Bryn Mawr

It all went rather quiet didn’t it?

A fair representation of our experience too really – we spent just over two weeks at our most extreme and remote WWOOFing hosts yet. A 77 acre hillside farm, in conversion to organic, almost totally self sufficient in fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry and eggs nestled in an isolated area about 20 miles from Welshpool in Wales.

Our hosts were Anna and Alan, a couple with 3 Home Educated boys aged 11, 8 and 5 and Alan’s sister Abi and her (schooled) 14 year old daughter. Alan, Anna and boys lived between a tent and several caravans while Abi and her daughter had a static. Food, tea breaks and general hanging out happened in a converted animal barn kitted out with table and chairs, wood burning stove, electric cooker, sink etc. A collection of out buildings housed the firewood, Alan’s wood and metal working tools, a selection of chest freezers – some plugged in to keep food frozen, some just used as airtight, pest proof storage space, pig feed, a sofa and TV with dvd player and video. Toilet facilities are three compost loos – two for poo and one for wee. There is a bath but not plumbed in although an old water tank, filled by rainwater and heated by a log burner underneath is used for a hot tub – not operational while we were there but a fabulous idea under the stars. Showers could be taken using a hose pipe after a long hot day of the water in the hose being warmed, or in the rather more luxurious location of Abi’s static!

Much of the 77 acres is unused other than for wildlife or with young trees planted for future woodlands. Some of the land is used for grazing their small herd of highland cattle or rented to a neighbouring farmer for grazing his sheep. Pigs are in three sectioned off areas on the land, as are chickens, ducks and geese on others. There are three main cultivated growing areas, planted into beds with crop rotation programmes set up. A very young orchard is in place along with other fruit and nut trees.

A strong thread of permaculture principles runs through Bryn Mawr with nothing wasted and the most made of natural resources and working with what they have got. Grass cut is used for mulch or compost, suppressing weeds and creating feed for plants. Alan has plans for a cut grass compost water heating system at some future point. Weeds are pig feed, stones collected from rotovated beds are put to one side for use in building or hole filling / ground levelling.

Alan is a very talented and knowledgable man with huge amounts to share and teach and we learnt loads from him about alternative technologies, eco-building ideas, green energy and more. He also was our saviour when Willow had various ailments which would have prevented us travelling much further and helped us out with arranging for a damaged water pump to be reconditioned, replacing our broken fan with a new one from a car he had for spares and various other things. She is now running really well and we are so very grateful to have been able to have her fixed up and show our appreciation with a few tokens in exchange for all Alan did for us.

Anna was an inspirational person to spend time with, particularly for me. I learnt so much from her about growing, harvesting, preserving and breadmaking. She taught me a tiny fraction of what she knows about herbs and plants and some of the uses for them in medicine. She coached me through all aspects of carving a spoon from wood selection and first shaping with a carving axe to using the saw horse and draw knife, hammer and carving chisel. We talked about education, parenting, community living, alternative lifestyles, being off grid and loads more. I felt I could have spent years in Anna’s company and still learnt from her every day.

Abi worked full time so was not around all that much but as an education officer for the local wildlife trust she was a mine of information about various wildlife and regularly joined us in the evenings to share what she had been up to that day. We were fortunate to be around to share Abi’s birthday with her too, coming together for a big evening meal and jelly, ice cream and birthday cake eating.

We were joined by another WWOOFer for most of our stay at Bryn Mawr which is always interesting. Meeting someone else doing the same as us but for very different reasons and with very different expectations. We crossed paths with several WWOOFers at a couple of our early hosts but had not worked alongside someone else for a while so that was good to do again. Knowing how much our adventure has already changed our outlook and approach to live means it will be interesting to meet our felllow WWOOFer this time again in the future and see whether further into his journey he has changed or altered at all as this was his very first host.

Our tasks over the two weeks included; weeding, mulching, gathering cut grass, helping to load the trailer with sawn wood, chopping firewood, sowing some seeds, tilling and farrowing, gathering stones, feeding the pigs and chickens, putting up an enormous compost bin and loads more. As ever what we learnt in our daily working was easily matched by what we learnt by simply living alongside our hosts, learning from them and talking to them about their lives.

The challenges, as ever, were present – this was an extreme off grid lifestyle with an hour or so per day of a diesel generator being run which meant we were able to charge things up while our hosts powered their electric oven for bread baking, washing machines to clean clothes, charge up their batteries to run lights and the TV for the kids, power the freezers sufficiently to ensure food remained frozen and for Alan to run his welder or other tools to build woodburning stoves which he makes to sell. We had virtually no moile phone or internet signal so I had to walk up the hill once a day to check for any urgent voicemail messages to my phone to make sure we were not totally cut off from the outside world.

