On eating meat and how it gets to our plates.

I wanted to write a bit about the slaughter and butchery stuff we’ve been doing at this host. I won’t get too graphic as I know plenty of readers are either not wanting to read this stuff because they are already vegan or vegetarian because they are not okay with eating animals or because they are meat eaters who are squeamish about the finer details. Personally I find it fascinating in just the same way as I want to see the tiny seeds that grow into carrots and understand just what happens to them inbetween being in a seed packet and cooked on my plate.

There is the argument that if you eat meat you should be perfectly prepared to kill it yourself. I know that some of my vegan friends feel that as they are not prepared to do that they don’t have the right to eat meat or indeed any animal products. I have a vegan friend who says that in a survival situation she would be prepared to do just that and eat an animal but as she doesn’t need to go to such extreme measures given the availability of alternative foods she’s not up for someone else doing it for her either. I have a lot of respect for that view even if I am as horrified by soya milk and cheezley as my vegan mate is by pork chops and lard!

My personal take on meat is that I really enjoy eating it. I like the taste and the texture and I am not grossed out by the idea of where it came from. I am grossed out by the dreadful conditions some animals are kept in and the way they are treated during their brief lives which are only brought into existance so that we humans can eat them, their children, or the produce we can take from though. I think meat, fish, dairy, eggs etc should be viewed as luxury food items; a true price paid for them and a far greater degree of responsibility taken for that by us, the people who are consuming them. I do have a conscience about how my meat is farmed, my fish is caught, my eggs are laid and my cows are milked. I want to know how it got to my plate, what happened to it on the way there and that if I have it’s blood on my hands I am fully educated on that and able to justify it to myself.

Animal rearing, killing and butchery was high on the list of things we all wanted to learn more about this year. We wanted to know more about our food generally and as big meat and animal produce consumers this was an important part of that. We are all keen to keep animals for produce and meat so we wanted to get educated in how to do that to the standards and ethics we are comfortable with and we wanted to know what process animals go through from birth to plate. So far we’ve not had much experience this year of the birth side of animal rearing but this current host is giving us plenty on the death and oven-ready end of things.

We have helped to select and transport animals for slaughter – sheep, pigs and calves; checking sex and whether they are lactating ewes, learning about the paperwork involved in moving animals about, what happens at the slaughterhouse, been involved in catching, killing and plucking chickens and turkeys here at the farm, helped with mincing meat, mixing sausage meat, soaking and preparing sausage skins, watched pigs and sheep and veal calves cut into joints and enjoyed eating all of the results.

We’ve talked around the topic with Dragon and Star before, after and during each step. I think it’s really important they witness all aspects but I don’t want to traumatise them or create a disturbing or haunting memory for them as a result. Below, in everyone’s own words is how each of us is feeling about what we have seen and done so far.

As a confirmed carnivore I was both keen to witness all of the above but also apprehensive about how it would make me feel. I don’t want to be hardened and uncaring about animals, neither do I want to put myself off food I really enjoy. In recent years I have become passionate about free range chicken and eggs, freedom food certification on meat, pole and line caught fish and other welfare related reassurances, paying more and reducing my consumption and placing a far greater value on the quality of the animals’ lives. I can justify value loo roll and baked beans, not value chicken breasts.

My overwhelming emotion on what we have experienced so far is relief I think. Relief that I am able to deal with the slaughter and butchering and therefore feel I have met my own personal code of conduct of feeling I can look my potential dinner in the eye. Relief that the slaughterhouse didn’t feel to me like some medieval torture chamber with terrified animals being put to their deaths in cruel and inhumane ways by bloodthirsty knife weilding types. Relief that free range poultry really do spend their days happily pecking around a yard behaving just like our rather indulged pet chickens at home until they are snatched from their night time roosts, stunned before they know what is happening and are oven ready in minutes with minimal fuss. Relief that the sausages I have been involved in making are using top quality meat rather than dodgy sweepings off a barn floor somewhere.

It would be really easy to be judgemental about people’s meat and animal produce consumption choices but I’m not going to be. I think everyone has their own personal level of what they can and can’t justify to themselves. For me, my standpoint is that eating meat is an active choice rather than a default and to justify that active choice I need to have certain checkpoints met. Quite apart from learning more about being able to make my consumption of animal produce even more in line with my ideals by doing as much of it ourselves as possible using the skills we are learning here I have been pleased to see that the checkpoints I was looking at theoretically sit well with me know they are more in my face.

I’ve been in slaughterhouses before and I think that working in an environment where your job is killing animals means you get de-sensitised to it (just like a soldier or a nurse) but I feel really passionate that animals should be respected and treated with compassion right to the end. I’ve not learnt or seen anything I had not seen before but it has further fired my desire to work in this sector and do things differently and my own way.

