Operation Crap Clear

Whilst the finding places to stay and making the map look pretty goes on we also have some other important stuff to be getting on with. In order to rent out our house for the year we need to empty it! Having rented our house out before I know unfurnished is better than furnished – there is not much more money in renting a furnished property and you are then responsible for everything in it so if the washing machine goes wrong you are the one getting a phone call to sort it out. We don’t really need that if we’re in the middle of birthing a lamb or milking a cow! I also don’t mind the thought of people living in my house but I’d rather they weren’t sleeping in my actual bed.

We don’t plan to get rid of everything – just the stuff that we can’t justify storing for a whole year. My parents have kindly offered some space in their house to keep the things we want to retain for the year, the rest needs to go. We’re keeping our beds, our sofas, some wooden units some friends gave us which we love, some of our electrical stuff like TV, DVD player etc, a reduced amount of books (we have many, many books), *some* of A and my clothes (whatever we don’t take with us for the children won’t fit them by the time we get back) and kitchen stuff. It is our intention to live in a house again so we will need all of this stuff when we do.

Everything else must go! In the style of a sofa retailer having a closing down sale, prices are low, bargains are to be had, buy now and pay, erm now.

We’re dubbing this Operation Crap Clear and it has Phases. Alongside clearing the house we are also obviously trying tor raise money for the Campervan Fund (more on that later). So Operation Crap Clear Phase one is clearing a room / cupboard / loft void and seperating it into piles:

  • Keep, stuff we want, either to take with us or to store. Stuff that makes it into this pile has to be very justifable of it’s place.
  • Bin – stuff that simply isn’t worth giving away or selling. This pile isn’t too big and thankfully most of it seems to be paper or card or otherwise recyclable materials.
  • Sell – by far the biggest pile. Which then gets split into sub-sections of where we think we can sell it. 

and then getting rid of the rubbish.

Phase two is ebay! Time consuming, pretty boring and with the added hassle of queuing in the post office a week later with a load of parcels, then hoping Royal Mail do their bit and it actually arrives where it’s supposed to. Ebay can be fab, I’ve sold many things over the years for loads more than I was expecting and it’s nice to think stuff we don’t want any more will be used or played with by someone else.

Phase three is Car Boot Sale. We’ve not sold at a car boot sale before but have frequented them many a Sunday morning. A and I had a jolly time in a field trying to sell our crap back in the very same location some of it intially came to us from :). We cleared about a third of the HUGE carfull we took, another third went straight to my Mum who runs a charity shop (again returning our crap to a place it had once come to us from) and the remainder returned home with us as I suspect it is worth touting it in a field for a second time or possible sticking it on ebay too.

Operation Crap Clear began in our playroom and cupboard under the stairs and has moved to the loft space in D’s room. We’re clearing one area at a time, using the playroom as the holding bay for stuff for sale and then moving to clearing the next area as soon as we sell stuff from the holding bay. We have already tackled the most clogged up areas but are conscious of time not being on our side with car boot sale season coming to a close in the next few weeks.

Alongside Operation Crap Clear is running Operation Book Cull and Operation Clothes & Shoes Reduction and Operation DVD/ video & CD removal are still to come. Operation Book Cull is happening on ebay and Amazon marketplace as car boot sale proved not to be the right platform for that particular phase :), I am still pondering the best place to unload clothing and dvds etc. I am thinking job lots of ebay for collection only might well be the way forward when I clear a large enough floor space to spread them out for photos.

I am finding this a very liberating and theraputic exercise but I like a good declutter anyway. The others are finding this slightly more challenging and it is bringing home to all of us what a Big Thing we are doing. Realising just how little stuff we will have around us for our year in a van, how we’ll be starting again when we come home and really making us question what our material possessions mean to us and how much we need them.

Making It Happen

So we have a plan. Get a campervan, rent out the house and head off WWOOFing for a year. Next we need to work on all the many details, logistics and planning that turn that simple sentence into a reality. We need a schedule, a clipboard, a big map of the UK, maybe some stickers and a pointy stick for gesturing with. Possibly even wipe clean joblists and at the very least a spread sheet or seven.

Fortunately within our arsenal of skills and qualities we have Nic who is pretty good at masterminding who should be doing what when and drawing their attention to it. Some might call me organised, some might be less kind and call me bossy, some might be upfront and honest and call me controlling ;). But A provided me with the map, I already had a cute little pink notepad just waiting for something I actually needed to write notes about so rubbing my hands with glee at the prospect of controlling to be done I was off!

