Wherever we wander, wherever we roam

There are just so many objectives to this year that I could probably have a blog for each one, why we want to achieve them and whether we manage it. As in so many areas of life the chances are that the objectives and reasons change along the way anyway and some of the early ideas get lost in the mists of time.

But certainly a side objective of the adventure was to see more of our beautiful country. I love the UK; I love the climate, the culture, the history. I love the diverse people, towns and cities and countryside. I love the regional accents and local phrases and customs. I adore the fact that within just a few hundred miles the scenery changes, the weather changes, the wildlife changes. There is no one particular county that I consider home really, I have roots in Sussex, in North Wales, in Manchester and friends scattered all over the UK. One of the things we quite liked the idea of was living in various parts of the country and seeing where best fitted us this year with a view to deciding where to eventually settle.

On our days off at each host we have tried to get a taste of the areas we are in. Not by visiting the local expensive tourist attractions but by spending time hanging out, chatting to locals, visiting free places of interest, going on walks, sometimes using public transport. I want Dragon and Star to have a really good understanding of our country, the geography of it and be able to hear a place name and have memories attached to it if we’ve been there – to have eaten a cream tea in Devon, paddled in the Chalice water in Glastonbury, seen the Menai bridge in the shadow of Snowdon, stood on the platform at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch station, know that there is a sign on the M62 declaring it the highest point of a motorway in the UK, stood on coasts on the south, east, west and north of our island and crossed off every single possible bird, animal and sea creature they could have seen in their spotter books. I hope this little taster of travelling, of broadening horizons and opening their eyes to what an amazing planet we live in gives them a thirst for wandering which leads them far and wide across the globe, fires their curiosity about their world and gives them confidence to ask questions, look for answers, find out all there is to know about people and places.

So this weekend we have been off exploring. Yesterday we walked into Bangor (city made famous by that Fiddlers Dram song from 1980!) for a good old forage round the charity shops. Bangor has no shortage of them, the massive retail park all along the main road in has made sure the actual city centre is full of charity shops and mobile phone stores. It was about 4 miles in, which meant with walking around all day and the walk back again we must have done a good 10 miles, accounting for our aching feet by the time we got back at about 730pm. We also had aching arms as we made a few purchases which we had to carry back. I got a pair of bib and braces work overalls from the army surplus shop, Ady got a rain coat from there too. Dragon got a new pad and some pens having used up all the pads we left home with – he has been creating stories about pirates, illustrations mostly with a few words and this rapidly filled the 3 sketch pads he brought with us. Star found a DS game she’d been after for a while second hand in a game shop and we bought some replacement storage boxes for our clothes cupboard as the stacking crates we had been using had proved not robust enough for the pressure of being hauled in and out of the cupboard every day and crammed with clothes.

Today we drove Willow across the bridge to the Isle of Anglesey. Ady and I had been before, several times in years gone by but I wanted to show Dragon and Star some of the sights. We started by going right to the tip to the island to visit the RSPB reserve of South Stack Cliffs. We had a bracing walk along the cliffs in the very sunny and warm but blustery and windy weather, stopped to chat to a very enthusiastic and informative ranger in the Ellis tower who pointed out various birds and talked to us about the habitat, why it was so diverse and unique and how important it was to preserve it. Then we walked down the winding steps and joined many other people hanging over the egde with binoculars trained on the thousands of sea birds on the cliff faces. There were guillemots, shearwaters, choughs and the occassional puffin – the real prize to spot! After a few minutes gazing I found three (identifiable by their orange legs and colourful beaks) and then had a little crowd gathered around as I tried to describe where they were so everyone could train their binoculars and spot them too. Ady spotted them and the kids and I wandered further down the cliff path and found a great spot where the rocks parted to create a natural seat. Both the kids then managed to see puffins with the binoculars too so that was a real highlight.

We then drove back to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch and stood on the train station platform to get the classic photo, before driving to a layby overlooking the Menai Bridge, pulling over to take some photos and make a cup of tea in Willow. Dragon was particularly enchanted with this, even more so when he needed a wee and was able to nip back in the van to use the loo and still have his view of the bridge at the same time! We looked at Snowdon in the background and talked about the height of the summit and discussed how many Star’s tall it is!

We drove over the bridge and back – breathing in as it was very tight for Willow – before driving back over the Britannia bridge again.

So, some landmarks, some natural wonders, some wildlife and some celebrated feats of engineering. A great mix of the stuff that humans do well and the stuff we can take no credit for at all. Dragon and Star will definitely remember this corner of North Wales.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.