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, 14 July 2013

When the cat's away

I have become reunited with taps and electricity sockets - and space - oh my goodness, glorious glorious space.

We are living in an ancient cob cottage in a lovely village below one of the most fabulous landscapes in Britain. There are parts of Dartmoor that are heart-stoppingly pretty, but we are living on the north side of the moor where the scenery is more spectacular - huge, granite-topped tors dotted with trees whose branches are caught in freeze frame pointing in the direction of the wind. It is so breathtaking, I still laugh out loud when I turn a corner and see Cosdon hill rising up before me.

So, yes, we have landed on our feet somewhat - after months of an increasingly desperate search for somewhere to live. More of which will come in another post.

But for now, we are in and sort of settled and I am still finding immense pleasure in the concept of running water. In fact, it was all going so well that I felt it was all a bit too good to be true. And so fate intervened to bring us back down to earth and engineered a cat to go missing.

Much of the struggle to find a suitable property revolved around the dog and cats. Especially the cats. They have lived all their lives pretty much in fields and we wanted somewhere that they would be happy and also not too close to any main roads.

We moved them over early on and they settled in very quickly adopting their usual routine of lounging around on people's beds during the day and spending the night waking me to tell me they required letting out or to noisily consume a mouse on the bedroom floor.

But about 10 days ago, Oscar didn't come home. And he hasn't returned since.

I have always affected a resigned tolerance of the cats. The children and I have developed a little psychological game where I am disparaging about the cats and they are rude about the dog. 'Why don't we just buy some poison instead?' I am heard to intone frequently while perusing the cat food aisle in the supermarket. And I make it my duty to point out their shortcomings as many times a day as possible.

The children in turn refer to the dog as the 'smelly fat pig' - and with some justification. She is, in truth, a little portly and when she lies on her side does bear more than a passing resemblance to a black sow. And she has a whiff about her that I find deeply comforting but Gully refers to as a 'stink'.

I am, as you can probably tell, one of those owners who is completely soppy about their dog. 'Look at those ears!' I coo. 'They must have been made in a special ear shop that specialises in perfect ears.'

I haven't quite reached the level of a friend whose previous nanny had knitted him a jumper that matched his large black and white dog. He was the news editor of a fabulous but slightly chaotic press agency I worked for. Liking dogs enormously was part of the job description. Ted was, and is, one of the most brilliant journalists I have ever met. He could simultaneously file a report about a kerb-crawling vicar from notes taken in court while flicking through the latest edition of Your Dog, to which he often sent pictures of his hound, Siva. She (for she was a she) was a magnificent shaggy beast who slept noisily in the corner of the office. She would awake for titbits, which she took with a ferocity suggesting she had never been fed. I will forever remember the look on the face of Geoff Lakeman, the Man from the Mirror, as he examined his fingers having  inadvisedly handed her half an unwanted pasty.

I am, in fact, pretty soppy about any dog and I never could see the point of cats - they always seemed to me, observing my sister's, to be a one-way street - appearing only at meal times with a persistence bordering on loutishness. The saying goes: A dog says, 'you pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, and you love me - you must be God'. A cat says, 'you pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, and you love me - I must be God.' And that pretty well sums up the difference between the two.

Oscar, when he was almost cute
But for all that, I have secretly become very fond of the cats. They are little works of art - so poised and neat and supremely built for purpose. Good engineering, I always think, is when beauty meets functionality - and cats do that in spades. So despite the cracks about poison and winter fur hats, I find I am really upset about Oscar's disappearance. I've put 'missing' posters everywhere and have been touched by how kind people in the village have been. Every night I walk around the village boundaries calling him and then stand in the garden shaking his bag of food. I invariably come back in with a wet face - and all because of a stupid cat - goodness knows how people with missing children or partners cope.

