraction in national newspaper circulations – and regional newspapers are in an even worse situation, but don't get me started – that's a whole other blog.

I, therefore, along with my colleagues, was offered a financial incentive to leave my job and the offer was useful enough and the long-term future of newspapers risky enough to take their shilling and run.

And run I did. There is a tradition among newspaper offices that a sub-editor of reasonable regard and long standing service is 'banged out'. This stems back in the midsts of time, when compositors banged on the chases - the metal frames that held the type - when an apprenticeship was completed. This later transferred to banging out sub-editors whom they didn't hold in abject contempt. This was high praise – compositors held nearly everyone in abject contempt.

Anyway, it is a tradition that has continued albeit now people bang rulers and thump desks. It is extremely moving and has brought me to tears whenever anyone else has left. I had been dreading the moment when it would be my turn.

So I took it at a sprint. I was escorted out to the clatter and thumps by a venerable and much-loved colleague. Jo has worked on every paper in Fleet Street over the course of the odd decade or few. She is the Kevin Bacon of the newspaper world. The theory is that any actor can be linked to Kevin Bacon in six steps or less. Jo is the print press equivalent, although in her case the maximum degree of separation must be more like three.

I tearfully made my way to the pub, where I got completely trolleyed - again. And that was the end of all that. 

I feel a little odd, post Observer. Like I have lost some essential part of me, which is I guess what comes of letting go of a career that culminated in working for the newspaper I decided I wanted to work for when I was in my mid teens. But the future looks interesting – and I have very happy memories.

And these have a tangible form too. I have a medal for services to sub-editing drawn by the paper's brilliant business cartoonist Dave Simonds. I also have my very own front page - another newspaper tradition where the front page is adapted to catalogue the foibles and fallibility of the person leaving. Mine was suitably offensive and extremely amusing and I am still so bowled over with it that I have reproduced an extract below to finish off, courtesy of my former colleague and good friend, Ed Latham.

Inventor of caravan chic (possibly)

Mother, writer, headteacher, knitting champion... everyone knows Karen Luckhurst, author of the celebrated Charwood Farm series. So Ellle Decor was thrilled to get an invite to her stunning home in Devon. Would it really be like the books? 

We needn’t have worried: from the moment we arrived, Karen made us welcome in that inimitable Charwood Farm style: ‘Sorry, you can’t drive in at the moment because the car’s broken down and is blocking the gate! But if you get in the wheelbarrow, I’ll try to keep you clear of the dog.’ 

Settling down in the cosy confines of the classic Elddis Crusader  that makes up the core of the farmhouse, we couldn’t wait to talk interiors.

Elle Decor: Karen, you mix palettes, styles and periods to stunning effect in the caravan. What’s your secret?

Karen: I always feel that eclecticism is nothing to be scared of. Here, for example, the dynamic wriggling of the mosquito larvae in my glass of water create a shimmering counterpoint to the couch grass on the roof of the kebab trailer.

Elle Decor: I love what you’ve done here with the Lego on the floor. Fantastic granularity.

Karen (laughing): Thanks! It’s kind of ‘objet trouvé’ - I just came across it like that after getting back from work one evening, but I think it really works in that space.

Elle Decor: And I understand you’re launching your own line of homewares?

Karen: Yes, I wanted something that captured the timeless simplicity of rural living with a modern edge. Our new Bucket™ toilet, for example, comes in a range of pastel colours and, with a built-in handle, is very easy to empty when full.

Elle Decor: Charwood Farm isn’t just a house - it’s a veritable compound. For example, this wooded space here, with the flat stone in the centre and a couple of other stones placed nearby, is slightly set apart from the rest of the home, isn’t it? Can you tell us a little about what you were trying to achieve – were you inspired by Japanese gardens?

Karen: Oh no, this is where we beat the heads in of rodents that have been too badly wounded by the cats to survive in the wild. Generally, the cats enjoy toying with them until they’re beyond endurance and physically incapable of escape, and then just leave them, so that can create a tricky little domestic problem in the bedroom. 

Elle Decor: And the light in the atrium here is stunning. It’s so airy!

Karen: Yes, that’s because the roof’s blown off.




Sunday, 14 October 2012

Saturation point

'How's your week been,' asked a colleague.

'Wet,' I replied.

What my reply lacked in articulacy, it made up for in accuracy, because this week Devon has been nothing if not wet.

It rained steadily all week, in a normal sort of way, then on Thursday it sloshed down. This was bad timing, for Thursday is the day I have to collect my daughter from school and traverse 15 miles of country roads in order to chauffeur her to various dance classes in Exeter.

It did occur to me – as I drove slowly along thin strips of visible tarmac flanked by vast, lapping puddles, along already narrow lanes – that the best thing to do would be to collect her and go home, but that seemed a bit wuss-ish.

So we picked her up and set off to ballet along the back roads. The going soon turned rough – after heavy-duty puddles for about a mile we turned a corner to find an entire lane was flooded, the road resembling a small river. The water was clearly not too deep, but since it was brown and swirling it was impossible to tell how much not too deep it was.

I pulled over and tried to decide whether to brave it. After a while a lone car swished through from the opposite direction. The driver, a breezy woman with a cigarette dangling from her lips, wound down her window. 'You thinking of going through?' she asked brightly. I nodded. 'Yeah, there's loads of this,' she said nodding at the floodwater. She paused and glanced reflectively at her dashboard 'I've conked out again,' she said cheerfully, 'Good luck!'

I hadn't found this exchange particularly reassuring. My boys were even less so. 'We are so going to die,' said Matty happily as we set off through the water. He and Sam leaned out of the window to get a better view as we headed through the flood and shouted gleefully as brown spray hit them in the face. 'This is awesome,' they yelled 'we're gonna die'.

We didn't die, and more remarkably the car didn't conk out, which had been my chief fear – certain death falling further down the list, somewhere behind landing in a ditch.

Such adventures continued for about five miles. Each new stretch of floodwater proving to be as stressful an experience as the last.

Just as I felt I could relax a little, I came across a stretch of lane where large chunks of the bank had fallen onto the road, mud and debris everywhere and tree roots alarmingly exposed. This sent my anxiety levels soaring, and I heard my daughter begin to moan. 'Yes!' chorused the boys joyfully.

We made it through and arrived late and shaken at dance class. There I met a lady who lives in a village on an alternative route home. 'I'm thinking of going back your way,' I said. 'I wouldn't,' she replied. 'I've just seen a car floating.'

So we returned the way we came, only this time in the dark.

Zena attends a school that takes the Church of England part of its name very seriously. She has, in a short space of time, become well acquainted with a number of songs of a spiritual nature. As we inched cautiously through the puddles in the dark she struck up with Jesus is my Saviour. We hit the first flood. 'Awesome!' yelled the boys, 'Love him more and more' carolled Zena, while the windscreen wipers squeaked and the rain continued to fall.

By the time we got back to our village we had ploughed our way, in more than one sense, through He's Got the Whole World in His Hands, and Kumbaya.

It was cold back at the field and still raining, but I have rarely been so pleased to get out of the car.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Basic instincts

The adventure with the mosquito larvae in my hand washing has led to a rethink – with the result that I have spent the week playing happily about with the water system.