Dragon:
Bad: I found it difficult to share Daddy with other children that I didn’t have much in common with.
Good: I tried lots of new foods and some I really enjoyed.
Learnt: More about being off grid and how to make most use of limited electricity and really value it.

Ady:
Bad: The remoteness of the location. I like to feel some sort of civilisation, shop or similar is accessible by walking. At this host there was nothing within walking distance at all.
Good: The remoteness of the location! Conversely it was also lovely to be so isolated and feel really ‘away from it all’
Learnt: How important south facing aspect is for land you are growing on.

Star:
Bad: I was sad when ducklings died (about four were lost over a few days) and the cats caught lots of voles and mice which I felt sad about but Mummy and I talked about the voles and mice being hunted and food chains.
Good:  I liked there being lots of animals – cats, dogs, pigs, chickens, cows, ducks, geese.
Learnt: About grafting trees, how to do it and why.

Nic:
Bad:
This was a challenging place to be for lots of reasons. Being so remote was tough, being so remote with Willow out of action was even tougher as we have always consoled ourselves that we can drive away from a host at any time if we have had enough – being 17 miles from the nearest town with no mode of transport was enough to have me feeling twitchy about being ‘trapped’. The lack of communication with the outside world – very patchy mobile / internet connection also had me feeling uneasy as I constantly fretted about emergencies happening to friends or family and us not knowing. I guess I came to realise my reliance on some sort of community – either local or virtual and how at sea I felt without that safety net within easy reach. There were aspects of our experience here which threw into sharp relief some of the less easy aspects of the relationships between the four of us, so much talking things over, accepting each other and giving credability to how the other person was feeling even if we were unable to empathise was in order, which is testing, even if ultimately healthy.
Good: I loved spending time with Anna, I found her interesting, inspiring and with so much knowledge to share. I felt like I learnt so much at this host and I cannot possibly imagine a better or more extreme example of the ‘ultimate’ in the off-grid, self sufficient, alternative technology lifestyle. Having these sorts of experiences gives us so much to draw upon in creating our own wishlist for the future and helping us realise what we are and are not prepared to give up / compromise / not have in our lives.
Learnt: so, so, so much! About mulching, breadmaking and preserving, clever use of land and resources to make the most of limited energy, reusing almost everything. I learnt the basics of spoon carving, how to identify various wild foods, some new ideas for food and ways to cook things, massive sparks of ideas for green building, alternative energy, growing foods and more.

Going off grid

We’ve not neatly fitted into boxes for quite some time when filling in forms but today as I try and tidy up loose ends with regard to utilities I am reminded of just how out of the ordinary we are. There is literally no box to tick on any website or number to press given on those automated phone systems for ‘remaining a home owner but having no address, living in a campervan with no utilities attached’.

So today I have cancelled our BT landline and broadband, our TV licence and Sky TV subscription, checked the procedure for final meter readings for gas and electric supply, informed the local council and water suppliers of our moving out date, swapped household insurance for landlord insurance and looked at postal options from PO boxes to redirection.

I have a mini-rant about how bloody difficult it is to stop getting service from places, from the fact they refuse to accept cancellation any way other than by phone, that their dedicated ‘so you think you can just leave like that do you?’ phonelines all have queuing times of ridiculously long, designed to get you to give up trying degrees and quite why they want to admit to ‘we are recieving high call volumes’ to a phone number that is only for people cancelling is beyond me! I’ve swallowed several cancellation / cessation charges and stopped operators about to go into sales pitch mode their breath by explaining why we won’t be needing that service from anybody at all, not just their company.

Yesterday at the tip, or Household Waste Recycling Centre as it is calling itself these days we had some very interesting conversations with Dragon and Star about waste and about what Off Grid means. We were all feeling pretty rubbish (if you pardon the pun) about the stuff we were contributing to landfill. Yes, we compost, we recycle, we freecycle & ebay, we try really hard to reduce waste but when it’s come to actually clearing out our home all of those things we stashed in our garage and loft and we realise that they are simply no good to anyone for anything so need to be landfilled it’s pretty sobering. We chucked out two tables and four chairs due to extensive water damage, wish we’d just freecycled them years ago while they were still useable 🙁 It’s great for Dragon & Star to know already that there is no such place as ‘away’. When you throw something away you are really just moving it somewhere else for someone else to deal with.

