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.

Little Coombe / Hallr Wood

We’ve finished Zone One with a week in Somerset shared between two hosts. This was somewhere we were supposed to have stayed earlier but had been put off by the host as they were unwell when we were due to be with them. They had asked us to stay in touch and reschedule if possible and when we had an empty week in the vicinity we got in touch and arranged it.

We were staying parked in the Caravan Club listed campsite within the land of Rob & Jane and our week was split between Rob and Jane; doing a variety of tasks on their land and Peter, who I had actually made contact with first working in his field and woodland. We slept in Willow, breakfasted in there from food given to us by our hosts and then had lunch and dinner with whichever host we had been working with that day.

We arrived on Monday and after parking up and having a brief tour around some of the smallholding at Rob & Jane’s we set to work moving some firewood, grading it for various different piles and stacking it up ready to season for next winter. There is a real art to creating a decent woodpile; one that will not rot away or cause damp problems for a wall it may be stacked next to, fall down or be unstable – Dragon likened it to playing Jenga and I think he is pretty close; except with far less regularly shaped pieces!

Tuesday I have previously blogged complete with photos and was a day spent with Peter.

On Wednesday we were back with Rob and Jane and spent time having a really good tour of all their land. More firewood moving and some pulling weeds and clearing an area that had had some hedge laying done in the past but had grown over.

Thursday we had a day off and spent it trawling charity shops for some replacement jeans for those of us who have gone down a size or up a size in three months! After messing about with various footwear options for me I finally decided I need some proper workboots with steel toecaps so that I can be confident of safety, waterproofness and so on. I’ve been looking in charity shops everywhere we have been and not come across any so I decided to invest in a new pair. We were near one of those horrible outlet village shopping centres so we ventured in far enough to visit the Dickies outlet store and pick up a pair of very heavily discounted boots for me (well under half the website price) . They have already been very comprehensively tested with Dragon and Star both standing on my feet to check they work! In the evening we headed over to Middlewick for a very nice evening with Jill as we’d not managed a proper goodbye when we left to move on earlier in the week.

Friday we were with Peter again and did some putting down plastic and carpet to suppress weeds and warm the ground up ready for autumn planting in a couple of hours, harvested some comfrey, checked on the trees we’d planted and mulched earlier in the week and had the tough task of drinking a whole bottle of fizzy drink between us so we could use the plastic bottle to make some sapling protectors.

On Saturday Dragon and Star painted some bituminous paint on the ends of some posts and we spent some time in the orchard grading and stacking and splitting more firewood. In the afternoon we went along with Rob to a local jumble sale and picked up huge bargains of jeans and jumpers all round along with some books and a couple of toys for Dragon and Star all for about 20p each.

Sunday morning was more time in the orchard clearing nettles, time in the chicken house clearing nettles, time in the hedge clearing dead wood and some time spent watching two sheep being sheared and having a little go ourselves.

In the evening we all had a big group dinner with Jane, Rob, their two teenagers who live at home (a third is off at uni) and Jane’s parents which was very jolly and felt rather like Christmas all sat at a long table. We had lots of compliments about Dragon and Star which was lovely, lots of enthusiasm for our long term plans and offers to return again for another stint, which if we end up going round again is something we may well take them up on.

Nic:
Bad: It was frustrating to realise very close to the end of the week just how much knowledge our hosts had about so many of the things we are interested in. They had a very full library full of books on farming, smallholding, dairy sheep, beekeeping and so on and lots of experience of animal rearing and crop growing. I felt it was a missed opportunity not learning more from them or spending more time with them. On a more flippant note I also ate way too many lentils – I bloody hate lentils!
Good: It was a restorative place to spend time and gave us back some faith in smallholding and animal keeping after the rather frantic and haphazard environment of previous animal keeping hosts. The animals were all cared for with compassion and respect, they deliberately kept their flock of sheep small so they were able to give individual attention, shear by hand, lamb with involvement where required and so on. There was also a relaxed, slow pace to life with both hosts, a real feeling that everything would happen in it’s own time, working alongside the seasons and with nature – permaculture in action I guess, without the fancy label or need to reinvent the wheel. There was recycling, reusing of resources and plenty of ‘green’ living at both hosts.
Learnt:Sadly very little in entirety but plenty of sparks of knowledge and food for thought – Jane talked to me about milking sheep which was something I had not thought about and will learn about more, we got to have a go at sheep shearing which was far trickier than it looked and I’d like to do more of. I learnt a little about woodland, trees and tree planting from Peter which I’d also like to take further. We got involved in a bit of clearing where some hedgelaying had been done – hedgelaying is another skill I’d like to learn more about. Like Star I also felt there were some areas we were more knowledgable about than our hosts (chicken keeping particularly) which was heartening that we do have some knowledge already.