The first task was to start afresh with our big barrel that collects the rain water off our incredibly efficient corrugated roof. The water it contained was a light shade of brackish and was hosting an assortment of dead insects, very alive larvae and some beetles swimming vigorously. There were a lot of these, and no dead ones, which made me wonder. Had some of them been swimming for weeks? Or had they all gone for a spontaneous dip together? In any case, I carefully lifted them out – with my bare hands. I was very proud of myself.

I then set about cleaning some receptacles. These are blue 20-litre containers that we got off eBay. They must have come from a juicing factory because their labels bear information such as 'blackcurrant concentrate'. What was left of the concentrate had, of course, congealed into a life form thus the barrels required much sluicing and shaking about to dislodge the residue.

With everything ready, all I had to do was wait for the rain. And that is never far away although, given that North Yorkshire spent most of the last week under water, I was surprised there wasn't more of it. Still there was enough to fill a 220-litre barrel in a couple of hours of steady rainfall. This was incredibly satisfying – so much so that I took to standing soggily outside to stare at the water cascading out of the rainfall outlet.

Infinity pools – over-rated
I haven't always been so easily pleased – but over the years age and child-rearing have dramatically reduced my pleasure threshold. Where once luxury might have been an infinity pool somewhere close to the Aegean, now it is getting through a cup of tea without having to deliver loo roll or a lecture on cat sleep management. In such a climate, watching rainwater trickle into a barrel is positively self-indulgent.

But there is something more tangible to this than the lamentable state of my down time. I feel increasingly that living – as many in the western world do – so far removed from our basic needs robs us of something very fundamental.

In his Hierarchy of Needs model, American psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that in order to achieve our full potential four fundamental layers of needs have to be met, the most basic of which is physiological – the need for food, water, warmth, sleep and, er, other bodily functions.

In a civilised affluent society we don't have to think too much about those things. Flush toilets remove our waste and take it somewhere nameless, where someone faceless does something unknown to it so we never have to think about it again. We buy our food neatly packed in boxes or wrapped in cellophane. Clean water gushes out of our taps. Shops sell cheap ready-made clothes to keep us warm.

This is clearly all to the good – Maslow is right, it's pretty difficult to achieve your full potential if your body is in starvation. But when our basic needs are so easily met is some fundamental instinct thrown off balance? I don't have the answer to that, of course. I only know that when I create something rudimental out of nothing, I feel a deep sense of well being. For instance, I knit. Out of two pins and a length of yarn I can create jumpers, socks, scarves and hats. I'm not the only one – there are a lot of us about. Some people still even take needle and thread and make garments. Why do this when we can go to Primark and buy a sweater or tracksuit bottoms for £3.99?

In the same vein, people hunt, camp, grow vegetables, keep chicken, make honey – in short we do things that are time consuming, sometimes difficult, often messy, all in the name of keeping in touch with our basic needs – because in a world of hotels, supermarkets and pre-packed eggs, we don't have to do any of them.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that by standing in the rain watching my water barrel fill up I am connecting with some primordial survival mechanism that feels a need to be connected with. It doesn't necessarily mean that I am going mad.

Yet ...


Sunday, 16 September 2012

All coming out in the wash

Living in a washing machine-less world makes getting white school polo shirts clean something of a Herculean task.

Well, OK, not quite Herculean; it doesn't really equate with capturing the Erymanthian boar, for instance, but it's not far off, I can tell you.

A colleague recently asked 'washing machine or vacuum cleaner?' in a 'George Clooney or Brad Pitt?' type conversation. I pointed out that I was uniquely placed to answer this question since I have had neither for more than a year now – and I can tell you unequivocally that I would take a washing machine over a vacuum cleaner any day.

Sweeping takes about the same amount of time as it does to vacuum, especially when you factor in all the stopping and starting to deal with bits of Lego or apple cores that have have been sucked up and are blocking the hose.

Washing without a machine, on the other hand, is a complete pfaff involving either hand washing or launderettes, neither of which remotely compare with the convenience of the modern front loader.

Take these shirts, for instance. My daughter only started school recently and I bought two to be going on with. These were meant to be supplemented over the summer, but predictably M&S had run out.

So if one gets dirty, it can't wait until launderette day. I therefore decided to hand wash it. I didn't want to use our precious drinking water, so went to fetch some from one of the barrels that is stationed around our lovely new awning roof.

I filled a bowl, then noticed it contained a number of wriggly tadpole sort of things. I looked at these thoughtfully for a while, then concluded they must be mosquito larvae, which explains why there are so many of the damn things flying around of a night biting people while they sleep.

Much as I might have wanted to boil-wash them, I didn't want splatted insect larvae on Zena's new shirt, so I went off in search of a strainer. Once they were removed, I stood at the sink for ages applying vigorous kneading and pummeling actions to the shirt. Then I tipped the suds away, and had to fetch more water, strain out more larvae and fill a bowl in order to rinse it out.

It must have been at this point that the shirt came into contact with a small dollop of curry that had gone unnoticed on the outside of the bowl. Despite being a very small dollop, it left a large yellow smear in several places. This, I only noticed, when I was hanging the shirt on the line.

For a while, I performed a little dance of rage around the washing line. Then I fetched the strainer, sifted out more baby mosquitoes and went through the whole process again.

Washing polo shirts
Normal women do not have to do this sort of thing in this day and age. But actually, it is not so long ago that hand washing was commonplace. In the 1950s, my mother used to stand at the sink for hours hand washing my eldest brother's nappies. Even in the early 1970s when she had a new-fangled twin-tub, I remember that she still used a mangle. Washing clothes and linen took up the best part of two days of her week. Women before that used tubs, dolly sticks and washboards. But even the washboard was an invention of the 18th century – prior to that cloth was soaked in a 'lye', a mixture of ashes and urine, before being taken down to the river, even if it was frozen, and being beaten with a wooden bat. And, of course, there are many women across the world who still do wash clothes in the river.

So if I ever do get a washing machine again, I will love it and give thanks for it both on my behalf and  that of the millions of woman – and the odd man – whom it has liberated from a huge amount of drudgery.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Smelling a rat

Humans, we are told, are never more than ten feet away from a rat – and I am sure that living, as we do, in the middle of a field is likely to bring them closer than that.

But we have never seen one and only heard something that sounded like gnawing once, so I was prepared to remain in blissful denial until provided with any evidence to the contrary.

Evidence came in the shape of some strange animal droppings we found under a pallet when we moved it recently. The cats can't get under the pallets and wouldn't, I hope, dare do such a thing there anywhere. And they were too big for the desperate purgings of a mouse being vigorously toyed around with by needle-sharp claws. So, I reluctantly concluded that they must belong to a rat.

This theory appeared to be backed up this week when it became apparent that something was eating the cat food. I had left this in the awning, for some stupid reason; I think the cats were annoying me, they usually do. So it was that when I opened the door of the caravan one evening, I heard something crunching its way through the Whiskas.

Call me slow, but I figured that this was irregular, since both cats were asleep in the caravan.

I opened the door wider and in the light saw a dark and disturbingly large shape ambling away slowly, nay, insouciantly.

I shut the door quickly and addressed the caravan occupants. 'There's a freking rat out there the size of a Shetland pony,' I said.

I was somewhat freaked out.