I was expecting animals being slaughtered to be a bit like when our cat was put to sleep and how zoo animals and animals on vet programs on TV are put down, with it being all calm but it wasn’t like that. The animals were herded into a pen and then zapped on the head by a stunner then hung up by their foot on a hang-y thing and lifted up, put into the place where they get killed and their neck gets cut, then they go to the next area where they are cut up for meat.
I didn’t think there would be an actual place to kill chickens and turkeys. We have killed our own chickens by snapping their necks but here they stunned them then slit their necks. I didn’t know you could get all special equipment just for killing chickens and turkeys (stunner, plucker etc.). The plucker is amazing. I knew that birds go from being alive to being dead and plucked really quickly.
I still like to eat meat but I feel much more respectful to it but I am happy about eating meat knowing all the processes it goes through.
I enjoyed doing the work in the butchery room, mincing meat, packing sausages and cuts of meat. I like handling meat, I know it is dead animal flesh and that is okay.

I found the abbatoir fine because I didn’t feel like I had seen an animal being killed as they were stunned before they were killed and I liked that they went from being walking around to being stunned and then were killed before they came round. Watching the chickens and turkeys was fine too. We have chickens at home and I know how much fuss they make just when people walk past them so the squwarking didn’t worry me as I know they make that sort of noise anyway. I didn’t think they were scared before they were killed and it was only a few seconds between being picked up and being stunned. I quite liked the process of getting them killed and then plucked and stuff so quickly.

When we were working in the cutting room with the meat although I knew it was a dead animal I was dealing with it felt like meat or food rather than animal then so I was fine handling the meat. I already knew that meat I eat was a dead animal and I really enjoy eating meat so it hasn’t changed how I feel about being a meat eater.

bring on the animals!

As so often seems to be the way we had a rather wobbly start to our current host. We had arranged a three week stay – our only hosting longer than two weeks – when the host replied to say we could come for a week or two, but if we came for three weeks she had a local friend who could teach us some butchery. That was too good an offer to turn down so we went for 3 weeks and booked dates.

The hosts we are staying with in Zone one were booked and arranged way back in August last year so I am contacting them all by email a couple of weeks before we arrive to confirm the hosting, give a mobile phone number for contact and arrange an arrival time. The email to this host bounced back as undeliverable so I rang to confirm instead and after several minutes of confusion with the host not having a clue who I was or why I was ringing she suddenly realised she had totally forgotten having booked us and was now going to be away on holiday for the bulk of our 3 week stay! She seemed to think this was a bonus rather than a cause for concern though and as we’d have nearly a week with her before she went we decided this should be enough time for her to hand over the reins to us and show us everything we’d need to know before she went.

When we arrived in the village we couldn’t find the farm anywhere and when I tried ringing to get directions the answerphone said it was full and couldn’t take any more messages which was slightly alarming. In the end we pulled over and knocked on someone’s door and they were able to direct us to the farm – which has had it’s name changed so would always have been rather difficult to find…

The host was not there but the builder working on the house was able to direct us to park up (the van was really, *really* struggling with the country roads and steep hills and narrow bridges so in dire need of turning the engine off to cool down) and wait. The host did arrive within about 15 minutes, told us plans had changed and we were now to be WWOOFing for the local friends who could teach us butchery instead, directed us to follow her and shot off in her car. Poor Willow took quite a bit of coaxing to start up again and cope with further hills and we were questionning the wisdom of the whole situation too, particularly when we pulled onto the very wobbly driveway, a cupboard in the van flew open and loads of stuff rained down on the kids.

But, as it happens it has all panned out pretty well so far… we’re only a week in with two more weeks to go and we have been working some crazily long hours with the promise / threat of further long hours to come in the next two weeks. But we have learnt so, so much. We have been to the abbatoir and watched pigs being slaughtered, helped with getting chickens and turkeys from running around the yard (I don’t recall a funnier sight than the full body slam Ady managed in pursuit of a cockerel) to oven ready birds including plucking, removing heads and legs. We have helped to herd sheep, caught lambs and cows to take to the abbatoir, fed pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, calves, made sausages, minced meat, assembled kebabs and marinated ribs, baked pies and pasties, packaged and labelled meat, set up market stalls and packed them up again, sold products at markets, helped get the campsite ready, helped put up a toilet and shower block and take down a fence, assisted with injecting pigs and lambs with medicines, moved sheep from field to barn to different field and loads, loads more.

It’s been quite some week!
Bad: It’s been quite sad seeing some poorly chickens – several have been caught by a dog and a couple more are not well.
Good: I think I have learnt lots here, probably more than at any other host.
Learnt: How to make sausages.

Bad: I found it sad watching animals being slaughtered.

Good: I really enjoyed herding the sheep, it was lots of fun and I liked cuddling lambs.
Learnt: How to make sausages.