Dragon:
Bad: I didn’t feel like I helped Mummy and Daddy much.
Good: I found that it’s getting easier to eat different foods.
Learnt:: I learnt most on the days with Peter, including that every bit of land has some use, whether it is bumpy, hilly, bad soil, water available or not. I leant bow line, granny and reef knots from Peter too.

Star:
Bad:
I enjoy being at places with more animals.
Good: They looked after their animals really well, the best of anywhere we have been so far.
Learnt: about the dogwood tree, how to identify it and that you can use it for arrow making. I also learnt there are different types including yellow dogwood. That I know loads already about chickens, it was nice to feel like a bit of an expert and realise I already knew more than our hosts did about hatching and breeding because I have done lots of it already.

Ady:
Bad: We didn’t have much time spent working alongside the hosts while we were at Little Coombe, which for me is usually one of the best bits of WWOOFing.
Good: The animal welfare was exceptional at Little Coombe. The chickens and sheep were treated so well and it was so lovely to witness, exactly how I would like to run a smallholding.
Learnt: About hand shearing sheep, only a little which has whetted my appetite to learn more about that. I also learnt lots with Peter about comfrey which I am really interested in and tree planting.

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!
Dragon:
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.
Star:

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.
Ady:

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.
Nic:

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.

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.

Dragon:
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.

Star:
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.

Ady:
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.

Need to update

rather quickly on todays earlier post really. And I have some other updating stuff to do too.

First though, Operation House to Let. I had two letting agents round today. They both offer pretty similar service give or take a percent or two of the monthly fees. The first was a nice woman who did a fairly soft sell on me, said the house would be worth pretty much exactly per month what I had concluded would be market value, answered my questions about marketing and management competantly and clearly knew enough about the market to give me confidence they would do an adequate job.

The second was slightly different in that the representative had more charm, clearly had a fair degree of business nouce about him and actually concluded with me what the price might be before he actually looked all round the house. Sure there was smarm and typical estate agent-ness about him but he chucked in enough personal anecdotes, enough insight to convince me he *really* knew his stuff and several common sense tips. He also undercut the other agency and offered various options from guaranteed rent per month (vastly reduced per month but defnitely into your bank account) to arranging a tenant one off fee. We also have the option of a private rental agreement and a friend has recommended an online website for that so various options to explore in the next few days before making a decision and setting the final wheels in motion for that.

Hearteningly both agents saw no issue at all in finding a tenant by March 1st and indeed both felt our potential to be out of the house earlier if needs be might need to be exercised. Which is all nice and promising. Ady and I need to have a chat about it and see which option we’re wanting to go for before setting the wheels in motion – both felt it would be worth getting the property on books before Christmas as it is the time of year when people are browsing although unlikely to have anything secured this side of 2011, which gives us all of January to find a tenant, or allows us to put back our first hosts and wait until we have tenants secured to give a months notice to work.

In other news we have all of zone one booked up now; March, April and May with a couple of small gaps I am hoping to slot some hosts who said yes in principle but to contact them again nearer the time into. I have contacted 14 potential hosts for zone two and already had four back with yes replies, I have contacted them again to set dates and assuming they are all okay with my suggested dates we already have all of June booked too.

With the exception of a few small items which still need ebaying but we’ll wait until after the crazy Christmas period is over, the house is decluttered, redecorated and ready to pack up and vacate. The chickens are still to be rehomed but we have a permanent new home for 3 of the hens and potential chicken sitters for the remainder of the coop.