Neither can I bring myself to be rude about our remaining cat - Oscar's sister, Tanny, which means things have indeed come to a pretty pass. Still, if he ever does come back, I can fill my boots - and maybe I really might treat myself to a furry cat-shaped winter hat.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Smoke gets in your chai

They asked me, one day in a Sainsbury's aisle, how I knew whether I was getting a good deal on my utility bills.

I, of course, replied that I was getting a very good deal on my utilities thank you all the same, since they came courtesy of Mother Earth.

This caused a passing man to stop in his tracks, turn back, and comment: 'I just wanted to say, that is the best answer I have ever heard.'

I swelled a little with pride, which soon dissipated as I wandered around the shop. I felt a pang of sadness; it wasn't an answer I would be able to give for much longer since we will have to move off the land soon.

The mood continued, so it was that when I arrived back home I decided to cheer myself up with a nice cup of tea. Unfortunately, my tea tasted a little odd. I am very wedded to tea, and this was upsetting.

I put it down to some kind of human error in the cup maintenance (cleaning division) department. But a second cup proved just as nasty. By now, I had identified the oddness as a definite smoked taste. Had, I wondered, I washed the cups in the same water as the smoked mackerel pan?

I washed the cups again and swilled out the kettle for good measure. Then went and drew fresh water from the rainwater harvesting barrel. My tea still tasted smoked.

It was then, I realised, that somehow the smoke from the woodburner was affecting the water that comes off the roof. This is a mystery, however, since we have had the woodburner going all winter with no obvious effects on chai quality. I can only think that it is because the rain has slowed from a daily torrent to a sporadic trickle, and that the decrease in volume makes it more susceptible to being tainted by smoke if the wind is blowing from the south west, which it invariably is.

Thus far, I have been relatively pleased with our water system. I have enjoyed watching water drip into the barrel, I have coped with reasonable good cheer with breaking the ice on top of it - but if it's going to start messing with my tea, then it is a relationship that is doomed.

And this experience has led me to think fondly of the tap. Some form of which, it seems, has been around for a long time. The ability to regulate water flow was clearly desirable to early civilisations - and, of course, the Romans advanced a nice line in plumbing. Leonardo da Vinci predictably got in on the act and sketched out a few examples of valves - presumably somewhere in between the helicopter and submarine. And the globe valve, which is roughly the tap as we know it today, was patented by, just as predictably, an enterprising Victorian, J H Davis.

In rainy Britain, we take the abundance of water for granted - despite frequent fretting about hose pipe bans - but globally 780 million people lack access to clean water, according to the website water.org.

That means  really unclean water - as opposed to the smoked but fresh from the skies variety we have in deepest Devon.

All the same, I am beginning to view the prospect of a tap or two with increasing optimism.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Serfs up

I am sitting in our caravan in the middle of a field in deepest Devon and I am actually on the internet.

This development has been brought to you courtesy of the wind, which doth blow with some force around these parts. Actually, I am writing on borrowed wind, as it were, since I am using up the last vestiges of available energy in our batteries from a considerable gale some days ago.

The wind would have gone unharnessed, had Gully not brilliantly restored the windmill to working order. The charger was faulty and he felt the little turbine was sited too low for maximum efficiency. This was rectified by a scaffolding pole and some ingenious engineering and now the windmill spins with great effect, unless the wind drops, as it now has.

So this visit to the internet is a little temporary, as, it is becoming clear, will frequently be the case. But it is nonetheless an extremely exciting development since I have come to view lack of access to the world wide web as the chief drawback of living here.

'What, more than running water?' asked a friend. Well, yes. This is a slightly odd view - after all,  hardly any of us were on the internet much before the late nineties. So why have I come to see it as so indispensable now, ranking it alongside the humble tap as a 'must have'.

Maybe I am just extraordinarily frivolous and find life without the frequent checking of Facebook updates unbearable. And there is some truth here. I simply like keeping up with people. In the days before the internet, when we used the good old-fashioned telephone apparatus, my bills were always eye-wateringly high. Social networking on the telephone and in the pub merely moved online (although I have to say, my preferred method remains the pub).

