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

Monday, 24 March 2014


In Rome there is a man-made hill called Monte Testaccio, which only exists because all five acres and 120ish feet of it sits on top of discarded Roman amphora empties - around 53 million of them, apparently.

Landfill sites, it seems, are not a new concept.

This struck me as interesting, because of late I just can't stop thinking rubbish. This was partly prompted by watching Tales from the Green Valley - in which a group of hands-on historians set out to recreate a seventeenth century working farm. It was the first in a series that went on to spawn Victorian Farm and other reconstructions.

I was struck by how little waste was generated on the farm. There was very little of the produce that wasn't utilised in some way; the wing feathers of geese were used as dusters or quills, and the straw of the long-stemmed wheat made into rope, for instance. Ash from the wood fire was used to make liquid soap. And even waste wasn't wasted - urine was stored, fermented and used to bleach laundry. The privy was an important source of compost. Packaging, of course, was virtually non existent.

I spent a very intense half an hour thinking about this, during which it occurred to me that if the human race put some thought into it, rubbish would be, well, unthinkable. We're the only species that generates it, and for most of homo sapiens 200,000-year development we haven't generated much of it either, give or take the odd amphorae mound.

Personally, I blame Henry Ford - the father of mass production. He didn't invent the assembly line, but my goodness he certainly embraced it and went on to pioneer the first affordable motor car for the masses. And so the world came to embrace affordable stuff for the masses too - so much so it formed the foundation for the entire global economy.

So we buy stuff, and then we buy newer stuff to replace the stuff we bought last year that has now lost its shine or ceased to function. A couple of years ago a friend gave me a first generation iPod Touch. It is still an impressive piece of kit, but you can't buy an app that will work on it now - it's obsolete, you see. And then we buy items like cheap socks by the dozen with heels and toes that only last a few outings before we have to throw them away and buy new ones.

And all of it comes in packaging. Even really useful stuff, food, for instance, comes in lots and lots of packaging. I have seen polystyrene banana-shaped packaging containing a single banana; I have marvelled at shrink-wrapped peppers. The cauliflower and cabbage I bought from Sainsbury's the other day, both came in discrete plastic film wrappers - and the question you have to ask yourself is, why?

When we lived in our caravan on the field we had to dispose of all our rubbish ourselves. This meant a weekly trip to the tip for all our recyclables. These used to take up a disproportionately enormous amount of space in comparison with the size of our living quarters. In some cases our lifestyle added to the amount of the recyclables we were amassing. We couldn't store large amounts of milk, for instance, so we would accrue loads of the smaller plastic bottles.

The non recyclable rubbish we bagged up every day and offloaded into various rubbish bins. By the time we had been on the field for a few months I had gained an expertise on every rubbish bin we regularly drove past or encountered. Many bins only have small apertures, so I honed in on those with open tops and became a loyal Morrison's customer as a result solely because of their generous bin allowance.

Now we are back in a kind of civilisation and our rubbish is removed for us. Every Tuesday a lorry comes and takes away our kitchen waste and recyclables. Alternate weeks are shared between landfill refuse and garden waste - and it's greatly to West Devon District Council's credit that it places more priority on disposing of recyclable material than landfill. Despite this emphasis though, I would still estimate that much of my landfill rubbish is packaging in the form of film wrappers and the like.

Since recycling became more popular, and in some towns and boroughs compulsory, there has been speculation about where our plastic bottles etc actually do end up. There have variously been reports of them ending up in landfill sites in China or being dumped at sea. But I unearthed a BBC news report all the way back in 2007 that followed up three people's recycling and found that most of it does indeed get recycled in the UK and then resold here, which is great.

But despite this, wouldn't it be better just not to create the stuff in the first place? Leaving aside the landfill and pollution problems, creating packaging in the first place takes energy. If it is recyclable, it has to be transported sometimes hundreds of miles to undergo a transformation that takes further energy. If, as I do, you believe we should be trying to reduce the amount of energy we use, then creating stuff and then having to create an entire industry to dispose of that stuff, seems a little pointless.

