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 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.