But the chief function of the internet - and the reason it has become so central to our life - as that it is a great enabler. Without it, access to information, goods and services becomes very challenging - and over the last couple of years we have needed all of those a great deal. The idea that I can sit here and with a couple of clicks surf my way to anything from a knitting pattern to how to make a solar panel - and then with another click source the materials I will need to do either, is so exhilarating, it literally makes my fingertips tingle.

There is a slight irony, however, to all this internet bounty. Our planning appeal was refused and we will at some point in the next few months have to move off of the land. This is a little sad. We still, however, have some really interesting plans and have come to see this as a chance to consolidate and regroup - so we are bloody, but unbowed

'Success,' said Winston Churchill 'is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.'

That sounds like us.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Barrel of laughs

'What would be the attribute you would most like your kids to have?'

The question was posed by my friend, Lou whom I have known since school and is the embodiment of the good things that can come out of Friends Reunited. Lou was always wise, as demonstrated by her answer to the question, which was 'resilience'.

This conversation came to mind the other week, when I was breaking the ice on the water barrel into which we harvest rain water. I normally syphon this into three smaller containers for everyday use, which usually is enough to outlast any weather conditions that might make a trip to the water barrel deeply unpleasant. But we'd had a cold snap that had lasted a couple of weeks and needed topping up before any washing up could occur.

Outside, I was confronted by an inch of solid ice on top of the barrel, which I had to break with a hammer before sinking a jug nto freezing water to fill up the containers. Not for the first time, I reflected that other people have taps - while at the same time feeling pleased with being so self sufficent - and resilient.

It has taken a fair amount of resilience to last the nearly two years we have spent living in a caravan without utilities. The drudgery hasn't always been easy, nor the lack of space and privacy  - and the feeling of isolation stemming from communications issues and difficulties with some  locals has been a bit rubbish too.

But I'd do it again. 'When we live within our comfort zone, it begins to shrink,' someone once said to me. And they were right - I have met an awful lot of people with shrunken comfort zones.

In the grand scheme of things, the experience has hardly been that tough. We've not been hungry, we've usually been warm, we've had music and books and games - and most importantly, we've been living this way through choice, which is an immense privilege.

I recently came across the following extract while doing a little research on the history of laundry. It's from one of my favourite websites, www.oldandinteresting.com, which is the history of domestic paraphernalia - and, by default, generally a history of women. It's fascinating - and worth a visit for those times when you're having a bad day because the dishwasher isn't working properly.

The washing of clothes at Petersburgh is very remarkable; it is done by women, who stand for hours on the ice, plunging their bare arms into the freezing water, in, perhaps, eighteen or twenty degrees of frost. They shelter themselves from the wind, which is the most bitter part of winter—fifteen degrees of frost, with wind, being more severe than twenty-five or thirty without—by means of large fir branches stuck in the ice, on which they hang mats. In general the women seem to be more regardless of cold than the men ; they seldom, even in the most intense cold, wear any thing on their heads but a silk handker-chief. - R. and A. Heber, The Life of Reginald Heber, 1830

Now that's resilience.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Bearing up under the strain

I have become my mother.

This realisation dawned on me during, of all places, a trip to Build-A-Bear. Against my better judgement, I had bought my daughter a voucher for a bear for her 10th birthday. A Build-A-Bear has been on the poor girl's wish list for the last couple of birthdays and Christmases, and so I felt I should buy her one while a teddy still meant something furry with four legs.

Despite my best intentions, I just couldn't help myself.

'I don't mind the bears, but I'm not getting any stupid clothes,' I said graciously on the morn of our visit. Zena's face fell. 'But that's the point of going to Build-A-Bear,' she wailed. I grunted and left it at that.