A final highlight today was the reaction of both letting agents when they asked where we were off to for the year on being told ‘around the UK in the campervan on the driveway’ which was met in both cases with a wistful ‘oh, how exciting, wish I could do that’ response. Whenever I have a little niggling doubt I picture how I’d be feeling if it were someone else doing this next year other than us…

The liberation of letting go

We’re beginning to see an end in sight to the declutter. We stood yesterday in the playroom which has become the sort of holding bay for stuff we’ve sorted out as needing to leave the house before it actually does so. It veers between very empty and very full and has spent the last week or so incredibly cluttered as I have a large amount of clothing waiting to be collected by a friend. She is doing a Nearly New sale of clothes and gifts to raise money for her disabled daughter. She takes a percentage of what you sell and passes the rest on to you – you set prices for your stuff. Very similar to the NCT Nearly New Sales I have bought kids clothes from over the years. I also have the remainder of the books from the Open House Books Sale we did. We discussed how we’d not really thought our house was that cluttered to begin with but it has been fairly epic emptying it ready to head off. Of course our combined ages in this house total 100 years (how very tidy, hadn’t realised that before 🙂 ) so that’s a lot of years worth of living and acquiring stuff.

A few new readers seem to have appeared lured by the promise of Extreme Decluttering Tips so whilst people who have been reading from the beginning may well now be bored with How Nic’s House Got Emptied I’ll do a bit of a round up as we are very close to the end of that phase now so it’s a good time to do it.

I’ve always done at least one big clear out a year, mostly of clothes – my own if I have not worn them since the last clear out a year before and the kids if they are outgrown / worn out. I have used various methods of clearing clothes over the years – passing them on to smaller friends and relatives for the kids clothes, selling on ebay (I got more for my maternity clothes that saw me through both pregnancies than I paid for them when I came to ebay them), passing them on to charity shops and I also went through a phase of making rag rugs so cut up lots of clothing to do that (although technically that didn’t mean they left the house they were in smaller, useful incarnations).

We’ve cleared toys fairly regularly too, mainly to make room for more toys it has to be said but better they leave than form the base layer of plastic in a sort of archaelogical landfill inside our home. They have mostly left by the same method – ebay for resale if worth it, donation to family, friends or charity shop or indeed freecycle. Board books and early picture books have gone the same way, we simply don’t have a big enough house to home all of the stuff a family of four collects and as we had Dragon and Star just two years apart and knew we were done with babies after them we were able to decide each phase was over once Star reached it and get rid of toddler jigsaws, lift the flap books, stacking cup and shape sorters as we went.

But we still had a heck of a lot of stuff to get rid of once we started needing to clear the house. Storage is expensive and whilst my parents have kindly offered to take some of our stuff and we will have room in our loft for a few boxes so the few bits of furniture and things we can’t part with will be kept stuff has really had to justify it’s position not to be shipped out.

That meant going through our house a room at a time and making decisions on everything as to whether we could bring it with us, justify storing it or whether it had to go. Furniture, books, clothes, toys, cds, films, kitchen contents, appliances. Everything.
 

We’ll be extreme living proof of the sorts of statistics you hear on Trinny and Susannah about how we spent 90% of our time wearing just 10% of our clothes (or something) so we’ll be doing Capsule Wardrobe in a serious fashion. Any clothes the kids won’t wear next year won’t fit them by the time we get home. Ady and I have kept a suit for funerals, one for job interviews and a small box full of clothes between us (containing mostly Ady’s collection of vintage Pompey tops and my wedding dress) and the rest has gone to the clothes bank or is awaiting collection for the nearly new sale. The kids clothes are all packed up ready to be passed on to smaller friends.

Cds and films were next to be scrutinised. A small selection of each will be kept but we had more music and more films than we could watch or listen to back to back with two being played at once for the cumulative totals of the rest of our natural lives. Precious music had already made it onto MP3 players so the cds went on ebay, collection only. It’s not like we can’t download any tune we want at some future point. Videos went on freecycle, after nobody wanted them on ebay. They are now part of an entertainment library at a local youth club. DVDs did sell on ebay, the smaller collection will be going into storage.

Books! I work at the local library and recently spent some time working out how many years worth of reading material there was just in our small branch. I worked out the avergae word count per book, the average reading speed and the average number of books per shelf. Did the maths and calculated how many lifetimes worth of reading you could get for free from your local library. We were not that far behind with our own book collection here! A couple of shelves were mostly ex library books or other kids reference / non fiction, gathered in the early days of our Home Ed career back when I cherished this notion Dragon and Star would request ‘Mama, do tell me more of the pyramids in Egypt?’ at which point I would gather a selection of relevant books from our in-house library, we’d read together, create sugar cube pyramids, dress with tea towels on our heads for the day, stick The Bangles Walk Like An Egyptian on and make lapbooks complete with hieroglyphics. The thing is Dragon and Star aren’t that sort of Home Ed kids, I’m not that sort of Home Ed mama, we don’t have enough sugar cubes, we’ve sold The Bangles Greatest Hits and we could just google anyway.