Clearly, some things need packaging - fluids, for instance, would quickly get very messy without it. But do we really need so much of it?

To answer this question I am making a pledge, which is, that from this moment for the next 60 days I am going to attempt to supply our family of five plus dog and cat with nothing that comes in any kind of plastic packaging.

The more I think about it, the more I see difficulties. Do I, for instance, include plastic lids on glass bottles? What about cardboard that has been treated with a plastic film?

I also want to try not to change the way we eat too much - and crucially, I want to see how it can be done in an affordable way. It would be easier to do this if I could have an expensive veg box delivered twice a week and pop along to my high end, organic butchers every day for a choice cut of beef. But what I want to see is how far you can live an ordinary family life on a  budget and eschew plastic packaging.

I also intend, for the sake of balance, to recruit an expert to try and assess how much environmental saving I am making. Will I use as much energy, for instance, baking a single cake as buying a mass-produced one in all its film wrapping? How much better is cardboard, if at all?

I will keep you posted on my progress. Meanwhile, I have to break it to the kids that I won't be buying any packets of crisps for a while.


Sunday, 16 March 2014

Less is moor

The sun has been shining - actually shining, mark you - and I have been venturing out with the dog sans plastic pants and windcheater.

At first, I confess, I felt veritably naked - but as the days passed and rain failed to appear, I became so confident, I even shed a woolly and left my hat at home.

Unfortunately, for the children this means I have become more insistent on getting them into the great outdoors. When the sun shines, I can't bear to see them, pale and transparent looking, hunched over a keyboard. I feel the need to invigorate them with fresh air and vitamin D. But sadly, we do not see eye to eye on this.

As if getting them out for a walk wasn't difficult enough already, I decided to combine it with a learning opportunity - which, catastrophically, I told them.

'I thought,' I said, in bright tones, having ambushed them on the trampoline, 'we could go out for a lovely walk on the moor and learn some map reading at the same time.'

They stopped bouncing and stared at me in silence. 'Yes,' I said, clearing my throat a little nervously. 'I thought it would be a bit of an adventure. We could go somewhere fabulous like Hound Tor (right) and then you
could navigate the walk with the, er, map and compass.'

The girl child eyed me. 'What's in it for us,' she asked.

'Well,' I said loftily. 'Firstly, we are blessed with living in the heart of one of the most beautiful landscapes in this country. So, you get to pop out for an afternoon's walk somewhere people actually pay to come on holiday.

'Secondly, you get to learn something jolly interesting and useful. Not only is being able to read a map interesting and fun - but it could actually save your life one day. It's the sort of thing they should give more priority on the national curriculum. Nowadays, people think all they have to do is switch on the sat nav or the GPS app on their i, bloody, Phone and...'

Well, you get the gist.

'Thirdly,' I continued 'it's a beautiful day and we've just had a long rainy winter and you need to let your nasty pallid little sunlight-starved bodies catch some rays while you frolic in the sunshine.'

I finally stopped talking at that point. The children were still staring at me, this was an unexpected bonus. Normally, they listen for five seconds and then continue bouncing while I speak.

I thought I had scored a point. After a short pause the girl child spoke. 'Yes,' she said, speaking slowly and distinctly as if to one for whom the English language was a mystery or whose grip on reality was delicate, 'but what's in it for us?'

Later, I and the dog were enjoying a walk together - just the two of us, unsurprisingly. A little out onto the moor I encountered two jovial and youthful Americans with tents and sleeping paraphernalia on their backs. We stopped for a chat during which I warmed to them considerably for their obvious instant affection for the dog. They were very enthusiastic about doing some wild camping - despite the fact it was early March and a cold night was on the cards. I wondered briefly about adopting them.

I couldn't wait to beast my children with the tale of my two new best friends. 'I just met,' I shouted as soon as they were within earshot, which was about 50 metres away, 'two American chaps who have come all this way just to camp on Dartmoor in the middle of winter!'

'Yes, but they're American,' said the girl enigmatically.

And then they carried on bouncing.