We also talked about Off Grid and what that means. We looked at the telephone poles taking cables to each and every home, we looked at a pylon and a power station bringing power across the UK, we looked at sewers and waste water just last week so knew we were driving over a massive network of underground pipes moving water around beneath us. We talked about how we don’t give it a second thought at home that flicking a switch turns on a light, that turning on a tap brings water flowing, that lifting the phone brings the dial tone buzzing in our ear but that these are recent-ish innovations and for all their convenience they are very costly (we explained that about 2 out of the 5 days a week Ady works are just to cover the costs of these things in our home), not necessarily sustainable and very probably not essential. We talked about how on camping holidays we ration energy, water etc and manage just fine, being more creative and putting more effort into ensuring our needs are provided for in terms of light, heat, water often by more effcient, environmentally friendly and less wasteful ways. We also touched on other types of ‘grid’ such as cheap food from supermarkets rather than local, organic or free-range food which may cost more in the short term or not be quite so convenient to get but what the fors and againsts of each are long term. I love talking about these sorts of things with Dragon and Star, they very much have their own ideas, bring a childish form of reason and challenge things that I have long since just accepted. It made me think of this quote:

Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents,
it was loaned to you by your children.
 So today I have been extricating us a little from ‘the grid’, untangling it’s wires from our wrists and ankles, loosening the cable from our throats, reducing our dependancy, rationalising our need. I kind of think that whatever happens to us next, wherever our journey leads us after our planned year we may never fully plug ourselves back in again.

Watching & Listening

There is a saying I heard for the first time a while back that I really liked:

‘You have two eyes, two ears and just one mouth – use them that way’
Basically do twice as much watching and listening as you do talking.  I’m not at all sure I manage it, although I consider myself hungry for knowledge and thirsty for learning I’m sure I talk and write far too much to have the ratio right. I do a lot of reading, which is like listening with your eyes though, hopefully that counts.  
I’ve just started reading and so far it’s proving an interesting and enjoyable read. I’m not far in and will do another review when I’ve finished it but so far my overwhelming feeling from what I’ve read is that our on-grid reliance – water, electricity, gas supplies are not remotely joined up, sustainable or even make much sense. I had no real idea just  how many people are living ‘off grid’ and doing just fine. I know when camping part of the fun is rationing light, heat, power, water and planning into our days how to go about gathering resources and using them wisely. I have plenty of friends who already live without one or more of their services supplied by expensive corporate organisations and they have adapted accordingly and don’t miss them at all.
In other news this week I have been shocked and saddened by things I learnt by way of TV and computer. We are avid watchers of Countryfile each Sunday and a while ago we watched with shock when they visited one of the massive cattle holdings in the US, where thousands of cows are kept inside, never seeing sky or eating grass for the purpose of cheap, mass volumes of milk. There is an online petition and plenty of opposition to a planned version of this in the UK. I am hoping there are enough numbers of objectors to prevent this style of farming happening here although I fear there is a larger majority who want cheap produce whatever the cost to animals or the environment. Ady and I have also been very disturbed watching Hugh’s Big Fish Fight and learning of the dreadful waste of fish that goes on thanks to EU rules about quotas and discard, along with the terrible loss of marine life (dolphins, turtles, sharks) with mass fishing styles.
All of these learnings give gravity to another famous saying ‘ignorance is bliss’. I think a lot of us would really rather not be enlightened and educated. Far better to eat your cheap chicken, drink your cheap milk, wear your cheap clothes from the supermarkets and marvel at the low price you are paying without giving a thought to who is picking up the real cost, because someone or something somewhere will be. Once your conscience has been pricked you then have to decide what to do with that knowledge. Do you bury it away, choose to ignore it? Do you make a decision to change your ways and habits, knowing that even if it’s still going on at least it’s not in your name anymore or do you go the whole hog and spread the word, become an activist, try and change things?
We’re beginning with the ‘not in my name’ approach. We’re learning more, changing our ways, lightening our footprints. We’re hopefully spreading the word in a gentle way too. Maybe hearing our story will inspire others to make small (or large) changes themselves, maybe it will give them curiosity to learn a bit more themselves. I know I can get a bit preachy sometimes, passionate about stuff to the point of being boring, I guess we all can on at least one topic. I don’t have answers for lots of the questions, so until I do and maybe even after that I’ll try to remind myself  …’two eyes, two ears, one mouth’.