An Taigh Dubh - Part II
“May I a small house and large garden have;
And a few friends,
And many books, both true.”
We didn't anticipate living in the static this long, but thanks to Covid and Brexit it was already looking sketchy. Then some angry little man in Russia decided to start a war and sent material costs sky-rocketing. Thanks to Putin, our Budget Report came back £150,000 over. So we hit pause and decided to make the most of what we already had...
Which is two acres nestled in a deciduous meadow in the heart of a commercial conifer forest. Prior to 1970 the area was vast farmland extending out as the crow flies, ten miles. My neighbours are adjacent to us. The live in the original farmhouse which dates back to 1803 and it is they who sold us the plot.
Due to the site location, the sale was complicated. It took us a year and a half to purchase and made our solicitor a lot of money. At times we considered throwing in the towel, but we knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity; so instead we kept swinging.
For the first seven months we lived with no electricity; and almost a year without internet. A petrol generator used sparingly (an hour a day max) sufficed. Large gas bottles supply the boiler, hob and oven. Our water comes from a well in the forest, to a shared pump house, so a power cut or hard frost means no water. For heating, we installed a log burner but still had to cook with torch light and have evenings by candlelight.
Yes, at times it’s been challenging, particularly for me as my hubby works away a month at a time. This Winter almost broke me. Our van’s old and basic. She has no insulation, double glazing or flushing toilet. The log burner heats the living area but that's it. You know it's cold when the bottled water that's stored indoors is frozen. Whilst the problem is rectified, damp and mould play havoc with a compromised immune system. I'm over the worst of it but a few days at -10 would test even Whim Hof.
I’ve never been one to take things for granted but as cliched as sounds, it really is the little things. Without insulation and basic heating, the van never really warms up. Essentially, it’s equivalent to living in a metal tent. Everything is cold to the touch; cutlery, plates, the toilet seat, your clothes. One has to brace themselves before getting dressed of a morning.
The shower is decent considering but the water doesn’t drain quickly, so you dread stepping in. My already cold feet really don’t appreciate the chilly water that’s now pooled in the shower tray. Speaking of feet, even with sheepskin slippers, you can’t have your tootsies linger on the floor too long, else you’ll lose circulation. Or when you’ve been grafting and your mucket and frozen. And all you want is hot water, but it’s off. Plus there’s a fire to light and then you realize you’ve forgotten to chop the kindling!
The secret to staying warm is to keep moving and we do spend most of our time outdoors. But when your exhausted and the weather is shitty, it can grind you down. As I say, it really is the little things.
With self-sustainable living, there’s no long lies or days off. We’ve haven’t had either in a year and a half. Keeping animals requires dedication, they rely entirely on you for their welfare, 365. This husbandry made all the harder in Winter. This last month, there’s been two extreme colds snaps. Waking to approx. eight inches of snow and a frozen hose pipe meant to clean the duck ponds, I had to manually decant and refill them from the water butts using a bucket. A full one weighs approx. 25kg and to do both ponds required me to do that forty times.
I’m stubborn and fortunately, when it comes to stamina, I can keep going long after my brain tells me to stop. And thanks to weight lifting, I discovered I’m freakishly strong. Whilst that’s immensely empowering, I often wondered what was the point of it. Now it makes sense. Turns out I was in training for a life off grid, I just didn’t know it!
Life here is idyllic but it’s not baskets, bare feet n floaty frocks. This is a life that can’t be curated. There’s no way I’d pad around here without footwear either, there’s way too many ticks for that. Plus for six months of the year it’s like a paddy field. Clay soil is great for growing but it holds the water. Mud is the bane of my life.
We decided long before the move, in order to save for the house and build the homestead, not to buy anything new (unless absolutely necessary) and to repurpose and recycle as much as possible. Make good use of the things that we find; things that the every day folks leave behind. If you know where to look and who to barter, it’s there for the salvaging. Plus it’s amazing what you can do with a pallet! As is what's considered waste.
Despite a late start, we got the vegetable garden going and had a productive first year. Using the No Dig and Hügelkultur method for raised beds, the contents of which we foraged from the forest floor. We grew enough produce to see us through to October with some left to preserve. We have five free-ranging rescue hens (Rita, Ginger, Tito, Insky and Nugget) and three ducks (Puddles, Plonker and Patch) so fresh eggs daily.
An Taigh Dubh is a foragers dream. Spring brings Nettles and all manner of edible greens. In Summer the meadow is abundant with wildflowers. Autumn brings with her an array of fungi. We have Horse Chestnut, Elder, Rowan, Hawthorn and Rose Hip. Plus Beech, Wych Elm, Oak, Sycamore, Birch, Alder, Rowan and Lime. European Larch, Douglas Fir, Sitka and Norwegian Spruce.
And if that weren't enough, there's an infinite supply of leaf mulch which makes for the best compost. Or a lifetimes supply of manure. Thanks to the kind farmer who when we asked if had spare, overestimated how much. When we saw the tractor with large trailer in tow, it was apparent that we had seriously underestimated his generosity.
There’s no question An Taigh Dubh was meant for us. Life had become mundane, She offered us the escape we so both desperately needed. Many think we’re mad swapping certainty, holidays and luxuries for the unknown. And they’d be right.