6

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. 

8

Steward Wood, Devon

We’ve had two weeks at Steward Community Woodland an intentional community in Devon. It’s been an amazing experience for all sorts of reasons and the most perfect start imaginable to our adventure and voyage of discovery.

We arrived and were slightly traumatised by the hill the community live on. It is very, very steep and thanks to a spring at the top which supplies water and also generates hydro power it is very muddy in places too. We were greeted by dogs -four live there full time, my personal phobia – and a collection of dreadlocked people using hippy talk like cool, awesome, man. Everyone lives in benders or other low impact housing, clad with army surplus tarps and solar panels, a communal ‘longhouse’ is where WWOOFers are hosted, everyone is fed and gathers for chatting, meetings and regular social events such as music evenings or storytelling sessions. There is a compost loo, sawdust urinals and strawbale urinal for men and women, a bathhouse with a wood burner to heat the bathwater and we were shown to a flat area chiselled into the hillside with stunning views to pitch our tent. Sleeping in a tent for two weeks in March was a challenge, at least twice the overnight temperature dipped below zero and there were two very heavy frosts. Food is vegan or vegetarian, organic, wholefood, there is no alcohol, WWOOFers work mostly on splitting or chopping wood, carrying heavy stuff up or down the hill, assisting with gardening tasks, helping with food preparation or whatever else needs doing at the time. It is very seasonal with a heavy focus on wood.

Our work varied from chopping and splitting firewood, taking bark off felled trees (which is then used to surround the base of saplings to suppress weed growth), carrying mulch (made from chipped wood, bark, pine needles etc rotted down) up or down the hill to put around the saplings, we helped in the kitchen, lit the bathhouse burner most evenings, did some clearing of areas – much of the woodland is left alone as it is wildlife habitat but areas are cleared and coppiced and two different areas of forest garden are being planted out. We did lots of brash clearing, moving piles of ivy, branches and wood from one pile to another and put up a brash fence around an area of young hazel trees to protect them from deer and spent time clearing another area ready to put up a goat pen. The work is physically demanding, there is no denying that but it does all make sense – there is a logic and rhythm to spending your day chopping wood to provide heat, warmth, cooking, hot water,  planting trees for the future, using everything to create such a minimal level of waste.

There was plenty that would push us to look for a different permanent home; the hill being the main decider, but Steward Wood is changing; it has only very recently moved from being a vegan communal area to a vegetarian one; they keep chickens and at a meeting while we were there it was passed for them to start keeping goats for their diary needs. Almost all of the community actually eat meat in their own dwellings. They started with no machinery at all but now use chainsaws and one of the community has a landrover which is used for winching felled trees, moving large and heavy things. There are challenges and down sides to living in a community; occassional tensions when ideas and ideals clash but they seem to have communication and discussion down to a fine art and things are aired and talked over rather than left to fester so while there are frustrations when consenus can’t be reached on issues and people have to compromise it does have the feel of a loving, large family.

We learnt a huge amount there – practical stuff like how they make use of and harness solar and hydro energy, how much wood is needed to keep everything operational, a small insight into how their buildings are constructed, how the toilet systems work, how they filter drinking water only, how long term plans have to be and how most of them realise that the work and energy they invest today will possibly not even come to fruition in their time for them to enjoy, but that’s not why they are doing it. We learnt from the individuals there; some of them shared their stories with us, showed us their homes, taught us things they know from bird language and wildlife, to wilderness skills, their personal spiritual beliefs and customs, we learnt about sharing, about community, about openness and entitlement.

The people are what makes Steward Wood such an amazing place. It has stunning scenery, rich and varied wildlife with ravens, buzzards, bagders, deer, owls, foxes and much more. It has gorgeous views (the upside to the hill!) and it’s a woodland which is a breathtakingly beautiful place to spend time, watching, listening, being. But it is the mix of fantastic individuals who live there who make it such a special and inspiring place to be. The community began with a group of ex protesters, who had spent time living on protest sites fighting road widenings, by-passes, holiday villages, Tesco stores, housing developments from claiming chunks of nature. They had some victories too but many more losses and all of the negative attention that comes with living outside of society and fighting against change. One of the community told me she was just tired of always spending energy on negative things and wanted to be investing herself in something positive. I think that sums up Steward Wood for me really, it’s Something Positive. It demonstrates that you don’t need running water, flushing toilets, gas and electric, you don’t need supermarkets, chemicals and televisions, you don’t need a washing machine, fridge or built in oven and if you want to change the world the very best place to start is by changing your world. I guess we already knew that but Steward Wood was a fantastic place to spend time to prove it and give a living example to us.

But there is much more we want to learn, see and experience. This was merely the beginning of our adventure. So we’ve added all the best bits to our wish list, forged some close bonds with some of the amazing people there and have promised to stay in touch, visit again and spread the word about them and now we’re off to the next host.

Some words from everyone now on their bad, good and what they learnt at Steward Wood:
Dragon:
Bad: The food, I tried all the food but I didn’t like most of it.
Good: It was really, really good fun. I enjoyed the work, learnt about solar power, made new friends
Learnt: How much can be run off solar panels.

Star:
Bad: Missed cheese and butter and meat
Good: Made loads of new friends and I liked the food I tried
Learnt: About ravens

Ady:
Bad: putting cold and damp clothes on each morning after a night in the tent
Good: All the new people I met; members of the community, visiting friends and other WWOOFers
Learnt: building fences, lighting fires, bird language, about keeping goats, some basic Chinese Mandarin from a fellow WWOOFer, startling example of the power of people working together as a team.