Ten minutes later I opened the door again. The creature had returned and was knocking back the cat food. I shut the door – next time he was going to die.

I spent the next ten minutes whipping the dog up into a state of nervous frenzy. 'Where is it?' I said excitedly spinning round and looking under things. 'Where's that big old rat?'

Oody – faint of heart
With the dog primed, I flung the door open. The dark shape looked up from his dinner and headed off reluctantly. The dog backed into the caravan, lips drawn apologetically over her teeth, tail wagging despondently between her legs. It was a poor show.

The dog, I should remind you, is half a bull terrier – half an English bull terrier to be exact. A dog so menacing in appearance that it was picked to play Bullseye, Bill Sikes's nasty-tempered sidekick in the film, Oliver!. Oody doesn't have a temper, or a lot of courage come to that – she is a dog deeply in touch with her inner chihuahua. She is scared of rats and a lot of other things besides.

So, I was forced to head off to bed with the vermin issue unresolved. Once there, I sat upright, covers pulled up to my chin, unblinking eyes on the large hole in the door made by the cats as their own personal entrance system.

Soon I heard the unmistakeable crunching of cat food. I rang Gully who was still in the caravan. 'It's out there,' I hissed.

The door banged open and he came flying out torch in hand. And there, frozen with fear and blinking in the light, was a hedgehog.

So I could sleep easy after all, happy in the knowledge that I have a cute little helper hoovering up the slugs and snails in my indoor garden. But I am under no illusions that there might not be a rat ...


Sunday, 2 September 2012

Conkering one's fears

Summer is over, the camping stuff is packed away, the evenings have a definite autumnal chill – and I am becoming vexed on the subject of spiders.

We spent last autumn in the caravan, which, thankfully, appeared to be a spider-free zone. In fact, I didn't see a single one. But this year, we are sleeping in the trailer and that is a different affair altogether. Large cobwebs stretch above the door and on the underside. Cobwebs that can only have been put in place by something large and muscular – and her mates.

This theory was borne out recently by the Sad Demise of the Pretty Spider. This was a little lime green arachnid who was pottering about among the struts that hold up our new wooden awning. It was a nice day and the sunlight that came through the roof highlighted his colour. I watched as he busily – and happily, I felt – made his way along a long strand of web that I took to be his own creation. 'Ahh,' I thought 'what a clever little chap, isn't nature wonderful!' Nature, at that point intervened in a not wonderful sort of way, when a large and violent spider pounced on my little friend and had him bitten and done up like a kipper before I could say 'Oh'.

My boys, meanwhile, have gleefully taken a book out of the library bearing the title The World's Most Horrible Deadliest Spiders Ever - or something to that effect. Its pages contain gruesome close-ups of eyes and jaws interspersed with descriptions of how prey is reduced to liquid before being sucked up. Just in case this doesn't freak you out enough, there are pictures of injuries arising from spider bites: limbs with large holes containing rotting flesh or swollen extremities oozing pus.

The common house spider:
hideous, ain't it?
My youngest loves this book and has had his nose in it ever since it left Crediton library. He is a generous lad who likes to share his pleasure, and thus it is presented regularly to me for my delectation. I am required to answer questions such as 'If a venomous spider bit the dog, how long would it take for her to turn all mushy so it could eat her'. I was forced to read the whole book to him in the car on the way to the station in the uncomfortable knowledge that I would be sleeping on the floor in someone's attic that night.

And, of course, the spider season is about to begin and our trailer feels somewhat exposed.

This silly fear of spiders is something I feel I should conquer – it seems daft to be living off grid in an outside sort of way and being squeamish about our eight-legged friends. Such weakness makes me feel unsuited to our lifestyle; I should be the sort of person who can pick up a spider with interest and conduct a short nature lesson. But then I am always thinking I am unsuited to our lifestyle – I am easily left feeling inadequate by any woman who can change a tyre, wield a bow saw, or any other practical application I am unequal to.

So, vexed I must remain although I shall take steps to help myself – spreading conkers and spraying citronella about - and above all, getting rid of that horrible book.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Skip to my loo

Our loo has had an amazing upgrade. It is no longer a bucket.

I say that, but in the interests of accuracy it is technically still a bucket, but with a new housing and a red, shiny loo seat.

This is the third arrangement for our sanitary needs. We started off with a chemical loo that came with the caravan and was foul in every sense. That bit the dust when a small, but vital, component fell in the tank into which it was being emptied. This was replaced by a bucket with a loo-seat attached and which served our needs very well – so much so we had two, one for number twos and the other for number ones.

But they have now been combined into one glorious superloo. This comes complete with a special filtration system, otherwise known as newspaper. Through this, liquid seeps away into a further filter while more, er, solid waste remains in the bucket and is treated to liberal sprinklings of sawdust. This is then emptied into a larger container which will, when full, be capped and eventually turn into highly fertile organic matter. All of this is constructed from two buckets, one cut down to house the other and a collar fashioned from the bit that was left over - all of which is very pleasing from a reuse, reduce, recycle point of view.

And it's not only the loo that has had a makeover. I now have something akin to a bathroom – it has walls,  a wooden floor made of pallets, and a door with a little bolt. The latter used to be the door to the shower room in the caravan, which was removed many months ago and has been lurking around falling on me and annoying ever since. But it now has a new lease of life offering closure and privacy as well as a place on which to pin up dinosaur pictures.

Moreover, my new bathroom also has a battery-operated light with a pull switch. It is therefore now possible when going to the loo to walk in, pull on the light and lock the door behind you, just like normal people do.

But the best thing about my new loo is that it has a pot plant.

This had been the source of not a little concern on my part during its construction. In my experience, all composting loos involve a sort of wooden bench with a floral arrangement set upon it. At the fabulous Thistledown campsite in the Cotswolds, there were geraniums. My friend's loo is home to marigolds. Others I have seen place pretty arrangements of cut flowers in jam jars on the surface.

But during preliminary discussions about the design of our loo, it became evident that pot plants did not feature. 'Yes, yes' I would say dismissively as I was talked through various facets of the brilliance of the plan 'but where will I put my plant'.

This, it appeared, was proving irksome to the waste solutions manager: 'What the bloody hell are you talking about,' he said.

I decided, for once, not to pursue the point and this strategy paid off. The design allowed for an in-built rubbish bin that would be housed in a hole cut into the wood next to the loo. Happily, however, we had visitors coming and time became of the essence so the loo was installed without the hole for the bin. This left a bare stretch of wood, which was just asking for a little something to be placed on it. Hmmm, now what shall I put there?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Out through the indoor

Our awning blew away, you may recall, earlier this year – leaving us without a sizeable chunk of our accommodation and the dog traumatised for life.

The awning had come with the caravan and had, to put it mildly, seen better days. Bits of it were held together with duct tape and the roof leaked. But it was by and large functional and home to items as varied as mallets, scooters and Barbie dolls, the latter of which went mouldy – so that was a bit of a result.

In fact, just about everything went mouldy in that awning. It was dark and damp and therefore conducive to mould. I didn't realise how much I hated it until the day in May when it blew away. Once it had gone, I felt a lightening of my soul and a connection with the great outdoors that I was lacking.