Timing is everything in a plan like this – too soon to clear the house of everything and we’ll have nowhere to sleep, too quick finding tennants and they’ll have nowhere to sleep either – too late and we don’t get our mortgage paid by nice friendly housesitting folks. Leave the arranging places to stay too late and we end up homeless and hungry – and those friendly housesitting folk might not take to kindly to their landlords pressing our noses up against the windows looking longingly at their dinner.

First port of call had to be joining WWOOF – £30 for instant online access to the hosts. This needed to be invested so we could have a proper look at potential hosts and see if there really are enough places in the UK to find homes for the whole year.

Once done we then needed to hone our search for hosts a little. We decided to limit it initially to all hosts who will accept children by arrangement. This came back with 198 hits so we set about reading them all out and all having a yes or no vote. It was a bit like Britain’s Got Talent, particularly when we found intentional communities who like to celebrate the turning of the Earth and the phases of the moon by dancing round a campfire. A vetoed that one! We tended to strike off anyone with strict religious or vegan leanings, simply because we have neither (infact quite the oppposite) so felt we would not be their ideal guests and would not learn the sort of skills we want to gain either. If we had a bigger timeframe we may well toss the odd challenging potential host in just to give us a shake up as I think spending time with people who are blatantly different to you is a really healthy thing to do but this voyage has enough challenges and experiences already.

This brought us to a short (ha!) list of 107 hosts. Bearing in mind the recoomendation is to arrange a one week stay initially that gaves us sufficient hosts for two years so it needed further honing. Our next stage was to plot them all on a map and see what pattern emerged. This was good for my geography and created an interesting pattern, looked pretty and fulfilled all sorts of ‘next we’ll conquer this settlement’ type fantasies for me (see, told you I was controlling!).

This gave us a very logical path to follow round the UK for our year. We decided to go clockwise which takes us into the South West for the start of our journey. We had a big concentration (30 plus) of hosts in that area and wanted to cover it in the first 3 months so needed to bring it to less than half. A second read through of those hosts brought up our favourite 15 all of whom we wrote an individial email to explaining what we like the sound of about them and when we’d like to come and visit. We’re calling this Zone One. Once Zone One is all arranged we’ll move onto arranging Zone Two (North Wales) by the same process for June, July and August. Zone Three (Scotland) will be autumn into winter which fits perfectly with my desire to see the Northern Lights which are visible from Scotland at that time of year. That takes us to December at which point we’ll be at our furthest point from home and will take a couple of weeks travelling back down the country again maybe doing some shorter stays with WWOOF hosts, visiting friends, possibly taking a youth hostel holiday before arriving at my parents for Christmas.

Our final couple of months, January and February will be spent closer to home in Kent, Sussex, Suffolk and Essex hopefully, where it will be slightly milder and then our year will draw to a close with us making decisions about what happens next.

Taking into account of all our wishlists and what we think we want out of life we started talking more about how to make it possible. I was all for selling up, renting land, building sustainable housing and investigating grants and support for green and alternative energy. A was less keen on this idea and it was during one of our discussions that he summed up what we *really* needed to do first:

“We need to go and talk to people doing this sort of thing. We need to learn from those who know what the pitfalls are. We can’t just blunder into this without having more idea about what we’re really doing.”

And you know what? He was right. Before we risk everything on something we *think* we want we need to get a better idea of what that actually is. We need to understand what this lifestyle really entails, what are the pitfalls? The compromises? The consequences? What can and does go wrong?

So how to get this knowledge? Where to learn?

We can read books, we can look at blogs, we can even get a glimpse into this way of life from the handful of TV documentaries and programmes that are around but the very best way is to go off and do it alongside people who are living that life already. I don’t know why the idea hadn’t occurred to us before really as we have various friends who have done it and the concept was already known to us but we suddenly had the lightbulb moment of thinking about WWOOF.

The more we thought about it the more the plan seemed to come together and make sense. Go WWOOFing! Live with people doing what we want to do, learn from them about how to do it, see first hand the trials and tribulations and then make an educated decision about what we want and how we’re going to get it.

We can rent out our house to pay the mortgage, meaning we don’t lose that foothold on the property ladder and our equity is still here waiting for us. With a bit of fundraising and saving we could put money towards a campervan, using my car as part exchange. WWOOFing is all about giving your time and labour in exchange for learning, food and lodgings. We think we want to live off the land? This seems the very best way to start trying.

