March 2011

Luke Seal started the year with 1p. His goal: to end up with something worth more than one penny by 2012.

Things went very well, very fast. He swapped the penny for some fish, some fish for a guitar, a guitar for a bike, the bike for £50, the cash for 10 square metres of Bulgaria and the land for a custom-made metal object.

Which is where we came in.

Readers of our website will know that, this year, guests will enjoy the luxury of a solar shower. Not some knocked-up arrangement using an old cast-iron radiator, a length of hose encased in plastic bottles or a dustbin painted black. Nor one of those hanging bags that leave your hair smelling like plastic and break before the end of the week. No no. We’re going for a professionally made shower where the temperature can be controlled. (People wanting the more rustic experience can always pour a bucket of water over their heads. We just think they should have a choice.)

And even though most of our guests know each other very well, our new shower needs a cubicle.

Years ago, Her Outdoors designed a cubicle in the shape of a snail shell; it just needs to be held together by a custom-made metal object, like this:


Jumping on the idea like a small child on a trampoline, we proposed a week at écovallée in exchange for the custom-made object and, turning down a valuable wedding cake at the very last minute, Luke said Yes! Our object will be made by corner-of-a-field-in-Bulgaria owner Darren of Darad Fabrications in Atherstone and, if all goes to plan, brought down by friends at the end of the summer.

Our week in a yurt has since been exchanged for a portrait of a man who lost millions of pennies, made out of pennies, by artist Adrian Firth. For more details, take a look at Luke’s superbly written blog here

There’s nature blooming everywhere at the moment! Trees are budding, the hawthorne have turned a particularly lurid spring green, the grass is lush and just now, up by the tractor shed, I saw the year’s first orchid. (I think it was waiting for the rain that started last night; it’s been very dry.) A bit early to tell but it looks like an Early Purple. I’ll take a photo when I get round to it.

If you can’t wait till then, click on the orchid label below.

It’s been said by more than one visitor, and not just to us: “You’re so lucky. You get to sit around in the sunshine drinking beer all day.”


What visitors don’t realise is that while it may be true that, at that particular moment, we are sitting in the sunshine drinking beer, it is only because the visitors are there. The rest of the time, we and (almost) all the Englanders I know are working our buttocks off. By way of an example, during the last three days, I’ve been turning an 18-foot yurt platform into a 19-foot yurt platform.

Here it was on Wednesday:

On Thursday:

And just now:

Meanwhile, between seeding and weeding the lower field, Her Outdoors has been indoors, making the cover to go on the yurt, thusly:

No sitting around drinking beer for her. (Not during the day anyway.) I did have a beer a few minutes ago but, for the record, I stood the whole time. No visitors, see?

Unfortunately, there is a Law that states: “Wherever you put a big pile of heavy stuff you don’t want to move for a long time, or possibly ever again, is Always Only Just in Exactly the Wrong Place.”

It has been demonstrated with a large number of heavy concrete blocks, large piles of rubble, tiles, gravel, wood and pretty much everything and anything else that needs a large space to occupy. The reason the piles are “Only Just” in the wrong place is that they invariably need to be moved a tiny bit one way or another. Sometimes both.

Today, I discovered that the Law can also apply to trenches, and have spent many hours moving a trench a few feet further East of the Shack. It’s an alarming discovery.

When we moved onto the land in July 2009, life became pretty basic. We slept on mattresses in the Play Yurt, had a bucket compost toilet next to this, a decrepit caravan 100 metres (100 yards) away down the field, with a drinking-water hose on one side and a two-ring camping stove for cooking, heating water for washing and washing-up set up under a gazebo on the other; and a few yards (metres) away, a table, chairs and a hammock.

Not much by western standards, but still far more luxurious than most of our fellow humans beings.

Although some friends and family were shocked by our living conditions, we knew that we had chosen this experience and every little thing we did would be a quality of life improvement. Some improvements – moving into an 18-foot yurt, beds, electricity, broadband access, a wood-burning stove, a hot water cylinder, a bath – were bigger than others; and they still go on happening.

Like drainage for the kitchen sink.

Yes, for nearly two years we have been throwing out our washing-up water by hand. Nearby plants and trees have loved this but, for us, it has been a bit of a drain. We put a large bucket under the kitchen sink which pretended to help but, after the handle broke off, probably made things harder.

Don’t get me wrong. We knew what we had to do – we’d already done it in the guest kitchen nearly a year ago – it’s just that our to-do list is very long, full of things like building yurt platforms, finishing the sand filter, making a play area, installing a solar shower, butchering a pig. With a yurt camp to worry about, our own comforts were bumped further and further down the list.

But a few days ago, I realised we were wasting valuable energy and time carrying water every day. A bit of effort now would pay back very quickly. So I knocked a hole in the kitchen wall, dug a bath from the tip into the ground, dug a trench from the bath along the front of the shack into the woods, filled the bath with layers of washed gravel, weed matting, washed sand, more gravel, some pipe with slits cut into it, made a hole in a brand new plasterer’s bucket, filled it with straw and put this under the sink to act as a grease trap and – ta-da – our kitchen-sink-waste-water-carrying days are over.

Which may not sound like much, but it’s already made a huge improvement to our quality of life. For the first time ever, I am actually enjoying washing-up by hand. Because I know that it can be much more tedious.

Spent quite a tiring day driving a tractor up and down the field using the wrong tool (a “Canadienne”) to try and prepare the ground for some maize we want to plant this spring for next winter’s animal food; with a bit of sand filter work, hole digging and tree felling thrown in for good measure; and a short pause for a fairly healthy lunch in the sun.

But that’s not why I’m putting keys to screen. It’s because…

Just after lunch, I went to a nearby garage to buy some red diesel for the tractor. It’s not a garage I go to much – perhaps twice in three years. I filled the jerry can, told the guy the price (it’s one of those old-fashioned whirring dial things) and offered my debit card. Oh no, he says. Cash or cheque only.

Ah, says I. I’ll have to go to the cash machine. Shall I leave the car?

No, he says. Take the car.

OK, I say. I’ll be back in a few minutes.

And I was.

I’d make a rubbish criminal.

There is an unwritten rule about having a tractor on your property, which goes:

That’s the increasingly distant echo of the Spring that sprung a few weeks ago.

To be fair, I’ve been wishing it wasn’t so. (I need winter to carry on just that little bit longer so I can butcher our remaining pig without worry about the flies.) But I can no longer ignore the signs: the snowdrops Her Outdoors planted have been and gone, the crocuses are still here (but only just) and the daffodils are showing distinct signs of wilting. The days are consistently warm and sunny, heralded by more and more delirious birds, the beeping Petit Duc owl has been announcing the need to procreate for a few weeks, the number of grue migrating to wherever they go for the summer is diminishing and the polytunnel is looking better than ever.

It seems early but nothing’s certain in these days of climate change, earthquakes and revolutions. I’ll log it here and come back and check next year. I’m glad I got the coppicing done.