Without it in place, I could throw open the doors of the caravan and feel at one with the world around; and without it, I could experience the elements in a visceral fashion as I stumbled blearily in the morning from trailer to caravan. This may sound slightly miserable, and no doubt would have been in the depths of December, but was not at all unpleasant in the spring – not even in the rain.

However, such alfresco pleasures could not go on for ever. We are a family of five trying to build a permaculture farm from scratch, and for both of those we need room to put things and keep them dry.

We reviewed our options at some length and in the end decided to veto another canvas awning. The last one had blown down and not been particularly effective, so we decided we would construct a wooden one instead. Well, I say 'we' – by which clearly I mean Gully, I merely functioned as the functionary.

As the walls started to go up, I felt a sense of being imprisoned. I had been glorifying in the close proximity of nature and now nature was beginning to recede. But I hadn't reckoned on the delights of our roof.

Every facet of our project has been thought through very carefully, particularly the use of materials. We had hoped to avoid using plastic – but sometimes plastic is the best material to use and enables other aspects of our plans to work. We needed a corrugated roof as the most effective surface from which to harvest rainwater while making use of as much natural light as possible. And so we reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that PVC sheets would be the best thing for a roof.

But the resulting effect is fabulous. The space is filled with natural light and feels very much as though it is part of the outdoors. Underfoot there is mud and in places grass and, er, weeds, all of which heighten the effect. I can plant my tomatoes and peppers direct into the ground where they get full sun through the roof creating an indoor garden effect. And the rain harvesting capacity is amazing – we filled up a large-capacity container in a single afternoon of intermittent showers.

So I am very happy with our new space – as are the cats, who, when they are not filling it with dead things, bask in the sunlight that pores through the roof. And it will be great in the winter when a little insipid sunshine should warm it up nicely.

It all just goes to show that good things can come of bad – although I'm not sure the dog would agree.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Having a field day

'Let me get this straight,' said my friend Bridget. 'You're going on holiday – to a field.'

I've have been away a fair bit over the past few weeks, hence the lack of posts, and did indeed spend some of it in a tent in a field. A change, after all, being as good as a rest – even if it is swapping a very basic way of life in one field, for an equally basic way of life in another. Still, it was lovely. The kids spent the time going feral and filthy – so no change there – and the dog basked happily in the love of an admiring fan club. This consisted of a little girl and boy who lived in a nearby tent and who knew the hallmark of a truly noble beast when they saw one – unlike my children who will keep on insisting the dog is fat and intellectually challenged.

In fairness, I did get to spend some time in a hotel too, spending long hours in the bath to the annoyance of my sister with whom I was sharing a room.  'She's making the most of it,' my Mum said – and I was. I had spent a fortune on bathroom treats and was up to my ears in hot fragrant bubbles, a copy of National Geographic in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. Believe me, there is nothing like a bit of hot bath deprivation to truly appreciate a good long soak. In fact, I think next time I'll just pass on the sight-seeing and spend the entire break in the bath.

This holiday came at a bad time in terms of our planning application. We had to appeal within a month of our enforcement notice and this deadline coincided with my gadding about the country on pleasure bent.

Most of this year has been taken up with planning in one way or another. This requires an enormous amount of time spent on the computer in writing and research. Without electricity or the internet, this annoyingly has to be largely done in a library. Now don't get me wrong, I think libraries are proof of the inherent goodness of mankind and I am completely with Stephen Fry, who has lauded public libraries as 'unreservedly great'.  However, our nearest library is nine miles away and it is not always convenient to pop there to look up a minor point of planning law – moreover, it is shut on Wednesdays.

We can, at a pinch, look up some things on the internet using the mobile phone, but in order to do this we have to stand very still on a particular spot in the caravan, facing east and trying not to breathe. While we do this, the internet very, very slowly loads; each new page we click on also loads at a snail's pace, then, just as the page we want appears, we breathe, or shift our weight slightly and the connection is lost. Then we curse and stamp about and kick the dog and this is therefore not a healthy exercise for anyone, particularly the dog.

So all this palaver has robbed us of time we could have spent preparing the field. Still, the appeal is in now and although we have plenty of work to do for it at least the deadline is not imminent and we can now turn our attention back to the field and preparing for tree planting.

But before that can happen, I've still got a couple of camping trips to fit in before the end of summer.

You can take the girl out of the field ....

Sunday, 15 July 2012

School of fraught

My nine-year-old daughter had her first day at school last week.

This was, and remains, her choice – I was happy to home educate to the end, but she wants to give school a go and so off she went for a taster day, attired in white and grey with an enormous bag on her back containing a solitary apple.

It was, by no means, the first day she has spent away from home – but it was the only time she has been away where I have felt her absence so keenly, I suppose because it was a presentiment of the future.

My little girl is sparky and bright and in many ways my chief companion in the family, we can actually have a real conversation about books or music – if I appear a little down in the dumps, she will notice, if I ask for help, she is the one who jumps up.

My boys, by contrast, tend to occupy their own planet. A friend once observed that boys broadly fall into two categories – William Browns or Hubert Lanes – and my two are definitely Williams. They are fabulous, inventive, outrageous and funny, but with the emotional range of a frog.

So, the morning dragged by very slowly without my chatty little friend. About midday, Matty looked up from his Lego a vague thought having surfaced. 'Where's Zena?' he asked.

'She's at school, dear,' I replied with exaggerated patience.

He digested this apparent news silently for a while, then his face lit up with enthusiasm. 'Do you think,' he said 'that a little boy has crawled underneath her desk and tied her shoelaces together yet?' At this happy thought the entire male contingent of the family roared with laughter, this observation evidently being extremely hilarious.

Dinosaurs - overrated.
Time dragged by. I answered many, many questions on comparative sizes of various dinosaurs with a cat, our caravan, a blue whale, the moon and the planet Jupiter. I confirmed over and again that if our dog was eaten by a dinosaur or a shark or a lion that yes she would die and no, there, wouldn't be much left and yes, it is possible that one, all or none of the above would spit out her rectum like the cats do with mice bottoms.

I sought refuge tidying the trailer. At some point the boys appeared and left armed with teddies. I looked out of the window, they had lined them up and were shooting them with Nerf guns.

I made myself a nice cup of tea and sat down to enjoy it in peace only to notice that Matty was pulling savagely at the skin on his chest. 'What are you doing?' I asked irritably. He gave me a beaming, gap-toothed smile. 'I'm trying to see if I can pull my nipples off, Mumsies,' he said casually.

I leapt up and headed for the door. 'I'm going to pick up Zena,' I said 'and I don't care if school doesn't finish for another hour.'

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Unsung Heroes


We were served an enforcement letter last week giving us notice to remove ourselves from our land.

This we have been expecting since April when it came up before the planning committee, so it was hardly a surprise. Still, we thought the timing a bit strange – the council not yet having pronounced upon a complaint we have lodged regarding our treatment.

The Planning Inspectorate advises that the appeals process should be a last resort, all other avenues having been explored beforehand, therefore it seems a bit bizarre of the council to press on with enforcement without having finished considering our complaint – but I suppose the cogs of bureaucratic machinery must grind on regardless.

Friends and supporters have greeted this new development with dismay, but I honestly don't feel particularly upset by it. I knew it was going to happen at some point and now here it is. I also have a win-win view of the future regarding the farm.

