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 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 ....