Bad: The hours the hosts here work are really long, they definitely work longer and harder here than anywhere else we’ve stayed. It’s been quite eye opening how much of a slog it could be.

Good: I’m enjoying the ‘in at the deep end’ approach here of being asked to do a task which I would have thought was beyond me and managing it.
Learnt: How to age a sheep by it’s teeth, another method of turning a sheep, some countryside ways of managing livestock that I had not previously thought about.

Bad: This place is not great for the four of us as a family. We are rarely working together, which although means we are learning different things we are able to share with each other at the end of each day does mean we are not getting much quality time together. Dragon and Star are not at their best in this environment and are missing the contact, chatting and being alongside us they are used to. We’ve talked it through and all of us are happy enough with the compromises for the learning opportunities but it is a definite downside of being here.

Good: The diverse and huge range of things we are learning. I am adding to my list of plans for our own ideal lifestyle with loads of the things we are learning here. I like the combination of all meals in the house and sleeping in the van too which we have here as it gives us our own space to retreat to and be just the four of us.
Learnt: Loads! I think my chief learnt here is about Farmers Markets though. They do four or five a week here, selling their meat produce and eggs, swapping and bartering with other stall holders for produce such as bread, preserves, vegetables, cakes and then bringing home any unsold meat to turn into pies and pasties for the next market. I have been clinging to an ideal of self sufficicency but actually I can see how one really good Farmers Market a week could bring in money, be a base for bartering to swap for the produce we don’t produce ourselves and negate the need for supermarkets and be a shop front to make contacts for local people who want our produce and may be interested in deliveries or collecting direct from us.

Windy Ridge

Tomorrow we leave for host number five after a week here at Windy Ridge, near Ivybridge, Devon. Link to the website is Camping & Caravanning CL site website but worth looking at for the amazing views of the camping field and location information about the hosts.

The ‘farm’ is actually two farms – a bungalow sited with a herd of beef cattle which is still worked as a farm, along with the camping field, some chickens, some sheep and a dog. And the old farmhouse – a stunning 9 bedroom, grade 2 listed building two fields away from the bungalow along with various barns, sheds, out buildings, yards and gardens. The original farm, within living memory was a thriving business for two families, providing dairy, meat, chickens, pigs, cattle as well as all the fruit and veg grown in the kitchen garden and orchards, a B&B business run from farmhouse. Sadly as the original farmers have retired due to age / ill health and farming has gone into decline the farmhouse is now falling apart and the farming here now is just beef cattle.

We have been camped in Willow in the field, enjoying hook up and water – if you are ever in need of a campsite in this very gorgeous part of the country I highly recommend it. Bargain price of just £10 per night, stunning views, great warm welcome and near to lots of attractions. We have loved the view out of our window with stunning sunrise, sunsets, hot air balloons drifting past and the edge of Dartmoor, the sea and various twinkling town and village lights spread out below us, not to mention the sort of patchwork fields on hills I used to draw as a child.

We have been so well looked after here, with endless cups of tea and coffee, huge lunches, even more massive dinners followed by proper puddings and cake twice a day for morning and afternoon tea. The food has been gorgeous, proper farmhouse fayre with home baking using the farm eggs, fabulous cooking using the farm beef and all our washing done for us. Dragon and Star have been truly indulged and between the dogs, cows and chickens have had all their farming dreams catered for.

The hosts have once again been the highlight of the week though. Generous,  interesting, knowledgable people with stories to tell, skills to share and patience to teach us. We have loved spending time with this family – famers for generations who grew up in this area, are a close knit family with interesting lives they are only too happy to share with us. It’s been a fab place to spend a week and our only regret is not having longer here really as I know we have barely scratched the surface of what we could have learnt here given a (much) longer stay. I feel we have been given an excellent taster of what their lifestyle involves, been useful to have around in terms of the small amount of stuff we have done and had our appetites whetted even more for something similar ourselves one day.

Bad: sad to see so many farm buildings, barns and sheds which are not being used any more, both the farmhouse here and the neighbouring farms too.
Good: The food! We have had so much lovely beef and cakes.
Learnt: That lots of farms are land scattered around that have to be driven to rather than all fields around the farmhouse.

Bad: A dead calf here on our last day. It had been poorly and died today which made me feel sad.
Good: Made friends with calves and cows. I didn’t know you could interact with cows so much. I loved stroking them and talking to them.
Learnt: That dogs can play football! Kim the sheepdog here is excellent at football.

Bad: It made me sad to see a beautiful and once productive farmhouse, buildings and land that within such close living memory was a thriving farm now going to ruin and not being used any more, despite knowledge still being here.
Good: The food and hospitality. We have been so well looked after by Denise, Glyn and Joan. The food was excellent and we really enjoyed getting to know everyone here.
Learnt: Lots about the process of farming, how knowledge is handed down through generations, how busy and productive farming people are and how much community feeling there is within farming with people helping neighbours, sharing and so on.

