Life Christmas Day will mark my first full year of living, if not totally off the grid, at least several degrees west of it, so when Stuart asked if I’d like to contribute a piece for his blog, I figured it was an opportunity to reflect on 12 months of lifestyle readjustment.
I grew up in in Wales, in the countryside, with fields, woods and the beach. But work took me away and for 20 years I’ve never lived more than 10 minute’s walk from an all-night convenience store or 24 hour supermarket. Coming home to a warm house was a given; if I was thirsty I turned on a tap. Skype was a way of life, I had internet in my home and my pocket, and downloading apps took seconds.
Then, In Summer 2013 my husband and I found ourselves in possession of a lovely but somewhat neglected house on a Welsh hillside, several miles drive from a village of any substance (ie with a Spar-sized food shop).
Several things we knew from the vendor:
- The house was off-mains; water was gravity-fed via underground pipes from a fast-flowing stream. There was a filtration system but no (we later discovered) UV filter which would make it safe for drinking.
- The house had a wood-fired central heating system, fuelled by its’ several acres of woodland, plus the woodshed was stacked for the coming winter.
- There was wifi and BT was ebullient about the coverage, but there was no mobile signal (3 solved by sending us a free Home Signal box).
None of these things seemed insurmountable at the time of purchase, compared to the amount of work required to make the house liveable. They have, however, come to occupy most of our waking discussions.
We had several months worth of knocking down, ripping out and rebuilding - working on the house weeknights and weekends, and living in a modern rented bungalow.
Then we moved in (the work wasn’t finished but we had Had Enough) and reality kicked us in the pants.
Wood fired central heating means sweat, splinters and backbreaking work - all year. Right now we’re felling, chopping, carting and splitting logs for winter 2015/16.
There’s no handy switch to start the heating - you fetch the logs, light the fire, wait (about an hour) for the boiler to warm and keep your coat on until it does. The house will finally be warm several hoursafter you first coax flames to life, but in the meantime you hover over it like an over-anxious parent and if you turn your back for more than an hour the fire dies and you have to start over.
Last New Year’s Eve, at around 10.30pm, we were up to our knees in the raging torrent formerly known as a stream, investigating why the house had no water.
It was pitch black, sleeting, and freezing cold. Just days earlier a woman in the next valley had drowned doing exactly what we were doing, and we beat an eventual retreat without solving the problem.
New Year’s Day saw us giving a colonic irrigation to our silt-clogged underground water pipes, in the sleet. It only took an hour in daylight, but checking the stream feed is now an obsession. So is warning visitors not to drink the tap water. Some of them even listen to us.
Having land isn’t a lark - it’s a responsibility. The property includes some ancient woodland and it’s important to care for that properly, because it will be here long after we’re gone.
We’re responsible for making sure our fences are strong enough that neighbouring farmers’ livestock don’t break out of theirs and into ours, that we control (ie pull up by hand) invasive weeds such as Himalayan Balsam, and thistles, and that our trees don’t drop branches to block the no-through lane we live on. Some days, between pulling weeds, moving lengths of tree trunks and chainsawing logs, I feel like a contestant in The Biggest Loser.
And wifi? Ah, lol. Some days it reaches the dizzy heights of 0.02MB; some there’s not enough strength to return a speed test reading, let alone Skype. Updating an app can literally take all night.
All this makes me question BT’s original airy promises but BT is, alas, the only show in town; rural living tends to mean less choice of provider. After months of struggling we received a grant from the Welsh Government for satellite broadband, because of our location and lack of connectivity. Work on that side project continues.
Other adjustments: Living up a hill means you get Proper Weather; we spent a week in February without electricity, courtesy of gales, and when a tree comes down across the road, you get the chainsaw out - if we waited for the authorities, we’d be permanently stuck.
We have no pretentions to a Good Life-style homestead and that’s good because it’s practically impossible; feral sheep are adept at breaking in to strip the gardens, and the foxes, mink and owls would smack their chops at the idea of poultry.
So, is it a nightmare? No, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. We know all our neighbours, and everyone pitches in when there are problems. I’ve driven an injured sheepdog to the vet because my low-slung sportscar could squeeze under a felled tree when the farmer’s Land Rover couldn’t, and our postman, who discovered I was a Welsh-learner, tells other locals “siarad Cymraeg gyda Alison, ond siarad yn araf”*.
I can now operate a chainsaw, run a log splitter, string sheepwire Like A Boss, and reverse at speed along narrow lanes because Stupid Tourists Can’t Back Up.
Despite the steep learning curve, I miss very little about city life. The night skies are unbelievable, we have a family of badgers that comes up to the house for their evening peanuts and we know our neighbours for the first time in years. The compromises of living somewhere pretty remote are sometimes testing, but they are worth it.
And if I need cafe culture, there’s are a few pretentious coffee shops only, ooh, 30 minutes drive away.
*”Speak Welsh with Alison but speak slowly”
You can follow Alison on Twitter @alisongow.