Running a truly green business, living off-grid in a sustainable house and growing our own food is something of a dream. But the dream has become a wee bit tarnished by the campaign waged by some of the villagers against us, which I can't get my head around. I can understand that they may be suspicious of us and concerned about change but we are pretty anodyne, we don't indulge in pitbulls, parties or piercings – so why the nastiness? So, given all that, if we succeed that's fabulous and if we don't, well there are more tolerant places to live.

I decided a while back that the only way to cope with some of the harder aspects of our lifestyle was to view the journey as an enjoyable adventure. It is tempting to look to a time in the far future featuring a house and successful business and consider that to be the time to enjoy our achievements. But that is a long way off, or may not happen – and so I try to be mindful of the pleasure that exists now. I may point out acidly, for instance, that other women have taps as I struggle to manipulate the heavy water bottle to fill the kettle, but actually, there is a part of me that quite enjoys the process. Heaven knows what it is, some primeval urge to connect with water in a way that taps don't provide, perhaps.

And there are many golden moments to enjoy. In the absence of a telly or electrical entertainment, the kids are so inventive and funny.

Toxic Reapa – rubbish at ballet.
Earlier this week I was highly amused to find our Lego Heroes partaking in a dance class. Lego Heroes, in case you do not have small boys – or girls for that matter – are ugly things that liberally litter every available surface of our limited living space. Their saving grace, as with all Lego, is that they offer some sort of engineering opportunity and keep the kids amused for hours. Other than that they are a pain, particularly when stepped upon in the dark.

Anyway, as I watched the latest addition, Toxic Reapa, being put very thoroughly through his petit-jetes it occurred to me that life doesn't get much richer, and that's worth an enforcement notice any time.


Sunday, 24 June 2012

Slow on the uptake

I am the only person in my family who likes brussels sprouts – so when I was given some young plants recently I decided to conduct a little trial, feeling as I did that some were expendable.

I planted nine seedlings. Three I sprayed daily with a solution of diluted washing-up liquid, three I planted tagetes around and three I surrounded with roasted and broken egg shells. This was clearly not very scientific since I should have done nothing at all to one and surrounded another with all three lines of defence. Tagetes too are effective against insects, not slugs – but they seemed like a good idea at the time.

So, unscientific-ness notwithstanding, I can now exclusively reveal the result of my experiment, which is that I now have neither brussels sprouts nor tagetes. Most have been eaten to the stalk, others are looking threadbare to the point of no return.

The culprit is deroceras reticulatum, better know as the grey field slug, which is apparently a terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusk – whatever that is. We have an awful lot of them and they are very enterprising sorts of chaps. I found several nestling under clods of earth around the base of one of my sprouts, cleverly hemmed in next to their quarry by my thoughtful scattering of egg shells.

I decided to consult my mother whose battle with slugs and snails has spanned more decades than she would care to reveal. She is merciless in their presence and exhibits a chilling ruthlessness one feels a little disturbing in a mother. Together we looked up organic ways to get rid of slugs and I came away full of hope, why I don't know – the blessed sprouts being already history.

As we were leaving my mother's, our progress was impeded by two cats in the middle of the road who were clearly up to no good. They reluctantly slunk off as our car drew closer and the children shouted that there was a 'snake' on the road. In fact, what the cats had been tormenting was a slow-worm.

Don't get me started on cats.

It has been many a year since I last picked up a slow-worm. My eldest brother was very fond of them – and grass snakes – and there were plenty of both hanging around at home when I was a stripling. Those and owl pellets and rabbit pelts – my poor mother has never quite got over her fear of pockets ever since.
 
Anyway, I felt his removal was necessary since the cats had retired under a car and were waiting to resume their entertainment. My first two attempts to pick him up failed – he was just a little too wriggly for comfort. But I finally got hold of him and he weaved crossly in and out of my fingers and shat on my hand. I examined him for collateral damage and showed him to the children complete with short accompanying lecture ('Well, you see, the really really interesting thing about slow-worms is that they are not snakes but actually lizards whose feet have – oh, never mind, don't listen then'). Lastly, to the slow-worm's great relief, I hid him under some wood while the cats weren't looking.

It wasn't until we were further down the road, that a distant memory surfaced of slow-worms eating slugs. It turns out they do – and, would you believe it, their favourite sort of slug is the field grey. I had literally let the solution to my problem slip through my fingers and all I had left to show for it was a smelly hand and a dollop of slow-worm poo.

I'm sure there's some kind of metaphor for life there.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Pressing charges

We have no electricity – save for a car battery that keeps the radio and a couple of lights going. So when it comes to recharging things, such as a Nintendo DS or iPod, I have to beg for the use of a plug socket wherever one is available.

The problem with this system – aside from availability – is that assorted electrical items end up being left behind at the places they were charging.

Top of the list of important-things-that-get-left-behind is our screwgun. This is a costly item and a highly necessary piece of equipment, all of which adds to the stress of not being quite sure where I left it last.

Recently I left it at the hall where our home education group takes place. For two hours I badgered people – the caretaker, members of the group, the poor drama teacher who had next booked the hall – trying to locate its whereabouts. Eventually, I was put out of my misery by someone many more times efficient than I who had picked it up as she left.

The next day, I drove 20 miles to her house to pick it up. There I had a lovely time drinking tea, chatting about life, and inspecting her garden and cockerels. When the time came to leave I collected my eldest son, the brussels sprouts plants and bunch of rhubarb I had been given and headed for the car, to be gently asked if I would also like to take the screwgun.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I headed for a party at a community in a nearby village. 'Can you take the screwgun,' said Gully. I stared at him and pointed out that I was going to a party and it wasn't generally good etiquette to turn up with large electrical tools. But I took it anyway.

We ate, drank, made merry and left to cheerful reminders about the screwgun. Halfway home we had a phone call from the mother of one of Zena's friends – she had left her camera in their caravan. We returned to the party, collected the camera and headed home. Back at the field I opened the boot of the car and realised immediately that it did not contain the green case that houses the screwgun and which has begun to pervade my dreams.

We returned to the party. Halfway along the drive I met the people who had shouted the reminders.

'Forgot the screwgun,' I said brazening it out – I had little choice but to do anything else. They stared at me incredulously. They are a lovely bunch of people, the same bunch in fact who had stayed late to help me look for my car keys – twice – and assisted in the location of the screwgun the previous time.

I thought I could see what they were thinking.

The screwgun was in the car park where the car had been; it had at least got that far. Personally, I blame the children. I believe there is something called the 'departure-factor'. This works much along the same lines as the wind-chill factor, where the temperature feels lower than it actually is because of the wind. In a similar vein, the departure-factor makes it feel like you have more children than you actually have.

So it is that when you wish to leave somewhere, you must first locate various scattered offspring. If you have three children, there may possibly be one close at hand, another will be in the field of vision but inaccessible, and a third will have disappeared altogether. A short while later, the missing third child will hove into view, which you scurry over to collect and admonish. But on turning around, it is apparent that now the other two have vanished. And so it goes on.

At the party, this process was made more difficult by the venue, which was a large manor house with two stairways, many corridors and extensive grounds. I knew one child was in the house, one was close by, and the other – well, it was anyone's guess where she was.

