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

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Going underground

I had to wait on the Hammersmith line at Paddington for a full 11 minutes this week. during which I noticed in my 'up-from-the-sticks' sort of way, that the Underground information service there has reached new heights.

The next eastbound train, we were informed, had just left Shepherd's Bush Market and would be at Wood Lane in two minutes, Latimer Road in four minutes, Ladbroke Grove in six minutes – and so it went on. This information was repeated regularly with updates and I wondered why on earth we would want to know how long a train takes to get from one stop to the other several stations down the line.

I couldn't work out whether the announcer was a real person or an automated voice – but decided in any case that the inspiration for such a surfeit of information was that someone had got something new and shiny - that possibly beeps.

It put me in mind of a boy – Richard, I think his name was – that I used to sit near in double physics at school. Richard, let's stick with that for now, had a digital watch. This was the Seventies – yes, really – and digital watches were the height of wrist-concious technology, particularly for a certain kind of boy.

Richard's watch was a hefty silver and black model that told 24-hour time in bright red numbers - and I have a suspicion that it beeped. At the click of a small silver button on the side it would also reveal the date, and a futher click would turn it in to a stop watch, no less. This latter feature being very useful in double physics, which was interminably dull and immeasurably unenlivened by the fact it was taught by the headmaster. Before Richard's stop watch, I used to while away the 90 minutes by making tally marks in my jotter for every minute that passed – much like a prisoner on a wall. As a foot note, I now find physics fascinating and view the fact that such an interesting subject was rendered so dull at school as one of my reasons for home educating my children – although I am prepared to concede that with any luck teaching methods have moved on since then.

Anyway, the thing about Richard's watch is that he consulted it at least three times a minute and checked the date several times an hour. It was new and shiny and beeped, you see. This is what I think has happened on the Hammersmith line at Paddington.

I myself am going through much the same enthralment. I gave myself a smart phone for Christmas. Hitherto, I had been happy with an ancient Nokia that I used sporadically – but I do find it so hard to conduct my life without easy access to the world wide web (see Communication Breakdown) that I gave in and got myself a contract and a BlackBerry phone.

Now, without a hint of hypocrisy, I have turned into one of those people I used to moan about – constantly fiddling with my phone, which not only beeps but flashes too when something exciting, like an email or a text, happens and alerts me to the fact that I am a member of a great big lovely world. Not only that, I can set it to remind me to do things, which means extra beeps and flashes. All this – and it actually works in our field, which is to mobile phone signals what black holes are to light.

So I may not have running water, or electricity, but at least now I can keep up with Twitter.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A squash and a squeeze

The trailer-cum-dormitory was finished this week. By finished, I mean the beds were built – it still resembles a padded cell and the cats still view it as theirs but consider the addition of duvets and memory-foam mattresses a great improvement. 

Moving into it to sleep represented one of the shining moments of the whole adventure so far. 'I don't know how to thank you,' Zena said tearfully to Gully so happy she was with her little bunk. I too, can't quite believe my good fortune. Actually moving into a different space to go to a bed that is already made feels profoundly gratifying. Equally so is waking up and walking into a different room to make tea and breakfast. Such a simple thing, yet it feels so luxuriant. 

It has, of course, messed up my routine, such as it is. I can't get used to the idea that I no longer have to go to bed at the same time as the children – and on my first trip to work I set the alarm absurdly early in order to enable me to do all the things that take forever in a small space. But now I don't have to store beds and tidy away and so instead of the normal Friday morning running-around-and-shrieking routine, I found myself sitting with time on my hands drinking tea while feeling vaguely out of sorts. 

All this has put me in mind of Julia Donaldson's excellent book A Squash and A Squeeze – a book you may be unfamiliar with unless you have small children, but is worth reading all the same as a beautifully succinct philosophy on life. The plot revolves around a little old lady who feels her small home no longer meets her needs and consults a wise old man. To her bemuseument he advises her to take in her hen, goat, cow and pig – this she does in spite of thinking it a 'curious plan'. Finally he advises her to take them all out, at which point she discovers to her joy that her house is plenty big enough after all. 

The moral of the tale is, of course, to be happy with your lot. In our case, our lot has suddenly doubled in size – and very happy it has made us too!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

For good or ill

The pox has been visited upon us – two of the three children have spent the past week feverishly complaining and scratching at blistering spots and resemble something out of a Hogarth sketch depicting the perils of gin. 

