Funny how things come along in groups. First we had the local paper over to look at our stove, in the quest for some stories from older readers who might remember living with a range that had to be tended around the clock. Then we got a call from a press agency who had seen the blog. This got me thinking – if I have to explain how we ended up here, where would I start. Why are we doing this?
It is, of course all a complete accident, as these things tend to be. One minute you’re minding your own business being a contented 9-5’er, driving about, consuming happily, and the next you wake up and discover that actually there might be more to life, and that things have to change.
I got into this because a friend of mine from Australia started to talk about how there was a coming global economic crisis, before there was any awareness of such a thing happening. He urged us to invest in gold, and to stockpile food. Of course at the time I took it all with a pinch of salt, but who had the last laugh there.
It got me thinking, and reading, particularly about resilience. How would we manage if work suddenly wasn’t available, if food got very expensive, or scarce; if fuel prices rocketed; if it suddenly cost a fortune to heat and light our homes. To some extent, all these things have touched our lives now, but 5 years ago they didn’t seem so likely.
I should add that at the time, I had very little money, no capital, and my only asset was a dilapidated horse box. With that in mind, discovering Simon Dale’s hobbit house was a revelation. Here was a guy who had made a home for £3000, and which cost little to run. From here I found Lammas, and from standing at the top of a slope, I was now sliding inexorably down it, and gathering speed. I began to grow my own vegetables, plant fruit trees, and be more creative in my reuse of materials. I made woodburning stoves from gas bottles, pole lathes from scrap wood, and I found Growing Connections, a community project that offered me the chance to meet other people who thought the same way, and where I could indulge my passion for making things, initially in the form of a composting toilet, or treebog.
In time, I came to know that my life couldn’t stand still, and I left my relationship, home, and then family behind, and was taken in by Joan and Tina, my dear friends, who ran the project.
I worked as a WWOOF’er (worldwide workers on organic farms), helping to set the project up in return for board and lodging, and it was here that I met my Claire, now my wife. We decided to go to Wales to see Lammas for ourselves, and meet the people who were pioneering a low impact way of life.
The week was life changing – we stayed in a tipi on a remote Welsh hillside; no electricity, hot water or modern conveniences. We visited the Centre for Alternative Technology, met the folk at Lammas, and dreamed of how life might be. We rounded the trip off by becoming engaged.
We read more and more of people living similar lives in communities up and down the country, and in February 2011, I returned to Lammas, this time as a volunteer, helping to build the Community Hub – a contribution that I will always be proud of. I met more folk, heard more stories, and wanted to be a part of the eco village community.
Shortly after returning home, the opportunity came. Lammas might not be expanding, but a group was forming to try and establish ‘Lammas 2’. Through the winter and spring, we travelled back and forth to meetings at Pontygafel, the farm next to Lammas, and our plans began to unfold. House designs, crop yields, lifestyle, consumption patterns, planning rules.
Through that year we’d lived in a very suburban bungalow, inefficient, damp, and expensive. Claire suggested we move into the old horse truck, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before. Here was our chance to try our hand at living more lightly. We would make our own electricity, collect rainwater to use, and grow more of our own food.
In July, we were married, and our wedding was of course, home made, and the reception held in an old barn on the farm. Our guests were kind enough to help us buy a small wind turbine, with which to power our off grid life.
Our honeymoon, was of course a return to the tipi in Wales, and a trip back to Lammas, where I was able to talk over our plans with Simon Dale, who’s house had inspired me at the start. It was at this meeting we handed over our completed plans to Paul Wimbush, the driving force behind Lammas, to look over them, and suggest how they might be improved.
Although we were part of a group, we were aware that others had looked at land on their own, and we began to do the same – partly through impatience, and partly through a feeling that as a group it might be a long wait before sufficient numbers were ready to commit to creating the new community.
We had near misses with a couple of land purchases, and were almost about to complete on land in Wales when Claire spotted an old cottage with some land for sale in Co.Down, not an hour away from us. A combination of the potential for a lot of work, and not great land kept the price low.
It was love at first sight, and we knew it would be ours, despite a few weeks of bidding back and forth.
In May we became the proud owners, and began the task of turning this old dark, damp, and rotten building into a home. The plan was to be as off grid as we had in the truck, only on a slightly bigger scale. We would use natural materials, source locally when possible, and do as much work as we could ourselves.
So out came the old thatch from under the tin roof, to be composted. All the old cement render and floors would be saved for paths. Where possible we retained features, kept old timber and fittings.
Sheeps wool insulation would go in the roof, the walls would be lime-hemp rendered, and the old existing range cooker would provide hot water and warmth in the house.
We were fortunate to have a couple of acres of birch woodland, and together with some new willow planting, this will be coppiced to give us a sustainable source of fuel in years to come.
The woodburner is supplemented by solar hot water heating, to minimise woodfuel consumption. We have our solar PV and wind turbine to provide electricity for low power lights, which all together consume less than 60 watts.
Our compost toilet isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it reduces water usage (and we are metered so it matters financially). Solid waste is composted down for use in the orchard, and pee, when diluted makes an excellent nitrogen rich fertilizer.
All the timber used in the house is solid wood, locally sourced where possible – we try to avoid particle board or laminates which tend to contain (and give off) formaldehyde as they age.
Partly from economic necessity, partly from the desire to reuse things, we have relied on Gumtree and Freecycle to source things such as baths, sinks, wall and floor tiles; and we’ve reused old ceiling timber to make the kitchen, and reused timber to make the bedroom floor. It’s all a bit less ‘polished’ than would appeal to many, but then it’s unique, and we know where it has all come from, and in many cases, made it ourselves.
The impending arrival of our first child this autumn means that the focus has been on the house, but over time, we’ll establish our food supply, plant more fuel, and reduce our reliance on external providers.
Our ethos is definitely a mixture of resilience, of concern for the environment, and of reducing the amount of money we need to spend, especially on food and fuel. We can’t claim to be low impact, but we are certainly lower impact, and it will be interesting to measure our ecological footprint and see how it compares with not only the average Joe, but those living in the new ecovillages.
My feeling is that many are scared off this lifestyle once they see the planning challenge ahead of them, and that there are still areas of the country – Northern Ireland in particular, that are literally full of deserted cottages on little patches of land that given the chance, could be made into low cost, low impact homes, particularly iif the planning system offered an incentive not to knock them down. So called modern building techniques meant that they have been seen as damp, inefficient wrecks, but a realisation that a new interpretation of old techniques, such as lime-hemp plasters and natural insulation materials such as sheep’s wool and hemp, together with the use of the large thermal masses of the old stone cottages, could make them into great homes,means that an opportunity is there for the taking.
Ireland too, is full of these buildings. It will just need a bit of imagination from planners to bring them back into use.
Our other concern was one of community, and it is central to the whole concept of eco villages. They are just that – villages. There is no denying that in many ways, the way of life we have chosen can be quite physically challenging. Having the physical and emotional support of others is pretty much vital to making it a success. Our feeling was that given the right circumstances, it should be possible to become integrated into an existing community, as an alternative to starting a whole new one.
In this we haven’t been disappointed. Our neighbours here in the country have been magnificent. We maybe never thought we’d have to call on them to rescue us just as soon as they did, but when the call came, they went our of their way to help us. There is a feeling out here that pulling together is a part of normal life – cooperation between neighbours keeps everyone going.
As well as immediate neighbours, we’re steadily meeting more like minded folk, and so a broad network of those seeking a more sustainable way of living is emerging. We also try and support local businesses, some of whom have existed for generations, and who are likely to see a resurgence as rising fuel prices mean less travel for people who simply cannot afford to make the journey.