I also have a fair few books of my own, some biographies and autobiographies, a selection of fiction and a few other titles. The kids also had some childrens fiction on their bookcases (we have a ceiling height 7 shelf book case in our hall and the kids both have a 3 shelf bookcase in their rooms – all were full, along with a shelf of cook books in the kitchen). We were ruthless in our going through the shelves keeping only the books we simply couldn’t bear to part with. For me that was a couple of parenting / home ed handbooks (Alfie Kohn, Sandra Dodd, David Edwards), dictionaries and thesaurus, a shelf of a few educational books, some Ladybird books and a shelf of books we will be taking with us – Collins books of nature, wildlife, trees, plants, food for free that sort of thing. Dragon has saved mostly fiction, Star mostly non-fiction from their shelves.

Books are tricky to get rid of really, heavy for posting so not great for ebay or amazon marketplace, bulky to lug back and forth to car boot sales but hard to see going for nothing. So I came up with the idea of an Open House Book Sale day, stuck it up on local home ed email lists and as a facebook event for friends and got in a supply of tea and biscuits, displayed the books on the table and in sorted out into themed crates and opened the doors. We had 6 or 7 visitors and it was a really nice day of chatting to friends about our adventure, seeing the books go off to new homes where they will be used and appreciated and watching the pot for collecting money filling up. I do still have loads of books left and have had some interesting suggestions for ideas on what to do with them including donating some to the local doctors and dentists waiting room (I know we have appreciated kids books in both over the years when waiting a long time for appointments), setting some free in the Bookcrossing scheme, giving some of the adult titles to residential homes, hostels, giving educational ones to schools, home ed groups with premises etc. All excellent ideas and some have been taken for those purposes, the rest are now on ebay as a big wholesale lot, with a couple of bids already from second hand bookshops, being sold as collection only.

Toys and general ‘stuff’ went through various processes – if we thought it was individually worth something it went on ebay. We have ebayed perfume, mobile phones, decent toys, small electrical appliances, branded clothing and raised several £100s. I confess to not liking ebay. The process of photographing, listing etc is time consuming and boring, the disappointment when something goes for 99p, the worrying that you have ripped someone off when it goes for way more than you expected, the trek to the post office with wrapped up items. But it is an effective way of getting rid of stuff and making money. Stuff not worth ebaying made it to the carboot sale pile. We did two car boot sales and made a decent amount of cash at each – we priced low and sold hard and it was an enjoyable few hours touting our wares in a field. We got rid of clothes, shoes, toys, more electrical stuff. Anything that didn’t sell was donated to a charity shop on the way home.

Freecycle has been another route for getting rid of stuff. I love freecycle, we’ve done well from it over the years and it’s nice to give stuff back. Toys have gone to grateful new homes, furniture we no longer need has gone to sit in someone else’s home and it’s saving landfill from our rubbish.

So decluttering stuff – easy to find new homes for pretty much anything once you have made the decision to remove it from your life: sell it, give it, donate it.

But I guess that’s not the hard bit is it really? Time consuming, means for a time you end up with more mess than when you started as everything is strewn about the place awaiting decisions but the tough bit is actually making the decision to let stuff go in the first place. To accept that you don’t need to hang onto it ‘just in case’, that there may one day come a moment when you slap your forehead and ask ‘why did I get rid of X? It would be worth £500 now / would be perfect to have in this very situation’ but it’s a small chance and probably worth the risk.

I read something the other day about too much choice preventing us from actually making a decision and I think that’s true. Faced with a jam packed wardrobe of clothes, most of which you have never worn it’s really tricky to think which item to wear, faced with a solid wall of books it’s very hard to select just one title to pull off the shelf to read. Who does that layer thing? That mental segregation or even physical dividing of stuff – the clothes you wear all the time and usually choose something for today from that often don’t even make it back into the wardrobe but move just between the dirty washing, the clean washing and the on your back? Who has a full bookcase but generally selects books to read from the pile beside the bed which is a pre-selected ‘read next’ pile of newer books or library books or ones a friend has given with a ‘you MUST read this’ recommendation. So maybe accept that actually you don’t need all the unworn clothes in the wardrobe, the unread books on the shelf and unused lotions and potions in your bathroom, sauces and spices in your kitchen and let them go.