Bad: A week has not been long enough. We have barely scratched the surface of what we could learn here. We have had a flavour of the level of experience we could have had, how many different things we could learn both as practical skills and as sitting talking and working alongside this family and it worries me that a week, or even two weeks, in many of our potential hosts may not be enough. We will not be around long enough to learn skills quickly enough to be useful so may not get shown things.
Good: I got to milk a cow!
Learnt: That our dreams of this sort of lifestyle are feasible. It has been really heartening to be taken seriously in our ideas and know that the sort of model we have in our heads as our dream is a possible one that we could maybe make work. I’ve also learnt that being flexible, adaptable and able to bring diverse skills (which I think the four of us possess) and make your land and livestock work for you in various different ways is a realistic idea.

Ticking boxes and crossing off lists

I’ll do a proper round up of our current host when we leave (last day tomorrow) including some input from the rest of the team but just had to share this afternoon’s experience as we got to have a go at milking cows!

This was hugely exciting for me; it was high on my list of things I wanted to do this year and the chance came up here despite this being a beef cattle farm as our host was doing a turn at milking on the neighbouring farm so we went down to see it going on.

The herd is 120 cows and they are brought in, 12 at a time, hooked up 6 at a time to the milking machine and milked for a few minutes each. Most gave about 15 litres or so of milk, which runs to a huge cooling tank and is collected by the milk van. It’s all pretty calm, the cows meander in happily enough, are fed while they are milked and then wander back out the other end into the yard.

We watched for a while and then got to have a quick go at milking by hand – really exciting to actually do it and of course we had to do it into our hands and have a quick gulp down too, can now say we’ve drunk milk straight from a cow :).

Dragon, Star and I LOVED it 🙂

Star then spent ages chatting to the cows as they came out the other end, number 107 who we had milked stood with her for quite a while being stroked and thanked for her milk!

The other huge plus of staying on a cattle farm has been beef for dinner every night – roast, bolognaise, stew – delicious!

New views, new skills, new challenges

This next host is proving different again, as I suspect every single one will do.

We arrived yesterday afternoon but the wife who I have been communicating with by email and phone is not here at the moment and she is the one who deals with WWOOFers. We were directed onto the camping field, a small enclosed area with spacious pitches for five campers with electric hook up and water on each pitch. We said we would be self sufficient for the first night as we have our store of tinned food.

The views are utterly stunning, 360 degrees of gorgeous south Devon countryside, bordered by the edge of Dartmoor and a glimpse of the sea. We watched a beautiful sunset, listened to the cows in the barn next door and as the sky grew dark and lights twinkled on in the town below us it was nice to be back in Willow again.

This morning we wandered over to the farm after a fairly lazy start to the day, enjoying the view out of the window while breakfasting 🙂

There was no one about so after some debate we decided to head into the nearest town for some lunch supplies, clearly if we’re not doing any work we can’t expect to be fed so we thought to be on the safe side we would ensure we were topped up with essentials like bread and milk. Willow wasn’t super keen on this idea and flatly refused to go up a rather steep hill which meant I had to leap out and help guide Ady into a scary reverse and turn around manourvere in a fairly tight space and blind corner. Eek! She warmed up and seemed fine after that but does a fine line in occasssionally reminding us she is a more mature vehicle with limitations just like the rest of us!

Back at the farm we parked up, had an early lunch and headed back to knock on the door again (we had left a note with our phone number explaining where we’d gone, when we’d be back etc.) This time we caught up with the host, G (D, his wife is away until later today, hopefully we’ll catch up with her this evening or tomorrow morning) and had a tour of the cattle – a range of breeds from week or so old calves to finishers. We met the rather gorgeous – and enormous – resident bull, a 3 year old. They are all in barns from over wintering and will be out to pasture pretty soon.

We were then tasked with mowing the grass in the camping field. I’ve never used a petrol lawnmower before so I was very keen to have a go at that 🙂 Ady taught me how to start it, which various levers did which various things and I happily spent a couple of hours pacing up and down the field (about an acre) in (close to) straight lines which Ady raked up loose grass and loaded it into the back of the trailer G brought over for us on the quad bike.

The kids got a ride on the trailer and spent ages playing with Kim, the resident dog having cooed over the calves and let the cows lick their hands 🙂

Kim is a lovely dog actually, I’m certainly doing well with my dog phobia management – there has been at least one dog at every place we’ve stayed so far and I’ve coped just fine with all of them.

We’re looking forward to seeing more of the farm tomorrow and getting going with some work but for now the kids are out playing in the field, Ady is taken arty pictures of a hot air balloon drifting past the setting sun and I’m about to pour a glass of wine and go and join them out there.