I have finally learnt, through long hard experience, not to send one child after another – for that way lies madness. So I kept a firm grip on the one that was to hand and finally, after three quarters of an hour managed to get the rest corralled. This, as any sheepdog will tell you, is the critical moment. One small lapse of vigilance and they're gone. So it is at this point that the urge to throw them in the car and step on the accelerator overtakes any rationale regarding items of electrical equipment that may be on charge.
 
Can Post-it notes really replace a brain?
My sister suggested I write a Post-it note reminding myself of what is on charge and attach it to the steering wheel. But that is assuming rather a lot – first, that I will be able to locate pen and Post-its and second, that I will remember to write a note to myself as I chivvy everyone out of the car to whatever event we are invariably late for.

Clearly, I don't hold out much hope that things will improve – or that my home ed group will come to regard me as anything other than a screwgun short of a toolbox.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

If looks could kill

Our sleeping quarters were once again overtaken by the Stench of Death last week.

We have become inured to finding carcasses in various stages of consumption. My morning routine is usually punctuated by me stepping on a large colon: the late owner of which had been digested at some point during the night while we slept oblivious to the carnage being wrought around us.

But there are some rodents the cats won't eat. Shrews, for instance. Shrews secrete a substance that makes them smell unpleasant and taste nasty. This is clearly no defence, since the poor tiny wee things get slaughtered anyway. Owls don't seem to mind the olfactory issue – and cats just like killing to alleviate the tedium of days spent languishing around on top of warm duvets.

We live in a field teeming with small rodent life and the cats pack a lot of killing into the few hours they manage to stay awake each day. Thus it follows that a fair percentage of their cull is unpalatable, and therefore tossed dead into an inaccessible corner of the trailer, or chased there to die at its leisure.

So it is that on occasion I am only alerted to the fact that something has died by my nostrils. In this case, the level of alert was high in every sense. I systematically stripped the trailer starting from the top left corner and working my way to the door. The last corner I tackled revealed the source of the stench – there he was, hidden by a flip-flop, a poor dead little mole.

Moles are implicated in a range of agricultural misdemeanours – including crop damage and the contamination of silage with Clostridium or Listeria, which occurs when bacteria from molehill soil are gathered up with grass. They are loathed by gardeners, farmers, golf-course owners and caretakers of sports fields. A mole was even rumoured to have brought about the death of William III in 1702, who is alleged to have died of complications arising from a broken collarbone after his horse stumbled on a molehill and threw him off.

So moles are basically a pest and certainly not something we want on our land. This year we will be planting young trees, for instance, which we do not want damaged by mole activity.

But for all that, I took no comfort in finding one dead. Few people have seen a mole in real life, but I can testify that they are astoundingly cute. They have the most beautiful dark brown velvet coats and hugely disproportionate chimpanzee hands and absurd little snouts. In fact, they look like a creature fashioned by a committee. And they are blind and can't run properly on a smooth surface because of their silly big hands.

I felt very sad at how helpless he had been and gave the cat a very nasty look indeed, which he, of course, returned with knobs on from the comfort of my pillow.

It's very hard to intimidate a cat.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Creating a buzz

I was having a little snooze on the trampoline (as you do – well, as I do sometimes) when I became aware of a buzzing in my ears.

Last year, regular blog readers may recall, we planted half our field with seed designed to attract birds and insects. For a good long while it appeared that all we had managed to achieve was to feed the wood pigeons. But slowly it became clear that the half of the field we had seeded looked very different from the half we had not, and so we concluded that the pigeons had left us something to be going on with.

This all died back in winter, but this spring the planted half has exploded with colour, which positively hums with the sound of insects going about their business. The cats, who have taken full advantage of the cover the foliage provides to stock up on small, hapless mammals, return every evening covered in a fine coating of pollen grains. And I and the dog have been sneezing a great deal.

But it is a small price to pay for all this glorious abundance, which looks beautiful, smells wonderful and is clearly offering a feast to an array of insect life. These in turn are attracting house martins, who swoop and gorge in an amazing aerobatic display every evening, watched silently and malevolently by two pairs of green eyes.

Amid all this bounty, however, I can't help feeling concerned about the lack of honey bees. There are lots of bumble bees, a variety of really weird-looking wasp things, and we can't move for horse flies – literally sometimes, they bite, you know.

Our seed mix is aimed at farmers to plant on the edges of fields and is specifically developed to attract honey bees. It contains, incidentally, an assortment of seeds with fabulous names from a different age – creeping red fescue, cocksfoot, early English winter vetch, and my favourite, black medick – surely something they used to pound up and mix with cow dung and goats' urine to make a cure for baldness or dropsy.

I would therefore have expected our field to be teeming with bees, especially given that there are hives in the village, but there are surprisingly few.

Before we bought our field we spent years working out a system that would provide an income sufficient to keep a family of five, and assorted animal hangers on, but would also give back to the land more than it took as well as creating its own eco system and provide a wider benefit for local flora and fauna. One of the first headings we wrote on our grand scheme was 'Bees' - after which we pondered how we could attract and incorporate them into our system.

Perhaps the sad fact is that there are just not so many to attract. Bee numbers in the UK have declined by 50% in the last 25 years. The cause is open to debate but fingers tend to point at a combination of pesticides, parasites – such as the varroa mite, and destruction of the flower-rich habitats on which bees feed.

Recently new research, published in Science, found a close correlation between pesticides containing neonicotinoids and the ability of bees to navigate back to their colony and produce new queens. Neonicotinoids are widely used in agriculture in this country as an insecticide and are chemically related to nicotine, which I used to pay good money to inhale.

Pesticide manufacturers deny they cause any lasting damage to bees, but as Mandy Rice-Davies put it – 'they would, wouldn't they?'. The UK government also stands by neonicotinoids, and appears unmoved by the latest research. A number of European countries, however, including France and Germany have stopped using certain insecticides on the evidence so far.

Bees pollinate a third of the food we eat, so if they are in trouble it matters in a huge sort of way. Apart from anything else, I don't want my black medick to be wasted on horse flies.

Anyone need a cure for baldness?

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Lost for a spell

I've been feeling like a hick from the sticks this weekend on account of spending much of it being lost and befuddled in the big city.

It started badly when I took a different exit off the Victoria line at King's Cross and found myself wandering round a part of it I never knew existed. This has been happening a lot of late at the station, which has been massively revamped over recent years - first to accommodate the Eurostar at St Pancras and now with a swanky and rather beautiful new domestic departure hall. Perhaps it says something about King's Cross that one departs in style, but still arrives in the old grimy bit.

Anyway, all this revamping has led to miles of labyrinthine tunnels that all look the same and can end in a myriad of assorted exits. This lends an air of unexpectedness to journeys through King's Cross - even though I have been negotiating it regularly for many years.

King's Cross St Pancras            Hogwarts School of Wizardry
As I walked in surprise down a new tunnel, I found myself thinking  how many similarities King's Cross has with Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry - moving staircases, for instance, animated pictures on the wall – and endless corridors. Hogwarts is so complex, that even its headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, professes it remains a mystery to him happening once upon 'a beautifully proportioned room ... containing a really rather magnificent collection of chamber pots'.