There are some things in this consumer-led economy we live in that I just can't deal with - and clothes for bears is one of them. Clothes for dolls are fine, they are human-like in form and therefore require clothing. But bears don't wear clothes. I often wonder what the people in the factories far away who make these things think. Do they long to live in a place that is so rich it can afford to buy wardrobes for bears - or wonder at the decadence of it all? Who knows.

Anyway, three hours later my mood hadn't improved. We were in the shop and Zena had gone into a consumer frenzy - flitting around, exclaiming and cooing over bears dressed like Rihanna, bears dressed like policeman, and, heaven help me, a bride and groom bear complete with vicar. And shoes. Shoes! Why do they have to make 'em shoes?

Despite having spent her ten fabulous years living with a daily diet of anti-consumerist propaganda, shoes somehow temporarily disable the pre-frontal cortex of my daughter's brain. Last summer we popped in to Brantano for some trainers. In aisle sizes 12 to 13, Zena soon became lost in a pile of shoes, all of which I had vetoed on grounds that there were too tarty, too bad for her feet, too high, too expensive, just too hideous.

I telephoned my friend Sophie. 'I'm in Brantano,' I whispered. 'I don't think I am ever going to get out.' An hour later I finished the phone call, Zena was still trying on footwear. I lay down for a while between shoe size aisles 1 and 2 hoping it would help. It didn't. We finally left, Zena skipping out clutching a pair of polka dot red sandals, me reeling into the only sunshine we'd had all summer. We hadn't bought any trainers.

I was experiencing the same feelings of despair in Build-A-Bear. 'No!', I said to roller skates. 'No!', I said to a sleepover kit. 'No! No! No!', I said to a pair of khaki boxer shorts.

'Look,' I said. 'You can have a pair of shoes and one other non-clothing item.'

'Why can't I have any clothes,' she asked.

'Because,' I said firmly. 'We can make them at home out of bits of scrap fabric.'

And that was it - the point where I knew I had turned into my mother. My mum is an excellent dressmaker. She made most of our clothes when we were kids as well as the soft furnishings. I well remember the frustration of wanting an item from a clothes shop while she wrinkled her nose in disdain, pronounced the seam work lacking and that she could make the same thing at home for free.

But what goes round, comes round and now I am doing the same thing. This is partly because I am in love with my new toy - a hand-operated Singer sewing machine. A thing not just of great beauty, but very functional. It only does straight seams, but it does them very well and it makes a satisfying chugging sound as I turn the  handle. I am fairly new to sewing - my mother's expertise being something I could never hope to live up to. But I have taken to it with enthusiasm and it will only be a matter of time before we are all wandering around dressed in badly made clothes created out of second-hand curtains.

Back in Build-A-Bear, Zena finally settled on a pair of flip-flops, a stuffed guitar and a kind of leapoardy bear. This needed stuffing and a heart inserted. 'Now wave the heart above your head, make a big wish and give it a kiss,' trilled the shop assistant. I caught the eye of eight-year-old Matty, his face a picture of abject contempt. It cheered me up no end.

The bear, called Grrrr, is very loved but one of the flip-flops is missing.

'We'll have to go back to buy him more shoes,' said Zena.

'No,' I said grumpily. 'Find the missing one.'

'I didn't mean that,' she said happily holding him up for me to see. 'Look, he's got four feet!'

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Where's a patronus when you need one?

It's a rare week when you can say your future hangs in the balance, but last week was such a one with the hearing of our long-awaited planning appeal.

As a quick recap, we have a plan to turn three acres of pasture land into a small-scale farm based mostly on trees. Based meaning that the trees will provide not just produce but a habitat in which other elements of our system can thrive – such as chicken. We have worked out a plan based on permaculture principles where all systems are integrated with the aim being for zero waste. The human beings in the system are part of that integration, thus waste and consumption flow seamlessly around the whole venture. It's a complex system, but then so is nature, which permaculture aims to echo.

