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

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Smells like mean spirit

Without wishing to sound needy, I'm a bit of a fan of the odd self-help book. I don't have a regular fix, you understand, I'm not trying to Win Friends and Influence People one week and reaching for the Little Book of Calm the next.

However, I do like Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, of which my particular favourite habit is number five - Seek First to Understand.

I have had great cause to think about this during the last week as our application for temporary residence came up before the planning committee.

We spent the days before carefully honing a three-minute speech we were to give that would convince the committee to think again about the planning officer's advice to reject our application. He says our venture does not meet the functional need criteria that would enable us to stay on the land. We disagree. We further disagreed with the way he put this across in his report.

Anyway, it was all a waste of time since I feel that no matter what we had said in our three minutes, it would have been completely pointless. Maybe next time I will just recite the telephone directory.

Nobody appeared to be in the mood for trying to understand, you see. Where's habit five when you need it?

Some of the village had turned out for the event - hoping for a ringside seat in what they assumed would be a nail in the coffin of the hope and vision of a young(ish) get-up-and-go sort of family.

I have found this negativity really difficult to quantify, especially when I measure it against the enthusiasm I get whenever I talk about what we are doing to people I work with or meet on the train. In fact, one lady I met was so interested that she stayed on past her stop to hear more.

Since I have spent so much time waffling on about mud and cats, it is probably worth a little recap on what we are trying to achieve. The idea was to take a small amount of land and see if we could make a living out of it that sustains ourselves, provides enough work and income that we can take on an extra worker, and becomes an example of how a small-scale permaculture-based agricultural model can work.

The plan really is best viewed as a flow chart. Gully made a lovely one - all set out on a grid and colour co-ordinated with big words like pyrolysis - but I did a far jollier one for the children's benefit on a large wipe board we had. This featured trees and truffles and chicken and worms and compost and bees and us in our caravan with with large friendly arrows showing how everything flowed into and out of each other, which impressed our education inspector no end.

But they failed to impress planning and thus our application for a temporary agricultural dwelling was unanimously rejected by the committee.

We will now be seeking an appeal - which means more hours spent on paperwork rather than trying to get on with what we want to do. This is rendered more difficult by the fact that we do not have access to the internet at the land, our attempt to get a telephone line being scuppered by a local who threatened to chainsaw down the telegraph pole that BT Open Reach was trying to put up. 

Still, chin up, grit teeth, move on - and in that spirit I set off the next day for a doctor's appointment in Tiverton accompanied by newly-nine Zena who was looking forward to a little quality crochet time.
Kurt Cobain, good for post planning
committee rage

She put on the car stereo. 'I don't feel like listening to Lana Del Rey,' I said. 'What do you want instead, Mummy,' she asked sweetly. 'Nirvana,' I said. 'I'm in the mood for Nirvana.'

And as we negotiated the Devon lanes in thick grey mist listening to Kurt bawling in futile fury, I felt a catharsis taking place.

I believe I may be in a Nirvana mood for some time.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

A mouse tale

There was a mouse in my slipper yesterday morning - a live one.

I was, of course, oblivious to this at the time. I am not at my best first thing in the morning and so when something impeded the progress of my foot, I assumed it was a bit of a Lego Hero - because it invariably is.

I put my hand in and felt something hard and then squeezed the outside for a bit and decided, for some reason, that it must be a helmet.

It was at that point that I noticed two of the cats' dead victims on the rug - and wondered dimly if perhaps the thing in my slipper was also animal matter. So I gave it a shake and saw that there was a tail, which I pulled - but nothing came, and even in my befuddled state, I thought that was a little odd.

Matty took over and his head – being younger and less damaged by age, child bearing and beer – got to the nub of it much quicker. 'It's alive,' he yelled, throwing the slipper back at me.

I peered back in and saw that indeed the tail did seem to be moving, which would explain the reluctance of the rest of the body to come when I had given it a yank.

A field mouse
So, I took it outside and set it free, having taken the precaution of locking the cats in. I felt such an enterprising mouse deserved a sporting chance.

This constant stream of dead things is a hazard of living a semi-outdoor life. The cats bring their prey in the awning and then into the trailer through their own self-constructed cat flap. This reached a peak last week when an unpleasant smell caused me to investigate under our bed and remove a number of carcasses.

The next day I purchased a cat repellent spray and I am happy to report that it works very well. I myself witnessed Oscar flit in nonchalantly with jaws clamped around some unfortunate small mammal and head straight for under the bed - only to reappear seconds later with a disgruntled look on his face.

So now they put them in my slipper instead, which is much better, of course.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Living in the country – not for wimps

'Living in the country is tough, a little bit dangerous and not for wimps,' said author Mavis Cheek last week as she launched a campaign to warn retirees that rural life is not the idyll it's cracked up to be.

Of course, the 'quick-to-take-offence' brigade have got on their high horses – literally in some cases. But I think what poor Mavis was trying to say is that there are some stark realities about living in the countryside – such as isolation and transport – that some people may not factor in when planning a retirement growing their own veg and walking the labrador.

And one doesn't have to be so old to appreciate this – since transport issues were brought home to us this week when the water pump on our car finally and irretrievably rattled off its bearings.

This happened on the trip home from Brownies, as heart in mouth I negotiated steep, narrow and isolated lanes in the dark with my eyes fixated on the temperature gauge, which was jammed on red. 'Please,' I whispered to the car, 'please, just get us home.'

Bless it, it managed to get us back to our gate where it sat smouldering slightly and smelling strongly of hot.

That was the easy part.

The next day Gully, carrying a large container of water, drove to the small garage in a neighbouring village – who couldn't fix it. They gave him a telephone number of a garage in another village. They could fix it, but wouldn't be able to for ten days.

Let us pause here and examine what ten days without a car in our village might be like. The nearest stop for a regular bus service is three miles away from where the great metropolis of Tiverton – or South Molton, if you prefer – can be reached. Of the two, Tiverton has more connections to elsewhere, it being in possession of a train station, albeit eight miles from the town.

In other words, unless you are a keen cyclist or have the time to walk long distances, one is pretty stuck without a car.

Happily, Gully is a turn-his-hand-to-anything sort of chap. He set off for Exeter with enough water to have kept us going for a week, where he and my extremely useful nephew, Scott, spent several productive hours fitting a new pump themselves.

So in the end, the sum of our experience was an enforced day at home, which even then pretty much depleted our food reserves since our fridge is the size of a small box. Were we old and infirm, or I single, or Gully not so handy with a wrench, the outcome would have been far worse.

So Mavis has a point and her campaign raises wider issues about modern rural life – not least that the age of the those living in the countryside is disproportionately older than the general population – not to mention wealthier.

It seems to me that the rural population's almost complete dependence on the motor car is not unconnected with its demographic. Neither of which are particularly sustainable. The end logic being that we either abandon the countryside to become a giant theme park or set about restoring it to a place where people can actually make a living, which will both change the demographic and bring back stores and schools and, heaven knows, even buses.

Now, that would be idyllic.