Harry Potter readers will know he is referring to the Room of Requirement - and this set me off on a new avenue of thought of what I would require should I stumble upon just such a room in King's Cross. Having lately arrived off the 9.06 from Devon, travelled underground across London and walked around the station for some length of time, it will be of no surprise to you that I decided my room of requirement would contain a table laid out for tea, with a large pot, some ginger cake and lump sugar with tongs. (I still enjoy holding the sugar in the tea and trying to find the point where it will absorb the liquid and turn an orange/brown in the tongs. I really should get out more.)

No such room appeared however, so I eventually emerged into the light to discover a whole new station exit and then wandered vaguely round the back streets behind my office for a while before locating the entrance.

Later that night, on the way to my Friday stayover in Brighton, I managed to jump on two wrong trains and ended up spending a long 50 minutes on a platform. By this time I was feeling tired, stupid and fed up – I like to feel part of the purposeful moving mass in London, not dotty, lost and late. So if that room of requirement does appear, I am fervently hoping it has a younger, more dynamic brain in it.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

An awning chasm

A sizeable portion of our living accommodation blew away last weekend.

I wasn't there at the time being at work in London, which was largely wind free despite the torrential rain. Thus I was blissfully unaware until I was alerted by a phone call on the train home and told the awning, which acts as entrance, depository and storage facility, was on top of the caravan and the polytunnel plastic roof that keeps us dry in our trailer was flapping its last.

I don't get much sleep on a Saturday night. I work into the small hours and catch the first train to Devon, so this news was unwelcome since I had been promising myself a little snooze after lunch. But my woes were nothing to those being experienced at home.

Trailer trashed
Gully had spent the entire night awake as the trailer was buffeted by the winds, finally falling into an exhausted sleep somewhere after dawn from which he was awoken by a small, excited child shouting 'coo, come and look'. Before him, lay a scene of devastation. The tent had been lifted off its poles but with a single long zip bizarrely clinging on to the frame. In the space where it had been was an upturned picnic bench, which had been lifted into the air and thrown several feet into the awning – and had probably been its nemesis. Our assorted chattels were scattered everywhere.

Inside the caravan, the dog too had spent a sleepless night. She was found trembling unhappily and refused to eat her breakfast. Oody, it should be said, is no highly strung, dainty thing; she is a considerable poundage of bull terrier/labrador cross – refusal of food is not in her genes and a sign that she is very, very pissed off.

The wind, as I alighted at Tiverton Parkway, was strong though not alarmingly so. But on arrival at the field a hundred or so metres higher, the weather was savage. It was difficult to stand upright and hail was coming down – sideways. Bending double, with what felt like freezing gravel being persistently flung in our faces, it was a miserable trudge across the field to the sanctuary of the caravan. But poor Oody hated it the most, she whined and walked backwards shaking her head. She plunged into the undergrowth hoping for refuge, but finding none crawled out and walked backwards again. It was a pitiful sight.

There was little we could do to deal with the havoc outside. So we made a nice cup of tea and listened while the roof on the trailer billowed and flapped and tore, threatening to rip completely any minute  exposing the porch Gully had built to the elements – and leaving the wooden trailer roof unprotected from the rain.

I packed a bag and we left for yet another emergency stay with my mother, who should be able to enjoy her well-ordered life and house without her flaky daughter habitually turning up. There we stayed in comfort, while poor Gully was left to put what he could to rights. It took two days for the storm to die down, during which time the trailer roof finally gave up the ghost. Then he had to find a new roofing solution and fix it in place – quickly.

After the best part of a week of TV, comfy chairs and dinners cooked in a proper oven, the children were less than enthusiastic about returning home. But none more so than the dog. Oody loves her nana and she particularly loves her nana's house. For a start there are soft carpets on which it pleases her to roll and wriggle. Then there's a large ginger cat three doors down to get excited about – and two to three regular walks a day, necessitated by the lack of lawn there but not crucial in a three-acre field. Best of all, the house doesn't move and bits of it fall off and crash about in the middle of the night.

Underwhelmed
Back in the caravan, the kettle was whistling and the children picked up where they had left off with their toys and activities. But the dog stopped short of the door and stood resolutely outside, alone and forlorn. She didn't say as much, but her expression definitely read: 'You have got to be bloody joking!'

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Scribbling in the margins

Ever since obtaining copies of the parish council minutes, I have been feeling even more marginalised than usual.

I won't say we are universally loathed within the parish – I have met several people who are quietly interested in what we are trying to achieve – but the clamour of the vocal ones appears to have drowned such seeds of moderation for now.

What upsets them so is a suspicion that by initially moving on to the land without planning permission we are getting away with something vaguely illegal. It isn't – applying for retrospective planning permission is commonplace, just fraught with perils for the applicant who may have to undo building work or, in our case, move off.

It's hard not to take it all personally, but when I am able to stand back from it, I find this concept of being marginalised very interesting. I am a white woman from southern England and although I do not like to think I am middle-class, I have some of those credentials – for instance, I work in the media and speak a bit posh, like. I would, therefore, not be expected to experience much prejudice other than the usual bilge from the odd unreconstructed male.

However, I do things that appear to excite irrational prejudice. I don't send my kids to school, for instance, and home education is one of those subjects that gets right up lots of people's noses without them having much idea of what it's all about.

Then there's this living in a field business that is causing such bluster and bile – the worst of which emanates from those who have never spoken to us. It is much easier to demonise people when you dehumanise them.

But I have decided that this is all good for my lily-livered liberal soul. I have this odd idea that it is only the experience of difficulties that saves one from being unbearably smug.

Take children, for instance; I have three of them – two are easy going, one is more challenging. I dread to think what I would have been like if I'd only had the two easy ones. I'd have felt very superior about my obvious parenting skills. But the challenging one whispers to my conscience 'parenting skills be blowed – happy, easy kids are just luck'. Thus he keeps me on my toes and makes me a nicer human being, although not always, it has to be said, when he is in the middle of being challenging.

Coincidentally, one of the keystones of permaculture is to 'value the marginal'. In permaculture terms, the marginal is the place where two eco-systems or habitats meet, woodland and meadow for instance, which can be more productive and richer in species than either habitat on its own.

This view clearly has much wider significance. That it is at the edges of practically any sphere, from science to society, that diversity and innovation can be found. If you want to know what the next interesting thing will be, look to the edges of society where ideas clash and fuse. Permaculture itself has been pretty marginal for years – as has the eco-movement. Hippies have been quietly living in woods, harvesting water and composting poo for a long time – it is only now that those ideas are gaining weight in the mainstream.

So there is much to be gained from feeling marginalised - not least that it will hopefully teach me how not to turn into an intolerant twit.

I am hoping that in time it will also imbue me with a modicum of measure and calm in the face of challenging times and people.

In the meantime, where's that bloody Nirvana CD?

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Battery farm

Since giving up the national grid, the humble battery has risen no end in my estimation. So, in the week that saw the demise of the 'father of loud', Jim Marshall, who did so much to erode my hearing, let us also give thanks to Alessandro Volta, who appears to have invented the first battery around 1800.

This rush of gratitude stems from the purchase of a small set of battery-operated speakers which I was forced to buy on account of the fact that our new car does not have a CD player.

That's right – our new car, generously donated by my lovely brother to the Charwood Farm cause. This is on account of my fat-headed loss of the one key we had to the old car, which has too many other issues to warrant spending £200 on something as frivolous as a replacement key.