Once we got that far with a plan which seemed to make sense and be feasible we started talking timings. This was back in June and we were conscious of not rushing into this too quickly, which put us to a sensible start date of 2011. We chose March for several reasons – it’s the beginning of the farming year, baby animals are generally born in the spring so we’d get to be around for lambing and calving, seeing the circle of life through to a logical conclusion, a time of year when WWOOF hosts are likely to be looking for lots of help, the time that many crops are sown, the weather is warming up and an ideal time to start living from a campervan with all the best months of the spring and summer ahead of us. It gave us enough time to swing into action with planning the trip really well and the option of six months to see how we’re getting on with it all extending to a year if it’s going well.

Having come up with a whimsical plan we set about talking about it between ourselves, coming up with questions and concerns and chatting to a few selected people to get some honest feedback. But that’s for the next post.

We’ve had various plans over the last couple of years and looked at smallholdings, renting farmland, going on courses to try and learn more but kept hitting the same dead end of knowing that financially we simply can’t afford to buy land outright which will sustain us and we can’t afford to have a mortgage to pay on land and the pressure of either growing / rearing enough to feed us and sell to pay the bills or have one or both of us working elsewhere too to pay the bills. We are fortunate to live in an expensive corner of the UK with a bit of equity in our house so we did toy with selling up and using that equity to long-term rent somewhere to see if we could get a business off the ground and making money before our funds ran out but the rather more cautious A vetoed this. Which is just as well. I think one partner being cautious and one reckless is probably a good mix as we temper each other into a sensible risk-taker – if there is such a thing!

In one of our many ‘so how are we going to make this work then?’ chats where I had brought to the table the idea of buying land, putting up sustainable housing, learning as we went and then seeing what grants were available for green energy and building techniques A spelt out what his concerns and bare minimum sensible-ness would be and we opened the conversation out to D and S and came up with a wish list each. Many of the items on the lists had crossovers but here they are as individual lists. I recommend every family sits down and does this exercise, you might just be surprised as what the individuals really hanker after and you might just be chuffed at how many things on your lists you already have – or have a blueprint for what you need to do to get there.

A’s list:
learn more about butchering, possibly slaughtering.
Growing fruit & veg
Spending more time with N & children
Practical skills

D’s list:
Bushcraft / survival skills
Working with wood
Driving tractors and understanding how they work
lifestock – particularly sheep and chickens
a lake with a row boat
a treehouse

S’s list:
wants dogs and cats!
animal breeding – ducks, chickens, maybe small animals
keeping pigs and sheep

My list (note it does seem rather longer!):
Keeping livestock – pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, bees (for meat, eggs, honey)
Having a cow for milk & making other dairy – butter, cheese, yoghurt
Growing food for us and livestock
Bartering / skill exchange / education
cooking / baking / preserving / brewing
crafts – sewing, knitting, basket weaving, woodcraft – making clothes, tools, household objects.
renewable and sustainable energy – a green way of life -= solar, wind, water power, biomass fuels, woodburning
building from sustainable sources – strawbale builds, compost loos, solar showers, rainwater harvesting

We also came up with an ‘ultimate goal’ which we all liked the sound of:

To live a more sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle. To have all four of us working together towards providing for ourselves whilst having as many elements of our shared, and indivdual ambitions met. To be living our passions full time rather than indulging them in small ways around the rest of life. To be doing things for ourselves wherever possible and putting our own food on the table (bloody tables!) rather than going out to work to earn money to pay for food (or tables). To have our life be our work, our work be our life and everything rolled in together in providing for ourselves, realising our dreams and spending our days in tasks taking us towards where we want to be. No pointlessness.

A’s main concern is with coming off the property ladder and running the risk of being without a home. I would be less concerned about that but do appreciate his reasoning and respect that as one of his conditions. He also feels we need to get a better taste of this lifestyle and see whether it truly is what we want and he does have a point. I might find milking cows chaps my hands and chips my nails and I hate it, S might discover that she loves animals so much she simply can’t live with us lambing and sending them off for slaughter months later, D might have a go at bushcraft and then realise his true passion lies in investment banking!