Story so far…

 We’ve done five weeks of WWOOFing, nearly seven weeks away from the house and totted up over 400 miles so far so we’ve been chatting about how we’re finding it. I think we’ve all hit a wall here and there, had moments of loving it and moments of wanting to click our fingers and make it stop. We’ve all learnt loads and made an excellent start to achieving some of our list of aims and objectives for the adventure.

We have had a pretty diverse mix of host in just the first three – slept in a tent, in Willow and in a cottage. We’ve had time living communally, time left to our own devices and times spent mixing the two. Work has been varied, expectations have been different and we have met the biggest mix of people from the most amazing variety of backgrounds and cultures.

Unexpected advantages have been Ady and I enjoying working together so much, I miss the kids being off doing their own thing so much but I don’t remember the last time Ady and I had so much child-free time together, even if we are technically working. Not having as much time with the children as usual for me has been tough, in our previous life we were together most days, all day, often doing our own thing around the house or garden it’s true but always with time cuddled up together watching half an hour of TV, reading a book, chatting about something or finding out answers to their questions together. I’ve missed that and they tell me they have too, I’m keen to find time to make sure that has been a temporary blip rather than a long term casualty of the year. We are definitely on the way to a fitter and healthier lifestyle – again this past two weeks have been a slight blip but even so we are eating and drinking far less and spending far more time outside, being active. I think regular swims and walks more than made up for the less physical work anyway.

We’ve learnt lots about nature – we’ve seen buzzards, sparrowhawks, otter, deer and various other wildlife, spent time with dogs, pigs, chickens, sheep, ponies, goats as farm animals and learnt about feeding and keeping them. We’ve sampled local delights including eggs and sausages from places we’ve stayed, local wine, cider, beer, cheese, ice cream, butter and so on. We’ve experienced an extreme off grid lifestyle, done tent dwelling in heavy frosts, lived in the van without hook up, seen some beautiful sights, some stunning scenery and above all met some amazing, inspirational and interesting people.

It’s been a fabulous start to our adventure, everything we hoped for and more really. We’re starting to anticipate what might be potential issues and discuss how we will deal with them as and when they might arise, getting a real flavour of what our year might bring at the same time learning that unexpected twists and turns to our careful planning are around every corner, along with new opportunities and unforeseen offers. We need to be flexible, subject to change and ready to roll with whatever comes along. These are great lessons to learn, a fab code for living and teaching all four of us so much about ourselves, each other and all the other people we meet.

I was expecting to only stay on farms, I was expecting to stick to our planned hosts rather than get invited to stay with people we only just met. I thought living in Willow would have been harder than it is. I’m not missing electricity as much as I thought I would, not missing a real bed, I probably sleep better in Willow than my bed at home. I’m having lots of fun, I feel healthier and think I sleep better. Before we left I thought I’d miss our house so much but I don’t miss it at all. I am missing friends who live near us – Toby, Archie, Eliot, Jack, Maisie & Lorna and Granny & Grandad. I am missing friends who are far away but can’t wait to see them while we’re travelling. I love the fact that before we go to each host I am never sure what they will be like or what that part of the country will be like and so every time it is new and exciting, not like at home when all our days out were to places we had been before.

I was expecting us to have to work or we wouldn’t get fed and there to be lots of rules and do as we were told even if we didn’t know how to but it hasn’t been like that at all. I really miss the chickens, ducks and our house but I am loving the freedom to run around, play in woods, going for adventures with dogs, goats. I like living in Willow because I like the fact everything is all here like our beds and the sofa. I like spending more time with Mummy and Daddy.

So far I am finding the adventure far easier than I thought I would. Living in the van, travelling in the van and the work were all things I was worrying about but so far they have all gone really smoothly and far easier than I expected. The variety of people we are meeting, the generosity of people we meet is overwhelming and I never realised people could be so kind. I struggle with moving on from place to place, I get really at home and find it hard to say goodbye and move on. I like the work, being physical and outdoors.

Middlewick Cottages

Today we said teary goodbyes and gave hugs to all at Middlewick before hitting the road again and heading Devon-way again to host number four. We’ve arrived and are currently enjoying an amazing view including a little corner of sea through a gap in hills. We’re in the van for tonight at least as the owner is away until tomorrow so we’re on hook up in their little camping field and are enjoying the late afternoon sunshine and the prospect of a relaxing evening before starting work tomorrow.

So a round up of Middlewick, host number three. A fab place to spend two weeks – we had a really good time there, loved the company and surroundings and enjoyed what was effectively a break from WWOOFing as we went back into luxury holiday cottage accomodation and had access to the swimming pool, massages and other home comforts. We slipped back into our old dynamics rather with later nights, evening glass of wine or two, TV watching etc. but were all very aware it was an exception to this year rather than a return to the norm.