All of this requires us to live on the land, however the local planning department disagrees. So having had our initial planning application turned down, we turned to the planning inspectorate in the hope of having a, er, more considered hearing.

Planning appeals are a little like trials. Both parties have to supply proofs of evidence before the proceedings and the planning inspector presides as judge and jury. It's a painfully formal and dry affair as was evidenced by the posture of some law students who were there to observe as part of their course. Within ten minutes it was clear most of them had lost the will to live – their eyes raised heavenward in despair as the day loomed long before them. The atmosphere wasn't helped by the temperature in the hall, which was very, very cold – in every respect.

Since Gully was the appellant and therefore a witness, I got to speak as a member of the public. I had visualised being coherent, but failed. This is an old problem – under pressure or in confrontational situations, I tend to lose any ability to articulate and end up behaving like a six-year-old. First I start blustering, then I turn to abuse and finally end up in tears – often I do all of these at the same time. My bosom pal, Beth, has the same issues leading to what we term the 'Yeah, but at least I've got friends' syndrome, in fond memory of a particularly inarticulate difference of opinion she once had with a flatmate.

Thus I babbled on incoherently, trying to express to the men in suits how inspiring our vision is, how much our application means to us and how committed we are. The two lucid moments I had came courtesy of Einstein ('madness lies in repeating the same thing over again and expecting different results' and Ghandi ('be the change you want to see'). Apart from that I made an arse of myself whittering on about just not being able to understand the negativity.

And the negativity was palpable. Three of the villagers had tipped up for a nice day out and sat shaking their heads and rolling their eyes whenever they felt the need – as did one of the members of the council team, whom I had expected might have been a little more professional. But aside from all that the gloomy surroundings of Tiverton town hall were beginning to suck all the spirit and hope from me. Our glorious vision was being suffocated by an outpouring of cynicism and dry arguments over DM10s, Core 18s and PP7s. There came a point where I realised that even if I was locked in a padded cell for a week with certain members of the opposition they would still never grasp the essence and spirit of what we are trying to achieve. It was like trying to explain Chopin to someone profoundly deaf.

The next day I was discussing career options with eight-year-old Matty, I was explaining that some people went to university and studied subjects they were either very good at or very interested in and that some studied because they had particular jobs in mind. 'So, for instance,' I explained ' you may want to go to university because you want to work in a planning department and you need a degree that will enable you to get that job.

But,' I added hastily, 'you don't want to do that.'

'Why,' said Matty.

'Because,' I said 'you will lose your soul'.

'What do you mean?' he asked.

I fumbled around in my head for an explanation, then hit upon one. 'Well,' I explained, 'like the dementors in Harry Potter.'

Planning official
Dementors are the death-like wardens of the prison of Azkhaban who suck the happiness, hope and life force out of their victims leaving only despair and misery. Where they appear the temperature drops and gloom descends, They can only be fought off by a patronus – a charm that conjures hope in the form of a bright silver shield.

Dementors are not visible to muggles. But they were there that day in Tiverton town hall alright.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Iron filing

Ironing has never been a task I have approached with any degree of enthusiasm and I have been quite happy to use not having any electricity as an excuse not to do any.

I generally don't mind sporting the slightly creased look, it kind of suits  me. Nobody would ever have said of me that I was immaculately turned out, even when I had a house and all the mod cons that went with it. But I have reached new heights of unkemptness since moving onto the field. It is a rare day that a piece of mud isn't adhering to some part of my person and I most frequently look as though I had been staggering around a waterlogged music festival for three days. Indeed, my former boss remarked he always knew when I had been sitting at his desk by the deposits of mud underneath it.

There have been times, such as when dressing for the office, that I might have wished for something less furrowed to wear. But I found that if I carefully dried the nicer shirts on a hanger, they could just about look passable.

So I wasn't feeling any great regret for the iron until I was hit by a sudden desire to learn to sew, which occurred around the same time our woodburner was installed.