'Just remember, your mother deliberately did this to you,' Gully told Zena as she wriggled with discomfort and sobbed with the pain of a virulent headache. There was some truth in this. While at my sister's house on Christmas day another family due to spend the day there had telephoned to say they had awoken with chicken pox and would I prefer it if they delayed their arrival until after we had left. 

Buoyed up with mulled wine and Budweiser, I airily instructed them to come as planned. As it was, we spent all of 20 minutes together in the same house so one has to say 'respect' to the varicella-zoster virus – now that's survival. 

But what seemed like a good plan in the warmth and alcoholic glow of Christmas lost something in practice. I have long worried about coping with illness in the caravan – by which I mean run-of-the-mill illnesses – clearly having a coronary or contracting Chrohn's disease would render living in a caravan the least of one's problems. 

Top of the list of Illnesses We Do Not Want is some sort of vomiting bug. We once had the pleasure of three of these in two months and the memory has stayed with me. Quite how we would cope with the norovirus without a washing machine or taps or a flushing loo is an area of speculation that I prefer to avoid. 

While in comparison, the fall out from chicken pox is much easier to deal with, there are certainly elements missing from our lifestyle that could have made it less uncomfortable. A soothing bath, for instance, might have been helpful. And, if you're going to be holed up for days on end (Brownies didn't want us and neither did our home ed group) a comfy sofa and a few DVDs even more so. 

Still, they did very well. Two down – one to go – then not only can I cross that off the childhood milestones, but add it to my mental checklist of Adverse Conditions We Have Coped With.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Living the dream?

The trailer, which miraculously survived last week's gales, is almost ready to move into. When I say move, what I mean is sleep in – for it is to be our dormitory.

This, I am hoping, will free up time and make life much easier. No longer will I have to put away and take out beds every night. A boring process that requires much moaning and carrying on for my part. The trouble is that nothing can be achieved in the morning until the beds are put away. The kitchen area is the size of half a small tablecloth and the table needs to be put up before dishes can be cleaned and breakfast made – multi-tasking is just not possible in a small space. A procedure must be followed in strict order which very often means we get to late morning and all we've managed to achieve is to get up.

So, I see the trailer as a solution to many problems – with an unexpected bonus. The man has given much thought to its insulation over the past months and many plans have fallen by the wayside in the process. At one point it was going to have pallet boards filled with straw nailed on to it and layers of papier mâché glued in to it. I can't remember why he dropped the pallet board idea – but I had something to say about the papier mâché – given the work involved and the sheer volume of paper needed. Working in the newspaper industry means I have more access than most to unwanted newsprint, but there's a limit to how much I can comfortably carry home on the train.

We finally settled on an external double layer of slater's underfelt, and bubble wrap inside. This latter did not go quite to plan – first, an exclamation mark instead of a 1 in a text caused us to order four times what we actually needed. Second, it was found to be too prone to tearing. Then, after Sam had been ominously quiet and absent for a long time one day, I went into the trailer to find him thoughtfully popping all the air out of the bubbles, thus rendering our insulation pointless.

So it was that we decided to layer the bubble wrap with loft insulation and gardening fleece – all stapled to the walls of the trailer. The effect is not unlike a padded cell. In fact, it's very like a padded cell. This, serendipitously, falls into line with permaculture, one of the tenets of which is for everything to fulfil more than one function. So, not only will our trailer be warm and cosy – but I can throw myself at the walls as madness takes hold, which it is surely doing already.

I was awoken from a most pleasant dream earlier this week that I was in New York staying, improbably, with a non-existent friend who was managing the development of the most glorious and sophisticated shopping mall on Earth. I detest shopping – not from an anti-consumer point of view – I just hate shops – but in my dream I was captivated by the trees and gardens and vistas within the mall and especially by the lifts, which contained holographic buttons giving instant access to Facebook and all the information one could hope for. Meanwhile, the children were on a museum trail and I and my friends that don't exist were idly discussing which avant-garde ballet to attend.

Back at work, and waiting to email Chris in the Guardian's New York office who was at lunch, I regaled colleagues with my dream. I realised in the telling – and by the aghast looks on my colleague's faces – that what I was describing was the antithesis of my life in rural Devon.