Nic:
Bad: The hill. I struggled with all sorts of aspects there – the food, sleeping in a tent, the hard work, the mud – everything else is surmountable and possibly changable but the hill will always be there and it was the single toughest aspect of the time there for me – my knees protested, my feet ached from slipping up and down and I wheezed and gasped my way up hill whenever I had to go up. every single task is made 10 times harder because of the steepness of that hill.
Good: Amazing people, stunningly beautiful location and everything just makes sense. The theme of permaculture runs through everything but every task is logical and has a purpose and end result.
Learnt: Hard to pin down to one sentence really; I learnt I have so much more to learn and I really want to learn it.

We’ve had a night in a campsite – the only people here, topped up our meat rations with a mighty cooked breakfast eaten sitting outside in the sunshine, we’ve dealt with all the dirty washing the weather conspired against us to not get dry outside and now we’re off to the next host, ready to meet more new people and learn more new skills.

11

Pushing Buttons

Sorry to all those who have contacted to check we are okay for not updating sooner. Online time is limited as we are totally off grid, but we are really well, happy and loving our experience at our first hosts.

We’re at an intentional community on the side of a hill, a very, very steep hill. There are about 6 or 7 families here with children of various ages, some in school and some Home Educated. The families all have their own individual dwellings and there is a large communal building for cooking, eating, socialising etc. The water is provided by a spring, the energy is solar and hydro power stored in great big batteries, heating, cooking, hot water etc. is all done by  wood burners. The communal area is vegetarian food, it used to be vegan but that has recently been changed, although there are only one or two vegetarians living here now, everyone else eats meat in their own dwellings.

So far we have done two full days work and a little help in the kitchen on our first afternoon – we arrived mid-morning but thanks to the 1/2 mile trek up the hill to set our tent up (3 wheelbarrow loads) and then the actual setting up of the tent, with a break for communal lunch it was mid afternoon before we were free to actually do anything so we helped with communal dinner. Yesterday we spent the morning with one of the community taking stuff down the hill from his dwelling ready to be collected for the tip, then some time dealing with firewood – I did some ‘feeding’ a chainsawing person with wood and then we did some moving and stacking in the woodstore. After lunch we spent time with another member of the community on their forest garden. This was hard work, moving heavy lengths of wood up the hill and then clearing brash (heaps of branches and leaves from felled trees).

Last night we had a bath in the bath house, which involves lighting the wood burner about 3 hours beforehand and feeding it with wood to heat the water, but utterly blissful, A bath in a moonlit and firelit bathhouse at the end of a very hard days work was so lovely.

Today we spent both morning and afternoon in the forest garden. This morning we made a hedge to guard some young hazel trees from the deer in the woodland. This involved cutting then sharpening stakes to hammer in to the ground at intervals and then lying long lengths of various wood along and weaving them in. I really enjoyed that work. This afternoon was more heavy stuff which I am struggling with more because of the hill than anything else – I am incredibly clumsy and my boots are rubbish for gripping so I am ever cautious about falling. So far I’ve only gone down once but it is meaning I am very slow. Ady is finding his pace – we have been working alongside two French WWOOFers who we are probably old enough to be the parents of and they are putting us to shame but Ady is enjoying the reward of looking back and seeing what we have achieved at the end of a hard days work – so much more fulfilling that 8 hours sat in a company car…

Dragon and Star have fallen in with the children who live here and settled in really well and really quickly. We’re really proud of them for being open to try food which is hugely different to what we’d eat at home, happily sleeping in the tent and managing to find common ground with both adults and children here.

The people are fascinating, such interesting and varied backgrounds but a really good atmosphere and an excellent advertisement for communal living. There are of course tensions and politics and things which cause friction but it seems to be a very open environment with things discussed and calmly talked about and a real ethos of sharing and looking out for each other. I’m loving the time spend working and living alongside them and feel really priviledged at their openness and willingness to share.

We have another two work days before two days off at the weekend. I think various of the community are off doing their own thing so we have plans to cook some meat (Dragon particularly says he misses meat) which is okay in the camping area where we are pitched – we have a fire pit right next to our tent and visit the local shops for a few bits. We need to do some washing – there is a washboard and mangle here I am really keen to have a go with having only talked about them to the kids last weekend when we were debating which appliances we could and couldn’t live without (not literally of course!). Then we have five work days next week before we’re planning to leave here on the Saturday morning and have a night in a hook up campsite somewhere before the next host.

We’re walking down the hills to where Willow is parked every morning to collect clean clothes and it feels nice to unlock the door and climb in, the tent is fine – if very cold – but I’m missing our home on wheels.

This is a challenging place to be – for us as WWOOFers and to live, for various reasons. The hill being the main one, the terrain is rough and everything is made harder by that. We are eating food, which although delicious is vastly different to our usual diet, not drinking, sleeping way earlier and doing a good six hours of incredibly challenging physical work. It is as direct a contrast to the life we were living just a few weeks ago as you could imagine really, but it’s amazing. The people are inspirational, we are learning constantly and I already know more about trees identification, which timber is best for what, different types of alterative energies and the pros and cons and what challenges the off grid lifestyle brings than I could have learnt from 20 different books.

There is no doubt we will  be walking down that hill again at the end of our stay fitter, healthier and educated. A perfect start to what looks to be an amazing year.