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, 26 February 2012

Right as rain

'Wasn't it lovely on Thursday' said my sister in law at the weekend on my regular Friday stay over in Harlow.

'No!' I replied vehemently. Thursday had been advertised in some quarters as being sunny and a balmy eighteen degrees. On the back of this information I had forborne to put my washing in the dryer at the launderette on Wednesday afternoon, postponing it to put on the line for the next day.

But when Thursday dawned it was grey, misty and drizzly – much like any other day at Charwood Farm, in fact. I comforted myself that the sun would burn it off, but grey, misty and drizzly it remained while Essex and much of the south east basked in unseasonal warmth.

This put me in mind of a conversation I had overheard when I mentioned in a fit of optimism in the launderette that it was going to be glorious weather the next day. 'Eighteen degrees,' a lady had said mouth open and eyebrows raised. 'In February! That's never right.'

'That's why I do my conservation work,' said another, primly folding towels adding, a trifle sanctimoniously, 'And that's why the south east is beginning to regret being so wasteful.'

As I pointed out to the lady, the east and south east aren't experiencing drought because of profligacy but because they don't get as much rain as the west country – especially our particular bit of it. This is good for, say, drying washing or taking the kids out, but obviously very bad for households and people who want to grow things – such as the huge arable farms in East Anglia, which produce more than a quarter of England's cereals.

Last week, the situation had come to such a pretty pass that a special drought summit was convened to tackle the crisis of disappearing water levels. And disappearing they surely are; flows in the river Lee, which runs through Hertfordshire and north east London, are 24% lower than the long-term average, while the Kennet in Wiltshire is running at less than 31% of average levels and has dried up altogether west of Marlborough.

Ahead of the summit, Thames Water said the Thames Valley and London had received below-average rainfall for 18 months of the last 23. In our village, rainfall figures (kept by the redoubtable Chrissie) reveal that in October 4.21inches (107mm) of rain fell. Correspondingly, in the same month Cardinham (on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall) recorded 67.2mm on a single day, whereas Wallingford, in Oxfordshire, received less than 2mm for the entire first two weeks of the month (see UK hydrological survey). Meanwhile, Aberdeen received twice as much rainfall as normal in October, contributing greatly to the floods the region experienced in November.

All of which neatly illustrates the point – raised excellently in the Guardian last week by John Mason – that it is easy for one's views on the environment to be based on perception. In other words, and in fairness to launderette lady, it is difficult to conceive of a rainfall crisis when you live in well-drenched Tiverton. 

Or in my case, feeling hard done by that I couldn't dry my washing in May temperatures in February instead of being joyful that the prevailing conditions were grey, misty and drizzly – as they should be.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Permaculture catflap

Our trailer door has a hole at the bottom that is the perfect size for the cats to go in and out. This is no coincidence, for it was created for that very purpose by the cats who became impatient at the intransigence of sleeping humans to let them in when it was minus eight-ish the other week.

I was somewhat exercised by this. I am not a heartless woman and don't like to think of the dear little savages being frozen so I was trying to think of a solution to the hole in the door/cat problem that would meet everybody's needs. Thus I suggested to Gully that we should put a catflap in the trailer door.

'What for?' he said in surprise.

'Well,' I said carefully - wondering if I was missing something 'because there's a bloody great hole in the bottom of the door for a start.'

'See that,' he replied 'permaculture in action, that is.'

This is not the first time I have heard this. Part of the tenet of permaculture is the notion of dual purpose. The idea being that things serve extra functions to that for which they were originally intended.

Gully had been intending to drill a series of small holes at the bottom of the door through which condensation can escape. The theory being that condensation collects on cool surfaces and since our trailer is liberally coated in Rockwool insulation the only place it can collect is the door. This has been borne out by the fact that the door is noticeably damp in the mornings from the combined effects of five people exhaling all night and the gas fire that heats the trailer.

Now he is claiming that he has been saved the bother of drilling the holes thanks to the efforts of the cats.

'Surely,' I ventured, 'heat will be escaping through it?' But no, apparently not, hot air rises while cool air stays at the bottom – so the cool air will be escaping through the hole, along with the condensation and the cats, while the hot air stays in the trailer.

My friend Roz pointed out, as I expounded this to her, that surely a draught of icy air would be coming in. But no, apparently not so either - the trailer is sealed and therefore there is no draw to entice an icy draught in.

As with so much else, I gave up arguing the toss at this point and am learning to live with a crappy looking jagged hole in the door. I am also learning to live with waking up at 3am to find a cat devouring a mouse on my bed, which I guess is also permaculture in action to a point.

I used this same theory to weed some of the field earlier this week while conducting yet another hunt for Squawker. The aforementioned is a small teddy bear of Matty's that became lost in the height of summer when the undergrowth was thick and lush with the fruits of our bird- and insect-friendly seeding. There Squawker remained, until this week when he was unearthed – filthy and smelling strongly of fox – by my enthusiastic search-and-weed operation. So clearly, there's something to this permaculture dual purpose milarkey.