I’ve let some interesting things go during this process. One was the box of cards we were given when we had Dragon and then Star. I also had folded up helium balloons in the box along with the hospital wrist band for Dragon (Star was born at home). A big box that has moved with us twice, never been opened to look at and if we were not doing this declutter and questioning every single thing we keep would probably have remained in the loft and moved with us if we changed address again. We looked at every card, racked our brains in some cases to recall some of the people the cards were from and then put them in the recycling bin. Did that make you shudder? Realistically they mean nothing, they were good wishes to us for our new babies who are now strapping young children. The good wishes came true, we now have years worth of memories and photos and times spent with those babies. If we stash those cards away again all we are doing is leaving those babies with a legacy of one day having to clear those cards away themselves; dustier, more curled at the edges and with even less chance of anyone knowing who they were from in the first place.

When we bought our house 17 years ago it was on the market as the owner had died. Mr and Mrs Rowe were the only previous owners, buying the house new when it was built in 1950 or so. They had no children and listening to our neighbours accounts of the elderly couple they were nice people, happy together living here until Mrs Rowe died a few years before Mr Rowe and he grew gradually more reclusive and less able-bodied. I think he eventually lived pretty much in one room. The house was cheap, run down and needing lots of work and being sold by a neice and two nephews with proceeds going three ways. The house was cleared by a clearance company and when we first viewed it the contents were still here, ready marked with destinations ‘Sell’, ‘Skip’ etc. The image of a brown suitcase, laid open on what is now my lounge floor still haunts me. It was marked ‘skip’ and contained some sepia photographs of the young Mr and Mrs Rowe along with the something blue garter I assume she wore on their wedding day. I don’t know why they didn’t have children or anything else about them but I know all of their collected stuff was one day picked over by someone and consigned, probably without any emotion, to it’s next destination. I don’t want to burden Dragon and Star with piles of stuff to make harsh decisions over one day after I’m gone, I’d rather read those baby cards one last time, smile at the remembering of those crazy early days of new parenthood, wishing people would stop sending flowers as the doorbell invariably rang and woke a baby I had just lulled to sleep or enjoying recalling how others shared our joy at the birth of our babies. Not cold or unemotional, but not needing pieces of cardboard locked in the attic either.

I’m not necessarily advocating a life without possessions (although that would be an interesting concept). Even in the van we will have the need for useful things, precious things and pretty things. For each of us these conjur up different ideas. For me precious things are not always valuable and valuable things are not always precious. I recently sold a small pile of jewellry I have had for years. I don’t wear much – wedding and eternity ring, a ring of my grandmothers that my Dad gave me at the same time as my wedding ring (which was also hers), a watch from Niagara Falls that Ady bought me when we visited when I was pregnant with Dragon. I have a locket my parents bought me for Christmas when I was 16, a gold bracelet they bought me for my 21st birthday and a necklace Ady bought me for our first Christmas together (all of the ones I don’t wear need repairing). I also had various necklaces, rings and other gold that meant nothing to me, I didn’t like and never wore. Selling it paid for the service on the van. I will keep the few bits that do mean something to me but they are small enough to fit into my purse – one day I might get them repaired to wear again or I might do as a friend recently told me her mother had done with a heap of gold she had that she didn’t like but had sentimental value and have it melted down and made into something I will wear all the time instead. Other precious possessions of mine include a giant wooden clock which hangs on my lounge wall and Ady bought me for my 21st birthday. That will be kept (I don’t think we could hang it in the van!) and will again grace the wall of any other lounge I live in and probably one day hang in Dragon or Star’s lounge I hope. I do have photo albums and framed pictures I love and we will keep those to again hang up, place on shelves when we settle into a house again. They are defining, personal things that make where I live my home. They are on display and I see them every day, I would miss them from my life if they were not there. Anything that does not fit into this category fails to be precious in my opinion and then unless it is useful it doesn’t justify it’s place.

So look around, walk yourself around your home and see what falls into the categories of precious, pretty or useful. The rest is just stuff. Letting stuff go is A Good Thing, it frees up space, lets go of the guilt of not using those things, can raise money, give you a good feeling to know it is now being used elsewhere. Dance in the open spaces it leaves in your home, rejoice in the lack of things creating and capturing dust, spend the money you make on something that *isn’t* stuff, something freeing, something to celebrate releasing yourself from the shackles of stuff.