So more of a ‘suck it and see’ solution was required. How to try out this lifestyle, without gambling everything we have to see if it really is for us? How to learn the necessary skills so if we do strike out doing this we have an inkling of what we are doing? How to hone down that list into something achieveable, realistic and with some sort of masterplan attached so it is not doomed to failure from the start? How to tick off some of that list with the rest to follow if it’s still the path we want to be on?

Wondering Wanderers plan unveiled in next blogpost :).

There was a time when we could have been considered conventional. Well conventional-ish but having done the Big 3 M’s (mortage, marriage and maternity)I’ve certainly found that lots of my long held beliefs have been challenged along the way. I’ve gone from a career chaser who’s biggest ambition was a BMW by the time I was 30 with a purse full of credit cards and impressive sounding job titles to a Home Educator with a part-time job at the local library, an allotment, a garden full of chickens, ducks and quails with a passion for camping and a volunteering role as a shepherd! Conventional is so far off in the dim distance I’ve pretty much forgotten what it looks like.

A, my husband retains a foot in both camps, with a full time job with business cards and a company car by day and similar passions for a self-sufficient lifestyle the rest of the time. I’d call it a mild-mannered alter-ego but one of his big dreams is learning butchery and at no point does he wear his pants on the outside so the super-hero split personality analagy doesn’t really work. Of the four of us A is the one currently furthest away from living his dream life. I passionately believe we should all be living our dream lives, once we’ve really worked out what that is so to have one quarter of our family supporting the other three quarters by doing something he doesn’t really enjoy is an imbalance we are keen to correct.

D, our son is a nearly ten year old creative, imaginative soul who amoung his many other interests is big on bushcraft and survival stuff. His ideal childhood has a treehouse, a rowing boat to get to an island in the middle of a lake, fires to start, wood to whittle and tractors to drive. He also loves to draw, make models, make films and run around waving sticks with his friends.

S, our daughter is seven and is All About The Animals. Her default state is happy, she is wild, crazy, almost always slightly grubby and it would be good to give her a chance of doing something with her love for animals rather than resigning myself to the fact she will probably end up living in a small flat somewhere with 22 cats and 7 dogs. Her favourite place is the beach closely followed by anywhere else outside she is likely to have contact with creatures.

Over recent years we have become increasingly more interested in various things: what started as a science experiment for educational purposes in incubating some chickens eggs led to rearing chickens, bantams, ducks and quails, both in the incubator and watching birds hatch their own young. We have all learnt about how they mate, how long different breeds incubate for, sexing birds, pecking orders, how to rear and care for them, natural selection, birth defects, culling for kindness, killing, cooking and eating and much, much more. We have grown our own food, on our allotment and at home, we have visited all sorts of farms and learnt about where our food comes from, how to preserve it and how to cook it. We have had a taste of hunting, fishing and shooting and want to learn more. We have come to loathe the ‘convenience’ and ‘low cost’ of supermarkets and wonder just who is paying the true price of it. Self-sufficiency, no waste, local, fair-trade have all become things we care about.

From a gadget in our home to show us how much our electricity bill is and what energy we are using at any one time to learning more about alternative energies, visiting a recycling plant and learning about waste, landfill, peak oil and carbon footprints we have all become more green-aware. We want to have less of an impact on the earth and more of an impact on the awareness of others.

All of this has led us gradually towards hankering after a simpler way of life, a life where priorities are quite simply clothing, feeding and sheltering the four of us, spending more time together rather than more money and learning more about the world around us. We don’t want to be working all hours in jobs we hate and don’t feed our souls in order to put food on the table. Rather we’d like to be working hard to rear and grow the food to put on a table we made ourselves.

We concluded a couple of years ago that our dream of a smallholding or some other similar self-sufficient lifestyle was not affordable without one or both of us working outside the home to pay the bills. We’ve tried really hard therefore to put as many elements of our dream life into our current lives and we have succeeded to a point. But it doesn’t feel enough, it still feels a compromise, we still spend time at smallholding shows looking longingly at beekeepers and pig breeders so we’ve been thinking again.

After lots of talking to people, talking between the four of us and drawing up a wish list each we have concluded that we need to have a ‘try it and see’ experience at what we think we want to be doing. We need to know how much of our dream is a romantacised rose-tinted view of what it would be like and how we’d actually cope with the cold, hard reality of lambing with snow on the ground, failed crops, long days, physical hard work and no escape to an outside workplace. So we began researching just how to do that. And the result will be in the next blogpost…