Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Trip nearly completed

We have almost finished our travels. Our last wwoof host was excellent, apart from one of the dogs. The dog was lovely, but young and not used to small children. We were planning on going back for two weeks after visiting my aunt and uncle near Turriff in Aberdeenshire but the morning we left Echo asked us not to come back, and we agreed that we were worried about the dog getting over exuberant with the girls as well The girls squeal whilst playing and whine when upset. The noise goes straight through me and sets me on edge instantly, usually making me shout at them. It bypasses thinking and happens, not good. The dogs reacted exactly the same way! Except they would come running from distance, whereas my reaction is only when they are right next to me. The young dog would then think she'd been naughty and go back to her space in the house. I didn't think this was nice for the dog and could also lead to a bad reaction to little people as well.

The farm used to be a commercial success but now it is running at a loss. Echo is more interested in the teaching aspect now. Training the volunteers, weekly locals and longer term from abroad, in growing sustainably. Like many people we have met, she doesn't think current culture is sustainable and we are quickly moving towards trouble.

I am not as pessimistic as I used to be, probably because I have stepped back from normal society into generally friendlier home education and organic circles A few years ago I was thinking contemporary western society only had ten to fifteen years left, now I think it could be twenty something.

My idea of our plan, possibly different to Vikki's, is of building up our own sustainable living space that the girls can come back to. A real long term investment. This means we are seriously considering sea level rises and climatic changes, such as the more extreme weather that we have been seeing in recent years across the world.

There are a few areas we have considered as permanent homes. East Devon is lovely, but too far from our parents South Wales is just too wet for me, though that could change. Herefordshire/Worcestershire is too far from the sea for Vikki.

So far the only place we have agreed on was just west of Dumfries. A mile or two inland from the coast could be twenty or more metres higher than sea level, reasonably close to motorway network to get to our parents. We are now planning on buying a caravan so we can have long weekends in the area through different seasons, try and experience a full year in the area.

Of course if the weather is changing it will only give us a snapshot, but we have to start somewhere, and the journey is only just begun.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

A sense of community

As chance would have it three of our last five hosts have been Intentional Communities. An Intentional Community is a place where people have come together deliberately to join other people with some shared ideals, though they may be quite loosely held together.

Each of the communities has been markedly different. My impressions of them range through being of relaxed disorganisation, or very organised but wilfully inefficient or efficient and well organised. All have been very friendly and may tempt us back for slightly longer stays in the future.

I had previously ruled out community living due to my prejudice about decision making and just wanting to get on with things. Whilst working I attended too many unproductive meetings where advice was not taken, or consensus not reached. I really thought concensus decision making would drive me mad, but it doesn't seem too bad. Urgent things do seem to be done, but examples of things taking months to reach agreement on were plenty and would be difficult to live with. I think all the communities had non official ways of preventing someone blocking a decision without good cause more than once.

The many benefits to community living that we saw included shared workload, being able to have holidays whilst livestock are still tended to, not feeling isolated, sharing childcare. Also sharing great meals and not having to cook every night. At Crabapple they ate communally every evening, and most nights we were there it was a banquet. At Canon Frome the members booked us for a morning or afternoon and generally fed us lunch or dinner after the work. Again all the food was great, with the majority from the farm. Not having to cook evening meals was very productive for us, especially as most of the time the children were playing with other children or asking other adults lots of interesting questions.

What I have taken out of spending time in Intentional Communities is that I like the sense of community but without all the complications of communal decision making.

I think what we would like is an old fashioned street/village feel as one friend in Calderdale is trying to create and another friend in Haworth already has. We just want a few acres of land to go with it!

There is a lot more to Intentional Communities, have a look at the Diggers and Dreamers website to find out more.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Making money


Over the last few weeks we have been putting together our ideas about making money from our future smallholding. Half way through our tour we are very definite that we do want a smallholding!

Making a living from a smallholding seems incredibly difficult. Diversification is the key, and adding value to your harvest, be it vegetable, meat or wood.

Also having a good outlet for your product. At Easterwood they were trying selling their charcoal, honey, pine candles and hand-carved spoons at a car boot sale. The pine candles sold quite a few, but cheaply whilst they increased the price of the honey as people went for their cash before being told the price.

