When we decided we wanted to live at Penybanc, the decision was made before entering the house, as the primary factors in selecting a suitable location for trying to achieve self-sufficiency related almost entirely to the land. These were our crucial requirements in searching for a smallholding (the reasons are at the very end of the blog* for those who are interested):
- The location.
- The size – a minimum of 7 or 8 acres.
- The aspect – south-facing, flat or gently sloping land.
- Layout – land surrounding the house, divided into small (acre or so) enclosures.
- Fertile and well-drained soil.
- Broadleaf woodland.
- If possible, a mature orchard, although we thought this was a pipe dream!
Our requirements, in terms of the house, were a south facing roof and (in a Goldilocks sort of way) a building that didn’t need too much work but enough that we wouldn’t be paying for things we were going to rip out and change as, amongst other things, we would be:
- changing the central heating system to run off a combination of wood and solar;
- insulating it as much as possible, not just the roof but also the windows and walls; and
- putting up photovoltaic panels (PVs) for our electricity needs.
So when we read the estate agent’s description, we knew that Penybanc would be a strong contender and it was also in the least remote location we had been too. We arrived at the viewing half an hour early, so we walked up to the top of the field behind the house and I, promptly, burst into tears and decided this was where I wanted to put down some roots. This is of course Jules (ahem), writing this blog. Soppy git.
But now I want to pay tribute to the house. It is not what I think anyone would call a beautiful building. Somewhere in its bowels, there lurks the origins of an early 19th century (possibly even mid 18th century, who knows?!) stone cottage; so some walls are three foot thick stone. Then, sometime in the 70s (we think, as there are no planning records…) a rather large extension was plonked around it. This is the first photo we took:
So the house turned out to be almost perfect, with large windows to enjoy the views ands let in lots of light, it’s structurally sound with spacious rooms that mean we can afford to lose some space by insulating from the inside. Ideally, for us, it also has ropey plumbing that would have needed replacing even if we had wanted (and could afford!) to stay on oil central heating. The first thing we did was to have the aluminium windows replaced with the most energy efficient windows we could find. The next was to take the trees and bushes down around the house, which would allow some airflow and prevent damp and allow light to reach the roof, with the added benefit of providing us with a load of wood. This is all you could see of the house before the tree felling:
We have a lot of people to thank for helping to take down and log the various trees (but this isn’t an Oscar speech so sorry, you don’t get a mention!). Although what I am about to say will no doubt offend any hardcore tree huggers who believe in doing things by manpower alone, it is also worth mentioning that we couldn’t have managed all these trees without a chainsaw.
But we are the X Generation of tree huggers, believing that technology is not evil (even if the resulting large industry is mostly destructive in its effects) and we are trying to figure out the balance between using fossil fuels and technology where it is efficient and logical to do so. We could not chop down all those trees without the chainsaw because we might lack the manpower or skills, although I’m sure Jules could manage tree felling with an axe if given the time, which is what we really lack as we still have day jobs to afford this whole venture! Sorry, I have totally digressed – back to the house. Once we had cleared all the trees, the roof was clear of shade and ready for donning its hat of solar panels:
Since the installation went in three and a half days ago (of which one and a half have been gloomy and overcast) we have made 41 KW hours of energy – hurray! I’ll let Jules, in another blog, explain the intricacies of the new system.
Another bit of progress (where machine power – and our neighbours – saved the day) is the yard. We had not even seen this part of our land as the brambles had completely overtaken. Our very first day at Penybanc, we attacked the brambles with a slasher and branch cutters (that’s how fat the brambles were!). Then our neighbour pointed out that he could clear that area in no time with his digger. This is before clearing the area:
We also had some help to level the yard from a nearby farmer. A job which we (and the farmer) thought would take 2 days took 5 days in the end, so we owe our neighbour (who pitched in to help the farmer) some labour to repay the favour, which we are more than happy to do (although he only seems to want Jules’ labour, I can’t imagine why?)! We are very grateful for the wonderful results of all their hard work. This was one of our first experiences of neighbourly cooperation, which felt great after the unpleasantness in Hackney!
That’s all I’ve got time for now as my help is required to plant peas and broad beans (including putting up their hazel supports that I stripped when Jules laid the hedge) and other planting bits and pieces. We hope you all had a good weekend!
We leave you with a few more before and after pictures…
In this photo, look at the hedge to the right of and behind us. That is what it looked like before it was laid.
This is what it looks like now:
The orchard has also been through quite a transformation.
I planted bulbs in winter and Jules slashed brambles uncovering about 6 fruit trees on top of the 60 or so already there:
Jules mowed and I raked in March and now spring has arrived it is full of daffodils…
Since starting this blog, the seedlings went from the safety of the living room, out into the big wide world.
That’s all folks, goodnight
As promised, here are the reasons for each of our requirements that we listed at the start of the blog:
- The location was important to us largely because of the weather as we need regular rain, mild temperatures (frosts being a major problem for growing food) and a high number of sunlight hours.
- The size – a minimum of 7 or 8 acres. John Seymour’s 2nd edition of the Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency suggests that you can support a family of, say, six people and have occasional surpluses to sell with only 5 acres. Our thinking is that John Seymour tends to make everything sound a little too easy and the 5 acre plan gave the impression of being quite intensive farming, partly reliant on all the land being perfect for its particular purpose. In the end we were lucky enough to get just under 14 (3.62 acres of which was harder to acquire than the rest and was political in the village, but that’s another story!!).
- The aspect – south-facing, flat or gently sloping land. The reason the land needs to be south-facing is not only for the plants, but also for electricity as we ruled out wind power given the inefficiencies of small wind turbines and the fact that the windiest places are the tops of hills where the soil is less fertile and often steep. The gradient of the land is important (for similar reasons as the layout, covered in the next bullet point) as it would not be realistic to take wheelbarrows up and down precipitous slopes everyday and, although pigs can handle a high gradient, a cow couldn’t manage it!
- Layout – land surrounding the house, divided into small (acre or so) enclosures.This is because efficient use of human energy is going to be crucial if growing and raising food is to be achievable. By having the land surround the house and, ideally, laid out so that the areas you need access to most frequently are closest to the house and vice versa, minimising the physical effort to get there and back.
- Fertile and well-drained soil. The reasons should be obvious!
- Outbuildings are required, unsurprisingly, for machinery, animals housing, food storage, hay, straw and wood storage, a workshop and probably all manner of other things which are a combination or variation on that theme.
- Broadleaf woodland. is required, primarily as a fuel supply, although we hope to also get some material for various carpentry requirements.
- A mature orchard and a stream/water source were the cherries on top. Fruit trees are essential for anyone hoping to be self-sufficient and they take a long time to mature.