It would have been all too easy to carry on there and it certainly added plenty to our lists of what we do and don’t want eventually and prolonged our time in Somerset, giving us another insight into that part of the country. We got a lot out of our time at Middlewick, Dragon and Star had loads of freedom, adopted Maggie the resident dog and spent hours walking with her out in the surrounding fields. A lovely moment I will take with me from there is standing chatting with Ady in the sunshine and catching a distant glimpse of the kids and dog in a field across the hills, all running with hair streaming behind them. Although the work wasn’t ticking boxes in terms of our learning objectives for the year it was still very interesting and varied with the very large added advantage of Ady and I spending lots of time working together. In previous years we have worked together a fair bit and always enjoyed it; it’s nice to be reminded of those aspects of our relationship and partnership. We have very complementary skills and make a good team, helping each other amd enjoying each others’ company. It’s also good to be impressed with those qualities in each other again, remembering we are not just co-parents or paying the bills in the same house but are actually first and foremost a couple.

Jill & Jonathan, along with all of the other people at Middlewick were a fab bunch to spend time with and get to know. We enjoyed their company, felt like part of a team doing something worthwhile and working together making headway. More people’s names have been added to my phonebook as friends and I know our paths will cross again and we’ll be visiting there again in the future.

It was one of many fortunate path crossings with someone unexpected, deviating from our planned path and saying yes to an opportunity that arose from nowhere that I suspect may make up a fair chunk of the twists and turns of this year. What could have potentially been a very early pitfall appeared in the shape of two hosts unable to take us after all (one due to ill health, the other due to some other unidentified issue) and ended up costing us money in campsite fees and food was answered in the shape of a chance meeting with Jill who happened to need some willing hands to help out. I love the way it all fell perfectly into place and became a great solution for everyone with new friendships forged at the same time.

Bad: No livestock (although there are sheep and chickens planned)
Good: Really enjoyed playing with Maggie the dog and I saw a stag deer.
Learnt: How to play various card games.

Bad: Not as many children to play with (in comparison to Steward Wood, for example)
Good: Saw a stag deer, really enjoyed the swimming, liked choosing my own food all week.
Learnt: How quickly we slipped back into old ways once we were in a house again – using loads of electricity, water, gathering things we don’t really need again, got lazy.

Bad: Leaving! Really missing it there, I enjoyed it a lot but it was bad to get back into creature comforts and luxuries of four walls, a bed and a bath again. I thought I would really appreciate those luxuries when we were in the tent and campervan but very quickly I was taking it all for granted again.
Good: Being made to feel so welcome and being taken into their world, we really felt like part of the team, took us on face value, trusted and valued.
Learnt: I didn’t learn any new skills- I was gardening, tidying, working with mowers. But I did learn how easily we judge people and shouldn’t. We have mixed with people now who live in the woods with dreadlocks, millionaires with successful businesses, people like us living in vans and everyone has a story to tell, something to teach you and an interesting idea to share.

Bad: I felt we really lost focus of all our aims for the year. I found myself stressed one evening when I hadn’t turned the immersion on for an instant hot water bath, we slipped back into patterns of behaviour such as drinking alcohol, using electrical appliances, gathering things we didn’t need and taking things for granted. This year has taken so much energy and planning, so many sacrifices and decisions and planning, so much letting things go and deciding what is really important to us and it was all too easy to slip back into greedy ways and lazy habits.
Good: The people! I really felt as though we became part of the family – Jill, Jonathan and Thomas, Kathleen & Norman (Jonathan’s parent’s), Shirely & Shelagh the rest of the team and even Jude, the previous owner who is still around all became like family or long lost friends. We were made to feel so welcome and once again I feel we have made contact with new friends who will stay friends long after we have driven away in the van.
Learnt: I don’t think I learnt any new skills as such, although I did learn how quickly I can turn my hand back to skills from the past. At previous hosts I sometimes felt like the weaker link as I wasn’t able to manage as well with hills, hard physical labour, this time I felt my natural skills were valued and useful as I helped with tasks I was more than able to do competantly. I know a fair bit about the hospitality business although I did get an insight into what it might be like to be an onsite owner / manager of a holiday cottage business and in conversation with Jill I learnt plenty about her previous enterprises. Like Ady I think most of what I learnt was in conversation with the interesting and diverse people we spent time with.

Green Kids

 Dragon and Star are pretty tough on their clothing and shoes. I don’t remember the last time either of them wore a pair of jeans they hadn’t already gone through the knees on or a T shirt that doesn’t have ground in stains of mud or paint, or a pair of shoes without soles full of mud, animal poo and lumps of grass.

Neither of them are huge followers of fashion, preferring instead their own style of favourite colours (Dragon likes red, yellow, camouflage; Star favours black and blue *never* pink!), comfort and clothes that don’t hamper them in their pursuits of climbing trees, clambering over fences, playing hard and working with animals. If it happens to have an animal on it somewhere so much the better as far as Star is concerned too.