Whilst helping at The Wealden Times Midsummer Fair we saw how you could have a massive markup on a product if you had the correct setting for it. If you had a pretty stall, and your product looked nice, you could make a good price on your products.

If you are selling at a craft fair you need a good range of products. I was discussing with a greenwood carver how you need high value products to make your money, so you don't need many sales and have the right product to work on and chat to potential customers at the same time. Jamie made the very good point that if you have something for two or three pounds you should be able to sell something to everyone who stops at your stall. His take is that very few people will pay even fifteen pounds for a hand carved ladle or serving spoon, which may take one or two hours to produce, but most people would part with two pounds for something pretty that takes five or ten minutes to make.

I don't think I will ever be able to sell the eating spoons I make, as the quickest one I have done still took over an hour. I don't think anyone would pay eight pounds or more for one of my spoons! And after so much effort I would like a reasonable return for my work.

Variants on my jar spoon design, the top one snapped during carving.

I probably need a very simple design for a sugar/stirring spoon to be carved from a small branch. Something I can do whilst the children play before getting upset with each other. Ten minutes might be possible!

Sunday, 12 June 2011


As an ex-computer professional I should be good at working on computers. Unfortunately, I'm not. If I have a blank document in front of me my mind also goes blank. Luckily the word program on my phone doesn't have the same effect on me, so that is how I write my blog posts before emailing them to myself which I then open on the little laptop we have with us.

Unfortunately, the battery in my phone isn't very good, and I have lost several unfinished posts as I forgot to save the document before the battery runs out of energy. So for more updates about what we have been up to look at http://www.abusymum.blogspot.com/

Hopefully I will not have this problem anymore as we have found out why our 12V to 240V inverter wouldn't work from our spare van battery, which charges perfectly well from our solar panel, and runs our light without any problems.

A cigar socket adaptor was wired to work from the solar regulator, rather than a straight connection to the battery. This has resulted in two blown fuses in the inverter and two devices permanently broken. I found this out whilst we had a few days off at The Sustainability Centre near Petersfield, just before V bought a small book on 12V electrics and just after I had bought a new Leisure Battery as I thought our old van battery must have been the problem!

Having read most of the book I was able to offer real help to our host at Easterwood as we plugged our 40W panel into their battery and could check as the voltage increased slowly over a couple of days. A 12V battery does not stay at 12V all the time. As you put energy in the voltage increases and as you take energy out the voltage decreases. A fully charged battery waiting to be used will be around 12.8V, you can charge it as high as 13.8 but any higher produces Hydrogen gas and can destroy the battery. A battery will give out electricity till it gets below 11V but doing this will permanently reduce the total capacity.

It was nice to tell Dave that his battery was still good as the voltage/stored energy was increasing slowly. A battery that fills up quickly doesn't have much total capacity so a slow increase for a given energy input is good. My phone used to charge fully in about three hours, but using the same charger it now takes about one hour. Not very good!

Easterwood is mainly overstood Sweet Chestnut coppice, the locals just call it Chestnut but as the only Chestnut trees I have seen in Yorkshire are Horse Chestnuts I still call it Sweet Chestnut!

I spent most of our week there felling these trees and looking for straight sections to make a shed. I counted twenty five rings in the trees and most coppice rotations work on a 7-8 year cycle which maximises habitat diversity and useful wood production, so the woodland had been neglected for a long time.

It was really enjoyable felling and cross-cutting the chestnut, but I couldn't believe how hard the work was. I know we want some woodland when we settle down, but now I know I don't want to fell trees fulltime. I do need to add another couple of tools to my hoard though. I decided against a felling lever before we set off but having felled trees without one and with one, the difference in ease of felling is amazing. The other thing I am going to get are some timber tongs, after giving myself a taste of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from lifting large diameter timber by hand and catching the nerves in my wrists. The tongs pincer onto the log with a nice straight hand grip which makes moving roundwood much easier.

As I am really getting the hang of solar electrics the van batteries will be getting extra charging from the solar panel now, rather than running the engine as they lose power. Also the 12V electricity book explains how to change cordless power tools with useless batteries into corded 12V tools. Old Black and Decker Quatro, here I come!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

More inspiration

We have found a family doing almost exactly what we think we want to do!  Dave and Rosie were able to buy their land five years ago and now have sheep, a few cows, hens, woodland, a polytunnel, orchard, are building their own house, and have horses that stay out all year round.