But the absence of a CD player in the new car has deprived us of the means to listen to audiobooks and with Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix awaiting collection at the library, emergency measures had to be adopted.

Batteries - essential for the off-gridder!
So we've spent happy hours since buying the little speakers tucked up in bed listening to Stephen Fry and spending the days sharing music – as opposed to one person singing tunelessly and loudly while listening to the iPod or Sony CD Walkman through headphones.

I am really enjoying rediscovering music with the kids, which has led me to reflect on how glad I am that we no longer have a television.  I've even been busting some shapes in the caravan, much to the kids' horrified amusement. Oh yes, I've still got it, alright.

But all is not always harmonious.

'Do you like Take That, Mummy,' asked Zena reaching for her CD wallet.

I was washing up at the time and thus able to consider this question at length while mechanically wiping dishes.

Well,' I said. 'I am willing to concede that Gary Barlow is not without talent as a songwriter – but I still don't like them.'

I went onto explain that it is what Take That represent insomuch as they are a 'manufactured' band that I disagree with. I expanded upon this theme touching briefly on Motown, and thus contradicting myself, before moving on to the Monkees and the Spice Girls and rounding off by heaping scorn upon One Direction and the Wanted. This lecture I finished with a diatribe against Rihanna, which I always manage to get in no matter what the conversational theme might be.

Feeling in need of some feedback, I turned to find my daughter – headphones on – happily mouthing the words to Back For Good.

It seems that when it comes to blocking Mummy in soapbox mode out, headphones still have the edge.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Staying power

I have had cause of late to reflect upon all the people that have helped us on this mad caper we have embarked upon - and such reflection has made me come over all dewy-eyed and a bit gooey around the edges.

Nine months ago, we gave up a comfortable house and moved 250 miles across country to begin a dream of making a small-scale sustainable farm that would not just provide an income - but a way of life. In pursuit of this, we gave up many of the modern conveniences that hitherto we had taken for-granted - like running water, electricity, telephones, computers - and space, glorious high-ceiling rooms with proper doors that could be shut to obtain solitude and peace.

This has thus far been achieved with a patient network of support - from my mother and sister who have been there to help with laundry and essential child maintenance to the farmer who allows us to draw water and the people who put me up every weekend when I work in London.

This last group has been the source of a very profound sense of well being on my part. Every Friday, I commute to work after which I spread myself liberally around the metropolis and home counties staying with various friends, colleagues and relatives.

Not only is this a great privilege, but it affords me little windows of opportunity I would not otherwise have. Last weekend, for instance, I stayed at a colleague's house while she was in the US doing something intelligent and glamorous. She is in the process of renovating her house - and as a result all her possessions are packed away. This, combined with her new beautiful stone floor, has had the effect of creating a highly minimalist, peaceful space - which was all mine to enjoy. And enjoy it, I did.

It occurred to me as I sat in a path of a sunshine in the stillness of her house, that it was an act of great generosity to allow me to be there in her home.

Such goodness of heart is replicated every week; colleagues and friends welcome me into their homes. I sit in their kitchens, eat their food, wallow in their bath, and chat to their fantastic kids and I always come away with a great sense of gratefulness, warmth and affection. Best of all, these weekend forays have brought me much closer to my in-laws, with whom I have a default stay and whose warm and welcoming house has become a second home.

There are many things about this experience, such as the letting go of possessions, that have changed my perspective and made this adventure worth every moment, whatever its outcome. But I think this feeling of being surrounded by such decency and humanity will stay with me for life and hopefully, as the years go by, make me slightly less cynical and jaded than I may otherwise have become.

And that's better than a flushing loo any day of the week.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Going off-key

It was all going so very well. The sun came out, sleepy and befuddled bees buzzed, and I was experiencing such a surge of bonhomie that I even confided to Gully that I almost liked living where we are.

In such a mood we set off to Exeter last week, on a warm and lovely morning. As we drove through the city we saw enough people we knew to induce a feeling of warmth and fuzziness and affection for the old place.

Later that day we went to our home education group and sat among new and lovely friends talking and laughing and knitting in the sunshine while the children played.

All felt right with the world.

That was, until we went to leave and I discovered that the keys to the car had vanished off the face of the Earth.

I went through the usual motions - the 'they must be somewhere, silly me' routine. I emptied bags and crawled around the car, but after an hour of taking everything apart, it was clear they were not on my person or, indeed, anywhere to be found.

So I called the AA, which has certainly demonstrated value for money these last couple of years – and after much harrumphing, the rescue lorry managed to hoist our poor car onto the back and set off to tow us home along 14 miles of country lanes. I spent most of this journey anxiously examining Matty for signs of greenness around the gills, since he is prone to car sickness and the journey in the back of the pick-up truck was spectacularly jolt-full.

As luck would have it, I had that night arranged to go to a local pub. There is a knitting group that meets in the pub once a month and I and a fellow needle-clacking villager were due to go. Thus I was able to beat a hasty exit before Gully and I could discuss the situation at any length.

The next day dawned hopeless. The last of the straws I was clutching at – that someone had gone home with my keys by mistake – gave out and we were faced with the true enormity of our situation, which was that we were well and truly stuck.

We don't have a spare key for the car. It only came with one and to buy another was what seemed like an exorbitant amount of money. Old and beaten as it is, it is still high tech enough to come with an immobiliser so it cannot be hot-wired or another barrel fitted.

Furthermore, it cannot be towed by rope anywhere, since the steering locks if the ignition isn't on. But to get a replacement key it needs to be taken to the Vauxhall garage to be re-programmed, whatever that means. It would therefore have to go back on a lorry, only this time at our expense and not the AA's. All of which means we are looking at more than £200 to replace the keys I lost.

It seems the car is not the only thing around here that needs reprogramming.

I believe I may have mentioned how difficult it is to live in deepest rural Devon without a car before (see Living in the country - not for wimps). But for a quick recap, we rely totally on it to obtain water and food as well as necessities like recharging phones – not to mention transportation. The nearest small shop is three-ish miles away – as is the nearest bus stop. We do not have large fridges or freezers at the field thus it doesn't take us long to run out of food. In short, without a car we are stuffed.

Our problems were compounded by the fact that I was due to leave for work in London for the weekend the next day. With two adults, one can put on their walking boots and head off for the bright lights of Witheridge with a stout heart and knapsack to obtain supplies leaving the other behind to look after the kids. But with one adult, children would have to be towed along for the seven-mile round trip – and that would not be pleasant for anyone involved.

So it was decided there were enough supplies to comfortably last two people while I took the younger two for a hasty sojourn at my mother's – confirming again the wisdom of having come home to Devon and the bosom of extremely supportive relatives.

The poor dog tried to follow us through the village. She couldn't understand why we were setting off equipped for a long walk without her accompaniment. I shouted at her to go back but she stood her ground with a sulky expression and drooping head. It all felt a bit desolate.

Still, yet another relative has come to the rescue. My brother is rashly lending us his car until such a time as we can sort out our problem. I only hope he has a spare set of keys.

And maybe there's a bit of serendipity at work too; in a week of forecourts running dry while people frantically filled jerry cans in advance of a rumoured tanker driver's strike - perhaps it wasn't such a bad week not to need any petrol.