We tend to buy second hand clothes; I like buying from charity shops as it supports the charity, is a greener option, allows us to buy cheaper but better quality and ensures they don’t look like everyone else wearing this seasons cheap, mass produced supermarket or high street choices. But when we do buy new we are looking for ethical choices, fair trade natural materials, good quality built to stand up to the demanding wear of real kids living in the real world.

It’s quite a tall order to tick all of those boxes and still produce something Dragon and Star both fall on, put on straight away and have to be prised out of to shove in the wash – with the promise of having it washed and dried ready to wear again tomorrow but these rather fab sweatshirts from Green Kids more than fit the bill.

Dragon and Star recommend them for wearing for all of the following pursuits:

 helping to chop down trees

feeding the pigs,

catching up with horses,

chatting with the sheep,

running wild and free in fields and meadows,

climbing over walls, fences, fallen tree stumps, hills etc.

identifying wild flowers (it was from the buttercup family)

and being in awe of oak trees so old and ancient they were probably around before grandad was born!

Midway through host number three

and a change is as good as a rest, particularly if the change is to such a restful place 🙂

We  have had to shuffle about the next few weeks as we had a couple of cancellations which would have left us with empty weeks. We had been invited to stay at Paddington and our next host was flexible with us about when we arrived but we got one of those offers you just can’t refuse and fate conspired to mean our move was just next door!

Whilst at Paddington we were invited to the new neighbours for a pizza evening mid week. New owners have just taken over at Middlewick Holiday Cottages and have a regular Wednesday night pizza party using the fab brick built outdoor pizza oven. Neighbours, local friends and any residents of the cottages are all invited along to bring their own toppings and a bottle and join the fun. We headed over with T&M and had a fab few hours chatting to various people including the old and new owners, a couple of guests and some of the staff.

The following day Jill, the owner came and found us working in the orchards and offered us a swim in the residents pool which we very gratefully accepted. We crossed paths most days and we went over again on Sunday for another swim and some delicious rhubarb cake and Jill showed us round one of the cottages and made us the rather un-turn-downable offer of WWOOFing for her for a week in exchange for use of the cottage, plus swimming pool, plus trampoline, plus access to her very lovely dog Maggie who Dragon and Star adore, plus a fridge-full of food.

Well what would you do?

We decided that people who jack in their jobs, rent their house out and head off in a very well loved campervan for a year have to practise saying ‘yes’ to pretty much every opportunity that comes along and this seemed like a good opportunity. So we finished up Monday’s tasks at Paddington of cleaning out the feed shed, feeding the animals and dusting pigs and chickens for mites, went on a very unproductive shoe hunt to nearby Street and Wells for Dragon (have since ordered some online) and then arrived and settled in to Orchard View. Oh to have a bed, a shower, a kitchen, electricity again 🙂

We’re doing a vast array of tasks here including: gardening, clearing rubbish, tidying, painting, cleaning and housekeeping, some painting and decorating, reorganising the library, lighting the pizza oven, testing appliances and TV channels in each cottage, a spot of ghost-hunting (cottages are 350 years old and reputed to be haunted). We’re also doing plenty of swimming, getting to know Jill (and now her son who has arrived today and is currently having a great time with Dragon and Star in the swimming pool), playing with Maggie the dog, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful massage from the lovely Shirley and enjoying the luxury interlude of four walls again for a while. We’re learning loads about all sorts of things and really enjoying yet another diverse environment to the ones we’ve already stayed in – definitely another interesting chapter in what is already shaping up to be a good story of our year.

Infact, it’s going so swimmingly that we have done some further reshuffling of our schedule and filled what was an empty week with staying on here for longer. Jill seems pleased with what we’re doing (although she was less keen on my bad influence of ‘one more glass of wine’ the evening she came and had dinner with us!), there is plenty to be getting on with helping with here and as there are plenty of children around next week Dragon and Star are only too happy to hang out here a bit longer.

Essential and desirable

We’ve been on the road now for nearly six weeks, parked in Willow in various locations including the driveways of family and friends, four different campsites, one different host, stayed in our tent and resided in a holiday cottage. We’ve had electric hook up in some locations which is a luxury and something we’ve only ever done once while camping before.

Disconnecting ourselves from the electricity supply is a challenge though. We have gas bottles which can power our heater, fridge and oven although eco-wise I think there is very little between the twin evils of gas or electric really. We did a little bit of research on alternative energy options for the van before we left but ignorant as we are both of the level of usage we require and quite how they all work we decided to head off, see what we most missed or needed and then find out from the people we meet and stay with along the way what the best options are. We are booked to stay with various off-grid hosts along the way who use solar, wind, water energy and learning from those who actually do it seems by far the best way.

