An Taigh Dubh - Part II

Forest Scene with Fairy Tree


“May I a small house and large garden have;
And a few friends,
And many books, both true.”

Abraham Cowley

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. 
I won't sugar coat it, building your own home bleeds cash. And we haven't even started the actual house yet! It is money hand over fist wrapped up in red tape. Architect, Quantity Surveyor, Solicitor and the Local Council. Surveys, reports, hidden extras, fuck ups and oversights. Just to bring electricity on site cost a whopping £15,000. But eventually the clouds rolled back and the sun came out. Any day now we should have the Building Warrant and hopefully, no third Winter in the static for us.

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.

Off Grid Caravan in the Forest at An Taigh Dubh

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. 

And give or take, we have tackled every one of these task ourselves.  

Forest Allotment at An Taigh Dubh

Building, fencing, ditch digging and drainage. Shovelling forty tonne loads of stones and hanging gates. Built a poly tunnel, chicken coop and sheds. Carpentry, masonry, log hauling and tree surgery. Gardening and animal husbandry. We chop our own firewood. Other than a chainsaw and some power tools, everything else is done with a wheelbarrow and hard graft.
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.
Plus around here nothing goes to waste. The chickens and ducks eat the safe food scraps. I crush and feed them back their eggshells. As well as free-ranging, I supplement their diet with organic flax seed, black sunflower seed, rolled oats, pro-biotic, herbs, garlic powder and Brewers yeast. And a splash of Apple Cider Vinegar in the drinking water. Their poop then goes into the green compost bin. We even compost our own poop or Humanure as it's called, in separate bins of course. Let me tell ya, there is nothing more grounding than the disposing of your own shit. 
Mother Natures provides the rest. To profit from this bounty all that required is dedication and hard work. It’s that simple. That said, this life wouldn’t be for everyone. People often tell me we’re living their dream. But I think they are just in love with the idea. For when you explain the realities, you see them beat a hasty retreat back to their home comforts and central heating.

Image of a couple and their dogs looking up at the starry night sky at An Taigh Dubh

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.  
But life’s too short for coulda, woulda, shoulda’s. Plus I’m too old to be fucked with the what if’s.
There’s a reason why it’s called a comfort zone 🖤

1 comment

  • Absolutely loved reading this. I felt like I was there with you. Things must be super tough, but wow what a beautiful life you are carving for yourself. Bloody well done for leaping into the unknown. A true inspiration xx


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