They have three children, one of whom I lost.  I forgot Rosie had gone to the other end of the farm and told the four year old to "find mummy" whilst I was trying to get K to go back to the tent for bed.  They were amazingly forgiving.  I know I would have been quite angry if it had been K or J being sent to look for me such a long way away.

We had a great time with them, despite that.  We made compost heaps using a square former, built wooden walls on their small barn.  Dave has a mobile saw mill and used to be a forester, so seasons and cuts his own boards.  We used a sickle for clearing weeds, which is actually just as quick and easy as using a strimmer.  We also learnt a lot about having a small-holding and having reasons for living on your land.  The polytunnel grows herbs and salad for sale, and needs constant attention, as do the horses that Rosie looks after as part of the business.  Dave runs a portable compost toilet company, making Thunderboxes from old chemical containers and wood from his woodland.  They are going to provide a terrace of ten toilets to Glastonbury this year.  Rosie was telling us they need something like 80,000 toilets for the festival!

They home educated their children until they had to put so much time into running the farm.  This has shown us that we will need to make a similar decision about our girls.  They are lucky enough to live on the outskirts of a hamlet that is close enough to a medium size town to provide jobs for locals who do not work in agriculture so there is a real village community.  Very nice.

After ten days in mid-Devon we have had a week off.  A weekend at the Bodgers Ball, a brilliant greenwood working festival that really inspired V and myself to learn wood turning as well as hand carving.

I also saw a scything demonstration which amazed me as to how easy and efficiently you can cut grass, and weeds, by hand.  I like power tools, but some things can be done just as well with human power and skill.  I won't be selling my chainsaw in a hurry though.  V and I did a timed log saw together, and took three minutes and forty nine seconds to cut through a 12 inch log.  Really hard work as well!

Unfortunately we can't fit a pole-lathe into our van so we have started dreaming about a caravan so we can have a lathe and shave horse with us for turning bowls.

Big plans for the future :)

Sunday, 24 April 2011

high expectations

Our travels are going very well so far.  We are leaving our third hosts on Monday and again we have learnt an amazing amount about a wide variety of things.
Each place we go to has so much to give and quite often we feel that we are not able to repay the gift of their knowledge, time and inspiration by the work that we are able to do.
Last week I learnt to use a hedge trimmer and a grass strimmer and felled a 25 foot tree, amongst other things.  But the time talking to John was priceless.  We also learnt that Devon isn’t as warm as you might think.   We were in a frost pocket and had three morning frosts!   Neither is Cornwall, as tonight we nearly took the stove out but it is bitterly cold, so this post will be even shorter than planned.
This week V and I built a wood store and water collector.  I am also getting the hang of splitting wood rounds for firewood after several hours practice.
Splitting wood at Kennal Vale Farm

Natasha has a young Forest Garden and has already learnt so much and was making us aware of things which work and don’t work.  Their two children are also Home Ed and now receive some lessons at home.  This works very well for them and is now something I would consider for the girls, having seen the benefits.
Our first week at Lower Shaw Farm was different to anything I could have imagined.  The feeling of belonging to a family was nearly instantaneous and something we will never forget.
Lunch at Lower Shaw Farm
We now move to Tiverton in Devon, to a very low impact farm.  They say “leave all your expectations behind”.  All I expect is something new and again move on with an open mind.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

It Begins

Vikki has had a great few days on her Spoon Carving course with Robin Wood.  On the first day she made some very nice tent pegs which did a good job with the strong winds we had.  I was sent out during the night to check things were in place after a couple of pegs were pulled forward and rain was blown in during the first night of strong winds.  The tent held up, despite our worries.  It really is not nice watching the pole and the chimney move around so much and hearing them creaking so loudly!

Her spoons and spatulas are very nice indeed, and she did different styles to those that I have made.
We did need a trip back to Huddersfield to pick up some things we forgot.  That was one of the reasons for starting at the Edale course, so if we forgot things it was a relatively short journey to get them.
I also forced my parents to come and visit on my dad’s birthday.  They had a terrible trip down, but had good fun with their grandchildren J
Our holiday finishes tomorrow though.  A visit to a play park and then Bletchley Park before going to our first WWOOF host, Lower Shaw farm.
Vikki and I are really looking forward to it now.  It has been so long in the planning and now it starts.  To quote my sister “Cool”!