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

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.