I confess I didn't actually fully appreciate the relationship between sewing and ironing. Thus, I selected some suitable cloth and rushed home and tried to cut it out without first ironing the fabric. This resulted in the piece of material I cut resembling a dish cloth that bore scant relation to the pattern piece it had been cut from.

Then it occurred to me that our lovely woodburner has a hot plate on top - ostensibly for kettles, but conceivably for an old-fashioned iron too. The next day I called in at a reclamation yard near Exeter and was in luck; I parted with a fiver and in return was handed a lump of rust, which, with the application of wire wool turned into a fabulous little iron.

And bizarrely, it really works. I say bizarrely, because I had a vague sort of idea that it wouldn't be much good. That's an interesting mindset, I realised - thinking because it has been superseded by electric, more sophisticated, versions that it wouldn't work very well. But it does, even without the benefit of a thermostat, or water reservoir or anti-burn control.

It's also wonderfully tactile; quite small but pleasingly heavy and it has to be held with a cloth because the handle becomes very hot. Every time I use it I wonder about the many women's hands that have held it before and imagine my grandmother in her parlour using hers. All of which brings a physical and mental connection to what used to be a mindless chore.

So now I can be mindful about it, which is a somewhere I would never have considered I would be. Mindfulness, which involves among other things an attentiveness to one's present state, is considered in Buddhism to be one of the paths to enlightenment.

And who'd have thought ironing could help you get there!

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

No-wind situation

For 18 months, our small encampment at Charwood Farm has been buffeted by strong south westerlies leaving in their wake a trail of destruction - tents and awnings, for instance, and a dog forever psychologically impaired.

So it was, we felt, that we couldn't go wrong with a small wind turbine to meet our electricity needs. This arrived at some point before Christmas along with our satellite internet unit, which requires power to work. And for a while I had visions of being connected to the rest of the world and that I would be happily hailing my uncle and cousins in Australia on new year's eve.

But I have been experiencing a run of setbacks of late, otherwise known as wading through mud - and, as ever, I mean that quite literally.

I left civilisation - sorry, my office job in London - in late October. Since then Devon has been hit by torrents of rain, and although we are high up on the top of a slope and thus not actually swimming, it does make for difficult conditions in which to choose to live in a caravan without the benefit of utilities.

We still have to wheelbarrow everything that comes into the field to and from the caravan to the car. This is as deeply unpleasant as it was last winter, although at least this year I know what to expect. It's difficult to put my finger on quite the most depressing thing about it - but I think it is arriving back at the field with a clean, dry and still warm load of washing from the launderette to be met with lashing rain and a precarious slide home that takes the proverbial ginger nut.

The calm persisted for some days. 'I see you have power,' commented a local dog walker. 'No,' I said 'what we have there is an expensive weather vane.' And so it seemed as the little turbine swayed gently this way and that.

Then one night the wind blew with a vengeance and the situation went from one extreme to another. The wind turbine whirred with such vehemence that it kept me awake, worrying, irrationally, that it would somehow rocket off its holding and smash through the trailer wall. Also, Gully had gone out there with a head torch and I wondered if he was going to attempt something rash like trying to secure the blades. I pictured him lying prone at the bottom of the ladder with various limbs strewn about the field. A vision that was still not quite compelling enough for me to get out of bed and investigate in the midst of a howling gale.

Both he and the windmill had survived the experience by morning, and I rushed excitedly to the thingy that checks the voltage in the batteries, which had crept up by a whole quarter of a volt. 

Over the next week or so, what we gained in electricity was soon overtaken by usage - and by usage I mean a few LED lights and a radio. But we were soldiering on gamely, praying for wind, when we were hit by a blast from the arctic that lasted more than a week. The combined snow and ice stilled the little turbine's blades for eight days and something went drastically wrong with the charging unit. So we had to disconnect it from the batteries altogether.

And, mysteriously, since then, we have been experiencing very strong strong south westerlies.