'So, let me get this straight, you're dreaming of Brent Cross,' said one, a tad unfairly – my mall was Much Better than that. 'I think I'd have to be chained to a radiator for a month before I dreamed of Brent Cross,' he added in wonder.

'Or living in a caravan in a muddy field for several months,' supplied another.

Yes, that could be it …

Monday, 9 January 2012

Giving it some welly

I can't help but notice that young urban bright things are wearing wellies about town these days, which magically catapults me from the frumpy middle-aged person clad in shapeless outdoor garmets I thought I was into something fabulously fashionable - or possibly not.

My wellies and I seldom part company, to the deep embarrassment of my daughter. She's eight, you see. Anyway, such is the attachment that I have to my wellies that I often find to my surprise that they are adorning my feet in places where other footwear might be more appropriate.

Just such an occasion was Christmas Eve, which is also Gully's birthday. We decided to celebrate by eating out and it wasn't until we were waiting to be seated that I noticed that both he and I were still wearing wellies - and muddy ones to boot.

Still, it was just mud. We're not so hardened as the three equestrian-minded ladies we once encountered in a well-known fast-food establishment from whose riding boots permeated a steady and strong waft of horses' doo-doos. The restaurant was busy and the contest for seats fierce, but around those ladies the tables were empty as they tucked into their burgers oblivious to the impact they were having on other diners' olfactory systems and appetites.

While this level of insouciant boot wearing is clearly something to aspire to, I do sometimes feel a twinge of self-consciousness and see myself, as I follow a high-heeled, manicured woman around the supermarket, for the shambles I must generally look.

Still, the beauty of living in rural Devon is that I am not alone. 'Joining the army?' my brother-in-law recently asked as I stopped by while wearing Gully's trousers to collect laundry from my ever supportive sister.

'If my 20-year-old self could see me now,' I returned. 'In the old man's army-surplus trousers and muddy wellies. I've got to go shopping in Crediton dressed like this!'

'Well,' said brother-in-law, surveying my attire critically – 'you'll blend right in'.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

I saw Mummy kicking Santa Claus

Twelfth night has been and gone - and thank goodness for that … How do you do Christmas in a caravan with three smallish children, one dog and two cats? Basically you exit as quickly as possible taking the dog and leaving enough food for the cats to gorge on over a 24-hour period, then repair to a nice warm house complete with full-size oven and a large dining table. In this case, my mother's, where we feasted and watched the telly until our eyes were square and our brains sated.

We tried to be festive. I got some fabulous little battery-operated fairy lights from a great website (lights4fun) and we had the smallest Christmas tree in the world, which is now planted in the field.

But on Christmas day you need space in which to sprawl after a big dinner, and television to gaze at, and so after opening stockings - or in our case pillow slips - we left. This was the first year Santa didn't come - not because he couldn't find the caravan or because we don't have a chimney - but because after protracted conversations debating whether Santa would find us, the children decided that he didn't exist. And so Santa went the same way as the tooth fairy earlier this year, and all pretence was dropped.

I felt a little sad at the ending of this ritual - another piece of childish innocence lost along the way - but it was also quite handy. The logistics of creeping about the caravan in the dead of night trying to deliver pillow cases quietly had been exercising me for some weeks - thus I was able to crash about swearing and tripping over the dog, and not particularly care if anyone woke up.

I had primed the children not to expect many presents explaining that we lived in constrained circumstances and didn't have the room for toys and games. We would instead, I hastily added before the howls of protest could begin, take a trip somewhere fantastic in lieu of exciting parcels. In practice what happened is that they got more presents than I felt comfortable with, or that the caravan could contain, as well as the promise of an expensive trip somewhere. How did that happen?

I spent New Year working at the Observer with much-loved and longstanding colleagues, listening to the thuds and bangs of the amazing Thames firework display and messing up the editor's office with bits of cheese and French bread and cheesecake. Back home in the quiet and dark of the field, there was also a party going on. The kids and Gully, overdosed on Schloer, were still busting some moves to Radio 1 and the fairy lights well after midnight. The distance between us suddenly seemed huge - but I guess what mattered was that we all enjoyed ourselves seeing in what is very likely going to be an interesting year!