Although I can't help notice that some people around here don't always practise what they preach. 'What the bloody hell's this?' asked Gully poking at a bowl of green slop I had presented him with. 'Cabbage soup – it's made from roast dinner leftovers,' I explained.

'Yes, I suspected as much,' he said placing it deliberately out of reach. 

So much for Mr Permaculture.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Salt of the Earth

There are four roads in and out of our village. Two are wider and gritted in winter because they are on the school run. The other two are one-car wide and wind down and up hill in a fashion that brings a frisson of danger to driving on them in even the best of conditions.  
An icy road in Devon.

We set out to go to Exeter one day last week and because the man was driving, we took one of the narrow twisty roads – in fact, the narrowest and twistiest – it being a slightly shorter route as the crow flies. This was not something I would have done – as I believe I might have mentioned several times in the subsequent hours that followed.

The road drops down from the village and then rises steeply again while simultaneously turning a sharp corner. On this corner lay a blanket of sheet ice, which we managed to get halfway up before sliding back down again sideways and coming to a diagonal resting position with each bumper firmly wedged into opposite hedges and our car completely blocking the road.

This may have been the first point where I volunteered the information that I would have taken a different route.

I wanted to cry. I couldn't see how we would ever move the car and I was scared another vehicle would come sliding down the hill straight into us. It seemed to me, as I stared hopelessly at the car, that the only way we would ever get out of the predicament was for a helicopter to airlift us.

In the absence of anything meaningful to do, I set off grumpily – and very carefully – down the hill to the nearest farm hoping to find some way of warning oncoming traffic that they couldn't go any further. 
This was a good move. For there I found two imperturbable sorts who listened stoically while I babbled crazy talk about helicopters and calling the police. 
'Have you used the grit in the bins,' they asked.
'Er, no,' I said sheepishly 'I didn't see that.'
'Ahhh,' they said exchanging glances, 'well, we'll get it shifted'.
'It is extremely wedged,' I said – but with an airy 'we've seen it all before' they set off up the hill shovels and buckets in hand.

And they did get it shifted. They melted the ice with the grit and heaved and pushed and shoved the car while Gully executed a 200-point turn until it was back facing the right way again and we could resume our journey.

I felt at a loss to adequately express my gratitude.

We returned the other, wider, gritted way – which I may possibly have observed that I would have taken in the first place.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Cold comfort farm

'Mum, the woman sitting next to you has dyed her eyelashes bright blue,' said Zena in a penetrating whisper audible from the other end of the train carriage.

I tried, I really honestly did. I looked out the window and stared hard at the fens, I started counting backwards from 100 – but in the end I had to look round, which was, of course, the point where blue-lashed lady was looking at me.

We were returning from a warm and fuzzy time with friends in Cambridge – warm, not just because of the welcome, but because their happy house is maintained at a lovely and toasty temperature.

This came to an abrupt end when we emerged onto Tiverton Parkway platform to find it was snowing.

I am not, generally speaking, a lover of snow. I can appreciate the fun to be had and its beauty but hate the inconvenience it brings. I was really hoping that this year, it might not come – wondering how we would cope if winter really hit – as it did.

We did cope – just about, but it was an interesting week that gave me cause to be thankful for the windy and rainy variety of winter we have so far experienced. The trailer was pretty habitable, the padded-cell style of insulation bearing up well, all things considered. It would have been better but the bloody cats kept leaving the door open during their nocturnal movements and if we locked them out they scratched and mewed in fury until we had to get up and let them back in.

The caravan, however, became an ice box. The first really cold morning I entered it, having lost the 'no, you, put the kettle on' argument, I discovered a plate had stuck to the draining board – a centimetre of ice around its rim, the olive oil had emulsified and worst of all, the Nutella had become a solid unworkable clump.

Then the wheels really started to come off. We have been using a 15kg Calor gas bottle for the caravan cooker and freezer, which is kept outside. It turns out that butane gas does not work in low temperatures – so just when you really need a hot drink and a bowl of soup the cooker packs up. The flame on the hob became so low it was about as effective as trying to heat water with a candle. Since the cooker is also our heating in the van, we formed a Dickensian huddle around the pathetic flame clad in hats and scarves and fingerless gloves. Occasionally, an adult would reluctantly go outside and shake the bottle vigorously, which did little to perk up the heat but was in its own small way vaguely cathartic. Thus we learnt to accept that the kettle would take an hour to boil and that tea, as of days of yore, had once again become a highly precious commodity.

But there has been some compensations. The view of snow-clad fields is wonderful and the days have been sunny and crisp. But the best thing is that the ground beneath our feet, which has been saturated since summer, has become firm and easy to negotiate. It is even possible to walk across it in shoes.