Breaking down what we use energy for and whether it is essential or just desirable is an interesting exercise. In my parents lifetime ‘white goods’ have become a home ‘essentials’ with fridge, freezer, cooker, hob, dishwasher, washing machine and tumble drier all being viewed as basic kitchen appliances, but when Dad was a boy things were kept cold in a pantry, food was preserved by pickling or bottling or simply eaten when it was in season – the concept of a ‘weekly shop’ simply didn’t exist. Washing was done by hand and dried outside when fine, infront of the fire when not, cooking was done over the fire, the same place toast was toasted and water was boiled. No kettle, no toaster, no microwave, no George Foreman lean, mean, fat fighting grilling machine!

Since Dragon and Star were born life has moved on even further and consequently our van has about 12 chargers for various things in it’s cupboards. We all have a mobile phone and a camera, the kids have handheld games consoles, we have two laptops with us and a Mifi which all have chargers, we have a kindle and we have a radio running on batteries which will either need replacement batteries every month or so or a set of rechargable ones and a battery charger. In theory none of these are essential of course and when camping we bring far fewer gadgets, ration our usage of them and have to find ways of accessing power to charge them up.

This year is about learning and challenging but never about endurance and punishment and while I do forsee those games consoles lying dusty and unused at times I know that being able to escape into beeping pixelated worlds of loved games is helping Dragon and Star adjust to not having bedrooms or TV or all the toys that are back at home boxed up. I am sure I will cope just fine on the days when I can’t charge my laptop or get a signal on my phone but both Ady and I are finding talking to friends either online or by phone is comforting and enjoyable and although the days I can’t blog will probably find me hunched over a notebook with a wind up torch frantically scribbling away in one of the various paper journals, still spilling my words out somewhere it’s nice to be able to share them online with friends and followers.

I’ve heard tales of campervans with wood burners on board, to heat water, cook food and provide warmth, vans with solar panels and little wind turbines on top to harness energy to run phone and laptop chargers, vans that run on recycled cooking oil. There must be ways of using the energy created by turning the wheels to drive along to charge up a battery you can then use to power things. But we had no budget for an eco-van, our budget stretched to Willow, 30 years old and a child of the 80s – she doesn’t have shoulder pads but she is very much of the era of over-consumption and having it all. We’ll still be living ever such a lot lighter than we would at home though and hopefully learning lots of new ways to put into practise in the future.

So far our essentials are sources of light and heat – we have a selection of wind up torches, battery powered lights and the electric-hook up powered lights in Willow for light, an electric fan heater and a gas powered fire aswell as hot water bottles and a good supply of socks, hats and jumpers to keep us warm. Some way of storing and cooking our food – for now we’re using electric fridge and gas powered oven, I’d like to try some alternative cold storage options at some point (not really necessary in this weather!) and I’ve read about using terracotta pots (two different sizes, one inside the other, the space inbetween packed with wet sand that you keep topped up with water and a terracotta saucer as a lid), chalk fridges and various other storage options if keeping things cold is essential. For cooking (and actually light and heat much of the time as well as heating hot water) I don’t think you can beat man’s greatest discovery of fire and the smell of woodsmoke is one of my favourite perfumes too. Food and water are essentials of course; we’re looking forward to learning about foraging, we have fishing rods and an air rifle to do a bit of fishing and hunting, but so far the local co-op and produce from farms attached to the campsite we’re staying on and WWOOF hosts have provided. A way of keeping ourselves and our clothes clean which can just be a source of water but heated is obviously preferable.

Our desireables? Well that’s a list that gets a bit longer. I think some sort of connectivity to the rest of the world – phone line, internet connection is there on the list, along with some entertainment facilities – books, dvds, creative pursuits such as art materials and writing implements, consoles, radio or other music.

For our connectivity while online we are currently using a MiFi from three and it’s proving excellent. We have yet to stay anywhere that it fails to pick up a signal and it provides fast wireless broadband for up to five seperate devices, which means I am able to have my laptop connected, Ady can use it for his phone and we have plenty of scope for the kids to hook up to it on their DS / PSPs too. I can’t recommend it highly enough, I can’t call it essential but it’s very, very desireable 🙂

Next on my list is the kindle we were given as a leaving present from friends. It’s loaded up with fiction for my bedtime reading, stories for the kids and various non fiction stuff. It’s allowing us a mobile, pretty much unlimited library and it’s smaller and lighter than one tiny paperback. We love it 🙂

Other things we are valuing lots include hot water bottles, Ady’s individual cafetiere mug for his real coffee hit, four of those tiny folding stools which have enabled us to bring the campervan table outside (it also has four screw on legs so can be used as a table outside the van) and eat around it and our solar power lights which we put out to charge up all day and then put on as soon as it gets dark and they are still lit come morning.